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(Difficult Dukes #2)

Genre: Historical Romance

Cover Blurb (Goodreads):

Cassandra Pomfret holds strong opinions she isn’t shy about voicing. But her extremely plain speaking has caused an uproar, and her exasperated father, hoping a husband will rein her in, has ruled that her beloved sister can’t marry until Cassandra does.

Now, thanks to a certain wild-living nobleman, the last shreds of Cassandra’s reputation are about to disintegrate, taking her sister’s future and her family’s good name along with them.

The Duke of Ashmont’s looks make women swoon. His character flaws are beyond counting. He’s lost a perfectly good bride through his own carelessness. He nearly killed one of his two best friends. Still, troublemaker that he is, he knows that damaging a lady’s good name isn’t sporting.

The only way to right the wrong is to marry her…and hope she doesn’t smother him in his sleep on their wedding night.

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The second book in Loretta Chase’s Difficult Dukes series has been a long time coming, but I’m delighted to say it was well worth the wait. It combines all the elements I love so much about Ms. Chase’s books – an entertaining story filled with fascinating characters, sparking wit, laugh-out-loud moments and a captivating romance.

I admit to having doubts that Ms. Chase could make Ashmont not only likeable, but also deserving of the heroine’s love. I’m pleased to say that my reservations proved groundless, because she does a splendid job. In A Duke in Shining Armor, Ashmont displayed none of the qualities of a true romantic hero. He may be handsome, rich and possessed of natural charm, but these attributes are far outweighed by his flaws. He’s an immature, irresponsible, reckless libertine who is forever causing mayhem with his silly pranks. If that wasn’t enough, he let his would-be bride slip through his fingers and nearly killed his best friend in a duel.

Cassandra is intelligent, strong-willed, impulsive and confident – a woman who fully embraces her individuality. As a member of the Andromeda Club, a ladies’ charity, she is fully aware of the poverty that exists and the injustices inflicted on those less fortunate than herself. I like how she doesn’t just play lip service to her charity work but is actively involved in it. She has strong political views and is not afraid to voice them in public, much to her father’s vexation. Hoping that a husband might curb Cassandra’s behaviour, he stipulates that her younger sister, Hyacinth, cannot marry until Cassandra herself weds. Despite everything, she clearly loves her family very much, but cannot deny her true self. Her father isn’t tyrannical but simply someone who loves his family and fears that his daughter’s behaviour will reflect badly on the whole family.

Ashmont is the last person Cassandra would ever consider marrying. As a young girl, she had fallen hopelessly in love with him and imagined that he would grow up to be somebody fine and noble, only to have her dreams crumble to dust. However, a carriage accident and scandal will change the course of both their lives.

Ashmont is totally captivated by Cassandra; he admires all the attributes other men find unattractive – her plain speaking, her intelligence, her confidence, and her impulsiveness. He’s knows that his looks and charm won’t carry any sway with Cassandra and he must gain her trust and respect. He knows it will be a Herculean task but he’s determined to do it. I enjoyed watching Ashmont gradually becoming the man Cassandra hoped he would be. He stops drinking and takes time to find out what’s important to Cassandra, and in doing so, comes to appreciate the constraints placed on women by society, and the plight of the poor, things he had previously been oblivious to. He comes to realise just how pointless his life has been until now.

Given her past disappointment, Cassandra finds it hard to trust or respect Ashmont because she’s certain he will break her heart all over again. But time and again, she is surprised by his actions, such as the obvious thought and care he’d taken in choosing the gift for Keeffe, or diffusing the situation with the rent collector, using restraint rather than his customary fists.

The chemistry between these two is positively delicious and their witty banter an absolute delight. Of course, the path to true love never runs smoothly and obstacles come in the form of Ashmont’s rival, Mr. Titus Owsley, (or as Ashmont refers to him, ‘Mr. Tight-Arse Oh-So-Holy’), and the vindictive Lady Bartham who sets out to destroy their new found happiness. Unlike so many other heroines, Cassandra is sensible enough to tell her parents the truth of the situation, and I love the scene where her mother, Lady deGriffe, thwarts Lady Bartham’s insidious scheming.

The story is rich in Ms. Chase’s trademark wit and humour and these are just a few of my favourites moments – the ‘umbrella fight’ which conjured up the most wonderful images in my mind, the letters between them after Keeffe’s accident, and Cassandra’s letter to Ashmont detailing ten events that had happened since he ‘staggered’ into her life. I also like how Ms. Chase always brings an element of social commentary to her books, The secondary characters all add depth to the story and I particularly liked Keeffe, Cassandra’s groom, who is more than just a servant, and Sommers, Ashmont’s valet, who is prone to weeping at the state of master’s attire.

I am looking forward to reading Alice & Blackwood’s story in the final book in the series, and also hoping that the obvious history between Ripley’s Aunt Julia and Ashmont’s Uncle Frederick will finally be revealed.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

(Alec Halsey Mystery #4)

Genre: Historical Mystery

Cover Blurb (Amazon)

Murderous Family Secrets

Summer 1764. Alec and Selina anxiously await the birth of their first child at their estate in Kent. It should be a time of family celebration, but the death of a young poacher has Alec investigating murder. And when renovations to his sprawling manor unearth a secret burial chamber, a shocking family secret comes to light. Everything Alec thought he knew about his birth is again called into question, and with it the special bond with his irascible uncle Plantagenet.
 

