To Love and to Loathe (Regency Vows #2) by Martha Waters

to love and to loathe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The only thing they can agree on is that the winner takes all

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, are as infamous for their bickering as for their flirtation.

Shortly before a fortnight-long house party at Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when he appears at her home with an unexpected proposition.

After finding his latest mistress unimpressed with his bedroom skills, Jeremy suggests that they embark on a brief affair. He trusts Diana to critique him honestly, and she’ll use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana has bet Jeremy that he will marry within the year, and she intends to use his proposal to her advantage.

But in this battle, should the real wager be who will lose their heart to the other first?

Rating: B+

To Love and To Loathe is the follow-up to Martha Waters’ 2020 début historical romance, To Have and To Hoax.  AAR’s reviewer was less than impressed with it, citing problems with the premise and immaturity of the leads, and overall, reviews were mixed. With so many other books to review on my plate, I didn’t get around to reading it, so I can’t offer an opinion.  But I wanted to give the author a try, so I picked up this second book in The Regency Vows series, because I am a sucker for that whole Beatrice and Benedick sparring-couple-who-are-desperately-in-love-but-would-deny-it-to-the-death thing.  And I’m glad I did, because To Love and To Loathe is funny, clever and sexy, featuring complex, well-rounded characters and incorporating pertinent observations about the nature of privilege and the unfairness of the patriarchal norms and laws that deprived women of autonomy.

At the age of eighteen, the Honourable Diana Bourne is well aware that most men are fools, but a man doesn’t need to be clever to be possessed of a hefty fortune, which is exactly what she’s looking for.  Since the death of their parents, she and her brother have lived with relatives who have seen her as nothing but a burden and who resent the expense her presence incurs.  So Diana is determined to snare a wealthy husband so she will never have to worry about something as vulgar as money ever again.

The one tiny glitch in her plan is her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham, who while just as much of a fool as every other man, is nonetheless a massively enticing fool who has only to walk into a room to turn the head of every woman in it – and set Diana’s heart beating just a bit faster than she would like.  But no matter how handsome and charming Jeremy is (or how strongly she’s attracted to him), he’s irresponsible,  overly fond of drink and women, and – most importantly – almost broke, so he won’t suit Diana’s purposes at all.

A few years later, Diana is a wealthy widow and Jeremy is still cutting a swathe through the beds of the bored wives and widows of the ton.  Their inability to agree on anything is widely known throughout society, as is the fact they’re engaged in a game of one-upmanship involving a constant barrage of well-aimed barbs and cleverly chosen put-downs.  On one particular evening when Willingham again scoffs at the idea of matrimony, Diana impulsively wagers him that he’ll be married within the year – or she’ll pay him the sum of one hundred pounds.  Of course, Willingham accepts – and only afterwards does Diana realise it was perhaps not the wisest thing she’s ever done, because honestly, she can’t see him marrying in the next twelve months, either.

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

A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Gathering Storm (Storm Over Scotland #1) by Maggie Craig (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Worsley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Edinburgh, Yuletide 1743, and Redcoat Captain Robert Catto would rather be anywhere else on earth than Scotland. Seconded back from the wars in Europe to command the city’s town guard, he fears his covert mission to assess the strength of the Jacobite threat will force him to confront the past he tries so hard to forget.

Christian Rankeillor, her surgeon-apothecary father, and his apprentice, Jamie Buchan of Balnamoon, are committed supporters of the Stuart Cause. They’re hiding a Jacobite agent with a price on his head in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary: a hanging offense.

Meeting as enemies, Robert and Kirsty are thrown together as allies by their desire to help Geordie and Alice Smart, young runaways from Cosmo Liddell, bored and brutal aristocrat and coal owner.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A

I first reviewed Maggie Craig’s Gathering Storm when it was released in audiobook format back in 2015, in the version narrated by James Bryce (which is no longer available). I enjoyed the story a great deal, but had a number of reservations about the narration; one that the pacing was very slow, but most importantly, that the narrator was not able to effectively portray the hero of the story, Robert Catto, who, rather than a virile young man just shy of twenty-five, sounded like a grizzled old campaigner in his forties.

When the author released the sequel – Dance to the Storm – last year, she opted to self-publish and selected a narrator much more suited to the material. Ms. Craig has now had Gathering Storm re-recorded by Steve Worsley and was kind enough to send me a copy. Given I’d so enjoyed the story, but felt let down by the narration, I decided to revise my original review to reflect the change. Gathering Storm is a terrific book, and it deserves to reach a wide audience; the historical backdrop is meticulously researched and skilfully incorporated, there’s a star-crossed romance, political intrigue, secrets, lies and betrayal, and an intensely charismatic leading man, things which combine to make this a must for fans of well-written romantic historical fiction.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Rake’s Retreat by Nancy Butler

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While sketching in a wooded grove, Lady Jemima Vale encounters a young actress who witnessed a murder in the grove . . . and her rescuer, the notorious libertine Beecham Bryce. When he insists young Lovelace Wellesley take shelter at his nearby home, Lady Jemima offers to act as chaperon, not realizing her maidenly reserve will soon be shattered by her devilish host.

