Never Fall for Your Fiancée (Merriwell Sisters #1) by Virginia Heath

never fall for your fiancee

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The trouble with lies is they have a tendency to catch a man out.

The last thing Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, wants is a wife. But since the only way to keep his mother’s matchmaking ways at bay is the promise of impending nuptials, Hugh takes the most logical action: he invents a fake fiancée.

It’s the perfect plan – until Hugh learns that his mother is on a ship bound for England to meet his ‘beloved’. He needs a solution fast, and when he collides with a mysterious beauty, he might just have found the answer to his prayers.

Minerva Merriwell is desperate for money to support her sisters, and although she knows that posing as the Earl’s fiancée might seem nonsensical, it’s just too good an offer to refuse.

As the Merriwells descend upon Hugh’s estate, the household is thrown into turmoil as everyone tries to keep their tangled stories straight. And with Hugh and Minerva’s romantic ruse turning into the real thing, is true love just one complication too many?

Rating: B-

Virginia Heath has been one of my favourite authors of historical romance since I read her second book (Her Enemy at the Altar) for Mills & Boon/Harlequin back in 2016. Her stories are generally light-hearted and a lot of fun although not without a more serious side, her characters are well-rounded and engaging, her prose is crisp and the humour never feels forced.   Never Fall for Your Fiancée, the first book in her new Merriwell Sisters trilogy, is her first book for St. Martin’s Press, and it bears all the hallmarks of her style – a gorgeous hero, an intelligent and snarky heroine who won’t put up with any crap, sparking dialogue and genuinely witty banter – although it’s a tad overlong and the chemistry between the two principals isn’t quite as compelling as I know she’s capable of delivering.  The plot isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but Ms. Heath makes good use of the fake-relationship trope and her bright and breezy writing style carries the day.

Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, is in a bit of a bind.  His mother, who lives in Boston with her second husband, is on her way to England for a visit expressly to meet Hugh’s fiancée Minerva, the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for the past two years.  The problem?  Minerva is entirely a product of Hugh’s imagination, invented in order to head off his mother’s constant reminders that he should get married and her offer (which Hugh saw more as a threat) to come home to help him find a bride.  Hugh adores his mother, but he is absolutely convinced that a man should only enter into a marriage when he had every intention of honouring his vows, and being sure he isn’t capable of either love or fidelity, he has decided to eschew matrimony.  But his mother’s arrival is imminent, and the idea of telling her the truth weighs heavily.  He never, ever wanted to hurt her and, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries hard not to be too often), he also wants to avoid admitting to her that he’s far too much like his late father to consider settling down.

Minerva Merriwell has been the family caretaker since their mother died when Minerva was nine, and has been solely responsible for her younger sisters Diana and Vee (short for Venus) since their good-for-nothing father abandoned them when she was nineteen.  Now twenty-four, Minerva ekes out a living as an engraver but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence and her worries are never-ending.  Today’s is that one of the people she’s produced work for is four weeks late with payment; she’s confronted him outside his house to request – politely – that he pay her right away and things are deteriorating when a gentleman steps in and offers his assistance.  The bluster displayed by Minerva’s ‘employer’ can’t hold up in the face of the stranger’s aristocratic hauteur; the debt is settled and the gentleman offers to escort her home.

Hugh can’t believe his good fortune.  Not only does this young woman share the name of his fake fiancée, she’s entirely captivating – beautiful, witty and self-assured – and on the spot, he decides the answer to his problem is right in front of him.  He’ll pay Minerva to act as his fiancée, and then engineer some sort of falling-out that will end their ‘engagement’.  But he’s surprised when Minerva expresses reservations.  It’s clear she needs the money he’s offering, but she’s not happy about the idea of practicing such a deception; the Merriwells may be on the cusp of destitution, but they had morals.

Well, of course Minerva does agree and she – with Diana and Vee, who are as unhappy about the scheme as Minerva is  – travel to Hugh’s Hampshire estate to await the arrival of his mother and to learn their roles while they wait.  Unfortunately, however, Hugh’s mother and step-father arrive much earlier than expected – well before Minerva has acquired enough ‘polish’ – which necessitates some more impromptu, highly creative falsehoods on Hugh’s part.  The story moves fairly briskly, the central characters are likeable and the humour is dry and nicely observed, but around the middle, it gets a bit bogged down and some of the contortions Hugh has to make in order to perpetuate his lies get a bit overly convoluted, and I sometimes felt as though I was in the middle of a French farce.  Perhaps that was the intention, but although I’ve said that the humour in Ms. Heath’s books isn’t forced, it comes close a few times here.

Minerva is a great heroine, a young woman forced to become a parent when she wasn’t much more than a child herself and who puts her own wants and needs last every time. She’s intelligent, witty, generous and determined, but she’s grown so used to being her sisters’ sole support that she has sort of lost sight of the fact that they’re young women now, and should be taking responsibility for themselves.  I liked Hugh a lot, with some caveats.  He’s charming, funny, perceptive and caring, but he goes out of his way to act the indolent wastrel (not that we ever see that on the page) when he is in fact a conscientious landowner and employer, and an all-round decent man.  It doesn’t take Minerva long to work out that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, but what she can’t work out is why he’s so set on letting everyone around him believe he’s shallow, selfish and lazy.  (And quite honestly, neither could I.) BUT – and here are the caveats.  Firstly, he is convinced he’s bad husband material because the Standish Blood Runs In His Veins; his grandfather was a rotten bastard, his father was unfaithful to his mother, and Hugh isn’t going to visit heartbreak upon any woman – like his cheating sire and grandfather before him, he isn’t capable of love or commitment.  This is stated so very often that I felt I was being hit over the head with it;  I lost track of how many times the “bad blood” or the “Standish way” or the philandering grandfather and father were mentioned.  A grown man of thirty-two is responsible for his own behaviour, and Hugh was perfectly capable of steering his own course.  And then there’s the deception.  As Minerva says – “What sort of man invents a fiancée because he finds responsibility too daunting and is frightened of his own mother?” And that says it all, really.

