You May Kiss the Bride (Penhallow Dynasty #1) by Lisa Berne (audiobook) – Narrated by Carolyn Morris

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Wealthy and arrogant, Gabriel Penhallow knows it’s time to fulfill his dynastic duty. All he must do is follow “The Penhallow way” – find a biddable bride, produce an heir and a spare, and then live separate lives. It’s worked so well for generations, certainly one kiss with the delectable Livia Stuart isn’t going to change things. Society dictates he marry her, and one chit is as good as another as long as she’s from a decent family.

But Livia’s transformation from an original to a mundane diamond of the first water makes Gabriel realize he desperately wants the woman who somehow provoked him into that kiss. And for all the ladies who’ve thrown themselves at him, it’s the one who wants to flee whom he now wants. But how will he keep this independent miss from flying away?

Rating: Narration – A- Content – D+

I admit that I picked up You May Kiss the Bride for review solely because of Carolyn Morris. Reviews for this début historical romance, the first in Lisa Berne’s Penhallow Dynasty series have been mixed, but I knew I’d at the very least enjoy the narration, so I decided it give it a go. In the end, my opinions about the story are pretty much along the same lines as the less than glowing reviews; it’s nothing I haven’t read before and the author’s inexperience shows clearly in terms of the storytelling and characterisation.

Livia Stuart hasn’t had an easy life. Orphaned in India when she was a child, she was sent back to England and resides with her listless aunt and drunken uncle, who never really wanted her and who wouldn’t miss her if she disappeared. She is constantly patronised by her neighbour and local mean girl, the Honourable Cecily Orr, who pretends friendship but in reality does everything she can to make “dear Livia” aware of her inferior situation, insisting on giving her her cast off gowns and never missing an opportunity to point out Livia’s status as a poor relation.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Rating: B

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645 in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country as the King heads south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.

Closer to Sin by Elizabeth Squire

closer to sin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Liliane Desailly travels to Napoleonic France after receiving a plea for help from her French cousin. She learns she is the key to fulfilling her grandfather’s legacy, but to do so she must masquerade as a spy and courier secrets on behalf of the British Admiralty.

Sinclair Charlcroft is the British Admiralty’s last hope. Napoleon’s Grande Armée is poised to invade Britain, an English spy is missing and a traitor has infiltrated the Admiralty’s intelligence network.

Pursued by Napoleon’s agents, Liliane and Sinclair cannot reveal their true identities until they unlock the secrets of the legacy — and only then can they unlock the secrets in their hearts.

Rating:B-

Elizabeth Squire’s Closer to Sin is an enjoyable début novel which sees a young woman becoming embroiled in the search for a missing spy as she travels to France to fulfil her father’s last wish. With a dashing hero, the emergence of a secret society dedicated to the revival of the French Jacobins, and even a marriage of convenience –my favourite trope – the story promised much, and, to be fair, delivered in many areas. But things lose focus somewhat in the second half when the ongoing espionage plot gets bogged down in the overly contrived drama that ensues when the protagonists discover that neither of them is who they claimed to be.

Liliane Desailly is twenty-five, the niece of a duke, and expected to conform to expectations by marrying the man chosen for her. This is the fate of all well-bred young women, and Liliane does not expect to escape it, but before she resigns herself to a conventional life, she wants to do something for herself, to have a moment of freedom where she can make her own decisions and stand on her own two feet. At the behest of her cousin, Solange Beaumont, Liliane manages to contrive an excuse for her absence from home and travels to France to meet with Solange, a British agent, who has arranged for Liliane to travel to Boulogne in order to deliver a family heirloom to an old friend of her late father’s. She will have to masquerade as a spy and courier and travel with of one of Solange’s contacts, a Monsieur St. Clair.

St. Clair is not impressed when Solange puts forward the suggestion that Liliane takes her place on his current mission. The substitution goes against protocol, he doesn’t like the idea of being saddled with an inexperienced agent and Liliane is far too distractingly lovely for his peace of mind. But his need to get the information he carries to his superiors is urgent and there is no time to make other arrangements, so he has no alternative but to agree to take Liliane with him.

