The Claiming of the Shrew (The Survivors #5) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a marriage of convenience isn’t so convenient?

Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven has retired from the army and spends most of his days either consulting for the Foreign Office or whiling away the hours at his club with his former comrades-in-arms. He rarely thinks about the fiery Portuguese woman he saved from an abusive marriage by wedding her himself. It was supposed to be a marriage in name only, but even five years later and a world away, he can’t seem to forget her.

Catarina Neves never forgot what it felt like to be scared, desperate, and subject to the whims of her cruel father. Thanks to a marriage of convenience and her incredible skill as a lacemaker, she’s become an independent and wealthy woman. But when she’s once again thrust into a dangerous situation, she finds herself in London and knocking on the door of the husband she hasn’t seen since those war-torn years in Portugal. Catarina tells Benedict she wants an annulment, but when he argues against it, can she trust him enough to ask for what she really needs?

Rating: B-

Shana Galen’s series featuring The Survivors, a group of men who survived being part of a specially selected suicide squad during the Napoleonic Wars, continues with The Claiming of the Shrew, which tells the story of the squad’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven, and his Portuguese wife, Catarina.  I’ve read the first couple of books in the series – although I missed the last two – so I knew who Draven was and was eager to read his story, especially as he’d been present but rather enigmatic  in the other novels and was clearly highly respected and well-regarded by his men. Plus, he’s in his mid-forties and I’m always up for a romance featuring a more mature hero.

In her introduction to the novel, Shana Galen explains that it began life on her website/newsletter as a short story showing how Draven met and married Catarina.  That is included in The Claiming of the Shrew as a kind of prologue, with the story then continuing five years after the couple parted following their hasty marriage in Portugal.

Amid the battlefields of Portugal in 1814, Benedict Draven has orders to create a company of thirty men who will be used to go on the most dangerous of missions.  He knows it’s akin to forming a suicide squad, but orders are orders, and he sets about making a list, putting Major Neil Wraxall (Earls Not Allowed) in command.  Draven already feels weighed down by guilt at the prospect of sending many of these men to certain death, and a bad day is made worse when a young woman manages to sneak into his tent, points a gun at him and demands that he marry her.

Catarina Neves is desperate to escape marriage to the older, abusive man her father has chosen for her simply because he’s equally desperate to get her off his hands.  The father of five daughters, the custom that the younger cannot marry until the elder does infuriates him, because Catarina is so independent and outspoken that no man will have her – making it impossible for his other daughters to marry.  Catarina has no wish to hold her sisters back, and having glimpsed Draven out riding with his men, and then watched him for a few days, has decided he is well able to stand up to her father and a far better prospect than the man chosen for her.  And in any case, once they are married, they can go their separate ways and need never see each other again.

Of course, Draven refuses Catarina (having guessed the gun isn’t loaded) and sends her on her way, but has reckoned without her tenacity.  When he finds her in the camp again, he’s about to turn her away, but when sees the horrible bruises on her arms inflicted by her would-be suitor, a strong  protective instinct kicks in and he decides to help her in the only way he can; they’re married later that night and then part ways.

Five years later, Draven (now retired from the army and working for the British government) is surprised – to say the least – when Catarina shows up at his rooms to ask for an annulment.  Their marriage is on shaky ground anyway seeing that she’s Catholic and he isn’t, but regardless of that, Draven is suspicious of Catarina’s explanation for her sudden appearance (that she’s fallen in love with and wants to marry someone else), and finds he isn’t prepared to let her go that easily.  They may not have seen each other for five years, but he hasn’t forgotten her or the sweetness and heat of the kiss they’d shared after the hasty ceremony – and seeing her again, realising she’s scared and lying to him brings back all the old protectiveness and more.  In five years he hasn’t been able to look at another woman – but now she’s back, Catarina is all he can think about.  All he has to do now is remind her why she trusted him all those years ago, and hope that she will ask him for the help she so obviously needs.

I liked both central characters a great deal, and the age gap between them – twenty years – didn’t bother me, although Draven refers to it quite a few times.  He’s a thoroughly decent man, strong, protective and deeply loyal, he can be stubborn but isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, and his disinclination to waste time playing games or denying his desire for Catarina is very refreshing.  Catarina, too, is an attractive protagonist, a determined, spirited woman who works hard to make a good life for herself and becomes a much sought-after maker and designer of lace.  I enjoyed Draven’s gentle courtship, and the author writes the attraction between them well, but there’s an element of insta-love in Draven’s sudden realisation that he doesn’t want an annulment that really didn’t work for me in the context of the whole novel.  Also, Catarina’s decision that he’s the man she wants to marry is based pretty much on what he looks like on horseback  – and from a distance: “she’d seen this officer and known instinctively that she could trust him.”  – and I found it too flimsy a reason to buy into.

