TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

TBR Challenge: The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

the-wagered-widowThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE INSISTED ON TREATING HER LIKE A TROLLOP!

… and Rebecca Parrish, a most respectable young widow, found him utterly odious. What right had this supercilious rake, Trevelyan de Villars, to incessantly force his attentions on her? Rebecca far preferred Trevelyan’s charming friend, the noble Sir Peter Ward. Indeed, her dreams of handsome Sir Peter aimed straight for the altar!
What Rebecca soon discovered duly horrified her. For her dear Sir Peter and the contemptible Trevelyan had formailzed a bet – that Trevelyan could seduce the very proper widow within a month’s time.

Still, Trevelyan’s attentions grew ever more passionate. And Rebecca found (to her horror!) that she thrilled to his touch. As her heart strove to resist this irresistible cad, she suddenly saw what he really was: A libertine no more – now at last and forever in love!

Rating: B

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her books have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s books are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the paperback edition (1984) of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear that these are two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.

TBR Challenge: That Despicable Rogue by Virginia Heath

that-despicable-rogue

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A lady’s mission of revenge…

Lady Hannah Steers has three reasons to loathe and despise Ross Jameson. He’s a scandalous libertine, he stole her home, and he was responsible for the death of her brother!

Determined to expose Ross for the rogue he is, Hannah dons a disguise and infiltrates his home as his new housekeeper. Unfortunately, this scoundrel proves himself to be the epitome of temptation and, instead of building a case against him, Hannah finds herself in a position she never expected…falling head over heels in love with him!

Rating: B+

Virginia Heath registered on my radar when her début novel came out in the Spring of 2016, but I didn’t manage to get around to reading it.  I did, however, pick up her next book, Her Enemy at the Altar, and enjoyed it very much – on the strength of that one book, I decided I had a new author to follow by virtue of the fact that Ms. Heath’s writing is accomplished, her characterisation is strong and she has a knack for humour and good dialogue.  I finally got around to reading That Despicable Rogue and was pleased to discover that it’s every bit as well-written as her other books, and that had I not known in advance that it was her first published novel, I would never have discerned that from reading it, as it’s a very confident piece of work.

Seven years before the story begins, and in the wake of an unpleasant scandal, Lady Hannah Steers was banished from London and sent to live with her two aunts in Yorkshire by her brother, the Earl of Runcorn. At the time, he promised he would recall her to London once the gossip had died down, but somehow that never happened, and Hannah has remained in Yorkshire, her life a never-ending stream of monotony so dull that it’s almost debilitating.

Several years later, Hannah learns that her brother is dead.  Having lost his entire fortune and the family home at the gaming tables, he then proceeded to blow his brains out and has left his sister with nothing.  She hears that his opponent was one Ross Jameson, a man whose name appears regularly in the scandal sheets which gleefully report his exploits with women and any number of other unsavoury facts about his debauched existence.  He’s a self-made man, which means he is looked down on by the great and the good, but his immense wealth cannot be ignored and he is admitted – if not welcomed – almost everywhere.  Hannah is sure that a man of his reputation cannot possibly have beaten her brother fairly, and is convinced he must have cheated – but she has no way to prove it.  Until, that is, she learns that, over a year since he won the place, Jameson is going to open up Barchester Hall, meaning that he will need to recruit more staff.  Hannah has remained in touch with the cook, and with her help, secures the position of housekeeper, intending to use her access to all areas of the house to search through Jameson’s papers to see if she can find evidence to support her theory that he cheated her brother.

Ross Jameson has worked incredibly hard to achieve success and to make something of himself.  The son of a criminal, Ross grew up in abject poverty alongside his mother and younger sister, who both suffered at the hands of his father, a gambler and drunkard.  Determined to protect them both, Ross did what needed to be done when he had to, and since establishing himself in business, has taken good care of the ladies in his life, setting them up with a comfortable establishment in the country. He is opening up Barchester Hall now because it’s close to London and he knows his sister will soon want to come to town to enjoy the season.

