Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

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Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet — but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles has made no secret of the fact that her latest book, Band Sinister, is an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, and in it she has great fun playing in the trope-pit of regency romance and turning quite a few of them on their heads.  We’ve got the stranded-injured-sibling trope; the man-of-the-world-falls-for-country-innocent trope; the oops-I-(not so)-accidentally-wrote-you-as-the-villain-in-my-racy-book trope – and those are just the ones I can remember of the top of my head.  I’m sure I’ve missed some.

But trope-tastic as it is, Band Sinister still manages to delight, breathing life into the tried-and-tested by virtue of Ms. Charles’ sharp wit, deft hand and obvious love for the genre.

The storyline is a simple one.  Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live a secluded life in the village of Yarlcote, just a few miles from Rookwood Hall, the country estate of Sir Philip Rookwood.  The Frisbys and the Rookwoods are all but mortal enemies, owing to the fact that Sir James Rookwood (elder and now deceased brother of the present holder of the title) ran off with Guy and Amanda’s mother some years earlier, driving their father to drink and an early grave.  He left them completely dependent on their aunt, a dictatorial and unsympathetic woman who supports them for the sake of appearances rather than because she has any love or affection for them.

When the story opens, Guy is reading the manuscript of the gothic novel Amanda has just had published – and is rather appalled to discover that she has modelled her villain – in physical appearance anyway – on Sir Philip Rookwood, and some of the other characters in the book on his friends.  Sir Philip and his set have the most dreadful reputations as degenerates and rumour has it that the ‘Murder’ – as the group is known – is a kind of hellfire club that engages in orgies, satanic rituals and other reprehensible activities.  When Amanda expresses the wish that they might actually visit to find out for themselves, Guy is appalled.  He wants nothing to do with Rookwood, but circumstances conspire against him when Amanda is thrown from her horse while riding on Sir Philip’s land, and badly injured – which means Amanda gets her wish to visit the hall, although under less pleasing circumstances than she would have liked.

When Guy receives the news of Amanda’s situation, he’s doubly panicked – terrified because she’s been hurt and worried for her reputation, which has already got a few dents in it courtesy of their mother’s exploits and a youthful indiscretion.  Guy goes to the hall with the intention of taking her home immediately, but is dissuaded by the doctor attending on her – a friend of Sir Philip’s – who explains that her injury is such that moving her could prove fatal.  Guy accepts the wisdom of that, but he’s not happy, especially as it’s impossible to persuade any woman of suitable consequence to come to the hall to act as chaperone.

Given the bad blood between their families, Guy is torn between gratitude to his host for allowing Amanda to remain at his home, and determination to remain aloof and retain his animosity.  That, however, soon becomes difficult when Guy comes to realise that Philip and his friends are nowhere near as black as they are painted and have in fact encouraged the gossip about them that has given them all such tarnished reputations.  (Especially Lord Corvin who lives to be talked about!)  The Murder (and once we learn the names of Philip’s friends, it’s easy to work out the reason behind that appellation) is actually a group of free-thinking, like-minded friends who gather to engage in spirited (and to Guy’s tender ears, alarming) debate, enjoy each other’s company and love who they wish without having to continually look over their shoulders.  It’s a real eye-opener for Guy, who at first isn’t sure how to take anything he sees or hears; dinner table discussions are about anything and everything from art and literature to science and the newly emerging theories which seem to disprove the Bible’s account of creation (shocking!) and are stimulating and fascinating – and he can’t help but be drawn in by the liveliness of the discussion and by the conviviality of his surroundings.

He also can’t help being drawn to Philip, whose kindness and generosity are completely unexpected, and whose attractiveness and desire for Guy are equally so.

Philip holds these gatherings for his friends in order to give them all a safe haven from the strict conventions of society.  He met his two closest friends, Lord Corvin and John Raven, when they were all unwanted or forgotten ten-year-olds and the three of them forged lifelong bonds.  Friends – and friends-with-benefits when they want to be – they love each other deeply, and the openness and honesty of their relationship is superbly conveyed, teasingly affectionate and full of the perfect amount of snark.