The plot – Catalina is being blackmailed by a business rival – is nicely handled, and I was relieved when Ms. Galen sidestepped an obvious plot-manœuvre towards the end.  Unfortunately, she then proceeds to manufacture a last-minute conflict which happens so quickly that it feels completely fake and there-for-the-sake-of-it, and I found it rather jarring and it pulled my final grade down a bit.  All in all though, The Claiming of the Shrew is an easy, undemanding read featuring an intelligent, independent heroine and a loving and devoted hero. Despite its missteps, it makes for an engaging continuation of The Survivors series.

Taken by the Rake (Scarlet Chronicles #3) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Sometimes beauty…

Honoria Blake knows she must have had a moment of madness when she accepted a summons by the Scarlet Pimpernel to travel to revolutionary Paris and help his League. She’s an expert forger and glad her services can be of use, but the violence of the Reign of Terror has her longing for her quiet, unobtrusive life in London. Then a bloody man staggers to the door of the house where she’s hiding, claiming he was sent by the Pimpernel. Recently escaped from La Force prison, the former Marquis de Montagne is sinfully handsome and charming. He’s also desperate enough to kidnap Honoria. So much for her return to the quiet life.

Can be a beast…

Laurent is a consummate rake, but even he is captivated by the beautiful Honoria. Laurent cares almost nothing for his own life, but he was always close to the royal family and the little princess was like a sister to him. He will risk everything to save her from a life of imprisonment and possible execution. His plan is risky and surely doomed, but if he can convince Honoria and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel to help him, it just might succeed. The only question is how far he’s willing to go and whether he’s willing to risk the life of the only woman he’s ever loved to save a doomed princess.

Rating: B

Shana Galen continues her Scarlet Chronicles series of novels set in the early days of the French Revolution with Taken by the Rake, in which a young Englishwoman – who happens to be a talented forger – working with the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel in order to provide suitably ‘authentic’ documentation for the aristocrats being smuggled across to England, becomes caught up in one man’s personal crusade to rescue the children of the King and Queen of France.  Ms. Galen’s familiarity with the Parisian locations and the politics and history of the period shine through, and she really knows how to pull the reader in, crafting an exciting opening set-piece in which the League orchestrates the escape of the former Marquis de Montagne from prison as part of their plan to rescue the doomed French Queen.

Laurent Bourgogne has spent the last five months incarcerated in La Force, expecting every day that his name would be on the list of executions scheduled, wearily resigned every day when it was not.  Escape is an impossibility and he knows it’s just a matter of time  – until is literally dragged from the prison courtyard by a large man who thrusts a piece of paper into his hand which bears the symbol of a small, red flower and directs him to an address – 6 Rue du Jour.

Honoria Blake followed in her late father’s footsteps, becoming an expert on Roman antiquities and then taking up a position at the newly founded British Museum, spending most of her time there identifying and cataloguing pieces acquired for the museum’s various collections.  But she began to feel restless with the smallness of her world and wanted adventure, to do something to make a difference – which is how she comes to be residing in Paris, at a safe-house used by the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, forging papers and passports for the people they rescue from Madame la Guillotine.

Even in a city in as much uproar as Paris, the last thing Honoria expects is to find a man covered in blood standing on the doorstep.  Recognising he must be a nobleman on the run, she pulls him inside, and sets about tending his wounds and offering him a place to rest – even though he seems to be just as arrogant and undeserving as all the aristos who have not been so fortunate as to keep their heads.

When news comes that Marie Antoinette has been removed from the Temple Prison – where she was housed along with her sister and her children – Laurent is dismayed.  He knows that the reason he was freed from La Force was because of his specialist knowledge of the Temple; he grew up alongside the royal family and has a detailed knowledge of the Temple and its grounds and the League had planned to have him draw up some plans of the place that they could use to effect a rescue.  With the Queen’s removal, however, their plans have changed and instead, Laurent is to be shipped off to England straight away – but he adamantly refuses to go.  He’s known the ten-year-old Madame Royale (the queen’s daughter) since she was a baby, and he is most certainly not about to allow her to remain in prison and then to take her place in the tumbril.  It might be too late for her mother, but he is determined to rescue the little girl and her brother, the Dauphin, and transport them to safety.

