The Duke of Danger (The Untouchables #6) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After killing his opponent in a duel, Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is known as the Duke of Danger. Tortured by guilt, he shields himself with a devil-may-care attitude. However, when he kills another man in another duel, he’s beyond redemption, even though it wasn’t his fault. He refuses to smear a dead man’s name, especially when he’s left behind a blameless widow who doesn’t deserve an even bigger scandal.

Widowed and destitute, Lady Emmaline Townsend must marry the man of her parents’ choosing or beg unsympathetic relatives for support. The only way out is to ask for help from the one man she’s sworn to hate, the man who owes her anything she asks, the man who killed her husband. They strike a devil’s bargain in which passion simmers just beneath the surface. But her dead husband’s transgressions come back to haunt them and threaten their chance at love.

Rating: B

I’ve been enjoying Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, although I’ll admit I was rather disappointed in the last instalment, The Duke of Defiance and wasn’t sure I was going to read further. But I decided to put that one down as an aberration and I’m glad I picked up The Duke of Danger, which is a much more strongly-written and well-conceived story than the previous one. The eponymous duke isn’t actually a duke, but the ducal nicknames were invented – tougue-in-cheek – to show that the gentlemen in question were of the highest echelons of society and far above the touch of the young ladies who coined them – as well as to be alliterative ;). The Duke of Danger shows a different side to the dashing hero who has fought many duels and escaped with nary a scratch; Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is a man of great integrity and honour who has acquired his moniker because of his involvement in a couple of duels in which he either killed or badly wounded his opponent, but who in in no way sees these events as badges of honour. Instead, he is haunted by the fact he has taken life in cold blood and hates himself for it.

It’s with a heavy heart, and as a last resort, that Lionel calls out Viscount Townsend for threatening to besmirch the honour of a lady who is one of Lionel’s oldest and dearest friends. He gave Townsend every chance to recant, but the man refused, leaving Lionel with one alternative – he will shoot wide in order to merely graze his opponent and take whatever comes his way. But when Townsend turns and fires before the end of the count, Lionel reacts instinctively and out of self-preservation – and shoots the man in the leg instead. It’s believed the wound is not a fatal one – but days later Townsend dies and impulsively, Lionel pays a visit to his widow, telling her she can call on him if there is ever anything she needs. After that, as he has done before, Lionel leaves England to escape the gossip and in an attempt to dull the agony of regret.

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

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The Duke of Defiance (The Untouchables #5) by Darcy Burke

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Difficult and defiant as a child, Bran Crowther, Earl of Knighton left England as a young man to pursue independence and adventure. He never expected to inherit the title and when duty calls him home, he still finds Society’s codes constricting and others’ expectations oppressive. Nevertheless, he needs a wife to be a mother to his young daughter, preferably a woman of intelligence and warmth who is, above all, immune to his idiosyncrasies—and to falling in love.

Widow Joanna Shaw isn’t interested in a second marriage, not after the loveless, passionless union she endured. She’d much rather dote on her young niece and nephew since they will likely be the only children in her life…until she meets a precocious girl, in desperate need of a mother. But her father, the so-called Duke of Defiance, is as peculiar as he is handsome, and Jo won’t take another risk with her heart. Their rules, however, are made to be broken, even when the consequences could destroy them both.

Rating: C

I haven’t read all the books in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and can confidently say that each book works as a standalone.  The Duke of Defiance features a new central couple and briefly re-introduces readers to the “Untouchables”, gentlemen so named by their heroines because their lofty positions in society meant they were well beyond their touch.  Although as things have turned out, they obviously weren’t 😉

Mrs. Joanna Shaw is the widowed sister of Nora, the Duchess of Kendal, who was the heroine of book one, The Forbidden Duke.  Joanna – Jo – was unhappily married to a country clergyman for around eight years, and is now living with Nora while she decides what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  At thirty-one, she is still lovely and her position as the sister of a duchess gives her a certain cachet in society – but she is not sure if she wants to remarry.  Her late husband’s emotional cruelty has naturally soured her view of the institution, and her inability to conceive a child during eight years of marriage makes her a less attractive prospect as a wife.

