Besotted With the Viscount by Susanna Malcolm (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lord Gideon Birch, wounded former naval Captain and freshly minted Viscount, has a colorful history as a renowned lover of women. But a decade at war has transformed this sensual rake, and what he wants now is only to live a life on his own terms. And so he comes to the quietest village in England, searching for serenity, and instead encounters an astonishingly enthralling pair of green eyes that unsettle his carefully constructed world.

Though she would love nothing more than to leave Littleover, Miss Theadosia Ridley is sorely hampered by a lack of funds. Desperately trying to earn enough to feed herself and her ailing family servant, she must reluctantly accept Lord Birch’s opportune offer of employment: He needs her and her knowledge of Greek to catalog and translate the extensive library he’s accumulated over the course of the war. Dubious of his motives, she vows to keep her distance from the dashing newcomer. But time in his company unveils a compelling man far more complex than his shallow reputation would lead one to believe.

Can she uphold her vow not to succumb to his charms?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – C

Susanna Malcolm’s Besotted with the Viscount is a fairly low-angst tale set in a small English village, which sees two people who don’t quite fit in discovering that they fit in with each other rather well. It’s a leisurely-paced, character-driven tale, that starts well, but drags in the middle and then resorts to a rather clichéd Big Misunderstanding in order to create some much-needed tension towards the end.  The principals are likeable for the most part, although I found the heroine to be rather too negative, and I can’t deny there were times I thought both principals needed a slap!

Captain Lord Gideon Birch, younger brother of an earl, has recently been ennobled in recognition of his service during the recent wars.  Widely regarded as a hero, he has no wish to be continually reminded of his life in the Navy, a career forced upon him by his family and which he hated.  Now retired due to a serious injury to his knee, he wants nothing more than to live quietly somewhere as far from the sea as possible, and has purchased a property in the vicinity of the remote village of Littleover in Derbyshire.

Thea Ridley is the daughter of a scholar and lived most of her life in Greece before returning to England following the deaths of her parents.  She lives in a small cottage with her elderly companion and is barely making ends meet, so when the opportunity arises to work for the captain as a kind of librarian – Lord Birch has acquired a large number of Greek texts he cannot read (he doesn’t know Greek) – she jumps at the chance to earn some money, with a view to making enough to be able to leave England and make a home in Italy.

It’s a nice way of getting the two together, but I couldn’t help asking myself how it was that neither of them thought it improper to be alone together so often.  I suppose it could be that Gideon regarded Thea as a servant and therefore without a reputation to worry about, but that’s clearly not the case, given that they first meet at a social event.  He’s immediately smitten by her beautiful face (and in fact, if anyone is besotted in this story, it’s him), so when the local vicar suggests she would be the ideal person to catalogue and translate his books, he jumps at the chance to have her in his house and hopes to get to know her. But Gideon’s reputation as a rake and libertine is widely known, so Thea, who is still getting over being thrown over by the young man she’d expected to marry – is wary, of Gideon and of men in general.

This is a romance novel, so I don’t need to spell out where things are headed. Thea is equally taken with the handsome captain, but keeps reminding herself that Men Are Not To Be Trusted and remains in denial about the truth of her feelings for Gideon.  Until, that is, her former love arrives back in the village accompanied by his new – pregnant – wife (whom he married for money), and promptly propositions Thea, intending to make her his mistress.  She’s so furiously indignant, she goes back to Gideon’s house, figures if all men are going to think she’s a whore, she might as well be one, and jumps Gideon – much to his delight.

Things between them are fairly blissful (fortunately, Gideon has hardly any servants, so there’s nobody to witness them getting it on in all the rooms in the house) – although at no point does he, a gentleman, mention marriage – until the Big Mis kicks in near the end.  Without spoilers, something happens to Thea which turns the whole village against her, and when details reach Gideon – who has had to go away for a week – he immediately believes the worst, and, on returning to Littleover, makes no attempt to see or speak to Thea to get her side of the story.

Needless to say, Gideon’s behaviour at that point is unforgiveable and I didn’t blame Thea for the decision she makes afterward.  All is happily resolved, of course, but I have to say that while I generally liked Gideon, his lack of faith in Thea in the final stages of the novel left a nasty taste in my mouth.