When the League refuses to accede to his plan, Laurent, in desperation, grabs Honoria and with a knife to her throat, drags her to the secret passage he’d noted the night before and out into the city.  With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and most importantly, without the red, white and blue cockade that would mark them as loyal republicans, they are alone in a hostile city where danger and betrayal lurk around every corner.  Needless to say, Honoria isn’t best pleased at his having used her as a hostage and at first, does everything she can think of to escape or persuade him to return to the safe house.  But over the couple of days they spend together in hiding while Laurent formulates a plan, Honoria comes to realise that perhaps he’s not the pompous, spoiled and vain man she’d originally supposed him to be, and that he genuinely loves the young Dauphin and his sister and would do anything – even sacrifice his own life –to ensure their safety.

There’s no question Shana Galen knows how to write an adventure yarn, and she paces her story well, juxtaposing moments of peril with moments of quiet and introspection – but I have to admit that I found some of the latter sections – that usually happen after Laurent and Honoria have been almost captured or have had to wend their way carefully from one location to another – to be a little repetitive.  I appreciated the time the author spent on developing the characters – mostly Laurent – and their relationship, but the pace still flagged somewhat in those portions and I found myself wishing for things to move on.  And speaking of Laurent, he’s more rounded-out than Honoria, and one of the things I liked most about the book was his coming to realise the degree of privilege he’d enjoyed and how little he’d done with it:

He hadn’t ever appreciated that luxury. He hadn’t appreciated anything at all… He hadn’t needed three-fourths of what he’d had, and yet it had never been enough.  If coats and art and jewelled shoe buckles could have made a man happy, he would have never ceased smiling.

But he hadn’t been happy, and he’d spent countless nights in La Force, lying awake, listening to the snores of the men around him and wishing he could have another chance.

By contrast, Honoria is a bit of an historical romance staple; a quick-witted, intelligent and practical heroine who is a good foil for the hero but who never really transcends that role.  Still, she and Laurent both want to be seen for more than they appear on the surface, and Ms. Galen handles this aspect of their relationship admirably, clearly showing their growing appreciation for each other’s strengths and abilities.

A well-written, sensual romantic adventure story featuring two engaging protagonists, Taken by the Rake is an enjoyable addition to the Scarlet Chronicles. It’s the third book in a series, but works perfectly well as a standalone, so if you like the sound of it, you can jump right in!

 

To Ruin a Gentleman (Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The true story of the Scarlet Pimpernel…
Angelette, the recently widowed Comtesse d’Avignon, only invited Viscount Daventry to her country house party as a favor to her sister. When the handsome British lord arrives—two days late—he’s full of unnerving tales of unrest and violence in Paris. Angelette assumes it’s all exaggeration…until her chateau is attacked and her life threatened. Daventry rescues her, and the two are forced to run for their lives. But when danger closes in, will the viscount stand at her side or save himself?

Is not the one you’ve been told. 
Hugh Daventry visits France frequently to import wine for the family business. On his way out of the country, he stops at the comtesse’s house party out of obligation. But after meeting the raven-haired beauty, he tries to persuade her to leave France with him. When the peasants attack, he realizes he’s already too late, and now he must protect Angelette, whose sharp tongue is far from angelic. Too soon the couple is caught up in the rising revolution, dodging bloodthirsty mobs, hiding from soldiers, and embroiled in the attack of the Bastille. Hugh wants nothing but to leave tumultuous France for the calm of England. He knows Angelette is intelligent and resourceful—a survivor. But can Hugh survive without her?

Rating: B

In 2017, Shana Galen published Traitor in Her Arms, part of the Scarlet Chronicles, a series of historical romantic adventures set during the turbulent years of the French Revolution.  Now she’s following up with another book in the series – a novella – which precedes Traitor, but which can be read independently and which is linked to the earlier novel by the setting and the cameo appearance of Sir Percival Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself.  Or is he?  Because according to the synopsis, To Ruin a Gentleman tells the true story of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The story opens as nineteen-year-old Thomas Daventry arrives at his family home burning with questions for his father.  Like many young men of his ilk, Thomas finds life in the country rather dull and spends most of his time in London living it up with his friends. He doesn’t really consider that his parents were young once, and thinks they’ve lived a fairly boring life – and still do – until a he meets Sir Andrew Ffoulkes at a dinner party and a comment made by that gentleman sends Thomas racing home in order to do as suggested and ask his father about the real Scarlet Pimpernel.  Ms. Galen then proceeds to tell the story of how Thomas’ father, Hugh, Viscount Daventry, met his wife when they were caught up in the events of that fateful July in 1789. (And no, I’m not saying any more about the ‘real’ Pimpernel!)

