With This Christmas Ring by Manda Collins

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Miss Merry Parks makes a deathbed promise to a schoolfriend that her infant daughter will be taken to her absent father. There’s only one problem—to find the baby’s father, she’ll have to consult his cousin, Viscount Wrotham, the man she jilted five years ago. The man she couldn’t forget.

Alex Ponsonby, Viscount Wrotham, is stunned to find Merry Parks—looking more lovely than ever–on his doorstep with an infant in her arms. His shock soon turns to dismay when he learns his own cousin William is the man who abandoned his wife and child. As head of the family he’s duty bound to see right is done. But he can’t let this opportunity pass. He’ll take Merry and the baby to his cousin, but he’ll woo her back in the process.

Merry agrees to travel with Alex and the baby to Wrotham Castle, where the entire Ponsonby family has gathered for Christmas, but her plans to see the baby settled then leave are ruined by a snowstorm. After five years apart, Alex and Merry will spend the week getting reacquainted. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the holiday, or the magic of the season, but there could be something else in the air this Yuletide…A Christmas Reunion.

Publisher and Release Date: Swerve, October 2017

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

Review by Sara

With This Christmas Ring is a delightful holiday story full of second chances. A couple has the chance to clear up the misunderstandings that pulled them apart years before and in true Christmas fashion, a child’s birth brings everyone joy, love and the miracle of a happy ending.

Five years ago Miss Merry Parks and Alexander Ponsonby, Viscount Wrotham were engaged to marry. Their courtship had been a whirlwind affair but for each of them it was a perfect match. Merry saw Alex as a man who would love and appreciate his family before all others; Alex appreciated Merry’s intelligence and her kind heart. The only formalities left before they posted the bans were for Merry to meet the rest of the Ponsonby family, including Alex’s grandmother the dowager Viscountess. That fateful meeting between the young, insecure Merry and the formidable family matriarch changed everything and suddenly the engagement was off. Merry returned to her father’s home to serve as his secretary and try to heal her wounded heart. Her love for Alex never waned but her life soon became a routine of academic studies and supporting her friends whenever they needed her.

That need brings everything full circle when Merry’s best friend Charlotte dies giving birth to a baby girl. Before she passes, Charlotte reveals that she had been married in secret to Mr. William Ponsonby, cousin of Merry’s former betrothed. Merry swears to her friend that she will care for the baby and reunite the child with her father but Charlotte can’t tell her where William might be. Merry understands that to fulfil Charlotte’s dying wish she will have to reunite with Alex and hope that he will help her despite their uncomfortable parting years before.

Alexander Ponsonby has recently returned to England after spending a year in France in order to reconnect with his mother. The former Viscountess Wrotham had abandoned Alex when he was a young child to escape the abuse of his father; however in learning the truth, Alex also learns that his grandmother had played a part in pushing the young Viscountess to leave. Knowing that his grandmother is not above manipulating things to her liking, Alex has started considering the circumstances of his broken betrothal to Merry Parks. He never forgot the beautiful, smart young woman and has every intention of finding her and perhaps working out a way for them to be together again. His quest to reunite with Merry is over before it begins when she arrives at his town house with a baby in her arms and a story about his cousin’s secret marriage.

It seems too farfetched to believe his cousin William would marry and then never tell anyone but Merry has never been the type to lie. The Ponsonby family is gathered to celebrate Christmas at their home in Kent and Alex knows where he can find William to get the truth of the matter. Merry takes her role of the baby’s protector seriously and seems hesitant to leave her in anyone else’s care so Alex convinces her to travel with him to Kent to confront William and see that the baby is safe with her father. He also hopes that the journey will provide a chance for him to talk to Merry about her decision years before. If she’d reveal her reasons about why she left perhaps Alex can show her that their future will be happier if she can give their love a second chance.

Merry and Alex’s romance is the kind that is both simple and complex at once. Their love for each other is very clear but when they first were together there were challenges that neither one wanted to see. Merry was very sheltered in her father’s household and was perhaps not mature enough to see what it would take to be married to a peer like Alex. She needed to discover herself and find the inner confidence that could protect her from outside influences like the dowager Viscountess. Alex had lived through the pain of his mother’s abandonment but it had left a hole in his heart that Merry’s love might not have been enough to fill. In the five years of their separation he finds the courage to confront his mother about her choice and is mature enough to understand that a relationship is as much about giving as it is taking. Every moment he spends with Merry during the Christmas celebration he gives her his heart again in little ways; trusting her, protecting her and letting her take what she needs to feel safe enough to open her own heart again.

I enjoyed With this Christmas Ring, not only for Merry and Alex’s romance but also for another smaller second chance story that happens in the background. It’s a little different from Manda Collins’ usual style of romance with a hint of mystery, but it’s still very sweet and satisfying. For those who want to start their Christmas reading a little early or just love a story of people finding another chance to be together, this is a novella that I definitely recommend.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar by Rachel Tsoumbakos

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Lagertha was known to be one of the wives of the famous Viking Ragnar Lodbrok. But did you know they first met each other at a brothel? And just how long did their marriage last? Was Lagertha really the revered shield maiden we see her as today? ‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ aims to unravel all these secrets.

‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ is so much more than a history book though.

In Part One their story is brought to life with a historically accurate retelling. Part Two then explores the historical facts surrounding this story.

‘Vikings: The Truth About Lagertha And Ragnar’ aims to discover just how much of what we know of the shield maiden Lagertha and the famous Ragnar Lodbrok in popular culture today is actually true.

‘The Truth About’ series explores the historical fact from present day fiction in regards to the Vikings and other key historical figures that existed in the Viking era.

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EXCERPT

“Did you see that woman?” Ragnar was sitting next to one of the fires burning bright in Fro’s village. The tinder had once been a building and the fire blazed high up into the dark sky. “Her hair was like gold spun with fire.”

Erik laughed at him. “Such a fancy way to describe bloodmatted hair, have you sipped Odin’s gift while I was not looking? You can have you warrior women, I am happy with a woman I do not have to fear can match me in a fight.”

There was laughter as the men listened in on the conversation.

“She intrigues me,” Ragnar said to no one in particular. “I need to find out more about her.”

“Are you really after a common whore? And what of Aslaug? Is she not warming your bed now she has presented you with so many sons?” The questions came from the back of the group. He searched the shadows but couldn’t work out who had said it.

“I think it is one thing to be a common whore, but quite another to be raised noble and trained as a shield maiden but be forced into that life because of a dispute between leaders.” He ignored the other questions about Aslaug. Yes, she had borne him many sons, and yes, she was no longer eager to share their bed. It was complicated and something he did not feel like addressing with a field full of drunkards. Besides, here he was, far away from his wife’s bed, and it was a given someone else was likely to warm his furs while away from home.

There was silence for a moment, as if the crowd was not sure whether to pursue the unanswered questions as they contemplated the way noble standing can fall so quickly at the folly of kings.

Then someone raised their drinking horn and proposed another toast, this time to the valkyries.

“On all sides saw I | Valkyries assemble,
Ready to ride | to the ranks of the gods;
Skuld bore the shield, | and Skogul rode next,
Guth, Hild, Gondul, | and Geirskogul.
Of Herjan’s maidens | the list have ye heard,
Valkyries ready | to ride o’er the earth.”

Several men cheered, likening her to a maiden of Herjan, or outright calling her a valkyrie. Others still, thought she was more like a beserker, entering the battle with a bloodlust normally reserved for them.

