A Lady Becomes a Governess (Governess Swap #1) by Diane Gaston

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Lady Rebecca Pierce escapes her forced betrothal when the ship she’s on is wrecked. Assuming the identity of a governess she believes has drowned, she enters the employ of brooding Lord Brookmore, who’s selflessly caring for his orphaned nieces. Inconveniently, she’s extremely attracted to the Viscount…but her only chance of happiness is tied to the biggest risk: revealing the truth about who she really is…

Rating: C-

In this latest offering from Diane Gaston, two women from very different stations in life swap roles and, as promised by the book’s title, The Lady Becomes a Governess . The premise intrigued me, but misgivings set in early on when the two ladies, Lady Rebecca Pierce and Miss Claire Tilson, who meet while on a voyage from Ireland to England, discover their uncanny (and hugely convenient) resemblance to one another. As I read on, I was confronted by a series of contrivances, unlikely circumstances and clichés; the characters were dull as ditchwater, the romance non-existent, and the only spark of life in the whole novel was provided by the hero’s horrid fiancée, a stereotypical evil-other-woman type whose machinations, while predictable and ridiculously hackneyed, did at least provoke a reaction other than boredom.

Lady Rebecca is being forced by her half-brother, the Earl of Keneagle, to marry the elderly Lord Stonecroft and is en route to England for her wedding. Needless to say, she’s not looking forward to her life as the wife of an elderly baron who only wants a young brood-mare, but the earl wants his half-sister off his hands and marrying her off is the easiest way to do it. As a caper to take their minds off the fates awaiting them, she and Clare – who is travelling to England in order to take up a post as a governess – swap clothes and pretend to be each other, even going so far as to fool Rebecca’s starchy maid (who is laid low by mal de mer) into believing that Claire is Rebecca. What larks!

Until, that is, the ship is hit by a terrible storm. Around three-quarters of the passengers are lost, and Claire is one of them. Rebecca remembers getting into a small rowing boat and then falling into the sea, but nothing more when she awakens in a soft bed in an unfamiliar room to find an equally unfamiliar gentleman sitting at her bedside. Assailed by guilt that she survived where others did not, Rebecca is at first not at all sure what to do, and then realises she has been presented with an opportunity to escape her unwanted marriage. Learning that the gentleman at her side is Garret, Viscount Brookmore, who had engaged Claire as governess to his two recently orphaned nieces, Rebecca decides to continue the deception she and Claire had practiced aboard ship. After all, she’s doing the poor little girls a kindness by not being yet another person supposed to look after them who has abandoned them by dying.

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

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TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

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Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.

Lord Stanton’s Last Mistress (Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies #3) by Lara Temple

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She saved his life…

Now he can’t resist her!

Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies story: Lord Stanton’s stay on the island of Illiakos is shrouded in memories of fever and his mysterious nurse. Years later, an Illiakan royal visit to Stanton Hall reveals the princess’s chaperon Christina James is the woman who saved his life! Alexander is a master of control, but Christina makes him long to unleash the sinful side he’s buried…and unlock her passionate nature too!

Rating: B-

Lord Stanton’s Last Mistress is the final book in Lara Temple’s Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies trilogy, which features the members of the ‘Wild Hunt’, three men who have been friends since their schooldays and who served together during the Napoleonic Wars.  In books one and two, Gabriel, Lord Hunter and Alan, Marquess of Ravenscar met their matches, and now it’s the turn of the enigmatic Alexander, Lord Stanton, a man whose iron self-control has been hard won and whose coolly confident demeanour hides a wealth of hurt and self-recrimination.

When we meet him in the prologue, Alex has been shot and wounded and is being cared for in the palace of King Darius of the small Mediterranean island of Illiakos.  His wound is severe, and as he drifts in and out of consciousness, Alex registers he is being cared for by a woman shrouded in a voluminous veil. Once he’s regained sufficient strength to tease and flirt, Alex tries to get the woman to remove her ‘tent’, but she refuses and continues to tend him from beneath her covering.  In spite of the fact that he can’t see her face, Alex is drawn towards the young woman who so cheerfully disagrees with him and puts him in his place, so much so that he impulsively asks her to leave the island with him when he is well enough to travel.

