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VIRTUAL TOUR: A Duke in Shining Armor (Difficult Dukes #1) by Loretta Chase

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Not all dukes are created equal. Most are upstanding members of Society. And then there’s the trio known as Their Dis-Graces.

Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, will never win prizes for virtue. But even he draws the line at running off with his best friend’s bride. All he’s trying to do is recapture the slightly inebriated Lady Olympia Hightower and return her to her intended bridegroom.

For reasons that elude her, bookish, bespectacled Olympia is supposed to marry a gorgeous rake of a duke. The ton is flabbergasted. Her family’s ecstatic. And Olympia? She’s climbing out of a window, bent on a getaway. But tall, dark, and exasperating Ripley is hot on her trail, determined to bring her back to his friend. For once, the world-famous hellion is trying to do the honorable thing.

So why does Olympia have to make it so deliciously difficult for him . . . ?

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, November 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1833
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Charming, clever, funny and romantic in equal parts, A Duke in Shining Armor is a wonderful start to Ms. Chase’s newest series, Difficult Dukes.  The difficult duke in this case is trying, for the first time in his life, to do the right thing.  Unfortunately for our beleaguered hero, he’s trying to do the right thing on behalf of a bewildered heroine, who’s become hopelessly entangled in trying not to do the wrong thing.  Confused?  So was he.  Marvelously so.  Our principals are forced together on the road trip from hell, wherein everything that can go wrong, does.  Except, it doesn’t.  Because when the couple finally reaches what they think is the end of the road, their arrival marks the start of a very different kind of journey – a lifetime together.  Just as fate intended.

When Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, returns to England after a year abroad, he’s surprised to discover his boon companion, the Duke of Ashmont – aka ‘His Grace with the Angel Face,’ – engaged to be married.  Pressed by Ashmont to act as his best man, Ripley applies himself to the role with gusto – ensuring Ashmont makes it to the altar after a night of carousing and a brief street brawl.  Unfortunately, and despite his best efforts, things quickly go awry.  The bride, Lady Olympia Hightower, is nowhere to be found, and Ashmont is steadily drinking himself into a stupor. Hoping to avoid a scene and eager to move things along, Ripley takes it upon himself to track down the missing bride.  When he does, he’s completely unprepared for the sight that greets him:  Lady Olympia Hightower, dressed in a frothy concoction of lace and tulle and beads, balanced on the window ledge.  After spotting Ripley, she tells him she just needs a breath of air, drops out of the window and starts running; Ripley, the ever dutiful groomsman, is forced to follow. In the rain. Without his hat.

Lady Olympia isn’t quite sure how she found herself on the run from her own wedding. After spending the majority of seven London Seasons as a perpetual wallflower, voted Most Boring Girl of the Season seven years in a row, Olympia had little hope of landing one of the eligible bachelors who paid her little notice.  But when the handsome and wealthy Duke of Ashmont asked her to marry him, Olympia didn’t hesitate to do her duty.  The only daughter of the spendthrift Duke of Gonerby, sister to six brothers, Olympia quickly grasped that marriage to Ashmont was an answer to her family’s unspoken prayers.  Her parents are ecstatic, Ashmont is smitten, and Olympia… well, she’s been having serious second thoughts.  So that’s why, on the morning of her wedding, bolstered by several cups of brandy-laced tea, Olympia finds herself with one foot on either side of the open library window, plotting her escape.  She’s in the midst of a tipsy pep talk when the Duke of Ripley opens the door and spots her.  Fueled by liquid courage, Olympia drops to the ground and takes off.

Olympia tries hard to shake Ripley.  As their road trip from hell gets underway, she’s slightly drunk, frustrated by her uncomfortable attire, and annoyed by her handsome companion.  He refuses to simply let her go and insists, between entreaties to return to the wedding ceremony, on accompanying her to her aunt’s home in Twickenham – where she hopes to hide and ride out the disgrace of bolting from her own wedding.  To her dismay, it soon becomes clear to her that Ripley is nothing like she assumed.  He’s intelligent, clever, funny – his wicked and dry sense of humor is simply delicious – and once she gets a glimpse of him sans clothes (you’ll see), she can’t shake a very inconvenient attraction to… well, every single thing about him.  A sober Olympia finds herself daydreaming about her very stubborn champion, wishing he was the man she was destined to marry.  But after a lifetime spent on the shelf, unnoticed and underappreciated, Olympia’s skewed vision of herself leaves her with all kinds of doubt about her own appeal to a man like Ripley.  Certain she offers little that would appeal to the handsome rake, Olympia is resigned to a life of infamy after jilting the Duke of Ashmont.

Ripley is determined to return Olympia to Ashmont, and even as each of his overly optimistic plans fail, he’s relentlessly hopeful that things will somehow turn out in the end.  He can’t quite believe Ashmont landed Olympia for his duchess, but he tries to do right by his friend.  Meanwhile, as the trip progresses and he’s forced to spend time with Olympia, Ripley begins to recognize she’s everything he never realized he wanted and needed in his own life.   Ripley starts to resent Ashmont, wanting beautiful, funny, sharp and intelligent Olympia for himself.  He’s frustrated by Olympia’s self-doubt and insecurity, and annoyed at the part he played in making her feel that way. She’s magnificent and he can’t help his attraction to everything about her – her mind, her body, her sense of humor, her beauty… Ripley, world renowned rake, falls hard for his bespectacled companion and it’s awesome.

When all his best laid plans go awry, and Ashmont fails to catch up to them, Ripley eventually steers them to the home of his favorite aunt, Lady Charles Ancaster.  Aunt Julia, who practically raised the three Dis-Graces (Ripley, Ashmont, and their friend, Blackwood), is quick to chastise her nephew for his role in the debacle of Olympia’s wedding day… but she also sees what Ripley and Olympia try hard not to – that they’ve fallen in love.  She’s a terrific secondary character, playing a pivotal role in the second act/resolution of the story.  If she wasn’t a fictional character, I’d be tempted to high-five her.

Reader, because the journey – with all of its highlights and lowlights (and there are many) – is such a delightfully entertaining trip, I’m reluctant to spoil it for you.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say that nothing goes as planned, and in the span of a few short days, Ms. Chase somehow crafts a love match between Olympia and Ripley that feels profoundly real, romantic and special.  Meanwhile, Ashmont and Blackwood desperately try to track the pair down – and Ripley, determined to honor his friendship, tries valiantly not to fall for Olympia.  His friendship and loyalty are tested as the novel comes to a close, but Ms. Chase deftly delivers a happily ever after that honors both.  I’m eager to find out just who the sweetly befuddled Ashmont ends up with – and to discover what’s led to the estrangement between Blackwood and his wife, Ripley’s sister.  Ripley’s story is a marvelous introduction to the trio, and I can’t wait for more of these Difficult Dukes.

Loretta Chase was a favorite historical romance author before I picked up A Duke in Shining Armor. But this romantic, funny, enchanting and redemptive road trip from hell is simply terrific and her best, most memorable work to date.   A Duke in Shining Armor is one of my favorite novels of 2017.


EXCERPT

Prologue
London
Early morning of 11 June 1833

The Duke of Ashmont was not a very good duke—rather an awful one, actually. And so nobody could be in the least surprised to see him, drunk as an emperor—that was to say, ten times as drunk as a lord—staggering down the steps of Crockford’s Club on the arm of one of his two best friends.

