Once Upon a Maiden Lane (Maiden Lane #12.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Miss Mary Whitsun is far too intelligent to fall for the rakish charms of a handsome aristocrat. But when the gentleman in question approaches her in a bookshop, mistaking her for his fiancée, Lady Johanna Albright, the flirtatious encounter only raises more questions. Could Mary, a servant raised in a St Giles orphanage, actually be Lady Joanna’s long-lost twin sister? If so, Mary has been betrothed since birth—to the rakishly handsome artistocrat himself.

Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, is far too intrigued by Mary to let her go so easily. He’s drawn to her sharp mind, indomitable spirit, and the fiery way in which she dismisses him—ladies simply don’t dismiss Lord Blackwell. But as Mary makes her first hesitant steps into society, she can’t help but wonder if she truly has a place in Henry’s world—or in his heart.

Rating: C+

While Duke of Desire is the final full-length book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s long-running and incredibly popular Maiden Lane series, that wasn’t quite The End, as the author is treating us to a novella or two to round the series off and, in Once Upon a Maiden Lane, brings us back to where it all began – the streets and slums of the St. Giles area of London.

Some of the reviews I’ve read of Duke of Desire made mention of the fact that the book didn’t really feel like the end of a series; most of the time, such books feature cameos from characters from the previous books, filling pages with happy families as everyone catches up with each other. That doesn’t happen in Duke of Desire, and I, for one, was glad of it, because it would have been much too implausible and would have detracted from the main story. Instead, Ms. Hoyt kept her powder dry and has presented us with Once Upon a Maiden Lane – a novella featuring Mary Whitsun, who appeared regularly in the earlier books as one of the older orphan girls raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children run by the Makepeace family. (This will be followed in December by Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which will feature a very long-awaited story for Viscount D’Arque).

As is implied by the title, this story has a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Mary is a young woman now, and resides in the household of Lord and Lady Caire (Wicked Intentions) where she is employed as a nursemaid to the Caires’ two young children.

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

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Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Previously titled Pistols for Two, this collection includes three of Heyer’s earliest short stories, published together in book form for the very first time. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

Rating: B

If you’re already a fan of the great Georgette Heyer – the author who pretty much invented the Regency Romance single-handedly – then it won’t take much persuasion from me to send you in the direction of this newly re-issued collection of the author’s short stories, most of them written for and published in prestigious women’s magazines of the 1930s. There are fourteen in this collection, of which eleven were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two; Snowdrift features those plus three that have been newly discovered by the author’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester. Is it worth obtaining this new collection to read those new stories? On balance, I’d say that yes, it is, especially as one of the new stories (Pursuit) turned out to be one of my favourites of the set.

I don’t plan on reviewing each individual story here, as that would take more space than I have, so instead I’ll cherry pick as, like most anthologies, there are some excellent stories and some not quite so good ones. Each one features character types and plot elements that will be familiar to regular readers of historical romance; cross-dressing heroines, elopements, mistaken identity, dashing military men, second-chance romance, duels, high-stakes card games, regency-slang and, best of all, those handsome, authoritative heroes and their intelligent, witty heroines. Fans of the author’s will no doubt recognise the seeds of some of the plots and characters who later appear in some of her full-length novels here, too. I’ll also add a couple of words of caution. While very enjoyable, this is an anthology best dipped in and out of rather than read all at once; and these are short stories, so some of the romances are fairly perfunctory and in many cases, rely on insta-love. I’m not a fan, but in this case, it’s mostly forgivable due to the short length and the fact that the stories are beautifully written and enjoyable for so many other things besides the romances, so full are they of Heyer’s trademark laser-sharp social observation, sparkling dialogue and clever characterisations.

And so to the cherry picking. Pistols for Two is a rather unusual story in that it turns a frequently used trope on its head. Two lifelong friends discover that they are in love with the same young woman – another childhood friend who has grown into a beauty – and through misunderstanding and mischance, end up facing each other on the field of honour. Told through both their points of view, the young lady in question is a peripheral character and the author does a terrific job of describing the prickly, adolescent pride of the two young gents.

