Bound by Their Secret Passion (Scandalous Summerfields #4) by Diane Gaston

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A forbidden attraction… A hidden desire!

Years ago, penniless Lorene Summerfield wed for duty, giving her siblings the chance to marry for love. But now the generous-hearted countess finds herself widowed…and the man she’s loved in silence for years is falsely accused of her husband’s murder!

Although he closed his heart to love long ago, the Earl of Penford has always found Lorene irresistible. Their newly ignited passion may be scandalous, but now he’ll stop at nothing to clear his name and win Lorene’s hand!

Rating: C+

Bound by Their Secret Passion is the fourth and final book in Diane Gaston’s series of stories about The Scandalous Summerfields, three sisters and one half-brother whose name became a byword for scandal when their mother ran off with her lover and their father, a libertine and drunkard, gambled away everything and left them destitute.

The previous book, Bound by a Scandalous Secret, whetted my appetite for this, the story of the eldest sister, Lorene, who sacrificed her own happiness in order to marry a much older, dictatorial man so that she could provide financially for her siblings.  Her life with Lord Tinmore was not a happy one.  He took delight in belittling his young wife, allowed the servants to get away with showing her disrespect and insisted on controlling her every move, frequently prohibiting her from leaving the house.  In the previous book, the author hinted at the possibility of Lorene having developed a tendre for Dell Summerfield, Earl of Penford, the very distant relative who inherited the family’s title and estate after her father’s death.  The depth of longing between the two was so well conveyed as to be palpable, so I was looking forward to theirs being an angsty story of forbidden love.

Bound by Their Secret Passion begins as Dell is escorting Lorene home after Christmas Day spent at Summerfield House with her sisters, Tess and Genna, and their husbands. On arrival at Tinmore House, Tinmore furiously accuses Dell and Lorene of having an affair; Dell informs him that is not true and tries to leave, having reached the front steps when Tinmore attacks him with his cane. Dell is prepared to parry the intended blow but before he can do so, the older man clutches at his head, falls down the steps and is dead before he reaches the bottom.

The coroner and magistrate are sent for immediately and an inquest is held which absolves Dell of any responsibility in Tinmore’s death, despite the assertions of the vengeful butler, Dixon, that Dell and Lorene had deliberately conspired to murder Tinmore so they could be together.

Coming from a family whose name is a byword for scandal and having endured plenty of it herself when she was labelled a fortune hunter after her marriage to a wealthy, older man, Lorene wants no more of it.  She is more than half-way in love with Dell, but she knows that if the two of them are seen together now, even after the exoneration at the inquest, there will be gossip about them and some people will continue to believe that they murdered her husband.

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

The Wallflower Duchess by Liz Tyner

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams – and Edge is determined to make her his!

Rating: C

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.

Slightly Wicked (Bedwyn Saga #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

slightly-wicked-audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With his laughing eyes and wild, rakish good looks, Lord Rannulf Bedwyn is a hard man to resist. To Judith Law, a woman in need of rescue when her stagecoach overturns, Rannulf is simply her savior, a heroic stranger she will reward with one night of reckless passion before she must become a companion to her wealthy aunt.

Imagine Judith’s shock when the same stranger turns out to be among England’s most eligible bachelors, and when he arrives at Harewood Grange to woo her cousin. Certainly, they had made no vows, no promises, but Rannulf never did forget his uninhibited lover – nor did she forget that one delicious night. And as scandal sets the household abuzz, Rannulf proposes a solution. But when Judith refuses to have him – in love or wedlock – Rannulf has only one choice: to wage a campaign of pure pleasure to capture the heart of the woman who has already won his.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

One of the many things I love about audiobooks is that they’re a great way for me to catch up with older titles that, with the best will in the world, I’m unlikely to get around to reading for at least the next ten years or more. Another great thing is that it’s such a treat when books you’ve really wanted to listen to are finally recorded and made available. Last year – at long last – Mary Balogh’s popular Slightly series (originally published between 2003 and 2004) was given the audio treatment, and thankfully, production company, Tantor audio, had the very good sense to employ the incredibly talented Rosalyn Landor as narrator.

