Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Palace of Rogues #1) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A mistress. A mountain of debt. A mysterious wreck of a building.

Delilah Swanpoole, Countess of Derring, learns the hard way that her husband, “Dear Dull Derring,” is a lot more interesting—and perfidious—dead than alive. It’s a devil of an inheritance, but in the grand ruins of the one building Derring left her, are the seeds of her liberation. And she vows never again to place herself at the mercy of a man.

But battle-hardened Captain Tristan Hardy is nothing if not merciless. When the charismatic naval hero tracks a notorious smuggler to a London boarding house known as the Rogue’s Palace, seducing the beautiful, blue-blooded proprietress to get his man seems like a small sacrifice.

They both believe love is a myth. But a desire beyond reason threatens to destroy the armor around their hearts. Now a shattering decision looms: Will Tristan betray his own code of honor…or choose a love that might be the truest thing he’s ever known?

Rating: B+

Confession time: I still haven’t managed to read all of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series.  I’ve read four or five of the books, and the rest are on my TBR Pile of Doom; I think the series started before I got into romance reading in a big way, and I just haven’t found the time to catch up yet (and this isn’t the only author/series/book that applies to!)

Fortunately for me, though, I get to be in on the ground floor of the author’s latest series, The Palace of Rogues, which opens with Lady Derring Takes a Lover, the story of a young widow who takes a most unusual step in order to support herself after her husband dies and leaves her swimming in debt.  It’s clever, well-written and sharply observed; the author makes a number of very pertinent comments about women’s lack of agency and the expectations placed on them by society during the period at which the book is set, but she does it in a wonderfully subtle way that is never heavy-handed or preachy, which makes her heroine simultaneously refreshingly different and of her time.

Delilah, Countess of Derring, was married off to the much older Earl when she was barely out of the schoolroom.  Her marriage wasn’t happy but wasn’t terrible; her husband wasn’t cruel or abusive, he was just… mostly disinterested.  When he dies and the creditors start circling, Delilah doesn’t know what to do; she only knows she has no intention of dwindling into a ‘poor relation’,  passed from house to house, always a little out of place, a little in the way.

She visits her husband’s solicitor in order to find out if there really is no money for her – and while she’s there, her meeting is interrupted by a striking blonde woman, also in mourning… who turns out to have been the late Earl’s mistress, Angelique Breedlove.

The first sign that Delilah is going to be something of a remarkable heroine is that she actually feels some sort of kinship with the Other Woman and doesn’t freak out at the knowledge of her existence.  In fact, later in the day, they find themselves in the same dingy pub near the docks, and end up sharing a drink… and then agreeing to pool their remaining resources and go into business together.  The only thing Derring left his wife was a building in the East End near the docks, and Delilah has the idea of turning it into a boarding house – The Grand Palace on the Thames – but more than that, she wants to make it somewhere their (hopefully many) guests will feel truly at home, and where she can foster a sense of togetherness and family.

Captain Tristan Hardy is Captain of the King’s Blockade, and has the reputation of having almost single-handedly shut down every smuggling ring operating on and around British shores – except one, and it’s pissing him off royally. He’s currently on the trail of some most unusual and staggeringly expensive cigars he knows are being smuggled into England by the ruthless Blue Rock gang, but has so far been unable to stop their transportation from the coast to London.  His one lead is that the late Earl of Derring used to smoke them exclusively – and Tristan now decides he needs to find the man’s widow to find out what she knows.

This works as the springboard for the romance between Delilah and Tristan, but as a mystery it isn’t particularly compelling.  It’s competently done, but there’s no real sense of urgency about it; Tristan is described as the “King’s attack-dog” a man who will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of answers, yet his investigation into the cigars seems somewhat laissez-faire.

