AustenStudent

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

Read: CLAIMED BY THE LAIRD by Nicola Cornick

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Note: page references are from an ARC Kindle version, courtesy of Netgalley.

He will expose her as the criminal he seeks, or seduce her as the woman he desires…

An old maid—that’s all Lady Christina McMorlan, daughter to the Duke of Forres, is to society now that she’s past thirty. She hosts her father’s parties and cares for her siblings, knowing she’ll never have her own home and family. She has no time to pine, however. By night, she’s The Lady, head of a notorious whiskey-smuggling gang that supports her impoverished clan. They’re always one step ahead of the revenue man—until Lucas Black shows up.

Rejecting his title and the proper society that disparaged his mother, Lucas earns his living running a successful gambling house. He’s also a spy, charged with bringing down the Forres Gang. He thinks The Lady’s just a bored society spinster. She thinks he’s a lost child playing at rebellion. And when the truth comes out, it’s not just their love on the line…

The third book in the Scottish Brides series by Nicola Cornick is my favorite.

When I first started reading historical romance in 2011, British author Cornick was one of the first authors who captured my interest with her passionate stories and her fiery heroines in her Scandalous Women of the Ton series. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading her backlist. This is her newest series, set in Scotland and, while very entertaining and well written, the first two were not as exciting as that first series. Except for this one. I loved it.

Lucas is on the hunt for the killer of his youngest brother. He is from a titled family but has rejected his title and lands since his own family rejected him as a bastard. As such, “he loathed the aristocracy with their opulent lifestyle and their sense of entitlement.” He finds employment as a servant at Kilmory Castle where he has already met the lady of the house, Lady Christina MacMorlan. She is involved in whisky smuggling to aid the people of her estate when he runs afoul of them. She saves him from being killed and they form an instant attraction.

She loved doing the unexpected because her days were governed by the expected.”

Lady Christina is the older daughter of an eccentric and selfish duke, who is more interested in his hobbies than in his own estate or his family. In his own way, he reminds me of Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma She sacrificed her own happiness in marriage for the sake of her family and the welfare of her people, but she is a strong woman of passion. Lucas quickly recognizes this. He also wants to take care of her since no one has ever done so. For years, she has presented a cool and ladylike outward appearance, but she hides great pain and Cornick portrays this very well.

Automatically she tidied her hair and smoothed her gown for a second time, taking comfort from the repeated movements, the habit of tidying herself and presenting a calm face to the world.”

The sexual tension between Christina and Lucas is searing throughout this lovely story. We see Christina’s torn loyalties between maintaining propriety and giving in to passion and Lucas’ struggle with honor as a gentleman and the duty to discover the truth about his brother’s death.

The only people who did not know were her own family, and that was because they knew nothing about who she really was and cared less.”

I like that Lucas is about six years younger than Christina. Monica Burns and Amara Royce are two other historical romance authors I love who boldly tell the happy endings of older heroines.

She barely knew this man, but it felt as though he could see right through her to all the secrets she kept hidden, all her deepest thoughts and feelings.”

Christina is a kind woman who cares for others no matter what. This endears, astounds, and fascinates Lucas.

At each turn he suspected her and at each turn she repaid that suspicion with generosity of spirit.”

Characters from the first two books in the series make an appearance here but it is not necessary to have read those books to appreciate this love story. 

A thrilling and touching romance.

Read: VIXEN IN VELVET by Loretta Chase

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From the Diary of Leonie Noirot: The perfect corset should invite its undoing …

Lethally charming Simon Fairfax, Marquess of Lisburne, has reluctantly returned to London for one reason only: a family obligation. Still, he might make time for the seduction of a certain redheaded dressmaker—but Leonie Noirot hasn’t time for him. She’s obsessed with transforming his cousin, the dowdy Lady Gladys, into a swan.

Leonie’s skills can coax curves—and profits—from thin air, but his criminally handsome lordship is too busy trying to seduce her to appreciate her genius. He badly needs to learn a lesson, and the wager she provokes ought to teach him, once and for all.

A great plan, in theory—but Lisburne’s become a serious distraction, and Leonie’s usual logic is in danger of slipping away as easily as a silk chemise. Could the Season’s greatest transformation be her own?

The third and long-awaited book in the Dressmakers series by Loretta Chase. This series features three French sisters, raised as ladies, who escape a hand-to-mouth existence on the rough streets of Paris and now own and operate the very tony and exclusive London dress shop, Maison Noirot.

Marcelline, the eldest, is the designer of très chic fashions while Sophy is the marketing and public relations expert that keeps Maison Noirot forefront in the gossip sheets, thus drumming up more business. This is Leonie’s story; the youngest Noirot fashionista is the practical organizer, business manager, bookkeeper, and brains behind the entire business. 