Ross finds his new housekeeper a bit baffling – she’s the one woman he doesn’t seem able to charm with a smile or a quip – but she’s efficient and he is impressed with the improvements and alterations she suggests.  And there’s something about her that makes him want to break through the barrier of frostiness she is so determined to maintain.

While she wants to continue to believe all the salacious gossip printed about Ross and is determined to prove him the worst kind of villain, Hannah can’t ignore the evidence of kindness and good-nature with which she is presented every day, or the inconvenient stirrings of attraction she is beginning to feel for him.  She stubbornly tries to maintain her belief in his underhandedness, but knows she’s fighting a losing battle.  Ross is an honourable, kind-hearted man who is fiercely protective of those he cares for – and Hannah is falling a little (or a lot) more in love every day.

The set-up is a fairly familiar one, but Ms. Heath puts a fresh spin on this well-used trope by her pleasantly different portrayal of Ross as a charming, funny, level-headed, all-round decent bloke rather than the sort of darkly brooding, ruthless bastard that is a much more frequent character-type found in this sort of story.  Not to say he isn’t ruthless in his business dealings – he’d have to be to have made a fortune considering where he started out – but he’s clearly a very different man to the one Hannah had expected, given everything she’d read about him in the scandal sheets.  In addition to the romance, there’s a nicely developed secondary plotline in which Ross suspects that Hannah might be a spy working for the East India Company, one of his main business rivals; and a look at the effects and intrusiveness of gossip – something not limited to the 21st century – as we discover why Ross is so steadfast in his determination never to respond to the accusations that are regularly thrown at him in the press.

The central characters are both very well-rounded, with Ross definitely being the star of the show.  He’s pulled himself out of the gutter through sheer determination and hard work, but hasn’t become overly hard or cynical; and although Hannah is a little harder to like because she insists on hanging on to her poor opinions of Ross for longer than she probably should, it does make sense in the context of the story and her character.

There are plenty of sparks between Ross and Hannah, and I really liked the way his gently teasing manner – he nicknames her “Prim” – and his willingness to listen to her and take her ideas seriously are shown to be instrumental in the progress of the friendship that develops between them. The romance grows out of that friendship as they begin to understand more about each other and there’s a real sense of warmth and affection to all aspects of their relationship.  In fact, the only thing I can really find to criticise in the book is the false note which is struck towards the end, when Hannah takes a highly improbable course of action following Ross’s discovery of her true identity.

But all in all, That Despicable Rogue is a thoroughly enjoyable read and one I’d definitely recommend to others.  In my Best of 2016 post at All About Romance, I mentioned that I’d discovered some very good new authors during the course of the year; K.C Bateman and Cat Sebastian were two, and Virginia Heath is another. Harlequin Historical has some of the best writers of historical romance around on its roster and Ms. Heath is definitely one of their strongest recent finds.

TBR Challenge: His Christmas Countess (Lords of Disgrace #2) by Louise Allen

his-christmas-countess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A Christmas baby…

Grant Rivers, Earl of Allundale, is desperate to get home in time for Christmas. But when he stumbles upon a woman all alone in a tumbledown shack, having a baby out of wedlock, it’s his duty to stay and help her.

…leads to unexpected wedding vows!

Grant knows all too well the risks of childbirth, and he’s witnessed enough tragedy to last a lifetime. So once he’s saved her life Grant is determined to save Kate’s reputation too… if she will consent to marrying a stranger on Christmas Day!

Rating: A-

His Christmas Countess is book two in Louise Allen’s most recent series, The Four Disgraces, in which the heroes are a group of young men who earned that sobriquet as a result of their daring exploits at school and university.  For some reason, I read the first, third and fourth books when they came out and missed this one – which was a mistake, because while I enjoyed the others and rated them highly, this is the best of the lot.

