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To Steal a Heart

(Secrets and Spies, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1815)

Cover Blurb:

Forced to do the bidding of a corrupt government minister, Marianne de Bonnard agrees to plant incriminating evidence in the offices of France’s most notorious spymaster. Under cover of night, the tightrope-walking thief puts her skills to good use—until her aerial stunt is foiled when her target appears in the window and, with consummate poise, helps Marianne off the wire and into his lair. The tremors that run through her body are not just from fear; there’s an unwanted frisson of desire there, too. But is it because of her elegant, wickedly handsome host . . . or his proposition?

Nicolas Valette has had plans for his graceful trespasser since he witnessed her unique skills at the Cirque Olympique. Sinuous as a cat, Marianne is perfect for his next mission, but she refuses his generous offer for fear of disobeying her family’s tormenter. When their mutual enemy auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder, Nicolas leaps at the chance to purchase her cooperation. Keeping her will be like trying to tame a wild animal, but what’s life without a little risk? Besides, Nicolas and Marianne both want the same thing: revenge—and, perhaps, something else that’s equally delicious.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I loved this impressive 2016 debut novel from K. C. Bateman. Set in France just before the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, it combines a well-written, action-packed story, intriguing characters and a sensual romance.

Following the death of his younger brother, Nicolas carries a deep sense of guilt for having survived when his brother didn’t, and his life no longer has any real meaning. The danger, intrigue and excitement inherent in the world of spying and his desire for revenge against Napoleon, whom he holds responsible for his brother’s death, are what keep him going, earning him a reputation for being bold, arrogant and uncompromising. Handsome, virile and seductive, there are any number of beautiful women only too eager to share his bed, but he has long ago built an impenetrable wall around his heart and his emotions are never engaged.

He always enjoyed their company, but he’d never wanted more from them than a few nights’ entertainment. He had absolutely no difficulty keeping his emotions separate from his physical needs.

Ever since her parents’ death in a fire, Marianne has worked at the Cirque Olympique as a tight-rope walker and knife thrower and as a spy for her corrupt and loathsome cousin and guardian, Jean-Jacques Duval.  She is resourceful, intelligent and stubborn but has an Achilles heel – her younger sister, Sophie. Having suffered Duval’s perverted attentions, she is willing do anything to protect Sophie from him.

She felt him (Nicolas) smile against her skin. “Whore for her?”
   A wave of shame rolled over her as she forced herself to admit the unpalatable truth. To save Sophie? Yes. She’d suffer any indignity. She closed her eyes in despair. “Yes.”

Ms. Bateman blends the romance and suspense perfectly and I love the back-and-forth verbal sparring between Nicolas and Marianne and one of the most memorable early scenes is where Nicolas buys Marianne and Sophie in a brothel auction arranged by Duval and then has to pretend to relieve Marianne of her virginity.

He sat up slowly so as not to startle her and held his hands up in surrender. “I’m at your mercy, mademoiselle. Please say you’re going to have your wicked way with me.”
   She scowled, unimpressed with his attempt at humor.
   He sighed. “I suppose we’ll have to go with the backup plan then.”

The backup plan turns out to be hilariously reminiscent of the famous Meg Ryan scene in “When Harry Met Sally”!

I enjoyed the interplay of danger and sexual tension and seeing how their relationship changes and how they grow and evolve both as individuals and as a couple.

At first, Nicolas sees Marianne as merely an integral part of the mission and would willingly sacrifice her in his search for revenge. However, during the gruelling course of training for the mission, she is a constant distraction with her rebellious nature and sheer determination and gradually the dynamic between the two of them changes.

Something had changed between them, some indefinable twist to the dynamic that was both unnerving and exciting. He liked her. Respected her. Wanted her. They were no longer master and apprentice; instead of opponents, they were suddenly a team.

After his brother’s death, Nicolas didn’t really care whether he lived or died but now he finds himself beginning to care about life again all because of Marianne who has slowly broken down his defences and stolen his heart.

Marianne is an intriguing combination of strength and vulnerability. I love how she isn’t afraid to stand up to Nicolas and refuses to give in when the going gets tough.  She has to rely on her own skills, resourcefulness and inner strength.  Emotionally, Duval’s abuse left her feeling tainted and believing that she would never be able to respond to any man again, so her response to Nicolas is unexpected.

She’d thought herself immune, irrevocably tainted by Duval’s abuse. It was highly disconcerting to discover she might have been wrong. One look from Valette, and her blood heated to a slow boil.