When the story opens, Leonie is holding down the shop while Marcelline struggles with morning sickness and Sophy has fled London on her honeymoon to escape the scandal caused by her marriage in the second book in the series. 

The dialogue in this book is infectious, sparkling, and delightful. It’s almost too smooth. I especially enjoyed the scene when Leonie and Simon face off at a turning point in both their romance and the book itself. It’s so hot it crackles.

Scandal has always surrounded the Noirot sisters, as they are ladies who have fallen from grace due to reduced circumstances in their native Paris. And scandal threatens Maison Noirot once again. 

Of course, as it is a series about fashion, the descriptions of the gowns are delicious to read. The Noirot sisters are the premiere connoisseurs of high fashion among the aristocracy in London, but even as they dress the elite, they somehow manage to catch the eye of very rich and powerful men. Marcelline caught a duke while Sophy fell in love with an earl. It’s a magical fairy tale world but Chase tells it believably and beautifully. Just like a Cinderella story.

I really enjoyed the secondary characters here, too: Simon’s sensitive poet cousin, Swanton, and his harsh but heart-of-gold cousin, Gladys. Clara is back, too—she was Clevedon’s fiancée in Silk is for Seduction—and this reader hopes she’ll soon get a happy ending of her very own.

Simon is a sort of hard to read. He’s your typical gorgeous and bored aristocrat, an artist whose painting first captured Leonie’s attention, and he’s also very close to his romantic cousin, Swanton, whose flowery poetry has women fawning over him in droves—à la Lord Byron. He begins by pursuing Leonie for sport, for seduction. She realizes this and yet they fall in love. Against both their best intentions.

I found Leonie’s easy relinquishment of her virginity almost unbelievable, considering she is the brains behind the operation of Maison Noirot. She almost fits the French stereotype of the fast woman. I wanted her to hold out because she really took a risk with Simon considering his playboy reputation and the fact that he and Swanton had burned the candles at both ends in their debauched Parisian spree.

When a scandal threatens to ruin Maison Noirot as well as Simon’s beloved cousin, Swanton, Leonie and Simon work together to quell the damage and scandalous rumors.

The sisters (and their powerful husbands) make an appearance here as they all work together to save Maison Noirot, avoid scandal, and live happily ever after.

Fun and frothy.

Read: I ADORED A LORD by Katharine Ashe

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"All that clever, passionate Ravenna Caulfield wants is to stay far away from high society’s mean girls.

All that handsome, heroic Lord Vitor Courtenay wants is to dash from dangerous adventure to adventure.

Now, snowbound in a castle with a bevy of the ton's scheming maidens all competing for a prince's hand in marriage, Ravenna's worst nightmare has come true.

Now, playing babysitter to his spoiled prince of a half-brother and potential brides, Vitor is champing at the bit to be gone.

When a stolen kiss in a stable leads to a corpse in a suit of armor, a canine kidnapping, and any number of scandalous liaisons, Ravenna and Vitor find themselves wrapped in a mystery they’re perfectly paired to solve. But as for the mysteries of love and sex, Vitor’s not about to let Ravenna escape until he’s gotten what he desires …”

This is the second book in the Prince Catchers series by Katharine Ashe, one of my favorite historical authors who tells beautiful and breathless love stories that make you feel like the first time you fell in love. This series features three orphaned sisters who believe that if one them marries a prince, they will then discover their true origins. Well, one of them believes it anyway.

Ravenna Caulfield, the heroine, is the youngest sister. She is pure and guileless and it has never once occurred to her to attract a suitor or feel passion. She finds friendship, consolation, and comfort in the constant and steadfast love of animals. Indeed, she is mourning the loss of her beloved pet, Beast, for months after his death when the story opens. Bullied as a young girl, she finds herself quick to defend others who encounter it.

"Do you know…I like you. You’re smarter than most humans." (p160)

Her skill with animals leads her to a post living with “Petti” and Lord Beverly, two gentlemen of advanced years who agree to employ her but only if she allows them to become her guardians so as to maintain the proprieties. She finds a happy existence until, at the urging of her middle sister, Arabella, a new duchess, she accompanies “Petti” and Lord Beverly to a prince’s winter house party. There they hope she will find a nice young man to marry, much to her great reluctance. Ravenna finds she cannot expect to live with the two kindly gentlemen forever and she feels lost and out of place among the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen at the house party.

Lord Vitor Courtenay is reluctantly at the castle to support his younger brother, the prince, in finding a bride, at the behest of their father. He has seen and experienced the cruelties of war yet he is a true and honorable gentleman. His own family tree is checkered and unorthodox. He is intrigued by Ravenna’s sweetness, her courage, and her unaffectedness. It is refreshing to him, a lord raised among gentleman and ladies of “quality.”