Rating: A-

I generally think of a comfort read as something I’ve already read, but because I try to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I haven’t read, I decided to go for one by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed and want to read more of.  Nancy Butler’s The Rake’s Retreat got my 2021 TBR Challenge off to a great start; it makes excellent use of the trope of the-rake-who-falls-hard-for-a -spinster-ish-heroine, and it contains some of the best verbal sparring I’ve ever come across.  The romance is wonderful; the chemistry between the leads is off the charts and their relationship is superbly written, with lots of insight, tenderness and mutual understanding on display amid the banter and the delicious sexual tension.

The Rake’s Retreat opens when seventeen-year-old travelling player Lovelace Wellesley, leading lady of Wellesley’s Wandering Minstrels, witnesses a murder in the Kentish countryside.  Unfortunately for her, the murderer sees her, and she flees in fear of her life – but in the way of all heroines-in-peril  – she falls and turns her ankle.  Fortunately for her, she is rescued by the local landowner, Beecham Bryce, who is obviously sceptical of her story of murder, but who decides to accompany her to the (supposed) scene of the crime so that, if nothing else, he can convince her that she is in no danger.

Lady Jemima Vale is visiting Kent with her brother Lord Troy, London’s premier playwright, and is spending the afternoon sketching while she waits for him to return to the inn at which they are staying.  Her solitude is interrupted when she is approached by a starkly attractive gentleman who asks if she’s seen anyone in the woods.  Oddly unsettled by the stranger, whose easy grace, aura of danger and sudden, surprisingly engaging smile do odd things to her knees, Jemima replies that she has not seen anyone – and he explains that his young companion claims to have witnessed a murder in the woods just half an hour before.  He looks around for a while and finds nothing – but when Jemima gets to her feet shortly afterwards, he notices the blood-stains on her dress and realises she must have been sitting in the very spot the murder took place.  Lovelace may well be in danger after all, and Jemima is all for going back to the inn and returning her to her family – but the Minstrels have departed, mistakenly believing Lovelace to have been asleep in one of their carts.  Bryce suggests she should stay at his home while he arranges for someone to find her parents, but Jemima is horrified at the suggestion; leave a lovely young woman alone with a notorious rake?  Unthinkable!  Bryce – who has taken quite a shine to the tall, long-limbed brunette who challenges him at every turn and responds to his flirtatious teasing with a haughtily raised brow and a sharp retort – sees his chance, and suggests that Jemima should avail herself of his hospitality as well… to act as chaperone to Lovelace of course.

Over the next few days, Bryce and Jemima find themselves spending a lot of time together, sometimes in easy companionship, sometimes shooting verbal arrows at each other, both of them clearly having the other’s measure, both of them at something of a crossroads in life.  Jemima is firmly on the shelf and approaching her thirtieth birthday; she is starting to take stock of her life – most of which she has spent at her brother’s beck and call – and realising that she’s missed out on having a life of her own.  The artistic and literary salons she hosts in London may have provided intellectual stimulation, but she has neglected her emotional life and longs for something different.  Bryce is a swoonworthy hero; witty, sexy and insightful, he’s a man of intelligence and compassion hiding behind a mask of ennui and innuendo, and has returned to the family home in Kent in order to take care of it while his father – with whom he doesn’t get on –  is on a six-month long visit to warmer climes for his health.  Bryce is a womaniser and a libertine and makes no apologies for it, but he’s also quick to see and understand Jemima’s frustrations and to encourage her to step out from her brother’s shadow.  He sees Jemima for who she truly is, and he falls hard, although he does end up torn between wanting her and wanting what (he thinks) is best for her, which means his behaviour is sometimes a little hurtful as he tries to push her away ‘for her own good.’

But there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that they’re perfect for one another.  The author shows over and over again, through their words and actions, through the sparkling dialogue and verbal sparring, that they’re a match in wit and intellect, and that they belong together.

The mystery is interesting, although it’s fairly easy to guess where it’s going, but it’s nicely done all the same; and Lovelace makes for an engaging secondary character who, while she starts off being rather self-obsessed and a bit whiny, exhibits substantial character growth throughout the story.  There’s another character who provides considerable insight into Bryce’s character, showing him to be a deeply caring, loving person (and who has an important part to play in the story) but I can’t reveal more without spoilers.

When AAR reviewed this title back in 1999, it was awarded DIK status, and I’d say it’s worn pretty well and still deserves that grade (A-).  It’s not a straight A because I wasn’t wild about the way Jemima so easily distrusted Bryce towards the end, and some behaviour that veered a bit too close to TSTL territory – but those are minor irritants when set against all the things this book does so incredibly well, which is pretty much everything else.

The Rake’s Retreat is a fabulous, witty and charming romance that has definitely stood the test of time. I highly recommend it.

