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.

Advertisements

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

The Harlot and the Sheikh (Hot Arabian Nights #3) by Marguerite Kaye

the-harlot-and-the-sheikh

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A defiant womanin a desert king’s world!

After inheriting a broken kingdom, Prince Rafiq made a vow to restore its pride by winning a prestigious horse race. To ensure success, he hires an English expert. But even notoriously controlled Rafiq is shocked when his new employee is introduced as Miss Stephanie Darvill!

Stephanie is determined to leave her shameful past and broken dreams behind she will prove to Rafiq she deserves his trust! But this hard-hearted desert sheikh calls to Stephanie in the most primal of ways Dare she give in to her wildest desires?

Rating: B

The Harlot and the Sheikh is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s series of historical romances set in early nineteenth century Arabia, and once again features a heroine with an unusual occupation;  in this case, she’s a veterinarian specialising in the care and treatment of horses.  Ms. Kaye’s research into the scientific background and interests of each of her heroines so far is obviously extensive, and the notes she provides at end of each novel are interesting and informative.  But at the heart of each book is a complex, heartfelt and satisfying romance; and one of the things I so admire about this author is the way she is able to develop that romance while also telling an engaging story that incorporates fascinating historical and technical detail while also producing such superb descriptive prose that the reader is immediately transported to whatever location she is writing about.

Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince of the Arabian Kingdom of Bharym is a troubled young man with a great weight of responsibility upon his shoulders.  Years before, and aged just sixteen, he had watched his father destroy himself, the honour of the royal family and the spirit of his people by losing the Sabr, the renowned endurance race that symbolises Bharym’s pride and honour.  The kingdom is famous for breeding the finest horses in the world, horses whose bloodlines can be traced back to the purest of antecedents;  but following a fire that devastated the stables and stud farm after the loss of the Sabr, the kingdom – and Rafiq’s father – entered a slow and lingering decline.  When he came to the throne at twenty-two, Rafiq inherited a kingdom that seemed to have lost its way, and promised his people that he would make Bharym a better place, keen to make a number of changes and improvements and to employ various technical advancements in order to make Bharym a kingdom fit for the new century.  But his proposals and enthusiasm were met by disinterest and apathy; for Rafiq’s people, the only thing that seems to matter is to reclaim their lost pride by winning the Sabr.

Now, eight years later, it seems that victory might, at last, be within Rafiq’s grasp.  He has worked hard to rebuild his stables and the stud farm and sacrificed much of his personal happiness and peace of mind in order to do so.  But it seems that isn’t enough, because over the last few months, Rafiq has been dealt another crushing blow as he has had to watch eight of his priceless breeding stock die of an unknown disease.

He needs specialist help and he needs it quickly, so he sends for Richard Darvill, the renowned veterinary surgeon attached to the Seventh Hussars who is reputed to be the foremost equine expert in the world.  So he is not best pleased when his summons is answered not by Darvill, but by his daughter, Stephanie, who explains that her father is unable to leave his regiment given Napoleon’s progress through Europe, and that she has been expertly tutored and works alongside him as his assistant.

What Stephanie doesn’t disclose is that she jumped at the chance to travel to Arabia because of her need to get away from a scandal.  A couple of years earlier, she thought herself in love and allowed herself to be seduced by one of the Hussar officers, only to be devastated when she discovered he had no intention of marrying her.  While a man is patted on the back and praised for his sexual exploits, the woman is branded loose and wanton; Stephanie’s reputation was ruined and, not wanting to risk her father’s position with the regiment, she left, first heading back to England where she continued her work and studies at a Newmarket stud farm, and thence to Bharym, with her father’s blessing.

The fact that Stephanie is a woman is not a great issue for Rafiq, although he knows that it will be one for his Master of the Horse, who believes that a woman in the stables will bring very bad luck.  But Rafiq, impressed with Stephanie’s good sense and honesty – she does not promise a miracle, only that she will do everything in her power to help – decides to appoint her as Royal Horse Surgeon.

Although they both try to resist the pull between them, the attraction between Stephanie and Rafiq is intense and really leaps off the page.  He is impressed by her knowledge and her methods – and even by the fact that she is prepared to stand up to him when necessary – and very gradually, gets her to open up to him about her past disgrace.  She expects him to be disgusted; he shows her clearly that he is not and through his kindness and respect, helps her to start to regain her self-respect and rebuild her self-esteem.  And in turn, Stephanie helps Rafiq to lay aside the burden of guilt he still carries over the death of his wife and shows him that sometimes it’s necessary to bend in order not to break, that while tradition is important, there are times when a fresh approach is needed.

