Scandalous (The Outcasts #3) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“Have you no decency?”

Straight-laced missionary Sarah Fisher has never met a man like Captain Martin Bouchard. He is the most beautiful person—male or female—she’s ever seen. Overwhelmingly masculine, elegantly attired despite months at sea, he is in complete command of everyone and everything around him: everyone, that is, except Sarah. But that’s about to change, because Sarah has bought Bouchard’s mercy with the only thing she has to sell: her body.

“None at all…”

In spite of her outrageous offer, Martin has no doubt Sarah is a virgin, and a most delectable one at that. But instead of bedding her, he finds himself staring down the muzzle of his own pistol. Clearly, the longer she stays on his ship, the greater the chances that she’ll end up its damned captain! Most infuriating of all, she looks past his perfect exterior to the wounded man inside. Can Martin outrun his scandalous past in time to have a future with the first woman to find and capture his heart?

Rating: B-

Scandalous is the third book in Minerva Spencer’s series The Outcasts, and it takes as its hero Martín Etienne Bouchard, the beautiful , enigmatic and seductive privateer who was introduced in the previous book, BarbarousMs. Spencer’s sophisticated, precise prose continues to impress, as does her ability to tell a compelling story and create complex characters, but something about the principals and romance in Scandalous didn’t quite gel for me.  The heroine is determined and independent of spirit in a way that feels perfectly right for the story and the period, but the hero, while he has a truly traumatising backstory, spends much of the novel behaving like an emotionally stunted adolescent. The author skilfully makes the reader aware that there are good reasons for Martín’s behaviour and actually manages (sometimes) to make him into a fairly sympathetic character – even before we find out the true extent of what he went through (which doesn’t happen until fairly near the end) – but there were still times I came perilously close to losing patience with him.

Martín Bouchard is a former slave who is now a wealthy privateer who has built himself a fearsome reputation as a cold, hard killer who was more concerned with his cravat than his life. Not surprisingly, Martín hates those who buy and sell slaves with a passion, so he has little sympathy for the crew of the Blue Bird, a Dutch Ship with a hold full of slaves, when he captures it off Africa’s Gold Coast.

The daughter of missionaries, Sarah Fisher was born in Africa – in the village of N’Goe – where she’s lived all her life.  Her parents died after contracting a sickness that killed many in the village, and since their deaths some two years earlier, Sarah has acted as the village’s healer.  When the slavers arrived in N’Goe and captured all its inhabitants, Sarah went with them, which is how she comes to be aboard the Blue Bird when it is attacked by the Golden Scythe, a British privateer, at the same time as the crew is on the verge of mutiny.

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

Murder at Kensington Palace (Wrexford & Sloane #3) by Andrea Penrose

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Though Charlotte Sloane’s secret identity as the controversial satirical cartoonist A.J. Quill is safe with the Earl of Wrexford, she’s ill prepared for the rippling effects sharing the truth about her background has cast over their relationship. She thought a bit of space might improve the situation. But when her cousin is murdered and his twin brother is accused of the gruesome crime, Charlotte immediately turns to Wrexford for help in proving the young man’s innocence. Though she finds the brooding scientist just as enigmatic and intense as ever, their partnership is now marked by an unfamiliar tension that seems to complicate every encounter.

Despite this newfound complexity, Wrexford and Charlotte are determined to track down the real killer. Their investigation leads them on a dangerous chase through Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms and opulent drawing rooms, where gossip and rumors swirl to confuse the facts. Was her cousin murdered over a romantic rivalry . . . or staggering gambling debts? Or could the motive be far darker and involve the clandestine scientific society that claimed both brothers as members? The more Charlotte and Wrexford try to unknot the truth, the more tangled it becomes. But they must solve the case soon, before the killer’s madness seizes another victim…

Rating: B+

In Murder at Kensington Palace, the third book in Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series, the author once again sets an intriguing, well-conceived mystery against the backdrop of the scientific discovery and innovation taking place during the Regency era while also continuing to explore the shifting relationship between Mrs. Charlotte Sloane (aka satirist A.J. Quill) and the darkly sardonic Earl of Wrexford.  As the pair work together to clear the name of a young man accused of murdering his twin brother, Charlotte is forced to face the prospect of discarding her carefully guarded anonymity, while the Earl, a man who has always prided himself on his logical mind, finds himself in an unusual position of frustration and uncertainty.

