His Wayward Bride (Romance of the Turf #3) by Theresa Romain

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Though their horse-racing family is as troubled as it is talented, all of the Chandler siblings have found love…except eldest brother Jonah. Married four years ago and abandoned after his wedding night, single-minded Jonah now spends his days training Thoroughbreds—while his lost bride is a family mystery no one dares discuss.

And that’s just the way Jonah and his wife, Irene, want it.

The biracial daughter of a seamstress and a con artist, Irene has built a secret career as a spy and pickpocket who helps troubled women. By day she works as a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies; in spare moments she takes on missions that carry her everywhere from London’s elite heart to its most dangerous corners.

Jonah agreed to this arrangement for four years, until Irene’s family fortunes were made. After surviving on passionate secret meetings and stolen days together, now it’s time to begin the marriage so long delayed. But as these two independent souls begin to build a life together, family obligations and old scandals threaten to tear them apart…

Rating: B-

I enjoyed the first three books in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series, which focuses on a family of successful horse-breeders and trainers based in Newmarket.  One of the attractions of the series has been that there’s nary a duke or earl in sight – historical romance about non-aristocratic characters is relatively rare, so the author is to be applauded for writing about the gentry instead of the nobs.  It’s been a while since the last title in the series (Scandalous Ever After) was released, but  I did remember that the eldest of the Chandler siblings, Jonah, had appeared and/or been mentioned in the earlier books, and that he was married… but that his wife, for some unexplained reason, wasn’t around.

As it turns out, Irene Chandler – née Baird – is a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (as featured in the novella duo by Ms. Romain and Shana Galen), an exclusive boarding school in Marylebone that teaches classes in self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more traditional subjects.  Irene has been a teacher of geography and history there for six years, and loves it; but like some of her fellow teachers, she also carries out certain extra-curricular activities at the behest of Mrs. Brodie.  Irene is, in fact:

… a sort of spy. A thief.  A secret agent.  The headmistress of her academy had ties to prominent people across England, and she pulled strings to make sure their power was used for good.  Irene was, when needed, the physical hand who did the pulling.

As a biracial woman – her mother is a black Englishwoman, her father a white American – Irene knows only too well the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of injustice.  She loves the life she has built for herself and is fulfilled by it, even as she recognises that her work is of the sort that will never, ever be done when there are people who need the sort of help Mrs. Brodie can provide.  But she made a bargain four years earlier, one that is going to change the course of her life, and payment is now due.

Jonah Chandler is the eldest son of Sir William Chandler and, since the illness that has confined his father to a wheelchair, has taken over many of the duties involved in running the family business.  Unlike his siblings Nathaniel and Kate (whose stories were told in the previous books), Jonah has been the one to stay at home, to follow the path laid down for him, going from home to school to the stud farm and while he loves his work, he wants more from his life.  Four years earlier, at Newmarket, he found that something – or rather someone – when he met Irene Baird (in rather unusual circumstances).  After a whirlwind courtship, they married quietly, but haven’t lived together since, only meeting a few times a year when they could both snatch the time to spend a few days or hours together – because Irene needed to remain in London and at her post until her younger brother was thirteen and old enough to be sent away to the prestigious boys’ school at which she has, with Mrs. Brodie’s help, secured him a place.  With those four years almost up, Jonah comes to London in order to ask Irene to return to Newmarket with him as agreed.  He loves her and misses her and wants to make a family with her; he’s a decent, steady and compassionate man and had been content to be Irene’s convenient husband, but now he wants to walk his own path… and he wants to do it with his wife at his side.

Irene is horribly torn.  She loves Jonah and wants to be with him, but she’s also reluctant to give up the life she’s built for herself and worries that she is in danger of losing herself if she does so.  Theresa Romain does a terrific job of articulating Irene’s many shifting thoughts and emotions; is she being selfish by wanting things to stay the same; how she can give up teaching and her missions when there are always going to be people who need help; how can she be fair to Jonah and to herself; is she good enough for him? – presenting Irene as a multi-faceted and very real character as she wrestles with these and many other problems.

