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.

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

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

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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.

Mrs Sommersby’s Second Chance (The Sommersby Brides #4) by Laurie Benson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s played Cupid for others

Now she’s met her own unlikely match!

Widowed society matchmaker Mrs Clara Sommersby thinks handsome self-made businessman Mr William Lane is just the man for her neighbour’s overlooked daughter. He’s successful and confident, if somewhat emotionally distant, until suddenly—shockingly—his attention turns to Clara herself! She thought her days of romance were over, but is this dashing younger man intent on giving her a second chance?

Rating: B

Since we ran our feature on Seasoned Romances over at AAR, I’ve been keeping an eye out for romances featuring more mature heroines, who seem to crop up less frequently in historical romances than in other sub-genres.  I was pleased to learn that Laurie Benson’s Mrs. Sommersby – eponymous heroine of the final book in her Sommersby Brides series – is an independent widow in her forties.  Having spent the previous books in the series seeking out suitable matches for her beloved nieces, in Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance, she gets her own happily ever after with a handsome and successful businessman eight years her junior.

William Lane has travelled to Bath in order to pursue an investment opportunity and goes to the famed Pump Room to do a bit of research.  He owns the coffee house next door to the popular Fountain Head Hotel (where he is staying while in the city) and recently having discovered the existence of an underground (and capped off) hot spring in the coffee house’s cellar, intends to make the hotel’s owner an offer to purchase the establishment so he can develop both properties into a spa. Bath may not be the magnet it once was for members of the ton, but the new and upcoming middle classes are visiting in increasing numbers and Lane is keen to attract a wealthy investor or two.

In the decade since she was widowed, Mrs. Clara Sommersby has discovered she possesses sound business sense and the ability to make shrewd decisions.  Married for a number of years to a man who was hopeless with money, they were on the verge of financial ruin when he died, and Clara is determined never to find herself in such a position again.  After her husband’s death, she decided to invest the money she had left rather than dwindle into the life of a paid companion or dependent relative, and purchased the Fountain Head Hotel.  For the sake of her reputation as a gentlewoman, Clara keeps her ownership of the hotel a secret, and the day to day management is undertaken by her cousin, Mr. Edwards.

She and Lane meet in the Pump Room, where she observes him closely scrutinising his glass of mineral water and after they catch each other’s eye, they strike up a conversation about the health benefits of the spring water and the hot baths.  There’s a definite frisson of attraction between them  but they are separated before they can learn each other’s names or how they might find each other again.

Both Lane and Clara find themselves dwelling on that meeting over the next few days, and luckily for them, fate – in the form of Clara’s boisterous puppy, Humphrey – brings them together once more when Lane is able to help untangle Clara from a too-long leash and some bushes when her dog becomes a little too enthusiastic on his walk.  From then on, both of them find themselves consciously looking out for each other at the various events and entertainments they attend; even though Clara insists she’s too old for Lane, and that she has no intention of marrying again and surrendering her hard-won independence to a husband, she can’t deny her growing attraction to and desire for him.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a low-drama, character-driven romance between a mature couple who have a lot in common, despite the personality and class differences lying between them.  Clara isn’t titled, but she moves in the best social circles while Lane is a foundling – an illegitimate orphan – who is in trade; she’s outgoing and bubbly while Lane is perhaps a little too serious – yet they have both worked hard for what they have and are determined to succeed in their future ventures.  The chemistry between them simmers nicely, the romance evolves subtly and naturally as their friendship deepens and while the single love scene near the end is fairly brief, it doesn’t lack heat. The reader knows from the start that there’s conflict on the horizon and wonders how Clara and Lane will handle it, and I was pleased when Ms. Benson wisely opted not to put them through some big bust up when they find out the truth – that Clara is the owner of the hotel key to Lane’s business plans, and that he is the man behind the purchase offer.  After their initial shock, they talk things through and find a way forward together – but then, a couple of chapters before the end,  an eleventh-hour conflict is inserted which is based purely on an assumption made by Clara which has very little foundation and is certainly not rooted on something Lane has ever said.  So I had to knock a grade point or two off for that, which is a shame, as it was the only false note struck in the book.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a charming historical romance featuring an engaging secondary cast and a pair of attractive, down-to-earth leads.  If you’re looking for a story devoid of overblown drama and characters who act their ages rather than their shoe-sizes, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Arctic Sun (Frozen Hearts #1) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He’s built a quiet life for himself in Alaska. But it doesn’t stand a chance against the unrelenting pull of a man who’s everything he shouldn’t want.

Ex-military mountain man Griffin Barrett likes his solitude. It keeps him from falling back into old habits. Bad habits. He’s fought too hard for his sobriety to lose control now. However, his gig as a wildlife guide presents a new kind of temptation in super-hot supermodel River Vale. Nothing the Alaskan wilderness has to offer has ever called to Griffin so badly. That can only lead to trouble….

River has his own methods for coping. Chasing adventure means always moving forward. Nobody’s ever made him want to stand still – until Griffin. The rugged bush pilot is the very best kind of distraction, but the emotions he stirs up in River feel anything but casual, and he’s in no position to stay put.