This one was Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley. Where Ashmont was fair-haired, blue-eyed, and angelic-­looking, Ripley was dark. Unlike Ashmont, he did not appear to be spun of dreams and gossamer, and women did not follow his movements with the moonstruck expressions they accorded His Grace with the Angel Face.

On a good day, someone had said once, Ripley’s face resembled that of a wolf who’d been in too many fights.

Furthermore, though his slightly older title ranked him a notch or two higher in precedence than Ashmont, Ripley was merely as drunk as a lord. He could still distinguish up from down. When, therefore, His Grace of Ashmont showed an inclination to stumble in the downhill direction, toward St. James’s Palace, Ripley hauled him about.

“This way,” he said. “Hackney stand up ahead.” “Right,” Ashmont said. “Can’t miss the wedding.

Not this one. It’s me doing it. Me and Olympia. Have to be there. Promised.”

“You will be,” Ripley said as he led his friend across the street. The wedding had been news to him, the choice of bride a shock: Lady Olympia Hightower, of all women. She was the last girl on earth he’d thought would marry Ashmont—or any of them, for that matter.

Not that Ripley knew her very well. Or at all. They’d been introduced, yes, years ago. That was in the days when respectable persons still introduced Ripley and his two friends to innocent girls. But those were not the kinds of girls the ducal trio wanted. Gently bred maidens were for marrying, and marriage was sup-posed to be years away, sometime in the dim, distant future.

Apparently, the future had arrived while Ripley wasn’t looking.

First the Duke of Blackwood, the other of his two boon companions, had married Ripley’s sister over a year ago, a few days before Ripley left for the Conti-nent. Now Ashmont was doing it. Ripley had heard the happy news mere hours after his return to London yesterday.

No, he’d returned the day before, because today was yesterday now. He’d come to Crockford’s because he wanted a decent meal, and Crockford’s Ude was the next best thing to Ripley’s own chef, Chardot, who’d come down with a foul cold sometime during the Channel crossing.

Chardot went with him everywhere because he was amply paid to do so, and Ripley liked his comfort. Having been forced, for no sane reason, to live like a pauper during his boyhood, he lived like a king now.

Ripley was debating with himself whether, on the whole, he’d better have stayed abroad, when four men spilled out of a narrow court, one crashing into Ash-mont, with force enough to dislodge him from Ripley’s light grasp and push him into a shop front.

Ashmont bounced back with surprising energy. “You clumsy, bleeding, half-­wit! I have to get married, you bloody arsehole!” At the same moment, he drove his fist at the fellow’s face.

One of the man’s friends tried to butt in. With a sigh, Ripley grabbed him by the back of the collar. The fel-low swung at him, obliging Ripley to knock him into the gutter.

What happened after that was what often happened when Ashmont was about: a lot of filthy language and filthy fighting, and men rushing out of the clubs, shout-ing bets, and a female or two screaming somewhere.

Then it was over. Their foes lay strewn about the pavement. Ripley didn’t wait to count or identify them. He collected Ashmont from the railing he’d slumped against and trudged to the corner with him. He sig-naled, and the first in line of the hackneys plodded their way. He threw Ashmont into the decrepit coach and directed the driver to Ashmont House.

Servants waited up, as they were accustomed to do, for Ashmont. They bore him up the stairs to his bed-room and undressed and washed him without fuss.


GIVEAWAY – CLICK HERE

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of A Duke In Shining Armor by Loretta Chase.  This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 12/5/2017 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address.  Duplicates will be deleted.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Loretta Chase has worked in academia, retail, and the visual arts, as well as on the streets-as a meter maid-and in video, as a scriptwriter. She might have developed an excitingly checkered career had her spouse not nagged her into writing fiction. Her bestselling historical romances, set in the Regency and Romantic eras of the early 19th century, have won a number of awards, including the Romance Writers of America’s Rita. For more about her past, her books, and what she does and doesn’t do on social media, please visit her website www.LorettaChase.com.

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At the Christmas Wedding by Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale and Katharine Ashe

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Snowed in at a castle full of handsome lords, three young ladies are about to have the holiday of their lives…

Map of a Lady’s Heart by Caroline Linden

The road to happily-ever-after… With Kingstag Castle full of guests and the snow falling, Viola Cavendish has her hands full making sure the Christmas house party runs smoothly. The unexpected arrival of the Earl of Winterton and his nephew Lord Newton upends everything. Not only is Lord Newton flirting with the young ladies Viola is supposed to chaperone, Lord Winterton himself makes her pulse race.
Always takes some twists and turns Wesley Morane, Earl of Winterton, has come to Kingstag Castle in search of a valuable atlas, and he refuses to be deterred by the snow, the house party, his nephew, or even the most ridiculous play ever staged. But before long the only map he wants is one that shows him the way to Viola’s heart…

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale

Jilted by a duke: Lady Serena Cavendish was born and bred to be a duchess. Too bad, then, that the Duke of Frye mysteriously and suddenly ended their betrothal.
Seduced by a Rogue: Greyson Jones, an agent of the crown, is the only one who thinks being jilted has made Serena more alluring. When he lucks into an invitation to a Christmas house party at Kingstag Castle to cheer her up—and perhaps find her a husband—he seizes the opportunity to win her heart before they might be parted forever.
On the way to the altar: Their journey to happily ever after involves a ridiculous play, a lovesick swan, a mysterious gift and, of course, a kiss.

Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe

The last time Lady Charlotte Ascot bumped into the Duke of Frye, she climbed a tree to avoid him. Sometimes it’s simply easier to run away than to face her feelings for him — overwhelmingly passionate feelings that no modest lady should have! Now, on her way to Kingstag Castle to celebrate the holidays with friends, Charlotte is trapped by a snowstorm at a tiny country inn with the duke of her steamiest dreams.
But Frye has a secret of his own, and Christmas is the ideal time to finally tell the woman he’s always wanted the whole unvarnished truth. Better yet, he’ll show her…

Publisher and Release Date: The Lady Authors, October 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance anthology
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars overall (4, 3 and 5 for the individual novellas)

Review by Em

I’ve enjoyed quite a few holiday themed stories in the latter half of 2017, so I picked up At the Christmas Wedding with high expectations. In this latest collaboration from Caroline Linden, Maya Rodale and Katharine Ashe, a group of friends and strangers find themselves snowbound at Kingstag Castle for a holiday house party. Thus, a group of handsome lords and lovely ladies are afforded ample opportunity to make mischief whilst spending their free time staging an elaborate (ridiculous) play. The novellas comprising At the Christmas Wedding take place concurrently, and feature the same cast of characters – but that’s where their similarities end. Each romance is delightfully charming in its own way – but only one stole my heart. Romantic, festive, short and sweet… this is the perfect pick-up during a lazy holiday afternoon.

