Besotted With the Viscount by Susanna Malcolm (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lord Gideon Birch, wounded former naval Captain and freshly minted Viscount, has a colorful history as a renowned lover of women. But a decade at war has transformed this sensual rake, and what he wants now is only to live a life on his own terms. And so he comes to the quietest village in England, searching for serenity, and instead encounters an astonishingly enthralling pair of green eyes that unsettle his carefully constructed world.

Though she would love nothing more than to leave Littleover, Miss Theadosia Ridley is sorely hampered by a lack of funds. Desperately trying to earn enough to feed herself and her ailing family servant, she must reluctantly accept Lord Birch’s opportune offer of employment: He needs her and her knowledge of Greek to catalog and translate the extensive library he’s accumulated over the course of the war. Dubious of his motives, she vows to keep her distance from the dashing newcomer. But time in his company unveils a compelling man far more complex than his shallow reputation would lead one to believe.

Can she uphold her vow not to succumb to his charms?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – C

Susanna Malcolm’s Besotted with the Viscount is a fairly low-angst tale set in a small English village, which sees two people who don’t quite fit in discovering that they fit in with each other rather well. It’s a leisurely-paced, character-driven tale, that starts well, but drags in the middle and then resorts to a rather clichéd Big Misunderstanding in order to create some much-needed tension towards the end.  The principals are likeable for the most part, although I found the heroine to be rather too negative, and I can’t deny there were times I thought both principals needed a slap!

Captain Lord Gideon Birch, younger brother of an earl, has recently been ennobled in recognition of his service during the recent wars.  Widely regarded as a hero, he has no wish to be continually reminded of his life in the Navy, a career forced upon him by his family and which he hated.  Now retired due to a serious injury to his knee, he wants nothing more than to live quietly somewhere as far from the sea as possible, and has purchased a property in the vicinity of the remote village of Littleover in Derbyshire.

Thea Ridley is the daughter of a scholar and lived most of her life in Greece before returning to England following the deaths of her parents.  She lives in a small cottage with her elderly companion and is barely making ends meet, so when the opportunity arises to work for the captain as a kind of librarian – Lord Birch has acquired a large number of Greek texts he cannot read (he doesn’t know Greek) – she jumps at the chance to earn some money, with a view to making enough to be able to leave England and make a home in Italy.

It’s a nice way of getting the two together, but I couldn’t help asking myself how it was that neither of them thought it improper to be alone together so often.  I suppose it could be that Gideon regarded Thea as a servant and therefore without a reputation to worry about, but that’s clearly not the case, given that they first meet at a social event.  He’s immediately smitten by her beautiful face (and in fact, if anyone is besotted in this story, it’s him), so when the local vicar suggests she would be the ideal person to catalogue and translate his books, he jumps at the chance to have her in his house and hopes to get to know her. But Gideon’s reputation as a rake and libertine is widely known, so Thea, who is still getting over being thrown over by the young man she’d expected to marry – is wary, of Gideon and of men in general.

This is a romance novel, so I don’t need to spell out where things are headed. Thea is equally taken with the handsome captain, but keeps reminding herself that Men Are Not To Be Trusted and remains in denial about the truth of her feelings for Gideon.  Until, that is, her former love arrives back in the village accompanied by his new – pregnant – wife (whom he married for money), and promptly propositions Thea, intending to make her his mistress.  She’s so furiously indignant, she goes back to Gideon’s house, figures if all men are going to think she’s a whore, she might as well be one, and jumps Gideon – much to his delight.

Things between them are fairly blissful (fortunately, Gideon has hardly any servants, so there’s nobody to witness them getting it on in all the rooms in the house) – although at no point does he, a gentleman, mention marriage – until the Big Mis kicks in near the end.  Without spoilers, something happens to Thea which turns the whole village against her, and when details reach Gideon – who has had to go away for a week – he immediately believes the worst, and, on returning to Littleover, makes no attempt to see or speak to Thea to get her side of the story.