Book two in the series, Slightly Wicked is a variation on the Cinderella trope and while it’s perhaps a little clichéd, I enjoyed it and was reminded of how a truly great narrator can elevate a story so that it ultimately transcends the sum of its parts.

Our hero is Lord Rannulf, brother to the Duke of Bewcastle and one of the six Bedwyn siblings. He is on his way to visit his ailing grandmother, Lady Beamish, at Grandmaison Park when he comes across an overturned coach and stops to see what is to be done. The weather is inclement and Rannulf is travelling alone, so all he can really do is ride to the nearest town or village and send help and transport for the passengers as quickly as possible. A man with an eye for the ladies, Rannulf quickly spots a lovely, red-headed woman among the group and offers to take her with him to the inn; after all, someone has to be able to give clear instructions to the rescue party.

The woman introduces herself as Claire Campbell, an actress on the London stage who is taking a bit of a break. Rannulf tells her he is Mr Ralph Bedard, and they set off, both of them feeling an intense spark of attraction to the other and Rannulf, especially, thinking that this lovely armful of curvy, warm woman will provide a satisfying diversion for the night.

But just as Rannulf is concealing his true identity, so is Claire, who is actually Miss Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished country parson. With her younger brother – who is their parents’ only son – living well beyond his means and beggaring his family in order to do so, Judith’s parents can no longer afford to support their whole family, so she is being sent to live with her aunt Effingham, where she will live out the rest of her life as an unpaid drudge with no prospects for love, marriage or a family of her own.  So when the chance is offered her to spend the night with an attractive, charming man who desires her intensely, and knowing she is unlikely to ever again have the opportunity to experience passion, she decides to take it.  Nobody will ever know, and it will be a memory she can cherish forever.

Of course, this is Romancelandia, so the idea that ‘nobody will ever know’ is doomed the moment it is thought or uttered.  Because of course, ‘Claire’ and ‘Ralph’ are destined to meet again in their true guises.

Rannulf is his grandmother’s heir and he loves her dearly, but she is very ill, and he knows that the one thing he can do to ease her mind before she dies is to find a wife and set up his nursery. He is planning to tell her during this visit that he is now ready to do just that.  Lady Beamish thinks that Julianne Effingham, the daughter of her neighbour might suit him, and Rannulf has no objections to offering for the girl if she proves agreeable.

When he escorts his grandmother to tea at nearby Harewood House, home of the Effinghams, Rannulf doesn’t at first take notice of the shabbily dressed woman who is obviously some sort of poor relation.  Her clothes are ill-fitting, her hair is completely covered by an ugly cap – but when their gazes inadvertently meet, he’s shocked to the core to recognise Claire Campbell.

Learning of Judith’s true identity and realising that she is the daughter of a gentleman, Rannulf knows he must do the honourable thing, and proposes marriage.  But Judith will have none of it; she has accepted her lot in life and that their fling was just that – and besides she doesn’t want to be anyone’s duty or to force a man to marry her.  Rannulf is surprised at her rejection, but accepts it, and tries to focus instead on courting the lady his grandmother has suggested.  The problem is that he can’t get Judith out of his mind or ignore the strength of the pull between them.

The story isn’t especially original, it’s true, but Ms. Balogh’s writing and characterisation is so strong that the familiarity of the plot doesn’t matter; what’s important is that the listener can feel the emotions experienced by the protagonists and understand their dilemmas.  Rannulf is perhaps a little too good to be true, but he does show personal growth during the story because by the end he’s ready to settle and assume the responsibilities of the estate he will soon inherit because he wants to, not because he has to.  Judith really has drawn life’s short straw; not only does she have to put up with the indignities heaped upon her by her awful relatives, she is going to have to watch the man she loves court her brattish cousin, and all of it through no fault of her own.  She’s stoic and resigned to her fate, and I enjoyed the way that, with some assistance from Rannulf, she gradually comes to realise that she’s worth more and to stand up for herself and what she wants.

