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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: And Then Mine Enemy (Feathers in the Wind #1) by Alison Stuart

and then mine enemy

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A family ripped apart in a country divided by war . . .

England 1642: Hardened mercenary, Adam Coulter returns to England sickened by violence, seeking only peace, but he finds England on the brink of civil war. He has seen first-hand what that will mean for every man, woman and child and wants no part of it.

King or Parliament? Neutrality is not an option and Adam can only be true to his conscience, not the dictates of his family.
Having escaped a loveless marriage, Perdita Gray has found much needed sanctuary and the love of a good man, but her fragile world begins to crumble as Adam Coulter bursts into her life. This stranger brings not only the reality of war to her doorstep but reignites an old family feud, threatening everything and everyone she holds dear.

As the war and family tensions collide around them, Adam and Perdita are torn between old loyalties and a growing attraction that must be resisted.

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EXCERPT

July 1642

A shudder of rain slewed across the sodden countryside, sending its cold fingers cutting through Adam’s already saturated cloak. He huffed out a misty breath and straightened his aching shoulders. Not for the first time he cursed his brother for summoning him to a meeting Adam knew would inevitably end in grief and recrimination.

The remote inn loomed out of the gloaming and led on by the cheerful light spilling through the front windows, Adam urged his weary horse forward. The miserable beast, the mud dragging at its every step, plodded forward.

A young boy ran from the stable, a sack over his head and shoulders. Adam threw him the reins and, taking a deep breath, strode into the inn. He tossed his hat and gloves to the innkeeper, his numbed fingers fumbled at the ties of his cloak

‘His Lordship’s in the private parlour.’ The innkeeper scowled as he held the dripping garb at arm’s length.

Adam pushed open the door the man indicated. The two men seated beside a cheerful fire that burned in the wide hearth rose to their feet. His half-brothers schooled their faces to a neutrality that Adam knew would not last. As they faced him across the room, a growing sense of despondency gripped him as he stood before them. Once more the cuckoo in the nest, always the acknowledged baseborn son but not even given the protection of his father’s name.

Denzil Marchant, just as Adam remembered him, tall and powerful, with a mane of tawny hair like his father, and his younger brother Robin, as tall but of a slighter, elegant build, his hair more auburn and sleekly curling.

‘Denzil, Robin,’ Adam acknowledged them as he stepped into the room. ‘I wish I could say, well met, but I would be lying.’

‘Adam Coulter.’ The deliberate use of his full name jarred, as Denzil no doubt intended. ‘I would scarcely have recognized you. Hardly the darling of the court now, are you?’

‘I found lovelocks and pearl earrings something of a hindrance to the life of a soldier.’ Without waiting to be invited, Adam poured himself a full measure from the bottle of wine that stood on the table, hoping that they would not mark that his hand shook.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alison Stuart picAward winning Australian author, Alison Stuart learned her passion for history from her father. She has been writing stories since her teenage years but it was not until 2007 that her first full length novel was published. Alison has now published seven full length historical romances and a collection of her short stories. Her disposition for writing about soldier heroes may come from her varied career as a lawyer in the military and fire services. These days when she is not writing she is travelling and routinely drags her long suffering husband around battlefields and castles.

Connect with Alison at her website, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or subscribe to her newsletter for exclusive free reads, contests and more…

Links:
Website: http://www.alisonstuart.com
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Facebook: www.facebook.com/AlisonStuartWriter
Twitter: @AlisonStuart14 https://twitter.com/AlisonStuart14
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight by Christina Courtenay

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“As the velvet cloak of moonlight settled over the ruined towers of Raglan Castle, the shadows beneath them stirred…”

When newly widowed Tess visits Raglan Castle, she experiences an extraordinary vision that transports her to seventeenth-century Wales and a castle on the brink of a siege.

Even when Tess leaves Raglan to return to Merrick Court, her late husband’s home, the strange dreams continue as her life becomes increasingly intertwined with the past. And when the new owner of the estate arrives – New Zealander Josh Owens – the parallels become even more obvious.

But perhaps the visions aren’t just trying to tell their own story, maybe they’re also giving a warning…

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EXCERPT

Deep in thought, Tess rounded a corner of the brick wall that enclosed the vegetable patch and almost rammed into a man who was bent over, pulling at a sapling that clearly shouldn’t be there.

‘Whoa!’ Tess swerved, then stopped dead as the man straightened up.

Tall, with black hair that was shaggy and tousled, and with matching dark stubble, he had the kind of face that could sell millions of bottles of aftershave. Clear green eyes under perfectly sculpted eyebrows – Tess could picture them staring moodily out of an advert in a glossy magazine – and if he hadn’t oozed masculinity, she would have sworn he was wearing mascara, so thick were his eyelashes. He was lean and rangy, but not too thin – his shoulders and arms powerful – and as he was shirtless she could see that his upper body was nicely defined under a stunningly deep suntan. There was some sort of tribal tattoo high up on his left arm and his faded and torn black jeans showed that his legs were as muscular as the rest of him.

‘Who the hell are you?’ she blurted out, then felt her cheeks heat up. Not exactly a subtle way to greet one of the hottest men she’d ever met, but he had no business being in her garden. Well, Merrick Court’s garden. And she had no business finding him attractive – she was recently widowed, for heaven’s sake, and the last thing she needed at the moment was a man to complicate her life.

‘And g’day to you too. I could say the same, eh?’ He leaned on the spade he’d been using to dig out the root of the sapling and regarded her with his head to one side as if he was wondering what she was doing there. His accent was Australian, or maybe New Zealand – Tess had had both Aussie and Kiwi friends at art college but could never tell which was which. Deliciously Antipodean in any case – she was a sucker for accents.

She ignored his greeting. ‘I’m sure Bryn knows there’s no money to pay for help in the garden at the moment.’ Although in truth she couldn’t actually remember the last time she’d talked to the old gardener. She had been kind of a hermit of late.

‘Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t need paying,’ he said, with a smile that she found both infuriating and amazingly alluring. Yep, definitely model material. Was that why he didn’t need to be paid? He was already rich? But he wasn’t exactly dressed like a millionaire.