It will come as no surprise when I say that the narration was by far the strongest part of this audiobook.  Unfortunately, however, not even the velvet tones of Nicholas Boulton were enough to raise the book above the average, and actually, it’s the first time I’ve ever said that I wished he’d been given better material to work with, as so far, the authors he’s narrated for in the romance genre – Laura Kinsale, Alexis Hall, Elizabeth Kingston – are all top-notch.  His performance is excellent, as usual; his interpretations of the various characters are fabulous, they’re all very clearly differentiated, and his ability to get to the emotional heart of any given scene is superb.  But ultimately, the story is weak and the heroine is difficult to warm to, so in spite of Mr. Boulton’s best efforts – wonderful though they are – Besotted by the Viscount is rather a middling affair.

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TBR Challenge: The Tyburn Waltz by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Julie expects she will end up dangling on Tyburn gallows,hanged as a thief.

Ned expects he will die on the battlefields of the Peninsula, hanged as a spy.

But then Julie takes on the trappings of a lady, and Ned unexpectedly becomes an earl, both players in a deadly game that will take them from the heights of London society to the depths of the Regency underworld — a game in which not only necks are risked, but hearts as well.

Rating: B

Finding a book in a series to read for this month’s prompt proved a bit harder than I’d anticipated.  Oh, I’ve got plenty of series books, but I realised that most were in series I’d either completed or not started yet, so my option was pretty much limited to picking up the first in a series.  I was going back and forth on my Kindle trying to work out what I fancied reading and actually started one or two other books before finally settling on Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz.  Ms. MacKeever has a fairly large backlist of traditional regencies, but this book – the first in her Tyburn Trilogy (which has yet to be completed) – dates from 2010 and is a little bit sexier and somewhat darker than her trads.

When she’s just fourteen – as near as she can guess, anyway – street urchin Jules is caught stealing some silver teaspoons, imprisoned in Newgate and will most likely hang for the crime.  But she’s offered a deal; release in exchange for working for the infamous Cap’n Jack – the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent lord of London’s criminal underworld.  It’s Hobson’s Choice; Jules agrees, and for the next four years, she lives comfortably, and is given lessons in refinement and deportment so that she can move easily among the upper classes.

Ned Fairchild, Earl of Dorset, is a rather reluctant earl, having come into the title upon the unexpected death of his cousin.  Until then, he’d been an Exploring Officer (a spy of sorts) in Wellington’s army in Spain, a dangerous life, but one he’d relished.  Back in England, he and his closest friend, Kane, Lord Saxe, are still working for the government – but mostly Ned is bored by the round of balls, parties, visits to clubs and his mistress that seem to comprise his life and longs for something more.

He returns home late one night to find his fifteen-year-old sister, Lady Clea, out of bed and waiting for him, proudly showing him what looks to be a young woman wrapped in a curtain and tied to a chair in his library.  Clea explains that she – with the help of his batman, Bates – caught a housebreaker; Ned sends her to bed, intending to find out what he can about the young woman’s intentions, but she’s too quick for him, and knocks him over the head with an ornamental statue before absconding out of the window – with the statue, and without the curtain.

Shortly after this, Jules is manoeuvred into a situation as companion to Lady Georgiana Ashcroft.  As Miss Julie Wynne, she accompanies her mistress to a number of society events, where she’s instructed to steal various items from the hosts. She has no idea to what end, just knows that she’s got to follow Cap’n Jack’s orders quickly and without drawing attention to herself.  She’s engaged in stealing a glove from the bedroom of the wife of the French Ambassador when she’s confronted by the Earl of Dorset who idly wonders if she’s lost something.  She tries to bluff her way out of it, but quickly realises its futile; he’s recognised her and he’s clearly not going to let her get away this time.  She’s worried he’s going to report her to the authorities and is surprised when he doesn’t, instead asking her to meet him again so they can talk further.  Ned quickly realises there’s more going on that meets the eye, and assigns Bates to keep an eye on Julie, to protect her from whomever has her under his control.

