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The Duke of Defiance (The Untouchables #5) by Darcy Burke

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Difficult and defiant as a child, Bran Crowther, Earl of Knighton left England as a young man to pursue independence and adventure. He never expected to inherit the title and when duty calls him home, he still finds Society’s codes constricting and others’ expectations oppressive. Nevertheless, he needs a wife to be a mother to his young daughter, preferably a woman of intelligence and warmth who is, above all, immune to his idiosyncrasies—and to falling in love.

Widow Joanna Shaw isn’t interested in a second marriage, not after the loveless, passionless union she endured. She’d much rather dote on her young niece and nephew since they will likely be the only children in her life…until she meets a precocious girl, in desperate need of a mother. But her father, the so-called Duke of Defiance, is as peculiar as he is handsome, and Jo won’t take another risk with her heart. Their rules, however, are made to be broken, even when the consequences could destroy them both.

Publisher and Release Date: Darcy Burke, June 2017


Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Caz

I haven’t read all the books in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and can confidently say that each book works as a standalone.  The Duke of Defiance features a new central couple and briefly re-introduces readers to the “Untouchables”, gentlemen so named by their heroines because their lofty positions in society meant they were well beyond their touch.  Although as things have turned out, they obviously weren’t 😉

Mrs. Joanna Shaw is the widowed sister of Nora, the Duchess of Kendal, who was the heroine of book one, The Forbidden Duke.  Joanna – Jo – was unhappily married to a country clergyman for around eight years, and is now living with Nora while she decides what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  At thirty-one, she is still lovely and her position as the sister of a duchess gives her a certain cachet in society – but she is not sure if she wants to remarry.  Her late husband’s emotional cruelty has naturally soured her view of the institution, and her inability to conceive a child during eight years of marriage makes her a less attractive prospect as a wife.

Bran Crowther, the Earl of Knighton was a third son who never expected to inherit his father’s title.  But the recent deaths of his two elder brothers necessitates his return to England from the successful life he had built for himself in Barbados, and he and his five-year-old daughter, Evie, are finding it difficult to adjust.  Fortunately, however, Evie has found a good friend in Becky, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kendal, and when Bran arrives to collect Evie from a play date, he meets Mrs. Shaw and is immediately struck by her wit and good sense, as well as by her beauty.

Bran and Jo are attracted to each other, and their interactions are nicely judged and generally very honest.  They are initially brought together when Nora offers to help Bran to find a new nurse for Evie and then has to send Jo in her stead.  Bran is pleased to discover that Jo’s views fit with his own, and also finds her comments about the dos and don’ts of London society very helpful as he tries to settle into his new life.  When he – and Evie – practically beg Jo to become Evie’s governess, she finds she cannot refuse, even as she knows that being in close proximity to Bran day after day is not a good idea.  But she has come to love Evie as she is coming to love the girl’s father, and agrees to a trial period, trying not to think about what will happen when Bran eventually takes a wife who will be able to give him more children and, most importantly, an heir.

Jo’s concern about her lack of fertility is the main source of conflict in the romance, and it’s one I’m not particularly fond of.  The women in such stories always blame themselves without any reason to do so other than that they’re women and therefore the fault must lie with them!  Bran at least has the sense to suggest that it might not be Jo’s fault, but she is naturally very sensitive about it, and isn’t prepared to let him take the risk that she won’t be able to give him any more children.  Her belief is not helped by the insecurities about her womanliness fostered in her by her late husband, but it’s nonetheless a plot point that always makes me roll my eyes.

Bran is a no-nonsense sort of person, and his years of living away from the strictures of London society have made him careless of convention and proper behaviour.  He thinks nothing of allowing Evie to go without shoes when they are at home – to the intense disapproval of some of his starchier servants – or of divesting himself of cravat and coat in front of Jo, when it is certainly not the done thing to ‘disrobe’ in front of a lady.  (Not that Jo minds, of course😉)  When he describes how clothes make him “itchy” and then explains how, as a child, his mother regarded him as defiant because he refused to wear clothing or eat what he was given; how he could never sit still or remain in bed all night, I thought Ms. Burke may have been setting him up as someone with a condition such as ADHD or on the Autistic Spectrum, but this is never made clear.  Jo comes to recognise and accept Bran’s quirks, but other than having been brought up by an extremely harsh, unforgiving mother and a father who didn’t bother with his third son, we’re not really given much of an explanation for them, and for the most part they are just glossed over.  There’s an implication that Evie, too, has anxiety issues, but these are handled in more or less the same way.

