Sweet Enemy (Veiled Seduction #1) by Heather Snow (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Marcin

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Beakers and ball gowns don’t mix. So when lady chemist and avowed spinster Miss Liliana Claremont receives a coveted invitation to the earl of Stratford’s house party, no one expects her to accept. After all, it’s well known Lord Geoffrey Wentworth, a rising political star, is in need of a suitable bride, and it’s assumed he will choose one from the select group of attendees.

Yet Liliana has no desire to lure the rich and powerful earl into marriage. She’s come to Somerton Park for one reason – to uncover what the Wentworths had to do with the murder of her father. She intends to find justice, even if she has to ruin Stratford to do it.

To get the evidence she needs, Liliana intends to keep her enemy close, though romance is not part of her formula. But it only takes one kiss to start a reaction she can’t control…

Rating: Narration – C- : Content – C+

Heather Snow’s début novel, Sweet Enemy, was originally published in 2012 and is the first in her Veiled Seduction trilogy of historical romances featuring smart, scientifically minded heroines. I remember reading and very much enjoying the third book, Sweet Madness, but I haven’t managed to get around to reading the other two books, so I was delighted when Sweet Enemy popped up at Audible and immediately requested a review copy.

Liliana Claremont has lived alone since the death of her father and has devoted herself to scientific pursuits, mostly her overriding interest in chemistry and how it can be applied to healing. She’s dedicated, intelligent and continually frustrated at not being taken seriously by the scientific institutions of the day which are, of course, only open to men. Returning to her home following yet another rejection, she discovers it has been ransacked – and worse than that, the intruder is still there. She manages to escape unharmed and is gradually setting things back to rights when she finds a secret compartment she’s never seen before, and inside it, a large bundle of letters. When she finds one dated two days before her father’s death, something within it kick-starts her memories of that day and of his final words to her – and she realises that his death had been no accident.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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A Sinner Without a Saint (The Penningtons #4) by Bliss Bennet

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An honorable artist

Benedict Pennington’s greatest ambition is not to paint a masterpiece, but to make the world’s greatest art accessible to all by establishing England’s first national art museum. Success in persuading a reluctant philanthropist to donate his collection of Old Master paintings brings his dream tantalizingly close to reality. Until Viscount Dulcie, the object of Benedict’s illicit adolescent desire, begins to court the donor’s granddaughter, set on winning the paintings for himself . . .

A hedonistic viscount

Sinclair Milne, Lord Dulcie, far prefers collecting innovative art and dallying with handsome men than burdening himself with a wife. But when rivals imply Dulcie’s refusal to pursue wealthy Miss Adler and her paintings is due to lingering tender feelings for Benedict Pennington, Dulcie vows to prove them wrong. Not only will he woo her away from the holier-than-thou painter, he’ll also placate his matchmaking father in the process.

Sinner and saint – can both win at love?

But when Benedict is dragooned into painting his portrait, Dulcie finds himself once again drawn to the intense artist. Can the sinful viscount entice the wary painter into a casual liaison, one that will put neither their reputations, nor their feelings, at risk? Or will the not-so-saintly artist demand something far more vulnerable–his heart?

Rating: B

I’ve been looking forward to reading A Sinner Without a Saint, the fourth book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington family.  It features the remaining unwed sibling, Benedict, and Viscount Dulcie, a long-standing family friend and former schoolmate of Benedict’s, with whom he appears to have a bit of a love/hate relationship.  The snippets of them together we’ve seen in previous books have mostly consisted of Dulcie exercising his sharp wit and knowing manner in order to needle Benedict into reacting to him; it’s clear there’s a mutual attraction there and equally clear that Benedict isn’t particularly happy about it. This is a frenemies-to-lovers story with depth and originality; in each of the books in the series, Ms. Bennet has chosen interesting backdrops that are more than just window-dressing, and she ties her characters and storylines very closely to them.

The timeline of this book runs concurrently with those of The Penningtons books two and three and some events from those stories are referenced here, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read those, as sufficient explanation is given to enable A Sinner Without a Saint to work as a standalone.

When he was just twelve years old, Benedict Pennington developed a severe case of calf love for the gorgeous Sinclair Milne, Viscount Dulcie, only son and heir to the Earl Milne.  Dulcie is five years Benedict’s senior and for a time at school, Benedict was his fag (fagging was a traditional practice at British boys’ boarding schools wherein younger pupils acted as servants to the most senior boys). When Dulcie failed to return to school after the Easter holidays one year without explanation, Benedict was devastated and felt Dulcie had abandoned him.  Years later, Benedict – a hugely talented artist – went to live on the continent, where he honed his craft and acquired a reputation not only as a fine portraitist, but as a connoisseur, and as such, his opinions are sought regularly by collectors.  He continues to accept commissions, but his passion is the creation of a national collection of art which may be seen by all, and not just those who can afford the entrance fee to exclusive exhibitions.  The prevailing belief among the artistic establishment is that the masses could have no appreciation for the fine arts but Benedict believes that art should be accessible to all and he has managed to persuade Julius Adler, a wealthy businessman and owner of the finest collection of Old Masters in England to donate some of his paintings to the project.