The plotline concerning the mysterious illness that plagues the horses and Stephanie’s unstinting efforts on their behalf is absorbing, and the romance between the prince and his Royal Horse Surgeon is equally so. The couple is allowed time to get to know and understand each other, and I liked that they admit the strength of their mutual attraction and agree to explore it further in a mature way.  The air sizzles between them and their physical encounters are sensual and nicely steamy.  Rafiq is a gorgeous hero – jaw-droppingly handsome, of course, but also honourable, caring and fully sensible of the responsibilities he bears; and Stephanie is perfect for him in every way – intelligent, determined and spirited while being aware of the importance of tradition and convention in the society in which she finds herself.  My one quibble is that they manage to surmount the difficulties posed by the huge gulf in their social stations very easily (he’s a prince, she’s the daughter of a former farrier), but sometimes you just have to embrace the fairy tale and go with the flow.

The Harlot and the Sheikh is a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish and makes another fine addition to this series of Arabian-set historicals – so if you’re looking for an historical romance with an unusual setting and background, then you need look no further.

Sheik’s Mail Order Bride (Hot Arabian Nights #2) by Marguerite Kaye

sheikh's mail order bride

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Sailing to India to marry a stranger, Constance Montgomery is shipwrecked off the Arabian coast of Murimon. The world believes her lost at sea, and only the kingdom’s ruler, Kadar, knows the truth. She’s honour-bound to leave, but the brooding Prince tempts Constance to stay…

Kadar knows that no matter how beautiful Constance is she is forbidden. But every moment with her seduces him, until temptation becomes torment! Kadar thinks he has no heart left to offer any woman…can Constance prove him wrong?

Rating:B-

Having loved the previous book in this series – The Widow and the Sheikh – I was eagerly looking forward to this second book in Ms. Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights series, but while it contained many of the ingredients that I so enjoyed in the first book, this one doesn’t work quite so well.

The heroine is travelling to India in order to marry a man she has never met who is paying her father a large sum of money in exchange. Supposedly, her father will use the money to get out of debt, but Constance doubts he will – he’ll just make more dodgy investments and before long he and her mother will be back where they started. But Constance is a dutiful daughter and knows what is expected from her. But a violent storm during the journey wrecks the ship on which she is travelling and she ends seeking shelter in the Arabian kingdom of Murimon. She is taken to the capital and to the palace of Prince Kadar, who affords her a warm welcome and explains that she will have to remain in Murmion for at least a couple of months as there are no ships expected before then that will be able to carry her either back to England or on to India.

Kadar has been away from the kingdom for seven years, forced to return owing to the recent death of his brother. Along with his brother’s kingdom, Kadar has also inherited his brother’s bride, who, it seems is as reluctant to marry him as he to marry her. But tradition demands he fulfil his brother’s promise to wed her.

Of course, Kadar and Constance are attracted to each other, and as is always the case with this author, she really knows how to make the sparks fly and makes the most of the slightest looks and touches to turn up the heat between her central couple. Kadar is haunted by more than his brother’s marriage contracts, however, as Constance gradually uncovers the truth about the reasons he left Murimon. Like Azhar in the previous book, Kadar is torn between love and duty; unlike Azhar, Kadar has to solve his kingdom’s financial difficulties by marrying money, which makes his feelings for Constance even more impossible.

Maggie Boyd and I discussed the book in a joint, Pandora’s Box review for All About Romance. We both ended at more or less the same conclusion and rating.

Scandal at the Midsummer Ball by Marguerite Kaye & Bronwyn Scott

scandal at the midsummer ball

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Two forbidden relationships…one house party to remember!

THE OFFICER’S TEMPTATION by Marguerite Kaye

Colonel Fergus Kennedy must make a suitable match at the Midsummer Ball. But when this officer encounters sultry acrobat Katerina Vengarov, he finds himself torn between duty…and heart-stopping, irresistible passion!

THE DEBUTANTE’S AWAKENING by Bronwyn Scott

Kael Gage is the last person at the Midsummer Ball Miss Zara Titus should speak to—and anything more is definitely off-limits! But the notorious rake seems determined to awaken this innocent debutante’s every desire…

Rating:B-

These stories from two of my favourite Harlequin/Mills and Boon Historical authors take place at a house-party renowned as much for the matchmaking and political deals struck under its roof as it is for the excellence of its food and the high quality of the entertainment provided. The stories run concurrently so that we get to take a look at the events of the party at different times, although the stories are not so closely woven together as to give the reader a sense of dejà-vu. It’s an interesting device and one I actually wish had been made a little bit more of, as I’ve enjoyed other stories where the author chooses to present the same events from different viewpoints.