Jonah is a lovely beta hero who has never wanted Irene to be anything but herself and has recognised – and admired – her spirit and independence and appreciated the importance of her work. But now he has seen what she does with his own eyes, and sees the difference she makes, he understands, more than ever, how difficult a choice he has presented to her.  But a choice is inevitable.  And he doesn’t want to “not be your choice anymore.”

Ms. Romain has clearly done a lot of research into horse breeding and training and into the London of the 1820s, presenting it as a cosmopolitan place, with areas of the City of London and East End home to many businesses owned, operated by and employing people from all over the world, and people of colour specifically.  She has clearly given a lot of thought to depicting the way Irene and her family members are viewed by some and the casual prejudice they encounter – which, while distasteful to read, was – and sadly, continues to be – found in people from all walks of life.

But even with the number of very positive things the book has going for it, I can’t deny that it fails to deliver one really important thing.

A romance.

Irene and Jonah met before this story starts, so the falling-in-love part of their story is over and done by the time we meet them.  I liked the fact that they’re a couple who isn’t estranged for the usual reasons found in romance novels (family pressure, infidelity, deception etc.) and that they are both as in love with one another now as they were when they first met.  Most romance novels end at the HEA and readers rarely glimpse those couples again (other than in cameo roles in other books in the same series) and once again, I applaud Ms. Romain for tackling a situation that doesn’t crop up all that often in the genre.  But the problem – for me – is that I am recognising all these really good things with my head and my brain; the writing is excellent, the dilemmas faced by the characters are really well put forward, the research is impeccable… but I didn’t FEEL anything of the romantic chemistry and spark I look for between the principals when reading a romance.  I also can’t deny thinking that perhaps Irene didn’t love Jonah as much as he did her; she has set aside ideas of her own happiness in favour of securing the happiness of others, which, in turn, gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction – but when the ‘other’ whose happiness she could secure is her own husband’s… well, she doesn’t give him the same consideration she affords everyone else.

There are several sub-plots in the book  – all of which are tidily wrapped up – one might say too tidily – by the end, some of which have little bearing on the overall story and are, I think, loose plot threads from earlier in the series that needed to be tied up.  In fact, one of them felt as though it belonged in a completely different book.

To sum up… I came away from His Wayward Bride unsure as to how I felt about it.  It’s got a lot going for it, but the superb insight and beautiful prose can’t quite disguise the fact that, for me at least, the book lacked an emotional centre and real… for want of a better word, ‘heart’.  That said, I think there are many out there who will enjoy this tale more than I did, and for that reason, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.

 

Lady Notorious (Royal Rewards #4) by Theresa Romain

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Who knew love would be her secret weapon?

Cassandra Benton has always survived by her wits and wiles, even working for Bow Street alongside her twin brother. When injury takes him out of commission, Cass must support the family by taking on an intriguing new case: George, Lord Northbrook, believes someone is plotting to kill his father, the Duke of Ardmore. Decades before, the duke was one of ten who formed a wager that would grant a fortune to the last survivor. But someone can’t wait for nature to take its course—and George hopes a seasoned investigator like Cass can find out who.

Cass relishes the chance to spy on the ton, shrewdly disguised as handsome Lord Northbrook’s notorious “cousin.” What she doesn’t expect is her irresistible attraction to her dashing employer, and days of investigation soon turn to passionate nights. But with a killer closing in and her charade as a lady of the ton in danger of collapsing at any moment, Cass has no choice but to put her life—and her heart—in the hands of the last man she ought to trust . . .

Rating: B-

Lady Notorious is the fourth in Theresa Romain’s Royal Rewards series, although we’ve moved on from the initial premise of the first two books which concerned the hunt for several chests full of gold sovereigns which were stolen from the Royal Mint. Lady Notorious picks up a plot-thread from the previous book, Lady Rogue, and re-introduces readers to the Benton twins, Charles – a Bow Street Runner – and his twin sister, Cassandra, who is a sort of ‘unofficial’ Runner, openly working alongside him.

The plot in Lady Rogue was kick-started when the Duke of Ardmore was set to sell a forged painting as part payment of gambling debts owed to a notorious London crime lord.  As Lady Notorious opens, we learn the duke is still deeply in debt – thanks to his addiction to the gaming tables – and his heir George, Lord Northbrook, is able to do little more than watch as his father continues to reduce the once affluent dukedom to a pile of debt.  Debt that will be George’s when he eventually inherits the title.

