Crashing Upwards by S.C. Wynne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Harper Jones is a professional bike courier, and in his business if you don’t ride fast, you don’t make money. His apartment has mice, he’s barely able to scrape up the rent, but at least he’s living life on his terms and doesn’t depend on anyone.

Sam Foster is the gay son of a wealthy conservative senator. He’s noticed Harper before when he’s dropped off packages at his dad’s company, but he’s never had the nerve to speak to his secret crush.

When Sam accidentally hits Harper with his car, Harper’s bike is destroyed and he’s injured seriously enough that he won’t be delivering packages for a while. Sam decides Harper needs rescuing, and he moves in with Harper to take care of him.

Unfortunately, Sam’s politician dad is convinced Harper’s a con-artist and he’ll do whatever it takes to get him away from his son.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C-

Crashing Upwards is a fairly low-drama romance by a new-to-me author, and I picked up the audio to review partly because some of my online friends enjoyed the book, partly because it’s a LAMBDA award winner, and partly because Kale Williams is narrating. I suspect that the award-winner status raised my expectations somewhat, because while the story is engaging enough, it doesn’t really have anything new to offer, and the characters, while likeable, are nothing I haven’t read or listened to before.

That said, the way the two protagonists meet IS unusual. I can’t call it a meet-cute, not when Sam Foster hits Harper Jones with his car, knocks him off his bike and lands him in hospital. Harper regains consciousness to find an unfamiliar man sitting by his hospital bed, apologising and telling him that he’ll take care of him and that his father will pay for a new bike and whatever else he needs. As Harper gradually starts to get a clearer picture of what’s happened, he understands that the man – who introduces himself as Sam Foster – is apologising for hitting him with his car and telling him not to worry about the medical bills or, indeed, about anything because he’ll deal with it all. Harper, who has supported himself since he was sixteen and now earns his living as a bike messenger, can’t NOT worry – about the bills, about his job, about making the rent – so being told he shouldn’t isn’t exactly helping.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Beastly Kind of Earl (Longhope Abbey #2) by Mia Vincy

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An outcast fighting for her future…

Thea Knight loves a spot of mischief. She especially loves her current mischief: masquerading as her sister, while finalizing her scheme to expose the dastardly knaves whose lies ruined her life.

Then big, bad-tempered Lord Luxborough upends her game by maneuvering her into marriage. But it’s her sister’s name on the license, so the marriage won’t be valid. Thea’s idea? Keep pretending to be her sister until she can run away.

A recluse haunted by his past…

Rafe Landcross, Earl of Luxborough, has no love for mischief. Or marriage. Or people, for that matter. The last thing he wants is a wife—but if he marries, he’ll receive a large sum of much-needed money.

Then he learns that Thea Knight is using a false name. Rafe’s idea? Pretend he doesn’t know her true identity, marry her, and send her packing once the money is his.

A compelling attraction that changes their lives

But as passion ignites and secrets emerge, the mutual deception turns tricky fast. Rafe and Thea face irresistible temptations, unsettling revelations, and a countdown to the day when Thea must leave…

Rating: A

When I read Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, near the end of last year, I was impressed and utterly captivated – it made my list of Best Books of 2018.  With its likeable, complex characters, witty dialogue and wonderfully perceptive writing, it stood out like a a highly-polished gemstone amid the generally poor showing made by HR last year, and I, like many fans of the genre, have been eagerly awaiting the author’s next book, hoping for more of the same.  So I’m delighted to report that with A Beastly Kind of Earl, Ms. Vincy is two-for-two; this story of a young woman determined to salvage her reputation after two so-called gentlemen maliciously ruin it, and a reclusive earl carrying a whole shedload of guilt is funny, charming and deceptively insightful, featuring two wonderfully rounded protagonists, an engaging secondary cast and a beautifully developed romance that just oozes sexual tension and chemistry.

About three years before the story opens, Thea Knight, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, is disowned and sent away to live in quiet obscurity as companion to an elderly termagant after she is labelled a “sly, scheming seductress” and accused of attempting to trap a young gentleman into marriage. With her reputation in tatters, the only people not to turn their backs on her are her sister, Helen, and her friend, Lady Arabella Larke; even Thea’s own parents – a pair of social climbers – believe the lies told about her and are adamant that her blackened name must not be allowed to ruin her sister’s marital prospects. They wash their hands of her.