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

A Marriage Made in Scandal (Rescued from Ruin #9) by Elisa Braden

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Wanted: A countess for the most feared lord in London
With a family legacy tainted by murder and madness, Phineas Brand, the Earl of Holstoke, is having a devil of a time securing a proper wife—or even an improper one. Society misses faint at the sight of him. Matchmaking mamas scurry to avoid him. Only one woman is bold enough to keep drawing near, and she’s more scandalous than he is.

Caution: A lady’s brazen ways may lead to ruin
Lady Eugenia Huxley knows all about running aground in the marriage mart, thanks to a scandal involving a footman and too much drink. No matter. She’ll gladly pursue millinery over matrimony. But when her sister’s spurned suitor returns to London in search of a wife, she can’t resist offering him a bit of courtship advice, even if the chilly, brilliant, honorable Lord Holstoke does give her shivers—heated, head-to-toe shivers that are anything but fearful.

Danger: This match may be combustible
After a series of vicious murders brings suspicion to Holstoke’s door, Eugenia risks everything to be his alibi. The only rational remedy is to marry the minx before she generates another scandal. Yet, the dangers don’t end at the altar. A poisonous enemy coils ever closer, threatening the woman who awakens his soul. How far will he go to protect her? That may be the greatest danger of all.

Rating: C+

This ninth book in Elisa Braden’s Rescued from Ruin takes place around six years after book seven, (Confessions of a Dangerous Lord), and revisits the members of the Huxley family.  A number of events that took place in that book are referenced here – principally the crimes committed by the hero’s mother and the resultant fallout – so this probably isn’t the ideal book to pick up if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series. A Marriage Made in Scandal is a very readable novel that combines a friends-to-lovers romance with an intriguing mystery, but even though I liked quite a few things about it, there are things I didn’t that prevent me from recommending it.

One of those things is the way the story opens.  Lady Eugenia Huxley is the daughter of an earl, but when we first encounter her she is working in a far from exclusive hat shop in one of the less salubrious areas of London.  Anyone who reads historicals regularly will immediately recognise the incongruity of the idea of an earl’s daughter working for a living.  As I read on I learned that a couple of years previously Eugenia – Genie – had caused a massive scandal by being caught in flagrante delicto with a footman and so I thought, “okay, so she disgraced herself and her family threw her out.  That makes more sense.”  Except – no.  Not only did her family not disown her, she still lives at the family home in Mayfair!  It’s said early on that Genie’s disgrace has naturally affected her younger sister’s marital prospects, that Genie no longer goes out in society and that she is still whispered about – but she lives at home?  And goes to work every day?  I didn’t buy it.  There are occasions when I can roll my eyes at a set up and move on, but not this time.  Ms. Braden is a good writer and I’m sure she could have come up with another way to have Genie be the family scandal without resorting to something so implausible.

Anyway.  While working in said downmarket hat shop, Genie runs in to Phineas Brand, Lord Holstoke, who, years earlier, had been courting her sister Maureen.  Phineas is a rigidly controlled young man whose mother (this isn’t a spoiler, as it happened in a previous book) was revealed to have been a murderess, having killed Phineas’ father and numerous others.  That was six years ago, and society still views Phineas with caution, which is making his search for a suitable bride difficult, to say the least.  And it’s made even more difficult when a young woman is murdered – poisoned using methods and poisons known to have been favoured by Phineas’ mother – and several more killings ensue in quick succession.  It seems someone is out to implicate Phineas in the murders, and when Genie impulsively steps in to provide him with an alibi, it’s the last straw for her father, who makes it clear he expects Phineas to marry her.  And in the meantime, the murder sub-plot picks up steam. The deaths seem random and there’s no way of knowing how, where or whom the poisoner will strike next, and Phineas greatly fears that by marrying Genie, he has placed her firmly in the killer’s sights.

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

The Matrimonial Advertisement (Parish Orphans of Devon #1) by Mimi Matthews

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She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

Rating: B-

Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books.  The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme.  I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured.  Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.

Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up.  He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game.  After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.

Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:

“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum.  A woman I can bed on occasion.”

– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife.

