The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

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Rogue. Libertine. Rake. Lord Courtenay has been called many things and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel supposedly based on his exploits, he finds himself shunned from society. Unable to see his nephew, he is willing to do anything to improve his reputation, even if that means spending time with the most proper man in London.

Julian Medlock has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. As far as he cares, if Courtenay finds himself in hot water, it’s his own fault for behaving so badly—and being so blasted irresistible. But when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes—and lusts after—most.

As Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve, Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety. But he has secrets he’s determined to keep, because if the truth came out, it would ruin everyone he loves. Together, they must decide what they’re willing to risk for love.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian completes a hat-trick with her latest Regency romance, making a total of three winners in a row.  Like her previous books, The Soldier’s Scoundrel and The Lawrence Browne Affair, The Ruin of a Rake is hugely entertaining; witty, sexy and poignant it’s the story of a rake in the process of reforming and the starchy, acerbic man given the task of helping him.  The trope –  rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold meets the uber-proper gentleman – plays out to wonderful effect; a superbly written clash of personalities that sees both men having to reassess their opinions of themselves as well as each other – and discovering that love really can be found in the most unlikely of places.

Lord Courtenay, whom we met in The Lawrence Browne Affair, has spent the last decade living abroad with his sister Isabella and her young son, Simon, who is heir to the Earl of Radnor (the Lawrence Browne of that book’s title).  Courtenay is more handsome than any man has a right to be, ineffably charming and game for almost anything; his indulgences – high-stakes gambling, strong drink and lots and lots of sex (with men and women) – mark him as a debauched rake of the highest order, and he has quite happily lived down to the expectations of his disapproving mother and of society in general.  But when his sister dies, he decides it’s time for him to return to England with his nephew who, as heir to an English earldom, should grow up there and receive the education accorded to every English gentleman.  Radnor is not best pleased to see Courtenay, but Simon adores his uncle and the two men reach an uneasy détente.

That changes, however, with the publication of a gothic novel in which the villain’s good looks, raven-dark hair, piercing green eyes and sardonic manner are quickly likened to Courtenay, and society being what it is, it is just as quickly assumed that the evil deeds of the dissolute Don Lorenzo are, in fact, Courtenay’s own.  For Radnor, it’s the last straw.  Knowing his brother-in-law is a libertine is one thing, but having his name bandied about and associated with a scandalous novel is quite another, and he bans Courtenay from having any contact with Simon.

Courtenay is seriously upset by this.  He more or less raised the boy, who is the last link to the sister he loved and feels he failed to adequately protect; but more importantly, Courtenay genuinely loves his nephew and wants to be part of his life.  Having spent the last of his money on getting Simon back home, he’s now stuck in a city populated by people who shun him and where the ghosts of bad decisions and past debaucheries conspire to haunt him.  He knows he has nobody to blame but himself – but self-awareness isn’t going to help either the state of his finances or his relationship with his brother-in-law.  Fate is ready to step in, however, in the form of his friend, Eleanor, Lady Standish, who decides it’s time Something Was Done and asks – or rather, tells – her brother, Julian Medlock, widely regarded as the most proper man in London, to help Courtenay get back into society’s good graces.

The Medlock siblings grew up in India where their grandfather was a wealthy merchant and shipping magnate. Regarding his own son as a worthless wastrel, Medlock senior instead trained his grandson to run the business and left everything to Julian when he died.  From the age of about sixteen, Julian shouldered the responsibility for both business and family, but his failing health (he suffers from Malaria and was having increasingly virulent attacks) saw Eleanor insisting on moving to England in the hope that the milder climate would benefit him.  Unfortunately, it also meant that his sister was separated from her husband, who, after six years, has still not joined her.  Julian feels increasingly guilty for Eleanor’s obvious unhappiness, which is one of the reasons he accedes to her request that he help rehabilitate Courtenay.

In the years since they came to England, Julian has steadily and carefully turned himself into the perfect gentleman, the very picture of respectability and an expert on manners and the social graces.  He is invited and welcomed everywhere – even though he often feels like he’s on the outside looking in, but that suits him.  He prefers to hold himself aloof and guard his secrets; friendships mean opening oneself up, warts and all, strong emotions risk a loss of control, and that’s not for him. Even when it comes to sex, he prefers his liaisons to be warm and controlled, rather than desperate and hot and full of unbridled passion.  Unfortunately, Courtenay seems just the man to provoke the latter sentiments – and the fact that Julian has secretly lusted after him for six years is just going to make things even more difficult. They’re like chalk and cheese and, right from the start, Courtenay seems instinctively to know how to raise Julian’s hackles.  And… other things.

Fireworks ensue as the buttoned-up, sharp-tongued Julian attempts to rein in the congenial, emotionally open Courtenay, who takes great delight in needling his ‘mentor’.  Both are strongly characterised, complex individuals who carry some fairly weighty emotional baggage, and Ms. Sebastian crafts a marvellous story full of humour, tenderness and – sometimes – raw emotion about two men coming to terms with their pasts, adjusting their self-perception and learning to accept that they’re worthy of the friendship and love of others.