The romance, however, works a great deal better.  Delilah and Tristan are well-matched and their tentative steps towards each other are really well done; she’s never experienced desire or sexual pleasure but is no blushing virgin either, and doesn’t leave Tristan in doubt about her interest in him.  She’s a terrific heroine, one who gives the impression of being naïve and wholesome – people don’t expect her to be funny or to take a stand on things (a mistake even Angelique makes about her) – but really, she’s clever and witty, as well as being incredibly kind, and genuinely wanting to make people feel comfortable and happy.  Tristan is a hard-nosed individual with a job to do; fiercely self-contained, he doesn’t let people know him easily but he simply can’t help being drawn to Delilah, and right from their first, inauspicious meeting, the chemistry between them sizzles.  Like Delilah, he has a dry sense of humour and fun that is unexpected, and the moments he allows that snarky, devilishly teasing side of him out are among the best things about the book.  Their romance is a slow-burn, full of longing glances and slightly risqué flirtatious comments, and it’s simply delicious.

The other relationship in the book – that between Delilah and Angelique – is unusual and superbly done; I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything quite like it before.  Not just because it’s the wife and the mistress, but because it’s two equally strong female characters, albeit from different social strata, with strengths and weaknesses that play off each other and who are bonded through their relationships with – and impoverishment by – the same man.  It’s one of the best, most satisfying female friendships I’ve ever read in a romance novel – but the downside is that they’re so well set-up, and the focus is so firmly on them for the first part of the book that I felt Tristan was rather underdeveloped by comparison.  And following on from that, while Ms. Long does a great job setting up her motley crew of secondary characters and boarding house guests, (Tristan’s relationship with his Lieutenant provided some wonderful insight into his character) I felt some things could have been omitted without diminishing the overall story and that time and page-count could have been spent with Delilah and Tristan.

Those niggles aside, Lady Derring Takes a Lover was a really entertaining read. Delilah is an engaging heroine and I enjoyed her relationship with the pragmatic Angelique very much; and while Tristan is perhaps a little underdeveloped, he’s still a hero worthy of All the Swoons. The set up for the next book has me very intrigued and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Welcome back to the world of historical romance, Ms. Long.  You have been sorely missed.

A Duke in Need of a Wife by Annie Burrows

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A search for a duchess
…despite his scandalous secret!

Oliver, Duke of Theakstone, needs a duchess—but who will accept his secret illegitimate child? He invites several eligible ladies to his estate to assess their suitability, including infuriating beauty Miss Sofia Underwood. Oliver is a master of cool practicality, so he’s hopeful when he sees the connection between Sofia and his daughter. What scares him is that there’s nothing cool or practical about his attraction to Sofia!

Rating: C+

This book’s title – A Duke in Need of a Wife – tells you pretty much all you need to know going into this story (that’s one thing about Harlequin Historical titles – they don’t generally beat about the bush!).  It’s pretty standard historical romance fare – an aristocratic, coolly controlled hero meets a somewhat downtrodden young woman whose behaviour isn’t quite as it should be and becomes completely smitten with her in spite of his determination to remain aloof.

The story opens at a disastrous moment.  The fireworks display mounted to celebrate the new peace with France has gone badly wrong and the fireworks are going off all over the place, causing the onlookers to panic and a mass stampede as they rush to safety.  One bystander, however, is running in the opposite direction; noticing a woman whose skirt has caught fire, Sofia Underwood rushes to her side to help her, arriving at the same time as one of the waiters.  He tries to get Sofia to leave but she refuses, staying to comfort the injured woman and covering her with her cloak while the waiter goes to fetch a doctor.  Sofia knows she’ll hear no end of complaints from her aunt when she gets home  – how she could have ruined her best cloak by acting so irresponsibly? – but Sofia doesn’t care.  Well – she does, but complaints about her behaviour are par for the course and she’s become accustomed to them.  Life following the drum has ill prepared her for a life among good society.

She is completely puzzled the next day, when the Duke of Theakstone – a man she knows neither in person nor by reputation – comes to call at her aunt and uncle’s house, and is surprised to see that he’s the ‘waiter’ who had helped the injured woman at the fireworks display.  Theakstone is abrupt  and clearly not interested in making small talk; he asks Sofia to accompany him on a ride in his curricle the following afternoon, telling himself it’s because he didn’t like the way her relatives were so dismissive of her the night before, especially in light of her bravery in rushing to help an injured stranger.

