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

a-lady-without-a-lord

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

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

A lady determined she’ll succeed

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal by Virginia Heath

miss-bradshaw
This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’d done it! Plain, invisible Evelyn had escaped…

Fed up with being a doormat to her evil stepmother, heiress Evelyn Bradshaw pays a dissolute rake to pose as her betrothed so she can secure her freedom. But then her fake fiancé leaves her with his estranged brother Finn Matlock and disappears!

Having withdrawn from the world the last thing Finn needs is the temptation of a woman, especially one like Evie. She has an irritating habit of causing chaos wherever she goes and being in places she shouldn’t…including, as he soon learns, his heart!

Rating: B+

In Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal, Virginia Heath offers an enjoyable re-working of the Cinderella story in which our downtrodden – but determined –  heroine is a fully-rounded character with a nicely fleshed-out backstory who doesn’t need to rely on her Prince not-so Charming in order to effect her escape from her horrible relatives.  Prince –or rather, Lord – Grumpy is, however a rather attractive consequence of that escape, and watching the sparks fly as they gradually and quite plausibly fall in love makes for a lovely, romantic read.

Miss Evelyn Bradshaw is twenty-six, plump, frumpy and firmly on the shelf.  Having spent the best part of the last decade nursing first her mother, and then her father when he fell ill some years later, she feels that youth has passed her by and that love and marriage are no longer things to which she can aspire.  Her father’s remarriage to a selfish money-grabber with two equally unpleasant daughters saw Evelyn – Evie – constantly belittled and thrust into the background to the extent that even she believes herself to be practically invisible; but his death offers her the prospect of freedom.  Mr. Bradshaw has left his considerable fortune to Evie, and she is finally determined to escape her step-mother’s orbit, leave London for good and make a life for herself somewhere else.  All Evie has to do is scrape up the courage to announce her plans, but even though Hyacinth Bradshaw has not treated Evie well (although she’s stopped short of getting her to clean the grates and scrub the floors!), Evie has never been able to forget her father’s insistence that she treat her stepmother with respect, and has always done whatever it took to ensure a quiet life.

Unable to just come out and tell Hyacinth of her determination to set up her own home, Evie instead offers the sum of five thousand pounds to the handsome but dissolute Fergus Matlock, Marquis of Stanford, if he will pretend to be her fiancé for the next few months.  The Marquis, who is deeply in debt, agrees to the scheme, and Evie is set to travel to his Yorkshire estate on the pretext of preparing for their wedding. In reality, she will look about for a house to purchase and once she has found one, the betrothal will quietly be ended, and Evie will remain in Yorkshire, well away from London and her stepmother’s constant bullying.

Arriving at Stanford Hall a few days later in the company of her elderly aunt, Evie is pleasantly surprised to discover the place in a much better state of repair than she had been led to believe.  Later that night, when Evie can’t sleep, she wanders down to the library, only to come across Fergus, who is supposed to be staying at a local inn in order to observe the proprieties.  But something is not quite right about him and Evie soon discovers why; he’s not Fergus at all, but his identical twin brother Finnegan, and this is Matlock House, not Stanford House.  It’s clear there is no love lost between the brothers, and Finn makes very clear his displeasure at his twin’s presumption in dumping his fiancée at his house, but Evie refuses to be intimidated by his ungracious manner. Nonetheless, she feels she should remove to Stanford House as soon as possible, but true to form as a cad of the first order, Fergus has already left Yorkshire with the advance on the “fee” Evie had given him.  Finn is not surprised – he tells Evie (not for the first time) that his brother is an unreliable wastrel and that she shouldn’t marry him, but this is the new Evie, the Evie that sticks up for herself and doesn’t cower when confronted with the scowling, brusque brother of a marquis, and she insists that she knows perfectly well what Fergus is and that he suits her well enough.