The romance between Ned and Julie is a fairly slow-burn, and the author does a great job of building the attraction that thrums between them from their very first meeting. They’re both extremely likeable; Ned is a terrific hero – handsome, clever and compassionate, he’s impressed by Julie’s tenacity and gumption as much as he’s attracted to her and is determined to keep her safe at all costs. Julie has an old head on her young shoulders – not surprising, considering she grew up on the streets – she’s quick-witted and independent, although she’s sensible enough to recognise when she needs help and to ask for it.  Their interactions are lively and entertaining, they have great chemistry and their relationship moves at a good pace, while they’re also trying to work out exactly who Cap’n Jack is and what he’s up to.  The mystery element of the novel is intriguing and unfolds gradually, with the reader finding clues and information at the same time as the characters, which certainly helps to build the suspense.

The story is set against the backdrop of the state visit which doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot, although it does provide a number of events at which our heroes can interact, and allows the injection of a little light comedy in the forms of Lady Georgiana and Ned’s cousin, the dowager Countess, who are sworn rivals and always trying to score points off each other.  There are some other intriguing secondary characters as well; Ned’s friend Kane is a notorious rake, his sister, Clea is clever, vivacious and has a Latin quote handy for every occasion, and the coolly collected and lovely French spy, Sabine worked with Ned and Kane during the recent war.

After all those positives however, comes the negative; the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the rest of it.  The reveal about Cap’n Jack is weak and anti-climactic, and although everything is neatly wrapped up – and it’s not all rainbows and happy bunnies – the book seems to have run out of steam, and the author throws in a couple of plot points (like the one about Ned’s cousin pushing him to get married) which add little (if anything) to the story as a whole.

The Tyburn Waltz is, on the whole, a well-executed, funny and sensual romantic adventure story, and even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to read the other books in the trilogy.

Murder in Mayfair (Atlas Catesby #1) by D.M. Quincy (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

In 1810, Atlas Catesby, a brilliant adventurer and youngest son of a baron, is anxious to resume his world travels after a carriage accident left him injured in London. But his plans are derailed when, passing through a country village, he discovers a helpless woman being auctioned off to the highest bidder–by her husband.

In order to save her from being violated by another potential buyer, Atlas purchases the lady, Lilliana, on the spot to set her free. But Lilliana, desperate to be with her young sons and knowing the laws of England give a father all parental rights, refuses to be rescued–until weeks later when her husband is murdered and Atlas is the only one who can help clear her name of the crime.

Fortunately, Atlas is a master at solving complicated puzzles, both with games and the intricacies of human motivation, and finds himself uniquely suited to the task, despite the personal peril it may put him in. But soon Altas learns the dead man had many secrets–and more than a few enemies willing to kill to keep them quiet–in Murder in Mayfair, the first in a new historical mystery series by D. M. Quincy.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – C

D.M. Quincy’s Murder in Mayfair is the first in a series of Regency Era historical mysteries featuring gentleman traveller, Atlas Catesby. The blurb and some reviewers have suggested it will appeal to fans of Georgette Heyer or of C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr novels, but that’s misleading. The writing is solid, but doesn’t possess the wit or sharp observational humour of Heyer – who certainly didn’t pepper her prose with Americanisms – and the plotting doesn’t come close to the complexity of a St. Cyr mystery, not to mention that Atlas Catesby is no Viscount Devlin.

Atlas – the youngest son of a baron – spends most of his time travelling the world, but an injury to his foot has seen him lingering in England for longer than he normally likes, and he’s finding his patience sorely tested. He and his good friend the Earl of Charlton have stopped for refreshment at a country inn when a commotion in the yard draws Atlas’ attention. A jeering crowd surrounds a stocky man and a much younger – and rather striking – woman, and Atlas is outraged to hear the man – identified by the innkeeper as a Mr. Warwick – announce that his wife is for sale to the highest bidder.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Born to be Wilde (The Wildes of Lindow Castle #3) by Eloisa James


This title may be purchased from Amazon

The richest bachelor in England plays matchmaker…for an heiress he wants for himself!

For beautiful, witty Lavinia Gray, there’s only one thing worse than having to ask the appalling Parth Sterling to marry her: being turned down by him.

Now the richest bachelor in England, Parth is not about to marry a woman as reckless and fashion-obsessed as Lavinia; he’s chosen a far more suitable bride.