Monsieur St. Clair, a Frenchman who is part of a network of agents working behind the scenes to bring down Napoléon is in fact Sinclair Charlcroft, Marquess of Essleton, who has been detailed by the Admiralty to discover the whereabouts of a missing agent and return him – or the information he was carrying – to London without delay. With the Grande Armée ready to invade, it seems a traitor has infiltrated British Intelligence, so it’s imperative that Sin’s investigations are both fast and discreet, and the prospect of being slowed-down by an unknown agent frustrates him. But Liliane soon shows herself to be a valuable asset; quick-witted, courageous and able to grasp the complexities of the political and military landscape; and as they travel, they find they enjoy each other’s company and begin to form a bond of comradeship.

(One small niggle. Sin is supposed to be passing convincingly as a Frenchman, yet makes a very basic mistake when he continually refers to Liliane as “mon fleur”, when it should be “MA fleur”. It’s a small thing, but it happens often and I found it distracting.)

Both Sin and Liliane are aware of the strength of the attraction that has simmered between them since the moment they met, but both also realise that taking things further is not a good idea. Liliane will be betrothed when she returns to England and in any case, as the relative of a duke, she can’t possibly have a future with a French partisan. And a French spy is no fit mate for an English marquess, no matter that Sin has no desire to remarry following the disaster that was his first marriage. But everything goes to hell in a handbasket when the lieutenant of a Hussar regiment becomes suspicious of them and, in an attempt to throw him off the scent, Liliane claims that she and Sin are engaged and on their way to Boulogne to be wed. Unfortunately for them, the officer refuses to accept this explanation for their movements around the countryside and insists that his company travels with them to ensure that the wedding takes place.

Forced to marry so they can continue their mission, Sin and Liliane agree to defer doing anything about their unwanted marriage until later in the year, at which point they will meet again and quietly arrange an annulment. But for Liliane, the prospect of accepting a proposal from another man while she is married to Sin fills her with dread, for she has realised that the one man she wants is one she cannot have. And Sin is floored by the realisation that in Liliane, he has found a woman who has come to know him better in a matter of weeks than his late wife ever did over the three years of their marriage. The intensity of their mutual attraction soon becomes too much for either of them to resist, but that can’t change anything. As they draw closer to discovering the truth about the missing spy, the stakes become higher when it appears that a double-agent is at work, and the mysterious Cousin’s Legacy takes on a previously unsuspected importance … but once the sensitive information is delivered, their mission ends and Sin and Liliane part, intending to meet again as previously agreed.

Neither of them knows that their next meeting will take place much sooner than that.

The first half of the book is fast-paced and packed with plenty of action; and the author does a good job of evoking an atmosphere of peril and showing the degree of danger faced by the protagonists right from the beginning. The one criticism I have is to do with the insta-lust and frequent mental drooling that goes on by both Sin and Liliane; at their very first meeting, Liliane is practically panting with lust, which seemed very out of place considering that she has absconded from home and family and is in a potentially dangerous situation. Even so, it doesn’t really get in the way of the story and there’s no denying that the couple has great chemistry. However, when things move to England and Sin and Liliane discover that they were both lying about their identities, the story gets bogged down in a continual repetition of “I want an annulment because you lied to me” and “No – you’re my wife and staying that way.” The problem is that there IS no problem, other than the fact that Liliane’s formidable Great-Aunt doesn’t like Sin and wants her to marry a chinless wonder by the name of Freddy Parkes. As Sin himself points out helpfully:

“As one of the very few unattached marquises who can also boast being under the age of thirty, having a full head of hair and all of my own teeth, I am considered to be quite the eligible catch.”

– so I couldn’t see why Liliane was so insistent on the annulment, other than that she has the idea that Sin doesn’t really want to be married to her in spite of his insistence that he does.

Fortunately for the book as a whole, the espionage storyline isn’t quite finished as there is still a double-agent to be unmasked, and Ms. Squire skilfully draws her threads together and throws in a few more twists and turns before she wraps things up. Or rather, doesn’t wrap them up, because while Sin and Liliane’s story is concluded here, there is obviously more to be discovered about the Cousin’s Legacy in future books in the series.