‘I’ll have to discuss this with Bryn.’ She picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and almost overbalanced it in her haste to get away from this man. He was disturbing her equilibrium and he shouldn’t be in her garden. Damn it, Merrick Court’s garden. When would she stop thinking of it as hers?

‘I’ll come with you. I want to hear this.’ The guy fell into step beside her, walking with long unhurried strides. ‘Want any help with that?’ Again, that annoying smile and his eyes were twinkling too as if he was amused by her efforts to stay calm.
‘No, thanks, I can manage.’

She did, but only just, and she ended up panting with the effort of upending the barrow onto the compost heap, which didn’t help. Nor did the stranger, who followed behind her but didn’t offer assistance again. Instead he crossed his arms, making his biceps bunch up in the most eye-catching way. Annoying man, he was probably doing it on purpose so she’d look at him. She didn’t want to but Tess had to force herself not to stare at the tattoo, which was strangely fascinating. By the time they got to the potting shed, where Bryn could usually be found if he wasn’t outside, she was ready for some answers.

‘Bryn, are you there?’

‘In yere.’ The old man’s Welsh lilt was one of the things she loved about him. That and his ready smile. ‘Just making tea. Would you like some, my lovely?’

Tess walked into the shed, closely followed by the shirtless stranger. ‘Yes, please, but Bryn ―’ She didn’t have time to finish her sentence.

‘Oh, there you are, er … Josh. Come and have a cuppa as well, won’t you?’

‘Sure, sweet.’

Bryn looked from one to the other. ‘So you’ve met his lordship then.’ It was a statement, not a question.

Tess swivelled towards the younger man. ‘L-lordship? What do you mean?’

‘The new owner of Merrick Court,’ Bryn explained patiently. ‘Josh, he says to call him, but I don’t know…’ He scratched his balding head.

But Tess wasn’t looking at him. She glared at the newcomer. Josh, Lord Merrick? He couldn’t be, could he? ‘Why didn’t you mention that?’

He grinned. ‘You didn’t ask.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake…’ Tess stared at the man. Why hadn’t he told her who he was instead of letting her think he was just some workman? But then she had been rather rude so perhaps he’d wanted to punish her a little? She felt her cheeks heating up, embarrassed now by her lack of manners.

‘And who are you?’ Josh said. ‘I thought no one else worked here.’ He raised his eyebrows at the old man as if they’d been discussing this earlier.

‘Oh, didn’t I say?’ Bryn tutted at himself. ‘This yere is Lady Merrick.’

‘What?’ Josh’s eyebrows shot up even further. ‘But I thought…oh, bollocks.’

‘Er, would you care to explain that eloquent statement?’ It was Tess’s turn to cross her arms.

He looked a bit sheepish. ‘Uhm, well, I was expecting what the lawyer called a “dowager”. I mean…’

Tess cottoned on. ‘Ah, an old-age pensioner? Sorry to disappoint you.’

‘I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed exactly.’ Josh grinned briefly again as his gaze travelled the length of her body, lingering on her curves and long, honey-gold hair which was currently piled on top of her head and fastened with a clip. But then he seemed to recollect that he was talking to a widow and the smile disappeared. ‘That’s to say, your age doesn’t matter to me. I was just surprised, is all.’

‘I should hope not too.’ Tess was annoyed to find that the warmth in his eyes as he’d given her the once-over made her hot and flustered. He was disturbingly handsome. How old could he be? Probably in his early thirties, although possibly younger as he was so fit. It was hard to tell.

‘Come and have some tea and then you can get to know each other,’ Bryn suggested.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christina Courtenay lives near Hereford, England and is married with two children. Although born in England she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden. In her teens, the family moved to Japan where she had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Far East.

Christina’s debut Trade Winds was short listed for the 2011 Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Pure Passion Award for Best Historical Fiction.The Scarlet Kimono won the 2011 Big Red Reads Best Historical Fiction Award. Highland Storms (in 2012) and The Gilded Fan (in 2014) won the Best Historical Romantic Novel of the year award and The Silent Touch of Shadows won the 2012 Best Historical Read Award from the Festival of Romance.

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Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Highland Deception (Highland Pride #1) by Lori Ann Bailey

highland deception

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Scotland, August 1642

Maggie and Lachlan must fight their growing attraction, battling suspicion and intrigue as religious and political turmoil threaten to tear their clans apart.

He has sworn he will never marry.

Lachlan Cameron is honor bound to see a wounded lass to safety, although he has well learned women are deceivers, and this lovely maid harbors a wealth of secrets. But Maggie’s free spirit and charms enthrall him while he works to discover if she is innocent . . . or a spy scheming with his enemies to destroy his clan.

She has sworn she will never fall in love.

Maggie Murray fled her home to avoid a political marriage to an abusive man. Salvation comes when the Cameron laird, unaware of her identity, protects her as she escapes. His kindness slowly warms her, and she’s tempted to confess her real name. But his strong sense of honor would force him to return her to her father . . . and torment at the hands of her scorned betrothed.

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EXCERPT

It was a dark night, but the moon and stars played a game of peekaboo through the clouds and teased him with their reflections in her sapphire eyes. Up close, Lachlan could see a pink flush on her cheeks. He wanted to stay angry, but as he studied her bewildered gaze and took in how her fingers trembled in his, he lost his resolve.

“What was that with Brodie?” His jaw ticked.

Maggie pursed her lips and didn’t reply right away. Now he wished he had taken her somewhere better lit—he could usually tell if she was lying, but in this light, could he trust his senses? Thankfully, the clouds rolled away and he had a clear view into her eyes, her soul. She blinked. “We were dancing. Ye were off with Arabella.”

She had the audacity to roll her eyes and tug her hand free from his. Was that jealousy in her bitter reply? “Why do ye even care?” she finally bit out, then turned back toward the keep.

Catching her wrist, he twirled her to face him and said tersely, “Ye are mine. Ye willnae let another touch ye.”

“I belong to no one. I amnae wed,” she retorted as she pulled out of his grasp and crossed her arms. She stamped her foot. It was strangely amusing until the words registered.

Aye, her view had merit, but Lachlan wouldn’t accept it. “Ye are on my land.” It was weak, but she couldn’t argue with it.
“I will leave if ye wish,” she countered as her eyes narrowed into slits and her lips tightened.