I was frustrated by the decision Nicolas makes towards the end of the book, but I admired the way Ms. Bateman kept him true to  character. I think it was the only way he could put the past behind him. Besides, Marianne is a woman quite able to take care of herself.

Duval is a suitably odious and slimy toad while I was definitely intrigued my Raven, the mysterious smuggler. I shall look forward with interest to A RAVEN’S HEART, in which he is paired with Nicolas’ younger sister, Heloise.

Ms. Bateman has obviously undertaken a lot of research to create a real sense of the period and I particularly like how she uses a little artistic license to incorporate Louis-Charles (the “Lost Dauphin”) into the plot.

I was disappointed there was no Epilogue, which made the ending seem rather abrupt. I’m therefore hoping that I may see more of Nicolas and Marianne in the next book.

MY VERDICT: An very impressive debut novel which I can definitely recommend.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Secrets and Spies (click on the book covers for more details):

To Steal a Heart (Secrets and Spies, #1) by K.C. Bateman A Raven's Heart (Secrets & Spies, #2) by K.C. Bateman A Counterfeit Heart (Secrets & Spies, #3) by K.C. Bateman

Lenora Bell Interview - author photograph

I’m delighted to welcome Historical Romance Author LENORA BELL to Rakes and Rascals today for an exclusive interview.

Thanks so much for hosting me, Carol! I’m delighted to be here. I’ve been reading Rakes and Rascals for several years now and I love your interviews and reviews and how engaged you are with the romance community.

~~~~~~~


R&R:

Could you tell us where you were born and what it was like growing up there?

Lenora:
I was born in Southeast Alaska and spent my whole childhood in a very small, isolated town. When I say small, I mean that my high school graduating class had less than twenty-five kids, there were no traffic lights, and no one bothered locking their doors or taking the keys out of the car ignition when they went to the grocery store. And it’s still the same today! I’m a third-generation Alaskan (on my father’s side) and most of my family still lives there. I try to visit as often as possible.

Lenora Bell Interview - with father
Me and my father on a visit home last year 

Lenora Bell Interview - Fireweed, Alaska
View of the harbor in Alaska 

 

R&R:
How would you describe yourself – temperamental or easy-going?

Lenora:
I’m easy-going most of the time but I get passionate about things and can be very emotional—I cry a lot at movies and while reading my favourite books. The last book that made me sob was Lorraine Heath’s novella When the Marquess Falls. She just twisted my heart into knots with that one. Her writing is so powerful.

 


R&R
:
When it comes to food do you like sweet or savoury or both?

Lenora:
I have the curse of the sweet-salty cravings. Give me salted caramels! Pretzels and m&m’s. Honey balsamic vinaigrette. Sweet and sour chicken.

 

R&R:
What is your most treasured possession?

Lenora:
I have a white lace day dress from my great-grandmother Lenora that’s still in excellent condition. She used to play the organ for silent movie theatres in Minnesota. There’s something so romantic about picturing her wearing that dress and setting the emotions on the screen to music.

 

R&R:
If you could afford a second home anywhere in the world where would you choose and why?

Lenora:
My husband and I recently visited Portugal and absolutely fell in love. We went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and heard musicians playing traditional fado folk music, which usually features a strong, melancholic female lead vocalist singing with great dignity and drama. I would love to live there!

Lenora Bell Interview - Viana do Castelo, Portugal
A view of Viana do Castelo in Portugal (with delicious Caipirinha cocktail)

 

R&R:
Finally, what has been your most embarrassing moment?

Lenora:
I recently attended the Barbara Vey Reader Appreciation Weekend and had a fabulous time, but everyone warned me about the infamous Author Q&A session. I didn’t think anything of it because I’m pretty comfortable being on stage, but when it came my time to take the mic and be asked a random question – I completely blanked! I spent several agonizing seconds (felt like hours) staring wildly at the large crowd of romance readers. I eventually thought of something to say but those moments of deafening silence…talk about embarrassing!

~~~~~~~


Thank you for taking time out to be here today and sharing these interesting facts about yourself, Lenora.

I truly appreciate the chance to be featured on Rakes and Rascals!



