TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

TBR Challenge: Paternity Case (Hazard and Somerset #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

It’s almost Christmas, and Emery Hazard finds himself face to face with his own personal nightmare: going on a double date with his partner—and boyhood crush—John-Henry Somerset. Hazard brings his boyfriend; Somers brings his estranged wife. Things aren’t going to end well.

When a strange call interrupts dinner, however, Hazard and his partner become witnesses to a shooting. The victims: Somers’s father, and the daughter of a high school friend. The crime is inexplicable. There is no apparent motive, no connection between the victims, and no explanation for how the shooter reached his targets.

Determined to get answers, Hazard and Somers move forward with their investigation in spite of mounting pressure to stop. Their search for the truth draws them into a dark web of conspiracy and into an even darker tangle of twisted love and illicit desire. And as the two men come face to face with the passions and madness behind the crime, they must confront their own feelings for each other—and the hard truths that neither man is ready to accept.

Rating: A

Paternity Case is the third in Gregory Ashe’s series of novels featuring two detectives based in the small Missouri town of Wahredua, Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset.  These are gritty, complex stories that are practically impossible to put down once started; the mysteries are twisty and really well-conceived but at the heart of each book – and the series – is the complicated, fucked-up relationship between the two principals, a pair of stubborn, emotionally constipated individuals with a dark and  painful shared history that stretches back twenty years.

While each of the six books in the series boasts a self-contained mystery, there is also an overarching storyline that runs throughout, so I’d strongly recommend starting at the beginning with book one, Pretty Pretty Boys.  There’s probably enough backstory in this book for a newcomer, but if you do jump in here, you’ll miss out on a lot of relationship development and exploration of Hazard and Somerset’s history – which is absolutely integral to the series as a whole.  Gregory Ashe knows how to create sexual tension so thick it can be cut with a knife; this is slow-burn romance at its finest – and possibly most frustrating! – so don’t go into this series expecting a quick HFN/HEA.

A little bit of background. Detective Emery Hazard moves back to his small home town of Wahredua after being fired from his job in St. Louis (for reasons we don’t yet know).  The town doesn’t hold many good memories for him; the only openly gay kid at school, he didn’t have many friends and was badly bullied by three boys who made his life a misery for years.  Of these, one is now dead, another is a broken down mess, and the third… Hazard doesn’t know what happened to him, the charming, popular, movie-star handsome John-Henry Somerset, son of one of the town’s wealthiest families – until he turns up at his new station and meets his new partner.

Yep.

The first book sees Hazard and Somerset – who now goes by Somers – starting to work though the issues that lie between them, although it’s going to take more than an apology and the new, grudging, respect Hazard slowly develops for his new partner’s ability as a detective, and Somers’ admiration for Hazard’s intellect and his ability to work his way through complicated puzzles and construct solutions, to fix things between them.  Somers is almost desperate to prove to Hazard that he’s changed – and he really has – since they were in college, but Hazard is cautious and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him that isn’t work-related.  Somers is garrulous and quick to tease the much more serious Hazard, and on the surface they’ve got a bit of an ‘odd couple’ thing going on; but underneath, it’s all much darker and more complicated as the feelings that sparked between them twenty years earlier come roaring back to life.

For two books, readers have watched them struggle to adjust to their working partnership and ignore the intense mutual attraction that neither wants to acknowledge.  They’ve had their heated moments, but are both in deep denial; Somers has been trying (unsuccessfully) to work things out with his estranged wife (with whom he has a two-year-old daughter), while Hazard has embarked on a relationship with a gorgeous (and much younger) grad-student, Nico Flores. Both men are involved with someone who just doesn’t ‘get’ them or understand their dedication to their job or loyalty to each other, especially Nico, who can’t understand how Hazard can bear to work with Somers considering their history.

