TBR Challenge – A Duchess in Name (Grantham Girls #1) by Amanda Weaver

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Victoria Carson never expected love. An American heiress and graduate of Lady Grantham’s finishing school, she’s been groomed since birth to marry an English title—the grander the better. So when the man chosen for her, the forbidding Earl of Dunnley, seems to hate her on sight, she understands that it can’t matter. Love can have no place in this arrangement.

Andrew Hargrave has little use for his title and even less for his cold, disinterested parents. Determined to make his own way, he’s devoted to his life in Italy working as an archaeologist. Until the collapse of his family’s fortune drags him back to England to a marriage he never wanted and a woman he doesn’t care to know.

Wild attraction is an unwanted complication for them both, though it forms the most fragile of bonds. Their marriage of convenience isn’t so intolerable after all—but it may not be enough when the deception that bound them is finally revealed.

Rating: B+

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.


Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing youth. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles always finds fresh, new angles to pursue in her stories and peoples them with characters in unusual walks of life – and her new novella, Unfit to Print, is no exception.  Set in late Victorian London, one of the protagonists is a purveyor of naughty books and has a shop in Holywell Street, which was, at that time, the centre of London’s porn trade; while the other is a somewhat uptight lawyer who views the whole business with a degree of distaste.  The novella boasts a mystery to be solved, a relationship to be rekindled and a mountain of filth to be shifted, and all of it is deftly and expertly done in well under two hundred pages.

Vikram Pandey and Gilbert Lawless are from minority – albeit fairly well-do-do – backgrounds, and met at boarding school several years before the story opens.  Vik’s father had been a high-ranking government official in India, while Gil is the result of a liaison between a black housemaid and a wealthy gentleman who publicly acknowledged him, paid for his education and treated him as a son.  Gil and Vik bonded at school and became the best of friends in spite of the fundamental differences in their natures, Gil seeming never to have a care in the world while Vik was always a little uptight and reserved. But one day when they were sixteen, both their lives were upended when Gil disappeared without warning or a word to anyone.  Vik was devastated, but his enquiries at school were always met with stony silence and disapproval, and eventually he stopped asking about or looking for Gil, believing him to be dead. He must be, or surely he’d have got word to Vik somehow, to tell him what happened.

In fact, Gil was removed from school and pretty much cast onto the streets on the day his father died and his half-brother inherited the estate.  Gil begged and scraped a living and now runs a small bookshop on Holywell Street near the Strand which, at that time, contained the largest concentration of porn shops in England.  Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller is Gil’s two-fingered-salute to the brother who, he later learned, cheated him out of his father’s last bequest, as well as to the “kind of respectability that means keeping other people in line while you do as you please.”

He is surprised when his cousin Percy asks him to attend Matthew Lawes’ funeral – and not at all surprised when he discovers there was an ulterior motive for inviting him. It seems his uncle was a connoisseur of pornography of all sorts, and faced with a massive library of books and photographs which could cause the family huge embarrassment, (not to mention large fines and possible imprisonment!)  they want Gil to take it all away and dispose of it.  Gil isn’t interested in most of it, but some of the books – one of them particularly rare – catch his eye, so he decides he might as well get what he can out of it, and agrees to have the lot transported to his shop.  It’s when he’s looking through some of the photographs that he recognises the likeness of a young lad – a rent boy – named Errol, who was found dead in a local alley just three weeks earlier.

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

His Wicked Charm (Mad Morelands #6) by Candace Camp (audiobook) – Narrated by Will Thorne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s too prim.

Lilah Holcutt dislikes Constantine Moreland from the moment she meets him. He may be handsome, but he’s frivolous, rash, impulsive and, worst of all, a flirt. Now that Con’s twin brother has married Lilah’s best friend, she’s seeing way more of Con than she’d like. And when Con’s sisters are inexplicably kidnapped, Lilah’s own curiosity and stubbornness get the better of her, and she finds herself swept into Con’s investigation.

He’s indifferent to propriety.

Con knows that Lilah hates him — he just wishes she weren’t so devastatingly beautiful, that he weren’t so attracted to her. Especially since they’re working closely together to solve the kidnapping, an adventure that leads them to Lilah’s peculiar childhood home, Barrow House, which sits atop an ancient fen and features an eerie maze on its grounds.

They’ll have to join together to conquer a sinister force.