I really enjoyed all the characters, a disparate group that encompasses a diversity of racial and sexual orientation – a former slave, a bisexual viscount, a Jewish doctor, a married couple in which ‘Mrs.’ is trans FtM, a black composer and his violinist lover – even those we meet only briefly add richness and colour to the story and are beautifully crafted.  Amanda Frisby is wonderfully bright and spirited and I was so glad that she got her own happy ending, too.  Philip is intelligent, charming, kind, and forward-thinking, with a well-developed conscience that owes nothing to society and everything to his own inner compass.  He is turning over much of his land to the production of sugar beet with a view to creating a home-grown sugar industry which will remove the necessity for importing so much sugar produced by slave labour – a laudable ambition but an uphill struggle given that his tenant farmers are resistant to change.  Guy is perhaps a little passive at times, but he’s far from being the “plank” Philip originally believes him to be; he’s quiet and unassuming, but ferocious and passionate in defence of the things that are important to him. My heart broke for him a bit when it became clear how lonely he was and had always been, and I loved watching him gradually break out of his shell and begin to truly live.

The romance between Philip and Guy is sweetly sensual, and witnessing the development of their mutual attraction as they navigate the waters of their new relationship was a complete delight.  And it’s not just about the physical; Guy is seduced as much by the new ideas to which he is exposed and to the new experience of acceptance and being part of a friendship  as he is by Philip’s more sensual approaches, which are heartfelt and honest,  with an explicit focus on consent.  Their romance is also conducted within the parameters of their other important relationships; in Philip’s case, with Corvin and Raven, in Guy’s with Amanda – and the fact that they both understood and accepted those relationships made their HEA that much stronger.

Band Sinister is a wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights.  It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.  It’s not often you get impassioned debate about geology, women’s rights and religion, dirty talk derived from Latin, and information about the ins-and-outs of sugar beet farming in the same book, but Ms. Charles incorporates everything quite naturally and with great aplomb – and I loved it from start to finish.  Brava!


His Rags to Riches Contessa (Matches Made in Scandal #3) by Marguerite Kaye

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From the streets of London…

…to Venetian high society!

To catch his father’s murderer, broodingly arrogant Conte Luca del Pietro requires help from a most unlikely source—Becky Wickes, London’s finest card-sharp. Against the decadence of Carnival, Becky’s innocence and warmth captivates Luca, but as their chemistry burns hotter the stakes in their perilous game are getting higher. For Luca is no longer playing only for justice—but also to win Becky’s heart…

Rating: B

His Rags to Riches Contessa is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series, and tells the story of an actress and card sharp who is hired to help a Venetian nobleman obtain revenge against the man who killed his father.  The four novels in the set are linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer; a woman whose clients come to her “with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions”, solutions she provides while at the same time helping young women to whom life has dealt a poor hand make themselves a better future.  Becky Wickes is one such; abandoned by the man she loved – and whom she believed loved her – to face a future as a fugitive from the law and a possible death sentence should she be apprehended – Becky has gone to ground and holed up in a dingy room in the rookery of St. Giles.  It’s here that the Procurer finds her and offers her the chance to change her life.

Becky travels to Venice, to the luxurious Palazzo Pietro, where she will meet the Procurer’s client – the Conte del Pietro – and receive all the details of her assignment.  She is surprised to discover that the Conte – Luca – is half-English on his mother’s side and that he spent many years in the Royal Navy before his father’s death necessitated his return home, and even more so when she finally learns the reason for her journey.  Luca explains that his father and his father’s best friend, Don Massimo Sarti, had together been respected government officials who had acted to preserve as many of the city’s treasures as they could before Venice surrendered to Napoléon some twenty years earlier.  The plan was to hide as many items of value as possible – especially those pertaining to the city’s heritage – and to return them once the Republic of Venice was restored, but things didn’t quite work out that way.  Venice was used as a pawn over the years and only now, after Napoléon’s defeat, is the situation stable enough to consider restoring all the artefacts that the men had spirited away.  In his final communication to his son, Luca’s father explained that he had visited the hiding place in order to make an inventory only to discover the place was empty.  It seems Don Massimo has stolen everything he and Luca’s father had vowed to preserve in order to fund his gambling habit – and when threatened with exposure had his former friend killed.

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

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.

But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.

Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.

Rating: C+

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies?  In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced.  Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas.  In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.

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

Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake (Beauchamp Heirs #1) by Janice Preston

lady olivia and the infamous rake

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‘He’s completely unsuitable… he’s a rake.’