I adored both characters individually and loved them together.  Courtenay may be a rake, but he’s also an absolute darling; easy going and charming, he has become so accustomed to giving that he has almost forgotten how to ask for what he wants and dismisses his own desires as unimportant.  He cares a great deal for those closest to him and even continues to support the mother who shuns him, constantly belittles him and blames him – unjustly – for his father’s death.  Courtenay has become so used to being thought worthless and to blaming himself for the death of his sister that he believes he doesn’t deserve happiness or to have anything good in his life.  His surprise when Julian actually takes his part is honest and touching; nobody has ever stuck up for him before and his realisation that this must be what friendship feels like pulled at my heartstrings a little.

Julian is prickly to the nth degree, possessed of a mind like a steel trap, a head for figures and a kind of sixth sense where the workings of society are concerned.  He doesn’t want to be attracted to Courtenay, he doesn’t want to feel anything for Courtenay and he most definitely doesn’t want to fall in love with Courtenay – but as Julian comes to know him better and to understand what his life has really been beneath the endless carousing, he discovers a kind, thoughtful man with a good heart, who sincerely wants to change his life and do better… and it’s impossible for Julian to remain aloof.

The verbal sparring between this mis-matched couple is funny, naughty and delightful, and the author creates a strong emotional connection between them as well as injecting their relationship with some scorching sexual chemistry.  The Ruin of a Rake is sweet, wickedly funny (and sometimes just plain wicked!), romantic and moving – and another DIK for Cat Sebastian.  Keep ‘em coming!

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One for the Rogue (Bachelor Lords of London #3) by Charis Michaels

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Beauregard “Beau” Courtland has no use for the whims of society and even less for aristocratic titles. As a younger son, he travels the world in search of adventure with no plans to settle down. Even when the title of Viscount Rainsleigh is suddenly forced upon him, he will not bend to duty or decorum. Not until an alluring young woman appears on the deck of his houseboat, determined to teach him propriety in all things and tempting him with every forbidden touch…

Lady Emmaline Crumbley has had a wretched year. Her elderly husband dropped dead without naming her in his will and she’s been relegated to the life of a dowager duchess at the age of 23. She has no wish to instruct a renegade viscount in respectability, but desperate to escape her greedy stepson, Beau’s family makes her an offer she cannot refuse: teach the new lord to behave like a gentleman, and they’ll help her earn the new, self-sufficient life of her dreams. Emmaline agrees, only to discover that instructing the viscount is one thing, but resisting him is quite another. How can she teach manners to the rakish nobleman if he is determined to show her the thrill of scandal instead?

Rating: C

I enjoyed the previous book in Charis Michaels’ Bachelor Lords of Londonseries (The Virgin and the Viscount) and was impressed with the author’s ability to craft a strong story and create sympathetic  characters.  I was less impressed with the fact that the story went off the rails in the last twenty percent with a completely unnecessary – and inaccurate – twist which was there only to set up the next book.  I wasn’t able to discuss that in my review, as it came late in the book and was thus a big spoiler, but as it is revealed at the beginning of One for the Rogue, I’m going to talk about it here.

Having suddenly come into a viscountcy that he doesn’t want and never expected to inherit, Beau Courtland has decided to ignore it and continue with his life as if nothing has happened.  This life has included a lot of travel abroad, a lot of women and a lot of getting himself into scrapes, but Beau is the charming scapegrace younger brother – or he was until his brother Bryson, who had held the title Viscount Rainsleigh since the death of their irresponsible, debauched sire – discovered that the late viscount was not, in fact his father.  An upstanding, fair minded man, Bryson was not prepared to continue to bear a title to which he was not, well, entitled, and abdicated it in favour of his brother, who is his father’s true son.

There is a massive problem with that and it’s why the ending of the last book made no sense and the   premise of this one is just plain wrong. In English law at this time, if you were born in wedlock, you were legitimate, regardless of who provided the sperm.  Anyone who reads historical romance on a regular basis – or who does the slightest bit of research – will be aware of this.  The previous Viscount Rainsleigh was married to Bryson’s mother at the time of Bryson’s birth and publicly acknowledged him as his son – ergo, Bryson is legitimate in the eyes of the law, and there is no reason for him not to continue to hold his title.  Yes, his actions are prompted by his personal code of honour, but that doesn’t trump the law. It would have taken an act of Parliament to strip him of the title, and for his desire for such a thing to have been taken seriously, Bryson would have had to have committed treason or done something equally terrible.  I know this is fiction and there will be some who think I’m being needlessly pedantic.  But as K.J. Charles recently pointed out in an excellent blog post, “Britain is a real country and our history actually happened” and ignoring that in order to suit a plotline is problematic, to say the least.

Okay, coming down off my soapbox, here’s the rest of the review.

Emmaline, the dowager Duchess of Ticking, is in dire straits.  Married at nineteen to a man old enough to be her grandfather, she is, at twenty-three, a widow who has been left with nothing and is living off the allowance left her by her parents before they were tragically drowned some years earlier.  The new duke has an eye to her younger brother’s fortune – Emma’s family was wealthy even though their money came from trade – and is having her watched and keeps trying to persuade her and her brother to move in with his large family where, it’s clear, she’ll be put to work as little more than a servant.

A glimmer of hope is offered her when Bryson Courtland casually mentions that his brother – the new Viscount Rainsleigh – needs someone to educate him in the ways of polite society.  Having already come up with an idea that should help her and Teddy gain their freedom – which will involve transporting both themselves and a lot of saleable goods to New York – Emma thinks that taking the new viscount under her wing could persuade Mr. Courtland – who owns several shipping companies – to help her to bring her scheme to fruition.