Ten Things I Hate About the Duke (Difficult Dukes #2) by Loretta Chase

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Cassandra Pomfret holds strong opinions she isn’t shy about voicing. But her extremely plain speaking has caused an uproar, and her exasperated father, hoping a husband will rein her in, has ruled that her beloved sister can’t marry until Cassandra does.

Now, thanks to a certain wild-living nobleman, the last shreds of Cassandra’s reputation are about to disintegrate, taking her sister’s future and her family’s good name along with them.

The Duke of Ashmont’s looks make women swoon. His character flaws are beyond counting. He’s lost a perfectly good bride through his own carelessness. He nearly killed one of his two best friends. Still, troublemaker that he is, he knows that damaging a lady’s good name isn’t sporting.

The only way to right the wrong is to marry her…and hope she doesn’t smother him in his sleep on their wedding night.

Rating: A

It’s been three years since we last had a new book from Loretta Chase, and I’m sure the burning question for historical romance fans is – was the long wait worth it?  I’m happy to say that yes, it was; Ten Things I Hate About the Duke may be one of those silly movie-reference titles that abound in historical romance these days, but the book itself is – thankfully – far from silly.  It’s classic Chase, featuring a pair of well-rounded, likeable protagonists, oodles of sexual tension and prose filled with insight, a generous helping of snark and the author’s customary razor-sharp wit.  It’s the best historical romance of the year, hands down.

Note: There are minor spoilers for the previous book, A Duke in Shining Armor, in this review.

Miss Cassandra Pomfret, eldest daughter of Lord deGriffith, is young woman who not only dares to hold opinions of her own but (even worse) dares to actually express them.  Cruelly nicknamed by the ton – Medusa and de Griffith’s Gorgon are just two of the charming epithets she’s attracted – she is continually frustrated by the restrictions imposed on her by society, the expectation that she should care more about her frocks than about working to make the world a better place.  But after she speaks out at a political meeting – and almost causes a riot – her father, a respected and influential politician, has had enough of her unconventional and ill-advised behaviour.  He has no doubt of her good intentions or her belief in the causes she espouses, but she needs to recognise that her actions reflect badly on her family, and particularly on her younger sister Hyacinth, who is having her very first London Season.  Lord deGriffith sees no point in his younger daughter moving in society if Cassandra’s actions continually undermine her position and reputation, and declares it is at an end, and that he will not give permission for Hyacinth to marry until Cassandra has done so.  For her part, Hyacinth – who has become the toast of the Season and attracted a host of beaux – isn’t particularly bothered at having her Season curtailed, but even so, Cassandra feels dreadfully guilty about it.  A couple of days later, Hyacinth urges her sister to go to visit their ailing former governess in Roehampton, and Cassandra sets out, with her maid and her groom accompanying her.

His Grace with the Angel Face the Duke of Ashmont has repaired to The Green Man on Putney Heath following the duel earlier in the morning with the Duke of Ripley.  Ashmont issued the challenge after his fiancée absconded on the morning of their wedding with Ripley in tow (perfectly innocently at first), and then, a few days later, jilted Ashmont in order to marry Ripley. Honour (and given this is Ashmont, a good deal of booze) demanded the challenge, and fortunately for all concerned, Ashmont didn’t put a bullet through Ripley.  A few hours later, Ashmont has drunk away the morning, despondent, and still shaken by the thought that he could conceivably have killed his best friend, He’s set to drink the rest of the day away when a commotion outside draws his attention.  Very much the worse for wear, he staggers outside, his one intention to stop the row that’s adding to the hammering in his head; he raises his pistol and fires into the air – causing the horses drawing an approaching carriage to bolt and the carriage to topple over.

Horrified – and still very drunk – Ashmont staggers over to the scene to find two young women lying near the carriage and a third body – a man – a short distance away.  He’s made his way over to the women and is relieved when one of them – a redhead – sits up… and not so relieved when she yells at him and smacks him with her bonnet.  As he finally faceplants, she gets up and calmly steps over him saying “Yes, you, of course… It only wanted this.”

Somehow, Cassandra thinks, she should have known Ashmont to have been the cause of all this mayhem – it’s what he does best after all.  She’s known him, on and off, all her life, and was even – as a girl – in love with him… until she realised he was never going to become the man she hoped he would.  But there’s no time to dwell on that;  her groom has been badly injured and needs help; Ashmont’s clout and money are needed which means, unfortunately, that so is he.

Still lying on the ground, Ashmont is contemplating the clouds and flashing grey eyes and dark red curls… when a bucket of cold water is dumped unceremoniously on his head and he’s exhorted to get up and make himself – and his money – useful.

Ashmont does indeed make himself (and his money) useful and he tries hard to fix the humungous mess he’s made – especially after Cassandra’s maid decides to return home, leaving her mistress completely unchaperoned.  Once word gets out about his involvement, Cassandra will be ruined – but luckily for all concerned, Ashmont’s uncle Frederick (Lord Frederick Beckingham, whom we met in the previous book) has a cooler, wiser head and advises Ashmont to leave as soon as possible after buying the silence of the staff at the inn, and thus protect Cassandra’s reputation.

