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.

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

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The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding by Amanda McCabe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A country Christmas at Barton Park

Plain, sensible Rose Parker is a self-proclaimed wallflower, but she’s always dreamt of dancing with Captain Harry St George…

Once, Harry wouldn’t even have noticed Rose. But now, after a hard war, Harry’s knows he’s a different man. Shy, sweet Rose intrigues him more than any gregarious young lady – but he must marry a rich bride to save his mortgaged estates – and Rose is no heiress. Now, more than ever, Harry needs the magic of a mistletoe kiss…

Rating: C

The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding is a pleasant, light-hearted story set in an English country home at Christmastime in which two lonely people find love amid the hustle and bustle of a family house party. It’s an easy read to which the word ‘nice’ can be frequently applied; the hero and heroine are nice people, their hostess is nice, the hostesses children are nice, the book as a whole is nice… I think you can see where I’m going with this. It’s one of those books that has nothing wrong with it, but which isn’t going to set the world alight, either.

In the prologue – which is set three years before the rest of the story – Miss Rose Parker, her mother and younger sister, Lily, are attending a summer party at Barton Park the large estate owned by their cousins, the Bancroft family. The recent death of Mr. Parker has left them with large debts which meant they had to leave their home in order to repay them. They live quietly in a small cottage, but the Bancrofts continue to invite them to Barton Park from time to time, and it’s at this particular gathering that Rose first meets Captain Harry St. George, the handsome but somewhat retiring owner of the neighbouring estate, Hilltop Grange. Harry and Rose talk briefly, dance together and recognise that they have made some sort of connection; and Rose, normally a very pragmatic young woman, starts to dream, just this once, of a different life and a home of her own. Sadly, however, her girlish musings soon come to an end when she overhears that the Captain is to marry the lovely and sophisticated Miss Helen Layton.

Moving forward three years, we find Rose living with her overbearing Aunt Sylvia as her paid companion. Rose’s sister, Lily, married the man she loves – the local curate – and now has two small children, and their mother continues to live in her tiny cottage; the money Rose earns in her position is enough to make sure she can live reasonably comfortably. Sylvia is cantankerous and exacting, so Rose can’t deny the relief she feels when she receives a letter from her cousin Jane inviting her to Barton Park for Christmas, ostensibly to help with the children and give them some music tuition.

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

Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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When Truelove Becket’s betrothed went missing in a naval battle, she vowed never to marry unless she found someone she loved as much. In the seven years since then, the quiet vicar’s daughter has lived a simple and contented life helping the poor people of her village. But now another man has asked for her hand in marriage and, unsure if she is ready to commit to him, she agrees to accompany her beautiful cousin Arabella on a trip to visit friends so she can take time to think it over.

Viscount Drake cut a dashing figure when he returned from war to a hero’s welcome, but the Battle of Waterloo left him a shattered and haunted man. As his dreams are invaded by the terrors of war he becomes a sleepless shell of a man, and as his torment grows he begins to wonder if marriage to the lovely Arabella will help restore him again. But as Arabella coquettishly flirts to secure Drake’s hand and his riches, it is the pretty and practical True he turns to for solace.

With the weight of her marriage proposal bearing down on her, True finds herself irresistibly attracted to Drake’s quiet dignity and genuine distress, just as he finds himself drawn to her honest nature and soothing compassion. When a spark of passion ignites between these two who have both lost so much to war, they will have to confront their biggest fears—and everyone else’s plans for their futures—to discover if love can truly cure all ills.

Rating: B-

The story of the poor relation who falls in love with the well-to-do handsome hero destined to marry another (who is completely wrong for him) is a familiar one, but while Donna Lea Simpson’s Miss Truelove Beckons ostensibly follows that pattern, the author actually subverts the trope of the “evil other woman” and crafts a story of more weight and substance than is found in many other Regency romances.