Paternity Case opens as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to go out – on a double-date, of all things; Hazard and Nico, Somers and his almost-ex-wife, Cora.  The reader already knows this is one of the worst ideas in history and a train-wreck in waiting, but before things can get too uncomfortable, Somers receives a phone call from his father, who practically orders him to the family home during the Somerset’s annual pre-Christmas party.  It’s not a case, but Somers insists Hazard accompanies him anyway, and they arrive to find a very drunk – or stoned – old guy wearing nothing but a Santa hat in the middle of the Somerset’s living room.  As Somers and Hazard try to find out what on earth is going on, the lights go out and shots are fired, one killing a young woman and five of the others landing in Glenn Somerset’s chest but somehow not killing him.

Naked-Santa is deemed to be responsible and is taken into custody, but both Hazard and Somers are immediately seeing things that don’t add up. And when they arrive at the hospital to discover that the suspect has been shot and killed by another detective, it ratchets up suspicions they’ve held for a while now that one of their colleagues is on the take.  The hints of political corruption and intrigue that have appeared in the earlier books now become something more solid, and when Hazard and Somers are ordered to drop their investigation they smell more than just one rat.  Their boss insists there’s nothing to investigate, but neither man buys that; for Somers this is personal – he might not get along with Glenn Somerset, but the man is still his father – and Hazard isn’t about to sit idly by and watch his partner self-destruct or put himself in danger without someone to watch his back.

While both characters get equal billing in the series title, the previous two books have focused a little more on Hazard as the main protagonist. Here, that focus shifts to Somers, and as he starts to unravel, readers are shown more of what lies beneath that gorgeous, wise-cracking exterior – a man who doesn’t like himself much and who is weighed down by the guilt of a terrible betrayal he wrought years ago.  Mr. Ashe very deftly delineates Somers’ toxic family situation, and his insight into the power dynamics that existed when Hazard and Somerset were kids is completely on the nose.  We see a different side to the normally personable, laid-back detective as the author peels away the layers to reveal  the loneliness lying at his core as he is forced to face up to some painful and unwelcome truths about his long-buried feelings, and to reach some significant conclusions as a result.

Both men are guarded and not easy to understand. They talk a lot – well, Somers does – but rarely – if ever – say what they mean, and right from the start, their conversations have been as much about what they don’t say as what they do. They’re both excellent detectives; Hazard is precise and logical while Somers has the kind of emotional intelligence that makes him a really good ‘people person’ – and yet they’re both blind when it comes to each other.  While the investigation is the focus of the plot, the intensity of the underlying love story permeates the book; these two are stupid in love but certain the other doesn’t feel the same, and the emotional punch the author delivers at the end is simply masterful.

The secondary cast is strongly-drawn, the plot is cleverly constructed and Gregory Ashe’s writing ranges from the vividly descriptive  –

At this time of year, when darkness came early, Warhedua looked like the last place of light and warmth in a burned-out world. Ahead of them, the sodium lights dropped away until the only thing illuminating the asphalt was the Interceptor’s headlights, bluish-white, the color of fresh snow if it had somehow transformed into light.

to the lyrical…

Love isn’t a choice. Love is collision. Love is catastrophe. Somers had thought he’d understood. He thought he’d known how dangerous those words were, he thought he’d sensed how deeply Emery Hazard had upset his life.

But he’d had no idea.

There are moments of observation and insight so sharp it’s almost painful, and the circumlocutory conversations that characterise Hazard and Somers’ interactions are both completely absorbing and a masterclass in how to say something without ever actually uttering the words.

I’ve rambled on long enough, so I’ll close by saying that if you’re a fan of m/m mysteries and romantic suspense, then you’re going to want to start on the Hazard and Somerset series right away.  I promise you’ll thank me later 😉

 

TBR Challenge: The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. His cockiness and noble bearing make him perfect for the role, but Camilla is surprised to find herself wishing the deception would last forever.

Rating: C

The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982)  says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas.  As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book.  The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.

Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate.  He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang.  This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors.  After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen.  Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers.  Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.

Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery.  It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa).  It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself.  But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.