After being plucked from peril by resolute bachelor Lord Hugo Alastair, Lady Olivia Beauchamp is secretly outraged that he doesn’t even try to steal a kiss! He’s a notorious rake amongst the ton and as a result, utterly forbidden to an innocent debutante like her. But their attraction is magnetic. Will she risk her reputation for a passionate encounter?

Rating: B

Janice Preston’s Beauchamp Betrothals series delivered happy endings for the three Beauchamp siblings – the Duke of Cheriton and his brother and sister.  Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake kicks off a spin-off series that focuses on the younger generation of Beauchamps, the Beauchamp Heirs; and while it’s not absolutely necessary to have read any of the earlier books, it probably helps to have an idea of who is who, because some of the events featured in them – most notably the marriages of Lord Vernon and Lady Cecily – are referred to in this book, even though they take place off the page.

Eighteen-year-old Lady Olivia is the only daughter of Leo, Duke of Cheriton, and his first wife.  She is enjoying her first Season, and as the daughter of a wealthy and influential peer she has the world at her feet and an adoring coterie of young bucks in tow wherever she goes.  To the outward observer, it seems she has everything, but Olivia is struggling to find her place within her family and to adapt to her father’s recent remarriage.  She’s happy for him and likes her stepmother, but she’s been plagued by feelings of inadequacy all her life, her mother’s  obvious disinterest in her children making Olivia wonder, deep down, if there’s something about her that is unlovable.  Over the years, the love of her close-knit family – especially her aunt Cecily (Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray) who has been a mother to her – has gone a long way towards suppressing those doubts but Olivia can’t quite rid herself of them, especially given the changes going on around her.

Olivia is getting just a bit tired of all the very proper balls and parties she attends and inveigles her brother Alex into taking her to Vauxhall Gardens one evening.  Masked and heavily cloaked, she is anticipating an evening of fun and excitement – and before long, she, Alex and his friend , Neville Wolfe, are invited to join a supper party, formed mostly of an older (and faster) set than the ladies and gentlemen she usually associates with.  Neville points out that these people aren’t really fit company for Olivia, but Alex is intent on spending time with a lovely, seductive widow who has caught his eye, and accepts the invitation.

Among the party is the disreputable and devilishly handsome Lord Hugo Alastair, a gentleman Olivia knows by sight but to whom she has never been introduced.  She knows he’s exactly the sort of man her Aunt Cecily would warn her about, but she can’t help the frisson of attraction she feels whenever he looks her way.  When Alex disappears with his widow, the party starts to break up and Olivia – who is by now rather tipsy – is goaded into playing piquet with Lord Clevedon.  When she loses, she panics, and offers her late mother’s ruby necklace as security for her debt, promising to meet with Clevedon at the end of the week to redeem it.

Lord Hugo’s scandalous reputation is well-deserved, but he’s become tired of that lifestyle over the past year or so and is determined to leave it behind.  When Clevedon – who has recognised Olivia in spite of her being masked – confides to Hugo that he intends to find a way to compromise her into marriage, Hugo is disgusted; an emotion compounded when Clevedon also tells him that another of their set has plans to ruin Alex as a way of taking revenge on Alex’s father for something that happened years earlier.  When Hugo sees Olivia being accosted by a group of young men, he intervenes and escorts her home; feeling guilty at the fact he’d encouraged her to play with Clevedon, he offers to help Olivia to redeem her mother’s necklace, and also says he will help to keep an eye on Alex.  He’s a little bewildered by his willingness to involve himself in the Beauchamp’s affairs – and tells himself it’s because Alex reminds him of himself at that age, and the idea of his being used to punish his father is abhorrent.  As for Lady Olivia… well, his attraction to her is inconvenient, but he knows there is no way he would ever be considered a suitable acquaintance and is determined to do the right thing and avoid coming into contact with her where possible.

The fact that Lady Olivia has other ideas is going to wreak havoc on his good intentions.

Ms. Preston does an excellent job of setting up the storylines which bring Hugo into the lives of the Beauchamp family, and she presents him as a responsible, mature young man who is ready for the next phase of his life, and who tries hard to do the right thing, no matter how difficult the circumstances.  He’s a well-rounded individual who has overcome a childhood marred by a violent father, and is at last discovering the joy of having family around him whom he loves and who love him.  He’s a lovely hero, but Olivia comes across as a bit of a spoiled brat for much of the story, and I couldn’t quite believe she deserved to end up with such a decent chap as Hugo.  She’s cognisant of her privilege and grateful for her loving family, but her insecurities push her into doing some silly things that could have adverse effects on others besides herself, which is something I always dislike.  That said, the author clearly shows why Olivia behaves as she does, and her reactions to being hurt or upset – to be dismissive,  haughty or deliberately contrary – ring very true as the sorts of thing that an eighteen year-old girl would do in an attempt at self-protection.

