Review: Remember Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Remember Love by Mary BaloghRemember Love (Ravenswood, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Ravenswood #1
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The undisputed queen of Regency romance is back with a brand-new story perfect for fans of Bridgerton.
The handsome and charismatic Earl of Stratton, Caleb Ware, has been exposed to the ton for his clandestine affairs—by his own son.
As a child, Devlin Ware thought his family stood for all that was right and good in the world. They were kind, gracious, and shared the beauty of Ravenwood, their grand country estate, by hosting lavish parties for the entire countryside. But at twenty-two, he discovered his whole world was an elaborate illusion, and when Devlin publicly called his family to account for it, he was exiled as a traitor.
So be it. He enlisted in the fight against Napoleon and didn’t look back for six years. But now his father is dead, the Ware family is broken, and as the heir he is being called home. It’s only when Gwyneth Rhys—the woman he loved and then lost after his family banished him—holds out her hand to help him that he is able make the difficult journey and try to piece together his fractured family.
It is Gwyneth’s loyalty, patience, and love that he needs. But is Devlin’s war-hardened heart even capable of offering her love in return?

My Review:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale and Caleb Ware, Earl of Stratton must have been bosom buddies. Possibly literally. Certainly they seem to have been cut from the same despicable cloth. Both were wealthy aristocrats who lived a lie and expected everyone around them to go along with that lie rather than face up to the uncomfortable truth.

Westcott hid his perfidy until after his death, which makes the shocking opening of the Westcott series, Someone to Love, all that much more upsetting. But at least Westcott didn’t require that others go along with his false front because he kept his secret very well hidden indeed.

Caleb Ware, very much on the other hand, needed admiration, approval and even applause from all those who surrounded him. He projected the image of a loving husband and father with a perfect family because he needed people to love him at every turn. Not that there weren’t plenty of men in his position who lived lives completely separate from the wives and families and didn’t care about the winks and nods that followed in their wake.

But Ware needed to have it all. A perfect family at his country home, and a mistress or two, or three, in London. When he brought his current mistress to his country estate and flaunted his affair in front of his friends and family he expected everyone to turn the same blind eye that they always had. And when one member of his family refused to turn that blind eye, and refused to sweep the entire tawdry incident under the rug for the sake of peace and not rocking the family boat – he likewise refused to take responsibility for his actions. And the rest of the family punished the young man who could not stand idly by after learning that his oh-so-perfect father, his hero, had feet of clay up to the knees – or perhaps a bit higher.

And that’s what kicks this story into a higher gear – that the expected pattern of the lives of not just the Earl and his heir are knocked off course – but that the entire family’s future is irrevocably altered over the course of one disastrous night.

The aftermath of which makes for a much more fascinating – and occasionally dangerous – life than anyone would have expected for the heir to an earldom – and for the woman he once expected to be his bride.

Escape Rating A-: The Ravenswood series is off to a heartbreaking but eventually heartwarming and redemptive start in this opening entry in the series. It has the potential for all the elements that made the Westcott series so fascinating, with Devlin Ware’s condemnation of his father’s behavior and his family’s complicity drastically altering ALL their lives.

What makes the initial break in the story such a huge change is that it encompasses both Devlin’s sharply learned lesson that his father is not worthy of being anyone’s hero, and that the rest of his family would rather keep lying to themselves and each other than try to fix what’s broken. That Caleb Ware is the one who behaved so very badly but Devlin Ware is the one who gets punished for it puts the hypocrisy of the whole mess on disgusting display.

But Caleb eventually does get his just desserts, while Devlin immediately gets a commission in the infantry. During the worst of the fighting of the bitter Napoleonic Wars. From one perspective, it’s the making of him, while in the other it represents the shattering of his heart into pieces so tiny that Devlin is no longer certain he even possesses such an organ.

The heartbreak for Devlin’s family is that the only way he can survive the hell of his war is to compartmentalize his feelings for his family and reject all contact with any of them – except for his father’s bastard son who is serving as his batman. It’s a cold, hard, bitter road that he walks – but he does survive it.

Only to return home after Napoleon’s surrender, two years after his father’s death, to do his duty yet again and pick up the reins of the earldom that he has inherited. He has done his best to cut his family out of his heart, but Devlin Ware is a man who has always done his duty – and taking up the mantle of the Earl of Stratton is his duty.

Once Devlin is back in the place he once called home, doing his best to fit himself into the place that is his duty, he tries to convince himself that it is out of duty alone and not the emotions he swears he’s no longer capable of feeling. He eventually learns that duty does not have to mean burden, and that if he allows himself to feel all the things that he locked away during his war, his peace can be filled with not just true peace, but also real love and belonging.

In the end I enjoyed Remember Love because it is a story where the life that’s supposed to happen gets pushed aside for a life that is harder and darker but in the end much more real, and that’s the same thing that made the Westcott series so fascinating. Young Devlin, before he left, was a bit of a prig. He meant well and generally did well but could really be a self-righteous young man. He’s much more interesting when he’s much less sure of things – as well as a whole lot more approachable and loveable.

Gwyneth Rhys, the heroine of this romance, doesn’t pine. She doesn’t wallow. But what she does is know herself, her strengths, her weaknesses and those situations up with which she will not put. She is not going to change to suit a man, but she does deal pragmatically with the life she has.

The character who turned out to be a complete surprise was Devlin’s mother, the Dowager Countess. The woman who did her best not to know about her husband’s frequent infidelities until he brought them to her very door. At first, she seems weak in that she didn’t protest her husband’s affairs and actually participated in her son’s banishment. It’s only when she acknowledges to Devlin that she did the best she could with the cards she was dealt because women were forced to lie all the time to survive. She lied to herself because that is what she and women like her were trained to do practically from the cradle.

It makes Devlin think. It makes the reader think. And it makes the reader wonder – or at least this reader wonder – whether or not all that much has really changed.

Remember Love is the first book in the Ravenswood series. Now that Devlin is back home and has found his own HEA, I wonder what will happen next in the slightly altered lives of his family and friends in the coming entries in the series. Hopefully we’ll see sometime next year!

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone Perfect by Mary BaloghSomeone Perfect (Westcott, #9) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance
Series: Westcott #9
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on November 30, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Sometimes, just one person can pull a whole family apart. And sometimes, it just takes one person to pull it back together. For fans of Bridgerton, New York Times bestselling Regency Romance author Mary Balogh shows how love truly conquers all in this new Friends of the Westcotts novel.
As a young man, Justin Wiley was banished by his father for mysterious reasons, but now, his father is dead, and Justin has been Earl of Brandon for six years. A dark, dour man, he, nonetheless, takes it as his responsibility to care for his half-sister, Maria, when her mother dies. He travels to her home to fetch her back to the family seat at Everleigh Park.
Although she adored him, once, Maria now loathes Justin, and her friend, Lady Estelle Lamarr, can see, immediately, how his very name upsets her. When Justin arrives and invites Estelle and her brother to accompany Maria to Everleigh Park to help with her distress, she begrudgingly agrees, for Maria's sake.
As family secrets unravel in Maria's homecoming, Justin, too, uncovers his desire for a countess. And, while he may believe he's found an obvious candidate in the beautiful 25-year-old Lady Estelle, she is most certain that they could never make a match...

My Review:

Is there such a thing as historical relationship fiction? Or is that just what used to be called a family saga?

The reason I’m asking is that as the Westcott series has continued it has begun to feel more like relationship fiction (or women’s fiction to use the more popular but also more cringe-worthy name) and less like a romance. Not that romances don’t occur during each book including this one, but rather that the romance doesn’t feel like the central point of the story.

Particularly in this book, Someone Perfect, which feels like it’s more about the family relationships between and around Justin Wiley, the Earl of Brandon, and his estranged sister Maria. Who just so happens to be best friends with Lady Estelle Lamarr, who, through several twists and turns, is tangentially related to the Westcott family this series has followed through nine books now and hopefully counting.

But it feels like Estelle and her twin brother Bertrand are part of this story in order to provide that connection to the Westcotts. Even though Estelle eventually becomes the romantic heroine of this story. Which turned out to be lovely but just didn’t seem to stand at the center of it all.

Instead, that romance occurs in the midst of a story about collateral damage, which has been the central theme of the whole, overarching Westcott saga.

The Westcott series began back in Someone to Love when Humphrey Westcott, the Earl of Riverdale, shuffled off this mortal coil. While going through his papers in the wake of his death, his pernicious bastardy came to light.

Not that Humphrey’s parents weren’t married, but rather that Humphrey’s marriage to the woman who believed she was his countess lo these many years was bigamous – making their four children bastards and his not-exactly-countess a scarlet woman. (She eventually marries Estelle and Bertrand’s father in Someone to Care but that’s another story.)

Humphrey never suffered for his actions – unless he’s occupying a very hot place in hell. But the series as a whole has focused on his collateral damage – all the people whose lives were overturned when his perfidy was discovered.

Justin and Maria are also suffering from being collateral damage as a result of a parent’s unforgivable actions. In their case, the parent at the heart of the mess was Maria’s mother, Justin’s stepmother. Justin and Maria have been estranged for over a decade because of her mother’s actions. Maria has been cut off from her entire family on both sides, all her aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., because of her mother’s actions.

And it’s Maria’s and Justin’s journey that feels like the centerpiece of this book. Not just that Justin has to put his very real hurts and grievances into the past – because all the perpetrators are beyond Earthly justice.

Maria loves her mother, and accepted everything her mother said without question. But her mother is dead, and her entire gathered family is presenting her with an entirely different perspective on the life she thought she knew. If she can accept the love and support they offer – there are questions she needs to ask herself in order to be part of a family that has always loved her even though she never knew it.

Escape Rating B+: I hesitated a bit before starting this, because I was still getting over last week’s foray into historical romance. But I’m glad I picked this one up after all.

At the same time, I still have mixed feelings about this book. In this case, those mixed feelings are the result of being of two minds about what kind of book it is. If this is supposed to be a historical romance, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I enjoyed the story, and liked the characters, but if this is a romance then the romance needed to be the center of the story, and it just wasn’t. I didn’t really buy the romance between Justin and Estelle even though I liked them both. His first proposal to Estelle was rather lackluster and she rightfully rejected it. But it did sum up their relationship perhaps a little too well.

Maria’s and Justin’s journey towards being a family again and being welcomed into the rest of their family felt like it was a much bigger and better story. I felt their heartache and heartbreak and just how much they wanted to find their way back to each other even though on Maria’s part, at least, there was absolutely no trust to be found. The big family gathering that Justin arranged – that could absolutely have been a complete disaster on every level – turned out to be heartwarming and utterly lovely.

So the romance occurred and the family story won the day in this one. At the end, neither Justin’s sister Maria nor Estelle’s brother Bertrand had found even a hint of a future romantic partner, and there was nothing to indicate that they were looking at each other at all – which is probably a good thing. Both because it would be a bit TOO neat and tidy, and because it means that there will hopefully be at least two more books to look forward to in the Westcott series!

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Cherish by Mary BaloghSomeone to Cherish (Westcott #8) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #8
Pages: 336
Published by Berkley on June 29, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Is love worth the loss of one's freedom and independence? This is what Mrs. Tavernor must decide in the new novel in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.
When Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale after the discovery of his father's bigamy, he shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was near-fatally wounded. After a harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists he enjoys the solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She doesn't want to shackle herself to another man in marriage, but sometimes, she wonders if she is lonely.
Both are unwilling to face the truth until they find themselves alone together one night, and Lydia surprises even herself with a simple question: "Are you ever lonely?" Harry's answer leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined...

My Review:

There should be a truly hot place in hell for the late, unlamented Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale. But, and it is now a huge, 8 marvelous books and counting BUT, the results of his metaphorical bastardy, to whit, the legal and actual bastardy he inflicted on his three children who believed they were legitimate, have been glorious.

So maybe an exceptionally hot place in hell with a few occasional luxuries. Because it’s all his fault, including some of the surprisingly good things. Like this series which began with Someone to Love and doesn’t seem to be over yet.

Thank goodness. Or perhaps I should be thanking Humphrey’s badness. Maybe a bit of both?

As big of a factor as Humphrey’s badness has been in this entire series, a more fitting summation of the issues in this entry might be this particular paraphrase of Thoreau, the one that goes, “If you see someone coming towards you with the obvious intent of doing you good – run like hell.” with the added codicil that it goes double if that someone – or many someones in the case of Major Harry Westcott, are family.

There are an awful lot of well-meaning, good intentioned families in fiction who have, let’s call them, boundary issues. As in entirely too many of them ignore any boundaries set by other members of the family. They’re just sure they know best. And maybe, sometimes, they do. But even when they might, even if they do, they can be a bit much and more than a bit annoying and extremely frustrating when the boundaries they are riding roughshod over belong to adults who might, equally and with much better justification, know what they do and don’t want for themselves.

The story in Someone to Cherish centers around two people, both adults nearing 30, so really, really actual adults mostly adulting, whose families are both firmly convinced that neither of these adults could possibly know what they want for themselves, or really mean anything they say about what they want for themselves, and that other people in the family, older if not wiser, know best.

