The Earl’s Countess of Convenience (Penniless Brides of Convenience #1) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A countess in name only…

…tempted by a night with her husband!

Part of Penniless Brides of Convenience: Eloise Brannagh has witnessed first-hand the damage unruly passion can cause. Yet she craves freedom, so a convenient marriage to the Earl of Fearnoch seems the perfect solution! Except Alexander Sinclair is more handsome, more intriguing, more everything, than Eloise anticipated. Having set her own rules for their marriage, her irresistible husband might just tempt Eloise to break them!

Rating: C

It isn’t always easy to write a review of an average or sub-par book, and it’s even less so when it’s an average or sub-par book by a favourite author, so I’m sorry to say that The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first in Marguerite Kaye’s new four-part Penniless Brides of Convenienceseries is a – fortunately rare – misfire.

In it, we meet Eloise Brannagh, her twin sisters Estelle and Phoebe and their aunt-by-marriage and guardian Kate, Lady Elmswood (in whom I was immediately more interested than the heroine, which wasn’t a good sign), with whom they have lived since the deaths of their parents some five years earlier.

The book opens as Kate has received a letter from her absent husband (the girls’ uncle) in which he suggests that Eloise may wish to consider a friend of his, the Earl of Fearnoch, as a prospective husband. Fearnoch needs to marry quickly in order to secure his title and estates – and with no dowry and no social position to attract suitors, the sisters are not likely to be inundated with suitable offers of marriage, so the possibility of marriage to an earl – albeit a marriage of convenience – is not something to be sneezed at. Eloise agrees to meet the earl and to see if she thinks they will suit; she’s not prepared to sacrifice her life to misery and even though such a match would enable her to support her sisters and attain a degree of independence, she won’t go consent to it if she and the earl don’t get on.

When Alexander Sinclair arrives at the appointed time, Eloise can’t help but wonder why such a gorgeous man would need or want to marry a nobody like her – surely there must be ladies of quality queueing around the block to marry someone so eligible and handsome! Alexander quickly dispels that thought, and the conversation he and Eloise engage in here is refreshingly frank, which I liked; after all these are two complete strangers contemplating a lifetime arrangement for purely practical purposes, so I was pleased that they were both upfront with each other about their plans and motives. Alex explains that the nature of his work – he’s a Victualling Commissioner at the Admiralty – means that he spends a lot of time out of England, and he is adamant that Eloise should realise their relationship will never be anything other than a convenient arrangement for them both. He doesn’t expect or want them to develop feelings for one another, and children are categorically out of the question. Having seen her own parents’ marriage implode because of her mother’s infidelities, her father’s desperate love and their frequent rows, Eloise has absolutely no wish for love or intimacy, so doesn’t see those stipulations as in any way problematic. And because she has no experience of men and her only female role model is a woman living in a loveless, sexless marriage who hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband in the entire six years since they wed, she has no idea what those tummy flutterings at the sight of Alex’s smile might mean.

I’m a huge fan of marriage-of-convenience stories, but this one just didn’t work for me for a number of reasons. Firstly – and to get this out of the way – I was disappointed that Ms. Kaye, whose research is usually impeccable, chose to base the story on an erroneous premise, namely that Alex would lose his title and inheritance if he wasn’t married by his thirtieth birthday. British inheritance law doesn’t work like that. Add to that Alex’s insistence that he and Eloise should act like besotted newly-weds in case his dissolute cousin worked out the real reason for their marriage and then moved to challenge Alex’s right to the earldom… again, nope, for the same reason. But okay, taking that as a springboard for the rest of the story and moving on, I found the characters hard to warm to, especially Alex, who is too blow hot/blow cold towards Eloise and doesn’t seem able to make up his mind and then stick to his choices. Eloise is a very down-to-earth kind of heroine, but I have problems with characters – and to be fair, it’s normally heroes – who eschew relationships because their parents were miserable together, so I found it difficult to believe that an intelligent young woman would decide love and marriage weren’t for her because she didn’t want to turn out like her mother, a self-professed “slave to passion” whose selfishness wrecked her marriage.

There’s a sub-plot concerning Alex’s relationship with his mother and his suspicions about his birth which is resolved in the blink of an eye; his secret job isn’t secret at all given all the times we’re told about Alex’s ability to lie – the nature of Alexander’s real endeavours required him to be an accomplished fabricator – or that in his line of work he wasn’t even supposed to have a wife; and the past mistake which has him so dead set against falling in love is anti-climactic when finally revealed. There’s so much going on here that the story quickly loses focus. Eloise’s conviction that romance isn’t for her melts away fairly easily; and the introduction of Alex’s boss, who drags Eloise off for a private chat at their first meeting and then proceeds to drop all sorts of heavy-handed hints about Alex’s job while at the same time making it clear it’s – shhhh! – a Big Sooper-Seekrit, was just really, really odd.