With temptation lurking in close quarters, keeping even a shred of distance is a challenge neither’s willing to meet. And the closer Griffin gets to River, the easier it is to ignore every last reason he should run.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B

Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series put her on my “must read/listen” list, and I’ve picked up several of her backlist titles in audio over the past few weeks while I waited for the first in her new Frozen Hearts series, set in the wilds of Alaska, to come out.  Arctic Sun is that book, and it tells the story of Griffin Barrett, who, after leaving the military, returned home to Alaska in search of peace, quiet and somewhere to put his past mistakes behind him, and River Vale, a former supermodel who has authored a hugely successful travel book, and who is now researching his next project.

Griffin works for his family’s photography/ tour-guiding business, but not usually as an actual guide; he’s not naturally outgoing and finds it difficult being the centre of attention, but when his uncle, who usually handles the tour groups, has to go into hospital, Griffin’s mother asks him to step in at the last minute to take charge of a group of five – two married couples and one solo traveller – and while his first instinct is to refuse, his family needs him and he can’t let them down.

Learning one of the group is – or was –  a supermodel, Griffin immediately jumps to conclusions, expecting a superficial, flamboyant individual with cotton-wool for brains.  Instead, River Vale confounds those expectations, clearly being an experienced traveller and a talented photographer – and while Griffin had expected him to be good-looking, he’s completely unprepared for the reality of the funny, charming and easy-going man behind the beautiful face.  It’s been a long time since Griffin has been so strongly attracted to anyone – in fact, he doesn’t even know how he really feels about sex seeing as most of the time he had it when he was wasted – but he certainly isn’t about to hook-up with a client, and very definitely rebuffs the other man’s attempts to flirt with and charm him.

But River won’t take no for an answer and continues to pursue Griffin – and I have to admit I wasn’t quite comfortable with his you’ll-give-in-eventually attitude: Oh, he was going to get Griffin in bed before the end of the trip, and that was just a fact. But when he did, Griff would come willingly, and it wouldn’t be because River had made a pest of himself. Pushy wasn’t part of River’s MO. And I’d have to say that River IS rather pushy, even though he’s right about Griffin’s interest in him.

Anyway.  It’s not a spoiler to say that the guys do eventually hook up (this is a romance after all!), and although they’re opposites and their relationship progresses quickly, I nonetheless felt that the author did a good job of exploring the things they had in common, and that they had potential as a couple in spite of their differences.  But after the trip ends, those differences become more pronounced as each man returns to his normal life and milieu.  They agree that neither of them is ready to say goodbye and that they’ll see each other again when and where they can, which results in a return visit to Alaska for River, and a trip to Vancouver for Griff… which doesn’t go particularly well, thanks to some crass behaviour from River’s rather insensitive and unsupportive friends.

Both men are battling their own demons every day.  Griff is a recovering alcoholic, who, while sober and doing fairly well, mostly deals with his addiction by completely avoiding temptation rather than learning how to live with it.  His reclusive lifestyle provides him the ideal opportunity to do this, even though he’s lonely at times, but he has no desire to live anywhere else.  River has spent a good proportion of his life being looked at and every single imperfection noticed and criticised; he has a difficult and complicated relationship with food and is recovering from an eating disorder – and his coping mechanism is the complete opposite of Griff’s – he keeps moving and doesn’t even have has his own place any longer, instead staying with friends whenever he’s not off travelling and researching for his next book.

Having never suffered either of those things, I claim no expertise whatsoever, but it seemed to me that Ms. Albert handled both of these issues very well, especially River’s eating disorder.  He’s clearly not quite as far along the road to recovery as he thinks he is, although by the end of the book, he’s taken some very positive steps – as has Griff – so I came away from the story hopeful for their future.  Griff and River are complex characters who still have a lot to work out individually and as a couple, but I liked them together, and in particular, the way they felt able to open up to one another about their problems and be vulnerable with each other.

A lot of the reviews I’ve seen have talked about the pacing of the book being too slow, but I have to say I didn’t feel that way at all, which  I suspect  may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version  rather than reading the book.  Cooper North’s narration is very good indeed and kept me engaged from start to finish; all the characters are clearly differentiated and the different pitches and timbres he adopts to portray the principals work really well to delineate them as characters and as distinct from one another.  His pacing is good, his enunciation clear and he does a good job with the female voices and different accents (one of the couples on the trip is a lesbian couple from the Netherlands); in addition Mr. North injects the more emotional moments with just the right degree of expression and performs the love scenes confidently and without going over the top.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the other character in the book, which is Alaska itself.  The descriptions of the scenery and the wildlife are superb and incredibly vivid, and as I can’t see myself ever getting to go there, I’ll have to live vicariously through them!  I enjoyed both the story and narration in Arctic Sun and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

A Duke in Disguise (Regency Imposters #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

One reluctant heir

If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller

All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself.