There’s a small but well-drawn supporting cast.  Hugh’s mother is a delightful woman who obviously thinks the world of him and just wants him to be happy, Payne, the butler is a nineteenth century Jeeves –an expert in the pithy bon mot –  and I liked Hugh’s friend Giles, who I’m assuming will be the hero of a future book in the series.  I liked the middle sister, Diana, who is lively and forthright (and there are definite sparks between her and Giles) although Vee is… well, a bit of a wet blanket, honestly.  She’s still convinced their dead-beat dad is going to come back and won’t hear a word against him, and she presents a number of problems for Hugh’s scheme.

That said, Never Fall for Your Fiancée is fluff of the highest quality, and if you’re looking for a well-written, funny historical rom-com with some shrewd observation on the side, it might be just what you’re looking for.  But I can’t recommend it unreservedly, because much as I liked Hugh, I didn’t buy the reasons for his ‘I am not worthy’ act and all the miscommunication and misinterpretation became a bit wearing.  I like the fake-relationship trope, and I like Ms. Heath’s writing, but this one didn’t quite tick all the boxes for me.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Redeeming the Reclusive Earl by Virginia Heath


This title may be purchased from Amazon

His heart is a fortress.

And she’s trespassing!

After losing all he holds dear in a horrific fire, Max Aldersley, Earl of Rivenhall, shuns the world – until he catches Effie Nithercott digging holes on his estate! He banishes the intrepid archaeologist and the unsettled feelings she rouses within him. But she returns even more determined and infuriatingly desirable than before! He wonders just how deep she is prepared to dig – so far she’ll reach the man beneath his scars…?

Rating: A-

Another winner from Virginia Heath in the form of this lovely, funny, warm and sexy grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-heroine story that is easily one of the best historical romances I’ve read in a while.

Badly injured in a ship-board fire he barely survived, and then unceremoniously dumped by his beautiful but shallow fiancée, Max Aldersley, Earl of Rivenhall, has holed up on his Cambridgeshire estate, and intends to remain there, licking his wounds (metaphorically) for… well, ever, if he has his own way.  The last thing he wants is to find himself distracted from his wallowing by a breeches-wearing, challenging and rather lovely female who insists on digging up bits of his land in the name of archaeology – and he tells his irritating trespasser so in no uncertain terms.

Miss Effie Nithercott has dedicated her life to the study of antiquities, and is dismayed at the prospect of having to discontinue her work.  She’s nearly thirty and unmarried – the man she had planned to marry was killed in the war – and she has resigned herself to spinsterhood and a life spent in academic pursuits.  Her dream is to have one of her papers published by the Society of Antiquities, but they will not even look at her work because she’s a woman; even so, she continues to write and send them… and to receive them back unopened.

She refuses to give up her dig without a fight, and in the face of yet another refusal, starts digging alone in the dark – and Max eventually gives in, citing the threat to her personal safety as the reason, and allows her to continue with her excavations in the daylight. Not long afterwards, she finds herself entertaining a lordly guest who just happens to come by “accidentally” every day to share her lunch, listen to her talk about her discoveries and whom she manages to persuade to wield a pick-axe on occasion.

Virginia Heath has penned a lovely, slow-burn romance full of chemistry, affection, tenderness and teasing between two people who have found themselves on the outside through no fault of their own. Effie is neuroatypical;  her mind is always on the go, she has a huge thirst and capacity for knowledge and she’s possessed of an eidetic memory.  She’s known she was ‘odd’ all her life; men have been attracted to her, but have been intimidated by the intelligence she’s unable to hide.  She can’t simper and flirt as other women do, she’s too much herself to try to be anything she is not and she speaks her mind, often without thinking first; none of these qualities men look for in a wife.

Max, however, is fascinated by Effie’s mind and the way it works.  He’s physically attracted to her, too, but her inquisitiveness and amazing capacity for joy in her work delight him.  He’s reluctant to let her in, to tell her about and let her see all the ways the fire he survived damaged him inside and out; but as he begins to see and understand the obstacles she has faced – and continues to face – he slowly starts to let her in.  I cheered at the moment when Effie calls Max on his wallowing, and reminds him that he has far more choices in life than she does – and again later, when he finally understands what she’s been telling him:

The world was made for men and brutally unfair to a woman as brilliant as her.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is the way the author imbues it with a feminist message without hitting readers over the head with it.  Effie is unusual and rather eccentric, but her quirkiness is a properly established character trait, and not just a way for her to go around telling everyone how unconventional she is.  Another is that Effie absolutely refuses to pity Max for his scars or for what caused them and what happened after.  She understands a terrible thing happened to him, and helps him to see that:

“We all have a choice, Max. We can either fact it fighting or let it beat us and win.”

I was also pleased at the way Max’s sister, Eleanor is portrayed.  Often, a character such as she is interfering and annoying,  but here, it’s very clear that Eleanor (and okay, so she is one for interfering!) loves her brother very much – she leaves her own family for weeks at a time because she’s worried about him – and wants him to be happy.  I liked her kindness and sense of humour, and the friendship that developed between her and Effie.

Redeeming the Reclusive Earl is a gorgeously romantic, sensual love story featuring two lonely souls who are perfect one another.

Lilian and the Irreststible Duke (Secrets of a Victorian Household #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A reunion in Rome…

Sparks an affair to remember!

Part of Secrets of a Victorian Household. Responsible widow Lilian Fairclough is persuaded to travel to Rome for a hard-earned break and to let down her hair! She’s surprised to be reunited with passionate, cynical Italian duke, Pietro Venturi. He reawakens her sensual side and intrigues her with glimpses of pain beneath his rakish surface. Enticed into a secret and temporary affair – what will happen once she returns home?

Rating: B

Virginia Heath’s Lilian and the Irresistible Duke is the final book in the multi-author Secrets of a Victorian Household series – a fact I didn’t realise until I read the author’s notes after I’d finished, so I can honestly say that it works perfectly well as a standalone!  I’m a big fan of the author’s work, so I don’t need much – if any – persuading to read one of her books, but the fact that this one is about a more mature couple (the hero is forty-eight, the heroine forty-five) was a definite draw.  That said, while there were things about the book I really liked, it won’t be joining other titles by this author on my keeper shelf.  I found the first half a bit repetitive and I very much disliked the ‘black moment’ in the second half.  I know there had to be one, but it didn’t work for me.