The next day, Theakstone is still asking himself what made him extend the invitation, especially as the retiring, subdued Miss Underwood he’d seen in company with her aunt and uncle was nothing like the brave young woman he’d glimpsed on the night of the display.  She’s nothing special, he tells himself; she’s pretty enough, but her manners are a strange mixture of retiring and forward and her tendency to veer away from the subject in conversation frustrates him, yet he’s drawn to her and clearly infatuated, even though he doesn’t realise it.

Still unable to shake off his fascination with Sofia, Theakestone decides to invite her and her guardians to the house party he’s holding at Theakstone Court – to which he’s also invited a number of the most eligible of the year’s crop of debutantes.  His decision to marry is not based simply on his desire to do his duty to the title and set up his nursery, but because he recently discovered the existence of his illegitimate daughter, Olivia (Livvy) and wants to provide her with a home and loving family. He’s therefore on the lookout for a woman who can do more than fulfil her duties as his duchess – he wants one who will be a wife and mother first and a duchess second – which is a refreshing change from all those heroes who express their intentions to wed the most well brought-up, well trained and biddable young ladies because they will be the perfect peeress and hostess.

Sofia is an engaging character, even though she’s somewhat stereotypical; an orphan whose upbringing was irregular because she grew up outside England – and as if that wasn’t bad enough, her mother was a catholic.  After her father’s death, she was passed around relatives until settling with her aunt and uncle; and grateful to have a home – any home – Sofia worked hard to stifle her naturally adventurous, outgoing nature and now is so repressed that she rarely speaks unless spoken to, and only allows her true self to emerge when she’s walking her dog alone in the woods. Theakstone is also a character-type we’ve seen often before; the son of an unfeeling, stentorian father who hasn’t experienced much in the way of love or affection, he doesn’t believe in love for himself and is far more focused on providing it for his daughter.  I appreciated that he was able to see Sofia in a way nobody else did, and how her confidence grew as a result; and it’s clear he loves Livvy and wants the best for her.  On the downside however, he can be cold and off-hand with Sofia to the point of hurting her feelings, and Sofia’s tendency to go off at a tangent made her seem a bit scatter-brained at times.

A Duke in Need of a Wife is a well-written take on a familiar trope featuring interesting, though  flawed characters, and if you enjoy stories featuring an obliviously head-over-heels hero then it might fit the bill.

 

Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives an unusual gift: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life – and falling in love…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A

Emily Larkin’s Unmasking Miss Appleby was one of my favourite books of 2016. It’s the first in the author’s Baleful Godmother series of historical romances with a magical twist – which is very cleverly incorporated into the story. If you’re looking for a high-concept paranormal romance, then you’ll need to look elsewhere, because that’s not what this is. What it IS, however, is a well-written, strongly characterised and thoroughly enjoyable historical romance set very firmly in the Regency London with which fans of historicals are familiar. And added to all that, the cherry on top of the icing on the cake is the extremely accomplished performance by Rosalyn Landor (actually, does she ever give anything other than an extremely accomplished performance?!) – who once again demonstrates why she’s Numero Uno when it comes to narration in historical romance.

After the death of her parents, Charlotte Appleby was – very begrudgingly – taken in by relatives who treat her little better than a servant, and while she longs for independence, she knows that a life of drudgery awaits her. But on the evening of her twenty-fifth birthday, she receives an unexpected visitor in the form of a woman who introduces herself as her Faerie Godmother and tells Charlotte that she has come to bestow a magical gift upon her, a gift earned by an ancestress centuries ago as payment for a valuable service rendered. Charlotte at first can’t believe her ears – there are no such things as faeries, after all – but when the woman reveals that Charlotte’s mother had received a gift on her twenty-fifth birthday, and tells her more about the sorts of powers she can grant, Charlotte starts to think that perhaps there’s something in her talk of magical abilities and gives some thought as to what gift she wants. She realises that this could be her chance for independence and decides on the ability of transformation, reasoning that as a man, there will be many, many more opportunities open to her than there will as a woman. With this in mind, she sets out to secure employment, and applies for a position as a secretary in London.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. His cockiness and noble bearing make him perfect for the role, but Camilla is surprised to find herself wishing the deception would last forever.