The best part of the book – and the reason I’ve not gone lower with the grade – is the way in which the author allows Alex and Eloise time to talk and get to know each other, both before and after their marriage. Apart from one thing (Alex’s not-so-secret job) they’re honest with each other about their expectations and I liked the way in which they entered into their bargain with their eyes wide open – even though their belief that they would be the same people with the same wants and needs ten, twenty or thirty years down the line was perhaps a little naïve.

I’m a big fan of Marguerite Kaye and have given a number of her books DIKs and high grades, but sadly, The Earl’s Countess of Convenience isn’t among them. Even the best of us is entitled to an off-day, so I’ll chalk this one up to experience and hope that the next book in the series, A Wife Worth Investing In, sees the author returned to form.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding (Matches Made in Scandal #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Kirstin Blair has spent seven years trying to forget brooding Cameron Dunbar. Now self-made man Cameron needs her help to recover his missing niece, and Kirstin must face the truth: seeing him again sparks the same irresistible attraction that first brought them together! She must decide… Resist, or give in to temptation and risk Cameron discovering everything she’s fought so hard to protect…

Rating: B

The novels in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series have all been linked by the presence of the mysterious Procurer, a woman whose business is matching people with seemingly insoluble problems with someone who stands a very good chance of helping them to resolve them – and that person is usually a woman to whom life has not been kind and who deserves a second chance.

In A Scandalous Winter Wedding, readers are finally given more than a glimpse of the Procurer and we learn more of her backstory as she decides to undertake the search for two missing girls herself rather than finding someone else to take it on.  The two girls – a young lady visiting London with her mother,  and her maid – went missing from their hotel one night and have not been seen since, and the Procurer – otherwise, Miss Kirstin Blair – knows that she has the requisite skills and contacts most likely to ensure a happy outcome.  But that’s not the only reason she finds herself compelled to take on this particular case.  She’s been contacted by the girl’s uncle, Mr. Cameron Dunbar, a wealthy merchant from Glasgow – and the man with whom Kirstin spent one gloriously passionate night six years earlier when she was making her way to London after the death of her father, intending to make a new life for herself.  She has never forgotten either the man or their night together, and, in spite of herself, can’t help wanting to know what has become of him since.  After reading his letter, she decides to meet him in person as the Procurer, engineering their meeting in such a way as he won’t be able to see her face properly; and after hearing him out, agrees to help him track down the missing girls, fully intending to follow her usual procedure and find someone else to assist him.  Which, in a way, she does – sending Kirstin Blair to him while leaving her long-time assistant to oversee the Procurer’s business.

Ms. Kaye does a splendid job here of showing just how well suited to each other Kristin and Cameron are; he very clearly admires her intelligence, her perspicacity and her pragmatism and respects her for who she is, while Kristin appreciates similar qualities in Cameron and admires his determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.  They work together seamlessly, each playing to their strengths and recognising each other’s, and there’s no attempt on either part to exclude the other for their own protection.  This is very much a relationship based on mutual understanding and intellectual equality, which is one of the things that makes this second-chance romance work so very well.  Another thing, of course, is the chemistry between the couple that bubbles and sizzles nicely as the author allows the attraction that has never really diminished to build gradually until it becomes impossible for either character to deny it any longer.

The one thing that didn’t really work for me is something that happens towards the end – I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but put simply, Kirstin reacts to something in a way that seemed totally out of character for a woman who has, up until this point, been level-headed and clear-sighted about everything.  She suddenly turns into this over-emotional woman I didn’t recognise – and I understand that it’s partly a knee-jerk reaction to something she had hoped Cameron wouldn’t find out (and her big secret is fairly easy to guess even before its revealed), but it was such a huge character reversal that I felt almost as though I had whiplash!  And the way she attributed motivations to Cameron while knowing perfectly well what sort of man he was felt really off.

Fortunately, Ms. Kaye doesn’t draw out this point for too long, and effects a reconciliation swiftly and with Kirsten’s full acknowledgement of her error, showing her to be exactly the sort of woman I’d believed her out to be – someone with great personal integrity and the ability to weigh up a situation and come to a considered conclusion, as well as someone strong enough to be able to admit when she was wrong.  Cameron is a similarly appealing character – a successful businessman who has become so by dint of his own hard work and who, in spite of his illegitimacy, knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.  He sees Kirstin for exactly who she is and loves her for it, never for one moment wanting to change her or for her to be someone she is not.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding provides a fitting conclusion to what has been a very strong series from one of my favourite authors of historical romance.  Ms. Kaye always writes with intelligence and insight, her research is detailed and she rounds-out her characters so that they feel like real people with real dilemmas and real emotions rather than cardboard cut-outs.  If you’ve been following the Matches Made in Scandal series, you’ll need no urging from me to pick up this final volume, and if you haven’t, each book works as a standalone, so this is as good a place to start as any.  And if you’re just a wee bit tired of all those titled folks waltzing their way around ballrooms, this book will make a refreshing change.