The eponymous Lilian, a mother of three (hero and heroines of the other books in the series) lost her husband Henry to illness around a decade earlier.  She loved him very much and had a fulfilling – if not always easy – life as wife, mother and helpmeet, assisting him with the running of the charitable foundation he set up to help those less fortunate. Working at Henry’s side and bringing up their children was a full-time occupation and one Lilian found personally fulfilling; but now her children are grown and married, she’s suffering from ‘empty nest syndrome’ and isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life.  She’s begun to realise that, in working so hard for the Foundation, she’d allowed Henry’s passion to overtake hers; that she’d lost sight of her own interests, hopes and dreams.  So now that her children are all settled, she allows herself to be persuaded to take a holiday in the one place in the world she’s always longed to visit – Rome.

Lilian and her cousin Alexandra, who has accompanied her on the trip, are to stay at the home of one of Alexandra’s friends, Carlotta, the Contessa di Bagnoregio, and Lilian is just getting settled in when she almost literally runs into a man she’d never thought to meet again.  Several months before, at a Christmas party, Lilian had met Pietro Venturi, Duca della Torizia, who was visiting London at the time.  Late that night in a darkened carriage, Lilian had allowed herself to be thoroughly kissed by the handsome Italian, his kiss stirring up so many feelings that she’d thought long buried with Henry, and starting to unfurl something long dormant inside her.  Not just desire… a growing sense of self and a spirit of adventure, perhaps?

Pietro is just as surprised to see Lilian, and at first jumps to completely the wrong conclusion about her presence, saying some rather rude and crass things to her.  But he quickly realises his mistake, and takes care to apologise; and during the course of their conversation, they agree to put the kiss they’d shared behind them and to go on as friends.

Even so, both of them are fully aware of the strong mutual attraction thrumming between them.  Still, they try to adhere to their agreement as they start to spend part of each day together, Pietro escorting Lilian to see the city’s many artistic treasures.  He finds himself enjoying her enthusiasm for art and her insight, her refreshing way of seeing the paintings, frescoes and sculptures which are so familiar to him, and it isn’t long before they are unable to deny the desire they feel for one another.  They embark on a passionate affair which, at Lilian’s insistence, will be over and done when she leaves, although of course, both of them soon recognise that whatever is going on between them goes far deeper than the merely physical.  For Pietro, this is a disaster; he doesn’t want to have feelings for Lilian – for anyone – and he tries to convince himself that she’s no more to him than any of his other lovers.

I really liked Lilian. She’s sensible and down-to-earth, but not closed off to new experiences and I loved the way the author shows her growing awareness of herself as an independent person and as a woman, one with needs and desires she’s suppressed for a long time.  I liked Pietro, too – he’s handsome, charming and romantic in a very gentlemanly (and sexy) way – but his backstory is perhaps a bit stereotypical; he married young – his bride chosen for him by his father – and the marriage was obviously unhappy.  It’s clear to Lilian that he’s hiding something painful about it, but he refuses to enlighten her further, saying only that he has no wish to become emotionally involved with anyone.  Ever.  Not wanting another wife, he instead conducts highly discreet affairs with women who know the score; that their relationship is physical only and there is nothing more on offer.  Unfortunately, this fact comes back to bite him squarely on the arse later in the story – and although I can’t say much without spoilers, I will say that Lilian’s reaction to an overheard conversation felt very out of character, given the way the author has established her as a straightforward, pragmatic character who isn’t interested in playing emotional games.  I get that she was hurt and that perhaps her pride was bruised, but it still seemed like a massive over-reaction, and it happened so quickly, it’s a wonder I’m not suffering from whiplash.

In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the plot – and the fact that the epilogue is over-long (if you’ve read the other books in the series, it might work better for you, but I had no investment in any of the other characters) – there’s a lot to like about Lilian and the Irresistible Duke. It’s a ‘grown up’ romance between two people who have a wealth of life experience under their belts, the sex scenes are well-written – without lengthy mental-lusting, slick thighs or twitching appendages – and I really appreciated Lilian’s re-claiming of her self and the way she comes to realise she has a life of her own to lead.  It might not be my favourite of the author’s books, but is nonetheless head and shoulders above much of the historical romance currently on offer.

 

The Determined Lord Hadleigh (King’s Elite #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He’s got iron control…

But she might be his undoing!

Part of The King’s Elite. Haunted by Penny Penhurst’s courage on the witness stand, meticulous barrister Lord Hadleigh offers her a housekeeper position at his estate. Despite trying to stay detached, Hadleigh is charmed by her small child and surprised by how much he yearns for this proud woman! Can this he break through his own – and Penny’s – barriers to prove he’s a man she can trust…and love?

Rating: A-

As there is an overarching plotline running through this series, there are spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

This final book in Virginia Heath’s enjoyable King’s Elite series shifts focus somewhat and concerns itself mostly with the aftermath of the unmasking and apprehension (in the previous book) of The Boss, the head of a widespread and dangerous smuggling ring that was channeling funds to Napoléon and his supporters with a view to restoring him to power. The Determined Lord Hadleigh rounds the series out nicely and follows a thoroughly engaging central couple on their sometimes rocky path to happiness.

The eponymous gentleman describes himself as an honorary member of the team of crack government spies knows as the King’s Elite, which is fair enough, as unlike them, he’s not an agent working for the Crown, but rather is the man whose job it is to prosecute and help convict those they apprehend. He’s a brilliant barrister, a fair and honourable man, and a friend of the other members of the group – and now it’s his turn to step into the limelight. Hadleigh appeared briefly in the other books in the series, and now it’s up to him to make sure the Crown’s case against the Boss is watertight. When the novel opens, he is in the midst of the trial of Viscount Penshurst, one of the Boss’ closest associates, and is questioning his current witness, the young Lady Penshurst, whose honesty and quiet dignity in the face of the nasty gossip and blatant scorn of the public impresses him and whose story strikes a chord deep inside him. Hadleigh sees many similarities between the life the viscountess describes and that endured by his mother, who was abused and then killed by his father a decade earlier – and he still carries the guilt that he didn’t do enough to protect her. That guilt engenders a protectiveness made all the stronger when he learns that the viscount’s title, wealth and estates have been transferred back to the crown, meaning his innocent wife and son will be left with nothing.