The problem, of course, is that said new viscount has no intention of mingling with polite society.  Although once he gets a good look at Emma, Beau is perfectly happy to form other sorts of intentions in relation to her, none of them polite.  All that changes, though, as soon as he learns that while Emma is a widow, her marriage was never consummated.  Virgins are strictly off-limits so he tries to distance himself from her.  It goes without saying that he isn’t very successful.

The romance is fairly lukewarm, and while I did get a sense of Emma’s coming to a greater understanding of Beau and why he acts the way he does, I didn’t feel that Beau was much more than physically attracted to Emma, at least not until fairly late on in the story.  In the second half of the book, the storyline surrounding the new Duke of Ticking’s attempts to get his hands on Emma’s brother’s money is more interesting – until Ms. Michaels once again makes use of another historically and, I believe, legally inaccurate scenario to bring that plotline to a close.

Emma is an engaging heroine and I liked the way she gets on with things without relying on others to do them for her.  She’s strong, determined and clever – and I have to agree with Beau that he isn’t good enough for her.  Beau has (or thinks he has) good reasons for not wanting anything to do with the peerage, and steadfastly refuses to use his title or to take responsibility for the lands and estates that his brother worked so hard to rebuild.  An incident when he was nineteen gave him a distaste for the aristocracy, and admittedly what happened – Beau and a group of his friends unintentionally caused a distressing incident which the nobs covered up rather than admit to – wasn’t right.  But rather than using his position as the brother of a viscount to do something about it, he just decided he was useless and that whatever he did was bound to fail so he didn’t bother to try.  Quite honestly, I wanted to slap him, tell him not to be so selfish and to grow a pair!

You may ask why, given the massive inaccuracy upon which the story is based, I wanted to review this book at all.  The answer is because I enjoyed The Virgin and the Viscount in spite of the problems that arose near the end and I wanted to see where Ms. Michaels was taking that part of the story.  As I said at the outset, she’s a good writer and creates interesting characters, but the story in One for the Rogue wasn’t quite strong enough to hold my interest, and while I liked Emma, Beau is far too spineless and insipid to be the hero of a romance novel.

One for the Rogue sees Ms. Michaels’ Bachelor Lords trilogy limping to the finish line, rather than crossing it with arms outstretched in triumph. She’s a talented writer, so I will probably pick up her next book, but I’ll be doing so with fingers crossed she can resist the temptation to contort facts in order to fit her plotlines.

The Viscount and the Vixen (Hellions of Havisham Hall #3) by Lorraine Heath

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Love begets madness. Viscount Locksley watched it happen to his father after his cherished wife’s death. But when his sire arranges to marry flame-haired fortune hunter Portia Gadstone, Locke is compelled to take drastic measures to stop the stunning beauty from taking advantage of the marquess. A marriage of mutual pleasure could be convenient, indeed… as long as inconvenient feelings don’t interfere.

Desperation forced Portia to agree to marry a madman. The arrangement will offer the protection she needs. Or so she believes until the marquess’s distractingly handsome son peruses the fine print… and takes his father’s place!

Now the sedate — and, more importantly, secure — union Portia planned has been tossed in favor of one simmering with wicked temptation and potential heartbreak. Because as she begins to fall for her devilishly seductive husband, her dark secrets surface and threaten to ruin them both—unless Locke is willing to risk all and open his heart to love.

Rating: B+

Lorraine Heath is one of those writers whose work really resonates with me. I don’t know what it is exactly, but the emotional content of her books draws me to her time and time again, and I will often finish one of her novels feeling completely wrung out and unable to pick up another book for at least twenty-four hours. Such was the case with The Viscount and the Vixen, the final full-length novel in her Hellions of Havisham Hall series.

The Marquess of Marsden is a recluse, labelled mad by most because he is believed to have gone insane following the death of his beloved wife in childbed. Havisham Hall has been allowed to fall into disrepair over the years, and even though his son, Viscount Locksley has lived there exclusively for the past couple of years, he has made no improvements because his father dislikes change and he – Locke – doesn’t want to agitate him.

So when he arrives at the breakfast table one morning to find his father freshly shaved, smartly dressed and reading the paper, it’s a bit of a shock. Marsden usually takes his meals in his room and doesn’t bother much about his appearance, but when he tells Locke that his (Marsden’s) bride will be arriving later, Locke thinks his father is delusional and must be referring to his mother. But Marsden is perfectly lucid and explains that as Locke has so far neglected to find a wife and set up his nursery, it behoves him to marry a woman young enough to provide the necessary “spare” in order to secure the succession. And in order to do that, Marsden placed an advertisement in a newspaper which was answered by a Mrs. Portia Gadstone, with whom he has been corresponding ever since. Locke is flabbergasted, but also concerned for his father and worried that he has been taken in by a fortune hunter. When Mrs. Gadstone appears, he is knocked sideways even further; she’s luscious and he’s suddenly drowning in lust the like of which he can’t remember ever experiencing before. But even so – he’s sure she’s a gold digger and is determined to protect his father at all costs. And it quickly appears there is only one way to do that, which is to marry Portia himself.

Portia has been driven to the drastic step of marrying a man widely reputed to be insane because she’s in a desperate situation. She can’t deny that the prospect of marrying a wealthy man is an attractive one, but just as important as the marquess’ wealth is the fact that his title offers her the protection she seeks, and she is determined to be a good wife to him.

