The Tempting of the Governess (Cinderella Spinsters #2) by Julia Justiss

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His new Governess…

Is getting under his skin!

Infuriating, impertinent…just some of the words Colonel Hugh Glendenning could use to describe Miss Olivia Overton! She’s insisting he spend time with his orphaned wards – which has forced him to admit he’s been keeping the world at arms’ length since losing his wife and baby son. That’s not all that’s disturbing him. It’s the new temptation Olivia’s sparking in Hugh to live again – with her!

Rating:B

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for master/governess romances – probably a result of my long-time love for Jane Eyre – so the synopsis of Julia Justiss’ The Temptation of the Governess caught my eye. It proved to be a charming, character-driven romance featuring two likeable characters forced by circumstances to make big changes in their lives.

The first Cinderella Spinsters book, The Awakening of Miss Henley, introduced the three heroines of the series, young ladies who had decided never to marry and instead to set up house together and pursue charitable endeavours and the political causes close to their hearts.  This story opens as Miss Olivia Overton’s plans for her life are turned upside down when she learns that the inheritance she had planned to use to support herself has been lost in a series of unsuccessful speculations made by those who were supposed to have been looking out for her best interests.  Unwilling to live as a dependent relative upon her cousin, Olivia instead decides she can follow only one of two paths in order to earn a living; she can become a lady’s companion or – her preferred option – a governess.

Widower Colonel Hugh Glendenning returned from India eighteen months earlier, following the death of his elder brother, to find the family estate of Somers Abbey in Yorkshire had been run almost into the ground.  He has spent his every waking moment ever since working hard to repair the damage, and at last is starting to see the fruits of his labours.  Money is still tight and the Abbey boasts only a skeleton staff, but Hugh believes that the next few months should see things easing up a bit.  When a couple of travellers arrive at the Abbey with two young girls in tow and explain that the girls, Elizabeth (eight) and Sophie (six) are his wards, the daughters of his recently deceased cousin, Hugh is taken aback.  He had agreed to stand as guardian, yes, but had thought he would be responsible at a distance, expecting them to remain at their home on St. Kitts in the Caribbean while he managed their affairs from England.  There’s nothing to be done but to ask his female relatives if one of them is able to take the girls, and in the meantime he must find a governess for them.

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

The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife (Sisters of Scandal #2) by Julia Justiss

The obvious solution:

A marriage of convenience!

Temperance Lattimar is too scandalous for a Season, until finally she’s sponsored by Lady Sayleford. The whole charade feels wrong when she doesn’t want a husband, but Temper feels awful when MP and aristocrat Gifford Newell is appointed to “protect” her at society events. With her past, she knows she’s not an ideal wife…but then a marriage of convenience to Giff becomes the only option!

Rating: B+

The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife is the second in Julia Justiss’ duology about the Lattimar sisters, twins Prudence and Temperance, who have been dubbed the Sisters of Scandal not because they’ve ever done anything scandalous, but because of their mother’s notoriety.  It’s the companion novel to A Most Unsuitable Match, which saw Prudence finding her happy ever after; now it’s the turn of Temperance (and I have to say here that I really didn’t care for her shortened name of Temper), whose ambitions run towards travel and adventure – and most definitely not towards marriage.

Temper’s determination not to marry is one she’s long held, so in some ways, her mother’s tarnished reputation may work in her favour, as it means Temper will not be received in the best society or attract any respectable suitors, which is fine by her.  What she truly wants to do is to persuade her father to release the funds set aside for her dowry so that she can travel the world – and perhaps collect precious artefacts on his behalf.  Lord Vraux is a distant, unemotional man who barely acknowledges his daughters’ existence; and secretly Temper is not especially surprised that his disinterest drove their mother into the arms of other men. His passion is his collections and it’s that that Temper hopes to use in order to obtain her funds.   Sadly, however, he will hear nothing of it, and instead insists that Temper makes her début and has a season.  He wants her to find a husband and doesn’t seem to take into account the difficulty presented by her lack of reputation; so Temper decides she’ll do what he asks and have her season, fully intending to make sure she ends the season unwed.