After the trial and her husband’s death in prison, Lady Penshurst changes her name and takes lodgings in Cheapside with her not-quite-two-year-old son, Freddie. Her closest friend Clarissa – who is married to Seb Leatham (The Mysterious Lord Millcroft) – has offered to house them both for as long as Penny wants, but Penny is insistent that she wants to stand on her own two feet. After three years trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who wanted to control her every move, she’s determined to slough off the easily cowed, powerless and subservient woman she became during those years and to find herself again, to take back control of her life. So when she discovers that someone has been helping her out behind the scenes, paying bills and rent, she’s furious. Her first thought is that Clarissa has gone behind her back and asked Seb to do it, but when Clarissa assures her that she values their friendship too much to go against her express wishes, Penny believes her. Worried that perhaps one of her late husband’s associates has done it as a way of intimidating her, Penny asks Clarissa to find out what she can about her mysterious benefactor.

Hadleigh has tried continually – and fruitlessly – to forget about Lady Penshurst, but no matter how many times he tells himself she’s not his problem, he feels the need to do something to help her.  So he’s bewildered when confronted by an annoyed Seb Leatham reaming him out for doing just that – until he learns that his actions may have unintentionally caused the lady some distress.  An awkward apology follows, and he promises not to attempt to interfere again.  But then an opportunity presents itself whereby Hadleigh can help Penny while at the same time enabling her to be independent, and in spite of his own misgivings, he has to take it.  In preparing for the Boss’ trial, he will need to consult and work with his star witness – Jessamine, Lady Flint – frequently, but with some members of the gang still at large, her husband is naturally reluctant to have her travel to London.  Hadleigh’s family home is just outside London, in Essex, so he suggests to thehead of the King’s Elite that Lady Flint be housed there until the trial.  With government approval, Hadleigh offers Penny a position as temporary housekeeper, explaining that he’s not paying her wages, and that she will in fact be doing him and the government a big favour by agreeing to take the post.

Even though Hadleigh has no intention of spending much time at the house – which holds too many unhappy memories for him – he nonetheless finds himself going there more often than he originally intended, seeking out Penny, talking with her and enjoying her company.  And as they start getting to know each other, Penny begins to see past the controlled, somewhat aloof Hadleigh, to the complex, thoughtful and charming man he truly is, and to allow herself to enjoy feeling desired and desirable.

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a fabulous character-driven piece that works as both a beautifully developed romance and a clever character study as Ms. Heath takes a good, long look at what drives Penny and Hadleigh to act the way they do.  Penny isn’t afraid of her attraction to Hadleigh – in fact she welcomes it, and I loved that she wasn’t prepared to allow the misery she endured during her marriage prevent her from moving forward with her life.  I admired her strength and determination not to allow herself to be seen as a victim:

“… that is not the way I see myself.  It is such a small part of who I am, yet it appears to be the version of myself others are most content with accepting… Maybe I should have it written on my forehead to make it easier for people to decide how to view me? Poor, downtrodden Penny !  Rather that, than as that brave woman who spoke out in the dock. “

Penny is also extremely perceptive, and it doesn’t take her long to work out why Hadleigh so dislikes the house and why he acted as he did towards her. His character growth is substantial as – with Penny’s help – he is able to face and conquer his demons and accept that he can’t save everyone, and that a person is the sum of many parts.

“… simply because the cap fits, a person shouldn’t be expected to always wear it when the world is joyously filled with different hates and we, as individuals, have the right to choose, try them on for size and discard them as the mood takes us.”

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a ‘quiet’ book about two emotionally bruised people learning to come to terms with tragedy and move forward together.  For my money, it’s the best and strongest book of the King’s Elite series, and although it could be read as a standalone, I’d advise reading at least book three (The Disgraceful Lord Gray) first. Virginia Heath’s writing is as warm, witty and insightful as ever, and she continues to be one of the best authors of historical romance around.  I’m looking forward to whatever she comes up with next.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray (King’s Elite #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A spy on a mission…

Until he meets this heiress!

Miss Theodora Cranford’s learned to keep her impetuous nature locked away. She won’t be deceived by another man who can’t see past her fortune. She wants an honourable, sensible sort – not a self-assured scoundrel like her new neighbour, Lord Gray. Although she’s sure there’s more to him than meets the eye… But after that first captivating kiss, she’s certainly left wanting more!

Rating: B

Virginia Heath bounds back into form with The Disgraceful Lord Grey, the third book in her King’s Elite series about group of gentlemen spies charged with putting a stop to the activities of a particularly elusive and dangerous smuggling ring with links to Napoléon. With the ring’s operations now brought to a halt, all that remains is to cut off the head, so to speak, and unmask the person who’s been pulling the strings, known only as The Boss.  The investigations of the King’s Elite have narrowed this down to one of two people – and in this story, Lord Graham Chadwick – Gray – travels to Suffolk accompanied by Lord Fennimore, the head of the King’s Elite, in order to infiltrate the small social circle of Viscount Gislingham in continuance of the investigation.

Unfortunately, however, he doesn’t get off to the best of starts when Gislingham’s niece happens upon him cavorting naked in the stream on the estate – and then his huge dog, Trefor (Gray is of Welsh descent, or at least he grew up there) knocks her in as well.

Oops.

Miss Thea Cranford has lived with her uncle and aunt since the death of her parents, and at twenty-three, remains unmarried.  She’s heiress to an enormous fortune and a youthful infatuation for a man whose affection turned out to be for her money and not for her has made her very cautious when it comes to men, and guilt over her impulsive behaviour in the past has caused her to lock the side of herself she terms “Impetuous Thea” in a box and throw away the key.  Her closest friend, the widowed Lady Harriet Crudgington – who is vivacious, funny and intent on living life to the full – regularly encourages Thea to loosen the tight rein she has on herself, but with little (or no) success.