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This is the fourth book in the Alec Halsey Mystery series and, once again, Lucinda Brant weaves a gripping tale of murder and shocking family secrets. While this book can be read as a standalone, I would definitely recommend reading the other books in the series first to fully appreciate this one. It’s no hardship as each one is excellent in its own right.

Alec and Selina have removed from London to Deer Park, the Halsey ancestral home in Kent, to await the birth of their first child. This is no quiet retreat however, as the long-neglected Jacobean manor house is in desperate need of modernisation to make it habitable. Overseeing the work provides a welcome distraction from Alec’s fears over Selena and the forthcoming birth.

However, when a young boy is found brutally murdered, and his workmen discover a secret vault below the flagstones, Alec is determined not only to find the murderer but also to uncover the secrets the vault holds. The more he investigates, the more certain he becomes that the murder, the vault, and the conspiracy of silence that pervades among the villagers, are all interconnected in some way. But Alec is unaware that in uncovering the truth, everything he thought he knew about his past will be turned upside down.

The chilling Prologue sets the scene for an intricately plotted story in which Ms. Brant builds the suspense with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, leading to a dramatic climax. The identity of Alec’s father has always been the subject of conjecture and it is one of the revelations in this story, although I did already have my suspicions. Alec has always believed that his mother simply abandoned him, but the truth is far more complex, and the letter she leaves in the vault for Alec is both heartbreaking and strangely uplifting, so much so, that it brought tears to my eyes.

I enjoyed the quiet moments of intimacy between Alec and Selina which provided a welcome contrast to the darker elements of the story. I loved how they are so attuned to one another’s thoughts and I could certainly sympathise with Alec’s fears about childbirth.

Ms. Brant’s books are always rich in history and detail, creating a strong sense of place – of being transported back to the Georgian era. I like how the Black Act and Gavelkind (full details are provided in the Author’s Notes) are woven into and form the backbone of the story.

As with all her books, there is an extensive, well-developed and colourful cast of secondary characters, many of whom were introduced in the previous books.

– Alec’s irascible, republican uncle, Plantagenet Halsey, (who seems to be hiding secrets of his own), and Alec’s formidable, aristocratic godmother, Olivia, The Duchess of Romney St. Neots, who have formed a most unlikely romantic attachment.

– Hadrian Jeffries, Alec’s valet, and apothecary, Thomas (Tam) Fisher, whose devotion to Alec brings them together as unexpected allies.

– Clive Vesey, Earl of Cobham, Selina’s idiot brother and Head of the Foreign Department, who supplies some much needed light relief.

”I want to strangle someone every time I trip over a confounded cushion or Lady Cobham shoves a bowl of that Frenchie stuff under m’nose and tells me to sniff. Once got a piece of dried orange peel lodged up a nostril. Painful bloody business!”

The other secondary characters provided an abundance of potential murder suspects.

Another brilliant addition to this excellent series and I’m looking forward to meeting up with my favourite characters again soon in DEADLY DIPLOMACY. Highly Recommended

(Roundheads and Cavaliers #4)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Cover Blurb (Amazon)

Still tied to his desk in the Intelligence Office, Colonel Eden Maxwell has become increasingly disenchanted with both Oliver Cromwell and his own daily existence; and with the advent of new Royalist conspiracies, he despairs of ever getting away. Then a brick hurled through the window of a small workshop sets in motion a new and unexpected chain of events. After all, who would want to hurt Lydia Neville – a young widow, giving work and self-respect to maimed war veterans considered unemployable elsewhere? But when the assaults in Duck Lane escalate, threatening the life and remaining limbs of some of Eden’s former troopers, finding the culprit becomes a personal crusade.

At their first meeting, Lydia finds Colonel Maxwell annoying; by their second, having discovered that he had arrested and questioned her brother in connection with the Ship Tavern Plot, she mistrusts his motives. On the other hand, it swiftly becomes plain that she needs his help … and has difficulty resisting his smile.

Solving the increasingly hazardous mystery surrounding Lydia is not Eden’s only task. Between plots to assassinate the Lord Protector and a rising in Scotland, he must also mend the fences within his own family and get to know his son. Life suddenly goes from mind-numbing boredom to frenetic complexity.

With reckless Cavaliers lurking around every corner and a government still struggling to find its way, Lords of Misrule is set against a time of national discontent and general failure. But readers of the previous books in the series can look forward to catching up with old friends as well as meeting new ones … while, against all the odds, Eden and Lydia find danger and reward in equal measure.

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Set during the years 1653 to 1655, when Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, Lords of Misrule is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s excellent Roundheads and Cavaliers series. As with the previous books, it is an absorbing and intelligently written story which effortlessly blends history, politics, mystery, danger and, of course, romance.

Eden Maxwell has been an important secondary character since he first appeared in The Black Madonna, when his wife’s betrayal had such a devastating affect on him. Garland 0f Straw saw Eden serving as a major in Cromwell’s New Model Army, but still unable to put the past behind him and frequently finding solace in a bottle. It took some straight talking from his commanding officer to make him realise that he risked throwing his military career down the drain. In The King’s Falcon Eden, now a colonel, had finally come to terms with what happened and events leave him free to find the happiness he truly deserves.