I enjoyed Closer to Sin in spite of the issues I had with the second half and would certainly be open to reading more books by this author. If you enjoy a strongly-written, complex espionage story featuring a well-matched central couple, then you might consider checking it out.

add-to-goodreads-button

A Lady’s Guide to Ruin by Kathleen Kimmel

a lady's guide to ruin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Joan Price is a wanted woman. A thief and a fugitive from the mental hospital where she was falsely committed, she’s now on the run from her former partners in crime. But luck must be on her side—just when it seems all is doomed, she runs straight into the arms of Martin Hargrove, Earl of Fenbrook, who mistakes her for his distant cousin, Daphne.

Lord Fenbrook has no intention of marrying, and certainly doesn’t consider his notoriously scatterbrained cousin a prospect. But her flighty persona seems to hide something far more intriguing—a secret self she trusts with no one. And Martin is determined to earn that trust…

When Martin’s sister discovers Joan’s charade, they strike a bargain: Joan can remain within the safe walls of Birch Hall, as long as she doesn’t allow Martin to fall in love with her—for their flirtation would surely ruin them both. She’s convinced she poses no threat to his heart, but she’s beginning to realize that her heart may be the one in danger. Especially as he seems very set on seducing her

Rating: C-

I’ve had a pretty good run of books this year; a good proportion of A and B grade reads and not too many low Cs and Ds. And among those I’ve been fortunate enough to read two or three début authors whose books I’ve rated above average, so I picked up Kathleen Kimmel’s A Lady’s Guide to Ruin in hopes of finding another one. Unfortunately, however, that proved not to be the case, as the book I read felt as though it was only half finished.

Oh, the story reaches a conclusion and there is an HEA for the hero and heroine, but as for what goes on between the opening scene of the heroine just having escaped from Bedlam (and I’m still speculating on how on earth she managed that because it is never elaborated upon) and the ending… well, there’s a plot and some characters but nothing is fully developed, there is far too much telling and not enough showing, and I came away from it feeling as though I’d read the bare bones of a story that was badly in need of fleshing out.

Joan Price, the aforementioned Bedlam escapee, is on the run from her brother, Moses, and his nasty crony, having stolen some valuable diamonds from them in revenge for their having put her into the asylum in the first place. Just as she is worried they are catching up with her, she is mistaken for someone else, a lady of quality who is going to stay with her distant cousin, Lord Fenbrook, in order to act as his invalid twin-sister’s companion.

In the guise of dippy cousin Daphne, Joan is whisked away to the earl’s townhouse, determined to lie low for a couple of days and then move on. She can’t deny that the prospect of a full belly and a comfortable bed is a very attractive one, or that the handsome young earl is similarly enticing, but she can’t afford to become used to such luxury and needs to get away, fence the diamonds and disappear.

Martin Hargrove, Earl of Fenbrook has inherited a title he doesn’t want because his older brother, Charles, vanished some years previously and has recently been declared officially dead. Martin is an outwardly calm, rather sweet young man but inside, he’s a mass of seething anxiety and anger, and in fact, is so undesirous of being an earl that he is determined to find Charles, whom he does not really believe is dead.

Joan’s plans for a quick getaway are thwarted when she discovers that Elinor Hargrove is about to depart London for Birch Hall, the Fenbrook country estate, for the summer. When Moses arrives suddenly, furious and looking for her, Joan decides it would be a good idea to leave London with the Hargroves and make her escape from the hall instead.

Elinor is a sharp-tongued, quick witted young woman, and she and Joan/Daphne soon strike up a friendship of sorts. But it doesn’t take long for Elinor to realise that Joan isn’t who she says she is, and she worms the truth out of her at the same time as she tells her not to allow her brother to fall in love with her as she doesn’t want his heart broken.