The more Con and Lilah uncover, the more they’re convinced that the answers lie buried deep within Barrow House — answers to a mystery darker than either of them could ever have realized.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B-

This is the sixth book in Candace Camp’s Mad Morelands series, which originally comprised four books, but which has been expanded to include stories for the two youngest Moreland siblings, twins Alex and Con. His Wicked Charm opens not long after His Sinful Touch ended; I wasn’t overly impressed with the storyline of that book (my content grade was C+) which I found clichéd and somewhat clumsily executed. His Wicked Charm is an improvement, mostly due to the fact that Con is a more engaging character than Alex – Con is lively and funny where Alex was quite dour – but even so, the story meanders and lacks focus, and the paranormal elements are rather corny and melodramatic.

Constantine Moreland and Lilah Holcutt disliked each other from the moment they met. She thinks he’s too impulsive and not serious enough, and he thinks she’s too proper and bound by convention, but now Con’s brother has married Lilah’s best friend, they have to play nice. Needless to say, they are rarely successful; Con delights in needling Lilah by flirting with her outrageously, and most of their interactions end up as arguments. So, it amazes both of them to find that when the situation calls for it, they can actually set those differences aside and work together to achieve a desired outcome – in this case the rescue of Con’s mother and sisters, who are abducted off the street during a demonstration in support of female emancipation. Lilah insists on accompanying Con when he sets off in pursuit, but it turns out that the ladies are on the verge of rescuing themselves when the couple arrives (as detailed in the short story included at the end of the audiobook, Their Unexpected Adventure), but they still have to work out who kidnapped them and why.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Heartless (House of Rohan #5) by Anne Stuart

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

A strong, resilient woman who learned to survive in a world of betrayal. Emma Cadbury had been an innocent, a whore, a charity worker and a surgeon. She chose a life without love until she saved a dying soldier in a charity ward.

A scarred soldier who fought to redeem himself from the horrors he’d committed. Brandon Rohan had lost himself to drugs and degradation, wanting to die, and only one person could save him. But she’d disappeared.

A love neither of them wants, and a passion so strong it could burn down the world. Now they’ve come together again, but he doesn’t remember, and she doesn’t want to. But someone is trying to kill her, and Brandon is the one man who can save her.

England in 1840, where no one is what they seem.

Rating: B-

Seven years after our last encounter with the members of the scandalous House of Rohan, author Anne Stuart returns to nineteenth century England to bring us a fifth book in the series, Heartless, which picks up the story of the youngest Rohan, Lord Brandon, and Emma Cadbury, the woman who cared for him and saved his life following his return from war and his subsequent descent into depravity and addiction.  Their relationship began in book four, Shameless, but although it’s been several years since I read that book, the author has included enough information about the couple’s backstory here for a new reader not to feel as though they have missed anything, and for the reader newly returned to the series to feel the same.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Shameless.

Captain Lord Brandon Rohan of His Majesty’s army returned from the Afghan Wars so seriously injured that he wasn’t expected to live.  Emma Cadbury, formerly the youngest, most successful Madam in London, worked as a volunteer at St. Martin’s Military Hospital, and was assigned to take care of Brandon on what was believed would be his last night on earth.  But Emma managed to pull Brandon back from the brink, stubbornly refusing to let him sink into death.  Over the next few weeks, a subtle bond formed between the pair, as Brandon revealed things about himself he’d never told anyone, talking to Emma night after night about the war and the horrors he’d seen, endured and committed.  As he regained his strength, their teasing gradually turned into gentle flirtation, until each night ended with a goodnight kiss, which Brandon insisted would give him something to live for throughout the next day.

Emma may have been a courtesan, but her experience with men was limited to the sexual act – which she normally undertook while numbed by drink or laudanum; emotions – other than distaste or disgust – were never involved.  But when one of Brandon’s goodnight kisses turned into something more than a chaste peck, she panicked – terrified by the strength of her reaction to him – and didn’t return to his bedside again.  After that, he was reunited with his family and, apart from one further fateful occasion, he and Emma haven’t seen each other since.

Until, that is, almost three years later, when Brandon attends the baptism of the newest Rohan, youngest daughter of his brother, the viscount. Having spent those years healing, drying out and weaning himself off drugs, Brandon is reluctant to expose himself once again to society and all its temptations, although he can’t deny he misses his family and that he needs to apologise and rebuild his relationship with his brother.  So he travels to Suffolk from the Scottish estate he has now made his home, and is more than a little put out when one of the other guests, his sister-in-law’s dearest friend, Mrs. Cadbury, seems to take him in dislike – especially as there’s something about her that draws him.

