The Daughter of an Earl by Victoria Morgan

daughter of an earl

An American businessman in England, Brett Curtis has little use for the haughty ton beyond seeing his sisters happily entertained in London. But when his cousin mysteriously disappears after inheriting the title of Duke, he sets out to locate him and drag him home.

Lady Emily Chandler plunged into deep despair when her fiancé died in India, and now she is determined to prove that he was murdered. The brash American Brett Curtis’s reputation may be less than sterling, but he’s just the man to help Emily on her quest—if she can convince him to accept her dangerous proposition.

While their alliance uncovers a web of scandalous secrets, their undeniable attraction threatens to reveal something even more dangerous: true love.

Rating: B-

Victoria Morgan’s The Daughter of an Earl is her follow up to last year’s The Heart of a Duke. Like that book, this one is a blend of mystery and romance with two strongly characterised, attractive protagonists, but while it’s certainly enjoyable, I’m afraid I can’t say that there is anything particularly special about it that makes it stand out from the crowd.

In the previous book, we learned that Lady Emily Chandler had had a very hard time following the death of her beloved fiancé in India, her overwhelming grief driving her to the edge of madness and the to the point of wanting to take her own life. The Daughter of an Earl opens some four years after the death of Emily’s fiancé, and while she has not fully returned to society, finding it difficult to cope with large gatherings, she has come to the gradual realisation that there are many things about Jason’s death that don’t add up, and is determined to honour his memory by finding out the truth.

She believes that Jason’s former friend and colleague, Lord Drummond will be able to assist her in her search and arranges to meet with him so that she can sound him out about her plan and ask for his help, but to her consternation, Drummond believes she has summoned him for other reasons. Embarrassed by the man’s obvious interest in her, Emily is trying to find a way to let him down gently, when she is saved the trouble by the intervention of Brett Curtis, friend and business associate of her sister’s husband, the Duke of Bedford.

Readers of the previous book may recall that Brett and Emily regularly struck sparks off each other, and I said at the end of my review that I was looking forward to reading their story. Well, this is it, and even though their relationship continues to be outwardly adversarial, it’s clear that the attraction that has been humming between them for some time has not abated. Emily is annoyed at Brett’s treatment of Drummond, as she had hoped to learn more about Jason’s work, but Brett has immediately sensed the other man’s interest in Emily and makes his displeasure about that known in no uncertain terms. Bristling at his high-handedness, Emily wants nothing more than to get away from Brett, who is the only man since her fiancé to have stirred her long-buried emotions. But realising that perhaps having him on her side – a man with a reputation for determination and tenacity – might not be such a bad idea, Emily eventually confides her concerns to him, explaining that she had hoped Drummond would help her to retrieve some items that Jason had left to her, but which, at the time, she had not been able to face looking at. She knows that Jason had been tasked with looking into accusations of corruption within the East India Company, and now suspects that his death may not have been accidental. She believes that the papers he had intended for her may provide some clue as to the status of his investigation and may even help her to uncover the identity of his murderer.

Naturally, Brett doesn’t like the idea of Emily putting herself into danger. But knowing that if he refuses to help her she will go ahead anyway, he agrees to assist her, seeing it as the only way he can keep her safe – and they reach an agreement. Emily will help to entertain Brett’s two sisters while he looks into the sudden disappearance of his cousin, the Duke of Prescott, and in return he will work with her to investigate Jason’s death.

One of the things I liked about their relationship was the way in which they agree to be honest with each other and not to pursue their investigations independently. For the most part, they stick to that bargain, meaning there are no silly arguments or misunderstandings, which is quite refreshing. The identity of the villain of the piece is fairly obvious from the outset, but I nonetheless enjoyed watching the pieces come together as the story progressed. The mystery is not especially complex, but it’s well thought-out and the author has clearly done her homework about the East India Company, which was riddled with corruption and had its metaphorical finger in a large number of nefarious pies!

