Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Rescued from Ruin #7) by Elisa Braden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Never judge a man by his cover…
Society knows the affable Earl of Dunston for his flashy waistcoats and rapier wit. Lady Maureen Huxley knows him as Henry Thorpe, her best friend—an irresistibly kissable, strictly platonic friend. Which means her dreams of marriage, motherhood, part-time cookery, and full-time domestic bliss must be fulfilled elsewhere. But after three seasons and a parade of fickle suitors, Maureen’s hopes are fading. Worse, she suspects Henry is to blame.

Never trust a man with too many secrets…
Years spent hunting his father’s murderer through London’s dark underworld have honed Henry Thorpe into a deadly blade with one purpose—catching a killer of fathomless evil. Nothing mattered more until Maureen Huxley came along. To keep her safe, he must keep her at arm’s length. Yet he can’t resist drawing her close, making her laugh, dreaming of doing wicked things to her lush body. Very well, perhaps he also dissuaded some of her suitors. But what’s a little deception between friends?

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…
With his enemy growing bolder and Maureen contemplating marriage to another man, Henry is caught in the crossfire between his mission and his heart. Any move could exact a devastating cost. But losing the woman he loves is one price he refuses to pay.

Rating: B+

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord is the seventh book in Elisa Braden’s Rescued from Ruin series, and although it features a storyline that has obviously been present in some of the earlier novels, this is the first of Ms. Braden’s books I’ve read and I was able to follow along quite easily.  I won’t deny that there were a few times I wished I’d had a stronger grasp of how that plotline had evolved, but that’s down to me, and not any lack of skill on the part of the author – and anyway, it in no way detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. The writing is strong and the opening scenario drew me in straight away, quickly supplying some necessary back-story without being an info dump.  The two principals are well-drawn, attractive characters, with the hero being one of those Pimpernel-esque types I’m particularly fond of; the garrulous society favourite who is widely believed to be interested only in horses and fashion but who is, beneath it all, fiercely intelligent, highly competent and utterly deadly.

Maureen Huxley has been in love with Henry Thorpe, Earl of Dunston, for pretty much the whole of the two years she has known him.  He’s wealthy, deliciously handsome, charming, kind, clever and makes her laugh – in short he’s perfect for her, apart from one small thing.  He doesn’t want her.  Or rather, he isn’t interested in her romantically, much preferring to remain on terms of friendship with her.  Reckoning that half a loaf is better than no bread at all, Maureen hides her disappointment at his rejection and they continue as friends, but lately, she has begun to wonder if her friendship with Henry may be scuppering her chances of making a suitable marriage.  She has been out for three seasons and hasn’t received so much as a single offer; she longs for a husband and family of her own and realises that the only way she is ever going to stand a chance of getting those things is to cut ties with Henry and try to make room in her heart for someone else.

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

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

Night of the Highland Dragon (Highland Dragon #3) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the Scottish Highlands, legend is as powerful as the sword-and nowhere is that more true than in the remote village of Loch Aranoch. Its mysterious ruler, Judith MacAlasdair, is fiercely protective of her land-and her secrets. If anyone were to find out what she really was, she and her entire clan would be hunted down as monsters.

William Arundell is on the trail of a killer. Special agent for an arcane branch of the English government, his latest assignment has led him to a remote Highland castle and the undeniably magnetic lady who rules there. Yet as lies begin to unravel and a dark threat gathers, William finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Highlands . . . and the woman he can neither trust nor deny. He prays she isn’t the murderer; he never dreamed she’d be a dragon.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C

Even though I was very disappointed in the previous book in this series of historical paranormals (The Highland Dragon’s Lady), I remembered reading the print version of Night of the Highland Dragon a couple of years back, and thought I’d give it another go-round in audio. The final member of the MacAlasdair family of shape-shifters is Lady Judith, who resides at the castle of Loch Arach and takes good care of all those who depend on her and the castle for their livelihoods. Into this Highland idyll comes William Arundell, an investigator for a secret branch of the government who starts asking uncomfortable questions about Judith and her family in the course of his investigations into a gruesome murder. The two are suspicious but drawn to each other, although sadly, the romance is fairly lacklustre and the story as a whole is somewhat dull and lacking in direction. There’s also a severe lack of background information about William’s work and of scene-setting in general. The story is set in a late Victorian era in which magic and witchcraft exist, and listeners are just asked to accept that without any further explanation of how, why, where and who – which this listener found somewhat frustrating.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Dangerous Deceit (Thief Takers #3) by Alissa Johnson