Here’s the first point (of several) at which I had to stop reading and flick back through the book to see if I’d missed something because, other than the odd brief mention of how Martin was intrigued by what he was seeing as the two different sides of “Daphne” (the dippy one and the quick-witted one) and Joan thinking that he’s a bit of alright, there has been nothing to suggest a deeper connection or interest between the pair. And here is also an example (of several) of the telling and not showing I mentioned, as Elinor then proceeds to tell Joan that Martin’s thoughts and feelings “rarely communicate. Logic will occasionally call on passion, but even when both are present at once they cannot come to agreement. Martin thinks and overthinks and then acts according to his heart.” That wasn’t the impression of his character I received at all, because in fact, his character is so bland as to be practically non-existent. Basically, everything we know about Martin is told to us by someone else – usually Elinor, and because she’s his twin, we’re expected to buy that she knows everything about him. This knowledge does not, however, work the other way.

The different threads of the story – the romance, Joan’s nefarious past catching up with her, what became of the real Daphne, and Martin’s search for Charles – are all present at various points in the book, but there is no sense of cohesiveness or integration. There is no exploration of the huge class difference between Martin and Joan; and the characters are barely two-dimensional, with the possible exception of Elinor, who will, I believe, be the heroine of the next book. In fact, we learn more about her backstory than about that of the two principals, between whom there is no romantic spark whatsoever.

Needless to say, Martin eventually discovers the truth about Joan and feels very hurt and betrayed. She leaves and they spend six months (or a year, it’s not clear) apart. This period is covered in about three pages. Then she and Martin meet again and all is quickly forgiven – the end.

To say that A Lady’s Guide to Ruin is an unsatisfying read is an understatement. Its one saving grace is in the sample chapter of the next book at the end, which looks as though it might be worth picking up. I might do that, although I doubt I’ll be anywhere near the front of the queue.

add-to-goodreads-button

A Wicked Way to Win an Earl by Anna Bradley

a wicked way to win an earl

This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1811. Delia Somerset despises the privileged ton, but her young sister, Lily, is desperate to escape their family’s scandalous past and join high society. Unwilling to upset her sister, Delia reluctantly agrees to attend a party at the Sutherland estate—and avoid the gossip at all costs.

Alec Sutherland is known as a hot-headed scoundrel, but nothing gets a rise out of him as much as the news that his brother desires Delia’s hand in marriage. She is, after all, the daughter of the London belle who soiled their family name. He’s determined to ruin her reputation as well, in the most delicious way possible. It’s only a matter of time before he can woo her with his irresistible advances.

As Delia devilishly plays along in Alec’s game, determined to prove the joke is on him, they inch ever closer to repeating history. And in this game of seductive glances, scandalous whispers, and old debts, the outcome might be much more than either of them anticipated…

Rating: B

Even though there are a couple of things about the motivations of the two protagonists that bothered me, A Wicked Way to Win an Earl is a well-written and enjoyable début from Anna Bradley. The storyline isn’t an especially original one, but the writing is solid, the heroine is spirited without being overly outrageous, the hero is darkly brooding and there is plenty of heat between the couple, all of which contribute to its being an entertaining read overall.

As this is the first book in a series about the Sutherland family, the prologue sets the stage for the conflict between the Sutherlands and the Somersets, caused when Millicent Chase ran away from her arranged marriage to Hart Sutherland, the Earl of Carlisle, and eloped with the man she loved, Henry Somerset.

A massive scandal ensued, and the Somersets never returned to society, but they were happy living quietly, with each other and eventually their family of five daughters. But some months before this book opens, the Somersets were tragically killed in an accident, turning the lives of their children upside down. The eldest two daughters, Delia (short for Delphinium!) and Lily (and yes, they all have flowery names) have been befriended by Charlotte and Eleanor Sutherland, whose eldest brother, Alexander, came into the title following the death of their harsh autocratic father three years previously.

