Hard-Hearted Highlander (Highland Grooms #3) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An indomitable governess…a brooding Highlander…a forbidden affair…

An ill-fated elopement cost English-born governess Bernadette Holly her reputation, her unsuitable lover and any chance of a future match. She has nothing left to fear–not even the bitter, dangerously handsome Scot due to marry her young charge. Naive wallflower Avaline is terrified to wed Rabbie Mackenzie, but if he sends her home, she will be ruined. Bernadette’s solution: convince Rabbie to get Avaline to cry off…while ignoring her own traitorous attraction to him.

A forced engagement to an Englishwoman is a hard pill for any Scot to swallow. It’s even worse when the fiancee in question is a delicate, foolish young miss–unlike her spirited, quick-witted governess. Sparring with Bernadette brings passion and light back to Rabbie’s life after the failed Jacobite uprising. His clan’s future depends upon his match to another, but how can any Highlander forsake a love that stirs his heart and soul?

Rating: C+

I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series in spite of my general aversion to Scottish/Highland set romances; both books are strongly character driven with, in the case of the first book, Wild Wicked Scot, a dash of politics and intrigue thrown in to add an extra layer of interest. So I’ve been looking forward to this third book, in which the hero is Rabbie Mackenzie, younger son of Laird Arran and his English wife, Margot. But I’m afraid I can’t say that I enjoyed Hard Hearted Highlander as much as the other books, mostly because the eponymous hero is such a miserable bastard for well over half of the story, and it’s difficult to find any vestige of sympathy or liking for a man who is so ill-mannered and self-centred.

That’s not to say that Rabbie doesn’t have grounds for what is immediately apparent is a case of severe depression. The book is set in 1750, five years after the Battle of Culloden, and takes place in a very different world to the previous novel. Many families and clans were wiped out on the battlefield and after, and of those who weren’t many have fled – to the cities, or overseas – and the landscape has been forever changed. Even the powerful Mackenzie clan is struggling to look after its own; their neutrality in the conflict did not protect them from the widely wrought devastation and times are hard.

Like many of his countrymen, Rabbie is frustrated and bitter about the huge change the battle has wrought in the Highlander way of life, but he is also mired in grief for the woman he loved, Seona MacBee, who was killed, along with her family, either during or after the uprising. It’s been years since her death, but Rabbie mourns her every day, and continues to scowl and growl his way through life, much to the consternation of his family. They love him dearly and hate to see him so melancholy, but don’t know what to do to help – and know that he would probably reject it if they tried.

As the Mackenzies struggle to rebuild their fortunes after the rebellion, it becomes necessary for Laird Mackenzie to broker a match between Rabbie and the young daughter of Lord Kent, an English nobleman who has purchased the nearby estate of Kileaven and looks set to buy up other lands around Balhaire. If that happens, there won’t be enough land to sustain even the small number of Mackenzies who are left, and a this arrangement is the only way to protect Balhaire and its dependents. Rabbie recognises the importance of this marriage to his family and agrees to marry the girl. He doesn’t care – he’s dead inside anyway.

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

The Vicar’s Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cassie, the youngest of six daughters in the Wilton family, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There’s only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn.

Evan Glenside, a soft-spoken, East London clerk, has just been named his great-uncle’s heir and, though he is eager to learn all that will be required of him, he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position.

A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. But then Evan begins to court Lenora, thinking she is the author of the letters.

As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar’s daughter be able to reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

Rating: C

The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.

It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.

When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.

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

The Highland Dragon’s Lady (Highland Dragons #2) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Regina Talbot-Jones has always known her rambling family home was haunted. She also knows her brother has invited one of his friends to attend an ill-conceived séance. She didn’t count on that friend being so handsome… and she certainly didn’t expect him to be a dragon.

Scottish Highlander Colin MacAlasdair has hidden his true nature for his entire life, but the moment he sets eyes on Regina, he knows he has to have her. In his hundreds of years, he’s never met a woman who could understand him so thoroughly… or touch him so deeply. Bound by their mutual loneliness, drawn by the fire awakening inside of them, Colin and Regina must work together to defeat a vengeful spirit – and discover whether their growing love is powerful enough to defy convention.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C-

I’m not a great fan of paranormal romances in the main (although I adored Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London books), but I read one of the other titles in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragon series a while back and enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading or listening to another one. Until recently, only the first book, Legend of the Highland Dragon has been available in audio format, but Tantor Audio has now issued books two and three, The Highland Dragon’s Lady and Night of the Highland Dragon (which is the one I’ve read). With Derek Perkins once again lending his considerable narrating skills to the project, I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting story filled with magic and mysterious goings on.

Two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. Because while there’s certainly magic and mysterious goings on, the story isn’t very exciting. In fact, it was so dull in places that even Mr. Perkins couldn’t save it or stop my mind wandering, and I found myself backtracking several times throughout the listen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Ready Set Rogue (Studies in Scandal #1) by Manda Collins (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverly A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

WHO WILL WRITE THE BOOK OF LOVE?