Ashmont is sensible enough to take good advice, and disaster is averted. But… clever, challenging, imperturbable, waspish Cassandra Pomfret has completely captivated him, and he decides to pursue her.  The trouble is, she clearly isn’t impressed by his looks, his money or his rank – which are the things that usually get him what he wants – and he’s going to have to work harder than he’s ever worked at anything (which, let’s face it, he’s never done) if he wants to win her.

What follows is a sprightly and absolutely delightful dance as Ashmont, who is far from the idiot he allows the world believe him to be, slowly but surely works out how to prove to Cassandra that he’s serious about her.  He listens to her, he values her opinion, he finds out about things that are important to her and in the process, he starts to take stock of his own life, and to realise how little he’s made of it – which makes Ten Things as much a story of a man discovering the person he’s truly meant to be as it is a romance.  Ashmont isn’t a man redeemed by love, or a rake reformed due to the love of a good woman; he’s a man redeeming himself, a man coming to realise that he’s wasting the many gifts he’s been given and that he wants to be a better man than he’s been hitherto.  Yes, Cassandra provides the impetus by making him want to change, and by opening his eyes to the reality and frequent unpleasantness of the world around him – but no change of this sort is effective if the person concerned isn’t determined to do it, and Ashmont is prepared to work at turning his life around.

Ashmont and Cassandra are superbly drawn characters who simply light up the pages when they’re together, and the author has done a splendid job of making Ashmont – who could have been hard to like – an endearing character, even when he’s making bad decisions.  Cassandra is intelligent, independent, outspoken, and deeply compassionate, and I was impressed with the way she’s shown to be a woman pushing at the boundaries of the conventions that constrain her and trying to make a difference in the world, while still being very much a woman of her time.  The author’s subtle but pertinent commentary on the position of women in society is beautifully observed and quite low-key but no less scathing for that.

There’s an excellently-drawn secondary cast; I really liked the dynamic between Cassandra’s parents, and appreciated that Lord deGriffith isn’t an ogre, but a loving father driven to the extremes of exasperation.   I can’t wait to find out what’s going on between Blackwood and Alice, and there’s definitely a story to be told about Lord Frederick and Lady Charles.  But for now, Ten Things I Hate About the Duke is a terrific read and a fabulous example of historical romance done right.  Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait three years for the next instalment!

My American Duchess by Eloisa James (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

My American Duchess audio

This title is available to purchase from Amazon.

The arrogant Duke of Trent intends to marry a well-bred Englishwoman. The last woman he would ever consider marrying is the adventuresome Merry Pelford – an American heiress who has infamously jilted two fiancés.

But after one provocative encounter with the captivating Merry, Trent desires her more than any woman he has ever met. He is determined to have her as his wife, no matter what it takes. And Trent is a man who always gets what he wants.

The problem is, Merry is already betrothed, and the former runaway bride has vowed to make it all the way to the altar. As honour clashes with irresistible passion, Trent realizes the stakes are higher than anyone could have imagined. In his battle to save Merry and win her heart, one thing becomes clear:

All is fair in love and war.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

I don’t mind admitting that Eloisa James is one of those authors who is a bit hit and miss for me. I know she’s got a huge following who absolutely adore her books, so this is probably one of those times when “it’s not you, it’s me”, but of the books of hers I’ve read (which is by no means all), there have been more misses than hits. As a result, I wasn’t intending to pick up My American Duchess, thinking that I’d just move on to something else rather than risk another disappointment – until I saw that Kate Reading had been engaged to narrate it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.


Tremaine’s True Love (True Gentlemen #1) by Grace Burrowes

tremaines true love

Tremaine St. Michael is firmly in trade and seeks only to negotiate the sale of some fancy sheep with the Earl of Haddonfield. The earl’s sister, Lady Nita, is pragmatic, hard-working, and selfless, though Tremaine senses she’s also tired of her charitable obligations and envious of her siblings’ marital bliss. Tremaine, having been raised among shepherds, can spot another lonely soul, no matter how easily she fools her own family. Neither Tremaine nor Nita is looking for love, but love comes looking for them.

Rating: B

It’s no secret that I’m a big Grace Burrowes fan. I understand the criticisms that are sometimes levelled at her books; they can be repetitive, the heroes are too improbable, there are too many Americanisms etc., but for the most part I can forgive her those things because she writes stories that pull me in by virtue of the strength of her characterisations and the way in which she gets to the emotional heart of those characters and their stories. It’s the rare Grace Burrowes book that doesn’t quite work for me – but unfortunately, Tremaine’s True Love is one of those few.

That’s not to say it’s a bad read – far from it. It possesses the things I’ve come to expect from Ms Burrowes’ books; attractive, engaging protagonists with hidden vulnerabilities, well-written familial relationships, a gorgeous hero with a protective streak the size of the runway at Heathrow and a quirky, distinctive style of writing which I enjoy. But I found it very difficult to sympathise with the heroine in this story, which is principally why I wasn’t able to rate it more highly.