The most recent scandal involving her mother – which was actually none of her making – is fresh in the minds of society, but Temper is determined to go her own way and make her début in London rather than in Bath, as Prudence is going to do.  When her brothers express their concern, their friend, Gifford Newell – whom Temper has known forever – says he will speak to his godmother Lady Sayleford, one of the doyennes of society – to see if she will sponsor Temper.  Lady Sayleford is a force to be reckoned with, and although her countenance will not whitewash Temper’s name in society, it will at least ease her way a little.  Temper agrees… but hadn’t accounted for the fact that Lady Sayleford would pull Giff into the mix by insisting that he be present at events Temper attends in order to scare off the disreputable men who will do doubt flock to her a beautiful, well-dowered young woman whose mother’s reputation for being ‘fast’ means she’s viewed as loose-moraled and easy prey.

Giff is an upcoming, hard-working MP who is part of the group known as Hadley’s Hellions (who featured in the author’s recent series of books of the same name).  He’s the second son of an earl whose parents have never had time for him, instead lavishing all their affection and attention on the heir, his brother Robert, so he’s made his own way in life and is content with his lot.  For the most part.  He’s known Temper for years, but recently has begun to see her as different eyes; no longer is she the annoying younger sister of his closest friends, but a lovely, desirable young woman he has no business thinking about in that way.  The trouble is that he senses that his attraction to her isn’t one-sided, and that she is fighting her feelings for him every bit as hard as he is fighting his for her. But to think of anything other than friendship is impossible. Not only does Temper never intend to marry, when Giff takes a wife, he needs to marry someone who will make a good political wife and hostess, someone who can help and support him in his work – not someone like Temper, who has always been headstrong and impulsive.

The friends-to-lovers trope is a particular favourite, so I had expectations going in that this would be a story I’d enjoy – and it was.  Temperance and Giff are likeable, intelligent and sincere characters and I appreciated that they both took each other’s aims and ambitions seriously – especially Giff, who never dismissed Temper’s desire to travel and went out of his way to provide opportunities for her to further her interest and discuss far-flung places and cultures with those who had experienced them.

As always with this author, her story and characters remain very much in and of their period.  Temper may have ambitions different from those of many well-bred young women, and may be more forthright than most, but she’s never TSTL or prancing around asking us to look at how unconventional she is.  Given Giff’s position as an MP, there are interesting snippets about the politicial situation of the time, and I particularly liked the subtle way Ms. Justiss incorporates some pertinent observations about marriage at the time, mostly through her depiction of the sad union between Lord and Lady Vraux (and her portrayal of Temper’s mother, a woman who has suffered for behaviour that wouldn’t have rated the merest batt of an eyelash had she been a man) – and of the way society has received the news that upcoming marriage of a widowed viscount – father of Ben Tawny from Convenient Proposal to the Lady – to the woman he has always loved but could not marry before (Ben’s mother).

It’s not a spoiler to say that Temper and Giff end up married – thanks to the machinations of a spoiled society miss who manoeuvres them into a compromising situation – or that Giff’s personal situation undergoes a material change (it’s obvious from the book’s title).  Both these events mean that the plans he and Temper had held to so hard are going to have to undergo drastic changes, but fortunately, the strong friendship that has always existed between them enables them to face them together and grow closer as they do so.  I really liked the way they worked as a couple; they communicate well and even though Temper is quite young (she’s only twenty, I think) she and Giff handle their altered prospects with maturity, with Temper displaying a strength of character and competence that Giff had perhaps not previously suspected she possessed.  Ms. Justiss writes their relationship and romance really well, establishing a deep friendship between them but also adding those touches of longing and attraction which grow as the story progresses.

The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife is a well-developed, well-written romance with likeable characters and a strong sense of time and place that I’m sure all fans of historical romance will enjoy.

A Most Unsuitable Match (Sisters of Scandal #1) by Julia Justiss

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Shunned by the ton

How will she find a husband?

Part of Sisters of Scandal: After her mother’s latest outrageous affair, innocent Prudence Lattimar has fled to Bath. With her dubious background, she must marry a man of impeccable reputation. A clergyman with a title would be perfect. And she must steer clear of Lieutenant Johnnie Trethwell—his family is as notorious as hers, no matter how funny, charming and unfailingly honourable he is!