In A Clandestine Affair, we have an older hero and heroine who clearly share some sort of romantic history. Elinor Tresilian’s niece, Lucy, wants badly to marry the man she loves, Mr. Arthur Roseby, who happens to be the cousin of Lord Iver – who is vehemently opposed to the match. As it happens, Miss Tresilian is not overly in favour either, but headstrong Lucy is determined to have her way. When the couple elopes, Elinor and Lord Iver set off in pursuit, bickering and sniping along the Great North Road until… they aren’t.

A Husband for Fanny sees the young widow, Honoria Wingham, shepherding her lovely daughter, Fanny through the Season and hoping to secure the best and wealthiest husband for her. The Marquis of Harleston is certainly most attentive and would be an excellent match… so why does Honoria feel just the tiniest pang of jealousy when she sees how well the marquis and her daughter get along? You can see the twist in this one coming a mile off, but it’s an engaging story nonetheless.

To Have the Honour. Newly returned from war, young Lord Allerton discovers he has inherited a mountain of debt along with his title. His mother, however, is still spending money at the old rate, because Allerton has all but been betrothed to his cousin Hetty since the cradle; as she is a great heiress, once they are married their money woes will be over. But Allerton dislikes the idea of marrying for money and tells Hetty that he will not hold her to the arrangement between their families and she is free to choose for herself. Some timely scheming behind the scenes means that all ends well.

Hazard is one of my favourites; in it a young woman is staked in a game of chance by her weaselly half-brother, and is ‘won’ by the very drunk Marquis of Carlington. Foxed though he is, Carlington admires Helen’s spirit and insists they leave for Gretna Green right away. Helen is remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and I loved the way she issued a little payback to her not-swain the next day. Their dash to Scotland is fortuitously interrupted – by Carlington’s fiancée, no less…

Of the three new stories, Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road, the first is my favourite, being another elopement story in which an older couple once again takes centre stage. Mary Fairfax and the Earl of Shane are pursuing his ward (and her charge) Lucilla, who has eloped with the man she loves, Mr. Monksley, who will shortly be shipping out to the Peninsula with his regiment. In Runaway Match, the lovely Miss Paradise convinces her friend, Rupert, to elope with her so she can foil her father’s plans to marry her to the old, odious Sir Roland. She has never met her intended, but is horrified to realise he has followed them all the way to Stamford. Or has he? And in Incident on the Bath Road, the handsome, wealthy but ennui-laden Lord Reveley (always courted, never caught) is on his way to Bath when he encounters a chaise accident and takes up the young Mr. Brown who explains that he has urgent business in the city. This urgent business turns out to be going to the aid of the lovely Miss X, who is going to be forced into a distasteful marriage… and Reveley’s life turns out not to be quite so boring after all.

While Georgette Heyer’s full-length novel allow her strengths – tightly-written plots, characterisation and witty banter – to shine fully, there are enough glimpses of all those things in these short stories to make them well worth reading, whether you’re a long-time fan (as I am) or a newcomer to her work. Snowdrift and Other Stories is just the book to have on hand when you don’t have time to settle into a full-length novel and want a quick romance fix.

Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt (audiobook) – Narrated by Ashford McNab

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A lady of light

Refined, kind, and intelligent, Lady Iris Jordan finds herself the unlikely target of a diabolical kidnapping. Her captors are the notoriously evil Lords of Chaos. When one of the masked – and nude! – lords spirits her away to his carriage, she shoots him…only to find she may have been a trifle hasty.

A duke in deepest darkness

Cynical, scarred, and brooding, Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has made it his personal mission to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos and destroy them. Rescuing Lady Jordan was never in his plans. But now with the lords out to kill them both, he has but one choice: marry the lady in order to keep her safe.

Caught in a web of danger…and desire

Much to Raphael’s irritation, Iris insists on being the sort of duchess who involves herself in his life – and bed. Soon he’s drawn both to her quick wit and her fiery passion. But when Iris discovers that Raphael’s past may be even more dangerous than the present, she falters. Is their love strong enough to withstand not only the Lords of Chaos but also Raphael’s own demons?

