His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

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“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.”

Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet—until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!

Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart, because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret—her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defenses. But when her former fiancé returns, Lizzie realizes that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust—with her heart and her son…

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin/Mills & Boon Historical, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Honestly, when my editor offered me His Mistletoe Wager for review, I had fairly low expectations.  NOT because I don’t like Ms. Heath’s books – I do!  But in general, I’m not fond of Christmas stories or secret babies, and my experience reading Harlequin Historicals has been a bit hit or miss.  So you can imagine my surprise when I fell in love with this book right from the start.  The premise (the wager referenced in the title), the principals, even the secret baby – everything works.  Charming, romantic and funny, His Mistletoe Wager is one of my favorite  books this year, and Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is my new favorite reformed rake. Friends.  Let’s keep it real.   I ❤ Hal.

On the day of her wedding, Lady Elizabeth Wilding is eagerly awaiting her (late) bridegroom.  As her anxious father paces in the vestry next to her, she keeps herself calm with loving thoughts of Charles, the Marquess of Rainham, and the babe she carries – a secret she’s kept for the past two months.  But the wedding never takes place; after a long delay she learns that Charles isn’t coming.  He’s departed for Gretna Green with a much richer prospect, leaving Lizzie pregnant, alone and with her heart shredded into irreparable pieces.

Fast forward five years… Henry Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge, is desperately trying to escape the crush of the Renshaw ball by hiding out on their frigidly cold terrace.  Hal used to largely avoid the parties and balls in favor of other, more appealing amusements, but this year the eligible, rich, handsome new earl is expected to make more than just an appearance.  The Renshaw ball marks the start of a hellish month of festive holiday functions he’s expected to attend.  Hal’s lost in thought, exhausted from trying to avoid marriage minded mamas and their eager daughters, worrying that something is missing in his life, when his brother-in-law approaches – joking that he hopes he hasn’t interrupted a lover’s tryst.

Aaron Wincanton, Viscount Ardleigh (hero of Her Enemy at the Altar), might be joking, but Hal is tired of all the overeager women hounding him. Aaron rather unsympathetically teases him for being wealthy, handsome and single, but then proposes a challenge.

“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal. Each one in a different location and all five before Twelfth Night.  Let us call it The Mistletoe Wager, in a nod to the season.”  

Their bets always had names and there had been some momentous ones.  The North Road Race.  The Serpentine Swim.  The Fisticuffs Experiment and the ill-conceived and often-lamented Naked Night in Norfolk, when they both nearly froze to death trying to brave the winter weather sitting out in the elements on the exposed beach of Great Yarmouth.  They had hastily agreed to end that one early when they simultaneously lost feeling in their gentlemen’s areas.

The loser has to muck out the other’s stables single-handed; Hal is so confident he can win, he eagerly accepts.  But Aaron adds one last detail – he gets to pick the woman Hal has to kiss.

Now, you already know who the lucky lady is don’t you?  It’s Lizzie, whom Hal has nicknamed Sullen Lizzie. Unsociable.  Unapproachable.  Unreachable.  For years, Lizzie has indulged her father’s desire to see her wed by accompanying him to dinners, parties and balls, and pretending a willingness to marry, but after having her heart broken by Charlie, she’s vowed to remain a single mother.  She’s managed to keep her son Georgie a secret – only her father and their household staff even know he exists – but she’s grown weary of keeping him hidden in London, and it’s become harder to keep the secret.  Lizzie has a plan in place to leave London with Georgie as soon as the season ends, but she knows it will devastate her father.  She’s decided to wait until Twelfth Night, and the Earl of Redbridge’s ball, to tell him of her plans.

Hal knows he has to be at the top of his game with the very beautiful Lizzie, and after observing her – she’s seated in the furthest corner of the room, alone, seemingly daring anyone to approach – he joins her.  Lizzie rudely suggests he go somewhere else, but when he doesn’t, she finds herself reluctantly charmed by her handsome companion. After her father approaches with yet another eligible bachelor, Hal feigns interest in her to keep the other man at bay… and then proposes that he and Lizzie help each other.  Hal needs a love interest so as to deter the women who hope to marry him, and Lizzie needs a way to halt her father’s matchmaking.  Hal is confident he can coax five kisses out of Lizzie as the holiday season ramps up, and although Lizzie initially refuses, he doesn’t relent and stays close to her.  After spending time with Hal, Lizzie reluctantly discovers she likes him and agrees.

Reader, there’s so much more to this story than the Mistletoe Wager, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Discover it for yourself by reading this delightfully charming and romantic novel!  Lizzie’s secret – that she has a five year old son – plays a significant role as the tale unfolds, but the relationship between Hal and Lizzie is always the focus.  Hal is the best kind of rakish hero.  Handsome, appealing, good and kind, protective to a fault, naughty and mischievous… well, I fell for him just as hard as Lizzie does.  His internal PoV is deliciously funny, wicked and endearing – he’s bewildered by his feelings for Lizzie and slow to realize he’s fallen in love with her.  But once he does, he gives 100% to helping her and making her happy.  Lizzie is similarly likeable.  Though her character doesn’t really blossom until she opens herself up to Hal’s affections, she’s guarded for good reason.  Charlie’s betrayal hurt her deeply and the wound has never healed.  Her love for Georgie and her beloved papa is intense, and she’s a sharp, witty, tender match for Hal. When her ‘shield,’ Hal, offers to help her – and manages to heal her wounded heart – she’s overwhelmed by the prospect of a future with or without him, though from the start, their ‘fake’ relationship is clearly anything but.  Lizzie and Hal are a sophisticated, mature and sexy pairing… and everything I hope for in a romance novel.