When a man is discovered dead, Ravenna and Vitor embark on a hunt for the murderer (or murderess). She is determined to find out the killer while he is just as determined to keep her safe.

There is a nice balance of both mystery and romance here and it reminds me a little of Ashe’s lovely novella, Captive BrideThough there are many secondary characters, it is mostly easy to follow, especially since Ashe provides a nice list of who’s who at the beginning of the story that you can refer back to if necessary.

The romance between Vitor and Ravenna is very sweet and touching, their passion exciting and new. And there are hints of the next story to come; Eleanor, the eldest sister, will have her happy ending in I Loved a Rogue.

Will one of the sisters end up marrying a prince? I look forward to finding out next year.

Read: THE UNDOING OF DAISY EDWARDS and THE AWAKENING OF POPPY EDWARDS by Marguerite Kaye

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London, 1923 

Stage actress Daisy Edwards goes looking for escape at a wild party. Instead she finds reckless passion with a total stranger. Like Daisy, Dominic Harrington is reeling from the Great War, desperate to feel again. But the erotic force of their encounter leaves Daisy unsure whether to run or succumb….

Even if he hadn’t met her in a police cell, Dominic would have no doubt that Daisy is trouble. For the first time in years, he feels intrigued, aroused and vibrantly alive. Both insist there will be no promises, only the rapture of the moment. Pleasure is its own reward—but when it’s this addictive, how can they ever walk away?

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Los Angeles, 1924

Broadway producer Lewis Cartsdyke has come to Hollywood with a business proposition for starlet Poppy Edwards. But as he’s watching her sing in a downtown club, dressed in a man’s suit that skims her lush curves, a much more wicked proposal comes to mind.

Poppy has fame, wealth and an aversion to love. Lewis offers the kind of passion she craves—delicious, sensual heat without complications. Night after night she abandons herself to sensation, promising she won’t lose her heart the way her sister did. But for Lewis, uncomplicated is no longer enough - and soon he won’t be satisfied until he’s claimed all of Poppy in blissful surrender.

 The bewilderment, sadness, and devastation of the Lost Generation is beautifully evoked in Marguerite Kaye’s dual novellas in her A Time for Scandal series: The Undoing of Daisy Edwards and The Awakening of Poppy Edwards. Like Let’s Misbehave by Rae Summers (which I reviewed last year), both of these stories have a dark and melancholy tone yet, since they are romances, there are hopeful and happy endings.

In The Undoing of Daisy Edwards, Daisy and Dominic are merely going through the motions of life, both simply trying to cope day by day with the aftermath of loss and grief from the Great War. Daisy is a widow and a stage actress who loses herself in drinking and partying while Dominic, an aviator, is the second son and heir to a neglected and unwanted title. When they meet, they are two terribly lonely hearts whose passion ignites into an explosive affair. And both are content for just that; it helps them forget their mutual pain in mindless pleasure.

Of course, it develops into much more and it’s interesting that it’s Dominic who initiates the emotional part of their relationship while Daisy fights it all the way. Their conversations are lovely to read and are written from both characters’ points of view, in the uncommon first person voice, a unique and effective device here. I feel it makes the story all the more compelling, especially since it is essentially a short story (only seven chapters long).

Marguerite Kaye’s style is direct, concise, and very powerful. The tone is quiet and reflective throughout and I really felt Daisy and Dominic’s pain at the same time there is a joy and hope in their newfound relationship.

The Awakening of Poppy Edwards is Daisy’s sister’s story. Poppy escaped London and the pain of the war’s devastation for a career in the exciting and new motion picture industry in sunny Los Angeles. She couldn’t bear to witness Daisy’s pain and so she escapes into moviemaking, creating a financially successful (but emotionally empty) life for herself.

Lewis Cartsdyke is a confident and handsome producer who has his eye on Poppy’s stardom and is hoping to make her a star in the upcoming talkies. When he first meets her, in her guise as Vera, a singer in a nightclub, dressed a la Marlene Dietrich in a man’s suit, he knows who she is and is captivated by her. He breaks his own rule about mixing business with pleasure and a one night stand turns into something more. When she learns the truth behind his career motives for her, Poppy is reluctant to engage in an affair, but she can’t stay away from Lewis.

Lewis holds his own pain deep inside; he was an ambulance driver in the Great War who, like Ernest Hemingway, saw great horror and death. But he is determined to survive and move on with his life. Poppy just wants a business arrangement with sex on the side. Until Lewis pushes her for more, much like Dominic in the first story. I like that it is the men in both of these stories who want more from the women in their lives.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of Poppy’s beautiful house, especially her kitchen, plants, and pool—it creates a very nice domestic feel or normalcy to an otherwise somber story, an apt analogy of her calm and orderly home life devoid of emotional feeling.