George is prompted to hire the Bentons – brother and sister – after he discovers the existence of something called a tontine, a kind of wager, placed decades earlier by ten gentleman including his father.  Part investment scheme and part wager, the funds (and interest) are left untouched until all but one of the group is dead – and the last man standing receives the full amount of the fortune.  The tontine has existed for almost forty years at this point, and while a couple of its members died some years ago, George becomes concerned for his father’s safety when he learns that three of the other ‘investors’ have died under mysterious circumstances within the last year.

As he lives under his father’s roof, George is well placed to protect the duke, so he arranges for Cass and Charles to be taken into the household of his godfather, Lord Deverell, another member of the tontine.  When the book opens, Cass is part way through another late-night vigil when the house is plunged into uproar.  Lady Deverell starts screaming and once the rest of the household is roused, Charles is discovered to have broken his leg (most likely falling out of the lady’s bedroom window!), and Lord Deverell is found sprawled on the sofa in his study, passed out from drink and with a serious knife wound to his leg.

It seems the threat to the lives of the remaining members of the tontine is very real, and George is determined to get to the bottom of it.  With Charles out of action, the bulk of the investigation is going to fall to Cass – which is par for the course really, as she normally does all the work anyway – but installing her as a servant in one household or other is clearly not going to help much.  So George suggests instead that she pose as a distant relative; a notorious cousin newly arrived from the Continent who will be best placed to hear all the gossip, the secrets women don’t talk about in front of men which might have some relevance to the case. And if that cousin is fashionable and a bit fast, all the better, as she’s bound to be at the centre of a swirl of gossip herself.

This set-up will, of course, allow George and Cass to spend time together and explore the attraction that’s been simmering between them from the start, and their interactions and witty exchanges are some of the highlights of the book. The plot concerning the possible threat to the members of the tontine is fairly thinly stretched, but my biggest issue with the novel as a whole was the concept of Cass as an unofficial investigator/thief-taker. I give a big thumbs-up to Ms. Romain for writing about non-aristocratic characters, but Cass being openly accepted in her role by everyone she works with, including the magistrate, was difficult to swallow  given that the story is set in 1819 and even a lower-class female would have had limited options.  (And of course, Cass isn’t really lower-class; her grandmother was a gentleman’s daughter who married beneath her, this making it just about acceptable for her to eventually find her HEA with a duke’s heir.)  I liked her intelligence and resourcefulness and the exploration of the difficulties of her relationship with Charles is really well done, but I had to ignore the implausibility of her ‘profession’ for most of the book, which did put a bit of a damper on things.

On the positive side, however, is George, who is a simply lovely hero.   He’s charming, possessed of a dry sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he’s also a kind, conscientious man who wants to take care of those he loves but doesn’t quite know how. He lived the dissipated life of many a ducal heir until his mother’s near death from a laudanum overdose pulled him up short, and even though he soon came to the realisation that nothing he could do was going to make any difference to either of his parents’ addictions, he still feels guilty about that.  He attempts to fill his time experimenting with his collection of camera obscurae and trying to fix images using sunlight and chemicals – an unusual hobby to be sure, and one that turned out to have no bearing on the mystery plot, which made me wonder why the author chose to include it.

Lady Notorious is a difficult book to rate because I have such mixed feelings about it.  I liked the central characters (especially George!) and their interactions, but ultimately, didn’t feel there was a strong connection between them – and I found it difficult to get past the idea of the heroine as an investigator at this period in time. The writing is excellent as always and the familial relationships – George’s with his parents and Cass’ with Charles – are well done, but the mystery is lacklustre and while I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t completely invested either.  I’m going with a cautious recommendation – the good things about the book are good, but its weaknesses mean I can’t give it a whole-hearted endorsement.

 

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

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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.


 

Desperately Seeking Scandal by Theresa Romain

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lady Ada Ellis has two great talents: managing the accounts of her horse-mad brother’s dukedom, and hiding in Berkshire from London society. Several years ago, a scandal rag published family secrets—and Ada was jilted as a result.