His Rags to Riches Contessa (Matches Made in Scandal #3) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From the streets of London…

…to Venetian high society!

To catch his father’s murderer, broodingly arrogant Conte Luca del Pietro requires help from a most unlikely source—Becky Wickes, London’s finest card-sharp. Against the decadence of Carnival, Becky’s innocence and warmth captivates Luca, but as their chemistry burns hotter the stakes in their perilous game are getting higher. For Luca is no longer playing only for justice—but also to win Becky’s heart…

Rating: B

His Rags to Riches Contessa is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series, and tells the story of an actress and card sharp who is hired to help a Venetian nobleman obtain revenge against the man who killed his father.  The four novels in the set are linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer; a woman whose clients come to her “with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions”, solutions she provides while at the same time helping young women to whom life has dealt a poor hand make themselves a better future.  Becky Wickes is one such; abandoned by the man she loved – and whom she believed loved her – to face a future as a fugitive from the law and a possible death sentence should she be apprehended – Becky has gone to ground and holed up in a dingy room in the rookery of St. Giles.  It’s here that the Procurer finds her and offers her the chance to change her life.

Becky travels to Venice, to the luxurious Palazzo Pietro, where she will meet the Procurer’s client – the Conte del Pietro – and receive all the details of her assignment.  She is surprised to discover that the Conte – Luca – is half-English on his mother’s side and that he spent many years in the Royal Navy before his father’s death necessitated his return home, and even more so when she finally learns the reason for her journey.  Luca explains that his father and his father’s best friend, Don Massimo Sarti, had together been respected government officials who had acted to preserve as many of the city’s treasures as they could before Venice surrendered to Napoléon some twenty years earlier.  The plan was to hide as many items of value as possible – especially those pertaining to the city’s heritage – and to return them once the Republic of Venice was restored, but things didn’t quite work out that way.  Venice was used as a pawn over the years and only now, after Napoléon’s defeat, is the situation stable enough to consider restoring all the artefacts that the men had spirited away.  In his final communication to his son, Luca’s father explained that he had visited the hiding place in order to make an inventory only to discover the place was empty.  It seems Don Massimo has stolen everything he and Luca’s father had vowed to preserve in order to fund his gambling habit – and when threatened with exposure had his former friend killed.

Luca wants revenge against Don Massimo, and believes he can obtain it with Becky’s help.  Gambling is illegal in Venice at all times other than during Carnevale, which lasts from February to Lent, when the rules are relaxed and a number of ridotti (private gaming hells) open up for deep play.  Becky is to play the part of Regina di Denari, the Queen of Coins, a mysterious, masked woman who is a force to be reckoned with at the card table, and Luca plans for her to win back everything Don Massimo stole from his father and the city, which will ruin him completely.

Against the backdrop of the hedonistic Carnevale – where everyone is masked and no-one is what they seem – Luca and Becky find themselves fighting the attraction that’s been growing between them since the day they met.  They both know the other is a distraction they can’t afford – and besides, a girl from the London slums who grew up making her living as a street performer is a completely ineligible match for a wealthy man of Luca’s status, who is expected to make the sort of practical society marriage made by every Venetian nobleman.  Even so, somehow these two are perfect for each other as Becky’s down-to-earth manner and attitude complement Luca’s similarly pragmatic outlook; yet it emerges that there may be more separating them than a question of class. When Becky holds up a mirror to Luca’s driving need for vengeance, he is forced to consider the nature of obsession… and faced with some impossible choices.

Marguerite Kaye’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of Venice, and its customs and traditions are extremely well done; so much so in fact, that I was surprised to learn from her author’s notes that she has never been there!  She expertly conjures up mental images of the changing colours of the wintry sky and the waters of the Grand Canal, giving the reader an armchair tour of the palazzos and bustling marketplaces of the city in just such a way as to whet the appetite without interrupting the flow of the story.

The relationship between Becky and Luca builds over several weeks, although their attraction is instantaneous;  they share an almost-kiss on something like Becky’s second day at the palazzo, which felt way too soon, especially after Becky’s determination that she’d had enough of men after the way her lying bastard ex (my words, not the authors!) treated her.   After this, though, things slow down, and the author instead makes the most of their growing attraction and allows it to simmer through lingering looks, touches and forbidden kisses until neither Luca nor Becky can deny or resist its compulsion.