How could she consider leaving him after last night? Could he make her stay? “Nae, ye willnae.”

“Why? Ye have Arabella.” Her lip quavered.

He saw it for certain now—she was jealous. His chest swelled, and a primal pride eclipsed his anger. He had left the hall with Arabella to tell the woman to leave him be, and she had gotten the wrong impression. His heart leaped. Maggie was jealous, just as he had been about her, and he couldn’t help when one side of his mouth curved up in satisfaction.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

lori ann baileyLori Ann Bailey has a romantic soul and believes the best in everyone. Sappy commercials and proud mommy moments make her cry. She sobs uncontrollably and feels emotionally drained when reading sad books, so she started reading romance for the Happily Ever Afters. She was hooked. Then, the characters and scenes that ran around in her head as she attempted to sleep at night begged to be let out. Looking back now, her favorite class in high school was the one where a professor pulled a desk to the center of the room and told her to write two paragraphs about it and the college English class taught by a red-headed Birkenstock wearing girl, not much older than she, who introduced her to Jack Kerouac. After working in business and years as a stay-at-home mom she has found something in addition to her family to be passionate about, her books. She lives in Northern Virginia with her real life hero, four kids that keep her on her toes, two dogs determined to destroy her house and two cats secretly plotting the demise of those dogs.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/labaileyauthor
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lori.ann.bailey.author
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15510161.Lori_Ann_Bailey

Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers #4) by Stella Riley

Lords of Misrule March 2016Purchase now from Amazon

Still tied to his desk in the Intelligence Office, Colonel Eden Maxwell has become increasingly disenchanted with both Oliver Cromwell and his own daily existence; and with the advent of new Royalist conspiracies, he despairs of ever getting away.

Then a brick hurled through the window of a small workshop sets in motion a new and unexpected chain of events. After all, who would want to hurt Lydia Neville – a young widow, giving work and self-respect to maimed war veterans considered unemployable elsewhere? But when the assaults in Duck Lane escalate, threatening the life and remaining limbs of some of Eden’s former troopers, finding the culprit becomes a personal crusade.

At their first meeting, Lydia finds Colonel Maxwell annoying; by their second, having discovered that he had arrested and questioned her brother in connection with the Ship Tavern Plot, she mistrusts his motives. On the other hand, it swiftly becomes plain that she needs his help … and has difficulty resisting his smile.

Solving the increasingly hazardous mystery surrounding Lydia is not Eden’s only task. Between plots to assassinate the Lord Protector and a rising in Scotland, he must also mend the fences within his own family and get to know his son. Life suddenly goes from mind-numbing boredom to frenetic complexity.

With reckless Cavaliers lurking around every corner and a government still struggling to find its way, Lords of Misrule is set against a time of national discontent and general failure. But readers of the previous books in the series can look forward to catching up with old friends as well as meeting new ones … while, against all the odds, Eden and Lydia find danger and reward in equal measure.

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Publisher and Release Date: Stella Riley, May 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: England 1653 – 1655
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 1.5
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

It’s always difficult to come to a series of books part-way through, so when I knew that I was going to review Lords of Misrule, I decided to quickly acquaint myself with some of the background information to the series and about the English Civil War, my knowledge of which was sketchy to say the least. I was advised to read The Black Madonna (first in the Roundheads and Cavaliers series) and was very glad I did, as it’s here that we first meet Eden Maxwell, who is the hero of Lords of Misrule. Married young to a woman who was completely wrong for him, his early experience of love and marriage has left Eden deeply mistrustful, embittered and unable to show love to his son and resentful of the little girl he realises he did not father. He rarely returns home even though his wife disappears with her lover soon after discovery and his continuing absence drives a wedge between himself and his family even while it is not what he wishes. A decade later, and older and wiser, he has vowed never to trust love and absolutely never to marry again. By now a confident and battle-scarred soldier, Eden is also a man who does not suffer fools or trust easily; and I adored the tetchy, vulnerable, overprotective, charismatic character that Eden has become – and then there’s that devastating smile!

These are serious times. England has been in the grip of civil war for well over a decade; families are split, the Country is short of money and the anointed King has been executed. Oliver Cromwell has been named Lord Protector – king in all but name – and parliament is attempting to bring some order to a divided country. Eden Maxwell has become a discontented and disenchanted man, and, owing to his inborn integrity and sense of justice is finding himself frequently in sympathy with both sides. Employed as an Intelligence officer and code breaker at the Tower of London, Eden reports directly to Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. He is first and foremost a soldier, and having fought in and survived three civil wars, is not happy with his current role as paper pusher and glorified errand boy.

When a brick is hurled through a window of recently widowed Lydia Neville’s workshop in a seemingly random attack, she is thrown into the orbit of Colonel Eden Maxwell. He instantly becomes interested – Lydia, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has continued on with the work she began with her now deceased husband. They had intuitively recognised a need, and then provided the opportunity for honest employment for wounded and disabled soldiers, casualties of both sides of the war; and then too, for the widows of soldiers left with families to care for. At first Lydia and Eden strike sparks off of each other, he overbearing, cynical and dismissive; she independent, feisty and not about to allow any man to control her or her actions. Worthy adversaries both, it isn’t long before their antipathy turns to reluctant attraction, as they are drawn to each other firstly by their joint empathy for Lydia’s workforce and then by the threats and intimidation levelled at Lydia herself.

The challenge presented by the ever increasing threats to Lydia and her workforce is something that Eden relishes and embraces with enthusiasm, as well as bringing out his inborn desire to protect. The romance, which develops slowly over the entire story, sends shivers down the spine, but in Stella Riley’s inimitable style is never allowed to take-over, this being very much a historical romance with the emphasis on ‘historical’. Ms. Riley’s characters are superbly well drawn and they quickly become our friends; we love them; admire them; feel for them; worry for them. It’s something the author does incredibly well, we meet actual people, who lived and contributed to the past, but so well developed are her fictitious personalities that it’s easy to forget which are historical and which are figments of her very fertile imagination.

