Beguiled (Enlightenment #2) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful — and on Murdo’s part, bitter — but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.

Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

Rating: B+

Beguiled is the middle book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy of novels set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, and I’ll say right off the bat that this is a series in which the books really do need to be read in order.  The romance between the studious advocate, David Lauriston, and the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour develops across all three books, plus there is an overarching secondary plotline running through them  – so there will be spoilers for book one, Provoked, in this review.

Provoked ended with Murdo and David parting and not really expecting to see each other again.  They move in very different circles, and while there’s no question that their brief ‘fling’ had affected them both deeply – in David’s case perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit – both of them believed that a longer term relationship between them was impossible.  In the two years since they last met, David has continued to build his advocacy practice and has gained himself a reputation for diligence and efficacy that means that he is kept busy by a steady stream of work.

David is more confident and more self-assured than he was when we first met him.  He hasn’t forgotten Murdo, and realises now that he has learned something from their brief time together, which I suppose can be best expressed as “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.  Still, he is mostly content, although very concerned over the failing health of his mentor, Mr. Chalmers, whose daughter, Elizabeth, has recently married and moved away.  In Provoked, it was clear that both father and daughter had hopes of David, but while he was very fond of Elizabeth and was also struggling to really and thoroughly accept his sexuality, David felt that taking a wife would be hypocritical and wasn’t prepared to do as other men in his situation did (and as Murdo had declared was his intention) and marry a woman while continuing to take male lovers.

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

Murder on Black Swan Lane (Wrexford & Sloane #1) by Andrea Penrose

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Rating: B+

Murder on Black Swan Lane is the first book in a new series of Regency-era historical mysteries by Andrea Penrose (who also writes as Andrea Pickens and Cara Elliot), which sees a satirical cartoonist teaming up with a scientifically-minded earl to investigate a couple of gruesome murders. The mystery is well-put together and includes some fascinating detail about the chemical sciences as they were understood at the beginning of the 19th century – the author has clearly done her homework – and we’re introduced to an engaging set of characters who will, I hope, continue to appear throughout the series.

The Earl of Wrexford (who doesn’t appear to have an actual name, just a title) has recently been publicly denounced as the worst kind of dissolute rake by the pompous, puffed-up Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and the sort of man whom boredom inspires to ever more reckless behaviour, Wrexford responds to his accuser by unleashing his razor-sharp wit in a clever rebuttal, which is printed in the Morning Gazette. An increasingly vitriolic and very public argument ensues between the two men which is eagerly documented every step of the way by the popular satirist A.J Quill, whose cartoons persistently skewer those at the highest levels of society, shining a light on the darkest misdeeds on the rich and powerful.

When the Reverend Holworthy is found dead in a church on Black Swan Lane, almost decapitated, his face disfigured by some sort of chemical, suspicion immediately alights upon Wrexford, whose rather eccentric interest in chemistry is widely known. With Quill’s uncannily accurate drawings and pithy captions stirring up public opinion against him, Wrexford decides it’s time to find out where the cartoonist is getting his information.

A talented artist, Charlotte Sloane picked up her late husband’s pen after his death some eight months earlier and has continued to produce satirical cartoons using his pseudonym, A.J Quill. She guards her identity judiciously, knowing that if it’s discovered that the scourge of the ton is a woman she will be completely ruined and unable to earn a living. So the last thing she wants or expects is to discover the Earl of Wrexford on her doorstep demanding to see A.J Quill. Charlotte’s attempts at deflection become increasingly desperate, at which point the earl realises the truth and offers her a deal. If she will agree to share such information as comes her way regarding the investigation, he will keep her secret and pay for the information. Charlotte is furious at being backed into a corner, but she has no alternative. She is living from hand to mouth as it is, and can ill afford to turn down the money the earl offers or risk being exposed as A.J Quill, so she takes the deal.

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

The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrels #3) by Sarah MacLean

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one woman he will never forget…
Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has lived the last three years in self-imposed solitude, paying the price for a mistake he can never reverse and a love he lost forever. The dukedom does not wait, however, and Haven requires an heir, which means he must find himself a wife by summer’s end. There is only one problem—he already has one.