It’s Christmas Eve and Grantham Rivers is on his way from Edinburgh to Northumberland, where he hopes to get to the bedside of his dying grandfather in time to say his final goodbyes.  When his horse goes lame, and with the weather worsening at every moment, he has little alternative but to take refuge in a shepherd’s  hut or “bothy”  – and is astonished to discover that he is not the only one stranded in the middle of nowhere while waiting for the storm to pass.  A heavily pregnant woman is sheltering there, too, and Grant who, while not a doctor, has studied medicine – recognises the signs of early labour.

Kate Harding was all but pushed into the arms of the man who ruined her by her unscrupulous brother, who now intends to blackmail her child’s father.  Threatening to take Kate’s baby from her in order to ensure her co-operation, her brother sent her to Scotland until the birth, but when – at last – the chance to escape arose, Kate took it, and made her way to the nearest coaching inn.  But her money was stolen, leaving her penniless; the weather is closing in and she is alone, friendless and scared, with no alternative but to wait out the coming snowstorm in a nearby bothy.  But it seems someone else has had the same idea.  The man who enters is tall, dark, handsome and somewhat severe, but he quickly reassures her, telling her he is a doctor and that he will make sure she is safely delivered.

Grant, a widower, has a young son by from his first – disastrous – marriage, and is well aware that six year old Charlie needs a mother.  He is also heir to an earldom – something he neglects to tell Kate, understandably in the circumstances – and has been feeling guilty about the fact that he has neglected to do the one thing his grandfather had asked of him, and marry again.  Impulsively, and as Kate nears the end of her long labour, he suggests that they marry – he needs a mother for his son, her child will need a father – and as they are in Scotland, all they need do is declare their intent to wed before witnesses.  A couple of passing shepherds are pleased to perform that service, and Grant and Kate are married, shortly before her daughter, Anna, makes her way into the world.

Given the remoteness of Grant’s home, and the fact that as a medical man, he is unlikely to move in the same circles as her brother, Kate believes she has found the perfect refuge. So when they arrive at Abbeywell Grange and she hears Grant addressed as “my Lord”, she is shocked.  Grant tiredly explains that his grandfather – who just passed away – was the third Earl of Allundale, and that he (Grant) is now the fourth earl, and Kate is immediately worried. An earl will be expected to spend some of his time in London and Kate has no wish to return to the scene of her disgrace or to risk an encounter with her brother.   But what’s done is done, and she recognises she is in no fit state to think about much more than caring for her daughter and taking comfort in the warmth and safety of her new home.

Shortly after his grandfather’s funeral, Grant tells Kate that he must go to London to consult with his solicitor and to see to various other matters of business.  He ends up being away for almost six months, and finally returns home to find things much changed. The wife he had left a tired, pale shadow is now a pretty, vibrant young woman with a quick wit and keen intelligence; and Grant is not a little surprised at the strength of the attraction he feels towards her.

Grant’s first marriage was a passionate love match – or so he’d thought, until his beautiful wife began to show signs of mental instability that turned into hatred.  He is still haunted by the manner of her death and clams up every time Kate tries to get him to tell her what happened.  But Kate is persistent. She never bullies or demands and eventually Grant realises that she deserves the truth.  The one black mark I can make against Kate is that while Grant shares the truth of his past with her, she does not do the same, causing him to continue to believe that she is still carrying a torch for Anna’s father.  Kate knows she needs to come clean, but, not wanting to jeopardise their marriage, makes some poor decisions and tries to deal with her brother herself.  But those are my only criticisms of what is an otherwise excellent book.

As the story takes place over a year – we get two Christmases for the price of one! – the romance is allowed time to develop and we watch Kate and Grant progressing from physical attraction to a deeper emotional connection. The love scenes are sensual and romantic; nicely steamy but not over the top for this type of story, and written with an extremely sure hand.