Ms. Heath’s secondary characters are equally good and I particularly loved Lizzie’s father.  He embraced his unwed, pregnant daughter when most fathers at this time would have cast her out, and it’s clear her happiness is his.  Hal’s sister Connie is terrific (I love their sibling squabbles), and her husband, Hal’s best friend/fiercest competitor in all sorts of mischievous shenanigans, Aaron, is the best – loyal, smart and kind.  There is a truly vile bad guy (of course!) and the reprehensible Charlie makes a re-appearance, but all these folks simply enhance an already great story.  The road to happily ever after has quite a few potholes, but it’s a joyous trip nonetheless.

His Mistletoe Wager is a good bet, a sure thing, and a guaranteed pay out.  Give a gift to yourself this holiday season and read this marvelously romantic and charming holiday romance.

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: A Secret Engagement (House of Caruthers Book 2) by Sarah Richmond

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Edmund Caruthers, London barrister and gentleman, defies his father and his class to represent the poor. With few paying customers, he struggles financially. He’s frustrated his betrothed won’t set a date to marry him.

Dolly Wycliffe dreams of becoming a famous milliner. She loves Edmund, but the life of a society matron isn’t for her. Edmund’s family and friends remind her that a girl who makes hats can’t become the wife of a distinguished barrister.

When a woman is found murdered in fashionable Mayfair, their two worlds collide. The victim is a shop girl and Dolly enlists Edmund’s help to find the killer. Edmund keeps a friend’s involvement a secret and Dolly realizes the toffs have rules they’re unwilling to break.

Is their love enough to overcome the obstacles ahead? Will marrying be a decision they’ll both come to regret?

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EXCERPT

Standing this close to Edmund Caruthers, her heart fluttering, the rest of her body reacting with scandalous desire, she didn’t want to be respectable.

Or, for that matter, a lady.

He poured a ladle filled with lemonade into two pretty cut-glass cups and handed her one.

Although Edmund rarely took anything seriously, she could tell by the set of his jaw and his piercing stare he was serious now. Beyond serious, for the subject of setting a wedding date had become a sore point between them. They had been engaged for more than six months, in secret, but it seemed like only yesterday when he’d proposed marriage. What a wonderful day that’d been.

“Are you all right?” Edward’s gaze made her flood with heat.

She smiled. “Why do you ask?”

“You are quiet this evening,” he said.

“Am I?”

She knew precisely what he was after. She kept his ring on a ribbon tied around her neck. Her hand went reflexively to the top of her corset where the ring rested, ready to take its place on her finger. When that would be, if ever, she couldn’t say.

Dolly couldn’t live in his world. She would always fear, as she did now, of being caught out. She could suffer the humiliation for her own sake, but she wouldn’t subject Edmund to their scorn.

“You haven’t answered my question,” he said.

“More like an observation.”

He sipped his punch. “Alas, I stand corrected.”

She looked into his eyes. She did not doubt his love for her. Did he appreciate the difficulty of the obstacles ahead? What if they were insurmountable?

“You have been very patient,” she said. “More patient than I deserve.”

His gaze clouded. “Tell me why you won’t set a date for our wedding.”

She sighed. “You know perfectly well I must work for a living.”

“I thought the discussion about your career was settled. I will not expect you to give up the milliner’s shop or stop making your exquisite hats.”

“You may not, but others will.”

He looked away and tightened his jaw. What she’d said vexed him.

She continued. “Society frowns on women working. As a wife, I will be expected to stay home.”

“You place too much importance on what others think,” he said.

“Of course I do. It is a necessity of being in trade. I make hats. What my customers like is crucial to whether I sell them or not.”

Edmund shifted his feet. He could not refute the truth of what she’d said.

Dolly wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by engaging in an argument. “This is not the time and place to discuss such an important matter.” She put down her drink on a side table. “We should instead be celebrating Herbert and Cecilia’s good fortune.”

“There never does seem to be a good time,” he answered with irritation.

She didn’t know what more she could say to convince him. She didn’t belong here. Surely he knew that. Why did he persist thinking society would accept her after they were married? Was it some kind of game to him, a challenge to family and friends?

She took his drink from him and set it next to hers on the table. “Sir, would you like to dance?”

His sullen expression disappeared. Happily, Edmund never stayed cross for long. He took her hand and led her to the middle of the dancers.

Drawing her closer, he put his hand at her waist. Not an embrace exactly, but thrilling just the same.

“I consider myself a lucky man.”

She rested her arm on his shoulder. The scent of his shaving cream reminded her of a walk in the park. She looked up into his eyes and saw a hint of amusement in the glint in his eyes and the quirk of his mouth, as if the matter of setting a date was settled. It was easy for him to believe all would be well because he’d never known failure.

He guided her to the rhythm of the music: one, two, three, and her heart beat the same rhythm. She put her troubles out of her mind and enjoyed herself in the arms of a splendid fellow.

Edmund would be the first to admit the evening had gotten off to a bad start. He blamed himself. The Pemberton’s soiree contained people Dolly didn’t know, apart from Herbert and Cecilia. They’d landed in a sea of social sharks ready to bite at the least provocation and Dolly had every reason to be apprehensive.

The music ended with a flourish and the assembly clapped. He twirled his true love one last time.

She threw back her head and laughed.

Ah, that’s better.

She detached herself from his grasp. The heat of the room and the exertion, and dare he think, his close proximity had brought color to her face, especially to the apples of both cheeks. He found himself transfixed by her glowing skin, dark penetrating gaze, and perfect mouth.
He thought himself the happiest man alive. The only thing that could make him happier is for her to set a wedding date. Her lips parted, ready to speak. Had she made a decision?

Herbert approached them bearing drinks. “Here you are.” He handed one of the glasses to Dolly. Edmund took the other.