Regardless, cheering returned and Ragnar moved to the edge of the fire. He gazed deeply into the flames, his thoughts distracted by the maiden he had seen. He remembered her golden hair flicking out behind her, her face as he had slain Fro, and chuckled to himself. She had been both relieved and angry at Fro’s death. Ragnar suspected she wanted the victory for herself, and he didn’t blame her for those thoughts. He would have been downright outraged at not being able to bring justice to a man how had wronged him. The thought of her being upset with him over Fro’s death both upset and aroused him.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rachel Tsoumbakos is a stay home mother of two. Her main passions are writing, reading and organic gardening. Rachel lives with her husband, two kids, three cats and seven chickens in suburban Melbourne, Australia.

While she has several articles published through mainstream magazines, she has also written extensively for The Inquisitr.

Over the years, Rachel has been interested in many aspects of history. When studying a Library Studies diploma, she discovered just how much she enjoyed researching and has since used these skills in several of her novels.

However, it was her work with The Inquisitr that brought her into the world of the Vikings and she has spent several years delving into the sagas of this culture as well as the history of the Viking Era.

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Rachel-Tsoumbakos/e/B004Q2IRR6
Author website: https://racheltsoumbakos.wordpress.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/rtsoumbakos
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/mrszoomby

RETRO REVIEW: Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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When Truelove Becket’s betrothed went missing in a naval battle, she vowed never to marry unless she found someone she loved as much. In the seven years since then, the quiet vicar’s daughter has lived a simple and contented life helping the poor people of her village. But now another man has asked for her hand in marriage and, unsure if she is ready to commit to him, she agrees to accompany her beautiful cousin Arabella on a trip to visit friends so she can take time to think it over.

Viscount Drake cut a dashing figure when he returned from war to a hero’s welcome, but the Battle of Waterloo left him a shattered and haunted man. As his dreams are invaded by the terrors of war he becomes a sleepless shell of a man, and as his torment grows he begins to wonder if marriage to the lovely Arabella will help restore him again. But as Arabella coquettishly flirts to secure Drake’s hand and his riches, it is the pretty and practical True he turns to for solace.

With the weight of her marriage proposal bearing down on her, True finds herself irresistibly attracted to Drake’s quiet dignity and genuine distress, just as he finds himself drawn to her honest nature and soothing compassion. When a spark of passion ignites between these two who have both lost so much to war, they will have to confront their biggest fears—and everyone else’s plans for their futures—to discover if love can truly cure all ills.

Publisher and Release Date: Originally published by Zebra in 2001.  Digital reissue, Beyond the Page, 2015

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Regency Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

The story of the poor relation who falls in love with the well-to-do handsome hero destined to marry another (who is completely wrong for him) is a familiar one, but while Donna Lea Simpson’s Miss Truelove Beckons ostensibly follows that pattern, the author actually subverts the trope of the “evil other woman” and crafts a story of more weight and substance than is found in many other Regency romances.

Major General Lord Wycliffe Prescott, Viscount Drake, son and heir of the Earl of Leathorne, joined the army when he was just eighteen, and served for a number of years before almost meeting his end at the Battle of Waterloo.  He was lauded as a hero on his return to England, but he couldn’t feel less like one; he saw too much death, bloodshed and wanton destruction, killed too many men and came too close to death himself to feel anything but disgusted by the war and his part in it.  Fortunately for Drake, the only outward evidence of his long service is a bad leg injury which has left him with a slight limp, but on the inside he’s a mess, haunted by memories and worn down by dreams and nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis.  His parents love him dearly but don’t know what to do to help him; naturally, it’s something Drake doesn’t discuss with them, but his mother can hear him screaming at night and is desperately worried for him.

In an attempt to divert Drake’s attention, Lady Leathorne decides it’s time to further a match between her son and Miss Arabella Swinley, the daughter of one of her oldest friends.  Although nothing has been settled officially, the ladies have long cherished the idea of such a thing coming to pass, so the countess invites Lady and Miss Swinley to Lea Park for a few weeks, sure that an engagement will shortly ensue.

The Swinley ladies duly arrive, accompanied by their cousin, Miss Truelove Beckett, the daughter of the country vicar and in whose house Arabella had spent much of her childhood.  She and Truelove – True – used to be very close, but in the years since Arabella’s come-out (and since she has been wholly subject to her mother’s influence) True has sadly noticed her younger cousin becoming more and more spoiled and more and more like her mother, who is sharp, haughty and not always kind.

True has come to Lea Park at Arabella’s request, and also because she needs time to consider the proposal made her by the local curate, Mr. Bottleby.  Seven years earlier, the man True loved was killed and she vowed never to marry unless it was to someone she loved as much as she’d loved Henry.  But she doesn’t want to be alone forever or be a burden on her father; Mr. Bottleby is a good man and True yearns to be useful… but she isn’t sure he will provide the sort of companionship she longs for.

Drake and True are almost immediately drawn to each other and Drake is surprised to find himself telling True things he’s never told anyone about the memories that haunt him and the guilt he carries.  She is a good listener and never judges him, knowing the right things to say and when to ask questions and when to remain silent. Her calm, rational demeanour has a strong effect on Drake, who finds her presence to be the one thing that can truly soothe him; their friendship definitely has a positive effect on Drake and she helps him to realise that he needs something useful to occupy him. This takes the form of a school which will employ veterans skilled in various trades to train other veterans so that they can find work – and for the first time since he returned from war, Drake is finally starting to feel like a whole person once more.

The growing friendship between Drake and True is not looked upon with favour by either his mother or Lady Swinley, although as Lady Leathorne begins to see the improvement in her son’s manner and health, she realises that the most important thing is that he is well and happy – and if Miss Becket is the woman to make him happy, then her social status is of no matter.  Lady Swinley, however, is a different matter; Drake is to marry Arabella, and she is not about to let her mousy cousin cut out her daughter, an acknowledged diamond of the first water.  Arabella at first comes across as a spoilt brat.  She simpers, swoons and pretends to be a dim-wit in the attempt to display all those qualities that so enamour gentlemen of the ton, but none of this has any effect on Drake, who thinks she must be a ninny.  But recognising that his mother’s heart is set on his marrying Arabella, he makes an effort to talk to her and actually finds that she’s not at all as empty-headed as she seems.  Unlike many other books in which the heroine’s rival is a nasty piece of work, Arabella really isn’t; as True has seen, she’s too much influenced by her mother’s mercenary nature, and by Lady Swinley’s constant harping at her about what she should be doing to attract Drake’s interest.

True is terribly torn.  She has fallen in love with Drake, but can see that Arabella is bewildered and disgusted by any mention he makes of the war while recognising that Arabella will make him a much better viscountess than she ever could.  Yet she also knows that Drake needs someone who will understand and love him in a way Arabella is unlikely ever to be able to.  And then there’s Mr.  Bottleby, who is awaiting her answer to his proposal…

Miss Truelove Beckons is a charming and well-written romance that tackles the difficult subject of PTSD in a sensitive way.  So many historical romances set during this period feature heroes returned from war with physical and/or mental injuries which are often glossed over, but that’s not the case here.  Drake is clearly a very troubled man; he suffers sleep deprivation because of his horrific dreams and frequently withdraws into himself during the day… and the reader really feels his pain and desperation.  True is good and kind, but she’s not a doormat; perhaps she’s a bit too good to be true (!) but she’s never overly sweet or cloying.

