The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

England, 1666; the year all the prophecies said the world would end. For Chloe Hervaux, marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, waking up with an epic hangover, the discovery that he has acquired a bride is an unwelcome shock. But while the marriage remains in name only, other forces are gathering.

England is at war with the Dutch, and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work in the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark, secret labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles 11’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the diverse facets of Mr. Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed, her mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr. Deveril himself.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for personal matters and less for his bride. But as the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, he and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk…their choices may save it.

The Marigold Chain is a richly-woven tale of intrigue, danger, and love set against a backdrop of Restoration England during the year expected to be Doomsday.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

The Marigold Chain is one of Stella Riley’s earliest published works, and, as it’s a long-time favourite of mine, I’ve been waiting not-at-all patiently for it to make an appearance in audiobook format. I first read it in the mid-1980s and loved it; for me, it ticks all the boxes. A brilliant, gorgeous, sharp-tongued hero enters into a marriage of convenience with a practical, quick-witted heroine who doesn’t take any of his crap; set that against the backdrop of the politics and intrigue-laden Restoration court of Charles II, and you’ve got another winner from a writer who really knows how to put the historical into historical romance while at the same time creating a tender, sensual love story. With the exceptionally talented Alex Wyndham once more at the microphone, there’s no question The Marigold Chain is a fabulous audio experience – so just sink into your favourite chair, lock the door, take the phone off the hook and let the world look after itself for a few hours while you get stuck in!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Redeeming the Roguish Rake by Liz Tyner

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The scoundrel of Society
…has compromised the Vicar’s daughter!

When scandalous Fenton Foxworthy is beaten and left for dead, he’s rescued by demure vicar’s daughter Rebecca Whitelow. Fox is a cynical rake whose outrageous propositions are the talk of the ton—but his injuries are so great that Rebecca mistakes him for the new village Vicar! Too late, Rebecca realises her error…she’s been compromised into a hasty marriage!

Rating: D+

Liz Tyner’s Redeeming the Roguish Rake treads the well-worn path of rakish hero redeemed by love – in this case, the love of a vicar’s daughter.  It’s a trope I generally enjoy, as it’s always fun to watch the world-weary hero falling head-over-heels for the last woman he’d ever have expected to fall for, and the proper young lady entertaining improper thoughts about a man she should, by rights, despise.  The book gets off to a strong start when our hero, Fenton Foxworthy, a devil-may-care young man who has a smirk and a glib remark for everyone and a penchant for proposing to other men’s wives, is beaten up and left for dead while on a journey into the country to visit his father.  Luckily for him, he is found by the daughter of the local vicar who arranges for him to be taken to the vicarage where she can tend him.

Fox’s injuries are serious.  The author never goes into specific detail, other than to tell us that his face has been particularly badly beaten, to such an extent that when he initially recovers consciousness, it’s difficult for him to speak because his jaw is so painful.  His inability to tell the vicar and his daughter who he is leads to a misapprehension when they assume Fox must be the new vicar who is coming to take over the parish at the behest of the earl (Fox’s father).  The Reverend Whitelow is advancing in years and is being encouraged to take a pension, and knowing that a younger man is coming to replace him, has hopes that the new vicar will marry Rebecca and ensure her future comfort and safety.

It’s some time before Fox can speak, and the author instead treats us to his inner monologue, which is often quite funny, as he listens to the vicar and Rebecca completely misconstruing his attempts at communication.  In the end, he decides to give up and go along with their supposition that he’s a vicar – they’ll find out the truth soon enough and he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London by Kate Moore

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The daughter of a British intelligence agent, Jane Fawkener has spent most of her life in exotic lands abroad, not flirting her way to matrimony among the ton. So when her father disappears and is presumed dead, she’s perplexed as to why he’s arranged for her to receive a copy of The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London. Convinced he has hidden a covert message for her within its pages, Jane embarks on a “husband hunt” with an altogether different aim. But can she fool the government escort who’s following her every move—a dangerously seductive man for whom rules are clearly meant to be broken.