Major General Lord Wycliffe Prescott, Viscount Drake, son and heir of the Earl of Leathorne, joined the army when he was just eighteen, and served for a number of years before almost meeting his end at the Battle of Waterloo.  He was lauded as a hero on his return to England, but he couldn’t feel less like one; he saw too much death, bloodshed and wanton destruction, killed too many men and came too close to death himself to feel anything but disgusted by the war and his part in it.  Fortunately for Drake, the only outward evidence of his long service is a bad leg injury which has left him with a slight limp, but on the inside he’s a mess, haunted by memories and worn down by dreams and nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis.  His parents love him dearly but don’t know what to do to help him; naturally, it’s something Drake doesn’t discuss with them, but his mother can hear him screaming at night and is desperately worried for him.

In an attempt to divert Drake’s attention, Lady Leathorne decides it’s time to further a match between her son and Miss Arabella Swinley, the daughter of one of her oldest friends.  Although nothing has been settled officially, the ladies have long cherished the idea of such a thing coming to pass, so the countess invites Lady and Miss Swinley to Lea Park for a few weeks, sure that an engagement will shortly ensue.

The Swinley ladies duly arrive, accompanied by their cousin, Miss Truelove Beckett, the daughter of the country vicar and in whose house Arabella had spent much of her childhood.  She and Truelove – True – used to be very close, but in the years since Arabella’s come-out (and since she has been wholly subject to her mother’s influence) True has sadly noticed her younger cousin becoming more and more spoiled and more and more like her mother, who is sharp, haughty and not always kind.

True has come to Lea Park at Arabella’s request, and also because she needs time to consider the proposal made her by the local curate, Mr. Bottleby.  Seven years earlier, the man True loved was killed and she vowed never to marry unless it was to someone she loved as much as she’d loved Henry.  But she doesn’t want to be alone forever or be a burden on her father; Mr. Bottleby is a good man and True yearns to be useful… but she isn’t sure he will provide the sort of companionship she longs for.

Drake and True are almost immediately drawn to each other and Drake is surprised to find himself telling True things he’s never told anyone about the memories that haunt him and the guilt he carries.  She is a good listener and never judges him, knowing the right things to say and when to ask questions and when to remain silent. Her calm, rational demeanour has a strong effect on Drake, who finds her presence to be the one thing that can truly soothe him; their friendship definitely has a positive effect on Drake and she helps him to realise that he needs something useful to occupy him. This takes the form of a school which will employ veterans skilled in various trades to train other veterans so that they can find work – and for the first time since he returned from war, Drake is finally starting to feel like a whole person once more.

The growing friendship between Drake and True is not looked upon with favour by either his mother or Lady Swinley, although as Lady Leathorne begins to see the improvement in her son’s manner and health, she realises that the most important thing is that he is well and happy – and if Miss Becket is the woman to make him happy, then her social status is of no matter.  Lady Swinley, however, is a different matter; Drake is to marry Arabella, and she is not about to let her mousy cousin cut out her daughter, an acknowledged diamond of the first water.  Arabella at first comes across as a spoilt brat.  She simpers, swoons and pretends to be a dim-wit in the attempt to display all those qualities that so enamour gentlemen of the ton, but none of this has any effect on Drake, who thinks she must be a ninny.  But recognising that his mother’s heart is set on his marrying Arabella, he makes an effort to talk to her and actually finds that she’s not at all as empty-headed as she seems.  Unlike many other books in which the heroine’s rival is a nasty piece of work, Arabella really isn’t; as True has seen, she’s too much influenced by her mother’s mercenary nature, and by Lady Swinley’s constant harping at her about what she should be doing to attract Drake’s interest.

True is terribly torn.  She has fallen in love with Drake, but can see that Arabella is bewildered and disgusted by any mention he makes of the war while recognising that Arabella will make him a much better viscountess than she ever could.  Yet she also knows that Drake needs someone who will understand and love him in a way Arabella is unlikely ever to be able to.  And then there’s Mr.  Bottleby, who is awaiting her answer to his proposal…

Miss Truelove Beckons is a charming and well-written romance that tackles the difficult subject of PTSD in a sensitive way.  So many historical romances set during this period feature heroes returned from war with physical and/or mental injuries which are often glossed over, but that’s not the case here.  Drake is clearly a very troubled man; he suffers sleep deprivation because of his horrific dreams and frequently withdraws into himself during the day… and the reader really feels his pain and desperation.  True is good and kind, but she’s not a doormat; perhaps she’s a bit too good to be true (!) but she’s never overly sweet or cloying.