She has no use for the press or for her onetime fiancé, but fate delivers both into her hands at once. At the same time her former betrothed visits Berkshire with his new bride, charming reporter Colin Goddard seeks Ada’s help for a career-making series of articles on how to snare a wealthy spouse.

Ada agrees to assist Colin—if he acts as her devoted suitor before the man who once spurned her. What was intended as a humorous exploit turns seductive, as she and Colin challenge each other to a battle of wits, wills, and hearts. But Colin is keeping secrets of his own, and if he and Ada fall in love, one of them will lose everything…

Rating: B

Desperately Seeking Scandal is a charming fake-relationship story that originally appeared in the novella duo, The Duke’s Bridal Path. I have a sneaking fondness for the faux-couple trope, and Ms. Romain makes very good use of it here, creating a believable emotional connection between her principals within the confines of the shorter format, while telling a story about the importance of being true to oneself and doing the right thing.

Lady Ada Ellis, spinster sister of the Duke of Lavalle, has sequestered herself at the family’s country estate since she was jilted four years earlier by the stuffy Lord Wrotham following the scandalous rumours surrounding the death of her elder brother. She is happy at the family home, and her head for business and facility with numbers has led to her acting as de facto steward for her brother, the new duke. On a visit to the local village, she becomes aware that someone is watching and following her; suspecting he might be a journalist out to dig up more dirt on the family – her brother recently married the daughter of his stable master – she confronts the man, who introduces himself as Colin Goddard and is, indeed, a journalist.

Except that he’s not there to gather material for a story about her brother, and suggests that perhaps it’s her he’s interested in.  Ada isn’t swallowing that for one minute, but her curiosity is piqued and after a razor-sharp back-and-forth with the (admittedly) attractive young man, she tells him he can call on her the next day in order to explain what he has in mind.

Colin Goddard has worked hard to keep a roof over his and his brother Samuel’s head ever since their father bankrupted their family a decade or so earlier.  He’s making a living now as a jobbing writer for the Gentleman’s Periodical (a down-market version of the established Gentlemen’s Magazine), writing satirical, sometimes scandalous gossip pieces – some of which, he discovers later, may well have contributed to Lady Ada’s being jilted.  He has sold his editor on a short series of articles on the subject of How to Catch a Wealthy Spouse which will guarantee him a regular job and an editorship, and outlines his proposal to Lady Ada, but she wants something in exchange for her help.  Her former betrothed will be staying in the area for a couple of weeks with his new wife, and as she will have to host the couple at least once, she wants Colin to pretend to be madly in love with her for the duration of Wrotham’s visit.

Desperately Seeking Scandal is a delightful read that’s light on conflict and low on angst – which isn’t a bad thing, as it means the author hasn’t set up plotlines and situations that will need lightning-fast and unbelievable resolutions.  Instead, she concentrates on giving her characters solid backstories and personalities and keeps the focus on the romance; the dialogue sparkles with wit and intelligence, and the sexual tension between Ada and Colin crackles right from the start.

If you’re in the mood for a quick, but satisfying dose of historical romance, this is bound to fit the bill.

Lady Rogue (Roguish Runners #1) by Theresa Romain


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As far as London’s high society knows, Lady Isabel Morrow is above reproach. But the truth is rarely so simple. Though the young widow’s passionate fling with dashing Bow Street Runner Callum Jenks ended amicably months ago, she now needs his expertise. It seems Isabel’s late husband, a respected art dealer, was peddling forgeries. If those misdeeds are revealed, the marriage prospects of his younger cousin— now Isabel’s ward—will be ruined.

For the second time, Isabel has upended Callum’s well-ordered world. He’s resolved to help her secretly replace the forgeries with the real masterpieces, as a . . . friend. A proper sort of friend doesn’t burn with desire, of course, or steal kisses on twilight errands. Or draw a willing lady into one passionate encounter after another. Isabel’s scheme is testing Callum’s heart as well as his loyalties. But with pleasure so intoxicating, the real crime would be to resist . . .