But when he learns of Lavinia’s desperate circumstances, he offers to find her a husband. Even better, he’ll find her a prince.

As usual, there’s no problem Parth can’t fix. But the more time he spends with the beguiling Lavinia, the more he finds himself wondering…

Why does the woman who’s completely wrong feel so right in his arms?

Rating: D+

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that Eloisa James’ books have generally been rather hit or miss (mostly miss) for me.  I’ve read some and enjoyed them – I gave Three Weeks with Lady X a DIK at All About Romance, and have rated other books highly, but after Seven Minutes in Heaven, I decided it was probably time for us to part ways. There are plenty of other books out there to read, so no big loss.  But… this is Eloisa James, right? One of the biggest names in historical romance.  Maybe I’ve missed something?  It’s that feeling that has made me go back to her books occasionally, so I decided I’d pick up Born to be Wilde, the third book in her Wildes of Lindow Castle series, just to see if maybe I’d got it wrong and she would wow me again.

I should have had the courage of my convictions and stayed away.

Born to be Wilde is nonsensical superficiality from start to finish.  The story is pretty much non-existent, the characters are bland and unmemorable, the romance is flat and seriously underdeveloped and the eleventh-hour conflict is utterly ridiculous.

Beautiful, vivacious and wealthy, Lavinia Gray is used to having men at her feet.  She’s turned down numerous proposals of marriage, secure in the knowledge that she could afford to wait for the right one – until she discovered that her mother’s spendthrift ways and gambling habits mean they’re broke and worse, that her mother resorted to stealing valuable jewellery and selling it for cash.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, she’s become addicted to laudanum to such a degree that she’s sent to a sanatorium at the beginning of the book to be weaned off the drug.  So – Lavinia is desperate.  She needs money and she needs it quickly if she’s to prevent her mother’s being carted off to Newgate; and what’s the easiest way to obtain it?  Yep – marry it.  The book opens with Lavinia turning up at the hero’s room and asking him to marry her.

Parth Sterling was born in India to an English father and Indian mother, but was sent to live in England at the age of five where, as a ward of the Duke of Lindow, he grew up with the Wildes and is regarded by them as a member of the family.  He’s a self-made man, one of the wealthiest in England, and even owns a bank.  He and Lavinia have known each other for years; she thinks he thinks she’s an empty-headed hat-fetishist, he thinks she thinks he’s a prig. Based on the fact that the worst insult she can come up with for him is “Appalling Parth”, I’d tend to agree with his assessment.  There’s no doubt she’s beautiful and desirable… but Parth doesn’t want to marry her.  Instead, though, he’ll help her to find a husband and sets about presenting her to highly eligible men, none of whom – of course – is good enough for her.

That’s pretty much the sum of their relationship.  She thinks he doesn’t like her; he’s confused about his feelings because she’s frivolous and he wants the woman in his life to have a bit more substance.  (Hence his intention to court a lovely Italian contessa). But of course, Lavinia DOES have substance; when she offers to put together a trousseau for her dear friend Diana – who is marrying the heir to the Duke of Lindow – the mercer (fabric merchant) suggests that with her exquisite taste (of which he has little discernible evidence), Lavinia should set up as a kind of personal stylist to society ladies, and that he would pay her a commission for using his fabrics.  Um.  Essentially –  a tradesman suggests that a Lady works for money.  In 1780.  Nope.  Not buying it.

Lavinia loves the idea, and thinks she can earn enough to pay off her mother’s debts AND enough to provide herself with a decent dowry. She adores fashion, so selecting fabrics, trimmings and designs isn’t really ‘work’, but doing something she loves.  She spends the next few weeks working her fingers to the bone – we’re told she often works late into the night and forgets to eat – preparing this trousseau, which seems excessive.  I know making clothes by hand is very labour-intensive, but still, it’s presented as though she’s working on achieving world peace or how to feed the world, rather than on sewing gowns.

By around two-thirds of the way through, Lavinia and Parth have both realised they were wrong about each other, that they’re wildly (!) attracted to each other and have jumped into bed.  Parth somehow has a condom to hand for their first time – it’s not the use of it I query, because of course they were around, it’s more than he has one so conveniently to hand in a room not his own bedroom.  They didn’t come in little foil packets back in the eighteenth century.