Although Lady Swinley is a bit of a caricature, the other secondary characters are well-drawn and contribute much towards this book being a cut above average.  Drake’s parents are especially well-done, and the brief insights we are given into their marriage are very poignant, while Arabella becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.  The writing is excellent and the central relationship is nicely developed, although if you like a bit of steam in your romances, this might not be the book for you, as things are fairly low-key with only a few kisses exchanged.  There’s no question that True and Drake are attracted to each other and that their romance is one born of friendship – but while I don’t need to read sex scenes in a romance novel, I do like there to be a decent amount of sexual tension and there isn’t a great deal of that here, which is why I knocked half-a-star off my final rating.

Nonetheless, Miss Truelove Beckons is definitely worth checking out if you are after a well-written, character-driven romance with a bit more heft than is normally found in the genre.

Count the Shells (Porthkennack #6) by Charlie Cochrane


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Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

 

Rating: B-

 

Count the Shells, by new-to-me author, Charlie Cochrane, is the sixth entry in Riptide Publishing’s Porthkennack series of standalone romances that are linked by virtue being set in and around the fictional Cornish town of the same name.  The series boasts a mixture of contemporary and historical stories, and this is the second historical (the first was Joanna Chambers’ excellent A Gathering Storm), set – I’m guessing, because it’s not actually made clear what the year is – not long after the end of World War One.

Count the Shells is a gently moving, reflective story which opens as a young man – Michael Gray – ponders love and loss as he reminisces about his past lovers, some of whom fought in the war and unlike him, did not come home.  Playing on the beach with his young nephew, Michael counts aloud in several different languages as he places shells on the sand, one for each of his five lovers, while thinking about those very different men and the nature of his feelings for them.

Number one – un, uno, eins – on Michael’s list is, and will always be Thomas Carter-Clemence, his oldest friend, the love of his life… and the man from whom he’d parted following a bitter row in the Spring of 1909. Thomas had joined the army not long after that, and had then been killed in the early days of the war; he and Michael had never reconciled but Michael still feels the pain of their parting and his loss and never expects to love so deeply and completely again.

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

My Fair Lord (Once Upon a Bride #1) by Wilma Counts

My Fair LordThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Henrietta Parker, daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, has turned down many a suitor for fear that the ton’s bachelors are only interested in her wealth. But despite the warnings of her dearest friends, Harriet and Hero, she can’t resist the challenge rudely posed by her stepsister: transform an ordinary London dockworker into a society gentleman suitable for the “marriage mart.” Only after a handshake seals the deal does Retta fear she may have gone too far . . .

When Jake Bolton is swept from the grime of the seaport into the elegance of Blakemoor House, he appears every inch the rough, cockney working man who is to undergo Retta’s training in etiquette, wardrobe, and elocution. But Jake himself is a master of deception—with much more at stake than a drawing room wager. But will his clandestine mission take second place to his irresistible tutor, her intriguing proposal . . . and true love?

Rating: C-


The first in her new Once Upon a Bride series, Wilma Counts’ My Fair Lord is exactly what one would infer from such a title; a Pygmalion inspired tale with the principal roles reversed. Our Covent Garden flower-seller is morphed into a London dockworker by the name of Jake Bolton and our professor is Lady Henrietta (Retta) Parker, eldest daughter of the Earl of Blakemoor, who is goaded into accepting a wager proposed by one of her sisters, that she – Retta – could transform “any worker off the London docks” into “your typical gentlemen of the ton.” It’s a popular trope (and the best version of it in historical romance, to my mind, is still Judith Ivory’s The Proposition), but unfortunately, in Ms. Counts’ hands it makes for rather a dull, pedestrian read, mostly because there’s a lot of telling and not much showing and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the principals.