Finn Matlock is a widower of some three years, and since his wife’s death, has buried himself in this corner of Yorkshire, his life consisting of seeing to his estate business and not much else.  He doesn’t socialise, he doesn’t have guests  – until now – and he wants to keep it that way – so the stirrings of attraction he feels towards his brother’s voluptuous fiancée are both unexpected and unwelcome.  Yet very soon, he finds himself admiring her backbone and determination as much as her lush body and, though he’d never admit it, looking forward to breakfast each day, as that’s the only time of day he dares to let himself spend with her.  Every morning, he not-so-subtly baits her, enjoying her completely unfazed responses to his jibes about his brother and his attempts to persuade her not to marry him, her casual manner of taking no notice of his heavy hints about her departure and the way she ignores his regular criticisms of her – admittedly horrible – clothes (a leftover from the days of Hyacinth’s influence over her wardrobe).

This daily ritual becomes important to Evie, too, as she likes the way Finn challenges her and the person she is when she’s with him. She is sure that a handsome, wealthy man like him could have no real interest in an overly plump, aging spinster like her – even if he wasn’t still in love with his late wife – and recognises that falling for him is a terrible idea.  But even as she realises that, she knows it’s too late for caution; the real Finn, the kind, protective man who hides his deep hurt and true nature beneath that outer shell of bad-temper and cynicism has stolen her heart.

Away from London, Evie transforms from the doormat she’s always describing herself as into a more confident, independent young woman who is looking forward to the rest of her life because it will be one she has built on her own terms.  This is one of the things that makes this version of the fairy tale so appealing;  Evie finds the wherewithal to go out and make a life of her own from within and doesn’t need a man to rescue her – although she does, of course find true love along the way.  And for all his outward grumpiness, Finn is perfect for her.  He is determined to fight his ever growing attraction to Evie, but her vitality and her growing self-confidence are so completely enticing that it eventually proves irresistible; so not only is Evie changed by their association, but Finn also comes to accept that the guilt he still feels over his wife’s death is misplaced, and that he is allowed to be happy and move on with his life.

This is – I think – the fourth book of Ms. Heath’s I’ve read and I continue to be impressed by her strong storytelling and thoughtful characterisations.  While Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal undoubtedly treads a well-worn path, the author has managed to keep it fresh by throwing in a number of small, but satisfying twists that add depth and insight to this familiar tale.  She writes with a great deal of warmth and humour, creating the most wonderful chemistry between her principals as well as treating us to some moments of poignancy and emotional truth that quite took my breath away.

If you haven’t yet tried a book by Virginia Heath, then you have a treat in store.  I guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back to read her others and then, like me, will be eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.

Between the Devil and the Duke (Season for Scandal #3) by Kelly Bowen

between-the-devil-and-the-duke

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Their love was always in the cards.
He should have thrown her out. But when club owner Alexander Lavoie catches a mysterious blonde counting cards at his vingt-et-un table, he’s more intrigued than angry. He has to see more of this beauty—in his club, in his office, in his bed. But first he’ll have to devise a proposition she can’t turn down.

Gossip said he was an assassin.
Common sense told her to stay away. But Angelique Archer was desperate, and Lavoie’s club offered a surefire way to make quick money—until she got caught. Instead of throwing her out though, the devil offers her a deal: come work for him. Refusing him means facing starvation, but with a man so sinfully handsome and fiercely protective, keeping things professional might prove impossible.

Rating: A-

Kelly Bowen is one of the best of the bunch of new authors of historical romance to have emerged in the last couple of years, and she continues to show herself more than deserving of the praise her novels have received. I’ve reviewed a few and rated them highly, impressed by her ability to craft strong plotlines and characters, and to imbue her dialogue with unforced humour and realism. Best of all, she writes a strong, well-developed romance that sizzles with sexual tension while also showing the protagonists becoming emotionally intimate. Her current Season for Scandal series makes use of an unusual premise, and, in the last two books (Duke of My Heart and A Duke to Remember) she’s allowed her heroines to positively shine as independent, intelligent women who make their own rules while continuing to live within the bounds set by society. Not for Ms. Bowen the curl-tossing, foot-stamping, annoying “feisty” heroine; no, her ladies are clever, pragmatic, determined, and – when called for – devious; qualities which make them irresistibly attractive to their heroes, men who are secure enough in their masculinity to be able to appreciate their unique talents.