The Officer’s Temptation by Marguerite Kaye. Grade: B-

The annual midsummer ball held by the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore Is one of the most exclusive events of the year, and invitations are highly sought after. The Duke is a powerful man, and the guest list is chosen carefully and with an eye to creating advantageous alliances, both political and matrimonial.

Life for a soldier during peacetime is not an easy one, and Colonel Fergus Kennedy is restless and frustrated at being confined to a desk job. When he is offered the chance of a diplomatic posting to Egypt he is more than eager to accept it, but it comes with a price tag. A diplomat needs a suitable wife, so Fergus is ordered to attend the houseparty by the Duke of Wellington with a view to making an offer for the Duke of Brockmore’s niece. Lady Verity Fairholme, is beautiful and poised, so Fergus is not completely opposed to the prospect of marrying her, in spite of the blackmail – but when she practically refuses to speak to him and is little more than barely civil when she does so, he realises that perhaps she is as unhappy about the situation as he is, and that he might as well say goodbye to his prospects.

Low in spirits, he is wandering the grounds when he strays into the secluded area set aside for practice by the acrobatic team of Alexandr and Katerina Vengarov, who have been engaged by the duke and duchess to provide entertainment at the party. Fascinated, he watches Katerina practicing her tightrope act, and the two fall into conversation, with Fergus gradually realising that Katerina attracts him far more than Lady Verity or any of the other young debutantes at the party.

Ms Kaye pens a sweet, nicely steamy romance between two people from completely different worlds who would never have met but for a simple accident. Katerina and her brother are outsiders; the equivalent of royalty in their own sphere, but mere servants in the rarefied atmosphere of the English haut-ton, and Fergus is not wealthy or titled, but a man who has worked hard and earned his position through his own merits. The thing I liked most about the story was the way in which Katerina helps Fergus to remember this and to bolster his sense of self-esteem at a time when he most needs it. Yet even then, their path is not clear; neither Fergus nor Katerina is wealthy and will have to work in order to support themselves and it seems impossible that they will be able to do that and be together. The author’s solution to their problems is perhaps a little audacious, but is actually perfect for this unusual, hard-working couple.

The Debutante’s Awakening by Bronwyn Scott. Grade: C+

Lady Zara Titus was recently jilted when her fiancé realised he loved someone else, and while Zara was not in love with him, she is frustrated at the situation she now finds herself in. She has to find herself a husband quickly in order to counter the gossip that is bound to ensue – after all, it was not the done thing for a gentleman to jilt a lady, so the assumption will be that she must somehow have been at fault. Her mother insists that Zara must behave with the utmost propriety, but Zara has had enough of conforming to the accepted view of what a young lady of good birth and breeding should be, and decides that if she must accept the rather staid gentleman who has been chosen for her, she’s going to have some fun first.

Kael Gage may be the grandson of an earl, but his father had more sons than he could provide for, and Kael is possessed of a small property but is otherwise improverished. He’s an all round scoundrel, a known womanizer and had to leave London quickly in order to avoid a scandal – which is perhaps why Zara is initially attracted to him. Or perhaps it’s his dark good looks and the fact that he exudes sex-appeal – and is exactly the sort of man to whom a young lady intending to break the rules would turn for assistance.

Kael has little time for well-bred virgins, preferring to take his pleasures with experienced woman, but he can’t deny that Zara’s mix of innocence and untapped sensuality attracts him. He quickly recognizes a kindred spirit in her, someone who doesn’t quite fit the pattern and who carefully masks her vulnerability beneath a veneer of confidence; and decides that he’ll abet her in her desire to take a few risks. But the more time he spends with her, the more he comes to appreciate her for her strength of character and her intelligence; and incredibly he finds himself regretting that he can offer her nothing more than the thrill of the forbidden for the duration of the house party. And for all her determination to live a little, Zara can’t quite shake off the shackles of convention and turn her back on the life she is expected to live.

Both stories are very readable, with sets of engaging protagonists and a group of well-drawn secondary characters. I would certainly have liked to know more about the flamboyant and enigmatic Timothy Nightingale, for example, or to have spent more time with the duke and duchess, an older couple who are clearly very much in love – but neither of those things was within the remit of this particular book. The central relationships have to evolve quickly given the time-span during which they take place, but both authors create a convincing emotional connection between their leads, so that the speed at which the romances develop is not too much of a problem.

Scandal at the Midsummer Ball isn’t something I’ll be putting on my keeper shelf, but it’s still an enjoyable piece of well-written froth. It lacks the depth normally to be found in novels by these authors, but is certainly something to consider when you’re looking for a quick but emotionally satisfying and sensual read.

add-to-goodreads-button