Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie Barnes

Review: Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desire by Sophie BarnesMr. Clarke's Deepest Desire (Enterprising Scoundrels #2) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, Victorian romance
Series: Enterprising Scoundrels #2
Pages: 180
Published by Sophie Barnes on November 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When an earl's daughter falls for a businessman in this secret identities Regency romance, she risks more than heartbreak when his connection to her past threatens her reputation...

How can he build a future with a woman whose father ruined his life?

Having recently suffered the death of her father, Rosamund Parker faces an uncertain future. Intent on retaining her independence, she plans to invest her modest inheritance. But the man whose help she seeks is as infuriating as he is handsome. For reasons she can't comprehend, he's set on thwarting her at every turn, even as he tempts her with kisses she ought not want.

Matthew Clarke needs funding for his locomotive business, but he'll not accept it from the Earl of Stoneburrow's daughter. As far as Matthew's concerned, that entire family can go hang. Unfortunately, Lady Rosamund seems to pop up wherever he goes. Ignoring the fire she stirs in him becomes an increasing challenge. But surrendering to it could prove disastrous. It could in fact ruin both their lives...

My Review:

Mr. Clarke’s Deepest Desires, the second book in the Enterprising Scoundrels series after Mr. Donahue’s Total Surrender (I sense a theme in the titles, don’t you?) is a delightfully frothy bit of Victorian romance with some dark notes in the background. And a whole heaping helping of insta-lust in the lush foreground.

A part of me wants to make some terrible puns about Rosamund Parker and her need to have her engines overhauled – or at least her ashes hauled, but that’s not where this story begins. In a perverse way it began way back when, when her late, lamented, dear old dad couldn’t resist forcing their housemaid to haul his – will she or nill she. And of course he fired her when she informed him that she was carrying the inevitable consequence of his actions.

Now he’s dead and buried, and the mourning period has just officially ended. The reading of his will has left his daughter in a bit of a fix of a different sort. As the daughter (and only child) of an Earl, she knew she would not inherit his title or the entailed estate. But she expected a bit more than 500 pounds. Not per annum, but in total. Along with a binding clause that her uncle, the new Earl, was not permitted to maintain or support her.

(If you’re curious, that’s just over $60,000 in today’s dollars. A more-than-decent one year’s salary, but not nearly enough for a relatively young woman to live off of for the rest of her life.)

Rosamund, who does want to marry, also wants to have enough time going about the selection process to ensure that she makes a choice that satisfies both her head and her heart. So, instead of rushing into anything or anyone she plans to invest most of her money and life off the income from her investment while she makes a considered choice.

It’s a sensible plan, which makes sense. Because Rosamund is a very sensible woman. Also a very intelligent one.

But her plans go up almost literally in smoke when she meets Matthew Clarke, the owner of A&C Locomotive. Because Rosamund and Matthew strike more sparks from each other than any one of his engines do when they screech their brakes. Not that either of them can manage much of anything except almost literally screeching at each other.

Matthew’s mother was the housemaid that Rosamund’s father forced into his bed and then out the door, leaving both mother and 12-year-old Matthew destitute. Matthew refuses to take Rosamund’s investment money – no matter how much he actually needs it. He’s still carrying that grudge – and is an absolute ass about it to Rosamund even though she has no clue what he’s so angry about.

After all, she was all of 10 at the time and it’s not exactly a subject that any father would raise with his own daughter – particularly not in the Victorian Era!

But Rosamund is determined to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry, and Matthew still does need investors. Which means that they keep meeting – and meeting – and meeting at various gatherings of industry executives and potential investors. The more often they run into each other, the more sparks that fly – no matter how little Rosamund wants to believe the truth about her beloved father.

The push-pull of their relationship, the way that they hate each other but still want each other desperately, is hot enough to fuel a locomotive or ten without the use of coal. All they need to do is give in – before they make a mistake that will haunt the rest of their lives.

Escape Rating B+: One of the things that I really enjoy about the Enterprising Scoundrels series is that the heroes all work for a living. Admittedly it’s work among the wealthy and powerful, and they’ve done well for themselves, but it’s still real work that gives them real purpose. This is a series where happiness is not just the province of the idle rich to the point where it openly questions whether the idle rich are all that happy.

Matthew Clarke is an especially delicious hero in this mold because he’s a self-made man who has not either lost the threads of his humanity or obtained his wealth outside the law. Both of which are not uncommon backgrounds for heroes of historical romances.

What made this book downright refreshing is that even the bounder who tries to interfere with the romance between Rose and Matthew is really after Rose for her prodigious intellect and genius ideas, while her truly delectable person is icing on the cake of her splendid brain and not the other way around.

But speaking of that bounder, he’s not really a villain – at least not in the bwahaha sense that often happens. He’s out for himself and he does take advantage of a situation, but he doesn’t make the situation and he’s just not evil. Selfish and self-centered, but not beyond human reason.

So I didn’t leave this book, as I did Mr. Donohue’s Total Surrender, with the feeling that there were too many characters who did not receive the desserts they had so richly earned. If there is a villain in this piece it’s Rosamund’s father, and he’s already having that discussion with his Maker when the story begins.

I do have to say that I found the blurb for the book a bit deceptive. This isn’t really a story of secret identities. Rosamund and Matthew know exactly who each other is. She doesn’t know that he and his mother were once in service to her family – at least not at the beginning – but his business success wipes out most of that stigma. They do end up on the wrong end of a lot of social opprobrium, but it’s as a result of their actions in the present and not some hidden secret in either of their pasts.

While I’m not personally satisfied with the amount of groveling Matthew does over that incident, he does manage to screw his courage to the sticking point and fix things before it’s too late – with a whole lot of professional assistance from his soon-to-be bride. Which makes for happy endings all around – as they certainly deserved.

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: 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.

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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!

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