The Sutherland sisters have invited Delia and Lily to the house-party being held at Bellwood, the country seat of the Earls of Carlisle. On the way, their carriage axle breaks and the coachman is injured, leaving the ladies with no choice but for Delia to attempt to find help. Following the directions she has been given, she is making for the nearest inn when she comes across a man and a woman beneath the trees who are clearly about to do something completely improper with each other. Alerted to Delia’s presence, the woman quickly runs off, leaving the man – a large, imposing and angry specimen – to confront the unwelcome intruder. With dismay, Delia realises that the half-undressed, dishevelled and undeniably fascinating man is none other than her host, the Earl of Carlisle, who promptly takes charge of the situation, escorting her to the inn and making arrangements to retrieve her sister and the coachman and take them to Bellwood.

Alec Sutherland hasn’t found life to be terribly easy since the death of his father. The family finances had been badly mismanaged and he has had to work hard in order to turn things around. In doing so, he is worried he is becoming more and more like his father, a cold, stern man who had little time for his family. Alec acutely feels the distance that has sprung up between him and his younger brother in the past year and is at a loss as to what to do to heal the rift between them. Robyn Sutherland is rather wild; a young man on the town enjoying all its dissolute pleasures, much as Alec did before he was encumbered by title and responsibilities. To make matters worse, Alec learns that Robyn is smitten with Delia, and that it was at his behest that Charlotte and Eleanor extended the invitation to the house-party. Not only is he worried about Robyn’s intentions toward a gently bred young lady, but is also concerned that any close association between their two families will only dig up all the old scandal when he has worked hard to restore the family name along with its fortune.

[As an aside, I found the use of the name Robyn for a man to be a distraction. Robyn with a Y is a girl’s name – well, it is in the UK – so I had to keep reminding myself that this particular Robyn was a bloke, which was annoying and disrupted my reading.]

Back to the story. Alec decides that the best thing to do is to keep his brother and Miss Somerset apart, and comes up with a fool-proof – and underhand – way to send her packing back to Surrey. If he appears to be pursuing her and spending time alone with her, she will become the subject of gossip, which can only be amplified as people recall the old scandal. At the same time, Delia makes the assumption – and this is one of the quibbles I mentioned at the beginning of this review – that Alec is going to try to seduce her simply because he’s bored and because it will “put the Somerset family in their place once and for all.” While Alec has unquestionably been flirting with her and is – he tells himself – trying to be rid of her, Delia has no way of knowing anything for certain with the result that she appears to be jumping to conclusions with no real foundation for them. The author also makes use of the cliché of the rich-bitch fiancée who is so clearly wrong for Alec that she is never any real threat to the burgeoning romance between him and Delia.

Apart from that, however, the story is well-executed, and the central romance is well-developed. Alec and Delia strike sparks off each other from the outset and are obviously deeply attracted to each other, but Ms Bradley takes the time to allow them to talk to each other and get to know each other so that the reader is left in no doubt that they are in love and not simply in the grips of infatuation or lust. She has the knack for creating and building sexual and romantic tension by means of looks, touches and near-kisses that lead to some nicely heated moments between the couple, and the sex scenes are passionate and well-written. Both protagonists are attractive characters, although Alec does come across as rather harsh at times, and Delia, for all her sensible-ness does something a bit daft near the end.

In spite of the criticisms I have expressed, I enjoyed reading A Wicked Way to Win an Earl and will certainly be on the lookout for more by Anna Bradley. (The next book is about Lily and Robyn, I think, and as there are three more sisters, there is plenty of sequel fodder!) Her writing is deft and intelligent with a nice touch of humour, and she has taken a well-used plotline and made good use of it by peopling it with distinctive characters and strongly-written relationships. It’s a strong start and she’s definitely an author to watch for fans of historical romance.

add-to-goodreads-button

Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

NDD

A secret from his past holds the key to their future…

A Marriage Beyond Hope

Lady Sophia has long been estranged from her husband, Lord Vane Barwick, the Marquess of Claxton, whose rumored list of amorous conquests includes almost every beautiful woman of the ton. Yet a shocking encounter with him in a crowded ballroom—and a single touch—are all it takes to reawaken her furious passion for him. But how can she trust the man who crushed her dreams and took away the one thing she wanted most?