Rosalyn Landor is, quite simply, the best narrator of historical romances around.  There are a few others who come close and whose narrations I enjoy very much, but she really is the perfect choice for Mary Balogh’s understated yet emotionally-charged prose.  Her performances are technically flawless; her pacing is spot on, she hits all the right emotional notes and her character differentiation is superb because there is never any question as to which character is speaking at any given point.  In the few scenes in this book which feature several male characters, it’s easy to distinguish between Rannulf, the jauntily voiced Alleyne and the far more serious – and imperious – Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle.  All the female characters are similarly individualised. Judith’s ‘dual personality’ is given two slightly different vocal inflections, her aunt is portrayed using a suitably unpleasant, nasal tone and her cousin, Julianne an appropriately higher pitched, whiny timbre.

But it’s not just Ms. Landor’s technical ability that continues to impress me.  She also gets right to the emotional heart of any given story, gets into the heads of the characters and clearly demonstrates her understanding of them and the journey they are undertaking. She’s a narrator who really understands what audiobook listeners want to hear when it comes to romance – and that’s not true of every narrator of romance out there.

While there are certainly a number of inconsistencies in the story – it’s quite difficult to accept Judith’s belief in her own unattractiveness, and the secondary plotline regarding the missing jewels is a little obvious, for example – I nonetheless enjoyed listening to Slightly Wicked, in no small part due to Rosalyn Landor’s excellent performance.  The remaining books in the series are set for release over the next few months, and I’m sure they will be equally entertaining.  I’ll certainly be snapping them up as soon as they become available.

Passion Favors the Bold (Royal Rewards #2) by Theresa Romain

passion-favors-the-bols

This title may be purchased from Amazon

DESPERATE MEASURES
Georgette Frost’s time is almost up. On her twenty-first birthday, the protections outlined in her late parents’ will are set to expire. With prospects for employment or marriage unfavorable at best, she decides to leave London and join her brother, Benedict, on a treasure hunt for gold sovereigns stolen from the Royal Mint.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS
Lord Hugo Starling has always felt protective of his friend Benedict’s sister, Georgette. So when he discovers her dressed in ragged boy’s clothes, about to board a coach for parts unknown, he feels duty bound to join her search. But mystery piles upon mystery as they cross England together, not least of which is the confounded attraction between them. As Georgette leads him to a reward he never expected, Hugo realizes he’s embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime…

Rating: B+

Passion Favors the Bold is the sequel to Theresa Romain’s thoroughly enjoyable romance-cum-treasure hunt, Fortune Favors the Wicked, wherein a blind former naval officer teams up with a former courtesan to locate the six missing crates of gold sovereigns that have been stolen from the Royal Mint in order to claim the hefty finder’s fee. The events of this book run more or less concurrently with this one, so it’s not really necessary to have read that first – and in fact, the books can be read in any order.

Georgette Frost will, on her twenty-first birthday, likely become homeless. After her parents died in an accident, the conditions of their will stipulated that the relatives who took over the family bookshop would house her until she was of age. Her birthday is approaching, and while her aunt and uncle have never been unkind to her, Georgette knows that they need space for their own, growing family, and having to keep her fed and housed has been a drain on their resources. Knowing that her brother, Benedict, has travelled to Derbyshire in search of the missing coins, Georgette decides to join him there and help if she can. She doesn’t know him well as he has been at sea for most of her life, but he’s her only family, and Georgette yearns to be part of something and to find a purpose in life.

Sir Hugo Starling, younger son of the Duke of Willingham is a friend of Benedict’s, having studied medicine with him in Edinburgh. Medicine is not a typical profession for a man in Hugo’s position – in fact, his family intended him to go into the Church – but the loss of his twin brother more than a decade earlier led Hugo to take a different path, no matter that it put a strain on his relationship with his family. Firmly believing that his brother’s life could have been saved had the duke employed a physician selected because of his knowledge and skill rather than his reputation in society, Hugo became determined to prevent others from suffering such devastation and loss and trained as a doctor. He continues to practice, but his driving passion now is the creation of a brand new hospital in London, but he is having trouble getting the needed financial backing. When he encounters his friend’s sister – dressed in ragged, boy’s clothes and insisting on travelling to meet up with her brother in Derbyshire – Hugo wants to take her to stay with his mother until he can contact Benedict, but Georgette is adamant, telling Hugo that “being in [Benedict’s] company would be better than being alone”. When she learns of Hugo’s difficulty in persuading anyone to invest in his hospital plan, she tells him that if he were to be instrumental in finding the gold, the publicity that will attach to his name can only help him in his cause – and realising that she’ll go with or without him, Hugo begrudgingly agrees to accompany her.