The one man she will never forgive…
After years in exile, Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, returns to London with a single goal—to reclaim the life she left and find happiness, unencumbered by the man who broke her heart. Haven offers her a deal; Sera can have her freedom, just as soon as she finds her replacement…which requires her to spend the summer in close quarters with the husband she does not want, but somehow cannot resist.

A love that neither can deny…
The duke has a single summer to woo his wife and convince her that, despite their broken past, he can give her forever, making every day The Day of the Duchess.

Rating: B+

Sarah MacLean concludes her Scandal and Scoundrels series with The Day of the Duchess, the book many of us have been eagerly anticipating since Sophie, youngest of the scandalous Talbot sisters, pushed Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into an ornamental fish pond in book one, The Rogue Not Taken. Sophie’s actions were prompted when she caught her eldest sister’s husband in flagrante delicto with another woman in front of half the ton – including the pregnant duchess herself, and I suspect we were all cheering Sophie on for her defence of her sister and calling Haven all kinds of bastard for cheating on his wife.

But in spite of that, I was eager to read the story behind a marriage that had obviously disintegrated and descended into bitterness and betrayal and fervently hoped that the author would write it for us. Bringing an estranged couple together when they have so much baggage between them is a difficult task to accomplish without glossing over the events that tore them apart, or spending so much time wallowing that the HEA doesn’t ring true, but Ms. MacLean has done it with considerable aplomb. It’s an angsty book, the emotions are raw and messy; and although I do have a few reservations, this is, for the most part, the story I wanted it to be.

The first few chapters alternate between the present and the past, as we’re shown the events that culminate in the long-absent Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, striding into the male bastion that is the House of Lords and demanding a divorce. Her husband is as shocked to see her as everyone else; he hasn’t seen or heard from her in the two years and seven months since she left him, and it’s very clear when we see in him in the opening scene that he has felt her absence every hour of every day of every one of those years and months.

Haven and Sera met three years earlier and were both immediately smitten. I’m not calling it insta-love; it’s more like a coup de foudre, a lightning strike that affects both of them deeply and draws them together, and is based on far more than simple, physical attraction. Over the ensuing weeks, Sera and Haven see each other quite often; so often, in fact, as to draw the attention of the gossips. With none of their meetings taking place in public and Haven not even having made the attempt to meet her family, Sera is swayed by the seeds of doubt that her mother plants in her mind. When Lady Talbot suggests that Sera engineers a situation that will make sure of Haven once and for all, Sera, who is confident in her heart that Haven does want to marry her, and is just as sure that he is everything she wants, agrees to a secret tryst with him. When they are found in an extremely compromising position by her mother – and his – Sera can’t deny her part in the scheme, but instead of it leading to something both of them want, it’s the beginning of the end. Haven is deeply in love with Sera and had every intention of proposing to her, but now he’s in the middle of his worst nightmare; being forced to wed a woman who doesn’t want him for himself but for his title.

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

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Rescued from Ruin #7) by Elisa Braden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Never judge a man by his cover…
Society knows the affable Earl of Dunston for his flashy waistcoats and rapier wit. Lady Maureen Huxley knows him as Henry Thorpe, her best friend—an irresistibly kissable, strictly platonic friend. Which means her dreams of marriage, motherhood, part-time cookery, and full-time domestic bliss must be fulfilled elsewhere. But after three seasons and a parade of fickle suitors, Maureen’s hopes are fading. Worse, she suspects Henry is to blame.

Never trust a man with too many secrets…
Years spent hunting his father’s murderer through London’s dark underworld have honed Henry Thorpe into a deadly blade with one purpose—catching a killer of fathomless evil. Nothing mattered more until Maureen Huxley came along. To keep her safe, he must keep her at arm’s length. Yet he can’t resist drawing her close, making her laugh, dreaming of doing wicked things to her lush body. Very well, perhaps he also dissuaded some of her suitors. But what’s a little deception between friends?

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…
With his enemy growing bolder and Maureen contemplating marriage to another man, Henry is caught in the crossfire between his mission and his heart. Any move could exact a devastating cost. But losing the woman he loves is one price he refuses to pay.