The complicated and loving relationship between the two sisters is told from their respective points of view in each story, but its spare detail (and the satisfying ending in the second novella) is a beautiful footnote toward healing.

Two graceful stories (that should be read together) by an author I’d love to read more of.

A modified version of this review first appeared on Romantic Historical Reviews.

Read: WICKED TEMPTATION by Zoë Archer

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Fate Brought Them Together. 

Newly widowed, Bronwyn Parrish’s fortune has been spent settling her late husband’s debts—thanks to an unscrupulous business manager—and now there’s nothing left. Society has no place for a woman without means, and with nowhere to turn, Bronwyn is lost…until, from out of nowhere, a handsome gentleman steps in and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

Will Desire Tear Them Apart?

Secrets and subterfuge are in Marco Black’s blood. As one of Nemesis, Unlimited’s most senior agents, Society women aren’t his usual cup of tea. But Marco’s sixth sense tells him that there’s more to Bronwyn than meets the eye…and he wants to help the brazen beauty retrieve her lost fortune. But is his attraction to her worth the risk? His mission will lead him all the way to Les Grillons, France’s most ruthless crime syndicate. Soon, Marco and Bronwyn will find themselves facing a danger that could cost them their lives—and a passion that is priceless.

The third book in the gripping and gritty Victorian era series, Nemesis, Unlimited, by Zoë Archer.

Bronwyn Parrish is a lady of privilege whose husband’s death has left her destitute, when Nemesis, Unlimited assists in helping her regain her lost fortune. An amateur violinist who relinquished the impossible dream of playing professionally due to her class and position, she possesses an inner fire and passion.

"An unfortunate situation. That’s what wisdom and safety had netted her. A debt-ridden dead husband, with nothing left for her but a boardinghouse and advertisements in a newspaper.” (p25)

Marco Black is a smooth and experienced agent, and a spy, who cannot let attraction get in the way of the mission. He’s reluctant to take on Bronwyn’s case but is quickly impressed by her zest for life, her inner hunger for righteousness, and her fearlessness and strength.

They quickly enter a world of subterfuge and adventure as they pursue a powerful and very dangerous French syndicate. Along the way, they get to know one another and begin an affair that Marco insists will be temporary. And Bronwyn also develops a taste for risk and excitement. And, of course, for Marco, an enigmatic and mysterious English-Italian spy.

Marco has no time for love in his perilous work, especially with a high-class widow, even though she has lost her wealth. But she attracts and intrigues him like no other woman ever has before.

"Whether or not he felt a growing attraction to a spirited, redheaded widow was irrelevant." (p90)

This has been a bite-your-nails series as Nemesis, Unlimited, an underground group of clever and daring vigilantes, helps those unable to seek justice for themselves. Bronwyn’s maid enlists their help for her lady, against Marco’s initial wishes to assist a woman of privilege.

Their romance is passionate and sizzlingly sexy. Their conversations are beautiful to read as they get to know one another and pursue the dangers that surround them. The threatening situations they find themselves in often had me on the edge of my seat and the pacing in the story is excellent, a lovely balance of excitement and romance.

This book can be read as a standalone but it’s preferable to read them in order as heroes and heroines from previous books make an appearance and/or are mentioned here.

A sexy, thrilling, and enjoyable story.

Read: UNCLAIMED by Courtney Milan

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Note: page references are from a Kindle version. Also, this series has received a cover update so there are two different covers for this title.

Her only hope for survival…

Handsome, wealthy and respected, Sir Mark Turner is the most sought-after bachelor in all of London and he’s known far and wide for his irreproachable character. But behind his virtuous reputation lies a passionate nature he keeps carefully in check…until he meets the beautiful Jessica Farleigh, the woman he’s waited for all his life.

Is to ruin the man she loves…

But Jessica is a courtesan, not the genteel lady Sir Mark believes. Desperate to be free of a life she despises, she seizes her chance when Mark’s enemies make her an offer she can’t refuse—seduce Mark and tarnish his good name, and a princely sum will be hers. Yet as she comes to know the man she’s sworn to destroy, Jessica will be forced to choose between the future she needs and the love she knows is impossible.

We first met the fascinating and very interesting Mark Turner in Unveiled, the first book in the Turner series by Courtney Milan. Mark is Ash’s younger, virgin, brother who wrote A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity.” This series is set in 1840s Victorian England and tells the stories of three brothers who reclaim their titles and lands while enduring broken family ties and a painful shared past with a mad mother who gave all the family fortune to charity. She made life difficult for her children, except Mark, who resembles her in both appearance as well as in the desire to do good.

“He seemed torn from the pages of a child’s fable—a dazzling hero, pure and upstanding. Incorruptible.”

