An Earl Like You (Wagers of Sin #2) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When you gamble at love…

When Hugh Deveraux discovers his newly inherited earldom is bankrupt, he sets about rebuilding the family fortune – in the gaming hells of London. But the most daring wager he takes isn’t at cards. A wealthy tradesman makes a tantalizing offer: marry the man’s spinster daughter and Hugh’s debts will be paid and his fortune made. The only catch is that she must never know about their agreement….

You risk losing your heart…

Heiress Eliza Cross has given up hope of marriage until she meets the impossibly handsome Earl of Hastings, her father’s new business partner. The earl is everything a gentleman should be, and is boldly attentive to her. It doesn’t take long for Eliza to lose her heart and marry him.

But when Eliza discovers that there is more to the man she loves – and to her marriage – her trust is shattered. And it will take all of Hugh’s power to prove that now his words of love are real….

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: A-

Caroline Linden’s An Earl Like You was one of my favourite books of 2018, and was actually one of the very few historical romances that really hit the spot for me last year.  If you’re a regular visitor to AudioGals and read my reviews (thank you for that!) you’ll probably know that historical romance has always been my favourite sub-genre – and you may have noticed I’ve been reviewing fewer and fewer of them over the past year or two.  Why? Well, good historicals have been very thin on the ground lately, and not all of the good ones have made it into audio; and many of those that  have  made it have been assigned narrators I don’t care for (and/or who I knew wouldn’t do the book justice).  That’s one of the reasons I delayed listening to An Earl Like You for so long (it came out in August 2018) – I loved the story and knew that Beverley A. Crick would do a good job with the narration, and I wanted to wait and savour it.

When Hugh Devereux became the Earl of Hastings he hadn’t expected to inherit an enormous pile of debt along with the title.  The previous earl had been a wonderful man – a loving husband and father, a good friend to many and well-thought of by everyone who knew him – yet he’d died leaving his son in total ignorance of the true state of the family finances and having spent both Hugh’s sisters’ dowries AND the money that was supposed to have provided a widow’s jointure for their mother.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2018 in Books & Audio

My Goodreads stats for 2018 reveal that I read 256 books in 2018 (I challenged myself to 240, so I just passed that goal!) – although 108 of those were audiobooks.  I suspect, actually, that I listened to more than that, as I know I did a handful of re-listens, and I don’t tend to count those – I re-listen far more than I re-read (I don’t think I did any re-reads last year) – and I think that number of audiobooks is more than ever.  Although I have fifty-six 5 star rated books showing on my stats page, the actual 5 star/A grades only number around a dozen or so; the majority are 4.5 star reads that I rounded up or audiobooks in which either  story or narration (usually the narration) bumped the grade up into that bracket.  I say this because, despite that number of fifty-six, when I came to make my list of what I thought were the Best Books of 2018 for All About Romance, I didn’t have too much trouble making my list, whereas normally, I’ll have fifteen to twenty I could include and have a tough job to whittle it down.

4 star ratings were my largest group (153) – and these include the 4.5 star ratings I don’t round up (B+ books) and the 3.5 star ratings I do round up (B- books), and then I had thirty-three books and audiobooks in the 3 star bracket, nine in the 2 star, one 1 star and one unrated DNF.

The titles that made my Best of 2018 list are these:

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

My Year in Books at Goodreads.

And here are a few more rambling thoughts about the books I read and the audiobooks I listened to last year.

Historical Romance

Historical Romance is far and away my favourite genre, and for years, I read very little else.  Sadly however, HR made a pretty poor showing in 2018 overall, and while there were a few that were excellent, they really were the exception.  The vast majority of the newer authors – and I do try most of them  at least once – can’t generally manage anything that deserves more than a C grade/3 stars (if that) and even some of the big-names just didn’t deliver.  Elizabeth Hoyt’s new series got off to a terrible start with Not the Duke’s Darling, which was overstuffed, confusing and not very romantic with an irritating heroine of the worst kind (the sort who has to trample all over the hero in order to prove herself).  Lorraine Heath’s When a Duke Loves a Womanwhich I listened to rather than read (thank you Kate Reading, for the excellent narration!) – stretched the cross-class romance trope to breaking point and was sadly dull in places, and Kerrigan Byrne’s sixth Victorian Rebels book, The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  On the plus side though, just before the end of the year, I read début author Mia Vincy’s A Wicked Kind of Husband which was clever, witty, poignant and sexy, and is the first début I’ve raved about since 2016.  Meredith Duran’s The Sins of Lord Lockwood was a triumph, and Caroline Linden’s two Wagers of Sin books – My Once and Future Duke and An Earl Like You – were very good – intelligent, strongly characterised and deeply romantic.  Of the two, I preferred An Earl Like You, a gorgeously romantic marriage of convenience story with a bit of a twist.  Honourable mentions go to Joanna Shupe’s A Notorious Vow, the third in her Four Hundred series, Virginia Heath’s A Warriner to Seduce Her and Stella Riley’s Hazard, and my two favourite historical mystery series – Lady Sherlock and Sebastian St. Cyr (Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris respectively) had wonderful new instalments out.  K.J. Charles – who can’t seem to write a bad book! – published three titles – The Henchmen of Zenda, Unfit to Print and Band Sinister – all of which I loved and rated highly, and new author, Lee Welch gobsmacked me with her first full-length novel, an historical paranormal (queer) romance, Salt Magic, Skin Magic, a truly mystical, magical story with a sensual romance between opposites.   Bec McMaster’s terrific London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy continued with You Only Love Twice and To Catch a Rogue, which were wonderful; fast-paced, intelligent and witty, combining high-stakes plots and plenty of action with steamy, sensual romances.