Lady Bernita (Nita) Haddonfield is the eldest sister of Nicholas, the Earl of Bellefonte. Since the death of their mother, Nita has run the household as well as taking on the role of carer and medic to those unable to afford the services of the local doctor previously performed by the late countess.

Following Nicholas’ marriage, Nita has surrendered control of the household to his wife, but even though she does not resent her sister-in-law, she nonetheless feels somewhat purposeless. She fills the gap by continuing to provide medical services to the poor of the estate and surrounding area, often putting herself at risk of illness and infection. Nicholas remonstrates with her time and time again, but Nita is adamant. If she doesn’t help these people, then who will? They can’t afford to pay anyone, and in any case, the local doctor is a quack who still believes that bleeding is the cure for everything, has no truck with hand-washing and thinks that most illnesses are inflicted as God’s punishment upon those who sin – especially if the patient is a woman.

Tremaine St. Michael appeared briefly in another of the author’s Lonely Lords series, Gabriel . He is half-French and half-Scottish, a wealthy and extremely hard-working businessman who is actually a French Comte, although it’s a title he rarely uses. He is visiting the Bellefonte estate in order to negotiate the purchase of a valuable flock of merino sheep from Nicholas, but the discussions aren’t going as well as he had expected as one of the earl’s neighbours is also interested in the valuable livestock.

Tremaine is immediately drawn to Nita’s strength of character and sense of purpose, but soon comes to see beyond that, to the insecure and lonely woman that lurks behind the lady’s formidable exterior. He lives a somewhat nomadic existence as he travels between his various estates and business concerns, and can only allow a few days for his negotiations over the sheep – but days stretch into weeks, and over that time, Tremaine and Nita become closer, bonding over their instincts to care for others – human and ovine! – and sharing thoughts and desires with each other they’ve never shared before. Their romance is tender and sweet, and I very much enjoyed watching two people who had thought that marriage and family was off the table falling in love and finding their way through the differences that threaten them so that they can be together in the end. In fact, the idea of both characters having to find a way to balance work and family is one that is still a very relevant one; and it’s not easy, as Ms Burrowes shows very clearly in her story.

Anyone familiar with the Lonely Lords series will recall that Nicholas has a number of sisters, and we meet them all again here. There is a secondary plotline around Susannah, who is hoping for a proposal of marriage from their neighbour, Mr Edward Nash. It quickly becomes apparent that Mr Nash is not a suitable candidate for Susannah’s hand, but because Nita has gained that information through practicing her healing skills, she feels unable to tell anyone – even to save her sister from being mistreated at his hands. I found this a little difficult to swallow, as Nita is not a physician, has taken no oaths of confidentiality – and yet she is prepared to put her sister at risk.

And this goes back to what I said earlier, about finding it difficult to warm to Nita. She’s a well-rounded and well-written character and Ms Burrowes has done an excellent job of relaying her weaknesses as well as her strengths, but overall, I found her to be too inflexible and unwilling to consider other points of view. She sees Nicholas’ chastisements as his trying to assert authority over her and criticism of the fact that she is heedless of her reputation, whereas it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that he is desperately concerned for her. And she makes the decision to reject Tremaine’s proposal when she thinks he will insist she stops her medical treatments in order to sit at home darning his socks and having babies, without really talking to him about it. She expects others to make allowances for her while not being prepared to make allowances for them until right at the very end.

With all that said, I did enjoy reading Tremaine’s True Love, even though it doesn’t rank among my favourite of Grace Burrowes’ books. The protagonists are well drawn, their romance is well developed and the friendship that gradually builds between Tremaine and Nicholas is fun to read. I shall certainly be reading the next book in this series, and will continue to snap up whatever Ms Burrowes comes up with after that.

The Scoundrel and the Debutante (Cabot Sisters #3) by Julia London

scoundrel and the debutante

When a man on a mission takes on a beautiful but unlikely ally, seduction and adventure are inevitable…

The dust of the Cabot sisters’ shocking plans to rescue their family from certain ruin may have settled, but Prudence Cabot is left standing in the rubble of scandal. Now regarded as an unsuitable bride, she’s tainted among the ton. Yet this unwilling wallflower is ripe for her own adventure. And when an irresistibly sexy American stranger on a desperate mission enlists her help, she simply can’t deny the temptation.

The fate of Roan Matheson’s family depends on how quickly he can find his runaway sister and persuade her to return to her betrothed. Scouring the rustic English countryside with the sensually wicked Prudence at his side—and in his bed—he’s out of his element. But once Roan has a taste of the sizzling passion that can lead to forever, he must choose between his heart’s obligations and its forbidden desires.

Rating: C

This third book in Julia London’s Cabot Sisters series is set around four years after the first two. In those, the eldest two of the four sisters – Honor and Grace – found love (and husbands) in rather unconventional ways which led to much scandal and gossip, leaving their younger sisters, Prudence and Mercy, rather tarred with the same brush.