Rating: B-

Theresa Romain is one of my favourite authors; I’ve enjoyed all of the books of hers I’ve read, and there are a number of her historical romances on my Keeper shelf, so I’m always eager to read any new book by her.  Lady Rogue is the first in her Roguish Runners Duo, and features as its hero one Callum Jenks, the Bow Street Runner – more correctly, Officer of Police – who helped Sir Hugo Starling and Georgette Frost to find the stolen gold in Passion Favors the Bold, book two in her recent Royal Rewards Duo.  The storyline in those books centred around the theft of a large number of newly manufactured gold sovereigns from the Royal Mint; at the beginning of Lady Rogue, the person behind the theft, Sir Frederic Chapple, is in Newgate awaiting trial – and to Callum’s disgust, is about to be released due to lack of evidence.  Callum’s brother, Harry, was one of the guards killed during the theft, and he has made it something of a personal crusade to see those responsible brought to justice.  So the fact that the principal mover in the operation is going to walk away a free man sticks in his throat.  This is no kind of justice, and is not what he has spent more than a decade of his life working for.

It’s this disillusionment that prompts him to reconsider the most unusual request for help he’s probably ever received.  The widowed Lady Isobel Morrow, whom he’d first met around eighteen months previously when he investigated the death of her husband Andrew, has just revealed to him that she had discovered that her late spouse, an art dealer, had been selling forgeries of valuable paintings and stashing the originals in a secret room in their house.  Learning that the Duke of Ardmore had been planning to sell the (fake) Botticelli painting he’d purchased from Andrew in order to pay off a debt to a dangerous London crime lord, she has conceived a plan that while not strictly legal, is the right thing to do.   She asked Callum to help her to break into the duke’s house, steal the forgery and replace it with the original – but he refused.  No matter the rightness of her intentions, breaking and entering is illegal and he is, after all, bound to uphold the law.

But after learning of Chapple’s upcoming release, Callum isn’t so sure any more about the difference between ‘just’ and ‘right’, and decides he’ll help Isabel after all.

Over the months of her widowhood, Lady Isabel has begun to realise the extent to which her life has been controlled by the men around her, and how much of herself she had subjugated to her husband’s will. Her marriage was clearly not a happy one, and she is determined to move on and make an independent life for herself as well as to make a good match for Andrew’s young ward, Lucy, who resides with her.  It’s Lucy’s reputation that has prompted Isabel to scheme to restore the Botticelli to the duke – if he tries to pay off his debts with a forgery and the forgery is traced back to Andrew, then the Morrow name will be blackened and Lucy’s marriage prospects will be irrevocably damaged.  The one person Isabel trusts to help her is the man who investigated her husband’s death… who happens to be the man with whom she had a passionate sexual encounter a year earlier – Officer Callum Jenks.

Isabel and Callum may move in very different spheres, but they have obviously not forgotten each other or what happened between them that night at Vauxhall Gardens.  Their mutual attraction is as strong as it ever was, yet after a little bit of initial awkwardness, they settle very easily into a friendship of sorts, each of them feeling able to be more themselves with each other than with anyone else.  I liked that they had a history together, that they aren’t bitter about it and haven’t spent the last year mooning over each other – but the downside to it is that I felt as though the relationship had been established off the page and that I’d landed in the middle of it.  Theresa Romain always creates interesting, likeable characters, and Isabel and Callum are no exception, but while I really enjoyed their interactions and the way they just ‘click’ together, in terms of the way their minds work and their sense of humour, their romance is a little… underdone.

The plotline that concerns the need to swap the original Botticelli for the forgery is well executed, but after the exchange is made (around the halfway mark) that plotline fizzles out and attention turns to Isabel’s decision to set up her own household, and her concerns over Lucy who, at eighteen, should be making her come-out, but who instead is very shy and doesn’t like attending the sorts of events where she might be able to meet prospective husbands.  The hints dropped that Isabel’s life with Andrew wasn’t happy are never really followed up, and the last-minute introduction of a darker storyline involving abuse and murder happens so quickly and comes so far out of the blue that I wondered if I’d jumped into reading another book by mistake!