Of course, Parth wouldn’t have taken Lavinia to bed had he not intended to marry her, something which appears to go without saying for both of them.  All is going to plan until that eleventh-hour conflict I mentioned, which is shoe-horned in for the sake of it, and only provides yet another opportunity for Lavinia to bemoan her own unworthiness and conviction that Parth doesn’t respect her.

The story is basically one big trope-fest, and there is absolutely NO sense whatsoever of time or place in the novel; had it not been for the timestamps at the beginning of each chapter telling me events were taking place in 1780, I’d have had no idea when the story was set, in spite of the extremely tedious descriptions of patterns and fabrics.  And the fact that the hero is Anglo-Indian is mentioned a few times in passing and has so little bearing on his character or the story that I have no idea why the author chose to give him that background.  I am well aware that mixed-race relationships/marriages were not uncommon at this time and have absolutely no issues whatsoever with the hero being of mixed parentage.  But in the same way as the novel having no sense of time or place, there’s no sense of what his heritage means to him or how it has shaped him.

It’s all so much froth and banal superficiality.  I like a well-written piece of fluff as well as the next person, but Born to be Wilde is just DULL.  The antics of the Wildes basically scream “LOOK AT US – WE’RE UNCONVENTIONAL!” the humour is forced and unfunny, Parth and Lavinia share no chemistry whatsoever and Ms. James plays fast-and-loose with the conventions of the time.  There are a lot of authors out there – I won’t name names, but it’s a long list – who write stuff like this all the time; characters in pretty frocks and tight breeches who pay no attention to social convention and speak and act with twenty-first sensibilities.  If that’s what you want to read – and some authors do it very well – then fine, but part of the challenge of historical romance is, surely, in creating and developing a romantic relationship between characters who would, in the real world of the period, not have been allowed to spend time together alone – and making their interactions believable.

Mission SO not accomplished.  As I said on Goodreads.  “That’s three and a bit hours of my life I’ll never get back.”

I’m sorry Ms. James – you have a large number of fans who love your work and good luck to you and them.  But I’m done.

 

Scandal Above Stairs (Kat Holloway #2) by Jennifer Ashley

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Priceless artwork has gone missing from the home of a wealthy baronet, and his wife stands to take the blame. When Kat’s employer asks for help in clearing her friend’s name, Kat trades her kitchen for the homes of Mayfair’s wealthiest families.

Soon antiques are disappearing not only from the extravagant households of connoisseurs and collectors, but from the illustrious British Museum. As the thefts increase in frequency, Kat calls upon her friend Daniel McAdam, who has already set himself up in a pawnshop on the Strand as a seedy receiver of stolen goods. When a man is murdered in the shop, Kat must use all of her wits to see that the thieves are caught and justice is done.

Rating: C+

Scandal Above Stairs, the second book in Jennifer Ashley’s series of historical mysteries featuring the no-nonsense cook, Kat Ashley, takes place a few months after the events of book one, Death Below Stairs, and sees our intrepid heroine once again embroiled in the search for a killer, aided by her love-interest – the enigmatic Daniel McAdam – his son James, and her new assistant, Tess Parsons. It’s a well-written ‘cosy’ mystery, and the reviews I’ve seen have been overwhelmingly positive – but I have to confess to being a bit bored until about the last quarter of the book when the pacing, which is pretty pedestrian throughout, finally picks up as we head into the dénouement and resolution of the central plotline.

It’s been a couple of months since Kat helped Daniel to foil a plot to assassinate the Queen, and she’s just a little bit miffed that she hasn’t seen or heard from him in all that time. She still doesn’t know much about him other than that he’s a chameleon who can blend in with workmen, toffs and all the social spectrum in between, and that he must be working for the police or some other government agency. In Death Below Stairs, he promised that one day he’d tell her everything – but that time obviously hasn’t arrived yet. But Kat isn’t one to mope over a man – she knows Daniel must be alright because James would have told her if he wasn’t, and she goes about her normal business as usual – cooking for the Bywaters, now in residence at Lord Rankin’s Mayfair home (they are his cousins) and Lady Cynthia (his sister-in-law), who continues to wear men’s suits, smoke cheroots and, with her small group of like-minded friends, to infiltrate such bastions of masculine privilege as gentleman’s clubs and gaming houses whenever they can.