Rating: B+

Julia Justiss opens her new Sisters of Scandal series with A Most Unsuitable Match, in which a young lady tainted by a scandal not of her own making strives to obey every strict rule of society and to make herself into a pattern-card of propriety in an attempt to free herself from the unkind gossip that dogs her.  Prudence Lattimar and her twin sister Temperance (sisters of Christopher Lattimar, hero of the author’s last Hadley’s Hellions book, Secret Lessons with the Rake) are now in their early twenties but have yet to have a London Season.  There are various reasons for this – illness, mourning, a birth – but the most recent one is the worst of all; Pru and Temper’s reputations are already on very shaky ground thanks to their mother’s reputation for loose morals, and the fact that a pair of young bucks have just fought a duel over her promises to be the death knell of yet another Season. Lady Vraux is renowned for having had a string of lovers over the years and it’s common knowledge that all of her children have different fathers, only of them her husband – and gossip paints her daughters as chips off the old block.  Prudence wants nothing more from life than a husband she can at least esteem, a home and family, and to live far from the bustle of London society and its attendant gossip – but her mother’s notoriety condemns her before she so much as shows her face in society, and she despairs of ever being able have the sort of life she wants.

Unlike Temperance, who would much rather go adventuring abroad hunting antiquities than stay in England hunting a husband, Prudence decides to try her luck in Bath.  With the London Season starting, society in Bath will be a little thinner on the ground, but there will still be plenty to do and, no doubt, some eligible gentlemen who might prove to be to her liking.

Lieutenant Lord John Treadwell, youngest son of Marquess of Barkley, has recently returned from service in India and is visiting his aunt in Bath while he recuperates from a leg wound.  After seven years in the army, he’s planning on resigning his commission and going into business; as the fourth son of a spendthrift father, he has to support himself by his own efforts, in spite of society’s horror at the idea of a gentleman working for his living.  His aunt would be happier if he’d take the time-honoured approach of marrying an heiress, but Johnnie won’t hear of that.
 

“I happen to believe setting up a trading operation is a better route to wealth than sacrificing myself on the altar of some India nabob hoping to marry his daughter into the aristocracy.”

At his first sight of Prudence Lattimar, Johnnie is thoroughly smitten and engineers an introduction even though his aunt insists she’s precisely the sort of female he needs to avoid.  Word is already circulating that he’s a fortune hunter, and given he’s the scion of a family of rakehells and widely known to be something of a rogue, the last thing he needs is for his name to be coupled with a woman of Prudence’s reputation.  Yet right from the first, Johnnie gives no credence to the gossip, preferring instead to believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears – which have heard nothing to Pru’s detriment other than the scandal that is so gleefully circulated about her mother.

Pru is similarly attracted to the dashing young officer, but knows all too well that an association with him is something she can’t afford.  With her own reputation in such a precarious state, she has to appear above reproach at all times, and spending time with a known rake will only serve to reinforce the completely unfounded rumours that continue to circulate about her.  She recognises the longing he stirs within her as desire,  but forces herself to set it aside, instead concentrating on a far more promising matrimonial prospect, Lord Fitzroy-Price, the handsome youngest son of a duke who is waiting to be appointed an ecclesiastical living.  Being the wife of a clergyman would go a long way towards rehabilitating Pru in the eyes of society, so she determines to forget Johnnie and concentrate on realising her ambition to find a respectable husband.   But she quickly realises that hers is not the only reputation being misrepresented; Fitzroy-Price may seem charming, but he’s self-absorbed and his motives are mercenary, and while Johnnie might be a rogue, his heart is true and he never pretends to be something he’s not.

A Most Unsuitable Match is a warm, tender romance between two people dogged by scandal for most of their lives, who connect with and understand each other on an instinctual level  because of those shared experiences.  Pru struggles every day to suppress her intelligence, vivacity and wit and has to endure completely undeserved censure, and Ms. Justiss makes some incredibly relevant observations about the ridiculous double standards that continue to exist for women almost two hundred years after the time in which this story is set. The way Johnnie supports and champions Pru is wonderful to see, and I loved that she felt comfortable and able to be herself around him, finding the sort of freedom in his company she rarely experienced with anyone else.