His friend’s timing couldn’t have been worse but there’d be other moments this evening. The Pemberton’s ballroom was alive with romance and Edmund would take advantage. He felt certain he would have his answer tonight.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Richmond is an award winning Historical Romance writer. Born in the mid-west, she now resides in Southern California with her husband and Welsh corgi. Sarah is an avid fan of the University of Michigan football, movies from the 1940’s and 50’s, and enjoys having lunch with her friends

The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance by Mimi Matthews

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A PROUD BEAUTY 

Society beauty Sylvia Stafford is far too pragmatic to pine. When the tragic death of her gamester father leaves her destitute and alone, she finds work as a governess in a merchant’s household in Cheapside. Isolated from the fashionable acquaintance of her youth, she resigns herself to lonely spinsterhood until a mysterious visitor convinces her to temporarily return to her former life–and her former love.

A SCARRED BEAST

Colonel Sebastian Conrad is no longer the dashing cavalry officer Sylvia once fell in love with. Badly scarred during the Sepoy Rebellion, he has withdrawn to his estate in rural Hertfordshire where he lives in near complete seclusion. Brooding and tormented, he cares nothing for the earldom he has inherited–and even less for the faithless beauty who rejected him three years before.

A SECOND CHANCE

A week together in the remote Victorian countryside is the last thing either of them ever wanted. But when fate intervenes to reunite them, will a beastly earl and an impoverished beauty finally find their happily-ever-after? Or are some fairy-tale endings simply not meant to be?


Publisher and Release Date: Perfectly Proper Press, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1860
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

Based on the beautiful cover and catnip tropes – a wounded hero, opposites, second chance love – and its fairy tale premise, I had high hopes for The Lost Letter and I wasn’t disappointed.  Mimi Matthews’ début novel is deeply romantic, and I enjoyed every (little) bit of it.  Her principals are an appealing pair, and the circumstances that force them apart – just as they’ve fallen deeply in love – hooked me right away.  On the downside,  Ms. Matthews does her principals – and the story – a disservice by delivering neither a traditionally short novella or full-length novel, and it’s a missed opportunity.  Secondary characters are underdeveloped, which is unfortunate for many reasons, but mostly because I liked them and wanted to know more about their backstories and motivations.  The Lost Letter is a sweetly moving love story… I just wish there had been more of it.

Sylvia Stafford never thought she would end up in Cheapside working as a governess, but when her father lost everything in a game of cards and then took his own life, she had few other options.  Destitute and alone – abandoned by fair-weather friends and without family to turn to –  Sylvia became governess to the two young daughters of the merchant Dinwoody family.  Treated fairly and with kindness by her employers, she’s spent the past two years trying (and failing) to forget the past and make peace with her new station in life.  Unfortunately, her memories of Sebastian Conrad have been harder to forget.

Three years earlier, Sylvia fell deeply in love with Colonel Sebastian Conrad, the second son of the Earl of Radcliffe.   She spent a heady season falling in love, but never confessed her feelings to him; when Sebastian was sent to India to help put down the Sepoy Rebellion shortly after their first kiss, Sylvia penned dozens of letters to him finally confessing her love and devotion.  To her dismay, Sebastian never responded.  Desperate for some sign of his affection, Sylvia continued to write even in the face of his rejection and in spite of her father’s (selfish) entreaties to find another, wealthier suitor.  After her father committed suicide, Sylvia knew she would never see or hear from Sebastian again.  Still hurt by his rejection but resigned to life as a spinster, Sylvia has made peace with the past and tried to forget Sebastian.

Unbeknownst to Sylvia, Sebastian returned to England badly wounded and with his face horribly disfigured.  Upon his return, he learned his father and brother were dead, and that he was now the Earl of Radcliffe.  But when his sister Julia swooned after seeing his injuries for the first time, Sebastian retreated to the family home in rural Hertfordshire, choosing to spend his days living in lonely isolation with only his valet (and former batman) Milsom for company.  His only comfort is a lock of hair given to him by Sylvia Stafford the last time he saw her.  Despite fond memories of the blissful weeks they spent together before he left for India – memories that helped him survive the horrors of war and a subsequent confinement after he was injured – he’s never forgotten Sylvia, or forgiven her for jilting him. Oops.

Fortunately, we have Sebastian’s much younger sister – the beautiful, meddling, Lady Julia Harker – willing and able to reunite this stubborn, lovesick pair, which she does with the help of the delightfully impertinent Milson.  A relentlessly optimistic and hopeful Lady Julia becomes convinced that if she can bring Sylvia to Sebastian, her brother will be happy once again, and after a bit of digging, she tracks Sylvia to Cheapside and implores her to come with her to Hertfordshire.

Oh reader.  Lady Julia is silly and ridiculous, and the premise on which this story unfolds is flimsy at best, but I liked it anyway!  Sebastian and Sylvia cherish memories of their past (the flashbacks are a highlight), and Ms. Matthews does a wonderful job contrasting who they are with who they once were.  When Julia arrives with a friend, Sebastian is irritated, but when he spots Sylvia, he’s shocked.  Memories of Sylvia assail him… but unfortunately, in a comedy of errors perpetuated by his flighty sister, Sebastian mistakenly assumes Sylvia is only after his fortune.  Resentful and hurt after her long ago rejection (and unaware of her father’s suicide), he’s rude, condescending and dismissive, treating her like the fortune hunter he believes her to be.  Sylvia is similarly overwhelmed to see Sebastian again, and horrified by what he must have suffered.  She isn’t horrified by him, but for him, and despite the pain of his long ago rejection she struggles to forge a friendship with him.

The Lost Letter relies heavily on one of my least favorite romantic tropes – the Big Misunderstanding – but Ms. Matthews doesn’t belabor it once our principals reunite in Hertfordshire.   Sylvia reveals early on that she did indeed write to Sebastian, but Sebastian – shocked to learn Sylvia never jilted him – fails to tell her he never received her letters.  I’m not going to tell you why Sebastian never received the letters (that little mystery is solved by Milsom), but his omission results in yet another misunderstanding that further delays a reunion between the couple. When Sebastian finally discovers what Sylvia wrote to him long ago, the letter overwhelms him and… well, this jaded romance reader may have shed a tear, too.