By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid.  Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea.  Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield.  Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere.  Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.

After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house.  Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.

I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more.  Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.

There are things to like about the story.  The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.

TBR Challenge: Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It could happen to you!

A CHRISTMAS WISH…

For Sophie Beckwith, Christmas this year means having to face the ex who dumped her and then married her sister! Only one person can help—her best friend Bram.

A YULETIDE PROPOSAL…

Bram used to be engaged to Sophie’s sister. Now, determined to show “the lovebirds” that they’ve moved on, he’s come up with a plan: he’s proposed—to Sophie!

A MISTLETOE MARRIAGE!

It’s crazy, but it would be only pretend…wouldn’t it? Now their wedding day is here and Sophie’s feelings for Bram have drastically changed. Her deepest wish now is for Bram to say “I do”—for real!

Rating: B

Time constraints meant I needed a quick read for this month’s TBR Challenge, and Jessica Hart’s Mistletoe Marriage (from 2005) proved to be just the thing.  It’s a charming, well-written and absorbing friends-to-lovers story set in the weeks before Christmas featuring a couple of engaging principals and a bit – not too much  – angst. I lapped it up in a couple of sittings one afternoon and came away from it with a happy sigh.

Bram and Sophie have been friends forever and are still besties, even though Sophie now lives and works in London and Bram works his small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors.  Sophie’s parents own a neighbouring farm, and she’s visiting for the weekend – taking the chance to do so knowing her sister Melissa and her new husband, Nick, are away so she won’t run into them.  Sophie and Nick had been engaged before she introduced him to Melissa – and even though she doesn’t resent her sister – or Nick – for falling in love, Sophie hasn’t been able to forget the way she’d felt when she was with Nick or move on. She also finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her conversations with Melissa always end up revolving around her guilt for ‘stealing’ Nick, and usually leave Sophie exhausted from the effort of trying to make her sister feel better.

With Christmas approaching, Sophie’s mother is pressuring Sophie to come home for the festivities and to see Melissa and Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding.  Sophie never told her parents about Nick, so they have no idea of the truth of the situation, and with it being her father’s seventieth birthday a couple of days before Christmas her mother is really turning the emotional thumbscrews to get Sophie to agree to visit and stay with them. Feeling guilty, tired and miserable, Sophie heads up to Haw Gill Farm to see Bram to pour out her woes. He’s always been easy to talk to, and his steady, dependable presence has never failed to bring her comfort.

During the course of a conversation in which they commiserate about the state of their love-lives (and the lack thereof), Sophie jokingly says she wishes she could marry Bram – and to her shock, he says that it’s not a bad idea.  They know each other better than anyone else, Sophie understands the rhythms of life on a farm and Bram needs help; it might not be a grand passion but they’d have friendship, comfort and companionship and they’d both know where they stand.

Surprised, Sophie finds herself actually considering the idea – before rejecting it, telling Bram he deserves someone “who believes in you and loves you completely for yourself” and that he shouldn’t settle for second best.  Bram can’t disagree with her – but is somewhat taken aback to realise he’s actually disappointed at her refusal.

Not long after this, when Sophie is back in her poky flat in London, she’s on the phone to Melissa, suffering through yet another of her sister’s guilt trips when the conversation turns to Bram and the possibility that he might be seeing an old acquaintance who has recently been dumped by her fiancé – and it’s too much for Sophie.  What with having to try to tiptoe around her sister’s upset and her own strangely conflicting feelings about Bram, she snaps and tells Melissa that she and Bram are getting married.

Oops.