What I love about Eden is that he is such a flawed and complex character. Despite being a battle-hardened soldier, he is a man of honour and integrity, as his actions in The King’s Falcon, and his disenchantment with Cromwell and what he stands for, reveal. The pain and anger he felt discovering his wife’s infidelity was understandable, made all the more heart-breaking because it was the same day his beloved father was buried. The hurt and disillusionment ran so deep that he vowed never to marry again. It was sad to see him distancing himself from his family and especially his two children. He had become a virtual stranger to his son, Jude, and resented his daughter, Viola, because he knows she isn’t his child. It was heartwarming to watch Eden making a positive effort to break down the barriers he had built between himself and his children. Jude proves to be young man with a wise head on his shoulders and offers his father some sound advice when it comes to building bridges with Viola.

Lydia is independent, capable and stubborn, and I admire her refusal to be hounded into selling her charitable businesses by her late husband’s family. Her kindness and compassion is evident in her desire to provide gainful employment to war-widows and crippled ex-soldiers, regardless of which side they fought on. In doing so, she hopes to restore their self respect, and it’s clear that the men and women she helps adore her and would defend her without hesitation.

”If you ever need a rag-tag army to stand at your back, you can count on us.  All of us.”

It was refreshing to see Lydia’s late husband shown in a positive light, rather than an odious old lecher as so often happens. He was kind and always had her best interests at heart. She obviously loves her brother, Aubrey, and worries about him, although, at times, he seems totally irresponsible in his actions.

The romance was deliciously slow-building and watching Eden and Lydia gradually see each other in a new light and begin to fall in love was very satisfying.

As always, with Ms. Riley, the relationships between her male characters are so brilliantly written, especially the brotherly exchanges between Eden and Toby, and the close bond of friendship between Eden and Gabriel.

Ms. Riley’s books are so meticulously researched and watching the historical events unfold through the eyes of her characters brought the history to life, and made me care about the fate of these characters.

The mystery of who is threatening Lydia, and why, is well-plotted with plenty of action and danger, and the villain’s identity certainly came as a surprise.

There are some delightful moments of humour throughout the story and one of my particular favourites is the scene where Lydia pretends to be absent-minded when soldiers arrive to question her about her brother’s whereabouts. It is so funny.

Among the secondary characters are a number of familiar favourites from the previous books including Gabriel and Venetia Brandon, Phoebe Clifford, Venetia’s youngest sister, Sir Nicholas Austin and a cameo appearance from Ashley Peverell. I felt a lot of sympathy for Deborah but she was pragmatic enough to accept that there was no future for her with Eden. Toby was definitely a scene stealer and I loved the banter between him and Eden. A real charmer and ladies man on the surface, but not someone to be underestimated, especially in a life-threatening situation. Like so many other readers, I do hope that Toby gets his own book in the not too distant future.

I strongly recommend that you read the previous books in this series to get a full appreciation of Eden’s character, and his connection to the other recurring characters who appear in this book.

Another superbly written story from Stella Riley. I can highly recommend all the books in this excellent series.

(Roundheads and Cavaliers #3)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

A tale of war and witchcraft … plots and playhouses … love and loyalty.

Charles the Second’s attempt to reclaim his throne ends in a crushing defeat at Worcester. With only the clothes on their backs, Ashley Peverell and Francis Langley flee to Paris where Ashley, known to some as the Falcon, resumes his secret work for the King.

Beautiful and street-wise, Athenais de Galzain has risen from the slums of Paris to become the city’s leading actress … but along with success comes the attention of a powerful nobleman, accustomed to taking what he wants.

Ashley and Athenais are drawn together with the force of two stars colliding.
Ashley, lacking money and often forced to risk his life, has two priorities; to guard the King from a dastardly plot hatched in London … and to protect Athenais from the man who would destroy her. Both will test him to the limits.

The King’s Falcon follows the Cavaliers’ last crusade and poverty-stricken exile whilst taking us behind the scenes in the playhouse. There is danger, intrigue, romance … and more than one glimpse into darkness.

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The King’s Falcon, the third book in the excellent Roundheads and Cavaliers series, is everything I have come expect from Ms. Riley – a superbly written and totally absorbing story, which perfectly blends history, politics, intrigue, drama and romance.

For me, one of Ms. Riley’s greatest strengths lies in her ability to create multi-faceted and realistic characters. In The King’s Falcon, we have not just one but two male protagonists, and my response to Pauline’s question…

“I’ve rarely seen one man as pretty as that – let alone a pair.  So which took your fancy?”

would be that they are both sigh-worthy in their own way.

The outrageously good-looking Royalist agent, Ashley Peverell, made a brief appearance in Garland of Straw, but now we discover that behind his seemingly carefree nature and amiability lies a very different man. Most know him as a colonel in the Royalist army, but only a select few know him as the Falcon. His keen mind and ruthlessness have served him well in his covert work for the king, work that is often ‘neither honourable or pretty’ but necessary. Although Ashley doesn’t see himself as a man of honour and integrity, it’s clearly shown in his determination to protect Athenais, his unswerving loyalty to his friends, and his willingness to risk his life for the king.

