AustenStudent

I read and study Jane Austen obsessively,
love British and American history,
and adore historical romance novels.

Read: “When I Met My Duchess” by Caroline Linden from AT THE DUKE’S WEDDING

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Note: page references are from an ePUB version.

As society gathers at Kingstag Castle for the wedding of the year, matrimony is in the air. But who will be the bride? With swoonworthy lords, witty ladies, eccentric relatives, a gaggle of free-spirited girls, not to mention the world’s best high perch phaeton, it’s a recipe for mayhem — and romance. Award winning, best-selling authors Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale serve up delectable Regency fun and a sexy contemporary twist in this anthology of original novellas. 
Four authors, four couples, four deliciously romantic surprises. When it comes to love, anything can happen… 

When I Met My Duchess by Caroline Linden

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Gareth Cavendish, Duke of Wessex, believes he’s chosen the perfect bride… until he meets her sister and lightning strikes—literally! Now he’s the only member of society dreading the wedding of the season. Or is he? Cleo Barrows can’t fathom why her knees weaken every time the handsome duke approaches, or why her sister isn’t in the clouds at the prospect of marrying him. But the more often wedding plans throw Cleo and Gareth intimately together, the faster time is running out to turn the celebration of the summer into the scandal of the year.

What a charming and breathtaking novella.

Gareth, the Duke of Wessex, is awaiting the arrival of his bride, Miss Helen Gray, at a house party celebration. But when he meets his fiancée’s vivacious and lively sister, Cleopatra Barrows, all bets are off.

Cleo, a widow, astounds him with her freshness, her bold and direct manner, and her ability to befriend everyone—even his sharp-tongued Aunt Sophronia.

But both Miss Gray as well as his beloved secretary, James Blair—who arranged the nuptials—hold secrets. Gareth sees that his bride-to-be is unhappy and wary of him and it unnerves him. He believes her to be the perfect candidate for his duchess, all that is proper and elegant. He doesn’t believe in true love. Until Cleo. She throws his calm and ordered world into complete chaos and indecision.

Just thinking through the logical, sane reasons why he wanted this match had a calming effect. He had made the right choose, and his odd fascination with her sister was merely a passing flight of fancy.” (p459)

Cleo is the widow of a tradesman who married for love and is barely tolerated by her parents. But she and Helen are very close and Cleo wishes to support her sister on her big day. 

'What is headstrong and willful in a woman is often called decisive and bold in a man.'” (p574)

I love Cleo, her strength and determination to enjoy life despite the shabby way her parents treat her at the same time they accept her money. She runs her late husband’s business, but she is reluctant to discuss it when the duke makes conversation as she doesn’t wish to seem déclassé for her sister. She ingratiates herself into the duke’s household, endearing herself to everyone she meets. Everyone finds her charming, except her class conscious parents.

She could support herself, it turned out, so why shouldn’t she? Without the shop, she would have precious little of her own: no children, no husband, no income…nothing to keep her mind occupied. What else was she to do with herself?” (p488)

But she’s falling for her sister’s fiancé. How in the world will it all work out? And when Gareth realizes that he’s also falling for Cleo, he feels powerless to stop it but, fortuitously, there is a way.

The passion between Cleo and Gareth is passionate and poignant to read. I admit I never expected this anthology to include any protagonists that included the wedding party, another treat.

A delightful joy to read from beginning to end.

Read: WALLFLOWER GONE WILD by Maya Rodale

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In the second in Maya Rodale’s delightful Wallflower series, London’s Least Likely to Cause a Scandal is taking Society by storm…

Being good has worked out very badly for Lady Olivia Archer. All she has to show for four seasons on the marriage mart is the nickname Prissy Missy. Her prospects are so bleak that her parents have betrothed her to a stranger with a dire reputation. If Phinneas Cole—aka The Mad Baron—wants a biddable bride, perhaps Olivia can frighten him off by breaking every ladylike rule.

Phinn has admired Olivia’s poise and refinement from afar…qualities that appear to have vanished now that they are officially engaged. This Olivia is flirtatious, provocative, and wickedly irresistible. She’s not at all the woman he bargained for, yet she’s the only one he wants.