Virginia Heath turns the spirited-heroine-meets-buttoned-up-hero trope on its head here, as Thea tries to maintain a show of indifference to Gray while everything in her yearns to respond to his gentle flirtations and humorous banter.  He’s a truly charming hero who, while being an inveterate flirt, is never pushy or overly familiar with Thea; he’s kind, compassionate and very level-headed and self-aware in a way few romantic heroes are.  An incredibly irresponsible action a decade earlier ruined him financially, caused a huge scandal and as a result, he left England and travelled the world on merchant ships.  Older and wiser now, he recognises that those events were the making of him and even though he can’t deny he’d rather not have beggared himself and been disowned by his family, he’s not one for brooding over the past and things he can’t change.

When Fennimore suggests that Gray’s scandalous past may be just the thing to recommend him to the subject of their investigation, Gray is surprised to find himself somewhat dismayed at the idea of having to play up to his reputation as a bit of a ne’er do well, especially given Thea’s obvious reluctance to have anything to do with him. He’s smitten with her and he knows it – and the last thing he wants is for her to believe him to be the sort of reprobate she’s had dealings with before, a man interested only in her money… but that’s the part he’ll have to play if he’s to uncover the identity of The Boss, impress Fennimore, and earn a much desired promotion.  He must put aside all thought of Gislingham’s gorgeous – albeit repressed – niece and get on with the job at hand.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray is an entertaining, very readable historical romance featuring a pair of attractive, well-matched characters, a strongly drawn supporting cast, a secondary romance and a large and affectionate dog (!)  in which Gray is – as he should be – the star of the show. He’s a thoroughly decent chap, he’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s learned from his mistakes; he’s funny, insightful and a little bit naughty (as all good heroes are!) and refreshingly different from all those damaged, darkly brooding heroes we’re so  used to in the genre.

Thea, on the other hand, is a little generic, although I liked her sense of humour and her intelligence.  I did find her tendency to refer to herself in the third person –  “Impetuous Thea” –  a little irritating, but that’s a really minor niggle, and not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Virginia Heath’s agile, witty and insightful writing shines once again, and I’m pleased to recommend this latest King’s Elite novel to fans of character-driven historical romance.

The Uncompromising Lord Flint (King’s Elite #2) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Imprisoned by her past

Set free by her enemy!

Charged with high treason, Lady Jessamine Fane is under the watchful eye of icily calm Lord Peter Flint. It’s a task this spy won’t be swayed from, no matter how alluring his prisoner! Only it’s not long before Flint realises that tenacious Jess hides a lifetime of pain. With so much at stake, can he afford to take a chance on their powerful attraction?

Rating: C

Virginia Heath’s first historical romance was published just over two-and-a-half years ago, and in the time since, she’s published a dozen more novels, maintaining a high standard of writing and characterisation that earned places on my keeper shelf for quite a few of them.  She’s one of my favourite authors and none of her novels has received anything lower than a B grade from me – until now.  Much as it pains me to say it – because I’m a big fan of her work – The Uncompromising Lord Flint, the second book in her current King’s Elite series, doesn’t really hit all the bases and was – dare I say it – even a bit boring in places.  It has an intriguing plot and a strongly drawn heroine, but the romance is rushed and the hero never really came to life for me.

The King’s Elite series has an overarching plotline concerning the search for The Boss, the person behind a widespread smuggling ring whose profits are being channelled into the campaign to free Napoleon from his prison on Elba.  Each book in the series – judging from the two published so far – is progressing that particular plotline; in The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, the identities of several members of the English aristocracy involved in the smuggling ring were uncovered, and The Uncompromising Lord Flint sees the eponymous hero on the trail of one of the key players in the French side of the operation.

Lord Peter Flint has been detailed to escort a very valuable prisoner to London where she will be interrogated, tried and very likely convicted of treason.  Lady Jessamine Fane has lived in France since the age of twelve, taken away from her home when her mother absconded with her lover, the Comte de Saint-Aubin-de-Scellon. Disowned by her father, neglected by her mother, Jess has, to all intents and purposes, been alone for all of her adult life, living in captivity and in constant fear of St. Aubin’s cruelty, a fear that has only grown in the years since her mother died and Jess was forced to take her mother’s place as ‘secretary’ in St. Aubin’s smuggling/espionage ring.  She has a detailed knowledge of his vast network of contacts and his many illegal operations, and knows that sooner or later, that knowledge will get her killed – so she has very carefully been sending encoded hints and information across the channel, and waiting for her opportunity to escape.  Jess is clever, resourceful and resilient, she’s survived emotional and physical cruelty only to be facing death at the hands of the people she’s trying to help. And while her frustration with their refusal or inability to realise the danger they face from St. Aubin, the trouble is that Jess is so secretive that it’s no wonder they don’t believe a word she says, and unfortunately, that secretiveness goes on for way too long.

The characterisation of the hero is… off. Ms. Heath normally creates wonderfully attractive, witty, sexy heroes, but here, Flint fades into the background somewhat, and I had real trouble buying him as an elite super-spy because he comes across as so ineffectual.  Jess is the driving force in this book, and she overshadows everyone else (except maybe for Flint’s mother).  We know little about Lord Peter Flint other than that he’s the only male in his immediate family of mother and five sisters (who are all, naturally, nagging him to get married) and that he made a huge mistake with a female prisoner in the past which almost cost his father his life – a mistake he’s determined NEVER to repeat, and which makes him doubly cautious when it comes to Jess. Even though he isn’t, because right from the off, he somehow intuits she isn’t a traitor and ignores his own warnings to be circumspect. He’s fairly bland, and hasn’t stuck in my memory in the way that many of Ms. Heath’s other heroes have.

Sadly, the romance between Jess and Flint is underdeveloped and feels rushed; there is little chemistry between them, and there is more telling than showing going on, which was another disappointment; Ms. Heath normally excels at creating terrific sexual tension and showing readers her protagonists falling in love, but neither of those things happened here.

It’s never pleasant to be writing negatively about a book by a favourite author, but I’m afraid The Uncompromising Lord Flint was a disappointment.  Still, a run of a dozen successful, highly-rated books is an incredible achievement for any author, and I suppose everyone is entitled to the occasional misfire.  This book may not have worked well for me, but I’m still invested in the King’s Elite series and am looking forward to the next instalment.

The Mysterious Lord Millcroft (King’s Elite #1) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life as a duchess…

Or something much more dangerous..?