Louise Allen has crafted a wonderful story about two strangers thrown together by circumstance who progress from mutual friendship and respect to passionate attachment.  They have to get to know each other and both of them make mistakes and say and do things that annoy the other, yet they are both mature enough to be able to own up to those missteps, apologise for them and move on.  Even though both are keeping secrets, there’s an honesty to their relationship that is refreshing, and a sense that these are two people who are going to make a go of things, no matter how shaky the start to their life together.  All in all, His Christmas Countess is a superbly written, beautifully paced romance and it’s going right onto my keeper shelf.

TBR Challenge: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

imprudent-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Is she an innocent or not? Prudence Mallow, weary of the poor relation role, discovers her calling in writing novels. Modest, sincere novels, not the scandalous fare of Lord Dammler’s Cantos from Abroad. Drawn by the rakish marquis into the hotbed of London society, Prudence finds herself in way over her head—and heart.

Rating: B+

The Historical prompt for the TBR Challenge is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly, but even so, I still enjoy going through my books to find something I haven’t read yet.  This time round, I settled on a traditional Regency from 1978, Joan Smith’s Imprudent Lady. Many authors have had books likened to those of Georgette Heyer, and while that is a comparison that’s always going to draw my eye, I’ve been disappointed on many an occasion.  Not so here.  Imprudent Lady is an utterly delightful rake-meets-bluestocking story full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, beautifully observed wit and deftly drawn characters that has at its centre a warm, charming romance between a rakish, Byronic poet and an authoress with a talent for writing sharply observed characters and situations.

Miss Prudence Mallow and her mother have been left in reduced circumstances and have gone to live with Mrs. Mallow’s brother, Mr Clarence Elmtree, an amateur artist with a hugely inflated idea of the extent of his skill.  In order to earn a little money, Prudence does some work as a copyist for publisher, Mr. John Murray, and in the course of her work starts penning stories of her own.  Murray is impressed with her writing style and her strong observational skill and humour, and undertakes to publish The Composition, even though it is not in the current vogue for exciting romantic adventures à la Walter Scott.

The book sells steadily, and Prudence is soon at work on a second novel, and then a third.  Her work is well-regarded and she finds herself coming into contact with some of her favourite authors, such as Fanny Burney, but does not make much of an impression on them.

The literary world and English society is set abuzz is the return to England of Lord Dammler, whose Cantos from Abroad, thinly disguised tales – full of over-blown action, adventure and romance – of his three years travelling the world have become an instant success.  The handsome, aristocratic Dammler is society’s golden-boy, although he quickly finds that being constantly in the spotlight and the subject of endless sycophancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Along with the rest of society, Prudence has been enthralled by Dammler’s tales of derring-do, and is bowled over by his dark good looks.  Enthused by a brief meeting, she is moved to send Dammler an autographed copy of The Composition – and is hurt when she discovers he passed it on to his aunt without reading it. In a fit of pique, she dismisses Dammler’s writing as “nothing but a totally incredible novel in rhyme.”

Learning of this, Dammler takes up Prudence’s novel and is surprised to find it engaging and witty. When the two meet again, he is immediately intrigued by Prudence’s no-nonsense manner and the fact that she doesn’t simper and flirt like every other woman he meets.  Because her clothes are drab and she sports the sort of lace cap usually worn by older ladies, he at first takes her to be older than her twenty-four years and fails to mind his tongue, talking quite freely to Prudence about matters that are considered too “warm” for the ears of a younger lady.  But Prudence doesn’t really mind; in fact, Dammler’s discourse, while it might shock her at times, is eye-opening for her in many ways, and they strike up a friendship based on professional affinity – they’re both writers, they have the same publisher – and he begins to introduce her to people of influence and to advance her career.

The romance between this unlikely couple is very well done, with the bulk of the story focusing on Dammler’s gradual transition from rakehell to a man deeply in love.

He admired and respected Miss Mallow’s books and brains initially, then he began to like her dry wit, her understatement, her way of not pretending to be impressed with his past (and present) affairs, which he coloured bright, to shock her.