But her first sight of Marsden’s gorgeous, green-eyed son throws her for a loop, even though he makes it perfectly clear that he distrusts her and wants to stop her marrying his father. When Locke proposes she marry him instead, Portia is almost turned from her purpose, realising that her life with him will in no way fulfil her desire for quiet, rather dull existence she had envisaged having with his father. But that doesn’t alter the fact that she has imperative reasons for marrying and living in a remote location – and the deal is made.

The sexual tension between Locke and Portia is off the charts right from the start, and theirs is – to begin with – a relationship based purely on mutual lust, which suits both of them. Locke saw what his mother’s death did to his father and as a result, has no wish to experience love; and Portia doesn’t want to fall in love with a man upon whom she is practicing a serious deception. But as the story progresses, the lines between lust and affection become blurred and Portia starts to worm her way under the skin of father and son, both of whom are taken with her intelligence, wit and kindness. And for Locke, the fact that his wife is a woman whose capacity for passion matches is own is an unlooked for bonus.

Lorraine Heath has penned a lovely, tender romance that progresses at the same time as Locke and Portia are setting fire to the sheets (often!), and I particularly enjoyed the way that Portia’s gradual progress in restoring Havisham Hall, opening up long-closed rooms and making them habitable and welcoming again, mirrors her gradual unlocking of her new husband’s heart and her discovery that he is a man capable – and deserving – of a great deal of love and affection. There is never any doubt that Locke and Portia are falling in love; their actions often speak louder than their words as these two people who didn’t want love come to realise that it’s found them, regardless.

Portia’s backstory and her reasons for answering Marsden’s advertisement are drip fed throughout the book, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill that even though Portia has deliberately set out to deceive, the reader feels sympathy for her. At a time when women had no rights to anything, even their own bodies, she has had to make difficult choices and ended up living a life very different from the one she had envisaged. She owns her own mistakes, but when faced with an impossible choice, made the only decision she could live with, one which now looks set to ruin her life and happiness with the man she never intended to love.

Locke seems to be rather a stereotypical romance hero at first glance – tall, dark, handsome, cynical and a demi-god in bed – but there’s more to him than that. Underneath the veneer of charm and wicked sensuality, he’s a compassionate man with a strong sense of duty who is quite obviously fooling himself into believing he doesn’t want love when he is so clearly ready to embrace it. His relationship with Marsden is easily one of the best things about the book; the affection in which father and son hold each other leaps off the page and possesses just the right degree of exasperated tenderness. And Marsden is far more subtly drawn here than he has been in the other books; he’s unbalanced, but clearly not insane and appears to be subject to fits of melancholy rather than mentally unhinged.

When Locke discovers his wife’s dishonesty, there are, of course, some unpleasant things said, and later, Portia does perhaps forgive Locke a tad too quickly. But on balance, Locke’s willingness to listen to Portia’s story – something many men of the time would probably not have done – says much for him and about the strength of their relationship. It works in context, although I can understand that some may feel he wasn’t sufficiently remorseful and should have grovelled more.

The Viscount and the Vixen contains just about everything I want from an historical romance – complex, intriguing characters, scorching sexual tension, and a strong storyline that is firmly rooted in the era in which the story is set. Ms. Heath once again delivers those things along with finely observed familial relationships and a sexy, well-developed love story. I’ve enjoyed each of the books in this series and am looking forward to whatever the author comes up with next.

The Danger of Desire (Sinful Suitors #3) by Sabrina Jeffries

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

To root out the card cheat responsible for her brother’s death, Miss Delia Trevor spends her evenings dancing her way through high society balls, and her late nights disguised as a young man gambling her way through London’s gaming hells. Then one night, handsome Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford, a notorious member of St. George’s Club, recognizes her. When he threatens to reveal her secret, she’s determined to keep him from ruining her plans, even if it means playing a cat-and-mouse game with the enigmatic rakehell.

Warren knows the danger of her game, and he refuses to watch her lose everything while gaining justice for her late brother. But when she starts to delve beneath his carefully crafted façade, can he keep her at arm’s length while still protecting her? Or will their hot desires explode into a love that transcends the secrets of their pasts?

Rating: B

This third book in Sabrina Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors features Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford, a man whose many and varied amorous exploits have earned him the reputation as a scoundrel of the highest order. Readers met Warren – briefly – in the previous book, The Study of Seduction, when he asked his best friend, Edwin, the Earl of Blakeborough, to keep an eye on his ward, Clarissa while he (Warren) saw to some important business abroad. Warren and Edwin are old friends and members of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s club like most others but whose members banded together with the aim of protecting their female relatives from fortune hunters, gamblers, womanisers and other unscrupulous men by regularly sharing information about the men of their acquaintance.

When Warren’s cousin Clarissa – now happily married to Edwin – asks him to see if any of the club members has heard any gossip about her friend, Delia Trevor, he is not keen at first, believing her request to be a poorly disguised matchmaking attempt. But when Clarissa explains that she is concerned because her friend has been behaving rather oddly of late, Warren takes notice and agrees to help. Having recently discovered what befell Clarissa in her début Season (she was stalked and assaulted by a suitor), Warren feels guilty for not having protected her, and, determined never to let another woman go through something similar, he agrees to see what he can find out.