If you would like to find out more about Lenora and her books, here are the links:

Website
Goodreads
Facebook
Twitter

MY FAVOURITE QUOTES

Devil in Spring

“Dangerous creatures, wallflowers. Approach them with the utmost caution. They sit quietly in corners, appearing abandoned and forlorn, when in truth they’re sirens who lure men to their downfall. You won’t even notice the moment she steals the heart right out of your body –and then it’s hers for good. A wallflower never gives your heart back.”

(Sebastian, Duke of Kingston, to his son, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent)

Mr Ridley

(The Whipping Society Saga, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1830)

Cover Blurb:

HE’S ALL BONES AND SHE’S ALL SUNSHINE.
Meet Mr. Ridley.

BOOK 1 of 3, one man and one woman bent on one passion of making the other writhe.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 1830
Criminals fear the iron fist of justice he delivers. Scotland Yard will do anything to get their hands on his mind. Whilst women? They crawl in the hope of becoming his. But only one woman is about to hold his body and his mind hostage.

Jemdanee Lillian Watkins is a botanical savant from India who ends up getting arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. Only one man believes her: Mr. Ridley. Drawn to him and the rope he knots in her presence, she realizes this overly regimented dark hero hides nothing but his passion.

Themes include wit, humor, BDSM, mystery, and romance. Lots of it!

Author’s Note:  Unlike most historical romances where the hero & heroine’s attraction and love for each other stops at a mere one book, this full length book is the beginning of many (Full length book episodes!) following the highly charged, erotic saga of a couple through the rise and fall and storms of their relationship. Every book is tied up in own way.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I love Delilah Marvelle’s books. She’s always willing to push the boundaries of conventional romance, as she does in her new, The Whipping Society Saga. As mentioned in the cover blurb and Ms. Marvelle’s note, the story unfolds over three books. Usually, I prefer books to be complete in themselves with a definite ‘Happy Ever After’ but, once I started reading Mr. Ridley, the story was so compelling and the characters so intriguing that I just can’t wait to read the next instalment!

Ridley’s life has been steeped in darkness ever since the night of his father’s gruesome murder 20 years earlier, shadowed memories of which still haunt him. Working as a private inspector with Scotland Yard, he comes face to face with violent crime and its aftermath which only serves to intensify that darkness in his soul. Gaining some justice for those victims who no longer have a voice is what drives him to work tirelessly, reliant on a potentially lethal cocktail of drugs to keep him going. He is gruff, serious, controlled, never smiles and has little time for women until a certain Jemdanee Lillian Watkins enters his dark world, accused of a murder he knows her to be innocent of.

Ms. Marvelle has created a fascinating and tormented hero in Ridley. As the story unfolds, some of the many layers surrounding this complex man are peeled away and it’s easy to understand how Ridley could have become so damaged – so flawed and suicidal at times. However, I’m sure there are many more secrets to be revealed in the later books, making this saga so very addictive.

The illegitimate daughter of an Indian mother and a British father, Jemdanee was eight when her mother disappeared, forcing her to survive alone on the streets of Calcutta. When she’s spotted by Dr Peter Watkins, he takes her in and becomes her guardian. His financial help enabled her to study and become an expert in medicinal biology.  On a trip to London, she is separated from Peter and finds herself arrested on a charge of murder. Only one man believes in her innocence – the unnerving Mr. Ridley, who needs her botanical expertise to solve the crime.

I love Jemdanee because, despite her painful past, she has chosen to embrace life with a smile and to bring happiness to those around her.  Although her actions sometimes reflect her youth, her mind is sharp and her life experiences in Calcutta have given her a maturity beyond her years.

I enjoyed watching the relationship developing between Ridley and Jemdanee. At first, Jemdanee only sees the morbidly serious, sarcastic side of Ridley, but soon realises that he is noble, generous and kind; willing to risk his life to protect others. She also sees what a lonely existence he leads and I love how she offers him true, unconditional friendship. Ridley has never met anyone like Jemdanee, so full of smiles and compassion. She is the only woman who has been able to compete with him on an intellectual level, something he definitely needs. He is attracted to her but doesn’t want to be, fearing what might happen if he ever lets himself fully embrace his true nature, but Jemdanee refuses to let him hide from the attraction between them.

The verbal thrust and parry between them provides some delightfully humorous moments like these:

“Let us be clear in this, little Kumar, lest the money I am giving you and the elaborate prison escape I conducted was not enough to translate your situation. You need me more than your plants will ever need the sun. Don’t disrespect that.”
“So says the man who needs me to solve this crime. Given what I did in that carriage with a mere dappling, I believe my talents are far, far greater than anyone you have ever met. I am a botanical savant and if I were conceited –and fortunately, I am not –I would demand you bow.”