When we were first introduced to Francis Langley in The Black Madonna, he was a charming, frivolous young man who preferred writing poetry to fighting. However, as a captain in the Royalist army (Garland of Straw), his experiences of war have given him maturity and a self-awareness, and his willingness to put his life on the line in the service of the king speaks volumes for his character. I have always had a soft spot for Francis and it was lovely to see him fulfil his true potential as a writer. I also loved his sharp, witty responses when talking to his sister, Celia, particularly as she’s not one of my favourite characters. Anyone who has read The Black Madonna will understand why.

The illegitimate daughter of a retired mercenary and a laundress, Athenais de Galzain was born Agnes Stott in a dingy back-street of Paris. It had taken her six long years of struggle, hard work, and a change of name, to forge a successful career in Théâtre du Marais, rising to become one of its leading actresses. I admire how she achieved her success not just because she was beautiful, but through sheer determination and natural talent. Unfortunately, she has caught the eye of the Marquis d’Auxerre, who is determined to make her his mistress. Athenais is pragmatic enough to know that, one day, such a step would be necessary to protect her career, but there is something about the Marquis that she finds unsettling.

I found Pauline Fleury such an interesting character. She had once enjoyed a dazzling acting career herself, until an accident left her with a scarred left cheek and a slight limp and she is now Athenais’ dresser and mentor. Beneath the prickly surface and forthrightness, she is clever and astute, and she is such a loyal, protective friend to Athenais. I like how supportive Pauline is of her protégé, never showing any jealousy of the younger woman’s success.

The two romances run concurrently but develop in very different ways. Ashley and Athenais have an instant attraction but, as an ex-soldier with little money and no prospects, who is frequently called upon to risk his life, Ashley knows he has nothing to offer Athenais and is determined to keep his distance while ensuring that Athenais is safe from the Marquis d’Auxerre. It’s not long before their all-consuming passion can no longer be denied, but dramatic events will test the strength of their relationship. Ms. Riley deals with a very difficult subject and handles it well. I could feel the deep emotional turmoil Athenais goes through and I love how Ashley allows her time to heal and shows such empathy, encouragement and patience.

I enjoyed seeing the slow building romance between Francis and Pauline. Francis is surprised to find that he has come to enjoy Pauline’s company and is forced to admit that the reason he had written his play was because he found her fascinating. He saw beyond her scarred face and limp to the attractive, intelligent and competent woman beneath. He even liked her sharp tongue. Although Pauline has feelings for Francis, she knows that nothing can come of it

Good-looking titled gentlemen didn’t belong with scarred, one-time actresses past their first blush.

Francis certainly has his work cut when it comes to persuading Pauline to marry him because she’s the most stubborn woman he has ever met. Slowly, but surely, he breaks down her defences, and I love how he tells her that her head, heart and spirit far outweigh her imperfections.

Eden Maxwell has been an important secondary character since he first appeared in The Black Madonna, when his wife’s betrayal had such a devastating affect on him. It was satisfying to see that he has finally come to terms with what happened, and events in The King’s Falcon leave him free to find the happiness he deserves in Lords of Misrule. He is also instrumental in saving the lives of two people.

Among the other secondary characters are…

– Sir Nicholas Austin, a Royalist captain, who is taken in by Eden after he loses an arm at the Battle of Worcester.

– Deborah Hart who is saved by Eden when she is falsely accused of being a witch, and becomes his housekeeper and mistress.

– Celia Maxwell, Francis’s sister, who elicits Francis’s help in obtaining a divorce from Eden.

– Jem Barker, Ashley’s loyal servant and a former highwayman.

– The evil Marquis d’Auxerre who, I’m pleased to say, meets a suitable end.

Like the first two books in this series, The King’s Falcon is rich in period detail, whether it be the bloody Battle of Worcester, the unjust witches trials, the behind the scenes workings of the Théâtre du Marais, the Fronde in Paris, or the plight of the exiled Royalists in Paris, Ms. Riley seamlessly blends fact and fiction, creating a strong sense of time and place. Charles II, the Duke of Buckingham, and Cyrano de Bergerac are among the real people in the story, but the fictional characters are so well drawn that it was difficult to distinguish the real from the fictional. The various plot twists and turns are skilfully handled culminating in an exciting conclusion.

Another superb book from Stella Riley. Highly recommended.

(Roundheads and Cavaliers #2)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

The marriage of a well-bred Royalist lady and an illegitimate Roundhead Colonel is less a match made in heaven than a union doomed to hell. Unfortunately, Sir Robert Brandon’s last will and testament leaves Venetia Clifford and Gabriel Brandon with little choice in the matter – deeply though they both resent it.

Their tempestuous relationship is reflected in the events buffeting the nation as England slides into a second Civil War. While Gabriel continues to serve in the New Model Army, Venetia engages in clandestine activities on behalf of the King; and both their lives are complicated still further when Gabriel’s half-brother – to whom Venetia was formerly betrothed – returns from exile.

While the Army and Parliament argue over the fate of the King, Gabriel realises that he has a dangerous enemy. And as events gather pace, bringing the King to trial, the tangled web of danger and deceit surrounding both Gabriel and Venetia slowly tightens its grip.

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Set against the turbulent events leading up to the trial and execution of Charles I (1648 to 1649), Garland of Straw is the second book in Stella Riley’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series. Once again, I was treated to an intelligently written and engrossing story which skillfully combines history, politics, intrigue, suspense, tragedy, and a stormy romance between a staunch Royalist lady and a Roundhead colonel.

