Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes

Review: The Roguish Baron by Sophie BarnesThe Roguish Baron by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, holiday romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #9
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 24, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

When a rakish scoundrel decides to pursue the woman he loves in this friends to lovers Regency romance, he risks his father's disapproval...and the consequence this will have on his future.

He had to risk losing her so he would realize how much he loved her...

Jack Lancaster, Baron Hawthorne, hasn't been home in four years. He's been too busy running from his emotions. So when he finally does return and discovers his childhood friend, Sophia Fenmore, has gotten engaged, he's not only shocked, but determined to change her mind and make her his.

Sophia has always known Jack was out of her league. But she valued his friendship, until he broke her heart. Now he's back, as eager to charm her as she is to thwart him.For as much as she'd like to believe Jack has changed, she cannot risk taking a chance on a rogue. Unless of course, he proves himself worthy.

A daring forbidden love romance from a USA Today bestselling author

*Previously published as part of The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology*

My Review:

The way that the romances are intertwined and misdirected in this latest book in the Diamonds in the Rough series reads like the kind of convoluted plot that Shakespeare would have loved.

The Lancaster children, Jack, Felicity, and Kaitlin, and the Fenmore siblings, Edward and Sophia, grew up together as one romping tangle of friends. But the Lancasters are the offspring of the Earl of Turner, while the Fenmores are the children of the local vicar. There’s an even larger gap in station between Sophia Fenmore and the others, as Sophia is an orphan who was found wrapped in a blanket in the church that the Fenmores’ father is the vicar of. They raised her as their own, but with her origins obscure at best, she’s not quite the social equal of the others.

A difference that makes no difference when they are all children, but drives a wedge in the close friendship between Jack and Sophia when they reach the cusp of adulthood. Not that either of them cares one whit, they are the best of friends even if Sophia is just beginning to understand that she wants more.

But to Jack’s father the Earl, it matters a great deal. To the point where the Earl threatens to cut off Jack’s inheritance if he marries Sophia. Something that Jack hadn’t even thought of up to that point. (The title and the estate are entailed, Jack will inherit those whatever his father wants. But the money is his father’s own to dispose of as he pleases. Inheriting the estate without the money for the upkeep of the stately pile is a recipe for bankruptcy.)

Jack runs away to London for four years, earning enough money to no longer need anything his father doesn’t want to give. He ALSO earns a well-deserved reputation as a rake as he cuts a wide and smiling swath through the female population of London in an attempt to deny his father’s accusation – that he’s in love with Sophia. Even though he is.

Jack returns home to a mess. Sophia is more beautiful than he remembered, and even more captivating. But she’s also engaged to, of all people, her adopted brother Edward. Who is in love with Jack’s sister Felicity. But Edward and Felicity both believe that their love is doomed, that Felicity’s father would never consent to a match between them.

In other words, everyone is being self-sacrificing – except Jack’s father who is still being an ass.

And just when it seems like they’ve all gotten past all of the roadblocks they’ve put in their own way, the truth about Sophia’s origins finally comes to light. And those roadblocks just get higher.

Escape Rating B: The Diamonds in the Rough series has been charming romantic fluff from the very first book, A Most Unlikely Duke (still my favorite in the series) to this 9th book in the series. And this one feels like the last. Not that it doesn’t stand alone, because it most certainly does, but because all of those Diamonds and their equally happy spouses are guests at the wedding that ends this entry in the series. It felt like closure, although I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong!

The best part of The Roguish Baron isn’t the Baron. It’s Sophia. What made her interesting was that, in spite of some of her over-the-top descriptions of her feelings, her thoughts and actions were very, very pragmatic. And she wasn’t shy about letting Jack know when he’d stepped in it and on them. She doesn’t cry and expect to be patted and soothed, she speaks up and uses her words very clearly and forthrightly.

Her situation in this story is very much “one down”. She’s female in a time and place where she has no rights and her only hope of a comfortable future is to marry and hope that her husband isn’t a brute or a gambler or a spendthrift. And she may not have a say in who she marries, and then she’ll basically be property in the marriage.

Under those circumstances, her acceptance of Edward’s proposal may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it is far, far, far from the worst. With her origins obscured, it may be the only offer she’ll get, and she knows it. Whatever dreams she might have of marrying Jack, she’s not wrong to think that society will look down upon them both and that his father will not be forgiving. She’s doomed before she starts.

Jack loves her and wants her but takes, not so much convincing as beating about with a clue-by-four to get that if they’re going to untangle the mess their in that there are no half-measures. And that if he can’t commit to this course he needs to leave her alone. Which he has a hard time even imagining, let alone actually doing.

The thing that made this work was the way that Jack was forced to grovel, publicly, for the mess he’d made of his life, and the mess he’d very nearly made of both their lives. Sophia may have forgiven him, but he still had to earn back the respect he’d squandered when he was punishing both himself and his father – who honestly didn’t grovel enough.

That Sophia does learn who she came from was lovely, even though it did seem like a bit of deus ex machina. And I have some mixed feelings about whether that was the right way to solve things.

But this was still a lovely, frothy bit of holiday Regency romance. If this is the end of the series, it provides a charming bit of closure to five years of romantic reads. If it turns out there are still more to come, I’d be happy to watch more of these unconventional couples find their HEAs..

Review: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender by Sophie BarnesMr. Donahue's Total Surrender (Enterprising Scoundrels #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #1
Pages: 230
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Calista Faulkner had a plan: go to England, get married, and save her father from ruin. Instead, she’s now stuck in London, penniless and without the husband she’d pinned her hopes on. Desperate to return home, she seeks employment at a hotel – as a scullery maid – a far cry from the social status she has otherwise been accustomed to. But when a chance encounter with the hotel’s owner, Mr. Donahue, leads to a change in fortune and her acquaintance with him deepens, a new problem arises. For Calista knows she must return home and marry a man she hates in order to save her family’s reputation. But how can she leave behind the man she's falling in love with? How can she marry anyone else?

My Review:

There’s plenty of surrendering to go around in this charming Victorian-era historical romance. Mr. Steven Donahue AND Miss Callista Faulkner both eventually surrender to their happily ever after. But they certainly don’t start there. Or anywhere close.