Okay, so this story isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fine example of a fake relationship/friends-to-lovers tale.  The characters are swiftly and skilfully drawn, and the author makes it easy to believe in the long-standing friendship between Bram and Sophie; their affection for one another and deep mutual understanding just leaps off the page. The book does have flaws – Nick is such a prick that it’s difficult to understand exactly why Sophie was so much in love with him, and there’s just a teeny bit of the martyr about Sophie in her tendency to give way to Melissa and believe herself to be somehow second-best – but those are really minor concerns.  The big thing for me in any friends-to-lovers story, is the way the author handles the Key Moment –the one where the friends realise they’re seeing each other as if for the first time and that he/she is gorgeous – and Jessica Hart does a great job with that, showing readers several small moments of realisation and growing attraction, as Bram and Sophie start to realise they’re seeing each other in a new light.  It’s a quiet, character-driven story; there’s no drawn-out Big Mis or unnecessary angst – the tangled relationships between Sophie, Melissa, Nick and Bram (a decade earlier, Bram and Melissa had been briefly engaged and Sophie worries he might still be carrying a torch for her sister) create enough tension to propel the story – and thankfully, Bram and Sophie are sufficiently mature and attuned to each other to not allow their niggling doubts to go unaddressed for too long.

Mistletoe Marriage is a quick, but satisfying read, Bram and Sophie are very likeable principals and their romance is easy to invest in.  It proved to be an excellent way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter’s afternoon.

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

TBR Challenge: Against the Dark (The Associates #1) by Carolyn Crane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s an ex-safecracker forced into one last heist.

Angel Ramirez left the safecracking game five years ago, and she’s worked hard to make amends and build an honest life. But when a beloved aunt is kidnapped, she must reunite with her girl gang to acquire the unique ransom: Walter Borgola’s prized diamonds. It’s a simple job that turns into a nightmare, thanks to a surprisingly clever—and searingly sexy—security guard named Cole Hawkins.

He’s an undercover agent with big plans for his gorgeous thief.

Cole is one of the Association’s most brilliant agents, under deep cover investigating a ruthless killer. He’s also running out of time: hundreds will die if he doesn’t stop the plan Borgola’s set into motion. Catching Angel is the break he needed–he promises not to turn her in if she poses as his lover and uses her unique talents to unlock the sociopath’s dungeon vaults.

But as pretend passions turn real, Cole regrets drawing Angel into his deadly game…and danger is closer than either of them could ever imagine.

Rating: B

I haven’t read anything by Carolyn Crane before, but her romantic suspense novels come highly recommended, so I picked up this first book in her four-book series The Associates for this months’ prompt.  It’s fast-moving and well-written with some nicely steamy scenes – plus the hero is a hot, dangerously sexy maths-nerd who wears glasses.  Um.  Yeah, that right there was enough to get me interested! (Think Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters – I did! ;))  On the downside, the romance is a bit hurried; the events of the story take place over three or four days so there’s not a lot of time to develop a relationship beyond physical attraction and the fact that the hero and heroine have to trust each other if they’re to make it to the end of the book alive.  That said though, Against the Dark was enjoyable and I pretty much blew through it in one sitting; sometimes one craves well-done hokum with fights, chases, things blowing up and crackling sexual tension, and that’s exactly what I got so I was pretty happy by the end.

Former jewel thief and expert safe-cracker Angel Ramirez has been on the straight and narrow for the last five years and now makes her living as an interior designer.  But she’s agreed to come out of retirement to pull a job with her friends and fellow thieves, Macy and White Jenny, that’s very personal to them.  A violent gang has kidnapped Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who practically raised all three of them, and is demanding the set of priceless diamonds belonging to crimelord Walter Borgola – “the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A.” – as ransom.  Angel’s job is going to be to crack the Fenton Furst safe in Borgola’s bedroom; she’s one of the few people in the world who has the skills and knowledge to do it, so the ladies have got themselves into one of Borgola’s sleazy parties/orgies where they’re posing as working girls while waiting to make their move.