Needless to say, Gideon’s behaviour at that point is unforgiveable and I didn’t blame Thea for the decision she makes afterward.  All is happily resolved, of course, but I have to say that while I generally liked Gideon, his lack of faith in Thea in the final stages of the novel left a nasty taste in my mouth.

It will come as no surprise when I say that the narration was by far the strongest part of this audiobook.  Unfortunately, however, not even the velvet tones of Nicholas Boulton were enough to raise the book above the average, and actually, it’s the first time I’ve ever said that I wished he’d been given better material to work with, as so far, the authors he’s narrated for in the romance genre – Laura Kinsale, Alexis Hall, Elizabeth Kingston – are all top-notch.  His performance is excellent, as usual; his interpretations of the various characters are fabulous, they’re all very clearly differentiated, and his ability to get to the emotional heart of any given scene is superb.  But ultimately, the story is weak and the heroine is difficult to warm to, so in spite of Mr. Boulton’s best efforts – wonderful though they are – Besotted by the Viscount is rather a middling affair.

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TBR Challenge: The Tyburn Waltz by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Julie expects she will end up dangling on Tyburn gallows,hanged as a thief.

Ned expects he will die on the battlefields of the Peninsula, hanged as a spy.

But then Julie takes on the trappings of a lady, and Ned unexpectedly becomes an earl, both players in a deadly game that will take them from the heights of London society to the depths of the Regency underworld — a game in which not only necks are risked, but hearts as well.

Rating: B

Finding a book in a series to read for this month’s prompt proved a bit harder than I’d anticipated.  Oh, I’ve got plenty of series books, but I realised that most were in series I’d either completed or not started yet, so my option was pretty much limited to picking up the first in a series.  I was going back and forth on my Kindle trying to work out what I fancied reading and actually started one or two other books before finally settling on Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz.  Ms. MacKeever has a fairly large backlist of traditional regencies, but this book – the first in her Tyburn Trilogy (which has yet to be completed) – dates from 2010 and is a little bit sexier and somewhat darker than her trads.

When she’s just fourteen – as near as she can guess, anyway – street urchin Jules is caught stealing some silver teaspoons, imprisoned in Newgate and will most likely hang for the crime.  But she’s offered a deal; release in exchange for working for the infamous Cap’n Jack – the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent lord of London’s criminal underworld.  It’s Hobson’s Choice; Jules agrees, and for the next four years, she lives comfortably, and is given lessons in refinement and deportment so that she can move easily among the upper classes.

Ned Fairchild, Earl of Dorset, is a rather reluctant earl, having come into the title upon the unexpected death of his cousin.  Until then, he’d been an Exploring Officer (a spy of sorts) in Wellington’s army in Spain, a dangerous life, but one he’d relished.  Back in England, he and his closest friend, Kane, Lord Saxe, are still working for the government – but mostly Ned is bored by the round of balls, parties, visits to clubs and his mistress that seem to comprise his life and longs for something more.

He returns home late one night to find his fifteen-year-old sister, Lady Clea, out of bed and waiting for him, proudly showing him what looks to be a young woman wrapped in a curtain and tied to a chair in his library.  Clea explains that she – with the help of his batman, Bates – caught a housebreaker; Ned sends her to bed, intending to find out what he can about the young woman’s intentions, but she’s too quick for him, and knocks him over the head with an ornamental statue before absconding out of the window – with the statue, and without the curtain.

Shortly after this, Jules is manoeuvred into a situation as companion to Lady Georgiana Ashcroft.  As Miss Julie Wynne, she accompanies her mistress to a number of society events, where she’s instructed to steal various items from the hosts. She has no idea to what end, just knows that she’s got to follow Cap’n Jack’s orders quickly and without drawing attention to herself.  She’s engaged in stealing a glove from the bedroom of the wife of the French Ambassador when she’s confronted by the Earl of Dorset who idly wonders if she’s lost something.  She tries to bluff her way out of it, but quickly realises its futile; he’s recognised her and he’s clearly not going to let her get away this time.  She’s worried he’s going to report her to the authorities and is surprised when he doesn’t, instead asking her to meet him again so they can talk further.  Ned quickly realises there’s more going on that meets the eye, and assigns Bates to keep an eye on Julie, to protect her from whomever has her under his control.