I have loved everyone of Ms. Riley’s heroes, but Gabriel might just be my favourite. The illegitimate son of Sir Robert Brandon and raised by foster parents, I admire the way he has never let his illegitimacy define who he is. He has forged a career for himself as a professional soldier, fighting in various European wars before returning to England to join Cromwell’s New Model Army. He is an honourable and principled man and, although initially sympathetic towards the Parliamentary cause, witnessing the atrocities committed at Basing House has left him disillusioned. As events unfold, he is faced with some difficult, life-changing choices.

Venetia was a secondary character in The Black Madonna. As one of the Queen’s entourage, she enjoyed a carefree life at court. Engaged to Ellis Brandon, the man she loves, everything seemed perfect, but the war changed that. It claimed the lives of both her father and her eldest brother, while her other brother, Harry, and Ellis had gone into into exile. With no-one else in the family capable of running Ford Edge Manor, and keeping a roof over their heads, responsibility has fallen firmly on Venetia’s shoulders. I could understand how circumstances had led to Venetia becoming so hard and bitter, and how they coloured her initial attitude towards Gabriel.

Often I have read books where the hero and heroine dislike each other, but there is a strong, underlying attraction. This is certainly not the case with Gabriel and Venetia. From their first meeting at the reading of the will, their mutual animosity fairly drips off the page. However unpalatable, Gabriel and Venetia are forced to marry, and it promises to be a battle royal considering Venetia regards Gabriel as ‘a misbegotten bumpkin in an orange sash’ who is rude, callous and arrogant, while Gabriel sees Venetia as beautiful, but with ‘the tongue of a shrew, an expression that gives you frostbite and no manners worth mentioning.

Ms. Riley develops their relationship very slowly, which seemed realistic given the circumstances. The major change in their relationship comes when Venetia tends Gabriel after he is set upon and badly injured. They talk for the first time without the usual hostility and sarcasm and it was very satisfying to see respect, liking, trust and ultimately love steadily growing between them, even though there was a bump in the road, in the form of Ellis Brandon; but Venetia soon comes to see that Gabriel is ten times the man Ellis will ever be.

This was a very complex period in British history and I admire the way in which Ms. Riley seamlessly blends real-life events and personages with the lives of her fictional characters. The resulting realism it brings to the story made me truly care about the fate of these characters.

Bravo to Ms. Riley for keeping me clueless regarding the identity of the person responsible for the attempts on Gabriel’s life, until just before the harrowing climax.

There is a fascinating array of secondary characters, some familiar favourites and others new, including…

Walter (Wat) Larkin – Gabriel’s faithful servant and companion for 15 years, with ‘the nose of a bloodhound and the instincts of a ferret? 

Eden Maxwell (The Black Madonna) – Gabriel’s Major, who is still trying to drown his personal problems in a bottle.

Ellis Brandon, Gabriel’s half brother and Venetia’s fiancé, who is selfish, arrogant and a liar when it serves his interests.

Phoebe Clifford – Venetia’s youngest sister, ever the optimist, who immediately befriends Gabriel much to her (Venetia’s) displeasure.

Jack Morrell – Gabriel’s foster brother who is more like a real brother to him

Francis Langley (The Black Madonna) – an elegant Royalist, who would prefer writing poetry to fighting.

Handsome Captain Ashley Peverell, alias the Falcon, a Royalist spy.

Having read and loved A Splendid Defiance, it was wonderful to catch up with Captain Justin Ambrose (now a Colonel), his wife Abigail, and her younger brother, Samuel (Sam) Radford. Justine strikes up an unlikely friendship with Gabriel, while there is a secondary romance between Sam and Jack Morrell’s niece, Bryony.

Ms. Riley still manages to incorporate some much welcome humour into the story. For instance, I love the hilarious scene where Venetia is smuggling Frances Langley past guards on the bridge and passing him off as her drunken husband. Phoebe’s enthusiastic search for the Lacey Garland also brought a smile to my face.

A meticulously researched and engrossing story with fascinating characters, and an emotionally satisfying romance. Highly recommended.

(Roundheads and Cavaliers #1)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Cover Blurb (Goodreads):

By the summer of 1639, England is sliding inexorably towards civil war, and the havoc of the times is reflected in the lives of the Maxwells of Thorne Ash.

Red-haired and independent of spirit, Kate Maxwell is determined not to let the coming conflict disrupt the lives of those she loves. During her father’s forced absence she vows to hold their home against marauding forces from both camps.

More threatening to her peace of mind than the actions of either the Parliamentarians or the Royalists is her growing attraction to the diabolically clever and irresistibly magnetic goldsmith and usurer, Luciano del Santi.

Hampered by the battling English, Luciano is fighting a fierce campaign close to his own heart – to avenge his father’s execution at the hands of false accusers and to repay the loan which has financed the venture. Failure will result in ruin, perhaps even death; but success will allow him to reclaim the Black Madonna – the carved obsidian symbol of his heritage and his vendetta…

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The turbulent years of the English Civil Wars, a time of tragic conflicts and divided loyalties, provides the dramatic backdrop for Stella Riley’s highly acclaimed Roundheads and Cavaliers series. Set in the period leading up to and during the First English Civil War (1639 to 1642), THE BLACK MADONNA, the first book in the series, is a masterful blend of history, politics, suspense, intrigue, revenge, and romance.