Charlotte is working on her latest project when she hears that the murderer nicknamed the ‘Bloody Butcher’ has struck again, this time killing a young aristocrat whose body was found that morning in the gardens of Kensington Palace.  When one of her young wards explains that the victim had been in attendance at a scientific gathering hosted by the Duke of Sussex the previous evening, Charlotte immediately wonders if Wrexford had been there and if he might know something about it.  But she feels strangely awkward about asking the Earl for information; in fact, she hasn’t seen him for a couple of weeks, since their investigation into another murder (Murder at Half Moon Gate) almost cost Wrexford his life and led to their expressing certain … sentiments that perhaps neither of them were ready to bring out into the open.

“What a pair we are,” she muttered.  “Prickly, guarded, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable.”

When Wrexford arrives some time later, it’s with news that will quickly distract Charlotte from any ponderings over the nature of her feelings for him.  The murder victim was Cedric, Lord Chittenden, a young man from the North of England who had only recently come into his title; and his twin brother, Nicholas, has been arrested for the crime on account of their having been overheard having a disagreement at some point during the course of the previous evening.  Charlotte is adamant in her belief that the wrong man has been accused and that Nicholas could never have harmed his brother – but she won’t explain further or tell Wrexford what makes her so sure.

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

Marry in Secret (Marriage of Convenience #3) by Anne Gracie

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Rose Rutherford—rebel, heiress, and exasperated target of the town’s hungry bachelors—has a plan to gain the freedom she so desperately desires: she will enter into a marriage of convenience with the biggest prize on the London marriage mart.

There’s just one problem: the fierce-looking man who crashes her wedding to the Duke of Everingham — Thomas Beresford, the young naval officer she fell in love with and secretly married when she was still a schoolgirl. Thought to have died four years ago he’s returned, a cold, hard stranger with one driving purpose—revenge.

Embittered by betrayal and hungry for vengeance, Thomas will stop at nothing to reclaim his rightful place, even if that means using Rose—and her fortune—to do it. But Rose never did follow the rules, and as she takes matters into her own unpredictable hands, Thomas finds himself in an unexpected and infuriating predicament: he’s falling in love with his wife….

Rating: C

I enjoyed the first two books in Anne Gracie’s Marriage of Convenience series – in fact, the first, Marry in Haste, was a DIK (Desert Isle Keeper) at AAR – but this third book proved to be something of a disappointment.  The premise – a young woman about to make an advantageous, but loveless, marriage is unexpectedly confronted by the man she married years before and believed dead – sounded as though it might make for a good read, but sadly, after the initial excitement of the opening chapters, things fizzled out.  The main characters were bland and didn’t grab my interest, and instead of a rekindling relationship, I got a couple who, after a bit of angsting over whether they wanted to be together, resumed their marriage and shagged a lot, and a story that revolved more around a rather weak whodunnit than a romance.

Twenty-year-old Lady Rose Rutheford is due to marry the Duke of Everingham in what has been hailed as the match of the year. Her sister Lily and cousin George (Georgiana) aren’t happy about the match; Everingham is handsome, wealthy and titled, for sure, but he’s a cold fish and they think Rose is making a huge mistake.  But Rose is adamant.  She doesn’t want a love match and she and the duke have reached an agreement – she will give him his heir and he will give her the freedom to live as she wants.  When, however, the ceremony is interrupted by a gaunt, dirty and dishevelled man insisting that Rose is already married – to him – the reasons for Rose’s choice become apparent.  When she was sixteen and still away at school she met and fell in love with Thomas Beresford, a young naval officer.  They married secretly just a couple of weeks before Thomas was was due to go to sea  – and just a few weeks later, Rose learned that his ship had been sunk and everyone aboard had died.  Numbed with grief, and concerned for her sister Lily, who was recovering from a serious illness, Rose doesn’t tell anyone about Thomas or their short-lived marriage, and the more time passes, the more she thinks there’s no point in saying anything.