In Between the Devil and the Duke, the third book in the series, we meet Lady Angelique Archer, a young woman carrying the weight of her family’s responsibilities on her slim shoulders. Her father, the Marquess of Hutton, died recently in a carriage accident, but left very little money to his four children; and her older brother, the new marquess, is very quickly spending what little there is on drink, women, gambling and dodgy investments. Angelique is at her wit’s end. Her younger twin brothers risk being kicked out of Harrow if she can’t find the money to pay their fees; the household bills are mounting and she has already sold everything of value that isn’t nailed down. Her brother shows no sign of relinquishing his dissolute – and expensive – lifestyle, so it’s up to her to find a solution. While she’s very beautiful, Angelique never “took” during her one season, acquiring herself a reputation as The Marble Maiden owing to her inability to dance or make small talk or display any of the accomplishments required of a débutante. So given that reputation and that her current state of impoverishment is unlikely to remain a secret for long, marrying money is not an option. Not that she wants to sell herself off to the highest bidder anyway. An almost-betrothal to one of her brother’s closest friends, was a near escape and it’s one she has no wish to repeat.

We met Alexander Lavoie in Duke of My Heart, and learned that he is a partner in Chagarre and Associates, the business run by Ivory Moore (now Duchess of Alderidge), which is one of the best kept secrets in London.  The firm specialises in fixing the seemingly disastrous and making scandal disappear, and is discreet, efficient and very expensive.  Alex is also the proprietor of a highly successful gaming establishment, and thus very well placed to learn the sorts of secrets in which the firm trades. Rumoured to have been both a spy and an assassin, he is charming, clever, manipulative, and dangerously sexy – but completely unprepared for the sudden fascination he experiences for the anonymous woman playing quietly at the vingt-et-un table who wins a lot more than she loses.

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

TBR Challenge: That Despicable Rogue by Virginia Heath

that-despicable-rogue

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A lady’s mission of revenge…

Lady Hannah Steers has three reasons to loathe and despise Ross Jameson. He’s a scandalous libertine, he stole her home, and he was responsible for the death of her brother!

Determined to expose Ross for the rogue he is, Hannah dons a disguise and infiltrates his home as his new housekeeper. Unfortunately, this scoundrel proves himself to be the epitome of temptation and, instead of building a case against him, Hannah finds herself in a position she never expected…falling head over heels in love with him!

Rating: B+

Virginia Heath registered on my radar when her début novel came out in the Spring of 2016, but I didn’t manage to get around to reading it.  I did, however, pick up her next book, Her Enemy at the Altar, and enjoyed it very much – on the strength of that one book, I decided I had a new author to follow by virtue of the fact that Ms. Heath’s writing is accomplished, her characterisation is strong and she has a knack for humour and good dialogue.  I finally got around to reading That Despicable Rogue and was pleased to discover that it’s every bit as well-written as her other books, and that had I not known in advance that it was her first published novel, I would never have discerned that from reading it, as it’s a very confident piece of work.

Seven years before the story begins, and in the wake of an unpleasant scandal, Lady Hannah Steers was banished from London and sent to live with her two aunts in Yorkshire by her brother, the Earl of Runcorn. At the time, he promised he would recall her to London once the gossip had died down, but somehow that never happened, and Hannah has remained in Yorkshire, her life a never-ending stream of monotony so dull that it’s almost debilitating.

Several years later, Hannah learns that her brother is dead.  Having lost his entire fortune and the family home at the gaming tables, he then proceeded to blow his brains out and has left his sister with nothing.  She hears that his opponent was one Ross Jameson, a man whose name appears regularly in the scandal sheets which gleefully report his exploits with women and any number of other unsavoury facts about his debauched existence.  He’s a self-made man, which means he is looked down on by the great and the good, but his immense wealth cannot be ignored and he is admitted – if not welcomed – almost everywhere.  Hannah is sure that a man of his reputation cannot possibly have beaten her brother fairly, and is convinced he must have cheated – but she has no way to prove it.  Until, that is, she learns that, over a year since he won the place, Jameson is going to open up Barchester Hall, meaning that he will need to recruit more staff.  Hannah has remained in touch with the cook, and with her help, secures the position of housekeeper, intending to use her access to all areas of the house to search through Jameson’s papers to see if she can find evidence to support her theory that he cheated her brother.