As the story begins, Donahue is the owner and operator of what would today be called a boutique hotel that is desirably close to the newly built halls of Parliament. Considering that this is a romance, there’s a very apropos joke that applies here. “What do kissing and real estate have in common? The three most important things in both instances are, ‘Location, location, location.”

It’s been a ton of work to rehabilitate what was a dilapidated building, and Donahue has invested a significant amount of money in the endeavor, but the Imperial is a success that he’s rightfully proud of. As the third son of an Earl, it’s up to him to make his own way in life – even if he was born with a bit of the silver spoon in his mouth. He’s turned that silver into something that provides him with an excellent livelihood and a purpose.

Because Donahue isn’t just interested in making money for himself – although he certainly is interested in that. He also prides himself on the well-compensated jobs in excellent working conditions that his hotel – and the others he plans to build around the country – will provide for all the people necessary to make his hotels shine in every way.

That’s where Miss Callista Faulkner steps into the story – very much to her own surprise. She came from her native New York City to marry a gentleman who died while she was en route. She was fleeing a forced marriage to a despicable villain who just might possibly have gotten her father in debt for that very purpose. But her late, would-be bridegroom seems to have been marrying Callista in order to get out from under the unwelcome marriage that his own family was trying to arrange for him. So they didn’t know Callista was coming and wouldn’t have agreed or approved if they had.

Callista has run through or been relieved of the money she came to London with – and she needs to get home. Broke and desperate, she’s applied for jobs all over London only to be rejected at every turn. The Imperial offers her one last chance, but there’s a catch.

There are several catches. The manager is about to turn her down when Donahue intervenes and forces the man to offer her any job that he believes she will suit. Said manager takes his comeuppance out on Callista by offering her a position as a scullery maid, absolutely no training or introduction to the work at all, and refuses to give her a room in the hotel’s generously provided and reasonably appointed staff quarters. She has a cot in the pantry, no lock on the door and is the butt of every joke and blamed for every spilled drink and broken plate that occurs – even when she’s not near the incident. She consoles herself with the money she’s saving for her passage home.

But her mistreatment at the hands of the staff forces Donahue to intervene. He becomes her knight in well-tailored armor, giving her room, board and spending money while thoroughly cleaning out the staff who were much too willing to harass and abuse one of their colleagues. He also pays for her passage back home and even provides her with chaperons for the journey.

While they are both waiting for that journey to take place, however, they have time. Perhaps a little too much of it. More than enough time to discover that they LIKE each other. Not just that they are attracted to each other, but that they are developing a friendship along with possibly more.

Which they don’t have quite enough time to be sure of – at least not if they’re being sensible. And then there’s that odious toad waiting back in New York to claim Callista as payment of her father’s debts.

Donahue has always been sober and sensible – but this is looking like the one time in his life when he’ll be much better served if he throws caution to the winds.

Escape Rating B: Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender is a light and frothy historical romance with just enough dark undertones to keep the reader – and the characters – on their toes.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this story is that it is a romance of thoughts and feelings and not body parts. Some of that is the period in which it is set, but I loved the way that the protagonists fall in love through spending time together, talking with each other, and just enjoying each other’s company. I did feel the romance, and we did see them fall for each other, but they’re not using sex to cement the relationship and that worked well.

I also liked that Donahue is someone who works for a living. Not that he isn’t rich, and not that his family didn’t give him a damn good start with education and money, but he’s not among the idle rich. We’re seeing more of that in historical romance and I like the trend very much.

The thing that kept this book from being a grade A read instead of a B has to do with comeuppances. There weren’t nearly enough of them. There are several circumstances in the story with villains. Not just the staff of the hotel who harass and abuse Callista, but also a titled brother and sister who are just awful and, top of the ugly pile, the odious schemer who hatched the plan to force Callista to marry him. He’s slime. The hotel staff do get their just desserts, but that was too easy. I would want to see the sour expressions on the part of those awful siblings at the wedding, and I especially wanted to know that Mr. Odious New York got at least a sliver of what should be coming to him. That we don’t discover what happened to him or even just his reaction at getting thwarted felt like a missed opportunity for a bit of catharsis.

But I had a ball – even if there is no actual ball – with Mr. Donahue, Miss Faulkner, and their total surrender to each other.

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Dale and the Divorcee by Sophie BarnesMr. Dale and The Divorcée (The Brazen Beauties #1) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Brazen Beauties #1
Pages: 342
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 23rd 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He's a respectable barrister...
She's the most scandalous woman in England...

Wilhelmina Hewitt knows she's in for a rough ride when she agrees to help her husband get a divorce. Nothing, however, prepares her for the regret of meeting Mr. Dale on the eve of her downfall. No other man has ever sent her heart racing as he does. Unfortunately, while she’ll soon be free to engage in a new relationship, no respectable man will have her.

James Dale would never pursue another man’s wife. Or a woman reputed to be a deceitful adulteress. Furious with himself for letting the lovely Mrs. Hewitt charm him, he strives to keep his distance. But when her daughter elopes with his son, they're forced into a partnership where passion ignites. And James soon wonders if there might be more to the divorcée than meets the eye.

My Review:

As I’m posting this review the day after Thanksgiving, I want to start out by saying this book made me really, really thankful that I was born in the latter half of the 20th century and not any damn earlier at all. But I’m also feeling kind of sorry that I plan to read a book I would have liked better for the holiday – or at least felt less conflicted about.

The story feels historically accurate, at least as far as the amount of control and agency that women had over their own lives during the Regency period. Whether it actually is or not, the situation that the heroine is in matches the way we believed things were during that time, or the image that has taken hold in the popular imagination.

Which, quite frankly, is that she has no agency or control at all.

This is a story about a woman who only has as much control over her life as the men in her life and society in general allow her, which is not much. The only control she has is over how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice, knowing that she will always be the one to pay the price for that sacrifice no matter who might truly be to blame.

The first half of this one left me on the horns of a giant dilemma. Because the heroine’s actions and society’s reactions felt true to what we expect of the time. She’s put herself in a terrible situation for reasons that were never in her control, and society punishes her for it exactly as one expected they would.

Which means that both she – and the reader – get repeatedly slapped in the face with just how terrible conditions for women could be.

