Desperately Seeking Scandal by Theresa Romain

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Lady Ada Ellis has two great talents: managing the accounts of her horse-mad brother’s dukedom, and hiding in Berkshire from London society. Several years ago, a scandal rag published family secrets—and Ada was jilted as a result.

She has no use for the press or for her onetime fiancé, but fate delivers both into her hands at once. At the same time her former betrothed visits Berkshire with his new bride, charming reporter Colin Goddard seeks Ada’s help for a career-making series of articles on how to snare a wealthy spouse.

Ada agrees to assist Colin—if he acts as her devoted suitor before the man who once spurned her. What was intended as a humorous exploit turns seductive, as she and Colin challenge each other to a battle of wits, wills, and hearts. But Colin is keeping secrets of his own, and if he and Ada fall in love, one of them will lose everything…

Rating: B

Desperately Seeking Scandal is a charming fake-relationship story that originally appeared in the novella duo, The Duke’s Bridal Path. I have a sneaking fondness for the faux-couple trope, and Ms. Romain makes very good use of it here, creating a believable emotional connection between her principals within the confines of the shorter format, while telling a story about the importance of being true to oneself and doing the right thing.

Lady Ada Ellis, spinster sister of the Duke of Lavalle, has sequestered herself at the family’s country estate since she was jilted four years earlier by the stuffy Lord Wrotham following the scandalous rumours surrounding the death of her elder brother. She is happy at the family home, and her head for business and facility with numbers has led to her acting as de facto steward for her brother, the new duke. On a visit to the local village, she becomes aware that someone is watching and following her; suspecting he might be a journalist out to dig up more dirt on the family – her brother recently married the daughter of his stable master – she confronts the man, who introduces himself as Colin Goddard and is, indeed, a journalist.

Except that he’s not there to gather material for a story about her brother, and suggests that perhaps it’s her he’s interested in.  Ada isn’t swallowing that for one minute, but her curiosity is piqued and after a razor-sharp back-and-forth with the (admittedly) attractive young man, she tells him he can call on her the next day in order to explain what he has in mind.

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


A Lady Becomes a Governess (Governess Swap #1) by Diane Gaston

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Lady Rebecca Pierce escapes her forced betrothal when the ship she’s on is wrecked. Assuming the identity of a governess she believes has drowned, she enters the employ of brooding Lord Brookmore, who’s selflessly caring for his orphaned nieces. Inconveniently, she’s extremely attracted to the Viscount…but her only chance of happiness is tied to the biggest risk: revealing the truth about who she really is…

Rating: C-

In this latest offering from Diane Gaston, two women from very different stations in life swap roles and, as promised by the book’s title, The Lady Becomes a Governess . The premise intrigued me, but misgivings set in early on when the two ladies, Lady Rebecca Pierce and Miss Claire Tilson, who meet while on a voyage from Ireland to England, discover their uncanny (and hugely convenient) resemblance to one another. As I read on, I was confronted by a series of contrivances, unlikely circumstances and clichés; the characters were dull as ditchwater, the romance non-existent, and the only spark of life in the whole novel was provided by the hero’s horrid fiancée, a stereotypical evil-other-woman type whose machinations, while predictable and ridiculously hackneyed, did at least provoke a reaction other than boredom.

Lady Rebecca is being forced by her half-brother, the Earl of Keneagle, to marry the elderly Lord Stonecroft and is en route to England for her wedding. Needless to say, she’s not looking forward to her life as the wife of an elderly baron who only wants a young brood-mare, but the earl wants his half-sister off his hands and marrying her off is the easiest way to do it. As a caper to take their minds off the fates awaiting them, she and Clare – who is travelling to England in order to take up a post as a governess – swap clothes and pretend to be each other, even going so far as to fool Rebecca’s starchy maid (who is laid low by mal de mer) into believing that Claire is Rebecca. What larks!

Until, that is, the ship is hit by a terrible storm. Around three-quarters of the passengers are lost, and Claire is one of them. Rebecca remembers getting into a small rowing boat and then falling into the sea, but nothing more when she awakens in a soft bed in an unfamiliar room to find an equally unfamiliar gentleman sitting at her bedside. Assailed by guilt that she survived where others did not, Rebecca is at first not at all sure what to do, and then realises she has been presented with an opportunity to escape her unwanted marriage. Learning that the gentleman at her side is Garret, Viscount Brookmore, who had engaged Claire as governess to his two recently orphaned nieces, Rebecca decides to continue the deception she and Claire had practiced aboard ship. After all, she’s doing the poor little girls a kindness by not being yet another person supposed to look after them who has abandoned them by dying.