Sebastian, our “Beast,” and Sylvia, our “Beauty,” are a wonderfully opposite pair.  It’s easy to see how they fell for one another, and once they finally reunite, sparks fly right away.  I do wish Ms. Matthews had spent more time developing her principals, because even though I liked them and their relationship, and I sympathized with the circumstances that forced them apart – a credit to Ms. Matthews’ strong writing – we deserved more time getting to know them when they first fell for each other (before their lives changed so dramatically), and once they finally reunite and the truth behind their separation is revealed.  I’m torn over my feelings for Lady Julia; she’s often inappropriate and ridiculous for a person in her position in Victorian era England, but I liked her anyway and am willing to overlook those faults.  Lady Julia always has Sebastian’s best interests at heart, and despite his rebuffing her attempts to get close to him, she perseveres.  It’s an oddly endearing sisterly love.  I also enjoyed Milsom and his meddling… I don’t usually like ‘buddy valets’, but the relationship between these two men and their genuine affection for one another strikes just the right balance between friend and employer.

The Lost Letter, though short (too short!) is an emotionally satisfying second chance love story.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but Ms. Matthews does a terrific job developing the attraction between Sylvia and Sebastian, and delivers a happily ever after that’s both romantic and believable.  I’ll be looking forward to more from this promising new historical romance author.

 

A Dance With Seduction (A Spy in the Ton #3) by Alyssa Alexander

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Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.

Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…

Publisher and Release Date: Entangled Select Historical, July 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Alyssa Alexander returns to her world of spies and intrigues in A Dance With Seduction, matching a code breaker hero with a seductive agent of the crown. It’s a mix of danger, drama and just the right touch of deception to draw readers in.

Vivienne Le Fleur was literally plucked from obscurity to become one of England’s best spies. Hidden in plain sight posing as a courtesan, Vivienne uses her beauty and charms to learn men’s deepest secrets. Throughout the war with Napoleon she was the Home Office’s best weapon, as she could get into places a man couldn’t enter without suspicion. After the war ended, her efforts domestically have been to seek out those who supported the French from England’s shores and uncover their treason. It’s not the life Vivienne would have chosen for herself years before; however continuing to serve gives her the chance to protect her young sister from having to struggle in life as Vivienne did. Unfortunately, however, the illusion of safety is broken when she is contacted by a French agent known as The Vulture who knows about her hidden sister as well as Vivienne’s investigations into certain English nobles. Hoping to turn Vivienne into a double-agent he threatens her sister unless she follows the instructions left in a coded message. Code breaking was never one of the skills than Vivienne mastered but she knows of someone who can easily unlock The Vulture’s secrets.

Maximilian Westwood did his service for King and Country by using his cryptology skills to break French codes during the war and help the Home Office in an administrative role. He was never a field agent and actually disliked dealing with spies and their duplicitous ways. Now the war is over, Max has happily removed himself from the world of spies and returned to an academic life translating texts for paying clients. His world away from political intrigues is interrupted late one evening by the arrival of the beautiful agent he’s known as “The Flower”. Her request that he help her translate a coded message is a seemingly easy task but not one he’s eager to accept as getting involved with her can only spell danger. She assures him it’s a one-time request and he agrees – but when he sees who has sent her the message his senses go on high alerts. The Vulture was one of the greatest threats to England’s spy network in the war and seeing him active again in peacetime could be a precursor to something terrible. Needing to know how Vivienne is involved with a dangerous French spy, Max puts himself directly in her path to get answers.

Their shared mission to expose The Vulture’s plans and prevent him from making a move to disrupt English affairs pulls both Vivienne and Max out of their comfort zones to form a lasting partnership. Vivienne has been a loner by necessity, only interacting with her handler and showing others the false personality of a practiced courtesan. Max has become a man of books and learning, eschewing any vices so as to distance himself from his wastrel brother’s reputation around London. Neither is living for themselves and Vivienne isn’t even certain where the real woman begins under all of the façades she’s adopted in order to survive. Working together makes Max and Vivienne face a mirror of sorts to discover depths they’ve never known. They each have skills that complement the other person, with Max being the analytical one and Vivienne having the strength and intuition to solve problems as they appear. The bond that grows from their working relationship slowly feeds into the attraction the pair have felt since their earliest interactions during the war.

Max is a wonderful Beta hero who isn’t threatened by Vivienne’s skills but still can be assertive when the moment calls for it. He fights to keep their relationship professional but cannot ignore the moments where Vivienne’s confidence slips and he sees the woman beneath the spy. Only then does he allow her to know of his insecurities and provide a safe place where she can drop the act of polished courtesan or skilled agent and just be herself. For Vivienne, her life was basically rewritten at a young age by those who always seemed to know better than her. Max never treats her in that fashion and tends to depend on her experience, letting her take the lead to show that she is more than who she was molded to be. As they uncover The Vulture’s network and follow the clues to protect her sister, Vivienne learns what is truly important to her in life. During the war it was always the mission, but in peacetimes it could be family, belonging and having the courage to fight for things that she wants for herself.

The slow pacing of A Dance With Seduction seemed incongruous when compared to the danger and stakes of Max and Vivienne’s mission. I had trouble completely losing myself in the story but felt that the plot, the characters and the consequences of their choices were all well described and meaningful. Overall the book works best to showcase two capable people learning to trust themselves while finding understanding in love with the last person they would expect.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Cutlass by T.M. Franklin

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Sarina Talbot is certain notorious pirate, One-Eyed Jack Tremayne, murdered her father and stole his prized cutlass. Out for revenge, she sneaks onto his ship disguised as a cabin boy, but Tremayne quickly catches on to her scheme. He claims she has the wrong man, and that, if they work together, he can help her gain the vengeance she seeks.

She doesn’t really trust him, and he doesn’t trust anyone. But they need each other to find the killer, and their uneasy alliance slowly turns to friendship, and then to more.