Romantic Suspense

I’ve turned most often to romantic suspense this year to fill the void left by the paucity of good historical romance – many of them in audio as I backtracked through audio catalogues and got hooked on some series that first appeared before 2018, notably Cut & Run and Psycop.  In print, I was really impressed with Charlie Adhara’s first two novels in her Big Bad Wolf series, The Wolf at the Door and The Wolf at Bay. I’m not a big fan of shifters, but a friend convinced me to try the first book, and I’m really glad I did.  There’s a great suspense plot, two fabulous leads with off-the-charts chemistry, and their relationship as they move from suspicion to admiration to more is really well done.

The final book in Rachel Grant’s Flashpoint trilogy – Firestorm – was a real humdinger and fantastic end to what’s been one of my favourite series over the past couple of years.  Superbly written and researched, topical, fast-paced and featuring fabulously developed characters, Firestorm sees two characters who’ve been dancing around each other for two books having to team up to infiltrate a Russian arms dealing ring, and, when things go south, going on the run in one of the most dangerous places in the world. Ms. Grant is one of my favourite authors and her romantic suspense novels are hard to beat.

My big – and I mean BIG – discovery this year was Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series which is simply brilliant – addictive.  I’ve raved about it to everyone that will listen (sorry!) and will do so again.  It’s a series of five books (four are out, the fifth is due in March) that tells one overarching story about the search for a clever, devious serial killer plaguing Las Vegas.  Each book advances that plotline while also having another, self-contained storyline that eventually coalesces with the main plot; it’s incredibly well done and the plots themselves are filled with nail-biting tension.  The two central characters – Levi Abrams, a tightly-wound, intense homicide detective – and Dominic Russo – a congenial, much more relaxed guy who has serious problems of his own – are wonderful;  they’re complex, flawed and multi-faceted, and while they’re complete opposites in many ways, they’re no less perfect for each other because of it.  Their relationship goes through terrific  highs and terrible lows, but as we head into the last book, they’re stronger than ever – and I can’t wait for what promises to be an incredible series finale.

Contemporary Romance isn’t a genre I gravitate towards, but for what I think is the first time EVER,  one made my Best of list – Sally Malcolm’s Between the Lines.  I’ve really enjoyed the three books she’s set in New Milton (a fictional Long Island resort); in fact, her novella, Love Around the Corner could easily have made the list as well.  She has a real gift for creating likeable but flawed characters and for writing emotion that sings without being over the top.  And I have to give a shout-out to Kelly Jensen’s This Time Forever series, three books that feature older (late thirties-fifty) characters finding happiness and their forever afters – wonderful, distinct characters, each facing particular challenges and the need to sort out all the emotional baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times.


I listened to more audiobooks than ever this year – partly, I think, because I was trying to fill the gap in my reading because so much HR was just not measuring up, and partly because the fact that I tend to genre-hop more in audio has introduced me to a number of new (to me) narrators that I’ve begun to seek out more. (Plus, I’ve had some long commutes lately!)  My favourites are still my favourites: Rosalyn Landor, Kate Reading, Mary Jane Wells, Alex Wyndham and Nicholas Boulton are unbeatable when it comes to historical romances; Andi Arndt reigns supreme when it comes to American contemps, Steve West could read me cereal packets and Greg Tremblay/Boudreaux is my hero. But my list of narrators to trust has grown to include J.F. Harding, Sean Crisden, Joe Arden, Carly Robbins, Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron.

I’ve become hooked on m/m romantic suspense this year, and have been catching up with two long-running series – Cut & Run by Abigail Roux and Madeline Urban and Psycop by Jordan Castillo Price. The Cut & Run books are fast-paced hokum, the sort of thing you see in a lot of procedurals and action films – enjoyable, but frequently full of holes.  But the series is made by its two central characters – Special Agents Ty Grady and Zane Garrett – who strike sparks off each other from the get go and fight, snark and fuck their way through nine books I enjoyed to differing degrees.  Unusually, the series has three narrators; the first one (Sawyer Allerde) wasn’t so great, but Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding do fabulous work in books 3-9, and while I know there’s a lot of mixed feeling out there over the later books, I’d still recommend them and the series in audio.

I’ve also been drawn to a number of books that feature psychics in some way or another – I have no idea why – and again, some were more successful than others.  I enjoyed Z.A. Maxfield’s The Long Way Home – which is excellently narrated by J.F Harding – and I’m working my way through Jordan Castillo Price’s hugely entertaining Psycop series (I’ve listened to 6 books so far) narrated by Gomez Pugh who doesn’t just portray, but completely inhabits the character of Victor Bayne, the endearingly shambolic protagonist of the series. I plan to listen to the final three books very soon.