Rating: B-

I remember reading some of Kate Moore’s recently republished Signet Regencies and enjoying them, so I was pleased when I saw that she had a new book coming out and eagerly picked it up for review.  The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London is an entertaining and well-written novel featuring two likeable principals a gently moving sweet romance and an engaging, espionage-based plotline.

Jane Fawkener has spent much of her life living in the Middle East with her father, who works as a merchant and trader but whom she has for some time suspected is really a spy for the British government.  When George Fawkener goes missing and is presumed dead, Jane is immediately sent to England courtesy of the Foreign Office.  In London, she is given the only two things Fawkener left her; a small blue book entitled The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London and the sum of two hundred pounds, to tide her over until she finds herself a spouse.  Jane is sure her father is alive and tries to insist that the government mounts a search for him; but comes up against a brick-wall – the Foreign Office insists her father is dead and Jane must prepare to attend a ceremony at which the King will award him a posthumous knighthood for services rendered.  To help her to prepare for the occasion – an occasion about which Jane couldn’t care less – she is assigned a Protocol Officer, Lord Hazelwood, who will make sure she is properly garbed and briefed as to the correct behaviour for the investiture.

Edmund Dalby, Viscount Hazelwood, lived the life of a hell-raiser until he went too far and his father disowned him after he ran up massive debts.  Having pretty much reached rock-bottom, he was recruited as a spy and told his debts would be paid and his life his own once again if he served his country for a year and a day – and this is his final assignment.  Given his reputation as a wastrel, Hazelwood – who soon realised he rather liked being sober – often plays the part of a drunken sot, knowing such a persona to cause people to think him unintelligent and harmless, or to ignore him altogether.  He has been assigned to protect Jane from Russian agents, most particularly from Count Malikov, a Russian émigré with connections at the highest level, who believes Jane has access to the information her father was gathering.  Hazelwood’s role as Protocol Officer is ideal as it will afford him plenty of opportunities to stay close to his charge, but the problem is that she very quickly makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with either him or the ceremony and tries every way she can think of to get rid of him.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Captain’s Disgraced Lady (Chadcombe Marriages #2) by Catherine Tinley

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When Juliana Milford first encounters Captain Harry Fanton, she finds him arrogant and rude. There’s no way she’ll fall for his dazzling smile! Her visit to Chadcombe House was always going to prompt questions over her scandalous family, so she’s touched when Harry defends her reputation. She’s discovering there’s more to Harry than she’d first thought…

A man so plagued by the demons of war, he’s sworn he’ll never marry, no matter how tempted…

Rating: C

The Captain’s Disgraced Lady is Catherine Tinley’s second novel, and tells the story of a young woman whose family history has always been shrouded in mystery and an army officer who is so haunted by the things he has seen and done that he believes himself defiled.  It’s not an especially original plotline, but it’s generally handled well – until Ms. Tinley decides to introduce a number of extraneous plot points that clutter up her canvas to the extent that everything starts to feel overly contrived and which, ultimately, led to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of this reader.

The book opens as Miss Juliana Milford and her mother, who normally reside in Brussels, have returned to England for a short time in order to visit Juliana’s dear friend, Charlotte Wyncroft, who has recently married the Earl of Shalford (Waltzing with the Earl).   Mrs. Milford has been greatly unsettled by the channel crossing and seems to Juliana to be unnerved by simply being back in England, but Juliana is used to her mother’s somewhat uncertain health and mental state, having run their household since she was twelve.  The ladies are settling into a private parlour at the nearest inn when they are interrupted by two military gentlemen, one of whom – who introduces himself as Captain Harry Fanton – assumes they will happy to share the parlour with them.  Infuriated by the captain’s arrogance – and concerned for her mother’s health – Juliana tells him what she thinks of him in no uncertain terms and sends him away with a flea in his ear.