Rating: B+

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord is the seventh book in Elisa Braden’s Rescued from Ruin series, and although it features a storyline that has obviously been present in some of the earlier novels, this is the first of Ms. Braden’s books I’ve read and I was able to follow along quite easily.  I won’t deny that there were a few times I wished I’d had a stronger grasp of how that plotline had evolved, but that’s down to me, and not any lack of skill on the part of the author – and anyway, it in no way detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. The writing is strong and the opening scenario drew me in straight away, quickly supplying some necessary back-story without being an info dump.  The two principals are well-drawn, attractive characters, with the hero being one of those Pimpernel-esque types I’m particularly fond of; the garrulous society favourite who is widely believed to be interested only in horses and fashion but who is, beneath it all, fiercely intelligent, highly competent and utterly deadly.

Maureen Huxley has been in love with Henry Thorpe, Earl of Dunston, for pretty much the whole of the two years she has known him.  He’s wealthy, deliciously handsome, charming, kind, clever and makes her laugh – in short he’s perfect for her, apart from one small thing.  He doesn’t want her.  Or rather, he isn’t interested in her romantically, much preferring to remain on terms of friendship with her.  Reckoning that half a loaf is better than no bread at all, Maureen hides her disappointment at his rejection and they continue as friends, but lately, she has begun to wonder if her friendship with Henry may be scuppering her chances of making a suitable marriage.  She has been out for three seasons and hasn’t received so much as a single offer; she longs for a husband and family of her own and realises that the only way she is ever going to stand a chance of getting those things is to cut ties with Henry and try to make room in her heart for someone else.

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

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

The Most Dangerous Duke in London (Decadent Dukes Society) by Madeline Hunter

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTORIOUS NOBLEMAN SEEKS REVENGE
Name and title: Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton.
Affiliation: London’s elite Society of Decadent Dukes.
Family history: Scandalous.
Personality traits: Dark and brooding, with a thirst for revenge.
Ideal romantic partner: A woman of means, with beauty and brains, willing to live with reckless abandon.
Desire: Clara Cheswick, gorgeous daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

FAINT OF HEART NEED NOT APPLY
Clara may be the woman Adam wants, but there’s one problem: she’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than getting married—especially to a man said to be dead-set on vengeance. Though, with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if his desire for justice is sincere—along with his incredibly unnerving intention to be her husband. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for Adam clearly comes with a cost. But who knew courting danger could be such exhilarating fun?

Rating: B+

The Most Dangerous Duke in London gets Madeline Hunter’s new Decadent Dukes Society series off to a strong start with an extremely readable and engaging tale of a man seeking revenge, an old family enmity and the woman caught in the middle. The romance is a delightful, sensual slow-burn, and in addition, there’s mystery and intrigue, a whiff of espionage, lots of witty banter and a wonderfully written friendship between the hero and his two closest friends (both of whom will feature in future books).

Adam Penrose, the Duke of Stratton has recently returned to England after living in for the past five years, during which he has acquired a reputation for having a quick temper and for fighting and killing his opponents in duels – thus earning himself him the moniker of “The Dangerous Duke”. Adam left the country following his father’s death, which is widely thought to been at his own hand following rumours that he was engaged in treasonous activities, rumours Adam believes were fuelled by the hints and accusations of the late Earl of Marwood. There has long been bad blood between the two families, and now Adam is determined to find out if his suspicions about Marwood are true and to make someone pay for driving his father to his grave. Given the long-standing enmity between the Penroses and the Cheswicks, Adam is therefore surprised to receive an invitation to visit the dowager Countess of Marwood, who states her belief that it’s time the two families patched up their differences.

Adam is highly sceptical, but plays along until the countess proposes that he should marry her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, thus burying the hatchet in the time-honoured tradition of marital alliance. Lady Emilia is pretty and amiable, but Adam isn’t interested in a schoolroom chit – he prefers spirited women with minds of their own, and when he meets Lady Clara, the current earl’s half-sister, Adam decides straight away that she will suit him very well indeed.

Lady Clara Cheswick is the only child of her father’s first marriage and was his favourite among his children. He left her very comfortably off when he died, so Clara doesn’t need to marry if she doesn’t want to, and, at twenty-four, she is on the shelf and quite happy to keep it that way. She’s intelligent, strong-willed and independent, and is content to focus her considerable energies on her publishing venture, Parnassus, a magazine written and produced by women for women which is starting to achieve success. When Adam proposes marriage, Clara doesn’t take him at all seriously, telling him that she isn’t interested in marrying him or anyone, but Adam won’t take no for an answer and sets about courting her.