Add in an old journal full of cryptic clues leading to a hidden cache of Aztec gold, and Sarina and Tremayne have their hands full. Between sword fights, Crown ships, enemy pirates and a traitor on their own vessel, they’ll be lucky to escape with their lives, let alone the gold.

But perhaps, along the way, they’ll find a treasure even more valuable.

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EXCERPT

“Well, I think—” he began, but he never got to finish his thought, because Sarina reared back and slapped him across the face. Hard.

“You . . .” she sputtered. “You lecherous rake!”

“Rake?” Jonathan rubbed at his cheek. “You can hardly blame me for trying to protect you.”

“That wasn’t about protection!” she spat back. “That was you taking liberties!”

“As if you didn’t enjoy it.”

Sarina gasped and raised her arm to slap him again, but he was quicker this time, catching her wrist before she made contact.

“I believe once can be excused,” he said quietly, threat oozing with every syllable. “Female hysteria and all that . . .”

“Hysteria?” She scoffed, struggling to rip her wrist from his grip. “Hardly. More like well-founded outrage. To manhandle me like a common strumpet—”

At that, Jonathan tugged her closer, gritting his teeth in an unpleasant smile. “A common strumpet would know how to kiss,” he pointed out, purposely goading her.

“Well . . . I never!”

“Exactly my point.”

Sarina swung out with her other hand, but Jonathan caught that as well, his jaw tightening in frustration. “Would you please stop trying to hit me?”

“Would you please stop doing things that make me want to?”
Jonathan couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Miss Talbot, calm down, please,” he said. “If you’d allow me to explain.”

Sarina laughed humorlessly. “As if you could.” She frowned, but her movements stilled.

“If I release you, do you promise not to slap me again?” He eyed her carefully, only relaxing his grip after her curt nod. He stepped back, holding his hands out, just in case she changed her mind.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to slap you,” she said. “Goodness, for a pirate, you’re awfully skittish.”

“Well, you can hardly blame me,” he retorted. “You take every opportunity to brain me.”

She snorted. “As if you had one.”

“Tut tut, Miss Talbot,” he said, rounding his desk to sit in his chair. “Some might think you protest too much.”

“And what in the world is that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged, tapping a finger on his lips. “Just that there was a moment there when you didn’t seem to be protesting at all.”

“What?” Sarina gaped, her eyes darting around as she scrabbled for words.

“It was . . . my head. I was still dizzy from hitting Rafferty. And . . . you just . . . you took me by surprise. I didn’t expect you to be so . . . so . . .”

“Delicious?” he offered smugly.

She glared. “Forward.”

“I had to make it believable for the crew.”

“And why exactly would you need to use your tongue for that? It wasn’t as if they could see inside my mouth!”

Jonathan ignored the heat roaring up at the memory of her mouth . . . her tongue . . . the feel of her warm body pressed against his.

“They have seen me with other women before,” he replied, absently noting a twitch of her jaw at that comment.

Interesting.

“They would have noticed if I held back with you,” he added.
Her fight deflated. “Well, you could have warned me,” she said begrudgingly.
“It would have been nice to have been prepared.”

“Oh, come now, Miss Talbot,” he said, leaning back in his chair with a grin.
“Where would be the fun in that?”

“You’re a very irritating man, Captain.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Well,” Sarina said loftily, brushing at her skirts as she tried to collect herself. “To avoid such distasteful displays again, I think it best we adopt a few guidelines.”

Jonathan smirked. He had to admit he enjoyed battling wits with Sarina Talbot. The woman was infuriating, but definitely not boring.

“I don’t abide well with rules, Miss Talbot.”

“Undoubtedly,” she retorted, brushing back her hair. “Nevertheless, if we are to enact this charade, I am afraid I must insist on a few concessions on your part.”

“I abide even less with concessions.”

“Would you just listen to me?” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up in frustration. “For heaven’s sake, you don’t even know what I’m asking!”

He eyed her for a moment, then nodded slightly. “Very well. What are your demands?”

Sarina inhaled deeply. “First of all, I sleep in the bed.”

Jonathan snorted. “Now who’s being forward?”

“Not with you, you arrogant prat!” she snapped. “I sleep in the bed. You sleep on the cot.”

Jonathan huffed out a laugh. “Not bloody likely!”

“You’d put your comfort before a lady’s?” she asked haughtily.

“Always.” He leaned forward with a leering smile. “That is, unless she’s in the bed with me.”

Sarina colored, but didn’t rise to bait. “Very well. It is your bed, after all. But I’m afraid I must insist on a mattress at least. There is no way I can sleep on those ropes.”

Jonathan fought a smile when he realized that Sarina never intended to take his bed, but was using it as a negotiating tactic. “All right,” he conceded. “There are some spare ticks in the hold. But you’ll haul it up yourself. No bothering my men with menial tasks.”

“Yes, well, I suppose menial tasks are my job now, right?” she muttered.

“Exactly.” Tremayne leaned his elbows on the desk, fingers tented before his lips. “Anything else?”

“No chamber pots. That is non-negotiable.”

Jonathan winced. He could hardly blame her. “Done.”

She lifted her chin. “And no sneaking peeks,” she said. “When I’m dressing . . . or bathing . . .” He cast a pointed look at her bodice and she hurried to the chest to retrieve another handkerchief.

“And absolutely no more kissing.”

Tremayne raised a brow. “No kissing? None at all?”

She tucked the handkerchief into her gown. “You’ve established our apparent relationship with your crew. They’re aware I’m staying in your quarters. I wouldn’t think it necessary.”

He rubbed a finger lightly over his lips, back and forth. “Not necessary, no,”
he said, voice low, considering. Sarina’s gaze drifted to his mouth, where he continued to trace a slow circuit across his lips. “But enjoyable.”

She started, eyes snapping up. “Hardly!”

He stood, rounding the desk to stand disturbingly close to her. Sarina took a step back, then forward again, refusing to be intimidated. He loomed over her, eye glittering in the lantern light.