When she wore her new bonnets, he thought she was rather sweet looking, in an old-fashioned way.  They talked and laughed together for hours.  If anyone had told him they were well suited, he would have been shocked.

Dammler is all one could want in a romantic hero – handsome, clever, confident, but self-aware enough not to take himself too seriously.  Yet for most of the book, he has no idea that what he is feeling for Prudence IS love, although the reader sees the progression from professional interest to friendship to love through some of the wittiest banter I’ve read in a long time. And while Prudence is aware of the nature of her feelings, she believes the fact that Dammler talks so openly to her means that he sees her as another male friend, or – just as bad – a sister.

“I didn’t go out at all last night.  Stayed home and got the second act written in rough.”

This was the second time he had mentioned in a seemingly casual fashion the innocent nature of his nights, and Prudence decided to chide him about it.  “I wasn’t hellraking last night, either, but I hadn’t meant to brag to you about it.”

“Oh, what a heartless wench she is!  You complained loud enough when I was out carousing. Won’t you say a kind word on my improvement?”

“I did not complain!  Don’t cast me in the role of guardian of your morals.”

“Well, I hoped to please you by improving.  No one else ever was kind enough to worry about me, or care whether I ran to perdition.”

“What a plumper!  Your mama cried for two hours when you got drunk.”

“But she’s been dead for ten years.  I started drinking young.  And my father has been dead for fifteen years.  Just a poor orphan waif, really.  Couldn’t you pat my head and bless me, or must I lie on the floor and hold my breath to excite any interest?”

“Indeed it is not necessary to choke yourself.  Good boy,” she reached out and patted his head, and felt sorry for him in spite of his shameless bid for pity.

There are, of course, a couple of hiccups along the way in the form of some unsuitable suitors, one of whom is a particularly odious misogynist.  The final section, which takes place in Bath, lacks some of the earlier sparkle, but by that time, I was so firmly rooting for Dammler and Prudence to resolve their differences that I didn’t really mind.

Imprudent Lady is the perfect pick-me-up read; quick, funny and clever, with a nicely done romance and some great secondary characters, not least of which is Prudence’s uncle Clarence, the truly awful artist.  Somehow, Joan Smith keeps this running joke fresh, as Clarence expounds – frequently – upon various aspects of his art:

“I think Lawrence could pick up a trick of two from me, but he is quite spoilt with attention…  I blushed for him, poor fellow, to see everyone praising such likenesses.  He had a wart on Lady Cassel’s nose.  You’d think anyone who calls himself an artist would have panted it out.  But his sensitivity is entirely lacking.  He can only paint a pretty picture if he has as pretty subject.”

If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted, tender romance full of sharply observed witty banter, add Imprudent Lady to your TBR.  You won’t regret it.

TBR Challenge: Incriminating Evidence (Evidence #4) by Rachel Grant

incriminating-evidence

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When archaeologist Isabel Dawson stumbles upon an unconscious man deep in the Alaskan wilderness, her survival skills are put to the test. She tends his wounds and drags him to shelter, only to discover she’s saved the life of Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant—the man who may have covered up her brother’s murder to save his senatorial campaign.

With no memory of the assault that landed him five miles deep in the forest, Alec doesn’t know what to believe when he wakes in the clutches of the beautiful redhead who blames him for her brother’s death, but he quickly realizes he needs her help to uncover the truth about his lost hours.

Isabel never imagined she’d find herself allied with Alec, and he’s the last man she ever expected to find attractive. But the former Army Ranger-turned-politician proves seductively charming, and he’s determined to win much more than her vote. When their quest for answers puts Isabel in the crosshairs, Alec must risk everything—his company, his campaign, and his life—to protect her.

Rating: B+

This is the fourth book in Rachel Grant’s Evidence series, but fortunately, this is a series in which all the stories are self-contained, so it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the other books. There are some characters who have obviously appeared before and it’s clear that certain plot details were planted in previous books, but the author has given enough information here for a newbie like me to be able to dive right in and enjoy.
Incriminating Evidence is a fast-moving, well-paced story with plenty of intrigue, nail-biting moments of peril and action running alongside a sexy and nicely developed romance between an unlikely couple – an introverted archaeologist and a wealthy businessman running for political office.