When scholarly Miss Ivy Wareham receives word that she’s one of four young ladies who have inherited Lady Celeste Beauchamp’s estate with a magnificent private library, she packs her trunks straightaway. Unfortunately, Lady Celeste’s nephew, the rakish Quill Beauchamp, Marquess of Kerr, is determined to interrupt her studies one way or another…

Bequeathing Beauchamp House to four bluestockings—no matter how lovely they are to look at—is a travesty, and Quill simply won’t have it. But Lady Celeste’s death is not quite as straightforward as it first seemed…and if Quill hopes to solve the mystery behind her demise, he’ll need Ivy’s help. Along the way, he is surprised to learn that bookish Ivy stirs a passion and longing that he has never known. This rogue believes he’s finally met his match—but can Quill convince clever, skeptical Ivy that his love is no fiction?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C+

Ready Set Rogue is the first book in Manda Collins’ new Studies in Scandal series, which features four young ladies – all known as bluestockings – who unexpectedly inherit a country estate. Lady Celeste Beauchamp, a lady of some erudition, wished to enable the women to pursue their studies unencumbered by the responsibilities they all bear towards their families and bequeathed them her home – complete with its marvellous library and collections of artefacts – for the period of one year, at the end of which one of them will inherit outright.

Needless to say, Lady Celeste’s closest relative, her nephew, Torquil, the Marquess of Kerr, is not at all pleased at the prospect of the property going out of the family, and he is determined to find a way to counter his aunt’s instructions. To this end, he travels to Beauchamp House in order to confront the women and get rid of them if he can, and is frustrated when bad weather interrupts his journey and means he is stranded for longer than he would like at a coaching inn en route. While there, he comes to the aid of an attractive young woman who is being accosted by a ruffian in one of the public rooms. He assumes, given her drab clothing and the fact she is travelling with several trunks full of books, that she must be a governess, so discovering she is actually one of the scheming women he has set out to thwart does nothing to improve his mood.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Bound by Their Secret Passion (Scandalous Summerfields #4) by Diane Gaston

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A forbidden attraction… A hidden desire!

Years ago, penniless Lorene Summerfield wed for duty, giving her siblings the chance to marry for love. But now the generous-hearted countess finds herself widowed…and the man she’s loved in silence for years is falsely accused of her husband’s murder!

Although he closed his heart to love long ago, the Earl of Penford has always found Lorene irresistible. Their newly ignited passion may be scandalous, but now he’ll stop at nothing to clear his name and win Lorene’s hand!

Rating: C+

Bound by Their Secret Passion is the fourth and final book in Diane Gaston’s series of stories about The Scandalous Summerfields, three sisters and one half-brother whose name became a byword for scandal when their mother ran off with her lover and their father, a libertine and drunkard, gambled away everything and left them destitute.

The previous book, Bound by a Scandalous Secret, whetted my appetite for this, the story of the eldest sister, Lorene, who sacrificed her own happiness in order to marry a much older, dictatorial man so that she could provide financially for her siblings.  Her life with Lord Tinmore was not a happy one.  He took delight in belittling his young wife, allowed the servants to get away with showing her disrespect and insisted on controlling her every move, frequently prohibiting her from leaving the house.  In the previous book, the author hinted at the possibility of Lorene having developed a tendre for Dell Summerfield, Earl of Penford, the very distant relative who inherited the family’s title and estate after her father’s death.  The depth of longing between the two was so well conveyed as to be palpable, so I was looking forward to theirs being an angsty story of forbidden love.

Bound by Their Secret Passion begins as Dell is escorting Lorene home after Christmas Day spent at Summerfield House with her sisters, Tess and Genna, and their husbands. On arrival at Tinmore House, Tinmore furiously accuses Dell and Lorene of having an affair; Dell informs him that is not true and tries to leave, having reached the front steps when Tinmore attacks him with his cane. Dell is prepared to parry the intended blow but before he can do so, the older man clutches at his head, falls down the steps and is dead before he reaches the bottom.

The coroner and magistrate are sent for immediately and an inquest is held which absolves Dell of any responsibility in Tinmore’s death, despite the assertions of the vengeful butler, Dixon, that Dell and Lorene had deliberately conspired to murder Tinmore so they could be together.

Coming from a family whose name is a byword for scandal and having endured plenty of it herself when she was labelled a fortune hunter after her marriage to a wealthy, older man, Lorene wants no more of it.  She is more than half-way in love with Dell, but she knows that if the two of them are seen together now, even after the exoneration at the inquest, there will be gossip about them and some people will continue to believe that they murdered her husband.

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

The Wallflower Duchess by Liz Tyner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams – and Edge is determined to make her his!

Rating: C

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.

For Deader or Worse (John Pickett Mysteries #6) by Sheri Cobb South

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After a modest wedding ceremony, Bow Street Runner John Pickett and his bride Julia, the former Lady Fieldhurst, set out for a wedding trip to Somersetshire, where Pickett must face his greatest challenge yet: meeting his in-laws.

Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon are shocked at their daughter’s hasty remarriage–and appalled by her choice of a second husband. Pickett, for his part, is surprised to learn that Julia once had an elder sister: Claudia, Lady Buckleigh, disappeared thirteen years earlier, leaving no trace beyond a blood-soaked shawl. When Sir Thaddeus confides that his wife is convinced Claudia’s spirit now haunts her childhood home, Pickett sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Julia’s family. He agrees to investigate and, hopefully, lay the Runyon “ghost,” whoever–or whatever–it is.

Matters take a grisly turn when Sir Thaddeus’s groom is discovered with his throat slit. The timing could hardly be worse, for the whole village is aflutter with the news that Lord Buckleigh has brought home a new bride, just when Major James Pennington, the vicar’s son who was Claudia’s childhood sweetheart, has returned on leave from war in the Peninsula. The major was apparently the last person to see Claudia alive, and Pickett is convinced he knows more about her disappearance than he’s telling. Suddenly it seems the distant past is not so distant, after all. It may not even be past . . .

Rating: C+

For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.

Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.

As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.

On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.

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