Oh, I do love a good Top Five. I could probably go all night naming top-five lists. Top-five favorite films. Top-five favorite television shows. Top-five television episodes. Favorite foods (don’t get me started). Shops. Websites. The list of lists goes on and on.
But I especially love talking about my top-five favorite historical romances. Few conversations better indicate what resonates with me as a writer and a reader. This is a list that easily falls on my Top-Five Favorite…well, Top-Five lists.
I found it difficult to limit it to just five, but I forced myself to winnow it down. It gives me great pleasure to share it, and I hope to hear some comments about these books or your own top five.
Ahem. Here they are. In reverse order.
5.) The Hidden Heart by Laura Kinsale
Lady Tess Collier is the daughter of a world-traveling earl who raised her in far-flung jungles of the world while he studied tropical plants. When her father dies in the Amazon, Lady Tess must be returned to the safekeeping of relatives in England. Enter Captain Gryf Meridon, the mysterious sailor who is hired to convey her home.
Tess and Gryf’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean comprises the heart of their emotionally fraught love story.
The prose in this (and, in fact, all of Laura Kinsale’s books) is positively literary. I’d go so far as to say that there is no finer example within the romance genre of perfectly crafted sentences, paragraphs, mood, and tone.
I re-read this book every few years simply to marvel at the craft. There is a swimming scene in this book—Gryf and Tess in the crystal-blue waters of the Caribbean—that I only had to read once to never forget. Sigh. If you love historical romance, this is a must-read.
4.) Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught
I must include this Judith McNaught title (although I love them all) because it was the first romance novel I ever read. The term “thunderstruck” only begins to describe my regard for the classic Regency plot, the characters, and the fairy-tale setting created by Ms. McNaught. These all of worked together to pierce my very (sixteen-year-old ) soul. This is the book that won me to the genre forever.
Here was a cheerful, innocent heroine, earnest and well-meaning; and dark and brooding bastard rogue, commanding but lonely. Their attraction is immediate, but they must work for their happily-ever-after for years. It is the best sort of work.
This in an old-school romantic saga with 1980s sensibilities, but it is also a guiding, shaping force in the “modern” historical romances we read today.
This is a novella but it packs a lovely punch. The heroine is an aspiring physician who is, as one would expect, regarded as something of an oddity in 1828. The hero is a wealthy earl who believes he has inherited a degenerative brain disease that will eventually drive him mad and then put him in an early grave. Understandably he is bitter, hopeless, and more than a little closed off.
Relatives suggest these two strangers marry so that she may care for him as he descends into madness and also so she may further her education with the money he leaves behind.
Instead, they fall in love.
In the beginning, she is intrigued by the symptoms he believes indicate the ensuing madness. After that, she becomes equally intrigued simply by him. How could she not when he is intelligent, masculine, and (she soon determines), a perfectly healthy virile (ahem) man in the prime of his life. The fun of the book is proving it, especially to the hero himself.
2.) I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long
In case you haven’t discerned a theme, I love a wounded hero. The more tortured, unlovable, detached, and/or damaged—the better. The titular hero of this, my favorite book in Ms. Long’s unforgettable Pennyroyal Green series, is all of these things.
Even better, he’s a total jerk to the heroine from page one.
Of course no jerk in a romance novel stays a jerk for long. And the Earl of Ardmay meets his match in fiery, courageous Violet Redmond, who stows away on his ship to search for her missing brother on the high seas.
The process by which Violet employs her cleverness, determination—and, yes, ravishing beauty—to inadvertently bring Ardmay to heel (and also to heal) is one of the most skillful arcs I have ever seen in a romance.
I re-read this one at least once a year.
1.) The Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
And that brings me to my A-#1, most favorite historical romance novel of all time. The best of the best. I can still remember the Hasting’s bookstore in Bryan, Texas, wherein I first slid to the floor and began to read the famous prologue of Scoundrels. I think I was well into ten chapters before the staff began to lock up, and I was forced to get up, buy the book, and read the rest at home.
I own four signed copies of this book, and I once read it aloud to my boyfriend (now husband) while he was fishing.
The story pits a confident, capable heroine against a deeply wounded lord who has sworn off love for good.
The winner is we, the readers.
The writing is lyrical, the humor is laugh-out-loud funny, and the love scenes are full of heart. And the suspense? This hero wants the heroine so badly, but he’s afraid to love. Will he or won’t he? I can never turn the pages fast enough.
In fact, I feel like I need to read it again right now….
No. 21 Henrietta Place
Mayfair, London, England
Nothing of record ever happened in Henrietta Place.
Carriages did not collide. Servants did not quarrel in the mews. No one among the street’s jowly widowers remarried harlot second wives, and families with spirited young boys boarded them in school at the earliest possible age.