Since her stint as an unpaid ‘nurse’ at St. Martin’s, Emma has worked hard to learn surgical skills and is now performing operations at the hospital under the direction of Mr. Fenrush – a venal, ham-handed butcher who kills more patients than he saves but who maintains his position simply by virtue of being a man.  It’s quite possible there were women performing surgical procedures at this point in history, although I admit I found it a little hard to believe that Emma was performing them at a hospital in 1840. It’s true that she is disdained by her male colleagues and only tolerated because of her connection to the Rohans, but it’s still a bit of a stretch.  Anyway – she has agreed to stay with her dearest friend, Mélisande, Viscountess of Rohan, for a couple of weeks after the christening  – until, that is, Brandon arrives.  Fully recovered, imposing and – though scarred – very attractive and exuding sensuality, he’s the last person Emma expects to see and one she desperately wants to avoid.  She immediately starts plotting her departure, having no wish to experience again the stirrings of desire and other uncomfortable feelings he had awakened in her so long ago.  Still, she can’t deny that she’s just a little bit hurt that he doesn’t remember her at all – even as she tells herself it’s for the best.

Brandon returned from war wounded in both body and mind, his handsome features marred by severe scarring on one side of his face, his body broken and his mind confused and tortured by the ravages of war.  The one bright light in his existence was his “Harpy”, as he named Emma – and when she abandoned him, he was both heartbroken and furious.  Sinking deeper and deeper into sin and depravity, drinking and taking drugs to forget the past, he tried to take his own life, and would have succeeded, had it not been for Emma.  She saved him again – but owing to a mind addled by drink and drugs, his recollections of that time are hazy and although he feels an almost visceral connection to Emma, and certainly desires her, Brandon cannot explain what it is about her that draws him so strongly.  He’s a rather unusual hero among Anne Stuart heroes, because other than a brief time when he lashes out at Emma while under the misconception that she’s deliberately deceived him, he isn’t cruel, arrogant or morally ambiguous – at least, not in this story, although he was like that in the past.

While I did enjoy Heartless, I realised while writing this review that most of the storylines I’ve recounted here actually happened in the fourth Rohan novel, Shameless.  Most of the interesting things in Emma and Brandon’s relationship happened in that book, and if we take out the scenes in this one which feature someone trying to kill Emma, it’s fairly uneventful.  Brandon and Emma meet again and feel an intense connection which Brandon, at least, doesn’t understand; and Emma is simultaneously dismayed (and a tad irritated) that he doesn’t remember who she is and spends most of the book running away or avoiding him. And, er, that’s pretty much it.  The pacing is stodgy in places and some parts are repetitive;  the mystery plot is flimsy and the identity of the villain supremely obvious – to the reader, if not immediately to Emma, who takes a while to wise up to the fact that yes, someone is, in fact, trying to do away with her.

Fortunately however, Emma and Brandon carry the story through the sheer force of their personalities and the strong sexual chemistry that burns between them.  They are complex, flawed characters who have experienced some of the worst life has to offer and their HEA is hard-won and  well-deserved. Ms. Stuart’s writing is assured – as one would expect of someone who is a veritable doyenne of the genre – and engaging, and while the plot of Heartless perhaps leaves something to be desired, the novel will no doubt be appreciated by those who’ve waited seven years for Brandon and Emma to get their happy ending.

The Henchmen of Zenda by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

A retelling of the swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda from a very different point of view.

Rating: A-

I’ve been looking forward to The Henchmen of Zenda, K.J. Charles’ ‘queered’ retelling of the classic The Prisoner of Zenda, ever since she announced it months ago, and in fact the book made my ‘most eagerly awaited of 2018 list‘ at AAR.  I love a ripping adventure yarn, and that’s exactly what the author has delivered – a tale of swashbuckling derring-do featuring a pair of amoral, cynical and devil-may-care anti-heroes, palace intrigue, political shenanigans, double crosses, triple crosses… and hot sex.  The latter being missing from Anthony Hope’s original novel, which isn’t surprising considering it was written in 1894. 😛  The Henchmen of Zenda can be enjoyed without reference to the original, although I’ll admit that for me, part of the fun was spotting the places where the stories meshed and picking up on the in-jokes.