But Mark is determined to not take it as far as his poor mother did. He is comfortable and confident with himself, has made peace with his two beloved brothers—the third being the elusive and unfortunately named Smite—and is enjoying the privileged life of a Victorian gentleman, albeit a famous one for his unusual book. He has even been knighted by the Queen herself! He spurns the groupies and chaste societies of men’s groups that have sprouted in his honor; he feels they do not understand his principles nor have they properly read his book.

Jessica is a desperate woman. A vicar’s daughter, she is a courtesan determined to escape her fate. She accepts a challenge from George Weston, her former protector—a man she despises—to seduce and thus ruin Mark, a man Weston hates. No other woman has succeeded before and she is desperate enough to try because she has no other choice. She’s a ruined woman all alone in the world, with no family, and only one friend, a fellow courtesan. She’s determined to win the wager and use the money to settle quietly in the country, safe from penury.

“Enough to purchase a small home in the country in a tiny village where nobody knew her. Enough to have morning after morning to herself, to lift her face to the sun. They said time healed all wounds. Jessica prayed it was so, that one day she might feel more than this impossible emptiness.”

Milan vividly creates Jessica’s desperation and deep fears of isolation and poverty. I was reminded of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the terrible situations women could find themselves in, with no work, no education, and no family.

When Mark retreats to his country home for some much hoped for rest and relaxation away from the gossips of London, he’s horrified to find that the town of Shepton Mallet has its own little club of chastity admirers—humorously called MCBs (Male Chastity Brigade) and is expected to take part in its small society. Mark makes it clear he will limit his activities but the narrow-minded society persists in making his acquaintance.

“‘There is no such thing as a fallen woman—you just need to look for the man who pushed her.’”

When Jessica appears in town, disguised as Mrs. Farleigh, a widow, and rents a small cottage with all the money she has left, the town automatically assumes she’s a fallen woman because of her great beauty, her lovely figure, her provocative gowns, and her questionable and mysterious past. In other words, they assume the worst. Mark befriends her as she hopes and plans for, but his kindness soon charms and then disarms her.

“‘You’ve always been your own knight,’ he said, ‘riding to your own rescue. I’m just the man who came along and saw how brightly your armor shone.’”

Mark is above all a kind person. He is pained and confused by Jessica’s outcast reputation in town and defends her when they shun her. He’s attracted to her and desires to know the true hidden woman. He also sees a wary and frightened woman who was taken advantage of and has been terribly hurt. Jessica is shocked that someone, anyone, cares about her, what has happened to her, and what will happen to her in the future. She doesn’t know what to make of it, or him. They surprise each other in delightful and touching ways.

“‘When someone falls,’ Mark said, ‘you don’t throw her back down in the dirt. You offer her a hand up.’”

Mark and Jessica share broken pasts and, as they try to navigate their way into a relationship, they run into bumps along the way. But above all, each sees the inherent goodness in the other that shines throughout this entire lovely romance.

“Sir Mark wanted her as she was, not as he wished her to be. The thought made her head hurt. Safe? He was the last thing from safe.”

The relationship between Ash, Mark, and Smite is lovely to read, especially the hiking trip scenes. They understand and love each other deeply. The strong family dynamics here mirror those found in Grace Burrowes’ works, another author who also writes solidly about sibling and family relationships with beauty, humor,and grace.

All of the characters in this book are well-rounded and fun to read, from the lascivious vicar to the misguided Jedediah Pruett.

Every single work I’ve read by Milan has been consistently strong and well-written. Her characters come alive and she creates such complex and intricate relationships for her heroes and heroines that are a joy to read. Before I know it, the story is over, but at just the right moment.

Margaret and Ash (from Unveiled) make an appearance her as does Smite, whose story follows in Unraveled. I look forward to reading more from this very talented and beautiful writer. A must read for all historical romance readers.

Read: HOW TO SCHOOL YOUR SCOUNDREL by Juliana Gray

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Princess Luisa has devoted her life to duty, quietly preparing to succeed her father as ruler. Nothing, however, primed her to live on the run, disguised as a personal secretary to a notorious English scoundrel. The earl is just the man to help her reclaim her throne, but Luisa is drawn to her powerful employer in ways she never imagined…

Philip, Earl of Somerton, has spent six years married to a woman in love with another man—he refuses to become a fool due to imprudent emotions ever again. Only, as his carefully laid plans for vengeance falter, fate hands him hope for redemption in the form of a beautiful and determined young princess who draws him into a risky game of secrets, seduction, and betrayal. And while his cunning may be enough to save her life, nothing can save him from losing his heart…

There are some books that just beg to be made into movies. Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas, Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, and this extremely entertaining and beautiful story by Juliana Gray, who has quickly become one of my favorite authors of historical romance in the Victorian era.