The secondary characters add richness and colour to the story, especially the two aunts, who care deeply for Pru and Johnnie and only want what’s best for them; while Johnnie’s tales of his time in India are fascinating, showing clearly how much he respects and loves the country, its inhabitants and culture.  The predictability of an event that happens near the end kept the novel from DIK status by a whisper, but overall, A Most Unsuitable Match is a marvellous read. The leads are lively and charming, coming across as real people rather than two dimensional cyphers, the longing between them is palpable and the romance is very well developed.  Add in some very pertinent social comment and vibrant supporting characters, and you’ve got an engaging novel that’s well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Secret Lessons with the Rake (Hadley’s Hellions #4) by Julia Justiss

secret lessons with the rake

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The courtesan’s courtship

Pursuing a role in Parliament, Christopher Lattimar needs a virtuous marriage to make society overlook his roguish past. When beautiful and disarming Ellie Parmenter offers to reform and refine him, he’s too tempted to say no.

Once a courtesan, Ellie knows a thing or two about polishing a diamond in the rough. She has no designs on Christopher—or any man in search of a wife—but their best-laid plans begin to tumble once lessons in respectability turn to seduction…

Rating: B

One of the things I have particularly enjoyed about the books in the Hadley’s Hellions series is the way the author has woven some of the political issues of the day throughout the principal love stories in each of the books. The four Hellions are gentlemen who met at Oxford and have continued their friendship beyond and into Parliament, where they are all vigorous proponents of social reform. In Secret Lessons with the Rake, they are celebrating a victory that will bring the country one step nearer to the social justice they so strongly believe in; but in this book, author Julia Justiss makes some very astute observations regarding the sort of equality the men are fighting for and a society in which a woman can be ostracised for the slightest infraction by the ruling (and unelected!) group of matrons of the ton.

Christopher Lattimar is widely known to be a man with an eye for the ladies and, until recently, was often to be found enjoying the pleasures of wine, women and song (well, not so much the song) in the company of his friend, Ben Tawny (hero of the previous book, Convenient Proposal to the Lady). With all his friends now settled and obviously deeply devoted to their wives, Christopher can’t help feeling just a little bit left out, but also admits to himself that he would like to find the sort of companionship his friends have found, with a woman who “delighted one, body, mind and soul – a lady he could trust to be his companion and helpmate for life. ” It shouldn’t be that difficult, he thinks, to find a respectable young woman of good birth to fulfil that role, although his mother, whose views on marriage are cynical owing to her own loveless union, is – unusually for an historical romance, where mothers are generally nagging their sons to find brides! – very much against the idea. But Christopher’s mind is made up. He’s going to look about him for a wife among the ladies of the ton, although he’s the first to admit that, given all his dealings with the fairer sex have been with experienced women, he is at a complete loss as to how to go about courting a ‘Virtuous Virgin’. Added to that, his reputation is of the sort that guarantees he will be looked upon with suspicion by the society matrons carefully shepherding their innocent lambs through the marriage mart. Fortunately for Christopher, help is at hand in the form of Ellie Parmenter, a young friend of his mother who was – until recently – the mistress of a much older man. Ellie and Christopher have always got along well, and, most importantly of all to Ellie, he has always treated her with the courtesy due to a lady, and not, as so many other men have done, as fair game.

The death of her protector has left Ellie able to pursue her own course, and she has set up a school for young girls whose lack of skills and/or basic education mean they would likely end up having to support themselves by working on their backs. Her worthy aim of giving these girls a chance of a better life – and choices she was denied – has already attracted several influential sponsors, such as Maggie, Viscountess Lydlington and Faith, the former Duchess of Ashedon who is now happily married to Christopher’s friend, David Tanner Smith (Stolen Encounters with the Duchess). Her association with these ladies and her friendship with Christopher’s mother means she has seen quite a lot Christopher over the years, and Ellie is well aware that she is deeply infatuated with him. But she knows it must end – and when he marries, she knows their friendship must end, too, for she will never be accepted into the sort of respectable circles he seems to aspire to.