Although Lady Swinley is a bit of a caricature, the other secondary characters are well-drawn and contribute much towards this book being a cut above average.  Drake’s parents are especially well-done, and the brief insights we are given into their marriage are very poignant, while Arabella becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.  The writing is excellent and the central relationship is nicely developed, although if you like a bit of steam in your romances, this might not be the book for you, as things are fairly low-key with only a few kisses exchanged.  There’s no question that True and Drake are attracted to each other and that their romance is one born of friendship – but while I don’t need to read sex scenes in a romance novel, I do like there to be a decent amount of sexual tension and there isn’t a great deal of that here, which is why I knocked half-a-star off my final rating.

Nonetheless, Miss Truelove Beckons is definitely worth checking out if you are after a well-written, character-driven romance with a bit more heft than is normally found in the genre.

VIRTUAL TOUR: Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt

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A LADY OF LIGHT

Refined, kind, and intelligent, Lady Iris Jordan finds herself the unlikely target of a diabolical kidnapping.  Her captors are the notoriously evil Lords of Chaos.  When one of the masked-and-nude!-Lords spirits her away to his carriage, she shoots him…only to find she may have been a trifle hasty.

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

Cynical, scarred, and brooding, Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has made it his personal mission to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos and destroy them.  Rescuing Lady Jordan was never in his plans.  But now with the Lords out to kill them both, he has but one choice: marry the lady in order to keep her safe.

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER… AND DESIRE

Much to Raphael’s irritation, Iris insists on being the sort of duchess who involes herself in his life—and bed.  Soon he’s drawn to both to her quick wit and her fiery passion.  But when Iris discovers that Raphael’s past may be even more dangerous than the present, she falters.  Is their love strong enough to withstand not only the Lords of Chaos but also Raphael’s own demons?

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, October 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1742
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series has had an impressive run, managing to captivate and entertain readers over a dozen uniformly good novels.  More recently, she’s seamlessly merged the long-running Ghost of St. Giles storyline into a new mystery surrounding the secretive and depraved Lords of Chaos.  This group has plagued Maiden Lane heroes and heroines over the last three books, but in the excellent Duke of Desire, the Lords finally get their comeuppance.  Although I’m sad that Duke of Desire represents an end to the series, I’m happy to tell you this last novel is romantic and profoundly moving, and concludes the series on a high note.  A note of caution before I continue:  The Lords of Chaos are a depraved and sadistic lot who regularly host revels in which their masked members rape and abuse men, women and children.  The hero of Duke of Desire is the son of their former leader, and the victimization of children and rape of women drive the narrative in this book.

The story opens in the midst of a revelry hosted by the Lords of Chaos.  They’ve kidnapped and held captive the Duchess of Kyle, and on this evening she’s to be violated and sacrificed as a form of revenge on the group’s hunter and nemesis, Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle.  Unfortunately, they’ve kidnapped the wrong woman.

Lady Iris Jordan was returning home from Kyle’s wedding when she was forcibly taken from her carriage.  Bound, dirty and hungry, she’s terrified of the naked men in masks arrayed around her in the firelight, diverted only  after their leader, Dionysus, introduces her as the Duchess of Kyle.  She’s quick to correct him, and then listens as a man wearing a wolf mask approaches Dionysus and claims her for himself.  Her original kidnapper attempts to intervene and keep her for the group, but Dionysus allows the wolf to take her away after promising to kill her when he’s done.  Iris is marched to a carriage and angrily tossed in – but she hasn’t given up on hopes of escape.  She frantically searches under the carriage seats for a weapon and when the wolf returns and reveals himself, she shoots him.

Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has finally infiltrated the Lords and plans to destroy them for good.  But he had to abruptly change strategy when he recognized the woman bound before him.  Since meeting her at a ball a few short months ago, he hasn’t been able to put Lady Iris Jordan out of his mind.  Claiming her for himself is the only way to save her.

Bleeding and hurt from the bullet wound to his shoulder, Raphael explains to Iris that he was only trying to rescue her, and that when the Lords discover she’s alive, she’ll be in even more danger.  Desperate to protect her and destroy their common enemy, Raphael, in a desperate solution to buy them more time, proposes they marry.  As his wife, he (and his loyal group of bodyguards) can offer Iris protection as he pursues his revenge on the Lords of Chaos.   After arriving home, a clergyman is summoned and before Iris quite knows what’s happening, she’s married.

The revelry, escape and marriage happen in the opening chapters of Duke of Desire, and Ms. Hoyt somehow managed to convince this reader that it all made sense.  It’s a bit insane and frantic, but much like her heroine, Iris, I decided to go with it and you should too.  The marriage provides the means for Ms. Hoyt to unite two souls who belong together.  Raphael is tortured by memories of his father (a former Dionysus), and a childhood trauma that scarred him for life.  He’s powerful, cold and consumed with plans for revenge on the Lords of Chaos, but he’s also deeply attracted to and affected by Iris and he’s determined to keep her close and safe.  Iris was married to an indifferent, older husband and then after his death, she’s lived a quiet life in her older brother’s household.  She’s alarmed by her attraction to her husband – a virtual stranger – but something about him calls to her.  She’s determined to demand more from this second marriage despite its less than auspicious beginning, and she’s unwilling to meekly follow Raphael’s directions.

As the novel unfolds, Raphael continues his attempts to infiltrate and destroy the Lords of Chaos, but Ms. Hoyt wisely focuses her attention on developing Iris and Raphael as individuals, and then as a romantic couple once it’s clear they’ve fallen for each other.  Duke of Desire deals with some heavy subject matter and Raphael’s secrets aren’t your typical romance novel fare – his past is marked by a deeply troubling climatic event, and even after Iris convinces him to reveal his past, he struggles to overcome it.  Though Iris hasn’t ‘suffered’ at quite the same level her husband has, she’s still damaged by her past as the wife of an indifferent husband.  I found the relationship between these two profoundly moving, and the way they inch towards each other – physically and emotionally – satisfying on every level.  Their physical relationship is particularly well done – they have a passionate attraction to each other – and I loved Iris’s willingness to seduce her husband and satisfy her own curiosities about lovemaking.  Raphael is overwhelmed by his attraction to Iris, and his futile attempts to resist her bold attempts to seduce him are priceless.  He can’t resist her, and when he allows himself to give in… it’s sexy and naughty and wonderful.  They’re a terrific match-up and perhaps one of my favorite Maiden Lane pairings.

I won’t spoil who Dionysus is, or reveal how Raphael’s investigation into the Lords of Chaos eventually concludes, except to say the resolution is a bit convoluted, and the final revelation of Dionysus is anticlimactic.  After a three novel build-up, and chapters detailing Dionysus’ machinations against Raphael, I wish Ms. Hoyt had spent a bit more time developing the leader and his backstory.  We know a bit about his awful history – enough to feel some sympathy for what he’s become – but the ending to this MAJOR storyline is rushed and unsatisfying.

While Duke of Desire is ostensibly about Raphael’s efforts to destroy the Lords of Chaos, it’s the redemptive love affair – passionate, tender and perfect – forged in a desperate attempt to thwart the depraved Lords of Chaos, that, quite rightly, takes centre stage.  It  shouldn’t work – but it does.  He’s damaged, she’s determined, and though the premise of their marriage seems ludicrous, Ms. Hoyt capably navigates their tricky road to happily ever after.


EXCERPT

Desperately she flung herself at the opposite seat and tugged it up. Thrust her hand in.

A pistol.

She cocked it, desperately praying that it was loaded.

She turned and aimed it at the door to the carriage just as the door swung open.

The Wolf loomed in the doorway—still nude—a lantern in one hand. She saw the eyes behind the mask flick to the pistol she held between her bound hands. He turned his head and said something in an incomprehensible language to someone outside.

Iris felt her breath sawing in and out of her chest.