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Miss Jane Ballenger unexpectedly inherits her brother’s worldly goods—the furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac on which he frittered away their entire family fortune—the only thing to do is catalog the lot of it and sell it off piece by piece. How else will she continue to support Twillins Cottage, the one place she feels safe? Born with a peculiar hearing problem, Jane has long kept to her isolated home in the woods, content with the company of a few close friends, and far removed from those who would brand her an idiot and consign her to life in an asylum. So when the devilishly charming private investigator, Sir Gabriel Arkwright, turns up on her doorstep to claim her new belongings in the name of the crown, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her refuge, her loved-ones, and her well-guarded secret. Even if it means employing a bit of deception.

There are few things in life Sir Gabriel Arkwright enjoys more than a good mystery, especially when it’s a woman. Ever ready to take on an interesting puzzle, he’s determined to learn why the enigmatic Miss Ballenger has hidden herself away from the world. Before he can hope to ferret out the truth, however, Jane unearths national secrets hidden amongst her brother’s possessions. Now Gabriel must decide what’s more important, keeping state secrets out of the hands of a double agent, or protecting the woman who is quickly becoming more to him than just another mystery to solve…

Rating: A-

I am at a loss to understand why Alissa Johnson doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention afforded to the ‘big-name’ authors of historical romance. Every book of hers I’ve read has been superbly written, featuring well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, a well-constructed plot, subtle humour and a beautifully developed romance – yet for some reason, she’s very underrated. This third book in her Thief Takers series is another intelligently crafted character-driven romance, this time featuring a devilishly charming private investigator and a most unusual heroine who are forced to go on the run in order to protect some sensitive government information.

A Dangerous Deceit begins when Miss Jane Ballenger opens her front door on the extremely attractive face and person of Sir Gabriel Arkwright, one of the famous Thief Takers, a trio of former police officers who became instant celebrities when they solved a high-profile case of theft and rescued a duchess some ten or eleven years earlier. The most senior officer – Owen Renderwell – received a viscountcy and his colleagues, Arkwright and Samuel Brass were knighted; and the three of them went into business together as private investigators. Renderwell’s and Sir Samuel’s stories are told in the two previous books (A Talent for Trickery and A Gift for Guile), but all three work perfectly well as standalones – although I’d definitely recommend reading them, as they’re every bit as well-written and enjoyable as this one.

Sir Gabriel explains that he has been engaged by the Foreign Office to come to Jane’s remote cottage in order to retrieve some important information that is hidden among the personal effects belonging to her late brother, Edgar. Edgar spent the past fifteen years living the high life in St. Petersburg, frittering away his sister’s fortune as well as his own, leaving Jane with next to nothing. Now she is faced with the prospect of selling off his possessions so that she can keep a roof over her head and continue to support herself and the Harmons, the couple who have lived with her and looked after her since she was ten years old.

Jane is flustered – her tiny cottage is crammed to the rafters with trunks and boxes and God knows what else – but isn’t about to let someone waltz off with what is likely her only source of funds without some sort of security and insists that Sir Gabriel sign a contract promising the return of the goods once he has found what he is looking for.

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

The Most Dangerous Duke in London (Decadent Dukes Society) by Madeline Hunter

This title may be purchased from Amazon

NOTORIOUS NOBLEMAN SEEKS REVENGE
Name and title: Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton.
Affiliation: London’s elite Society of Decadent Dukes.
Family history: Scandalous.
Personality traits: Dark and brooding, with a thirst for revenge.
Ideal romantic partner: A woman of means, with beauty and brains, willing to live with reckless abandon.
Desire: Clara Cheswick, gorgeous daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

FAINT OF HEART NEED NOT APPLY
Clara may be the woman Adam wants, but there’s one problem: she’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than getting married—especially to a man said to be dead-set on vengeance. Though, with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if his desire for justice is sincere—along with his incredibly unnerving intention to be her husband. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for Adam clearly comes with a cost. But who knew courting danger could be such exhilarating fun?