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

TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

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Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.

Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by Laura Spinella

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A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

Rating: B+

The first two books in Laura Spinella’s Ghost Gifts trilogy of paranormal mysteries introduces readers to Aubrey Ellis, a woman who has been able to communicate with the dead since she was a child.  These novels centre around Aubrey and her husband, a hard-nosed investigative reporter, but in Echo Moon, the final book in the set, the focus shifts to Aubrey and Levi’s son, Pete, a talented photojournalist who spends his life reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous places.  It’s an intriguing story that, after a slow start, becomes a compelling one, as the author skilfully weaves together two interconnected stories – one, the story of a young singer in the early part of the twentieth century, and the other concerning Pete’s search for the truth about a shattering event that took place shortly after the end of the First World War.

Aubrey Ellis’ psychic gifts – or her curse – have been passed to her son, who has, for as long as he can remember, been aware that he has lived a past life.  He has memories and/or visions of events from the early part of the last century and remembers fighting, and then documenting events as a war photographer, in World War One.  Pete also lives with a massive burden of guilt, knowing that he killed the woman he loved – whom he knows only as Esme – in that past life, and that weight is so heavy that it often threatens to consume him utterly.  The images of war that haunt him day after day and night after night are so disturbing that he can’t bear the idea of spending more time with his memories and trying to find out the truth about Esme; and the violent outbursts that inevitably follow his visions make him even more determined to leave his past in the past.  Being around his mother seems to intensify his ‘gift’ and increase the number and vividness of his recollections; and when Echo Moon opens, Pete has just returned home after two years spent embedded with troops in the Middle-East and other war-torn places. He spends his life searching for numbness by way of twenty-first century wars, running from his past life by throwing himself into untold dangers in this one.

Aubrey is naturally concerned for her son, and can see the toll his way of life is taking on him.  She knows he is haunted by the belief he was a murderer in his past life, and wants him to seek help in the form of regression therapy, but Pete is dead set against it.  But when, for the first time ever, he feels Esme’s spirit reaching for him in his present life, he starts to realise that something is changing, as his past and present lives have never intersected before.  When he offers to go to Long Island to check out a property that Aubrey has recently inherited from her grandmother, Pete is staggered to discover yet more connections between his family and his past life.

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

Lord Stanton’s Last Mistress (Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies #3) by Lara Temple

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She saved his life…

Now he can’t resist her!

Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies story: Lord Stanton’s stay on the island of Illiakos is shrouded in memories of fever and his mysterious nurse. Years later, an Illiakan royal visit to Stanton Hall reveals the princess’s chaperon Christina James is the woman who saved his life! Alexander is a master of control, but Christina makes him long to unleash the sinful side he’s buried…and unlock her passionate nature too!

Rating: B-

Lord Stanton’s Last Mistress is the final book in Lara Temple’s Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies trilogy, which features the members of the ‘Wild Hunt’, three men who have been friends since their schooldays and who served together during the Napoleonic Wars.  In books one and two, Gabriel, Lord Hunter and Alan, Marquess of Ravenscar met their matches, and now it’s the turn of the enigmatic Alexander, Lord Stanton, a man whose iron self-control has been hard won and whose coolly confident demeanour hides a wealth of hurt and self-recrimination.

When we meet him in the prologue, Alex has been shot and wounded and is being cared for in the palace of King Darius of the small Mediterranean island of Illiakos.  His wound is severe, and as he drifts in and out of consciousness, Alex registers he is being cared for by a woman shrouded in a voluminous veil. Once he’s regained sufficient strength to tease and flirt, Alex tries to get the woman to remove her ‘tent’, but she refuses and continues to tend him from beneath her covering.  In spite of the fact that he can’t see her face, Alex is drawn towards the young woman who so cheerfully disagrees with him and puts him in his place, so much so that he impulsively asks her to leave the island with him when he is well enough to travel.