Subsequent encounters with the terribly handsome but extremely annoying Captain Fanton only serve to reinforce Juliana’s opinion of him as conceited and rude – although she has to begrudgingly admit that she is grateful for his solicitousness towards her mother and eventually to acknowledge that perhaps she allowed her temper to get the better of her.  But as she is unlikely ever to see the captain again, Juliana doesn’t dwell on it – even though she finds it difficult to banish his handsome features from her mind.

A few days later sees the Milford ladies settled at Chadcombe House, the Earl of Salford’s estate, and Juliana happily catching up with all her friend’s news and reminiscing about their time at school in Brussels.  I’m not sure how Juliana fails to connect the name Fanton with Charlotte’s new husband, but in any case, Harry is the last person Juliana expects to see at Chadcombe, and she is astonished when Charlotte greets him and introduces him as her brother-in-law.

Juliana and Charlotte also make the acquaintance of their nearest neighbours, the social climbing Mr. and Mrs. Wakely who have recently taken up residence at Glenbrook Hall.  It seems there is a dispute as to the Hall’s ownership and the Wakelys  have been allowed to live there while the executors of the estate of the late Baron Cowlam (a relative of Mrs. Wakelys) establish her claim.

During their stay at Chadcombe, Juliana and Harry are thrown into each other’s company on several occasions and find themselves gradually warming to each other, enjoying their spirited discussions and verbal sparring matches.  Harry, who has determined never to fall in love, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the truth of his feelings for Juliana, but he can’t bear the thought of tying her to a man as broken as he is. When the spiteful Wakelys make public some information they have learned concerning Juliana’s parentage – which, Juliana realises, must account for her mother’s nervousness at being back in England – Harry is forced to face the truth; he’s fallen irrevocably in love with a woman he can never marry.

With Juliana’s reputation now severely blemished, she and her mother arrange to return to Brussels, no matter that it seems as though England and France will very soon be at war once more.  Harry rejoins his regiment and finds himself in the thick of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo…

As soon as I’d finished reading, I realised that the main thing I’d taken away from The Captain’s Disgraced Lady was that there was rather too much going on, which gave the impression that the author wasn’t quite sure what story she wanted to tell.  Is it an opposites-attract romance?  Is it the story of a young woman searching for the truth of her birthright?  Is it the story of a couple separated by war?  It’s all of those things, but the narrative feels episodic  – shifting from one plot point to the next – rather than cohesive with the various threads woven together throughout.  The final section – which sees Juliana returned to Brussels and Harry to the army – is the most gripping; before that I was only mildly interested in the romance because Juliana’s instant dislike of Harry has such a ridiculously flimsy basis and is so obviously a contrivance to kick-start an antagonistic relationship.  And the clues as to the identity of the missing heir and Juliana’s identity are so clearly telegraphed early on that there is no surprise when the reveal is finally made. On top of all that, we are informed – around a third of the way though – that Harry believes himself to be some sort of monster; and later that he’s too flawed and broken to deserve someone so innocent and pure as Juliana and the only thing to be done is to protect her by breaking with her without explanation.  The whole “I am not worthy, so must cut you from my life completely” plotline is one I dislike intensely, so that aspect of the story didn’t work for me at all; plus, Harry’s self-loathing and inner torment never really feel integral to the story (and vanish quickly), and instead come across as yet another contrived road-block on the path to happy ever after.

With all that said, there are things to enjoy in The Captain’s Disgraced Lady. Harry is an attractive, if somewhat stereotypical hero, and while I didn’t like Juliana that much to start with, she grew on me,  proved to be possessed of good sense and courage, and by the last part of the book I was rooting for her to succeed and to find her HEA with Harry.  The writing is solid, and the middle section of the story – in which Harry and Juliana begin to lower their defences and allow each other to see their true selves – is nicely done, with, as I said earlier, the final part being the most compelling.  Unfortunately, however, those things are overshadowed by the overabundance of plotlines which make the book feel overstuffed; and I can’t help thinking that perhaps a firmer editorial hand could have helped thin them out and develop the rest into a more cohesive story.