Along the way, they encounter a Bow Street Runner by the name of Jenks, who is following up on rumours that blobby bits of gold have been used to pay for things as far north as  Northumberland. They eventually make their way to the estate of Sir Frederic Chapple, a congenial, somewhat eccentric baronet who welcomes them warmly, in spite of having absolutely no idea who they are or why they are there.  Sir Frederic has newly come into this title and is not best pleased at having to spend so much of his time on his far-flung estate dealing with tenants, drainage and disputes over sheep.  So the appearance of the young couple is a pleasant diversion, and a useful one, as he puts Hugo to work treating his tenants and estate workers.  But when a grateful patient slips Hugo a gold “blob” the stakes are raised – as it seems the thieves will stop at nothing to prevent the discovery of the gold’s hiding place.

While the treasure hunt is an important part of the story, lying at the heart of Passion Favors the Bold is the gently-paced story of two people searching for that missing ‘something’ and struggling to break free from what their pasts have made of them to find the futures they deserve. Georgette’s parents were so wrapped up in each other and their love of books and literature that she was little more than an afterthought, and with her brother away at sea, she was lonely and lacked any real affection.  She would like to find love, but what she really wants is to matter to someone; while Hugo, who has known both love and affection also knows what it feels like to lose them and is wary of opening himself up to either.  Since the death of his twin, he has sought refuge in the certainty to be found in planning and organisation, and the need to honour his brother’s memory by doing something to prevent others from suffering the same loss and grief as he did.  In this way they’re the perfect complement to each other; Georgette is impulsive and open to all sorts of new experiences while Hugo is cautious and reserved, and I enjoyed watching him gradually falling under the spell of Georgette’s  warmth and optimism to become a man prepared to open himself up to the possibility of loving someone again

The romance in the story is very well-developed and proceeds at a realistic pace.  There’s an undercurrent of attraction between the pair right from the start and their long journey together affords them plenty of time to get to know each other better.  Their conversations are laced with gentle, affectionate teasing, and their growing longing for each other is nicely-judged; there’s no over-the-top mental-lusting over shapely curves or rippling muscles, just a simmering awareness and a growing mutual understanding that gradually turns into –

… a sturdy feeling, built brick by brick from fondness and laughter and annoyance and lust and mischief and admiration.

That quote illustrates another of the story’s great strengths – the writing.  The book is full of beautiful, poignant turns of phrase –

“Love is… laughter after a joke that isn’t all that funny,” he said.  “Asking how a day was, and listening earnestly to the answer.  Splitting the last tart instead of eating it all oneself… it is,” he added, “putting down a book for one’s companion when one only wants to read.”

And of course, Hugo has done all those things for Georgette – he just hasn’t realised it yet.

Passion Favors the Bold is what one might call a ‘quiet’ book.  It’s not flashy or flamboyant; it’s just a beautifully written story about two people falling in love.  I will admit, however, that it’s  sometimes just a little too low-key which caused me to knock my final grade down a little; but it’s the sort of book that pays dividends in the long run, and one I’m certainly happy to recommend.

Surrender to the Marquess (Herriard Family #3) by Louise Allen

surrender-to-the-marquess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A battle of wills!

When Lady Sara Herriard’s husband dies in a duel, she turns her back on the vagaries of the ton. From now on, she will live as she pleases. She won’t change for anyone – certainly not for the infuriating Lucian Avery, Marquess of Cannock!

Lucian must help his sister recover from a disastrous elopement and reluctantly enlists Lady Sara’s help. She couldn’t be further from the conventional, obedient wife he’s expected to marry, but soon, all he craves is for her to surrender – and join him in his bed!

