One of my bookselling coworkers, knowing that I've been snarfing down Regency romance series, recommended Mary Balogh's Slightly series (aka the Bedwyns) - the story of six brothers and sisters starting near the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
The series opens as Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn travels to Ringwood Manor to deliver a dying soldier's request. He finds the man's sister, Eve Morris, on the verge of losing her home - now that her brother is dead she has less than a week to marry before the one-year anniversary of her father's death. Having promised to protect Eve, Aidan (heretofore determined to escape marriage and remain in His Majesty's cavalry) does the only thing he can think of to help her: offer a marriage of convenience so that Eve may keep her home and Aidan will return to the cavalry. Well, enter Aidan's elder brother Wulfric (the Duke of Bewcastle, to whom Aidan is heir), Eve's self-made family of lost "lambs" (unwanted distantly-related children, a governess who found herself an unmarried mother, maimed soldiers in need of work, etc), and one evil cousin who feels Ringwood is rightly his and Aidan and Eve go from Slightly Married to very married.
What I liked in this series opener is the very realistic portrayal of an aristocratic family as seen by someone who is an outsider. Eve is barely gentry (complete with faint Welsh accent) and Wulfric makes it clear that she is hardly suitable as a potential duchess, even if Aidan has gone and married her. Wulf isn't a friendly man, instead presenting himself as autocratic, domineering, ice-cold, and completely above caring about the feelings of his brother's wife. Eve isn't sure what to make of the other siblings either: Alleyne is charming enough but still born with that automatic class difference of aristocracy and Freyja has enough personality to make herself scary (Rannulf appears briefly at the end of the book and Morgan is only mentioned since she is still in the schoolroom). Even Aidan has trouble admitting or expressing emotion. I had to give Balogh credit for making Eve doubt herself for a few chapters before deciding to use her considerable backbone. Aidan and Wulf are both given considerable backstories, which is nice when working on a family series. I just loved two other things about this book. First, the character names are fabulous; someone's mom wasn't just a reader but a reader of old Anglo-Saxon/Norse/Celtic stories. Second, none of the Bedwyns are conventionally attractive. They all have dark complexions, hook noses, and oddly matched coloring (i.e. Freyja has blond hair and naturally dark eyebrows) but make up for the physical difference with loads of personality. This is refreshing, especially in Freyja's case, because too many times a hero or heroine considers himself or herself plain but one look from their mate and there is insta-attraction/hottest person ever seen. None of that here.
The second book, Slightly Wicked, picks up immediately after the first. Rannulf (Ralf) leaves Ringwood and continues on his way to his maternal grandmother's estate. She has made him her heir and has asked him to visit in order to tempt him into matrimony. On the way to Grandmaison he rescues a red-haired young woman from an overturned coach in a rain storm, an actress he believes, and convinces her to spend a glorious night with him at an inn. However, the tables are turned when he meets the young woman again at Harewood Grange, the home of the young woman he is meant to be courting. Miss Judith Law, daughter of an impovershed vicar, was sent to Harewood to serve as companion to her ailing grandmother. She is made to wear loose, ill-fitting gowns and caps over her hair, to feel ugly because of her attractiveness, to fetch and carry, and make herself agreeable and grateful (Fanny Price, anyone?). By accepting Ralf's offer and purporting herself to be an actress, Judith snatched a little bit of happiness to see herself through the drudgery she knew awaited her. While Slightly Wicked has a more conventional plot, Ralf and Judith are wonderful characters and the mystery of the missing jewelry keeps everything moving.
From Ralf and Judith's wedding we follow the Slightly Scandalous Lady Freyja to Bath. Free (which is a great nickname) had her heartbroken once by neighbor boy Kit. She loved him, but Wulf betrothed her to the elder brother, the heir, who died and when Kit came back from the Wars he brought a fiancee he loved with him. Now that Kit and his wife are expecting Free wants to be anywhere but London and the family seat of Lindsey Hall and weddings. Of course, adventure finds her on the way to Bath when a strange man bursts into her room in the middle of the night and begs her to hide him. Joshua Moore, the absolutely scandalous Marquess of Hallmere, is as determined to escape matrimony as Free is herself. Once in Bath the two combatants verbally joust with one another (Free throws a few of her famous punches) until they concoct a plan to announce a (false) betrothal just to rid themselves of unwanted suitors.
As usual, false betrothals have a way of becoming permanent. As it turns out, Joshua's extended family has more secrets and scandals than closets to contain them. There's murder, pregnant governesses, overbearing aunts, etc., etc. Overlaid with the continued false betrothal plot the book gets a bit overplotted but still very readable. While Free isn't terribly likeable in the first two books she becomes one of my very favorite characters here: fierce and absolutely determined to show no fear or hesitation which can come off as brash arrogance to those who don't know her. Both Joshua and Freyja have been badly burned by life and only very warily come to trust one another.
