A Duke in the Night (Devils of Dover #1) by Kelly Bowen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Duke. Scoundrel. Titan of business. August Faulkner is a man of many talents, not the least of which is enticing women into his bedchamber. He’s known—and reviled—for buying and selling companies, accumulating scads of money, and breaking hearts. It’s a reputation he wears like a badge of honor, and one he intends to keep.

Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, on the other hand, is above reproach. Yet when she’s reunited with August, all she can think of is the way she felt in his arms as they danced a scandalous waltz ten long years ago. Even though her head knows that he is only back in her life to take over her family’s business, her heart can’t help but open to the very duke who could destroy it for good.

Rating: A-

In the years since the publication of her début novel, Kelly Bowen has become an auto-read author and has a few books on my keeper shelf. Her writing is assured and intelligent, she comes up with intriguing, well thought-out plots, and her characters are engaging and often just that bit different to the norm for the genre. In A Duke in the Night, the first book in her new Devils of Dover series, her gift for characterisation is showcased in her heroine, Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhill School for Young Ladies. In Clara, Ms. Bowen has succeeded where many authors of historical romance have failed; she has created an independent, forward-thinking, proto-feminist heroine who nonetheless operates within the boundaries of the society to which she belongs and feels like a woman of her time. Clara is comfortable in her own skin and knows who she is; she doesn’t feel the need to prove herself all the time or show every man she comes across that she’s just as good (if not better) than he is – she knows she is and doesn’t feel the need to flounce around reminding everyone around her (and the reader) that she is Spirited and Unconventional.

For that alone, Ms. Bowen merits All The Awards.

Of course, Clara deserves a hero who not only understands her but loves her for who she is, and I’m happy to say that in August Faulkner, Duke of Holloway, she finds just that, a man who is willing to listen, evaluate and learn.

August wasn’t born to be a duke. He and his sister spent their childhoods in extreme poverty, and when, by virtue of a keen mind and sheer hard work, he managed to find a way out, his one guiding light has been that his family – his younger sister, Anne – should never know such squalor and privation again. Even his unexpectedly acquired ducal status hasn’t stopped him from continuing with his business interests, although as his empire expanded, he took care to act through intermediaries, so the full extent of his holdings remains a mystery to all but himself and his trusted man of business.

After trying – and failing – several times to purchase the Haverhill School for Young Ladies and its surrounding lands, August’s most recent offer has been accepted and his plans to develop the property are now underway. But seeing Clara Hayward’s name on the deeds has sparked long-buried memories of the one time they danced together, a decade ago, when a much younger – and, he admits, stupider – August had invited the renowned wallflower to dance having been egged on by a group of similarly stupid and thoughtless young bucks. During the dance, August discovered something he had not expected; an intelligence, poise and confidence which completely captivated him and left him somewhat bemused.

Although ten years have passed since then, he still remembers how Clara felt in his arms, how his world had tilted on its axis in the middle of a ballroom floor… and he finds himself wondering why she has finally agreed to sell Haverhall. A few judicious enquiries by his man of business reveal that the Hayward’s shipping company is on the verge of collapse and that the proceeds of the sale of Haverhill will not be enough to save it. Seeing his chance, August decides to purchase the company as quickly and quietly as possible, before anyone else gets wind of the situation and pre-empts him. Learning that Harland Haywood and his sisters are usually to be found at the British Museum on Wednesday afternoons, August plans to ‘accidentally’ bump into the man and try to gauge his receptiveness to a possible buyout – but before he can find him, he sees Clara – and is instantly smitten all over again.

Clara Hayward hopes that once their ships come in (so to speak) she will be able find somewhere else to continue her life’s work of teaching. She is pondering the loss of the school that has been her life’s work on one of her regular visits to the British Museum when a voice she’d never thought to hear again intrudes on her thoughts and she turns to find August Faulkner, the man who’d all but stolen her heart a decade ago, standing by her. She has to struggle to maintain her composure as he rather clumsily apologises for his behaviour ten years earlier and then engages her in a somewhat awkward conversation about the piece of sculpture in front of them. She is puzzled, however, when he asks if he can call upon her the next day; each year, Clara hosts an out-of-town summer school for a hand-picked group of young ladies – and given that Anne Faulkner is one of the party, surely her brother must know that their departure is scheduled for the following day? Before Clara can say something to this effect, however, they are interrupted and part shortly after, but when August discovers, two days later, that Anne has gone to attend the Haverhill Summer School, he immediately assumes that Clara had deliberately kept the knowledge from him and is furious.

Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, August follows, determined to keep an eye on Anne and then take her back home, but also intending to speak to Clara’s brother about the shipping business and to persuade him to sell it… plus he can’t deny that the prospect of seeing Clara again is an extremely enticing one.