Map of a Lady’s Heart by Caroline Linden (4 stars)

When the Duke and Duchess of Wessex are unexpectedly called away shortly before the start of their Christmas house party, responsibility falls to Viola Cavendish, the duchess’s secretary. Calm, unflappable Viola tries not to worry over the group of young people descending on the household, but with the duke and duchess away, the dowager duchess ill and unable to chaperone her three daughters and their guests, and an aunt who delights in all things naughty and wicked… well, Viola has doubts about her own abilities to manage the situation. She’s giving herself a mental pep talk when a pair of unexpected guests arrive. Wesley Morane, Earl of Winterton, accompanied by his nephew Lord Newton, has come to speak to the duke about a rare atlas he might have in his collection.

Wesley Morane is desperate to locate an atlas that formerly belonged to his father, and is convinced the duke is the new owner. He’s dismayed to learn the duke is away, but arriving in the midst of a house party – with guests of similar age to occupy the attentions of his bored, spoiled nephew – and an opportunity to peruse the duke’s library at his leisure, he’s not unhappy with the situation. He pays little heed to the ridiculous play being staged by the duke’s youngest sister, but nonetheless finds his search unexpectedly distracted by Viola.

Viola is irritated by the surprise arrival of the Earl of Winterton and his nephew, but unhesitatingly folds them into the assembled party. Unfortunately, however, Winterton is a handsome and distracting guest. She finds herself seeking him out when the group is assembled and caught out when he seems to return her interest. Following an early misunderstanding when Viola realizes Winterton inveigled an invitation to the house party under false pretenses, the two form a friendship of sorts. Viola is sympathetic to Winterton’s interest in the atlas, but unconvinced the duke will part with it.

As the house party continues apace, Viola and Wesley find reasons to be together. Viola, resistant to an affair with Wesley, inexorably finds herself drawn to him, and Wesley is similarly unable to resist her. Their longing for each other is intense and wonderful, and the passionate, clandestine love affair that follows is superbly done; I enjoyed every bit of it. Map of a Lady’s Heart is a sophisticated second chance love story, though I found the secondary plot – the bizarre and unfunny play (no matter how hard Ms. Linden tried to sell it) written by the duke’s youngest sister – distracting and unnecessary.

Hot Rogue on a Cold Night by Maya Rodale (3 stars)

Much like other novels by Ms. Rodale, I loved the idea of Hot Rogue on a Cold Night much more than the actual story. Greyson Jones, a close friend of the Duke of Frye, has long loved Lady Serena Cavendish, but her longstanding engagement to his friend meant he could never pursue her. When Frye inexplicably jilts Serena, Greyson adds further insult by insinuating, in public, that being jilted has finally made her interesting. When Mr. Jones shows up at Kingstag – without Frye -Serena tries hard to hide her dismay (and hurt), slighting Greyson and focusing her attentions on another, more eligible, gentleman in attendance.

Greyson – who is due to leave for India in a week’s time – regrets the words that hurt Serena and knows he will have to work fast to win her over. But he believes his life – as a diplomat destined to travel the world for Crown and country – will appeal to the much sheltered Serena. Clearly out of her depth as a house party hostess, curious about the world around her, Greyson sets out to show her all the amazing adventures she might miss in settling. The play, which was so irksome in the first novella, fortuitously places him in close proximity to Serena and chances to show her what a partnership between them might mean.

I liked all the elements that made up this story – including the ridiculous play – and Greyson, charming, suave, and supremely dry, is pure romance catnip. Unrequited love is a favorite trope of mine and he wears it well. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as fond of the seemingly fickle Serena. She’s insecure, slightly silly and only starting to learn what kind of woman she wants to be. I never could see what (beyond her beauty) Greyson saw in her, but since I’m not marrying her, I wish him all the best.

Snowy Night with a Duke by Katharine Ashe (5 stars)

Snowy Night With a Duke is the best and most romantic of the three novellas that comprise At the Christmas Wedding. I swooned, sighed and melted over this much too brief love story; if had to pick a favorite short story of 2017, this would be a frontrunner.

Charlotte Ascot, after a prolonged absence from England, is en route to Kingstag when her carriage gets trapped by a snowstorm and she’s forced to bide her time at a tiny country inn with other similarly stranded travelers. Charlotte has been (hiding) in America ever since a last painful encounter with the Duke of Frye wherein she climbed a tree in order to avoid him. The pain of her unrequited love and sadness over his betrothal – to her closest friend – was too much to bear. She’s determined to overcome her feelings for Frye… when, much to her surprise, she spots him in a battle of fisticuffs in the courtyard of the inn.

The Duke of Frye, masquerading as Mr. Horace Church, is enjoying a staged fight with good friend Lord Fortier when he spots Charlotte Ascot (whom he’s loved since childhood) standing on the threshold of the inn. Distracted, he misses his cue and takes a hard shot to the chin. Frye can’t believe his eyes; he thought Charlotte was still in America… but she’s here. When she approaches him in the stables (where he’s been tossed for fighting) to clean his wounds, and begins berating him for fighting, Frye isn’t quite sure how to handle her. Under the nomme de guerre Horace Church, he and Lord Fortier – who do the odd job on behalf of the Crown – are on the hunt for a con-man who takes advantage of elderly travelers. They think they have their man… but Frye can’t risk Charlotte revealing his identity and putting the investigation at risk.

Charlotte is undaunted by Frye’s vague responses to her questions, while he, thrilled that she is finally back in England, matches her quick wit and tough questions with his own delicious interrogation about where she’s been and why she hid from him. The conversation marks the start of a new slightly adversarial relationship between these star-crossed lovers.

The chemistry sparkles and snaps between Frye and Charlotte and fortunately for us, so does the passion. They finally stop fighting it and finally give in to the fantasy of loving each other that they’ve both nurtured in their secret hearts for years. But Frye is keeping one last secret from Charlotte and he’s determined to push her away.

Well folks, Frye is romantic, awesome, and sexy and Ms. Ashe gives him some of the best dialogue I’ve read this year. Charlotte, his similarly marvelous match, hears him out and then tells him how things are actually going to go. Yep, she sets him straight. It’s brilliant, they’re brilliant and if I have a complaint about Snowy Night With a Duke, it’s that I wish it were longer.

Someone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh

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When Alexander Westcott becomes the new Earl of Riverdale, he inherits a title he never wanted and a failing country estate he can’t afford. But he fully intends to do everything in his power to undo years of neglect and give the people who depend on him a better life . . .

A recluse for more than twenty years, Wren Heyden wants one thing out of life: marriage. With her vast fortune, she sets her sights on buying a husband. But when she makes the desperate-and oh-so-dashing-earl a startlingly unexpected proposal, Alex will only agree to a proper courtship, hoping for at least friendship and respect to develop between them. He is totally unprepared for the desire that overwhelms him when Wren finally lifts the veils that hide the secrets of her past . . .

Publisher and Release Date:  Berkley, November 2017

Time and Setting:
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Someone to Wed is the third in Mary Balogh’s charming Westcott series, showing readers more of the dramatic changes brought to the family by the late Earl of Riverdale’s bigamy.  This time the focus is on Alexander Westcott, the reluctant heir to the title who finds that his elevation in status comes with its own set of challenges.

Alexander had been quite happy with the direction his life was taking him.  Through years of hard work he had turned his family estates around and was ready for the next chapter of his life as a landed gentleman.  Sadly, through the misdeeds of his second cousin, that path was changed and at thirty Alexander has to restart his life as the Earl of Riverdale.  The title is flush with property, including the family seat of Brambeldean Court, and tenants dependent on the lands; however all of the money to run the estates was inherited by the late earl’s legitimate daughter.  Alex has little money of his own and Brambledean Court has been mismanaged for too long to refill the family’s coffers.  It upsets the young man’s pride to even consider that the fastest way to gain a fortune is to marry a woman with a large dowry but the reality is he may have to sacrifice his own plans for the good of his title.