Christina James is an Englishwoman by birth who has lived at the court of Illiakos for the last eight years.  After the death of her mother when she was ten, she accompanied her father to the island, and quickly became a dear friend and companion of the young Princess Ariadne who was then just four-years-old.  Christina remained on Illiakos following her father’s death, and now aged eighteen, she is bound by ties of love and gratitude to Ari and her father, who has asked Christina (who has inherited her father’s skill as an herbalist) to tend to the wounded Englishman – and insists on her wearing veils to preserve her modesty and reputation.  Rumour has it that the wounded man is as handsome as Apollo, and on first sight of him, Christina has to agree.  But she’s drawn to him for more than his looks; he’s charming, vibrant and funny and Christina is very soon completely infatuated with him.

Six years later, and the impetuous, smilingly flirtatious young man of the prologue has disappeared.  Alex got out of the spying game not long after he left Illiakos, but continues to work for the British government as a diplomat under the auspices of his uncle, Sir Oswald Sinclair.  When Sir Oswald tasks Alex with hosting the upcoming talks between England, Austria, Russia and Illiakos that are designed to secure Illiakos as a naval base in the Mediterranean, Alex is not pleased at the prospect of opening his family home to the delegations.  But his father, the Marquess of Wentworth, has agreed to the idea, so Alex has little choice but to agree and, a few days later, leaves London for Stanton Hall in Berkshire.

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

Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray (Beauchamp Betrothals #3) by Janice Preston


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Love or family…How can she choose between them?

Lady Cecily Beauchamp has always put her family first. Until she falls under the spell of the mysterious Zachary Gray–a man of Romany descent. Knowing her family will forbid their match, Cecily steels herself to do her duty and marry someone else. Only she finds herself irresistibly drawn to Zach as the spark between them ignites a passion neither can deny!

Rating: B

In Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray, the third book in her Beauchamp Betrothals series, author Janice Preston introduces readers to Lady Cecily Beauchamp, thirty-year-old spinster sister of Leo, Duke of Cheriton and his brother, Vernon, who both found their HEAs in the previous books in the series.  It’s a gently moving story in which Cecily, who has devoted her life to her family, finds herself torn between familial love and romantic love; after years of putting others first, can she find the courage to follow her own heart or will the duty and decorum that have always been expected of her prove too strong to overcome?

While Cecily is delighted that both her brothers have found love, she’s finding it difficult to stop herself dwelling on the prospect of the life of ‘maiden-aunt-hood’ that now stretches before her.  At thirty, she’s been on the shelf for some years and has spent the best part of her life running the family home and was the main carer of Leo’s young three children after the death of their mother.  With those children now grown to adulthood and Leo newly married, Cecily’s life has changed irrevocably and she is no longer needed by anyone.

These thoughts weigh heavily on her during Vernon’s wedding, and she is hard pressed to maintain the poise characteristic of her – but maintain it she does, no matter that she’s feeling despondent and very fragile.  But as the day wears on, she finds increasingly difficult to maintain her social mask and escapes into the garden for a few minutes’ peace.  Which is where she literally bumps into the distractingly handsome Mr. Zachary Gray, a fellow guest and friend of the bride’s brother, Daniel Markham.  Mr Gray somehow divines her state of unrest and gently encourages her to share her burdens with him, and even though Cecily knows the damage that could be done to her reputation should she be discovered walking with a man unchaperoned, there’s something about him that draws her, a confidence and self-awareness she finds very attractive.

Cecily continues to think of the mysterious Mr. Gray – Zach, as he asked her to call him – throughout the evening, and they meet again a few times over the next few days.  But all the time, she is conscious that while he might be a friend of the Markhams, Zach is viewed with suspicion and prejudice, even by her brothers, who subtly and then not-so subtly warn her against him.  In any case, Cecily has no hopes in that direction – or so she tries to persuade herself – because she has reached a decision.  A year earlier she had turned down a proposal from Lord Kilburn, a man older than she with a young family; but marriage will mean she can avoid the role of dependent relative, and she decides to see if Kilburn is prepared to renew his offer.