Stella Riley’s story has encompassed everything; fantastically well researched and richly described historic detail, characters to love and swoon over and an incredibly well devised plot that had me guessing until the end. It’s intricate, plausible and intelligent, displaying her unique talent for ratcheting up the drama until we’re left gasping from the sheer ingenuity and thrill of it all. As is always the case with any story written by this author, the relationships between her characters, especially the men, are sensitively and tenderly grown, their camaraderie beautiful, moving and at other times extremely funny. Ms. Riley has a very dry wit and some of the scenes between Eden and his brother, Tobias, are especially touching and amusing in turns.

What a fascinating period the seventeenth century was, and since embarking on my Stella Riley binge, I am continuously asking myself how I could have failed to be interested in this vital period in English history. Ms. Riley’s scholarship is incredible; this is such a complicated period to get to grips with and her descriptions, knowledge and quite obvious love for it shines throughout. How can we, the reader, fail to be infected by this author’s hard work, enthusiasm, knowledge and outstanding writing skill? I can’t recommend the Roundheads and Cavaliers series highly enough and fully intend to go back and read Garland of Straw and The King’s Falcon because it is not to be missed.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Honorable Officer by Philippa Lodge

 

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France, 1668 Hélène de Bonnefoi’s spirit has been squashed by the ever-critical aunt and uncle who raised her. Serving as nanny and stand-in mother to her cousin’s child has saved her from the convent, especially after her cousin’s death. When suspicious accidents threaten the toddler, Hélène overcomes her near-blindness to seek the help of the child’s father, a colonel in Louis XIV’s army. Jean-Louis, Colonel de Cantière, has spent his life proving his worth, integrity, and honor, first to his family and now in the army. When his daughter’s caretaker appears in his camp during a siege, claiming someone is trying to kill the girl, his loyalties are sorely tested. Hélène must convince Jean-Louis the threat is real. But the true danger is to the heart of a shy young woman who has always loved her cousin’s husband from afar and to the colonel’s desire to resist complicated emotions.

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EXCERPT

His first view of Mademoiselle Hélène took his breath away. She was sitting in a beam of light, smiling down at the little girl who sat next to her on the bench. Her hair glinted gold in the sunlight, and her pink lips parted as she laughed.

“Mademoiselle Hélène, Colonel de Cantière is here to see you,” said the woman.

Jean-Louis bowed deeply and raised himself again to find Mademoiselle Hélène curtseying to him and the little girl staring at him, wide-eyed. Mademoiselle Hélène’s features had gone blank, erasing the sunshine and beauty he had witnessed.

“Ondine, chérie,” she said to the girl. “It is your papa, come to see us. Get up and curtsey, ma petite.”

The girl stood up on the bench and bobbed clumsily, clutching at Mademoiselle Hélène for support and reassurance.

Jean-Louis hadn’t seen his daughter since his wife’s funeral, over a year before. She likely had no memory of him, and yet her mistrust cut him to the heart.

“Please, Monsieur, join us for breakfast,” said Mademoiselle Hélène in the soft, shy voice that made him want to protect her.
He gritted his teeth. He was ridiculous. There was no threat here. It was leftover nerves from the battle and a lack of sleep, surely. The long argument with the Prince de Condé to get leave for two days to solve the problem, coupled with the long journey, had sapped what was left of his wits.

He sat across the table from the lady and his daughter and waved Fourbier to a chair. The innkeeper’s wife entered with a servant bringing bread and jam.

They ate in strained silence. He complimented the woman on the delightful sausage; it had been weeks since he had eaten properly, even though he knew he ate better than his soldiers. “Well, Mademoiselle Hélène, I would like the rest of the story of how you came to bring my daughter to a war.”

Hélène looked down at her lap, blushing. “I do not know how I had the strength to do it, but I was so frightened for Ondine. I didn’t feel safe with my aunt and uncle Ferand.”

“You said there was a fire? And your uncle thought it was nothing serious?”

“He said it was just a dropped candle, but there was a great deal of smoke under the door of the nursery. And Ondine had not drunk her milk. She did not want it—if a child who is not even three does not want something, there is no point in forcing—and so we gave it to the cat that sleeps in her dressing room.”

Jean-Louis scratched at his head, confused. He encountered his damned wig, though, and didn’t dare disarrange it any more than it already was so brought his hand back down to the table.

Mademoiselle Hélène turned to the serving girl. “Lily, could you watch Ondine for a short time while I speak to the colonel in the hall?”

The girl agreed, glancing fearfully at Fourbier, who nodded. Jean-Louis followed Mademoiselle Hélène into the dark, cramped hall.

“I did not wish to frighten Ondine. She understands most of what we say, though she doesn’t speak clearly yet.” She dragged her hand along the wall until they were ten feet from the breakfast room.

Jean-Louis leaned against the opposite wall, glancing out a tiny, wavy window to where his carriage was waiting. He wondered again if this was a horrible waste of time.

“You see, Ondine did not drink her milk, but the cat did. When the smoke started, Ondine cried for me to save the cat, but I found it on the floor under the bed, vomiting and twitching. I took up Ondine and opened the window and called for help as I stepped out onto the ledge.”

“The third-story ledge by the nursery?” His heart wrenched.

“Yes. I knew I could walk along it to the balcony two windows down. Amandine used to climb out to escape lessons. The ledge is wide enough to walk on, if one is careful. I had Ondine in the shawl I use to carry her when she gets tired on walks. She stayed very still.”

Jean-Louis stared at Mademoiselle Hélène for a long time after she stopped talking. She was looking in his direction, but not meeting his eyes. He would not have thought her so bold as to walk along a ledge or speak an entire sentence. “Tell me the rest. Why your uncle did not agree there was a threat. Why you chose to leave anyway.”

She sighed and looked down at her twisting hands. She was nervous, not bold at all. “He said the cat must have breathed smoke. The fire was put out very quickly. They were already throwing water on it when I came back in through the schoolroom. We were hardly in, though, when the window broke.”

“Broke?” he snapped. “How?”

“I’m not sure. The window, which is like a narrow door, really, jerked out of my hand and shattered,” she said. “And then I heard a crack.”