The romance between Ned and Julie is a fairly slow-burn, and the author does a great job of building the attraction that thrums between them from their very first meeting. They’re both extremely likeable; Ned is a terrific hero – handsome, clever and compassionate, he’s impressed by Julie’s tenacity and gumption as much as he’s attracted to her and is determined to keep her safe at all costs. Julie has an old head on her young shoulders – not surprising, considering she grew up on the streets – she’s quick-witted and independent, although she’s sensible enough to recognise when she needs help and to ask for it.  Their interactions are lively and entertaining, they have great chemistry and their relationship moves at a good pace, while they’re also trying to work out exactly who Cap’n Jack is and what he’s up to.  The mystery element of the novel is intriguing and unfolds gradually, with the reader finding clues and information at the same time as the characters, which certainly helps to build the suspense.

The story is set against the backdrop of the state visit which doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot, although it does provide a number of events at which our heroes can interact, and allows the injection of a little light comedy in the forms of Lady Georgiana and Ned’s cousin, the dowager Countess, who are sworn rivals and always trying to score points off each other.  There are some other intriguing secondary characters as well; Ned’s friend Kane is a notorious rake, his sister, Clea is clever, vivacious and has a Latin quote handy for every occasion, and the coolly collected and lovely French spy, Sabine worked with Ned and Kane during the recent war.

After all those positives however, comes the negative; the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the rest of it.  The reveal about Cap’n Jack is weak and anti-climactic, and although everything is neatly wrapped up – and it’s not all rainbows and happy bunnies – the book seems to have run out of steam, and the author throws in a couple of plot points (like the one about Ned’s cousin pushing him to get married) which add little (if anything) to the story as a whole.

The Tyburn Waltz is, on the whole, a well-executed, funny and sensual romantic adventure story, and even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to read the other books in the trilogy.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2) by Cat Sebastian

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Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Rating: B+

This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing.  It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.

If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life.  Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth.  Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will,  and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.

Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street.  The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can.  Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip.  Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.

The large man hanging around the back door appears completely impervious to Hartley’s sarcasm, and instead of leaving, asks if he’s drunk and all but carries him into the kitchen.  When Hartley’s guest explains he’s looking for a painting, Hartley realises immediately what sort of painting it is, but also has to admit that he has no idea what happened to Easterbrook’s ‘art collection’, as those particular items had disappeared by the time he inherited the house. But he’s determined to find out, and for the first time in months feels as though he has a purpose, even if it’s to obtain revenge against a dead man.

Sam and Hartley arrange to meet again to discuss the search and compare notes – or so each tells himself, not wishing to acknowledge that his interest is more centred on the other man than on anything to do with the missing naughty pictures.

Ms. Sebastian skilfully imbues the romance between this mismatched pair with a great deal of sensuality and tenderness.  Neither has had much – if any – experience of gentleness or affection when it comes to relationships; neither has experienced romantic love and Hartley, especially, has walled himself off emotionally, partly as a way of dealing with the things he’s done, and now because he’s wary of ‘infecting’ anyone he cares for with the stigma he carries.  But the connection between him and Sam is strong and impossible to resist; and because of Hartley’s reluctance to be touched, their sexual relationship develops in a way that is outside Sam’s experience, but which he discovers he likes very much.  Because of his size and his past as a boxer, Sam’s previous lovers have assumed him to be violent and wanted him to be rough with them,  but with Hartley, Sam realises he can take the time to give and accept the sort of warmth and caring he’s never been asked for and didn’t realise he needed. Hartley needs someone who can let him move at a pace he’s comfortable with, and Sam is only too happy to allow him to explore his desires and to at last experience the pleasures – both in and out of bed – to be had when two people care for one another.