The first quarter or so of the story captured my interest.  Rose, shocked beyond belief, doesn’t know how to feel or what to do while her brother Cal and her snooty Aunt Agatha insist Thomas is nothing but a liar and schemer out to get his hands on Rose’s fortune.  When Rose fails to acknowledge him – to be fair, she doesn’t deny him either – Thomas is hurt and angry, and is determined to stand his ground and claim his wife.  But after Rose says she doesn’t want the marriage annulled and that she will honour her marriage vows, he starts to see that perhaps he’s wrong and that staying married to him – especially give how much he’s changed over the past four years – isn’t the best thing for Rose. After this, Thomas tries to discourage Rose from her determination to remain his wife while Rose – who has miraculously turned back into the lively, headstrong and flirtatious young woman he met four years earlier (and whom her family believed had disappeared) – seems to grow only more intent on remaining by his side (and getting him into her bed!)

While Thomas continues to be torn over his relationship with Rose, we learn something of what happened to him in the years he was gone.  He and a number of his crewmates were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves after Thomas’ plea to his uncle for ransom was denied.  It took him years to escape, but now he has, he’s determined to find the men who were captured with him and free them – and to find out why his uncle denied him.  When Thomas visits his bank in London and discovers a number of irregularities in his finances, he realises that something underhand is going on; someone is stealing from him and it’s obviously been going on for some time.  But who?  And why?

Thus, what could have been a second chance romance about two people who married impulsively  getting to know each other after their enforced separation and really learning to love each other turned out to be a not-very-mysterious mystery with no romantic or character development whatsoever.  Thomas indulges in a lot of hand-wringing of the I-do-not-wish-to-sully-your-purity-with-my-degradation sort, while Rose is relentlessly cheerful and pretty much bulldozes her way through everything he says.  Thomas’ experiences as a captive and slave have obviously affected the way he treats servants and others who are regarded by those of his class as beneath them, and he clearly feels shame about what happened to him, but there’s not much depth to his character or Rose’s; neither is especially memorable or engaging and I didn’t connect with either of them.  I liked the relationship between Cal and Ned (heroes of the previous books) and the one that was developing between them and Thomas, but the ladies were thinly sketched and the identity of the wrong-doer was obvious.

Marry in Secret is an exercise in wasted potential in just about every way.  The romance is non-existent, the mystery is weak and the characterisation is uninspired.  I may pick up the next (and final) book in the series because I’m intrigued at the prospect of the pairing of the cold fish duke with the I’m-never-getting-married-and-handing-over-control-of-my-life Lady Georgiana, but I really can’t recommend this instalment.

Mrs Sommersby’s Second Chance (The Sommersby Brides #4) by Laurie Benson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s played Cupid for others

Now she’s met her own unlikely match!

Widowed society matchmaker Mrs Clara Sommersby thinks handsome self-made businessman Mr William Lane is just the man for her neighbour’s overlooked daughter. He’s successful and confident, if somewhat emotionally distant, until suddenly—shockingly—his attention turns to Clara herself! She thought her days of romance were over, but is this dashing younger man intent on giving her a second chance?

Rating: B

Since we ran our feature on Seasoned Romances over at AAR, I’ve been keeping an eye out for romances featuring more mature heroines, who seem to crop up less frequently in historical romances than in other sub-genres.  I was pleased to learn that Laurie Benson’s Mrs. Sommersby – eponymous heroine of the final book in her Sommersby Brides series – is an independent widow in her forties.  Having spent the previous books in the series seeking out suitable matches for her beloved nieces, in Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance, she gets her own happily ever after with a handsome and successful businessman eight years her junior.

William Lane has travelled to Bath in order to pursue an investment opportunity and goes to the famed Pump Room to do a bit of research.  He owns the coffee house next door to the popular Fountain Head Hotel (where he is staying while in the city) and recently having discovered the existence of an underground (and capped off) hot spring in the coffee house’s cellar, intends to make the hotel’s owner an offer to purchase the establishment so he can develop both properties into a spa. Bath may not be the magnet it once was for members of the ton, but the new and upcoming middle classes are visiting in increasing numbers and Lane is keen to attract a wealthy investor or two.

In the decade since she was widowed, Mrs. Clara Sommersby has discovered she possesses sound business sense and the ability to make shrewd decisions.  Married for a number of years to a man who was hopeless with money, they were on the verge of financial ruin when he died, and Clara is determined never to find herself in such a position again.  After her husband’s death, she decided to invest the money she had left rather than dwindle into the life of a paid companion or dependent relative, and purchased the Fountain Head Hotel.  For the sake of her reputation as a gentlewoman, Clara keeps her ownership of the hotel a secret, and the day to day management is undertaken by her cousin, Mr. Edwards.