Angelette, the widowed Comtesse d’Avignon, has invited Hugh Daventry to attend a house party being held at her estate near Versailles at the behest of her sister, the Marquise de Beauvais, who hopes that Hugh will consider importing the de Beauvais family wines to England.  But the viscount has the bad manners not to arrive when he is supposed to, and Angelette is somewhat put out when he finally makes his appearance – two days late – when she is about to dine.  When he apologises for his tardiness, explaining that he had difficulty getting out of Paris due to the increasing unrest there, Angelette is rather dismissive, blithely suggesting that the King and his ministers will no doubt find a solution to the problem to the riots and get rid of the mobs in the streets.  Hugh is faintly appalled by her reaction, even angry when she refuses to accept that she and entire aristocracy is in danger.

Hugh suggests she should accompany him to Calais and thence to England and to her family there (Angelette is half English), but she refuses; she has spent much of her life in France and has lands and responsibilities there and views it as her home.  She decides that, for all his good looks and potent masculinity, Hugh Daventry is annoying and she’ll be glad when he departs.

Hugh’s feelings about Angelette run along fairly similar lines.  The lady is undoubtedly alluring, but her stubbornness is not only irritating, it could well get her killed – but if she won’t listen to reason, there’s little he can do to help her.

Sadly, however, Hugh’s warnings of the unrest in the city spreading are quickly shown not to have been unfounded when, in the middle of a ball, Angelette’s home is attacked and invaded by an angry mob intent on destruction and murder.  His quick thinking gets the two of them away in one piece, and while he wants to head for Calais, Angelette insists on making for Versailles to report the events to the king and ask for his help.  As a gentleman, Hugh isn’t about to abandon Angelette and allow her to journey on alone – but Angelette is captured by a group of peasants intent on taking her to Paris for trial and execution, and Hugh must think and act quickly if he’s to have any chance of saving her.

To Ruin a Gentleman is an interesting and engaging romantic adventure featuring a couple of attractive protagonists and Shana Galen has clearly done her homework when it comes to the events of the times.  Her descriptions of key events – the invasion of the ball, the fall of the Bastille, for example – are described succinctly and vividly in such a way as to put the reader right in the middle of the action.  She also skilfully incorporates the attitude prevalent among so much of the French aristocracy of the time into Angelette’s character, yet does it without making her unsympathetic; rather it’s her naïveté in believing that because she treats her dependants well they will remain loyal to her, and her belief that the King will be able to avert the impending disaster that blinds her to the realities of what is going on around her.  Hugh is an attractive, sexy hero, one who is adaptable, clever and protective without being suffocating.  Their romance is, perhaps, a little rushed – which is almost par for the course with novellas – but because of the heightened danger and uncertainty of their situation, it works, as both Hugh and Angelette are forced to admit the strength of their attraction and what it means to them, knowing that each day – each hour –might be their last.

My main quibble with the story is with the ending. It’s hard to say much about it without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it’s a little contrived – brilliant ideas run thick and fast, everyone agrees enthusiastically and is keen to get started and… well, it’s all too pat.  I understand the need to satisfactorily explain why the true story of the Pimpernel differs from Baroness Orczy’s well-known tale, and Ms. Galen’s is certainly a plausible way to go about it.  It was just a little too ‘let’s do the show right here!’ for my taste.

Aside from that, though, To Ruin a Gentleman, is a fast-paced, entertaining and sexy read that should do the trick if you’re in the market for a bit of adventure served up with your romance.

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.

But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.

Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.

Rating: C+

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies?  In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced.  Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas.  In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.

 


The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart by Theresa Romain

Grade: C+             Sensuality Rating: Subtle

When the man she loved had to marry another woman in order to save his family finances and estate, Marianne Redfern left the small Lincolnshire village where she’d lived all her life and fled rather than face the pity of those around her. Arrived in London with nowhere to go, she was lucky enough to stumble across Mrs. Brodie’s Academy and decided her chances of being leered at or molested were less in an establishment run by a woman than anywhere else, so took a chance and asked if there was employment available.  Now, eight years later, Marianne has risen to the position of cook, a post she’s held for the last two years, and which she enjoys immensely.  Her composure is shaken, however by the sudden and completely unexpected appearance at the kitchen door of none other than Jack Grahame, the man who’d broken her heart years earlier.

Jack had truly loved Marianne, but when his father betrothed him to heiress Helena Wilcox, he knew he could not let down all the people dependent on him by turning his back on them and pursuing his self-interest.  He’s spent the two years since his wife’s death continuing to improve his estate and the lot of his tenants, and now he has decided it’s time to live for himself rather than for other people.  He hopes to obtain Marianne’s forgiveness for his actions eight years earlier, and then to persuade her that they deserve a second chance.  But with all they’ve done and become in the intervening years, will love be enough to see them though now?