Constantly told her beauty and charm is all she has to offer, Lady Clarissa is intent on marrying a duke. And intriguing spy Sebastian Leatham will help her! Only first she’ll assist him with his new assignment—playing the part of confident aristocrat Lord Millcroft. Sebastian awakens a burning desire within Clarissa which leaves her questioning whether becoming a duchess is what she truly longs for…

Rating: B+

The ever reliable Virginia Heath kicks off her new King’s Elite series with The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, which pairs a daring, courageous spy who is hopeless around women with one of society’s reigning beauties, both of them characters we’ve met briefly before in the author’s Wild Warriners series.  Ms. Heath spins a thoroughly entertaining yarn featuring two engaging principals who have to fight their own insecurities while working together to uncover the identity of a traitor, keeping the romance front and centre as they discover they’re capable of more than they ever thought possible.

Sebastian Leatham works alongside Jacob Warriner (A Warriner to Seduce Her) as part of the group of agents working to shut down a smuggling operation that is channelling funds to Napoléon.  Injured in the course of his most recent assignment, Seb is recovering from a gunshot wound at the home of Jacob’s brother Doctor Joe Warriner, and his wife, Bella. He is chafing at his enforced idleness and desperate to get back to his assignment of tracking down the man he and his fellow agents know only as ‘The Boss’, the leader of the smuggling ring.

If you’ve read A Warriner to Tempt Her, then you’ll likely recall Lady Clarissa Beaumont, the beautiful debutante with whom Joe was briefly infatuated before he fell in love with her sister.  In that story, Clarissa came off as rather shallow, a social butterfly interested only attracting a high-status husband.  When we meet her again here, she’s still pursuing that aim, but we’re quickly shown that there’s more to Clarissa than it at first seemed; she’s a beauty, yes, but her perfectly poised veneer hides some deep-seated insecurities. She’s very well aware that her status as the reigning toast of the ton is a fickle one, and that time is running out if she’s to garner a proposal from the handsome young Duke of Westbridge, who has been half-heartedly courting her over the past two years, but has not yet proposed. Now, however, another – younger – lady appears to have caught his eye, and Clarissa is having to work harder than ever to keep his attention.

Tired and worn down by the continual falsity and back-stabbing of London society, she needs a few days away from town to regroup and flees to her sister’s Nottinghamshire home, desperate to be able to drop her mask and stop pretending for a little while.  She’d forgotten Bella had a guest, so is unprepared to come face-to-face with a stranger, let alone a handsome one who appears to be able to see right through her.

Seb hasn’t expected another guest, and his first sight of Clarissa renders him speechless. Literally.  He might be intelligent and brave when it comes to his work, but the presence of women renders him tongue-tied and clumsy; beautiful ones make him even moreso and  Clarissa Beaumont is the most exquisite thing he’s ever seen.  His typical reaction to his inadequacy is to attempt to cover it with a gruffness that borders on the unfriendly – but it doesn’t take him long to realise that Clarissa’s perfect, vibrant exterior is an extremely well-constructed façade… and to want to know more about the real woman behind it.

Some weeks later, Seb is back in London and is not at all pleased with his latest assignment.  The King’s Elite has received information that two members of the nobility may be involved with the smuggling ring, and Seb is instructed to attend Viscount Penhurt’s upcoming house party in order to gather information on the man’s activities.  Seb’s normal method of working is to keep to the shadows and disappear into the background, and the idea of having to be so visible makes him apprehensive. In addition, the thought of having to mix with the aristocracy brings to mind many self-doubts and insecurities, but his objections are brushed aside. He’ll be posing as the recently-arrived Lord Millcroft, a gentleman of large fortune and unscrupulous reputation who has spent most of his life in the Antipodes and is now looking for investment opportunities in England.

The Penhurst house party offers Clarissa’s last chance to land her duke.  She’s convinced that once she’s a duchess her deficiencies – she is unable to read very well, and thus believes she must be stupid – will no longer matter as she’ll have a title and an army of servants to hide behind.  She’s surprised to encounter Sebastian Leatham there, however, and even more surprised when he’s introduced to her as Lord Millcroft. Realising there must be something afoot, she refrains from exposing him, and having listened to his explanation, offers her help.  Spending time with and appearing to be smitten with the dangerously handsome lord whose aloof, confident persona has set the ladies a-twitter will be the perfect way to make her duke jealous, and giving Seb her ‘seal of approval’ will go a long way towards ensuring his acceptance amongst the aristocratic guests, thus enabling him to go about making the acquaintance of the men he’s been sent there to investigate.

Ms. Heath does a great job of combining the romance with the espionage plotline, and never sacrifices the development of the one in favour of the other.  Seb and Clarissa have both spent most of their lives hiding behind masks, and I loved the way they gradually reveal their true selves to one another and in doing so, come to realise that many of the things they’d believed about themselves are wrong.  They’re smitten with each other from their first meeting, but Clarissa’s belief that she needs to continue to hide her shortcomings behind an illustrious title at first prevents her from realising the depth of her attraction to Seb and the true nature of her feelings for him, while Seb’s anxieties about his illegitimacy and his unpolished manner – which Clarissa finds a refreshing change from all the pompous, puffed-up men she normally encounters – hold him back from seeing himself as a proper match for a diamond of the first water like Clarissa. Seb finds Clarissa “sharp and funny and hugely entertaining”, and helps her to realise there’s more to her than her pretty face; Clarissa shows Seb that his birth and his background don’t matter and that his kind, caring and honourable nature make him more than equal to any lord.

The one thing that dinged the book for me is the contrived misunderstanding towards the end.  It’s not hard to see it coming, and given Seb’s insecurities, it’s just about plausible that he might believe the falsehoods he’s told, but it’s a close-run thing; and his refusal to speak to Clarissa to clear things up straight away just adds to the implausibility of the whole situation.

Even so, I’ve yet to read a book by Virginia Heath that has disappointed me, and she’s one of the few writers of historical romance currently writing who really stands out from the crowd.  2018 has been a particularly disappointing year for the genre, but Ms. Heath is somehow managing to buck the trend, having published ten novels over the past couple of years that have all earned B grades or above (including several DIKs) from me, which is quite a feat.  The Mysterious Lord Millcroft, is a tender, sensual romance wrapped around an intriguing plot, and I’m looking forward to reading more about the King’s Elite.