Rating: A-

Surrender to the Marquess is the third book in Louise Allen’s series about the Herriard family which began in Forbidden Jewel of India. That book told the story of Major Nicholas Herriard and Anusha Laurens, the Anglo-Indian daughter of an East India Company merchant and a high-born Indian lady. After their marriage, the couple remained in India and brought up their two children there, but when, a couple of years before this book opens, Herriard became Marquess of Eldonstone, the family relocated to England.

Not long after their return, their daughter, Lady Sarisa, fell in love with and married a young Cambridge scholar, Dr. Michael Harcourt. He was certainly an unusual choice for the daughter of a marquess, but her parents only wanted Sara to be happy, and the couple was certainly that – until one tragic night when her husband and his best friend imbibed too much and got into an argument. A challenge was issued, the duel was fought, and Michael was killed, leaving Sara a young widow burdened with guilt at the fact that the argument had been about her and furious at the stupid, careless way that men resort so quickly to violence in order to defend their honour and avenge any slight, no matter how insignificant.

Following her loss, Sara decided she needed time to work out what she wanted to do with her life. She went to stay at a quiet seaside resort in Dorset and ended up purchasing a small shop that sells artist and craft supplies. Twice a week, she also opens it as a tea room for the local ladies, where they can meet to discuss their projects and congregate somewhere they are not expected to confine themselves to idle chit-chat or to sit about looking decorative. Everyone knows that Mrs. Harcourt is also Lady Sarisa, but she is well-liked and respected within the community and they are happy to indulge her whim of maintaining her two separate personalities; as a shopkeeper by day and a well-born lady at local assemblies and other social events.

Sara is naturally able to spot a well-to-do gentlemen when she sees one, and that’s exactly what she sees when the sinfully handsome Mr. Dunton enters her shop one day, looking, he tells her, for something to amuse and occupy his younger sister, who has been ill and is not recovering well. Sara suggests that perhaps she could visit Miss Dunton and take along some samples of her arts and crafts supplies to see if she can find something to interest the young lady. Mr. Dunton readily agrees, and on meeting Marguerite, Sara sees that her brother’s descriptions were not exaggerated, and suggests that perhaps she might like to attend her tearoom that afternoon. Very soon, the ladies have fallen into friendship, and Sara learns the truth of the situation, that Marguerite had fallen in love and eloped with her brother’s secretary, that she lost a baby and that her lover has unaccountably disappeared.

Sara very quickly identifies “Mr. Dunton” as Lucian Avery, the Marquess of Cannock and rightly guesses that he has adopted a false name and brought his sister to an unfashionable resort in order to protect her reputation.  As Sara’s friendship with Marguerite progresses, so does her relationship with Lucian – although friendship is certainly not what either of them would really prefer. Because she is a widow, Sara is allowed more freedom in her dealings with men than an unmarried lady and she’s honest with herself about her desire for Lucien and the fact that she misses the closeness and physical satisfaction of lovemaking. The attraction between the pair is intense, but, as Sara points out, a gentleman cannot present his lover as a potential friend for his sister. Realising that Sara’s friendship appears to be doing Marguerite a deal of good, Lucian accepts that an affair is out of the question.  Until, that is, an unexpected development throws everything into chaos, and suddenly frees the couple from that bar to exploring the potential for passion between them.

Louise Allen is one of my favourite authors, and once again, she does not disappoint.  Surrender to the Marquess has a real freshness and originality to it, qualities that single it out in a sub-genre that is filled to the brim with repetitive storylines and recycled characters.  The plot here is believable and well-paced, and the protagonists are fully-rounded, likeable but flawed individuals who have a lot to overcome before they can be together. Sara is unconventional in her upbringing and outlook, but isn’t one of those heroines who continually flaunts that unconventionality; rather, she’s a woman who is comfortable in her own skin who recognises the social conventions even if she doesn’t always agree with or abide by them.  And while Lucian seems, at first, to be a typically privileged and autocratic aristocrat, it’s clear from his concern for his sister that he is a good man whose actions are motivated by his desire to do the best he can for those he cares for.