He’s determined to woo her. She’s determined to resist. But Olivia is discovering there’s nothing so appealing as a fiancé who’s mad, bad, and dangerously seductive…

An opening quote sets the stage and a humorous tone for the entire novel, though I didn’t find this story quite as funny as the first book in Maya Rodale’s Wallflowers series, The Wicked WallflowerRodale often uses quotes from various broadsheets such as the “Fashionable Intelligence” column by “A Lady of Distinction” from The London Weekly, popular sayings from Lady Penelope’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Fine Families, and other quotes from conduct books of the period.

Lady Olivia Archer has had no luck in snagging a husband, despite playing by the rules and being the epitome of a good girl and a lady. After four unsuccessful seasons, she tries to be bad and that doesn’t quite work out either. 

“She was a girl who liked to sing and dance, who wished to flirt with rakes and be kissed improperly.” (p5)

Her well-meaning but misguided parents—her mother is positively oppressive—desperately push her into the arms of the notorious “Mad Baron,” Phinneas Cole, around whom rumors swirl that he murdered his first wife.

Phinneas is a scientist, like the Duke of Ashbrooke from The Wicked Wallflower. He’s a machinist temporarily in London to help build Ashbrooke’s Difference Engine.

When they first meet—across a crowded ballroom—Olivia and Phinneas feel a profound connection and attraction, until she discovers he is the Mad Baron. So she tries to turn him off by trying to be unappealing.  She tries wearing excessive face paint, flirting with rogues and rakes, and even asking a gentleman to dance, which all make for some laugh-out-loud moments. But that doesn’t turn Phinneas away. He feels bad that she has a poor image of him and determines to change her mind with the help of his dissolute friend, Rogan. 

Phinneas has become a recluse ever since the scandal surrounding the death of his first wife. He decides he now wants a biddable, docile wife so that he can work in peace, after his fiery first marriage. To him, this is merely another business arrangement, much like Cyrus Ravensmore believes (at first) in Winning the Wallflowerby Eloisa James.

But Phinneas doesn’t change Olivia’s mind all that much, until the masquerade ball when he comes to her rescue and she doesn’t even know who he is. She finds out later and that, finally, endears him to her.

The trademark Capital Letters—a device which Rodale often uses in her works, to great effect—create humorous emphasis on Dramatic Situations.

Prudence, another wallflower whose happy ending will be in book three, What a Wallflower Wants, thoughtfully expounds on the lies that Lady Penelope’s school preaches.

“‘We were led to believe that ladylike behavior would be rewarded with good husbands and happily-ever-after. We were gravely misled.” (p29)

If you think that typos, misspelled and incorrect words, and missing articles are only to be found in self-published works, think again, because I found a lot in this book published by Harper Collins. In fact, I think there are more here than in Rodale’s self-published Seducing the Single Lady. There’s also an odd floating annotation on page 147—an asterisk that merely says The Wicked Wallflower without any explanation of what it refers to. ‘Though’ instead of ‘through,’ ‘here’ instead ‘her,’ ‘jealously’ instead ‘jealousy,’ etc. 

You do not need to read the first book in the series to appreciate this lovely story, and I eagerly look forward to reading the next installment as well as much more by Maya Rodale.

Read: “P.S. I Love You” by Miranda Neville from AT THE DUKE’S WEDDING

Note: page references are from an ePUB version.

As society gathers at Kingstag Castle for the wedding of the year, matrimony is in the air. But who will be the bride? With swoonworthy lords, witty ladies, eccentric relatives, a gaggle of free-spirited girls, not to mention the world’s best high perch phaeton, it’s a recipe for mayhem — and romance. Award winning, best-selling authors Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale serve up delectable Regency fun and a sexy contemporary twist in this anthology of original novellas. 
Four authors, four couples, four deliciously romantic surprises. When it comes to love, anything can happen…

P.S. I Love You by Miranda Neville 
Handsome, inarticulate Frank Newnham asks for his cousin Christian’s help when he woos Rosanne Lacy by letter. Rosanne falls for Frank’s delicious prose, but when they meet in person at the duke’s wedding party, Rosanne can’t understand why Frank seems so … dull. And why is she drawn to the dark brooding Earl of Bruton, with his scarred face and air of melancholy?

This is a beautiful and romantic novella. I have not read much by Neville but this is the best I’ve read by her. It’s a story based on the theme of Cyrano de Bergerac, of mistaken identity, and of seeing a person’s true inner worth and beauty.