He climbed into the carriage and closed the door, completely ignoring her and the pistol pointed at him. The Wolf hung the lantern on a hook and sat on the seat across from her.

Finally he glanced at her. “Put that down.”

His voice was calm. Quiet.

With just a hint of menace.

She backed into the opposite corner, as far away from him as possible, holding the pistol up. Level with his chest. Her heart was pounding so hard it nearly deafened her. “No.”

The carriage jolted into motion, making her stumble before she caught herself.

“T-tell them to stop the carriage,” she said, stuttering with terror despite her resolve. “Let me go now.”

“So that they can rape you to death out there?” He tilted his head to indicate the Lords. “No.”

“At the next village, then.”

“I think not.”

He reached for her and she knew she had no choice.

She shot him.

The blast blew him into the seat and threw her hands up and back, the pistol narrowly missing her nose.

Iris scrambled to her feet. The bullet was gone, but she could still use the pistol as a bludgeon.

The Wolf was sprawled across the seat, blood streaming from a gaping hole in his right shoulder. His mask had been knocked askew on his face.

She reached forward and snatched it off.

And then gasped.

The face that was revealed had once been as beautiful as an angel’s but was now horribly mutilated. A livid red scar ran from just below his hairline on the right side of his face, bisecting the eyebrow, somehow missing the eye itself but gouging a furrow into the lean cheek and catching the edge of his upper lip, making it twist. The scar ended in a missing divot of flesh in the line of the man’s severe jaw. He had inky black hair and, though they were closed now, Iris knew he had emotionless crystal-gray eyes.

She knew because she recognized him.

He was Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, and when she’d danced with him—once—three months ago at a ball, she’d thought he’d looked like Hades.

God of the underworld.

God of the dead.

She had no reason to change her opinion now.

Then he gasped, those frozen crystal eyes opened, and he glared at her. “You idiot woman. I’m trying to save you.”

 

GIVEAWAY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Hoyt is the New York Times bestselling author of over seventeen lush historical romances including the Maiden Lane series. Publishers Weekly has called her writing “mesmerizing.” She also pens deliciously fun contemporary romances under the name Julia Harper. Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with three untrained dogs, a garden in constant need of weeding, and the long-suffering Mr. Hoyt.

You can connect with Elizabeth at:

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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Brambles and Thorns by Jocelyn Kirk

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Elena Bellwood’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother dies and leaves her penniless. She is forced to move from her beloved home in New York City to live with an aunt in Connecticut—an aunt she never knew existed. During her journey north, she meets Benjamin Garrick, a blunt-spoken gentleman with a strange hobby. Against her will, Elena finds herself attracted to his manly demeanor, and she is both pleased and flustered to learn he is a close friend of her aunt and lives in the same village.

In her new life with Aunt Rosalie, Elena begins to question her past. Why had she never been told of her aunt? What is the significance of the odd items she found in her mother’s bedroom? Who is the stranger in town that seems always to be staring at her? To answer these questions, Elena must explore past secrets that tear apart her world.

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EXCERPT

The duke took her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you for coming, Your Grace.” She seated herself and the duke did likewise. Willa entered, and Elena ordered tea.

“I owe you an apology,” the duke began, “for not attending your mother’s funeral. I was out of the city for a few days on business, and the weather forced me to stay in Queens for an extra day.”

“Pray do not distress yourself. No one can stop snow when it decides to fall. You are here now, and I am deeply grateful for it.”

Willa came in with tea, and Elena served it. The duke sipped the hot liquid and devoured two of the sweet buns Willa placed on the table. He said nothing while he ate, rather surprising Elena with his silence.

Perhaps, she reasoned, he is gathering his courage for the presentation of his proposals. She attempted to wait patiently.

Finally, he spoke. “Miss Bellwood, what are your future plans?”

A thrill ran through her. “I…am not certain.”

“Have you no family to go to? You are not contemplating remaining in New York alone, I trust.”

“No. I have an aunt in Connecticut. I suppose I must go to her, unless…”

The duke started to speak but halted his words. He sighed and took her hand.

“I am fond of you, Elena, and because I care for you, I cannot be satisfied with being less than honest. To you I will speak the truth.”
“My dear duke, what do you mean?”

“I believe—correct me if I am mistaken—my attentions to you may perhaps have given rise to expectations…”

Elena instantly decided to be as frank as he. She took a deep breath and attempted to speak calmly. “Yes, perhaps they did, on my mother’s part, if not quite certainly my own.”

“If you recall, I was going to wait upon you on the day of your mother’s death.”

“Yes.”

“My purpose in calling was to request a private interview with you…”

“A private interview?”

“Yes. I feared that there had been some talk about us, and I wanted you to know, to forewarn you before the news broke.”

“Forewarn me? Your Grace, what do you mean?”

He smoothed his trousers. “Elena, a few days before your mother died, I engaged myself to Miss Julia Howarth—”

“Engaged yourself! Do you mean…?”

“Engaged to be married, yes.”

“Dear God! You were dancing with me—flirting with me—while engaged to another woman! That is despicable!”

He shrugged. “When you are in my arms, Elena, I find it impossible to think of anyone but you. I am not quite in love with you, but very near.”

She stared at him in horror and disbelief. “You are half in love with me, but then you—but why not…?”

He answered her unarticulated question. “My dear, you have no dowry, whereas Miss Howarth will bring the equivalent of thirty thousand English pounds. I am thirty-six years old, not a foolish young blade who would marry out of unalloyed devotion to the object of his desires. My inquiries as to your inheritance were met with the shocking information of your mother’s indebtedness. And now…rumor has it that you are destitute.”

“Good God!” Elena cried, unable to control her tongue. “You, with your wealth, would spurn me because my mother left no money?”

“Calm yourself, my dear, I pray you. The reason I am wealthy—and my family is wealthy—is because we never take any material step without a consideration of the financial aspects of it. I find you extremely charming and attractive, and I was willing to make you my choice even if your mother’s estate had been moderate. But no man in my condition of life would be so foolish as to take a bride who brings nothing to the marriage—not wealth nor noble blood nor future property. I would be a laughingstock.”

Elena leaned back in her chair, barely able to breathe from the shock of his revelations. She felt giddy and faint. She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to find breath to form words. The duke poured sherry and attempted to hold the glass to her lips, but she pushed his hand away with such force that the sweet wine spilled on the settee and splashed her silk gown.

“Elena, I beseech you, calm yourself. I am here to offer you a different type of proposal, and you may very well find this one equally to your liking.”

She raised her eyes to his face and stared at him. A cold chill ran down her back, and she shivered.

“Surely you are aware that most men in my position in life marry for wealth or family considerations, often to women for whom they have little desire. In such cases, it is customary for a gentleman to…to…”

“To keep a mistress?” Elena gasped, able to speak at last.

He shrugged. “To put it plainly, yes.”

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Jocelyn’s fascination with life in the 1800s began when she was a teenager and started reading historical novels. She was influenced by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Jocelyn resides in the historic town of Mystic, Connecticut.

The Duke (Devil’s Duke #3) by Katharine Ashe

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Six years ago, when Lady Amarantha Vale was an innocent in a foreign land and Gabriel Hume was a young naval officer, they met . . . and played with fire.

Now Gabriel is the dark lord known to society as the Devil’s Duke, a notorious recluse hidden away in a castle in the Highlands. Only Amarantha knows the truth about him, and she won’t be intimidated. He is the one man who can give her the answers she needs.