I also really liked the way the author looks at the issue of male patriarchy, and in particular the preoccupation with the preservation of honour and manner of defending it, in a way I haven’t come across before in an historical romance.  As a man brought up with that very strict code of what is gentlemanly, Lucian’s natural instinct is to protect and defend in a certain way, while Sara’s is to question and oppose, to the extent that she is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness to preserve life – and I think that’s something we can all sympathise with.

Naturally, their contrary views on the matter mean that both Lucian and Sara are going to have to make some serious readjustments to their ways of thinking if they are ever going to work as a couple, and there comes a point towards the end of the book where it seems as though they are never going to be able to reconcile their very different points of view.  Fortunately however, Ms. Allen has created a pair of mature characters who are able to learn from their mistakes and realise that the other is worth that readjustment.  As long as they are both willing to compromise and talk to each other, they know they will be able to make a go of it, and I came away from the book feeling satisfied that both characters had got what they deserved in each other.

Surrender to the Marquess is a thoroughly enjoyable read that works on every level; the chemistry between the protagonists is palpable, the writing is excellent and the romance is beautifully shaped and developed. I was engrossed from beginning to end and, if you choose to pick it up, I’m sure you will be, too.

Convenient Proposal to the Lady (Hadley’s Hellions #3) by Julia Justiss

convenient-proposal-to-the-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

‘Duty can also be pleasure, Lady Alyssa…’

When politician Benedict Tawny set out to save Lady Alyssa from a nefarious plot, he never expected to find himself trapped in a compromising situation with the alluring lady! Now duty demands he propose…and claim her as his bride! Tainted by his illegitimacy, Ben knows he can’t give Alyssa the life of luxury she deserves. But if he can convince her to succumb to the undeniable heat between them, their convenient marriage might just lead to the love of a lifetime!

Rating: A-

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is the third book in Julia Justiss’ series featuring Hadley’s Hellions, four young men who forged strong friendships at school and university and who are now united in their dedication to bringing about political reform. While the romance in each book is most definitely to the fore, there’s enough social and political detail to add depth and an extra layer of interest to each story. That, combined with my favourite trope of a marriage of convenience made this entry in the series an especially enjoyable one.

Benjamin Tawny was born on the wrong side of the blanket to a viscount and a former governess. His father publicly acknowledges him, and has always provided for Ben and his mother, enabling Ben to go to school and university, which has helped him to make the sorts of connections necessary for him to pursue his chosen career. But Ben has never been particularly well-disposed towards the viscount, believing him to have been a heartless seducer who left the woman he had ruined to social ostracism and censure.

In spite of being base born, Ben is, like his fellow Hellions, a rising star in the political firmament; he has represented his parliamentary seat for almost eight years, has earned the respect of his constituents and has a reputation for being honest, determined, hard-working and above all, honourable. So when he overhears a group of men making a wager as to who can seduce and ruin a young lady, and knowing the sort of treatment meted out to ‘fallen’ women, he can’t stand by and do nothing. He decides to seek out Lady Alyssa Lambourne and warn her that she has been made the target of a plot by Lord Denbry solely because of the enmity that lies between him and Lady Alyssa’s brother.

Ben is lucky enough to encounter the lady one morning when she is alone and out sketching.  He is rather unnerved by the strong spark of sensual awareness he feels around her, and just as surprised to discover that he has never met anyone quite like her; she’s direct, clever, fiery and an extremely talented artist to boot.  Alyssa feels drawn to Ben even though she is initially suspicious of both him and his motives;  but she agrees to take his warning on board and observe the behaviour of the single young gentlemen who are present at the house-party she is attending.  She also agrees to meet Ben the following morning to report on her findings – and sure enough, she tells him that not only are two of the men (known to be Denbry’s cronies) paying her more attention than she thinks she warrants, but Denbry himself has arrived and is doing his best to ingratiate himself with her.  Alyssa is furious and plans to revenge herself on these men who think her so stupid and so desperate as to fall for their lies – but Ben tries to caution her against it, reminding her that Denbury can still ruin her by dropping a few well-chosen words in receptive ears.  Alyssa is adamant, however.  She doesn’t care about her reputation and in fact, thinks a slur on it may be to her advantage, as it might force her domineering father to finally wash his hands of her, meaning she can get away and start living her own life. And it does indeed appear as though her plan has sent his-smarmy-lordship away with his tail between his legs.   But unfortunately, Alyssa’s triumph is short lived; Denbry’s revenge is not long in coming and if not for Ben’s timely intervention she would have been completely ruined.  And worse, it seems that Ben is the one who will be ruined if Alyssa persists on turning down the proposal of marriage he makes her in order to salvage her reputation.