I was less convinced by the romance, however, because although Emily and Brett are obviously strongly attracted to each other, the progression of their relationship takes a bit of a back-seat and it feels a little underdeveloped as a result. That said, Brett’s feelings for Emily are more strongly defined than hers for him, which stem principally from lust. That’s perfectly fine as a starting point, but her suggestion that they have an affair struck a bit of a false note; and she spends most of the book trying to seduce him (and eventually succeeding!) but prepared to send him off to find some other woman to settle down with once their investigations are over. Both are also given flimsy reasons as to why they’re not looking for marriage, neither of which is either convincing or necessary, given the ease with which they are dispensed with.

I struggled to grade The Daughter of an Earl, because while it has much to recommend it in terms of the writing, characterisation and plot, it lacks a certain deftness and humour – both of which I’ve enjoyed in the author’s previous work, and I found it too easy to put down. I can’t quite put my finger on why that was – so perhaps this is one of those times when “it’s not you – it’s me.”

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The Heart of a Duke by Victoria Morgan

HoaD

Lady Julia Chandler fears she will be walking down the aisle with a silver-tipped cane if she waits for the Duke of Bedford to seal their engagement. Seeking to quicken his pace, she decides to find her duke, kiss him senseless, and post the wedding banns. It is a good plan, until she mistakes her fiancé’s long-absent twin for her duke.

Ten years ago, Lord Daniel Bryant sailed to America to find his fortune and flee his cruel brother who inherited the family title. A cryptic note draws him back to England: Come home and claim your destiny. Before seeking anything, Daniel must first determine who set the fire that nearly took his life and precipitated his flight abroad. Now with the taste of Lady Julia warm on his lips, the stakes are raised higher than before as he seeks to claim both his destiny and the lady of his heart.

Rating: B+

This is Ms Morgan’s second novel, following her superb début in 2012 with For the Love of a Soldier which I enjoyed very much and raved about to anyone who would listen!

The Heart of a Duke is not related to the previous book and has a different feel overall, being much lighter on the history and concentrating more on the romance and the mystery. But it is equally as well-written, the central characters are just as engaging and well-rounded, and the romance is delightful.

Lady Julia Chandler has been engaged to Edmund Bryant, Duke of Bedford, for five years and is beginning to despair of ever making it to the altar – and I can’t say as I blame her! Bedford is rarely in residence at his nearby estate, preferring instead to spend the bulk of his time in London, so Julia hardly sees him. He’s very handsome, dashing and charming and she’s convinced she’s in love, but he’s never given her any clue as to his feelings. He’s never even kissed her in fact – and, on hearing that he’s returned to the vicinity, she determines to grab the bull by the horns, confront him and plant one on him to try to galvanize him into action as regards their marriage.

Throwing herself at him certainly does provoke a reaction, which would have been all to the purpose had the gentleman on the receiving end been the duke and not his twin brother, Lord Daniel Bryant. Daniel has spent the past ten years in America, having left England after his home had burned to the ground, almost killing him in the process. There were other reasons behind his decision to leave, too, reasons of which we are gradually made aware and which certainly bode ill for Daniel’s safety. He has long suspected that the fire at Lakewood Manor was no accident and that, combined with a number of smaller incidents dating back to his childhood, led him to believe the only way to escape these threats to his life was to leave the country.

The two brothers and Julia used to play together as children. Daniel was always the smaller of the twins and thus often the butt of his brother’s crueller jokes and his ire. Edmund always disliked his brother, never missing an opportunity to make life difficult or cause him injury, but as the heir to one of the most influential dukedoms in the country, most people seemed content to turn a blind eye. Only one person – Julia’s mother – voiced any concern as to the number of times Daniel appeared bruised or bloodied, but there was a prevailing opinion on the part of the men that the smaller boy needed to be toughened up.

Outwardly, Daniel is very like his brother – tall, dark and extremely handsome – but on the inside he is the complete opposite. Edmund disdains the land and sees his estates and workers as things to be exploited in order to enable him to live in the style to which he has been accustomed, whereas Daniel has a true feeling for his heritage and is appalled to discover that Edmund has been systematically running the estate into the ground. Daniel is innately considerate, where Edmund only shows kindness when he thinks it will get him what he wants – and Daniel wants Julia for herself while Edmund just wants a brood-mare with a large dowry that he can leave to rusticate while he continues to maintain his mistresses and to live the high life in London.

