Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville

Secrets of a Soprano

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Great fame brings great heartbreak.

No one knows the perils of celebrity better than Teresa Foscari, Europe’s most famous opera singer. The public knows her as a glamorous and tempestuous diva, mistress to emperors, a reputation created by the newspapers and the ruthless man who exploited her. Now she has come to London to make a fresh start and find her long lost English family.

Foscari’s peerless voice thrills all London—except Maximilian Hawthorne, Viscount Allerton, the wealthy patron of opera—and lover of singers. Notorious Teresa Foscari is none other than Tessa, the innocent girl who broke his youthful heart. When his glittering new opera house sits half empty, thanks to the soprano filling the seats of his competitor’s theater, Max vows to stop the woman he unwillingly still desires.

Amidst backstage intrigue and the sumptuous soirées of fashionable London, the couple’s rivalry explodes in bitter accusations and smashed china. With her reputation in ruins, Tessa must fight for her career —and resist her burning attraction to the man who wishes to destroy her.

Rating: B-

As a musician and opera lover, the story and background to this new novel from Miranda Neville are right up my street. Nineteenth century opera and theatre are things that have long been of particular interest to me, and some of the best things about Secrets of a Soprano are undoubtedly the accuracy and richness of the historical background and the insight into the life and habits of a famous singer that form the backdrop to the central love story.

Theresa Foscari – born Tessa Birkett – is half English but hasn’t set foot in the country for well over a decade. Following an unhappy love affair when she was just seventeen, she married Domenico Foscari, a dynamic impresario who turned her from a good singer into a great one; from someone worthy of gracing the stages of provincial opera houses to the most sought after diva in the world – La Divina. Her marriage was tempestuous and not at all happy in the later years; and to her consternation, Foscari’s death has left her in a very precarious financial position. She now realises the mistake she made in letting him handle her entire career, from deciding where she would sing to what she would be paid; not only was he cheating her, he has left her completely ignorant of how to negotiate a good deal. Because of this, she failed to see the loopholes in the contract she has signed to perform at London’s premier opera house, the Tavistock Theatre, which dictates that she will not be paid until the end of the season. With little left of value to sell and a small entourage to support (including her vocal coach and her maid) Tessa hopes desperately that her finances will hold out.

Now Viscount Allerton, Max Hawthorne fell in love with Tessa when he was a youth of nineteen and they were both living in Oporto over a decade earlier. Unfortunately for them, her grasping relatives forced a separation, but Max has never forgiven or forgotten Tessa, following her career with a mixture of interest and bitterness as La Divina’s countless affairs with illustrious men – she is even rumoured to have been the mistress of Bonaparte himself – are all reported with salacious glee in the newspapers and scandal sheets. And now the great diva is gracing London with her presence for the first time – but is signed to the company at the Tavistock instead of Max’s Regent Theatre, a new, far more modern and artistically pleasing venue.

The Regent has been a labour of love for Max, who, as one of the richest men in the country has no need to engage in any form of trade or employment. But as he can afford not to care what people think of him, he can indulge his passion for opera without fear of censure. However, his mother, a strong, autocratic woman whom he adores and finds extremely irritating in equal measure, sees Max’s love for the theatre as an opportunity to get something she wants. She makes him a deal – if he can make the Regent pay for itself by the end of the season, she will stop nagging him to get married. And if he fails, we will marry the bride of her choice.

Having La Divina singing at a rival establishment is, naturally, a blow to his cause, as the diva is singing to packed houses while the Regent remains half-full. But when Tessa makes a mis-step, his theatre manager sees the opportunity to turn the tables in favour of the Regent, and leaks a story to the papers which, while based in truth, is in fact an unfortunate misunderstanding. But it’s too late – the damage is done and suddenly, Tessa is persona non-grata.

There is quite a lot going on in the story and in fact, I’d say that there is perhaps a little too much at times. The relationship between Max and Tessa – each of whom blames the other for their earlier separation – is an antagonistic one, with much bitterness on both sides; and I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by their reconciliation. The fact that they continue to harbor such strong feelings towards each other after more than a decade is, I’m sure, supposed to be indicative of the fact that there is still the potential for love between them, but I found Max’s turnaround, in particular, quite difficult to believe in. It happens with such speed that I felt as though I’d blinked and missed something. I will also admit to giggling at the use of Italian terms for certain body parts during the sex scenes. I can certainly understand any author wanting to get away from the throbbing members and dewy folds that are so prevalent in romances, but I’m not sure that putting them into another language was the way to go.