Christina James is an Englishwoman by birth who has lived at the court of Illiakos for the last eight years.  After the death of her mother when she was ten, she accompanied her father to the island, and quickly became a dear friend and companion of the young Princess Ariadne who was then just four-years-old.  Christina remained on Illiakos following her father’s death, and now aged eighteen, she is bound by ties of love and gratitude to Ari and her father, who has asked Christina (who has inherited her father’s skill as an herbalist) to tend to the wounded Englishman – and insists on her wearing veils to preserve her modesty and reputation.  Rumour has it that the wounded man is as handsome as Apollo, and on first sight of him, Christina has to agree.  But she’s drawn to him for more than his looks; he’s charming, vibrant and funny and Christina is very soon completely infatuated with him.

Six years later, and the impetuous, smilingly flirtatious young man of the prologue has disappeared.  Alex got out of the spying game not long after he left Illiakos, but continues to work for the British government as a diplomat under the auspices of his uncle, Sir Oswald Sinclair.  When Sir Oswald tasks Alex with hosting the upcoming talks between England, Austria, Russia and Illiakos that are designed to secure Illiakos as a naval base in the Mediterranean, Alex is not pleased at the prospect of opening his family home to the delegations.  But his father, the Marquess of Wentworth, has agreed to the idea, so Alex has little choice but to agree and, a few days later, leaves London for Stanton Hall in Berkshire.

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

Heartless (House of Rohan #5) by Anne Stuart

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A strong, resilient woman who learned to survive in a world of betrayal. Emma Cadbury had been an innocent, a whore, a charity worker and a surgeon. She chose a life without love until she saved a dying soldier in a charity ward.

A scarred soldier who fought to redeem himself from the horrors he’d committed. Brandon Rohan had lost himself to drugs and degradation, wanting to die, and only one person could save him. But she’d disappeared.

A love neither of them wants, and a passion so strong it could burn down the world. Now they’ve come together again, but he doesn’t remember, and she doesn’t want to. But someone is trying to kill her, and Brandon is the one man who can save her.

England in 1840, where no one is what they seem.

Rating: B-

Seven years after our last encounter with the members of the scandalous House of Rohan, author Anne Stuart returns to nineteenth century England to bring us a fifth book in the series, Heartless, which picks up the story of the youngest Rohan, Lord Brandon, and Emma Cadbury, the woman who cared for him and saved his life following his return from war and his subsequent descent into depravity and addiction.  Their relationship began in book four, Shameless, but although it’s been several years since I read that book, the author has included enough information about the couple’s backstory here for a new reader not to feel as though they have missed anything, and for the reader newly returned to the series to feel the same.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Shameless.

Captain Lord Brandon Rohan of His Majesty’s army returned from the Afghan Wars so seriously injured that he wasn’t expected to live.  Emma Cadbury, formerly the youngest, most successful Madam in London, worked as a volunteer at St. Martin’s Military Hospital, and was assigned to take care of Brandon on what was believed would be his last night on earth.  But Emma managed to pull Brandon back from the brink, stubbornly refusing to let him sink into death.  Over the next few weeks, a subtle bond formed between the pair, as Brandon revealed things about himself he’d never told anyone, talking to Emma night after night about the war and the horrors he’d seen, endured and committed.  As he regained his strength, their teasing gradually turned into gentle flirtation, until each night ended with a goodnight kiss, which Brandon insisted would give him something to live for throughout the next day.

Emma may have been a courtesan, but her experience with men was limited to the sexual act – which she normally undertook while numbed by drink or laudanum; emotions – other than distaste or disgust – were never involved.  But when one of Brandon’s goodnight kisses turned into something more than a chaste peck, she panicked – terrified by the strength of her reaction to him – and didn’t return to his bedside again.  After that, he was reunited with his family and, apart from one further fateful occasion, he and Emma haven’t seen each other since.

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

Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray (Beauchamp Betrothals #3) by Janice Preston

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Love or family…How can she choose between them?

Lady Cecily Beauchamp has always put her family first. Until she falls under the spell of the mysterious Zachary Gray–a man of Romany descent. Knowing her family will forbid their match, Cecily steels herself to do her duty and marry someone else. Only she finds herself irresistibly drawn to Zach as the spark between them ignites a passion neither can deny!

Rating: B

In Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray, the third book in her Beauchamp Betrothals series, author Janice Preston introduces readers to Lady Cecily Beauchamp, thirty-year-old spinster sister of Leo, Duke of Cheriton and his brother, Vernon, who both found their HEAs in the previous books in the series.  It’s a gently moving story in which Cecily, who has devoted her life to her family, finds herself torn between familial love and romantic love; after years of putting others first, can she find the courage to follow her own heart or will the duty and decorum that have always been expected of her prove too strong to overcome?