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

The Fire Court (Marwood and Lovett #2) by Andrew Taylor

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Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

Rating: B+

The Fire Court is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, an historical mystery that opened dramatically during the Great Fire of London and then proceeded to unravel a tale of murder and betrayal stretching back decades, to the reign of Cromwell and Charles I.  This novel reunites the protagonists of the earlier book – James Marwood and Cat Lovett – as they become entangled in the complicated business of the Fire Court, a body set up to oversee and settle any disputes that arise as a result of the rebuilding of the city after the fire.  With so many buildings damaged or destroyed, Parliament is eager to rebuild as soon as possible, and the Fire Court is charged with helping that along by settling legal disputes about leases, land boundaries and other matters pertaining to property ownership.  With greed and corruption snaking through the business of the court, the stakes are high for many – and for some, are high enough to commit murder.

Seven months after the events of the previous book, James Marwood is comfortably settled and is prospering financially in his posts as clerk to Joseph Williamson (Under-Secretary of State to Lord Arlington) and clerk to the Board of Red Cloth, a department attached closely to the king’s household.  He is still caring for his elderly, mentally unstable father, but early in the story, Mr. Marwood senior dies in an accident leaving his son with little other than some confused ramblings about his mother, the rookeries and a woman decked out like a cheap whore in a yellow dress.

Cat Lovett, who ran from her well-to-do family in order to avoid marriage to her smarmy cousin (who raped her) is still in hiding and has adopted the name and persona of Jane Hakesby, cousin and servant to Simon Hakesby, a well-respected architect.  Cat is a talented draughtsman herself, although as a woman, the profession is barred to her, but Hakesby – who is not in the best of health – allows her to assist him on occasion and to make her own designs under his auspices.  At the beginning of the novel, she is attending the proceedings of the Fire Court, partly to take notes (and to practice her newly learned shorthand) and partly to attend her master, who is there to watch out for the interests of one of that day’s petitioners.

Marwood and Cat have not encountered each other in the intervening months and don’t expect to do so, as they move in very different circles.  But they are drawn together again after Williamson instructs Marwood to accompany him to view the body of a woman found dead in the ruins of what seems to have been the cellar of a house.  The woman’s garish clothing suggests she may have been a whore, but that isn’t the case; she’s identified as a wealthy widow, which explains the government’s interest in the woman’s fate.  Charged with finding out as much as he can about the murder, Marwood is suddenly reminded of his late father’s last ramblings – which it seems may not have been ramblings at all.  But while Williamson wants answers, Chiffinch, Keeper of the King’s Private Closet (and Marwood’s other employer) wants things left alone; but Marwood is already too involved to stop looking for answers – which come at a very high personal cost.

As in the previous book, Marwood’s portions of the tale are told in the first person, while Cat’s are in the third, and I had no problems whatsoever with the juxtaposition of styles.  We find out a little more about both characters here, as they do about each other; in The Ashes of London, they encountered each other only briefly although their stories intersected frequently, and in the dramatic climax of the story, Marwood saved Cat’s life. It’s this that prompts her to go against Hakesby’s wishes when Marwood asks for her help, and leads to her being drawn into intrigue and danger as she, too, becomes involved in the investigation into the murder.

My one criticism about The Ashes of London was that I didn’t quite feel as though I got to know either Cat or Marwood, but here, they’re starting to feel more fleshed out.  Marwood is a pleasant young man who just wants to live a comfortable, quiet life as he tries to live down his father’s reputation as a radical and former Fifth Monarchist. I sympathised with his conflicting feelings for his difficult, sometimes demanding father,  and with the dilemma of his divided loyalties and the need to make a choice between his two employers.  Cat continues to be prickly and defensive, but her position is a precarious one; she cannot risk being found by her family or she will be forced into an unwanted marriage.  She’s observant and sharp-tongued, brave and loyal, and I was pleased to see the slowly developing trust between her and Marwood.

Although I found the book a little slow to start, I was hooked within a few short chapters and eager to see where things were going.   Mr. Taylor’s research is impeccable and has clearly been extensive; his descriptions of post-Fire London are incredibly evocative, and he paints a wonderfully vivid picture of a city in a state of flux, where poverty is rife and life is a daily struggle for many.  It’s not essential to have read The Ashes of London in order to enjoy and understand this novel, although I’d recommend it in order to gain a fuller appreciation of the historical context and of the evolution of the relationship between Cat and Marwood.  The Fire Court is a complex, absorbing read, full of political and legal intrigue, high-stakes situations for our two protagonists, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fans of intricate, well-written historical mysteries will find much to enjoy, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for Marwood and Lovett in the next book in the series.

 

Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake (Beauchamp Heirs #1) by Janice Preston

lady olivia and the infamous rake

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‘He’s completely unsuitable… he’s a rake.’

After being plucked from peril by resolute bachelor Lord Hugo Alastair, Lady Olivia Beauchamp is secretly outraged that he doesn’t even try to steal a kiss! He’s a notorious rake amongst the ton and as a result, utterly forbidden to an innocent debutante like her. But their attraction is magnetic. Will she risk her reputation for a passionate encounter?