But on the plus side, Ms Neville has done an absolutely tremendous job when it comes to exploring the world of nineteenth century opera, celebrity and the media, and draws some wonderfully strong parallels between then and now. Opera singers at the time the book is set were the rock stars and celebrity footballers of their day, and featured just as frequently in the available media as Nicky Minaj or Wayne Rooney do today. Tessa’s husband was a master spin-doctor, creating a persona for her as a promiscuous, crockery-smashing, tantrum-throwing diva , which, as Max gradually realises, is a completely different person from the real Tessa that he knew before and is coming to know again. The part of the story in which Tessa’s reputation is ruined because of a mistake is chillingly close to the sort of thing that happens today, when the media will gleefully build up a celebrity only to take them down in a hail of Tweeted bullets the moment they put a foot wrong.

Ultimately, it’s this side of the novel that I found the most engaging. I liked Max and Tessa, and the various secondary characters – even Max’s mother, who is a determined and intelligent older woman without being an annoying harpy. But as I said above, the story is too busy and as a result, fails to properly explore certain plot threads. The wager between Max and his mother is somewhat redundant, and there is a storyline concerning Tessa’s search for her English relatives that disappears early on and then comes back near the end. Hints are dropped throughout that Tessa has suffered some kind of sexual trauma in the past, but the resolution is weak and almost an afterthought. And while I appreciated the inclusion of a secondary romance between an older couple, it took time away from the central love story that it could ill afford. I’d have liked to have seen something of Max and Tessa’s earlier relationship to help convince me that in spite of everything, they still loved each other; but all we knew about that was what we were told, and it wasn’t enough for me.

In spite of those reservations, I enjoyed Secrets of a Soprano, but grading it was a little difficult. The romance isn’t developed enough, so it loses points there, but the rest of it is terrific, which adds them back again. Ultimately then, I’m going with a B-; I’d probably have given a B or higher had the romance been more convincing, and I can’t go as low as a C because Ms Neville’s knowledge and love for the period and the operatic scene shines through so strongly that it’s obvious that for her, the book – like Max’s Regent Theatre – has been a labour of love.

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A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

Christmas in Duke Street (anthology) by Miranda Neville, Carolyn Jewel, Shana Galen and Grace Burrowes

Christmas in Duke Street

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Christmas in London is a busy time at the little bookshop in Duke Street, for love, literature, and shopping. Four couples come and go and discover that happy ever after makes the perfect Christmas gift. A new anthology from the bestselling authors of Christmas in the Duke’s Arms and Dancing in the Duke’s Arms.

Rating: B

Christmas in Duke Street is the third anthology from four of the most popular authors of historical romance and, as with last year’s Christmas in the Duke’s Arms is a set of seasonal novellas that are loosely linked together, this time through the part played in each story by the unassuming Duke Street Bookshop. Otherwise known as On The Shelf, a name coined by some wag who noticed the place’s popularity with the spinsters of London, the nickname also serves to distinguish it from the other – more famous – Duke Street, in a more fashionable area of the West End.

The Rake Who Loved Christmas

– by Miranda Neville
Grade : B      Sensuality : Warm


Miranda Neville’s The Rake Who Loved Christmas is first up, and introduces us to Sir Devlyn Stratton, a wealthy man-about-town who, in the face of current fashion, loves Christmas and the process of selecting gifts for the family he adores. This year’s festivities, however, are tinged with sadness, as it will be the first Christmas the family has spent without Dev’s father, and he is finding it difficult to adjust.

The widowed Oriel Sinclair lives with her cantankerous, invalid father above their print shop next-door to the book shop in Duke Street. Business is poor and she is struggling to make ends meet; but a brief meeting with a handsome stranger in the book shop next door allows her to forget her problems, if only for a few moments. She knows it’s ridiculous to dream of such a man, but she can’t stop thinking about him, even though she has no idea who he is.

When his younger brother tells him that he doesn’t want to marry the young lady he is expected to wed because he is in love with someone else, Dev thinks Merrick has fallen prey to a fortune-hunter. Discovering that the object of his brother’s affections is none other than intriguingly lovely woman he had met earlier that day in a bookshop is a double-strength blow to Dev. Not only is he going to have to hurt his brother’s feelings by detaching him from her, but the woman for whom he experienced such a strong attraction is nothing but a heartless mercenary.