She and Lane meet in the Pump Room, where she observes him closely scrutinising his glass of mineral water and after they catch each other’s eye, they strike up a conversation about the health benefits of the spring water and the hot baths.  There’s a definite frisson of attraction between them  but they are separated before they can learn each other’s names or how they might find each other again.

Both Lane and Clara find themselves dwelling on that meeting over the next few days, and luckily for them, fate – in the form of Clara’s boisterous puppy, Humphrey – brings them together once more when Lane is able to help untangle Clara from a too-long leash and some bushes when her dog becomes a little too enthusiastic on his walk.  From then on, both of them find themselves consciously looking out for each other at the various events and entertainments they attend; even though Clara insists she’s too old for Lane, and that she has no intention of marrying again and surrendering her hard-won independence to a husband, she can’t deny her growing attraction to and desire for him.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a low-drama, character-driven romance between a mature couple who have a lot in common, despite the personality and class differences lying between them.  Clara isn’t titled, but she moves in the best social circles while Lane is a foundling – an illegitimate orphan – who is in trade; she’s outgoing and bubbly while Lane is perhaps a little too serious – yet they have both worked hard for what they have and are determined to succeed in their future ventures.  The chemistry between them simmers nicely, the romance evolves subtly and naturally as their friendship deepens and while the single love scene near the end is fairly brief, it doesn’t lack heat. The reader knows from the start that there’s conflict on the horizon and wonders how Clara and Lane will handle it, and I was pleased when Ms. Benson wisely opted not to put them through some big bust up when they find out the truth – that Clara is the owner of the hotel key to Lane’s business plans, and that he is the man behind the purchase offer.  After their initial shock, they talk things through and find a way forward together – but then, a couple of chapters before the end,  an eleventh-hour conflict is inserted which is based purely on an assumption made by Clara which has very little foundation and is certainly not rooted on something Lane has ever said.  So I had to knock a grade point or two off for that, which is a shame, as it was the only false note struck in the book.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a charming historical romance featuring an engaging secondary cast and a pair of attractive, down-to-earth leads.  If you’re looking for a story devoid of overblown drama and characters who act their ages rather than their shoe-sizes, it’s definitely worth checking out.

One Night of Temptation (Wicked Dukes Club #6) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Faced with a marriage she can’t abide, Lady Penelope Wakefield takes drastic measures to preserve her freedom. Her brilliant plan is foolproof until a sexy but imperious rector “rescues” her.

Rector Hugh Tarleton has no patience for the Society philanthropists who seek to bestow their pity—and not much else—on his oppressed flock in one of London’s worst neighborhoods. When the daughter of a marquess is kidnapped and brought to the rookery, he vows to protect her, but the temptation to surrender to their mutual desire will certainly ruin them both.

Rating: C-

I’ve enjoyed a number of Darcy Burke’s historical romances in the past and have reviewed a number of them favourably, but I’m afraid I can’t do that for her latest release, One Night of Temptation.  The book is the sixth in the Wicked Dukes Club series which Ms. Burke has co-authored with Erica Ridley (they have written alternate books with Ms. Ridley penning the odd numbered ones and Ms. Burke the even) – featuring a group of friends, not all of whom are dukes, who meet regularly at their favourite watering hole in St. Giles – The Wicked Duke.  I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, but they’re designed to work as standalones, so potential readers can jump in anywhere and not have to worry about feeling lost.

What they do need to worry about with this book, however, is its utter flimsiness.  One Night of Temptation is short for a novel, coming in at under two hundred pages, but there’s not even enough plot to fill that short a page count.  The romance is basically love at first sight, the principals are bland and there’s little to no chemistry between them, and the whole story is wrapped up in about a week.

Lady Penelope Wakefield, daughter of the Marquess of Bramber is fleeing an unwanted marriage to an unpleasant lecher old enough to be her grandfather.  She’s hatched a plan together with a young woman she met and befriended on a charitable errand at a church in St. Giles; Penelope is going to be abducted (but not really) and spend a night away from home which, when word gets out, will be enough to ruin her reputation, and the old goat won’t want to marry her after that.  But it turns out that poor naïve Pen was duped, and the woman she thought of as a friend had made plans for a real kidnap and ransom.  Fortunately for Pen, the men trying to hustle her away are prevented from doing so by the timely intervention of Hugh Tarleton, Rector of the parish of St. Giles who, learning of her situation, takes her to a decent inn he knows and arranges for them both to spend the night there (in separate rooms of course).  But while the inn is decent, the area is rough and after a fight breaks out downstairs, Hugh decides it would be safest if they shared a room – Pen taking the bed, he in the chair by her side, naturally.  They work out a plan by which Pen can be returned to home and safety now that she’s been publicly ruined, and even though her father will be furious and will probably send her to the family’s remote estate in Lancashire, that’s better than being married to the obnoxious Earl of Findon. During the course of the evening, however, she becomes aware that an even better alternative would be marriage to Hugh… but of course, that’s impossible.  She’d never be allowed to marry so far beneath her, even if Hugh were interested.