August’s arrival shakes Clara’s equanimity. She feels an intense attraction to him and knows it would be all too easy to succumb to it, but she can’t afford to jepoardise her position as an educator of young women – so an affair is out of the question. In any case, her first loyalty must be to her pupils – all of whom are exceptional young women to whom she affords the chance to engage in the study of professions not normally open to them. Her brother – a practicing physician – tutors those interested in medicine; another longs to be a landscape gardener, and Anne Faulkner wants to be an hotelier, but is constantly frustrated by the well-meaning but unwanted interference of her brother who insists she need never bother her head about anything ever again. Clara and August play a sensual game of cat-and-mouse as they dance around their attraction to each other and try (and fail spectacularly) to fight it. As they become closer, Clara patiently challenges him over some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs and encourages him to really think about the way he, as a man, has so many avenues and options open to him that women – and in particular, Anne – do not. He struggles and he makes mistakes, but he is intelligent enough and honest enough to admit the truth of much of what Clara says, and finally to see that by wanting to ensure his sister has the best of everything, he has been stifling her. A prison with golden bars is a prison nonetheless.

Clara and August are a perfectly matched couple; both fiercely intelligent, quick witted and determined – and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching. As I’ve already said, Clara is an exceptionally realised heroine, and August’s journey from ignorance born of male privilege and his almost single-minded drive to protect those he loves is extremely well done.

A Duke in the Night is a fabulous read and a terrific start to this new series. My one, small, quibble is that it’s just a teeny bit difficult to believe that Clara and August are able to connect so passionately and on such a deep emotional level based on just one dance ten years earlier, especially as they haven’t seen each other at all during that time. That said, however, Ms. Bowen imbues their connection with such fervour and obvious sincerity that there is never any question that these two are meant to be.

If you’ve never read one of Kelly Bowen’s books before, then this is a good starting point; and if you have, then be prepared to kick back and enjoy one of what is sure to turn out to be one of the best historical romances of 2018.

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Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox (audiobook) – Narrated by Chris Clog

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him. He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.

It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.

Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.

It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

Harper Fox’s Seven Summer Nights is a book that’s been recommended to me on several occasions, so when I saw it had been released in audio, I picked it up straight away as audio is my preferred method of ‘getting around to’ books I can’t find time to read in print. I admit to being a little wary given that narrator Chris Clog is not someone I’m familiar with, but it was obvious after the first few minutes of the listen that I was in very safe hands; he’s an excellent performer and I enjoyed every moment of this sixteen-plus-hours audiobook in terms of the story and the narration.

The story is a fabulous mix of romance and mystery with a touch of the supernatural thrown in for good measure that takes place around a year after the end of World War Two in a typically bucolic English village in Sussex. Well-known archaeologist Dr. Rufus Denby has been struggling to keep himself together in both body and mind since the end of the war, in which he’d served as a captain in the army and been decorated for his bravery. Haunted by terrible events he can no longer remember, Rufus is subject to sudden and uncontrollable outbursts of violence he can never recall afterwards; and he is at his first dig since the end of the war when something triggers an episode and he attacks one of his colleagues.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Wanderlust by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Richard Armitage and Grace Grant


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A British accent is my weakness…

Good thing I can avoid that kind of temptation in my new job in Paris. And when my company hooks me up with my own personal translator, I should be on the fast track for success. Except, he’s charming, witty, and, oh yeah, he just so happens to be British, which means everything he says melts me.

Don’t mix business with pleasure. I do my best to resist him as he brings the city to life for me. Soon, I can navigate the streets, discuss perfume with my co-workers, and barter at the outdoor market. But I also learn how to tell the sexy man by my side how much I want him to kiss me under the streetlamps.

Except there’s a catch – I can’t have him.

***

One more assignment before I take off on my big adventure…

And it’s a good farewell gig too since my newest client is a fetching American who loves to explore the cafes and cobbled streets while I teach her the language of love. We fall into a fast and flirty friendship, doing our best to resist each other. But you know what they say about best intentions. Soon we’re spending our nights together too, and I don’t want to let her go. The trouble is, my wanderlust is calling to me, and before we know it, I’ll be traveling the globe to fulfill a promise I made long ago.

What could possibly go wrong with falling in love in Paris? Nothing…unless one of you is leaving.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – C

I’ve enjoyed listening to several of Lauren Blakely’s light-hearted, sexy romances; they’re fun, easy listens, made moreso by the fact that they’re read by some of the best narrators in the business. Her latest story, Wanderlust, is set in Paris and boasts a British hero, so I was hoping a British narrator would be cast – and when the author announced it would be Richard Armitage, I, like many, was gobsmacked.  While he’s narrated a number of audiobooks, he has not, other than a few abridged recordings of some Georgette Heyer titles,  narrated a romance, so the fact that he’d signed on to narrate this Audible Original  (which is available in audio only until the end of March) is A Big Deal.