I very nearly DNF’d at that halfway point, because I was getting really tired of the smell and the taste of that wet fish of horribleness. Not that it’s written horribly, as the author writes well and I generally like her books, but that the situation the heroine is IN is horrible and at that halfway point seems as though it’s only going to get worse as it goes.

That was the point where the son of the man who raped her 20 years ago makes it clear that he has the exact same plan as his vile old man and isn’t planning to let anyone or anything stand in his way, either.

You could call that a low point in the story. It was certainly a low point in my reading of it and I stopped for a while and picked up something else.

But I picked it back up because I thought the worst had to be behind me. And the heroine. And it was.

Escape Rating C: For a story that actually does have a happy ending, this is kind of a sad story for a lot of its length. Mina’s entire life seems to have been about being stuck between a rock and a hard place and letting herself be ground between them in one way or another.

Letting herself be divorced at a time when the only way for her husband to be allowed to remarry afterwards was to accept all the blame, all the calumny, all the social opprobrium and for both of them to commit perjury that she had numerous affairs when she never had any seems harsh and is harsh and society deals with her harshly as a result.

Her ex-husband leaves the country, marries his pregnant lover, and society forgets him except as her victim. She has to suck it all up and move on, which she honestly does. At least until her widowed daughter falls in love with a man whose father will not allow the marriage because of Mina’s reputation as a scarlet woman.

(Whether any of the scenario around Mina’s divorce was legal or possible at the time this story takes place seems to be a matter of some debate.)

The young couple elopes to Gretna Green, the older couple chase after in hot pursuit, and truth gets revealed all around – after more than one misunderstandammit.

This is a story where the happy ending is earned through a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears and a very literal change of heart on the part of the hero. Who was in serious need of getting the stick out of his ass.

I ended this with mixed feelings, which was a definite improvement after my near-DNF at the midpoint.

I liked both that the main romance of this story is between two people who are on either side of 40 instead of barely over 20. It made the situation much more complex and the characters more interesting because they had more depth as well as more emotional baggage.

I also liked that the member of the nobility who featured prominently in the story was the villain. The hero is part of the upper middle class. His family has land but no title, and he is a practicing lawyer. He works for a living, something we still don’t see often enough in Regency romance but does seem to be on the uptick.

So I want to say that this story did gel for me after all. Except it jelled kind of like the two-layer Jell-O cups where the top flavor is one I hated and the bottom flavor was one I almost liked. But a lot of reviewers absolutely adored this book so reading mileage obvious varies on this one.

Review: The Dishonored Viscount by Sophie Barnes

Review: The Dishonored Viscount by Sophie BarnesThe Dishonored Viscount (Diamonds in the Rough, #8) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #8
Pages: 416
Published by Sophie Barnes on September 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He knows he doesn’t deserve her, yet he can’t get her out of his mind...
Stripped of his title because of a crime his father committed, Marcus Berkly has struggled to find a new place for himself in the world. Now, as London’s most skilled eye-surgeon, he dedicates his time to his patients while steering clear of Society. Until a chance encounter with a determined young woman upends his life.
When Lady Louise discovers that Mr. Berkly’s surgical method could save her from permanent blindness, she decides to enlist his help. Against her father’s direct orders, she takes charge of her fate, and falls desperately in love in the process. But can a proper lady and an ill-reputed scoundrel have a future together? Or are the odds against them simply too great?

My Review:

I picked this up because I thought I’d read the entire Diamonds in the Rough series so far, and I always look forward to the latest installment. Although it turns out I managed to miss one (The Forgotten Duke), and obviously I’ll have to go back.

While I haven’t loved any of the series quite as much as I did the very first book, A Most Unlikely Duke, I’ve certainly enjoyed them more than well enough to keep coming back for more. So I’m actually kind of glad I missed one because it will give me an opportunity to catch up between now and the next. Especially as it looks like the story in that book leads directly to this one – not that plenty of other things haven’t as well.

All of the stories in this series start with the premise that either the hero or the heroine – and usually it’s the hero – is not worthy of the love of the heroine, nor her hand in marriage. At least unworthy according to the strict – and strictly hypocritical – rules of Regency high society.

Marcus Berkly used to be the heir of the Earl of Hedgewick. From a certain perspective, he still is. But where he was once the heir to the Earldom, now he’s heir to nothing but the scandal and opprobrium rightfully attached to his father’s name. The title, the estate, and everything Marcus expected to inherit were forfeit to the Crown when his father’s crimes were revealed.

Society can no longer sneer at his dead father, but they can certainly administer the cut direct to Marcus at every opportunity. So he does his best to give them as few opportunities as possible. After all, with the loss of his estate, Marcus has been forced to work for his living. And he does. After long years of training, Marcus Berkly has become an inventive, esteemed and highly-respected eye surgeon.

Which is where the rest of the story comes in. Lady Louise, the daughter of the Earl of Grasmere, has cataracts, and has since she was a girl. The usual treatment for her condition is to “couch” her eyes, inserting a needle into the eye and moving the occluded lens aside. It works, at least for a little while, and is just as painful as you might expect.

Berkly is pioneering a new and permanent treatment for the condition, and has a high success rate for the operation. Which is to remove the occluded lens completely through a tiny cut. It’s even more painful than couching, the recovery time is longer, and without a lens in the eye the patient will have to wear eyeglasses for the rest of their life. But it’s permanent.

Louise wants the treatment. Desperately. Every time the couching fails, as it inevitably does, she’s blind until the next painful treatment. Once and done – no matter the pain – seems like an extremely worthwhile trade to her.

But not to her father. Who is stubborn, a stick in the mud, a dictator in Louise’s life and a stickler for the rules. He refuses to consider the new treatment, because he’s hidebound, because her current eye doctor is a long-term friend, and especially and mostly because of the scandal attached to Marcus’ name.

Louise is not supposed to have any agency in this situation. Her father certainly believes that she does not. So she takes it – and herself – out of his clutches and concocts a plan to get the treatment she needs and should be entitled to.

That she and Marcus will have to stay in the country – properly chaperoned of course – for an entire month has no bearing on her plans when the scheme takes flight. But by the time her father finds her and returns her to London, her view of the world and her future in it has changed.

And not just because she can finally see.