No one tolerated stray dogs.
A calm sort of orderliness prevailed on the street, gratifying residents and earning high praise from Londoners and country visitors alike. It was a domestic refuge. One of the last such sanctuaries in all of London.
Certainly, the stately townhome mansion at No. 21 was a sanctuary to Lady Frances Stroud, Marchioness Frinfrock, who had been a proud and attentive resident since her marriage in 1768. With her own eyes, Lady Frinfrock had seen the degradation and disquiet that had become prevalent in so many London streets; noble-born men fraternizing with ballet dancers in The Strand; week-long ramblings in Pall Mall. And the spectacle that was Covent Garden? It wasn’t to be borne.
What a comfort, then, that Lady Frinfrock would always have Henrietta Place, where nothing of record ever happened. Where she could live out her final days in peace and tranquility.
“It looks to be fair for a second day, my lady,” said Miss Breedlowe, the marchioness’ nurse, crossing to the alcove window that overlooked the street.
“A fog will descend by luncheon,” said the marchioness, frowning.
“If it pleases you, we could take a short walk before then,” the nurse said. “To Cavendish Square and back? Spring weather is so unpredictable, we should take advantage of the sun before it disappears again for a month.”
“Cavendish Square is not to be tolerated,” said Lady Frinfrock.
Miss Breedlowe looked at her hands. “Only so far as the corner and back, then?”
“Not I,” said the marchioness, pained.
A sigh of disappointment followed, as it always did. How unhappily accustomed Lady Frinfrock had become to her nurse’s chronic sighing. It was obvious that Miss Breedlowe endeavored to be patient, although, in her ladyship’s view, not nearly patient enough. In return, the marchioness rarely endeavored to be agreeable enough.
And why should a woman of her age and station be prodded through an inane schedule of someone else’s design? To be forced to engage in robust activities intended for no other purpose than to move her bowels? If her inept solicitors felt that her alleged infirmity warranted the nurse-maiding of sullen, sigh-ridden Miss Breedlowe, then so be it. They could cajole her to compensate and house the woman, but they could not force her to abide her. Or to walk to Cavendish Square when she hadn’t the slightest desire.
Miss Breedlowe cleared her throat. “Perhaps tomorrow, then.”
Lady Frinfrock made a dismissive sound. “If you wish to walk to Cavendish Square, Miss Breedlowe, pray, do not let my disinterest detain you.”
The nurse turned from the window and studied her. “I had hoped to discover an activity that we might enjoy together.”
“A vain hope, I fear. I am a solitary soul, as the tyrants at Blinklowe, Dinkle, and Tuft, would comprehend if their service to my estate extended beyond calculating my worth in shillings and pounds and subtracting their yearly portion…and then shackling me with you.”
To her credit, the nurse did not blanch, but she also did not reply. The marchioness looked away. If such frank language could not elicit some measure of honesty from the woman, perhaps it would scare her into not speaking at all. Either would be preferable to her current trickle of disingenuous small talk, not to mention the incessant sighing.
“I dare say your planters are the most beautiful for several blocks, my lady,” Miss Breedlowe said after a moment. “Do you direct your gardener in their care?”
“They are not the loveliest on their own accord, of that you can be sure.”
“How talented you are.”
The marchioness snorted. “You can but see what becomes of a garden when left unattended, even for a week. Just look at the deplorable state of Lord Falcondale’s flower boxes and borders, if you can bear it. Such an eyesore.”
“Oh, yes. The new earl. Which house is it?”
“Number 24. There. Directly across the street. It’s been in his family for an age.” She gently tapped the window with her cane. “His late uncle, the previous Lord Falcondale, paid fastidious attention to the upkeep of those planters. Tulips and ivy mostly, this time of year. Simple flowers, really. No effort to maintain, but perfectly lovely if kept headed and weeded, which he did. Not to mention his staff swept the steps and stoop several times a day, even in the damp. But now his far-flung nephew has inherited, and I fear the entire property will fall into disrepair.”
“Hmmm,” said Miss Breedlowe. “That would be a great shame.”
“Doubtless it seems like a small thing to you, but this sort of irresponsibility can bring about the demise of order and calm in a quiet street like our Henrietta Place. It doesn’t help that Number 22,” she gestured again, “next door to Falcondale’s, has been unoccupied and for sale these last five years. The house agents keep it up, but there’s no substitute for the loving care of a devoted owner and staff.”
“To make matters worse, the new earl is completely unresponsive to neighborly suggestion. I dispatched Samuel to speak to his gardener, only to be told that the man has let him go, the careless sod.”
“Dismissed his gardener?”
“He sacked the whole lot. I’ve since learned that every servant has been turned out. Now I ask you, how is a house of that size to be maintained without staff?”