But Gabriel cannot let her learn his darkest secret. So begins a game of wit and desire that proves seduction is more satisfying—and much more wicked—the second time around…


Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 2017

Time and Setting: Jamaica and Scotland, 1817/1823
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

If you follow my reviews you already know I’m a big fan of Katharine Ashe.  The Falcon Club series is one of my favorites, and I’ve enjoyed each of the books in her spin-off Devil’s Duke series.  The Duke is yet another great addition to her catalog and I enjoyed most of it.  Unfortunately, Ms. Ashe tries to do a bit too much within the framework of her story – touching on abuse and slavery before the novel concludes – and seems to lose sight of the central plot, a second chance love affair between her very compelling principals.  But I liked it anyway!  The principal characters have great chemistry, their love affair spans years and oceans, and it’s another memorable addition to this marvelous series.

Lady Amarantha Vale grew up knowing exactly what kind of man she would one day fall in love with.  As a young girl, discussing love and marriage with her sister Emily, she didn’t worry about her father’s plans for her future; Amarantha was certain she would eventually meet and marry her true love.  At seventeen, she thought she’d found him – the Reverend Paul Garland, a young missionary bound for Jamaica.  Unfortunately for Amarantha, shortly after traveling across the ocean to marry Paul and begin their life together, she meets the true love of her life – naval officer Gabriel Hume, after she’s forced to shelter with him during a horrific hurricane.

When Lt. Gabriel Hume disembarked in Jamaica, he never expected to find himself alone in a cellar with a beautiful, unmarried woman.  Handsome and charming, Gabriel is immediately attracted to Amarantha, but recognizing how frightened she is, sets out to calm her.  The pair end up passing a companionable evening getting to know each other and keeping their fear at bay.  By the time the night ends, Gabriel knows he’s fallen in love with the lovely – engaged – Amarantha, and decides to do whatever he can to win her.

Emerging from the cellar, Gabriel and Amarantha discover an island ravaged by the effects of the hurricane.   Gabriel returns to his ship and Amarantha to Paul – only to discover him busy with plans to repair his damaged church.  She finds work volunteering at a hospital for the island’s poor, and it’s there that Gabriel locates her.  He sets out to woo her away from her fiancé – visiting her every day, lending her a hand whenever he can, and slowly but surely charming the lovely Aramantha.

It’s clear from the moment they meet that these two are destined for each other, but it takes time and patience for Gabriel to convince her to leave her fiancé.  She’s finally decided to break off the engagement when Gabriel receives orders to depart Jamaica.  Amarantha promises to wait for him, but shortly after he sets sail, she learns he’s lost at sea.  Devastated, Amarantha privately mourns Gabriel… until his cousin informs her that he’s alive and living with another woman.  Furious, heartbroken and alone, she marries Paul and vows to forget Gabriel.

This first (and best) part of The Duke is fabulous.  From the first moments in the cellar to their last moments together – when they can barely keep their hands to themselves and Amarantha promises to wait for Gabriel, I smiled and sighed and swooned as these two fell in love.  Gabriel is naughty, patient, kind and sweet, and he works hard to charm Amarantha and win her affections.  Amarantha knows she’s fallen for the handsome captain, but fights her feelings – she’s betrothed to Paul and plans to honor her commitment to him regardless of the love she feels for Gabriel.  When she finally decides to break her engagement and Gabriel begs her to wait for him… Oh reader!  It’s been such a delicious tease hoping for these two to get together… until Ms. Ashe dashes our hopes with the disappointing news that Gabriel has taken up with another woman.  Along with Aramantha, I WAS DEVASTATED.

Five years later, the widowed Amarantha is determined to find her friend Penny, who departed Jamaica for Scotland and hasn’t been heard from since.  She follows Penny’s trail to Leith, where she finds her friend and learns of the Devil’s Duke, a man rumored to kidnap vulnerable women and hold them captive in his remote castle.  Suspicious, Amarantha sets out to discover the truth about the Devil’s Duke and discovers… Well, reader, you know who it is, don’t you?   It’s Gabriel – the man she loved so long ago – but he’s not the man she once knew.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Amarantha discovers that Gabriel is the Devil’s Duke – or even why and how he’s earned the nickname, because from the moment she discovers why Penny sought out Gabriel, Ms. Ashe’s story goes a bit sideways.  It’s convoluted and messy and difficult to explain without spoiling the plot.  Suffice it to say that while I do think the author makes it work, if the relationship between Gabriel and Amarantha weren’t so delicious, my feelings about this novel might be decidedly different.

But Gabriel and Amarantha are a dynamic and fiery pair.  She thinks he abandoned her; he thinks she gave up on him.  But shh…THEY STILL LOVE EACH OTHER ANYWAY!  From the very beginning, Amarantha demonstrated a willingness to follow her heart – even when it led her to mad, impetuous decisions.  She’s frustrating and difficult to like – because even though she’s loving and loyal to her friends (and her former husband), she’s blind to the hurt she caused Gabriel, and unwilling to accept the blame for their long separation.  She steadfastly followed Paul to Jamaica, only to realize she loved another man.  But then she gave up on Gabriel – with so little evidence of his guilt, and married Paul anyway… Yowsers.  I sympathized – she was young, alone and it looked like Gabriel had played her false, but she gave up so easily!  And Gabriel… when he courts Amarantha in Jamaica and then just patiently lets her burn out all that stubborn anger in Scotland.  Sigh.  I loved him.  I never felt like her let her get away with her selfish shenanigans – reader, he knew she was trying to fight through her feelings for him.  He did!  He took it and took it and then set her straight.  And once he sensed she was relenting, he didn’t let up.  Though I didn’t personally love Amarantha, Gabriel did – and through his eyes, I liked her anyway.  I loved this pair and their sexy love/hate relationship.

Once Amarantha arrives in Scotland and we begin to discover the secrets the Devil’s Duke is keeping, Ms. Ashe moves the plot forward at a furious pace.  It’s compelling reading, and though Ms. Ashe masterfully incorporates elements of slavery and domestic abuse into the narrative, the novel length prohibits her from fully exploring some of the more tantalizing storylines introduced via her secondary characters.  It’s a missed opportunity.

The Duke is sweeping, romantic… and sets the stage for the next book (and couple) to come.  It’s not my favorite in the series, but it’s a worthy addition, and as per usual with Ms. Ashe, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Scot Beds His Wife (Victorian Rebels #5) by Kerrigan Byrne

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Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants—including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity…

A marriage most convenient

Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry—and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own…

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Press, October 2017
Time and Setting: Scottish Highlands, 1880
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

The Scot Beds His Wife is fifth in Kerrigan Byrnes’ Victorian Rebels series and a sequel to the third book The Highlander. Gavin St. James is half-brother to previous hero Laird Liam MacKenzie but the two are hardly fraternal. It’s Gavin’s plans to dissolve ties to his brother’s clan that starts everything in motion and it takes a brash American to put the stubborn Scot on a different path.

Gavin St. James grew up desperate to extricate himself from the legacy of his cruel father, the late Marquess Ravencroft. The abuse Gavin lived through left physical and emotional scars that never healed enough for him to find peace within his family. He once thought that his older brother Liam was his ally against their father, but their relationship soured as the Marquess’ manipulations drove them apart. Gavin later escaped when he inherited the earldom of Thorne through his mother’s family; however he found it was an empty role as he was still dependent on the Mackenzie finances. Earning his own wealth could only come by expanding his landholding and the perfect parcel was right next door – the deserted Ross estate of Erradale. After receiving a quick influx of ready cash, Gavin makes an offer to the last surviving member of the Ross family, who has been living in America for ten years. The response he receives is a firm “No” but Gavin is undeterred. Using the law to press the issue, Gavin has his solicitor inform the expatriate Miss Alison Ross that if she does not take residence on her property the lands will be deemed abandoned and resold.