But in spite of that, I found it hard to warm to her because she continues to make poor decisions, until a potentially disastrous event towards the end finally forces her to grow up a little; it was only in the last few chapters that I started to feel that she could make a fitting partner for Hugo. I didn’t dislike Olivia; she’s not a bad person and her concern for Alex is admirable, but her immaturity too often causes her to come across as selfish.

That’s really my only issue with the book, because the rest of it – the plot, the familial relationships, the hero and the romance – are all well written and developed.   All in all, Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake is an engaging and satisfying historical romance, and I’m recommending it in spite of my reservations.

A Lady in Need of an Heir by Louise Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She needs an heir … But not a husband!

Gabrielle Frost knows that marrying any man would mean handing over control of her beloved family vineyard in Portugal to her new husband. She won’t take that risk. But she needs an heir! So when Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, arrives to escort her to London, Gabrielle wonders… What if this former soldier, with his courage, strength and dangerous air, could be the one to father her child?

Rating: B+

A Lady in Need of an Heir sees author Louise Allen skilfully gender-flipping the frequently used trope of a man needing to marry in order to produce an heir.  In this story, a successful, independent businesswoman, whose family has been making wine and port in the Douro Valley for generations, is unwilling to cede control of her family legacy to a husband and has to find an alternative means to preserve it.

Nathaniel Graystone,  Earl of Leybourne, has finally bowed to the pressure (read: constant nagging) of his godmother to travel to Portugal in order to persuade her niece to return to England, make a good marriage and settle down.  Gabrielle Frost is a single lady of aristocratic lineage with no immediate family and should certainly not be living on her own and running a business – it’s just not done.  Gray – a former soldier who knows the area well from his time spent with the English army during the Penisular War – quickly realises that the task his godmother has set isn’t going to be as easy as he had initially thought, because Miss Frost is clearly clever, determined and knows her own mind.  It’s obvious that she has a very firm grasp of her business and very strong attachment to the Quinta do Falcão, which has been in her family for generations.

Gaby knows full well that her aunt is aiming to wed her to her foppish cousin George, which, Gray has to admit, would be a terrible match. Still, he is dead set against her remaining in Portugal on her own, no matter that he can see how capable and strong-minded she is. But over the next few days, as he begins to fully appreciate what the business means to Gaby and to see how skilfully she runs it, he starts to change his opinions somewhat.

Gaby loves the work she does and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments.  Unfortunately however, the death of her younger brother during the recent war has left her with no one to pass Frost’s on to when the time comes; she has no close relatives and the idea of one day selling the business to a stranger is not one she relishes.  Equally, the idea of marrying in order to produce an heir is abhorrent and would mean losing all control over the business; the law states that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”  And she is certainly not going to risk putting Frost’s into the hands of a man who could sell it off on a whim or run it into the ground.

After a slightly awkward misunderstanding with a close neighbour, Gaby decides that perhaps a visit to London for a couple of months might be a good idea.  She can make it clear to her aunt that she has no intention of marrying George – or anyone – and perhaps it will give her the opportunity to carry out the daring scheme she has concocted.  The only way to preserve Frost’s legacy will be to conceive a child without marriage – but it must appear as though she’s been married and widowed when she returns to Portugal, so that the child will not bear the stain of illegitimacy.  Of course, the man she chooses must be discreet, and then agree to vanish from her life and have no contact with her or their child ever again.

She recognises from the outset that this will be far from an easy task, but is sure it’s the only way to secure Frost’s for future generations.  And her growing feelings for Gray – and his for her – are adding layers of complication to an already difficult situation. Gaby immediately rules out the idea of asking Gray to father her child; using him in that way would be unfair, and the idea of marriage is equally impossible.  Even if Gray had not made clear his disinclination to marry again, he has responsibilities that require his continued presence in England, while Gaby’s home and work is in Portugal, making a future together an impossible dream for both of them.