Zach has lived with prejudice for most of his life but he refuses to apologise for who and what he is.  He is actually the son of an earl and a Romany woman who were legally married and disowned by society – after his mother’s death when he was sixteen, he went to live with her people and has continued to follow their way of living ever since.  The author has clearly done her homework on the Romany way of life, and presents it in a subtle way – and she also does a very good job showing the sort of blind prejudice Zach and his people faced, even from people like Cecily’s brothers, who are decent, honourable gentlemen.  Zach is a lovely hero; a man who is comfortable in his own skin, and who has learned the importance of being true to oneself.  He’s honest and genuine, the sort of man who doesn’t need to be high-handed or arrogant because he has nothing to prove to anyone, and he’s completely swoonworthy.

When Zach meets Cecily, he recognises her vulnerability and her desire to do and be more than the perfect lady she has been brought up to be.  He longs to show her how to live for herself and how to listen to her heart; he knows that she isn’t for him, that he shouldn’t be looking for her or spending much time with her, but he can’t help himself.

Before long, however, Leo and Vernon realise that Cecily and Zach have been spending time together, and forbid her to see him again.  Cecily is horribly torn, but the prospect of leaving behind her beloved family and everything she has ever known terrifies her, and here I’ll admit to being in two minds about her.  On the one hand, Cecily is so scared at the thought of striking out on a path different to the one she has followed most of her life that it makes her seem rather insipid.  But on the other, that fear is something we have probably all faced, and in all likelihood, some of us have taken the path of familiarity and of least resistance, even though we suspect doing so might not make us happy.  And in Cecily’s case, her initial choice of the life she knows over the life she could have is perfectly in keeping with the sort of woman she is – one brought up to value propriety, duty and decorum above personal wishes.  So while I can’t deny I was a little disappointed in her at that point, I appreciated that the author has created a heroine who is very much of her time and of her class.  And I definitely appreciated the character growth she exhibits in the second half of the book as she comes to realise that Zach is right and she needs to listen to her heart and reach out for what she wants.

To sum up, Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray is a well-written, strongly characterised and emotionally satisfying story featuring two likeable principals who act, talk and think like adults – something that isn’t always a given in romance novels.  My one real criticism of the book is that while the chemistry between Cecily and Zach is evident, the beginning of their romance is rather abrupt; I wouldn’t quite call it insta-love, but it’s close, and readers are told the pair are falling in love rather than being shown it.  That said, this is nonetheless a story I’m happy to recommend to anyone in search of a low-angst, sweetly sensual historical romance.

Someone to Care (Westcott #4) by Mary Balogh

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Two years after the death of the Earl of Riverdale, his family has overcome the shame of being stripped of their titles and fortune–except for his onetime countess, Viola. With her children grown and herself no longer part of the social whirl of the ton, she is uncertain where to look for happiness–until quite by accident her path crosses once again with that of the Marquess of Dorchester, Marcel Lamarr.

Marcel Lamarr has been a notorious womanizer since the death of his wife nearly twenty years earlier. Viola caught his eye when she herself was a young mother, but she evaded his seduction at the time. A prize that eluded him before, she is all the more irresistible to him now although he is surprised to discover that she is as eager now for the excitement he offers as he is himself.

When the two defy convention and run away together, they discover that the ties of respectability are not so easily severed, and pleasure can ensnare you when you least expect it.

Rating: B+

This fourth book in Mary Balogh’s Westcott series is a gently moving and beautifully observed story about a woman trying to define herself and her purpose in life after the death of the man she had believed, for more than twenty years, to be her husband.  Readers familiar with the series will recall that the Westcotts were thrown into upheaval by the revelation that the head of the family, the Earl of Riverdale, had contracted his second marriage bigamously, rendering his son and two daughters illegitimate and his wife… not his wife at all.

Viola Kingsley had, when a much younger woman, been pretty much sold into marriage to Humphrey, the Ear of Riverdale, who was in desperate need of her large dowry.  For more than twenty years, she had been the perfect wife, mother and countess; composed, confident, poised and dignified, she had been widely respected and, in spite of the fact that her marriage was not at all happy, she had a comfortable life, children she adored, friends and such occupation as she desired.