Isabel Dawson is an archaeologist whose current gig is searching for ancient settlements that could be threatened by the upcoming timber harvest in Alaska. She’s a bit of a loner, so her job of hiking through the remote wilderness suits her and she enjoys it – although right now, she isn’t completely focused on her task. Around a year earlier, her brother Vincent, a soldier, was killed, supposedly on a training mission at Raptor, a private security firm that trains military personnel in combat techniques designed specifically to be employed in the war against terror. Isabel is convinced Vin’s death wasn’t an accident, but her attempts to instigate an investigation have met with dead ends, principally due, she believes, to the fact that Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant ordered a cover-up. She has emails from her brother that indicate he believed he had been kidnapped, tortured and experimented upon, and Isabel is determined to find out the truth by finding the location Vin described. But her plans are disrupted when she literally stumbles across a badly injured man in the woods. She has to make a quick decision. She is miles from her car and from the Raptor Compound, but there is an old settler’s cabin a mile away. If she leaves the man to go for help, there’s the chance that whoever worked him over will come back to finish him off, or that he’ll die of exposure, so she patches him up as best she can, fashions a make-do stretcher, lashes him to it and drags him all the way to the cabin. It’s only once there that she realises that the man whose life she has just saved is none other than Alec Ravissant.

When Alec eventually comes round, Isabel begins to regret her decision to save him; not only is he violent towards her, he’s rude and ungrateful, having her arrested on suspicion of kidnapping him once his security team locates them the next morning. Alec has no memory of what happened to him; he remembers driving and then swerving to avoid something in the road – then nothing until he comes to when Isabel is dragging him to the hut. He quickly realises that even though Isabel Dawson has been a thorn in his and Raptor’s side for some time, she may in fact be the only person he can trust, as there is clearly something untoward going on at the Raptor Compound, and everyone is suspect.

I can’t say much more without spoilers, but the plot is ingenious and very well constructed. Alec and Isabel are great characters who strike sparks off each other from the get-go, and I enjoyed the way the author gradually develops the trust between them. Isabel is a bit skittish; the death of her parents when she was a child, and then of the brother who more or less raised her has made her wary of getting attached to people and places, so she moves around a lot and never puts down roots. Alec comes from old money and was groomed to enter politics practically from the cradle, but veered off the path his family had mapped out for him by spending twelve years in the military. Now, however, he’s ready to face the challenge of the political arena, having discovered that his desire to serve his country and its people has not ended with his departure from the Rangers. As well as being a total hottie, he’s a great guy; quick to own up to the fact that he could have done more to investigate Vincent’s death, and to realise that his feelings for Isabel go way beyond the intense sexual attraction that pulses between them. I liked that there is a real sense of equality between them in spite of their different backgrounds. Isabel is smart, sassy and more than capable of looking after herself in tricky situations; Alec knows that and respects her for it, and while he wants to protect her, he recognises her abilities and her need to be involved with the search for evidence regarding her brother’s death. Ultimately, their romance is believable; the chemistry between them sizzles and the sex scenes are nice and steamy.

I enjoyed the book very much, but I do have one or two niggles about the story overall. Isabel is ready on several occasions to believe the worst of Alec and to run from him, either refusing to believe his explanations or refusing to allow him to make one; and it got a bit old after the first time or two. It also seems that Alec rebuilds his political campaign very easily given all the problems that arise as a result of his relationship with Isabel. I’m not an expert by any means, and certainly not on US politics, but this does seem to have been somewhat hand-waved away.