Ross Jameson has worked incredibly hard to achieve success and to make something of himself.  The son of a criminal, Ross grew up in abject poverty alongside his mother and younger sister, who both suffered at the hands of his father, a gambler and drunkard.  Determined to protect them both, Ross did what needed to be done when he had to, and since establishing himself in business, has taken good care of the ladies in his life, setting them up with a comfortable establishment in the country. He is opening up Barchester Hall now because it’s close to London and he knows his sister will soon want to come to town to enjoy the season.

Ross finds his new housekeeper a bit baffling – she’s the one woman he doesn’t seem able to charm with a smile or a quip – but she’s efficient and he is impressed with the improvements and alterations she suggests.  And there’s something about her that makes him want to break through the barrier of frostiness she is so determined to maintain.

While she wants to continue to believe all the salacious gossip printed about Ross and is determined to prove him the worst kind of villain, Hannah can’t ignore the evidence of kindness and good-nature with which she is presented every day, or the inconvenient stirrings of attraction she is beginning to feel for him.  She stubbornly tries to maintain her belief in his underhandedness, but knows she’s fighting a losing battle.  Ross is an honourable, kind-hearted man who is fiercely protective of those he cares for – and Hannah is falling a little (or a lot) more in love every day.

The set-up is a fairly familiar one, but Ms. Heath puts a fresh spin on this well-used trope by her pleasantly different portrayal of Ross as a charming, funny, level-headed, all-round decent bloke rather than the sort of darkly brooding, ruthless bastard that is a much more frequent character-type found in this sort of story.  Not to say he isn’t ruthless in his business dealings – he’d have to be to have made a fortune considering where he started out – but he’s clearly a very different man to the one Hannah had expected, given everything she’d read about him in the scandal sheets.  In addition to the romance, there’s a nicely developed secondary plotline in which Ross suspects that Hannah might be a spy working for the East India Company, one of his main business rivals; and a look at the effects and intrusiveness of gossip – something not limited to the 21st century – as we discover why Ross is so steadfast in his determination never to respond to the accusations that are regularly thrown at him in the press.

The central characters are both very well-rounded, with Ross definitely being the star of the show.  He’s pulled himself out of the gutter through sheer determination and hard work, but hasn’t become overly hard or cynical; and although Hannah is a little harder to like because she insists on hanging on to her poor opinions of Ross for longer than she probably should, it does make sense in the context of the story and her character.

There are plenty of sparks between Ross and Hannah, and I really liked the way his gently teasing manner – he nicknames her “Prim” – and his willingness to listen to her and take her ideas seriously are shown to be instrumental in the progress of the friendship that develops between them. The romance grows out of that friendship as they begin to understand more about each other and there’s a real sense of warmth and affection to all aspects of their relationship.  In fact, the only thing I can really find to criticise in the book is the false note which is struck towards the end, when Hannah takes a highly improbable course of action following Ross’s discovery of her true identity.

But all in all, That Despicable Rogue is a thoroughly enjoyable read and one I’d definitely recommend to others.  In my Best of 2016 post at All About Romance, I mentioned that I’d discovered some very good new authors during the course of the year; K.C Bateman and Cat Sebastian were two, and Virginia Heath is another. Harlequin Historical has some of the best writers of historical romance around on its roster and Ms. Heath is definitely one of their strongest recent finds.

Bound by a Scandalous Secret (The Scandalous Summerfields #3) by Diane Gaston

bound-by-a-scandalous-secret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A most shocking betrothal!