Rating: C

The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982)  says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas.  As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book.  The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.

Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate.  He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang.  This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors.  After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen.  Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers.  Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.

Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery.  It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa).  It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself.  But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.

By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid.  Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea.  Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield.  Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere.  Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.

After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house.  Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.

I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more.  Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.

There are things to like about the story.  The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.

The Earl’s Irresistible Challenge (Sinful Sinclairs #1) by Lara Temple

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Could this infamous rake…

…finally have found his Countess?

When Lucas, Lord Sinclair, receives a mysterious summons from a Miss Olivia Silverdale he’s sceptical about helping her. But Olivia, although eccentric, is in earnest about her quest to restore her late godfather’s reputation. Lucas’s curiosity is piqued—and not just by Olivia’s intelligent eyes and lithe form. A new challenge quickly presents itself: keeping Miss Silverdale at arm’s length!

Rating: B+

Lara Temple, one of the strongest on the current roster of Harlequin/Mills & Boon Historical authors, begins her new Sinful Sinclairs series with The Earl’s Irresistible Challenge, the first of three stories about siblings whose irresponsible, ne’er-do-well forebears have tarnished the family name and put a blemish on the reputation of the younger generation.  It’s a terrific read that hooked me in right from the start as our sarcastic, world-weary hero comes up against a different kind of heroine who won’t let him – or his conscience –off the hook.

The eldest of the siblings is Lucas, Lord Sinclair (Chase and Samantha are his younger brother and sister), and he is rather wondering at his lack of sense for turning up to a clandestine meeting at a dingy church on a rainy winter’s afternoon simply because he’d received a letter suggesting that the sender has information relating to the death of Lucas’ father.  Lucas wonders even more when the young woman he meets, Miss Olivia Silverdale, explains that she has travelled to London from her home in Yorkshire in order to uncover the truth about the recent death of her godfather, Henry Payton, and during the course of her enquiries, came across a note in Payton’s hand that said “Howard Sinclair was terribly wronged and something must be done.”

Lucas listens to Miss Silverdale’s recitation with growing incredulity and shock as she explains how she has recruited the help of a Madam by masquerading as a spiritualist, and becomes more and more convinced he’s dealing with a madwoman or a very creative liar.  He gives little credence to either the note or Miss Silverdale’s suggestion that they join forces to obtain answers to the truth about her godfather’s death and the question posed by his words concerning Lucas’ father – but ends their unorthodox encounter by telling her that he will think about what she has told him.

Two days later, Lucas has come to decision and tells Olivia that he won’t allow her to make enquiries which could embroil his family name in more scandal than is already attached to it, making it clear that he will put a stop to her investigation if she will not desist.  Yet he finds it impossible to completely dismiss the bright, intriguing and infuriating young woman whose quick mind and ready wit attract and annoy him in equal measure.  Rather against his better judgement, he decides that “If anyone is to continue tarnishing our name, I prefer [the] remaining Sinclairs do it ourselves”  and finds himself agreeing to ‘allow’ her investigation to continue provided she agrees not to do anything further without informing him in advance of her plans.

Olivia Silverdale isn’t the slightest bit intimidated by Lord Sinclair’s veiled threats, although his sardonic, disparaging attitude toward her attempts to help him and his family exasperate her no end.  She is surprised at his lack of interest in unravelling the mystery suggested by Payton’s note but determined to pursue her own enquiries with or without his help.  Henry Payton was more of a father to her and her siblings than their own father, who spent most of his life abroad pursuing his interest in the natural sciences, and the story she’s been told – that Henry died in the bed of a courtesan – doesn’t add up.