His Rags to Riches Contessa is a romantic and entertaining story featuring two strongly drawn and appealing principal characters.  The revenge plot, while perfectly in keeping with the setting, was ultimately a little weak, though, as there was no real doubt about the outcome; far more interesting was the dilemma Luca faced when forced to confront the harsh reality of the consequences of his actions.  Still, this is a strong addition to the Matches Made in Scandal series, and is an historical romance I’m happy to recommend.

From Courtesan to Convenient Wife (Matches Made in Scandal #2) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Every woman wants to marry him…

But what if he’s already taken?

In this Matches Made in Scandal story Jean-Luc Bauduin, Parisian society’s most eligible bachelor, is determined only to take a wife of his choosing. And until that day comes he’ll ward off his admirers by hiring Lady Sophia Acton to wear his ring! The passion Jean-Luc shares with his convenient bride is enormously satisfying—until he discovers Sophia’s utterly scandalous past!

Rating: B+

The four books in Marguerite Kaye’s new series, Matches Made in Scandal, are set in some of the world’s most exciting cities – St. Petersburg, Paris, Venice and London – and are all linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer who specialises in helping young women whom life has dealt a poor hand and offering them a chance to rebuild their lives and make themselves a better future. In From Courtesan to Convenient Wife, The Procurer extends that offer to Lady Sophia Acton, a well-bred young lady whose fall from grace has been spectacular and who is now on the verge of penury.

The Procurer’s client is a successful and extremely wealthy Parisian wine merchant named Jean-Luc Bauduin, who needs to find himself a wife very quickly.  Or rather, he needs to find himself a woman to pretend to be his wife for as long as it takes for him to prove to the young lady who insists he is contracted to marry her that he is not the man she thinks he is and therefore, not subject to the contract she says was drawn up by their fathers when they were both children.  It’s an unusual situation, but in taking the job, Sophia will earn enough money to be able to leave London, where her reputation is in shreds, and make a new life for herself elsewhere.

When Mademoiselle Juliette de Cressy presented herself as his contracted bride, Jean-Luc was convinced she was some sort of con-artist.  Insisting he is the rightful Duc de Montendre, who was hidden away as an infant  to preserve him from the ravages of the Revolution, she even showed him a copy of the contract, signed by her recently deceased father, the Comte de Cressy, and the late Duc de Montendre. But  Jean-Luc isn’t the son of a duke – he was born in Cognac and is the only child of Monsieur and Madame Bauduin, although unfortunately, he has no documentation or living relatives who can attest to his identity.  He soon comes to accept that Juliette isn’t trying to con him – she genuinely believes him to be the Duc de Montendre – and he decides that the only way to get her to realise she is mistaken is to show her that he’s already married, which will also buy him  some time to gather the evidence to refute her claim.  Which is where Sophia comes in.

Sophia settles into her role as Madame Bauduin quickly, and is even more convincing than Jean-Luc could have hoped for.  Part of the deal is that Sophia is under no obligation to tell him anything about herself, and he scrupulously refrains from asking questions he longs to ask; she is clearly not an actress, and equally clearly has been brought up as a lady – which makes her acceptance of his commission even more puzzling.  But as the days pass and she fits herself almost seamlessly into his life, Jean-Luc finds it harder and harder to remember that their marriage is a sham and begins to dream of a life spent with Sophia at his side, his wife in truth.

Their romance develops quickly, but the couple has such fabulous chemistry that it’s easy to buy into their growing feelings for one another.  They are simply adorable together; their interactions are funny, sweet, tender and sensual by turns, and I loved the way they are so easily able to joke together about the ridiculousness of their situation, even as they are playing the besotted newly-weds for the benefit of those around them.

Sophia is surprised at the strength of her attraction to Jean-Luc, given that her experience with men has given her a deep distrust of them and their motives.  Although born into the nobility, her life has not been easy; her father thought girls were worthless and did not provide well for Sophia and her sister, who was chronically ill, even refusing to pay for Felicity to travel to a climate more suitable for her health.  Love of her sister set Sophia on a path no well-bred young lady should have been forced to follow and she became the mistress of an unpleasant, manipulative man who, when Sophia ended their arrangement after her sister’s death, made his liaison with Sophia known and dragged her name through the mud.