Julia at first refuses to admit an attraction to her fiancé’s brother. She loves Edmund – or so she believes – and when he finally arrives in Kent to host a large party, she is overjoyed and relieved to see him, believing she has found Daniel and his kisses so intoxicating because of his similarity to his brother.

When Daniel discovers that his rooms at the local inn have been searched, he realizes that Edmund is looking for something – but he doesn’t know what. Following a further search and another attempt on his life, Daniel knows he has to discover exactly why Edmund hates him so much, or he will be forever looking over his shoulder wondering when the next assassin will find him.

It wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I finally hit upon the reasons behind Edmund’s hatred – but I freely admit to being someone who is not especially good at working out “whodunit”! That said, however, once I’d worked it out, I was able to remember all the little clues the author had planted throughout the rest of the book, nod my head wisely and say “oh, of course!” to myself – so I found the mystery element to be well thought-out and well-executed.

This strand of the story, although present throughout, comes to the fore in the second half, while the first concentrates more on the development of the relationship between Daniel and Julia. The fact that they knew each other as children means that things initially proceed quite quickly between them. There is no need for introductions, or to find ways for Daniel to be accepted into Julia’s home, and no eyebrows are raised at the idea of their riding around Bedford’s estate together to make an assessment of its problems and needs.

Both are engaging characters who share a sense of humor and a deep love for their land and homes. Julia has suffered her share of tragedy, having lost her mother fairly recently, and because of her father’s immersion in his own grief, she shouldered much of the burden of running the Taunton estate. Following hard on the heels of her mother’s death, her younger sister Emily discovered that her fiancé had been killed in India, a loss which drove her almost to the brink of insanity. Julia is therefore the family ‘fixer’, the one everyone else has depended upon – but who had nobody to look out for her. Fortunately, by the time the book begins, her father and sister are much restored, and I really enjoyed the author’s portrayal of a close and loving family unit, something which can be quite rare in the genre.

I thought the star of this particular show was Daniel because he absolutely carried the book. He’s gorgeous: constant, flirtatious, funny and just a little bit naughty – a winning combination as far as I’m concerned! – even though I felt I was being hit over the head rather too frequently with descriptions of his manly beauty and his lovely green eyes.

He’s taken with Julia from the outset and she with him, and because of their history and shared interests, it was easy to believe that they could fall for each other so quickly. I liked that Daniel had the good sense to let Julia reach her own conclusions as to Edmund’s true nature and that he was able to see straight away that she needed someone she could depend on. I was also pleased by the fact that the author didn’t use misunderstandings and secrets between the hero and heroine to create tension in the story. When Julia wants to know exactly what’s going on, Daniel tells her and makes it clear that any reluctance on his part to do so has nothing to do with a lack of trust and everything to do with keeping her safe.

That said, however, I did have a problem when, after Edmund has broken their engagement and ruined her socially as a result, Julia refuses to accept Daniel’s proposal of marriage as a way to mitigate the disaster. That did feel like an overly contrived way of introducing some conflict, and it only served to make me want to smack Julia around a bit. It’s not as if saving her from ruin is Daniel’s only reason for offering for her and she knows it. But having realized that she never loved Edmund, she’s decided that attraction isn’t enough and that she doesn’t want to marry without love. I can accept that – but not that she has no idea of Daniel’s true feelings towards her, even though he hasn’t said those three little words. She’d been prepared to marry a man who obviously didn’t think all that much of her because she saw it as her duty, yet she won’t accept one who is clearly besotted with her, whose overriding concern is to keep her safe, who clearly respects her as a person and never dismisses her opinion; and who is not above romping around the grounds playing with her five-year-old brother.

Color me stupid, but how many more ways could the man have shown her he loved her?