Wanderlust is fairly typical Blakely fare; steamy, flirty and low-angst, it tells the story of an American in Paris – Joy Danvers Lively – who relocates from her home in Texas to take up a one year secondment to the Paris offices of the cosmetics company for which she works.  She’s excited about the challenge facing her, and delighted at the prospect of living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities; she doesn’t speak the language, but she’s trying her best with the aid of a phrase book and has read extensively about what the city has to offer.

Her first morning, she’s in the bakery close to her hotel and mangles the pronunciation of the item she’s asking for when the man in front of her quietly corrects her so she can obtain what she wants.  He apologises – says it’s habit – and Joy is surprised to discover, when he speaks to her in English, that he’s not French, but British.  Outside, they carry on a flirtatious conversation during which they play at guessing each other’s names, ending up with Archie (for Archibald) and Judy.  They’re about to tell each other their real names when Joy’s phone rings and ‘Archie’, deciding he’s de trop, waves goodbye and leaves.

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

The Marigold Chain by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

England, 1666; the year all the prophecies said the world would end. For Chloe Hervaux, marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, waking up with an epic hangover, the discovery that he has acquired a bride is an unwelcome shock. But while the marriage remains in name only, other forces are gathering.

England is at war with the Dutch, and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work in the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark, secret labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles 11’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the diverse facets of Mr. Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed, her mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr. Deveril himself.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for personal matters and less for his bride. But as the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, he and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk…their choices may save it.

The Marigold Chain is a richly-woven tale of intrigue, danger, and love set against a backdrop of Restoration England during the year expected to be Doomsday.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

The Marigold Chain is one of Stella Riley’s earliest published works, and, as it’s a long-time favourite of mine, I’ve been waiting not-at-all patiently for it to make an appearance in audiobook format. I first read it in the mid-1980s and loved it; for me, it ticks all the boxes. A brilliant, gorgeous, sharp-tongued hero enters into a marriage of convenience with a practical, quick-witted heroine who doesn’t take any of his crap; set that against the backdrop of the politics and intrigue-laden Restoration court of Charles II, and you’ve got another winner from a writer who really knows how to put the historical into historical romance while at the same time creating a tender, sensual love story. With the exceptionally talented Alex Wyndham once more at the microphone, there’s no question The Marigold Chain is a fabulous audio experience – so just sink into your favourite chair, lock the door, take the phone off the hook and let the world look after itself for a few hours while you get stuck in!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Never Dare a Wicked Earl (Infamous Lords #1) by Renee Ann Miller

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Known as a brazen philanderer, Hayden Milton, Earl of Westfield, is almost done in by a vengeful mistress who aims a gun at a rather essential part of his anatomy—but ends up wounding his thigh instead. Recuperating in his London town house, Hayden is confronted by his new medical attendant. Sophia Camden intrigues him, for behind her starched uniform is an enticing beauty better suited for bedding than dispensing salves and changing bandages.

Unshaken by his arrogance, not to mention impropriety, Sophia offers Hayden a dare: allow her ten days to prove her competency. If she resigns in exasperation like her two predecessors, she will be beholden to this wicked seducer. As a battle of wills begins, Sophia finds herself distracted by the Earl’s muscular physique . . . and discovers that the man within longs only for a second chance to love.

Rating: D+

As I’ve said in the past, I make it a point to try new authors when I can – after all, I had some pretty good luck a couple of years back when I found not one, but three début authors whose books have since become ‘must reads’, and I live in hope of finding others.  Unfortunately, however, on the strength of her first novel, Never Dare a Wicked Earl, Renee Ann Miller isn’t going to make that list by a long chalk; the cover trumpets a “fresh new romance” – but it’s about as fresh as week-old kippers, and I ended up reading a story I’ve read several times before.   It’s a solidly average book; not badly written, but the story is hackneyed, the characters are stereotypical and the author seems to have thought it a good ideal to throw the kitchen sink into the (very weak) plot.   Plus – what on earth is the heroine wearing on the cover?  The book is set in 1875, and by no stretch of the imagination is that dress from the late Victorian period.  I know that’s not the author’s fault, but it nonetheless telegraphs “Danger, Will Robinson!” to the potential reader.  With good reason, as it turns out.

When Hayden – a very unlikely name for a man (let alone an earl) in Victorian England – Earl of Westfield is shot in the leg by a demented ex-mistress, he is confined to bed and not at all happy about it.  He runs off two male attendants by virtue of his appalling manners and threatening  behaviour, so his sister, thinking he might not be quite so rude and abrasive towards a woman, engages a nurse by the name of Sophia Camden.  Of course, the fact that Sophia is female makes no difference to Hayden’s dreadful behaviour, and he begins to try to get rid of her, too, adding not-so-subtle sexual innuendo to his established repertoire of bad manners and ill temper.