Miss Delia Trevor has come to London for the Season not, as her aunt believes, to find herself a husband, but in order to discover the identity of the man who cheated her late brother out of a large sum of money and drove him to suicide. The only information she has to go on is the name of the gambling den at which Reynold last played and the fact that his lordly opponent had a sun tattoo on his wrist. So every evening, she disguises herself in man’s attire and sneaks out of the house, making her way to the hell accompanied by a trusty servant in the attempt to draw out the card cheat.

Delia is annoyed, therefore, when the Marquess of Knightford starts to take an interest in her and starts popping up at inconvenient moments and asking awkward questions. She knows she isn’t the sort of woman likely to attract him – her bosom is too small, her hips too wide and she has gone out of her way to dress in the most unflattering manner possible to put off any potential suitors – so she is immediately suspicious of his motives for flirting with her and singling her out.

Warren quickly discovers that Miss Trevor is not at all the simpering miss he had expected and is immediately intrigued by her reluctance to have anything to do with him. He finds he rather likes her waspish tongue, and her attempts to put him off only serve to put him on the alert as he realises that Clarissa’s concerns are not unfounded. Suspicious of Delia’s interactions with a servant, he waits outside her townhouse at night in the belief she has arranged an illicit assignation, only to be confused when the servant appears accompanied by a shabbily dressed boy. He follows the pair, ending up at one of London’s less salubrious gaming establishments where he discovers the reasons behind Delia’s evasiveness – the shabbily dressed boy is not a boy at all, but Miss Delia Trevor in disguise.

Warren is furious with Delia for putting herself in danger both physically and in terms of her reputation, and irritated that she will not confide in him or let him help. He is also aware that what began as curiosity liberally sprinkled with a helping of lust is turning into something else. He can’t stop thinking about Delia or stop wanting her, and while he’s bedded more than his fair share of women, he doesn’t dally with marriageable debutantes or respectable ladies, so he can’t understand his sudden fascination with a woman who is both those things. And Deila’s reaction to the handsome Marquess – most especially to his delicious, arousing kisses – is something she had never expected to experience, but once sampled, is quite helpless to resist.

The romance between Warren and Delia is nicely done, with plenty of verbal sparring and crackling sexual tension between them. While Warren is determined to discover Delia’s secrets, he is equally determined to prevent her from discovering his own, which have resulted in the debilitating nightmares he has suffered for most of his life. Believing them to be a sign of weakness, he has concealed them even from his own family, preferring instead to spend his nights in the company of whores or out gaming or drinking and then to sleep during the day when the dreams do not assail him. But when he and Delia are discovered in a compromising position and forced to marry, keeping his darkest fears from his new wife is going to be an enormous challenge, and one that could potentially derail their fledgling marriage before it has really begun.

While the romance is the main focus of the novel, Delia’s search for the card cheat is not forgotten, although the resolution to that plotline comes rather out of left-field, and is quite convoluted. There is no real build-up to the discovery of that person’s identity, and while explanations are given, anyone who hasn’t read the previous book might end up feeling confused, as the reasons behind the cheater’s actions relate directly to a character who has been hovering “off screen” in the background in the last two books, and whose story we will be getting in the next in the series. So while on the one hand, it’s quite a clever idea to relate the stories in this way, on the other, it feels somewhat contrived and as though it has been done purely to set up the next book. It also negates much of what Delia has gone through in her quest for justice for her brother and denies her any real sense of closure about his death; forgiveness comes very easily in order to satisfy the demands of the plot.

The Danger of Desire doesn’t break any new ground, but is nonetheless an entertaining read that is populated by well-drawn, attractive characters who are just a little different from the norm. While Warren is a rakish, marriage-avoidance minded bachelor, his motivations for eschewing the married state are other than the usual miserable-example-provided-by-parents, or earlier-relationship-gone-sour; and Delia’s talents at the card-table and her backstory as the daughter of a gambler lend depth to her character and explain her reluctance to trust. The ending is somewhat rushed, but the romance is given time to develop and Delia and Warren make a well-matched couple. I enjoyed the story in spite of my reservations, and am looking forward to the final book in the series.

The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel (Seduction Diaries #3) by Jennifer McQuiston

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Every girl dreams of a hero . . .

No one loves books more than Miss Mary Channing. Perhaps that’s why she’s reached the ripe old age of six-and-twenty without ever being kissed. Her future may be as bland as milk toast, but Mary is content to simply dream about the heroes and adventures she reads about in her books. That way she won’t end up with a villain instead.

But sometimes only a scoundrel will do.

When she unexpectedly finds herself in the arms of Geoffrey Westmore, London’s most notorious scoundrel, it feels a bit like a plot from one of her favorite novels. Suddenly, Mary understands why even the smartest heroines can fall prey to a handsome face. And Westmore is more handsome than most. But far worse than the damage to her reputation, the moment’s indiscretion uncovers an assassination plot that reaches to the highest levels of society and threatens the course of the entire country.

When a tight-laced miss and a scoundrel of epic proportions put their minds together, nothing can stand in their way. But unless they put their hearts together as well, a happy ending is anything but assured.

Rating: B

The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel is your basic rake-meets-wallflower story, and while that’s a very oft-used trope, Jennifer McQuiston has done an excellent job of creating a readable, light-hearted romp that has just enough depth to keep it from feeling insubstantial.  There’s an element of mystery to the story, too, which is well played-out and which doesn’t get in the way of the progression of the romance or detract from it.