I also thought she was rather unreasonable in her insistence that Daniel allow her to become involved in his increasingly dangerous search for answers by insisting that not doing so would show he didn’t trust her and saying she could never marry a man who didn’t trust her.

She does redeem herself, however, and for the most part, I found her to be refreshingly uncomplicated and pragmatic.

The Heart of a Duke features some engaging secondary characters, most notably Daniel’s friend and sometime minder, Robbie, and his business partner, Brett Curtis. As with Ms Morgan’s previous book, the male friendships were well written and peppered with witty dialogue and affectionate – though manly (!) – teasing. It’s clear that Brett is interested in Julia’s sister, and I hope that will be further explored in a future book, as their story was left rather open-ended.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book although I have to say that I wasn’t as blown away by it as I was by For the Love of a Soldier. But don’t be put off by that, because The Heart of a Duke is an entertaining and well-written romance and I’m looking forward to reading more by this talented author.

Picking favourites

ponder cat

One of the many joys of being one of the team of reviewers over at All About Romance is the opportunity to chat about books and ‘stuff’ with a great bunch of ladies and also the opportunity it affords to be able to contribute blog posts on many different subjects – book and non-book related.

In the run-up to AAR’s annual “Top 100 Romances” list which will appear in October, each reviewer is putting forward their own, personal Top Ten Favourite Romance Novels, and today it was my turn. Picking favourites is always a tough thing to do, even though I’m nowhere nearly as well-read across the different sub-genres as most of my fellow reviewers. But there are always some titles that stick, no matter what, and once I’d got it sorted in my head as to what qualities I value in the romantic novels I read, it became obvious that sticking to just ten was going to be the problem!

Anyway, I managed, with the proviso that it’ll probably have changed by the next time I’m asked!

Normally, the question “what’s your favourite book/piece of music/film?” is one that’s likely to turn me into a jibbering idiot and turn my mind completely blank. I mean really – just one favourite? And in any case, it usually depends on my mood on any one day. One day might demand Mozart and the next, Mahler. Or I’ll be in the mood for Die Hard one evening and Wall-E the evening after. By that token, if my choices tend to be mood dependent, how was I going to produce a list of titles that wasn’t going to change from day-to-day? So I decided the first thing I needed to do was to decide on the benchmark qualities I look for in a book that would qualify it for a place in my Top Ten.

Anyone that knows me knows I’m a bit of a stickler for good spelling and grammar, and for writing that displays at least a basic grasp of good sentence construction and logic. But those things should be a given in any good book, so they should be taken as read. So, was my criteria to be based on good writing or an unusual storyline; good characterisation or a talent for sparkling dialogue?

Find out here!

For the Love of a Soldier by Victoria Morgan

soldier

Captain Garrett Sinclair, the Earl of Kendall, has returned to England a changed man. As a survivor of the legendary Charge of the Light Brigade, he has spent months as a remorseless rake and dissolute inebriate in order to forget it. But Garrett has also made powerful enemies who want him dead…

Desperate and down to her last pound, Lady Alexandra Langdon has disguised herself as a man for a place at the gaming tables. But when a hard-eyed, handsome man wins the pot, he surprises her by refusing her money. Indebted, she divulges an overheard plot against his life, and promises to help him find his foes—for a price.

But even as Alexandra fights her growing desire to reveal herself—and her heart—to the determined Garrett, she cannot shed the fear that the cost of her alliance with the earl may be a price too dear: her own secret betrayal.

Rating: A+

For the Love of a Soldier is that rare thing; a début novel that reads as though the author has a stable of books to her name already.

The plot is a fairly simple one. Lady Alexandra Langton, a young woman, on the verge of destitution decides to risk everything she has left (the sum of one hundred pounds) at the gaming tables in a desperate attempt to increase her funds. But of course, ladies were not allowed to indulge in “deep” play, and so she has to disguise herself as a man in order to gain entry to the sorts of events at which she will be able to gamble large sums of money. I have to say that I dislike stories in which the heroine dresses as a man and manages to pass as one without suspicion, but to the author’s credit, she made it work here, by indicating that Alex has done more than simply cut her hair or wear a suit.