A Love Beyond Reason

Lord Claxton has never forgiven himself for the youthful mistake that ruined his marriage to Lady Sophia. Now, after nearly a year abroad, the reformed rogue vows to win back the only woman he’s ever truly loved. He’ll do whatever it takes to prove he can be the honorable husband she deserves—and the passionate lover she desires. As the snowdrifts deepen outside their ancestral home, can they rekindle the flame that burned so bright and find a new path to forever?

Rating: C+

This second-chance romance, in which an estranged couple are stranded together following a snowstorm, was for the most part an enjoyable and well-written début from Lily Dalton. The novel has lot going for it – an attractive and devoted hero-to-die-for, a lovely underlying sensuality and a real sense of relationship progression – but a couple of rather large flaws prevented me from rating it more highly.

Sophia and Vane Barwick, Duke and Duchess of Claxton have been estranged for some months following the loss of their unborn child. Instead of taking comfort from each other, the loss tears the couple apart, and shortly after the tragedy, Claxton leaves England to resume his diplomatic work in Europe. During his seven-month absence, his wife hears not a word from him and feels certain he must be having a whale of a time and not sparing her a thought. With this in mind, Sophia determines that it is time for her to move on with her life, and she is going to ask her husband for a formal separation.

On the night of a party which is being held to celebrate her beloved Grandfather’s birthday, she hears that Claxton has come back to England and is both annoyed and upset that she seems to have been the only person to have had no idea of his return.

Because Claxton had a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man before their marriage, Sophia now has it in her head that he’s been sleeping around since, too. He admits that in a drunken binge after their loss, he did escort a few women around that he probably shouldn’t have, and that he also didn’t conduct himself with particular discretion – but he never slept with any of them. Sophia doesn’t believe him – a situation not helped by the fact that her gorgeous husband has to continually fight off the unwanted attentions of numerous women. The fact that he isn’t interested in any of these other women seems to have passed her by.

Her request for a separation catches him completely off guard, as he had hoped to be able to set things right between them and resume their life together. It’s true that his running off to Europe to escape his grief wasn’t probably the best thing he could have done, and he does admit that he should have stuck around and fought for her and their marriage. But – and here is the first of those big flaws I mentioned – it’s Sophia who refuses to see him and sends him away following the miscarriage. Claxton is the one who believes they should unite in their grief and console each other for their loss, but she withdraws from him and yells at him to stay away from her. This is the premise for their separation and it’s rather weak.

Sophia needs time to think and to work out what she wants – so after the party, she heads off to Camellia House, Claxton’s childhood home, knowing that he never spends any time there. But unbeknownst to her, her husband has discovered her intention and arrives before her, walking into the midst of a situation that could have come straight out of a French farce, and which only serves to worsen his relationship with his wife.

Sophia always spends Christmas with her family, so she doesn’t intend to be away too long, but the onset of a severe snowstorm means that a return journey is impossible, and is likely to be so for a few days. So she and Claxton have no alternative but to wait out the weather.

There were some very well-characterised secondary characters in the story, most notably the flirty Lady Mellenbourne who really just wants to be loved, and Mr and Mrs Kettle, the house’s old retainers. They worked there when Claxton’s mother was alive and are very fond of him, despite his long absence. He had a happy childhood there – until his mother died when he was ten and he and his brother were removed from the house by their tyrannical father who, up to that point, they had never even seen. Claxton harbors no love for the man, who believed his young heir should be taught all the things necessary to grow up a real man, such as drinking, gambling and whoring. Especially the whoring, which Claxton admits, probably accounts for the rather large number of females who shared his bed before his marriage.

And this leads me to major flaw number two. At the beginning of their stay at the house, Sophia asks Claxton to write her a list of the names of all his previous lovers – not because she wants to hold it over him, but because she doesn’t want to find herself blindsided in the future by an encounter with an ex-mistress. Naturally, he is completely averse to the idea and tries to talk her out of it, but it’s the only way he can get her to agree to abandon the idea of a formal separation, so he capitulates and writes it.

Of course it’s just about the worst idea imaginable – even though he’s been faithful to her since he asked for her hand and the women he’s named are all in his past, Sophia is still hurt and angry, even though he did exactly what she asked after advising her against it.