Bran Crowther, the Earl of Knighton was a third son who never expected to inherit his father’s title.  But the recent deaths of his two elder brothers necessitates his return to England from the successful life he had built for himself in Barbados, and he and his five-year-old daughter, Evie, are finding it difficult to adjust.  Fortunately, however, Evie has found a good friend in Becky, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kendal, and when Bran arrives to collect Evie from a play date, he meets Mrs. Shaw and is immediately struck by her wit and good sense, as well as by her beauty.

Bran and Jo are attracted to each other, and their interactions are nicely judged and generally very honest.  They are initially brought together when Nora offers to help Bran to find a new nurse for Evie and then has to send Jo in her stead.  Bran is pleased to discover that Jo’s views fit with his own, and also finds her comments about the dos and don’ts of London society very helpful as he tries to settle into his new life.  When he – and Evie – practically beg Jo to become Evie’s governess, she finds she cannot refuse, even as she knows that being in close proximity to Bran day after day is not a good idea.  But she has come to love Evie as she is coming to love the girl’s father, and agrees to a trial period, trying not to think about what will happen when Bran eventually takes a wife who will be able to give him more children and, most importantly, an heir.

Jo’s concern about her lack of fertility is the main source of conflict in the romance, and it’s one I’m not particularly fond of.  The women in such stories always blame themselves without any reason to do so other than that they’re women and therefore the fault must lie with them!  Bran at least has the sense to suggest that it might not be Jo’s fault, but she is naturally very sensitive about it, and isn’t prepared to let him take the risk that she won’t be able to give him any more children.  Her belief is not helped by the insecurities about her womanliness fostered in her by her late husband, but it’s nonetheless a plot point that always makes me roll my eyes.

Bran is a no-nonsense sort of person, and his years of living away from the strictures of London society have made him careless of convention and proper behaviour.  He thinks nothing of allowing Evie to go without shoes when they are at home – to the intense disapproval of some of his starchier servants – or of divesting himself of cravat and coat in front of Jo, when it is certainly not the done thing to ‘disrobe’ in front of a lady.  (Not that Jo minds, of course😉)  When he describes how clothes make him “itchy” and then explains how, as a child, his mother regarded him as defiant because he refused to wear clothing or eat what he was given; how he could never sit still or remain in bed all night, I thought Ms. Burke may have been setting him up as someone with a condition such as ADHD or on the Autistic Spectrum, but this is never made clear.  Jo comes to recognise and accept Bran’s quirks, but other than having been brought up by an extremely harsh, unforgiving mother and a father who didn’t bother with his third son, we’re not really given much of an explanation for them, and for the most part they are just glossed over.  There’s an implication that Evie, too, has anxiety issues, but these are handled in more or less the same way.

And on the subject of Evie, much of the time she comes across as much older than the five years of age she is supposed to be.  At one point, she tells her father: “I was certain you might be falling in love” – which sounds more like a teenager, for instance, and she reads as more of a plot-moppet than a real child.  Children are hard to write well (Grace Burrowes is one of the very few romance authors who is able to get it right) and I’m afraid Ms. Burke has missed the mark. She’s also way off the mark when it comes to the master/servant relationship that should exist between Bran and Jo. He pretty much treats her as the mistress of the house as soon as she sets foot in it, assigning her a bedchamber in the family wing, a maid of her own, and insisting upon her eating meals with him, to name just a few things no over governess would have been granted. I get that Bran is supposed to be unfamiliar with society customs but Jo should know better and allows Bran to wave aside her very weak protests.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book does work as a standalone, but information about previous characters and situations is given in obvious info-dumps, rather than evolving naturally; and while the good-natured teasing between the four heroes of the previous books is one of the best things about the this one, it felt like overkill for all four of them to just happen to be around in order to meet Bran.

While the writing is strong and the love scenes are sensual, The Duke of Defiance is, sadly one of the weaker entries in this series. I do plan to read more by Darcy Burke, but I’m going to chalk this one up as a misfire.