This is book number three in Gray’s a Princess in Hiding series featuring the stories of three sisters from a small Bavarian principality, forced into hiding after their country is taken over by rebels. At the beginning of the series, their father and Luisa’s young husband have already been assassinated and they are spirited away to England by their canny and loving uncle, the mysterious Duke of Olympia. He hides each of the sisters away, disguised as working class men—one is a tutor, another a law clerk—while he roots out the rebels with their old governess, Dingleby, in hopes of restoring the ladies’ rightful positions as princesses. But he also is an intrepid matchmaker as the men he sets them up with for employment have been carefully chosen by him to protect his nieces at all costs.

As always, I suggest reading this series in order because there is a lot happening. The other sisters’ stories run concurrently to each other and even touch upon Gray’s first series, Affairs by Moonlight. It’s a lot to keep straight but Gray does it well so the reader is never confused.

I’m the first to admit I dislike the girl-in-disguise-as-a-man trope, but Gray makes it work. No one trusts anyone and all of the heroes are powerful and very intelligent men who protect their heroines with their lives.

Luisa is the eldest princess and heir to the throne, in disguise as Markham, a humble secretary to the influential and ruthless Earl of Somerton. She is strong, fearless, diplomatic, and shrewd. I love how she stands up to Somerton from the very beginning; it’s brilliant, all the more so because he admires him/her for it. She knows her duty as it has been ingrained in her since birth.

The Earl of Somerton is an improbable hero, and he reminds me a lot of the sad and angry Lord Dain from Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase.He is also Elizabeth’s husband from A Gentleman Never Tellsbook two in Gray’s debut series. He was very unlikeable and unscrupulous in that book, but here we get to see his very dark and vulnerable human side. He protects, heals, and cherishes Luisa even as he doesn’t believe he is worthy of her. He’s also an older hero (approaching forty) and a large man who exudes a raw and hungry sexuality. He holds a lot of anger and resentment inside, mostly because he is unhappily married to a woman who has never loved him.

For some reason, Somerton’s image rose in her head. Black and sleek and magnificent, just like the horse, and filled with strength to be used for good or ill. Cooped up in his civilized cage for far too long.” (p114)

One of my favorite things about this series is the wry humor, despite its serious topic and threatening and constant danger. And their uncle, the Duke of Olympia, offers many humorous moments and laugh-out-loud scenes as well.

"A tide of weeping rose to its flood, echoing endlessly along the soaring nave of Holstein Cathedral, as Prince Rudolf’s lovers, mistresses, and convenient instruments of carnal relief lamented his loss to heaven above." (p2-3)

Somerton and Luisa begin as secretary and employer, then form a tentative friendship, then a simpatico connection, and finally become lovers. Luisa feels his pain of unrequited love while Somerton finds he has come to rely heavily on Markham and enjoys his/her company. Their love scenes are descriptive, powerful, and evocative and I like how Somerton continues to call her Markham even after he uncovers her disguise and they become lovers.

As in the other books, this romance overlaps scenes already portrayed in Gray’s other books. It is interesting how she gives the reader different points of view so that the reader questions the authenticity of what was read previously. It’s fascinating and fun.

Gray is an extraordinary writer, able to convey powerful emotion with characters you can’t help but care about. All of her books have been wonderful and strong; I think her writing and storytelling just keep getting better. It shimmers with life and vitality and the stories are a joy to read.

Read: THE RELUCTANT GOVERNESS by Maggie Robinson

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Note: page references are from a PDF version, courtesy of the author, for an honest review.

 A secretary for the renowned Evensong Agency, Eliza Lawrence may have a pretty face, but she’s much prouder of her mind and her morals. When she’s pressed into temporary governess duty as a favor to her boss, she doesn’t expect to bend one bit for the rakish Nicholas Raeburn. Not even when he opens the door to her half-dressed…

Despite his bad reputation, Nicholas is a man of honor. To Nick’s way of thinking, he doesn’t need any help raising his daughter, Domenica. If only he weren’t so drawn to the meddlesome woman’s sparkling wit and uncommon beauty…

But when an act of misplaced chivalry goes seriously awry, resulting in mayhem and almost murder, Eliza becomes the only woman he can depend upon. Nick will do anything to protect his family, but who will protect him from falling in love with his reluctant governess?

I smile whenever I start a new Maggie Robinson historical romance, because I know she will make me laugh. This is a feel good sort of love story, with wacky humor but also with lots of heart and emotion. I love her flawed and stressed out heroes and heroines and seeing them work their way to happily ever after.

This is the third book in Robinson’s charming and very funny Ladies Unlaced series set in Edwardian England, about an unorthodox employment office, The Evensong Agency—”Performing the Impossible Before Breakfast Since 1888”—and the employees and/or its clients it serves. I prefer reading series in order but each of these stories stands on its own so you can rest assured that you’re not missing anything.