Lady Henrietta is the only child of the Earl of Blakemoor from his first marriage, and she is several years older than her younger half-siblings, twins Gerald and Richard, and daughters Rachel and Miranda. The countess – her step-mother – resents Henrietta and, of course, favours her own children, something which wouldn’t bother Retta quite so much if it weren’t for the fact that her father knows it and does nothing about it. Disgruntled because the countess prevented her accompanying them to Vienna (where the Earl is to attend the Congress) and needled by the constant catty remarks made by her sisters over the fact that Retta is more or less on the shelf, she allows her irritation to get the better of her and is manoeuvred into making the above mentioned wager with spiteful Rachel. While her eldest brother, Gerald, urges caution, Retta’s stubborn streak won’t allow her to back down in the face of her sisters’ mockery, and the bet is made, even as Retta’s common sense tells her it’s a bad idea.

The search for a suitable subject starts the following day down at the docks and eventually settles upon Jake Bolton, who is, to say the least, surprised at the proposal set before him. But as luck would have it, his being installed in the London home of the Blakemoors could be just the thing Jake needs in order to uncover the identity of the person – or persons – responsible for leaking important government information which could undermine England’s negotiations in Paris and Vienna. For Jake is no dockworker; he’s Major Lord Jacob Bodwyn, a military officer and third son of the Duke of Holbrook who has been temporarily seconded to the Foreign Office on the orders of his commanding officer, the Duke of Wellington. The Blakemoors, along with several other prominent families, all of whom have varying degrees of access to sensitive information, have been under discreet surveillance for a while, and his removal to Blakemoor house will allow Jake to do some more close-up snooping.

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

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr. Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession…or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

Rating: Narration – A+ Content – A-


Those two names up there in the review title should be enough to tell you why you need to go and buy this audiobook at once. The combination of Ms. Riley’s wonderfully intelligent writing and Mr. Wyndham’s extraordinary skills as a narrator is always a delight to experience, and in The Wicked Cousin, book four in the author’s Rockliffe series of Georgian-set romances, both author and narrator are at the top of their game.

Following the death of his twin brother, Theo, at the age of eight, young Sebastian Audley, now the only son and heir of Viscount Wingham, spends the best part of the next thirteen years chafing at being wrapped up in several layers of cotton wool and over-protected to the point of suffocation. So naturally, as soon as he is able to do so, he sets about raising merry hell, which he does up and down the length and breadth of Europe with such great success that his exploits become the stuff of legend and his name regularly appears in the scandal sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Gemma Massot

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents – and Truelove’s courage – to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: Narration – C- Content – A-


Why do audio publishers employ inexperienced narrators to work on major releases by big-name authors? I know everyone has to start somewhere, which is why I make a point of picking up audios using first time – or very early-in-their-careers – narrators; there have to be some who start out fairly well and then get better over time. Sadly, however, most of the newbies I have listened to recently have turned out to be fairly poor and have not done justice to the stories to which they have been assigned. Giving this book to an untried narrator is akin to giving the kid next door the lead role in Hamlet at the RSC. A Strange Scottish Shore is another title that’s being consigned to the “wish they hadn’t done that” pile, because while Gemma Massot has an attractive speaking voice, she lacks the experience and acting chops necessary to perform a tale of such complexity and bring it to life.

A Strange Scottish Shore is the second book in Juliana Gray’s quirky series of Edwardian era historical mysteries (with an unusual twist) featuring the intrepid Miss Emmeline Truelove and the dashing but enigmatic Marquess of Silverton. When I picked up the first book (A Most Extraordinary Pursuit – and it would be wise to read or listen to that before starting this one) I was expecting a straightforward historical mystery, but quickly had to adjust my expectations when our heroine began routinely having conversations with the deceased Queen Victoria and, later on, her late father. Miss Truelove, who had been secretary to the political colossus that was the Duke of Olympia up until his death, was asked to travel to the Greek islands in order to track down the new duke, who had gone missing, in the company of the unspeakably gorgeous but empty-headed Lord Silverton. Silverton, naturally, turned out to be far from stupid (he’s an early 20th century James Bond!) and what followed was an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story that combined elements of mystery, mythology and time travel with a soupçon of romance and turned out to be unlike anything else I’ve read in the genre and left me eager for more.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.