The Forbidden Duke (The Untouchables #1) by Darcy Burke (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

Spinster Miss Eleanor Lockhart is suddenly homeless and employment is her only option. Ruined after succumbing to a scoundrel’s excessive charm nearly a decade ago, she’s lucky to obtain a position as a paid companion and committed to behaving with the utmost propriety. She definitely shouldn’t be in the arms of a man capable of utterly destroying what little remains of her reputation…

Titus St. John, Duke of Kendal, is known as the Forbidden Duke, a mysterious, intimidating figure who enters Society just once each year at his stepmother’s ball. A decade ago, he was a devil-may-care rake until his idle roguery brought about the ruin of Eleanor Lockhart—and his resulting self-imposed isolation. Now she’s back, and she needs his help. But by “saving” her, he may just ruin her life all over again.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C+

The Forbidden Duke is the first book in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, so named because the heroes are all men whose highly elevated positions in society make them unattainable by any but ladies of the highest station and put them most definitely beyond the reach of the heroines… supposedly.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of the later books in the series, so when this one popped up at Audible, I thought I’d give it a go; I haven’t read it and narrator Marian Hussey is always reliable.

Eleanor – Nora – Lockhart is twenty-seven and regards herself as being firmly on the shelf. During her second London Season several years earlier, she was found in the arms of a young man she erroneously believed was going to marry her and was forced to return home, her reputation in tatters. She has lived quietly with her father ever since, but now faces the prospect of becoming homeless due to his having lost a large sum of money in a poorly judged investment. They will have to sell their modest home, and while her father is going to go to live with his sister, there is no room for Nora and she has no other option but to seek employment. Fortunately for her, she lands well and truly on her feet first time out, securing a position as companion to the kindly Lady Sattersfield, who is willing to overlook Nora’s past and ruined reputation and give her a second chance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Duke of Desire (The Untouchables #4) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ten years ago Ivy Breckenridge’s life was ruined. She had to reinvent herself, and now, after painstakingly making her own way in the world, she’s nearly forgotten the dreams of home and family she’d once nurtured. Until one man peers into her soul and awakens every one of her hidden desires. But no matter how good he makes her feel, she can’t trust him—alone by choice is better than alone by necessity.

With a notorious reputation for training married women in the art of passion, Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare, is reviled by some and celebrated by others. He doesn’t allow anyone close enough to see past his charming exterior. When Ivy uncovers the man beneath, the seducer is suddenly the seduced. Enraptured by her mind and spirit, he wants more but revealing his darkest secrets is a price he won’t pay.

Rating: B+

The Duke of Desire, the fourth book in Darcy Burke’s series, The Untouchables, is quite possibly my favourite of them all so far. I will admit that when I read the blurb, I was doubtful. After all, the idea that the eponymous duke is a kind of Regency Era sex-therapist who helps couples to liven up their love lives by sleeping with the wives and helping them to learn to find and give pleasure – is certainly most unusual, not to mention unlikely. But bear with me; the ability to suspend your disbelief on that point will pay dividends, because said duke turned out to be one of the most charming, well-balanced and thoroughly adorable heroes I’ve read about in a while.

Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare – known as West to his friends – has such a notorious reputation as a seducer of married women that he has been nicknamed ‘The Duke of Desire’ by lady’s companion, Ivy Breckenridge and her friends Lucy and Aquilla (heroines of the previous two books). West is one of several eligible gentlemen the ladies also designated as ‘Untouchable’, men so far about them in station that they daren’t even look that high, let alone think about doing anything else. However, given that Lucy and Aquilla have recently married two of those men (The Duke of Daring and The Duke of Deception), it seems that perhaps the Untouchables weren’t so far out of reach after all. Although Ivy has absolutely no intention whatsoever of finding out if the Duke of Clare is touchable or not; in fact, she wanted to nickname him ‘The Duke of Depravity’, because the ease with which he embarks upon his numerous affairs disgusts her.