Christopher has long admired Ellie’s intelligence and poise, and can’t deny that he’s been attracted to her for a long time. Had she not already been ‘in keeping’, he would probably have made a play for her himself, but he recognises now that such a relationship is not possible. Not only is he determined on a respectable match, Ellie has made it clear that she has no intention of seeking another protector. But the attraction between the pair is intense, and Ms. Justiss does a splendid job of developing the romantic chemistry between them as Ellie, who was born to a station far higher than the one she now occupies, offers Christopher advice as to the do’s and don’ts of courting a respectable young lady. The longing the pair feel for each other is palpable as they recognise that spending time together is both torture and delight; neither wants their association to end but realise it must if Christopher is to attain his goal and marry a woman who will help to further his political career.

As I said at the beginning, Julia Justiss has some very pertinent points to make about the position of women in society at the time the book is set (1830s) and she illustrates them very skilfully. Ellie’s backstory, for example, is truly heartrending and the fact that she will never be able to return to her family or her proper station in life because of something that was not her fault is completely unjust but, sadly, accurate. She has real strength of character, especially when she is prepared to remain distant from her family in order to protect her younger sister’s future. Then there’s the issue of Christopher’s mother, a woman whose husband didn’t give a damn about her to the extent that she sought solace elsewhere and now has a somewhat tarnished reputation; and the look at the possible fates of girls such as those who end up attending Ellie’s school. It’s all very subtly integrated into the story as a whole and adds genuine depth and richness to it. But in the midst of all this, I couldn’t quite ignore the fact that the only reason that Christopher and Ellie can’t be together is due to one thing; his belief that he needs to marry a Virtuous Virgin (a term he coins early on in the book) instead of the woman he loves and who is so obviously everything he wants in a wife. It’s not until the last couple of chapters that Christopher finally realises that Ellie is welcomed and accepted by everyone that matters to him; his friends, their wives and others in their political circle, and that society at large can go hang. While the romantic tension between the two is thick enough to cut with a knife and their relationship is beautifully developed, I’m afraid Christopher’s wilful blindness has knocked my final grade down a bit.

Ultimately, however, Secret Lessons with the Rake is a deeply romantic and satisfying end to these tales of Hadley’s Hellions and it’s a book I’m happy to recommend, even with that one proviso. All the books can be read as standalones – and this is no exception – but it’s an excellent series, and if you’ve not picked up a book by Julia Justiss before, this – or any one of the four books in the set – would be a great starting point.

Convenient Proposal to the Lady (Hadley’s Hellions #3) by Julia Justiss

convenient-proposal-to-the-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

‘Duty can also be pleasure, Lady Alyssa…’

When politician Benedict Tawny set out to save Lady Alyssa from a nefarious plot, he never expected to find himself trapped in a compromising situation with the alluring lady! Now duty demands he propose…and claim her as his bride! Tainted by his illegitimacy, Ben knows he can’t give Alyssa the life of luxury she deserves. But if he can convince her to succumb to the undeniable heat between them, their convenient marriage might just lead to the love of a lifetime!

Rating: A-

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is the third book in Julia Justiss’ series featuring Hadley’s Hellions, four young men who forged strong friendships at school and university and who are now united in their dedication to bringing about political reform. While the romance in each book is most definitely to the fore, there’s enough social and political detail to add depth and an extra layer of interest to each story. That, combined with my favourite trope of a marriage of convenience made this entry in the series an especially enjoyable one.

Benjamin Tawny was born on the wrong side of the blanket to a viscount and a former governess. His father publicly acknowledges him, and has always provided for Ben and his mother, enabling Ben to go to school and university, which has helped him to make the sorts of connections necessary for him to pursue his chosen career. But Ben has never been particularly well-disposed towards the viscount, believing him to have been a heartless seducer who left the woman he had ruined to social ostracism and censure.

In spite of being base born, Ben is, like his fellow Hellions, a rising star in the political firmament; he has represented his parliamentary seat for almost eight years, has earned the respect of his constituents and has a reputation for being honest, determined, hard-working and above all, honourable. So when he overhears a group of men making a wager as to who can seduce and ruin a young lady, and knowing the sort of treatment meted out to ‘fallen’ women, he can’t stand by and do nothing. He decides to seek out Lady Alyssa Lambourne and warn her that she has been made the target of a plot by Lord Denbry solely because of the enmity that lies between him and Lady Alyssa’s brother.

