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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B-

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray (King’s Elite #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A spy on a mission…

Until he meets this heiress!

Miss Theodora Cranford’s learned to keep her impetuous nature locked away. She won’t be deceived by another man who can’t see past her fortune. She wants an honourable, sensible sort – not a self-assured scoundrel like her new neighbour, Lord Gray. Although she’s sure there’s more to him than meets the eye… But after that first captivating kiss, she’s certainly left wanting more!

Rating: B

Virginia Heath bounds back into form with The Disgraceful Lord Grey, the third book in her King’s Elite series about group of gentlemen spies charged with putting a stop to the activities of a particularly elusive and dangerous smuggling ring with links to Napoléon. With the ring’s operations now brought to a halt, all that remains is to cut off the head, so to speak, and unmask the person who’s been pulling the strings, known only as The Boss.  The investigations of the King’s Elite have narrowed this down to one of two people – and in this story, Lord Graham Chadwick – Gray – travels to Suffolk accompanied by Lord Fennimore, the head of the King’s Elite, in order to infiltrate the small social circle of Viscount Gislingham in continuance of the investigation.

Unfortunately, however, he doesn’t get off to the best of starts when Gislingham’s niece happens upon him cavorting naked in the stream on the estate – and then his huge dog, Trefor (Gray is of Welsh descent, or at least he grew up there) knocks her in as well.

Oops.

Miss Thea Cranford has lived with her uncle and aunt since the death of her parents, and at twenty-three, remains unmarried.  She’s heiress to an enormous fortune and a youthful infatuation for a man whose affection turned out to be for her money and not for her has made her very cautious when it comes to men, and guilt over her impulsive behaviour in the past has caused her to lock the side of herself she terms “Impetuous Thea” in a box and throw away the key.  Her closest friend, the widowed Lady Harriet Crudgington – who is vivacious, funny and intent on living life to the full – regularly encourages Thea to loosen the tight rein she has on herself, but with little (or no) success.

Virginia Heath turns the spirited-heroine-meets-buttoned-up-hero trope on its head here, as Thea tries to maintain a show of indifference to Gray while everything in her yearns to respond to his gentle flirtations and humorous banter.  He’s a truly charming hero who, while being an inveterate flirt, is never pushy or overly familiar with Thea; he’s kind, compassionate and very level-headed and self-aware in a way few romantic heroes are.  An incredibly irresponsible action a decade earlier ruined him financially, caused a huge scandal and as a result, he left England and travelled the world on merchant ships.  Older and wiser now, he recognises that those events were the making of him and even though he can’t deny he’d rather not have beggared himself and been disowned by his family, he’s not one for brooding over the past and things he can’t change.

When Fennimore suggests that Gray’s scandalous past may be just the thing to recommend him to the subject of their investigation, Gray is surprised to find himself somewhat dismayed at the idea of having to play up to his reputation as a bit of a ne’er do well, especially given Thea’s obvious reluctance to have anything to do with him. He’s smitten with her and he knows it – and the last thing he wants is for her to believe him to be the sort of reprobate she’s had dealings with before, a man interested only in her money… but that’s the part he’ll have to play if he’s to uncover the identity of The Boss, impress Fennimore, and earn a much desired promotion.  He must put aside all thought of Gislingham’s gorgeous – albeit repressed – niece and get on with the job at hand.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray is an entertaining, very readable historical romance featuring a pair of attractive, well-matched characters, a strongly drawn supporting cast, a secondary romance and a large and affectionate dog (!)  in which Gray is – as he should be – the star of the show. He’s a thoroughly decent chap, he’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s learned from his mistakes; he’s funny, insightful and a little bit naughty (as all good heroes are!) and refreshingly different from all those damaged, darkly brooding heroes we’re so  used to in the genre.

Thea, on the other hand, is a little generic, although I liked her sense of humour and her intelligence.  I did find her tendency to refer to herself in the third person –  “Impetuous Thea” –  a little irritating, but that’s a really minor niggle, and not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Virginia Heath’s agile, witty and insightful writing shines once again, and I’m pleased to recommend this latest King’s Elite novel to fans of character-driven historical romance.

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

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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.