Eliza is a working girl in England and she’s used to providing for herself and her mother ever since her father died leaving them in tenuous financial circumstances. She’s a secretary for the Evensong Agency and loves her work and her loveable co-workers, and she has also worked as a governess in the past. At the beginning of The Reluctant Governess, she is asked to serve as temporary governess until the Evensong agency can find a permanent one for Domenica (Sunny), the daughter of flamboyant artist, Nicholas (Nick) Raeburn.

She was not going to fall into some Jane Eyre trap, pining for her distant master, no matter how attractive he was.” (p39)

Nick is the younger brother of Alec, a baron—and hero of book two in the series, In the Heart of the Highlander—and lives the life of an artist: carefree, uninhibited, and extremely casual. He thinks nothing of painting without his shirt on, painting nude women, or letting his little girl have the run of the house most of the time. But when he takes charge of Domenica (who might possibly be his daughter) he takes his responsibility very seriously.

At first, Eliza and Nick dislike each other intensely. He thinks she’s pretty but too proper and uptight—he calls her Miss Priss—while she believes he’s a sinful rake who doesn’t know the first thing about raising the niece of a baron.

But as they get to know one another and circumstances and an illness bring them closer together, Eliza and Nick form a mutual respect as well as gradually acknowledge their secret sexual attraction. Unbeknownst to her, Nick has tired of his high living artist’s vagabond life.

If a wife was supposed to jump through hoops for her husband, catering to his every whim and bestial appetite, he’d better be faithful or he deserved to be hit on the head with a roasting pan.” (p53)

I very much enjoyed the secondary/minor characters in this story, too: Oliver, Eliza’s snappy co-worker; Tubby, Nick’s rich and loyal friend—his happy ending is book four—Sunny, Nick’s charming young daughter; and Eliza’s mother who gives her daughter some unexpected and surprising news.

Nicholas was not a marrying kind of man, even if he was grateful to her, or felt responsible for taking her virginity. Hell, he hadn’t taken it so much as she’d shoved it at him.” (p268)

If you love to laugh and enjoy a lovely and lighthearted romance with plenty of feel good moments, you will love Maggie Robinson’s stories. I highly recommend them when you feel blue or just like your romances on the saucy and sardonic side.

"Happiness seemed to include an extra éclair or two.” (p8)

A lovely installment in a bright and colorful series. There’s one more book to look forward to in the series, The Unsuitable Secretary, coming soon on September 16.

Read: THE CATER STREET HANGMAN by Anne Perry

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The Ellison sisters were proper young Victorian ladies. In the foggy streets outside their peaceful home, five women were found horribly murdered. And Police Inspector Pitt found himself wondering if the Ellisons were in fact too good to be true.

I picked this up because a) a fellow librarian suggested I might like it and b) the fifth book in the series, Rutland Placewas recently reviewed as a Retro Review on the Romantic Historical Reviews blog, piquing my interest even more. And, since I dislike reading series out of order—especially a mystery series!—I wanted to read the first book before that one.

This novel doesn’t feel like a true mystery to me but, rather, more a novel of manners. It’s a riveting snapshot of an upper middle class family in 1881 London during a time of great fear: there’s a brutal serial killer on the loose, à la Jack the Ripper.

We meet Charlotte, the forthright and inquisitive middle daughter of a traditional English patriarch. Her father doesn’t wish her to read newspapers and sully her pretty little mind. Charlotte spends her days in tedious boredom, writing letters, visiting the sick and elderly, painting, and gossiping and having tea with other ladies of her class.

"Would it always be like this? Endless days of needlework, painting, house chores and skills, teas, Papa and Dominic coming home? What did other people do?" (p17)

The vicar is a self-righteous prig with a very drab and obsequious wife. The secret feelings of the Ellison women toward them both are amusing to read, however, it quickly becomes sinister in the vicar’s fervent and uncompromising views on women and appropropriate versus inappropriate behavior. Needless to say, Charlotte doesn’t like him and her mother barely tolerates him.

The story is told in the third person but from different characters’ points of view: Emily, Charlotte’s shrewd youngest sister who knows how to play the marriage game; Sarah, the eldest obedient and solemn daughter; Dominic, Charlotte’s brother-in-law and first crush; and Caroline, Charlotte’s loving mother. I found this both original and creative in its well-rounded portrayal of an entire family.

“‘You’re a dreamer, Charlotte. There is no man who won’t make you wretched some time or other.’”  (p 45)

When Charlottes summons the police to look into the disappearance of their maid, her father and sisters are furious as it means the master of the house cannot control events under his domain. This reminded me of Brownstone Facade by Catherine M. Rae, a novel set in early 1920s New York City, and how its patriarch fervently clung to the Victorian mores he grew up with and was also furious at police interference into his private affairs.