Cole Hawkins is one of The Associates, a shadowy organisation that is frequently used to do the jobs that can‘t be done legally or with official government sanction;  “Officially, no governments knew about them; unofficially, they were central to the international fight against crime.”  Cole has infiltrated Borgola’s operation as one of his security team, and for the past nine months has been gathering evidence and information on the sex trafficking ring Borgola is running out of Myanmar.  Cole has recently uncovered an even more sinister side to the operation;  Borgola is bringing in kids and using them in snuff movies, and there’s a new ‘shipment’ on the way, so Cole is up against it if he’s to track down the ships the kids are on, get them out of harm’s way and nail Borgola.

He knows the evidence he needs is contained within a second Fenton Furst safe which is in a hidden location in Borgola’s mansion.  Whoever cracked the safe containing the diamonds will be able to crack the second one; Cole tracks Angel down and lies in wait for her at her apartment – and pretty much blackmails her into helping him.

From then on in, things move at a cracking pace as Cole and Angel – neither of whom trusts easily – have to work together to find the safe and obtain the information Cole needs.  The romance is, as I said at the outset, perhaps a little rushed, building as it does over just a few days, but the pressure-cooker environment and close proximity in which Cole and Angel are operating, together with the smoking hot chemistry between them helps to make it if not completely believable, then at least perfectly plausible.  The plot is twisty and well-constructed, with plenty of action and edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the last quarter, when things really do get hairy.

Angel and Cole are complex, damaged and somewhat morally ambiguous.  Angel clearly regrets her criminal past and what she sees as her inner ugliness, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and loyalty make her an engaging heroine.  I also loved the ‘girl-power’ vibe that came off her relationship with Macy and White Jenny; these women obviously know each other intimately, and care about each other deeply, and even though they’ve not pulled a job together in five years, neither of those things has gone away. Cole is an intriguing mix of alpha and beta hero, a man who’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of and is prepared to keep doing bad things if it means he gets to help people who need it.  He’s a maths genius and logistics expert, reducing problems to patterns and equations, the sort of guy who follows the paper-trail and comes up trumps – but he’s no slouch in the badassery or take-charge departments either.

I can’t deny though, that there were a few WTF? moments along the way, such as Cole telling Angel that her abilities as an interior designer somehow meant she could “see things we can’t” (huh?  She can tell a bad guy by the quality of his laminate flooring?) or when Cole’s not-so-inner maths-nerd surfaces during sex scenes; “Women had been equations before this,” or “This woman … made his sigmas and coefficients swirl in a tornado.”  – ouch?

Still, hot nerds are my catnip and I enjoyed Against the Dark for the sexy, escapist fun it was. I’m definitely planning to read the other books in the series.

TBR Challenge: What I Did for a Duke (Pennyroyal Green #5) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For years, he’s been an object of fear, fascination…and fantasy. But of all the wicked rumors that shadow the formidable Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, the ton knows one thing for certain: only fools dare cross him. And when Ian Eversea does just that, Moncrieffe knows the perfect revenge: he’ll seduce Ian’s innocent sister, Genevieve—the only Eversea as yet untouched by scandal. First he’ll capture her heart…and then he’ll break it.

But everything about Genevieve is unexpected: the passion simmering beneath her cool control, the sharp wit tempered by gentleness…And though Genevieve has heard the whispers about the duke’s dark past, and knows she trifles with him at her peril, one incendiary kiss tempts her deeper into a world of extraordinary sensuality. Until Genevieve is faced with a fateful choice…is there anything she won’t do for a duke?

Rating: A-

Incredible as it may seem (and it still does – to me!) the Pennyroyal Green series is one that I haven’t yet completed.  I’ve read the last three or four books but not the earlier ones, so I decided to pick up one of them for September’s TBR prompt to read an historical romance.  The novel is fifth in the series and was originally published in 2011 – and I’m rather partial to the formidable but misunderstood hero trope, which is what decided me on this particular instalment.

Alexander Moncreiffe, Duke of Falconbridge, is not a man to be crossed.  A certain aloofness combined with a reputation for ruthlessness and the rumours he killed his wife for her money makes him an object of fear and fascination among the ton, although of course, his immense wealth and title mean that he is welcomed everywhere.  Sardonic, charismatic and darkly attractive, women want him and men want to be him; and recognising the futility of attempting to change society’s opinion, Alex does nothing to dispel the rumours and actually, rather enjoys the reputation conferred upon him and is only too willing to play up to it on occasion.