Contemporary Romance is a genre I rarely read and don’t listen to often, as it doesn’t do much for me in general.  Nonetheless, I’ve listened to a few great contemporary audios in 2018, several of them in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, notably Squared Away and Tight Quarters, the latter being one of my favourites. Greg Boudreaux’s narration was the big draw for me in picking up this series on audio (although books 1-3 use different narrators) and he continues to be one of the best – if not THE best – male romance narrators around. The praise heaped on Kate Clayborn’s début, Beginner’s Luck prompted me to pick it up in audio, although I confess that Will Damron’s name attached to it factored into that decision as well.  Helen Hoang’s début, The Kiss Quotient was another contemp that generated a huge buzz, which again, prompted me to listen – and the fact that I’d enjoyed Carly Robins’ performance in Beginner’s Luck once again proved the power of the narrator when it comes to my decisions as to what I want to listen to.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2019?  First of all, I’d like a few more winners from my favourite historical romance writers, please!  Although to be honest, it’s looking a bit bleak, with Meredith Duran on hiatus, and only one – I think? – book due from Caroline Linden this year.  I am, however, looking forward to reading more from Mia Vincy, who has three more books in her series to come, and I’ve already read a fantastic book by K.J. Charles – I believe there’s a sequel on the way, which I’m sure will be equally fabulous.  I can’t wait for the finale in the Seven of Spades series – and for whatever Cordelia Kingsbridge comes up with next, and the same is true of Charlie Adhara, whose final Big Bad Wolf book is due out in April.  There are new books in their respective series coming from Sherry Thomas and C.S. Harris, so I’ll be there for those, and I’m looking forward to Deanna Raybourn’s next Veronica Speedwell book.  Audio often lags behind print, so many of the audiobooks I’m eagerly awaiting are books I read in print this year, such as Amy Lane’s A Few Good Fish (which I read in August) with Greg Tremblay once again doing the honours, and Lee Welch’s Salt Magic, Skin Magic, performed by Joel Leslie, who I’m sure is going to be terrific.  I’m also looking forward to the final book in Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime Trilogy, Best of Luck, again narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robbins.

Hopefully, I’ll be back this time next year to let you all know how things have panned out!

My Once and Future Duke (Wagers of Sin #1) by Caroline Linden (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What happens at the infamous Vega Club…

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can’t afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that’s too extravagant to refuse, she can’t resist. If she wins, she’ll get 5,000 pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club…

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he’s at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it’s a lie. He can’t keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. If he wins, he wants her – for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what’s left of Sophie’s reputation. It might even cost her her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off….

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

Better late than never, so they say, and I’m pleased to agree with that when it comes to the release of this first book in Caroline Linden’s Wagers of Sin series. My Once and Future Duke was released in print at the end of February and I’m happy to report that the audio version – narrated by the ever-reliable Beverley A. Crick – was worth the wait.

In the prologue, we’re introduced to the three heroines of the series – Sophie, Eliza and Georgiana – when Sophie is sent to school by her grandfather, Viscount Makepeace, who wants nothing to do with her. He disowned Sophie’s father when he married an opera singer, and Sophie has lived all her life abroad as the family travelled frequently to her mother’s engagements. When her voice began to fail, Sophie’s father did what he could to support his family by gambling; having some knowledge of mathematics, probabilities and odds, he didn’t do too badly and Sophie learned many card games from him – and from the lads in the stables, she learned dicing, how to calculate odds, when to be cautious and when to take a risk. Sophie’s parents died when she was twelve and she was left to the care of the viscount, who made it clear that his financial support would stop when she was eighteen, so she has devised a plan which will secure her future – but it’s risky and means she will have to live on the edge of respectability.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

An Earl Like You (The Wagers of Sin #2) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When you gamble at love . . .

When Hugh Deveraux discovers his newly inherited earldom is bankrupt, he sets about rebuilding the family fortune—in the gaming hells of London. But the most daring wager he takes isn’t at cards. A wealthy tradesman makes a tantalizing offer: marry the man’s spinster daughter and Hugh’s debts will be paid and his fortune made. The only catch is that she must never know about their agreement . . .

You risk losing your heart . . .

Heiress Eliza Cross has given up hope of marriage until she meets the impossibly handsome Earl of Hastings, her father’s new business partner. The earl is everything a gentleman should be, and is boldly attentive to her. It doesn’t take long for Eliza to lose her heart and marry him.

But when Eliza discovers that there is more to the man she loves—and to her marriage—her trust is shattered. And it will take all of Hugh’s power to prove that now his words of love are real . . .

Rating: A-

When I pick up a book by Caroline Linden, I know I’m going to be able to lose myself in a beautifully written character driven novel featuring fully-rounded characters with terrific chemistry, and a romance that evolves naturally and which is always at the forefront of the story.  An Earl Like You, book two in her Wagers of Sin series, ticks all those boxes and then some, as Ms. Linden puts a different spin on the marriage-of-convenience trope in this story of a decent, well-intentioned man who becomes so tangled up in wanting to do the best for everyone around him that he risks the destruction of his own happiness.