About half the book is taken up with the Night of Temptation that Pen and Hugh spend holed up at the inn.  They talk and get to know each other a bit, and Pen realises she’s experiencing attraction for the first time.  Hugh is good looking, yes, but he’s also kind, strong and exudes confidence – and he’s unlike any man she’s ever met.   Hugh is smitten as well and longs to protect Pen from her unfeeling parents, but knows he can’t possibly aspire to the hand of the daughter of a marquess.

One Night of Temptation was a quick read, but a dull one.  Caring, stalwart Hugh (who, incidentally, is described in the blurb as “imperious” but is nothing of the sort) had the potential to be a lovely hero, but Pen was almost a blank slate; all we knew about her was that her parents were shits, she was afraid of her father and she liked embroidery and cream cheese.  She seems to have no relationships outside her immediate family and to have led a very sheltered life – yet of course she has the instincts of a temptress.

Ultimately, I’m afraid I was bored, and the only temptation I experienced while reading was to put the book down and not pick it up again.

A Grave End (Bodies of Evidence #4) by Wendy Roberts

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A woman died years ago, and the body’s still missing.

Julie Hall’s conscience tells her she needs to use her skills to help a grieving family find their daughter’s long-missing remains. The problem is, Alice was last seen in Julie’s hometown—a place so full of traumatic memories, the very idea of returning there nearly paralyzes Julie.

Clear boundaries help Julie overcome her fears and take the job. She’ll go all out with her search, but only for one week. An end date in sight will ease the anxiety she and her FBI boyfriend have about the price she’ll have to pay to do the right thing.

Despite a growing sense of foreboding as she hits one dead end after another, Julie is driven to keep looking for Alice. But after receiving vile threats and with her self-imposed deadline looming, Julie realizes she was right to be afraid—and she worries she may not survive this case.

Rating: B-

A Grave End is the fourth – and possibly final? – book in Wendy Roberts’  series of suspense novels featuring Julie Hall, a young woman who has the ability to locate dead bodies using a pair of dowsing rods.  Julie is a complex, prickly character; an alcoholic in recovery, she’s the survivor of a particularly brutal childhood during which she suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her grandmother.  She got away from her small home town of Blaine, Washington, as soon as she possibly could and simply the thought of going back there is enough to send her into a tailspin – but she now finds herself unable to refuse a request from a dying man desperate to find the remains of his daughter-in-law, a former schoolmate.

Julie is very much in love with her boyfriend, FBI Agent Garrett Pierce, whom she met in the first book in the series.  They live together and are committed to each other – and at the end of the previous book, A Grave Peril, they exchanged rings, although Julie is adamant she doesn’t want to get married, and Garrett – who is a widower – respects that decision.  Julie is, however, still struggling with the demons of her past, and six months before A Grave Endbegins, went on a bender one night when she’d gone to a bar to meet with an informant.  If the guilt over falling off the wagon wasn’t bad enough, somehow she managed to lose her ring, which is one of a matching pair and irreplaceable – and to make things even worse, she has no real memory of that night, other than of meeting a man with striking green eyes and going outside with him… and she can’t be sure she didn’t betray Garrett in the worst way possible.

So Julie isn’t in the best of places when she receives the request to find Alice Ebert’s remains.  But back when they were in school, Julie realised that, even though she and Alice didn’t have a lot to do with one another, one thing they did share was the fact that the adults in their lives were physically abusive, and Julie felt that made a kind of bond between them.  So she feels she owes it to the other woman to try to find out what happened to her and to at the very least, ensure that her body is at last laid to rest.  Her first step is to travel to the Ozette Correctional Center to visit Alice’s husband, Roscoe, who was convicted of her murder.  Roscoe has always protested his innocence, in spite of the fact that Alice’s blood was found in his truck, and after hearing again the story of the night Alice was killed, Julie agrees to think about taking on the task.