♥♥♥

“I suggest a hookah. It makes less of a mess.”
He stretched, cracking his neck. “Oh, yes. I can imagine myself on the streets of London now. Bumping into passing citizens while asking them to excuse the size of my hookah.”
A bubble of a laugh escaped her. Her eyes brightened as her lips curled.
His chest tightened at the glorious beauty of that sound.

♥♥♥

She leaned far back.
Ridley jerked her back toward himself. “Ey. I need you to hold still.”
“Your stamen.”
“My what?”
She scrunched her nose, realizing she had used a botanical term for his lower half. “Your reproductive organ. You keep wagging it in my face.”
He rolled his eyes. “Pardon the wagging, but every man has one. Or did your plants never tell you that?”

I admire Jemdanee for standing up to Ridley particularly in the scene where she lectures him on the dangers of chewing coca leaves and resorts to a rather painful method of forcing him to spit them out.

There is great chemistry and sexual tension between these two and Ms. Marvelle creates one of the most erotic scenes I have read, without either of them touching or even being in the same room!

I like Dr Peter Watkins, Jemdanee’s guardian, because he isn’t afraid to tell Ridley some home truths towards the end of the book and I think his words have a profound effect on Ridley and the decision he ultimately makes.

…he now knew what his path was. There was no changing it. 
She had set it.
The real Ridley was coming for her.


Ms. Marvelle’s books are so well researched and I always discover things I never knew such as the existence of Scotland Yard at the time.  I like the way in which Ms. Marvelle incorporates real historical people into the story – Vidocq, the man regarded as the father of modern criminology, and Mrs Theresa ‘Elizabeth’ Berkley, a dominatrix who owned a high-class flagellation brothel, on whom Ridley’s former wife, Elizabeth, is based.

MY VERDICT: I can definitely recommend this first book in what promises to be an addictive saga.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM


The Whipping Society
 Saga (click on the book covers for more details):

Mr. Ridley by Delilah Marvelle The Devil is French by Delilah Marvelle Reborn by Delilah Marvelle

 

** I received a complimentary copy from the author in return for an honest review**

I’m a huge LORETTA CHASE fan and I’m really excited about her new Difficult Dukes series.

The first book, A DUKE IN SHINING ARMOR , is due to be published in December and here is the lovely cover and synopsis.

A Duke in Shining Armor

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 . . . ?

 

You can also read an excerpt on Loretta’s website by following the link below:

http://www.lorettachase.com/exc-a-duke-in-shining-armor

 

Duke of My Heart

(Season for Scandal, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1819)

Cover Blurb:

Scandal can be handled…

Captain Maximus Harcourt, the unconventional tenth Duke of Alderidge, can deal with tropical storms, raging seas, and the fiercest of pirates. But he’s returned home from his latest voyage to find a naked earl—quite inconveniently deceased—tied to his missing sister’s bed. And he has only one place to turn. Now he’s at the mercy of the captivating Miss Ivory Moore of Chegarre & Associates, known throughout London for smoothing over the most dire of scandals.

Miss Moore treats the crisis as though it were no more serious than a cup of spilt tea on an expensive rug. As though this sort of thing happened on the job every day. Max has never in all his life met a woman with such nerve. Her dark eyes are too wide, her mouth is too full, her cheekbones too sharp. Yet together, she’s somehow…flawless. It’s just like his love for her, imperfect, unexpected—yet absolutely true.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I loved A Duke to Remember, the second book in Kelly Bowen’s Season for Scandal series, and knew I wanted to read the rest of the series. Ivory Moore and her husband, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge, were important secondary characters in that book and Duke of My Heart is the story of how they met and fell in love.

Ivory Moore has a secret past that only a few trusted associates are privy to. Using only her wits and resourcefulness, she has forged a new, independent life as owner of Chegarre & Associates, an elite agency known for its discreet handling of indelicate scandals. Ivory prides herself on being very good at her job, provided she is in full charge of whatever needs to be done. However, a certain Duke of Alderidge seems determined to make her latest job difficult, with his heavy-handed manner.

The duke swung around to face her again, those ice-grey eyes impaling her as if she were somehow responsible for this debacle.