Hugh Deveraux, Earl of Hastings, is something of an odd-one-out among romance heroes, because he grew up in a stable, caring family, his parents were a love-match and he had an excellent relationship with his father, whose unfailing good temper and generosity made him popular and beloved among his peers.  It’s only after his death and Hugh’s accession to the title that he discovers that his father’s conviviality concealed a staggering degree of financial irresponsibility.  The fortune amassed by Hugh’s forebears – including the money that was meant to have provided his mother’s jointure and his sisters’ dowries – is gone, and the entail on the Hastings estate means Hugh is unable to sell any land or properties in order to pay off the debts.   He’s left with only one option – he must make the sacrifice his father never had to make, and marry for money.  But not quite yet.  Faced with the prospect of revealing the true state of their finances to his grieving mother, and destroying utterly her memories of the love of her life, Hugh finds he just can’t do it.  Reasoning that if he can keep the news of their ruin at bay until his sisters make suitable marriages, he manages to keep the family afloat by virtue of his skill at the card tables for the next couple of years, although with the elder of his sisters soon to make her début, Hugh realises that the day of reckoning is at hand.  To secure Edith a decent marriage, Hugh will have to give her a decent dowry – ten thousand pounds at the very least – and with time running out, he reluctantly acknowledges to himself that it’s time for him to find a wealthy bride.

Eliza Cross knows that she will always be viewed as a “nouveau riche upstart” by London society, because her father made his considerable fortune in trade.  He wants her to make an aristocratic marriage, but she’s well aware that her huge dowry is the only thing likely to attract such a suitor – she has no connections and no pretentions to beauty – and thinks a quiet country life with a quiet country squire is most likely to suit her.  Even so, she can’t help but wish that the first time she set eyes upon the indescribably handsome Earl of Hastings she’d been wearing a nicer dress and not had her arms full of wet dog.  Assuming her father and the earl must have business together, Eliza isn’t too surprised when the earl starts to visit the house regularly, and finds herself looking forward to his visits – especially those occasions when her father is delayed and the earl is able to spend some time talking with her before his meetings.  Before long, Eliza has tumbled head-over-heels in love with him – and to her astonishment and delight, he seems to feel the same way about her and asks her to marry him.

Edward Cross has had his eye on Hugh for a while, and, judging him to be a decent, responsible man, suggests he might consider marriage to Eliza as a way out of his financial difficulties. Hugh is appalled at the idea of a father offering to sell his daughter into matrimony and says so – but Cross is persuasive. He won’t force Eliza into marriage, but if Hugh can court her and gain her affections, he’ll also gain a large dowry, a demure, well-brought up wife and the massive fortune she will eventually inherit. But Eliza must be willing – Cross is sure Hugh will be able to make her fall in love with him – and she must never find out the truth about their agreement. Hugh is not at all sure about this plan, but recognises that Eliza is almost certainly his best chance of providing for his mother and sisters, and agrees to court her.

There’s no question that this is a difficult set up to pull off, and I know there are some for whom this level of deception will be a dealbreaker – but Ms. Linden makes the plotline work brilliantly, showing very clearly what it costs Hugh in order to maintain his deceit and what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. He’s an honourable man stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it’s easy to sympathise with his situation and his desire to do right by everyone who depends on him. And the thing that makes it easy to do that is that we are left in absolutely no doubt that all the while Hugh is courting Eliza and doing his best to make her fall for him, he’s falling for her, too, even if he doesn’t realise it at first. Eliza describes herself as plain and ordinary, yet even though Hugh acknowledges she’s no beauty, he is taken with her smile, her graciousness… and tempted by the smoothness of her skin and the comeliness of her figure. She becomes more and more attractive to him as the story progresses and he falls more deeply in love with her; he’s attentive, protective and is obviously determined to be a good husband, regardless of his original motive for marrying her. But he’s being pulled in so many different directions that we know something’s going to give; his mother and eldest sister are not at all happy about his marriage to a cit’s daughter and are very hostile towards Eliza at first – especially Edith, whose betrothed – the son of a viscount – cuts up rough about such a lowly connection and adds yet another layer of complication to Hugh’s already challenging situation.

Intelligent, thoughtful and kind, Eliza is the sort of heroine who could, in the hands of a less talented author, so easily have come across as too perfect or insipid. Instead she’s a genuinely charming and decent young woman who, while perhaps a little naïve, is possessed of considerable inner strength and determination and exhibits personal growth over the course of the novel. I loved watching her win over her initially disdainful relatives, finding a way to connect with Hugh’s mother and supporting Edith through a difficult time; the ton may look down on her birth, but she’s a genuinely good person who displays maturity and a strong sense of self.

The romance between Eliza and Hugh is tender, sensual and passionate; the chemistry between them fizzes and sparks throughout and Ms. Linden develops a strong emotional connection between them. I dropped half a grade-point off my final rating only because Hugh’s deception goes on a little longer than I’d have liked – although the upside to that is that the story’s resolution isn’t overly long and drawn out.

Intelligently written, strongly characterised and gorgeously romantic, An Earl Like You earns a place on my keeper shelf, and Ms. Linden further cements her place as one of the best authors of historical romance writing today.

My Once and Future Duke (The Wagers of Sin #1) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens at the infamous Vega Club . . .

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can’t afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that’s too extravagant to refuse, she can’t resist. If she wins, she’ll get five thousand pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club . . .

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he’s at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it’s a lie. He can’t keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. If he wins, he wants her—for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what’s left of Sophie’s reputation. It might even cost her her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off . . .

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden writes the most wonderful character-driven romances, and she’s a favourite author of mine. Whenever I want to read something I know will be beautifully and intelligently written, with a gorgeous hero and a heroine I can root for, she’s someone I know I can rely on to deliver something that will hit the spot, and a new book by her is always a cause for celebration. Her latest release, My Once and Future Duke, the first in her new Wagers of Sin series, is a superb example of what she does best, and boasts a well-developed, sensual romance between two engaging and intriguing characters – who must find a way to bridge the (social) gulf between them if they are to make a life together.

Sophie Graham, granddaughter of Viscount Makepeace, is orphaned at the age of twelve when her parents both die from serious illness. The viscount cut off his son when he fell in love with and married a French opera singer, but Sophie’s father never regretted his choice; he loved his wife dearly, and they were a happy family, travelling around Europe to her mother’s various singing engagements, returning to England only when her voice began to falter. With no other source of income, Sophie’s father supported his wife and daughter by what he could make at the gaming tables; having some talent at mathematics, probabilities and odds, he didn’t fare too badly. From him, Sophie learned many card games – and from the lads in the stables, she learned dicing, how to calculate odds, when to be cautious and when to take a risk. After her parents’ deaths, the viscount takes Sophie to a good school, making it clear that his financial support will stop the day Sophie turns eighteen. Sophie works hard and makes some good friends at school, but knows she can rely on no-one but herself to provide for her future. She has come up with a plan to ensure her financial security, but it’s risky and will mean living on the very edge of respectability.

Sophie longs for home, family and the sort of love she hasn’t experienced since her parents died. The only way to achieve that stability is for her to find a respectable gentleman to marry – but given that she is no debutante, she’s in her mid-twenties, has no family to speak of and is practically penniless, she decides she must make herself a little nest egg so that she will not go to her prospective husband empty handed. The only way Sophie knows how to make money is by gambling, and fortunately, there is a club in London which admits women as well as men, the Vega Club. She has played there a few nights a week for the past three years, and is quietly building her fortune, a little at a time.

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, is furious with his younger brother, Philip, for yet again running up gambling debts and expecting Jack to pay them. Jack came into his title when he was just twenty-four and hadn’t really finished kicking up his heels as “the heir”, but he had to settle down and assume his responsibilities quickly, leading some of his friends and associates –and especially his brother – to dismiss him as a dull dog. But Jack’s responsibilities include not allowing his brother to beggar the dukedom, so he tells Philip he will pay his latest debt on the condition that it’s the last time he wagers such a large sum AND that he does not set foot in Vega’s again. So it’s easy to understand his ire when, having visited the club’s owner to pay the debt, Jack is on his way out when he sees Philip at the Hazard table, losing to a lovely young woman in a scarlet gown.

Jack is almost knocked sideways by the sudden stab of desire that flashes through him when the woman turns to face him. He’s never had such a visceral reaction to any woman, and the fact that she throws him off balance only adds fuel to the fire of his fury over Philip’s duplicity. In the heat of his anger he makes it clear he believes the woman has set out to fleece his brother and then, uncharacteristically rattled, Jack proposes a scandalous wager – if he loses the game, he will pay the young woman five thousand pounds. If he wins, she will spend a week with him.

By this time, Sophie is sufficiently annoyed by the insults being levelled at her by this stranger – whom she has guessed is Philip’s brother – to let her temper get the better of her, and she accepts the wager. It’s clear to her that Ware is a complete novice at the game, but Hazard is a game of chance… and Sophie’s luck is about to run out.

Ms. Linden has created a gorgeously sensual romance between two people from very different backgrounds and stations in life who are perfect for each other but whose social positions look set to keep them apart. Jack has been bought up to duty and responsibility, and knows he is expected to wed a “suitable” young woman of the ton and have the sort of comfortable and unemotional marriage conducted by most people of his station. But the few days he spends with Sophie are a revelation; she’s kind, witty and clever, and it’s not long before he realises she’s everything he wants, and the woman he can see himself spending his life with. And while Sophie at first believes Jack to be the arrogant, stuffed shirt he is reputed to be, she soon comes to see he’s nothing of the sort and falls hard and fast for the loving, warm-hearted and tenderly affectionate man beneath the ducal exterior. She and Jack spend just a few days together, but it’s long enough for both of them to realise that they have found a profound and true love – but how can a duke marry a nobody who makes her living at the gaming tables?

The romance between Jack and Sophie is incredibly well written and beautifully developed; they fall in love over a very short period of time, but Ms. Linden imbues their romance with such a strong sense of compatibility, mutual longing and sensuality that it doesn’t feel rushed or the slightest bit underdeveloped. The only reason I’ve not given the book a five star rating is due to the misunderstanding thrown in towards the end, which seems to have been injected for the sake of providing a bit of eleventh-hour drama. Sophie’s reaction is somewhat out of character, too – she’s prepared to believe the worst without any evidence, and despite the fact that she knows better. Still, things are cleared up quite quickly, and of course, all ends well.

My Once and Future Duke is a fabulous read and once again proves Caroline Linden to be at the forefront of historical romance authors writing today. I have no hesitation in recommending it heartily, and I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series later this year.

At the Christmas Wedding (anthology) by Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale and Katharine Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Snowed in at a castle full of handsome lords, three young ladies are about to have the holiday of their lives…

Map of a Lady’s Heart by Caroline Linden

The road to happily-ever-after… With Kingstag Castle full of guests and the snow falling, Viola Cavendish has her hands full making sure the Christmas house party runs smoothly. The unexpected arrival of the Earl of Winterton and his nephew Lord Newton upends everything. Not only is Lord Newton flirting with the young ladies Viola is supposed to chaperone, Lord Winterton himself makes her pulse race.
Always takes some twists and turns Wesley Morane, Earl of Winterton, has come to Kingstag Castle in search of a valuable atlas, and he refuses to be deterred by the snow, the house party, his nephew, or even the most ridiculous play ever staged. But before long the only map he wants is one that shows him the way to Viola’s heart…

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale

Jilted by a duke: Lady Serena Cavendish was born and bred to be a duchess. Too bad, then, that the Duke of Frye mysteriously and suddenly ended their betrothal.
Seduced by a Rogue: Greyson Jones, an agent of the crown, is the only one who thinks being jilted has made Serena more alluring. When he lucks into an invitation to a Christmas house party at Kingstag Castle to cheer her up—and perhaps find her a husband—he seizes the opportunity to win her heart before they might be parted forever.
On the way to the altar: Their journey to happily ever after involves a ridiculous play, a lovesick swan, a mysterious gift and, of course, a kiss.

Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe

The last time Lady Charlotte Ascot bumped into the Duke of Frye, she climbed a tree to avoid him. Sometimes it’s simply easier to run away than to face her feelings for him — overwhelmingly passionate feelings that no modest lady should have! Now, on her way to Kingstag Castle to celebrate the holidays with friends, Charlotte is trapped by a snowstorm at a tiny country inn with the duke of her steamiest dreams.
But Frye has a secret of his own, and Christmas is the ideal time to finally tell the woman he’s always wanted the whole unvarnished truth. Better yet, he’ll show her…

Rating: B+ overall. Individual stories: B+ : B- : B+

At the Christmas Wedding is a collection of festive novellas by three of the biggest names in historical romance – Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale and Katharine Ashe. As with their previous anthology, At the Duke’s Wedding, the individual stories take place concurrently, this time at and around Kingstag Castle in Dorset, the site of a festive house party being hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Wessex. The three stories are perfect seasonal fare – warm, light-hearted and perfectly romantic, laced with humour, filled with likeable principals and served up with a soupçon of Yuletide cheer and festive frolic.

Map of a Lady’s Heart by Caroline Linden

Grade: B+                Sensuality: Warm

When the Duke and Duchess of Wessex are called away urgently just as their Christmas house party is about to start, it seems the bulk of the organisation and hostess duties will fall upon the shoulders of Viola Cavendish, the duchess’ personal secretary and a distant relation of the duke’s.  Viola would not normally be expected to undertake such a duty, but the dowager duchess is indisposed, the duke’s eldest sister, Lady Serena, has recently suffered a broken engagement and neither lady is up to the task of supervising the arrangements.  Viola is somewhat daunted by the enormity of the task, but doesn’t want the duchess to worry and assures her that she has everything in hand.

Wesley Morane, Earl of Winterton has inveigled himself an invitation to the Wessex’s house party in order to negotiate with the duke over the purchase of a valuable atlas that had belonged to Wes’ father and been sold in error following his death.  He arrives at Kingstag accompanied by his young nephew, Viscount Newton, just ahead of a snowstorm that is likely to see them stuck there for a few days.

Viola is not a little displeased at the unexpected arrival of two gentlemen whose names aren’t on her guest list.  But with the weather closing in, she has little alternative but to offer them hospitality until it is once again safe to travel.  The blizzard also presents another problem for Viola, that of a house full of young ladies and gentlemen who will no doubt grow bored and restive at being trapped inside for days on end.  Viola knows she is the only person at Kingstag with any hope of preventing mischief and scandal, and resigns herself to being an ever-present chaperone.  But while young Newton is turning the heads of some of the ladies, Viola finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the attractions of his handsome uncle…

Ms. Linden develops the romance between Wes and Viola beautifully so that it doesn’t feel unnaturally hurried.  They talk, exchange opinions and discover common interests and the air between them crackles with longing and attraction. I particularly liked the scene where they talk about the night sky; and Wes’ Christmas gift to Viola is one of those perfect ‘aww’ moments that a romance delivers every so often. Map of a Lady’s Heart is a wonderfully warm and sensual story and Ms. Linden does a terrific job of setting the scene for the other stories.