She is therefore not best pleased when, at a house-party she is attending with her employer, the duke takes notice of her and attempts to start up a flirtation. There’s no doubt he’s very handsome and very charming, but Ivy isn’t interested, and certainly not in a man whose attention to a lowly, paid companion can only lead to one thing. And Ivy isn’t interested in that, either. Yet in their few, brief encounters, West reveals himself to be something quite different to the heartless seducer Ivy believes he is. He doesn’t deny the truth of his many affairs, but unlike the other rakes she has encountered, West is not self-centred or jaded – in fact he’s the exact opposite. She has never before met someone who seems so comfortable in his own skin, someone with such a capacity for joy and the desire for others to find their own happiness… and in spite of her misgivings, she begins to wish she could experience some of that joy for herself.

But she persists in holding herself back from both joy and him.  Ten years earlier, Ivy fell in love with a young man who promised her marriage but then left her utterly ruined.  In the intervening years, she endured great hardship, and then, with the help of a kind lady patroness, re-invented herself and made a new life, leading to her current situation as a companion.  She isn’t interested in men or in marriage; she just wants to live a quiet, respectable life and to pursue her many charitable interests, most of which take the form of helping to improve the lot of people who have been unlucky enough to have ended up in the workhouse.

Ivy may come across as rather cold and inflexible to begin with, but she has good reasons for that, some of which are quickly obvious, some of which are revealed to good effect later on in the story.  But in spite of her past and in spite of her determination not to like West, she soon finds that it’s completely impossible not to fall under his spell. West is determined to pursue Ivy at first, but once she turns him down, he backs off, and, as he has no wish to ruin her, tries to leave her alone.  But he also recognises that she needs someone like him – he says himself that it’s his nature to push people into challenging themselves – because he can see that Ivy is not the dry, mirthless woman she makes herself out to be, and he wants her to live and enjoy her life rather than just trudge through it.  As fellow guests at a house party they cannot completely avoid each other, which makes their interactions even more of a delight. It’s clear that West isn’t actively trying to charm Ivy (although his charm is so natural that he really can’t help it!) and isn’t pretending friendship in order to get her into bed.  He wants her, yes, and offers to teach her about pleasure, but he leaves it to Ivy to decide how their relationship should proceed.

One of the things I really liked about the book is the way in which both West and Ivy are changed by their association.  Ivy deliberately represses her emotions because she believes that allowing herself to feel will lead to more pain and heartbreak, but hasn’t realised that in doing so, she has cut herself off from positive emotions as well.  She is profoundly affected by West’s honesty and zest for life – and starts to realise what she has been denying herself; not just passion but pleasure in even the simplest things. And West has his eyes opened to the terrible situation faced by so many when he accompanies Ivy and some of the other ladies on a visit to a local workhouse, and is moved to help; not just because he wants to impress (although he admits that might be part of it) but because his compassionate nature compels him to do so.

West has his own cross to bear in the form of his puritanical mother, whose reaction to his normal, healthy, teenaged preoccupation with females was to castigate and beat him.  As a result, he began to take delight in defying and shocking her, his rebellion taking the form of leaping in to the beds of as many women in as scandalous a fashion as possible.  It’s perhaps a bit extreme, but the Duchess is a complete horror and fortunately, doesn’t get a lot of page time.

I liked the way the truth of West’s character is gradually revealed and the subtlety with which the author shows the evolution of his feelings for Ivy.  He’s intrigued by her spirit and intelligence from the start, but it takes her rejection to get him to start looking beneath the beautiful surface, and to realise that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye.  And that’s another of the things I loved about him; he’s intuitive and as sensitive to the things people don’t say as to the things they do.

The chemistry between West and Ivy is scorching right from the start, and I’d venture to say that the love scenes in this story are probably the sexiest I’ve read in any of this author’s books.  There’s one particularly sensual scene where all West does is talk… kudos, Ms. Burke, on that, because not many authors can write a Kindle-melting scene where the characters are a) upright and b) fully clothed.

In spite of the eyebrow raising concept of the nobleman sex-therapist, The Duke of Desire – the book, and the man himself – completely won me over.  The pairing of the independent, somewhat repressed heroine who needs to learn to let go once in a while with the confident, all-round-swoon-worthy hero who oozes sex appeal is a potent one that proved, in the end, to be a winning combination.