Clara can’t deny that Adam is a very attractive man, or that she’s drawn to him; he’s sexy and witty and clever and makes it very clear that the qualities that her family regard as problematic and unladylike – her desire for independence and the fact that she not only has her own opinions but makes no bones about voicing them – are qualities he likes and admires. He is genuinely interested in what she has to say about any number of topics, and doesn’t talk down to her or treat her as though she’s a hothouse flower. Adam insists his proposal of marriage was quite serious – and as Clara spends time with him and gets to know him, she is increasingly tempted to believe him, but can’t quite shake her suspicions that there is something else behind his stated intention. Perhaps, given her close relationship with her late father, Adam is primarily interested in getting close to her in order to find out if she knows anything about the late earl’s possible involvement in his father’s death? Or maybe he wants to use her – somehow – as an instrument of revenge?

The sparks fly between Adam and Clara right from their first meeting, and their relationship unfolds gradually and deliciously as Adam finds ways to spend time with Clara – to her initial exasperation – and they slowly come to appreciate each other’s wit, intelligence and sense of humour. These are two mature adults who never underestimate each other as they match one another quip for quip, their verbal sparring a deliciously sensual courtship and prelude to a later, more intimate relationship. The romance is very well-developed; there’s none of the immediate and anachronistic bed-hopping or insta-lust that characterises so many historical romances these days, which is always a refreshing discovery. Adam never wavers in his determination to marry Clara, and his persistence is charming and often funny; he’s generous and forthright, answering Clara’s questions about his motivations honestly and is never less than charming and gentlemanly towards her. I was also impressed with the way that Ms. Hunter has managed to create a credibly independent heroine who is not too modern; Clara wants to make her own way in the world, but is also mindful of her reputation and knows she has to at least appear to operate within the confines of society.

The plotline that revolves around Adam’s search for the truth about his father is well set up and executed, weaving in and out of the romance but never overwhelming it; and when the resolution comes it’s unexpected and quite clever.

With two multi-faceted and strongly characterised principals, an entertaining and well-drawn secondary cast, a sensual romance and a dash of intrigue, The Most Dangerous Duke in London is a thoroughly engaging read and one I’d recommend to fans of the author and of historical romance in general.

Lord of Chance (Rogues to Riches #1) by Erica Ridley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Disguised as a country miss, Charlotte Devon flees London, desperate to leave her tattered reputation behind. In Scotland, her estranged father’s noble blood will finally make her a respectable debutante. Except she finds herself accidentally wed to a devil-may-care rogue with a sinful smile. He’s the last thing she needs…and everything her traitorous heart desires.

Charming rake Anthony Fairfax is on holiday to seek his fortune…and escape his creditors. When an irresistible Lady Luck wins him in a game of chance – and a slight mishap has them leg-shackled by dawn – the tables have finally turned in his favor. But when past demons catch up to them, holding on to new love will mean destroying their dreams forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

In Lord of Chance, the first in Erica Ridley’s new Rogues to Riches series, we are introduced to the handsome, charming Anthony Fairfax, a somewhat rackety young man who supports himself and his family by means of an inveterate gambling habit. Ms. Ridley has already released a number of her books in audio format (her Dukes of War series, narrated by Stevie Zimmermann) but this is the first I’ve listened to and I have to say that the result is a mixed bag. The narration by Marian Hussey is good, but while Ms. Ridley has a deft touch with the humour and dialogue, and she does briefly touch on a couple of darker themes, the story is a little too fluffy for my taste.

In order to escape pressing debts, Anthony Fairfax has left London to try his fortunes elsewhere. He is currently at a small inn on the Scottish border and things are looking up. On this particular night, it seems he cannot lose, and he can’t help but attribute this to the mysterious, cloaked woman he has nicknamed “Lady Fortune”, who is sitting quietly on the other side of the room. But when Lady Fortune is encouraged to join the card game, it seems she makes her own luck, because she cleans Anthony out completely and wins everything on the table.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.