Escape Rating B: One of the things that is glaringly obvious in Regency romances written today is the way that the hypocrisy of the ton is set out in such sharp relief. Marcus Berkly has done absolutely nothing wrong. Not by any standards whatsoever. He has not committed any crimes, he hasn’t cheated at cards, he’s just a reasonably decent man who is suffering from a huge case of guilt by association. As one of the characters in the story put it, how was he supposed to disassociate himself from his own father? Not that he didn’t want to, but seriously, how does one do that?

The story also exposes the way that everything in high society functions is all about the appearance of obeying the rules, which seems to be the biggest rule of all. So it’s not that all of the offers for Lady Louise’s hand are from fortune hunters, it’s that the obviousness of that issue is not exposed to society in a way that can’t be ignored.

On the one hand, the sheer, intended and intentional helplessness of Louise’s situation grates like rough sandpaper. And on the other, that she grasps the nettle by the thorns and gets herself the treatment she needs in spite of her father’s threats is very well done. She wants more from her life than a miserable existence as some man’s decorative object and broodmare, and she’s willing to be exiled from society to get it.

Her father is such a jackass about the whole thing that he becomes a caricature. There were plenty of legitimate reasons for not approving the new treatment but he went the high-handed dictator route instead. He actually did have reasonably good intentions for his daughter, even if he went about them in the worst and most tyrannical way. Maybe he does make sense, but I found him even more of a trial than Louise did.

Marcus also falls prey to the “I’m not worthy” syndrome because society has forced it upon him, along with a heaping helping of “she doesn’t know her own mind” which made me want to strangle him at points. At the same time, it’s so clear that he’s a very good man and might possibly be good enough for Louise. Maybe. If he works very, very hard.

She’s the one I wanted to see get her HEA. After all, she’s blackmailing her father, which takes some serious gonads. She earned every good thing that finally comes to her, because she’s the one who gets tried the most, and she’s not found wanting.

The men in her life, not so much.

Still, I had a good time reading this latest book in the series, which, according to the author, is the last full-length novel in it. But I still have The Forgotten Duke to go back to when I want to take a quick trip to the Regency, and a new novella in the series, The Roguish Baron, to look forward to this holiday season, when it will be included in The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology.

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: Her Scottish Scoundrel by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayHer Scottish Scoundrel (Diamonds in the Rough, #7) by Sophie Barnes
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #7
Pages: 424
Published by Sophie Barnes on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Destined for the hangman's noose, love is a dream he cannot afford to have...
When Blayne MacNeil agrees to be Miss Charlotte Russell's bodyguard, he doesn't expect her to expand the job description to fake fiancé. After twenty years in hiding, announcing his engagement to a viscount's daughter could prove fatal. For if anyone were to recognize him, he'd be charged with murder.
Determined to keep her independence in order to safeguard her writing career, Charlotte must avoid marriage. After all, no respectable gentleman would ever permit his wife to pen outrageous adventure novels. But when her most recent manuscript disappears, the roguish Scotsman posing as her fiancé becomes her closest ally—and the greatest threat to her freedom.

My Review:

I picked this up because I fell in love with this series all the way back at its very beginning, with A Most Unlikely Duke. Because he was, and because the way that story worked was just lovely.

I’ve stuck with the series because I’ve enjoyed every single one of these unsuitable romances, admittedly some more than others as is generally the case with a series that is 8 books and happily counting.

Or at least I’m happily counting, and I’m sure that other readers are too.

What makes this series so much fun in general, and this entry in particular, is that all of the matches that occur are not just unlikely, but are completely unsuitable and generally downright scandalous into the bargain. And that the reason for the unlikeliness, unsuitability and scandalousness shifts and changes from one story to the next and from the spear side (male) to the distaff side (female) and back again as the series continues.

(I had to look up just what the opposite of “distaff” actually was.)

The other thing that makes these so fascinating, and something that was a big part of this particular story, is that the women have agency in an era when we didn’t used to expect that in a romance, and, even better, that their agency feels at least plausible – if not necessarily likely – for their time and place.

BUT, and this is a huge but that provides a lot of both realism and tension, their agency is always precarious, even if they aren’t necessarily aware of it. They have agency at the sufferance, benign neglect or downright absence of their fathers. And that agency can be taken away at any point.

That’s what happens in this particular story. Now in her late – very late – 20s, Charlotte Russell is very firmly on the shelf. She’s happy with that fate, and believes that her parents are resigned to it. Charlotte, because of her on-the-shelf designation, has a fair bit of freedom, and she has used that freedom to become a best-selling author of the slightly scandalous adventures of a rakehell spy.

Of course, those stories are written under a male nom-de-plume, and published by a friend who owns a small publishing company. Keeping her secret is of paramount importance to Charlotte, as the scandal that would result from her exposure would taint not just her own non-existent chances of marriage but also her parents’ reputation in society as well as that of her two sisters and their husbands.

And it would absolutely kill sales of her books, which she is counting on to secure her own freedom.

But everything Charlotte believes about her life and her parents’ acceptance of it all goes down the drain when her father announces that he’s invited an American businessman to London to not just meet her but to marry her, will she or nil.

In response to being essentially bought and sold, Charlotte makes an arrangement with the entirely unsuitable owner of a dangerous pub and boxing establishment in the East End to be her bodyguard and fake fiance. Not that she’s consulted him about the second part of the arrangement before she springs it on him in front of her parents!

So Charlotte Russell finds that she was always much less free than she thought. She has no idea that Blayne MacNeil is much more unsuitable than she believed.

And neither of them expects to fall in love.

Escape Rating B+: What made this story for me was, honestly, Charlotte. Because she wants the same two things that many of us still want – love and purpose. And she’s honest enough with herself to understand that those two desires may lie in opposition to each other.

Not that fulfillment through marriage and children is not a noble or worthwhile purpose, but it isn’t Charlotte’s purpose. Her dream is to write, and she is aware that in order to be free to achieve that dream she’ll most likely have to be a spinster. And she’s okay with that choice.

Her parents don’t know about her writing, because it’s too scandalous to reveal, and don’t understand or don’t care that she is willing to quietly flout societal expectations in order to make her own way in the world.