And as if that’s not bad enough, Sophia, rather than destroying the list, instead keeps it and wears it, like a talisman, tucked into her bodice. She uses it to remind herself not to let herself fall in love with him again because while she is someone who loves whole-heartedly, he clearly isn’t. If he was, then he wouldn’t have slept with so many other women – and because he didn’t love any of them, he therefore can’t love her either.

Huh?

By this time, I was losing patience with the woman. She believes the worst of her husband for no reason other than gossip and rumor and the fact that women find him attractive. She’s insecure, quick to condemn and frequently self-righteous – and all the while Claxton is showing her in as many ways as he can think of that he loves her. True, he wants to seduce her as well, but he’s also considerate, kind and doing his best to meet her more than halfway in trying to mend their marriage.

On the plus side, I thought that the way their relationship progressed was very well written indeed, with some lovely moments of domestication (like the cooking scene) and interaction with the local villagers. Claxton has not been to Camellia House for more than a decade, and because the house and estate has been closed up, there is no work for the locals and the village is becoming rather run-down as a result. I liked that Sophia helped Claxton to see that the estate and surrounding area needed him and his patronage, and the way that they were bonding over their shared interest in the local community.

In the end, this really was a book of, well, if not two halves, then two parts. A large chunk of it was very enjoyable indeed – the parts which followed Sophia and Claxton as they began to open up and say the things they needed to say to each other as they took the first steps towards repairing their fractured marriage. Their interactions were humming with romantic tension and awareness, and the love scenes were well written and sexy. But the initial premise for their separation was weak, and I found Sophia’s insistence on retaining an emotional distance from Claxton got annoying very quickly. She justified it by telling herself that it was because she was accepting his limitations when it came to loving – that he would never love her as completely as she did him, so she was protecting herself from future hurt. But there was no real basis for this assumption on her part, and I had a huge problem with the fact that Sophia just couldn’t let go of what is a rather ridiculous determination to protect herself against a husband who shows her over and over again that he is utterly devoted to her. Towards the end, keeping the list of exes leads to some unforeseen and (for Claxton) heart-breaking consequences – and at that point, I really wanted him to tell her he’d had enough and she could have her bloody separation!

For a début novel, this was well-written and the characterization was strong, with Claxton probably being the most well-drawn of all the characters. I think Lily Dalton has shown real potential in this novel as it’s clear that she is capable of writing with flair and emotion and that she has the ability to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. But I would have enjoyed the book more if the conflict between the protagonists had had a more sound basis and if the heroine had been less sanctimonious and, in the end, more deserving of her husband’s devotion.

For the Love of a Soldier by Victoria Morgan

soldier

Captain Garrett Sinclair, the Earl of Kendall, has returned to England a changed man. As a survivor of the legendary Charge of the Light Brigade, he has spent months as a remorseless rake and dissolute inebriate in order to forget it. But Garrett has also made powerful enemies who want him dead…

Desperate and down to her last pound, Lady Alexandra Langdon has disguised herself as a man for a place at the gaming tables. But when a hard-eyed, handsome man wins the pot, he surprises her by refusing her money. Indebted, she divulges an overheard plot against his life, and promises to help him find his foes—for a price.

But even as Alexandra fights her growing desire to reveal herself—and her heart—to the determined Garrett, she cannot shed the fear that the cost of her alliance with the earl may be a price too dear: her own secret betrayal.

Rating: A+

For the Love of a Soldier is that rare thing; a début novel that reads as though the author has a stable of books to her name already.

The plot is a fairly simple one. Lady Alexandra Langton, a young woman, on the verge of destitution decides to risk everything she has left (the sum of one hundred pounds) at the gaming tables in a desperate attempt to increase her funds. But of course, ladies were not allowed to indulge in “deep” play, and so she has to disguise herself as a man in order to gain entry to the sorts of events at which she will be able to gamble large sums of money. I have to say that I dislike stories in which the heroine dresses as a man and manages to pass as one without suspicion, but to the author’s credit, she made it work here, by indicating that Alex has done more than simply cut her hair or wear a suit.