Death Below Stairs (Kat Holloway #1) by Jennifer Ashley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Highly sought-after young cook Kat Holloway takes a position in a Mayfair mansion and soon finds herself immersed in the odd household of Lord Rankin. Kat is unbothered by the family’s eccentricities as long as they stay away from her kitchen, but trouble finds its way below stairs when her young Irish assistant is murdered.

Intent on discovering who killed the helpless kitchen maid, Kat turns to the ever-capable Daniel McAdam, who is certainly much more than the charming delivery man he pretends to be. Along with the assistance of Lord Rankin’s unconventional sister-in-law and a mathematical genius, Kat and Daniel discover that the household murder was the barest tip of a plot rife with danger and treason—one that’s a threat to Queen Victoria herself.

Rating: B-

Jennifer Ashley is the author of a number of very popular historical romances about the various members of the MacKenzie family as well as of the Captain Lacey series of historical mysteries, which she publishes as Ashley Gardner.  I confess that I haven’t read any of the Captain’s regency-set adventures, but as I enjoy historical mysteries, I was intrigued to see that Ms. Ashley is launching a new series set in Victorian England and that her heroine is a no-nonsense, twenty-nine year-old cook who is employed in some of London’s grandest households.

Death Below Stairs is actually the second book to feature Kat Holloway, as the author published a prequel novella (A Soupçon of Poison) a couple of years ago which introduces Kat and her friend/love-interest,  the mysterious Daniel McAdam, who helps Kat out of a potentially deadly situation and assists her in her sleuthing efforts. It’s not absolutely necessary to read this story, as its storyline is completely separate from this novel, BUT it is a very useful introduction to the characters – to Daniel, especially – who is not at all what he seems.  The novella also establishes the relationships between Kat, Daniel and his son, James, and some early reviews (of this book) have indicated that readers disliked the fact that these had been cemented in a prequel novella when this title is billed as the first in  series.  Because of such comments, I decided to read the novella before tackling Death Below Stairs, and would say I found it helpful to have done so.

Kat Holloway has just taken a new position as cook in the Mayfair home of Lord Rankin.  It’s a small household, consisting of his lordship, his somewhat lethargical wife, Lady Emily, and her older sister Lady Cynthia who dresses in mens’ suits, smokes cheroots and chafes at the fact she is stuck under her unpleasant brother-in-law’s roof.  Kat very quickly assumes command of the kitchen and just as quickly sums up her colleagues who include Mr. Davies, the butler (affable but a bit lazy), Mrs. Barton, the housekeeper (very proper, runs a tight ship) and the maid assigned as cook’s assistant, Sinead, who is a bright girl and a fast learner whom Kat believes will do very well.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

TBR Challenge: Lord St. Claire’s Angel by Donna Lea Simpson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Celestine Simons was of good family, but an untimely death and a shortage of funds forces the homely spinster to take a position as governess at the estate of Lord Langlow and his wife. Never one to bemoan her change in fortune, Celestine is content to spend her days raising and overseeing their children, knowing in her heart she will never have any of her own.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, Langlow’s brother, is a rogue and seducer, content to while away his days pursuing pleasure—and driving his brother and sister-in-law mad by reducing their female staff to lovelorn fools with his flirtations. When he learns on his annual Christmas visit that the drab Celestine was hired as governess solely to thwart his dalliances, he devises a scheme to both stir her heart and spite his family’s interfering ways.

But as his game unfolds, the cunning St. Claire discovers this conquest may be more challenging than expected when the thoughtful and intelligent Celestine begins to fire an ache in his own heart. And what began as an amusement to give the plain, timid miss an innocent thrill is turning into much more, as St. Claire realizes she may be the one giving him the thrill—and teaching him in a way only a governess can that real beauty lies beneath the surface and that true love is often found where you least expect it.