Captain Christian Lord Bruton and Frank Newnham are cousins and best friends. Frank has always been the handsome one, the one all the ladies flock to while Christian, with his devastating facial scar and more serious and reserved manner, has been content to remain in the background with his books. But Frank is unable to communicate his feelings so, when he asks for Christian’s help in wooing the beautiful Lady Roseanne Lacy, Christian reluctantly agrees to write letters for him.

[Frank] was a beautiful blank sheet of paper.” (p345)

But Christian falls in love with Roseanne through their letters and in the confidences they share. When they all have an opportunity to meet at the Duke of Wessex’s house party to celebrate his upcoming nuptials, it all comes to a head.

"Look at me, he wanted to say. Give me your attention for a little longer before my handsome cousin usurps me.” (p260)

Christian is more intellectually stimulating to Miss Lacy than Frank can ever be and it’s lovely to see their love story unfold. They come together through walks and conversation about books and life while Frank stammers and hides away with the other male guests. Roseanne barely notices Christian’s scar as she comes to know his true and honorable nature.

"He didn’t think Frank appreciated her letters on the same level that Christian did." (p217)

The friendship between Frank and Christian is a complex one, fraught with love and honor. 

A very sweet and tender romance.

Read: “That Rogue Jack” by Maya Rodale, from AT THE DUKE’S WEDDING

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Note: page references are from an ePUB version.

As society gathers at Kingstag Castle for the wedding of the year, matrimony is in the air. But who will be the bride? With swoonworthy lords, witty ladies, eccentric relatives, a gaggle of free-spirited girls, not to mention the world’s best high perch phaeton, it’s a recipe for mayhem — and romance. Award winning, best-selling authors Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale serve up delectable Regency fun and a sexy contemporary twist in this anthology of original novellas. 
Four authors, four couples, four deliciously romantic surprises. When it comes to love, anything can happen…

"That Rogue Jack" by Maya Rodale 

Jack, Lord Willoughby is charming, handsome, and utterly irresponsible. In other words, he’s the worst person to entrust with the ducal wedding ring. Miss Henrietta Black is prim, proper and the ideal person to help find the priceless family heirloom that’s gone missing… as long as she isn’t distracted by Jack’s gorgeous smile and tantalizing attempts at seduction. They MUST find the ring before the wedding… if they aren’t too busy falling in love.

Henrietta Black is a companion to a lady and, as such, dependent on her goodness for security and a roof over her head. But she has a charming relationship with her employer, Lady Sophronia, great aunt to the Duke of Wessex, the groom. Sophronia has a sharp wit and tongue to match and Henrietta has her hands full keeping her from saying all sorts of rude and offensive things to the guests. For her part, Sophronia thinks Henrietta is much too uptight.

When one was a poor orphan utterly dependent upon the goodwill of affluent elder relations, one wished for nothing so much as security.” (p9)

So she encourages Henrietta’s flirtation with Henrietta’s childhood nemesis, that incorrigible flirt, Jack Willoughby. Willoughby is the name of the rogue who broke Marianne Dashwood’s heart in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I love that Rodale uses his name. (She also uses the name of the bride-to-be, Miss Grey, whom Austen’s Willoughby eventually married).

"Jack was the most utterly reckless and reliably unreliable person ever to wake in the morning and sleep at night." (p12)

Jack is the best man and has been charged with the responsibility of bringing the family’s heirloom ring to the wedding…which he promptly loses (not to Henrietta’s surprise). So he and Henrietta spend the majority of their time together searching all over the grounds of the estate, the numerous rooms, and even Jack’s gorgeous new phaeton, for the ring. In between, they steal kisses that feel more and more like true love.

One ought not to deal with rogues in the morning.” (p44)

There are some lovely poignant moments in this mostly humorous novella especially Sophronia’s sincere kindness to Henrietta. In Rodale’s trademark witty style, the lighthearted atmosphere of a wedding is beautifully captured.

'I need you to keep me focused and you need me to help you be a bit more adventurous. But most of all, Hen, I have fallen in love with you.'” (p166)

A funny and charming love story.

Read: TAMING MISS TISDALE by Jessica Jefferson

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Note: page references are from an ARC PDF copy.

Miss Tamsin Tisdale believes herself to be completely unsuitable for London life. After a myriad of social mishaps, and the potential ruination of her family name, she’s shipped away to her cousin’s northern estate. Only after she accepts the type of existence Society dictates she must follow will she be welcomed home.