It doesn’t take long for Sophia to realise that Jean-Luc is decent and honourable, and the more time she spends with him, the stronger her feelings for him become.  She knows he cares for her, too, but her intention was always to use the money she would earn from this commission to live alone and independently… but that isn’t such an attractive prospect now that she has fallen deeply in love.  Yet she can see no alternative.  The truth of her scandalous past is sure to repulse Jean-Luc and she can’t bear the thought of living with the disapprobation and disgust she is sure will develop over time.  Jean-Luc sees clearly that Sophia has put others before herself and her own happiness at every opportunity, while she believes herself to be tainted by her actions.  Her perception of her unworthiness is the principal source of conflict in the romance;  Sophia is effectively imprisoned by her past, and has to learn to, as Jean-Luc says, lay the ghosts to rest and look to the future.

From Courtesan to Convenient Wife is a gorgeously romantic and truly delightful read in which the sexual tension between Jean-Luc and Sophia crackles right from the start.  Jean-Luc is a wonderful hero – he’s a refreshing change in a genre full of arrogant dukes and marriage-shy bachelors; he’s handsome and charming (of course!) but he’s also highly intuitive, very sure of himself and his place in the world, and has worked very hard to become the successful and wealthy businessman he now is.  He oozes confidence – not arrogance – which makes it all the more affecting when he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew about himself in the face of Juliette’s insistence that he’s not plain Monsieur Bauduin, but the rightful Duc de Montendre.  Sophia is the sort of heroine it’s easy to root for; life has dealt her a crappy hand, but it’s not broken her and she refuses to be cowed.  She’s quick-witted, intelligent and beautiful and it’s easy to understand why Jean-Luc is so completely bowled over by her.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the Parisian setting, and am eagerly looking forward to the next book in the Matches Made in Scandal series.

From Governess to Countess (Matches Made in Scandal #1) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The scandalous truth…

She’s the Count’s new mistress!

In this Matches Made in Scandal story Count Aleksei Derevenko hires governess Allison Galbraith for her skills as a herbalist, not as a mistress! But when rumours spread Allison is shocked by her wanton reaction to Aleksei. His inscrutable icy blue eyes promise white-hot nights of sin! She knows too well how fragile her reputation is, but will the price of their passion be worth paying?

Rating: B-

I’ve been looking forward to Marguerite Kaye’s new, four-book Matches Made in Scandal series, as each story is set in a different European city. While I certainly don’t object to historical romances set in the UK, I am always keen to venture elsewhere, and was definitely enticed by the thought of reading romances set in some of the most fabulous cities in the world – St. Petersburg, Paris, Venice and, finally, London.

From Governess to Countess opens with renowned – and now disgraced – herbalist, Allison Galbraith receiving a visit from a mysterious woman known only as ‘The Procurer’.  This character links the four books in the series, and has a reputation for helping women in need of redemption and a second chance.  Allison, a forthright Scot, had acquired a reputation as London’s pre-eminent herbalist, the only option open to a woman with a vocation to help the sick at the time the book is set.  But when we meet her, she has been ostracised and vilified in the scandal sheets by a pre-eminent society physician following an incident to which the reader is not made privy until later in the book, but which has obviously destroyed not only Allison’s reputation but her confidence, too.

The Procurer tells Allison that she has come to offer her the chance to rebuild her life and career.  She has been charged with finding someone with Allison’s particular talents to fill the position of governess to the children of the recently deceased Duke and Duchess Derevenko, and, enthused at the idea of travel and of getting away from England for a time – and the hefty fee – Allison agrees.

Count Aleksei Derevenko is a military man through and through, and was somewhat exasperated when he learned his late brother, Michael, had changed his will shortly before his death and named Aleksei as guardian to his young children.  He can’t understand why his brother made the change when his former choice, their cousin, Felix, would have done a much better job, given he is familiar with all the court customs and protocols it will be necessary for children of such illustrious lineage to learn as they grow up.


When the woman he has engaged as governess for Catiche, Elena and Nikki arrives, Aleksei is momentarily taken aback.  His idea of a governess – and herbalist – is certainly not the voluptuous young red-head standing before him who stirs up all the desires and appetites he has had no opportunity to indulge for months. By the same token Allison had not expected her new employer to be a tall, striking military man with ice blue eyes and a mouth that puts her in mind of kissing.

Over a cup of zavarka (black tea), Aleksei explains to Allison that he requires her services as a governess for as long as it takes him to make alternative arrangements for the guardianship of his nieces and nephew.  Their former governess, Anna Orlova – to whom they had all been very attached – disappeared without explanation just before his brother’s death, and Aleksei does not feel equipped to deal with them.  He plans to spend some of his time trying to find Orlova and to bring her back if he can; in the meantime, he wants Allison to assume charge of them.

What Aleksei doesn’t tell Allison until a little later, however, is the reason he particularly wanted someone knowledgeable about herbs and their properties to fill the position.  He strongly suspects his brother-in-law and sister were murdered, and wants Allison to ascertain if the symptoms they exhibited could have been produced by any of the herbs available in the palace gardens or elsewhere in St. Petersburg.