The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart is a poignant, subtle story about love and trust and forgiveness, and Ms. Romain writes with her customary warmth and insight.  Marianne and Jack are both decent, mature individuals who never stopped loving each other, but who have to find out who they are now and who still have issues that they need to resolve before they can move forward together.  The descriptions of the foodstuffs and recipes Marianne uses may make your mouth water, so make sure you’ve got something yummy to hand just in case you get hungry!


Counterfeit Scandal by Shana Galen

Grade: C            Sensuality Rating: Warm

Shana Galen’s story also features lovers separated for eight years, this time a pair who had worked for the Foreign Office during the Napoleonic Wars.  Bridget O’Brien, the daughter of a famous forger, continued her father’s work for the Foreign Office as a counterfeiter, which is where she met and fell in love with spy, Caleb Harris.  The pair planned to marry, but Caleb disappeared suddenly and all Bridget could find out was that he’d been sent abroad and had died there.  Pregnant and desperate, Bridget married Robert Lavery in order to give her child a name, but her husband’s tendency to make poor investments landed them in debtor’s prison, and Bridget had to put her son, James, in an orphanage.  (Readers of Ms. Galen’s Survivors series will no doubt recognise the St. Dismas Home for Wayward Boys as the orphanage featured in book two, No Earls Allowed.)  Bridget now works at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy (surely Mrs. Brodie is an homage to Muriel Spark’s famous creation?) where she teaches art – and forgery – and has finally saved enough money to be able to rent rooms of her own so that she can locate her son and bring him to live with her. (The boy is eight, so I have to say that I wondered what she planned to do with him all day while she was at work, but – moving on.)

She manages to find herself a rather dingy room in a lodging house, and as she is leaving, she is astonished to pass a very familiar face going in the opposite direction, who is introduced to her as ‘Mr. Smith’.  Of course, this is Caleb Harris, back from the dead… or at least back from the continent, although he’s got to remain ‘dead’ until such time as he can leave England, owing to the fact that he has a price on his head as the result of his wartime activities.

But Bridget has other things on her mind, namely retrieving her son, but this is going to be much harder than she’d bargained for.  The orphanage burned down three years earlier, and nobody seems to know what happened to it or its inmates.  There’s only one man she can turn to; Caleb is stunned to discover that he’s a father but agrees to help on the condition that the boy never finds out who he is.  Caleb is a wanted man and anyone close to him could be a target; and in any case, soon he’ll have disappeared again, this time for good.

Counterfeit Scandal combines a tale of lovers reunited with an adventure story as Bridget and Caleb search for their son.  It’s an enjoyable read, and Bridget is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, but I had issues with the way James so easily accepts her as his mother, even though he hasn’t seen her for a number of years.  I found Caleb to be a less well-defined character than Bridget and the ending feels rushed.


Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Extraordinary Young Ladies boasts a couple of pleasant reads that can easily be used to while away a grey autumn afternoon, but ultimately, neither is particularly memorable, and this isn’t a compilation to which I’m likely to return.


 

No Earls Allowed (Survivors #2) by Shana Galen (audiobook) – Narrated by Victoria Aston

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lady Juliana, daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, needs all the help she can get. She’s running a ramshackle orphanage, London’s worst slumlord has illicit designs on her, and her father has suddenly become determined to marry her off.

Enter Major Neil Wraxall, bastard son of the Marquess of Kensington, sent to assist Lady Juliana in any way he can. Lucky for her, he’s handy with repairs, knows how to keep her and the orphans safe, and is a natural leader of men.

Unfortunately for both of them, the scandal that ensues from their mutual attraction is going to lead them a merry dance…

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B-

No Earls Allowed is the second book in Shana Galen’s Survivors series about a group of former soldiers who were members of a specially formed suicide squad during the Napoleonic Wars. Of the thirty members, only twelve returned, something that continues to haunt the unit’s commander Major Neil Wraxall, illegitimate son of the Marquess of Kensington, who also lost his younger half-brother during the conflict. Now the war is over, he spends most of his time at his club with his closest friends, Ewan Mostyn (Third Son’s a Charm) and Rafe Beaumont, or alone, wallowing in guilt and consuming large quantities of alcohol in order to keep the nightmares at bay.