Ironically, or paradoxically, it’s the women of the Westcott family who are certain that Harry doesn’t know what’s good for him, while it’s the men of Lydia Winterbourne Tavernor’s family who are just as certain that she can’t possibly know her own mind or truly desire her own independence.

But there’s a critical difference. When Harry’s family invades his country home to give him a huge 30th birthday party whether he wants one or not, he goes along with their plans because he loves them, because they are already there, and because it would be horribly rude not to. However, that they brought along three young ladies as possible brides for him, all he has to be is polite. No more, no less. His family can’t make him marry or even make him consider one of those young ladies as a possible bride. Even with all of his wealth and titles stripped from him by his illegitimacy, as a man he is still free to live his life as he pleases.

Lydia’s experience is completely the opposite. During her girlhood, her father and brothers did their best to wrap her in cotton wool and protect her from everything she might worry her little head about. Her father refused to allow her a season because London “wasn’t safe” and she wouldn’t be properly protected from the rakehells of the ton. When she married, she went straight from her father’s loving but demeaning protection to her husband’s dictatorial pronouncements about every single facet of her life. As a woman, she has no recourse, the men in her life, who actually do love her, control her very being and expect her to acquiesce. It’s only as a widow with enough money to support herself that she has the freedom to be who and what she wants to be.

A freedom that she will lose if she trusts herself to another man – no matter how much that man claims to love her. After growing up in an environment designed to keep her childlike, and marrying a man she loved but who dictated her every move and thought, the first person whose judgement she questions is always herself.

And yes, this is a personal soapbox that I’ve climbed on and now can’t quite figure out how to get down from. Pardon me a moment while I search for a very tall metaphorical ladder to use for a descent.

All of that being said – and yes, I know I said a LOT – what eventually becomes the romance between Harry and Lydia is very much of a slow burn kind of romance, because they are both slowly burning kind of people. Both have experienced tragedy, both have hidden their true selves behind masks that they are having a difficult time pulling off, and both are very uncertain about trust.

They are also both prominent people in the tiny village of Hinsford, a circumstance that comes to bite both of them in the ass – but also forces them to decide who they are and who they want to be.

It takes them more than a bit of time to figure out that what they want to be is together, because together they have that trust that both of them have lacked.

Escape Rating B: This one turned out to be kind of a mixed bag for me as a reader. I got up on that really tall soapbox because there were a lot of elements of the setup that obviously drove me utterly bananas. It has felt like every other book that I’ve read in the last couple of months has been chock-full of families with boundary issues and generally heroines who have trouble saying “NO” and setting and maintaining boundaries with their well-meaning but annoyingly intrusive families.

The power dynamics of Lydia’s relationship with her birth family AND her late husband add fuel to that fire, as she has no agency until she becomes a widow – and even then her birth family is eager, insistent and downright smothering in their attempts to snatch that agency away from her.

I see that soapbox looming again so I’ll move on.

Lydia has been self-effacing to the point of disappearing in plain sight for most of her life. A huge and lovely part of this story is watching her stretch, grow, and STOP HIDING. Her two steps forward, half step back progress feels real.

At the same time, one of her first steps forward is to ask Harry, in an extremely roundabout and circuitous way, if he’d be interested in starting what we would call a “friends with benefits” relationship. With her.

And every single thing that both of them expect, along with a passion that neither of them knew to expect, happens. Especially all the bad things. It’s their response to those bad things that forms the heart of the romance in this story, but it takes a bit too much of the book to get off the ground – even though they’ve already gotten off. So to speak.

Ahem.

So as much as I’ve enjoyed this series as a whole, the book in the series that this one most reminds me of is Someone to Care, the story I liked the least so far. In that one, the first half was lovely and the second half drove me bananas. With this one its the other way around. The first half was a slog but the second half worked itself out into a lovely HEA.

I’m glad I read this, both to see how the rest of Harry’s large and boisterous family are doing and to see one of the original “victims” of Humphrey’s bastardy finally get his own life fully together and happy.

I’m still fascinated with the Westcott family, so I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, Someone Perfect – we’ll see about that! – coming just in time for the holiday season.

Review: Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Romance by Mary BaloghSomeone to Romance (Westcott, #8) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #8
Pages: 416
Published by Berkley on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Love comes when you least expect it in this captivating new novel in the Wescott Regency romance series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.
Lady Jessica Archer lost her own interest in the glittering excitement of romance after her cousin and dearest friend, Abigail Westcott, was rejected by the ton when her father was revealed to be a bigamist. Ever practical, however, once she's twenty-five, she decides it's time to wed. Though she no longer believes she will find true love, she is still very eligible. She is, after all, the sister of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby.
Jessica considers the many qualified gentlemen who court her. But when she meets the mysterious Gabriel Thorne, who has returned to England from the New World to claim an equally mysterious inheritance, Jessica considers him completely unsuitable, because he had the audacity, when he first met her, to announce his intention to wed her.
When Jessica guesses who Gabriel really is, however, and watches the lengths to which he will go in order to protect those who rely upon him, she is drawn to his cause—and to the man.

My Review:

The previous books in this series have followed the adventures and romantic exploits of those who were the collateral damage that resulted from the exposure of Humphrey Westcott’s figurative bastardy. This story, however, is rather about the collateral damage that resulted from the collateral damage.

Lady Jessica Archer’s personal fortunes were not affected by the discovery that her best friend, Abigail Westcott, was a bastard in the literal sense and not the lady that she was raised as. Her status irrevocably changed when it was revealed, after the figurative bastard’s death, of course, that her father had been a bigamist who was never legally married to her mother.

The exposure of the entire farrago is told in the first book in this series, Someone to Love, when the orphan Anna Snow discovers that she is the late, unlamented Humphrey’s legal heiress. Anna surprisingly finds both love and acceptance in the arms of Lady Jessica’s brother, the Duke of Netherby.

As someone who experienced Humphrey’s posthumous asshattery at second hand, and as a character who has grown up considerably over the course of the series – Jessica was 17 in Someone to Love and is 25 in Someone to Romance – many of her attitudes in the early parts of this story seem more than a bit self-indulgent, and that’s not a good look for a character who seems to have everything anyone could possibly ever want.

Except for the freedom that is part and parcel of being born male, while absolutely forbidden to anyone female. Now that’s a piece of resentment most of us can understand. As is her expressed desire to be wanted for herself as a person, and not just because she is oh-so-eminently eligible, being both the daughter and the sister of a duke, being a member of not one but two powerful ton families, and being wealthy in her own right.

But the persona of Lady Jessica Archer is just what – and not who – Gabriel Thorne needs to marry when this story opens. Because Gabriel has returned to England to claim his birthright as the Earl of Lyndale right out from under the nose of his lying, scheming, raping and possibly murdering cousin.

Gabriel will need the backing of both of Jessica’s noble families to keep himself out of the hangman’s noose that his cousin fitted him for over a decade ago. He will need Lady Jessica Archer’s aristocratic bearing and training to right all the wrongs that have been visited upon the estate he should have taken up years ago.

But he’ll get neither unless he can engage with the woman behind the haughty mask that Jessica presents to the entire world. Except for those she loves.

Escape Rating B: I have rather mixed feelings about this book. I didn’t warm up to Jessica until she warmed up to Gabriel, and that takes a relatively long time, story-wise. It’s not just that this romance is a very slow burn, although it certainly is, as that we don’t really see much in the way of romancing – in spite of both the title and Jessica’s expressed need to be, well, romanced.

I’m not sure I really saw them “fall” for each other. I just didn’t “buy” the romance.

What I did love, however, was the strong plot thread attached to Gabriel’s claiming of his estate and title, his feelings of duty and responsibility towards an estate that he never wanted nor expected to inherit, and especially his “revenge” on the cousin who abused that estate and tried to rob Gabriel of not just his inheritance but his life.

Because that part of the story read as a “fix-it” story of epic proportions, and I absolutely adore “fix-it” stories.

(I’m familiar with the use of ‘Fix-It” stories from fanfiction. There’s an entire class of fanfiction that seems to apply to all properties where the world of the original work is a mess but through fanfic the protagonists get to “fix” all the messes either by going back in time or changing a plot element or what-have-you. Good triumphs and righteously delivers epic payback on evil in all its forms. I’m finding stories of that stripe a great deal of comfort in our current, chaotic times.)

This story felt like a “fix-it” on Gabriel’s side of the story. There’s no fixing Humphrey’s mess, he’s dead, he’s been dead and this is not fantasy or SF. But the authors of Gabriel’s troubles, or at least one of those authors, is still alive and well and trying to do him dirty yet again. And circumstances are such that it isn’t possible to deliver the legal comeuppance the bastard deserves.

Watching it happen through an epic and extremely public serving of social opprobrium, however, was exceedingly satisfying. And actually kind of a comfort read.

This series as a whole is a bit of a comfort read. I like these characters (except Humphrey, of course – he’s certainly not missed). They’re great people and it’s lovely to see them get their HEAs. Some of the stories in the series have been particularly charming, and I love the fact that their reduction in social standing actually gives all of them a LOT more freedom which they eventually learn to use to great effect. So I got completely sucked back into this family and this world even though I wasn’t all that thrilled with the heroine’s behavior for a chunk of the story.

I think, though, that this one may have run its course. Or perhaps it’s taken itself too far afield from the original group of affected people. There’s one left, Humphrey’s son Harry, the young man who was VERY briefly an Earl before his father’s perfidy was discovered. Harry was much happier as a soldier than as an Earl, but his war is over. It’s time for him to finally get his much deserved HEA and close out his family’s story in Someone to Cherish, hopefully sometime next year..

Review; Someone to Remember by Mary Balogh

Review; Someone to Remember by Mary BaloghSomeone to Remember (Westcott, #7) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Westcott #7
Pages: 272
Published by Berkley Books on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It's never too late to fall in love in this enchanting new story, a novella in the Westcott series from New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable--love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again....

*Includes bonus excerpts from the Westcott novels*

My Review:

There’s always something that links all the books in an ongoing series. It’s often family – or at least found family. Sometimes it’s place – even if occasionally that’s work place rather than home place.

At first, in the terrific, long-running Westcott series (start with Someone to Love and settle in for a fantastic binge-read), it seemed like it was family. And it sort of is. The late, unlamented Humphrey Westcott is a presence throughout the series, even in his absence.

Very much in his absence, as the series only kicks off because he’s kicked off.

But now I’m starting to think that the link between all the entries in the series is that all these people, at least one in each story, had lives that were blighted in some way by the late unlamented, and their story is their chance at a Happy Ever After that he denied them, or delayed for them, or did or would have derailed in one way or another.

While it’s fairly obvious exactly how Humphrey blighted the lives of the children who thought they were legitimate – only to discover they were not (Camille in Someone to Hold, Abigail in Someone to Honor), or the wife who discovered that she wasn’t (Viola in Someone to Care) it’s a bit less obvious here.

But still relevant. It’s not that Humphrey had the direct ability to prevent his older sister’s marriage – because he didn’t. But his misbehavior did. His sister Matilda and his parents wanted to believe that Humphrey’s terrible behavior were the result of him being led astray by his scandalous friend Charles Sawyer. Sawyer’s behavior after Matilda rejected his suit certainly lent credence to that belief.

Sawyer became such a figure of scandal, even after his ascension to his father’s title, that it made him a byword as a rake and a rogue. And Matilda comforted herself with that, even as she continued into spinsterhood, at the beck and call of her rather waspish mother.

Or so it all seemed. For years. Decades even. Until Matilda inserted herself back into Charles’ life, however briefly, in order to wrest some happiness for one of those blighted nieces at the end of Someone to Honor.

Only to discover that very few of the things that either Matilda – or her mother – assumed long ago were quite the way they appeared to be. Humphrey’s long-ago scandalous behavior was certainly not due to the malign influence of Charles – more likely the other way around.

And that even 36 long years is not enough to erase a love that was meant to be. After all, it’s never too late to become the person you might have been.

Escape Rating A-:With one half of an exception, I’ve loved every single book in this series, and Someone to Remember is definitely not an exception to that!

But Someone to Remember is different from the other books in this series. First, this is a novella, so it’s rather delightfully short. (It’s even shorter than it appears to be from the description as a fair bit of that page count is devoted to teaser chapters for ALL of the previous books in the series).

Second, while one could start the series in any number of places – Humphrey casts such a long shadow that his disgraceful actions are explained at least a bit in every story – there’s no way to start the series here. Someone to Remember works because we have read what has come before and are already rather deeply involved with the Westcott family. And some of what makes this story so lovely is the way that the assumptions that we – and Matilda – have come to during previous events get so delightfully turned on their heads in this one.

Third, this is a story that has more internal life than external. It’s a story where more – much more – is thought and felt than occurs on the surface. Matilda, and Charles spend a lot of this book thinking about the past and their missed chances – the many roads not taken – and those events in the past are more dramatic than what happens in the present.

It’s not so much that this is a second chance at love story as it is that it exemplifies a quote from John Greenleaf Whittier that goes, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” Charles and Matilda spend much of this story contemplating those ‘might have beens’, looking back at all that they did, and just how different the present might be if they had done things just a bit differently. And yet, the problem with wanting to change things is that things change. Just because things might have been different, doesn’t mean they would have been better.