Rating: A-

For December’s prompt of a Holiday Read, I went with Lord St. Claire’s Angel, a Traditional Regency which is, on the surface, your basic fairy-tale type story of a plain-Jane who finds love with a handsome rake. But Donna Lea Simpson has turned that familiar plotline into something that transcends the trope. Our sometimes not-at-all likeable hero really IS a rake; a self-absorbed, all-round selfish bastard, until he falls in love with a young woman whose goodness and unconditional love set him on the path to becoming a better man. Ms. Simpson took quite a chance in making him so unpleasant at times; prone to self-deception, he will always take the easy path if there is one – but St. Claire’s many faults somehow make him more real, even though there were times I wanted to smack him around the head. Our heroine, Celestine Simons, is one in a long line of down-on-their-luck ladies forced to take employment who has learned to expect little from life. It’s once again a tribute to the author’s storytelling and her ability to create complex, believable characters that while Celestine does occasionally seem bent on martyrdom, there’s more to her than a stereotypical goody-two-shoes; she’s come down in the world, but is determined to make her own way in life and stand on her own two feet, no matter how hard it may be.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, younger brother of the Marquess of Langlow, is handsome, charming, wealthy and, at the age of thirty-two, has managed to avoid the marital noose and intends to keep it that way. He’s not damaged or brooding, but as a second son, he wasn’t brought up to have responsibilities or any purpose in life, so he devotes his time to pleasure. He is making his annual Yuletide visit to the family estate for the weeks-long Christmas house-party and anticipates the usual round of respectable games and activities – and hopes for some not so respectable ones with some of the widows and bored wives likely to be in attendance. He is fond of his brother, although he regards the marquess as somewhat hen-pecked by his wife, Elizabeth, and certainly doesn’t envy him his social position and attendant responsibilities.

Gently-born Celestine Simons found herself in straightened circumstances around a year earlier after the death of her father, and took a position as governess to the Langlows. At twenty-eight, she is unprepossessing and suffers with an arthritic condition that can badly affect her hands, Celestine recognises she’s destined to remain a spinster and that working with children is the closest she will ever come to having a family of her own. Even so, she is somewhat hurt when she overhears the Marchioness telling her husband that one of the main reasons she hired Celestine was because she is plain and therefore unlikely to attract the attentions of Lord St. Claire when he visits – unlike the previous governess who plainly set her cap at the handsome devil the year before and had to be dismissed.

St. Claire may be many things, but he’s not stupid. As soon as he sees the drab Celestine, he is immediately wise to his sister-in-law’s machinations and, refusing to be outmanoeuvred, decides to strike up a flirtation with the governess anyway. In one of the most condescendingly obnoxious thought processes I’ve ever read in a romance hero, he reasons to himself that she will be grateful for the attention from a handsome lord, and that if he can steal a few kisses, he’ll be giving her something pleasant to look back on in the long years of spinsterhood ahead.

But Celestine isn’t stupid either. While she isn’t blind to St. Claire’s charms, and in fact comes to realise that there is an intelligent, thoughtful man behind the rakish exterior, she also suspects he’s playing a game with her when he markedly singles her out – and really wishes he wouldn’t. She can’t afford to lose her position, and St. Claire shows no sign of realising just what damage his notice of her could do.

But when, out of devilment, he accompanies Celestine and a couple of the other servants to a choir practice at the local church, he suddenly finds himself out of his depth. He is utterly spellbound by the unexpected beauty of Celestine’s singing voice; by the passion and the strength of spirit on display, and is profoundly affected by it. It’s an important turning point for him – although, I hasten to add, he doesn’t become a reformed character overnight. But from that point onwards, the reader is with him on his journey towards that reformation, a journey on which he makes mistakes, doesn’t always follow through on his decisions and sometimes deliberately sets out to sabotage his own good intentions. Ms. Simpson does a superb job of showing the reader that he’s falling in love without being aware of doing so – all St. Claire knows is that Celestine is far from the dowd he initially thought her and that she is possessed of great inner beauty and strength. It’s not until fairly late in the book that he finally wakes up to the truth – and his brutal honesty and determination to fight for the woman he loves go a very long way towards mitigating his earlier immaturity and thoughtless actions.