But Thea is not one to be so summarily squashed.  Somehow, she has retained her sense of fun and her natural optimism, and is determined to make sure that society learns the truth about Percy Russell, the son of Lord Ventnor – and to expose his lies.  To this end, she has been saving money in order to have a pamphlet telling her side of the story printed and circulated throughout society, and when the story begins, hopes to soon be able to make plans for its publication.  But first thing first; she has to aid Helen in  her scheme to elope with the young man she loves and has been forbidden to marry… who happens to be Beau Russell, Percy’s brother and Lord Ventnor’s eldest son. Helen and Thea meet at a small coaching inn in Warwickshire in order to switch places; Thea will join a small house-party at Lady Arabella’s home while Helen and her intended make for Gretna to be married.

Rafe Landcross had no thought of inheriting the title of Earl of Luxborough, and certainly didn’t want it at the cost of the lives of his father and two elder brothers.  A large, dark and dour man, he bears the scars of a Jaguar attack sustained in the forests of New Spain (part of Mexico today) and, a keen botanist, much prefers the company of his plants to society.  His reclusiveness and curt, abrasive manner have led to all sorts of rumours circulating about him – including one that he murdered his wife, Lord Ventnor’s daughter.

The subject of nasty rumours herself, Thea is sure this cannot be true, but even so, has no desire to meet Luxborough – which is unfortunate as he, too, is to be a guest at the small party at Arabella’s home. Even though he rarely – if ever – leaves his estate, the earl has been tempted to do so by the prospect of obtaining some rare plant specimens being conveyed there by Lord Ventnor.  But Ventnor wants a favour in return, namely that Rafe should keep Beau away from that “social-climbing seductress Helen Knight”.  Having an agenda of his own, Rafe agrees to this, telling Ventnor that he will marry Helen – but he is fully aware of Thea and Helen’s scheme and has no intention of preventing the match between Helen and Beau.  Instead, he will go along with the deception and marry Thea (as Helen) and gain control of the ten thousand pounds left in trust by his mother.  Because Thea will marry him under a false name, she will not actually be his wife, so Rafe gets what he wants – money to continue his botanical research – doesn’t get what he doesn’t want – a wife – and Ventnor will be apoplectic with rage into the bargain.  Win win.

But he’s reckoned without Thea, her vitality, her enthusiasm and optimism, which are undimmed even in the face of the unkind and unjust treatment she’s been subjected to by those who should have been her staunchest supporters. He initially believes her to be the scheming jezebel gossip says she is, but he cannot reconcile that picture with the winsome and mischievous young woman who gives back every bit as good as she gets.

“We’ve barely met and you’re not very nice.”

“True, but I am an earl.”

“And?”

“Are you saying you do not find me interesting?”

“Not nearly as interesting as you find yourself.”

And Thea can’t help but be fascinated by Rafe, who is as different from the gossip about him as she is from the gossip about her.  He’s gruffly charming and adorably grumpy in a way that makes her yearn to know more about the man she glimpses only briefly, one who is kind, affectionate and funny – and to know why he locks that side of himself away.  His backstory is one marked by tragedy; he blames himself for his first wife’s death and genuinely grieves the father and brothers whose deaths paved his way to the earldom.  The heir who inherits unexpectedly is a frequently seen character in historical romance, but this is one of the few times I can recall that character being so eaten up with grief and guilt and convinced of his own unworthiness.

A Beastly Kind of Earl could be described as one of those buttoned-up-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine tales, but the author has once again managed to put her own spin on a familiar and well-used trope in such a way as to come up with something refreshingly different that transcends it.  The writing is clever, insightful and delightfully nimble, the dialogue sparkles with wit and humour and the author’s shrewd observations about the social conventions that constrained female behaviour are accurate and conveyed with amazing subtlety.  I laughed out loud at Thea’s reaction to mansplaining:

“Oh. You’re going to educate me. Very well.”

She folded her hands and waited politely.

“You don’t sound thrilled,” he remarked.

“On the contrary, my lord. I’m always thrilled when a man wants to tell me all the important things he knows… and if I’m very lucky, you’ll explain at length how you know more about it than anyone else.”

Then this had me laughing even harder;  Rafe and Thea discuss the etymology of the word ‘orchid’ – which is apparently derived from the Greek word for testicles!

“Allow me to confirm that I have understood correctly,” she said, her puzzlement overriding her nerves. “Here is this gorgeous, magnificent flower, and some man – who for unknown reasons is put in charge of naming it – he looks at this gorgeous, magnificent flower and he says ‘By George, that looks like my bollocks’.  And then he says, ‘You know what the world needs now? The world needs more things named after my bollocks.’ So he names this gorgeous, magnificent flower after his bollocks and all the other men look at it and say, ‘How excellent.  It is named after our bollocks.’”

His expression was unreadable as he studied her.  She would not be surprised if he stalked off in disgust at her unladylike speech.

“I must admit,” he finally said, “that us men are immensely fond of our bollocks.”

This is a funny book no question, but the humour never upstages the serious situations faced by the principals or the emotional connection between them.  Thea’s helplessness in the face of the determination of the men who ruined her reputation is a horrible realisation, and Rafe’s backstory, revealed gradually, is truly heartbreaking.  But watching these two wronged people find each other, fall in love and realise they belong together is pure joy; and the icing on the cake is the fact that the chemistry between them is simply scorching.

If you read Ms. VIncy’s début novel, then you’ll probably need no convincing to pick this one up.  But if you’re a fan of historical romance and haven’t yet read her work, then you should get on it right away!  Although this is listed as the second book in the Longhope Abbey series, it works perfectly well as a standalone, and the books can be read in any order.  A Beastly Kind of Earl is, without doubt, one of the best books of 2019.

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

Someone to Remember (Westcott #7) by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s never too late to fall in love . . .

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable – love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again . . .

Rating: B

Someone to Remember is the seventh (and penultimate?) instalment in Mary Balogh’s Westcott saga, which has followed the fortunes of the various members of the large and close-knit Westcott family after the discovery that the late Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had committed bigamy and that his second marriage was therefore invalid.  This discovery naturally had serious repercussions; his son and two daughters lost titles, fortunes and status; his widow couldn’t even claim to have been a wife, and the earldom diverted to a cousin who didn’t want it. Through six books, readers have followed the fortunes of various family members in the wake of these events, and now we come to Matilda, Humphrey’s older sister, a woman of mature years – fifty-six – who has appeared throughout the series as the dutiful spinster aunt who fusses over her mother because it’s something to do and has gradually faded into the background.

In order to understand the relationship in Someone to Remember, it’s necessary to refer back to the previous book in the series, Someone to Honor, so please be aware that this review contains spoilers for that book. Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington returned from fighting at Waterloo to discover his late wife had left their four-year-old daughter in the care of her parents, who are now refusing to return her to his care. Although Gil was an officer, his illegitimacy and humble origins made him unacceptable to his in-laws; his father was a nobleman – Viscount Dirkson – but his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith who refused all offers of support from the viscount, and allowed Gil to believe that he had washed his hands of them.  When Gil joined the army, Dirkson purchased a commission for him, but after that Gil made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with him.

But when Abigail Westcott married Gil, the entire Westcott clan naturally became interested in the situation; and when Matilda learned that Dirkson was Gil’s father, she took the unprecedented – and rather scandalous – step of paying a call upon the gentleman at his home in order to ask him to speak for Gil at the upcoming custody hearing.  It was clear from the moment Dirkson’s name was mentioned that he and Matilda had some shared history, and it’s soon revealed that they had once been in love and hoped to marry, but that Matilda’s parents had opposed the match and persuaded her to give him up.

When Someone to Remember opens, Alex, the Earl of Riverdale, announces that he has invited the viscount to dinner by way of thanks for his help and support in the custody case.  Matilda is profoundly unsettled by this turn of events, but puts a brave face on it, telling herself that she can manage to spend one evening in company with the man with whom she’d once been deeply in love.  She already knows he has aged well, that he’s still handsome and vital, whereas she herself has become somewhat drab and disregarded, especially by her mother, who almost never has a kind word to say to or about her.

Dirkson is hugely conflicted over seeing Matilda again.  On the one hand, he’s angry with her for stirring up emotions he’d thought long dead and buried, but on the other, he can’t seem to stay away from her.  But his anger soon turns from being directed towards Matilda to anger on her behalf when he realizes how invisible she has become to her family.  They don’t mistreat her or ignore her, but none of them really see her:

She was a person by God, even if she was past the age of fifty.  Even if she was a spinster.  She deserved a life.

Someone to Remember is a gentle, charming story of love lost and found.  There’s not a lot of plot, but Mary Balogh excels when it comes to exploring emotions, character and relationships, and she packs quite a lot of that into the short page-count as Matilda and Charles think back on their youthful relationship, ponder their mis-steps and how their choices have shaped their lives ever since.  The best thing about the story, though, is watching Matilda transform from a woman who had dwindled into a shadow of her former self into one revitalised by love and happiness. When we first met her earlier in the series, she came across as a rather stereotypical spinster aunt, somewhat fussy and always on the verge of reaching for the smelling salts, but as the series has progressed, she has been revealed to be a more complex character, one with a dry wit and sense of humour that is perhaps a little rusty from disuse, and a woman with a mind of her own who is compassionate and deeply loyal to her family and those she loves.  Fellow reviewer Janet Webb wrote an interesting piece on Matilda’s presence and influence throughout the series, and if you’ve read it, many of the pointers to the things that have brought Matilda to this point in life have been dotted throughout the series like a trail of breadcrumbs, and it’s been masterfully done.