From Governess to Countess is therefore part romance and part mystery as Allison and Aleksei work together to discover the truth about his brother’s death, while at the same time exploring the attraction that has pulled them toward one another since their very first meeting.  Neither of them wants anything permanent; Aleksei intends to return to the army and Allison to England, and both agree that their liaison must be of finite duration.  Neither of them, however, has bargained on love.

Ms. Kaye develops the relationship between her two protagonists very well, and the easy friendship into which they fall is enjoyable to read and something a little out of the ordinary for the genre.  They are intensely drawn to one another physically, but they connect on an emotional level, too, and their frequent exchanges are refreshingly honest.  There is no drawn-out angst, even towards the end when it seems the time for parting has arrived, and I was very relieved at the lack of flimsy contrivance for the sake of injecting some unnecessary drama into the story.  I liked the way that Allison uses her time in St. Petersburg to really think about what she wants to do with the rest of her life and work out how to pursue an independent future.  Aleksei is an attractive hero who is obviously an alpha male, but without the arrogance that is so often associated with the type; he’s thoughtful, insightful and charming, with a strong sense of honour and a good sense of humour, and the way he comes to appreciate the importance of family and to realise that the children need his love and guidance is nicely done.

On the downside, however, I found myself rather more invested in the friendship and comradeship between Allison and Aleksei than in their romance, which is pretty much founded on insta-lust.  The couple has undoubted sexual chemistry, but Allison’s eagerness to jump into bed with Aleksei at the first opportunity makes her seem far too modern in spite of the different social mores of St. Petersburg and her desire to take charge of her own life. There are a couple of places in the mystery part of the story where both protagonists jump to conclusions without foundation, and in one particular place, they make an assumption that comes so completely out of the blue – and is so obviously wrong – that I had to read it several times to make sure I’d read it correctly!

Marguerite Kaye is one of my go-to authors, and even when her books don’t work for me on every level, her stories are extremely well-written and researched, her characters are interesting, and she makes excellent use of whichever historical setting she has chosen.  While From Governess to Countess wasn’t a resounding success, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable, low-angst read, and one that merits a recommendation in spite of the reservations I have expressed.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott

This title may be purchased from Amazon

One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love affairs! 

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye 

At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair will make for a very different future…

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott 

As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife, and certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way to bring her to surrender?

Rating: B (B+ for the Kaye, C for the Scott)

Scandal at the Christmas Ball is the second collaboration between historical romance authors Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott, and, like their previous work, Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, takes place at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore, a widely liked, respected and highly influential couple who are regarded as powerbrokers within the ton and whose invitations are much sought after.

Among their guests this Yuletide are the duke’s nephew and heir, Vale Penrith, Lady Viola Hawthorne, a shockingly fast young woman who goes out of her way to do and say outrageous things, and a former officer of the Scots Guards, Drummond MacIntosh, whose army career ended somewhat ignominiously three years earlier, just after the Battle of Waterloo.

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye (Grade: B+)

Ms. Kaye is one of the few authors of historical romance who regularly writes about untitled, non-aristocratic progatonists, and she continues that trend in this poignant, tender and sometimes heart-wrenching story about an ex-army officer and an ill-treated, down-on-her-luck governess who find each other one Christmas but who will face some difficult choices if they are ever to make a life together.

Drummond MacIntosh has lived a somewhat reclusive existence for the past three-and-a-half years owing to the huge scandal that attended his catastrophic fall from grace.  With his reputation in tatters, he has finally accepted that he needs help if he is ever going to claw his way back from ruin and carve out a new and useful existence.  No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington himself arranged Drummond’s invitation to the Brockmores’ Christmas house party, but as Drummond wryly notes, the Duke wouldn’t have done such a thing if it hadn’t been ultimately useful to himself; he needs a man of Drummond’s good sense, practicality and ability to lead men at his back and is presenting Drummond to Brockmore “for inspection” as it were.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in Drummond’s mouth; he doesn’t want to be beholden to Wellington (or to anyone) and certainly not on terms which attempt to brush years of exile under the carpet and blame Drummond for acting as his conscience dictated.

Drummond’s situation is mirrored by that of Miss Joanna Forsythe, a governess who has been invited to the party so she can meet a prospective employer.  Joanna had a comfortable position in the household of Lady Christina Robertson, but has been reduced to teaching at a ramshackle school in return for her bed and board, after she was wrongly accused of theft and dismissed without a character. Like Drummond, she has been invited to the Brockmores with a view to improving her situation, but also like him, the hoped for “improvement” falls short.  Joanna had hoped for an apology after her innocence was discovered and the real culprit owned up. But instead, her former employer wants to buy her off by the offer of an excellent new position and a sum of money.