The Duke of Deception (Untouchables #3) by Darcy Burke

duke-of-deception

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After five years on the Marriage Mart, Miss Aquilla Knox is ready for spinsterhood until a benefactress steps in to help her secure a husband. Only Aquilla doesn’t actually want to marry—her failure is entirely on purpose. When the earl she’s nicknamed the Duke of Deception sets his sights on her, she refuses to be drawn in by her attraction to him. If there’s one thing she knows it’s that a gentleman is never what he seems.

Edward Bishop, Earl of Sutton, has a reputation for courting young misses and dropping them without a second thought. This has earned him a reputation for deceit, a description he can’t refute because he does in fact, harbor secrets and will do anything—deceive anyone—to ensure they don’t come to light. As he comes to know the charming Miss Knox, his resolve is tested. However, trust comes at a price and Ned won’t pay with his heart.

Rating: B

Darcy Burke’s The Duke of Deception is the third book in her current Untouchables series – the gentlemen so named by their ladies because their difference in social station puts the men well above their touch. The hero of this book is not a duke at all, however – the moniker is chosen merely to be alliterative – but he does have a reputation for, if not deceit exactly, then not always being above board.

Edward Bishop, Earl of Sutton, has, over the years, shown interest in a number of eligible young ladies but has never followed through with an offer of marriage. He is no lothario or jilt and genuinely wants a wife, but his family circumstances are difficult and he therefore has to be very careful about his choice. So he has unofficially courted several women, hoping to find one that would meet his exacting criteria – to no avail. This behaviour has not endeared him to the marriage-minded mamas and hopeful papas of the ton, although the real deception he is practicing is something far more serious.

Having witnessed the abuse, both verbal and physical, meted out to her mother by her father over the many years of their marriage, Miss Aquilla Knox is determined never to put herself into a man’s power. She knows that the only value her father places on her is her potential as a bride for some rich, well-connected man, so she has been allowed several London seasons during which to find a suitable husband. For this current season – her fifth – Aquilla is being sponsored by her dear friend, Lady Sattersfield, and can’t help feeling guilty because she has no intention of getting married and plans instead to find a position as a companion. It’s an unequal choice to be sure, especially given that companions were subject to the whims of their employer and could be badly treated – but Aquilla has seen her own mother treated far worse, so her decision makes sense to some degree.

Instead of doing all the things a young lady should do in order to attract a husband, Aquilla does the exact opposite and has earned herself a reputation as a scatterbrained chatterbox, thus ensuring that she has not received a single offer of marriage, a state which she intends to maintain until the end of the Season. Until, that is, she is caught in a rainstorm one evening and has to ask a gentleman for help so she can re-enter the house at which she is a guest. The gentleman duly assists, making sure that Aquilla is not noticed returning to the house. She is grateful for his kindness and his concern for her reputation, and surprised to realise that the gentleman is none other than the Duke of Deception himself – the Earl of Sutton.

Edward – or Ned, as he is known by those close to him – has realised that the latest potential bride on his list is not going to meet his requirements, and knows he is going to endure censure once again when he does not come up to scratch.  But Aquilla’s gentle good-humour, her confidence and the flashes of wit she displays – even when soaked through – intrigue and attract him and he starts to wonder whether she might not be what he is looking for.

Aquilla also feels the spark between them, but is determined to adhere to her plan of finding a position rather than a husband.  But when her father announces that he has arranged for her to marry Lord Lindsell, a man she dislikes and knows will not treat her kindly, Aquilla is horrified, knowing too well that her father’s decision is based on greed and that she has no chance of changing his mind.

Ned is similarly concerned because he is strongly attracted to Aquilla and had hoped for more time to get to know her.  But time is no longer on his side.  He knows of Lindsell’s reputation and knows Aquilla dislikes the man, so Ned does the only thing he can think of – the thing he has never done before but desperately wants to do now – and asks her to marry him.