Leaving the facility, Julie heads towards the home of a woman who had contacted her via her website asking for help in locating her daughter, who recently disappeared.  As the weather worsens and the rain starts to fall in torrents, Julie’s rods – which are next to her in the passenger seat – take a violent swing to the side, and she knows there’s a body around there somewhere, most likely in the deep ditch by the side of the road. Another motorist pulls up and offers to help, introducing himself as Raymond Hughes as Julie prepares to head down into the ditch to investigate.  Sure enough there’s the body of a young woman down there, and after Julie has called it in, Ray, who is rather too friendly and enthusiastic for her peace of mind, tells her that he’s a psychic and that he’d actually recommended the missing girl’s family get in touch with her to see if she could help.  He goes on to suggest that maybe he and she could work together sometime, but by then, all Julie wants to do is to get home.  Before she can leave, however, she’s severely rattled when, after shaking hands, Ray tells her something he can’t possibly know, something about the night she fell off the wagon.

Julie decides she’ll give herself a week to come up with a solid lead as to what happened to Alice, and if after that, her investigation is going nowhere, she’ll accept defeat.  Going back to Blaine is hard, but the conflicting picture she’s getting of Alice and the veiled hostility of many in the community convince Julie that the generally accepted story concerning Alice’s death is the wrong one and make her even more determined to find Alice and bring her some peace.

I enjoyed A Grave End, and especially liked the way Julie’s character has evolved.  She’s still abrasive and not the easiest person to warm to, but she’s making good progress in dealing with her issues; she has regular sessions with a mental health professional, she has developed a strong relationship with her friend Tracey (who is her complete opposite!) and Garrett is her lodestone (although we don’t see very much of him here, he’s rarely far from Julie’s thoughts).  The fact that she is finally able to return to her home town is a big step; she probably wouldn’t have been capable of it before now, and the way she is able to deal with the way some of the townsfolk treat her shows a lot of determination and strength.  The plot is well-put together, but the secondary plotline – in which Julie falls victim to a whack-job who put me in mind of Norman Bates – just didn’t work for me.  I’ll admit that there’s one surprise I hadn’t forseen, but otherwise, it’s a bit clichéd and the identity of the villain is pretty obvious.

Still, the central mystery is intriguing and the author does a great job when it comes to creating that slightly creepy, everyone-in-everyone-else’s-business atmosphere typical of small towns.  I knocked off half a grade point for the weak sub-plot, but if you’re following the series, then A Grave End leaves Julie and Garrett in a good place, and the whole series is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for suspense novels featuring a different kind of heroine.

The Determined Lord Hadleigh (King’s Elite #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He’s got iron control…

But she might be his undoing!

Part of The King’s Elite. Haunted by Penny Penhurst’s courage on the witness stand, meticulous barrister Lord Hadleigh offers her a housekeeper position at his estate. Despite trying to stay detached, Hadleigh is charmed by her small child and surprised by how much he yearns for this proud woman! Can this he break through his own – and Penny’s – barriers to prove he’s a man she can trust…and love?

Rating: A-

As there is an overarching plotline running through this series, there are spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

This final book in Virginia Heath’s enjoyable King’s Elite series shifts focus somewhat and concerns itself mostly with the aftermath of the unmasking and apprehension (in the previous book) of The Boss, the head of a widespread and dangerous smuggling ring that was channeling funds to Napoléon and his supporters with a view to restoring him to power. The Determined Lord Hadleigh rounds the series out nicely and follows a thoroughly engaging central couple on their sometimes rocky path to happiness.

The eponymous gentleman describes himself as an honorary member of the team of crack government spies knows as the King’s Elite, which is fair enough, as unlike them, he’s not an agent working for the Crown, but rather is the man whose job it is to prosecute and help convict those they apprehend. He’s a brilliant barrister, a fair and honourable man, and a friend of the other members of the group – and now it’s his turn to step into the limelight. Hadleigh appeared briefly in the other books in the series, and now it’s up to him to make sure the Crown’s case against the Boss is watertight. When the novel opens, he is in the midst of the trial of Viscount Penshurst, one of the Boss’ closest associates, and is questioning his current witness, the young Lady Penshurst, whose honesty and quiet dignity in the face of the nasty gossip and blatant scorn of the public impresses him and whose story strikes a chord deep inside him. Hadleigh sees many similarities between the life the viscountess describes and that endured by his mother, who was abused and then killed by his father a decade earlier – and he still carries the guilt that he didn’t do enough to protect her. That guilt engenders a protectiveness made all the stronger when he learns that the viscount’s title, wealth and estates have been transferred back to the crown, meaning his innocent wife and son will be left with nothing.