Predictably however, her risk doesn’t pay off, and she loses at cards, to Captain Garrett Sinclair, Earl of Kendall, a man with a less than savoury reputation. But Garrett, sensing her desperation and believing her to be little more than a boy returns her money to her, telling her that while he will comfortably take money from a man, he will not ruin a boy.
Simultaneously annoyed and relieved, Alex later inadvertently overhears two men plotting to murder the Earl of Kendall, and seeing a way to repay him for his earlier gesture, Alex warns him of the danger.

Believing her to be his only lead – and still thinking she is a boy – Garrett insists that Alex accompany him home, but they are set upon along the way. During the fray, Alex is knocked unconscious, her disguise is dislodged and Garrett discovers that she’s not what she seems.

The assassination plot drives the story forward, but this is no adventure romp, because the real heart of the novel is the growing friendship and romance between Garrett and Alex.

Victoria Morgan has chosen to set her story in the 1850s, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, which is not often referenced in historical romance, so it’s a refreshing change. Through the eyes of Captain Garrett Sinclair, we get a glimpse of the true horror of war. He’s a war hero, a survivor of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, that act of glorious, against-all-odds bravery that was immortalised by Tennyson in his famous poem. But glory and honour is not what we are shown. Garrett has been traumatised by his war-time experiences and is suffering from what we would today recognise as PTSD, and he also carries around a huge chunk of survivor’s guilt.

Like many veterans – then and now – he does not talk about the war; he wants to bury everything deep inside so that he never has to go through it and re-live it. All he wants to do is to forget, and we learn that in a vain attempt to do so, he spent much of his time after leaving the army gaming, wenching and drinking, rattling around Europe in aimless depravity. Fortunately for him, however, he realised that wasn’t helping, he needed to be in control; and so he sobered up and eschewed the wenching, concentrating instead on the gambling.

He’s wealthy, has many estates and a good eye for business; he’s also utterly gorgeous with a quick wit, a gift for innuendo and a strong sense of honour. Alex is the perfect foil for him. She gives as good as she gets in their verbal sparring, she’s loyal and strong (without being stubborn for the sake of it!) and, sensing the darkness buried deep down, wants to help Garrett any way she can.

She’s had some experience of working with soldiers and veterans, having spent time working at the Chelsea Hospital, and although she knows she can do little more than listen, she also knows that ‘just’ listening seemed to have helped many of the men she knew. I’m pleased to say that the author hasn’t chosen to present Alex as Garrett’s “cure”, because as anyone who knows anything about PTSD will know, that just doesn’t happen. Rather, she presents Alex as someone who works out when to push and when to leave him alone; she knows he needs to talk, but that he needs to do it in his own time, and the scene where he finally unburdens himself packs a real emotional punch.

Amid all this talk of war and horror however, the reader will also find some of the funniest dialogue it’s ever been my privilege to read in a romantic novel. The exchanges between Garrett, his sister and brother-in-law are frequently hilarious as they tease each other constantly – and it’s clear that there’s an incredibly deep affection between them. Garrett enjoys getting a rise out of Alexandra, too, and comes to realise that for the first time in years, he’s starting to feel something like happiness and attraction.

If I have one quibble with the story, it’s that Alex’s backstory is rather flimsy, as are her reasons for rejecting Garrett towards the end of the book. On the positive side, I suppose it means that the solution is simple, and Garrett does indeed get things sorted out quite quickly.

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. The writing is intelligent, the characterisation is excellent and the dialogue just sparkles. Garrett is one of the best flawed heroes I’ve come across in the genre, and the romance between him and Alex is warm and tender as well as being enough to get any reader a bit hot under the collar – the scene where they finally make love is one of the sexiest and most sensual I’ve ever read.

Coming from an established writer, For the Love of a Soldier would have been quite something. As a début, it’s an incredible achievement, and I’m eagerly waiting Victoria Morgan’s next project, which I believe is scheduled for this Autumn.

Review edited 22 March 2013: A longer review of this title is now up at All About Romance.