Marcus Winston, the Duke of Grayson, has a lackluster reputation. The last in a dying line, he’s endured a protected life—rank with privilege, but encumbered by isolation. After a brief encounter with rebellion, he learns the devastating consequences of his carelessness and willingly accepts living life from inside his gilded cage.

However, a chance meeting with the brazen Miss Tisdale gives Marc the opportunity to reinvent himself into the man he’s always dreamed of being. But when his deception comes to light, and ghosts from both their pasts threaten to unravel the intimacy they’ve come to cherish, will either of them set their fears aside long enough to embrace love? Or will Miss Tisdale’s stubbornness divide them?

Last year, I read and enjoyed Compromising Miss Tisdale, the first in the Regency Blooms series, by newcomer Jessica Jefferson. That lovely novel of manners was a charming, funny, and elegant historical romance. And there was one very memorable character who stood out in that debut: Miss Tamsin Tisdale, the heroine’s sister. Feisty, strong, and tomboyish, this is her happy ending.

Marcus Winston, the Duke of Grayson is a true beta hero, very reminiscent of Edward Ailsbury in The Secret Mistress by Mary Balogh. Plagued as a child with “the falling disease” (epilepsy), he grew up pampered and overprotected by both his parents, but especially his mother. Consequently, he was educated at home instead of attending boarding school, developed a love of books and learning, and learned to dislike the manly pursuits, such as hunting. He’s a quiet man who prefers to blend in rather than stand out, despite his illustrious title. He is a dutiful son and, even though he knows it will not make him happy, he agrees to entertain the idea of courting the waspish Lady Katherine, whom his mother has her heart set on for his future duchess. In fact, his mother’s overprotectiveness has begun to feel stifling and, after a youthful rebellion ended in tragedy, he finds it easier to accommodate her. As a result, he has not really enjoyed life at all, never traveled, or even had a pet.

Until Tamsin Tisdale bursts into his sedate (read: boring) life. After meeting her, for the first time in his sheltered life, Marcus wants to throw caution to the wind. After listening to her (rumored) impressions of the reclusive and mysterious Duke that show him in an unattractive light, he introduces himself merely as Mr. Winston, cousin to the duke, to get to know her better. This little ruse allows him to be someone else besides a proper and stuffy duke.

Tamsin Tisdale is the spirited daughter of a viscount and is anything but proper. She accidentally stumbles onto the duke’s estate, Beardsley, during an invigorating morning ride and captivates Marcus (who is out for a walk) with her freshness, vivacity, and directness. He is completely entranced and besotted. She speaks her mind—as she did most boldly in Compromising Miss Tisdale—and is in the country visiting her cousin Elizabeth’s family after being banished to the north for a petty ton scandal. In his animated descriptions to Jason St. Regis, his best friend, Marcus likens her appearance to a fairy or a sprite with her glorious red hair, freckles, and impish manner. It’s completely unaffected, unlike most of the posturing ladies he meets. He has never met anyone like her.

“Miss Tisdale clearly had no idea her power over men. Her unique blend of naivety and lack of inhibition made her an irresistible combination. There was no way she’d make it through another Season unbetrothed—no man was foolish enough to let someone like her slip through their fingers, or their bed.” (p119)

Tamsin has no patience for propriety, fashionable dress, or the insincerity of Polite Society. She doesn’t think, she reacts, and this gets her into all kinds of humorous scrapes and incidences. But each proves to only make her even more tempting and attractive to Marcus and make the quiet life he has led thus far seem very mundane indeed. I love her unaffectedness; in fact, in one scene, we find her languorously lounging on a chaise, daydreaming, her fingers skimming the floor. In another, Jason mistakes her for a servant!

“She found the opposite sex to be friendly enough, but couldn’t really envision any man meaning more to her than that…She chose to live her life solely for herself, depending on no one. Marriage meant the complete opposite of the ideals she held so strongly.” (p37)

When Tamsin discovers she has fallen hard for Marcus, it upsets and unnerves her. Her revelation recalls Emma Woodhouse’s own startling realization of her singular love for Mr. Knightley in Emma by Jane Austen.