For anyone not familiar with The Prisoner of Zenda, the story is basically this. Rudolf V, the new King of (the fictional) small European country of Ruritania, is drugged on the eve of his coronation by those working for his half-brother, Michael, Duke of Strelsau, who wants the throne for himself.  In a desperate attempt to stop Michael, those loyal to the king persuade an English gentleman (Rudolf Rassendyll) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the monarch and happens to be holidaying in their country to impersonate the king during the coronation.  Things are complicated when Michael’s men kidnap the king and Rassendyll falls in love with the Princess Flavia, who is Rudolf’s betrothed; complications, plots and counter-plots ensue, Rassendyll leads an assault on the castle of Zenda and rescues the king, and then honourably bows out, leaving Flavia to do her duty to her king and country.

When our narrator, Jasper Detchard, immediately dismisses Rassendyll’s account as a pile of shit, and Rassendyll as an uptight prick who lied to make himself look good, the reader immediately knows they’re in for a rollicking good time.  Detchard’s deadpan, sarcastic narrative style grabbed me right away:

“My name is Jasper Detchard, and according to Rassendyll’s narrative, I am dead.  This should give you some idea of his accuracy, since I do not dictate these words to some cabbage-scented medium from beyond the veil.”

A disgraced former army officer who now makes his living as a mercenary, Detchard is approached by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, to become one of his trusted bodyguard (known as The Six).   Michael demands absolute, unquestioning loyalty, and Detchard, not one to be overly picky as to where he lays his hat or sells his sword – signs up. As it turns out, for more than he bargained for.

I’m not going to say more about the plot because it’s twisty and complex and full of clever moves, counter moves and counter-counter moves and I don’t want to spoil it.  Suffice to say that Detchard’s reasons for accepting Michael’s offer aren’t quite as transparent as they seem and he’s going to be playing a dangerous game. So the last thing he needs is the distraction provided by the reckless, outrageously gorgeous, larger-than-life young ne’er-do-well, Rupert of Hentzau.

He’s a former companion of the debauched king, a turncoat and a late addition to Michael’s exclusive band of murderers and assassins; and Detchard is, despite his better judgement and innate cynicism, captivated by the younger man’s beauty and insouciance, recognising a kindred spirit of sorts, a dangerous man of questionable (if any) morals who seems to share his  no-fucks-left-to-give attitude to life.  Hentzau is a force of nature, and even though Michael has forbidden any *ahem* fraternization, Hentzau blithely disregards that instruction and is clearly as interested in getting into Detchard’s breeches as Detchard is in having him there.

One of the big differences  between this and the original novel is that K.J. Charles has given these characters personalities and lives of their own that go beyond what we see on the page.  The sub-plot involving Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, adds depth and another, more personal, layer to the story, and I loved the way that both she and Princess Flavia are so much more than the mere cyphers of the original novel.  These are ladies who know how to play the game – and they’re better at it than the men.

The stars of the show are, of course, Detchard and Hentzau – liars, cheats, murderers and a hundred other despicable things – and yet immensely engaging and entertaining as they rattle their way through the pages with reckless glee.  Ms. Charles creates a strong connection between the pair which evolves naturally and realistically from an initial wariness to eventual trust, with plenty of steamy hook-ups along the way.  Their chemistry is electric, their verbal sparring is as entertaining as their swordplay (both euphemistically and otherwise!)  and their relationship is refreshingly frank and down-to-earth.  Neither is interested in or comfortable with the concept of ‘romance’ but something clearly evolves between them that is more than mere physical attraction; they come to respect and admire each other… not that either would ever admit to such a thing, of course, and while there isn’t an HEA in the traditional sense, it’s as close to happy ever after as these two are ever going to get (or want) and that feels absolutely right.

The Henchmen of Zenda is a rollicking adventure romp of the best sort; full of flashing blades, tight breeches, nefarious plots, scheming villainy and snarky dialogue but with a subplot that confers depth and insight into the characters and their motivations.  It’s funny, sexy and clever and I loved every minute of it.

A Momentary Marriage by Candace Camp (audiobook) – Narrated by Gildart Jackson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

James de Vere has always insisted on being perfectly pragmatic and rational in all things. It seemed the only way to deal with his overdramatic, greedy family. When he falls ill and no doctor in London can diagnose him, he returns home to Grace Hill in search of a physician who can – or to set his affairs in order.