Ms. Allen does an extremely good job with her characterisation of Gaby as an independent woman of good sense with a mind and opinions of her own.  Even better, the setting and the links that have existed between England and Portugal since the fourteenth century make Gaby’s situation an extremely plausible one that requires no mental gymnastics on the part of the reader to accept.  The scenes in which we witness Gaby’s knowledge of her estate and the business of wine and port production add interest and colour to the story (without bogging it down), and I really appreciated the presence of a strong heroine who doesn’t need to prove herself to anyone, or prove herself by making others look weak.  Gaby knows who she is and is comfortable in her own skin.

Gray is an admirable hero with a similar sense of self and aura of competence that are very attractive.  His gradually dawning respect for Gaby is well done and I liked that, even when he doesn’t agree with her living alone and working for her living, he can appreciate her skill and understand the reasons behind her reluctance to marry.  The attraction between the couple does spring up a little quickly perhaps, but there is plenty of chemistry between them and the author takes the time to develop their relationship before they do more than exchange a few heated kisses.  One of the most satisfying things about this romance is the honesty between Gray and Gaby.  There is a misunderstanding near the end, which serves to inject a bit of uncertainty into the latter part of the story, but for most of the book, the two communicate well, and don’t shy away from telling each other the truth, even when that truth is difficult to face.  The one false note struck is in the backstory of Gray’s unhappy first marriage, which he seems to have been given in order to provide Reasons for his reluctance to remarry; but once he’s fallen for Gaby, he realises he’s crashed through that roadblock, so I had to wonder why the author had chosen to include it in the first place.

That’s the only thing that didn’t really work for me in A Lady in Need of an Heir, which is otherwise a refreshingly different historical romance and one I’m happy to recommend to others.

The Mysterious Lord Millcroft (King’s Elite #1) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life as a duchess…

Or something much more dangerous..?

Constantly told her beauty and charm is all she has to offer, Lady Clarissa is intent on marrying a duke. And intriguing spy Sebastian Leatham will help her! Only first she’ll assist him with his new assignment—playing the part of confident aristocrat Lord Millcroft. Sebastian awakens a burning desire within Clarissa which leaves her questioning whether becoming a duchess is what she truly longs for…

Rating: B+

The ever reliable Virginia Heath kicks off her new King’s Elite series with The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, which pairs a daring, courageous spy who is hopeless around women with one of society’s reigning beauties, both of them characters we’ve met briefly before in the author’s Wild Warriners series.  Ms. Heath spins a thoroughly entertaining yarn featuring two engaging principals who have to fight their own insecurities while working together to uncover the identity of a traitor, keeping the romance front and centre as they discover they’re capable of more than they ever thought possible.

Sebastian Leatham works alongside Jacob Warriner (A Warriner to Seduce Her) as part of the group of agents working to shut down a smuggling operation that is channelling funds to Napoléon.  Injured in the course of his most recent assignment, Seb is recovering from a gunshot wound at the home of Jacob’s brother Doctor Joe Warriner, and his wife, Bella. He is chafing at his enforced idleness and desperate to get back to his assignment of tracking down the man he and his fellow agents know only as ‘The Boss’, the leader of the smuggling ring.

If you’ve read A Warriner to Tempt Her, then you’ll likely recall Lady Clarissa Beaumont, the beautiful debutante with whom Joe was briefly infatuated before he fell in love with her sister.  In that story, Clarissa came off as rather shallow, a social butterfly interested only attracting a high-status husband.  When we meet her again here, she’s still pursuing that aim, but we’re quickly shown that there’s more to Clarissa than it at first seemed; she’s a beauty, yes, but her perfectly poised veneer hides some deep-seated insecurities. She’s very well aware that her status as the reigning toast of the ton is a fickle one, and that time is running out if she’s to garner a proposal from the handsome young Duke of Westbridge, who has been half-heartedly courting her over the past two years, but has not yet proposed. Now, however, another – younger – lady appears to have caught his eye, and Clarissa is having to work harder than ever to keep his attention.

Tired and worn down by the continual falsity and back-stabbing of London society, she needs a few days away from town to regroup and flees to her sister’s Nottinghamshire home, desperate to be able to drop her mask and stop pretending for a little while.  She’d forgotten Bella had a guest, so is unprepared to come face-to-face with a stranger, let alone a handsome one who appears to be able to see right through her.