“She’d always prided herself on her self-reliance, yet whenever he was around it was as if she was always in need of his assistance in one way or another. While in his presence, even the basic task of walking had become a challenge necessitating his heroic intervention. And she didn’t care for that one bit.” (p105)

“It was unfathomable how something like this could have happened—and to her of all people. After all the safeguards she’d put into place, she’d believed herself invincible. Her ugly gowns comparable to that of chainmail, her cunning words her shield. And yet he’d penetrated through all of that. It was disheartening, but she’d be a fool to argue with the truth. Shea was in love with Mr. Winston.” (p135)

Marcus and Tamsin’s love story has a joyous quality to it, of young love, of two unlikely hearts finding each other, and of the humor and fun to be had spending time together. Whenever Marcus encounters Tamsin, it is spiced with almost slapstick adventure as well as vivid sexual tension. The best part of their love story is how it takes both of them by complete surprise.

“A small element of danger, a dash of daring, and certainly a feeling of freedom he’d seldom felt before. This was what life with Tamsin Tisdale would be about.” (p208)

His best friend Jason is the complete opposite of Marcus; he’s a suave playboy and a hopeless seducer. In fact, he sports a mild flirtation with Tamsin, but she thinks of him only as a friend, much to Marcus’ angry and frustrated relief.

There are some wonderfully humorous moments in this romance, such as Marcus’ midnight visit, the bantering between Marcus and Jason, and the way Elizabeth (Tamsin’s ladylike cousin) despairs of her cousin’s behavior. The writing style is elegant and sparkling and the minor characters Jason St. Regis—whose own happy ending is hinted at—Marcus’ overbearing mother, and Elizabeth are all well-drawn and characterized. We also discover Tamsin’s unique and different floral name, hence the name of the series.

If I have one quibble, it’s a minor one. I do not like the cover. The hero looks too old for the heroine and it’s nothing at all like I picture Marcus.

A most pleasing and amusing love story in a series that I look forward to reading more of.

Note: a modified version of this review first appeared on Romantic Historical Reviews.

Read: BOUND TO BE A BRIDE by Megan Mulry

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Note: page references are from an ePUB version.

In 1808 tempestuous Isabella, daughter of the Duke of Feria, unites with rebellious Javi, a highborn aristocrat practiced in the art of hojōjutsu, Japanese rope binding. They meet in the forest of western Spain, where both are on the run from an arranged marriage…to each other.

This saucy novella, by new-to-me author Megan Mulry, takes place in Napoleonic era Spain and features two kindred and independent spirits.

Isabella has been raised in a convent, as many privileged women of her class, where she has been educated and groomed to be a bride to a wealthy and titled family’s son. But that’s not the life she wants for herself. So she intricately plans a journey, hiding her belongings along the way. She plans to escape and live independently, free of the constraints of any man. 

"…they would live in a new world of freedom, where abusive, calculating men and complicit authoritative women would no longer control their destinies." 

A husband wanted a beautiful, charming, delightful wife, the nuns had explained to Isabella on the day she departed the convent. All Isabella could think during the entire two-hour recitation of their womanly wisdom was, How would you know?! None of them had ever been a wife.”

Unbeknownst to her, Isabella’s betrothed, Javier (Javi), also has no intention of being tied to a meek woman in marriage. He is on the road (to Mexico) with two of his best friends when they encounter Isabella. Javier and his friends are working in a covert group to help overthrow Napoleon. They fear she is going to try to rob them—a tiny wisp of a thing, right!—so Javier ties her, using the ancient martial arts technique of Japanese rope binding called Hojojutsu, an intricate series of knots that allows for simultaneous movement and constriction.

One of the reasons I love historical romance is that I learn more about history and the history is rich in this little story. For example, I had no idea that the Japanese came to Spain in the seventeenth century and settled in a town called Coria del Rio. Also, Javier is based on a real historical figure, Francisco Javier de la Mina, a guerrilla fighter in Napoleonic Spain. Mulry says she was inspired to write a story about him after seeing “his dashing portrait.”

I’ve read one other historical romance set in Spain around this time, Anne Gracie’s Bride by Mistake. In that story, as in many historical romances set during this time, women are at the mercy of men’s wishes and whims.

The descriptions of landscape on their journey are vivid, as this one of the town of Aveiro:

Here, stretched out in front of her, was a teeming array of pale terra-cotta rooftops, glistening turquoise canals, and beyond, the beckoning infinite sapphire Atlantic with the city’s famous piles of blindingly white salt drying in the bright sun along the shoreline.” 

The writing and characters are likable and spirited. I like Isabella’s feistiness and independent nature and, even more important, that Javier  appreciates her this way. The fact that they are intended for each other makes it all the more humorous.