Ms. Riley’s characters are never one dimensional – to me they always feel like real people I have come to know and care about. I was immediately drawn into the lives of the Maxwell family – Richard, his wife, Dorothy, and their children, Eden, Kate, Amy and twins Tobias (Toby) and Tabitha. Seeing everything through their eyes gave an immediacy to the story.

I love Richard and Dorothy – they must surely win an award for being one of the most loving and devoted couples to grace the pages of a book. Richard, a Member of Parliament, is an honest and moderate man who wants what’s best for his country, but has no desire to take sides in the dispute between Parliament and the King. The safety of his family comes first, but as the country moves closer to civil war, there is no way to avoid taking sides.

Despite his parents’ efforts to dissuade him, Eden makes an ill-fated marriage to a Royalist. Kate is single-minded and often too outspoken, while coquettish Amy risks scandal, and Toby gets involved in some illicit goings on.

Richard sums it up perfectly…

’You know, Dorothy and I used to congratulate ourselves on having reared sensible children.  Now look at them.  Eden’s married to a selfish shrew; Amy had to be hustled to the altar before she could ruin herself; and I suspect that Toby is up to no good with son-in-law Geoffrey.  All I need now is for Tabitha to run off with a troupe of mummers or decide to take the veil and we’ll have a full set.’

I admire Ms. Riley’s ability to create unique and complex heroes like the enigmatic Luciano del Santi. He doesn’t immediately wear the cloak of a romantic hero, but Ms. Riley imbues him with a charisma that makes him irresistible.
Now a wealthy master goldsmith and moneylender, Luciano came to England from Genoa 4 years ago to set up his own business, with a substantial loan from his uncle, Vittorio Falcieri. Luciano offered The Black Madonna, a simple obsidian figure, as surety for the loan. It has little monetary value, but has been revered by the Falcieri family for generations. If he does not pay the requisite interest on time each year and repay the capital after ten years, he stands to lose everything. Luciano is also on a mission to discover the identity of and seek revenge on the man who arranged for his father to be wrongly accused of treason for which he was executed. He is drawn into the lives of the Maxwell family when Richard and Eden rescue him from a viscous attack. I like how a unlikely but genuine friendship develops between Richard and Luciano. While others might despise him as moneylender, Richard sees Luciano’s true worth.

The romance between Kate and Luciano is slow building, because they both try to deny the attraction, which leads to some rather cutting banter.

‘He must be a brave man.’
‘Who?’ she snapped.  And immediately regretted asking.
‘This suitor of yours.  Or doesn’t he know that you dip your tongue in vinegar every morning?’
‘No.  Why should I boast?  Some people dip theirs in hemlock.’


Kate tries to convince herself that what she feels for Luciano is no more than a passing fancy, while Luciano tries to push Kate away believing his desire to avenge his father could endanger her life. Ms. Riley does an excellent job of building the sexual tension, and when they finally admit their feelings for each other, it leads to a love scene that is both tender and sensual without being explicit.

Ms. Riley’s extensive research and knowledge of the time period is evident in her skillful and seamless blending of history and fiction into an engrossing story; sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the real characters and fictional ones. Luciano’s search for the man who arranged his father’s death provides some heart-stopping and heart-breaking moments, culminating in a nail biting climax during the final, bloody siege of Basing House, when Luciano confronts the man he’s seeking.

As always, there’s a fascinating and well drawn cast of secondary characters including –

Francis Langley – an elegant Royalist and Eden’s childhood friend

Celia Langley/Maxwell – Francis’s sister and Eden’s self-absorbed wife

Gianetta – Luciano’s bejewelled sister

Selim – his knife-wielding, Turk bodyguard

I enjoyed the brief appearance by Captain Justin Ambrose and a young Abigail Radford, who are the hero and heroine of A Splendid Defiance, set in 1644.

An engrossing story with fascinating characters and a meticulously researched historical setting. Highly recommended.

(Wagers of Sin #2)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

When you gamble at love . . .

When Hugh Deveraux discovers his newly inherited earldom is bankrupt, he sets about rebuilding the family fortune—in the gaming hells of London. But the most daring wager he takes isn’t at cards. A wealthy tradesman makes a tantalizing offer: marry the man’s spinster daughter and Hugh’s debts will be paid and his fortune made. The only catch is that she must never know about their agreement.

You risk losing your heart . . .

Heiress Eliza Cross has given up hope of marriage until she meets the impossibly handsome Earl of Hastings, her father’s new business partner. The earl is everything a gentleman should be, and is boldly attentive to her. It doesn’t take long for Eliza to lose her heart and marry him.

But when Eliza discovers that there is more to the man she loves—and to her marriage—her trust is shattered. And it will take all of Hugh’s power to prove that now his words of love are real.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

This is the second book in Caroline Linden’s Wagers of Sin series and she succeeds in giving the popular ‘marriage of convenience’ trope a refreshingly different twist in this intelligently written and wonderfully romantic story.