An ocean away, Samantha Masters thought marriage to Bennett Masters would be first step in a new life full of opportunities, yet she soon learned that her new in-laws were criminals. Their latest scheme has the Masters brothers holding up a train carrying government funds to San Francisco. When something goes wrong, Samantha makes a horrific choice that saves an innocent life but puts a price on her head. The young woman she saves is very forgiving and offers Samantha a chance to leave America if she’s willing to live a lie in a foreign land indefinitely. Grabbing the chance, Samantha leaves her old name behind and travels to Scotland to become Miss Alison Ross, taking possession of Erradale and halting the schemes of the enemy Earl of Thorne. Samantha is met at the Wester Ross train station by a handsome Scotsman who provides assistance when her handbag is stolen. She’s quick to learn her hero is in fact Gavin St. James, the very man the real Alison had warned her about. Sensing his helpfulness was all a trick to get “Alison” to surrender her lands in thanks for saving her, Samantha explains that she will never hand over Erradale and will turn the derelict lands into a thriving cattle ranch to rival those in the American West.

The adversarial relationship between Samantha and Gavin fuels them to push relentlessly for their own goals. Gavin is shocked that “Alison” doesn’t fall for his seduction but he is soon back on track to subvert her efforts to improve Erradale. Samantha tries to keep away from Gavin but each time they meet. their war of words hides an undercurrent of attraction. Everything changes when investigators from America show up at Erradale and Gavin saves Samantha from being killed in a fire. For the first time in their acquaintance, Gavin sees the frightened young woman hiding behind bravado and salty language. It awakens something inside him he was reluctant to admit; that this bonny lass had become someone that he cares for. Knowing he can’t ignore those feelings forever and seeing a way for both of them to get what they want, Gavin offers “Alison” the protection of his name. In turn, he’ll assume control of Erradale through their marriage of convenience. Samantha knows their marriage won’t be legal since she’s not the real Alison Ross but the unwelcome discovery that she’s pregnant pushes her to accept Gavin’s proposal to give her unborn child a better name than that of an outlaw family. She soon finds that lying to Gavin is the most difficult thing she’s ever faced as his flirtatious manner hides a man who deserves honesty and love to save him from the pain in his past.

The books in the Victorian Rebels series never fail to use the tortured past of the hero to create a rich, emotional story. Each man has their own ways to deal with their demons and Gavin hides behind his smile and uses women for temporary pleasure to escape his pain. When Samantha doesn’t fall for his charms Gavin has to dig deep inside of himself to find ways around her stubbornness. What he finds inside is a man who desires love but has never felt comfortable exposing himself to anyone. The prologue of The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t as disturbing as in some of the earlier books; however once the reader comes to understand how desperately Gavin has suppressed the romantic side of himself, those moments where his innocence was destroyed become all the more unsettling.

Samantha is also very different from previous heroines as she’s action oriented, direct, profane and has just as many walls around her heart as Gavin does. Samantha has been fighting for stability and a true sense of belonging ever since her childhood on a ranch in Nevada Territory with her adoptive family. Her marriage was an ill-conceived desire to create a family with someone she thought was devoted to her, and escaping to Scotland is a chance for Samantha to try one more time to restart her life. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her need to build up Erradale for herself just as much as to protect it for the real Alison’s benefit.

The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t the strongest release within the Victorian Rebels series but the developments for the Mackenzie family and a few hints at what’s to come make this a must read for fans and a good entry point for new readers.


EXCERPT

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband’s beautiful brown eyes.

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.

Though they’d known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.
Alison’s hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other’s in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.

What in the hell just happened?

Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn’t have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?
To God?

This morning she’d been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.

This afternoon, she’d been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.

This evening, because of what she’d just done, of what they’d all just done . . . chances were good that she’d be hanged.

This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.

Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.

This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters, themselves, as the gang didn’t generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn’t only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often . . . federal funds.

Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.

And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn’t allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans . . .

Then they’d take what they needed.

This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.
No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a “frightened” female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.

The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha’s job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.

“People are sheep,” Boyd had always said. “They’ll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom.”

On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn’t foremost on the mind of the average American.

Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.

At first, Alison’s friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she’d found herself enjoying Alison’s company.

She’d not known many women her age, least of all friendly ones.

Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.

Had she not been about to rob the train.

Had there not been more gunshots than were agreed upon . . .


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Whether she’s writing about Celtic Druids, Victorian bad boys, or brash Irish FBI Agents, Kerrigan Byrne uses her borderline-obsessive passion for history, her extensive Celtic ancestry, and her love of Shakespeare in every book. She lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains with her handsome husband and three lovely teenage girls, but dreams of settling on the Pacific Coast. Her Victorian Rebels novels include The Highwayman and The Highlander.

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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Murder in the Forbidden City (Qing Dynasty Mysteries #1) by Amanda Roberts

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Peking, 1867

When one of the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting is killed in the Forbidden City, she orders Inspector Gong to find the killer. Unfortunately, as a man, he is forbidden from entering the Inner Court. How is he supposed to solve a murder when he cannot visit the scene of the crime or talk to the women in the victim’s life? He won’t be able to solve this crime alone.

The widowed Lady Li is devastated when she finds out about the murder of her sister-in-law, who was serving as the Empress’s lady-in-waiting. She is determined to discover who killed her, even if it means assisting the rude and obnoxious Inspector Gong and going undercover in the Forbidden City.

Together, will Lady Li and Inspector Gong be able to find the murderer before he – or she – strikes again?

Readers who enjoy historical mysteries by authors such as Victoria Thompson, Deanna Raybourn, and Anne Perry are sure to love this exciting start to a new series by Amanda Roberts.

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EXCERPT

The empress, high up on her dais, wept uncontrollably. The baubles dangling from her elaborate hairdo quivered as she hid her face in her trembling hands.

The dead girl, one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting, was lying on a long table in front of Inspector Gong. The investigation has already been botched beyond solving. The girl had been moved from the scene of the crime. Who knew how many people had trampled through the scene itself. The eunuchs had probably worked quickly to clean up the mess. The other men present, the ministers and advisors, had no words to comfort the empress. Everyone of importance was there except for the emperor himself. Such horrors were not appropriate for a child.

“Who did this?” the empress shrieked. “I demand to know!”

The room stayed silent as she resumed her crying. The empress, young as she was, was a formidable force, yet the Inspector knew the killer would not make himself, or herself, known just because the empress demanded it. This was one situation where the empress was not going to get her way.

“Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong finally said, “may I have a closer look at the body?”

The empress nodded her consent. “Just don’t touch her!” she yelled.

“Of course,” the Inspector replied, even though her demand was ridiculous. How could he get a complete understanding of what happened if he couldn’t examine the body fully? He approached the girl and kneeled down next to her. She had been stabbed several times in her neck and chest, her qaopao ripped open where the knife slashed through the beautiful fabric. Dark splotches of blood stained the light blue satin. The blood was dark, almost black. Even though blood typically darkened over time, it seemed unnaturally dark. Her hands were bloody as well and showed evidence of a struggle. Someone else’s blood, perhaps. Her hair was a mess and her shoes were gone. She had fought back and most likely tried to flee from her attacker. Her jaw was tightly clenched and her eyes closed. Her death had been frightening and painful.

“What was her name?” the inspector asked in a loud clear voice so all could hear. He stood straight and crossed his arms as he looked around the room.