All in all however, Rachel Grant has crafted a compelling story that revolves around a series of strange attacks and incidents, and an unusual and very cleverly thought-out secret weapon that is scarily plausible. The background detail relating to the military/special-ops aspect of the story is interesting and well-done, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are very evocative, putting the reader right there. Incriminating Evidence was my first experience of Ms. Grant’s writing but it definitely won’t be my last.

TBR Challenge: Tangled by Mary Balogh

tangled

ONE MAN HAUNTED HER PAST…
Her beautiful eyes flashing with hate, Rebecca faced Lord David Tavistock. He had come back, wounded but still vibrantly, sensually alive, from the Crimean War. Julian Cardwell, her sweet, gentle bridegroom–and David’s foster brother–had not. She blamed wild, reckless David for Julian’s decision to enter the Queen’s Guards, and for the devastating loss of her perfect young husband, whose memory even now broke her heart and filled her dreams.

ONE PROMISED HER A FUTURE…
His blue eyes shadowed by dark secrets, David had come to claim the woman he had always loved. All his life he had protected the charming Julian, hiding the truth from Rebecca about the women Julian dallied with, the child he had fathered, the scandalous way he died. Now David offered Rebecca a life of privilege and wealth…as his wife. She wanted a marriage of convenience, but he intended to awake her deepest passions, to make her forget Julian Cardwell…and to find in his bed all the ecstasy of a man’s true love.

Rating: B

August’s TBR Challenge prompt is “Kickin’ it old-school” and it’s a prompt I always enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to pick something from the TBR Pile of Doom, which still looms large next to the bed. I went for Tangled by Mary Balogh, a standalone title originally published in 1991 which features a somewhat unusual premise; one I haven’t read before although I’m sure this isn’t the only book to have made use of it. I see that the book has engendered very mixed reactions over the years, and although I can understand why, I enjoyed it, principally because Mary Balogh is so skilled at portraying the emotional lives of her characters in a way that makes them feel very real to the reader.

The book opens as Lady Rebecca Cardwell is saying a fond farewell to her husband, Julian, before he departs with his regiment for Malta, and then the Crimea. He is accompanied by his foster brother, David, Viscount Tavistock, whom she dislikes and blames for Julian’s joining the army. Julian is eagerly reassuring his anxious wife that he will be in no danger, and it’s clear that he is keen to be on his way and sees the whole thing as an adventure.

The glimpses we see of Julian’s life in the army very quickly reinforce those initial impressions of his character. We learn some of his and David’s backstory, and see that Julian is one of those happy-go-lucky types who breeze through life with no care for anyone but himself. He’s not evil, per se, just incredibly selfish and immature. But his devil-may-care attitude, and particularly his womanising eventually has disastrous consequences which ultimately result in his death.

David returns home a decorated war hero, haunted by the death of the man he’d loved like a brother, and looking to settle down to a useful life at his country estate. He very quickly realises that Rebecca is in a difficult situation; even though she regards the Earl of Harrington as a father, she is not actually related to him and since his remarriage, feels the awkwardness of being the house’s former mistress in the presence of its new one. David has been in love with Rebecca for years, since long before she married Julian, and even though he knows that she will never love him, he offers her marriage, telling her that he can provide her with a home of her own and a purpose in life. He makes it clear, though, that while he is proposing a marriage of convenience, he wants a wife to share his bed and, hopefully, give him children.

Initially, Rebecca is stunned and turns him down. She doesn’t really like David, believing him guilty of a slew of misdemeanours in his youth and of having fathered a bastard child and refused to marry the mother. Yet she has to admit that since his return, she has seen a much quieter and more thoughtful man, and believes that perhaps he has outgrown his youthful exuberance. She also can’t deny that the prospect of a home of her own and having tasks to fill her days is an attractive one, so she eventually agrees to David’s proposal, assuring him that she will be a good wife to him and that once she is married to him, she will put Julian out of her thoughts.

At first, David thinks he has made a fairly good bargain, although his father is sceptical and warns him that he wants more than Rebecca will be prepared or able to give him. The marriage takes place and the newlyweds travel to their new home where Rebecca is delighted to discover that there is plenty for her to do and looks forward to being useful and taking her place as the foremost lady of the local community.