“Are you certain it would be so distasteful, Miss Talbot?” he rasped quietly. “So certain you wouldn’t like it?”

“Of course I wouldn’t!” she insisted, voice catching. She cleared her throat nervously. “I would never . . .”

“Never?” he pressed, leaning even closer. “No reason to hold back, Miss Talbot. It’s not as if your reputation is in danger.”

Sarina sputtered, unable to form words.

“You’re already sharing quarters with a—how did you put it?—a lecherous rake,” he prodded, unable to resist. “Why not enjoy yourself?”

He could see her trembling, although whether her discomfort stemmed from his proximity or her own reaction to it, he wasn’t sure. She swayed toward him slightly, and his mouth curved in victory.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

T.M. Franklin writes stories of adventure, romance, and a little magic. A former TV news producer, she decided making stuff up was more fun than reporting the facts. Her first published novel, MORE, was born during National Novel Writing month, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. MORE was well-received, being selected as a finalist in the 2013 Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book Awards, as well as winning the Suspense/Thriller division of the Blogger Book Fair Reader’s Choice Awards. She’s since written four additional novels and several best-selling short stories…and there’s always more on the way.

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A Taste of Honey (Lively St. Lemeston #4) by Rose Lerner


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Robert Moon risked everything, including his father’s hardwon legacy, to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery on the busiest street in Lively St. Lemeston. Now he’s facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

When a huge catering order comes in, he agrees to close the sweet-shop for a week to fill it. There’s only one problem: his apprentice is out of town, so his beautiful shop-girl Betsy Piper must help Robert in the kitchen.

Betsy’s spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. Now the two of them are alone in a kitchen full of sweet things. With just one week to get him to fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…

She soon discovers that Robert brings the same meticulous, eager-to-please attitude to lovemaking that he does to baking, but can kisses—no matter how sweet—compete with the Honey Moon in his heart?

Publisher and Release Date: Rose Lerner, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Era, Sussex, England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance Novella
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The world of Ms. Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston is much different to the one I experience in my usual historical romantic reading, and it always takes me a few chapters to adjust and settle in. These stories aren’t about dukes and duchesses, wealthy tradesman or even ruthless and diabolical men and women who have used cunning and smarts to become powerful . Instead, the Lively St. Lemeston series features normal people with very human, real and recognizable problems. Yet although I can appreciate (and like) Ms. Lerner’s affectionate and moving portrayals of everyday men and women, A Taste of Honey doesn’t deliver on the escapism I look for when I crack open a romance novel. Fortunately, Ms. Lerner is a terrific writer and the quality of this story transcends its tough luck premise; though short, A Taste of Honey is a sweetly moving and erotic workplace romance in which the romantic relationship that develops between its flawed principals is awkward, charming, and oddly endearing – and in spite of myself, I smiled when it ended.

It’s been quite a while since I read Sweet Disorder, the first book in the series, and I only vaguely remembered Robert Moon, the hero of this story. But for those of you who haven’t read that novel (it’s not necessary), or are similarly memory-challenged, he owns the Honey Moon Confectionary in Lively St. Lemeston and when we first met him, local elections loomed, the Tories needed more votes to secure their candidate, and the Honey Moon wasn’t turning a profit. Desperate to secure the financial future of his shop (and despite a secret affection for his shopgirl, Betsy Piper), Robert agreed to marry a young local widow in order to secure two additional votes for the Tories in exchange for financial security at the Honey Moon. The pair were ill-matched, the plot convoluted and destined to fail, and the widow fell in love with and married another man. When A Taste of Honey begins, Robert is still single and wants to marry Betsy… but the shop is nearly bankrupt, and he faces a possible stint in debtor’s prison. Unwilling to pursue a relationship with the beautiful Betsy with the Honey Moon on the verge of failing, he keeps his regard for her to himself.

The solution to Robert’s problems arrives in the form of a large catering order from the haughty Mrs. Lovejoy, who is hosting the local assembly and wants Robert to cater the event. Payment for the order will keep the Honey Moon open, provide funds to pay off his creditors and means Robert will finally be able to pursue Betsy. Unfortunately, his apprentice Peter is out of town; fulfilling the large order will require him to close his shop for a week, work non-stop with Betsy to complete the order on time, and take on additional debt. Robert agrees despite his misgivings about Mrs. Lovejoy (who frequently changes her mind and seems to dislike Betsy), and concerns about the small margin for error should they fail.

Meanwhile, Betsy harbors a secret tendre for Robert. She wants to marry him, support him at the shop and be his helpmeet in every way. Hurt by his proposal to the widow Phoebe Stark – despite knowing why he did it, and tortured by thoughts that Robert doesn’t think she is good enough for him – she’s convinced this week working together is just what she needs to secure his affections. When her closest friend urges her to seduce him, she decides she will – if she has to. Not quite a virgin (she had a brief liaison some time back), she isn’t afraid of sex or pleasure and she wants Robert. So, after a long morning working alongside him, and growing increasingly bold with her suggestive innuendos that he fails to respond to, she seduces him.

Robert is a virgin. He’s shocked when Betsy suggests they have an affair, but he’s more than willing… and eager. What follows – a week in which they awkwardly and sweetly discover pleasure in each other – only complicates their relationship. Robert is consumed with thoughts of Betsy and all the things he wants to do to and with her, but convinced he can’t commit to her until his the future of the shop is secure. Betsy is similarly consumed with her feelings for Robert; she’s convinced she can and should be his partner at the Honey Moon and in life, but she’s hurt by his focus on the shop and silence on the subject of their relationship. Meanwhile, between passionate and erotic encounters in the kitchens, they work together to fill the catering order – which the insufferable and condescending Mrs. Lovejoy changes on a daily basis.