“Lady Yun,” one of the eunuchs replied.

“How old was she?” he asked.

“Fifteen, sir.”

The inspector grunted. Fifteen. And she was beautiful, even in death. The long eyelashes of her closed eyes lay upon her pale cheeks.

“Who were her family?” he asked.

“She had no male relatives,” the eunuch replied.

“She was an orphan?” the Inspector asked.

“No, sir. She has a mother, but she is sickly. She was primarily cared for by her brother and sister-in-law until her brother’s death. Her sister-in-law is her guardian, but the girl had been living here at the Forbidden City for the last year.”

“I’ll need to speak to her sister-in-law,” he said. “Has she been informed yet of the girl’s death?”

“No, sir.”

“Good, I want to be the one to tell her. I need to see her reaction.”

“Whatever you need,” the empress finally spoke up, “it shall be yours. You must find who did this.”

“I need to see where she was killed, and speak to all the other ladies of the inner court who knew her.”

The room gasped and the empress starred at him in shock. The men began to murmur and argue among themselves.

“That is not possible,” one of the men said loudly, pointing a finger at the inspector. “No man can be allowed in the inner court. It is for the women’s protection.”

“Protection?” the inspector asked. “One of the empress’s own ladies was murdered inside the very walls of the Forbidden City. Make no mistake; if someone could kill this girl, no one here is safe. Look at her hands, the stab wounds. She must have screamed. How could no one have heard her? I must be allowed to inspect every aspect of this crime if any member of the royal family wishes to feel safe in their own home again.”

The inspector knew he was making things worse. There was no evidence that the killer would strike again or that the empress or child-emperor were in danger, but unless he was allowed behind the sealed doors of the inner court, he would never find the killer. If he had to frighten the empress out of her wits to achieve his goal, he would do so.

The room erupted in yelling and arguments. The empress was no longer crying, but was looking around the room with her large, dark eyes.

“Inspector,” she finally said, silencing the room. “Are you saying you think I could be in danger?”

“I do not know, Your Majesty,” he said. “But I can rule nothing out. I do not know if Lady Yun was the target of the killer’s rage or if she only got in the way. I do not know if the killer has fled or if he, or she, is within this very room.” Another round of gasps followed. “What I do know,” he continued, “is that this investigation should be the throne’s priority, and to do my job properly, to bring the killer to justice, I need to be allowed into the inner court of the women.”

The empress opened her mouth to speak, but she was interrupted by a court minister by the name of Song. “No!” he said firmly. “It is forbidden and improper. You cannot violate the sacred space of the women’s quarters. To do so would be as violating the women themselves.”

“Minister,” Inspector Gong nearly laughed. “Investigating a murder would hardly be the same as taking a woman to bed…at least in my case.” Several of the other men laughed.

“This is no laughing matter,” Minister Song erupted. “If you cannot do your job from outside of the inner court, then you are not worthy of your title and should be stripped of your rank and salary immediately!”

“Now, see here, Minister…” the inspector began.

“I agree,” another minister interrupted. “Is his job worth doing if it violates the integrity of the empress?”

Several other men spoke up in agreement.

“Enough,” the empress finally said, her voice clear and even. The room went quiet. She was calm now. Even her hands were steady. “I agree this case should be of the utmost importance. My own safety and the safety of the emperor rely on it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong replied.

“However,” she continued, “we cannot allow this killer, whoever he is, disrupt our lives and the way things are done. Tradition and court procedure are at the very center of the throne and the country. I have to agree with the ministers. You cannot be allowed to enter the inner court, Inspector.”

“So you will allow a killer to go free?” he asked. “Allow a murderer to perhaps roam your very halls?”

“No,” she said. “You will find the killer. And you will do so quickly so that we can make sure my son is safe. You will have everything you need at your disposal, but you will do so from outside the inner court.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amanda Roberts is a writer and editor who has been living in China since 2010. Amanda has an MA in English from the University of Central Missouri. She has been published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies around the world and she regularly contributes to numerous blogs. Amanda can be found all over the Internet, but her home is TwoAmericansinChina.com.

An Unnatural Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles


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On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, October 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873/4
Genre: Historical Romantic Mystery
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read An Unsuitable Heir twice now and enjoyed it both times, although perhaps more so the second time around.  A re-read helped me better appreciate all Ms. Charles accomplishes in 246 pages; it also helped me decide how I wanted to approach my review.  An Unsuitable Heir presents (for me) a unique challenge – instead of simply asking myself whether I liked it and why (and then sharing it with you), I had to first ensure I understood it, and could therefore appreciate – and review – it properly.  Ultimately, I’ve decided the principal characters and the complexity of their relationship is stronger than the mystery/plot that wraps up the trilogy, and for that reason, my grade represents a compromise of sorts.

If you’ve read the first two books in the Sins of the City trilogy (and really you must, or none of this will make sense and you’ll spoil the mystery), you know that the overarching story concerns the missing heir to the Moreton earldom. When An Unnatural Vice concluded, private inquiry agent Mark Braglewicz had located the missing Godfrey twins, Repentance and Regret, who now call themselves Pen and Greta Starling, and informed them that they are the children of the late Earl of Moreton and his first wife, Emmeline Godfrey.  Mark is miserable, the twins are miserable – and angry – and a killer is still on the loose, intent, it would seem, on preventing Pen becoming the Earl of Moreton.

An Unsuitable Heir opens weeks before the appearance of Pen and Greta and the chaos that ensues at the end of the previous novel once Pen is introduced as the heir to the Morton estate.  A newspaper advertisement asking for information about them leaves the twins apprehensive and they decide to take a week off from performing and lie low.  Owing to the horrible pea-souper that descends on London, this period of quiet is extended and Pen, who is frustrated and bored heads out one evening, with the intention of having a drink at the nearby Gin Kitchen.  On the way, he meets a lost stranger, who offers to buy Pen drink in exchange for directions. Pen agrees and spends an enjoyable afternoon with his new acquaintance.

Mark Braglewicz doesn’t exactly lie about who he is, but he was never really lost, and after spending an afternoon with Pen Starling, he knows he’s at last found the Godfrey twins.  Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting his professional responsibilities and finds himself attracted to his beautiful companion.  The pair make plans to meet the following evening, but the planned meeting doesn’t come off.  Returning to practice at the theatre, they discover Mark Braglewicz, a private enquiry agent, has been asking questions about them.

After a heated confrontation wherein the twins deliver a scathing set-down and refuse to hear Mark out, he eventually finds a way to speak to Pen by lying in wait for him after a performance.

Mark slid out of the shadows as quietly as he could, and caught up within a few paces.  “Hello, Pen.”

Pen stopped and looked around.  Those high boots put him a good two inches above Mark, and he didn’t look friendly.  “Oh, it’s you.  Why don’t you go away?”

“Because I need to talk to you,” Mark said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t need to talk to you.”  Pen turned on his heel.

“Mate, you do.  I swear it’s important, and I owe you a drink.  Come and have a quick one with me.  Please?”

Pen turned back to face him fully.  There were a few dark ringlets framing his face; he was indeed painted, with his eyes darkened and, Mark suspected, reddened lips.  He looked…

He looked strange.  Phyllis at the Jack would never dress like this, both male and female.  Mark wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.

Pen agrees to join him only after Mark reluctantly agrees not to discuss why he’s been searching for the twins, and the men head off to the Jack and Knave, a place we could get a drink and nobody would look at you twice.  