Well aware of Kat’s sleuthing talents, Lady Cynthia asks if Kat will help a friend of hers, whose husband has accused her of stealing some valuable paintings in order to pay off her gambling debts. On the pretext of visiting the house’s cook – most servants in grand houses knew each other –Kat accompanies Lady Cynthia to the home of Lady Clementine Godfrey to see what she can see – and it doesn’t take her long to work out exactly what’s going on and announce that Sir Evan Godfrey is selling the paintings himself because he’s in need of funds.

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

Too Hot to Handel (John Pickett Mysteries #5) by Sheri Cobb South (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Froomkin

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When a rash of jewel thefts strikes London, magistrate Patrick Colquhoun deploys his Bow Street Runners to put a stop to the crimes. The Russian Princess Olga Fyodorovna is to attend a production of Handel’s Esther at Drury Lane Theatre, where she will wear a magnificent diamond necklace. The entire Bow Street force will be stationed at various locations around the theatre – including John Pickett, who will occupy a box directly across from the princess.

In order to preserve his incognito, Pickett must appear to be a private gentleman attending the theatre. Mr. Colquhoun recommends that he have a female companion – a lady, in fact, who might prevent him from making any glaring faux pas. But the only lady of Pickett’s acquaintance is Julia, Lady Fieldhurst, to whom he accidentally contracted a Scottish irregular marriage several months earlier, and with whom he is seeking an annulment against his own inclinations – and for whom he recklessly declared his love, secure in the belief he would never see her again.

The inevitable awkwardness of their reunion is forgotten when the theatre catches fire. In the confusion, the Russian diamonds are stolen, and Pickett is struck in the head and rendered unconscious. Suddenly it is up to Julia not only to nurse him back to health, but to discover his attacker and bring the culprit – and the jewel thief – to justice.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B

This fifth John Pickett mystery is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series in that our hero spends a rather large part of it unconscious, leaving his lady-love, Lady Julia Fieldhurst to the bulk of the sleuthing when it comes to solving the mystery of some missing diamonds. That said though, John is nonetheless a major presence in Too Hot to Handel, and Joel Froomkin’s hugely entertaining narration kept me engaged throughout, so I didn’t feel the slightest bit short-changed.

Note: There will be spoilers for earlier books in the series in this review.

It’s three months since Bow Street Runner John Pickett said farewell to the woman he fell in love with almost a year earlier, and a matter of weeks before the case for the annulment of the “irregular marriage” they inadvertently contracted in Scotland comes before the ecclesiastical court. At the end of the previous book, Dinner Most Deadly, he declared his love for Lady Julia Fieldhurst, but also said that they should not meet again; he has always known that the huge gulf in their stations makes any relationship between them impossible, and it’s become too painful for him to keep spending time with her while knowing she can never be his. For Julia it’s been three long, colourless months and none of her usual activities hold much interest for her any more. Even a night out at the theatre is dull until, on the way out, she hears a distressed older lady claiming that her jewels have been stolen. Recalling that the Duchess of Mallen’s rubies had also disappeared while that lady was at the theatre, and that they had been recovered by the Bow Street force, Julia suggests sending for a Runner, and for a few brief minutes, is excited at the prospect of seeing John again – only to come crashing down when someone else appears in his stead.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – A Duchess in Name (Grantham Girls #1) by Amanda Weaver

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Victoria Carson never expected love. An American heiress and graduate of Lady Grantham’s finishing school, she’s been groomed since birth to marry an English title—the grander the better. So when the man chosen for her, the forbidding Earl of Dunnley, seems to hate her on sight, she understands that it can’t matter. Love can have no place in this arrangement.

Andrew Hargrave has little use for his title and even less for his cold, disinterested parents. Determined to make his own way, he’s devoted to his life in Italy working as an archaeologist. Until the collapse of his family’s fortune drags him back to England to a marriage he never wanted and a woman he doesn’t care to know.

Wild attraction is an unwanted complication for them both, though it forms the most fragile of bonds. Their marriage of convenience isn’t so intolerable after all—but it may not be enough when the deception that bound them is finally revealed.

Rating: B+

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.