For her part, Mercy is not particularly bothered, being focused on making a career as an artist and caught up with all the excitement of getting ready for her first term at a prestigious art school. But for Prudence, the third sister, her sisters’ escapades have proved almost ruinous. Now twenty-two she has no suitors, nor the prospect of any. Thanks to Grace’s husband, the Earl of Merryton, she has a suitable dowry, but even after four years, the name “Cabot” is besmirched and Prudence is resentful and thoroughly fed up.

In fact, at the beginning of the book, she is not an especially likeable character. She is petulant and whiny, blaming her poor prospects entirely on her older sisters – both of whom, incidentally, bear very little resemblance to the women who proposed to a known rake in a seedy gambling den (Honor) and who trapped the wrong man into marriage (Grace). Prudence has more than lived up to her name over the years; she has done exactly as she should all her life, protected her reputation, been circumspect in her actions and acted as the perfect young lady. But because of the actions of others, her prospects of having a husband and family of her own have been dashed, so her unhappiness is, at least, well-founded.

When the chance comes for her to make a short stay with a friend, she grabs it, willing to do anything – even visit someone who is happily married and in expectation of a child – to get away from home. While she is waiting for the coach, she encounters a handsome, somewhat irascible stranger, and Prudence is immediately smitten. Being the pattern card of propriety hasn’t done her any good, so she decides to live dangerously for once, and on impulse, decides to abandon her plans and accompany him to his destination – just to make sure he gets there safely, of course.

Roan Matheson has recently arrived in England from America in search of his wayward, scatterbrained sister, Aurora. That young lady had been visiting relatives in England but has not yet returned home, having informed her brother that she had been invited to stay for longer by some other, newly-acquired friends. Roan is furious with her – not just because she has failed to stick to her original plans without a thought for how that might affect anyone else, but also because she has a fiancé waiting at home, a young man who is key to cementing the alliance between his father’s company and the Matheson’s successful building and lumber business. Faulty directions have delayed Roan in his pursuit, and his frustration is only adding to his impatience to be off to find Aurora so he can go back home to his business and, possibly, to make an advantageous match of his own.

The Scoundrel and the Debutante (although to be completely honest, Roan is no scoundrel, and as Prudence is a couple of years past her come-out, she is no longer a debutante!) is a road-trip romance, the bulk of the story taken up with Roan and Prudence’s journey and the various mishaps that befall them on the way. As they travel, they come to know and understand each other better, but heartbreak looms when they realise that they really are an ocean apart. Prudence can’t envisage leaving the world she knows in order to be with him, and Roan has commitments which he can’t, in all honour, ignore or abandon.

Roan is a handsome, honourable and devoted hero and I liked Prudence’s determination to break the mould and do something unexpected. Even though she is not very engaging to start with, she does grow up a bit during the course of the story and come to realise that not everything is about her.

The Scoundrel and the Debutante is as well-written as the two previous entries in this series, but I can’t say that it’s particularly gripping or memorable. The romance isn’t completely convincing, the conflict later in the story is contrived and the story lacks a certain deftness of touch and humour which makes it feel a little on the stodgy side. If you’re following the series, then you might want to pick this up for completeness, but if not, then I’d suggest the earlier books would be a better introduction to the Cabot sisters.

My Seductive Innocent by Julie Johnstone

my seductive innocent

Miss Sophia Vane, a hoyden of the first order, makes an unlikely match when she weds Nathaniel Ellison, the rich and wary Duke of Scarsdale. What starts with an unexpected friendship soon blooms into a fiery passion. But a betrayal plunges Sophia into the thorny world of London Society and entangles her in a labyrinth of manipulation and jealousy that will test the strength of her marriage. Behind her husband’s sudden icy facade, Sophia believes dwells the caring, passionate man she loves. To break through the barriers and reclaim their happiness, they must do more than simply cast away their pride. They must fight for their very lives.

Rating: B-

My Seductive Innocent tells the story of an emotionally walled-off duke and the tavern maid he marries in order to prevent her scumbag of a father from abusing her and selling her into prostitution. Cross-class romance in historicals is always difficult to pull off because of the very strict social mores of the time, and even though the author does a fairly good job in showing that both characters have been backed into a corner, making marriage the only real solution, the massive social gulf between them does require rather a large suspension of disbelief. But if you can get past that and just go with the flow, then it’s an enjoyable read.

Nathan Ellison, Duke of Scarsdale is handsome, rich and determined that when he eventually marries, it will be solely for the begetting of an heir with no emotional involvement on either side. Growing up with a narcissistic mother whose extreme mood swings drove away Nathan’s father and meant that he never knew where he stood with her has led him to see all women as manipulative liars and he is determined never to allow a woman to worm her way into his heart.

On a visit to one of the less salubrious areas in the environs of Newmarket in order to purchase a horse for his disabled cousin, Scarsdale stops at a wayside tavern to ask for directions and steps in to save a young woman from being assaulted. Grateful for his intervention, the girl – Sophia Vane – offers to show the duke the way to the stables, but on the way, they are held up and Nathan is shot.