One of the things the author does very well in this book is to show clearly how little control women had over their own lives at this time.  Women were the property of their menfolk, had no rights and, in the upper echelons especially, reputation was everything and the conventions had to be very strictly observed.  Alyssa wants to live independently and pursue a career as an artist but cannot do so without the funds – an inheritance from an aunt – that her father withholds from her.  Given her father’s brutal treatment of her, it’s no wonder that she does not want to transfer control of her life from one man to another and thus rejects Ben’s proposal – but his arguments and promise that he will allow her to pursue her artistic career eventually win her around, and even though she has misgivings, she agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Ben hopes for more than that, however, knowing that Alyssa is as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and counts himself fortunate that his bride is a woman he can respect and admire as well as desire.  For reasons he can’t quite fathom, Alyssa is skittish, so he promises not to attempt to seduce her, hoping desperately that she will come to him when she is ready to consummate their marriage.  But Alyssa is determined that won’t happen. She already feels more for Ben than she thinks is wise, and is sure that if she makes love with him, she won’t be able to stop herself falling for him completely.

Both characters are extremely likeable and have to deal with long-standing issues that inform their choices as adults.  Even though he is a successful, self-made man and a member of parliament, Ben can’t help feeling the stigma of being born illegitimate; and Alyssa has been so constantly belittled by her father and brother that she is awkward in company and believes she can never be the sort of wife Ben really needs.  Yet the depth of their regard for each other shines through from the very beginning, and the intensity of their physical attraction leaps off the page.  The romance develops naturally from their friendship, and the fact that they are open with each other and talk about their hopes and fears is very refreshing.  There is a handful of secondary characters who are nicely fleshed-out – the villain chillingly so – and I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we were given of the changing relationship between Ben and his father.

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is a beautifully written, touching romance between two characters whose flaws and insecurities only add to their attractiveness and whose dilemmas feel very real.  This is one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read recently, and I’m recommending it without hesitation.

A Lady Without a Lord (Penningtons #3) by Bliss Bennet

a-lady-without-a-lord

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theodosius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined she’ll succeed

Harriot Atherton is trying to keep a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

Rating: B+

This third book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington siblings turns its attention to the eldest, Theodosius (Theo), who became Viscount Saybrook on the death of his father just over a year earlier. On the surface, it’s a simple story about childhood friends coming together after a number of years and starting to see each other in a different light, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the things I have enjoyed about this author’s other books is the way she has incorporated a sound historical background into the story in a subtle and informative way. The previous book, A Man Without a Mistress, featured a couple who were very involved in politics, and here, Ms. Bennet takes a look at the importance of community, the responsibility of landowners towards their dependents, and throws in a dash of local politics without any of that overshadowing the development of the romance or the personal issues faced by both protagonists.

Since inheriting his title, the new viscount has made no move to assume the responsibilities that go with it, or to visit his estate, preferring instead to continue to live it up in London, bedding beautiful women and carousing with his many friends and acquaintances. But the recent marriage of his sister (in A Man Without a Mistress), suddenly brings Theo’s unfettered existence to an end; a meeting with his solicitor in order to arrange the payment of Sybilla’s dowry reveals that something is badly wrong with the family finances, and he realises that if he’s to do right by his sister and her new husband – who are intending to use the money to finance his bid to enter parliament – Theo will have to leave London, head to Lincolnshire and try to find out what has happened to the missing money.