His heart stuttered. He swallowed. “Like a gunshot?”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Philippa Lodge has been an avid reader since she asked her mother to point out where it said “Ma” in Little House in the Big Woods. She read everything she could get her hands on until grad school in French Studies, at which time she lost her reading mojo. Only through the twin discoveries of Harry Potter and romance has she gotten her groove back and gone back to what she loved about seventeenth century France: kings, swords, opulence, and love. She lives in the suburbs of Sacramento, CA with her husband, three children, two cats, and a head full of courtesans.

Find her on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorPhilippaLodge
Twitter: @plaatsch
And on her website: http://philippalodge.com

Kill or Be Kilt (Highland Spies #3) by Victoria Roberts

Kill or Be Kilt

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Lady Elizabeth Walsingham pined after the same man for years. When she finally realizes the brawny Highland laird doesn’t return her feelings, she decides to leave for London and start anew. It seems that her prayers are answered when she catches the eye of a charming actor at the Globe Theatre – a man who is the complete opposite of the Highlander she once loved.

Laird Ian Monroe spends his time avoiding the bothersome young girl who dreams of their union. But when he travels to London and discovers that she has a new love interest with a dishonorable agenda, his perspective changes. Ian soon realizes that Elizabeth is no longer a child with a crush, but a beautiful woman in need of his help. He may have what it takes to rescue Elizabeth from her scheming beau, but does he have the courage to reclaim Elizabeth’s heart as well?

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, May 2016

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: Scotland and England, 1613
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Caz

Kill or Be Kilt is one of those books that is like a frothy dessert – enjoyable while it lasts, but easily forgotten. It’s decently written and the central characters are reasonably engaging, but it’s ultimately insubstantial, and there are inconsistencies to some aspects of the plot that had me shaking my head at such obvious contrivances.

It’s the third book in Victoria Roberts’ Highland Spies series featuring the Walsingham sisters, daughters of Francis (Elizabeth I’s renowned spymaster) and nieces of Walter Mildmay, also a spy for the Crown. Elizabeth Walsingham’s older sisters are both happily married to highlanders, Laird Ruairi Sutherland and his guard captain, Fagan Murray and Scotland has become their home, but Elizabeth is starting to feel restless. Her older sisters are happy and her younger sister shows every sign of finding her happily ever after in Scotland, too, but Elizabeth feels as though she doesn’t belong and thinks that perhaps it’s time for her to go back to England to find a husband.

Three years earlier, she had developed a massive crush on Laird Ian Munro, a close friend of Ruairi’s. Unfortunately, everyone – including the object of her affections – knew how she felt, but now, at eighteen, she is over him and wants to move on with her life. When news of her uncle’s death in a carriage accident reaches Sutherland, Elizabeth and her sisters travel to England to pay their respects, escorted by Ruairi, Fagan and Ian, and then while Ravenna and Grace go to Apethorpe Hall to visit their aunt, Elizabeth, with the men as her guardians, travels on to Hampton Court, so that the men can present themselves to King James and Elizabeth can experience something of English court life.

Having stayed away from Sutherland for three years simply to avoid Elizabeth’s youthful pestering, Ian is astonished to discover that the girl who annoyed him to distraction has turned into a beautiful young woman. Of course, he doesn’t want her for himself – like her sisters, she’s too clever, too sharp-tongued and altogether too much trouble – but when she attracts the attention of a young nobleman and a respected actor, Ian starts suffering from a severe attack by the green-eyed-monster. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when other members of the King’s Privy Council are found dead under mysterious circumstances, it begins to look as though Mildmay’s death was not an accident, and Elizabeth and her guardians are drawn into the hunt for the killer.

Ian is a bumblingly endearing hero, a big, brawny man who has absolute confidence in his sword-arm, but surprisingly low self-esteem when it comes to his appearance, and has no idea how to woo a woman. Elizabeth is a likeable heroine and doesn’t have as many TSTL moments as Grace did in Kilts and Daggers, but she isn’t very well defined as a character and is ultimately rather bland.

The mystery element is very simplistic and while I enjoyed the banter between Ian, Fergus and Ruari, which is often quite funny, the idea of these big, brawny Scotsmen sitting around discussing women is pretty unrealistic and made me wonder when they were going to start braiding each other’s hair. One thing I found particularly problematic was the author’s use of a number of Gaelic words and phrases in the story. I don’t quibble with her using them, but each time, the phrase is immediately translated into English, which is jarring and quickly became annoying. These examples appear exactly as they appear in the text:

”Turas math dhut,”said Ian. Have a good journey.
Or
”Tha e a-bhos an seao!” It’s over here!

I venture to suggest that there is little point in using a language few of your readers will understand if you’re going to have to translate every word. I’m sure it was done for a reason, but unfortunately, the effect is probably not the one that was intended.

Kill or Be Kilt will perhaps suit someone wanting to while away a few hours with a solidly written, but undemanding story. I didn’t dislike the book, but it’s extremely lightweight – on both the plot and emotional content – and isn’t one I can recommend without reservation.

Exile’s Return (Guardians of the Crown #3) by Alison Stuart

exiles return

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England, 1659: Following the death of Cromwell, a new king is poised to ascend the throne of England. One by one, those once loyal to the crown begin to return …

Imprisoned, exiled and tortured, fugitive Daniel Lovell returns to England, determined to kill the man who murdered his father. But his plans for revenge must wait, as the King has one last mission for him.

Agnes Fletcher’s lover is dead, and when his two orphaned children are torn from her care by their scheming guardian, she finds herself alone and devastated by the loss. Unwilling to give up, Agnes desperately seeks anyone willing to accompany her on a perilous journey to save the children and return them to her care. She didn’t plan on meeting the infamous Daniel Lovell. She didn’t plan on falling in love.

Thrown together with separate quests – and competing obligations – Daniel and Agnes make their way from London to the English countryside, danger at every turn. When they are finally given the opportunity to seize everything they ever hoped for, will they find the peace they crave, or will their fledgling love be a final casualty of war?

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Publisher and Release Date: Escape Publishing, February 2016

RHR Classifications:
Place and Time: England 1659
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Wendy

In this, the final instalment of her Guardians of the Crown trilogy, Alison Stuart brings together the three guardians and their ladies. Jonathan and Kate from By the Sword, Kit and Thamsine from The King’s Man and now Daniel and Agnes. There is enough background information for all three books to be read as standalones, although I would recommend reading the series in order.