There is a sequel novella recently released, Bound to Be a Groomwhich tells the story Isabella’s friend, Anna, born on the wrong side of the blanket.

I look forward to reading more from Mulry in future.

Listened to: PROVOCATIVE IN PEARLS by Madeline Hunter

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Their marriage was arranged, but their desire was not…

After two years, Grayson Bridlington, The Earl of Hawkeswell, has located his missing bride Verity Thompson. Coerced into marrying Hawkeswell by her duplicitous cousin, Verity fled London for the countryside. Now, the couple must make the most of an arranged marriage-even if it means surrendering to their shared desire.

This is the second story in the Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.

The series focuses on three young women, of dubious background and scandals, all taken in by Daphne Joyes, the homeowner and entrepreneur of the Rarest Blooms flower business. Audrianna’s story is first with Ravishing in Red and this is Lizzie’s story. Lizzie is not her real name.

We learn that she is Verity Thompson. Two years earlier, Verity abandoned her new husband, Grayson Bridlington, the earl of Hawkeswell, on their wedding day, after she was coerced into marriage. She hoped to stay away until she came of age to claim her own inheritance and she believes her husband was in collusion with her cruel and unscrupulous cousin, Bertram and his equallly vile wife, Nancy. As expected, she tries to convince Hawkeswell they will not suit when she meets him again.

But once Hawkeswell finds Verity—in a wonderfully surprising and unexpected scene—he doesn’t ever wish to let her go again. He is attracted to her and, when he discovers the real reasons she left, is determined to help her uncover the truths of the past. For her part, Verity is pleasantly surprised and relieved to discover that Hawkeswell knew nothing of her cousin’s intentions and that he is nothing like them.

The close, strong, and supportive friendship between Daphne, Celia, Audrianna, and Verity is lovely to read and an important part of the entire series. It reminds me of the strong all-women household that Jane Austen herself belonged to—with her sister, Cassandra, her mother, and a family friend—as well as the Dashwood women in her novel, Sense and Sensibility; women who combine their assets for mutual financial and emotional support in the absence of male protection.

Audrianna and Sebastian appear here for their friends—Sebastian and Hawkeswell (as well as the debauched Duke of Castleford) are old friends. With their help, Hawkeswell delves into the scheme that threatens Verity as well as the trust in their marriage. As the mystery comes to a resolution, the love between Verity and Hawkeswell grows.

Madeline Hunter writes with feeling and authenticity. Her love scenes are very sensual without being overtly graphic; you can feel the love being expressed in every carefully crafted sentence. 

Her stories are often set in the Regency era and involve a mystery where the hero tries to help the heroine against some tyranny or overpowering menace. 

This audiobook is narrated by Polly Lee, who also narrated the first book. Her voice is lovely and calm, and I enjoy the different inflections she brings to the several male and female characters in this series. I could easily differentiate between all them. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t own the next book in audio and the fourth book is not narrated by Polly Lee but, rather, Kate Reading; another good reader but it would have been nice to have some continuation.

The tempting and licentious Lord Castleford makes another appearance here, friend to both Summerhays and Hawkeswell. He’s the bad boy every woman loves; I look forward to listening to his story in the last in the series, Dangerous in Diamonds.

“So anxious for her health and comfort, so very feeling as he now expressed himself, and really seemed, might not it be fairly supposed that he would not much longer persevere in a suit so distressing to her?”

– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

Read: SINFUL IN SATIN by Madeline Hunter

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Note: page references are from a Kindle version of the book.

When famed London courtesan Alessandra Northrope passes away, her daughter Celia Pennifold inherits little more than a hopelessly contaminated reputation, a house in a middle class neighborhood, and an education that prepared her to take her mother’s place the way Alessandra intended. Celia hopes to make her own life on her own terms, however, and moves into the house only to discover one more legacy—an enigmatic, handsome tenant who knows her mother’s plans for her future rather too well.

Jonathan thinks he is on a simple mission to discover whether Celia’s mother left accounts of her lovers that might embarrass important men. Instead he finds himself embroiled in a mystery full of dangerous betrayals and secrets, old and new, that touch on his life as well as Celia’s

The third book in the very enjoyable Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.

Celia is the daughter of a famed courtesan, Alessandra Northrope, groomed by her mother for a life of giving men pleasure. But it is not the life Celia wants for herself. She plans to live quietly, owning a small business in London and living in a simple house on Wells Street left to her by her mother. I admired Celia’s outlook on life, despite the way society treated her due to her birth. They treated Jonathan the same way, but he is a man so it is different.