Maximus (Max) Harcourt is a captain first and a duke second. With two older brothers, his parents had always made it plain that he wasn’t needed and must make his own way in life, ensuring he brought no hint of scandal to the family name. Going to sea at the age of thirteen, he built a life for himself, one he is unwilling to give up. Since inheriting the title on the death his brothers a decade ago, he has spent most of his time captaining his fleet of trade ships, leaving his estate in the competent hands of his stewards, secretaries and solicitors. However, having returned home for a short visit, he does not expect to find his sister missing without trace, a dead earl’s body tied to her bed and a strange woman giving him orders!

He’d never in all his life met a woman with such nerve.

Max is used to commanding his men and being obeyed without question but the cool, calm and collected Ivory is not one to be daunted by this overbearing man. They are bound to clash and clash they do in a scene full of spirited dialogue.

The duke’s expression was positively glacial. “I give the orders here, Miss Moore, not you. Don’t presume that I will ever follow your lead.”
Irritation surged. “Take a look around you, Your Grace. Do you see a crew of sailors anxiously awaiting your direction?” She put emphasis on the last two words. “This is not your world. This is mine.”
“Get out of my house,” the duke said, his voice as sharp as cut glass. “Now.”

Of course, Max is forced to back down because he realises this is a problem he is not qualified to solve and must put his faith in Ivory Moore’s methods. Naturally, any reader of historical romance will know that behind these heated exchanges is an equally heated attraction between the hero and heroine.

Good heavens. She hadn’t had this sort of visceral reaction to a man in a very, very long time, and she wasn’t pleased. Desire was a distraction, and distractions were perilous.

No man with a pulse and eyes in his head would overlook her. She evoked images of dark nights and secret desires—

As they work together to solve the mysterious disappearance of Max’s sister, they come to know each other better. Max appreciates that Ivory is intelligent, clever, practical, logical, resourceful and fearless. Ivory is aware that Max can be hard-headed, arrogant, stubborn and controlling, but she has also seen his gentleness, kindness and deep love and concern for his sister. She senses that he is a man she could trust with her secrets.

They are so consumed with thoughts of each other that Ivory becomes distracted from the job she is supposed to be doing and misses an important clue, and Max feels guilty for pursuing his own selfish pleasures, when he should be doing everything he can to make sure his sister is safe.

I love how Ms. Bowen builds the sexual tension between these two with heated kisses, longing and unfulfilled desire creating a delicious feeling of anticipation. I love the scene in Max’s cabin where they share their innermost thoughts and secrets which creates a wonderful sense of trust and intimacy between them.

She had entrusted him with a gift. A piece of her past. A piece of who she was. That single gift was the most valuable thing any woman had ever given him. Ever.

Later in the story when they finally make love, it just feels right. The love scene is beautifully done – tender, romantic and sensual, but also revealing the raw desire they feel for each other.

I admire Ivory for the sacrifice she is willing to make for Max and his family, but I could also sense how vulnerable and alone she feels…

It was this that she hated. This bleak feeling of exposed vulnerability that reduced her to a thirteen-year-old girl who had learned hard lessons about how one survived when one started with nothing.

I love Max for being her knight-errant…

“You shouldn’t have to be fine, Ivory. You should be free. Protected from things that you survived once and that you shouldn’t have to survive again.” He brushed his lips across her forehead. “I want to do that for you.”

and for being willing to make his own sacrifice for the woman he loves…

“I am willing to try to be a duke. And the brother that Beatrice deserves. But I can’t do that if I don’t have somewhere I belong. And I belong with you.”

Some of the secondary characters, like part-time actress, Elise DeVries, and her brother, Alex, owner of London’s most exclusive gaming hell, are familiar from reading A Duke to Remember, as is the dangerously unpredictable King. However, having read book 2 first, King’s actions in that book gave me a different opinion of him and I believe that perhaps redemption is possible and I hope Ms. Bowen is considering writing his story. I was also intrigued by the roguish smuggler, Captain Black, who I feel is also deserving of his own book.

The mystery element provided some intriguing twists and turns and I never felt my interest waning. It wasn’t until near the end that I figured out the villain’s identity and was happy to see him get a fitting punishment thanks to Captain Black.