Readers of the first book in this series, Diary of an Accidental Wallflower, will probably remember the heroine’s younger brother, Geoffrey Westmore, as a teenage terror; forever getting into scrapes, playing practical jokes and generally causing mayhem.  Around a decade later, with university and a short stint in the Navy (during which time he saw active service in the Crimea), behind him, not very much has changed.  Geoffrey – or West, as he now prefers to be known – is still a hellraiser although the nature of some of his exploits has changed somewhat, as the eagerness displayed by half the ladies in theton to leap into his bed will testify.  That’s not to say he’s lost the taste for playing practical jokes, though.  Many of those are as legendary as his reputation with women, with the result that there is a two-inch thick file with his name on it in the office of the local constable

From that description, West sounds an absolute fright and the sort of “hero” one might not want to touch with the proverbial ten-foot-pole.  Fortunately however, for all his inappropriate behaviour, he’s a loveable rogue; there is something endearing about him which saves him from coming across as a complete arsehole, and, as soon becomes clear, there is more substance beneath those rakehell ways than it would at first seem.

Miss Mary Channing (sister of Patrick Channing, hero of Moonlight on My Mind) has left her Yorkshire home and travelled to London to be with her very pregnant twin sister in the final months of her confinement.  Mary is quiet and self-effacing, much preferring to immerse herself in the romance and adventure she finds in her favourite books than to get out there and live her own life.  To be fair, she has some reason for her caution, having lost both her eldest brother and father to violent deaths and almost having lost Patrick when he was accused of murder.  But she has become extremely introverted over the years and has, as her sister remarks “lost her spark.”

At Eleanor’s insistence, Mary attends a literary salon at which Mr. Dickens will be in attendance, but before she can greet the great man, she slips away from the crush, needing to find some peace and quiet. Finding the comfort of the library, she starts to relax, only to discover she is ensconced in a darkened room with a veritable scoundrel. Mary isn’t partial to scoundrels, recognising that the villains in her books are almost always handsome, charming and up to no good – and she is sure that this man, with his golden good-looks and raffish smile is a complete villain. When he whisks her behind a curtain she is even more sure of it – until a group of people enters the room and starts to discuss a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria (which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds – she actually survived several attempts on her life during her long reign).

Once the schemers have left, Mary wastes no time in making her escape – only to run into several people in the doorway who immediately assume her to have been alone in the room with one of the worst rakes in London – Geoffrey Westmore.

If Mary is not to be ruined, West will have to offer for her – which he duly does, only to be soundly rejected. Mary is far more interested in discovering who is behind the assassination plot and wonders why West hasn’t already gone to the police. In fact, West has done that very thing – only to discover that his reputation for playing outrageous practical jokes has preceded him and that no-one at Scotland Yard will take him seriously. When Mary tried to explain to Eleanor, she accused Mary of having her head too stuffed-full of plots from her books and refused to believe her, which leaves West and Mary with only one alternative.

They will have to find the wrong-doers themselves.

While West is keen to keep Mary out of his investigations because he doesn’t want her to come to any harm, he soon realises that her insight and general knowledge – gleaned from books, of course – is useful and that she is probably safer by his side than left to her own devices. The sexual tension between them bubbles along nicely, their verbal sparring – peppered with West’s naughty double-entendres – is fun and their romance proceeds at a sensible pace, although I admit that West’s transformation from bed-hopping lady-killer to one-woman-man does happen rather quickly. I do, however, applaud the author for including the fact that West’s brother-in-law is a physician who made sure he knew about the importance of using condoms! It’s not something that comes up all that often in historicals so readers often have to ignore the probability of the experienced hero’s having caught something nasty in the course of his – er – exploits. Thankfully, there’s no need to suspend disbelief on that count here.

The identity of the plotters is fairly easy to work out, but there’s a nice twist at the end which reveals that there was rather more going on than West and Mary had at first thought. And while the book is a fairly light in tone overall, the emotional depth I mentioned earlier comes from the way in which Ms. McQuiston takes a look at the trauma faced by combatants returning from war. Once an easy-going young man with a bright future and ambitions to study architecture, West’s year in the Navy affected him profoundly; and once that becomes apparent, it makes it easier to understand his unwillingness to grow up and act like a responsible adult. Mary, too, has her demons to conquer and the way she and West support each other to help overcome their fears is very well done.

The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel is an entertaining, well-paced story told with intelligence and humour and I’m sure anyone looking to read a scoundrel/bluestocking romance with an added dash of mystery will enjoy it.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal? by Tessa Dare

do-you-want-to-start-a-scandal
This title may be purhcased from Amazon.

On the night of the Parkhurst ball, someone had a scandalous tryst in the library.

Was it Lord Canby, with the maid, on the divan? Or Miss Fairchild, with a rake, against the wall? Perhaps the butler did it.

All Charlotte Highwood knows is this: it wasn’t her. But rumors to the contrary are buzzing. Unless she can discover the lovers’ true identity, she’ll be forced to marry Piers Brandon, Lord Granville–the coldest, most arrogantly handsome gentleman she’s ever had the misfortune to embrace. When it comes to emotion, the man hasn’t got a clue.