Both central characters are very well drawn, and even when St. Claire is acting like an idiot, there is still something about him that is engaging and that draws the reader to him. The same is true of Celestine – without the idiocy! – she’s an intelligent, generous and loving young woman who wants to do what she can to help the people in her life, and the author really does get to grips with exactly what life was like for a woman in her position, neither servant nor family and completely dependent on the goodwill of her employers.
There are lots of stories out there featuring rakish heroes who finally turn their lives around when they meet the right woman, but Lord St. Claire’s Angel is one of the best examples I’ve read. I said at the outset that making St. Claire selfish and unlikeable was a risk, but it contributes to the overall believability of the tale; had he not been like that, his transformation would not have been so dramatic and we wouldn’t be rooting so hard for him to see the error of his ways.

While the festival itself doesn’t play a large part in the story, the ideas of love and redemption that are so strongly associated with Christmas are major themes throughout the novel. Combined with a tender, deeply-felt romance, well-drawn secondary characters and a lovely, wintry feel, Lord St. Claire’s Angel is the perfect seasonal read.

Note: This book was originally published in 1999, and then reissued with some revisions by the author in 2013. Just a tad annoyingly – and the author has done this in some of her other books – some of the names have been changed; the hero in the old print version is named Lord Justin St. Claire, whereas in the new version, he’s Lord St. Claire Richmond. His brother, Lord Langlow was originally Lord Ladymead, and the heroine’s aunt Emily is now Lady Sedgley rather than, as she was originally, Lady Delafont. (Incidentally, Emily’s book, Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, has been reissued as Married to a Rogue.)

I have referred to the characters by the names they have been given in the 2013 version.

It’s Hard Out Here for a Duke (Keeping Up with the Cavendishes #4) by Maya Rodale

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Some Mistakes…

When American-born James Cavendish arrives in London tomorrow, he’ll become the Duke of Durham. Some might be ecstatic at the opportunity. Not James. He’s a simple man, fond of simple pleasures. And right now, nothing could be more pleasurable than spending his last night of freedom with a beautiful stranger.

Are Far Too Good…

One wild night, Meredith Green, companion to the dowager Duchess of Durham, said yes to a man she thought she’d never see again. Suddenly, they’re living under the same roof, where Meredith is expected to teach James how to be a duke—while trying not to surrender to temptation a second time.

To Be Forgotten

For a duke and a commoner, marriage would be pure scandal. Yet nothing has ever felt as right as having Meredith in his arms… and in his bed. Soon he must choose—between a duty he never desired, and a woman he longs for, body and soul…

Rating: B+

I seem to have spent a bit of time lately saying “don’t let the stupid title put you off reading this book because it’s really good” – and now I’m saying it again.  This fourth book in Maya Rodale’s Keeping Up With the Cavendishes series is the best of the set once you get past yet another vomit-inducing excursion into Craptastic-Titles-R-Us, so try not to let it put you off reading what is actually a very well-written, tender and poignant story that is as much about the two central characters working out what it really means to be true to oneself as it is about their love for each other.

Readers who have been following the series will know that the four Cavendish siblings – James and his sisters Claire, Bridget and Amelia – have recently come to London from their home in America owing to the fact that James has unexpectedly inherited a dukedom he doesn’t want.  He would be more than content to remain at the family ranch doing what he does best and what he loves – breeding and raising horses – but is prompted to come to England because of his concern for his sisters.  All of them are no longer young (by early nineteenth century standards!) and perilously close to being on the shelf; and James thinks that perhaps moving to England will improve their prospects of making a good marriage.  He also thinks he should at least keep an open mind about the dukedom and what it entails – but the closer he gets to English shores, the more anxious and uncertain he becomes.

He and his sisters are to stay the night at an inn in Southampton before resuming their journey to London.  When they’ve gone to their rooms, James stays downstairs in the tap-room and is pondering his fate, when he notices a lovely young woman sitting alone at the bar.  He can’t keep his eyes off her, and her shy glances indicate some interest on her part, too.  James approaches her, they strike up a conversation and agree to spend the night together, ‘Just James’ and ‘Just a girl’ he’s met at a bar.