A Taste of Honey is a novella and the pace of the story is necessarily brisk, but Ms. Lerner paces the relationship perfectly. After all, Betsy and Robert knew and liked each other long before this story began and compressing their relationship into the week Robert has to fill the catering order is cleverly done. Unfortunately, the short format doesn’t provide much opportunity to explore the principal characters outside of their relationship to each other, and if you aren’t already familiar with Robert and Betsy from Sweet Disorder, you may wish you knew a bit more about them and the secondary characters that comprise the community of Lively St. Lemeston. That said, I liked both principals very much, and Ms. Lerner does a terrific job balancing their sexual exploration with their discoveries about each other – his/her fears, dreams and desires. In lovemaking, they’re eager and adventurous partners; outside of it, they’re cautious and plagued with doubts. It’s a frustrating, tender and confusing courtship… until the horrible Mrs. Lovejoy (more like killjoy) unknowingly helps them find their way to a deliciously satisfying happily ever after, complete with a side dish of revenge.

The Lively St. Lemeston series takes a very different approach to the Regency-era novels most romance readers have grown accustomed to. I won’t lie – I still love my dukes, rakes and tortured heroes – but Ms. Lerner makes a compelling case for this alternate version – ordinary men and women and their equally strong hopes and dreams. It’s not quite the escape I usually like in my romance novels, but it’s a fascinating, addictive and romantic version nonetheless. Readers looking for something a bit different should sample this sweet and charming honey of a story.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Not a Gentleman by Loreen Augeri

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When Juliana Stevenson’s father dies under suspicious circumstances, her greedy uncle betroths her and her sister to vile men for his profit. They refuse to be part of his plan and flee, but her uncle hires an arrogant, demanding man to bring them back.

Needing money to care for his brother and sister and repair a manor in disrepair, Nicholas Blackstone agrees to find the women. He captures Juliana but not her sister and imprisons her in his manor until he can discover the whereabouts of her sibling.

Juliana’s body calls to Nicholas, but she can never be his — her life is already mapped out. Can they fight the passion pulling them together while her father’s killer stalks them?

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EXCERPT

The small, warm form lay still below him. Had he killed her? No. Her ragged gasps penetrated his fear. Nicholas hadn’t meant to land so hard, but the aggravating chit deserved it. She held a gun on him and threatened to shoot!

But she was a woman, and a small one at that. He jumped off her, grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet.

“Let go…of…me.” She panted as she fought to catch her breath.

“Are you hurt?”

“I don’t…know. Probably. You pounced on me.” She fought to free herself.

He released her. “You had a gun.”

Miss Stevenson brushed the dirt from her bodice and skirt. “You tried to kidnap us.”

“I wasn’t kidnapping you. I was returning you and your sister to your uncle. He is worried about you.” He strode to one side of the cave and scooped up the gun lying beside the wall.

“He doesn’t care for us. His concern is how much money our marriages will bring him.” She examined her palm and winced. “We won’t go back.”

“He is your guardian.” He peered at her hands. “You cut yourself.”

She glared at him. “It’s your fault, and he’s not my guardian. I am of age.”

“Well, Miss Emily isn’t, and he wants you both. Where will your sister hide?”

“I have no idea.”

She walked away. This female who didn’t reach his shoulder actually walked away. He thought this job would be quick and easy, and he would soon be with his brother and sister with money to start repairing the crumbling estate he inherited, so he could return to the army where he belonged. Where exasperating women didn’t question his orders and answered when asked for information. He ran to catch up and grabbed her elbow. “Where are you going?”

With defiance flashing in her green eyes, she jerked from his grip. “To wash my hands.”

He let her leave. She wouldn’t travel far. She didn’t have a horse. And neither did he. Her bag sat on the ground with supplies strewn around it. He stuffed the items inside and scanned the cave. He hadn’t missed anything. He exited and stalked to the ocean.

Miss Stevenson crouched at the water’s edge, swishing her hands in the cold water. The sun starting its descent highlighted the honey-colored swirls in her cinnamon-brown hair. She had removed her leather half boots and cotton stockings, and lifted the hem of her blue skirt and white petticoat to avoid the waves. White, slim ankles peeked out and called to his fingers to wrap around the fragile bones and caress the warm, soft skin. To continue up the leg…

What was he thinking? He had taken this job for the money not a sexual interlude. Other females could take care of those needs. Ones who wouldn’t point a gun at him. He ambled to Miss Stevenson and stopped behind her. “How are your hands?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

Exasperating chit. “Where will I find your sister?”

“I told you, I don’t know.” She swept her hands through the water.

“I think you do. Get up.”

She stilled and looked at him, her eyes wary. “Why?”

“Because we are leaving.”

She rose and faced him. “I am not returning to my uncle.”

“We are not going there. He wants you and Miss Emily taken to him together. Since I don’t have your sister… But I will find her with or without your help and when I do, you will go back. Now, put on your boots and stockings.”

“We’ll see about that,” she whispered to herself but loud enough for him to hear. She snatched her footwear and marched up the sand to a dry spot away from the waves. She jammed them on her feet muttering to herself. When she finished, she hugged her knees and stared at him. “If not to my uncle’s, where are we headed? As you can see, we have no horses.” A self-satisfied smirk spread across her face.

She would be trouble, but he had led hardened, seasoned men and she was a slip of a girl. “Warrior wouldn’t have wandered far. We will find him and then search for your sister.”

Her smile fell. “Forget my sister. You have me.”

He started toward her. She tensed.

He was glad to see he had some impact on her. “Your uncle stressed he particularly wanted Miss Emily. And I can see why. She is pretty and obeys orders. Now let’s go.” He stomped past her.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Loreen Augeri has always wanted to write. As a child, her stories were about the horses she enjoyed riding. Later in life, after taking a course taught by Hannah Howell, she turned to writing historical romances. She is a member of RWA and the New England Chapter. Loreen lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. Graduating with degrees in sociology and computer science, she now works in her local library. She loves to read historical romances, the hundreds of books stored in her basement attest to that, walk, dance, and spend time at the beach in the summer.

Visit Loreen on her website: http://www.loreenaugeri.com/

AUDIO REVIEW: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers, narrated by Hamish McKinlay

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David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.