Lady Juliana (Julia), daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, has been struggling to make sense of her life since the death of her beloved sister, Harriett. One of the charities the sisters supported was a home for orphaned boys which Julia optimistically renamed “The Sunnybrook Home for Boys”; and since Harriett’s death in childbirth, her work there has become something of an emotional crutch for Julia, who sees devoting herself to the care of the twelve boys in residence as a way of keeping Harriet’s memory alive. Her father is worried about her and wants her to return home, but Julia is adamant – the boys need her, and having seen the way Harriett’s husband treated her, Julia has no interest in men or marriage, so returning to the usual round of balls and parties of the marriage mart is pointless.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

No Earls Allowed (Survivors #2) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady can do anything a man can do: backwards and in high-heeled dancing slippers.

Lady Juliana, daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, needs all the help she can get. She’s running a ramshackle orphanage, London’s worst slumlord has illicit designs on her, and her father has suddenly become determined to marry her off.

Enter Major Neil Wraxall, bastard son of the Marquess of Kensington, sent to assist Lady Juliana in any way he can. Lucky for her, he’s handy with repairs, knows how to keep her and the orphans safe, and is a natural leader of men.

Unfortunately for both of them, the scandal that ensues from their mutual attraction is going to lead them a merry dance…

Rating: B

No Earls Allowed is book two in Shana Galen’s Survivors series, and like the first book, Third Son’s a Charm, features one of the men who had belonged to a specialist ‘suicide troop’ formed during the Napoleonic wars.  The group consisted originally of thirty, all of them single men, some of them younger sons, some of them by-blows – but all of them expendable; and under the command of Major Neil Wraxall, the men were given the most dangerous missions, missions from which they were not expected to return – and many did not.  By the end of the war, thirty had become a mere dozen, and even though the war has ended, Wraxall continues to carry a mountain of guilt for the eighteen men who did not return as well as for the death of his half-brother Christopher, the oldest legitimate son of their father, the Marquess of Kensington.

Neil’s life as an illegitimate son has perhaps been easier than many others in his situation given that his father acknowledged him from birth; he provided for him, made sure Neil had a good education and upbringing and then purchased his army commission.  In spite of that, however, Neil still feels his status – or lack thereof – as a bastard, and has never really felt as though he fit in or belonged anywhere apart from with his company of men in the army.  Now the war is over, he spends most of his time at his club with his closest friends – Ewan Mostyn and Rafe Beaumont – or alone, wallowing in guilt and consuming large amounts of strong drink in the attempt to keep the nightmares at bay.

When Neil receives a note from his father asking to see him, he isn’t too surprised. Neil performs the odd service for the marquess now and again, and he takes himself off, wondering what his father needs him to do this time.  The last thing he expects is to be asked to retrieve an earl’s daughter from an orphanage for young boys located in one of the less salubrious areas of London; but Neil can’t imagine it’ll be difficult and arrives just in time to discover the earl’s daughter in question being importuned by an unsavoury character.

Lady Juliana (Julia) is the one remaining unmarried daughter of the Earl of St. Maur, and is currently residing at the Sunnybrooke Home for Boys in Spitalfields where she is trying desperately to keep the place running without sufficient funds and staff. When her sister, Harriett, was alive, the home had been one of the charities to which the two of them donated, although it had been Harriett who had been the truly tireless supporter of that particular orphanage and several others; but after Harriett’s death in childbirth, the home has become something of an emotional crutch for Julia, who sees devoting herself to Sunnybrooke as a way to keep Harriett’s memory alive. The earl is naturally concerned and wants Julia to return home to the world of the ton as befits her station in life, but she will hear none of it. The boys need her, and given the way her beloved sister’s husband treated her, Julia has decided she wants nothing to do with men or marriage.

Added to Julia’s many problems – pilfering from the pantry, the resignation of the cook, the leaky roof and a trio of escaped pet rats – is Mr. Slag, the local crime-lord who is pressing her for payment of a large sum of money in exchange for his ‘protection’ – or if not money, he insinuates another way in which he would become her protector. Julia has just got rid of him – for now – when Neil arrives and stops her dead in her tracks. With his dark hair, well-muscled build and startlingly blue eyes, he’s the most gorgeous man Julia has ever seen and, lost in contemplation of all that male beauty, Julia fails to recall she’d been cooking breakfast for the boys when Slag had turned up – a fact that suddenly makes itself known courtesy of the burning smell emanating from the kitchen.