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale

Grade: B-                 Sensuality: Warm

Maya Rodale’s contribution to the anthology is full of her trademark humour, witty dialogue and slightly bonkers characters.  When Lady Serena Cavendish was jilted by the Duke of Frye for no discernible reason, her mother, the dowager duchess, decided to throw a house party to which she has invited a number of young people in the hope of lifting Serena’s spirits.  Being a canny woman, the dowager also invited Frye, in the hope that perhaps he and Serena will reconcile – but the trouble is she has also invited Frye’s insufferable best friend, Mr. Grayson Jones, who was overheard to have said that his friend ‘dodged a bullet’ when he decided not to marry Lady Serena, because she’s far too perfect to be interesting.

Unbeknownst to Serena, Greyson Jones – Grey – has been in love with her for years, but her long-standing engagement meant he never had any hopes of winning her.  Now, however, he is determined to take his chance; he is shortly to accept a diplomatic posting to India, and has just a week in which to persuade Serena of the truth of his feelings and to get her to fall in love with him.

In the previous story, we were given a few glimpses of the ridiculous play being written for the guests to perform by Lady Bridget (who is no relation to the Bridget Cavendish of Ms. Rodale’s current series, Keeping Up with the Cavendishes).  Here, rehearsals are in full swing, and the casting of Grey as the hero, Lord Pirate Captain, and Serena as his heroine, the Lonely Spinster, gives Grey the perfect opportunity to spend time with his lady love and start to woo her.

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night is funny and entertaining, and the chemistry between the central couple sizzles nicely. Grey is a delicious hero and I loved Aunt Sophronia, one of those wonderful grande dames of historical romance who get to say whatever they like and pat handsome gentlemen on the bottom without giving a fig for what anyone thinks of them!  The whole thing did pass in a bit of a blur though – it felt rushed and the sex scene seemed to be there because it was expected rather than needed, but it’s a fun read overall.

Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe

Grade: B+               Sensuality: Warm

Katharine Ashe is on fine form in the final story, in which we properly meet His Grace of Frye and discover the reason behind his broken engagement.  He and his friend and colleague, Lord Fortier, do ‘odd jobs’ for the crown now and again, and as this story begins, are just arriving at the Fiddler’s Roost Inn near Kingstag, where they hope to apprehend a confidence trickster.  The duke is travelling as plain Mr. Horace Church, but as he and Fortier set up their cover story by faking a brawl in the yard, he is unnerved to notice Miss Charlotte Ascot standing in the doorway.  Not only has he been in love with her for ages, he thought she was in America, where she’s lived for the past two-and-a-half years.

In an anguish of unrequited love, Charlotte fled to America in an attempt to cure herself of her long-standing infatuation with the Duke of Frye.  She has returned, not in hopes that he will at last return her feelings, but in order to comfort her friend Serena, and because she realises now that she carried her feelings with her when she ran and that instead, she must face them and learn to live with them.

The realisation that his friend, Greyson Jones, was in love with Serena Cavendish was as much at the root of Frye’s decision not to marry her as was the knowledge that he was himself in love with another woman.  Charlotte Ascot has haunted his dreams for years, but Frye knows he can never marry her; can never marry anyone due to a mysterious condition which sometimes incapacitates him and which he fears will send him to an early grave like his father.

Ms. Ashe packs a lot of story into a short page count but it all works, culminating in a beautifully romantic declaration of love.  Charlotte and Frye are superbly drawn characters and I enjoyed watching them bicker their way towards understanding the truth of their long-held feelings for one another.  Snowy Night With a Duke is a charming, tender and passionate romance and a terrific way to round off this set of seasonal love stories.

A Rake’s Guide to Seduction (Reece Family Trilogy #3) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He Must Rely On His Talents In The Bedroom…

Anthony Hamilton cannot help it. The way he looks, the way he lives, his past–it all conspires to make him a man men fear, women desire. His name fills gossip circles in a seemingly endless, lurid drama. But he’s never forgotten the only woman he’s ever truly wanted–yet could never have. . .

To Make Her Fall In Love. . .

Celia Reece knew Anthony well before he forged his scandalous reputation. The young man she remembers spoke kindly to her, made her laugh, and his devilish good looks always quickened her pulse. But Celia’s mother had other designs–designs that didn’t include marriage to Anthony. Now, Celia is widowed, and her mother is intent on finding her a new husband. Refusing to let any obstacle stand in his path this time, Anthony sets out to win Celia’s heart by using the same skills that made him London’s most irresistible rake…

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden’s A Rake’s Guide to Seduction is one of her earliest published titles, having originally appeared in 2008.  It’s now being reissued with a rather fetching new cover (in paperback), and as it’s a book I haven’t yet read, this gave me a good excuse reason to add it to my pile of review books.  This, I quickly discovered, was a very good move, because it’s a lovely, gently moving character-driven romance featuring a young widow who is given second chance at love and the man who has secretly loved her for many years.