But their married life gets off to a rocky start. Rebecca’s version of “being a good wife” is letting her husband do as he wishes in bed with no thought for her own wants – and David is bewildered. He knows Julian and Rebecca were very much in love and thinks Rebecca must have experienced passion; but not only does she not respond to him, it’s clear she is having to force herself to endure his lovemaking. David believes that she is deliberately holding herself back from him because she doesn’t love him and because, in spite of her promise not to think of Julian, she is doing just that. Their relationship becomes incredibly strained until, after their third night together, David snaps, says some cruel things and then tells Rebecca he won’t be bothering her again.

Rebecca is equally confused. She has been brought up to believe that sex is for a husband’s pleasure and for procreation, and that she should just lie there and let him get on with it. She is surprised by her attraction to David, but is ashamed of her response to his kisses and lovemaking, feeling things she’s never felt before and desperate to control herself to make sure he isn’t disgusted by her wantonness. But after that night, she finds she misses the bonding that had begun between them in bed and also that she needs the reassurance of David’s presence there, and of his lovemaking, too. The couple settles into a way of life that sees them living and working together as little more than business partners, but Rebecca wants a real marriage and has no idea how to achieve it while David distances himself from her; his jealousy of Julian and the guilt, the secrets and the lies that shadowed their relationship distort his view of the situation and lead him to believe that Rebecca is disgusted by him. It’s a stalemate for quite some time until at last, it seems as though they have finally found a way through … which is when (of course) disaster strikes.

I am not normally a fan of stories in which so many misunderstandings and secrets abound, but I did enjoy Tangled. True, there were times I wanted to beat both protagonists over the head with a big stick and tell them to just be honest with each other; but somehow, Mary Balogh has made their reluctance to confide in each other believable. It’s frustrating to read at times, but is understandable, especially given that Rebecca’s upbringing has conditioned her to propriety and submission and that David is driven to protect the people he cares about. The deeper emotions are brilliantly illuminated, and the author has very skilfully illustrated the importance of sex in the development of the central relationship. Without it, David and Rebecca are almost strangers, and because they are both hiding things from each other, they don’t have any other way in which to achieve closeness on an emotional level.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers for the last third, but there are several places in that final section of the story that deliver a real emotional punch to the gut, as David and Rebecca struggle to adjust to a huge upheaval just as they were beginning to make something real out of their marriage. I especially liked the way in which the author shows that Rebecca is falling in love with David while being completely unaware of it, and how she shows the depths of his quiet, unrequited love for his wife, but as individuals, they are complex, flawed and not always easy to like. Rebecca puts Julian on a pedestal and is unable – or unwilling – to see any of the shortcomings of which the reader – and David – is aware. She elevates him practically to sainthood after his death, and there are times when her continual harping upon his perfection gets very irritating. David, too, is not without his faults; for the most part, he’s one of those honourable, quiet men who are driven to protect, but I did have to ask myself how he could bear to let so many people think badly of him for so long. But with those things said, both characters feel very much like products of their time, and I applaud Ms. Balogh for creating and keeping them that way in spite of the sometimes negative effect on their overall appeal.

While the secret-keeping is frustrating and the central characters could sometimes be a bit irritating, my principal criticism of Tangled is with the ending. Granted, the outcome was a foregone conclusion if David and Rebecca were to get their HEA, but the action that leads up to it is so completely out of character for the person concerned, that I had to read and accept it as a necessary plot device rather than a natural direction of the story.

This is an angsty and emotional book, and I can understand that the secrets, misunderstandings and – for want of a better word, passivity – of the protagonists may mean it is not one that everyone will like. But the depth of the emotion contained within its pages and the skilfully developed, strong connection between the protagonists are sufficiently compelling as to allow me to overlook any weaknesses and commend it as an absorbing and thought-provoking read.