Two years earlier, however, she discovered that her life had been based on a lie, that she was not and had never been the Countess of Riverdale at all, but that she had lived in sin with the Earl for more than two decades.  In shame and humiliation, and shunned by society, she fled with her daughters, Camille and Abigail, to her mother’s home in Bath and then, with Camille about to be married, Viola left Abigail with her mother and went to live with her brother, a country vicar, and re-assumed her maiden name.  But she couldn’t remain with her brother forever – and when she was reunited with the family, was surprised and touched when her husband’s legitimate daughter Anna (the Duchess of Netherby) asked her to return, with Abigail, to her previous home at Hinsford.  Viola has been a mess of roiling emotions for the past couple of years; feeling she has no right to be counted as one of the Westcott family, she has repeatedly tried to distance herself from them, only to be brought back to the fold by the generous and sympathetic group of people who, regardless of legalities, continue to regard Viola as one of their own.

At the end of the previous book, Someone to Wed, we learned that Viola had, without telling anyone where she was going, absented herself from the family gathering celebrating the birth of Camille’s son.  But Viola has finally snapped.  The love and acceptance she has encountered from her not-family is stifling her, and although she knows she is being incredibly ungrateful, she just can’t bear to be around them.  For two years she has tried to disappear into the background, maintaining a façade of quiet acceptance, internalising her own pain and suffering – and she can’t do it any more. She needs to figure out who and what she is – she has spent her forty-two years being a countess, a wife, a daughter, a mother… but who is she now?

When the hired carriage she is travelling in needs to be repaired, Viola breaks her journey at an inn, where she encounters someone she hasn’t seen in almost fifteen years – the austerely handsome and compellingly attractive Mr. Marcel Lamar, a man whose reputation as an inveterate womaniser has only grown over the years.  Their last encounter had been at a ball when Viola, who was deeply infatuated with Marc, but was nonetheless a faithful wife in spite of the unhappiness of her marriage, had rebuffed his flirtation and told him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone – and he took her at her word.

Marc has, for the past two years, been the Marquess of Dorchester, although it appears that Viola is unaware of this and still refers to him as “Mr.” – he doesn’t bother to correct her.  He is widely known to be a rake, reputed to be a man without a heart and doesn’t put himself out for anyone or anything.  He has stopped at an inn on his way to pay one of his semi-annual visits to his country seat where he will spend a couple of days with his twins, Bertrand and Estelle who are nearing their eighteenth birthdays, and then he will disappear back to London and his own life, leaving them in the capable hands of their aunt, to whom he entrusted them following his young wife’s death almost twenty years previously.

He is somewhat surprised to recognise Viola when she arrives at the inn, and not at all surprised to find that he is as attracted to her now as he was the last time he’d seen her.   They strike up a conversation and agree to spend the next day together, and Marc delights in watching Viola gradually breaking out of her carefully constructed shell of dignity and propriety to reveal a woman with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, who does not stand on ceremony and, he suspects, is possessed of hidden depths of passion he very much hopes to explore.

If you’ve read the synopsis, you’ll know that Viola and Marc agree to run away together to indulge in a brief affair.  Both are running from their families for different reasons, which, in Marc’s case, prove to be especially heartbreaking.  For almost twenty years, he has denied himself the love and affection of his children and those around him because of the burden of guilt he carries over the death of his wife, believing himself to be an unworthy and unfit father.  He has deliberately isolated himself, indulging only in physical relationships and thinking himself incapable of falling in love… although of course, what Ms. Balogh does brilliantly is to show him doing just that while completely unaware of what’s happening –  or at least in very deep denial about it.

Equally brilliant is the way Ms. Balogh has so perfectly captured and conveyed Viola’s situation.  She needs time and space to work out who she is and where she goes from here, and much as she loves her daughters and other members of her extended family and feels guilty for not wanting to be with them, she knows she can’t continue as she has been doing and needs to break out of the rut.  I’m sure there are many women who will relate to her predicament whether it be in relation to the loss of a partner or “empty nest” syndrome; there comes a point when we realise we’ve been defining ourselves in one way for many years and that we’re a bit lost when we no longer fit that definition. I applauded Viola for wanting to take time for herself and for being selfish for probably the first time in her life.  She’s a grown woman – why shouldn’t she have an affair with a handsome man?  Provided they’re discreet, they’re hurting no-one – and they both know it’s a finite fling… don’t they?