Aquilla and Ned embark upon their marriage with optimism, but each of them is keeping secrets from the other, Ned about the reasons for his frequently aborted courtships and Aquilla about her reasons for not wanting to marry at all.  Ned is a truly decent man who is trying to do the best for his family and his best by his new wife, and unfortunately, makes some poor decisions in the belief that his choices will prove to have been the best for everyone in the long run.  The thing is, while it’s easy for the reader to see that these decisions are going to cause more problems than they solve, Ned’s desire to do right by everyone is very easy to relate to and his actions actually feel quite realistic. The difficulties Ned’s actions begin to create in his new marriage are compounded by the fact that Aquilla has not yet told him about her upbringing and how it has affected her ability to trust others – especially men.  Fortunately, however, Ms. Burke doesn’t drag this out with a long series of misunderstandings – although there is an event about three-quarters of the way through the book which seems overly contrived and which stretched my credulity somewhat.

Otherwise, Duke of Deception is an enjoyable, well-paced story that, while fairly short, is not lacking in depth or insight.  Ned and Aquilla are an engaging, well-matched couple – strong, caring and compassionate; and their romance is developed in such a way that it’s easy to believe that they will continue to be happy together long after the book is ended.  The relationship between Ned and his brother is often heart-breaking – I teared up at one point – and I could completely sympathise with Ned’s frustration at the way he has been forced to put his life on hold through no fault of his own, and then at his guilt for feeling that way.  The detail concerning the treatment of the mentally ill at this time makes an interesting background to the story, and further shows Ned to advantage in his abhorrence of the conditions and treatments endured by those who were institutionalised and his determination to take care of his own.

I haven’t read the previous books – although I will probably pick them up at some point – but while this is the third in a series, and there are cameo appearances by some of the characters who have appeared previously, the novels are loosely connected and can be read as standalones.

Romancing the Earl (Regency Treasure Hunters #2) by Darcy Burke

romancing the earl

Major Elijah Hollister never wanted to be an earl, particularly not when it meant losing his brother. When a bold adventuress shows up at his door seeking a treasure map, Elijah suspects his brother’s death may not have been accidental and that the lady knows more than she’s willing to share. Whether she’s a friend or foe, Elijah plans to keep her close—and hope the temptation of her kisses doesn’t ruin them both.

Miss Catriona Bowen can almost taste the fruits of her years-long quest to find one of Britain’s greatest treasures. The discovery will deliver the recognition and respect she deserves as an antiquary, despite the fact that she’s a woman. However, to find the map that will lead her to success, she must ally herself with a stoic, yet provocative gentleman with a different goal. And when a villain threatens their lives, she realizes too late that love is the greatest treasure of all.

Rating: B-

Romancing the Earl is the second book in Ms Burke’s Regency Treasure Hunters series, which began with The De Valery Code. That story is set some twenty-two years earlier and tells the story of Rhys and Margery Bowen, whose daughter, Cate, is the heroine of this book. While there are a couple of references to some of the elements of the storyline in book one which are carried over, Romancing the Earl works well as a standalone, with a nicely built romance and an intriguing adventure plot.

Major Elijah Hollister has recently returned to England from Australia, where he was stationed for a number of years. His return was occasioned by the recent and unexpected death of his brother Matthew, the Earl of Norris, which has left Elijah both bereft and in possession of an earldom he doesn’t want.

Completely out of the blue, he receives a visit from a lovely young woman who introduces herself as Catriona Bowen. She loses no time in informing him that she wishes to purchase a medieval tapestry she believes is part of the collection of antiquities Elijah has inherited from the distant cousin who was the holder of the title before Matthew. When she goes on to explain that the tapestry may well contain a clue as to the location of a priceless Arthurian artefact known as the Sword of Dyrnwyn, Elijah is suspicious of her true intent – and when, during the course of their conversation, Catriona explains that she is not the only person interested in the tapestry and the information it may contain, Elijah comes to the realisation that perhaps his brother’s death was no accident.