England is in turmoil following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. The exiled, future Charles II is marking time in France, poised to regain his crown. Daniel Lovell has returned after eight years; embittered and cynical, he is very different to the green and enthusiastic eighteen-year old boy who went off eagerly to war only to be captured, imprisoned, tortured and exiled. Daniel is summoned to Charles’ court in France to be entrusted with one last important mission. On his arrival in England, Daniel is instructed to seek out Agnes Fletcher and to make the meeting appear to be coincidental. She had been caring for her dead sister’s children following their father’s execution for treason, but as a result of his conviction his estates, possessions – and children – have been seized. Daniel arrives when Agnes is at her lowest ebb; one of her charges is now the young earl and therefore an important pawn in the nefarious machinations of his father’s first cousin – the Roundhead responsible for his cousin’s betrayal and conviction. The boy stands in the way of Colonel Tobias Ashby’s aspirations to the earldom. Agnes had been the Earl’s mistress as well as his sister-in-law, and now, as well as losing her lover in such distressing circumstances, she has also lost her two young charges whom she dearly loves.

A woman alone, grieving and without funds, Agnes is therefore susceptible to kindness, and Daniel finds it relatively easy to persuade her that he is her friend and to put his plan into action. As it transpires, Daniel’s mission and Agnes’ determination to find a way to rescue her young niece and nephew coincide. Daniel has been tasked with retrieving a large sum of money which it is believed was hidden by the dead earl, on his estate. This money will help the King in his bid to regain the crown and, having lived on the estate, Agnes is the only feasible link to finding it. Daniel also has another agenda, one that has driven him in his quest for survival and vengeance over his long years in exile. Before his capture, he saw his father killed, mercilessly, on his own doorstep – the murderer is the man both he and Agnes have cause to hate – Colonel Tobias Ashby.

The two set off on their journey and as they do the attraction between them begins to grow. Having read The King’s Man and thoroughly enjoyed it, I was eagerly awaiting this novel, but I admit to feeling a little disappointed. I absolutely loved Kit Lovell, the hero of that book, and Daniel’s older brother – he was a bit of a good boy turned bad – for honourable reasons – and then redeemed, and I adored his colourful, swaggering, womanising, larger-than-life character. The relationship between him and his lady, Thamsine, is magic and expertly drawn; Alison Stuart certainly created a memorable pair of characters in those two. A hard act to follow then, and maybe that’s why I felt that there was little spark between the slightly wooden character of Daniel and the wishy-washy Agnes. Daniel is quite an angry man; it’s true that he suffered, but so did many people during the long years of the war and his exile hadn’t been all bad. An injection of his charismatic brother’s get-up-and-go wouldn’t have gone amiss. The romance between Daniel and Agnes feels contrived and there is very little passion or sensuality in it. I’m not talking about bedroom action here, because I actually like it when it’s more of a suggestion, more about sensuality than actual sex. When the pair do eventually decide they are right for each other, I still didn’t feel it; in fact, even when Kit reappears he doesn’t jump off the page as he had done previously.

Exile’s Return is a nicely written novel that is rich in historical detail, and maybe if I hadn’t read The King’s Man first, I would have enjoyed it more. With it, the trilogy is nicely finished with all of the main characters coming together again and all loose ends being neatly tied off.

A 2015 Retrospective – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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It’s that time of year when we start looking forward to another year of great reads, but also look back on the books we’ve read and enjoyed throughout the previous year. Members of RHR’s team of reviewers have chosen some of their favourite books and audiobooks from 2015; maybe they’re books you read and enjoyed, too, or they’re books you meant to read that got forgotten (so now’s the chance to catch up!).

If we’ve missed YOUR favourite books of last year, be sure to let us know yours in the comments!

Caz’s Favourites:

Stella Riley continues her Georgian-set Rockliffe Series with The Player , in which the hero, Adrian Devereux is forced to return from exile in France in order to assume the title and responsibilities of the Earl of Sarre. He left England under a cloud when he was wrongly suspected of the murder of his fiancée, and simply vanished, making his living as an actor – and an incredibly talented one, at that. But his return is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is that his decade of playing a part has left him unsure of who he is any more. Ms Riley has given us yet another swoonworthy hero in Adrian and her writing is a strong and intelligent as ever. The Player is a truly delightful read with a strong storyline, a well-written, tender romance and a cast of well-developed supporting characters.

It Started with a Scandal is the tenth in Julie Anne Long’s popular Pennyroyal Green series, and is a wonderfully romantic story with a bit of a “Jane Eyre-ish” vibe to it, about two people who don’t quite fit in finding that they fit perfectly with each other. Philippe and Elise are from different spheres of life – he French nobility, she a housekeeper – yet they are both fiercely protective towards those they love and desperate to do the right thing by them. Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, full of sexual tension and wonderfully witty banter, and the book is full of warmth and charm.

Lucinda Brant’s Deadly Peril is a popular choice, and deservedly so. It’s the third in her series of Georgian Historical Mysteries featuring the urbane and fiercely intelligent former diplomat, Alec Halsey, and it’s her best yet – which is saying something considering that the previous books are terrific reads. Here, Alec is made to confront some of the less pleasant aspects of his past as he travels to the German principality of Midanich, a place he had hoped never to see again. The plotting is superb – Ms Brant really does have a devious mind 😉 – and the fictional state of Midanich is so brilliantly evoked that I almost had to look it up on a map to see if it was real!  This book – actually, the whole series – is a must for fans of historical mysteries with a strong element of romance.

Alyssa Everett is one of my favourite authors, and her most recent book, The Marriage Act is a terrific, though not always easy, read.  It’s the story of an estranged couple who agree to reunite solely to assure the heroine’s father that they are happy together, and tells how they gradually begin to see that they have both been guilty of mistaken assumptions and of projecting their own hurts and insecurities onto the other. The characterisation and writing are both excellent, and even though there are times that both act in ways that are far from admirable, Ms Everett has written them in such a way as to ensure that even when the reader is thinking “ouch!”, their motivations are understandable.  The chemistry between John and Caroline is terrific and this is a story in which the messiness of the central relationship feels all the more realistic for not being  perfect.