After the trial and her husband’s death in prison, Lady Penshurst changes her name and takes lodgings in Cheapside with her not-quite-two-year-old son, Freddie. Her closest friend Clarissa – who is married to Seb Leatham (The Mysterious Lord Millcroft) – has offered to house them both for as long as Penny wants, but Penny is insistent that she wants to stand on her own two feet. After three years trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who wanted to control her every move, she’s determined to slough off the easily cowed, powerless and subservient woman she became during those years and to find herself again, to take back control of her life. So when she discovers that someone has been helping her out behind the scenes, paying bills and rent, she’s furious. Her first thought is that Clarissa has gone behind her back and asked Seb to do it, but when Clarissa assures her that she values their friendship too much to go against her express wishes, Penny believes her. Worried that perhaps one of her late husband’s associates has done it as a way of intimidating her, Penny asks Clarissa to find out what she can about her mysterious benefactor.

Hadleigh has tried continually – and fruitlessly – to forget about Lady Penshurst, but no matter how many times he tells himself she’s not his problem, he feels the need to do something to help her.  So he’s bewildered when confronted by an annoyed Seb Leatham reaming him out for doing just that – until he learns that his actions may have unintentionally caused the lady some distress.  An awkward apology follows, and he promises not to attempt to interfere again.  But then an opportunity presents itself whereby Hadleigh can help Penny while at the same time enabling her to be independent, and in spite of his own misgivings, he has to take it.  In preparing for the Boss’ trial, he will need to consult and work with his star witness – Jessamine, Lady Flint – frequently, but with some members of the gang still at large, her husband is naturally reluctant to have her travel to London.  Hadleigh’s family home is just outside London, in Essex, so he suggests to thehead of the King’s Elite that Lady Flint be housed there until the trial.  With government approval, Hadleigh offers Penny a position as temporary housekeeper, explaining that he’s not paying her wages, and that she will in fact be doing him and the government a big favour by agreeing to take the post.

Even though Hadleigh has no intention of spending much time at the house – which holds too many unhappy memories for him – he nonetheless finds himself going there more often than he originally intended, seeking out Penny, talking with her and enjoying her company.  And as they start getting to know each other, Penny begins to see past the controlled, somewhat aloof Hadleigh, to the complex, thoughtful and charming man he truly is, and to allow herself to enjoy feeling desired and desirable.

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a fabulous character-driven piece that works as both a beautifully developed romance and a clever character study as Ms. Heath takes a good, long look at what drives Penny and Hadleigh to act the way they do.  Penny isn’t afraid of her attraction to Hadleigh – in fact she welcomes it, and I loved that she wasn’t prepared to allow the misery she endured during her marriage prevent her from moving forward with her life.  I admired her strength and determination not to allow herself to be seen as a victim:

“… that is not the way I see myself.  It is such a small part of who I am, yet it appears to be the version of myself others are most content with accepting… Maybe I should have it written on my forehead to make it easier for people to decide how to view me? Poor, downtrodden Penny !  Rather that, than as that brave woman who spoke out in the dock. “

Penny is also extremely perceptive, and it doesn’t take her long to work out why Hadleigh so dislikes the house and why he acted as he did towards her. His character growth is substantial as – with Penny’s help – he is able to face and conquer his demons and accept that he can’t save everyone, and that a person is the sum of many parts.

“… simply because the cap fits, a person shouldn’t be expected to always wear it when the world is joyously filled with different hates and we, as individuals, have the right to choose, try them on for size and discard them as the mood takes us.”

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a ‘quiet’ book about two emotionally bruised people learning to come to terms with tragedy and move forward together.  For my money, it’s the best and strongest book of the King’s Elite series, and although it could be read as a standalone, I’d advise reading at least book three (The Disgraceful Lord Gray) first. Virginia Heath’s writing is as warm, witty and insightful as ever, and she continues to be one of the best authors of historical romance around.  I’m looking forward to whatever she comes up with next.