The pleasure-seeking Marquess of Rossdale has little interest in his birthright and even less in finding a bride. So he comes up with the perfect plan to survive the Season unscatheda fake engagement to a most unsuitable girl!

Outspoken Genna, the youngest of the scandalous Summerfields, has no wish to marry, either. So agreeing to be Ross’s temporary fiancee will grant her freedom for a little longer. But with every kiss, both Ross and Genna must face up to what they really desire a true match!

Rating: C+

Bound by a Scandalous Secret is the third book in Diane Gaston’s current series, The Scandalous Summerfields. I haven’t read either of the previous entries, but this one works perfectly well as a standalone. The Summerfield siblings – three sisters and their half-brother – have been tainted by their late father’s reputation as a drunkard and libertine and the scandal that arose as the result of their mother running off with her lover. The first two books saw middle sister, Tess, and brother Edmund get their respective HEAs, and now it’s the turn of the youngest sister, Genna, a vivacious young woman who breezes through life –somewhat naïvely, it has to be said – and puts on a cheerful face regardless of the disappointments she has suffered.

The oldest Summerfield sister, Lorene (whose story is up next) married the much older, disagreeable but wealthy Lord Tinmore, in order to save her siblings from having to marry for money. She and Genna now reside at Tinmore Hall, where Tinmore makes life thoroughly unpleasant through his constant criticism of Lorene and his obvious belief that neither young woman is capable of exhibiting proper behaviour.

One December day, Genna is out sketching their old home of Summerfield Hall when a gentlemen riding across the fields stops and introduces himself simply as Rossmore. He is staying at the Hall for the Christmas period with his friend, Lord Penford, the son of the distant cousin who inherited the title and property on the death of Genna’s father. Rossmore is handsome, charming and easy to talk to, and, to Genna’s surprise, doesn’t seem to mind her own particular brand of animated conversation.

Ross is fascinated by Genna’s openness and her eagerness to learn new things. They meet a few more times during his stay, and in the course of conversation, he discovers that Genna’s real passion is art, and that her ambition is to make a living as an artist. They enjoy each other’s company and strike up a genuine friendship which is cut short when Lord Penford departs unexpectedly for London and his friend accompanies him.

Some months later, Genna and Ross meet again, and very quickly rediscover their easy friendship. He decides that he wants to help her to realise her dream of becoming an artist, but they are both well aware that if they start spending a lot of time together, tongues will wag. So Ross – whose father, the Duke of Kessington, has been pestering him to get married and produce an heir – suggests to Genna that they become betrothed; that way, his step-mother will stop pushing him towards eligible young ladies, and he and Genna will be able to spend time together without causing gossip. Once Genna reaches twenty-one in October, she will be able to do as she wishes without reference to Tinmore, at which time she can cry off and she and Ross can go their separate ways. Genna agrees to the idea, with just the smallest pang of guilt over the fact that she will be deceiving her sister.

Ross and Genna are engaging characters but they do come across as rather immature, and it’s difficult to believe that Ross could be so naïve as to believe that a young woman, no matter how talented, would find it easy to make a career as an artist in 1815.  That said, Ms. Gaston does a good job of showing why Ross and Genna are the way they are; Ross’s mother was an outgoing, vivacious woman who was slowly stifled by her marriage to his politically motivated father, hence his determination to give Genna the freedom to be herself that his mother never enjoyed and his belief that marriage will rob her of her dream.  And Genna has the daily reminder of Lorene’s unhappy marriage and the knowledge of their parents’ miserable union to caution her against entering into the married state.

That, in essence, is the extent of the conflict in the story, and it’s somewhat weak because there’s never any question that Ross and Genna are perfect for each other.  The joy he gains from every new experience he offers her is sweet to see, whether it’s from taking her to see the Elgin Marbles or watching an artist at work; and in Ross, Genna has finally found someone who understands and accepts her, who doesn’t talk down to her or belittle her ambitions.  But ultimately, I felt I was watching the growth of a strong friendship rather than a romance, because while they are great together, there’s not much romantic chemistry there.  It’s also a bit of a stretch to believe in that Genna could support herself by working as an artist when she is really little more than a gifted amateur.