Sophia manages to get the injured man back to the tavern, where her father, a greedy, slovenly man whose only interest in Sophia or her young brother is a mercenary one, immediately determines to use his daughter to extort money from the duke. Once the duke’s wound has been seen to, Vane demands that he marry Sophia, given that he has irrevocably compromised her by being alone with her, both on the road and then later in the room while she tended to his injuries. Nathan basically tells the man where to get off – but once he realises the harsh realities of Sophia’s situation and discovers Vane’s plans to sell her nine-year-old brother Harry, he feels compelled to help her.

The only way he can truly protect her is to marry her – but she doesn’t see it that way, which surprises him, as every other woman he knows would be desperate to inveigle such an offer from him. It’s an extreme solution that does stretch the reader’s credulity, but Ms Johnstone just about gets away with it because of the way she thoroughly brings home Sophia’s lack of options and shows that Nathan’s innate decency won’t allow him to leave her to be abused. Sophia clearly has no conception of how difficult it is for a woman without references, reputation or any real skills to find employment. And as far as Scarsdale is concerned, all he needs a wife for is in order to get an heir, so one woman will do as well as another, given that he plans to get her pregnant and then leave her to her own devices in the country while he continues with his life as usual.

But he is completely unprepared for the way that Sophia’s honesty and compassion begin to creep under his carefully built defences, and more than that, is surprised at the intensity of the desire he feels for her. Sophia’s untutored passion is a revelation, and her unconditional love and overwhelming belief in him stun him and cause him to begin to reassess his view of their marriage and his own closed-off heart.

Scarsdale emerges as a man who, deep down, wants love and has a great capacity for it, but whose experiences at the hand of his unstable mother showed him that love wasn’t to be trusted and that he needed to wall off his emotions to prevent greater hurt. He’s gone through some dark times, yet hasn’t been able to truly squash the part of him that wants to love and be loved. He does perhaps fall for his new wife rather quickly, but on the other hand, I liked that he doesn’t spend too much time agonising over the fact that he’s going against everything he’d told himself he wanted, and that he is quick to see that he was wrong and to start to embrace his new life.

But as this all happens in the first half to two-thirds of the book, there must obviously be more to the story. Without giving away too much, someone is out to harm Nathan and things take a sudden and rather unexpected turn leading to his being declared dead. Sophia’s heartbreak at his loss is palpable, and her struggle to rebuild her life is thrown into further turmoil when she learns of a devastating betrayal that threatens to shatter her completely.

That’s all I’m going to say about that part of the plot, which is perhaps a little overblown but held my interest nonetheless. If you can get past that, and can accept the premise of the duke marrying the tavern-maid, then My Seductive Innocent is a well-written page-turner featuring an attractive central couple. The writing flows well, although there are some anachronistic turns of phrase and the usual smattering of Americanisms throughout. It’s the second book in a series, and although the principals from the previous book make an appearance, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the first book in order for this one to make sense. I’m giving it a qualified recommendation because of the unlikely plot elements, but even so, it’s a very readable tale.

The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy (Smythe-Smith Quartet #4) by Julia Quinn

secrets of sir richard kenworth

Sir Richard Kenworthy has less than a month to find a bride. . .

He knows he can’t be too picky, but when he sees Iris Smythe-Smith hiding behind her cello at her family’s infamous musicale, he thinks he might have struck gold. She’s the type of girl you don’t notice until the second-or third-look, but there’s something about her, something simmering under the surface, and he knows she’s the one.

Iris Smythe-Smith is used to being underestimated. With her pale hair and quiet, sly wit she tends to blend into the background, and she likes it that way. So when Richard Kenworthy demands an introduction, she is suspicious. He flirts, he charms, he gives every impression of a man falling in love, but she can’t quite believe it’s all true. And when his proposal of marriage turns into a compromising position that forces the issue, she can’t help thinking that he’s hiding something…even as her heart tells her to say yes.

Rating: B-

I’ve seen a lot of very mixed reactions to this book, which is the final novel in the author’s Smythe-Smith Quartet. All the negative comments I’ve seen concern the actions of the hero, the eponymous Sir Richard, who – it’s true – perpetrates a rather despicable deception on the heroine. But when I reached the end of the book, I found I was thinking of him as a decent man who had been backed into a corner and who made a very poor decision as a result rather than as a truly horrible person.

The questions as to the hero’s… well, hero-ness then struck me as being something that isn’t quite in Julia Quinn’s normal way. She’s known principally for deftly written romantic comedies full of sparkling wit and humour, but this book – this series, in fact – has employed some darker themes which haven’t always sat well in conjunction with her normally light, comedic style. There’s also been a tendency towards the melodramatic throughout the series (the dénoument of The Sum of All Kisses, I’m looking at YOU!) which I’ve found somewhat jarring when once again set against Ms Quinn’s usually more lighthearted fare.