Neil hadn’t planned to spend the day sorting out breakfast, wrangling rats and a group of young boys alike, but he quickly realises that the notion he could simply tell the lady that her father wants her home and then escort her there was rather wide of the mark and that she’s not going to meekly obey the earl’s summons. He decides instead that the best way to get Julia out of there is to make sure the orphanage is safe (none of the door and windows lock properly), clean and dry (the roof leaks and the boys are slobs) and that proper staff are engaged… but it quickly becomes apparent, even when the place is tidier and more secure, that Julia isn’t going to go back to her father’s house. And if she stays at the orphanage, then Neil stays, especially when he discovers that one of Julia’s servants is working for Slag.

No Earls Allowed (a title which seems to have no bearing on the actual story) is an enjoyable and entertaining read, but I found the premise of an earl’s daughter running an orphanage while still being accepted by the ton to require quite a large stretch of my credulity. I did, however like that Ms. Galen gives Julia underlying and unacknowledged (to herself) reasons for her determination to run the place, rather than making her a blithe Lady Bountiful type – as I said earlier, it’s clear she’s using the place as some sort of emotional crutch and, as her former governess points out, that she’s using it to hide from life. She’s determined and gutsy, and I liked her – until, towards the end of the book, she turns into one of my least favourite heroine-types, the one who, when told to stay behind for her own safety (and because the hero wants not to have to worry about her while he’s confronting the bad guys) insists on tagging along and then has to be rescued. And while Neil is a wonderful hero – handsome, kind, honourable and just plain decent – he has his moment of stupidity near the end, which just feels tacked on in order to provide a bit of last minute drama. Which it doesn’t.

Some of the best moments in the book are provided by the interactions between Neil and the boys. I’m not normally fond of children in romance novels, but I’m pleased to say that Ms. Galen writes them all well, and does a great job of showing how they bond with Neil and adopt him as a father figure, and how he so naturally steps into that breach and takes charge of them and the orphanage. The romance between Neil and Juliana is sensual and nicely-developed; they have scorching chemistry and in making Neil a man who knows all too well the stigma of illegitimacy, of being ostracised, talked about and looked down on, she has created a hero who is a little different from the norm, a man fully aware of the consequences of passion and so unwilling to visit them upon an innocent child that he has remained (technically) a virgin – although luckily for Julia, he’s not inexperienced (!).

I enjoyed meeting Ewan and Rafe again; their unquestioning loyalty and the snarky banter between Neil and Rafe are other high points, and overall, I enjoyed the No Earls Allowed in spite of my reservations. I’ll definitely be reading the next in the series when it comes out later this year.

Traitor in Her Arms (The Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After her late husband leaves her in debt to some dangerous people, Lady Gabrielle McCullough is forced to become a thief. In the intervening years, her skills have not gone unnoticed. After being recruited by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the mysterious do-gooder spiriting aristocrats out of revolutionary France, Gabrielle crosses the Channel for the most daring mission of her life. Accompanying her is the Earl of Sedgwick, a thief in his own right and an enticingly masculine presence. The man is not to be trusted—nor is Gabrielle’s body when he’s near.

Ramsey Barnes would not say he is an honorable man. His whole life has been based on a lie; why change now? Although it pains him to deceive the tantalizing Gabrielle, he’s working toward an altogether different objective: unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Ramsey fails, his blackmailer will ruin him. But when Ramsey’s confronted with the carnage of the Reign of Terror, he seeks refuge in Gabrielle’s heated embrace. Now he faces a terrible choice: betray the woman who’s stolen his heart—or risk losing everything.

Rating: C+

Traitor in Her Arms, the first book in Shana Galen’s new Scarlet Chronicles series, takes place in Revolutionary France and features two individuals who are sent to Paris to undertake two very different and dangerous missions in order to fulfil debts owed to a pair of less than scrupulous characters back in England. A novel set in France at a momentous time in history featuring spies, feats of derring-do, a central couple who are keeping secrets and the Scarlet Pimpernel himself sounded right up my street; but while I enjoyed it for the most part, there were a few things about it that didn’t quite gel and prevented me from rating it any more highly.

The widowed Lady Gabrielle McCullough was left destitute when her husband died, and worse, is being hounded by a ruthless man who will not hesitate to hurt her if she fails to pay her late husband’s gambling debts. Having no way of raising such a large sum, Gabrielle has resorted to thievery; with the help of her housekeeper, who taught her to pick locks, and her staunch friend, Lady Diana, the daughter of the Duke of Exeter, Gabrielle has been stealing jewellery from various ladies of the ton in order to pay off the debt. She doesn’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it, but still, stealing is stealing; she doesn’t like it, but it’s that or end up working off the debt on her back in a brothel.

