Never Desire a Duke by Lily Dalton

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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

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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.

The Reluctant Countess by Wendy Vella

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Regal, poised, and elegant, Sophie, Countess of Monmouth, is everything that a highborn lady should be. But Sophie is hiding a past that is far from royal. When Patrick, Earl of Coulter, realizes that her story doesn’t add up, he resolves to find out the truth of what Sophie and her sister-in-law are concealing. Although Sophie has every reason to avoid him, the handsome and charismatic Patrick awakens something wicked deep within her soul . . . a powerful need that Sophie must stifle in order to protect her place in society.

Despite Sophie’s humble background, the raven-haired beauty has won Patrick’s heart. But what Sophie needs now is an ally. Viscount Myles Dumbly, the disgruntled former heir of Monmouth, is determined to expose Sophie as a fraud to recapture his lost inheritance. Soon Patrick is drawn into a fight for both their lives. Somehow he must find a way not only to rescue Sophie from poverty once and for all, but to keep her in his arms forever.

Rating: C

This début novel from Wendy Vella was an enjoyable story and has much to recommend it.  Her prose is competent, she has created some engaging characters and in the later part of the novel, she has begun to chart the progression of the deepening relationship between her two protagonists as well as the development of a secondary romance.  The mystery surrounding Sophie’s true identity holds the attention but is not strung out for too long.

On the negative side however, there are times when the overall feel is rather too ‘modern’ and there is some anachronistic language which really could have been avoided quite easily.  And while I liked Vella’s portrayal of the relationship between Sophie and Patrick in the later stages, I thought it felt forced and progressed too quickly in the earlier part of the novel.  For example, at the very beginning, Patrick is vowing to expose Sophie as a charlatan – although what business it is of his I’m not sure; but not long after that he is lusting after her like a randy goat and before we’ve passed the 25% mark, is having his way with her in a carriage.  (And no, it’s not the fact that they’re having sex in the carriage that bothers me,  it’s that they’re having sex at all !) .  I’m not saying that physical attraction isn’t a very powerful thing – just that at the time the book is set young women, especially, were brought up almost in ignorance of sex and had to give great consideration to propriety and to maintaining an unblemished reputation.  (And given the situation Sophie is in, she has to be doubly careful of her position in society).  I find it hard to believe that, no matter how attractive the man in question (and of course, in these books they’re always devastating)  a young woman would throw caution to the wind in that way. Even if he’d offered her marriage, which he hadn’t.

Sophie begins the book being quite shy and insecure and although those qualities never leave her entirely, by the end she has grown up a bit and developed more confidence in herself.  Patrick is often rather overbearing and dictatorial, but he softens up as the story progresses; his childhood wasn’t pleasant, but rather than being one of those men who therefore decides he must be unlovable, or is unable to love, he has decided that he wants someone in his life and that he wants to show his own family the love he never had – which was a refreshing change.

All in all then, a promising début.  I wouldn’t mind reading more from this author, although I would like to see a little more relationship development in future books.

With thanks to Random House/Loveswept and NetGalley for the review copy.