romance roundup

Our books today form just the kind of sprightly, colorful, optimistic trio of reading experiences you very much want when your April commences with a blinding blizzard of sodden slop and howling winds: we have three new Regency romances of exactly the type to put a smile on my face regardless of what the weather is doing outside.

i dared the dukeI Dared the Duke by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s)

The first our trio is Anna Bennett’s new “Wayward Wallflowers” novel, following up My Brown-Eyed Earl from 2016. The alleged wallflower this time around is Miss Elizabeth Lacey, the lady’s companion to the kindly old Dowager Duchess of Blackshire, and she’s perfectly content with her position until Alexander Savage, the young Duke of Blackshire, threatens to disrupt it with a seemingly outrageous demand: that his gregarious grandmother uproot herself – and her companion – and remove to the Blackshire country estate commercial space for sale, far from the hustle and bustle of London that the old lady loves so much.

Elizabeth is outraged by the demand, and she’s also in a perfect position to thwart it, since the demand is technically a request, and she has a great deal of personal influence over the Dowager Duchess. The Duke quickly realizes that, as Bennett puts it, she has him by the bollocks … and he has no choice but to agree when she drives a hard bargain: her agreement – in exchange for three wishes. They seal the deal with a drink:

He guided her to the settee in front of the fireplace where they both sat, the blue silk of her gown almost touching his trousers. He thought for a moment, and then raised his glass. “To ostrich feathers, which are far more utilitarian than most people realize.”

Grinning, she raised her glass as well. “To leprechauns. Who are far more real than most people realize.”

He clinked his snifter against hers qand met her sultry gaze as the brandy slid down his throat. Damn, but those blue eyes of hers bewitched him.

She certainly wasn’t acting like a wallflower. And in that moment, as a saucy smile played about her pink lips, he knew without a doubt that he’d rue the day he’d foolishly labeled her and her sisters the Wilting Wallflowers. Yes, his offhand, jocular quip had saddled the Lacey sisters with the epithet they hadn’t been able to shake for three seasons – and it would come back to haunt him. Maybe it already had.

As with any story involving three wishes, the plot of I Dared the Duke playfully complicates as it moves along, and no reader of Anna Bennett will want it to end.

Last Night with the Duke by Amelia Grey (St. Martin’s)

This slim, breezy book is the first “Rakes of St. James” novel from Amelia Grey, following her “Heirs’ Clublast night with the duke of Scoundrels” series that concluded last year with Wedding Night with the Earl, and in this opening installment, the rake involved is the Duke of Griffin, who has never before especially minded his reputation as one of the infamous Rakes of St. James. But now his sisters are preparing to debut in society, and he’s worried the low-key scandals of his reputation will start to smear their good names before they’ve even had a chance to establish them. He decides he needs to provide them with an unimpeachable chaperone for their coming-out season, which leads him to Miss Mamie Fortescu’s Employment Agency – and eventually to the entrancing presence of Esmeralda Swift, the manager of the establishment.

She’s certain she can find him a perfect chaperone, and she’s surprised when he wastes hardly a moment before announcing that he wants her. He’s very handsome and very sure of himself, but, as Grey skillfully unfolds throughout the novel, Esmeralda has ample personal reason to dislike the great lords and ladies of the land. So right there in the moment of his decision, their battle of wills begins:

She couldn’t deny that she found everything about him pleasing, from his powerful good looks to the tone of his mellow voice. It was maddening that she was attracted him [sic] – a peer. Considering her dislike for them. And yes, she could ward off any advance from him, but first she would have to want to. That would take reminding herself that it was because of a title gentleman that her mother’s life had changed so dramatically. Esmeralda had no desire to ever become a member of Polite Society again.

“You are the one I want watching over my sisters.”

What nerve he had to continue up this path, she thought. Even for an arrogant duke!

“I appreciate that you are a duke and – ”

“That I’m used to getting my way,” he interrupted, finishing her sentence for her.

“Yes.” Her voice was a mere whisper. “That’s exacty what I was going to say.”

“And it’s true.”

In classic Regency fashion, Griffin and Esmeralda will change each other’s hearts in ways that aren’t at all surprising – Grey is much more interested in telling a vivacious story than breaking new narrative ground – but that are nevertheless mighty satisfying when done this well.

bedchamber gamesBedchamber Games by Tracy Anne Warren (Berkley)

Tracy Anne Warren follows up 2016’s Happily Bedded Bliss with another installment in her “Rakes of Cavendish Square” series, and in Bedchamber Games, the rake in question has a name to conjure with: Lord Byron! But as Lord Lawrence Byron is at pains to point out to anybody who asks (and everybody wants to), his family isn’t that family … although Lord Lawrence does fairly well for himself in the Lothario department, as evidenced by the reaction of our heroine, barrister’s daughter Rosamund Carrow, when she first lays eyes on him, after accidentally colliding with him on the steps of Lincoln’s Inn:

She drew in a quick breath, heart leaping, and not just from the collision. He was quite simply the handsomest man she had ever seen. One might even describe him as beautiful, with his thick golden brown hair, eyes that were a stunning blend of gold and green, a straight, elegant nose, strong chin and refined mouth, it was almost as if nature had formed it expressly for kissing – though why she would think such a thing when she had almost no experience in such mattters, she hadn’t the slightest idea.

She can’t actually express even a hint of her reaction, however, because at the moment she’s dressed like a man: Ross Carrow, the cousin of the recently-deceased Elias Carrow, here at court to help finish out his cousin’s open cases. This is Rosamund’s mission, and in Warren’s cleverly-fashioned mash-up of Witness for the Prosecution and The Merchant of Venice, that mission is of course complicated when the courtroom adversaries begin falling in love. But as usual with this author, there were also well-done quieter moments scattered throughout the book, including the first moment that Lord Lawrence brings up Rosamund’s father:

An odd combination of relief and pain arrowed through her, the abrupt reminder of her father hard to take. Her hands trembled as she fought a fierce wave of grief, for try as she might, she still had trouble accepting that he was gone. Even now it seemed impossible that she would never again hear the commanding persuasion of his voice or have the pleasure of debating history, politics, literature and the law with him.

Part of the enjoyment of Bedchamber Games comes from watching the oncoming inevitable happy ending gradually dispel all such somber moments, which made the book particularly enjoyable to read on a Spring afternoon that was doing its best to look and feel like winter. This was true of all three of these books, a perfect trio of brisk, cheerful Regencies to remind me that Spring is eventually on the way – once the ice thaws and the snow melts.

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