The next summer Alleyne and Morgan (now "out") find themselves in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo. When Slightly Tempted opens Morgan is enjoying the social whirl with friends while Alleyne is attached to the diplomatic corps. Morgan soon catches the eye of a man estranged from the ton, the half-French Gervase Ashford, Earl of Rosthorn, a man who loathes and hates her eldest brother, Wulfric. Gervase sets out to ruin Morgan to revenge himself on the Duke of Bewcastle. Before Gervase can fully implement his plan the Battle of Waterloo puts everything at sixes and sevens. Alleyne is missing in action and Morgan refuses to leave Brussels without him. As Morgan tends mortally wounded soldiers, Gervase scours the roadsides for her brother. When she learns Alleyne was likely killed in action in the Forest of Soignes Morgan gives herself to Gervase, seeking comfort for her grief. Gervase, however, finds that he can no longer bring himself to use Morgan as he had planned. A lot of air must be cleared before this book comes to an end.
Meanwhile, Alleyne isn't really dead (which may or may not have been a surprise to readers when the series was in publication; knowing there are six books in the series and there are six siblings does give the game away later). He was hit by musket fire and fell from his horse, hitting his head in the process. In Slightly Sinful he is rescued by Miss Rachel York, a young lady fallen on hard times due to a swindler and now residing with four lively prostitutes, one being an old friend. When Alleyne wakes, he has no memory of who he really is...but he is instantly attracted to the lovely Rachel whom he mistakes as a "lady of the night" as well. Eventually, the truth comes out. Rachel is an heiress but she can only claim her jewels when she marries (with her uncle's approval) or turns 25, neither of which are possible solutions to her dilemma, and she desperately needs the jewels to repay her friends their lost savings (also, due to the swindler). Alleyne comes up with a madcap solution: he will pose as Rachel's husband (under his assumed name of Sir Jonathan Smith since he still can't remember who he is) and the whole lot of them will return to England to convince Rachel's uncle to give her the jewels.
These two were my favorite books in the series. They run concurrently so once you've read Morgan's book you know what she and Gervase were doing when Alleyne and Rachel were still in Brussels. The plotting in both books was excellent, most notably in bringing Gervase's backstory to light. Rachel's four friends (Bridget, her old nurse, Geraldine, Flossie, and Phyllis) are excellent, sweet side-characters. My only complaint was the constant flipping between using Alleyne and Jonathan in Slightly Sinful. Although the reader knows that the amnesiac is Alleyne Bedwyn, it took a bit of the mystique away from him by calling him Alleyne during his POV sections and calling him Jonathan during Rachel's.
All of these weddings (and copious re-appearances of all the Bedwyn brothers and sisters and offspring in each of the others' books) leads up to Wulfric's book, Slightly Dangerous. Nearly a year has passed since Alleyne's wedding and Wulf finds himself feeling more alone than ever. He lives alone now in the very large, very old Lindsey Hall. His long-time mistress, who he misses more than he ever thought he would, has died of a lung complaint. And so, in a moment of rare impsulsiveness, he accepts an invitation from Viscount Mowbray (a bookish, absent-minded, but good-natured friend of-sorts) to attend a house party at his sister Lady Renable's house. A few weeks of good conversation might be nice. Unfortunately, the house party turns out to be one of those house parties - full of silly, unmarried chits and swaggering young men in celebration of the youngest Miss Mowbray's engagement. Amid all these houseguests is one who catches his eye, literally. Mrs. Derrick (Christine) is an impoverished widowed neighbor and friend of the Renables, invited to even out the dinner table. She is funny, sunny, impulsive, intelligent, and prone to getting herself into the worst scrapes by accident. In short, she is very ill-behaved for a member of society, in Wulf's opinion, but he can't figure out why all he wants to do is toss her into bed and have his way with her. They are absolute complete opposites. Christine, for her part, is absolutely mortified that fate keeps throwing her into the cold, imperious duke's path. All she wants to do is go back to her mother's house and her quiet life there where no one will mind if she climbs trees or plays with the children.
Wulf really doesn't endear himself to the reader during the first three books. He's a bit of a dick to both Eve and Judith at first since neither are "good enough" for duke's sons on paper. However, Morgan's book began to show a different side of Wulf, one that cares and loves his brothers and sisters even though he was totally separated from them at age twelve to be "trained" as the future Duke of Bewcastle, a title he assumed at age seventeen. This book really turns Wulf inside-out and Balogh allows her hero to be a complete ass before redeeming himself. I really liked how neither character "changes" in the course of the book - Wulfric is still outwardly reserved and Christine is still very outgoing but they complement each other (Christine totally got him with the quizzing glass - such a ridiculous affectation and she called him on it when no one else dared).
I really liked all the books in this series. Apparently, the Bedwyns appear in other Balogh books so I'll have to check those out, too.