Unsurprisingly, Hartley’s backstory is a difficult one to read about, and although Ms. Sebastian doesn’t go into gratuitous detail, what she does tell us is sufficient to paint a picture (pun unintentional) of what he went through and to explain why he is so tightly controlled and on edge.  He’s also desperately lonely and has, for the past few years, disliked being touched, which of course makes even casual sexual encounters unsatisfying at best and impossible at worst.  There’s a weight of sadness about him as he contemplates a life alone which permeates the early part of the novel and provides a pertinent contrast to what we’re shown of Sam’s life – content, surrounded by people who love him, and yet also facing a life without long-term companionship because it’s so difficult to find that special person in a world which says he can’t love as he wants to.

I’m pleased to say that the major criticism I expressed about the last couple of books of Ms. Sebastian’s I read – that there were so many different plotlines going on that none of them felt adequately developed – is not an issue here.   The author keeps the romance between Hartley and Sam very much front and centre, and the other issues she touches upon – the racism Sam experiences on a daily basis, the crippling weight of Hartley’s shame, the inflexibility of society and the injustices practiced on the poor by the rich – are subtly and skilfully incorporated into the storyline.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is a touching, sexy, and gently humorous read, and I’m thoroughly intrigued by the set up for book three glimpsed at the end.  The secondary characters are well-realised and I especially loved Hartley’s adopted ‘family’ – including a three-legged dog, a former prostitute and a young woman whose family disowned her when she became pregnant out of wedlock – whose interactions with him show clearly that Hartley is far from the aloof, cold man he believes he has become.  Watching him regain his sense of self and rediscover his capacity for love and affection was truly lovely, and I closed the book with a smile of my face, confident that he and Sam were in it for the long haul.

My Own True Duchess (True Gentlemen #5) by Grace Burrowes

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Jonathan Tresham, heir to the Duke of Quimbey, needs a discreet ally to help him choose a wife from the mob of young ladies eager to become his duchess. When proper widow Theodosia Haviland rescues him from a compromising situation, he knows he’s found an advisor he can trust. Theo’s first marriage taught her the folly of indulging in romantic notions, and she’s determined that Jonathan Tresham’s intended be an ideal match for him, not some smitten ninnyhammer.

When Jonathan suggests Theo should be at the top of his list of possible duchesses, she protests, though she knows that Jonathan is kind and honorable despite his gruff exterior. The last person Theo can allow Jonathan to marry is a widow guarding scandalous secrets, even if she does also harbor an entirely inappropriate attraction to the one man she can never have.

Rating: B

Opening up a Grace Burrowes book these days is like going to visit old friends.  Even though each of her novels focuses on a different couple, the author has done such a thorough job of creating her own Regency world and peopling it with the many different families who move in the same elevated circles, that I know I’m going to meet up with at least one – and usually, several – familiar characters and enjoy their interactions with whichever of the principals they happen to be most closely involved with.  My Own True Duchess is book five in the True Gentlemen series, and in it, I was pleased to become reacquainted with the Duke of Anselm (The Duke’s Disaster) and several of the Dorning brothers (Will Dorning is the hero of Will’s True Wish) as well as the Earl and Countess of Haddonfield and the youngest Haddonfield, Lady Della.  While it probably helps to have at least a rough idea of who all these people are, it’s not essential;  they are all secondary characters and their stories don’t really affect the principal narrative, in which a close friend of Anselm’s is out to find himself a suitable bride.

Mr Jonathan Tresham, a mathematical genius and highly successful businessman, has lived in Europe for the last decade and made himself a tidy fortune.  Having recently become heir to the Duke of Quimbey, he has returned to England, knowing it is incumbent upon him to find himself a wife and set about securing the future of the dukedom.  The trouble is that there’s a strong chance he’s not going to be given the time or opportunity to consider his choice; most of the eligible young ladies in London and their mamas have already scented blood and are circling the waters, some of them going to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a proposal from him.  One of these enterprising young misses has managed to manoeuvre him into a deserted library, and Jonathan can feel the noose tightening – but the débutante’s hopes are dashed when a slightly older, poised and attractive woman enters the room and very politely and delicately runs her off.