Having grown up as a neighbor to the virtually abandoned Brambeldean Court, Miss Wren Heyden knows about Alexander’s new financial problems.  Alone after the death of her aunt and uncle, Wren has decided to use the large fortune she inherited from them to buy the one thing she has never had, the attention of a man.  Inviting the impoverished new Earl to tea, Wren hopes to entice Alexander with the promise of wealth if he’ll marry her and show her the physical pleasures of a courtship.  Their first meeting does not go as smoothly as Wren hoped, as she’s flustered by Alexander’s attractiveness as well as his hostility when she makes her offer of marriage.

For his part, Alex is shocked by the impropriety of meeting Wren virtually alone and it puts him on his guard.  It doesn’t help matters when the woman is completely hidden from view by the veil over her face.  Her cool offer of a convenient marriage comes across like a business transaction where he’s the commodity being traded.  Wanting to throw the woman off her game Alex asks to see her face before he will commit to anything.  Reluctantly Wren agrees and shows Alex the disfigurement – a large, purple birthmark – that has made her a recluse for almost twenty years.  Sensing that Alexander has already made up his mind about her offer Wren dismisses him but she’s surprised when instead he challenges her to meet him again at his estate.

When Wren arrives at Brambledean Court a week later it’s the start of a very strained courtship between the two.  For as much as Alexander comes to admire Wren’s independence, there is something about her demeanor that keeps him on guard.  Wren herself is uncomfortable in Alex’s company and despite his assurances that her marked face is something easily overlooked she still uses it to convince herself that Alex is the wrong person for her.  As Easter approaches and Alex discusses his plans to leave the country for London, Wren decides to withdraw her proposal and release Alex from any obligation he feels towards her.  It’s a painful choice, as Wren has come to admire Alex, but she knows it’s the best for them both.

Alexander arrives back in London resigned to the idea that marrying a woman with money is still the only way to save his estates; however each young lady he meets pales in comparison to Wren.  Feeling that he may have made the wrong decision to leave her behind, Alex is surprised when he sees her familiar figure walking along the Serpentine.  Wren had sworn she would never visit London – it had been one point of contention between them – yet there she is, running away from him.  Alex chases her down and, unwilling to let her disappear ,he invites her to stay with his family in town while allowing him to escort her during her visit.  Wren is reluctant to accept but when his family opens their arms to her in friendship it makes the decision easier.  Seeing Wren accepted by his mother and sister reinforces Alex’s own changed feelings for Wren.  He makes it his goal to show Wren that she can trust him and that there might be a future for them after all.

Someone to Wed is a slow-burning romance that is a pleasant change of pace from other stories with a similar storyline.  Alex and Wren aren’t driven by lust or their physical attraction into hasty choices;  instead they truly get to know each other before leaping into marriage.  Their relationship builds over time, with the uncomfortable getting-to-know-you phase happening in the safe and private confines of Brambledean Court or Wren’s home in the country.  When they separate it forces both Alex and Wren to think about those moments and what they meant.  As things pick up in London, there is more ease to their interactions and Alex becomes that safe place for Wren to expose herself and her self-doubts without fear of rejection.  Having that foundation makes their emotions true when they can admit just how much they feel for each other.

The dramas of the extended Westcott family come into play during Wren and Alex’s courtship and I liked how Wren inherently understands how important that dynamic is to Alex.  Her love for him shines through when she can put aside her discomfort around people to help his cousin or to invite the former countess and her daughter to return to the Westcott fold.  Alex isn’t blind to Wren’s sacrifices for his family and he protects her with everything he is when her own family secrets are exposed.  It’s very easy to love both main characters for their strength but they are also to be admired for their frailties and how they each overcome those problems.

I enjoy Mary Balogh’s stories for all of the emotion she conveys while still keeping her characters grounded in the societal norms of the times.  In Someone to Wed there are no grand and over the top declarations of love between Alex and Wren, yet the feelings they share come across so strongly, I was reluctant to put the book down.  Knowing that the former Countess of Riverdale’s story is next I’m eager to see how this incredible family will continue to strengthen their bonds around their most frayed connection.

 

 

No Other Duke Will Do (Windham Brides #3) by Grace Burrowes

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Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford, is barely keeping his head above water in a sea of inherited debts. Though he has a long-term plan to restore the family finances, his sister has a much faster solution: host a house party for London’s single young ladies and find Julian a wealthy bride.

Elizabeth Windham has no interest in marriage, but a recent scandal has forced her hand. As much as she’d rather be reading Shakespeare than husband-hunting, she has to admit she’s impressed by Julian’s protective instincts, broad shoulders, and, of course, his vast library.

As the two spend more time together, their attraction is overwhelming, unexpected… and absolutely impossible. With meddling siblings, the threat of financial ruin, and gossips lurking behind every potted palm, will they find true love or true disaster?

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, November 2017

Time and Setting: Haverford Castle, Wales, 1820s
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

If you grow weary of reading about rakes and villains and the seamier sides of 19th century Great Britain, turn to a Grace Burrowes book for a change of pace. I suggest No Other Duke Will Do (ignore the silly title) for the story of two good and honorable people who find their way to a happy ending despite bumps in the road. They come from warm, loving families whose members appear as engaging secondary characters. There are no deep dark secrets. No Big Misunderstandings. No kidnappings. Just two adults who talk to one another like adults and who listen to one another and who fall in love. Nobody tells these stories of romantic and familial love better than Grace Burrowes.

Elizabeth Windham is the eldest daughter of Lord Anthony Windham, the younger brother of Percival Windham, Duke of Moreland. Burrowes’ Windham Series told the stories of the Duke and his beloved Duchess and their five daughters and three sons, with the duke constantly attempting to interfere in their romantic pursuits. Now that Percival has gotten his own children married off, he and the duchess have turned their attention to their four nieces. In two previous Windham Brides series, the two youngest girls have married a Scottish duke and the duke’s heir apparent, respectively.

As the book opens, the London season has ended, prompting Elizabeth and spitfire sister Charlotte to agree, somewhat reluctantly, to take part in a house party at Haverford Castle in Wales, the country seat of Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford. The party has been organized by Julian’s sister Glenys in hopes of turning up a suitable duchess for her brother. For his part, Julian has no intention of marrying any time soon, but he hopes the party will produce a husband for his sister.

Julian’s marriage plans are on hold because he is virtually penniless. For decades, both his father and grandfather had spent lavishly to acquire rare books and manuscripts, depleting the estate’s assets to do so. Now, Haverford Castle is home to some 30,000 volumes, but the carpets are threadbare and the furniture is worn. Julian has calculated that it will take him eight years to pay off his debts, so until then he will remain single, weighed down with a burden that he did not deserve. That is unless he marries an heiress. But Julian is an honorable, loving man, and the notion of marrying for money is distasteful to him.