While he has no real interest in the tapestry other than as it relates to his brother’s death, Elijah is determined to investigate and find out the truth. He and Catriona form an uneasy alliance; if Matthew was murdered by whoever was after the tapestry, then helping to recover it may provide clues as to the identity of his brother’s killers.

What follows is a road-trip story during which the Earl and Catriona – accompanied by their respective servants, Wade and Grey – travel from his Wiltshire home to Harlech in Wales, finding clues and confronting the dangerous gang who are also in pursuit of the treasure.

While the story is perhaps a little slow to start, spending time as it does introducing the reader to the various players in the story and explaining the legends behind the Arthurian treasures of which the Sword of Dyrnwyn is one – once the journey really gets underway, the pacing picks up, and I found myself much more drawn in.

The two principals are attractive, engaging characters whose past experiences (him) and unconventional lifestyle (her) have decided both of them against long-term entanglements, but who are nonetheless unable to ignore the growing attraction between them. The romantic and sexual tension between them is built up very well, and even though Cate’s attitude towards sex is rather too modern for the time, I nonetheless enjoyed how her forwardness was contrasted with Elijah’s insistence on propriety and the way she could throw him completely off balance with a veiled suggestion or look.

In fact, Cate is a very forward-thinking young woman who wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as an academic in a time when women weren’t supposed to have brains or to be able to think for themselves. I did find it a little hard to believe that her parents would have allowed her to gallivant about the country with only her companion in tow; regardless of their confidence in Cate’s common sense and her resourcefulness, the middle of nowhere in the English countryside could be a very dangerous place to be.

Elijah is slightly less well defined, although Ms Burke adds some lovely little touches to his backstory which help to flesh him out. He’s charming, dependable and possesses the kind of quiet competence that is very attractive, as well as being the sort of hero who may be a bit uptight on the surface but is a bit of a devil between the sheets ;-). I was, however, rather surprised by his actions towards the end of the story, when the conclusions he reaches about his brother’s death cause him to act in a way that’s completely out of character.

There are a few inconsistencies in the story (like the fact that Bradford is nowhere near Bath; the author obviously means Bradford-upon-Avon, but this British reader had to think about it, because to us, Bradford is “up north”) and the reasons behind Elijah’s poor relationship with his mother are never fully explored or given closure. Cate’s stated determination never to disgrace her family name is somewhat at odds with the way she travels around independently all the time. And personally, I have a problem with the concept that King Arthur actually existed. The treasures which are being sought during this series are all reputed to be artefacts that were owned by Arthur and his knights, thus proving the legendary king’s existence. I know this is fiction, but that requires me to stretch my credulity just a bit too far.

Apart from those things, though Romancing the Earl is a well-written, enjoyable romp, featuring a couple of likeable protagonists, a sensual romance and a nicely-crafted adventure plot. Ms Burke has set things up well for the next couple of books in the series, and I’m sure I’ll be checking them out.

The de Valery Code (Regency Treasure Hunters #1)by Darcy Burke

ThedeValeryCode

Miss Margery Derrington and her dear aunts are in dire straits. Their discovery of a rare medieval manuscript will hopefully stave off their creditors—if it’s worth what they hope. Margery reluctantly allies with a reclusive scholar to use the book to pursue a treasure that could exceed her expectations. Amidst danger, secrets, and an insatiable attraction, is Margery gambling just her financial future…or her heart?

Academic Rhys Bowen can’t believe he has his hands on the elusive de Valery text. Solving its hidden code and unearthing its legendary treasure would establish him as one of Britain’s leading antiquarians, finally casting him out of his brilliant late father’s shadow. But when a centuries-old organization convinces Rhys of the perils of disturbing the past, he must choose between his conscience…and the captivating woman he’s sworn to help.

Rating: C+

This is the first in a new series of books from Ms Burke, under the title of Regency Treasure Hunters, and it’s a fast-paced mixture of adventure and romance, very much in the mould of Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones. But with more sex!