Rating: B+

The Most Dangerous Duke in London gets Madeline Hunter’s new Decadent Dukes Society series off to a strong start with an extremely readable and engaging tale of a man seeking revenge, an old family enmity and the woman caught in the middle. The romance is a delightful, sensual slow-burn, and in addition, there’s mystery and intrigue, a whiff of espionage, lots of witty banter and a wonderfully written friendship between the hero and his two closest friends (both of whom will feature in future books).

Adam Penrose, the Duke of Stratton has recently returned to England after living in for the past five years, during which he has acquired a reputation for having a quick temper and for fighting and killing his opponents in duels – thus earning himself him the moniker of “The Dangerous Duke”. Adam left the country following his father’s death, which is widely thought to been at his own hand following rumours that he was engaged in treasonous activities, rumours Adam believes were fuelled by the hints and accusations of the late Earl of Marwood. There has long been bad blood between the two families, and now Adam is determined to find out if his suspicions about Marwood are true and to make someone pay for driving his father to his grave. Given the long-standing enmity between the Penroses and the Cheswicks, Adam is therefore surprised to receive an invitation to visit the dowager Countess of Marwood, who states her belief that it’s time the two families patched up their differences.

Adam is highly sceptical, but plays along until the countess proposes that he should marry her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, thus burying the hatchet in the time-honoured tradition of marital alliance. Lady Emilia is pretty and amiable, but Adam isn’t interested in a schoolroom chit – he prefers spirited women with minds of their own, and when he meets Lady Clara, the current earl’s half-sister, Adam decides straight away that she will suit him very well indeed.

Lady Clara Cheswick is the only child of her father’s first marriage and was his favourite among his children. He left her very comfortably off when he died, so Clara doesn’t need to marry if she doesn’t want to, and, at twenty-four, she is on the shelf and quite happy to keep it that way. She’s intelligent, strong-willed and independent, and is content to focus her considerable energies on her publishing venture, Parnassus, a magazine written and produced by women for women which is starting to achieve success. When Adam proposes marriage, Clara doesn’t take him at all seriously, telling him that she isn’t interested in marrying him or anyone, but Adam won’t take no for an answer and sets about courting her.

Clara can’t deny that Adam is a very attractive man, or that she’s drawn to him; he’s sexy and witty and clever and makes it very clear that the qualities that her family regard as problematic and unladylike – her desire for independence and the fact that she not only has her own opinions but makes no bones about voicing them – are qualities he likes and admires. He is genuinely interested in what she has to say about any number of topics, and doesn’t talk down to her or treat her as though she’s a hothouse flower. Adam insists his proposal of marriage was quite serious – and as Clara spends time with him and gets to know him, she is increasingly tempted to believe him, but can’t quite shake her suspicions that there is something else behind his stated intention. Perhaps, given her close relationship with her late father, Adam is primarily interested in getting close to her in order to find out if she knows anything about the late earl’s possible involvement in his father’s death? Or maybe he wants to use her – somehow – as an instrument of revenge?

The sparks fly between Adam and Clara right from their first meeting, and their relationship unfolds gradually and deliciously as Adam finds ways to spend time with Clara – to her initial exasperation – and they slowly come to appreciate each other’s wit, intelligence and sense of humour. These are two mature adults who never underestimate each other as they match one another quip for quip, their verbal sparring a deliciously sensual courtship and prelude to a later, more intimate relationship. The romance is very well-developed; there’s none of the immediate and anachronistic bed-hopping or insta-lust that characterises so many historical romances these days, which is always a refreshing discovery. Adam never wavers in his determination to marry Clara, and his persistence is charming and often funny; he’s generous and forthright, answering Clara’s questions about his motivations honestly and is never less than charming and gentlemanly towards her. I was also impressed with the way that Ms. Hunter has managed to create a credibly independent heroine who is not too modern; Clara wants to make her own way in the world, but is also mindful of her reputation and knows she has to at least appear to operate within the confines of society.

The plotline that revolves around Adam’s search for the truth about his father is well set up and executed, weaving in and out of the romance but never overwhelming it; and when the resolution comes it’s unexpected and quite clever.

With two multi-faceted and strongly characterised principals, an entertaining and well-drawn secondary cast, a sensual romance and a dash of intrigue, The Most Dangerous Duke in London is a thoroughly engaging read and one I’d recommend to fans of the author and of historical romance in general.

Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFay

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Five years ago, Lord Sorin Latham fled England’s shores to avoid heartbreak and scandal in the form of one Lady Eleanor Cramley. On returning home, he finds the young miss he used to scold for lack of decorum is now a stunning woman who fires his blood. But he must resist temptation or risk losing his honor as a gentleman and the friendship of those he holds dear, including Eleanor.

Lady Eleanor is determined to be the paragon of propriety Sorin urged her to become. But now that he’s back, the man she once thought of as an older brother makes her long to be anything but proper. She must make Sorin see her as worthy of his heart and his desire without losing his good opinion, or her Season will end in disgrace.

Rating: C-

Scandal of the Season is a standalone friends-to-lovers historical romance in which the twelve-year age gap between the principals means that the hero has been something of an older brother and mentor figure to the heroine for most of their lives. The premise attracted me – one of my favourite books of all time is Jane Austen’s Emma – but it unfortunately falls largely flat here, as pacing, characterisation and plot issues drag the story down. There is also a particularly problematic scene which I’ll discuss later in the review plus – I spent most of the book wondering what the scandal was and when I was going to find out about it!

Lady Eleanor Cramley, cousin to Charles, Duke of Ashford, grew up in her cousin’s family after the death of her parents when she was a child. Charles’ closest friend, Sorin Latham, Lord Wincanton (Sorin? Seriously? What sort of name is that for a 19th century English nobleman?) was often around when she was growing up and did his best to curb the worst of her hoydenish tendencies and teach her the importance of proper behaviour. When she’s sixteen, he becomes suddenly, uncomfortably aware that she is now a young woman and, realising his feelings for her go deeper than friendship, is rather cool and aloof towards her, which upsets her and makes her wonder what she’s done wrong. Sorin is horrified at the idea of lusting after his friend’s cousin, so he decides to keep as far away from her as possible and leaves England to travel abroad. Returning after an absence of five years, he is somewhat dismayed to discover that his attraction to Eleanor hasn’t abated – if anything it’s stronger – but he is determined not to act upon it (even though there is absolutely nothing preventing him from doing so) because he thinks he’ll crush her spirit if he marries her and because he thinks considering her in an amorous light is a betrayal of Charles’ trust.

Eleanor was upset by Sorin’s coldness but they have repaired their friendship and been regular correspondents during his five year absence. When he returns, she is overjoyed to see him and hopes things will return to the way they were, but when her flighty friend, Caroline, sets her cap at Sorin, Eleanor finds herself unaccountably jealous, and, in spite of her avowal to remain unmarried, slowly comes to realise that perhaps there could be something else between them, something more than friendship.

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

Lord of Chance (Rogues to Riches #1) by Erica Ridley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Disguised as a country miss, Charlotte Devon flees London, desperate to leave her tattered reputation behind. In Scotland, her estranged father’s noble blood will finally make her a respectable debutante. Except she finds herself accidentally wed to a devil-may-care rogue with a sinful smile. He’s the last thing she needs…and everything her traitorous heart desires.

Charming rake Anthony Fairfax is on holiday to seek his fortune…and escape his creditors. When an irresistible Lady Luck wins him in a game of chance – and a slight mishap has them leg-shackled by dawn – the tables have finally turned in his favor. But when past demons catch up to them, holding on to new love will mean destroying their dreams forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

In Lord of Chance, the first in Erica Ridley’s new Rogues to Riches series, we are introduced to the handsome, charming Anthony Fairfax, a somewhat rackety young man who supports himself and his family by means of an inveterate gambling habit. Ms. Ridley has already released a number of her books in audio format (her Dukes of War series, narrated by Stevie Zimmermann) but this is the first I’ve listened to and I have to say that the result is a mixed bag. The narration by Marian Hussey is good, but while Ms. Ridley has a deft touch with the humour and dialogue, and she does briefly touch on a couple of darker themes, the story is a little too fluffy for my taste.

In order to escape pressing debts, Anthony Fairfax has left London to try his fortunes elsewhere. He is currently at a small inn on the Scottish border and things are looking up. On this particular night, it seems he cannot lose, and he can’t help but attribute this to the mysterious, cloaked woman he has nicknamed “Lady Fortune”, who is sitting quietly on the other side of the room. But when Lady Fortune is encouraged to join the card game, it seems she makes her own luck, because she cleans Anthony out completely and wins everything on the table.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.