Bound by a Scandalous Secret is enjoyable enough, but there are some good ideas that aren’t followed up on (such as Ross’s secret philanthropy) and I was more intrigued by the potential relationship between Lorene and Lord Penfold than by that between Ross and Genna.  Penfold is an intriguing character with a tragic past – he lost his entire family in a recent fire and is struggling to adjust to life without them.  He is drawn to Lorene and sees how unhappy she is, but knows he can do nothing to help.  He shows her a few small kindnesses, but can’t do more for fear of heaping yet more scandal upon her name and earning her the censure of her husband.  The author establishes a clear connection between them, which I hope will be built upon in the next book.  But Ross and Genna’s romance suffers by comparison – it’s never a good thing when a secondary couple eclipses the hero and heroine in a romance novel.

If you’ve been following the series, then you might want to pick up Bound by a Scandalous Secret for completeness, but I’ve read better by this author and can’t give it a ringing endorsement.  I was, however, sufficiently intrigued by Lorene and Penford to want to read the next in the series which I believe will be coming out next Spring.

TBR Challenge: His Christmas Countess (Lords of Disgrace #2) by Louise Allen

his-christmas-countess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A Christmas baby…

Grant Rivers, Earl of Allundale, is desperate to get home in time for Christmas. But when he stumbles upon a woman all alone in a tumbledown shack, having a baby out of wedlock, it’s his duty to stay and help her.

…leads to unexpected wedding vows!

Grant knows all too well the risks of childbirth, and he’s witnessed enough tragedy to last a lifetime. So once he’s saved her life Grant is determined to save Kate’s reputation too… if she will consent to marrying a stranger on Christmas Day!

Rating: A-

His Christmas Countess is book two in Louise Allen’s most recent series, The Four Disgraces, in which the heroes are a group of young men who earned that sobriquet as a result of their daring exploits at school and university.  For some reason, I read the first, third and fourth books when they came out and missed this one – which was a mistake, because while I enjoyed the others and rated them highly, this is the best of the lot.

It’s Christmas Eve and Grantham Rivers is on his way from Edinburgh to Northumberland, where he hopes to get to the bedside of his dying grandfather in time to say his final goodbyes.  When his horse goes lame, and with the weather worsening at every moment, he has little alternative but to take refuge in a shepherd’s  hut or “bothy”  – and is astonished to discover that he is not the only one stranded in the middle of nowhere while waiting for the storm to pass.  A heavily pregnant woman is sheltering there, too, and Grant who, while not a doctor, has studied medicine – recognises the signs of early labour.

Kate Harding was all but pushed into the arms of the man who ruined her by her unscrupulous brother, who now intends to blackmail her child’s father.  Threatening to take Kate’s baby from her in order to ensure her co-operation, her brother sent her to Scotland until the birth, but when – at last – the chance to escape arose, Kate took it, and made her way to the nearest coaching inn.  But her money was stolen, leaving her penniless; the weather is closing in and she is alone, friendless and scared, with no alternative but to wait out the coming snowstorm in a nearby bothy.  But it seems someone else has had the same idea.  The man who enters is tall, dark, handsome and somewhat severe, but he quickly reassures her, telling her he is a doctor and that he will make sure she is safely delivered.

Grant, a widower, has a young son by from his first – disastrous – marriage, and is well aware that six year old Charlie needs a mother.  He is also heir to an earldom – something he neglects to tell Kate, understandably in the circumstances – and has been feeling guilty about the fact that he has neglected to do the one thing his grandfather had asked of him, and marry again.  Impulsively, and as Kate nears the end of her long labour, he suggests that they marry – he needs a mother for his son, her child will need a father – and as they are in Scotland, all they need do is declare their intent to wed before witnesses.  A couple of passing shepherds are pleased to perform that service, and Grant and Kate are married, shortly before her daughter, Anna, makes her way into the world.