Dev’s ideas about Oriel’s nefarious scheme are, of course, the product of his own jealousy, and he finds himself unable to maintain them the more he gets to know her. The pair dances around each other delightfully, and there is a real poignancy and sense of longing to many of their interactions. Watching Dev struggle with missing his father and then with his feelings for Oriel is very affecting, and even though he is an idiot to begin with, he is easy to sympathise with and I was very quickly rooting for him and Oriel to find their way to each other.

 

A Seduction in Winter

– by Carolyn Jewel
Grade : B      Sensuality : Warm


Carolyn Jewel’s contribution, A Seduction in Winter is the story of a badly scarred young woman and her reunion with the childhood friend who had been her champion when others were cruel to her because of her marred looks. Over the years, Honora Baynard has followed the military career of Lord Leoline Marrable, sure that he has never given her a second thought. She lives a secluded life with her father, a renowned artist, and they visit London once a year, but even then Honora doesn’t go into society. Her father thinks he is protecting her from hurt by insisting that she stays at home or wears a thick veil every time she goes out, so that Honora has begun to think of herself as ugly and to believe that she should not inflict the sight of her scarred visage upon others. When Leo returns to London, she has no hopes of meeting him – until he walks into the Duke Street Bookshop one day just before Christmas.

There is a charming, wistful feel to the writing in the early stages of this story as the reader comes to know Honora as a young woman who has been brought to feel unloveable through the well-meaning but misguided intentions of her father. Leo always felt a strong connection to her, even as a child, and is pleased when he discovers that connection has not faded during the years of their separation. Where Honora and her father see only her scar, he sees a beautiful young woman who has been cheated out of living her life, and he is determined that she should come to see herself as he sees her, and not as something hideous to be hidden away. The relationship between the two is well-drawn, although I thought that perhaps Honora was a little too quick to set aside the years of conditioning which made her dislike showing her face to others. Overall, though, this love story is full of genuine affection and tenderness, and there is plenty of chemistry between the leads.

 

A Prince in Her Stocking

– by Shana Galen
Grade : B      Sensuality : Warm


Shana Galen’s A Prince in Her Stocking is a companion piece to the story which appeared in this summer’s anthology, Dancing in the Duke’s Arms – in which Princess Vivienne of the fictional kingdom of Glynaven is on the run from the revolutionaries who have killed her family. In this story, we meet her brother, Lucien who is also in hiding and believes himself to be the sole survivor of the revolution. Practically destitute, Lucien is living on the streets of London and haunting the Duke Street Bookshop by day, searching for the papers which can prove his identity which he believes to have been included in a shipment of books sent to England by his mother.

Lady Cassandra Ashborne (Cass) has always been rather shy and unassertive, and even though she is now a widow (her late husband was old enough to be her grandfather) lives under the thumb of her domineering sister-in-law.

On one of her frequent visits to On the Shelf, she hears rumours that the handsome young man she sees there every day is actually a prince, and while on the one hand she tells herself that’s ridiculous, on the other, she can’t help being curious about him. Plucking up the courage to speak to him, Cass is surprised by the strong attraction she feels towards him, and, knowing that she is unlikely ever to have the opportunity to feel such emotions again, is determined to pursue a further acquaintance with him. This is a lovely story about a young woman emerging from her shell and finding the courage to take charge of her own life. There’s a bit of action, too, and we once again meet Vivi and her duke as Lucien strives to keep Cass safe at all costs, even if it means sacrificing his own happiness.

 

The Appeal of Christmas

– by Grace Burrowes
Grade : B+      Sensuality : Warm


The final story, The Appeal of Christmas by Grace Burrowes, is probably my favourite of the set, because I’m a sucker for a good friends-to-lovers story. Sensible, dependable Hazel Hooper has been in love with Gervaise Stoneleigh for years, but the highly respected lawyer has been far too busy to see it. He doesn’t enjoy Christmas and seeks refuge in On the Shelf, the sights and smells offered by all those wonderful books a welcome distraction from thoughts of the seasonal visits he will be expected to make to his family.

While browsing, he finds a love letter tucked among the pages of a book of poetry and is so taken with the words that he tucks it away to read properly later, intrigued by the sentiments expressed and wondering about the identity of the author. His re-readings, however, prompt him to wonder more about the nature of the man who could have inspired such feelings in a woman, and then to feel that he would like to be such a man. At the same time, he gradually comes to realise how much he has taken Hazel for granted over the years; how she has always put his needs above hers and how she shows him through so many small considerations how much she cares for him.