Rating: Narration – B Content – B+

All good things must come to an end, and here we are, at the end (almost – I think there are a couple of novellas to follow) of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series with the twelfth and final full-length novel, Duke of Desire. I’ve read some of the novels and listened to others (and in many cases, done both) and there’s no doubt that Ms. Hoyt has maintained an incredibly high standard of storytelling throughout the series, gifting us with some wonderful stories, plenty of action and adventure, a group of memorable characters – gorgeous, sexy heroes to sigh over and their equally gorgeous and sexy ladies to envy – and her own brand of steamy, earthy and heartfelt romance.

Duke of Desire brings us all of those things, although I’ll say now that anyone expecting a big reunion between all the protagonists from the other eleven books is going to be disappointed, because this isn’t that sort of story, and in fact, I’m glad of it. To have brought back all the earlier heroes and heroines would have been too much and actually, rather implausible, and I’m glad that this book concentrates on a new hero and heroine and gives them their chance to shine.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Traitor in Her Arms (The Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After her late husband leaves her in debt to some dangerous people, Lady Gabrielle McCullough is forced to become a thief. In the intervening years, her skills have not gone unnoticed. After being recruited by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the mysterious do-gooder spiriting aristocrats out of revolutionary France, Gabrielle crosses the Channel for the most daring mission of her life. Accompanying her is the Earl of Sedgwick, a thief in his own right and an enticingly masculine presence. The man is not to be trusted—nor is Gabrielle’s body when he’s near.

Ramsey Barnes would not say he is an honorable man. His whole life has been based on a lie; why change now? Although it pains him to deceive the tantalizing Gabrielle, he’s working toward an altogether different objective: unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Ramsey fails, his blackmailer will ruin him. But when Ramsey’s confronted with the carnage of the Reign of Terror, he seeks refuge in Gabrielle’s heated embrace. Now he faces a terrible choice: betray the woman who’s stolen his heart—or risk losing everything.

Rating: C+

Traitor in Her Arms, the first book in Shana Galen’s new Scarlet Chronicles series, takes place in Revolutionary France and features two individuals who are sent to Paris to undertake two very different and dangerous missions in order to fulfil debts owed to a pair of less than scrupulous characters back in England. A novel set in France at a momentous time in history featuring spies, feats of derring-do, a central couple who are keeping secrets and the Scarlet Pimpernel himself sounded right up my street; but while I enjoyed it for the most part, there were a few things about it that didn’t quite gel and prevented me from rating it any more highly.

The widowed Lady Gabrielle McCullough was left destitute when her husband died, and worse, is being hounded by a ruthless man who will not hesitate to hurt her if she fails to pay her late husband’s gambling debts. Having no way of raising such a large sum, Gabrielle has resorted to thievery; with the help of her housekeeper, who taught her to pick locks, and her staunch friend, Lady Diana, the daughter of the Duke of Exeter, Gabrielle has been stealing jewellery from various ladies of the ton in order to pay off the debt. She doesn’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it, but still, stealing is stealing; she doesn’t like it, but it’s that or end up working off the debt on her back in a brothel.

But at last, the end is in sight. If she can filch the lapis-lazuli necklace believed to have been owned by Cleopatra, the money she will make from it will be enough to set her free. She attends the ball given by the necklace’s owner and makes short work of breaking into the room in which the necklace is kept, only to discover that she has been beaten to it by Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgwick. Gabrielle has no idea what he could possibly want with the jewellery and tries to relieve him of it, but the charged atmosphere between them is impossible to ignore and she succumbs to a kiss – which she later realises he used to distract her and to regain possession of the necklace.

Gabrielle has no idea that Ramsey is in a not too dissimilar position to herself, although unlike her, his situation is largely of his own making. He is being blackmailed by someone who has discovered his deepest, darkest secret, something which could lead to his being condemned to death if it is ever exposed, and intends to use the necklace to buy her off once and for all. But she refuses to trade and ups the stakes, telllng Ramsey that she will only hand over the incriminating documents if he agrees to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

London is rife with stories of the man who is rescuing aristocrats from under the nose of Madame la Guillotine, but many believe him to be merely a myth. Gabrielle is among their number – until the evening she is approached by him in secret, and asked to perform a service which will mean great personal danger, but which, if successful, will mean freedom for a young woman and her daughter and a new life in England. The prison commander at La Force prison in Paris has agreed to smuggle out the Comtesse de Tonnerre and her infant daughter in exchange for Le Saphir Blanc, a bracelet containing an incredibly rare white sapphire that was commissioned by Louis XIV but which went missing in one of the raids on Versailles. For this job, the Pimpernel needs a skilled thief, and from what he has heard, Gabrielle fits the bill.