The first half of the book, in which Viola and Marc embark upon their physical relationship and at the same time develop a friendship outside of the bedroom is beautifully done, peppered with moments of humour and tender affection, insight and longing.  In the second half, however, things start to run away a bit; I won’t spoil the storyline, but while there were things I really liked – such as meeting Marc’s children – there were others that struck me as a bit off, such as Marc jumping to a fairly unwarranted conclusion about Viola’s wishes.  His misguided attempt to protect her reputation is understandable, but there are too many fingers in too many pies, and I just wanted everyone to go home so that Marc and Viola could straighten things out between them without any more needless angst!

Had the second half of Someone to Care continued in the same vein as the first, I probably would be calling it my favourite of the series, but the weaker second half means it just misses that appellation. Still, it’s an excellent addition to the Westcott canon, and I, for one, was delighted to read a story featuring an attractive, vibrant heroine in her forties.  Ms. Balogh once again delivers a character-driven romance of great emotional depth and insight and I’m sure fans will enjoy it.

House of Cads (Ladies of Scandal #2) by Elizabeth Kingston

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Vivez la vie pleinement… Live life to the fullest.

That’s always been Marie-Anne de Vauteuil’s motto. As a Frenchwoman of highly questionable upbringing, she was shunned by genteel society when her fiancé died years ago, leaving her a penniless, fallen woman. Almost married, almost a widow…She retreated to an isolated village where no one knows or cares about her sordid past. And with no one to answer to, she will do as she pleases, including eating cake until her corset strings pop if she so chooses. But then, an invitation to London on a mission of mercy from the very family that cast her aside lands Marie-Anne back in society—and into the arms of a man who can be nothing but trouble.

When life gives you lemons… Make petit fours.

Wealthy American businessman Mason is a) accidentally engaged, b) desperate to get out of it, and c) neither wealthy nor a businessman. Marriage is the last thing on his mind. Money, however, is always of utmost importance. He’s only in London to gather material for the gossip pamphlets he illustrates, his scheme to make as much money as he can before he’s found out and skips town. But when he meets the irresistible Marie-Anne, she makes him rethink his life as a fraud, and for once consider his true talent as an artist. Her carefree attitude about life in general—and sex in particular—has Mason hoping for something he never believed possible: A proper life with a not-so-proper wife.

Rating: B

House of Cads is the sequel to Elizabeth Kingston’s A Fallen Lady, a regency-era romance set in a small English village which introduced us to the lively and unapologetically hedonistic Frenchwoman, Marie-Anne de Vauteuil. Marie-Anne is beautiful, straightforward and unashamed of her colourful past; she’s had lovers, she makes no bones about the fact that she enjoys sex, and when the story opens, she’s a little downcast about the ending of her love affair with the village shoemaker because he’s getting married, and is seeking solace in the form of baked goods – which makes perfect sense to me. The comfort a good loaf and a tasty cake can provide should never be underestimated!

It’s immediately apparent that House of Cads is going to be a story that’s very different in tone to its predecessor, largely due to the force-of-nature that is Marie-Anne. Her perennial good humour, her sparking vivacity and wit and her no-nonsense attitude all speak to her philosophy that one should vivez la vie pleinement – live life to the fullest – and that attitude permeates the book, frequently bringing a smile to the lips as she sets about arranging her friends’ lives with brusque determination while at the same time discovering that perhaps there’s something in her own life that needs attention, too.