One disaster waiting to happen

Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian returns to Regency London for the second instalment of her Regency Imposters series, A Duke in Disguise, in which an illustrator and a prickly publisher who have been close friends for a decade have to decide if friendship is really enough, or whether it’s worth risking what they have for the possibility of something more.  It’s a well-written story with a very strong sense of time and place featuring two engaging and complex principals; there’s a nod or two to the gothic novels popular at the time as well as some shrewd observations about the political situation, the lack of options open to women and the way the lives of well-born ladies were completely controlled by their menfolk.

Verity Plum and her younger brother Nate are joint proprietors of Plum & Company, Printers and Booksellers, which was left to them by their father.  Verity is the brains of the outfit in the sense that she takes care of all the practicalities (and then some), while Nathan, who is just twenty, indulges his radical sentiments by writing increasingly seditious polemics which she fears will land him in prison in the not too distant future.  Verity and Nate’s good friend, John Ashby – a moderately successful illustrator and engraver – has lodged with them on and off over the past decade, and although he and Verity are completely smitten with each other and have been for years, neither of them is willing to risk crossing the line into a romantic and physical relationship.  Verity doesn’t believe she’s cut out for romance in any case; her most recent love affair (with Portia Allenby, who appeared in the previous book, Unmasked by the Marquess) didn’t end particularly well, and she’s not one for dealing with complex emotions.  Verity guards her independence and sense of self very jealously, and she’s stretched thin as it is, what with the pieces of herself she gives over to worrying about Nate, and the business, and her friendship with Ash; and if she’s scared of anything, she’s scared of losing herself completely to all the other demands life makes of her.

Verity is desperately trying to prevent Nate landing himself in serious trouble, and with Ash’s help she manages to persuade him to leave England and travel to America to set up in business there.  She hates doing it, but recognises it’s the only way to keep his neck out of the noose.  Both Verity and Ash feel his loss, but aren’t sure how to comfort each other without crossing their very carefully preserved line, something which is become more and more difficult with each passing day.

The ‘we can’t become lovers because we’ll risk our friendship’ plotline is one that’s often used to create an obstacle in friends-to-lovers stories (and doesn’t always work for me) but Ms. Sebastian makes it work here, showing just how well Verity and Ash know each other and how deeply they care in small but important ways (I loved that Ash always had a spare hairpin or three in his pocket) and imbues their relationship with such visceral longing that it leaps off the page.  That said though, Verity’s determination to keep things between her and Ash strictly platonic just seemed to evaporate without much of an explanation.

Ash is a gorgeous beta hero who hides his insecurities behind a veneer of impassivity but who feels deeply.  His life has been difficult and filled with loss; he longs for stability and connection, and those longings are the main reasons he is so reluctant to pursue anything other than friendship with Verity, even though he knows she’s as attracted to him as he is to her.  After a childhood being passed from pillar to post, fostered by one family only to be passed on after suffering an epileptic seizure, he eventually went to a charity school where one of his schoolmasters recognised his artistic talent and arranged for him to be apprenticed to an engraver.  It’s in that capacity that he first makes the acquaintance of Lady Caroline Talbot, who wishes to engage him to illustrate a book of the plants and flowers in her herbarium.  Right from his first visit, Ash is struck by a strange sense of familiarity and ‘wrongness’ at the same time… he can’t know that his visits to Arundel House will change his life.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, given the book’s title, for me to talk about what that change is (and it’s in the synopsis) – although Ash isn’t so much a duke in disguise as he is one who has no idea of his true identity!  The discovery of his origins is naturally a shock and his instinct is to deny that he is likely the Duke of Arundel’s heir; not only has he not been brought up to it, Verity will want nothing more to do with him should he really be a member of the aristocracy she so despises.  But it seems he cannot escape his birthright – and moreover, he can’t abandon Lady Caroline – who is his aunt – to the not-so-tender mercies of her violent, abusive brother, whose murderous intentions were the reasons she sent Ash away into hiding when he was a little boy.

I enjoyed the book overall, even though I had a few niggles with the way things played out.  I liked Ash and Verity and the strong connection the author has created between them, and I liked the historical and political background to the story and the cheeky nods to gothic romances – but I wasn’t completely convinced by the way the couple reached their HEA. We’re repeatedly told and shown that Verity absolutely hates the aristocracy and everything it stands for and that she intends never to marry – and yet she’s very easily persuaded to become Ash’s duchess.  I also didn’t much care for Ash’s lie by omission; when he accepts he really is the heir to a dukedom, he decides not to tell Verity for a month (and to finally embark on the sexual relationship they both want) and as if that wasn’t enough, when he’s forced to own the truth, he just ups and leaves Verity without really talking to her about anything, instead just assuming that she won’t want to be with him once he’s a duke and that she won’t consider marrying him regardless of his social status.  For two people who’ve been friends for a decade and know each other pretty much inside out, and considering Ash’s abandonment issues, that refusal to communicate didn’t make a lot of sense.

The writing is excellent and the principals are refreshingly different; Verity is bisexual (and makes no secret of it), pragmatic and somewhat grouchy, while Ash is more even-tempered and is an utter sweetie (and a virgin to boot).  I’ve knocked off a couple of grade points for the inconsistencies I’ve noted, but I nonetheless enjoyed A Duke in Disguise, which is one of the better historical romances I’ve read over the past year or so.