Rating: B

Janice Preston’s Beauchamp Betrothals series delivered happy endings for the three Beauchamp siblings – the Duke of Cheriton and his brother and sister.  Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake kicks off a spin-off series that focuses on the younger generation of Beauchamps, the Beauchamp Heirs; and while it’s not absolutely necessary to have read any of the earlier books, it probably helps to have an idea of who is who, because some of the events featured in them – most notably the marriages of Lord Vernon and Lady Cecily – are referred to in this book, even though they take place off the page.

Eighteen-year-old Lady Olivia is the only daughter of Leo, Duke of Cheriton, and his first wife.  She is enjoying her first Season, and as the daughter of a wealthy and influential peer she has the world at her feet and an adoring coterie of young bucks in tow wherever she goes.  To the outward observer, it seems she has everything, but Olivia is struggling to find her place within her family and to adapt to her father’s recent remarriage.  She’s happy for him and likes her stepmother, but she’s been plagued by feelings of inadequacy all her life, her mother’s  obvious disinterest in her children making Olivia wonder, deep down, if there’s something about her that is unlovable.  Over the years, the love of her close-knit family – especially her aunt Cecily (Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray) who has been a mother to her – has gone a long way towards suppressing those doubts but Olivia can’t quite rid herself of them, especially given the changes going on around her.

Olivia is getting just a bit tired of all the very proper balls and parties she attends and inveigles her brother Alex into taking her to Vauxhall Gardens one evening.  Masked and heavily cloaked, she is anticipating an evening of fun and excitement – and before long, she, Alex and his friend , Neville Wolfe, are invited to join a supper party, formed mostly of an older (and faster) set than the ladies and gentlemen she usually associates with.  Neville points out that these people aren’t really fit company for Olivia, but Alex is intent on spending time with a lovely, seductive widow who has caught his eye, and accepts the invitation.

Among the party is the disreputable and devilishly handsome Lord Hugo Alastair, a gentleman Olivia knows by sight but to whom she has never been introduced.  She knows he’s exactly the sort of man her Aunt Cecily would warn her about, but she can’t help the frisson of attraction she feels whenever he looks her way.  When Alex disappears with his widow, the party starts to break up and Olivia – who is by now rather tipsy – is goaded into playing piquet with Lord Clevedon.  When she loses, she panics, and offers her late mother’s ruby necklace as security for her debt, promising to meet with Clevedon at the end of the week to redeem it.

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

A Lady in Need of an Heir by Louise Allen

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She needs an heir … But not a husband!

Gabrielle Frost knows that marrying any man would mean handing over control of her beloved family vineyard in Portugal to her new husband. She won’t take that risk. But she needs an heir! So when Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, arrives to escort her to London, Gabrielle wonders… What if this former soldier, with his courage, strength and dangerous air, could be the one to father her child?

Rating: B+

A Lady in Need of an Heir sees author Louise Allen skilfully gender-flipping the frequently used trope of a man needing to marry in order to produce an heir.  In this story, a successful, independent businesswoman, whose family has been making wine and port in the Douro Valley for generations, is unwilling to cede control of her family legacy to a husband and has to find an alternative means to preserve it.

Nathaniel Graystone,  Earl of Leybourne, has finally bowed to the pressure (read: constant nagging) of his godmother to travel to Portugal in order to persuade her niece to return to England, make a good marriage and settle down.  Gabrielle Frost is a single lady of aristocratic lineage with no immediate family and should certainly not be living on her own and running a business – it’s just not done.  Gray – a former soldier who knows the area well from his time spent with the English army during the Penisular War – quickly realises that the task his godmother has set isn’t going to be as easy as he had initially thought, because Miss Frost is clearly clever, determined and knows her own mind.  It’s obvious that she has a very firm grasp of her business and very strong attachment to the Quinta do Falcão, which has been in her family for generations.

Gaby knows full well that her aunt is aiming to wed her to her foppish cousin George, which, Gray has to admit, would be a terrible match. Still, he is dead set against her remaining in Portugal on her own, no matter that he can see how capable and strong-minded she is. But over the next few days, as he begins to fully appreciate what the business means to Gaby and to see how skilfully she runs it, he starts to change his opinions somewhat.

Gaby loves the work she does and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments.  Unfortunately however, the death of her younger brother during the recent war has left her with no one to pass Frost’s on to when the time comes; she has no close relatives and the idea of one day selling the business to a stranger is not one she relishes.  Equally, the idea of marrying in order to produce an heir is abhorrent and would mean losing all control over the business; the law states that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”  And she is certainly not going to risk putting Frost’s into the hands of a man who could sell it off on a whim or run it into the ground.

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