Dirkson’s backstory isn’t one filled with sunshine and roses either.  After Matilda rejected him, he went off the rails a little (and had the affair that produced Gil) and earned himself a reputation as a rake of the first order.  His marriage was arranged and while not unhappy, was not one in which either party felt love or passion for the other (he was wayward and she had no real interest in men) but the connection he feels to Matilda has endured and starts coming back to life as he realises that he very much wants to take advantage of the second chance life is offering him.

There’s an engaging secondary cast consisting of the younger generation of Westcotts, I enjoyed watching Matilda’s mother admit to having made a mistake when she talked her daughter out of marrying Dirkson -and for anyone wondering about the state of Gil’s relationship with his father, there’s more on that, too.  Someone to Remember is a quiet story but a satisfying one that shows it’s never too late to find – or rekindle – love.

Note: The Amazon listing says this is 272 pages (and it’s priced accordingly), but Someone to Remember is a novella of around 110 pages; the rest of the page count is taken up with sample chapters of other books in the series.

It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Some of Ben Sedgwick’s favorite things:

  • Helping his poor parishioners
  • Baby animals
  • Shamelessly flirting with the handsome Captain Phillip Dacre

After an unconventional upbringing, Ben is perfectly content with the quiet, predictable life of a country vicar, free of strife or turmoil. When he’s asked to look after an absent naval captain’s three wild children, he reluctantly agrees, but instantly falls for the hellions. And when their stern but gloriously handsome father arrives, Ben is tempted in ways that make him doubt everything.

Some of Phillip Dacre’s favorite things:

  • His ship
  • People doing precisely as they’re told
  • Touching the irresistible vicar at every opportunity

Phillip can’t wait to leave England’s shores and be back on his ship, away from the grief that haunts him. But his children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors and he must set things right. The unexpected presence of the cheerful, adorable vicar sets his world on its head and now he can’t seem to live without Ben’s winning smiles or devastating kisses.

In the midst of runaway children, a plot to blackmail Ben’s family, and torturous nights of pleasure, Ben and Phillip must decide if a safe life is worth losing the one thing that makes them come alive.

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B

I enjoyed reading Cat Sebastian’s It Takes Two to Tumble when it was published back in 2017, so naturally, I was pleased to see it make its way into audio with the always reliable Joel Leslie at the helm. It’s the first book in the Seducing the Sedgwicks series about a group of siblings who had a very unconventional upbringing in a household comprising their father – a poet and advocate of free love – his wife and his mistress and various hangers-on. Things were fairly chaotic; the Sedgwick offspring had mostly to fend for themselves and as they grew to adulthood, the eldest, Benedict, shouldered the responsibility for looking out for his brothers. It’s an engaging story in which the parallels with The Sound of Music are impossible to miss (country-vicar-meets-grouchy-sea-captain-with-unruly-children) in spite of the absence of Dame Julie Andrews and ‘Do, Re, Mi’!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Someone to Honour (Westcott #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Abigail Westcott’s dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she’s grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies. But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon.

Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn’t take lightly to being condescended to – secretly because of his own humble beginnings. If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B-

The heroine of Someone to Honor, the sixth book in Mary Balogh’s series about the Westcott family is Abigail Westcott, the younger daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale. She was approaching her come out and her eighteenth birthday when her father was discovered to have married her mother bigamously, meaning that she and her siblings – sister Camille and brother Harry – were illegitimate and that Harry could not inherit the Riverdale title (which passed to their cousin, Alex). Abby is now twenty-four, and has spent most of the six intervening years resisting her family’s urging to resume her life in society and find a husband. Although at the time, the news of her family’s change of status was hugely upsetting, she now realises that what happened has set her free in a way she could never have imagined being before. Without the pressure of having to conform to society’s expectations of the daughter of an earl, Abby has been able to take the time to discover who she truly is as a person and to work out what she really wants in life – and has found that the idea of remaining unmarried is no longer as scary as it was six years earlier when she was expected to make a match befitting her status. As her mother and siblings had to forge their own paths to happiness, so Abby has begun to forge hers – the trouble is convincing her loving, well-meaning but sometimes misguided family that she knows what she’s doing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: C

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

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

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

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

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

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