On becoming Earl of Hastings, Hugh Devereaux was shocked to discover that his beloved father had frittered away the family’s entire fortune, leaving Hugh with a bankrupt estate, huge debts and no money for his sisters’ dowries or his mother’s widow’s jointure. How could he tell them that the man they all adored had left them virtually penniless? He simply couldn’t cause even more distress to his already grieving family and resolved to deal with matters himself. Only one option was open to him – marry an heiress, but not just yet. During the past few years, his luck at the card tables has enabled Hugh to pay off the most pressing debts and keep the family afloat but now, with his sister, Edith’s, imminent engagement, he needs to provide her with a dowry. So when Edward Cross approaches him with a solution to all his financial problems, Hugh cannot refuse. In return, he must court and marry Cross’s daughter, but she must never know of their agreement.

Edward Cross is one of the wealthiest men in England, having made his fortune speculating in shares. Ever since his wife died in childbirth, Elizabeth (Eliza), his only daughter, has become the centre of his universe and he is determined that she will acquire all the accomplishments befitting a lady. His ultimate goal is for her to marry an aristocrat and he is prepared to do anything to achieve it. Rather plain and shy, Eliza would rather remain single than marry a man who values her dowry more than herself, and is quite content looking after her father, playing with her dog, Willy, and tending her garden. However, when she meets and gets to know her father’s new business partner, the handsome and charming Hugh Deveraux, Earl of Hastings, she is soon hopelessly in love. To her delight, he seems to genuinely like her, and when he asks to court her and then proposes, she willingly accepts, totally unaware of the agreement made between Hugh and her father.

I couldn’t help but sympathise with Hugh who is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is an honourable man who cares deeply for his family and is determined to protect them from the harsh truth about his father. The only way he can achieve this is by deceiving a young woman who he knows will get hurt if she discovers the truth.

Eliza is such a lovely heroine – so warm-hearted, honest, generous and selfless, with a surprisingly droll sense of humour, and nothing like her manipulative father. I liked how she found such joy in simple pleasures and the scenes with Willy were charming and funny too. However, there is nothing weak about her because she has a core of steel when needed.

She would hold up her head and be strong, and not let any slight cow her. She was a countess now, Hugh’s countess—incredible thought—and she must rise to the demands of her position.

Watching Eliza win over Hugh’s mother and sisters with her warmth, kindness and understanding was so heartwarming.

I loved how the relationship evolved between Hugh and Eliza, particularly on Hugh’s part. He may have been blackmailed into marrying Eliza but he has every intention of being a kind and faithful husband, which only strengthened my opinion that he is honourable man. I love how each day he comes to appreciate Eliza more and more, discovering things about her that he had never anticipated.

He liked simply talking to her, which he had not expected. Eliza was a wonderful listener, caring and thoughtful, with clever ideas and a knack for making him laugh even when he didn’t mean to.

They are so perfect together both emotionally and sexually, and it’s obvious that Hugh is falling head over heels in love with his wife, but the fear of Eliza discovering the truth is constantly weighing on his mind. He knows that he should tell her but not only does he not want to lose her, he also knows how hurt she would be to learn of her father’s machinations.

He didn’t want to hurt his wife, and he damned sure didn’t want to risk losing her. Not when he thought he might be falling in love with her. So he added one more facet to the bargain he’d made with the devil: keep the truth from Eliza at all costs, for her sake and for his own.

I knew it was only a question of time before Eliza discovered Hugh’s duplicity and the scene where she confronts him is so heartbreaking that it was hard to believe that they could ever be reconciled. But when the reconciliation does come, it really touches the heart.

He tipped up her chin until her gaze met his. “I want you for you, my love. If you no longer want me -“
“I do,” she said, blinking back tears.

Eliza’s dearest friends, Sophie and Georgiana, are on hand to offer her moral support and advice when she most needs it.

I couldn’t really hate Edward Cross because he loved his daughter and, however misguided his actions were, he only wanted to do what he thought would make her happy. He hoped Hugh would see what a treasure she was and he did. I was pleased to see hints of a reconciliation between father and daughter in the Epilogue.

I loved this book and Caroline Linden proves yet again why she is one of the foremost Historical Romance authors. Highly recommended.

Genre: Historical Romance (Victorian)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

He was once a boy abandoned, left to make his own way in the world.

She was a girl stifled by the demands of her family and constrained by the strict customs of Victorian society; a bird caged and without hope.

Raised in two disparate worlds, with one fortune rising while the other tumbled, they might never have known each other.

But when a disreputable old rogue dies unexpectedly and in spectacular, explosive style, a chain of remarkable events is destined to draw these two strangers close— to the bemusement of one and the disgust of the other.

The last Will and Testament of Sir Mungo Lightfoot Mayferry McClumphy has gone astray, and a large number of claimants are fighting over a vast fortune.

She wants nothing to do with it, her grieving heart bereft of hope.

He is in the thick of it, a man of ruthless perseverance and— in her eyes— a dark, mercenary, unfeeling heart.

Drawn together one Christmas, these two “Mortal Enemies” will have to find a way to put aside the strife and be civil. Whether or not they can survive the season remains to be seen.

If they also find hope and love along the way, it will surely be a Christmas miracle. 

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Jayne Fresina is a new-to-me author and I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend. While enemies to lovers is an often used trope, it is Ms. Fresina’s imaginative story, wonderfully descriptive prose, sparkling, witty dialogue, and delightful characters that made The Snowdrop an absolute delight.

Despite his inauspicious start in life, Dash Deverell has studied and worked hard to become a successful lawyer. Everything he has achieved is through his own efforts, with a little help from his eccentric aunt, Lady Emma Audley.