Lucas is intrigued and exasperated by Olivia from the very start, and it doesn’t take long for him to become well-and-truly smitten.  She’s like no woman he’s ever met – which is a well-worn romance-novel cliché most of the time, but not here, because Olivia is a refreshingly different heroine.  She’s independent and certainly pushes her boundaries, but she doesn’t do it in that obtrusive ‘look at me!’ way that so often characterises those curl-tossing TSTL heroines I can’t stand.  She’s unconventional and Lucas is right when he calls her relentless, but she’s quietly so; she doesn’t make a fuss, she just makes it clear she’ll do what she believes she must with or without Lucas’ help or sanction, but not in a brash or snide way.  He knows full-well his strings are being pulled, but there’s no question he does what he does because he wants to. The more time he spends with Olivia, the harder it is for him to step back, and his protests become token as he falls more and more deeply in love with her.  The main conflict in the novel arises from the fact that Olivia doesn’t actually realise the extent of her tunnel-vision or how her determination to do what she perceives as The Right Thing is actually manipulative.  Lucas sees it, and even goes along with it, telling himself it’s because he wants to stop her from further besmirching the Sinclair name, whereas we know it’s because he’s falling hard for her and because he wants to protect her from gossip and the disappointment he fears is in store.

Lucas’ self-deprecating humour and self-awareness are very attractive, and I always enjoy watching the confident, worldly hero losing his head over his heroine, especially when, as is the case here, he’s the first to own to the truth and depth of his feelings.  Olivia’s realisation that she’s fallen in love is quite matter-of-fact, whereas Lucas struggles to reconcile his instinct to do the honourable thing and keep Olivia at a distance so as not to taint her reputation by association while being so in love with her that he just can’t stay away.  Olivia, on the other hand, is more inscrutable.  She has had years of practice at hiding her feelings, which causes Lucas to doubt she feels anything more for him than physical attraction .

The Earl’s Irresistible Challenge is a beautifully developed, wholly absorbing romance featuring two strongly drawn protagonists who are clearly made for each other.  Lara Temple once again demonstrates her gift for humorous, insightful dialogue – Olivia can more than hold her own against Lucas’ sardonic wit, while he knows exactly which buttons to push in order to get a reaction – and I lapped up each of their witty, astute conversations and observations.  It’s a very strong start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to spending more time with the Sinful Sinclairs.

The Judas Kiss (Tyburn Trilogy #3) by Maggie MacKeever


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England, 1820. The trial of Queen Caroline is underway. Prinny, George IV now, is determined to divorce his detested wife.

The Whigs hope that the Queen will win her case. The Tories pray that she will not. More than a few Londoners wish that the politicians, taking their monarch with them, would jump off the nearest pier.

London is about to become even more exciting. In the midst of all this uproar, Clea Fairchild returns home.

At fifteen, Clea had been reading Ovid’s ART OF LOVE. And scheming how to, once she acquired bosoms, introduce herself into rakehelly Baron Saxe’s bed. Clea is one-and-twenty now, a widow whose husband died under mysterious circumstances she is determined to resolve.

Kane is almost twice that age.

Reprobate though he may be, Lord Saxe is not sufficiently depraved to act on the unseemly attraction he feels for his friend Ned’s little sister, whom he is convinced means to drive him mad.

Clea wonders, is Kane trying to drive her mad? In the years since they last met, he has grown more dissolute, more jaded, and even more damnably attractive.

He has also grown skittish, and is avoiding her as if she carries the plague.

Clea isn’t one to sit quietly in a corner. She has a mystery to solve. Villains to elude. Schoolgirl fantasies to explore.

Providing her husband’s murderer doesn’t dispose of her first.

Rating: B

When I read Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz a few months back, I found myself rooting for a romance (in a future book) between the hero’s sister and his oldest friend, who had crazy chemistry in spite of the fact that she was a precocious fifteen-year-old and he was in his thirties.  I hasten to add that nothing ikky or untoward happened in that book; it was clear that Lady Clea had a crush on Kane, Lord Saxe, but he treated her like his best friend’s annoying little sister, and their banter was free of sexual references or innuendo – but still, it was apparent there was something there.