Even before they know of the similarities of their respective situations, Drummond and Joanna are strongly drawn to each other and very soon find themselves exchanging confidences… and increasingly heated kisses.  I admit that the pair progresses to this stage rather quickly but Ms. Kaye creates such a strong emotional connection between them, and imbues their burgeoning relationship with such depth and longing that it’s possible to overlook its somewhat speedy beginning.  This is a pair of ordinary people in very difficult circumstances who demonstrate the importance of a spotless reputation to those who had to earn their living, for without it, there was little to no chance of their ever securing decent employment. But with Drummond on the verge of a prestigious appointment and a return from the cold, how can Joanna – and her tarnished reputation – stand in his way?

This is a beautifully wrought, heartfelt romance between two people in difficult circumstances.  I was completely gripped by Drummond’s story and applaud Ms. Kaye for the introduction of a character motivated by compassion whose actions were so misunderstood and reviled.  He’s not a character-type I’ve read in historical romance before, and I could be singing the author’s praises for that alone.  But added to a very well-crafted romance and a strong, determined heroine in the form of Joanna, A Governess for Christmas  makes my list of favourite seasonal reads.

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott (Grade: C)

In this story, a rather proper gentleman finds himself reluctantly fascinated by the most unsuitable sort of woman he could ever have imagined would attract him.  Vale Penrith, heir to the Duke of Brockmore, has still not recovered from the deaths of his father and older brother some years ago, and continues to find his role as a ducal heir somewhat ill-fitting.  He really would prefer to be left to his own devices in the library, but knows he will have to do his bit and take part in the various activities planned for the duration of the party.  He is also aware that while the Brockmores’ Christmas parties don’t have the same match-making reputation as their summer affairs, his uncle has a prospective bride lined up for him – something else he doesn’t want anything to do with.

Lady Viola Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Calton, is a determined, high-spirited woman whose deepest desire is to go to Vienna to study music.  “The Shocking Beauty” as she is known, has quite the scandalous reputation, all of it designed to put off any suitors so she can remain unwed and pursue her dreams of Vienna and a musical career.  She reckons that one final, massive scandal at the Brockmores’ party should do the trick once and for all and cause her parents to give up on their attempts to marry her off.  Hence her decision to climb a ladder to hang mistletoe from a chandelier in the hall while wearing no underwear; perched at the top, affording the crowd of young men below a glimpse of her ankles (and possibly other things besides) she manages to achieve her end just before the ladder wobbles and she falls – literally – into the arms of Vale Penrith, who is appalled and annoyed at such reckless, outrageous behaviour.

Viola likes what she sees, but Penrith, while gorgeous, is a stuffed shirt and not at all the sort of man she’d be interested in.  But when her friend, Lady Anne, tells Viola that her parents are trying to arrange a match with Penrith while she – Anne – is in love with someone else, Viola agrees to help her out by providing a distraction.  The problem is that she finds herself being distracted by Vale – who is not at all the cold fish she had first imagined – as much as he is distracted by her, and the more time they spend together, the more they discover about what lies behind their social masks and the more they are drawn together.

I have to say straight off that I really didn’t care for Viola in this story.  I admired her desire to forge her own path in her life, but her methods – which are, basically, to shock as many people as often as possible – are childish, and she behaves more like a mistress or courtesan than a duke’s daughter, drinking spirits, smoking and playing billiards with the men.  I’m sure not all young ladies at this time were as pure and virginal as fiction would have us believe, but Viola goes a little too far in the opposite direction for my taste.  Vale is much more likeable, but because I disliked the heroine, it was difficult to understand what he saw in her beyond the physical and I found it difficult to believe that two people possessed of such opposing personality types could forge a lasting relationship.

If you’re more tolerant of the spoiled and outrageous type of heroine than I am, this story might work better for you than it did for me.

Ultimately, Scandal at the Christmas Ball is something of an uneven read, but is worth it for the Kaye story alone.

Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Stolen nights with the secret princess…

Bound to marry for duty, Princess Tahira finds her only freedom in forbidden escapes to the desert. Then one night she encounters a stranger under the stars—adventurer Christopher Fordyce. He’s wildly attractive and thrillingly dangerous…an illicit fantasy she can’t resist!

Even unaware of Tahira’s royal blood, Christopher knows his shameful past makes any future with her impossible. But in the sultry desert heat, desires are uncovered and secrets unveiled, and soon Christopher will risk everything to claim his desert princess!