Naturally, Sophia is wise to his tricks, and decided to stay, especially as – and here’s where we get lip-service to the title – Hayden dares Sophia to stick it out for ten days.  If she wins, he will throw his political weight behind a new bill to allow women to qualify as doctors (as this is what Sophia wants to do) and if he wins he’ll get… well, he’ll think about that tomorrow.

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

The Lady’s Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger & The Rise and Fall of Reginald Everhart (Lady Travelers Society #2 &#1.5) by Victoria Alexander (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

She must secure her future

A lady should never be obliged to think of matters financial! But when Lady Wilhelmina Bascombe’s carefree, extravagant lifestyle vanishes with the demise of her husband, her only hope lies in retrieving a family treasure – a Renaissance masterpiece currently in the hands of a cunning art collector in Venice. Thankfully, the Lady Travelers Society has orchestrated a clever plan to get Willie to Europe, leading a tour of mothers and daughters…and one curiously attentive man.

He must reclaim his heritage

Dante Augustus Montague’s one passion has long been his family’s art collection. He’s finally tracked a long-lost painting to the enchanting Lady Bascombe. Convinced that the canvas had been stolen, he will use any means to reclaim his birthright – including deception. But how long before pretend infatuation gives way to genuine desire?

Now they’re rivals for a prize that will change everything

Willie and Dante know they’re playing with fire in the magical moonlit city. Their common quest could compromise them both…or lead them to happily-ever-after.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – B

The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger (which I’m henceforth going to refer to as LTGLDS) is book two in Victoria Alexander’s current Lady Travelers Society series, and the audiobook edition also includes the preceding novella, which is a nice bonus for listeners – who are getting one-and-a-half books for the price of one! As the events of the novella don’t relate to those of the book, it can be listened to completely independently, and I’ll touch upon it briefly at the end of this review.

In LTGLDS, we meet the widowed Lady Wilhemina Bascombe, whose husband, George, died a couple of years earlier and left her in straitened financial circumstances. Willie and George had married against the wishes of her parents, but they were happy, enjoying a carefree, somewhat extravagant lifestyle and ran with a fast set. When George died, Willie was left with debts and a less-than-pristine reputation for being daring and reckless; and although she has just about scraped together enough money to pay off his creditors, once they’re paid she will have very little left. Her one remaining hope is to liquidate her one remaining asset – a painting by the Renaissance artist, Portinari – which was given to her by her grandmother. The problem is that George used it as collateral for a loan from an art collector – an Italian count – and while Willie has just about enough money left to repay the loan, she doesn’t have enough to be able to buy passage to Venice in order to meet with the Conte di Sarifini.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Marquess Tames His Bride (Brides for Bachelors #2) by Annie Burrowes

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘I have just announced our betrothal’

Now there’s no going back…

In this Brides for Bachelors story, the Marquess of Rawcliffe has always found his childhood friend Clare Cottam enthralling, but any relationship has been forbidden by her strict father. Now the couple are embroiled in a heated argument that puts Clare’s reputation in danger, and Rawcliffe is forced to declare her his fiancée. It will be his pleasure to tame his independent, innocent bride…

Rating: C

The Marquess Tames His Bride is the second book in Annie Burrows’ Brides for Bachelors series, which, although the romance is self-contained, picks up the storyline about a number of jewel thefts that began in book one, The Major Meets His Match.  I have read that book, although I confess I couldn’t remember very much about the continuing plotline; but fortunately the author has given enough of a recap for new readers to be able to pick it up and work out what is going on.  That said, it’s not an especially exciting mystery and there’s not much progression here; I’d worked out where things were headed within the first few pages, and at the end, it’s conveniently left hanging for the hero of book three to pick up and bring to a close.

Clare Cottam has spent the best part of her life caring for her drunkard of a father – a vicar – and her obnoxious older brothers.  The recent death of the Reverend Cottam has left Clare homeless and penniless, but one of her brothers, Clement – who is also a clergyman – has arranged for her to take up a position as companion to an elderly lady who lives in Dorset.  It’s not what Clare would have wished for herself, but she tries to see her brother’s interference as a kindness – and anyway she has no alternative.  She has stopped briefly at an inn along the way when she hears the well-remembered, mocking voice of the Marquess of Rawcliffe demanding to know why she’s there.  Clare has known Rawcliffe since she was a girl, and he’s always taken great delight in laughing at her and needling her until she loses the temper that is her greatest trial.  He’s the last person to whom she is going to confess the truth of her situation, but when he persists in teasing her, Clare has had enough and punches him on the nose.

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