Seb hasn’t expected another guest, and his first sight of Clarissa renders him speechless. Literally.  He might be intelligent and brave when it comes to his work, but the presence of women renders him tongue-tied and clumsy; beautiful ones make him even moreso and  Clarissa Beaumont is the most exquisite thing he’s ever seen.  His typical reaction to his inadequacy is to attempt to cover it with a gruffness that borders on the unfriendly – but it doesn’t take him long to realise that Clarissa’s perfect, vibrant exterior is an extremely well-constructed façade… and to want to know more about the real woman behind it.

Some weeks later, Seb is back in London and is not at all pleased with his latest assignment.  The King’s Elite has received information that two members of the nobility may be involved with the smuggling ring, and Seb is instructed to attend Viscount Penhurt’s upcoming house party in order to gather information on the man’s activities.  Seb’s normal method of working is to keep to the shadows and disappear into the background, and the idea of having to be so visible makes him apprehensive. In addition, the thought of having to mix with the aristocracy brings to mind many self-doubts and insecurities, but his objections are brushed aside. He’ll be posing as the recently-arrived Lord Millcroft, a gentleman of large fortune and unscrupulous reputation who has spent most of his life in the Antipodes and is now looking for investment opportunities in England.

The Penhurst house party offers Clarissa’s last chance to land her duke.  She’s convinced that once she’s a duchess her deficiencies – she is unable to read very well, and thus believes she must be stupid – will no longer matter as she’ll have a title and an army of servants to hide behind.  She’s surprised to encounter Sebastian Leatham there, however, and even more surprised when he’s introduced to her as Lord Millcroft. Realising there must be something afoot, she refrains from exposing him, and having listened to his explanation, offers her help.  Spending time with and appearing to be smitten with the dangerously handsome lord whose aloof, confident persona has set the ladies a-twitter will be the perfect way to make her duke jealous, and giving Seb her ‘seal of approval’ will go a long way towards ensuring his acceptance amongst the aristocratic guests, thus enabling him to go about making the acquaintance of the men he’s been sent there to investigate.

Ms. Heath does a great job of combining the romance with the espionage plotline, and never sacrifices the development of the one in favour of the other.  Seb and Clarissa have both spent most of their lives hiding behind masks, and I loved the way they gradually reveal their true selves to one another and in doing so, come to realise that many of the things they’d believed about themselves are wrong.  They’re smitten with each other from their first meeting, but Clarissa’s belief that she needs to continue to hide her shortcomings behind an illustrious title at first prevents her from realising the depth of her attraction to Seb and the true nature of her feelings for him, while Seb’s anxieties about his illegitimacy and his unpolished manner – which Clarissa finds a refreshing change from all the pompous, puffed-up men she normally encounters – hold him back from seeing himself as a proper match for a diamond of the first water like Clarissa. Seb finds Clarissa “sharp and funny and hugely entertaining”, and helps her to realise there’s more to her than her pretty face; Clarissa shows Seb that his birth and his background don’t matter and that his kind, caring and honourable nature make him more than equal to any lord.

The one thing that dinged the book for me is the contrived misunderstanding towards the end.  It’s not hard to see it coming, and given Seb’s insecurities, it’s just about plausible that he might believe the falsehoods he’s told, but it’s a close-run thing; and his refusal to speak to Clarissa to clear things up straight away just adds to the implausibility of the whole situation.

Even so, I’ve yet to read a book by Virginia Heath that has disappointed me, and she’s one of the few writers of historical romance currently writing who really stands out from the crowd.  2018 has been a particularly disappointing year for the genre, but Ms. Heath is somehow managing to buck the trend, having published ten novels over the past couple of years that have all earned B grades or above (including several DIKs) from me, which is quite a feat.  The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, is a tender, sensual romance wrapped around an intriguing plot, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the King’s Elite.

Besotted With the Viscount by Susanna Malcolm (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

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Lord Gideon Birch, wounded former naval Captain and freshly minted Viscount, has a colorful history as a renowned lover of women. But a decade at war has transformed this sensual rake, and what he wants now is only to live a life on his own terms. And so he comes to the quietest village in England, searching for serenity, and instead encounters an astonishingly enthralling pair of green eyes that unsettle his carefully constructed world.