Elizabeth is a lover of books, so her motive for visiting Haverford Castle is not to get married but to explore the fabulous library. She feels no burning desire to be married but neither does the role of “spinster aunt” appeal. Elizabeth is strong, level-headed, competent, and kind, and she immediately likes both Julian and Glenys. They quickly take to her as well, but Julian realizes that even though Elizabeth has a generous dowry she would not bring enough money to save his estate. Besides, he shies at the idea of spending all of his wife’s dowry and leaving her no provision after his death.

Most of Julian’s debt is in the hands of his vulgar, social-climbing, immensely wealthy neighbor Lucas Sherbourne, who is as close as we get to a villain in this story. Sherbourne would like to marry Glenys, but if he can’t he is determined to call in Julian’s debts and ruin him. He would also like to establish coal mines in the area, but Julian has managed to block his plans. When Sherbourne crashes the house party, Julian is too much of a gentleman to send him packing, and before the book ends, there are hints of a tendre between him and Charlotte. (We shall have to wait for the next book to see what happens there.)

One of the things that I enjoy about house party romances is how the main couple is able to come together slowly and naturally, and in this book, it is not just Julian and Elizabeth who are headed toward a happy ending. Glenys has an admirer in the form of the Marquess of Radnor, Julian’s closest friend and owner of the neighboring estate. Despite his wealth and attractive presence, Radnor is reluctant to offer for Glenys because he believes that she views him merely as a friend. He is right about that, but then Glenys doesn’t think of love and marriage for herself, only for her brother. Then there is Julian’s cousin Hugh St. David, whose wife Delphine is a comet streaking across the firmament of willing young men. Elizabeth observes that if the fossil-hunting Hugh didn’t totally ignore his wife she might behave differently.

The story of Julian’s younger brother Griffin is the most moving of the secondary characters. Griffin is mentally challenged; today we might call him autistic, but I won’t attempt a diagnosis. Once Griffin reached adulthood Julian set him up in a cottage on the estate, with elderly Abner Jones and his young niece Biddy to look after him. Griffin is a lovely, gentle man, and a gentleman despite his limitations. He loves to walk the estate with his faithful dog King Henry, and he knows every plant and animal. The love between him and Julian is deep, and Julian worries because Griffin is his heir yet he is completely unsuited to taking on the responsibilities of a dukedom. Griffin wants to marry Biddy, but of course, the situation is complicated by Griffin’s condition and the chasm between their positions in a class-bound society.

Finally, we get a glimpse of Elizabeth’s and Charlotte’s elderly Aunt Arabella, the Marchioness of Pembroke, who is their chaperone at the house party. Those who have read the Windham books know that Percival was a younger son, sent off to Canada as a soldier. Peter Windham was the eldest son, married to Arabella, but he died very young. There is a touching scene where she confronts Julian about his intentions toward Elizabeth, only to be given the standard speech that Julian is not in a position to marry. Aunt Arabella then recounts the story of her short marriage, and I must admit that it brought tears to my eyes. “By the time he was your age, he could no longer sit a horse for even an hour, and we’d danced our last waltz. You are wasting time, Haverford.”

Now that I’ve mentioned all of these characters, it may seem like they overshadow the main couple, but that is not the case. This is primarily Julian’s and Elizabeth’s story, with concerns about Julian’s financial situation lurking behind all of their interactions. Their attraction is bound up in mutual respect, wit, and intellectual compatibility. Ironically, Julian, who has grown to hate the millstone created by his 30,000 books, falls for a woman who loves books above all else, and the fate of the books is key to their happily ever after.

If I have one criticism of the plotline, it is Julian’s refusal to raise funds by selling some of the books. In this regard, he has rather naively relied upon the advice of London solicitors rather than seeking out knowledgeable bibliophiles. Ultimately, it is a small niggle, as the financial barriers to the couple’s marriage are handled neatly and believably.

As I have said repeatedly, Grace Burrowes is a consummate storyteller, and her talents are evident on every page of this book. If like me, you have enjoyed excursions into Windhamworld, this book provides yet another view of the extended family. If you have never read a Burrowes novel, No Other Duke Will Do is an excellent place to begin.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, narrated by Christian Coulson

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Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.


Publisher and Release Date: Harper Audio, October 2017

Time and Setting: 18th Century England and Europe
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Young Adult/Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 5 stars / Narration: 5 stars

Review by Em

I loved Mackenzi Lee’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue when I read it earlier this year, and when I decided to listen to the audio version in order to review it here, I doubted I could like it any better. Reader, I DID.  A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (in audio) is my favorite book of 2017.  This version, with Christian Coulson’s fabulous, spot-on narration elevates all the best parts of this marvelous book; I laughed, I cried, I grimaced and swooned my way through it.  It’s that good.  Read it – or listen to it (even better) and prepare to fall in love with its naughty, charming, and mischievous hero Henry Montague, his best friend Percy, and indomitable younger sister Felicity as they embark on a truly grand tour.

AGGTVAV is the (sometimes cautionary) tale of two lifelong friends making their Grand Tour told from the point of view of Henry ‘Monty’ Montague.  Monty is an unrepentant rake: handsome, flirtatious, charming, funny, lazy and largely oblivious to his many faults.  Though graced with good looks (and dimples), a winning personality and a wealthy family, life hasn’t been easy for Monty.   His father shows nothing but contempt for him, and his constant abuse – both physical and emotional – has led Monty to believe his life has no value or purpose.  He’s also utterly and completely in love with his best friend Percy, whom he’s convinced has no romantic feelings for him whatsoever. Emotionally adrift, fated to spend his life pining for the one man he can never have, and facing a bleak future at his father’s side, Monty is determined this Grand Tour will be memorable in all the best ways – drinking, debauchery, gambling and wild adventures.

Much to his dismay, Monty’s father has other ideas and informs Monty, moments before their departure, that they will be accompanied by Mr. Lockwood, who will ensure the group (Monty, Percy, and Monty’s younger sister Felicity – en route to a year of finishing school) behave appropriately, soak up the local culture, visit all the most significant and edifying sights. Most worryingly, he will report back and if Monty strays in any way he will be immediately cut-off and forced to make his own way in life.

The group sets off and the Grand Tour is everything Monty hoped it wouldn’t be.  Lockwood barely leaves them time to themselves, Felicity is buried in her books, Monty is rarely permitted a drink, and his heart aches with longing for Percy.  Finally, in a fortuitous turn of events, Monty and Percy manage a night out in Paris.  They drink, they gamble, they flirt… and then they passionately kiss.  Monty can’t believe his good fortune, but in typical Monty fashion mucks things up by hedging about his feelings. The evening ends in harsh words and a distance between them – quite the opposite of how Monty hoped it would unfold.

After their evening out  an awkward tension springs up between the pair and Monty, in typical fashion, promptly makes it worse.  Days later, attending an afternoon garden party at Versailles, he observes Percy talking to another guest who’s clearly (to Monty’s eyes) flirting with his friend.  Assuming the worst, Monty proceeds in short order to tell off his host,  get drunk, engage in an inappropriate liaison, and then, when interrupted in flagrante, runs naked through a room full of party guests to escape.