Her mother, honestly, just wants what’s best for her and isn’t able to make that leap that what most people think is best just isn’t what is best for Charlotte. But her father doesn’t care what Charlotte wants and further doesn’t care that he initially treated her as a son because he didn’t have any, and his expectation that she will now be obedient like a daughter is supposed to be is more than a bit shortsighted.

And he needs the money that her marriage to the American businessman will bring – because he screwed up the family finances – and can’t bring himself to give a damn about any dissenting voices from anyone.

Charlotte’s crisis is that she just didn’t see how easily all of her freedom could be taken away if she didn’t tow the line. That diminishing of freedom diminishes her spirit and in turn, herself.

Where Blayne gets himself in trouble is that he can’t bear to watch that diminishment, no matter how dangerous it makes his own situation. And it IS dangerous. Because he is not what he seems.

This is a big part of the reason that this entire series reminds me of the Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt, in that many of the characters either live and work on the wrong side of the law abiding fence or are caught in criminal circumstances not of their own making. In Blayne’s case it’s both.

And the resolution of that part of the scenario was a bit of a surprise. It’s not a surprise that Blayne and Charlotte manage, in spite of several rather desperate circumstances, their HEA, because this is after all a romance and they’re supposed to reach it. What’s surprising is the way it’s achieved.

Blayne has to choose between being right and being happy. In real life that can be a harder choice than it ought to be, and it’s not easy here, either. But it makes that ending very much earned.

Diamonds in the Rough will be back later this year when The Dishonored Viscount (of course through no fault of his own!) makes his own way to his own kind of honor – and falls in love along the way.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

RABT Book Tours & PR

 

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Secrets of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Secrets Of Colchester Hall by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, historical romance, regency romance
Pages: 148
Published by Sophie Barnes on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

As one of six possible candidates vying for Viscount Sterling's hand, Lady Angelica has been invited to stay at his grand manor for a week-long house party. But an unpleasant feeling lurks within Colchester Hall. It's almost as if someone's watching Angelica just beyond the edge of her vision. And while she tries to explain the chill creeping up behind her as merely a draft, she can't shake the feeling that something disturbing might be at play.
When Sterling decides she's the woman he wants, can Angelica accept her new home and the sinister secrets she fears it might hold, or will she give up on true love because of what could prove to be nothing more than her own imagination?
NOTE: This novella was previously included in the anthology, Wicked Liaison

My Review:

It’s not illogical that the result of a man discovering that his late wife was unfaithful would be for him to ensure that his next wife wouldn’t be tempted. Or in the case of Viscount Randolph Sterling’s search for a new bride, wouldn’t be tempting to others.

The problem is that his next viscountess really does need to be tempting to him.

It’s a conundrum that he intends to solve by inviting six women who are “on the shelf” to his home, with their chaperones, in the hopes that one will strike his fancy – even if it seems that the entire ton has labelled them as unmarriageable for one reason or another.

Three are shy to the point of paralysis, which explains their lack of previous offers. One is a bit shy, but is mostly disqualified because she’s already in love with someone else, who of course doesn’t seem to notice that she exists. (I really liked Lucy and wouldn’t mind seeing her story!)

One of the eligible ladies has the personality of a narcissistic velociraptor. And I might have just insulted velociraptors. It’s clear upon first meeting that the reason no one has offered marriage to Lady Seraphina is because she’s a vicious bitch. And again, that’s an insult to both vicious people and bitches. She’s a piece of work.

That leaves our heroine, Lady Angelica. She’s not shy. In fact, many might say that her lack of shyness, certainly her lack of what was considered decorum and proper behavior for ladies, was the reason that no one – at least so far – had wanted to marry her. Angelica speaks her mind, to the point where she is considered to be blunt to a fault.

Angelica is exactly what Randolph Sterling has been looking for. Over the course of a week where he “interviews” all of his prospective brides, he already knows that he has made his choice.

If Angelica will agree. And if the malign spirit that seems to haunt Colchester Hall will let her live long enough to reach the altar.

Escape Rating B+: For a surprisingly short book, The Secrets of Colchester Hall manages to encompass some seriously creepy Gothic chills while solving the mystery of those titular secrets and leading to a satisfactory – and heated – romantic happy ever after.

Of course, the protagonists need the heat of that HEA to get over the chills induced by those terrible secrets.

The Secrets of Colchester Hall is billed as a gothic romance, and was originally published as part of an anthology of gothics. Gothic romances are a subgenre that isn’t as popular as it was once upon a time, so it was fascinating to read one that invoked some of the classics of the genre.

There are hints of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, to the point where that story is deliberately lampshaded in the bookstore when the hero recommends the book to the heroine. A heroine who is a fan of such gothic romances, as is the heroine of Northanger Abbey herself.

But it feels like the real inspiration for this foray into those secrets at Colchester Hall is Dame Daphne du Maurier’s classic creeper Rebecca. The story has several similar elements, enough to let a reader predict at least some of the outcome. But it stands more than well enough on its own to keep the reader shivering and turning pages to the very last.

What makes this one stand out is the character of Angelica. Her bluntness and plain-speaking make her easy for contemporary readers to identify with, and her willingness to say what she really thinks, no matter the social cost, provides the story with many of its best and most lighthearted moments – as well as providing Sterling with all the reasons he could ever want to ask Angelica for her hand.

Like most gothic romances, there is more than a bit of willing suspension of disbelief involved. The actual villain of the piece is flesh-and-blood and certainly among the living, and that person’s machinations are plausible. Sinister, murderous, manipulative, but still plausible. But there’s an element of paranormal woo-woo involved in most gothics and this one was no exception. Angelica is receiving messages from the beyond and those messages are getting her attention – as well as the attention of the villain. That the story requires her to believe those messages and for the hero to believe her and not have her committed, is a bit of a stretch.

A stretch that works, and chills the reader right to the bone.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Review: An Unexpected Temptation by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: An Unexpected Temptation by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayAn Unexpected Temptation by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #5
Pages: 146
Published by Sophie Barnes on December 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads


No other woman compares...