Though she would love nothing more than to leave Littleover, Miss Theadosia Ridley is sorely hampered by a lack of funds. Desperately trying to earn enough to feed herself and her ailing family servant, she must reluctantly accept Lord Birch’s opportune offer of employment: He needs her and her knowledge of Greek to catalog and translate the extensive library he’s accumulated over the course of the war. Dubious of his motives, she vows to keep her distance from the dashing newcomer. But time in his company unveils a compelling man far more complex than his shallow reputation would lead one to believe.

Can she uphold her vow not to succumb to his charms?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – C

Susanna Malcolm’s Besotted with the Viscount is a fairly low-angst tale set in a small English village, which sees two people who don’t quite fit in discovering that they fit in with each other rather well. It’s a leisurely-paced, character-driven tale, that starts well, but drags in the middle and then resorts to a rather clichéd Big Misunderstanding in order to create some much-needed tension towards the end.  The principals are likeable for the most part, although I found the heroine to be rather too negative, and I can’t deny there were times I thought both principals needed a slap!

Captain Lord Gideon Birch, younger brother of an earl, has recently been ennobled in recognition of his service during the recent wars.  Widely regarded as a hero, he has no wish to be continually reminded of his life in the Navy, a career forced upon him by his family and which he hated.  Now retired due to a serious injury to his knee, he wants nothing more than to live quietly somewhere as far from the sea as possible, and has purchased a property in the vicinity of the remote village of Littleover in Derbyshire.

Thea Ridley is the daughter of a scholar and lived most of her life in Greece before returning to England following the deaths of her parents.  She lives in a small cottage with her elderly companion and is barely making ends meet, so when the opportunity arises to work for the captain as a kind of librarian – Lord Birch has acquired a large number of Greek texts he cannot read (he doesn’t know Greek) – she jumps at the chance to earn some money, with a view to making enough to be able to leave England and make a home in Italy.

It’s a nice way of getting the two together, but I couldn’t help asking myself how it was that neither of them thought it improper to be alone together so often.  I suppose it could be that Gideon regarded Thea as a servant and therefore without a reputation to worry about, but that’s clearly not the case, given that they first meet at a social event.  He’s immediately smitten by her beautiful face (and in fact, if anyone is besotted in this story, it’s him), so when the local vicar suggests she would be the ideal person to catalogue and translate his books, he jumps at the chance to have her in his house and hopes to get to know her. But Gideon’s reputation as a rake and libertine is widely known, so Thea, who is still getting over being thrown over by the young man she’d expected to marry – is wary, of Gideon and of men in general.

This is a romance novel, so I don’t need to spell out where things are headed. Thea is equally taken with the handsome captain, but keeps reminding herself that Men Are Not To Be Trusted and remains in denial about the truth of her feelings for Gideon.  Until, that is, her former love arrives back in the village accompanied by his new – pregnant – wife (whom he married for money), and promptly propositions Thea, intending to make her his mistress.  She’s so furiously indignant, she goes back to Gideon’s house, figures if all men are going to think she’s a whore, she might as well be one, and jumps Gideon – much to his delight.

Things between them are fairly blissful (fortunately, Gideon has hardly any servants, so there’s nobody to witness them getting it on in all the rooms in the house) – although at no point does he, a gentleman, mention marriage – until the Big Mis kicks in near the end.  Without spoilers, something happens to Thea which turns the whole village against her, and when details reach Gideon – who has had to go away for a week – he immediately believes the worst, and, on returning to Littleover, makes no attempt to see or speak to Thea to get her side of the story.

Needless to say, Gideon’s behaviour at that point is unforgiveable and I didn’t blame Thea for the decision she makes afterward.  All is happily resolved, of course, but I have to say that while I generally liked Gideon, his lack of faith in Thea in the final stages of the novel left a nasty taste in my mouth.

It will come as no surprise when I say that the narration was by far the strongest part of this audiobook.  Unfortunately, however, not even the velvet tones of Nicholas Boulton were enough to raise the book above the average, and actually, it’s the first time I’ve ever said that I wished he’d been given better material to work with, as so far, the authors he’s narrated for in the romance genre – Laura Kinsale, Alexis Hall, Elizabeth Kingston – are all top-notch.  His performance is excellent, as usual; his interpretations of the various characters are fabulous, they’re all very clearly differentiated, and his ability to get to the emotional heart of any given scene is superb.  But ultimately, the story is weak and the heroine is difficult to warm to, so in spite of Mr. Boulton’s best efforts – wonderful though they are – Besotted by the Viscount is rather a middling affair.