Ms Burrowes creates a lovely, festive atmosphere with her descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells associated with going Christmas shopping in the London streets. The protagonists are likeable characters whose verbal interactions are witty and often very funny, as are Hazel’s one-sided conversations with her cat. There’s real depth to their friendship, and a delicious sensuality simmering between them after what should have been a simple buss on the cheek turns into a lingering kiss that is going to change their friendship for ever.


All four stories in this anthology are well-written, entertaining and can be read in any order, in one sitting or in several, which is, I suppose, the beauty of anthologies. Christmas on Duke Street is another set of enjoyable, feel-good stories from this group of talented authors and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone seeking their seasonal historical romance fix in short bursts when there isn’t time to sit down with a full-length novel.

Dancing in the Duke’s Arms – A Regency Romance Anthology by Grace Burrowes, Shana Galen, Miranda Neville and Carolyn Jewel

dancing in the dukes arms

Why Do Dukes Fall in Love?

Every summer the cream of society gathers at the Dukeries, named for the ducal estates concentrated in one small corner of Nottinghamshire. While the entertainments include parties, balls, and a famous boat race, the ducal hosts and their guests find heartbreak, love and happy endings.

Four heartwarming stories from four bestselling historical romance authors.

Rating: B

As is common with anthologies, some stories in Dancing in the Duke’s Arms work better than others. My favourite of this set is Miranda Neville’s, The Duchess of Scandal in which an estranged couple find themselves back under the same roof due to a scheduling error. The very proper Duke of Linton proposed marriage to a young lady twelve years his junior, secure in the knowledge that no woman in her situation could possibly turn down such an offer. For the three weeks of their honeymoon, they were blissfully happy, but following their return to London, the rot sets in. Linton takes his responsibilities to his estates and in parliament very seriously, and his days are so full that he unintentionally neglects his eighteen year-old bride, and Althea’s only real company is her twin brother Nicholas. She ends up spending more time with her brother and his rather fast set and getting herself a name as a bit of a flirt. Annoyed at the gossip, and the fact that his wife always seems to be surrounded by crowds of young men, Linton seethes with annoyance and frustration, his admonitions and criticisms of her behaviour becoming more frequent. Things go from bad to worse and after six months, the Lintons agree to live separate lives.

I always like a good second-chance romance, and this, although only novella length, is a good one. The gentle reminders of what their life could have been like are poignant and well-written, as is the gradual reawakening of the couple’s feelings for each other. The greatest danger with the shorter format is that the romance will feel rushed, but it didn’t feel that way here and I thought it was a really lovely read. B+

Grace Burrowes’ contribution, May I Have This Duke? does feel somewhat rushed, but I loved it because it was so damn funny and had me laughing on several occasions. The Duke of Hardcastle is put out when the governess to his six-year old nephew suddenly announces her intention of leaving his employ. Miss Ellen MacHugh needs to return to her family in the north of England, and is adamant that nothing will change her mind. He has no idea, of course, that she’s in love with him and doesn’t want to be around when he takes a wife, which is something he can’t put off for much longer.

Hardcastle is engaged to attend the Duke of Sedgemere’s house-party in the Dukeries (and yes, it’s a real place! The county of Nottinghamshire actually contains a large number of ducal estates, and was given the nickname in the nineteenth century), and as his nephew will be accompanying him, so will Ellen, and at the end of the party she will depart for her home.

Even though Hardcastle needs a wife, he doesn’t relish the prospect of being tricked into a compromising situation by a Machiavellian debutante and forced into marriage; and he also doesn’t like the idea of Ellen being pursued by the young bucks at the party. He suggests they provide cover for each other; by acting smitten with one another, she will preserve him from the scheming young ladies and he can protect her from the unwanted attentions of the men.

I admit that things do progress quite quickly and the ending is a bit too perfect, but I didn’t mind that, because the verbal exchanges between Ellen and Hardcastle are so often hilarious. Grace Burrowes has a very distinctive writing style which can seem quite formal – the characters often address each other by their full names, for example, or express themselves in a roundabout way – but here, that formality just adds to the humour and tenderness of Ellen and Hardcastle’s delightfully flirtatious banter. B

Carolyn Jewel’s An Unsuitable Duchess is the story of the very reserved and stern Duke of Stoke Teversault and the young woman whose sunny, outgoing nature and delight in the world around her shows her to be his complete opposite. The duke has been in love with Georgina for years, but missed his chance with her when she accepted a proposal from another man. Married quickly, she was happy with her husband, but he died a year after their marriage, and she has only just come out of mourning. Stoke is as attracted to her as he ever was, and she can’t forget his kindness to her after her husband died, yet she feels he disapproves of her and doesn’t really like her. It’s obvious that his dislike is nothing of the sort, and that he’s worried about both feeling and showing too much around her, yet he’s drawn to her vivacity and her amazing zest for life.