Gabrielle is a mess of different emotions. Flattered to have been asked, scared at the thought of the danger she might face in a Paris gone mad… but mostly relieved that here is an opportunity to get out of England and out from under the threat of her late husband’s creditors. She takes the mission and makes arrangements to leave for Paris as soon as possible.

Of course, Gabrielle and Ramsey end up taking the same ship for France, both of them being cagey about their reasons for going at such a time. Each begins by viewing their mission as either an impersonal but necessary task (Ramsey) or a noble quest to save innocent lives (Gabrielle), but their outlooks change quickly once they have entered a Paris in which the streets really do run with rivers of blood. Ms. Galen’s depiction of the horrors of the revolution and of the mood of fear and disquiet that pervades the city and its inhabitants is very evocative, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the fanatical devotion of the new republicans or the violence and destruction that continue to plague the city. The relationship between the couple plays out against this backdrop; they have known each other for a number of years and although Gabrielle was married to Ramsey’s best friend, there has always been a strong undercurrent of attraction between them. This pre-existing situation makes it easier for the reader to believe in that attraction and in their subsequent romance, although to tell the truth, there isn’t a great deal of romantic development in the story – which is not surprising given that Ramsey and Gabrielle are forever looking over their shoulders in fear of discovery. (Mind you, that doesn’t stop them from having sex on the floor of the catacombs!) It’s also rather a big stretch of credulity to believe that the Pimpernel would send someone like Gabrielle on such a mission. She’s supposed to be a super-expert thief, but we never really see that, and it’s quickly obvious that she’s completely out of her depth and just isn’t capable of the kinds of machinations and level of deception that she needs in order to pull off her task successfully. On the one hand, her fears and doubts about what she is setting out to do feel realistic and I applaud the author for showing those to the reader; characters need a little vulnerability otherwise there’s a danger they could become unlikeable. The problem is that Gabrielle almost always needs Ramsey or one of the other characters to help her out of a tight spot, and is following rather than leading. Plus, we know that Ramsey is using Gabrielle to get to the Pimpernel, which doesn’t exactly make for the ideal romantic hero; although it’s very obvious that his principal concern is to keep Gabrielle safe for her own sake and in spite of his ulterior motive.

Ultimately, Gabrielle is fairly bland but Ramsey made more of an impression on me. Stories in which the hero lies to the heroine are difficult to pull off, but Ms. Galen just about manages it here, especially when the reader is made privy to the secret that has come back to bite him in the arse and the reasons behind it. He made… let’s call it an unwise decision for altruistic reasons when he was a much younger man and exposure will risk more than his own neck.

The weaknesses in Gabrielle’s characterisation and Ramsey’s not-always-palatable motivations are the main reasons for my not rating the book more highly, although a couple of smaller things bugged me, too, such as the overly-chummy housekeeper and the fact that I couldn’t help wondering why, when so many historicals feature men landed in debt thanks to their profligate predecessors, Gabrielle’s late husband’s debts hadn’t been ‘inherited’ by his heir? When push comes to shove however, I did enjoy the story and will look out for the next one as the adventure portion of Traitor in Her Arms is very well done. I’d like a bit more actual romance next time, though.

The Pursuit of Pleasure (Dartmouth Brides #1) by Elizabeth Essex

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE DOES SAY SHE’LL NEVER MARRY…

Miss Elizabeth Paxton is a new sort of heiress—educated, opinionated and entirely independent. The last thing she wants is a husband mucking about her life. Even if he is the only man she’s ever loved.

BUT SHE HAS ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WIDOW.