When he finds Ian Eversea in bed with his fiancée, he is (naturally) furious, but instead of challenging Ian to a duel he decides to make him sweat and keep him wondering as to when he will exact his revenge or what form it will take.  He decides that poetic justice will best suit his purposes and gets himself invited to the house party being held by the Eversea family at their country estate in Pennyroyal Green; there he intends to seduce and then abandon Ian’s younger sister, Genevieve.

Genevieve has been in love with Harry Osborne for years, and is sure that at any moment he will declare his love and propose.  He’s handsome, funny and charming (if a little oblivious at times) and they have a lot in common, such as their love of Italian art.  So she is devastated when, during a tête-á- tête, he confesses his plan to propose to their mutual friend, Millcent and, heartbroken, attempts to hide herself away as much as possible.  When the formidable – and fascinating – Duke of Falconbridge singles her out for his attentions and seeks her company, Genevieve tries to avoid him – but is intrigued in spite of herself.  Soon, she discovers a man rather different to the one she’d expected; he’s authoritative and very ‘ducal’ of course, but Genevieve sees through the highly polished veneer to discover a man capable of charm, humour and considerable perspicacity, at the same time as the duke encourages her to discover and admit to certain truths about herself.

This is one of those books where not very much happens – no kidnappings, pirates, spies, missing heirs or murders – but in which the pages just fly by and the reader becomes completely and utterly invested in the central characters, their interactions and their gradually developing romance.  Neither Genevieve nor Alex is exactly what they seem, which becomes a point of commonality between them; Alex’s reputation as a cold, sometimes cruel man is not undeserved, but he’s also clever, intuitive and witty, while Genevieve is widely believed to be sensible, quiet and shy whereas she’s nothing of the sort. Her demeanour is the result of careful consideration rather than natural reticence, and she is often impatient with the mistaken impression society has of her.  I loved the way Ms. Long used flowers to point up the impressions held by others of Genevieve and her sister; Olivia is routinely sent bouquets of vibrant, colourful flowers by her numerous admirers, while Genevieve, when she gets flowers at all, gets daisies and narcissi and pale, insipid arrangements, until one morning a huge display of roses that is – magnificently intimidating and almost indecently sensual – arrives for her.  Of course, it’s from Alex, and it’s a wonderful way of showing that he really sees Genevieve for the remarkable woman she truly is.  In spite of his plan to debauch and ruin her (which is soon abandoned in an unexpected and fitting way), we see that he is coming to genuinely care for and understand her while she is doing the same thing as regards him.

Julie Anne Long’s writing is superb; deft, witty, warm and perceptive, she has a knack for dialogue and vivid description, and for creating multifaceted, flawed and yet thoroughly engaging characters.  (Although I really wish someone had corrected all the errors with titles – a duke is never addressed as “Lord” anybody). Alex is a formidable man but he’s also a very lonely one who is tired of playing society’s games and wants some peace in his life.  Genevieve is misunderstood and undervalued, a young woman who doesn’t yet really know who she is, but who learns, through her association with Alex, how to be the passionate, vibrant, pleasure-loving woman she really is.  They really do bring out the best in each other, and I loved the fact that Alex wanted so badly for Genevieve to become her best self; even if he couldn’t have her for himself, he wanted her to have that and to be properly appreciated.

What I Did for a Duke is a captivating character-driven story that has no need for flashy plotlines and over-wrought drama to propel it forward.  What begins as a May/December romance between an underestimated young woman and a world-weary rake slowly morphs into something more complex and nuanced, a story about two people able to see past the distorted lens with which they are each generally viewed to the real person inside – and to love that person unreservedly.  When AAR reviewed the book on its release, it was awarded it DIK status, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur.