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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.

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.

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.

You can connect with Kerrigan at:

Her Website * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Pinterest * ~ * Instagram

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.

Caught by the Scot (Made to Marry #1) by Karen Hawkins


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When the dark Duke of Hamilton loses his beloved wife, he heeds her dying wish that he make certain her three brothers marry well for she fears they are all headed to ruin. Heartsick, the Duke approaches the task with a heavy hand, ordering the three brothers to marry within three months or forego their inheritance.

The middle brother, the dashing Conner Douglas, is not about to give up his independence, but he knows marriage doesn’t always mean one much change, does it? If anything, being married to a pliable sort of female would give him even more opportunity to seduce the married women of the ton. So he heads straight for the most pliable female he knows – a childhood acquaintance and now mousy spinster, the English born and bred Miss Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe.

Conner is so certain Theodora will joyously agree to marry him, that he takes his time traveling to her house and has only one month to secure her hand and marry. Yet when he arrives at her parents’ house he discovers that Theodora has just run away with a local landowner – a farmer, no less! Unknown to Conner, Theodora has been wildly, passionately in love with him for years. But she’s accepted he only sees her as a friend. Unable to sit forever in her parents’ front parlor and wait for what will never happen, Theodora decided to marry someone comfortable in the hopes they might at least become good partners.

Unaware of Theodora’s feelings, Conner isn’t about to let ‘the perfect wife’ get away so easily. But as Conner seduces Theodora, his own feelings stir. And after surviving a trip of mishaps and traps, he discovers that he can’t image her marrying anyone but him.

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, September 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, early 19th Century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Caught by the Scot is the first in a new series from Karen Hawkins which features a trio of brothers who are given four months in which to get married if they are to receive their respective inheritances under the terms of their sister’s will.  It’s an undemanding and very readable friends-to-lovers story in which the principal conflict comes from the fact that the hero and heroine want different things from life, and it’s touch-and-go as to whether they are prepared to compromise in order to be together.

In a sombre, almost heart-breaking opening chapter, we learn of the death in childbed of Anna, the Duchess of Hamilton, who has left behind a baby son, a grieving widower and the three younger brothers to whom she was more of a mother than a sister.  One of Anna’s dearest wishes was to see her brothers happily settled with families of their own, and in order to honour that wish, her husband presents Connor, Jack and Declan Douglas with an ultimatum; get married within four months or forfeit the fortune left them by their sister.  The brothers aren’t best pleased and, as each of them is quite secure financially, they aren’t too worried at the prospect of forfeiting the money – until the Duke tells them that he will give it to their family’s greatest enemies, the Campbells, if they do not do as Anna wished.

The brothers agree to the terms and are discussing the sort of wives they want when Conner hits upon the perfect solution to his situation.  Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe, the sister of one of his best friends is well-born, practical and pretty enough, although rather quiet – and, as the daughter of a diplomat, will have no trouble managing his household in his frequent and lengthy absences overseas.  She’s on the shelf and is sure to be grateful for his offer, so Connor confidently expects to be able to do as his sister wanted within the time limit and decides to enjoy the last of his bachelorhood, nonchalantly waving off his brothers’ surprise that he isn’t going to propose to Thea straight away.  But Conner isn’t worried.  Thea’s safely stowed at her father’s house and will be waiting for him when he eventually shows up, right?

Wrong.

When Conner finally emerges from his month long carouse and arrives at Cumberbatch House, it’s to find the place in uproar following Thea’s elopement with a local squire.  Needless to say, Connor is shocked – and furious – that Thea hasn’t been calmly sitting there waiting for him, and sets off in pursuit, determined to bring her to her senses and make her his bride.

Thea has been in love with Conner for years, but knows he has never seen her as anything but his best friend’s little sister.  She also knows that Conner loves nothing so much as his career as a highly successful privateer; he loves the freedom to come and go as he pleases and doesn’t like staying in one place too long, things which are diametrically opposed to those Thea wants from life.  Having spent most of her life travelling with her parents as her father moved from one ambassadorial post to another, she is tired of not having anywhere she can really call home.  So when the handsome and very agreeable Squire Lance Fox starts courting her, she encourages his interest and accepts his proposal of marriage.

For once, Thea is going to do something exciting and unexpected… except she bargains without Lance’s inept driving which lands them in a ditch and their vehicle in need of repair.  This delay enables Conner to catch up with them at the first inn he comes to – and he almost immediately makes Thea the most arrogant, condescending marriage offer ever, to which she, not surprisingly, says an emphatic “no”.

Once Conner has recovered from the shock of being turned down in favour of another man he decides to try to convince Thea to break her engagement by proving to her that there is true passion between them.  But no matter how knee-weakening Conner’s kisses, Thea knows he’s wedded to the sea and is not the man to make her a home and spend his life at her side.  She continues to resist his sensual blandishments, at which point Conner realises he needs to change tack.  Rather than trying to sweep her off her feet, she needs to spend enough time with Lance to see what Conner has already seen – that she and her devoted fiancé are completely ill-suited.  Lance believes Thea to be something she’s not and Conner knows that he’ll drive her barmy within weeks.  Lance has the idea that Thea is a perfect specimen of demure womanhood and will meekly accept his every instruction and suggestion without complaint, whereas Conner knows all too well that Thea has a brain and knows how to use it; she’s not afraid to voice her own opinions and most definitely won’t appreciate being treated like some sort of delicate flower.

Conner’s machinations – which include engaging the most unsuitable chaperone in the history of chaperones – are devious and sometimes amusing, especially when they backfire and only make the likelihood of Thea’s changing her mind even more remote.  I liked that Thea is wise to his game, and also that as the ill-fated elopement continues, she sheds her rose-tinted view of Conner and sees him as the man he really is.  And Conner, well… he starts out seeming like a conceited git; he’s so sure that Thea will fall into his arms and weep with gratitude at the prospect of marrying him, yet it’s telling that she’s the first – and only – woman he thinks of when he learns he has to find a wife.  Of course, it takes the prospect of losing Thea to open Conner’s eyes to the truth of his feelings for her and for him to realise that he wants her enough to consider making some substantial changes to his way of life so that they can be together.

Ms. Hawkins writes with a very sure hand; the relationship between Conner and Thea is well drawn and the dialogue is sharp and often funny, but while I enjoyed Caught by the Scot, it didn’t have that certain something that elevated it from the merely “good”, and didn’t really offer anything I haven’t read hundreds of times before.  I also got very tired very quickly of the written out dialect; all the “dinnae”s and “cannae”s and “mon”s and “verra”s that are so often found in stories featuring Scottish characters, and which are completely unnecessary.  It’s not that I found the text difficult to read or understand, it’s just an affectation that annoys me; the author tells us this character is a Scot, so unless I’m told otherwise, they have a Scottish accent which I’m quite capable of imagining for myself.

With that said, fans of sexy Scottish heroes should find much to enjoy in Caught by the Scot, which is by turns poignant, sensual and funny.  I may well stick around for the next book to see how the next Douglas brother is Made to Marry.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance by Mimi Matthews

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A PROUD BEAUTY 

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

A SCARRED BEAST

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

A SECOND CHANCE

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


Publisher and Release Date: Perfectly Proper Press, September 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

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

Review by Lady Wesley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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