Much as expected, Mr. Lockwood informs the trio the Grand Tour is over.  He makes plans to drop Felicity at school and Percy in Holland (where he will attend law school), but in a stroke of (good?) luck, their carriage is overtaken by highway robbers.  Forced out of the carriage and onto their knees, it quickly becomes clear these aren’t your typical highwayman, and that they’re looking for something.  After a brief scramble with their captors, Percy manages to knock the leader out with his ever present fiddle case, and the three take off into the woods leaving Mr. Lockwood to fend for himself.  When they finally pause to take stock of their situation, Monty belatedly realizes the men are likely after the small box he swiped as he made his his calamitous exit from Versailles.

Once Monty, Percy and Felicity are separated from Mr. Lockwood, AGGTVAV hits its stride, detailing their misadventures across the Continent as they seek to restore the box to its rightful owner.  There are plot twists, manhunts, guns, double crosses, swords, pirates, true love and more – and you’re never quite sure what (wonderful) thing the author has up her sleeve next.  But it all works, and Monty, our intrepid guide, transcends the busy narrative and steals the show.  Charming, naughty and desperately in love with Percy, Monty somehow begins to find himself as the story unfolds.  Though it would be easy to dismiss Monty as simply a selfish and (disastrously) impetuous teenager, Ms. Lee has crafted a truly delightful, funny and marvelously entertaining hero for the ages.  Monty is far, far from perfect – but his faults are part of his charm, and his adoring – pure – love for Percy, make him impossible to dislike.

Much of what makes AGGTVAV such a great story are the supremely well-written principal and secondary characters.  Percy patiently endures Monty’s frequent and recurring missteps, stoically supporting him through thick and thin.  But despite a relatively privileged life, he’s still the biracial son of a West Indies landowner, and he’s spent a lifetime dealing with the thinly veiled racism and condescension of his peers – and Monty’s ignorance of the same.  For the past few years he’s also been keeping a significant and life changing secret from Monty;  when it comes to light, it threatens the future of their relationship.  When I initially read AGGTVAV, I thought Felicity made a nice contrast to her brother and Percy, but she didn’t particularly stand out to me.  I felt very different listening to the audio version.  A bluestocking in training, Felicity more than holds her own against Monty – she’s smart, wickedly funny, wise and wonderful, and without her, the story just wouldn’t be the same.  She’s a terrific contrast to the sweetness of Percy and naughtiness of her brother and the three of them together are a wonderful combination.

Although Ms. Lee’s writing is fantastic, Christian Coulson’s amazing narration truly brings this story to life.  He perfectly captures Monty’s voice – his charm, his confusion over his feelings for Percy, his sad acceptance of his father’s brutality, his wicked humor, his uncertainty about his life and it’s meaning and I loved his interpretation of the character.  He does a similarly excellent job with Percy’s voice – somber, amused and bemused; and he nails Felicity’s dry sense of humor and no nonsense approach to life.  I wasn’t as fond of his Spanish accent – but that’s a very minor quibble and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the audio at all.  Mr. Coulson is a revelation and his reading of AGGTVAV is nothing short of masterful.  Bravo.

Funny, romantic, and special, A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is this year’s best YA novel; with Christian Coulson’s narration, it’s simply the best – full stop.

Satyr’s Son (Roxton Family Saga #6) by Lucinda Brant

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London, 1786. Lord Henri-Antoine has returned from the Grand Tour to a life of privilege and excess. A vast inheritance allows him every indulgence, free from responsibility. Yet, Henri-Antoine maintains a well-ordered existence, going to great lengths to conceal an affliction few understand and many fear.

Miss Lisa Crisp is a penniless orphan who relies on the charity of relatives to keep her from the poorhouse. Intelligent and unflappable, Lisa will not allow poverty to define her. She leads a useful life working among the sick poor.

Under startling circumstances, Henri-Antoine and Lisa meet. There is instant attraction. When they find themselves attending the same wedding in the country, Henri-Antoine offers Lisa a scandalous proposition, one she should refuse but yearns to accept. Following her heart could ruin them both.

Publisher and Release Date: Sprigleaf Pty., October 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1786
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

In Satyr’s Son, Lucinda Brant has created a worthy conclusion to the Roxton Family Saga. This Cinderella-inspired love story features Henri-Antoine Hesham – the younger son of the late fifth Duke of Roxton and his beloved duchess Antonia – who meets his match in lowly but proud Lisa Crisp. Knowing this to be the last of the series, I joyfully savored this book, as I have its full-length predecessors, and although the earlier books are excellent, one need not have read them in order to enjoy this one. The dramatis personae are numerous, however, so I shall try to sketch them out in this review. The new reader may also choose to refer to the family tree appearing at the beginning of the book.

In Noble Satyr, Henri-Antoine’s parents meet and fall deeply in love, with the duke forsaking his debauched life to experience the unexpected joys of marriage and fatherhood with his much younger wife. Antonia and her “Monseigneur” have thirty wonderful years together, until he dies, and Antonia is inconsolable, almost to the point of madness. In Autumn Duchess however she finds love again with Jonathan Strang Leven, a nabob who inherits a Scottish dukedom from a distant relative. To her and everyone else’s surprise, she gives birth to a daughter, Elsie, now a precocious young miss at age eight.

In Midnight Marriage Julian, their eldest son, is forced by his father to marry the very young Deborah Cavendish and immediately sent on an eight-year grand tour with his tutor, Martin. Thanks to the gods of Romancelandia, Julian and Deb meet again as adults and fall in love. Now, Julian is the sixth Duke of Roxton, and he and his duchess have seven lively children who are the apple of their grandmother’s eye.

Dair Devil and Proud Mary focus on the Fitzstuart/Cavendish clan, Antonia’s cousins. Alasdair Cavendish returned from fighting in the American colonies to become a dashing, self-centered rogue, but he is brought to heel by his love for retiring spinster Rory Talbot. They are now the Earl and Countess of Strathsay. Dair’s sister, Lady Mary, is the heroine of Proud Mary. In the earlier books, Mary was unhappily married to Sir Gerald Cavendish, a self-centered social climber who tried to exploit his connections to the Roxtons. Upon his death, Lady Mary and their daughter Theodora were left virtually destitute, with the estate entailed upon the teenaged heir, Jack. Their neighbor, country squire Christopher Bryce, is Theodora’s guardian, and acting upon the wishes of Sir Gerald he refuses to allow “Teddy” (as she prefers to be called) to mingle with her Roxton relatives. True love wins out however when the socially inferior squire with the scandalous past finally declares his love for Lady Mary and is surprised to find himself welcomed into the extended Roxton tribe.

Whew. Got all that? As Satyr’s Son opens, all of these characters, and more, are planning to gather at Treat, the Roxton estate, for the wedding of Teddy Cavendish to her distant cousin Jack, now Sir John Cavendish, MP. As it happens, the groom has been Henri-Antoine’s closest friend since their schooldays. In the earlier books, Jack and Teddy seemed destined for one another, and now it is coming to pass.

But before the wedding festivities begin, we must become acquainted with Lisa Crisp, the orphaned nineteen-year-old woman who lives with Dr. and Mrs. Warner and assists in Dr. Warner’s dispensary. Although Lisa is Mrs. Warner’s cousin, she is treated as something less than a member of the family yet more than a lowly servant. Mrs. Warner is self-absorbed and indolent, while the doctor is kindly but engrossed by his medical practice. Neither of them gave much thought to Lisa.