MY VERDICT: A captivating story, multi-layered characters and a passionate love story make this a book one I can definitely recommend.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

 Season for Scandal series (click on the book covers for more details):

Duke of My Heart (Season for Scandal, #1) by Kelly Bowen A Duke to Remember (Season for Scandal, #2) by Kelly Bowen Between the Devil and the Duke (Season for Scandal, #3) by Kelly Bowen

The Winter Bride audio

(Chance Sisters, #2)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1816)

Cover Blurb

Award-winning author Anne Gracie delivers the second in her enticing new series about four young women facing a life of destitution—until a daring act changes their fortune and turns them each into a beautiful bride…

Damaris Chance’s unhappy past has turned her off the idea of marriage forever. But her guardian, Lady Beatrice Davenham, convinces her to make her coming out anyway—and have a season of carefree, uncomplicated fun.

When Damaris finds herself trapped in a compromising situation with the handsome rake Freddy Monkton-Coombes, she has no choice but to agree to wed him—as long as it’s in name only. Her new husband seems to accept her terms, but Freddy has a plan of his own: to seduce his reluctant winter bride.

Will Damaris’s secrets destroy her chance at true happiness? Or can Freddy help her cast off the shackles of the past, and yield to delicious temptation?

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Wonderful Anne Gracie. I adored your amusing, witty dialogue, and engaging cast of loveable characters. Freddy and Damaris, secondary characters from The Autumn Bride, are the star players, well supported by the rest of this delightful mishmash of a ‘family’, especially the outspoken and outrageous Aunt Bea. Lady Beatrice can turn any situation to her own advantage or to the advantage of her beloved adopted ‘nieces’. Nothing will stand in the way of their happiness as far as she is concerned; no bending of the truth is unacceptable.

She has decided that Freddy Monkton-Coombes, her nephew Max’s oldest friend, will meet her girls and she orchestrates this meeting shamelessly. Freddy is a confirmed bachelor and avoids what he refers to as, ‘muffins’’- young women intent on trapping a chap into marriage –  like the plague.  He has skilfully sidestepped this terrible fate for many years but, from the moment he comes face to face with the quietly serene and beautiful Damaris, he is hooked even though he doesn’t realise it at the time.

Whilst he is away on his honeymoon with Abby, Aunt Bea’s eldest ‘niece’, Max, whose story was told in The Autumn Bride, has coerced Freddy into acting as guardian/chaperon to the girls and his aunt. Although initially extremely reluctant, Freddy eventually agrees and takes his promise very seriously. Naturally, it throws him into regular contact with Damaris, and the die is cast as he begins to enjoy her company and she his. At this point, I must add that whilst The Winter Bride can be read and enjoyed as a standalone, I recommend reading The Autumn Bride first as there is quite a complicated back story and the relationship between Aunt Beatrice and her ‘nieces’ is explained in credible detail.

Freddy’s parents have decided that it is high time he settles down and produces an heir, and have therefore arranged a house party where hordes of these ‘muffins’ will be waiting to pounce. Damaris is just as set against marriage as Freddy and so he comes up with an idea which will keep them both free of a leg shackle. When he eventually persuades Damaris to his way of thinking, the two enter into a mutually agreeable pact. They will announce a fake betrothal which will serve the dual purpose of placating both his parents and Aunt Bea.  While Aunt Bea is intent on arranging a season for her, Damaris’ only ambition is to live quietly in the country in a little cottage with a few chickens and a vegetable garden. Here she hopes to have the peace and quiet to forget the past tragedies and horrific memories which plague her. On the face of it, this arrangement suits both Freddy and Damaris and, in return for her wholehearted compliance, Freddy sets about the task of arranging the purchase of a country cottage for Damaris.

Damaris’s peace is to be shattered, however, by the elegantly beautiful Freddy as he unwittingly worms his way into her life. He has worked very hard to present a rakish, devil-may-care appearance to the ton but behind this façade is a man with a keen business brain who is also kind, thoughtful and, most importantly, honourable with oodles of integrity. As the story unfolds, it emerges that he suffered a boyhood tragedy which has left him deeply traumatised and apparently, as a result of this tragedy, unloved by his parents. His outward devil-may-care persona is a carefully manufactured one, behind which he hides in their presence, and his self-deprecating manner and refusal to explain or defend himself to his cold and unloving parents only seems to perpetuate their annoyance and disregard for him even more. Observing all this on a visit to his family, Damaris intuitively sees how very unhappy he is whilst in their company. She is appalled by their treatment of their only son and sets out to get to the bottom of the rift between them and, in the process, show them how very wrong they are about him. There are a few amusing but bitter-sweet moments where she takes Freddy’s autocratic parents to task, and he is both touched and amazed by her courage, having only previously seen the quiet, gentle side of her nature. This is where we see the real Freddy Monkton-Coombes, as Damaris determinedly begins to strip away the layers of his past and hidden turmoil…. sniff!