The story opens with Miss Margery Deringham and her two great aunts searching their attic for things of value that they can sell in order to stave off financial ruin. When they stumble across an old, illuminated manuscript storybook entitled The Ballads of Sir Gareth, Margery is spellbound. Her aunts tell her that they remember the book from their childhoods, and that it contains stories of bold knights, beautiful damsels and derring do.

The ladies decide to have the book valued – they can’t afford to be blinded to their precarious monetary situation by sentimentality – and write to Alexander Bowen, widely known to be an expert on medieval manuscripts to request his assistance.

Margery travels to meet with Mr Bowen and is surprised to discover the elderly scholar she had expected to meet is in fact a much younger man – Mr Rhys Bowen, the scholar’s equally knowledgeable son. Not only is he younger, he’s gorgeous – but Margery finds his rather commanding manner off-putting and senses that he is not telling her the whole truth about her book.

When Margery turns down Rhys’ more than generous offer for the manuscript, he realises that the only way he is going to be able to study it at any length is to share some of his knowledge with her. He tells her that her book is one of two written by the medieval poet Eugene de Valery, that the other book is in the possession of his cousin, the dissolute Earl of Stratton, and that the books are worth far more as a pair than individually.

What he doesn’t tell her is that the books together are rumoured to contain a code which, when broken, will lead to a great treasure. Rhys has no idea what the code is, how to break it or what the treasure is – he is more interested in the scholastic value of said treasure than in any monetary gain, and in the challenge presented by the need to find and then break the code.

Thoroughly intrigued by the history of the manuscript and by the prospect of seeing another like it, Margery is not about to give her book into Rhys’ charge and insists on accompanying him to his cousin’s estate in Leominster, a day’s journey away.

On their overnight stop, Margery awakens to find an intruder in the room she shares with her companion – an intruder who threatens violence if she doesn’t give him the book – and it becomes clear to her that there is something more at stake here than an historical interest in a couple of old manuscripts. Rhys has to tell her the truth about the code, and they come to the realisation that their treasure hunt could prove dangerous.

The de Valery Code is a cracking yarn that moves at a swift pace with a sensual romance developing alongside. I enjoyed the story, and while the idea of a secret order pledged to seek out Arthurian treasures and prevent their use for evil is perhaps a little far-fetched, it’s no more so than those featured in countless other books which tell similar stories.

The book is well-plotted and written, but the characterisation is a bit uneven. Rhys is a charming beta hero, a knowledgeable antiquarian and scholar whose air of authority and confidence in his abilities is seen by Margery as arrogance and pig-headedness, and that’s a big stumbling block for me, because he’s neither of those things. Margery is lovely, intelligent, and discovers a real passion for history and its secrets as she and Rhys pursue their goal, but she refuses to trust him, citing those lies of omission from when they barely knew each other as the reason why. She lies to him, tries to trick him into thinking she’s gone back home when she’s really trying to head off on her own, and justifies her actions by reminding herself that he’d lied to heronce. He never gives her any other reason to mistrust him, saves her bacon on several occasions and makes it clear that he has every intention of sharing his discoveries with her, and yet she still won’t trust him. In the romance department, there’s terrific chemistry between the couple, but Margery persists in pushing Rhys away here, too, and although Ms Burke tries to explain Margery’s attitude towards the end of the story, it isn’t enough to justify the hurt she causes. She actually initiates the first two sexual encounters – and yet afterwards, she leaps out of bed like it’s on fire (which it may have been, because the sex scenes are nicely hot!), tells Rhys she doesn’t want anything more from him, puts on her clothes and bolts from the room without so much as a “thank-you”, leaving Rhys wondering what the hell went wrong!

While the characterisation of the heroine does leave something to be desired, the story as a whole flows well and Margery does redeem herself somewhat towards the end.

I did notice a few errors in the copy I read – some were those pesky Americanisms that appear in almost every historical I read (“gotten” is not a word we use in the UK – we just say “got”), and I was somewhat confused when one of the secondary characters – Mr Digby – was referred to as a “peer” and addressed as a “lordship”. If he’s a Mister, he’s neither a peer nor a lordship.

But otherwise, it’s an engaging – if slightly derivative – read and a good start to the series.