Henri-Antoine is busy leading a dissolute life in London in the manner of his late father when a drinking bout at a friend’s home causes him to fall into a seizure. He has suffered from the “falling sickness” (epilepsy) since birth, but his condition is hidden from all except his close family and his pal Jack. By happenstance, Lisa is in the house when this incident occurs, and her medical knowledge allows her to discretely assist Henri-Antoine until the seizure passes. Afterward, he visits the dispensary to thank Lisa and is astonished to see that she toils among the poorest and sickest people in London. When he learns that Lisa helps the doctor’s illiterate patients by writing letters to their families, he buys Lisa a beautiful rosewood writing box with mother-of-pearl inlay. (A short visit to the author’s Pinterest page reveals a picture of such a box, along with other wonderful illustrations.)

Henri-Antoine is intrigued by Lisa, but the two never expect to see one another again. Imagine Lisa’s surprise and delight then when she receives a wedding invitation from her best schoolfriend Teddy. It turns out that Lisa’s aunt was Antonia’s personal maid and close friend for many years, and Antonia had arranged for Lisa to attend an exclusive girls’ school. After rumors of Lisa’s scandalous behavior got her expelled from school, she and Teddy lost touch with one another, but once again fairy-godmother Antonia finds Lisa, and insists that she be allowed to attend the wedding.

The romance between Henri-Antoine and Lisa blooms as they spend time together at Treat. To describe what happens there would be spoilerish, but suffice it to say that Henri-Antoine behaves badly at times, and he is a rather difficult hero to like. Some readers have disapproved of him so much that they graded the book downward, but overall I found his behavior understandable, if not especially admirable. And where Henri-Antoine is sometimes cynical and thoughtless, Lisa is kind and gentle and brings light into his life.

For this reader, the pleasure of catching up with all of the Roxton family nine years after the events in Proud Mary more than made up for some less pleasant parts. Because Lisa is the newcomer to this world, we see the extended Roxton family through Lisa’s eyes and hear their backstories through her ears.

Brant gives her readers her usual perfect mixture of history, romance, and family, setting much of the book in the glittering environs of Treat (think Bleheim Palace). So, time-travel back to 1786 and revel in the setting, the characters, and the story.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

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“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.”

Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet—until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!

Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart, because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret—her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defenses. But when her former fiancé returns, Lizzie realizes that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust—with her heart and her son…

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin/Mills & Boon Historical, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Honestly, when my editor offered me His Mistletoe Wager for review, I had fairly low expectations.  NOT because I don’t like Ms. Heath’s books – I do!  But in general, I’m not fond of Christmas stories or secret babies, and my experience reading Harlequin Historicals has been a bit hit or miss.  So you can imagine my surprise when I fell in love with this book right from the start.  The premise (the wager referenced in the title), the principals, even the secret baby – everything works.  Charming, romantic and funny, His Mistletoe Wager is one of my favorite  books this year, and Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is my new favorite reformed rake. Friends.  Let’s keep it real.   I ❤ Hal.

On the day of her wedding, Lady Elizabeth Wilding is eagerly awaiting her (late) bridegroom.  As her anxious father paces in the vestry next to her, she keeps herself calm with loving thoughts of Charles, the Marquess of Rainham, and the babe she carries – a secret she’s kept for the past two months.  But the wedding never takes place; after a long delay she learns that Charles isn’t coming.  He’s departed for Gretna Green with a much richer prospect, leaving Lizzie pregnant, alone and with her heart shredded into irreparable pieces.

Fast forward five years… Henry Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge, is desperately trying to escape the crush of the Renshaw ball by hiding out on their frigidly cold terrace.  Hal used to largely avoid the parties and balls in favor of other, more appealing amusements, but this year the eligible, rich, handsome new earl is expected to make more than just an appearance.  The Renshaw ball marks the start of a hellish month of festive holiday functions he’s expected to attend.  Hal’s lost in thought, exhausted from trying to avoid marriage minded mamas and their eager daughters, worrying that something is missing in his life, when his brother-in-law approaches – joking that he hopes he hasn’t interrupted a lover’s tryst.

Aaron Wincanton, Viscount Ardleigh (hero of Her Enemy at the Altar), might be joking, but Hal is tired of all the overeager women hounding him. Aaron rather unsympathetically teases him for being wealthy, handsome and single, but then proposes a challenge.

“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal. Each one in a different location and all five before Twelfth Night.  Let us call it The Mistletoe Wager, in a nod to the season.”  

Their bets always had names and there had been some momentous ones.  The North Road Race.  The Serpentine Swim.  The Fisticuffs Experiment and the ill-conceived and often-lamented Naked Night in Norfolk, when they both nearly froze to death trying to brave the winter weather sitting out in the elements on the exposed beach of Great Yarmouth.  They had hastily agreed to end that one early when they simultaneously lost feeling in their gentlemen’s areas.

The loser has to muck out the other’s stables single-handed; Hal is so confident he can win, he eagerly accepts.  But Aaron adds one last detail – he gets to pick the woman Hal has to kiss.

Now, you already know who the lucky lady is don’t you?  It’s Lizzie, whom Hal has nicknamed Sullen Lizzie. Unsociable.  Unapproachable.  Unreachable.  For years, Lizzie has indulged her father’s desire to see her wed by accompanying him to dinners, parties and balls, and pretending a willingness to marry, but after having her heart broken by Charlie, she’s vowed to remain a single mother.  She’s managed to keep her son Georgie a secret – only her father and their household staff even know he exists – but she’s grown weary of keeping him hidden in London, and it’s become harder to keep the secret.  Lizzie has a plan in place to leave London with Georgie as soon as the season ends, but she knows it will devastate her father.  She’s decided to wait until Twelfth Night, and the Earl of Redbridge’s ball, to tell him of her plans.

Hal knows he has to be at the top of his game with the very beautiful Lizzie, and after observing her – she’s seated in the furthest corner of the room, alone, seemingly daring anyone to approach – he joins her.  Lizzie rudely suggests he go somewhere else, but when he doesn’t, she finds herself reluctantly charmed by her handsome companion. After her father approaches with yet another eligible bachelor, Hal feigns interest in her to keep the other man at bay… and then proposes that he and Lizzie help each other.  Hal needs a love interest so as to deter the women who hope to marry him, and Lizzie needs a way to halt her father’s matchmaking.  Hal is confident he can coax five kisses out of Lizzie as the holiday season ramps up, and although Lizzie initially refuses, he doesn’t relent and stays close to her.  After spending time with Hal, Lizzie reluctantly discovers she likes him and agrees.

Reader, there’s so much more to this story than the Mistletoe Wager, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Discover it for yourself by reading this delightfully charming and romantic novel!  Lizzie’s secret – that she has a five year old son – plays a significant role as the tale unfolds, but the relationship between Hal and Lizzie is always the focus.  Hal is the best kind of rakish hero.  Handsome, appealing, good and kind, protective to a fault, naughty and mischievous… well, I fell for him just as hard as Lizzie does.  His internal PoV is deliciously funny, wicked and endearing – he’s bewildered by his feelings for Lizzie and slow to realize he’s fallen in love with her.  But once he does, he gives 100% to helping her and making her happy.  Lizzie is similarly likeable.  Though her character doesn’t really blossom until she opens herself up to Hal’s affections, she’s guarded for good reason.  Charlie’s betrayal hurt her deeply and the wound has never healed.  Her love for Georgie and her beloved papa is intense, and she’s a sharp, witty, tender match for Hal. When her ‘shield,’ Hal, offers to help her – and manages to heal her wounded heart – she’s overwhelmed by the prospect of a future with or without him, though from the start, their ‘fake’ relationship is clearly anything but.  Lizzie and Hal are a sophisticated, mature and sexy pairing… and everything I hope for in a romance novel.