With the investigation off the table, Pen and Mark spend the night talking and falling for each other.  One of the pleasures of this book is the marvelous way Ms. Charles develops the tender affection Mark and Pen feel for each other, in spite of how different they are.  Pen isn’t a him or a her – Pen is Pen.  And to Mark, Pen is just beautiful – his bit of stuff.  He doesn’t struggle to understand the person he’s falling for, he just falls.  For Pen, Mark is a gift.  A man who wants Pen’s love, and accepts Pen in all his incarnations – his bit of rough.  It’s such a romantic and tender love without expectations or demands, and it’s wonderful.  I admit I struggled a bit understanding who Pen is or wants to be, but this is where I believe my second reading was so beneficial. It didn’t matter; they belong together.  Though I think Pen’s character is in very capable hands with Ms. Charles, what transcends the page, her writing and the complexity of the novel and the relationship, is the simplicity of the affection and love that emerges between the men – Mark loves Pen, Pen loves Mark – without judgment or reservations.

Ms. Charles does a marvelous job introducing us to Pen and Greta, whom readers assumed they already knew quite a bit about, through Mark’s eyes and experiences.  As we already know, once Mark forces the earldom on Pen – their relationship changes.  Pen feels betrayed – he has no desire to become an Earl, and his inability to do so (because really, it will kill him) presents all sorts of challenges – with his sister, the Godfrey family, with Mark, with his career… and Mark is similarly devastated.  But when the killer goes after Pen, Mark, unable to stay away and still trying to protect and safeguard Pen, returns to his lover’s side, and it becomes clear that though this novel is ostensibly about uncovering the identity of a killer – and Ms. Charles keeps us in suspense until the bitter end – its larger focus is on the relationship at its heart – the one developing between its two damaged, complex and enigmatic principal characters, and on the families we choose vs. the one we’re given.

An Unsuitable Heir – much like the trilogy it concludes – is moving, challenging and special, and the development of Pen and Mark’s relationship rather brilliantly dovetails with the (happy ever after) resolution of the trilogy.

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


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England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1919
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Mystery
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

Anna Lee Huber is a new to me author, though I’m fond of mysteries and historical romance, so it’s no surprise that many of my friends have recommended her books to me.  Unfortunately, my TBR pile somehow precluded me from reading her books each time I’ve made the attempt, so I was happy to get this first book in her new Verity Kent series for review.

Widowed when her husband Sidney was shot in a skirmish at the end of the World War I, Verity has spent the past year and a half trying to dull the pain of her loss in parties and evenings out with friends.  When she receives an invitation to an engagement party for one of Sidney’s fellow officers, an emotionally fragile Verity initially intends to decline.  But shortly after she receives the invitation, a cryptic letter arrives referencing her work for the Secret Service (a secret she kept from everyone, including Sidney) and suggesting Sidney might have committed treason before his death.  Shocked and unwilling to believe her husband guilty of treason, Verity decides to attend the weekend house party and do some investigating of her own.

As This Side of Murder opens, Verity – lost in thoughts of her husband, the letter, and the houseparty – nearly collides with another car.  When the handsome driver emerges, they engage in a flirtatious exchange about her driving and the driver’s own car – a pale yellow Rolls-Royce – and soon realize they’re both on their way to Walter Ponsonby’s engagement party.  After her companion introduces himself as Max Westfield, Earl of Ryde, Verity is startled when he asks if she’s Sidney Kent’s widow.  He reveals that he knew her husband – they attended Eton at the same time and served together during the war.  When they finally part and head to Poole Harbour, Verity finds herself wondering about Max and their meeting.  Why is he attending the party?  How well did he know her husband?  Could he be the letter writer?

Boarding the yacht that will take them to Umbersea Island for the party, Verity makes yet another discovery.  Though she expected the guest list to include some of Sidney’s fellow officers, it appears to be made up almost entirely of them.  It’s an odd group to invite for an engagement party, and, suspicious and overwhelmed by fresh grief for her husband, Verity climbs aboard determined to get to know the men who once fought alongside him – and to determine, once and for all, if he committed treason.

When she arrives on the island, Verity is greeted by her hosts and handed another letter. Exhausted by the journey and the prospect of the weekend ahead, she retreats to her room to read it – only to discover someone was there before her.  A battered copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which bears an inscription from her to Sidney, lies on the counterpane with yet another note tucked inside.  Verity is convinced the author is one of her fellow guests, but a separate discovery – intentionally hidden in the binding of the book? – seems to suggest Sidney might have been passing coded messages.  Verity isn’t sure whether her secret correspondent is working with – or against – her as she searches for the truth.

The initial trip to Umbersea Island casts a pervasive sense of foreboding and disquiet that runs throughout the book. Verity is suspicious of the other guests, and it’s obvious they are tense and ill at ease with each other. Something seems off, and it seems like the only person she can trust is Max – but even then, she’s unclear as to whether he can be trusted or not.  Most of the guests have history, and it soon becomes apparent that the men of the former Thirtieth Company have dark secrets they’ve kept hidden until this weekend.  As the engagement party continues apace, Verity simultaneously tries to crack the code contained in The Pilgrim’s Progress, get to the bottom of the tension between the guests, and determine if there’s a traitor in their midst.  No one is above suspicion, and when guests begin dying, Verity becomes desperate to discover what really happened to Sidney in his last days.

Ms. Huber paints Verity as an intelligent and independent woman who passionately loved her husband and hoped for a happily ever after with him following the war.  She alludes to Verity’s secret life working for the British Secret Service – but for some reason, she keeps the specifics of her work deliberately vague.  I never felt like I got to know Verity, aside from her feelings for Sidney (and maybe Max), and rather than leading an investigation, Verity seems more often to be in the right place at the right time to move the narrative forward.  When she cracks the code hidden in Sidney’s book, I sighed.  With only vague references to a history with the Secret Service, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe she knows so much about code breaking – and frankly, the skill just read like a convenient plot device.  We get to know the other guests at the party through the lens of Verity’s thoughts, but frankly, it was hard to keep track of all of them.  The guests each briefly star in the narrative, and then Ms. Huber focuses our attention on someone else. I never felt like I knew any of them well enough to suspect them as they were all – with the exception of Max – awful in their own way!  I liked Max despite Ms. Huber’s obvious efforts to make him a suspect, but without him, I’m not sure Verity would have ever ‘solved’ this case.  He’s definitely the more aggressive investigator – even though Verity kept information from him – and he rather conveniently ensures Verity is in the right place at the right time to discover new clues.  I had high hopes for him and Verity in future books… but, well, let’s just say I don’t believe Ms. Huber does.

I’m reluctant to spill any details of the house party only because I don’t want to reveal any secrets that might spoil the story.  That said, I’m not sure how my telling you – in detail – everything leading up to the denouement would really ‘spoil’ it for you.  Ms. Huber slowly but surely reveals the secrets that bind the guests together (there is an intrigue that links them to each other – and to Sidney) and ratchets up the tension…but when she introduces a ridiculous, convoluted plot twist ending, it just made me mad.  In hindsight, I see some of the clues she spread in the text… but really, if someone saw this coming, bravo.  I didn’t, I don’t see how you could, and I hated it.

Hmm… so would I recommend This Side of Murder?  Oh reader!  I’m torn.  I liked it, but I was easily and often distracted from it.  I wanted to like Verity, but I never really connected with her or the mystery and found it difficult to keep up with the secondary characters – about whom we know very little aside from their relationship to Verity’s dead husband.  It seems like Verity’s (very interesting) past will be more fully explored in future novels, and I’m curious about it.  But if those books feature her passively watching and waiting for events to unfold,  I’ll pass.