Anthony Hamilton, Viscount Langford, was a scandal from the moment he was born.  Almost certainly a cuckoo in the nest, be grew into a wild boy and proceeded to get himself thrown out of three schools, after which, having finished his education at Oxford, he embarked upon a life of debauchery in London, his reputation as a high-stakes gamester and seducer of wealthy widows and bored wives very quickly earning him the blackest of reputations while also rendering him utterly fascinating to the members of the ton.  The fact that he is gorgeous, remarkably discreet and closely guards his privacy only increases his allure.

Anthony – who, owing to his estrangement from his father now chooses to style himself as plain Mr. Hamilton – spent many of his holidays from school at Ainsley Park, the home of his closest friend, David Reece.  David’s younger sister, Celia, remembers Anthony fondly; he’d been like another brother who helped launch her kites and tie her fishing lines.  As he grew older and his reputation grew worse, her mother banned Anthony from visiting, although now Celia is ‘out’, she sees him  from time to time and finds it amusing that he is now so very wicked that young ladies are afraid to do so much as walk past him alone. She has never believed him to be quite as black as he is painted; indeed, her own brothers have not exactly been pattern cards of propriety in the past and she can’t really see why Anthony should be singled out for such gossip and censure.

Celia is young, beautiful, vivacious and, as the sister of a duke, much sought after.  After interrupting her and an over-amorous swain one evening, she and Anthony have the first real conversation they’ve had in a long time and he is suddenly struck by an almost unwelcome realisation – that she’s no longer the little girl he knew and that he’s in love with her and has been for some time.  But it’s hopeless. No brother who truly cares about his sister is going to give her hand in marriage to a man with a reputation like Anthony’s… yet her image is burned into his brain, her lemon scent haunts him and he can’t forget their conversation:

“Anyone who took the trouble to know you would accept you,” Celia insisted ignoring his efforts to turn the subject.

“You’ve gone and ruled out every woman in England.” He leaned over the railing, squiting into the darkness.

“Except myself,” Celia declared and then she stopped.  Good heavens, what had she just said?

The fact that she doesn’t see him as the decadent wastrel society believes him to be gives Anthony the courage to approach her brother to ask for permission to court her – only to be told that he has just sanctioned the betrothal between Celia and Lord Bertram, the young man who has gained her affections.

Four years pass, during which Celia discovers that the man she married was not the charming, solicitous young man she had fallen for, but was instead selfish, disgruntled, unfaithful and very quick to relegate her to the ranks of Things That Do Not Matter. His death from pneumonia sees Celia returning to her family, but she’s a very different young woman to the one who left amid such happiness and celebration. Subdued, quiet and depressed, Celia feels out of place and uncomfortable; everyone else has moved forward without her and in spite of her mother’s attempts to make it seem otherwise, Celia can’t pretend things haven’t changed.

Deeply worried about her daughter’s state of mind, the dowager decides to cheer Celia up by arranging a house party to which she invites many of her old friends. Her intentions are good, but being forced into company with these young women with whom she no longer has anything in common only serves to make Celia feel even more disconnected. The one bright spot is that her brother David has invited Anthony Hamilton to the party, and even though her mother is obviously not pleased that he is there, he’s the one person outside her family Celia is pleased to see and with whom she feels able to be herself. And Anthony, who is truly saddened at the change in Celia, determines to make her smile once more and, perhaps, to see if there is any possibility she could be persuaded to throw in her lot with the most scandalous man in society.

Caroline Linden has created a truly beautiful love story between two people whose lives haven’t been easy or turned out as they hoped. Celia’s depression is sympathetically and realistically presented, as is her growth from someone blinded by a childish ideal of love to a more mature woman who is able to recognise and accept real, deep love and affection. Her worry that because she made the wrong choice once she may do so again is understandable, but ultimately, she doesn’t allow that fear to control her and I found her willingness to open her heart again to be admirable.

As for Anthony… well, he’s dreamy. *sigh* He’s no saint, but he’s no rake, either; his reputation is largely the result of gossip and misunderstanding which, because of his reluctance to discuss it has become a self-perpetuating myth. Over the years he has learned to ignore what is said of him; as he tells Celia, even if he told the truth, nobody would believe him. One of the loveliest moments in the book is the point at which Celia realises he has never had anyone in his corner to stand up for him, and then determines she will be that person.

The romance between Celia and Anthony is beautifully developed, and there’s never any question they are perfect for one another and that their love for each other is genuine. The author writes with insight about society marriages of the time through the words and attitudes of Celia’s friends who have become bitter and bitchy; and I rather liked the hint of a romance blossoming between her somewhat starchy mother and Anthony’s big, braw, Scottish uncle.

The book’s one flaw is in the sudden plot twist thrown in near the end, which is why I ended up not giving it a straight A grade; the story doesn’t really need it, although I did appreciate it as an opportunity for Celia to show her faith in Anthony in the face of the doubts exhibited by everyone around her.

Caroline Linden is a ‘must-read’ author for me these days, and she’s one of a handful of historical romance authors who is able to craft a satisfying love story that functions within the social conventions of the time and in which the characters are believably rooted in the nineteenth century rather than being a group of twenty-first century people in period dress. Finding time to read favourite authors’ back-catalogues is difficult given the number of new books I read and review, but I’m really glad I made time for this one. A Rake’s Guide to Seduction is highly recommended.