While I’m a big fan of historical fiction, I was unsure about branching out into “alternate” historical fiction a couple of years back when I read Laura Andersen’s Boleyn Trilogy, which is set in a timeline in which Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who lived to inherit the throne. But I was utterly enthralled by the author’s ability to tell a great story while also incorporating a number of real historical events and figures. In The Virgin’s Daughter, Ms Andersen sets up yet another great “what if?” premise by having Elizabeth I married to Philip of Spain and having had a daughter by him. It’s a terrific read, the plot is enjoyably complex (although not confusing), the story is rich in background detail and intrigue and there’s an enjoyable romance running throughout the main story. I’m looking forward to reading more in this entertaining series.

Claudia’s Favourites


M is for Marquess by Grace Callaway

I discovered a new auto-buy author with this book … I’ve now read each of Grace Callaway’s books and loved them – which is exceptional. Gabriel and Thea from this book were two of the best characters I read this year. Both had their difficulties and it was charming to see how they overcame them together, even though it wasn’t always easy for them. This is my favourite book of 2015.

Falling Into Bed with a Duke by Lorraine Heath

This is the first book in a new series by this author, and I loved it. The way these two characters found their way to each other was delightful to read and I can’t wait for the next book.

Love in the Time of Scandal  by Caroline Linden

This is a great book and I really enjoyed how the two central characters worked out their troubles and found a way to each other. Benedict was a delightful hero, he was sweet, warm, charming but could also be wicked (in the nicest way!) and Penelope was the perfect heroine for him. I loved her more for the way she tried to make the best of things.

Lady Wesley’s Favourites:

This was the year that I became an audiobook addict, so for your listening enjoyment I’ve picked some audio titles published in 2015. By the way, I actually have read all of these books and can wholeheartedly recommend the print versions as well.

This year Loretta Chase continued treating her fans to audio versions of some of her classics. The Last Hellion, first published in 1998, pairs Lord Dain’s (Lord of Scoundrels) best friend, Vere Mallory, with crusading female journalist Lydia Grenville. Mallory, who never expected or wanted to be a duke, is probably a bigger reprobate than Dain, and carouses to forget his grief for the loved ones whose untimely deaths elevated him to the Ainsworth dukedom. Grenville, a fearless bluestocking, has no interest in men, and views Ainsworth with utter disdain. The plot is classic battle-of-the-sexes, with dangerous escapades and lots of Chase’s trademark banter. Lord and Lady Dain make cameo appearances, as does Lady Dain’s goofy brother, Bertie Trent, who gets his own HEA. Kate Reading, one of the best in the business, delivers another first-class performance.

Mary Balogh, another leading light in the historical romance genre, continued her Survivors’ Club series with Only a Promise) , narrated by the incomparable Rosalyn Landor. Waterloo survivor Ralph Stockwood, whose wounds are psychic and thus largely invisible to the world, is reluctant to take a wife even though he knows that he needs to. Enter Chloe Muirhead, who wants to marry and have a family but whose hopes have been dashed by scandal in her family. She proposes to Ralph, offering him a marriage of convenience free of pesky feelings of love and desire. Ah, but this is Romance, so it is inevitable that the two will indeed fall in love. Chloe and Ralph are mature adults, however, and thus it is the deliberate, realistic, and poignant manner in which this HEA comes about that distinguishes this story.

Last year, I recommended Grace Burrowes’ entire Captive Hearts trilogy, as I could not pick a favorite from among them, and this year I find myself in a similar quandary. Lucinda Brant, whose books are set in Georgian England, has published three series, but I think the very best is the Alec Halsey Mystery series. The first two volumes – Deadly Engagement and Deadly Affair – came out in audio format in 2015. The third, Deadly Peril, was published in print last month, and the audio version will be issued very soon. Alec Halsey is a career diplomat who was rather chagrined to find himself elevated to a marquessate for services to the crown. He is handsome, intelligent, somewhat enigmatic, intensely honorable, and decidedly his own man, and he gets involved with intrigues and mysteries, while trying to revive his relationship with his first love, a lady who is now a widow. With impressive research and first-class writing, Lucinda Brant vividly recreates 18th century England and deftly combines mystery and romance into one big delightful package that will please fans of both genres. She has found the perfect narrator in British actor Alex Wyndham, whose beautiful baritone perfectly captures the swoon-worthy Halsey, and who is equally adept at voicing females of all ages. Wyndham does not just narrate Brant’s stories, he virtually inhabits Brant’s characters. Listening to him is a joy beyond joy.

Natalie’s Favourites:

The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig

This book was the much awaited ending to Willig’s Pink Carnation series. In the final installment the Pink Carnation herself is finally paired with an intriguing turncoat spy and sparks fly. I adored the entire series, and was very happy with this final instalment that brought closure to several characters in Willig’s trademark style.

Death Comes To Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd

This is the third instalment in the Kurland St. Mary Mysteries and follows the curmudgeonly Major Robert Kurland and Spinster Lucy Harrington as they investigate yet another murder. I fell in love with the first two books in the series because our two main characters are both such anti-heroes but slowly they started coming around and in Death Comes to Kurland Hall they finally declare their feelings toward one another. This book falls more on the side of historical mystery but if you don’t mind a very chaste love story, pick up the first two books and then finish with this one.

Night of the Highland Dragon by Isabel Cooper

This third book in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragons series follows Judith MacAlasdair, the third shape-shifting MacAliasdair, and only female. Judith has been living in the ancestral home for 2 decades and is quickly coming on the moment when she will have to leave to hide her immortality from the townsfolk. But when a stranger turns up at the same time as several brutal murders are discovered, Judith realizes she must stay and protect her neighbors. I had read the first two books in this series a while back and when I started this one I was thrilled to have a female shape-shifter as the heroine of the final book in the series.

Sara’s Favourites:

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
This book had a bit of everything; a deeply tortured hero combined with a strong, supportive and caring heroine. A dark secret and the redeeming power of love. The story was gripping and immersive, giving a reader so much more than just the basic plot of two characters falling in love. It’s an incredible story that I was reluctant to finish, have already re-read, and has made me eager for more.

Diary of an Accidental Wallflower by Jennifer McQuinston
A romance that crosses classes and puts a working man into the spotlight as a hero. What makes the book special is that both main characters have dimension, developing and changing from their experiences throughout the story. The secondary characters are just as appealing and do their job of supporting the story and pushing the main characters in the right directions. This was an early release in the year but still remains a favorite.

I Loved a Rogue by Katharine Ashe
The conclusion to The Prince Catchers series, this story rewards a reader who has followed the breadcrumbs left by the author about her characters and their future. All the threads left hanging from the previous stories are tied up nicely, but the highlight is the romance between two souls kept apart by personal fears and social prejudices. A perfect mix of adventure and emotion in one amazing story.

Wendy’s Favourites:

Deadly Peril by Lucinda Brant: this Georgian mystery, the third in the Alec Halsey series, was just fascinating; it has so many twists and turns that the reader is kept guessing until the last paragraph. A fair indicator of an excellent read as far as I am concerned, is whether I can put it down easily – I couldn’t.

The King’s Man by Alison Stuart: this historical romance set during the English Civil war was my first by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked her characters, especially the hero, a bad boy (well only through circumstances) reformed by the love of a good woman. I look forward to more of this author’s work.

The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye is an historical romance by one of my favourites. Set in the aftermath of Waterloo, it features a compelling hero damaged by his experiences; as I’m fond of dark and angsty, this hit the spot.

The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne: again another first for me, I found this very unusual novel, set in Victorian England strangely compelling. Written in a very unusual style it nevertheless appealed to me with its darker side. Not to everyone’s taste, but definitely to mine.

Tall, Dark, and Wicked by Madeleine Hunter: yet another first for me and I loved it. I thought a barrister as a hero a very original and interesting concept; Ms. Hunter is most definitely on my radar now.

 

So these are some of our favourite books of 2015.  I’m sure we could all have picked more that we’ve enjoyed, but these have been the titles that have stuck in our memories and those books we’ve put onto our “keeper” shelves.

We’d love to hear from you about the books you enjoyed last year, so please do join in the discussion in the comments!

happy new year

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caz

The King’s Man by Alison Stuart

the king's man

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London 1654: Kit Lovell is one of the King’s men, a disillusioned Royalist who passes his time cheating at cards, living off his wealthy and attractive mistress and plotting the death of Oliver Cromwell.

Penniless and friendless, Thamsine Granville has lost everything. Terrified, in pain and alone, she hurls a piece of brick at the coach of Oliver Cromwell and earns herself an immediate death sentence. Only the quick thinking of a stranger saves her.

Far from the bored, benevolent rescuer that he seems, Kit plunges Thamsine into his world of espionage and betrayal – a world that has no room for falling in love.

Torn between Thamsine and loyalty to his master and King, Kit’s carefully constructed web of lies begins to unravel. He must make one last desperate gamble – the cost of which might be his life.

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Publisher and Release Date: Escape Publishing Sept 2015

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: London, 1654
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Wendy

The English Civil War is a period of history I have only recently become interested in, largely thanks to the superb novels set during that time by the British author Stella Riley, who is, in my opinion, one of the best historical fiction/historical romance writers out there. Alison Stuart wasn’t previously on my radar, but now I’ve read The King’s Man, I’m definitely going to seek out more of her books.

Christopher Lovell – Kit to his friends – is disenchanted, disillusioned and fed up with life and the seemingly endless war he is covertly fighting. He appears to his cohorts to be The King’s Man. However, he is playing a nefarious double game not of his making, which involves him risking his life on a daily basis. Captain Lovell fought bravely, heroically and loyally at the Battle of Worcester on the side of the crown; and when seriously wounded and at a very low ebb, he is coerced into spying against his comrades by John Thurloe, Cromwell’s spymaster and Secretary of the Council of State. Kit’s reasons for capitulating do not become apparent until fairly near the end of the story, but suffice to say that he turns traitor against Charles Stuart (later King Charles II) who is now living in exile in France. Kit is a charismatic, handsome, devil-may-care character and very attractive to the ladies. Alison Stuart has done an excellent job in her characterisation of this man who apparently lives without scruples, lives off his attractive young mistress, cheats at cards and betrays his fellow cavaliers; and yet I still found it easy to like and admire him and to hope for his triumph over adversity.

Thamsine Granville, a gently bred young lady and heiress is running away from the cruel, sadistic man that her dying Father was browbeaten into betrothing her to. Desperate to evade her pursuer, Thamasine is saved from a potentially fatal situation by Kit, after which they go their separate ways only to meet again later that day, apparently by accident. Thamsine really has hit rock bottom and is in the process of prostituting herself in her desperation to survive, when her knight in shining armour saves her again. Kit takes her to a friend’s inn where he arranges for her to work for bed and board. Thamsine is grateful, as Kit planned she would be, and is already a little in love with him; he however, is working under orders from John Thurloe and has been instructed to reel her in and set her up for use as another unwilling spy.

The ensuing story is rich in detail and intrigue as it also charts the growing of an unlikely love between the two main protagonists. Thamsine finds the barely visible, honourable side of Kit Lovell, hidden beneath his cynical, couldn’t-care-less, exterior. Her innocent goodness is his salvation and I liked how she helps him to care again and also to achieve redemption.

There are brutal scenes of attempted rape, downright wickedness, high drama, anguish and tender love. Alison Stuart paints a richly eloquent picture of the seedy backstreets of London, the Tower of London – where both Kit and Thamsine spend time as inmates – then across the channel to the court of the exiled Charles and back again, culminating in a shocking and dramatic conclusion that I did not see coming. As far as Kit and Thamsine are concerned, after their tumultuous roller coaster of a ride, they do at least get their HEA but the story is then left hanging and I can only suppose, without adding a spoiler, that this slightly unsatisfactory ending will be the subject of the next book in this series. I enjoyed The King’s Man on the whole although it is a story that leaves the reader feeling slightly emotionally exhausted. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to the next in the series and will read it as soon as it is available.