Arriving at the doctor’s home, he’s surprised to encounter the doctor’s daughter Laura, a young woman he last saw when he was warning her off an attachment with his cousin Graeme. Alas, the doctor is recently deceased and Laura is closing up the estate, which must be sold off, leaving her penniless. At this, James has an inspiration: why not marry the damsel in distress? If his last hope for a cure is gone, at least he’ll have some companionship in his final days, and she’ll inherit his fortune instead of his grasping relatives, leaving her a wealthy widow with plenty of prospects.

Laura is far from swept off her feet, but she’s as pragmatic as James, so she accepts his unusual proposal. But as the two of them brave the onslaught of shocked and suspicious family members, they find themselves growing closer. They vowed, “until death do us part”…but now both are longing for their marriage to be more than momentary in this evocative romance.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – B+

A Momentary Marriage is the sequel to A Perfect Gentleman, and focuses on the unlikely romance between Sir James de Vere and Laura Hinsdale, two prominent secondary characters in the earlier story. In that book, we learned that Graeme Parr, Earl of Montclair – James’ cousin – and Laura (daughter of the local doctor) had fallen in love in their youth but were not able to marry because Graeme needed to marry an heiress in order to pull his family out of debt. It had been James who had gone to Laura and told her she needed to break things off with Graeme so that Graeme could salvage his family fortune and honour. Needless to say, while Laura knew that what James said was true, it stung, and they have avoided each other ever since.

In A Perfect Gentleman, James emerged as a witty – though cynical – man with a fondness for his cousin, his huge mastiff Demosthenes (Dem for short) and very little else. Enigmatic, good-looking and charming when he wants to be, he reveals little of himself and is the sort of man who buries his emotions deep and needs to maintain control. A Momentary Marriage opens several months later and finds James suffering from a serious illness that none of the medical men he’s seen can identify. The diagnoses run from a bad heart to brain fever to tumors, but the one thing the physicians do agree on is that he hasn’t long left to live.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

After the Wedding (Worth Saga #2) by Courtney Milan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Adrian Hunter, the son of a duke’s daughter and a black abolitionist, is determined to do whatever his family needs-even posing as a valet to gather information. But his mission spirals out of control when he’s accused of dastardly intentions and is forced to marry a woman he’s barely had time to flirt with.

Camilla Worth has always dreamed of getting married, but a marriage where a pistol substitutes for “I do” is not the relationship she hoped for. Her unwilling groom insists they need to seek an annulment, and she’s not cruel enough to ruin a man’s life just because she yearns for one person to care about her.

As Camilla and Adrian work to prove their marriage wasn’t consensual, they become first allies, then friends. But the closer they grow, the more Camilla’s heart aches. If they consummate the marriage, he’ll be stuck with her forever. The only way to show that she cares is to make sure he can walk away for good…

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Courtney Milan’s – her Brothers Sinister series is comprised of six of the finest historical romances written in the last decade or so, and hers are books I always recommend to people who want to read entertaining, character-driven historical romances that are well-grounded in actual history and which don’t blithely ignore the inherent inequalities and prejudices of the eras in which they are set.
We’ve waited a couple of years for a new full-length novel from Ms. Milan. After the Wedding is the second book in her Worth Saga which is currently projected to be eight books and which will largely take place outside British shores. This is great news for those of us who have frequently wished for more historicals that take place away from the rarefied atmosphere of Georgian or Victorian London, and with that, comes the promise of more diverse characters and stories, both of which are welcome prospects.

I will admit, however, that I wasn’t wild about the first two books in the series, Once Upon a Marquess and the novella, Her Every Wish. I felt the romances were rather underdeveloped in both; and in the novel in particular, as though the author had rather lost sight of the fact that it was supposed to be a romance amid the sheer ‘busy-ness’ of the book as a whole. I didn’t connect with the protagonists and, more importantly didn’t feel they had much of a connection to each other, which isn’t a good place for any romance to find itself in. Still, the premise of After the Wedding – a (literal) shotgun wedding – reeled me in (arranged/forced marriage stories are my catnip) so I pounced on it, hoping that perhaps those earlier novels had been anomalies and that this one would once again provide the richly developed, engaging characters and stories I have found in the author’s previous work.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Our hero, Adrian Hunter, is the son of a widowed duke’s daughter and a black abolitionist; he is one of five brothers, three of whom perished fighting in the American Civil War.  He’s good-looking, clever, compassionate and well-to-do; his one source of discontent is that his mother’s brother, Bishop Denmore, has never publicly acknowledged their familial relationship.  The bishop took Adrian into his household when he was a boy, where he acted as his uncle’s page, and then, once grown, as his secretary, but nobody knew he was anything other than a servant.  Still, the man’s frequent expressions of affection for his ‘favourite sister’  give Adrian hope that one day, the bishop will own him as his nephew, and it seems that day is imminent when Denmore asks Adrian for a favour.  He wants Adrian to pose as a valet in order to enter the household of his rival, Bishop Lassiter, whom Denmore suspects of something underhand.  Adrian will gather evidence which the bishop will use to expose Lassiter and then Denmore will acknowledge Adrian.  It’s clear from the outset that’s never going to happen – and it’s hard to credit that Adrian, whom we’re supposed to believe is intelligent and a good businessman, could be so credulous.