“She knew about male desire in all its forms and manifestations, and could sense it the way some people could smell rain on its way.”

…she was vulnerable to the cruel judgments merely by her birth.”

Her good friends, Audrianna, Verity, and Daphne love her like a sister yet they must meet in secret or risk the scorn of Polite Society as both Audrianna and Verity have married peers. They can’t even attend Celia’s mother’s funeral in the opening scene but must hide in carriages. Celia understands this but it hurts nonetheless. We also learn a surprising secret about Celia, proving that even readers make assumptions as does society. Celia has always seemed worldly and knowledgeable in the pleasurable arts in the past two novels in this series, but things are not always what they seem.

Though she was estranged at the time of her mother’s death, they had made peace. Alessandra left Celia houses and gowns, as well as extensive information on being a courtesan, although her account book is mysteriously absent from her final effects. Little does Celia know that someone else seeks this information. Both Celia and Jonathan seek the truth about their parentage. Jonathan wants acknowledgement while Celia has never met her father.

“He admired how she was trying to create a world for herself here, and establish an income that would permit her independence.”

Jonathan Albrighton is the son of an earl and his mistress as well as a self-made man. His illustrious family refuses to acknowledge his existence, except his Uncle Edward. Jonathan also seeks acknowledgement of himself by his family, as he suspects he is legitimate. He has been seeking this information for years, and there has been no break for him. With Edward, Jonathan works as an investigator for the Home Office in government work. At Edward’s request, his latest assignment requires he locate the names of Alessandra’s patrons. He is to ensure that none of the names be made public and he later learns that one is also suspected of treason. 

Jonathan is reliable, trustworthy, and a sort of cipher, able to move in and out of everyday society inconspicuously, including as a tenant in Celia’s late mother’s house, much to her surprise and consternation. His calling card merely holds his name and he answers questions with questions of his own, conveniently dodging them and changing the subject. He is decent and kind, admirable traits in a hero in my book.

Celia’s late mother is also suspected of possible treason; Celia is sharp as she discovers what Jonathan is really up to. 

“‘The truth is that men are pigs by nature, and not known for constancey, and this one was no worse or better than others on that, I suspect.’”

Jonathan begins by seeking information when he becomes attracted to Celia, then he wants to protect her and, eventually, love her. His thoughtfulness to her manifests itself in many ways: by supplying her with washing water in the mornings, waiting with her patiently while she confronts a possible candidate for her father, and his determination to love her despite his rise in society.

There is a nice plot twist and discovery at the end of the book that is poignantly portrayed. I am just as touched as Celia is. Years before, we learn that Celia suffered a great disappointment and that Jonathan had been kind to her, and that endeared her to him even as she knew almost nothing about him, except that he was her mother’s friend.

Their love story is sweet and sensual, the love scenes brief but powerful. She feels she is beneath him in social station and cannot be anything but a mistress to him. The ironic thing is that his own mother was a powerful man’s mistress. When she says as much to him, he doesn’t understand his own reluctance to accept this.

Most men would kill for such uncomplicated intimacy.”

This series should be read in order as it follows four female friends and four male friends through a series of interconnected events. Indeed, the events of Provocative in Pearls touch upon a case that affected Jonathan severely and the characters from the first book, Ravishing in Red, continue to appear in prominent roles.

Through this entire series, we come to meet and enjoy the lively personality and wildly debauched antics of Tristan St. Ives, the colorful Duke of Castleford. His devil-may-care attitude provides a lot of  raunchy humor throughout the series. I cannot wait for his story in book number four.

Tristan here no longer drinks on Tuesdays. He gathers his faculties and concentrates on his duties then. The rest of the week…” 

“Then he sprawled, hooked one booted leg over the arm of his chair, and smiled at Jonathan like the devil eyeing the next soul he would steal.”

Memorable Moments:

A careful composition of blues and creams, each item had been chosen to reflect good taste so the gentlemen who visited would feel at home. There were important illusions to be maintained.” 

“He lingered like a scent that would not quickly fade, as if the furniture and walls had absorbed some of his life energy and would quietly echo his invasion for days, reminding her of the excitement waiting if she were to be sure.”

“Pleasure could induce men to impulsive declarations.”

A lovely addition to an intelligent, authentic, and pleasing series.