Ben is lucky enough to encounter the lady one morning when she is alone and out sketching.  He is rather unnerved by the strong spark of sensual awareness he feels around her, and just as surprised to discover that he has never met anyone quite like her; she’s direct, clever, fiery and an extremely talented artist to boot.  Alyssa feels drawn to Ben even though she is initially suspicious of both him and his motives;  but she agrees to take his warning on board and observe the behaviour of the single young gentlemen who are present at the house-party she is attending.  She also agrees to meet Ben the following morning to report on her findings – and sure enough, she tells him that not only are two of the men (known to be Denbry’s cronies) paying her more attention than she thinks she warrants, but Denbry himself has arrived and is doing his best to ingratiate himself with her.  Alyssa is furious and plans to revenge herself on these men who think her so stupid and so desperate as to fall for their lies – but Ben tries to caution her against it, reminding her that Denbury can still ruin her by dropping a few well-chosen words in receptive ears.  Alyssa is adamant, however.  She doesn’t care about her reputation and in fact, thinks a slur on it may be to her advantage, as it might force her domineering father to finally wash his hands of her, meaning she can get away and start living her own life. And it does indeed appear as though her plan has sent his-smarmy-lordship away with his tail between his legs.   But unfortunately, Alyssa’s triumph is short lived; Denbry’s revenge is not long in coming and if not for Ben’s timely intervention she would have been completely ruined.  And worse, it seems that Ben is the one who will be ruined if Alyssa persists on turning down the proposal of marriage he makes her in order to salvage her reputation.

One of the things the author does very well in this book is to show clearly how little control women had over their own lives at this time.  Women were the property of their menfolk, had no rights and, in the upper echelons especially, reputation was everything and the conventions had to be very strictly observed.  Alyssa wants to live independently and pursue a career as an artist but cannot do so without the funds – an inheritance from an aunt – that her father withholds from her.  Given her father’s brutal treatment of her, it’s no wonder that she does not want to transfer control of her life from one man to another and thus rejects Ben’s proposal – but his arguments and promise that he will allow her to pursue her artistic career eventually win her around, and even though she has misgivings, she agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Ben hopes for more than that, however, knowing that Alyssa is as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and counts himself fortunate that his bride is a woman he can respect and admire as well as desire.  For reasons he can’t quite fathom, Alyssa is skittish, so he promises not to attempt to seduce her, hoping desperately that she will come to him when she is ready to consummate their marriage.  But Alyssa is determined that won’t happen. She already feels more for Ben than she thinks is wise, and is sure that if she makes love with him, she won’t be able to stop herself falling for him completely.

Both characters are extremely likeable and have to deal with long-standing issues that inform their choices as adults.  Even though he is a successful, self-made man and a member of parliament, Ben can’t help feeling the stigma of being born illegitimate; and Alyssa has been so constantly belittled by her father and brother that she is awkward in company and believes she can never be the sort of wife Ben really needs.  Yet the depth of their regard for each other shines through from the very beginning, and the intensity of their physical attraction leaps off the page.  The romance develops naturally from their friendship, and the fact that they are open with each other and talk about their hopes and fears is very refreshing.  There is a handful of secondary characters who are nicely fleshed-out – the villain chillingly so – and I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we were given of the changing relationship between Ben and his father.

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is a beautifully written, touching romance between two characters whose flaws and insecurities only add to their attractiveness and whose dilemmas feel very real.  This is one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read recently, and I’m recommending it without hesitation.

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess (Hadley’s Hellions #2) by Julia Justiss

stolen encounters with the duchess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She would rather burn in his presence than pine in his absence…

Faith Wellingford Evers, Duchess of Ashedon, is tired of society’s endless gossiping about her failings and her late husband’s infidelities. Seeking escape one night, she’s attacked by ruffians, but is saved by an unlikely figure from her past!

Having risen from penniless orphan to Member of Parliament, David Tanner Smith is no longer the quiet boy Faith once knew. With the first spine-tingling kiss, their old friendship is transformed. And in its place is an explosive mix of illicit encounters and forbidden desire…

Rating: B

This second book in Julia Justiss’ Hadley’s Hellions series is easily read as a standalone, although characters from the previous book – Forbidden Nights with the Viscount – do have parts to play in this one.  Stolen Encounters with the Duchess is a very readable cross-class romance which plays out against the solidly crafted backdrop of the work of a group of political reformers in which our hero, David Tanner Smith is one of the key players.