But at last, the end is in sight. If she can filch the lapis-lazuli necklace believed to have been owned by Cleopatra, the money she will make from it will be enough to set her free. She attends the ball given by the necklace’s owner and makes short work of breaking into the room in which the necklace is kept, only to discover that she has been beaten to it by Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgwick. Gabrielle has no idea what he could possibly want with the jewellery and tries to relieve him of it, but the charged atmosphere between them is impossible to ignore and she succumbs to a kiss – which she later realises he used to distract her and to regain possession of the necklace.

Gabrielle has no idea that Ramsey is in a not too dissimilar position to herself, although unlike her, his situation is largely of his own making. He is being blackmailed by someone who has discovered his deepest, darkest secret, something which could lead to his being condemned to death if it is ever exposed, and intends to use the necklace to buy her off once and for all. But she refuses to trade and ups the stakes, telllng Ramsey that she will only hand over the incriminating documents if he agrees to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

London is rife with stories of the man who is rescuing aristocrats from under the nose of Madame la Guillotine, but many believe him to be merely a myth. Gabrielle is among their number – until the evening she is approached by him in secret, and asked to perform a service which will mean great personal danger, but which, if successful, will mean freedom for a young woman and her daughter and a new life in England. The prison commander at La Force prison in Paris has agreed to smuggle out the Comtesse de Tonnerre and her infant daughter in exchange for Le Saphir Blanc, a bracelet containing an incredibly rare white sapphire that was commissioned by Louis XIV but which went missing in one of the raids on Versailles. For this job, the Pimpernel needs a skilled thief, and from what he has heard, Gabrielle fits the bill.

Gabrielle is a mess of different emotions. Flattered to have been asked, scared at the thought of the danger she might face in a Paris gone mad… but mostly relieved that here is an opportunity to get out of England and out from under the threat of her late husband’s creditors. She takes the mission and makes arrangements to leave for Paris as soon as possible.

Of course, Gabrielle and Ramsey end up taking the same ship for France, both of them being cagey about their reasons for going at such a time. Each begins by viewing their mission as either an impersonal but necessary task (Ramsey) or a noble quest to save innocent lives (Gabrielle), but their outlooks change quickly once they have entered a Paris in which the streets really do run with rivers of blood. Ms. Galen’s depiction of the horrors of the revolution and of the mood of fear and disquiet that pervades the city and its inhabitants is very evocative, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the fanatical devotion of the new republicans or the violence and destruction that continue to plague the city. The relationship between the couple plays out against this backdrop; they have known each other for a number of years and although Gabrielle was married to Ramsey’s best friend, there has always been a strong undercurrent of attraction between them. This pre-existing situation makes it easier for the reader to believe in that attraction and in their subsequent romance, although to tell the truth, there isn’t a great deal of romantic development in the story – which is not surprising given that Ramsey and Gabrielle are forever looking over their shoulders in fear of discovery. (Mind you, that doesn’t stop them from having sex on the floor of the catacombs!) It’s also rather a big stretch of credulity to believe that the Pimpernel would send someone like Gabrielle on such a mission. She’s supposed to be a super-expert thief, but we never really see that, and it’s quickly obvious that she’s completely out of her depth and just isn’t capable of the kinds of machinations and level of deception that she needs in order to pull off her task successfully. On the one hand, her fears and doubts about what she is setting out to do feel realistic and I applaud the author for showing those to the reader; characters need a little vulnerability otherwise there’s a danger they could become unlikeable. The problem is that Gabrielle almost always needs Ramsey or one of the other characters to help her out of a tight spot, and is following rather than leading. Plus, we know that Ramsey is using Gabrielle to get to the Pimpernel, which doesn’t exactly make for the ideal romantic hero; although it’s very obvious that his principal concern is to keep Gabrielle safe for her own sake and in spite of his ulterior motive.

Ultimately, Gabrielle is fairly bland but Ramsey made more of an impression on me. Stories in which the hero lies to the heroine are difficult to pull off, but Ms. Galen just about manages it here, especially when the reader is made privy to the secret that has come back to bite him in the arse and the reasons behind it. He made… let’s call it an unwise decision for altruistic reasons when he was a much younger man and exposure will risk more than his own neck.

The weaknesses in Gabrielle’s characterisation and Ramsey’s not-always-palatable motivations are the main reasons for my not rating the book more highly, although a couple of smaller things bugged me, too, such as the overly-chummy housekeeper and the fact that I couldn’t help wondering why, when so many historicals feature men landed in debt thanks to their profligate predecessors, Gabrielle’s late husband’s debts hadn’t been ‘inherited’ by his heir? When push comes to shove however, I did enjoy the story and will look out for the next one as the adventure portion of Traitor in Her Arms is very well done. I’d like a bit more actual romance next time, though.