They’ll never know what that different past might have looked like, even though neither of them can stop thinking about it. All they can do is move forward into a new and brighter present – and future. And it’s lovely to read a romance between two 50somethings that, while different, is every bit as romantic as any story in this lovely and charming series.

And this series is blissfully not over. After all, Humphrey Westcott blighted a LOT of lives. The next book in the series will be Someone to Romance, this time next year.

Review: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Honor by Mary BaloghSomeone to Honor (Westcott, #6) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #6
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on July 2, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

First appearances deceive in the newest charming and heartwarming Regency romance in the Westcott series from beloved New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh.

Abigail Westcott's dreams for her future were lost when her father died, and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she's grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies.

But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon. Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn't take lightly to being condescended to—secretly because of his own humble beginnings.

If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

My Review:

The entire Westcott series is the story of one family making lemonade out of what initially were some rather bitter lemons – with no sugar at all.

Humphrey Westcott is dead, to begin with. And that’s a good thing for him, because if he hadn’t died before the series opened, the line to kill him would stretch for miles. The late and totally unlamented Humphrey was a bigamist, a fact that was only discovered after his unexpected death.

The series is the story of all of the applecarts that were upset by that discovery learning, one way or another, and sometimes quite painfully, that the overturning of the lives they thought they had was actually the best thing that ever happened to them.

Someone to Honor is Abigail Westcott’s turn. Abigail was the youngest child and second daughter of Humphrey-the-arsehole and the woman everyone believed was his wife, Viola Kingsley. Abigail, as the daughter of the Earl of Riverdale, as Humphrey the figurative bastard was, expected to have her Season on the Marriage Mart, find a wealthy and titled husband, and be married. It was not necessarily what she wanted, but it was her duty and she seems to have had no objections to fulfilling it.

(I never have anything nice to say about the late, unlamented Humphrey. NO ONE in any of the stories has anything nice to say. If divorce had been possible, his family would have kept Viola and abandoned Humphrey – and he deserves every bit of opprobrium heaped on his coffin. But it is amazing just how present he still is, in spite of his death.)

Abby has spent the last six years trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. After all that time, the one thing that she is certain of is that the upending of the life she expected was a gift. She still has her family – all of it including her late father’s family – she still has all the friends who matter – and she knows who her true friends are. She has enough money that she doesn’t have to marry in order to put a roof over her head.

And she has the opportunity to be who she wants to be without having to deal with the expectations of the ton and its perpetual search for any character flaw that allows it to tear down her life, her character, her standing and her prospects.

She’s free.

But she’s not free of her well-meaning family’s desire to make a place for her on the fringes of the society that has rejected her for the so-called stain of her illegitimate birth. She loves them, they love her, she doesn’t want to anger or disappoint them – but she doesn’t want to be begrudged a place in the shadows. That life is over for her – and she knows she’s the better for it.

So when the opportunity arises to stay in her childhood home with her brother Harry, a wounded veteran of Waterloo, she jumps at it. Harry needs someone around who won’t coddle him, and Abby needs the quiet to figure out her next steps in life.

What she does not count on is Harry’s friend Gil, the fellow officer who rescued Harry from a convalescent hospital in Paris and brought him home.

In some ways, Gil and Abby are opposites. Where Abby was raised as a lady only to discover she is a bastard, Gil was raised as a bastard only to rise to the officer ranks, and therefore become a gentleman-by-courtesy, in the Army. The illegitimate son of a washerwoman and a nobleman, Gil raised himself up mostly by his own efforts, while Abby fell through no fault of her own.

In their little household of three, Harry, Abby and Gil, Abby and Gil draw closer to each other in fits and starts. Both over their shared concern about Harry, and in their surprising commonalities with each other.

When Gil’s secrets are finally laid bare, Abby is ready to stand up – and stand beside him – come what may. That the entire Westcott family stands with them guarantees that love will triumph, no matter who stands in the way.

Escape Rating A-: I have loved this series from beginning to end. (There was one half-exception, but even that was good – just not great). A big part of what I love about this series is that they are romances but are not frivolous. Or perhaps I should say that the heroines are not frivolous. The heroines of this series, to a woman, both have agency and remain a part of their times. Their situations are not pulled out of whack in anachronistic ways in order to give them the kind of choices that make them relatable for 21st century readers.

It helps that, with the exception of Anna Snow in Someone to Love, the women are no longer members of the aristocracy. Humphrey’s asshattery pulls them down into the upper middle class, removing them from the absurd expectations of the ton while giving them obstacles to overcome and lives to make of their own choosing.

Abigail can be who and what she wants to be and her family will still love her and support her in the emotional sense. Her finances give her freedom to be anything a woman of her times could be – including a spinster if that’s what she decides.

Her decision to marry Gil is not initially a love match – nor is it an arranged one. They have become friends, more or less. They like and respect each other – and they desire each other. She would like to marry, and Gil needs to marry. They enter their marriage with eyes wide open to everything except their true feelings towards each other. Because the seeds of love are certainly there, even if neither of them has the experience to see them.

Plenty of happy marriages begin with much shakier foundations.

In the end, this is a series about a fascinating group of people dealing with unexpected adversity. Life has thrown a monkey wrench into their expectations, and with each book we see the Westcott’s make lemonade out of that crop of lemons. And we see them rise together and support each other, which is certainly a treat.

The Westcotts seem to be the exception that proves the rule about all happy families being alike – they have become a happy family, and a stronger one, by moving forward from something that should have divided them by behaving in a manner that no one expected. It’s what makes them so much fun to read.

So I’m very happy to say that they’ll be back in Someone to Remember, late in the fall. I can’t wait!

Review: Someone to Trust by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Trust by Mary BaloghSomeone to Trust (Westcott, #5) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance, holiday romance
Series: Westcott #5
Pages: 400
Published by Berkley on November 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

During a rare white Christmas at Brambledean Court, the widow Elizabeth, Lady Overfield, defies convention by falling in love with a younger man in the latest novel in the Westcott series.

After her husband's passing, Elizabeth Overfield decides that she must enter into another suitable marriage. That, however, is the last thing on her mind when she meets Colin Handrich, Lord Hodges, at the Westcott Christmas house party. She simply enjoys his company as they listen to carolers on Christmas Eve, walk home from church together on Christmas morning, and engage in a spirited snowball fight in the afternoon. Both are surprised when their sled topples them into a snow bank and they end up sharing an unexpected kiss. They know there is no question of any relationship between them for she is nine years older than he.

They return to London the following season, both committed to finding other, more suitable matches. Still they agree to share one waltz at each ball they attend. This innocuous agreement proves to be one that will topple their worlds, as each dance steadily ensnares them in a romance that forces the two to question what they are willing to sacrifice for love...