Readers of one of the author’s previous books, From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife, may recall that a lad called Davie Smith was instrumental in rescuing the heroine and thereby earned the gratitude of the hero, Sir Edward Greaves.  Davie was sponsored by Ned at Oxford, then worked as his secretary before realising his political ambitions and becoming MP for Hazelwick.  He is now a hard-working, respected member of parliament and is particularly dedicated to the cause of political and social reform.

Years earlier, when Davie was working for Ned, he encountered sixteen year-old Faith Wallingford, whose brother, the Marquess of Englemere, was one of Ned’s closest friends.  In spite of the huge difference in their stations, Faith and Davie became fast friends, frequently enjoying discussions about anything and everything, from art, to music to books and, of course, politics.  But theirs was not a friendship that could last, and they haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.

While Davie has spent the last ten years living a fulfilling and interesting life doing something he loves, Faith’s life has been the opposite.   She fell in love with the handsome, charming Duke of Ashedon, married him and gave him three sons, only to discover that his frequent and indiscreet infidelities had made her a laughing stock among the ton.  Not only that, he had insidiously made sure that all ties with her family and friends were cut, leaving her completely dependent on him for everything.  It’s only now, in the months since his death, that Faith has discovered how isolated she is; cut off from everyone she used to know and even prevented from spending much time with her sons, she is a very different young woman to the vibrant and quick-witted girl that Davie Smith fell for all those years ago.

To make matters worse, Faith’s critical, officious  mother-in-law has decided to move with her so that she can make sure the new eight-year-old duke is receiving the proper guidance. Which to her means teaching him to be a rude, arrogant and self-entitled arse like his father.  And then, Faith’s dissolute brother-in-law keeps making unwanted advances which are becoming more and more threatening.  She is anxious about her boys, weighed down by the continual carping of the dowager and is at a very low ebb, having no friends or family she can confide in.  Until, that is, an odd quirk of fate propels her into the arms of a stranger who saves her from the unwanted attentions of a couple of ruffians – and turns out to be none other than Davie Smith, all grown up, filled out and ridiculously handsome.  They haven’t seen each other for over ten years, but Faith knows he has become a rising star in political circles – even though such things as politics are thought to be far too difficult for ladies to understand.  Realising that Faith is starved for good company and intellectual stimulation, Davie invites her to the “discussion evening” being held by friends of his the next night, and agrees to meet her earlier in the day to bring her up to speed on the likely topics for discussion.

I enjoyed this story of young lovers reunited after a long separation.  Davie is as much in love with Faith as he ever was, and just as aware of the distance between them.  Even though he knows he can never be more to Faith than a friend, he helps her to rediscover herself and to again be the bright, assertive and lively woman she had been before her marriage.  With Davie’s support, Faith is able to start living her own life once more, re-connect with her family, take control of her sons’ education and to stand up to the dowager.  His obvious admiration also helps Faith to regain confidence in herself and her attractiveness, but she is as conscious of the social gulf between them as Davie is and worries that their relationship will be misconstrued in such a way that will affect her position in her sons’ lives.

Cross-class romances can be difficult to pull off in historicals because the social strata were so strictly defined, and I appreciated the fact that Ms. Justiss has taken such a detailed look at the difficulties faced by her protagonists in this story.  In fact, their consciousness of the difference in their stations is really the only thing keeping Davie and Faith apart, but it’s not a pointless road-block on the way to HEA-land; it’s a real concern and both characters are going to have to make major reassessments  as to how they see themselves, each other and what they want from life if they are going to be together.

Faith’s situation as a woman worn down through an unpleasant marriage is presented with accuracy and sympathy, and her dilemmas feel very real. Davie is a steadfast, honourable and attractive hero, and I particularly liked the few scenes which clearly show what a good influence he will be on Faith’s sons in spite of his low station.  The character of Faith’s brother-in-law effectively shows the fallacy of the assumptions made at the time that those of the upper classes must necessarily have been everything that was right and good, and presents a strong contrast to Davie, an orphaned nobody who has more integrity in his little finger than can be found in half the aristocracy.