David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Publisher and Release Date: Joanna Chambers, August 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, 1820 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Running Time: 5 hours 52 minutes
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read the Enlightenment trilogy three times – it’s one of my most favorite historical series, queer or straight.  I love how Ms. Chambers paces the central relationship over the course of the trilogy, neatly dovetailing it with an intriguing subplot that similarly plays out over the three books, while also linking the actions of her principal characters to the time period.  Well drawn secondary characters play central roles in the progress of the story, but the focus remains on the romantic relationship at its heart.  Although Provoked is my least favorite of the three books that comprise the trilogy, it’s still tremendously compelling and entertaining.  To my happy surprise, narrator Hamish McKinlay’s terrific narration further elevates this moving, frustrating story; I’m delighted to tell you he does a marvelous job bringing the characters and novel to life.  Provoked is provoking… and a wonderful prelude of what’s to come.

David Lauriston is slowly and steadily building his reputation as an advocate in Edinburgh.   Despite humble origins and a lack of family connections, he’s managed to make a place for himself in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.  However, when Provoked opens, his loyalty to crown and country is in question.  He’s spent the past months unsuccessfully defending a group of weavers accused of treason.  On this day, he’s witnessed the execution of two of the men he defended, and though he’s convinced of their innocence, he’s aware that the case has raised concerns that David similarly harbours radical sympathies.  Stopping overnight at an inn on his way back to Edinburgh, he enters the dining room and to his dismay, discovers it full of locals and travelers discussing the case.  Fortunately, the innkeeper spots him lurking in the doorway and directs him to a private room.

Left on his own and lost in his thoughts, a somber David is surprised by the arrival of another dinner guest. Murdo Balfour is also staying at the inn, and after the two men introduce themselves, he joins David for dinner.  Mr. Balfour is handsome, urbane and charming, and David finds himself – against his better judgement – captivated and attracted to his companion.  The air is electric as an undercurrent of attraction pulses between them; after a couple of drams of whisky, a few charged glances, and a whispered exchange of words, David finds himself on his knees in a dark alleyway sucking Murdo’s cock.  But unlike most of David’s furtive, shameful experiences with men, the encounter doesn’t end there.  Instead, Murdo pulls him up, kisses him – whispering all the naughty things he’d like to do with David – and brings him off with his hand.  David knows he’ll hate himself for lapsing soon enough, but for now, just the memory of Balfour and his dark, dirty words is enough to inflame him again… and again… and again.

David returns to Edinburgh determined to put the night behind him, but even new professional opportunities aren’t enough to enable him to forget Balfour.  He’s consumed with thoughts of the man… until he’s approached by Euan MacLennan, brother of one of the convicted weavers, who believes a government agent betrayed the convicted men.  Armed with a vague idea of what the man looks like and a possible connection to the daughter of a senior advocate, Euan is desperate and determined to track down the agent and avenge his brother; David, fearing what Euan might do if he locates the man, cautions him to be careful – but offers to help.

Shortly after Euan’s visit, Ms. Chambers reunites David with Murdo when they find themselves guests at the same dinner party.  David’s intense attraction to Lord Balfour is undiminished, but he’s distracted when he uncovers a possible connection between his host and the man Euan seeks.  The men retire for drinks and David over imbibes in an attempt to distract himself from the effects of Balfour’s proximity, but he’s thwarted when Balfour departs at the same time.  What follows – a passionate interlude and heated words – sets the tone for each of their future encounters – which happen more often than David would like.  Balfour wants David and has no qualms pursuing him while publicly courting a woman.  David’s unwillingness to do the same – or to even entertain the possibility – angers and frustrates Balfour.  Mr. McKinlay does a marvelous job voicing both Balfour’s cynicism and David’s bewildered confusion over his erstwhile lover’s anger.

Told exclusively through David’s point of view, Ms. Chambers uses the dinner party to masterfully link the two central plot lines – David’s tumultuous relationship with Murdo and the search for the government agent who betrayed Euan’s brother.  The intricately plotting coalesces against the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it’s a clever bit of storytelling as the author uses David and Murdo to mirror what’s happening in Edinburgh.  Even as David struggles with guilt over his forbidden desires, he’s willing to question his government and its leaders; conversely, Murdo has no guilt or moral shame over his sexual desires, and though he recognizes the plight of the poor and unfortunate, he has no desire or interest in changing the status quo.  David and Murdo – enlightened in very different ways – are a fascinating match-up.  The combination of their scorching chemistry, intense attraction and clear affection  – though they try to disguise it – is richly compelling.  Their passion for each other is so well done.

I started listening to Provoked very familiar with the story, and unsure whether the audio version could anything new to my perceptions of it.  It did.  Although I struggled early on with Mr. McKinlay’s narration, it didn’t take long for me to begin to enjoy it – and to FINALLY begin to see David in a more sympathetic light. I, much like Murdo, struggled with what I perceived as David’s goody-two-shoes, self-righteous and sanctimonious persona.  But Mr. McKinlay somehow imbues the character with a kindness and sweetness, and an underlying sense of bewilderment over Murdo – he can’t reconcile how he feels for the man with his moral compass, and he really can’t understand what about him seems to trigger Murdo’s mercurial emotions when they’re together.  I finally LIKED David listening to him.  I particularly loved the narrator’s portrayal of Murdo in all his Provoked incarnations – charming, playful, naughty, angry, and even petulant – especially in his last encounter with David.  He’s a gorgeous character on the page, and in Mr. McKinlay’s voice he’s even more wonderful.  I’m not as fond of the narrator’s female voices – they just made me uncomfortable – but his portrayal of David and Murdo transcends these issues.

I didn’t think I could love the Enlightenment trilogy any more than I do, but Hamish McKinlay’s voice truly elevates Provoked.  I will anxiously await book two, and prepare to be beguiled (wink) by his voice all over again.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.