Anyway.  Adrian takes the job as valet and accompanies Lassiter on a visit to one of his cronies, Rector Miles, which is where he encounters Camilla Winters, one of the housemaids.  She’s pretty and inclined to flirtation, which Adrian thinks might work to his advantage if she knows anything useful – but before he can find out, they are set up to be discovered alone together and forced to marry.  Clearly the intention has been to discredit one or both of them – but why?


We know that Camilla Winters is in fact Camilla Worth, younger sister of Judith, heroine of Once Upon a Marquess. Their father, the Earl of Linney, had been executed for treason and their eldest brother, Anthony, has disappeared; Judith and her younger siblings, Theresa and Benedict, lived, until recently, in very straitened circumstances, and it was this life on the edge of poverty that Camilla wanted to escape when, aged, twelve, she decided to go to live with their uncle.  She might not have her family, but she would have plenty of new dresses and lemon tarts.  Judith, for whom family is incredibly important, was angry and upset and said some very nasty things, Camilla left, and they haven’t seen each other since.  Unfortunately for Camilla, things didn’t work out with her uncle and over the past nine years she has been passed from pillar to post, working as a companion to an elderly lady, then descending lower in the pecking order to become a domestic servant.  Humbled and cowed, she now works for Rector Miles for half-wages, which is all she’s worth on account of her sins, but through it all, she’s been sustained by one thing – hope.  Hope that one day, she will be loved, one day someone will choose her for her own sake.

Adrian is lovely – a thoroughly decent, kind man who takes his responsibilities seriously and wants to do his best for everyone around him.  The trouble is that at times he’s perhaps a little bit too good to be true – so much so, in fact, that he’s at risk of crossing the line between ‘understanding and forgiving’ and ‘gullible’. Camilla, however, proved to be a major stumbling block, with her repetitive, ‘woe-is-me-I-just-want-to-be-loved’ introspective navel gazing – and her contradictory self-flagellation and ruthless optimism.  And I just couldn’t buy the situation she’s in when we first meet her. She decided to leave her family home when she was twelve and then, when her life started to fall apart, never attempted to contact her siblings. It made no sense to me, regardless of the fact we’re told Judith told her never to come back; if you literally have nowhere else to go, you would at least make the attempt, wouldn’t you?

The romance, while it does have moments of tenderness and humour, is ultimately lacklustre.  Adrian and Camilla spend a decent amount of time together on the page, but not much of that time is spent actually building their relationship and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between them.  When one of them realised they were in love, it came so much out of the blue that I was actually startled, and although their mutual honesty is refreshing, Camilla is such a one-note character that it was impossible to become invested in her.  She thinks she doesn’t deserve love because she abandoned her family in favour of a regular supply of lemon tarts – and if I never again read the words “long, slow falling-in-love”, it’ll be too soon.

There’s a lot going on in After the Wedding.  We’ve got a mixed-race hero, a heroine who has had romantic feelings for another woman, the rich, powerful men of the church being exposed as the petty hypocrites they are (and the casual racism of Adrian’s uncle is truly disgusting), the eternal struggle of women not to be oppressed, a woman of the upper classes having fallen on hard times to become a maid, and probably other things I either missed or can’t recall.  And as with the earlier books, the romance feels as though it’s been squashed to make room.

The novel is well-written, and the author’s way with words continues to impress.  But while it’s technically accomplished, the story lacks heart (for want of a better term) and ultimately falls flat.  I am sure there are many readers out there who will find more to enjoy in After the Wedding than I did, but much as it pains me to say it, I was sorely disappointed.