My Review:

This is the latest volume in the marvelous historical romance Westcott series. The series as a whole deals with the consequences of the late Lord Humphrey Westcott’s bastardy. That bastardy was only in the metaphorical sense, but he certainly qualified. When it was discovered, upon his death, that his marriage to his still-living countess was bigamous – on his part – his family was forced to re-think their entire future. Not just his now illegitimate son and daughters whose futures were suddenly not what they thought they were, as they and his wife were ostracized by society, but also the lives of both his legitimate daughter, suddenly an heiress, and his cousin who has acquired a title that came with a neglected estate, a load of debt, and no money to deal with either.

What makes the series so marvelous is the way that each of the affected people deals with the sudden change in their circumstances. While it is not necessary to read them all to enjoy any one in particular, they are great stories. If you want the full tale of just how big a bastard Lord Humphrey is, start with Someone to Love, appropriately titled because the Westcott family, minus Lord Humphrey, is very lovable indeed.

Even though the overall story has not yet dealt with all of the late Lord Humphrey’s children (I suspect the story about his son Harry is going to be last) the family connections have expanded enough through marriage that we are able to get this delightful romance between two of those connections on the outer fringe of the group.

Elizabeth Overfield is still a relatively young widow at 35, and she has reached the conclusion that it is time for her to marry again and finally set up her own household now that her brother Alex has found the love of his life. (Alex and Wren’s story is in Someone to Wed)

But Alex and Wren’s marriage has brought Wren’s brother Colin into the Westcott fold. Because of the circumstances of Wren’s early life, as detailed in Someone to Wed, Wren is estranged from most of her family – and with good reason.

Colin would prefer not to have much to do with his mother and his other sisters himself, not after hearing Wren’s full story, but he doesn’t have much choice. Colin is Lord Hodges, the head of his family, and he needs to do something to keep his narcissistic mother both in line and out of his business. It’s going to be an uphill battle – especially as it’s a battle he’s avoided since he gained the title several years ago upon the death of his father. Colin is now 26 and it’s past time for him to take up all his responsibilities – including finding a wife and continuing the family.

Colin and Elizabeth meet at the Westcott family Christmas party, the first of what will clearly be an ongoing tradition at her brother Alex’s partially updated family pile. (He’s working on it, and it needs a LOT of work)

As people who are both a bit outside the central family circle, Colin and Elizabeth gravitate towards each other, and discover that they like each other’s company very much indeed. More than either of them is willing to admit to the other – or even to themselves.

Elizabeth is 9 years older than Colin, so any relationship between them other than friendship seems impossible. She can’t believe he would be interested in a woman so many years older, and he can’t believe she’d be interested in someone so callow and immature.

Except, of course, they’re both wrong. And so very right for each other.

Escape Rating A-: I love it when an older woman/younger man romance does it right, as Someone to Trust certainly does. I also hate it when it’s done wrong or for laughs, which never happens in this story.

While the time and place are different, the thoughts running through Colin’s and especially Elizabeth’s heads are very real and ring true to life. My life. I’m 20 years older than my husband, so when this trope works for me, it really works. When it doesn’t, it grates like sandpaper.

No sandpaper in this romance.

This series in general has been terrific. Each of the people affected by Lord Humphrey’s mess are affected differently, and their reactions, while different, have felt realistic. Harry joined the army. His older sister gets a job. His mother retreats. His cousin tries to find a woman he can love who also happens to have a fortune so he can handle the responsibilities he’s just been saddled with.

Colin and Elizabeth are less directly affected by Lord Humphrey’s shenanigans, but they have plenty of issues of their own. Elizabeth’s late and totally unlamented husband was an alcoholic who beat her during his drunken rages. She married him because she loved him, and doesn’t trust herself to fall in love again. Once burned, twice shy, and with good reason.

Colin’s family, with the exception of his sister Wren, is a piece of work. Especially his mother, who fits the classic definition of a narcissist, whether the term was known or not in the 19th century. Just because there’s no word for something doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist. The scary thing about his mother is that she’s real. I’ve met people like that, even to that degree although it manifested differently. And they are every bit as frightening as his mother because they live in their own little world and do entirely too good a job of manipulating the rest of the world into conforming with their self-centered views – because they can’t hear or see anything else.

One of the issues with any age gap romance, whichever direction it goes, is to deal with closing the emotional/maturity/experience gap. This is all too often glossed over when the gap goes in the traditional direction, but it’s always there.

In this story, it’s handled well. Colin’s experience with his parents, particularly his mother, would result in him growing up early. When the parent is the child, the child becomes the parent. It works.

And so does the rest of this story, as Colin and Elizabeth meet in the middle, and realize that in spite of all of the outside voices that say they couldn’t possibly love each other or have a successful marriage, the still, small voices inside their own hearts are very, very sure that they can and they will.

Review: Someone to Care by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Care by Mary BaloghSomeone to Care (Westcott, #4) by Mary Balogh
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #4
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Once the Countess of Riverdale, Viola Kingsley throws all caution to the wind when adventure calls in the form of a handsome aristocrat. . . .

Two years after the death of the Earl of Riverdale, his family has overcome the shame of being stripped of their titles and fortune--except for his onetime countess, Viola. With her children grown and herself no longer part of the social whirl of the ton, she is uncertain where to look for happiness--until quite by accident her path crosses once again with that of the Marquess of Dorchester, Marcel Lamarr.

Marcel Lamarr has been a notorious womanizer since the death of his wife nearly twenty years earlier. Viola caught his eye when she herself was a young mother, but she evaded his seduction at the time. A prize that eluded him before, she is all the more irresistible to him now although he is surprised to discover that she is as eager now for the excitement he offers as he is himself.

When the two defy convention and run away together, they discover that the ties of respectability are not so easily severed, and pleasure can ensnare you when you least expect it.

My Review:

Who are we when we are no longer who we thought we were?

That’s the question that is initially before Viola Kingsley, who spent over 20 years believing that she was the Countess of Riverdale, only to discover that her marriage, an unhappy union that had produced three children who are the light of her life, was never valid.

The man she thought was her husband was already married. While the discovery of this fact after his death made her children bastards-in-law, her not-quite-husband was certainly a bastard-in-deed. His sisters still want to dig him up just so they can kill him again.

The previous books in this series, Someone to Love, Someone to Hold and Someone to Wed, have told the stories of the other people affected by the late Humphrey Westcott’s assholishness. At least three stories were left to tell. One is that of the youngest of the disinherited children, a story that I hope we get to see. Another is that of the young man who believed he was the son-and-heir of Riverdale, only to find out that he wasn’t.

The third story is Viola’s. She believed she was Countess of Riverdale. She discovered that she was not, and never had been. If she is not who she thought she was, then who is she?