The Judas Kiss is set some six years after The Tyburn Waltz, and in it we’re treated to another complex and engaging mystery while at the same time, Clea and Kane are finally able to admit to what they’ve both known and wanted for a long time.

When we met her in the first book in the trilogy, it was clear that Clea was going to grow into an extraordinary young woman.  Highly intelligent, quick witted and insatiably curious, she had a Latin quote at her fingertips for every occasion and could hold her own with the best of them in any verbal exchange.  The one person who could fluster her was her brother’s good friend, Lord Saxe, whom she’s known forever, and on whom she had a massive crush. Rakishly handsome and devilishly charming, he’s fodder for her romantic dreams and yearnings, even though she recognises that such a notorious rake is not for her.

A year or so after the events in that novel, Clea accompanied her brother Ned, the Earl of Dorset, to Vienna, where it seemed all of Europe was gathered while monarchs and heads of state negotiated peace in the wake of Napoléon’s defeat.  There, Clea met and fell head-over-heels in love with a young officer, Harry Marsden;  they married when she was  eighteen but had only a year together before tragedy struck; and now, at twenty-one, Clea returns to England a widow, determined to make herself a new life following her young husband’s suicide.  Her journey has, however not been without incident, as she and her companion were set upon by highwaymen twice on the road – the second time on the outskirts of London, when Clea coolly despatched one of them by putting a bullet in his shoulder.  The robbers fled after that.

Meanwhile Kane has been finding his life of debauchery no longer holds the appeal it once did, and that the constant round of intrigue, plots and schemes with which he’s tasked by his government masters are exhausting rather than exciting.  With the king and queen at each other’s throats and  engaged in a constant and very public battle of words, and the king eager to rally support for a divorce, Kane is on the trail of a group of thieves and counterfeiters that seems to lead to a mysterious but murderous individual known only as The Deacon.

The news of Clea’s return unsettles Kane.  He’s too old and too jaded for her, yet he can’t help wanting to be with her at the same time as he thinks he should stay as far away from her as possible.  When rumours begin to circulate that Clea had a hand in her husband’s death, Kane realises she’s mixed up in something that could do far more than merely damage her reputation – a suspicion born out when it becomes clear that the attacks upon her on the road were not isolated incidents.

Ms. MacKeever has crafted a fast-moving, intricate and well-plotted mystery that leads to a high-stakes finale that ties together a number of characters and events from the previous novels in the series.  One of the complaints I had about book two, The Purloined Heart, was that while readers knew who the villain was, we never knew how he related to the other characters. Fortunately, that isn’t the case here, and the author has topped that with a revelation I didn’t see coming.  As in the other novels, the story is very firmly rooted in the events of the day, although this time around, I didn’t find all the background detail to be quite so overwhelming.

Clea and Kane continue to strike sparks off each other and the chemistry between them is as strong as ever.   The almost twenty year age gap – we’re not told how old Kane is, but Clea is twenty-one and he describes himself as being almost twice her age – doesn’t bother me, as ultimately, what I’m looking for are two people who are well-matched in understanding and temperament, and Kane and Clea are certainly that.  Clea loved her husband, but her girlish feelings for Kane have matured and she’s coming back to him now as a woman who knows what she wants; and while Kane tries to keep her at arm’s length, he pretty much knows he’s toast from the moment she returns to England.

I admit that I would have liked a little more of Kane and Clea together on the page.  While they’re the romantic leads, the romance is part of a larger story, and they’re part of a larger, well-drawn ensemble cast that gets its share of ‘screen time’ as well.  Perhaps I’m being greedy – but they’re such a great couple that I was a bit miffed whenever they were separated.  Even so, I did enjoy the book – and the series – and would recommend it to anyone who is partial to intricately constructed historical mysteries that are very firmly grounded in a specific time and place.

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.