Georgina – or George, as her friends have nicknamed her – has no inkling of the true nature of Stoke’s feelings for her, but has no problem in identifying hers for him – she is astonished to discover that she desires him, this seemingly calculating, forbidding man who is not at all handsome by conventional standards and who disapproves of her for no reason she can discern.

Georgina is a lot of fun who knows she will never be a model of ladylike behaviour. She loved her husband and obviously had an enjoyable sex-life – she knows what’s what and can own up to what she wants. Stoke is the strong, silent type who doesn’t really know how to act towards the woman he loves and desires to distraction. They’re a mismatched pair, but the attraction between them is impossible to ignore, even though George realises that Stoke will probably break her heart. C+

The least successful story of the four is Shana Galen’s Waiting for a Duke Like You, in which the gorgeous piece of male perfection that is Nathan, the Duke of Wyndover literally stumbles across a damsel in distress and has to save her from those who wish to do her harm. Shana Galen has written a number of action-packed romances but translating that to novella format hasn’t worked here, because both elements – the romance and the princess-in-peril plot – are too rushed and require too great a suspension of disbelief.

Princess Vivienne of Glynaven saw her family massacred and barely escaped her home with her life. She has travelled to England to seek the assistance of the king, but a group of assassins are on her tail and it won’t be long before they find her. Knowing that the Prince Regent is due to attend the ball at the Duke of Sedgemere’s house-party, she makes her way to his estate, only to collapse due to cold and hunger. She is found by Nathan, who met her briefly in Glenaven eight years previously and fell in love with her. He has never stopped loving her, but Vivienne never took much notice of him, having a dislike for men who are prettier than she is.

Um… yeah. That was such a daft reason for not liking someone that I just couldn’t buy it. On top of that, the romance never really gets off the ground and the entire thing is just too rushed for my taste. C

I enjoyed reading Dancing in the Duke’s Arms, even though the quality of the stories varies. But the great thing about an anthology like this is that if you don’t like one story, you can always jump to the next.

Ultimately, it’s worth buying for the Miranda Neville story alone, and the Grace Burrowes one is a nice bonus. The other two didn’t work quite so well for me, but this is still a fun collection and one that’s worth considering as a holiday read as each story can be read in an hour or so while you’re soaking up some sun!

The Duke of Dark Desires (Wild Quartet #4) by Miranda Neville

duke dark desires

Wanted: Governess able to keep all hours . . .

Rebellious Julian Fortescue never expected to inherit a dukedom, nor to find himself guardian to three young half-sisters. Now in the market for a governess, he lays eyes on Jane Grey and knows immediately she is qualified—to become his mistress. Yet the alluring woman appears impervious to him. Somehow Julian must find a way to make her succumb to temptation . . . without losing his heart and revealing the haunting mistakes of his past.

Desired: Duke skilled in the seductive art of conversation . . .
Lady Jeanne de Falleron didn’t seek a position as a governess simply to fall into bed with the Duke of Denford. Under the alias of Jane Grey, she must learn which of the duke’s relatives is responsible for the death of her family—and take her revenge. She certainly can’t afford the distraction of her darkly irresistible employer, or the smoldering desire he ignites within her.

But as Jane discovers more clues about the villain she seeks, she’s faced with a possibility more disturbing than her growing feelings for Julian: What will she do if the man she loves is also the man she’s sworn to kill?

Rating: A-

Miranda Neville’s books have been a bit hit and miss for me in the past. I wasn’t too keen on the first book in this series (The Importance of Being Wicked), although I loved the prequel novella (The Second Seduction of a Lady) and while it had its weaknesses, I enjoyed her last book (Lady Windermere’s Lover). But The Duke of Dark Desires hands down worked for me and then some. It doesn’t hurt that the story pushes some of my favourite buttons; bad boys made good are like catnip, and I’m also partial to an aristocrat/governess story (although this is a bit more complicated than that). Ms Neville also picks up the plot threads she left unresolved at the end of the last book (although it’s not absolutely necessary to have read it, as this works as a stand-alone) and ties everything up in a nice big bow, presenting readers with a very satisfying conclusion to the series.