Hard on the heels of her disappointment in love (well, in her lover, anyway) comes a completely unexpected invitation from Lady Shipley to stay with the family at their London home. A couple of years earlier, Richard Shipley and Marie-Anne had fallen deeply in love – to horror of his parents who thought Marie-Anne no better than an opportunist whore. Regardless of their displeasure, the couple planned to marry, but Richard died suddenly, just days before the wedding, leaving a devastated Marie-Anne pregnant with his child. The shock of his death, together with his parents’ cruelty in barring her from his funeral brought on a miscarriage, and she retreated to the village of Bartle-on-the-Wold, which is where she met and befriended Helen, the heroine of A Fallen Lady. Marie-Anne is at a loss to explain this sudden turn of events, when she pulls another letter from the envelope, this one from the Shipley’s eldest daughter, Amy, begging her to come because her two younger sisters, Dahlia and Phyllida have attached themselves to unsuitable gentlemen, which is threatening her own engagement to a very proper young clergyman. The prospect of such a delightful spectacle awaiting her in London is just the antidote to boredom Marie-Anne had been looking for, and she immediately accepts the invitation.

Wealthy American businessman Spencer Mason might not speak French, but he knows a coup de foudre when it hits him. Which is exactly what happens in the middle Lady Huntingdon’s ballroom after he’s conversed with the lovely Frenchwoman with the sparkling wit and dimpled smile for all of about five minutes. The problem is, though (well, one of them, at least) is that he’s one of the unsuitable gentlemen to whom one of the Shipley girls has attached herself, and he doesn’t quite know how to disentangle himself from a situation and potential fiancée he really doesn’t want without upsetting the lady, her family or the business that has brought him to London in the first place. The strong mutual attraction that immediately springs up between him and Marie-Anne is an added complication… or perhaps it isn’t, when she tells him that she’s come to London to help sort out the muddled love affairs of the Shipley girls, and proceeds to work out just how to get him off the hook.

Readers learn early on that Mason isn’t who he says he is, and that he actually earns his living as a satirical cartoonist, something he obviously has to keep quiet if he’s to be able to gain entry into the social circles that will afford him the opportunity to observe and gather the information he needs in order to pursue his occupation. Given that both Marie-Anne and Helen have featured in the scandal sheets, it’s not surprising that Marie-Anne is upset to discover Mason’s true profession and reasons for being in London. But she’s discovered something else as well – that he’s a truly gifted artist, who should, she thinks, be using his talent in a far more positive way than just to lampoon the great and the good of English society.

The conflict in the romance derives basically from their opposing views on the nature of Mason’s profession; Marie-Anne thinks he should be doing better by himself, whereas Mason is full of self-doubt about his talent and his abilities, and is reluctant to leave behind the security of something he knows how to do in order to take a leap into the unknown and make a completely different life. Given he’s just twenty-three (to Marie-Anne’s thirty-one) it’s perhaps understandable that he doesn’t yet have the sort of confidence in himself that an older man might have; and I couldn’t help thinking at times that he was in danger of being flattened by the freight-train of energy and ideas that is Marie-Anne. She’s an engaging heroine – straightforward, unashamedly sexual and incredibly loyal to those she loves – but while I certainly appreciated those characteristics, she sometimes comes across as too modern for the time at which the book is set and is so strong a character that she overshadows everyone else in the book, including the hero. I also wasn’t wild about the way that Marie-Anne and Mason are finally able to overcome the issues that are keeping them apart, mostly because the resolution is arrived at courtesy of a big helping hand from another character. I generally prefer it when the principals in a romance work things out without too much outside influence, and while the ‘leg-up’ comes from a place of genuine friendship, it still smacks a little of the deus ex machina.

With all that said, there’s no question that Elizabeth Kingston is a very talented author. She writes with great insight and intelligence and she has a wonderfully deft touch when it comes to on-the-page humour. House of Cads is an enjoyable read with a breath-of-fresh-air heroine and a charming hero with chequered pasts, both of whom come to the realisation that they need to make changes in their attitudes and expectations if they are to live the lives they are meant to live. If you’re looking for a low-angst, sensual and light-hearted historical romance, it’s sure to appeal.

TBR Challenge: The Vicar’s Daughter (Regency Quartet #1) by Deborah Simmons

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Earl meets his match…

The Earl of Wycliffe is in store for a surprise when he buys a new estate. The vicar’s daughter who lives on his land is a curvaceous, green-eyed beauty about to make her debut in the Ton…and he’s assigned to chaperon her!