A Warriner to Seduce Her (Wild Warriners #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A sensible schoolmistress…

Awakened by the notorious rake!

In this The Wild Warriners story, schoolmistress Felicity Blunt feels old beyond her years―and desperately dull. Meeting confirmed rake Jacob Warriner brings her gloriously alive, and yet no matter his allure she must remain immune to his obvious charms and unashamed flirtation. But is Jacob merely a mischievous scoundrel? Or is there much more to this Warriner than meets the eye…?

Rating: A-

This final book in Virginia Heath’s thoroughly enjoyable series featuring the four Warriner brothers focuses on the youngest, Jacob – or Jake, as he is more commonly known.  We’ve met him in the previous books in the series, and unlike his siblings – Jack, the Earl of Markham and head of the family, Jamie, a former soldier and Joe, a doctor – he’s a bit of a wastrel and spends most of his time amid the hedonistic delights of London, where he’s acquired quite the reputation as a ladies’ man.

Ms. Heath has dropped the odd subtle hint that there’s more to Jake than meets the eye, and in A Warriner to Seduce Her, we find out exactly what that is.  While his brothers eye him with fond exasperation and despair of his ever marrying and settling down, the truth is that Jake was recruited by the British Government when he left Cambridge and has been working for them ever since.  A member of a small team known as the King’s Elite, Jake and his colleagues have been tasked with discovering the identity of the man behind a large-scale smuggling operation that is trying to destabilise the British economy by flooding the market with illegal goods and channelling funds to an organisation determined to return Napoléon from exile.  But in spite of their best efforts, the identity of the lynch-pin remains as elusive as ever.

The last few months have been exhausting and Jake is looking forward to heading home to Markham Manor for some well-earned leave.  He’ tired, he misses his family a great deal and longs for:

Three months of being himself, no hidden agendas, no danger, no responsibilities and no web of lies.

(Except the one.)

… and feels keenly the gulf that has opened between himself and his brothers in recent years because of the secrets he has to keep.  So he’s none too pleased when his boss tells him that his leave is cancelled because there’s a new lead in their search for the boss of the smuggling ring.  Suspicion has fallen upon Lord Crispin Rowley, whose fortunes have recently taken  a sudden and unexpected upturn – and Jake is tasked with the seduction of Rowley’s niece, a country miss fresh out of Sister Ursuline’s School for Wayward Girls in Cumbria who will surely be an easy target for his masculine charms.

The letter summoning twenty-five-year-old schoolmistress Felicity Blunt to London came completely out of the blue.  It seems that her uncle, Lord Crispin Rowley, had finally decided to fulfil the promise he made her dying mother to give Fliss a Season – but she isn’t interested.  She doesn’t want a Season and she doesn’t want a husband, but Sister Ursuline insists she should travel to London and have an adventure – which has, so far, proved to be a huge disappointment.  Rowley hasn’t taken Fliss anywhere she wants to go, insisting instead on dragging her to boring balls and parties, but being leered at and squinting at blurry figures (Rowley insists she leave off her spectacles) from the sidelines of a ballroom isn’t exactly the type of adventure she had in mind.

Jake is pleasantly surprised when he discovers that the lovely woman he’d been observing from his vantage point at the edge of the ballroom at Almack’s is none other than the woman he’s been instructed to seduce.  He’d been expecting a dowdy, nunnish-type, not a lush beauty with honey-gold hair, a spectacular figure and a dry sense of humour, who is nowhere near as impressionable as he’d been led to believe.  They converse amiably for a short while, until Jake, still tired and annoyed at the cancellation of his leave, makes a misstep and attempts to soften her up too quickly. Fliss’ warm, friendly manner evaporates and she makes it clear she’s seen through Jake’s practiced charm and hackneyed compliments and has no further interest in conversing with him.

Jake is – reluctantly – impressed.  And intrigued.  And just a bit ashamed. For the first time, he feels an element of distaste about the fact that he uses sex as a means to extract information – although he can’t allow himself to dwell on it as he still has a job to do.  Fliss’ summary dismissal of him may have stirred the first genuine interest he’s felt in a woman in years, but he can’t lose sight of his mission; so over the next few days, he contrives to encounter her on several occasions in an attempt to wear down her resistance and to see what she can be induced to tell him about her uncle.

Fliss can’t deny that she’s been attracted to Jake since the first time they met, but she’s not interested in charming, sexy and gorgeous, she wants respectable and dependable.  She is determined to steer clear of him, but somehow, he’s always there when she needs help, and keeps turning up at the social events her uncle insists she attend… and the more time she spends with Jake, the more Fliss can’t help liking him.  She sees something – very occasionally – behind the suave, rakish façade that interests her, the possibility that there lies a man of more substance than he is willing to reveal to the world; he’s amusing, self-deprecating and genuinely charming, and she can’t help falling for him.

Jake is similarly smitten, finding Fliss’ lack of artifice totally refreshing and admiring her honesty – she’s “Blunt by name and blunt by nature” – even if it is a but brutal at times.  He finds it harder and harder to reconcile his growing feelings for her with his instructions to use her in order to get close to her uncle, but Rowley is obviously up to his neck in something both nefarious and dangerous, and Jake has no choice but to continue with his deception.

One of the many things I’ve really enjoyed about all the books in the Wild Warriners series is the family dynamic the author has created between the brothers.  They’ve not had it easy, courtesy of generations of scandalous, spendthrift relatives, and until recently, they’ve struggled to make ends meet – yet the love they bear towards each other is unstinting and permeates all their scenes together.  In the book’s prologue, we learn of a long-buried and painful secret Jake has carried since childhood, which has set him apart from his brothers to an extent and has obviously shaped the man he has become.  Ms. Heath doesn’t allow it to turn Jake into one of those ‘woe-is-me’ overly brooding types, but it has obviously informed many of his choices as an adult, and she very skilfully brings us full-circle towards the end of the novel as Fliss and Jake’s brothers finally help him to overcome it and put it to rest.

Boasting a strong plotline, two attractive central characters with scorching chemistry and a wonderful cast of secondary characters, A Warriner to Seduce Her is a superb end to an excellent series, and is the third (or fourth?) novel of Ms. Heath’s to grace my Keeper shelf.  And there’s more good news;  her next series, featuring Jake’s colleagues from the King’s Elite, is on the way – I can’t wait to meet The Mysterious Lord Millcroft in August.