Julian Fortescue has travelled extensively and made his living as an art dealer – a fairly successful one with a real passion for the wheeling and dealing involved in buying and selling as well as for the works of art themselves. As the scion of a minor branch of the family, he never expected to inherit anything – but became the Duke of Denford because of a completely unexpected and unfortunate series of illnesses and accidents that befell his numerous male relations. The trouble was, given that he was very much the black sheep of the family, his remaining (mostly female!) relatives decided to contest his accession, meaning that for the past two years, he’s been a very impoverished duke. When the book opens, he has finally reached a financial settlement with them which means that he now has the funds necessary to live in style and maintain his estates.

Finding himself suddenly responsible for his three younger half-sisters, Julian decides he needs to hire someone to look after them so he can have as little to do with them as possible, so he advertises for a governess. He takes one look at Miss Jane Grey and decides she can have the position – although the positions he has in mind are principally horizontal ones!

But the prim, proper Miss Grey is not what she seems. In reality, she is Jeanne de Falleron, the one surviving member of a family of French aristocrats whose parents and two younger sisters were guillotined during the Terror. She has travelled to London in search of one particular Mr. Fortescue, the man she believes responsible for betraying her family a decade earlier, and is determined to exact a terrible and final revenge. She believes that by taking a position in the home of the head of the Fortescue family, she will be able to find the man she seeks.

The relationship between Julian and Jane is brilliantly written and hits its stride right off the bat. Their verbal cat-and-mouse games are a real delight, and because it’s very clear that Jane knows exactly what Julian is up to – and feels the pull of the intense physical attraction between them every bit as much as he does – there’s none of the power imbalance between them that can make a master/servant romance a bit difficult to take. Jane responds in kind to Julian’s flirting and challenges him – and obviously enjoys it – even though she knows that ending up in his bed is probably not a good idea.

Jane is an engaging and well-developed character whose pragmatism has sustained her through some terrible times. After she lost her family, she had to make some horrible decisions in order to survive, but she refuses to feel ashamed about them or see herself as a victim. The relationships she develops with Julian’s sisters are well-drawn and are not overly sweet or twee; she recognises that while they need affection, they also need someone to set boundaries. Each of the three girls (aged nine to fifteen) is a recognisable individual, even if they’re perhaps just a teeny bit stereotypical; there’s the one who will soon enter society and become a young lady, the sullen middle one and the young moppet – but despite that, they’re all very likeable.

Julian is a great hero – smart, sexy and under no illusions about himself. He doesn’t have the best of reputations; in fact he spent most of the last book in the series trying to seduce his former best friend’s wife! He had a wild, rebellious youth, and his good looks and charm have ensured him plenty of female companionship over the years. But he’s not your typical rake who shags his way through town in order to assuage his man-pain or because he doesn’t want anything to do with that touchy-feely-emotional -girly crap. Julian is more the sort of man who simply enjoys good living and pleasurable activities, and he’s pleasantly self-aware, especially when it comes to his immediate desire to get Jane into bed. ”Besides, no one expected Julian to behave properly, least of all himself”

He’s cultivated his mad, bad and dangerous to know reputation, but deep down, he’s a decent man, haunted by his (unwitting) part in a tragic event, and who recognizes that he now has responsibilities that he needs to fulfil. Not least of those is that to his sisters, although he has no idea exactly what he’s supposed to do with them! But as the book progresses, Ms. Neville creates a really warm and caring relationship between them, with Julian pretending not to be interested while teasing them in a “big brotherly” kind of way that shows them the complete opposite.

The romance is sensual and well-developed, and I particularly liked the comfortable domesticity that evolves between Julian and Jane during their after-dinner meetings. There’s plenty of humour and the plotline concerning the paintings and Julian’s guilt over the events of a decade ago is intriguing and satisfactorily resolved. My one reservation about that aspect of the story is that the way the villain is disposed of is a little over the top, but other than that, The Duke of Dark Desires is a terrific read, and one I recommend most highly.

The Importance of Being Wicked (Wild Quartet #1) by Miranda Neville

Having recently posted my review of Lady Windermere’s Lover, which is book 3 in this series, I realised I’d never transferred my review of this across from Goodreads. Better late than never. Possibly.

Review originally written and posted to Goodreads in November 2012.

