Scandal at the Midsummer Ball
These stories from two of my favourite Harlequin/Mills and Boon Historical authors take place at a house-party renowned as much for the matchmaking and political deals struck under its roof as it is for the excellence of its food and the high quality of the entertainment provided. The stories run concurrently so that we get to take a look at the events of the party at different times, although the stories are not so closely woven together as to give the reader a sense of dejà-vu. It’s an interesting device and one I actually wish had been made a little bit more of, as I’ve enjoyed other stories where the author chooses to present the same events from different viewpoints.
The Officer’s Temptation by Marguerite Kaye. Grade: B-
The annual midsummer ball held by the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore Is one of the most exclusive events of the year, and invitations are highly sought after. The Duke is a powerful man, and the guest list is chosen carefully and with an eye to creating advantageous alliances, both political and matrimonial.
Life for a soldier during peacetime is not an easy one, and Colonel Fergus Kennedy is restless and frustrated at being confined to a desk job. When he is offered the chance of a diplomatic posting to Egypt he is more than eager to accept it, but it comes with a price tag. A diplomat needs a suitable wife, so Fergus is ordered to attend the houseparty by the Duke of Wellington with a view to making an offer for the Duke of Brockmore’s niece. Lady Verity Fairholme, is beautiful and poised, so Fergus is not completely opposed to the prospect of marrying her, in spite of the blackmail – but when she practically refuses to speak to him and is little more than barely civil when she does so, he realises that perhaps she is as unhappy about the situation as he is, and that he might as well say goodbye to his prospects.
Low in spirits, he is wandering the grounds when he strays into the secluded area set aside for practice by the acrobatic team of Alexandr and Katerina Vengarov, who have been engaged by the duke and duchess to provide entertainment at the party. Fascinated, he watches Katerina practicing her tightrope act, and the two fall into conversation, with Fergus gradually realising that Katerina attracts him far more than Lady Verity or any of the other young debutantes at the party.
Ms Kaye pens a sweet, nicely steamy romance between two people from completely different worlds who would never have met but for a simple accident. Katerina and her brother are outsiders; the equivalent of royalty in their own sphere, but mere servants in the rarefied atmosphere of the English haut-ton, and Fergus is not wealthy or titled, but a man who has worked hard and earned his position through his own merits. The thing I liked most about the story was the way in which Katerina helps Fergus to remember this and to bolster his sense of self-esteem at a time when he most needs it. Yet even then, their path is not clear; neither Fergus nor Katerina is wealthy and will have to work in order to support themselves and it seems impossible that they will be able to do that and be together. The author’s solution to their problems is perhaps a little audacious, but is actually perfect for this unusual, hard-working couple.
The Debutante’s Awakening by Bronwyn Scott. Grade: C+
Lady Zara Titus was recently jilted when her fiancé realised he loved someone else, and while Zara was not in love with him, she is frustrated at the situation she now finds herself in. She has to find herself a husband quickly in order to counter the gossip that is bound to ensue – after all, it was not the done thing for a gentleman to jilt a lady, so the assumption will be that she must somehow have been at fault. Her mother insists that Zara must behave with the utmost propriety, but Zara has had enough of conforming to the accepted view of what a young lady of good birth and breeding should be, and decides that if she must accept the rather staid gentleman who has been chosen for her, she’s going to have some fun first.
Kael Gage may be the grandson of an earl, but his father had more sons than he could provide for, and Kael is possessed of a small property but is otherwise improverished. He’s an all round scoundrel, a known womanizer and had to leave London quickly in order to avoid a scandal – which is perhaps why Zara is initially attracted to him. Or perhaps it’s his dark good looks and the fact that he exudes sex-appeal – and is exactly the sort of man to whom a young lady intending to break the rules would turn for assistance.
Kael has little time for well-bred virgins, preferring to take his pleasures with experienced woman, but he can’t deny that Zara’s mix of innocence and untapped sensuality attracts him. He quickly recognizes a kindred spirit in her, someone who doesn’t quite fit the pattern and who carefully masks her vulnerability beneath a veneer of confidence; and decides that he’ll abet her in her desire to take a few risks. But the more time he spends with her, the more he comes to appreciate her for her strength of character and her intelligence; and incredibly he finds himself regretting that he can offer her nothing more than the thrill of the forbidden for the duration of the house party. And for all her determination to live a little, Zara can’t quite shake off the shackles of convention and turn her back on the life she is expected to live.
Both stories are very readable, with sets of engaging protagonists and a group of well-drawn secondary characters. I would certainly have liked to know more about the flamboyant and enigmatic Timothy Nightingale, for example, or to have spent more time with the duke and duchess, an older couple who are clearly very much in love – but neither of those things was within the remit of this particular book. The central relationships have to evolve quickly given the time-span during which they take place, but both authors create a convincing emotional connection between their leads, so that the speed at which the romances develop is not too much of a problem.
Scandal at the Midsummer Ball isn’t something I’ll be putting on my keeper shelf, but it’s still an enjoyable piece of well-written froth. It lacks the depth normally to be found in novels by these authors, but is certainly something to consider when you’re looking for a quick but emotionally satisfying and sensual read.