Ms. Heath’s secondary characters are equally good and I particularly loved Lizzie’s father.  He embraced his unwed, pregnant daughter when most fathers at this time would have cast her out, and it’s clear her happiness is his.  Hal’s sister Connie is terrific (I love their sibling squabbles), and her husband, Hal’s best friend/fiercest competitor in all sorts of mischievous shenanigans, Aaron, is the best – loyal, smart and kind.  There is a truly vile bad guy (of course!) and the reprehensible Charlie makes a re-appearance, but all these folks simply enhance an already great story.  The road to happily ever after has quite a few potholes, but it’s a joyous trip nonetheless.

His Mistletoe Wager is a good bet, a sure thing, and a guaranteed pay out.  Give a gift to yourself this holiday season and read this marvelously romantic and charming holiday romance.

 

AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

AUDIO REVIEW: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers, narrated by Hamish McKinlay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.

David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Publisher and Release Date: Joanna Chambers, August 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, 1820 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Running Time: 5 hours 52 minutes
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read the Enlightenment trilogy three times – it’s one of my most favorite historical series, queer or straight.  I love how Ms. Chambers paces the central relationship over the course of the trilogy, neatly dovetailing it with an intriguing subplot that similarly plays out over the three books, while also linking the actions of her principal characters to the time period.  Well drawn secondary characters play central roles in the progress of the story, but the focus remains on the romantic relationship at its heart.  Although Provoked is my least favorite of the three books that comprise the trilogy, it’s still tremendously compelling and entertaining.  To my happy surprise, narrator Hamish McKinlay’s terrific narration further elevates this moving, frustrating story; I’m delighted to tell you he does a marvelous job bringing the characters and novel to life.  Provoked is provoking… and a wonderful prelude of what’s to come.

David Lauriston is slowly and steadily building his reputation as an advocate in Edinburgh.   Despite humble origins and a lack of family connections, he’s managed to make a place for himself in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.  However, when Provoked opens, his loyalty to crown and country is in question.  He’s spent the past months unsuccessfully defending a group of weavers accused of treason.  On this day, he’s witnessed the execution of two of the men he defended, and though he’s convinced of their innocence, he’s aware that the case has raised concerns that David similarly harbours radical sympathies.  Stopping overnight at an inn on his way back to Edinburgh, he enters the dining room and to his dismay, discovers it full of locals and travelers discussing the case.  Fortunately, the innkeeper spots him lurking in the doorway and directs him to a private room.

Left on his own and lost in his thoughts, a somber David is surprised by the arrival of another dinner guest. Murdo Balfour is also staying at the inn, and after the two men introduce themselves, he joins David for dinner.  Mr. Balfour is handsome, urbane and charming, and David finds himself – against his better judgement – captivated and attracted to his companion.  The air is electric as an undercurrent of attraction pulses between them; after a couple of drams of whisky, a few charged glances, and a whispered exchange of words, David finds himself on his knees in a dark alleyway sucking Murdo’s cock.  But unlike most of David’s furtive, shameful experiences with men, the encounter doesn’t end there.  Instead, Murdo pulls him up, kisses him – whispering all the naughty things he’d like to do with David – and brings him off with his hand.  David knows he’ll hate himself for lapsing soon enough, but for now, just the memory of Balfour and his dark, dirty words is enough to inflame him again… and again… and again.

David returns to Edinburgh determined to put the night behind him, but even new professional opportunities aren’t enough to enable him to forget Balfour.  He’s consumed with thoughts of the man… until he’s approached by Euan MacLennan, brother of one of the convicted weavers, who believes a government agent betrayed the convicted men.  Armed with a vague idea of what the man looks like and a possible connection to the daughter of a senior advocate, Euan is desperate and determined to track down the agent and avenge his brother; David, fearing what Euan might do if he locates the man, cautions him to be careful – but offers to help.

Shortly after Euan’s visit, Ms. Chambers reunites David with Murdo when they find themselves guests at the same dinner party.  David’s intense attraction to Lord Balfour is undiminished, but he’s distracted when he uncovers a possible connection between his host and the man Euan seeks.  The men retire for drinks and David over imbibes in an attempt to distract himself from the effects of Balfour’s proximity, but he’s thwarted when Balfour departs at the same time.  What follows – a passionate interlude and heated words – sets the tone for each of their future encounters – which happen more often than David would like.  Balfour wants David and has no qualms pursuing him while publicly courting a woman.  David’s unwillingness to do the same – or to even entertain the possibility – angers and frustrates Balfour.  Mr. McKinlay does a marvelous job voicing both Balfour’s cynicism and David’s bewildered confusion over his erstwhile lover’s anger.

Told exclusively through David’s point of view, Ms. Chambers uses the dinner party to masterfully link the two central plot lines – David’s tumultuous relationship with Murdo and the search for the government agent who betrayed Euan’s brother.  The intricately plotting coalesces against the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it’s a clever bit of storytelling as the author uses David and Murdo to mirror what’s happening in Edinburgh.  Even as David struggles with guilt over his forbidden desires, he’s willing to question his government and its leaders; conversely, Murdo has no guilt or moral shame over his sexual desires, and though he recognizes the plight of the poor and unfortunate, he has no desire or interest in changing the status quo.  David and Murdo – enlightened in very different ways – are a fascinating match-up.  The combination of their scorching chemistry, intense attraction and clear affection  – though they try to disguise it – is richly compelling.  Their passion for each other is so well done.

I started listening to Provoked very familiar with the story, and unsure whether the audio version could anything new to my perceptions of it.  It did.  Although I struggled early on with Mr. McKinlay’s narration, it didn’t take long for me to begin to enjoy it – and to FINALLY begin to see David in a more sympathetic light. I, much like Murdo, struggled with what I perceived as David’s goody-two-shoes, self-righteous and sanctimonious persona.  But Mr. McKinlay somehow imbues the character with a kindness and sweetness, and an underlying sense of bewilderment over Murdo – he can’t reconcile how he feels for the man with his moral compass, and he really can’t understand what about him seems to trigger Murdo’s mercurial emotions when they’re together.  I finally LIKED David listening to him.  I particularly loved the narrator’s portrayal of Murdo in all his Provoked incarnations – charming, playful, naughty, angry, and even petulant – especially in his last encounter with David.  He’s a gorgeous character on the page, and in Mr. McKinlay’s voice he’s even more wonderful.  I’m not as fond of the narrator’s female voices – they just made me uncomfortable – but his portrayal of David and Murdo transcends these issues.

I didn’t think I could love the Enlightenment trilogy any more than I do, but Hamish McKinlay’s voice truly elevates Provoked.  I will anxiously await book two, and prepare to be beguiled (wink) by his voice all over again.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.