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The rules of society don’t apply to Caro and her coterie of bold men and daring women. But when passions flare, even the strongest will surrender to the law of love…

Thomas, Duke of Castleton, has every intention of wedding a prim and proper heiress. That is, until he sets eyes on the heiress’s cousin, easily the least proper woman he’s ever met. His devotion to family duty is no defense against the red-headed vixen whose greatest asset seems to be a talent for trouble…

Caroline Townsend has no patience for the oh-so-suitable (and boring) men of the ton. So when the handsome but stuffy duke arrives at her doorstep, she decides to put him to the test. But her scandalous exploits awaken a desire in Thomas he never knew he had. Suddenly Caro finds herself falling for this most proper duke…while Thomas discovers there’s a great deal of fun in a little bit of wickedness.

This is the first of a four book series centered around a group of badly behaved late-Georgian art collectors.

Rating: C

A more appropriate – although less enticing – title for this book might have been The Importance of Employing some Common Sense, because there were times I really wanted to knock some into the heroine.

We first met Caro in the novella The Second Seduction of a Lady, which I enjoyed very much. During the course of that story she meets and elopes with Robert Townsend when she is just seventeen years old.

This books starts some seven years later; she is now a widow and in straightened circumstances, Robert having gambled away all their money. Her debts are mounting up and she has no way to pay them, yet she still keeps “open house” for her friends, who are quite happy to eat her out of house and home with no thought as to how she pays for the food and drink they consume.

Caro is what would probably, at the time, have been termed “fast”. She is vivacious and almost proud of the fact that she isn’t respectable (which is understandable in some ways, given the rigidity of society at that time), and she flouts convention, even when she is supposed to be acting as chaperone to her cousin.

There were times I felt some empathy for her, as her thoughtlessness and generally carefree attitude was obviously just a front to cover for her anxieties and insecurities, and to stop her thinking about things she didn’t want to think about. But at other times, I just wanted to yell at her to grow up, and to be fair, towards the end of the book, she realises she needs to do just that.

Our hero, Thomas, Duke of Castleton, nicknamed “Lord Stuffy” certainly lives up to the epithet a lot of the time. He’s very proper and has come to town with the intention of securing the hand of Caro’s cousin, Anne, who is an heiress. Castleton owns a lot of land, but most of it is entailed, and he has sisters to provide for – his father having been rather profligate – and so he isn’t particularly flush with cash, either.

So those are the two protagonists, and while I didn’t dislike the story, I have to say that I found it hard to engage with either Caro or Thomas very much. Caro is immature and headstrong for the sake of being so, which lands her into hot water on several occasions. Thomas has a stick up his arse; and for all that he occasionally displays a dry sense of humour and, at times, a willingness to learn which is verging on adorable, he is a fairly bland hero.

Caro and Thomas fall almost immediately into lust with each other. That’s not uncommon in romances, but I didn’t really feel that we got to see the progression from lust to love. Thomas seems to suddenly decide he loves Caro, while for most of the book, Caro is honest enough with herself to admit she married Thomas for financial security and because she desperately wanted to sleep with him. It’s only towards the end, following a tragic event that she begins to see his true worth and finally starts to grow up and put the past behind her; and from that point, I found I could like her. Grown-up Caro is capable, sensible and loving and will make an excellent duchess, and at last, the relationship between her and Castleton begins to become romantic rather than just sexual.

The Importance of Being Wicked was enjoyable enough despite my reservations about the main characters; but I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll revisit.

Lady Windermere’s Lover (Wild Quartet #3) by Miranda Neville

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Hell hath no fury . . .

Damian, Earl of Windermere, rues the day he drunkenly gambled away his family’s estate and was forced into marriage to reclaim it. Now, after hiding out from his new bride for a year, Damian is finally called home, only to discover that his modest bride has become an alluring beauty—and rumor has it that she’s taken a lover. Damian vows to keep his wife from straying again, but to do so he must seduce her—and protect his heart from falling for the wife he never knew he wanted.

Lady Cynthia never aspired to be the subject of scandal.

Lady Cynthia never aspired to be the subject of scandal. But with her husband off gallivanting across Persia, what was a lady to do? Flirting shamelessly with his former best friend seemed like the perfect revenge . . . except no matter how little Damian deserves her loyalty, Cynthia can’t bring herself to be unfaithful. But now that the scoundrel has returned home, Cynthia isn’t about to forgive his absence so easily—even if his presence stirs something in her she’d long thought dead and buried. He might win her heart . . . if he can earn her forgiveness!

Rating: B-

I knew in advance that the plotline of this book revolved around that least favourite of romance tropes – the Big Misunderstanding. But I also knew that it contained some of my favourite plot devices: A marriage made in less than auspicious circumstances, a hero who is in desperate need of a wake-up call, and a second chance for the hero and heroine to make something of their situation, so I decided to accept the Big Mis and see how things turned out.