Max must ensure tempting Charlotte Trowbridge finds a suitable husband in her first Season. But when several men begin to compete for the debutante’s hand, the usually level-headed Max realises he might not want to let her go!

Rating: B-

For my ‘old-skool’ read, I chose a Harlequin Historical from 1995, the first in Deborah Simmons’ Regency QuartetThe Vicar’s Daughter is one of those ‘stuffed-shirt meets wild-child’ romances (although the heroine isn’t really a wild-child as such), and while it’s fairly predictable, it’s a light-hearted, fun read and the two central characters are well-drawn and endearing.  Maximillian Fortescue, Earl of Wycliffe has just inherited Casterleigh, near the village of Upper Bidwell in Sussex,  and is about to pay a half-hour (a suitable length of time for this sort of thing) courtesy  call on the local vicar.  Arrived at the vicarage, Wycliffe – a tightly controlled and rather staid young man – is confronted by a passel of noisy, boisterous children, and, when ushered into the parlour, is arrested by the sight of the lush backside of a young woman who is peering under the sofa.  Wycliffe’s impressions of her lusciousness are bolstered when she finally gets up clutching a pair of kittens; the vicar’s daughter is stunningly beautiful and Wycliffe – who isn’t normally one to languish over a woman’s charms – is pretty much smitten from the get go.  In fact, he’s so smitten that he fails to adhere to his self-imposed schedule and ends up staying for the family dinner, which is full of chatter and laughter and like nothing he’s ever experienced.  He can hardly take his eyes off the lovely Charlotte, yes, but he’s also amazed at the ease with which father and siblings interact with each other and with the way he’s been so quickly and easily accepted by them.

During the visit, Wycliffe learns that Charlotte is soon to depart for London where she is to take part in the Season under the auspices of an elderly cousin, with the intention of finding a husband.  Wycliffe is surprised to find he doesn’t like this idea at all – but tells himself not to be ridiculous and offers to look in on her in London so that he can reassure her father that all is going well.

Naturally, Wycliffe’s role as self-appointed guardian and defender of Charlotte’s honour sees him running off all her potential suitors, even as he is stubbornly denying his own attraction to her and reminding himself that a man of his station cannot possibly marry the daughter of a mere country vicar.

Charlotte might be fresh out of the schoolroom, but she’s no simpering miss; she’s unaffected, intelligent and good-natured, with a good sense of humour and is well aware that making an advantageous marriage is important for her entire family (she has seven brothers and sisters) and not just herself.  The trouble is that she’s also aware that most men are attracted only to her looks and aren’t likely to offer the sort of affection and companionship she longs for in her marriage.  Even though she knows that a man of Wycliffe’s station can’t possibly marry her, she can’t help wishing, and she can’t help loving him and wanting to show him the sort of love and affection she’s come to realise he’s never had in his life.

One of the best things about this type of story is watching the starchy, strictly disciplined hero gradually abandon all his routines as he falls for the heroine, usually without realising it. Wycliffe is widely known for being cold, unemotional and the sort of man you could set your watch by; even his visits to his (former) mistress were on a regular, pre-arranged schedule.  Yet from the moment he sets eyes on Charlotte, he starts to deviate from his routine, to the horror of his secretary and the amusement of Raleigh, Wycliffe’s best friend and hero of The Last Rogue, the fourth (and best) book in this series.

For all the story’s predictability, the romance is well-done, the chemistry between Wycliffe and Charlotte crackles nicely, and there are a few steamy love scenes along the way.  But a real bum note is struck near the end when a seemingly harmless suitor of Charlotte’s turns out to be a drug-crazed madman and attempts to carry her off – twice – in the last chapter or two.  I could have forgiven a bit of tacked-on drama once, but twice was taking it too far and it was incredibly jarring.

Overall though, The Vicar’s Daughter proved to be an enjoyable, low-angst read, and while it’s not going onto my keeper shelf, it was nonetheless entertaining. If you’re looking for an undemanding, upbeat historical that radiates warmth and gentle humour, you might consider checking it out.