Jonathan’s saviour is Mrs. Theodosia Haviland, a widow who lives in shabby-genteel almost-poverty with her sixteen-year-old sister and her seven-year-old daughter.  Her late husband – who had been heir to a viscountcy – died young (from the effects of dissipation) and hugely in debt, and the new viscount used the finds that should have reverted to Theo in order to pay them off, leaving her with nothing.  In addition, he refused to pay Haviland’s ‘debts of honour’ (gambling debts) which were massive and which have taken Theo years of scrimping and scraping to be able to settle.

Jonathan quickly realises that he and Mrs. Haviland can be of use to one another.  His business interests take up a lot of his time and attention, and having been away for so long, he doesn’t really know who is who in society, while Theo, on the other hand, knows everyone and commands respect, in spite of her reduced circumstances. So Jonathan proposes a business transaction; he will ‘employ’ her to find him a suitable wife.  Theo is not wild about the idea, but can’t deny that the money will come in very useful, so she agrees to narrow the field to a list of the ladies most likely to suit.  Jonathan is pleased with the arrangement, but there’s one thing Theo won’t budge on.  Having been unhappy in her own marriage, she is not prepared to consign Jonathan, a man she likes and admires, to a union with a simpering miss he won’t be able to like, no matter his insistence that he’s looking for a sensible society marriage based on practicality and not affection.

It will, of course, come as no surprise when I say that Jonathan soon finds himself comparing the ladies on Theo’s list to Theo herself, and finding them wanting.  She’s kind, charming and intelligent, she knows her way around in society, she’s respectable and, as an added bonus, he’s very attracted to her.  At first, Theo is reluctant to agree to his suggestion that they wed; a man who will one day be a duke shouldn’t marry an impoverished widow, but she can’t deny the pull of attraction she feels towards this this handsome, considerate man who so obviously cares for her and has earned her trust.

My Own True Duchess is typical Grace Burrowes fare in many ways.  Jonathan and Theo are caring, decent people who have overcome some degree of adversity –Theo in her bad marriage, Jonathan as the product of neglectful parents – who find each other and, through conversation, discover commonalities and mutual understanding and respect.  Where this book diverges from some of the author’s other recent releases is in the sub-plot; in many of her books, there’s a villain out to do physical harm (or worse) to one of the protagonists, but that isn’t the case here.  There’s someone out to ruin Jonathan’s principal business interest – a prestigious London club – but that’s due to simple greed rather than any long-standing familial rivalry or grudge, which works better than some of the would-be murder plots in other books.  Jonathan’s ownership of a lucrative gambling establishment does, of course, cause friction between him and his lady-love – and there were times I found Theo’s attitude to be overly judgmental – although fortunately, Ms. Burrowes redeems her in spectacular fashion, and manages to have Jonathan find a realistic solution to resolving the issues between them.

She also makes a number of very pertinent points about the situation of widows in the society of the day: The only female in all of English society who lived with a modicum of independence was the financially secure widow; while “A widow who is perceived to have fallen upon hard times soon finds herself besieged with offers, many of which are dishonourable.” At the same time, she shows some sympathy for the army of debutantes that regularly appears in historical romance as a giggling gaggle of ruthless ladies out to catch themselves the richest husband possible, pointing out that “They are taught that they are lucky – lucky to be relegated to the status of broodmares and ornaments.”  So often, the marriageable misses are presented as grasping nit-wits and widows are employed merely to allow a heroine a larger degree of sexual freedom, and I appreciated the inclusion of both these less frequently expressed points of view.

My Own True Duchess is an enjoyable, character-driven romance featuring a well-matched central couple who behave like adults and communicate well,  and which displays the author’s characteristic warmth and humour.  If you’re a fan of her work, then I’m sure this will appeal, even if you haven’t read all the previous books in this particular series.

House of Cads (Ladies of Scandal #2) by Elizabeth Kingston (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Vivez la vie pleinement…Live life to the fullest.