Damian, Viscount Kendal, is celebrating his twenty-first birthday with his closest friends in the manner of young men – by getting plastered and wagering the family silver. The whoring would probably have come later were it not for the fact that the birthday boy, much the worse for drink, wagers Beaulieu, the estate he has just inherited from his late and beloved mother, and, after losing it, passes out and has to be carried home.

Seven years later, Damian – now the Earl of Windermere – is on the verge of being able to re-purchase Beaulieu. His plans are thwarted at the last minute when the property is sold to a wealthy merchant who will only return it when Damian marries his rather gauche daughter, Cynthia. Furious and full of resentment, Damian agrees to the proposition; the marriage is hastily performed and consummated, and two weeks later, he leaves England on a diplomatic mission to Persia.

During his absence, Cynthia – whose brief experience of being married was not at all a happy one – has taken to heart his comments about her needing to learn to be the wife of a diplomat. She has taken great trouble to improve her French (the language of diplomacy back then), her deportment, and her appearance and makes such a successful transformation that, on his return to England a year later, her husband fails to recognise her!

So far, so good. But then the Big Misunderstanding raises its ugly head. Damian arrives in London expecting Cynthia to be safely ensconced at Beaulieu, and is therefore surprised to find his London house inhabited. He is even more surprised to espy his wife in the arms of another man, who can be no other than his neighbour and former great friend, Julian Fortescue, now the Duke of Denford. Damian immediately jumps to the conclusion that Cynthia is having an affair with him.

The close friendship between Damian and Densford was more or less obliterated on the night the former lost Beaulieu, but now Damian must try to repair the rift between them in order to carry out the mission with which he has been charged by his superiors at the Foreign Office. Densford is an art dealer, and is believed to have acquired an important collection in France after the Revolution. Damian’s boss wants him to get confirmation that Densford has the collectionand negotiate its acquisition by the British government.

Damian is furious at his wife’s betrayal with a man he now regards as his enemy, but keeps that under wraps, admitting to himself that his behaviour towards her had been inconsiderate and that he needs to make amends in some way. He is, however, determined to put a stop to the affair and to make sure that Cynthia is so in thrall to his amazing skills in the shagging department that she will never want anyone else ever again.

The fact that Damian realises how selfishly he has behaved towards Cynthia is a point in his favour, and I enjoyed the way the author has him begin to woo her by making overtures of friendship rather than embarking upon a seduction. The fact that he doesn’t want to have sex with her until he’s sure she isn’t pregnant by someone else is perhaps less laudable, but it does seem perfectly in character for a man of that time and of Damian’s ilk.

Fortunately, Ms Neville doesn’t allow the Mis to go unchallenged for too long, even though Damian’s reaction leaves much to be desired. But eventually, the ice between the couple begins to thaw, even though Densford’s continued attentions to Cynthia keep Damian’s suspicions alive.

There’s an interesting subplot concerning the conditions and treatment of the women working in the silk factories in the East End of London. Cynthia discovers that a number of young women employed at her uncle’s factory have been raped by his factory manager. When confronted, neither the manager or her uncle give a damn about the issue, so she determines to do what she can to help, and sets up a home where the victims of these assaults and their children can live safely. There is also mention of the Spitalfields Acts, which were designed to regulate the pay of the silk workers and some indication of the political manoeuverings surrounding them which added some informative historical colour.

In spite of my dislike of the set-up, I did enjoy the book and read it in more or less one sitting. The leads have chemistry and I enjoyed the friendship that develops between them. But the romance feels under-developed and we are asked to believe that Damian goes from angry and resentful bridegroom to a man panting after his wife after little more than one glimpse of her and simply because she’s dressing better and has a nicer hairstyle. His behaviour towards Cynthia is inconsistent and his stubborn belief in her infidelity manifests itself in immature fits of the sulks during which he treats her poorly. In fact, there were times I was rooting more for Densford as he seemed to genuinely care for Cynthia, and certainly was able to see her true worth long before her husband did.

The ending is on the silly side and is actually superfluous to requirements, as it serves principally to set up the next book which will be Densford’s story.

If you’ve been following this series, then I think you’ll enjoy this latest addition provided you can accept the premise and the fact that the hero is an arsehole at times. I admit that I didn’t care much for book one (The Importance of Being Wicked), but Lady Windermere’s Lover has restored my faith somewhat, so I will likely be reading the final book in Ms Neville’s Wild Quartet when it appears.