As I said at the beginning, I’m a fan of Ms. Romain’s, so it pains me to say that Lady Rogue didn’t quitework for me in terms of the storyline, which doesn’t feel cohesive and seems to jump from plotline to plotline.  The characterisation, however, is excellent and is the book’s real saving grace.  Callum is charming, generous and honourable, and is suffering a bit of a crisis of confidence when it comes to his chosen profession.  I liked seeing him with his family, who run a grocery business; it’s clear they all care for each other, but that, like most families, they have their ups and downs, and Callum’s characterisation is enhanced by the glimpses we’re given of his relationship with them. Isabel is at pains to look after Lucy and find her a husband, but she is also starting to relish her independence and to want to leave the remnants of her marriage behind her and I enjoyed watching her grow in confidence and find the courage to strike out on her own.  Both are strongly drawn and engaging and they make a very well-matched couple.  I’d just have liked a little more chemistry and heat between them.

Lady Rogue didn’t quite fire on all cylinders, but it’s an enjoyable read in spite of its flaws. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, and will continue to look out for more from Theresa Romain.

Scandalous Ever After (Romance of the Turf #2) by Theresa Romain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Does love really heal all wounds?

After being widowed by a steeplechase accident in Ireland, Lady Kate Whelan abandons the turf. But once her mourning is complete, her late husband’s debts drive her to seek help in Newmarket amidst the whirl of a race meet. There she encounters antiquities expert Evan Rhys, her late husband’s roguish friend―whom she hasn’t seen since the day of his lordship’s mysterious death.

Now that fate has reunited them, Evan seizes the chance to win over the woman he’s always loved. But once back within the old stone walls of Whelan House, long-held secrets come to light that shake up everything Kate thought she knew about her marriage. Now she wonders who she can trust with her heart―and Evan must decide between love and a truth that will separate him from all his heart desires.

Rating: B+

This second full-length novel in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series takes up the story of Kate Durham née Chandler, the elder Chandler daughter, widow of the Earl of Whelan and mother of two young children.  Scandalous Ever After is the sort of strongly written, character-driven and emotionally satisfying romance at which this author excels, and there’s a dash of mystery, too, which eventually turns out to be linked to one of the secondary plotlines featured in book one, A Gentleman’s Game.

When Kate was just seventeen, she was swept off her feet by the handsome Conall Durham, and after a whirlwind courtship, married him and left England to live at his estate in Ireland.  Con’s best friend, Evan Rhys, a Welsh historian and archaeologist, was a frequent visitor, and the three of them spent many an evening together chatting, laughing and sampling the excellent local whiskey.  Evan and Kate developed a strong and – they’d thought – lasting friendship, even though unbeknownst to Kate, Evan had fallen in love with her the moment they met.  Over the years, Kate watched Con running up debts he couldn’t pay and put up with his infidelities – and while Evan remonstrated with his friend, Con continued on his own merry way until he was killed as the result of a fall from his horse.  Shortly before this, the two men argued violently, after which Evan left and has never returned; he and Kate haven’t seen each other in the two years since Con’s death.

Kate hasn’t been home to Newmarket since she married, but she is back in England now, hoping to ask her father for help in settling the massive debt Connor left behind.  While she’s there, she attends a lecture on antiquities – and specifically, the way in which the collectors’ market is currently being inundated with fakes – given by her old friend Evan Rhys.  She has been hurt by his continued absence from her life and hopes they can regain something of their former friendship, unaware of the true nature of his feelings for her and that he harbours some guilt about the argument he and Con had on the day he died.  Evan is surprised to see Kate, but can’t deny that he’s missed her – and decides to woo her now that she is free and out of mourning.  But he knows it won’t be easy; over the years Kate has placed him in the role of “dependable friend” and he’ll have to take things slowly if he is to get her to see him as a lover.

Unfortunately for Kate, Sir William is unable to help her with her financial woes, so she decides to return to Ireland and Evan offers to escort her, telling her that he wants to look into the sudden flood of fake antiquities that appear to have been made from stone that comes from close to the Whelan estate.  Once there, it becomes apparent that not only does Evan have cause for his suspicions but also that Con’s death was no accident – and that the machinations of the mysterious villain who cast a long shadow in the previous book continue to pursue the Chandler family, although to what end is not yet apparent.