He is not an uncaring man. He knows he has people depending on him, but told himself he was doing the right thing by leaving things in the very capable hands of his father’s – now his – steward, Mr. Atherton. Theo has never had a head for numbers; in fact, his father believed him to be little more than an imbecile because Theo struggled with even the most basic of calculations as a boy, and his father’s disgust very quickly turned to disapproval of practically everything else about his heir. So when he was old enough, Theo decided he might as well live down to expectations and took himself off to London where he very soon acquired himself a reputation as a cheerful, good-hearted wastrel.

One of the first people Theo sees on his return home is Harriot – Harry – Atherton, the steward’s daughter.  Theo and Harry practically grew up together, and it was Theo who gave Harry her very first kiss when they were both in their teens.  Not long after that, Harry went to live with her aunt in Brighton, where she was expected to make a suitable match, but she has recently returned – unwed – and confused and humiliated by the young man she had expected to offer for her.

But her feelings of rejection are nothing compared to the dismay she experiences on discovering the great change that has come over her father.  He has become forgetful, aggressive and confused – we would today recognise the signs of dementia – and over the past year, it’s Harry who has been doing most of the administrative work for the Saybrook estate.  The account books were a mess and Harry persuaded her father to allow her to transcribe for him – although in fact she is doing the accounts herself, and the many letters she sent Theo – which he ignored – purporting to be from her father, were actually hers.  She can’t afford for the newly arrived viscount to discover the truth about her father for fear he will lose not only his situation, but the respect of the tenants and villagers; or worse, be committed to an asylum for the insane.

Theo is pleasantly surprised to find Harry home – and more surprised to discover that she’s turned into a quietly attractive young woman.  Harry is similarly struck by Theo, the awkward, unhappy boy she remembers having grown into a handsome, charismatic and vital man. They quickly fall back into the ways of their old friendship, talking about anything and everything (almost), and affectionately teasing one another – although that teasing is now laced with a strong undercurrent of a mutual attraction they both do their best to ignore. A steward’s daughter is not a suitable match for a peer, and besides, a man as good-looking and charming as Theo can have any woman he wants – but working together to solve the problems brought about by the mismanaged funds, or to resolve disputes among the community keeps the pair in close proximity and eventually their feelings become impossible to ignore.

Theo and Harry are likeable, attractive and fully-rounded characters whose flaws and insecurities make them seem that much more real.  Theo is completely adorable; a loveable rogue who has spent so long believing himself to be the idiot his father kept insisting he was that he fails to see that his intelligence is of a completely different, yet equally valid kind, and that he is gifted in other ways.  There’s a lovely moment when Harry’s eyes are opened to what I can only call Theo’s amazing ‘people skills’ after he is called upon to take a position regarding a local dispute:

“Do you think just anyone can walk into a room of squabbling gentlemen and create accord amongst them with a few well-chosen words? It’s an admirable talent, that.”

Harry is the sort of heroine who is very easy to relate to in that she is a caretaker; she is intent on doing the best for everyone around her and completely ignores her own wishes and desires in the process.  She wants to look after her father, even though, in his illness, he treats her unkindly; she wants to preserve his health and to prevent Theo discovering that he is no longer capable of doing his job even as she wants to help Theo – although the two things are not really compatible.  But she has to learn that perhaps sometimes, her instinct to protect those closest to her is not always in their best interests and may even, in some cases, lead her to act contrary to what is right.

Harry and Theo make a terrific couple whose similar aims and outlook on life leaves the reader in no doubt that their HEA will last long after their wedding.  Theo’s journey from a man full of self-doubt to one who is prepared to accept his weaknesses and work to compensate for them is well told, and his charming self-deprecation and vulnerability make him a very appealing hero.  Ms. Bennet does a terrific job of showing the ins and outs of life on a country estate in the early nineteenth century, and her writing is accomplished, warm and nicely laced with humour.  The hints she drops about the next story (to feature the remaining Pennington sibling, Benedict) are intriguing and I am definitely going to be snapping up A Sinner Without a Saint as soon as it’s available.