But as they set about finding the mystery lovers, Piers reveals a few secrets of his own. The oh-so-proper marquess can pick locks, land punches, tease with sly wit . . . and melt a woman’s knees with a single kiss. The only thing he guards more fiercely than Charlotte’s safety is the truth about his dark past.

Their passion is intense. The danger is real. Soon Charlotte’s feeling torn. Will she risk all to prove her innocence? Or surrender it to a man who’s sworn to never love?

Rating: B+

It feels like I’m committing the ultimate Romancelandia faux-pas when I say that Tessa Dare’s last couple of books haven’t really worked for me. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t rate When a Scot Ties the Knot above a C+; the characterisation was inconsistent, the humour felt forced and it seemed to me that Ms Dare had crossed the line into self-parody with her frequent, knowing winks to the audience.

So I’m over the moon to be able to say that with Do You Want to Start a Scandal?, she is back at the top of her game. Yes, the plot is a bit silly, but this book reminded me of what I’ve so enjoyed about her work in the past and is up there with A Week to Be Wicked and Three Nights With a Scoundrel as my favourite Tessa Dare reads.

The hero, Piers Brandon, is the Marquess who wasn’t said “yes” to in book two of the Castles Ever After series (Say Yes to the Marquess). He’s handsome, wealthy, rather reserved and very proper; and, being rich and titled is firmly in the sights of marriage-minded mamas and débutantes throughout the land. Well, of most of them. Charlotte Highwood – sister of Minerva (from the Spindle Cove series’ A Week to Be Wicked) has her sights set on making a European tour with her best friend, Delia Parkhurst, and has no intention of getting married in spite of the fact that her mother is practically throwing her at every eligible bachelor she can find. In fact, her mother’s desperation to get her youngest daughter married off has made Charlotte a laughing stock, but fortunately, she isn’t the type to be crushed by such a thing, no matter how irritating she finds it.

Charlotte and Mrs. Highwood are guests at a house-party hosted Delia’s parents, Sir Vernon and Lady Parkhurst. Being the charitable type, Charlotte decides it’s only fair to warn the Marquess of Granville that she has no wish to marry him, no matter that her mother is going to be throwing her at him over the next couple of weeks. The Marquess’ reaction to this is not at all what Charlotte expects – wryly humorous, gently teasing and completely unconcerned, he assures her that if, in his work as a diplomat, he can survive the vagaries of international politics he can undoubtedly survive the machinations of her mother. Charlotte is sceptical, but before she can issue another warning, their conversation is interrupted when an amorous couple bursts into the library, fortunately too engrossed in each other to notice Piers whisking Charlotte to the window seat behind the curtain.

After several uncomfortable minutes listening to the mystery couple getting it on, most of which Charlotte spends with her head pressed against Piers’ manly chest in order to control a fit of the giggles, the couple departs, leaving the coast clear. Only it isn’t – the moment Piers and Charlotte emerge from the window seat, they are confronted by their hosts’ eight year-old-son who promptly yells “murder!” at the top of his voice, having, of course, misconstrued the noises he’d heard emanating from the room. Not only does he misconstrue them, he does a good job of imitating them to the growing audience of guests, leaving Piers no alternative but to rescue Charlotte from ruin by immediately asking for her hand, much to the delight of her mother.

But marrying a marquess, no matter how handsome and ironically charming he is, does not fit in with Charlotte’s plans, and, she is sure, with his, either. She decides that the only way to avoid matrimony is to discover the identities of the mystery lovemakers (or mystery tuppers, as Piers would have it) and then explain the situation so that everyone will realise it wasn’t the two of them rogering each other stupid on the desk. This is what I meant about the plot being silly – it’s such an obvious device to bring the two protagonists together that normally, I’d be rolling my eyes. And I suppose I did, but Ms. Dare quickly makes the reader forgive her for the contrivance because the protagonists are so engaging, their banter is genuinely funny and they are quite obviously perfect for each other.

Charlotte is a thoroughly likeable heroine. She’s quite young –just twenty – but she’s witty, good-natured and able to laugh at herself, which is probably just as well, given the embarrassment to which her mother subjects her. She tells Piers straight away that while she is well aware of all the advantages marrying him would bring, she hopes to make a love match and politely refuses his offer. Piers believes his life is too complicated to admit of any emotional entanglements, so he is not particularly surprised by her reaction; but he is surprised by his own, which is that she genuinely interests and attracts him and he soon finds himself pursuing her in earnest. Their interactions are warm and funny, and, on Charlotte’s part very honest. Piers is a different matter, however; he’s haunted by a long-kept secret from his past and his work as an agent for the British government means that he has had to make questionable decisions and perform some dark deeds over the years. This is one of the few parts of the story that doesn’t really work; Piers isn’t tortured or damaged, he just thinks he is, and not very convincingly at that. He is, however, manipulative, and doesn’t even blink when it comes to engineering a situation to force Charlotte’s hand and convince her that he really isn’t a Nice Man who is looking for love but just doesn’t realise it.

Apart from that misstep though, Piers is a sexy hero. His aura of confidence and competence is extremely attractive, his dead-pan wit and sense of humour are a nice contrast to his aloof exterior, and most importantly, he appreciates and is attracted to Charlotte’s keen intelligence and sense of humour. The romantic and sexual tension between them leaps off the page and they share a strong connection; there’s a real sense that here are two people who are as attuned to each other mentally as they are compatible physically.