Scandalous Ever After is a skilfully blended story of romance and mystery, with the focus very firmly on the fragile new relationship that Kate and Evan are building together.  They have terrific chemistry and their many verbal exchanges are witty, funny and utterly delightful; such naturalistic dialogue is one of this author’s strengths, and it’s much in evidence here as Kate and Evan flirt, argue and tease their way towards a new understanding of themselves and each other.  That’s not to say it’s an easy journey for either of them, especially after Kate takes a leap of faith and invites Evan to her bed – and almost immediately regrets her decision, because she is scared that by changing the nature of their relationship she will lose his friendship, and she couldn’t bear that.  Over the years, she has become so many different women – wife, mother, countess, manager – that she has lost sight of herself and her own wants and needs.  Spending time with her family – and with Evan’s on the way to Ireland (no matter that both families are very, very different) – has brought into sharp focus the fact that she doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not in Ireland and not at home; and if she loses Evan’s friendship she will be truly alone.  She tells him she wants them to forget their one night together and go back to the way things were – and can’t understand why Evan doesn’t agree it’s for the best, and why he eventually begins to pull back from her.

Evan is a gorgeous beta hero; an intellectual who can crack a dirty joke along with the best of them and whose concern and love for Kate shines through in his words and actions.  He’s kind, charming and perceptive, but his upbringing by a mother who constantly belittled him has left him a little emotionally bruised and he’s suffered bouts of depression throughout his life – something Kate tackles superbly, offering understanding, compassion and acceptance.

The love story is beautifully nuanced and the love scenes are sensual as we see Evan and Kate tentatively exploring the possibilities for more than friendship at the same time as they fear to take the steps that will irretrievably change things between them.  It’s true that Evan is now more willing to put his heart on the line while Kate struggles with the fear that she could lose him and allows that fear to push her to retreat from him and from what she really wants; and there were times this reader found Kate’s reticence just a teeny bit frustrating.  Yet in the two years since Con’s death, Evan allowed his fear of rejection to keep him far away from the temptation Kate presented, so he, too, has been guilty of running from his deepest desires.

My one complaint about the story overall is that Kate’s inability to realise why Evan is so hurt when she wants to ‘go back to how things were’ goes on a little too long – and it’s hard to believe she can really be so obtuse about it when he has been her closest friend for so many years.  That point knocked my final grade down a little, but didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and isn’t going to prevent my recommending Scandalous Ever After to others.

Passion Favors the Bold (Royal Rewards #2) by Theresa Romain

passion-favors-the-bols

This title may be purchased from Amazon

DESPERATE MEASURES
Georgette Frost’s time is almost up. On her twenty-first birthday, the protections outlined in her late parents’ will are set to expire. With prospects for employment or marriage unfavorable at best, she decides to leave London and join her brother, Benedict, on a treasure hunt for gold sovereigns stolen from the Royal Mint.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS
Lord Hugo Starling has always felt protective of his friend Benedict’s sister, Georgette. So when he discovers her dressed in ragged boy’s clothes, about to board a coach for parts unknown, he feels duty bound to join her search. But mystery piles upon mystery as they cross England together, not least of which is the confounded attraction between them. As Georgette leads him to a reward he never expected, Hugo realizes he’s embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime…

Rating: B+

Passion Favors the Bold is the sequel to Theresa Romain’s thoroughly enjoyable romance-cum-treasure hunt, Fortune Favors the Wicked, wherein a blind former naval officer teams up with a former courtesan to locate the six missing crates of gold sovereigns that have been stolen from the Royal Mint in order to claim the hefty finder’s fee. The events of this book run more or less concurrently with this one, so it’s not really necessary to have read that first – and in fact, the books can be read in any order.

Georgette Frost will, on her twenty-first birthday, likely become homeless. After her parents died in an accident, the conditions of their will stipulated that the relatives who took over the family bookshop would house her until she was of age. Her birthday is approaching, and while her aunt and uncle have never been unkind to her, Georgette knows that they need space for their own, growing family, and having to keep her fed and housed has been a drain on their resources. Knowing that her brother, Benedict, has travelled to Derbyshire in search of the missing coins, Georgette decides to join him there and help if she can. She doesn’t know him well as he has been at sea for most of her life, but he’s her only family, and Georgette yearns to be part of something and to find a purpose in life.