And so we meet the scruffy but very enigmatic Inspector Thomas Pitt. His keen sense of observation attracts him to the impetuous and unusual Charlotte Ellison, and he is unlike any man she has ever met. He acknowledges her intelligence and does not shy away from telling her of the brutal reality of the seedier side of London.

Pitt’s parents are of the servant class so he is far below Charlotte socially. But times are changing and the middle and working classes are mingling more. Both Pitt and Charlotte come to respect and admire each other greatly.

At one point in the story, Charlotte is actually sent to her room by her father! She’s twenty-three years old. A single woman belonged to her father until she married; and then she belonged to her husband. I couldn’t help but wonder at the rage that accused murderess Lizzie Borden must have felt at her confined role as a woman in the Victorian era.

It is outrageous that the murdered women are considered to be of loose morals by the vicar and also Charlotte’s father. Yet even today, raped women are blamed for their attacks. The murders unsettle everyone as suspicion is thrown on friends and family members alike.

Nothing is spared here: married men taking mistresses or sleeping with maids while expecting women to remain faithful and pure; the daughters of the house learn shocking secrets and they unflinchingly confront their father and imperious grandmother.

The ending is a shocker and I didn’t know who the murderer was until it was almost over. But I felt that the novel ended a tad too abruptly; the romantic in me wanted one more scene with Charlotte and Thomas.

If you like historical fiction set in the Victorian era, you will enjoy this story.

Listened to: THE MASQUERADERS by Georgette Heyer, read by Ruth Stillers

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After participating in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Robin and Prudence, brother and sister, become engaged in a swashbuckling, romantic adventure. Our hero and heroine must cross-dress and switch genders if they are to escape prosecution – a humorous move that allows Heyer to explore the manners and language affectations of the period as the two romp through the elite saloons and clubs of London. But what the two don’t foresee is that they might fall in love along the way: Prudence with the elegant and dashing Sir Anthony Fanshawe, and Robin with the charming Letitia Grayson. Can the two unmask themselves without losing their lives?

This is my second Georgette Heyer book—the first one I read was the fabulous and hilarious The Grand Sophy—and The Masqueraders, narrated by the animated voice of Ruth Stillers, is a delightful, funny, and energetic historical intrigue.

I agreed to review this romance not knowing anything about its plot at all. And, as a result, I have to admit that I was confused as to who was who at first in this story of disguise and mystery. Following the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, Prudence and Robin Tremaine, devoted and quick-witted sister and brother, have fled France for England disguised respectively as a young man and young woman: Peter and Kate Merriot. They await further instructions from their father, the brazen and supremely confident “Old Gentleman,” (Prue and Robin’s tongue-in-cheek endearment for him) and live their lives on the edge, fearing discovery at every turn. But both are so elegant, refined, and smart that their adventures and mishaps are engrossing to read and make for a pleasing and captivating story.

We’re thrown right into the brash adventures of these witty siblings when they save the very young and high-strung Lady Letitia Grayson from an unwanted elopement with her erstwhile fiancé, the insidious Mr. Markham.* The voice that Ruth Stillers gives Markham is fantastically over-the-top and most appropriate to the villain he is while Letitia’s hapless and helpless maiden is also spot-on and teeters on the farcical, but in a good way. This rescue scene sets the tone for wild madcap fun that infuses the entire story from beginning to end; it’s a joy to listen to.

The frequent descriptions of Sir Anthony Fanshawe, a friend of Letitia’s who comes to her rescue, as a “large gentleman,” almost becomes a running joke between Prue and Robin. Fanshawe is a consummate and observant gentleman who quickly figures out that Peter Merriot is actually a woman. The romance between him and Prudence is sweet, considerate, and mature but I had a hard time believing that the intelligent Robin could fall for the empty-headed Letitia. But perhaps he is simply a man of his time falling for a pretty face, and Letitia is the perfectly innocent and kindhearted young lady.

Ruth Stillers is a new narrator to me and I truly enjoyed her lovely interpretation. Her light and sweet voice lends the perfect sparkle and verve to this lively historical romp with all its theatricality, at times serious, at other times witty, which often made me smile in amusement. This is why I read historical romance. It’s a great tribute to Stillers as an actress to be able to read so many different characters with distinction and great personality, of both sexes, especially the challenging dual character personas of Robin and Prudence as Kate and Peter Merriot.

This audiobook is a real treat for all lovers of Regency historical romance.

*I just finished reading about an entirely different and delightful Markham in Juliana Gray’s How to School Your Scoundrel.

A modified version of this review first appeared on Romantic Historical Reviews.