Given the remoteness of Grant’s home, and the fact that as a medical man, he is unlikely to move in the same circles as her brother, Kate believes she has found the perfect refuge. So when they arrive at Abbeywell Grange and she hears Grant addressed as “my Lord”, she is shocked.  Grant tiredly explains that his grandfather – who just passed away – was the third Earl of Allundale, and that he (Grant) is now the fourth earl, and Kate is immediately worried. An earl will be expected to spend some of his time in London and Kate has no wish to return to the scene of her disgrace or to risk an encounter with her brother.   But what’s done is done, and she recognises she is in no fit state to think about much more than caring for her daughter and taking comfort in the warmth and safety of her new home.

Shortly after his grandfather’s funeral, Grant tells Kate that he must go to London to consult with his solicitor and to see to various other matters of business.  He ends up being away for almost six months, and finally returns home to find things much changed. The wife he had left a tired, pale shadow is now a pretty, vibrant young woman with a quick wit and keen intelligence; and Grant is not a little surprised at the strength of the attraction he feels towards her.

Grant’s first marriage was a passionate love match – or so he’d thought, until his beautiful wife began to show signs of mental instability that turned into hatred.  He is still haunted by the manner of her death and clams up every time Kate tries to get him to tell her what happened.  But Kate is persistent. She never bullies or demands and eventually Grant realises that she deserves the truth.  The one black mark I can make against Kate is that while Grant shares the truth of his past with her, she does not do the same, causing him to continue to believe that she is still carrying a torch for Anna’s father.  Kate knows she needs to come clean, but, not wanting to jeopardise their marriage, makes some poor decisions and tries to deal with her brother herself.  But those are my only criticisms of what is an otherwise excellent book.

As the story takes place over a year – we get two Christmases for the price of one! – the romance is allowed time to develop and we watch Kate and Grant progressing from physical attraction to a deeper emotional connection. The love scenes are sensual and romantic; nicely steamy but not over the top for this type of story, and written with an extremely sure hand.

Louise Allen has crafted a wonderful story about two strangers thrown together by circumstance who progress from mutual friendship and respect to passionate attachment.  They have to get to know each other and both of them make mistakes and say and do things that annoy the other, yet they are both mature enough to be able to own up to those missteps, apologise for them and move on.  Even though both are keeping secrets, there’s an honesty to their relationship that is refreshing, and a sense that these are two people who are going to make a go of things, no matter how shaky the start to their life together.  All in all, His Christmas Countess is a superbly written, beautifully paced romance and it’s going right onto my keeper shelf.

Lady in Green by Barbara Metzger (audiobook) – Narrated by Stevie Zimmerman

lady-in-green

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Annalise Avery would rather run away than marry the despicable man her stepfather has chosen for her. All he wants is her fortune anyway. Escaping with two servants, Annalise takes employment at Lord Gardiner’s town house, disguised as a housekeeper. No one suspects that the new housekeeper for his wild lordship’s London pied-à-tierre is a diamond of the first water and a famous horsewoman. But as Annalise becomes familiar with Gardiner’s tomcatting, she vows to thwart the despicable man and his lascivious ways. Sleeping powders in the wine and fleas in the bed do just the trick! In the meantime, his lordship has grown quite preoccupied by the very mysterious Lady in Green who rides through the park atop a magnificent steed, spurring hearts young and old – including his own!

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

I’ve enjoyed a number of Barbara Metzger’s Regency Romances in print, and decided to listen to the recently released Lady in Green as it’s one I haven’t yet read. Her books are undoubtedly fluffy; those I’ve read are humorous and lively with lots of fun dialogue – and the synopsis of this – in which a young heiress in disguise becomes the housekeeper for a notorious rake – sounded as though it would be a nice, light-hearted listen.

But I’m sorry to say that while it’s definitely light-hearted, I disliked the principal storyline intensely. I know it’s meant to be madcap and zany; and perhaps it was in 1993 when the book was originally published, but over twenty years later, the heroine’s sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude got on my nerves to such an extent that it’s a miracle I stuck it out for the whole (almost) seven hours.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.