Six years ago, Athena Townsbridge broke up a wedding. This worked out well for her brother and the lady he loved, but Athena has never forgiven herself for what it did to Robert Carlisle. No one has seen him since he fled the church in humiliation, so when she learns of his estate's proximity to the property she is staying at during a family visit, she sets out, determined to make amends.
When Robert, Marquess of Darlington, is reunited with Athena, she's no longer the troublesome girl he remembers, but rather a fully grown woman. Trapped with her when a blizzard sets in, he rediscovers her playful side, the laughter and joy she can bring to his life. But it is her willful nature that tempts him, both with the need to tame her and with the dream of making her his.

My Review:

At the very beginning of The Townsbridges story, all the way back in When Love Leads to Scandal, there were Robert and Athena. And now, at the end of the saga, tying everything together along with, eventually, the proverbial knot, are Robert and Athena.

But where they began is a far and unpredictable cry from where they ended.

When they began, Athena was only 14 and Robert was a grown man of 24 as well as being her older brother Charles’ best friend. There was no hint of a romance there – and there shouldn’t have been.

Athena was much too young, and Robert was engaged to someone else. In fact, Robert was engaged to the woman who eventually married his best friend, Athena’s brother Charles. An event that could, nearly in its entirety, be laid at Athena’s door.

After all, Athena was that rare person who, when faced with the preacher asking if anyone could show just cause why those two, in this case Robert and his fiancé-on-the-absolute-verge-of-becoming-his-wife Bethany, should not be joined in holy matrimony, Athena spoke up and brought the entire house of polite cards down with a thud. Athena said out loud the thing that everyone else was too polite – or too afraid of starting a scandal – or too worried about hurting Robert’s feelings – to say. That her brother Charles and Bethany had fallen in love with each other.

Six years later Robert is a bit of a recluse. After all, his engagement to Bethany was the second time the man got left at the altar. Six years later Athena is 20 and about to be paraded around the “marriage mart” herself. But both of them are still paying, at least in the social sense, for Athena’s breach of etiquette and manners at the wedding that did not happen.

Everyone thinks that Athena is headstrong and in need of taming, but no one believes that they are up for the job. Certainly not her own family, as much as they love her.

Athena wants someone to love her for herself, personality warts and all, and fears that she will never find such a person. As she hasn’t exactly found that kind of acceptance in the bosom of her own family, her fears are quite real and have done a bit of a number on her self-confidence. Her family would say not nearly enough of a number, which says a lot about that relationship.

So Athena concocts a scheme to repair both her and Robert’s slightly tarnished reputations. She takes herself off to his country house, in secret, to beg his forgiveness for her behavior all those years ago. Not that she thinks she did anything wrong in revealing the truth, but at least conscious that the way she went about it had severe repercussions all around.

Like so many of Athena’s clever schemes, the best laid plans of mice and in this case women very much “gang aft a-gley.”

She gets snowbound with Robert. Who does not want to forgive her or even see her or speak with her, but cannot resist the pull between them. No matter where, or how deep into the surrounding snowdrifts, it might lead them both.

Escape Rating B: The Townsbridges are both a lovely family and a delightful collection of Regency romance novellas. This final entry in the series is a fitting conclusion to every single unconventional romance that has made up the series – and the family.

The Townsbridges marry for love. That was true for Margaret and George (their story is in Once Upon a Townsbridge Story) and it has been true for every single one of their children. But Athena is beginning to suspect it’s not going to happen for her as this conclusion to the series opens.

This is, particularly, Athena’s journey, and with her having opened the series in her unconventional way, it’s possible to see the whole thing as Athena’s journey – just that her brothers and sisters managed to find their own HEAs along the way of Athena growing up and growing into herself.

The hard part of this particular entry in the series is the relationship between Athena and her family, and between Athena and Robert, and the way those two things feed into each other. Because in order for Athena to grow up she has to learn where the lines are. And in order for her to be happy she has to find someone who will help her figure out that terrible lesson without suppressing the core spark of her personality.

And at first we wonder if Robert is remotely up for that job. Athena’s family seems to have abdicated all responsibility in the matter. So on the one hand we have a family that loves her, but from their perspective very much in spite of herself, and on the other hand a man who seems to want to control her or at least manage her – because of course he knows best.

It’s only as the story goes on a bit that the reader, or at least this reader, gets past the uncomfortable bits where Robert talks about Athena needing a “firm hand” – and didn’t that make me squirm – to the point where he’s expressing that he loves her exactly as she is, that her spirit is a big part of what he admires in her, and that what she needs to learn is how to move in society so that she doesn’t either offend or run roughshod over pretty much everyone pretty much all of the time. It’s a bit more subtle than how he sounded at the beginning.

That switch is the making of this story and a fitting end for a lovely series.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Formidable Earl by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: The Formidable Earl by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayThe Formidable Earl (Diamonds in the Rough, #6) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Diamonds in the Rough #6
Pages: 416
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 17, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He's breaking the rules for one woman, and coming dangerously close to falling in love…
Simon Nugent, Earl of Fielding, knows he's flawed. He's arrogant, possessive, and haunted by a terrible choice he made long ago. So when a former friend's daughter gives him the chance to do a good deed, he grabs it. Except he'd like to grab her as well and teach her a thing or two about kissing. If only she weren't so damn stubborn.
Ida Strong wants one thing – justice on behalf of her father. She has no room for anything else, in spite of her growing and (at times) inexplicable attraction toward a certain earl. But for a woman who knows what betrayal tastes like, placing her trust in others is hard. Risking her heart, would be downright foolish. Until it's the only thing that seems to make sense.

My Review:

The Formidable Earl harkens back to the first book in this series, A Most Unlikely Duke. In that first story, Raphe Matthews, the very unlikely duke, steals the Earl of Fielding’s fiancee. Not that it was actual theft, not that Gabriela didn’t go extremely willingly, and not that Simon was even remotely heartbroken.

The only parts of Simon that took any kind of hit were his pride and his reputation. Possibly along with the stick up his ass – although that may have become more firmly embedded as the years went by. After all, Simon only proposed to Gabriela because she’d make a perfect countess – not because he cared about her or even really knew her.

It was, after all, what the Earl of Fielding was expected to do. So he did. But fortunately for everyone both in that story and this one, SHE didn’t.

Considering that Simon has a terrible habit of doing what is expected instead of what he wants, well past the point of his own detriment, he’s actually better off without Gabriela, who wasn’t nearly as perfect for the role he imagined for her as he thought she was.