That’s always been Marie-Anne de Vauteuil’s motto. As a Frenchwoman of highly questionable upbringing, she was shunned by genteel society. But then, an invitation to London on a mission of mercy from the very family who cast her aside lands Marie-Anne back in society – and into the arms of a man who can be nothing but trouble.

When life gives you lemons…Make petit fours. 

Wealthy American businessman Mason is a) accidentally engaged, b) desperate to get out of it, and c) neither wealthy nor a businessman. Marriage is the last thing on his mind. Money, however, is always of utmost importance. But when he meets the irresistible Marie-Anne, she makes him rethink his life as a fraud, and hoping for something he never believed possible: A proper life with a not-so-proper wife.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Elizabeth Kingston returns to the Regency world of A Fallen Lady to bring us House of Cads, a sequel to the earlier book which features as its heroine the lively, unconventional and somewhat scandalous Frenchwoman Marie-Anne de Vauteil, the dear friend of Helen, Lady Summerdale. The audiobook also marks the very welcome return of the fabulous Nicholas Boulton to the romance genre; needless to say, his performance is superb, and I found myself enjoying the story even more in audio than I did when I read it a couple of months back.

Helen’s recent marriage and move away from the cottage they shared in the small village of Bartle-on-the-Glen has left Marie-Anne feeling rather lonely. As the story opens, she is upset at the ending of her affair with the village shoemaker, who has broken up with her because he’s going to get married. She isn’t in love with him, and being honest, she admits she’s more disgruntled at the fact that he’s called a halt to their association rather than the other way around – which was always the case in the past. Fortified with baked goods, she opens a letter just arrived from London and is astonished to discover that it’s from Lady Shipley, the woman who had almost become her mother-in-law. Some years earlier, Marie-Anne had fallen deeply in love with the Shipley’s eldest son, Richard, and they were to have been married – but Richard fell ill and died just days before the wedding, leaving a devastated and pregnant Marie-Anne to the not-so-tender-mercies of his parents, who believed her to be nothing more than an opportunist whore. The shock of Richard’s death, together with the Shipleys’ cruelty in barring her from the funeral caused Marie-Anne to miscarry, and after that, she retired to the small village of Bartle where she met and befriended Helen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Dangerous (The Outcasts #1) by Minerva Spencer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What sort of lady doesn’t make her debut until the age of thirty-two? A timeless beauty with a mysterious past—and a future she intends to take into her own hands…

Lady Euphemia Marlington hasn’t been free in seventeen years—since she was captured by Corsairs and sold into a harem. Now the sultan is dead and Mia is back in London facing relentless newspapermen, an insatiably curious public, and her first Season. Worst of all is her ashamed father’s ultimatum: marry a man of his choosing or live out her life in seclusion. No doubt her potential groom is a demented octogenarian. Fortunately, Mia is no longer a girl, but a clever woman with a secret—and a plan of her own . . .

Adam de Courtney’s first two wives died under mysterious circumstances. Now there isn’t a peer in England willing to let his daughter marry the dangerously handsome man the ton calls The Murderous Marquess. Nobody except Mia’s father, the desperate Duke of Carlisle. Clearly Mia must resemble an aging matron, or worse. However, in need of an heir, Adam will use the arrangement to his advantage . . .

But when the two outcasts finally meet, assumptions will be replaced by surprises, deceit by desire—and a meeting of minds between two schemers may lead to a meeting of hearts—if the secrets of their pasts don’t tear them apart . . .

Rating: B+

There’s been a shortage of really good historical romance so far this year.  I can count the number of DIKs I’ve given  on the fingers of one hand, and sadly, the lists of upcoming releases for the second half of the year don’t look to be offering much to shout about either.  But a shortage isn’t a complete absence; there have been a few gems, and début author Minerva Spencer’s Dangerous – the first book in her new series The Outcasts – is among them.