Rating: B-

Claiming His Desert Princess is the final book in Marguerite Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights quartet of historical romances set in Arabia in the early 1800s. Contemporary romances abound with gorgeous sheikh heroes, but they’re not so often found in historicals, and neither are there that many regency romances set outside England, so the series had a dual appeal for me, and I’ve enjoyed all the books to varying degrees (my favourite is still the first, The Widow and the Sheikh). In this story, however, it’s the heroine rather than the hero who is of royal blood. Christopher Fordyce, who has appeared briefly in the earlier books, is clearly on a mission of some kind, the nature of which has not so far been made entirely clear. Having conceived the idea of him as a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia (as personified by Peter O’Toole), I’ve been looking forward to his story and finally discovering exactly what he was up to. All is indeed revealed in this book, but I can’t deny that some pacing issues, a rushed ending and a sense of “oh – was that it?” ultimately left me feeling a little disappointed.

English antiquarian and surveyor, Christopher Fordyce, has travelled to Arabia in order to return a valuable ancient artefact to its rightful owner – or at least to the owner’s descendants. He has been in the country for over six months, travelling around trying to trace the origin of a turquoise amulet which was left to him upon the death of his father, and finally believes he has located the key to his quest in the form of the newly opened mines in the kingdom of Nessarah. He visits at night in order to see what progress has been made on the excavations, and is discovered there by a young woman named Tahira who explains she is deeply interested in the history of Nessarah and has begun to make a study of it and the various artefacts she finds. There is an undeniable spark of attraction between them from the very first, and they immediately bond over their shared interest in history and in uncovering the mysteries of the past. Tahira is able to supply Christopher with some interesting snippets of information regarding the mine and its workings and at each meeting, they reveal a little more of themselves to each other which, for Tahira, provides an incredible taste of freedom from the life to which she has been born. For she is keeping one, very important detail from Christopher, which is that she is the eldest sister of Prince Ghutrif, who is the de factor ruler of Nessarah.

Ghutrif is determined to marry Tahira off.  She has been betrothed twice before, both times to the Prince of Murimon – but those betrothals ended when her first intended was killed in a fall from his horse, and her second, Prince Kadar (Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride) fell in love with someone else.  Tahira is blamed for both these failures to marry, told she has brought dishonour upon her family, and her position at the palace is becoming increasingly difficult to bear.  The one bright spot in her life is her nightly meetings with the handsome Englishman who understands her sense of connection with the past, and who truly listens to her and values her opinion.  She decides not to disclose her  identity to him because then he is bound to insist they stop meeting – and given she has very little time left before she is married, Tahira is reluctant to end their association before she is forced to do so.

Christopher is keeping secrets as well, ones which clearly relate to a painful past that he refuses to discuss.  All he will tell Tahira is that returning the amulet to its rightful place means that he will finally be able to shake off the yoke of the past and face the future with a clean slate.  This is the weakest part of the story, because I found it difficult to believe that Christopher had imbued an inanimate object with such power over his life.  The major part of the reveal as to his reasons and why he is running from his past does not come until around two-thirds of the way through the book, so it’s difficult to say more without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it revolves around Christopher’s sense of self and identity following a discovery made after the death of his father. He believes the amulet to have been a bribe and that the only way he can live with a clear conscience is to return it. But it feels like a flimsy plot device, and didn’t make much sense to me.

The writing flows smoothly, and the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of the desert and the bazaars and souks are as evocative as always, but the first two thirds of the book are fairly static, consisting mostly of a series of night-time meetings between Christopher and Tahira in which they continue their search for artefacts, interspersed with glimpses into the monotony of Tahira’s life in the palace harem, or of Christopher’s attempts to track the provenance of the amulet.   His wanting to make Tahira’s wishes come true – sliding down the dunes, riding across the desert at night, swimming in an oasis – is sweet, and their clandestine meetings provide plenty of opportunity for things to become fairly heated between them, although Christopher refuses flat out to ruin Tahira and leave her with the consequences of their actions.  It’s all very well done, in particular the parts that show very clearly just how limited Tahira’s choices are, but it’s somewhat repetitive until the point at which we are made privy to Christopher’s motivations. The pacing picks up from around there, but I can’t help wishing that Ms. Kaye had chosen to ‘drip-feed’ Christopher’s story throughout rather than saving all the explanations until the back end of the book.

Marguerite Kaye is one of my favourite authors and she always writes with intelligence, researches her subjects well and creates a strong sense of time and place in her stories.  However, I suspect that maybe Claiming His Desert Princess is a victim of my own high expectations – I liked it, but I wanted to LOVE it, and I didn’t quite make it that far.  Nonetheless it’s a solid read with a nicely developed romance and at the very least merits a qualified recommendation