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess is enjoyable and emotionally satisfying with a well-integrated historical background and two engaging and attractive protagonists.  At category length, it’s a quick read, but it doesn’t lack depth or nuance and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking to read a tender second chance/reunion story.

The Rake to Ruin Her by Julia Justiss

ruin

Known as “Magnificent Max,” diplomat Max Ransleigh was famed for his lethal charm until a political betrayal left him exiled from government and his reputation in tatters. He seems a very unlikely savior for a well-bred young lady.

Except that Miss Caroline Denby doesn’t want to be saved…she wants to be ruined! To Caroline, getting married is tantamount to a death sentence, and meeting the rakish Max at a house party seems the answer to her prayers…. Surely this rogue won’t hesitate to put his bad reputation to good use?

Rating: B-

On the surface, The Rake to Ruin Her is a fairly run-of-the-mill marriage of convenience story, and as such, it’s well-written. I found the two principals to be engaging and fairly well-rounded given the smallish page-count allowed by the average Harlequin Historical.

Caro Denby is a rather unconventional young lady in that she has no desire to marry or make a name for herself in society. From a very young age, she has worked with her late father on his stud farm and desires nothing more than to be left alone to run it and breed horses. At a house-party held at Barton Abbey, the country home of Mrs Grace Ransleigh, Caro hits upon the idea of getting herself ruined so that she will no longer find herself being pestered by unwanted suitors and will be able to retire to her stud farm in peace.

With this end in mind, she approaches Max Ransleigh, nephew of her hostess, and proposes to him that he compromise her and then refuse to marry her so that her ruin will be complete and unalterable. But despite having a bit of a reputation with the ladies (and I have to say that I’m getting a little tired of seeing the term “rake” used repeatedly in historical romances to describe a man who is most definitely not one), he also has a strong sense of honour and understands the workings of society far more than Caro does. He refuses her request, despite being intrigued by her and the way such an intelligent and straightforward woman has managed to disguise herself so efficiently behind a succession of horrible dresses and unpolished manners.

Unfortunately however, matters do not rest there, and when Max intervenes to help Caro to repel the attentions of a suitor who tries to force himself upon her, she is compromised anyway. When he does the decent thing and offers for her hand, she refuses and goes home to her stud farm, until she is threatened with its loss and has to turn to Max for help.

What I particularly liked about this part of the book is that we’re shown how the consequences of Caro’s refusal to marry him affect Max and his social standing. He’s the younger son of an earl and was enjoying his work as a diplomat when a political scandal saw him removed from his post and his reputation sullied. Since he’s unable to reveal the truth behind his association with Caro, his reputation is further disparaged when it is learned that he has (supposedly) despoiled an innocent and is not to be married to her. Normally, it is the woman’s reputation that sustains the damage in this type of plot, but here, the tables are turned, which I thought was a refreshing change.

Max and Caro are attracted to each other from the outset (although I did get rather tired of reading about her tingling nipples and swollen breasts!) but when she insists on a marriage in name only and tells him she will not interfere with his taking his pleasures elsewhere, he accedes and they are married.

What Caro hasn’t told Max is that it isn’t the marital bed she’s worried about (I don’t think I’ve ever read a Harlequin heroine who was at such risk of spontaneous combustion if she didn’t get laid!) – but rather something she has named “The Curse” because of the fact that the majority of her female relatives, including her mother, have died in childbirth.

For a relatively short novel, I thought the author did a good job in fleshing out the principal characters and charting the progress of their relationship. Caro is refreshingly frank, despite the fact that she does not immediately tell Max about her fear of childbirth, and in fact, their relationship as a whole is very open and honest. I liked the way they were supportive of each other and understood each other, and the way their romantic relationship grew from that.

If I have a complaint, it’s that Caro went from virgin to sexpot with nothing in between. Not that it’s wrong for a woman to know what she wants from her man, but she seemed to me to be surprisingly forward for a woman of her time. I imagine the author’s continual references to the way Max’s touch had an incendiary effect on her (and her nipples!) were intended to show that Caro had the potential to be a siren in the bedroom, but I felt it was a bit too far a bit too fast.

The Rake to Ruin Her was an enjoyable read that had much more depth to it than I was originally expecting. Max and Caro are well-matched; there is a real sense of affection between them, and I can quite easily imagine them living happily in the country breeding horses and children!