Having said all that – I enjoyed The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, while recognising that those secrets – and actually, there’s only one secret – and the way in which Richard keeps them from Iris, may be what makes this book practically unreadable for others.

The annual Smythe-Smith musicale was first introduced in the author’s Bridgerton series (I believe), and is known throughout the ton for being the musical event of the season…primarily as one that should be avoided at all costs. It’s that time of the year again, the young women of the family are designated to perform – and their friends and family attend in a show of support while discreetly packing cotton-wool into their ears. The one member of the quartet with any real musical talent is the cellist, Iris, whom we’ve met in the previous books. With her pale hair, eyes and skin she’s used to blending into the background and most of the time, she likes it that way as it affords her the chance to observe the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of life among the great and good of society.

So she’s surprised and rather unnerved when she notices a rather handsome young man staring at her throughout the performance, and even more surprised when he angles for an introduction. He is Sir Richard Kenworthy, a baronet who resides principally in Yorkshire and even though Iris is rather suspicious of Richard’s eagerness to meet her, she can’t help feeling a little flattered by the attentions of such a charming man.

A week later, following several morning calls, walks and drives in the park, Richard proposes – and while Iris is tempted, she asks him for more time to get to know him. But what she doesn’t know – and he doesn’t tell her – is that he doesn’t have time to spend on a courtship. He needs a wife and he needs one immediately, so he manoeuvres Iris into a compromising position, knowing that will force the issue.

Iris is dismayed. She likes Richard very much and, had his proposal been less precipitate, is fairly sure she would have accepted him. But now, she has had her choices taken away from her, and doesn’t know why.

The fact that Richard likes Iris just as much makes him feel like the lowest of the low. He has come to London with the intention of finding himself a bride from the ranks of the veterans of several seasons whose desire to marry has turned desperate. Instead, he’s smitten with Iris’ pale beauty and her quick wit – although he can’t deny that he also chose her because he suspected her tendency to fade into the background would mean she was unlikely to be one of the ton’s most sought after young ladies.

The first half of the book is very enjoyable, and Ms Quinn keeps the mystery of Richard’s reasons for needing to get married sufficiently vague as to keep the reader hooked and wanting to know more. Her trademark humour and lightness of touch are much in evidence, and even though Richard’s actions are not of the best, he does genuinely care for Iris and shows her some lovely moments of tenderness and genuine affection.

The real problems start after the wedding, when Richard refuses to consummate the marriage, leaving Iris feeling undesired and unattractive. Arrived at her new home, she is surprised to see Richard utterly livid when he learns that his two sisters have departed to stay with their aunt. Her suspicions that all is not as it seems are only strengthened, but with no evidence to go on but a vague feeling, she decides to try to set them aside as she adjusts to her new life.

Reasoning that he might as well take advantage of his sisters’ absence to spend time alone with Iris, Richard decides to offer her the courtship he wasn’t able to give her before and hopes to encourage her affection for him before he has to come clean about his reasons for marrying her. And here’s another nail in the coffin of Richard’s “hero-dom” – he is so desperate to take his new wife to bed, that he’s completely unable to resist touching her affectionately, or kissing her passionately – only to realise what he’s doing and pull back, leaving her alone, unsatisfied and bewildered.

When Richard’s reasons for marrying Iris so quickly were revealed, I confess I thought it was a dumb plan. Then I thought about it some more, and realised that it’s not actually beyond the bounds of possibility – even though it’s still a dumb plan. It’s difficult to say much more without spoilers, but the whole thing was born of Richard’s desperation to protect his younger sisters. He’s their legal guardian as well as their brother, a responsibility that came to him after the death of their parents when he was still at university. Having no idea how to care for two young girls – and, being a young man, not very much interested in doing so – he palmed them off on their aunt, something for which he now feels very guilty and for which he is obviously trying to atone.

This book has clearly divided opinions, and I can’t deny I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Iris is a terrific heroine – intelligent, kind and ultimately a tower of emotional strength, and it’s much in Richard’s favour that he is well able to recognise what a treasure he has unearthed in her. He’s not such a well-drawn character though, partly, I suspect because readers have had three other books in which to become acquainted with Iris, and partly because of the necessity to keep his motives hidden for a large part of the story.

The ending of the book feels rushed, and the solution to everybody’s problems seems to have been arrived at too easily when compared to the desperation evinced by Richard’s shameful deception. The fact that the behaviour of Richard’s eldest sister is so unpleasant doesn’t help the readers to sympathise with his actions, and as with the last book, the melodrama of the situation overbalances the final chapters.

Ultimately, I have to write reviews based on my own enjoyment, and I did enjoy reading The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, despite my reservations. Richard is terribly misguided but not the contemptible bastard he has been labelled by some. In fact, he’s affable and rather sweet, and as I said at the outset, seems to me to be a man with his back against the wall who makes a very poor choice. It’s strongly written and there is much to enjoy in the relationship between the principals in the early stages, but I can see that it might not be a book for everybody.