For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.

Although the book fits into two different series (Castles Ever After and Spindle Cove), it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone. Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.

A Scot in the Dark (Scandal & Scoundrel #2) by Sarah MacLean

a scot in the dark

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lonesome Lily Turned Scandalous Siren

Miss Lillian Hargrove has lived much of her life alone in a gilded cage, longing for love and companionship. When an artist offers her pretty promises and begs her to pose for a scandalous portrait, Lily doesn’t hesitate…until the lying libertine leaves her in disgrace. With the painting now public, Lily has no choice but to turn to the one man who might save her from ruin.

Highland Devil turned Halfhearted Duke

The Duke of Warnick loathes all things English, none more so than the aristocracy. It does not matter that the imposing Scotsman has inherited one of the most venerable dukedoms in Britain—he wants nothing to do with it, especially when he discovers that the unwanted title comes with a troublesome ward, one who is far too old and far too beautiful to be his problem.

Tartan Comes to Town

Warnick arrives in London with a single goal: get the chit married and see her become someone else’s problem, then return to a normal, quiet life in Scotland. It’s the perfect plan, until Lily declares she’ll only marry for love…and the Scot finds that there is one thing in England he likes far too much…

Rating: C

I’ve read and enjoyed Sarah MacLean’s previous two series and I enjoyed the previous book in this one (The Rogue Not Taken), so I suppose she’s allowed a dud, and that is, I’m sorry to say, my overall impression of her latest book, A Scot in the Dark. The romance seems to come out of nowhere, the heroine’s actions often don’t make sense, and while it was a refreshing change to read of the hero having body-image issues, I really dislike that whole “I am not worthy” trope in romance, and it’s done to death here. Worst of all, I didn’t really like either of the protagonists. I didn’t hate them, but neither of them grabbed me and as a result, I couldn’t root for them as a couple.

Lillian Hargrove has made the mistake of falling in love with a complete and utter bastard with an ego the size of the planet and was persuaded by him to pose for a portrait in the nude, believing he wouldn’t show it to anyone else. She realises her mistake some months later at the opening of the Royal Academy’s Exhibition of Contemporary Art, when it is announced that his painting of her is the highlight of the exhibition and will be unveiled in a month’s time amid all due pomp and circumstance. Lily is naturally and immediately the subject of all sorts of horrid gossip and her reputation is in tatters.

Enter her hitherto absentee guardian, Alec Stuart, the twenty-first Duke of Warnick, who has, during the five years since he acceded to the title (owing to the utterly improbable fact that the seventeen people who stood between him and the dukedom all managed to die without issue), managed to avoid London and remain on his lands in Scotland. Having had no idea until now that he even had a ward, Alec realises that he needs to rescue Lily from certain ruin and heads off to London in order to do so.

Lily doesn’t want to be rescued –she just wants to run away, but Alec isn’t having it. He decides she should get married straight away, as having a husband will protect her reputation. Lily doesn’t want to get married either, and most of the book is spent with them not agreeing to disagree on the way to deal with the scandal that is going to get even bigger once the painting is unveiled.

Ms. MacLean has tried to do something interesting with her protagonists, which is why the book gets 3 stars and not less. We’re told that Lily is the most beautiful woman on the planet, but it’s clear that her beauty has not brought her a happy life. Lily was orphaned young, passed from pillar to post and never really cared for with the result that she has spent most of her life being ignored, in spite of her exceptionally good looks. I found it a little difficult to accept that she has never, ever had a friend, but given the fact that young women had such limited choices and that Lily was so overlooked, it’s just about within the realms of possibility that she really had spent her life alone.

Alec is six-and-a-half-feet of big, brawny Scotsman whose mother pretty much rejected him for being too big and too coarse before she died when he was a child. Large hints are dropped throughout the story that the women who find him attractive want him only for one thing – he’s good for a night of raw, lusty sex, but not good enough for anything long-term – which means he’s not good enough for Lovely Lily.

I didn’t connect with either of the principals or feel a connection between them, either. For the first forty percent of the story, Lily is standing up to Alec, defying and running away from him – until suddenly she’s all over him and they’re sucking face and fondling each other in a carriage. There’s no build up or sexual tension beforehand and their verbal exchanges are flat and devoid of any spark or chemistry.

And then there’s the fact that Lily was utterly in love with the bastard who deceived her, but ten days later is in love with Alec. Naturally, she didn’t really know what love was before. And Derek Hawkins – the cad – is such an over the top, one dimensional character that I found myself questioning Lily’s intelligence for falling for him. What we see of him is so ridiculous it’s difficult to understand how she was so taken in by him.

And – I can’t put this off any longer, but the amount of English-bashing in this book got on my nerves very quickly. Alec hates the English – his mother was English and didn’t like Scotland. She abandoned him. All the women who humiliated him were English. England is horrible, it has no redeeming features whatsoever and he hates it. I got the message early on; I didn’t need to be continually beaten over the head with it.

Ms. MacLean writes with her customary skill, and I am still intrigued by the parallels she is drawing in this series between the scandal sheets of old, and today’s celebrity culture; I liked meeting West and Georgiana again, and there’s a very much appreciated cameo from Cross. But otherwise, A Scot in the Dark was a big disappointment and I was so disconnected from it and the characters that I struggled to finish it.