While Cecily is delighted that both her brothers have found love, she’s finding it difficult to stop herself dwelling on the prospect of the life of ‘maiden-aunt-hood’ that now stretches before her.  At thirty, she’s been on the shelf for some years and has spent the best part of her life running the family home and was the main carer of Leo’s young three children after the death of their mother.  With those children now grown to adulthood and Leo newly married, Cecily’s life has changed irrevocably and she is no longer needed by anyone.

These thoughts weigh heavily on her during Vernon’s wedding, and she is hard pressed to maintain the poise characteristic of her – but maintain it she does, no matter that she’s feeling despondent and very fragile.  But as the day wears on, she finds increasingly difficult to maintain her social mask and escapes into the garden for a few minutes’ peace.  Which is where she literally bumps into the distractingly handsome Mr. Zachary Gray, a fellow guest and friend of the bride’s brother, Daniel Markham.  Mr Gray somehow divines her state of unrest and gently encourages her to share her burdens with him, and even though Cecily knows the damage that could be done to her reputation should she be discovered walking with a man unchaperoned, there’s something about him that draws her, a confidence and self-awareness she finds very attractive.

Cecily continues to think of the mysterious Mr. Gray – Zach, as he asked her to call him – throughout the evening, and they meet again a few times over the next few days.  But all the time, she is conscious that while he might be a friend of the Markhams, Zach is viewed with suspicion and prejudice, even by her brothers, who subtly and then not-so subtly warn her against him.  In any case, Cecily has no hopes in that direction – or so she tries to persuade herself – because she has reached a decision.  A year earlier she had turned down a proposal from Lord Kilburn, a man older than she with a young family; but marriage will mean she can avoid the role of dependent relative, and she decides to see if Kilburn is prepared to renew his offer.

Zach has lived with prejudice for most of his life but he refuses to apologise for who and what he is.  He is actually the son of an earl and a Romany woman who were legally married and disowned by society – after his mother’s death when he was sixteen, he went to live with her people and has continued to follow their way of living ever since.  The author has clearly done her homework on the Romany way of life, and presents it in a subtle way – and she also does a very good job showing the sort of blind prejudice Zach and his people faced, even from people like Cecily’s brothers, who are decent, honourable gentlemen.  Zach is a lovely hero; a man who is comfortable in his own skin, and who has learned the importance of being true to oneself.  He’s honest and genuine, the sort of man who doesn’t need to be high-handed or arrogant because he has nothing to prove to anyone, and he’s completely swoonworthy.

When Zach meets Cecily, he recognises her vulnerability and her desire to do and be more than the perfect lady she has been brought up to be.  He longs to show her how to live for herself and how to listen to her heart; he knows that she isn’t for him, that he shouldn’t be looking for her or spending much time with her, but he can’t help himself.

Before long, however, Leo and Vernon realise that Cecily and Zach have been spending time together, and forbid her to see him again.  Cecily is horribly torn, but the prospect of leaving behind her beloved family and everything she has ever known terrifies her, and here I’ll admit to being in two minds about her.  On the one hand, Cecily is so scared at the thought of striking out on a path different to the one she has followed most of her life that it makes her seem rather insipid.  But on the other, that fear is something we have probably all faced, and in all likelihood, some of us have taken the path of familiarity and of least resistance, even though we suspect doing so might not make us happy.  And in Cecily’s case, her initial choice of the life she knows over the life she could have is perfectly in keeping with the sort of woman she is – one brought up to value propriety, duty and decorum above personal wishes.  So while I can’t deny I was a little disappointed in her at that point, I appreciated that the author has created a heroine who is very much of her time and of her class.  And I definitely appreciated the character growth she exhibits in the second half of the book as she comes to realise that Zach is right and she needs to listen to her heart and reach out for what she wants.

To sum up, Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray is a well-written, strongly characterised and emotionally satisfying story featuring two likeable principals who act, talk and think like adults – something that isn’t always a given in romance novels.  My one real criticism of the book is that while the chemistry between Cecily and Zach is evident, the beginning of their romance is rather abrupt; I wouldn’t quite call it insta-love, but it’s close, and readers are told the pair are falling in love rather than being shown it.  That said, this is nonetheless a story I’m happy to recommend to anyone in search of a low-angst, sweetly sensual historical romance.