I am going to raise my hand and admit that when I first read the synopsis – our heroine was kidnapped by pirates, sold to a Sultan and lived in a harem for seventeen years – I had my doubts.  Not just because of the old-skool connotations associated with the premise, but because so many of the historicals published at the moment are setting aside character and romantic development in favour of mystery and adventure plots – and I was leery of reading yet another poorly conceived  story featuring a hero and heroine in the grips of insta-lust who gallivant around breaking all the rules that governed male/female interactions in the early nineteenth century and jumping into bed in chapter three.   So I picked up Dangerous with a bit of trepidation, but was quickly engaged by the confident, lively writing and breathed a sigh of relief at the realisation that my preconceptions had been unjustified.

Lady Euphemia Marlington, daughter of the Duke of Carlisle, has recently returned to London following the aforementioned seventeen years spent in the harem of Baba Hassan, Sultan of Oran.  Now aged thirty-two, she is well beyond marriageable age  and is already an object of curiosity and gossip given her prolonged absence from society – and her father is desperate to find her a husband before she does something scandalous that will render her completely unmarriageable. Her vivacity, wit and forthright manner already set her apart from the other ladies of the ton, and she’s most definitely not the demure, biddable sort so many men want to take to wife – but Carlisle hopes that the enormous dowry he’s offering will outweigh the fact of Mia’s lack of societal polish (and her advanced age.)  To Mia’s dismay, most of the men dangling after her (dowry) are either past their prime or young striplings; but ultimately, her plans don’t require her to like or spend much time with her husband.  What she wants is a man who will marry her and then leave her alone so that she can pursue her scheme of returning to Oran in order to reunite with her son, Jabril.

Adam de Courtney, Marquess of Exley, is the father of three daughters, a widower twice over and doesn’t really want another wife.  But what he wants is one thing, what he needs is another… and he needs an heir.  He’s surprised at being sought out by the Duke of Carlisle when society at large generally gives him a wide berth, believing him to have been responsible for the deaths of both his wives …until he realises that the duke wants to recruit him to the ranks of possible suitors for his recently returned daughter.  Adam is not inclined to be manipulated – until he sets eyes on Mia.  Red-haired, green-eyed and simply oozing sensuality, she is not at all what he’d expected, and against his better judgement, he’s fascinated.  He has no intention of offering for her… until he does, surprised to hear from the lady herself that the sort of marriage she proposes is one sought after by most men – one with no emotional entanglements. Feeling unaccountably lucky to have found a woman who seems to have no qualms about being wedded, bedded and left to her own devices, Adam proposes, even though he’s sure Mia is up to something.  He just can’t work out what.

Mia is just as drawn to the handsome, coolly aloof marquess as he is to her, even though she realises that he isn’t going to be easy to manage and that she’s going to have to be careful around him if she’s to follow through with her plan to return to Oran.  Fortunately however, the fact that his principal estate is near the south coast is perfect for her plans – and the fact that she wants him desperately, wants the pleasure she’s sure he will be able to give her, is an added bonus.

There are so many ways the author could have got this story wrong; by turning it into a comedic fish-out-of-water tale as Mia continually outrages society with her lack of observance of the customs and societal norms; by telling a melodramatic story of her kidnap and rescue or focusing on Adam’s past and engaging in much angst and hand-wringing over his dead wives – but she skilfully avoids the potential pitfalls and instead concentrates on building the relationship between her principals and, even better, writes a couple who act their ages (thirty-two and thirty-seven) rather than like brainless teenagers.  Mia hasn’t learned  to dissemble and simper like an English miss; she is comfortable with her body and who she is, and the mental acuity necessary to maintain her existence amid the intrigue of the sultan’s court means she’s accustomed to thinking for herself.  Mia’s lack of inhibition, her obvious enjoyment of sex and her fierce intellect all delight her new husband, while Mia is falling in love with the loving, generous man she is discovering beneath Adam’s façade of icy disdain.