A Warriner to Tempt Her (Wild Warriners #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A shy innocent

She’s wary of all men.

In this The Wild Warriners story, shy Lady Isabella Beaumont is perfectly happy to stay in the background and let her sister get all the attention from handsome suitors following a shocking incident. However working with Dr Joseph Warriner to help the sick and needy pushes her closer to a man than she’s ever been before. Is this a man worth trusting with her deepest of desires..?

Rating: A-

Shall we take a moment or three to appreciate that cover? *sigh*

In the three years or so that she’s been a published author, Virginia Heath has gone from strength to strength, having produced coming up for ten novels, all of which I’ve read, enjoyed and rated highly.  A Warriner to Tempt Her, the third book in her Wild Warriners series, takes place around five years after the events of A Warriner to Rescue Her, and in it, we find Joseph – the third of the Warriner brothers – qualified as a doctor and working in Retford, not too far from the family home.

Readers of the previous books in the series will recall that the brothers – the eldest of whom is the Earl of Markham – haven’t had an easy time of it.  Thanks to their father and grandfather, who ran up debts, drank, gambled and chased skirt to excess, the current generation – while nothing like their debauched forebears – has been very much tarred with the same brush, and the locals are wary and keep their distance.  In spite of the family’s tarnished name, however, Joe is kept busy treating Retford’s less well-off denizens, the ones who can’t afford the services of the pompous – and old-fashioned – Dr. Bentley.  Joe is forward-thinking, dedicated, hard-working…  and a bit of a romantic at heart; he is nursing a crush on the beautiful Lady Clarissa Beaumont, eldest daughter of the Earl of Braxton, even though he knows he has no chance with her whatsoever and has to content himself with worshipping her from afar.

Clarissa is an Incomparable whose blonde curls and sparkling blue eyes ensure she is fêted wherever she goes, but her sister Lady Isabella is a different matter entirely.  Just as lovely, but dark where Clarissa is fair, Isabella is a bit of an enigma, and in spite of himself, Joe is intrigued. They have crossed paths occasionally at the children’s home run by the Countess of Markham (Joe’s sister-in-law), where Isabella volunteers in the infirmary, but Joe finds her awkward, standoffish and sometimes outright rude.

Isabella is really none of those things, but a violent assault she suffered around a year earlier has left her much changed. The physical scars have long since faded, but the mental ones are ever present, and she hates that her memories of that night have turned her into someone she doesn’t recognise as Isabella Beaumont.  Her family did what they thought was best for her, and she was subjected to the sort of remedy that was believed, at the time, to be efficacious in the treatment of mental imbalance – such as being strapped to a chair and doused with icy water – but when that didn’t work (there’s a surprise!) she asked her family remove from London for a time, hoping that a change of scenery would help her to move on and find her true self again.

And she does feel that little by little, she’s moving forward.  For a while after what her family has termed the incident, Isabella couldn’t bear loud noises or crowds and didn’t leave the house, but her fears are gradually receding.  She is still wary of men and still finds it difficult to go out alone, but when Clarissa sullenly refuses to accompany her on her visits to the children’s home any longer, Bella screws up her courage and makes the journey by herself.  Unfortunately, however, her first solo foray ends badly when she is crossing the town square and, courtesy of a cartload of spilled vegetables, sprains her ankle.  In spite of her protests, she finds herself carried to the nearby surgery of the handsome Dr. Warriner (by the handsome doctor himself, no less) who swiftly ascertains that her sprain is nothing worse.

Their conversation is stilted and Joe is once again irritated by Bella’s rudeness, but when he pays a visit to check on her a couple of days later, he begins to think that perhaps she’s not rude, but shy; and after she returns to her work in the infirmary, he is surprised to discover that she reads medical journals and is knowledgeable about current treatments and medical matters in general.  Increasingly impressed by Bella’s keen mind and her capacity to learn new skills and apply them, Joe offers to teach her as much as he can.  Women at this period in time were not permitted to become doctors, and young ladies of Isabella’s status were not expected to undertake work of any sort, but she clearly has a talent for healing and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.  For Bella, working at the infirmary has become a life-line of sorts, and with each passing day, she begins to feel more and more like her old self.

Joe is increasingly drawn to Bella and she to him, although she is still skittish around him, and Joe finds it difficult to reconcile her sudden and inexplicable retreats from him with the compassionate, approachable young woman he is beginning to see more and more often.  Bella is both surprised and relieved to discover that the ability to feel attraction and desire weren’t taken away from her, but while she recognises the need to conquer her fear of physical intimacy – she isn’t sure if she can.

I am always a little apprehensive when I read that a character in a book has suffered a horrible trauma, because sometimes characters are SO damaged (in order to create drama) that it’s hard to believe they can recover during the span of the book.  Here, however, I’m happy to say that Ms. Heath has done a splendid job with Isabella, whose thought processes make perfect sense. Her fears are understandable, as is her impatience with herself and her worries that if she doesn’t ‘get back to normal’ soon, she will be subjected to more horrible and invasive treatments.  Bella knows that the answers lie within herself and that she’s the only one who can break down the walls of self-protection she built up after the attack. She has begun the process through her work at the infirmary, and with each new experience and with the benefit of Joe’s unwavering support and belief in her, we witness Bella taking back her self, a little bit at a time.

Another thing that impressed me about the story is the amount of research Ms. Heath must have done into the medical practices and extent of medical knowledge of the time.  These aspects are very skilfully and subtly integrated into the storyline without making the reader feel as though they are being subjected to a lesson or pushing the romance aside; Joe and Isabella are clearly dedicated medical practitioners and not just characters in a book who pick up a stethoscope now and again.

In A Warriner to Tempt Her, Virginia Heath has created a gorgeous slow-burn romance, two attractive, likeable protagonists and an absorbing storyline infused with lots of interesting historical detail.  It’s not necessary to have read the earlier books in order to enjoy this one, but I’d recommend them all (especially as one thoroughly unpleasant recurring character finally gets his comeuppance here!) and am eagerly awaiting the final book – Jake’s story – in the coming months.