Polite society immediately cut her and her children. They are none of them to blame, but they are the ones who will suffer the consequences. But Camille, Harry and Abigail are just barely, or in Abigail’s case, not quite, into adulthood. While their lives have been irrevocably changed, they still have those lives before them, and can make of them, if not what they originally expected, at least whatever they will.

Viola is 42 at the time of Someone to Care, and the scandal is two years behind her. Well, the scandal feels ever present, but the breaking of it is in the past. Her children are grown or nearly so. While she is financially secure, she is no longer part of society and happy not to be so. But what does she do with the rest of her life?

Her family wants her to be happy. And they keep smothering her in their care, in the hopes that they can make her happy, or see her happy. But even smothering with love is still smothering, and Viola has finally had enough. She needs time to herself, to figure out who she is and where she goes next.

And into that question steps Marcel Lamarr. Marc has a well-earned reputation as a rake and a libertine, but once upon a time, when they were both a bit younger, the “fearsomely” handsome Lamarr and the beautiful young mother Viola embarked on a flirtation. Merely a flirtation, because Viola remained faithful to her vows and Marc did not dally with married women.

Which does not mean that they were not sorely tempted to break all the rules. But they did not, and when Viola felt her heart to be in too much danger, she told him to go. And because he felt his own heart to be equally at risk, he went.

In the middle of a journey that neither of them planned to take, they meet again. But the rules are different now. Viola is no longer married, not that she ever was. And they discover that their unresolved feelings for each other are still there. And they believe that no one will miss them if they take a little time for themselves, outside of their regular lives, with each other.

They are both wrong. And so very, very right.

Escape Rating B: I absolutely loved the first half of this book. And I was so very disappointed with the second half.

The first half was so much fun at least partially because we seldom see romance that feature women “of a certain age”. Viola is 42, she’s been married (well at least she thought she was married) she’s been widowed (sorta/kinda), she’s the mother of grown children who love her but no longer need her, and she’s suffered a tremendous reversal of fortune through no fault of her own and is doing her best to soldier on.

But she has no idea who she is now that she is no longer any of the things she thought she was. While it’s a problem that was thrust upon her, it is one that we can all sympathize with. Anyone who has ever taken their identity from their career faces this loss if they get laid off or when they retire. And many parents go through “empty nest” syndrome when their children grow up and move away.

Viola, after a chance meeting with an old flame, decides to take a little time to live just for herself. She’s going to be selfish, and it’s something that she’s never done in her life. They are both adults, they are neither of them married or otherwise encumbered, who is to care if they choose to spend some time together? Who should it matter to if they have an affair, as long as they both understand that the entire situation is temporary?

When they are discovered, the story moves from its delightfully unpredictable path to a predictable one, and one that I personally always find annoying in the extreme. Because once they are discovered, the entire story descends into a giant misunderstandammit, a misunderstandammit that seems obvious to everyone except the protagonists, and that takes half the book to finally resolve.

He believes that she was through with him, because he didn’t listen to what she actually said or give her a chance to explain. Then he compounds that error by declaring to both of their families that they are betrothed, when in fact he was about to let her go, however reluctantly.

And, of course, they have fallen in love with one another, even though they are both way too stubborn to admit it. Meanwhile, Viola, and rightfully so, is unwilling to enter into another loveless marriage, but is equally unwilling, because of the way that women have been trained, to make either a scandal or a fuss, or to hurt all of the people who suddenly want them to marry by declaring that it was never so.

The mess goes on, and on, and unfortunately on. They do finally talk to each other again, at least enough to resolve the tangle and reach their happily ever after, but it was torture getting to it.

I would have loved this book if they had continued being as unconventional as they were in the first half. That would have been different – and oodles of fun.

Review: Someone to Wed by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Wed by Mary BaloghSomeone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook
Series: Westcott #3
Pages: 384
Published by Berkley on November 7th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A very practical marriage makes Alexander Westcott question his heart in the latest Regency romance from the New York Times bestselling author of Someone to Hold.

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

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

My Review:

I’m a little early with this review, but this was the book that was calling my name. So I decided to listen to that little voice and just read it now anyway. And I’m so very glad I did.

Someone to Wed is the third book in Balogh’s historical romance Westcott series, and just like the first two books, Someone to Love and Someone to Hold, it is an absolute treat from beginning to end.

The stories are all tied together, loosely enough that you don’t HAVE to read them in order, but I think it adds a bit more depth if you do. In the beginning, Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, was an ass. Just how big an ass was only revealed after his death, when it was discovered that his countess wasn’t really his countess, his heir wasn’t really his heir, and that his only legitimate child had been raised in an orphanage with no knowledge of her heritage whatsoever.

He left a big, huge, stinking mess. But he didn’t have to deal with any of it, because he was dead. This is probably a good thing, as most of the participants in the drama he left behind, and many readers, would cheerfully wring his neck if it wasn’t already six feet under.

Each story in this series deals with the human fallout from the late Humphrey’s assholishness. This time around it’s his cousin Alexander Westcott turn. Alex, as now the next legitimate male heir, has become the very unwilling Earl of Riverdale.

While one might think that anyone would love to inherit a title, this is definitely not true in Alex’s case. Because Alex has inherited the title and the quite frankly failing entailed estates, but none of the money that should go with them. Alex has inherited a title and a money pit. Money that he does not have.

Just plain Alexander Westcott had just managed to restore his own inherited patrimony to profitability after decades of neglect on his late father’s part and years of hard work on his own. Becoming the Earl of Riverdale means that he has the same work to do all over again, with the same resources he had before spread over much, much larger (and more seriously neglected) lands.

Plain Alexander Westcott could have afforded to marry for love. The new Earl of Riverdale must marry money. And that’s where Wren Heyden comes in. Wren has inherited a fortune and a very successful glassworks from her late and much beloved uncle. Nearing 30, her year of mourning for her uncle’s (and aunt’s) deaths over with, she wants to marry.

But Wren believes that her fortune is all she has to recommend her. Why? Because Wren has a large port-wine stain, in other words a big purple birthmark, covering much of the left side of her face. Long ago, someone convinced her that she was so ugly that no one could ever possibly love her – or even manage to look at her without running screaming from the room. Years of her aunt and uncle’s unstinting love and unwavering support never managed to convince her otherwise.

Wren attempts to buy Alex’s hand in marriage. He needs a rich wife, and she needs a man who will give her children. She begins by believing that she can maintain her life as a hermit, while giving Alex the money he needs to restore Riverdale.

While Alex feels that marrying for love is a now a dream out of his reach, he is still offended by the crassness at the base of Wren’s proposal. He does not want to be bought. But he recognizes the injustices of his feelings – after all, he was planning to present himself in the marriage mart with the hope of contracting just such an alliance.