There are things Adam and Mia keep from each other – fairly big things – but their relationship is, for the most part, an honest one; and when the Big Secret comes into play in the last part of the book, Ms. Spencer doesn’t drag it out.  This couple actually communicates with each other and owns up when they do something wrong; the romance is well-developed and the sex scenes (of which there are several) do a great job of showing the couple’s growing intimacy and how it leads to trust, and eventually to love.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Dangerous, and although it’s not without its flaws, none of them were large enough to spoil my overall enjoyment.  While the aforementioned sex scenes are well written and integral to the development of the relationship, there are perhaps a few too many of them; and Mia has a number of almost-TSTL moments in the last few chapters which feel somewhat out of character.  Adam’s dead wives and his reasons for keeping his daughters away from London are plot-overkill; I get that there needs to be a reason for him to have been shunned by society, but the rest of it is largely unnecessary, especially as the concerns that lead him to keep his daughters sequestered in the country are dismissed by one sentence from Mia in a rather clumsy ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moment.

But those really are minor criticisms, and I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to anyone looking for a new voice in historical romance.  Ms. Spencer’s writing is sophisticated and witty, the two principals are fully-rounded and there’s an engaging secondary cast, too, one of whom is going to be the hero in the next book in the series, Barbarous, which is due out in October.  You can be sure I’ll be picking it up.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

Rating: C-

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

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

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

Rebecca has no idea how to be a governess, of course, not only because she doesn’t know what she should teach the girls, but also because she has no idea how a governess is supposed to act.  (Which, seeing she must have had a governess herself at some point, seems odd). Fortunately for her, Garret obviously has no idea either, which the author tries to excuse because he’s been away at war. Well, that doesn’t wash; he might not have had a governess, but a man born into the aristocracy would surely have at least some idea about how servants should speak and act.

A few days later, Garret and Rebecca arrive at his estate in the Lake District and she is introduced to nine-year-old Pamela and seven-year-old Ellen, who have been left to his care following the deaths of their parents in an accident.  Needless to say, Rebecca very soon gains the affections and respect of the motherless girls and the lustful admiration of her employer – who is, of course, completely captivated by her.

Garret hadn’t expected to inherit a viscountcy.  A younger son, he served in the army and fought against Napoléon until the death of his older brother, and he is foundering, not having been brought up to manage estates and a title, and guilty that he had to abandon his men in order to step into his late brother’s shoes.  His intention had been to bring back the governess and then leave for London to take his seat in Parliament and marry Lady Agnes, a coolly poised and polished earl’s daughter to whom he had proposed, believing she had all the qualities he would require in a viscountess.  However, upon discovering that his brother – whom Garret had always known was the preferred son – was not such a good master and that the estate is in difficulty, he is persuaded to stay longer in order to put things to rights.  Naturally, this makes his decision to stay away from ‘Claire’ more difficult, especially as spending time with his nieces means spending time with the governess – but the girls are flourishing in her care and that’s more important than his own growing desire for a woman he can’t allow himself to want.

There are some good points to be found in the story.  Garrett’s desire to provide a stable environment for his nieces is admirable, and his insecurity over his ability to fulfil his responsibilities is a nice touch.  But Rebecca is completely unbelievable as a governess, and Garret’s behaviour towards her is equally unlikely.  From the start, they act and converse together like equals; he provides her with a horse during their journey, he buys clothes and bolts of cloth for her (okay, so she needs clothes, but it’s still something he would have left to another servant), they dine together every night, she asks him about his life in the army and about estate business; and when, one evening after dinner, Garret has a glass of brandy and Rebecca asks for one, too, my credulity, which had already been precariously stretched, finally broke. Rebecca is selfish, naïve and silly, impersonating someone with no thought for how the deception will affect others; and when, near the end, she insists that in pretending to be Claire, she had not used her, but had lived life for her, I didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit at such a self-serving, self-righteous platitude.

The writing is simplistic and often choppy, the characters, as I said earlier, are bland, and there is no romantic chemistry between them whatsoever; Pamela and Ellen are a pair of plot-moppets who seem hardly bothered by their parents’ deaths and Lady Agnes is a crafty, manipulative bitch – although she is at least entertaining,  But it’s a sorry state of affairs when a walking cliché is more interesting than the too-good-to-be-true hero and heroine in a romance, and when her escapades are more entertaining than that romance.  The Lady Becomes a Governess isn’t a book I can recommend.