Freddy begins to see that Damaris is no ‘muffin’ and comes to the astounding realisation that he is not against marriage at all with the right girl, and that girl is Damaris. But how to persuade her? To this end, he sets out to make their betrothal fact rather than fiction. Freddy is such a darling man, that even his seduction and compromising of Damaris is somehow honourably achieved, especially as it’s done after she has confessed her distressing secret. And what a touchingly tender but sensual scene it is, and throughout Ms. Gracie maintains her legendary wit and humour, without undermining the love, affection and sheer sexiness which has grown between them. It’s one of those very memorable scenes that leaves the reader with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Anne Gracie’s references to Jane Austen’s works add yet more humour and wit, especially in the scene where Freddy, initially horrified at being obliged to attend Aunt Bea’s literary society – deviously organised by her to introduce her ‘nieces’ to the young men of society – quotes the opening lines from Pride and Prejudice:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.’ …he shudders….”What about the poor fellow’s wants, eh? Do they matter? No. Every female in the blasted story was plotting to hook some man for herself or her daughter or niece. If you don’t call that horror, I don’t know what is.

The serious underlying issues for both protagonists, which each eventually helps the other to overcome, make this so much more than just a fluffy romance and it is definitely my favourite of the Chance Sisters series, although I love them all. Both characters are utterly loveable and I have never forgotten Freddy’s character even though I initially read the book on its publication three years ago – a fair indication of how much of an impression this book and his lovely character made on me.

As previously mentioned, I read and loved this book when it was originally published and when I spotted that the audio version was at last available in the UK, I jumped at it, and immediately downloaded the whole series, especially when I realised that it had been recorded by the acclaimed actress and comedienne, Alison Larkin. Ms. Larkin is a special favourite of mine and her name on an audio book is always guaranteed to attract my attention. When I saw that she was in collaboration with Anne Gracie, there was never any doubt in my mind that this would be a wonderfully satisfying listen. In my opinion, Ms. Larkin is the perfect choice to perform this witty and charming series with its Austen quotes. I always think (and say it whenever I review one of her audio books) that she has a ‘smile’ in her voice, which, in this case, perfectly captures the humour always present in Anne Gracie’s novels.

In addition, her considerable acting skills are evident when dealing with the deeper, more serious issues. This is especially true when Damaris reveals her heart-breaking secret and Freddy’s childhood trauma emerges, and then the more serious side to his nature. Alison Larkin handles these revelations with supreme sensitivity.

As I have already mentioned, Freddy initially gives the impression of superficiality, seeming to prefer avoiding not only confrontation but responsibility too. But this impression is dispelled as we learn more about him and Alison Larkin sheds his light-hearted persona and exaggerated, slightly foppish accent as she subtly builds up the tension, especially during the scene towards the end of the book where Freddy, by this time devoid of all levity, is moved to violence. Between them, the author and narrator show his hidden mettle as he squares up to his opponent in defence of his love.

Alison Larkin’s rendition of Aunt Bea is also particularly clever as this manipulative but kindly, elderly lady, who is guilty of telling the biggest whoppers, is a tremendous character and a difficult one to capture with credibility I would imagine. However, Ms. Larkin gives a faultless performance, worthy of any West End stage, as she portrays this indomitable lady with her decidedly imperious upper crust accent, using just the right amount of intonation and nuance to indicate her age and air of entitlement.

I can’t praise Alison Larkin’s performance highly enough as she brings Anne Gracie’s lovely, tear-jerking, feel-good story to sparkling life with her accomplished interpretation of it. I would LOVE to hear Ms. Larkin perform The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie (another of my favourite books) which I believe has yet to be recorded…. hint to the audio company and publisher!

MY VERDICT: I highly recommend THE WINTER BRIDE for both content and narration and, as I have all four books in my audio library, I look forward to many more hours of listening pleasure. 

RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

Chance Sisters series (click on the book covers for more details):

The Autumn Bride (Chance Sisters, #1) by Anne Gracie The Winter Bride (Chance Sisters, #2) by Anne Gracie The Spring Bride (Chance Sisters, #3) by Anne Gracie The Summer Bride (Chance Sisters, #4) by Anne Gracie

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