Sir Hugo Starling, younger son of the Duke of Willingham is a friend of Benedict’s, having studied medicine with him in Edinburgh. Medicine is not a typical profession for a man in Hugo’s position – in fact, his family intended him to go into the Church – but the loss of his twin brother more than a decade earlier led Hugo to take a different path, no matter that it put a strain on his relationship with his family. Firmly believing that his brother’s life could have been saved had the duke employed a physician selected because of his knowledge and skill rather than his reputation in society, Hugo became determined to prevent others from suffering such devastation and loss and trained as a doctor. He continues to practice, but his driving passion now is the creation of a brand new hospital in London, but he is having trouble getting the needed financial backing. When he encounters his friend’s sister – dressed in ragged, boy’s clothes and insisting on travelling to meet up with her brother in Derbyshire – Hugo wants to take her to stay with his mother until he can contact Benedict, but Georgette is adamant, telling Hugo that “being in [Benedict’s] company would be better than being alone”. When she learns of Hugo’s difficulty in persuading anyone to invest in his hospital plan, she tells him that if he were to be instrumental in finding the gold, the publicity that will attach to his name can only help him in his cause – and realising that she’ll go with or without him, Hugo begrudgingly agrees to accompany her.

Along the way, they encounter a Bow Street Runner by the name of Jenks, who is following up on rumours that blobby bits of gold have been used to pay for things as far north as  Northumberland. They eventually make their way to the estate of Sir Frederic Chapple, a congenial, somewhat eccentric baronet who welcomes them warmly, in spite of having absolutely no idea who they are or why they are there.  Sir Frederic has newly come into this title and is not best pleased at having to spend so much of his time on his far-flung estate dealing with tenants, drainage and disputes over sheep.  So the appearance of the young couple is a pleasant diversion, and a useful one, as he puts Hugo to work treating his tenants and estate workers.  But when a grateful patient slips Hugo a gold “blob” the stakes are raised – as it seems the thieves will stop at nothing to prevent the discovery of the gold’s hiding place.

While the treasure hunt is an important part of the story, lying at the heart of Passion Favors the Bold is the gently-paced story of two people searching for that missing ‘something’ and struggling to break free from what their pasts have made of them to find the futures they deserve. Georgette’s parents were so wrapped up in each other and their love of books and literature that she was little more than an afterthought, and with her brother away at sea, she was lonely and lacked any real affection.  She would like to find love, but what she really wants is to matter to someone; while Hugo, who has known both love and affection also knows what it feels like to lose them and is wary of opening himself up to either.  Since the death of his twin, he has sought refuge in the certainty to be found in planning and organisation, and the need to honour his brother’s memory by doing something to prevent others from suffering the same loss and grief as he did.  In this way they’re the perfect complement to each other; Georgette is impulsive and open to all sorts of new experiences while Hugo is cautious and reserved, and I enjoyed watching him gradually falling under the spell of Georgette’s  warmth and optimism to become a man prepared to open himself up to the possibility of loving someone again

The romance in the story is very well-developed and proceeds at a realistic pace.  There’s an undercurrent of attraction between the pair right from the start and their long journey together affords them plenty of time to get to know each other better.  Their conversations are laced with gentle, affectionate teasing, and their growing longing for each other is nicely-judged; there’s no over-the-top mental-lusting over shapely curves or rippling muscles, just a simmering awareness and a growing mutual understanding that gradually turns into –

… a sturdy feeling, built brick by brick from fondness and laughter and annoyance and lust and mischief and admiration.

That quote illustrates another of the story’s great strengths – the writing.  The book is full of beautiful, poignant turns of phrase –

“Love is… laughter after a joke that isn’t all that funny,” he said.  “Asking how a day was, and listening earnestly to the answer.  Splitting the last tart instead of eating it all oneself… it is,” he added, “putting down a book for one’s companion when one only wants to read.”

And of course, Hugo has done all those things for Georgette – he just hasn’t realised it yet.

Passion Favors the Bold is what one might call a ‘quiet’ book.  It’s not flashy or flamboyant; it’s just a beautifully written story about two people falling in love.  I will admit, however, that it’s  sometimes just a little too low-key which caused me to knock my final grade down a little; but it’s the sort of book that pays dividends in the long run, and one I’m certainly happy to recommend.