”He has always been of the opinion that there is nothing he cannot do if he sets his mind to it and perseveres.”

His reputation for being ruthless and arrogant is well-earned in the courtroom,, but he chooses to hide his true self and is content to be thought of as a man with ‘no compassion, no mercy and no heart. As the story unfolds, I saw a man who was caring and compassionate; a man who took up law because he believed in justice, fairness and equality; a man who showed kindness and tolerance towards his motley crew of servants and gave them jobs when no one else would.

For thirty years, Daisy’s father had been obsessed with proving he was the legitimate heir to Sir Mungo’s fortune, spending a fortune on legal fees, but his claims proved fruitless and he was left bankrupt when he passed away. Although still unresolved, his daughter, Daisy, wants nothing to do with the case that ruined not only her father’s life but her own too. She never wanted the money – all she ever wanted was a quiet life and to be happy. Now she is forced to sell the house and all her father’s possessions to pay off his debts. I really felt for Daisy because her life had become a mere existence without the hope of something better.

…there had been nothing before her; nothing she was able to see or imagine.

In need of employment to support herself and her nephew, who is dependent on her, she spots an advertisement for a lady’s companion to an elderly widow. Not only does it provide her with respectable employment but, for the first time, it will be her own choice to make.

On arriving at Stanbury House, she is shocked to discover the man she regards as her ‘Mortal Enemy’ in residence there. She has every reason to hate Dash Deverell. He had represented one of the rival claimants, repeatedly setting aside her father’s claims, and he had also used his influence with his friend, Frederick Ellendale, to discourage him from proposing to her. She has no choice but to stay because she needs this job. Luckily, as her employer, Lady Audley, lives in the dower house and Deverell is rarely in residence in the main house, Daisy feels safe in the knowledge that their paths are unlikely to cross very often. However, with Christmas approaching, she might find she is a little too overconfident in her assumption.

Daisy begins to see Dash in a new light and finds herself wanting to know more about him. She is touched by the poignant story of a little boy abandoned by those who should have cared for him, and sees how his kindness had earned him his servants’ gratitude and loyalty. His affection for his aunt is obvious and he’s not at all the cold-hearted man she had always thought him to be – especially when she comes across him sans shirt! The budding romance between Dash and Daisy is tender, funny and romantic, with an added sprinkle of Christmas magic.

I like how Ms. Fresina takes the enemies to lovers trope and gives it a refreshingly different twist. In flashbacks she gradually reveals that things are not always what they seem. There are clues to the true situation but they are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have to be fitted together to see the full picture. Saying more would spoil the impact of this cleverly thought-out plotline, but I can say that Dash is revealed to be a wonderful hero – honourable, patient, resolute, and a true romantic at heart.

The secondary characters all add richness to the story. There’s Chauncey, Dash’s steward, who is frequently three sheets to the wind, his cook, Mrs Elkins, with her aches and pain, and Bess, the shy scullery girl. I loved Emma Audley, with her pet miniature donkey, Jack, who has the run of the house. No wonder the more time Daisy spends with this amusing and kindly lady, she finds her spirits uplifted. Emma is certainly wiser and has a sharper mind than people give her credit for. Then there’s Master Mayferry Buckingham, Daisy’s spoilt, obnoxious nephew, but he is no match for Dash.

Who the hell are you?”
Suddenly, it seemed as if all daylight vanished. The hall was cast in darkest grey and this giant ogre was but a shadow moving in it, coming toward them and filling the space.
“My name is Dash Deverell. And I am hell. For boys who do not behave.”

Ms. Fresina has a wonderful descriptive flair and here are a two of my favourites:

She did not like this answer. It made her shoulders wriggle and her bosom rise up like two giant sea monsters from the frothy lace waves of her gown.

Chauncey’s face looked like a crumpled shirt, discarded upon the floor after its owner had enjoyed a night of carousing.

The book is also laced with plenty of delightful humour and I especially loved Coco, Daisy’s pet cockatoo, who provides some great moments with his ribald language. These are just two of the wide vocabulary he uses to insult Dash – Chutless Codpiece’ and ‘Beef-witted Knave.

The mystery of Sir Munro’s missing will is finally and satisfactorily resolved, while exactly what Dash is hiding in his desk drawer is revealed. I thought the surprise at the end was a lovely touch and I loved how the reference to the snowdrop perfectly reflected the theme of the story.

I have no hesitation in giving this book the highest recommendation and I will definitely be reading more by Jayne Fresina.

Since closing my blog in November 2019, I have continued to have so many visitors that I have decided to re-open Rakes and Rascals with some changes.

I will be reviewing personally purchased books in the following genres – Historical Romance, Historical Fiction and Historical Mystery.

Only reviews for books that I can highly recommend (5 star rated) will be posted.

I will no longer be using a sensuality rating because relevant details will be contained in the body of the review.

I’m also reading other genres, so the posts probably won’t be as regular as they used to be, but I hope that you will discover some books of interest. 😊


Sorry We're Closed

Just a reminder to say that the blog is now officially closed but all the existing posts will still be accessible for the time being. Once again, I would like to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has contributed to making this blog such a success over the past seven years.

Wendy and I will continue to post reviews on Goodreads. 

 

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“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman..." Emma, Jane Austen

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