But she’s perfect as the Duchess of Huntley, and Raphe and Gabriela are perfect for each other.

Leaving Simon, in his mid-30s, alone and in need of a wife, or so he – and polite society – believe.

What Simon is really in need of is a LIFE. It’s only when he steps just a bit outside his comfort zone to get one that he finds everything he really needs. All he has to do is consign his starched and pristine reputation to the scrapheap where it belongs.

By marrying a woman who everyone insists is a traitor, a prostitute, and very nearly a murderess into the bargain.

Escape Rating B: There’s a theme to this series, and it’s pretty obvious from the series title. One protagonist or the other is just not “suitable” for marriage into the ton, whether it’s because they were raised outside it, because they were forced out of it, or because they were never part of it in the first place. The usual progress of each story is for the person who does belong to realize that what polite society thinks and believes is a whole lot of horseshit.

The books in the series are only kind of loosely linked, so it really isn’t necessary to read the previous books, or to read all of them, before diving into The Formidable Earl. (I just discovered I missed one along the way and now I WANT to go back to it, but I don’t HAVE to go back.)

The reason for, in this case, the heroine’s unsuitability was fascinating, but the hero’s reaction to it was at times just a bit squicky. Let me explain.

Ida Strong’s dilemma is a reminder that this series takes place at a time when the Napoleonic Wars were not far in the past at all, and that there were still a lot of hard feelings, wounded veterans and general all-around recriminations going on at the time. (The Napoleonic Wars, in a fictional sense, are a gift that just keeps on giving. So many dramatic possibilities both during the war and in the following years.)

Four years before this story begins, Ida Strong’s father, a celebrated British Army General, was convicted of treason in Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Matthew Strong was executed for a heinous crime that he did not commit, and his daughter vowed to find the men responsible and clear her father’s name.

In those intervening years, Ida lived in a brothel owned and operated by her mother’s sister. And that’s where Simon Nugent, the Earl of Fielding, discovers her the one time he decides to break away from his extremely priggish persona.

Simon’s exposure of Ida puts her life in danger from the men who connived at framing her father. The story here is Simon attempting to protect her while falling in love with this woman who is oh-so-wrong according to everyone who is anyone, but oh-so-right for Simon.

But, the exposure of Simon’s thoughts and feelings about the possibility that Ida is a prostitute is extremely uncomfortable to read. It’s not that it isn’t true to what we think of the Regency, it’s that, quite honestly, it just feels awful. It makes all kinds of sense for the era, but it still makes the reader, or at least this reader, squirm when reading it.

Which gives me mixed feelings that Ida has to reject the idea so forcefully in order to be considered “worthy” of becoming his heroine equally squirmy. Again, not that this isn’t true to what we believe of the era. But it still made me uncomfortable.

All of that being said, I really, really liked Ida. She’s a terrific heroine, forthright and proactive with plenty of agency. She was more middle-class to begin with, but society has completely rejected her so she’s pretty much said “to hell with it and the horse it rode in on.”

That Simon is both slavishly devoted to worrying about what people will think and falling desperately in love with Ida puts him on the horns of a delicious dilemma. That Ida has decided what she wants and what she doesn’t, and has no plans to settle, in contrast with Simon’s need to keep her with his initial unwillingness to buck society provides the romantic tension.

That someone really is out to get her, and that they nearly succeed, provides plenty of dramatic tension to keep the reader turning pages until the very last.

I’m certainly looking forward to the continuation of this series with Her Scottish Scoundrel in May of 2021. Not nearly soon enough!

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: A Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes + Giveaway

Review: A Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes + GiveawayA Duke for Miss Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #4
Pages: 100
Published by Sophie Barnes on October 20, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

She threatens to conquer his heart…
When Matthew Donovan, Duke of Brunswick, proposes to Sarah Townsbridge, she’s shocked. After all, she’s never met him before. One thing is clear though – he obviously needs help. So after turning him down, she decides to get to know him better, and finds out she’s right. But fixing a broken man is not the same as adopting a puppy. Least of all when the man in question has no desire to be saved.
Matthew has his mind set on Sarah. Kind and energetic, she’ll make an excellent mother. Best of all, her reclusiveness is sure to make her accept the sort of marriage he has in mind – one where they live apart. The only problem is, to convince her, they must spend time together. And the more they do, the more he risks falling prey to the one emotion he knows he must avoid at all cost: love.

My Review:

Life may or may not be like a box of chocolates, but A Duke for Miss Townsbridge is a deliciously light confection of froth and fluff with a tasty but chewy center to give it just the right amount of bite.

I’ve just realized that this analogy makes Sophie Barnes’ work the equivalent of that box of chocolates, and that definitely works. They are always delicious!

Initially, the duke in question is not for Miss Townsbridge. At all. Oh, he thinks he is, but she’s having none of him after he invades an afternoon party being held in her honor, gets down on one knee and doesn’t so much propose marriage as command it.

The Duke of Brunswick’s literal first words to his intended bride are “Marry me,” as though he has the right to order it and she has no choice but to go along.

In spite of being near the end of her sixth season, 22 years old and in danger of being considered permanently on the shelf, Sarah Townsbridge does have a choice in the matter, and her choice is to decline the honor.

But that “no” is only the beginning of a romance that Brunwsick had intended to forgo altogether. He needed a wife and a mother for his eventual heir. He wanted someone capable of presenting herself as his duchess while maintaining her own household and keeping herself occupied for the rest of their lives.

He had no intention of loving, or frankly even liking his would-be Duchess. His entire family had been killed in a carriage accident when he was a child. An experience that he has NEVER gotten over. Or past. Or even let the tiniest bit go of.

That’s what makes Sarah decide to give him another chance. She’s made a hobby of taking in wounded animals and “fixing” them. And Matthew Donovan, the high-in-the-instep Duke of Brunswick, is definitely a wounded animal that needs just Sarah’s kind of care. He needs to heal, and she wants to “fix” him.

It should be an even worse beginning for a relationship than his initial commanding proposal. And it very nearly is. Until it finally isn’t.

Escape Rating B+: All of the stories in the Townsbridges series of historical romantic novellas have been utterly delicious, and A Duke for Miss Townsbridge is certainly no exception.