When dashing Captain Jameson Marlowe returns to Dartmouth, he proposes to give Lizzie exactly what she wants—a marriage without the man. After one night of searing passion, his sworn duty will take him far off to sea…or so she thinks until secrets and lies set a collision course with the smugglers along the south coast, and Lizzie is caught in the dark tide of treason. Can she salvage her pride and learn to trust in true love before it’s too late?

Rating: C-

Having read and enjoyed some of Elizabeth Essex’s more recent books, I thought I’d try one of her earlier titles and picked up The Pursuit of Pleasure which is her début novel. Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited this newly republished version (I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say what the changes are), but still, the book suffers from a number of flaws – principally related to the characterisation of the heroine and the development of the romance – that have prevented me from rating it more highly.

Elizabeth Paxton and Jameson Marlowe were childhood sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, ever since Jamie ran off to join the navy when he was just fourteen and broke Lizzie’s heart in the process. Now, a decade later, he’s back in Dartmouth charged with a very secret mission and with a very clear design as to how to accomplish it. But when he sets eyes on Lizzie again and overhears her telling a friend that while she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather like to be a widow because of the freedom it would afford her, Jamie realises that his schemes could offer up a hitherto unforeseen benefit. He offers Lizzie exactly what she wants, telling her that he will shortly be leaving England for the Antipodes, where he will be stationed for eight years and where the chances he will meet an early death are highly likely. If they marry, Lizzie will have her independence and also the income from the house and lands he has recently purchased – property he doesn’t want to bequeath to his smarmy cousin. Lizzie is a little suspicious at first; all the gain is on her side and she can’t see what Jamie will be getting out of the agreement, but he manages to persuade her and they are married a couple of days later.

Neither of them is really prepared for the passion that sparks between them on their wedding night, and both of them realise that perhaps letting go is going to be harder than they at first thought. But Jamie is committed and leaves on schedule, asking Lizzie to do one thing for him, which is not to live at the house, Glass Cottage, because it is in a state of disrepair and isn’t really fit to be lived in. Lizzie doesn’t understand this, as she has already fallen in love with the place and has designs to put things to rights, but as this is likely the last thing Jamie will ever ask of her, she agrees… until events conspire to change her mind and suspicions begin to take root.

I can’t really say much more about the plot without giving spoilers, although as this is a romance novel, I think it’s fairly obvious that Jamie hasn’t told Lizzie the truth about his plans to sail to the other side of the world. But overall, I’m afraid I liked the IDEA of the story more than the story itself, because in order for it to work, Jamie – who really does care for Lizzie, and can be rather a charming chap – has to treat her really badly and allow her to go through some pretty horrible experiences so that he can carry out his mission to bring down the dangerous smuggling ring that is operating from somewhere near Glass Cottage. I could understand that, as a member of the military, he was operating under orders, but it didn’t make him an easy character to like. Mind you, Lizzie isn’t especially likeable, either, being the sort of heroine who is so set on being independent and doing things Her Way, that she makes poor decisions and doesn’t listen to good advice. Instead of coming off as practical and determined, she frequently seems childish and petulant, and as though she’s doing things because other people don’t want her to rather than because they’re the right thing to do.

The romance storyline occurs primarily in the first half of the book, because the two protagonists are separated for most of the second. I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, but it seems to me that Ms. Essex has used their previous association as a kind of “shorthand”, because the relationship is never really developed. Jamie and Lizzie see each other again and both suffer a bad case of insta-lust, but other than the physical, it’s difficult to see what attracts them to one another. Jamie likes Lizzie’s spirit and respects her desire for independence (good for him on that one) and Lizzie feels that Jamie is the one person who really knows and understands her – but these are things we’re told and asked to accept, rather than things we can experience along with the characters.

The smuggling plotline which drives the second half of The Pursuit of Pleasure is intriguing, although the identity of the villains is pretty obvious from the start, and there are a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story on several occasions. The storyline has a lot of potential, but falls down in the execution, and that, combined with the not-too-likeable characters and weak romance make this a book I can’t really recommend.

Proud Mary (Roxton Family Saga #5) by Lucinda Brant

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Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.

Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.

Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Lucinda Brant’s and have enjoyed all of the books of hers I’ve listened to or read.  Which is why it saddens me to say that Proud Mary, the fifth book in her Roxton Family Saga, was something of a disappointment.

The proud lady of the title is Lady Mary Cavendish, whose husband, Sir Gerald, died two years previously.  Sir Gerald was a boorish brute of a man who did not treat Mary well and whose death has left his wife and ten-year-old daughter Theodora (Teddy) on the verge of destitution.  Were it not for the actions of the estate’s steward, Mr. Christopher Bryce, Mary and Teddy would have had to leave their home, but Bryce keeps the truth of their situation to himself and due to his astute management and assistance they continue to live as before.

Christopher Bryce has been steward of Abbeywell Farm for something like eight years, and has been quietly in love with Mary for just as long.  His good-looks and natural charm set hearts a-flutter among the local ladies, but he has eyes for none but Mary – even though he has little hope that she will ever return his affection.  She is the daughter of an earl and the great-grand-daughter of a king, and he is a mere country squire – albeit a successful and wealthy one – with a rather mysterious (and unusual)  past.

Having married once for the sake of family and duty and been utterly miserable, Mary is loath to remarry for the same reasons, but accepts that she will have to do so at some point.  Of late, however, she has been unable to prevent her thoughts going in a different – and not at all welcome – direction.  She and Christopher Bryce rarely see eye-to-eye about the estate, yet there’s no denying he’s an extremely attractive man and that when they aren’t at odds, he is kind and agreeable company, attentive to her wishes in a way she has never before experienced.

The first part of the book is lovely, beautifully chronicling the longing Christopher and Mary feel for each other and then showing Christopher becoming more determined in his pursuit as he attempts to show Mary that they are right for each other and that they could be happy together.  Mary, whose spirit has been squashed both by her obnoxious, snobbish mother and her abusive husband, takes a little time to come out of her shell, but with Christopher’s coaxing and support, she decides it’s time she allowed herself to experience pleasure and to have something she wants for herself, and spends an idyllic week with him squirreled away at his cottage by the river. Christopher and Mary are able to explore their physical attraction to each other discreetly, and are well on the way to making some decisions about their future, when the plot veers off in another direction, almost the entire Roxton clan reappears – and the story suddenly becomes more concerned with the progression of Antonia, Duchess of Kinross’ pregnancy, and various family issues, some of which are plot threads picked up from the previous book, Dair Devil.

I’m grateful the author resolved these threads.  But it comes at the expense of the romance between Mary and Christopher, which is pushed to one side in favour of a big Roxton reunion  and means we have to wait for almost half the book for Mary’s response to Christopher’s proposal.  When it finally comes, it is overshadowed by other developments.  I will, however, say that Mary’s long-awaited upbraiding of her horrible mother made me want to cheer.

Proud Mary is every bit as well-researched and well-written as Lucinda Brant’s other books.  Her research and attention to detail is superb and her ability to transport the reader to an earlier time and place – in this case the middle of the Eighteenth Century – really is masterful.  Those aspects of the book, whether it’s the outward trappings (fashions, furniture etc.) or the more important understanding and integration of custom and social convention are excellent and thoroughly enjoyable.  The two protagonists, too, are terrific, well-rounded characters with a lot of depth and complexity to them, who are, in spite of the vast differences in their social stations, obviously meant for one another.  But I wanted more of them together and more of the newly confident Mary who is happy and in love for the first time in her life.

I liked Christopher and Mary individually and together, and their histories – his as a man with things in his past he’s not proud of and hers as the wife of a neglectful and abusive husband and the daughter of an overbearing, status-obsessed woman – mean that they have a lot to work through before they can achieve their HEA.  But the intrusion of the larger family in the last third or so of the book wasn’t a welcome one. I’ve liked all the previous stories in the series and am familiar with the characters and relationships, but this book missed the mark, and it’s a shame, because the two protagonists are such great characters that I felt they were rather wasted amid the throng.

I can’t rate the book any lower than a B-/3.5 stars because the writing is excellent and the historical background is superb.  But I can’t rate it any higher because as a romance, it runs out of steam in the second half and in the end, falls rather flat.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from 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: A-

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!