“I can only guess, my lady, but do take care. It would not warrant your becoming overset.” She ventured small steps toward the marchioness.
“The demise of order and calm.” Lady Frinfrock tsked, waving her away and rising slowly from her chair. She plodded to the window. “The demise of order and calm.”
As if on cue, a carriage, buffed to a sun-sparkling sheen, whipped around the corner, thundering down the cobblestones from the direction of Welbeck Street.
“Who the devil could this be?” the marchioness whispered. She drew so near to the window, her breath fogged the glass. The carriage careened toward them at a breakneck pace, slowing slightly as it neared Lady Frinfrock’s front window. With eyes wide, the marchioness watched it jostle past her house and well beyond the weed-ridden planters of Falcondale’s front door. Only when it reached the unoccupied house at Number 22 did it lurch to a stop, the coachman yanking the reins as if his life depended on it.
“Such traffic in the street today,” mumbled Miss Breedlowe.
“Nonsense,” said Lady Frinfrock, her eyes pinned on the carriage. “There is no traffic in Henrietta Place. Not on this day or any day. Such recklessness? A conveyance of this size? It’s wholly irregular!”
“Indeed. Perhaps a neighbor is expecting out-of-town guests?”
“No relation to the occupants of this street could afford a vehicle so grand,” she said. “Except, of course, for me. And I have no relatives.”
“Not even the new earl, Lord Falcondale?”
The marchioness harrumphed. “He cannot even afford a gardener.”
The carriage door sprang open, and Lady Frinfrock leaned in.
“Oh, look,” said Miss Breedlowe, cheerful interest in her voice. “It’s a young woman. How beautiful she is. And her gown. And hat,” she marveled. “Oh, she’s brought someone with her. A companion. Hmm. Perhaps a servant?” Her voice went a little off, and she crooked her head to the side, studying the two women collecting in the street.
“Is that an African?” Lady Frinfrock nearly shouted, planting both gloved palms on the spotless glass of the window.
“I do believe her companion is an…aboriginal woman of some sort,” croaked Miss Breedlowe, herself moving closer to the glass.
“But whatever business could they have in Henrietta Place?”
Miss Breedlowe reached out a hand to steady her. “Do take care, my lady. Perhaps we should return to the comfort of the chairs.”
“I shall not be comfortable in chairs,” said the marchioness, swatting her away. “But has the young woman come alone?” She tapped a bony finger on the glass. “Where is her family? Her husband or parents?”
“Perhaps the men who have accompanied her are her—”
“Servants, clearly,” interrupted the marchioness. “Look, Miss Breedlowe. Trunk after trunk. Crates and baskets. Oh, God.” Her breath fogged the glass. “They are conveying it to the former front door of Cecil Panhearst’s old house. It’s been sealed like a tomb for the better part of a decade.”
“So they are. Perhaps you’re to have a second new neighbor.”
“A lone young woman and an African?” She moved closer to the window.
“Highly likely, I’d say. It would appear they are…? Yes, they are unpacking.”
“Well, that cannot be,” Lady Frinfrock declared, shaking her head at the street. “I won’t stand for it. Not without knowing who she may be, or where she came from. And why she is accompanied by an African.”
“Oh, do not worry,” chuckled Miss Breedlowe, “the servants will learn her story soon enough. If she has any staff at all, they will talk with the other servants on the street.”
For the first time since the carriage arrived, the marchioness lifted her eyes from the window and turned to stare at the nurse.
“Why, what an excellent idea, Miss Breedlowe.” She raised her cane and jabbed it in the direction of the startled younger woman. “How resourceful you are. The servants will talk.” She raised one eyebrow. “They will learn her story soon enough.”
As Miss Breedlowe stared in disbelief, the marchioness scrunched her face and then swung the tip of her cane in the direction of door.
“Oh, no, my lady,” said Miss Breedlowe, backing away. “You cannot mean me.”
“Oh, yes, ‘tis exactly what I mean. Finally, a suitable application for your indeterminate hovering and resigned sighs. We shall devise a reason for you to approach her, and you will discover her business in my street. It is our duty as mindful, responsible residents to know.”
“But I was speaking of the maids, my lady. The kitchen boys. I…”
“The maids are unreliable. The kitchen boys are inarticulate. You, however, are ideal for this sort of thing. Steel yourself, Miss Breedlowe. We cannot know what manner of objectionable thing she may say or do. Better fetch your gloves. And your hat.”
CHARIS MICHAELS is thrilled to be making her debut with Avon Impulse. Prior to writing romance, she studied Journalism at Texas A&M and managed PR for a trade association. She has also worked as a tour guide at Disney World, harvested peaches on her family’s farm, and entertained children as the “Story Godmother” at birthday parties. She has lived in Texas, Florida, and London, England. She now makes her home in the Washington, D.C.-metro area.