Yes, the idea that a respectable young woman at this period would sit alone at a public bar and then agree to a one night stand with a man she just met is a bit of a stretch of credulity, but it’s worth getting past it in order to enjoy the rest of the story.

If you’ve read the synopsis, then you’ll already know that James’ ‘Just a girl’ is, in fact, Miss Meredith Green, companion to his aunt, the Dowager Duchess of Durham.  On the way back to London after a visit to her sick mother (who has dementia), she is weary and heartsick, looking ahead to years of a life lived for others and needs, just once, to feel fully alive and as though someone truly sees her, Meredith, not just another trusted servant.

James is, of course, shocked to realise that Meredith is his aunt’s companion, but also delighted to see again the young woman with whom he’d shared such pleasure and to whom he feels such a strong connection.  At first, he actively pursues her – as far as he is able under his aunt’s close scrutiny – but Meredith takes pains to point out to him that she owes everything to the duchess and the last thing she wants or can afford to do is to anger her by indulging in some sort of clandestine relationship with him.

The dowager is intent on getting James and his sisters ready to make their débuts as quickly as possible before the speculation already circulating that they are uncouth savages who are not fit for English society becomes worse.  Realising she has quite the task on hand in preparing Claire, Bridget and (especially) Amelia, the duchess asks Meredith – to whom she has given the education afforded daughters of the nobility – to help James to acquire the necessary polish while she concentrates on the girls.

James finds all the rules and strictures exasperating and makes it clear that he’s only giving this duke business a trial and that if he decides it’s not for him, he’ll be heading back across the Atlantic. As it is, the only thing keeping him in England is Meredith; but as James begins to realise that there is more to being a duke than escorting his sisters to balls and parties and driving in the park, he also starts to see that Meredith is right about the impossibility of there being anything further between them.  He bears a responsibility to all those who depend upon the dukedom for their livelihood, a responsibility that was neglected following the deaths of his uncle and father; and James gradually finds himself assuming the ducal mantle in more ways than one.  He even accepts that his aunt’s insistence on his finding a suitable bride from the ranks of the ton is one of those duties he must discharge – and even though he is deeply in love with Meredith, determines to find someone he can at least be comfortable with for the sake of his title, his duty – and the happiness of his sisters.

The author does a very good job here of showing how James grows into his role as duke without fundamentally changing the essence of the man he is.  He’s not a surly, brooding hero with intimacy issues; he’s a kind, decent and loving man who wants to do the right thing for those who depend on him, especially his sisters, who annoy the hell out of him but whom he adores anyway.  The emotional connection between him and Meredith is very strongly wrought and leaps off the page and their longing for one another is palpable.  Meredith could have been a bit of a doormat given her situation as neither family nor servant, but she isn’t.  She’s aware of her place and very conscious of the debt of gratitude she owes the dowager, but she’s her own woman; warm, intelligent and intuitive, she becomes a friend to Claire, Bridget and Amelia, all of whom are well aware of the way the wind is blowing and see no reason why their brother should not be happy.

The two central characters are immensely likeable without being saccharine, and while Josephine, Dowager Duchess of Durham, initially comes across as a stuck-up, interfering biddy who cares only for the title and not the man holding it, that is soon shown to be a misconception. She’s concerned about the fate of the dukedom, yes, but for reasons that are far from superficial.

The storyline runs concurrently with those in the previous books, but you don’t need to have read them in order to enjoy this one as it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Ms. Rodale’s writing is intelligent and engaging, and I’m pleased to say that I didn’t find myself having to suspend my disbelief too often, probably because, as a man, James isn’t bound by the same constraints as his sisters (sad, but true) so there’s less of a ‘wallpaper’ feel to the novel overall.

There’s a bit of a hiccup towards the end involving a disclosure that isn’t really necessary in terms of the plot, but I appreciated the way that James and Meredith find a way to be together while keeping in sight what is most important to them and remaining true to themselves.  It’s Hard Out Here for a Dukeis a tender romance and a fitting way to wave farewell to the Cavendish siblings.