Even more, Alex wonders if they will suit. He may not be able to marry for love, but mutual respect and eventual affection are surely not out of reach.

But can there be anything else between two people after such an inauspicious beginning? Can there be anything at all?

Escape Rating A: I swallowed this book in a day. Someone to Wed is marvelous because it throws so many of the standard historical romance tropes over within its first pages.

Of course, the thing that makes Someone to Wed so different is that Wren is the mover and shaker of the story. In the beginning, she acts, and Alex is the one who reacts – not always terribly well. What makes it work is the way that he thinks about his reactions, and reminds himself just how unfair so many of them are.

What makes the romance work is the way that both Wren and Alex bend over the course of the story. As unexpected as her proposal is, and as much as all of Alex’s instincts urge him to reject it and her, he does his best to be fair. She is both right and reasonable in her actions – he’s just not used to seeing a woman exhibit that much cold-blooded logic.

That Alex discovers that he actually enjoys talking with a woman who is his intellectual equal and is not afraid to show it – or who is completely incapable of hiding it – comes as a revelation.

Another thing that made this story work for this reader is the way that Wren’s birthmark was handled. It, and her mother’s reaction to it, scarred her, seemingly for life, much more than the birthmark itself does. She feels ugly and unlovable because that’s how she was made to feel as a child – not because either of those things are true. Her journey towards acceptance of herself is marvelously hard won.

Alex’ reaction to her birthmark reminds me of a quote from science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long, “A man does not insist on physical beauty in a woman who builds up his morale. After a while he realizes that she is beautiful–he just hadn’t noticed it at first.” While there is definitely some sexism in there, the point is still valid. Think of it as a more pleasant version of the old saw about beauty being skin deep, but ugly going clean through to the bone. Beauty is as beauty does. And beauty shines from within.

Wren is beautiful. And it takes Alex much less time to realize that fact than it does Wren herself. But when she finally does, it’s even more beautiful than their romance.

Reviewer’s Note: I don’t always envision the hero or heroine as any person in particular, but Alex is described as incredibly, perfectly handsome so many times that I kept seeing him as Yannick Bisson from the Murdoch Mysteries TV series. Particularly in the early years of the series, Bisson seemed too beautiful to be real. Your imaginary mileage may vary.

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Hold by Mary BaloghSomeone to Hold (Westcott, #2) by Mary Balogh
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Series: Westcott #2
Pages: 400
Published by Jove Books on February 7th 2017
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Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...
With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.
An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...

My Review:

Someone to Hold is the “flip side” of the marvelous Someone to Love. The story in the first Westcott book was the story of Anna Snow, a teacher at the orphanage where she herself grew up. In Love, Anna discovers that she is the only legitimate child of the late and less-lamented-every-day Earl of Riverdale. She is suddenly and unexpectedly the sole heir to his fortune, while the title goes to a cousin.

But Anna’s unexpected rise encompasses the equally unexpected fall of the family that for 20-plus years has believed that they were the legitimate ones. The woman who has always believed herself to be the Countess of Riverdale discovers that she was never married at all. Her husband was a bigamist. And that makes her son and her two daughters all bastards, in the legal sense if not the behavioral sense.

That particular bit of opprobrium is saved for others.

So Anna is up, and Viola, Camille, Abigail and Henry are down. And out. Out of society and out of money and seemingly out of friends.

Someone to Hold is Camille’s story. Her response to her sudden change in fortune does not at first make her a likable protagonist. She was a high-stickler when she thought she was a lady, settling for nothing less than perfection in all things. Now she herself is considered imperfect, and the perfect life she expect is now far beyond her reach.

During the first book she was particularly waspish and ill-tempered. Her family does love her, but no one seems to like her much, and it is easy for the reader to see why.

By the time that this book opens, she has gotten past some of the early stages of grief. Her life has irrevocably changed, and she comes to the realization that she can’t remain hidden in her grandmother’s house and under her grandmother’s protection, cozy and comfortable as it is.

She has to strike out on her own, and make something of the life she must now live. But what she does is what makes this story so good. Instead of wallowing, or instead of marrying the first man who promises to protect her, Camille determines to find out who she is now, and what she can make of herself.

She does it by marching up to the orphanage where Anna taught and asking for a position as a teacher, just as Anna was. It’s the surprise of Camille’s life when she gets the job. And even though she feels herself gasping and floundering every single day, it turns out to be a job that she is good at, even if in completely unconventional ways.

Along with the job, Joel Cunningham comes into her life. Joel is also a graduate of the orphanage, and is also a teacher. Specifically, he’s the art teacher. He was also Anna’s best friend and fancied himself in love with her.

He is not best pleased with Camille taking over Anna’s classroom. Or Anna’s students. Or even Anna’s room. But as they get to know each other, they come to realize that the way that they upset each other’s apple-carts is the best thing that ever happened to either of them.

If they can just manage to get out of their own way.

Escape Rating A-: Those who have read Someone to Love will be unable to resist Someone to Hold. And anyone who loves historical romance and has not read Someone to Love needs to get thee hence to a library or bookstore and read it!

But there’s a reason why Anna’s story was someone to love and not Camille’s. Camille was not at all lovable in Someone to Love, and she begins her own story still not being all that lovable. Or even, at the beginning, all that likable. It makes her difficult to warm up to as a protagonist.

(I started this book three times before I got past that point. Once I did, it was terrific. But definitely a hard start.)

Camille’s world has crumbled. The society that she had been trained to be perfectly suited for has rejected her, and for an issue where she is completely blameless. Nevertheless, she understands why this is so. But her plans have turned to dust and her prospects are non-existent. She is too proud to claw her way onto the lowest rung of society’s ladder and be content with that, and she doesn’t know what to do instead.

One of Camille’s issues is that Anna Snow is so very likable. Camille wants to hate her and maintain a distance from her, and Anna makes that very, very difficult. It also feels to Camille as if her close family are attempting to pretend that nothing material has changed, when everything has.

She is not who she thought she was, and the world is no longer her oyster.

Taking Anna’s old position and Anna’s old rooms makes an interesting twist, both for Camille’s story and her life. Camille makes it seem logical in her own head, but it is far from logical to anyone else. However, her determination to make a new life for herself is admirable. And fascinating to watch.

Although the relationship that develops between Joel and Camille has a bit more heat to it than the one between Anna and Avery, it is still a relationship that develops first into friendship before becoming love. Falling in love with your best friend IS still a good foundation for a marriage.

Even if in this case it does seem a bit like Camille begins by trying to take over or erase Anna’s life, what happens in the end is that Camille stands in Anna’s shoes and finds her own life. And it’s a lovely story.