Predictably however, her risk doesn’t pay off, and she loses at cards, to Captain Garrett Sinclair, Earl of Kendall, a man with a less than savoury reputation. But Garrett, sensing her desperation and believing her to be little more than a boy returns her money to her, telling her that while he will comfortably take money from a man, he will not ruin a boy.
Simultaneously annoyed and relieved, Alex later inadvertently overhears two men plotting to murder the Earl of Kendall, and seeing a way to repay him for his earlier gesture, Alex warns him of the danger.

Believing her to be his only lead – and still thinking she is a boy – Garrett insists that Alex accompany him home, but they are set upon along the way. During the fray, Alex is knocked unconscious, her disguise is dislodged and Garrett discovers that she’s not what she seems.

The assassination plot drives the story forward, but this is no adventure romp, because the real heart of the novel is the growing friendship and romance between Garrett and Alex.

Victoria Morgan has chosen to set her story in the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, which is not often referenced in historical romance, so it’s a refreshing change. Through the eyes of Captain Garrett Sinclair, we get a glimpse of the true horror of war. He’s a war hero, a survivor of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, that act of glorious, against-all-odds bravery that was immortalised by Tennyson in his famous poem. But glory and honour is not what we are shown. Garrett has been traumatised by his war-time experiences and is suffering from what we would today recognise as PTSD, and he also carries around a huge chunk of survivor’s guilt.

Like many veterans – then and now – he does not talk about the war; he wants to bury everything deep inside so that he never has to go through it and re-live it. All he wants to do is to forget, and we learn that in a vain attempt to do so, he spent much of his time after leaving the army gaming, wenching and drinking, rattling around Europe in aimless depravity. Fortunately for him, however, he realised that wasn’t helping, he needed to be in control; and so he sobered up and eschewed the wenching, concentrating instead on the gambling.

He’s wealthy, has many estates and a good eye for business; he’s also utterly gorgeous with a quick wit, a gift for innuendo and a strong sense of honour. Alex is the perfect foil for him. She gives as good as she gets in their verbal sparring, she’s loyal and strong (without being stubborn for the sake of it!) and, sensing the darkness buried deep down, wants to help Garrett any way she can.

She’s had some experience of working with soldiers and veterans, having spent time working at the Chelsea Hospital, and although she knows she can do little more than listen, she also knows that ‘just’ listening seemed to have helped many of the men she knew. I’m pleased to say that the author hasn’t chosen to present Alex as Garrett’s “cure”, because as anyone who knows anything about PTSD will know, that just doesn’t happen. Rather, she presents Alex as someone who works out when to push and when to leave him alone; she knows he needs to talk, but that he needs to do it in his own time, and the scene where he finally unburdens himself packs a real emotional punch.

Amid all this talk of war and horror however, the reader will also find some of the funniest dialogue it’s ever been my privilege to read in a romantic novel. The exchanges between Garrett, his sister and brother-in-law are frequently hilarious as they tease each other constantly – and it’s clear that there’s an incredibly deep affection between them. Garrett enjoys getting a rise out of Alexandra, too, and comes to realise that for the first time in years, he’s starting to feel something like happiness and attraction.

If I have one quibble with the story, it’s that Alex’s backstory is rather flimsy, as are her reasons for rejecting Garrett towards the end of the book. On the positive side, I suppose it means that the solution is simple, and Garrett does indeed get things sorted out quite quickly.

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. The writing is intelligent, the characterisation is excellent and the dialogue just sparkles. Garrett is one of the best flawed heroes I’ve come across in the genre, and the romance between him and Alex is warm and tender as well as being enough to get any reader a bit hot under the collar – the scene where they finally make love is one of the sexiest and most sensual I’ve ever read.

Coming from an established writer, For the Love of a Soldier would have been quite something. As a début, it’s an incredible achievement, and I’m eagerly waiting Victoria Morgan’s next project, which I believe is scheduled for this Autumn.

Review edited 22 March 2013: A longer review of this title is now up at All About Romance.