They have also all been romances with just a little bit of bite. Romances where there’s something unconventional in the way that the hero and heroine begin their romantic adventure. Even better, it’s never the same something.

It’s also generally something that shouldn’t work, from When Love Leads to Scandal, where the heroine begins the story engaged to the hero’s best friend, to Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match, where the hero initially makes the heroine literally sick to her stomach, to the previous story, Falling for Mr. Townsbridge, when a son of the household falls for his mother’s new cook – and chooses to ignore convention and marry her.

It’s not necessary to have read the previous books in the series to enjoy this one, but they are all lovely, short, eventually sweet and utterly delicious.

In this outing, Sarah falls for the Duke because she wants to fix him. In real life, this is downright dangerous, and relationships like this one nearly always end in disaster AND heartbreak. Plenty of people have issues that need fixing, but no one can BE fixed. They have to want to fix themselves and then carry through – something that doesn’t happen nearly enough except in Romancelandia.

And it nearly doesn’t happen here, either. It’s not that Matthew is a terrible person, it’s that he’s lived his entire life up to this point clinging to his pain – and he doesn’t know how to stop. Sarah, at least doesn’t think it will be easy, but she does see that it’s necessary. Her mistake is thinking that Matthew is all in on doing the work, when he really isn’t.

So there’s a romance here, where these people fall in love but only one of them is willing to admit it. And they marry anyway. It’s only after Matthew breaks Sarah’s heart that the healing can begin.

That the author didn’t gloss over just how much hard work is going to be involved made this unworkable premise work. In the end, their happy ending was definitely earned!

But speaking of earning a happy ending, the jilted fiance from the very first book in this series, will finally have the chance to earn his in the next book, An Unexpected Temptation, when he gets stranded in a winter storm with his nemesis, just in time for the holidays.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie Barnes

Review: Falling for Mr. Townsbridge by Sophie BarnesFalling For Mr. Townsbridge (The Townsbridges #3) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Townsbridges #3
Pages: 105
Published by Sophie Barnes on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

He knows he ought to forget her…

When William Townsbridge returns from Portugal and meets Eloise Lamont, the new cook his mother has hired, he’s instantly smitten. The only problem of course is that she’s a servant – completely off limits for a gentleman with an ounce of honor. But as they become better acquainted, William starts to realize he must make Eloise his. The only question is how.

Eloise loves her new position. But William Townsbridge’s arrival threatens everything, from her principles to her very heart. Falling for her employer’s son would be monumentally stupid. All it can lead to is ruin, not only for the present, but for her entire future. So then the simplest solution would be to walk away. But can she?

My Review:

When it comes to love and marriage, it seems that the Townsbridges are prepared to do whatever it takes, and brave whatever opprobrium society decides to administer, in order to marry the person they love.

In the first book in the series, Charles Townsbridge falls for the fiancée of his best friend – and very much vice versa. They try to do the right thing and forget each other, only to eventually realize that the so-called right thing is not the best thing and marry each other anyway in When Love Leads to Scandal.

Brother James compromises a young woman, or at least it appears that way on the surface. James and his new fiancee don’t even like each other, but the strictures of society have them stuck with each other whether they like it or not. But the lady is willing to court scandal in order to not marry a man who can’t stand her, only to discover that James Townsbridge is, after all, Lady Abigail’s Perfect Match.

But neither of these romances is nearly as unconventional as the one that occurs in this book. Because the woman who finds herself Falling for Mr. Townsbridge is the family cook, Eloise Lamont.

Unlike his brothers’ eventual wives, Eloise Lamont is not a member of the same social class as the Townsbridges, and everyone is all too aware of that fact. Not in the sense of thinking that anyone is above or below anyone else, but in the acknowledgement that any attention William Townsbridge pays to Eloise is going to ruin her reputation, no matter how innocent that attention might be.

And his family did an excellent job of educating all three of their sons that even an innocent flirtation with a servant is simply not done because of those consequences. Especially as William’s interest is not innocent at all. He’s also blunderingly obvious about it to everyone.

He just needs to look inside himself long enough and hard enough to figure out that his interest is worth courting any censure that society might administer as long as he can also court Eloise with the intention of marriage.

Something that takes him so long to figure out that she nearly escapes him altogether – no matter how little she actually wants to.

Escape Rating B: In the end, this is a lovely little romance about falling for the boss set at a time period when that possibility was fraught with even more ways that the situation can go terribly, terribly wrong. Yet it still comes out right.

Their initial teasing between William and Eloise is a bit unsettling for contemporary readers. He may intend it to be just teasing, and as the hero of this piece undoubtedly means it that way, but every single sentence is a two-edged sword that she sees all too clearly. There are obviously too many times already in her history when those exact same words in that exact same tone were just the prelude to sexual harassment. She knows it and we do too. But he has the privilege of being either oblivious or uncaring. A state that he returns to fairly often in the course of the story.

When the scene morphs into mutual banter, it’s a relief. There’s a feeling that she dodged a bullet. Until she steps right back into its path.

Because after the initial awkwardness and outright fear, there’s a mutual attraction here that neither of them is able to deny. No matter how hard both of them try to.

It felt like that was what made the story for me. They are in a supremely awkward situation. No matter how much they like each other or find each other interesting, they’re in positions that mean that his interest in her has the potential to actually ruin her life if he’s not excruciatingly careful. His entire family presses that upon him, so what would have once upon a time been the occasion for wink, wink, nudge, nudge doesn’t happen. And the story is the better for it.

I’m emphasizing his part of this dynamic because of his position of privilege. Whatever happens, it won’t affect him much. The need for caution has to be impressed upon him, frequently and often. Eloise is all too aware that the chance of this not damaging her life is vanishingly small, and she does her best to keep as far away from him as possible.

It’s his family who step in to make him aware that his privilege extends to marrying whoever he wants to, including the cook. Because for much of the story he doesn’t allow himself to think that at all and it nearly destroys any possibilities of happiness.

So, while William and Eloise form the romantic heart of this story, it feels like his family are really the heroes, because they see outside of society’s box and get him to see it too. And that part, the family love and family support – no matter how much society is going to balk – make the story.