And on the subject of Evie, much of the time she comes across as much older than the five years of age she is supposed to be.  At one point, she tells her father: “I was certain you might be falling in love” – which sounds more like a teenager, for instance, and she reads as more of a plot-moppet than a real child.  Children are hard to write well (Grace Burrowes is one of the very few romance authors who is able to get it right) and I’m afraid Ms. Burke has missed the mark. She’s also way off the mark when it comes to the master/servant relationship that should exist between Bran and Jo.  He pretty much treats her as the mistress of the house as soon as she sets foot in it, assigning her a bedchamber in the family wing, a maid of her own, and insisting upon her eating meals with him, to name just a few things no over governess would have been granted.  I get that Bran is supposed to be unfamiliar with society customs but Jo should know better and allows Bran to wave aside her very weak protests.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book does work as a standalone, but information about previous characters and situations is given in obvious info-dumps, rather than evolving naturally; and while the good-natured teasing between the four heroes of the previous books is one of the best things about the this one, it felt like overkill for all four of them to just happen to be around in order to meet Bran.

While the writing is strong and the love scenes are sensual, The Duke of Defiance is, sadly one of the weaker entries in this series. I do plan to read more by Darcy Burke, but I’m going to chalk this one up as a misfire.

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher


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“I have a proposal for you…”

The last place respectable governess Ianthe Holt ever expected to be proposed to was in a train carriage…by a stranger…who had just accused her of trying to trap another man into marriage!

Shipping magnate Robert Felstone may be dashing, but he’s also insufferable, impertinent–and Ianthe’s only possible savior from her uncertain fate. She’s hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe there’s more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows…

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, June 2017

Time and Setting: Whitby, England 1865
Heat Level:2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The Convenient Felstone Marriage, set in the small town of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, is a refreshing change from most of the historical romance I read.  I liked the premise of the story and how Ms. Fletcher orchestrates a relationship between the principals, but unfortunately, once she delivers ‘the convenient Felstone marriage,’ the middle section lags and the ending is overly dramatic.  I might have been more forgiving had I liked our heroine a bit more, but she became less likeable as the story progressed and I had a hard time rooting for her.  Though the book is  entertaining and Ms. Fletcher’s writing is strong, I liked the idea of this story more than the execution of it.

Ianthe Holt is frustrated, annoyed and desperate.  Since the death of her beloved mother from consumption a year ago and her father’s grief stricken death not long after, her life has unraveled. Things go from bad to worse when her brother, Percy, tells her he hopes Ianthe will accept an offer of marriage from Sir Charles Lester, a man thirty years her senior and whose unnerving, creepy interest in her has always made her uncomfortable.   After a heated argument aboard the train in which they are traveling to Yorkshire, Percy can’t seem to understand why she won’t accept Sir Charles – and Ianthe waits for him to return to their compartment for the last leg  of the journey.

After pretending to be asleep as the brother and sister argued – loudly – in their shared compartment Robert Felstone is disturbed, enraged and unwilling to remain quiet.  What he overheard leads him to believe the woman is planning to trick a man into marriage, but when he accuses her of same, she surprises him with a fiery defense of her behavior. It quickly becomes clear to Robert the situation isn’t quite what it appeared, and when he discovers who the intended groom is – the lecherous Sir Charles Lester – he revisits his first impression of his angry companion. Compared to the beautiful woman who refused his offer of marriage earlier that morning because he wasn’t good enough for her, this woman is dowdy and severe.  But Robert, after his rejection, isn’t looking for a love match.  He needs a wife, she needs a husband – perhaps they can help each other.

Percy’s return to the train compartment interrupts the conversation between Ianthe and Robert. Before he arrives, Ianthe makes it clear to Robert that she finds his behavior offensive – he called her a schemer and then asked her to marry him! – and turns him down.  But after Percy introduces himself – and his sister – Robert finds himself disliking the brother, and curious about Ianthe.  Despite her earlier rejection, Robert decides to persevere in his pursuit of Miss Holt (he can’t quite figure out why) and he invites the pair to a ball that evening.

Ianthe has no intention of attending the ball, but events (and the author) conspire to get her there.  The evening represents a crossroads of sorts, and Ms. Fletcher deftly uses it to position and define how profoundly the the men in Ianthe’s life shape her future:  Percy, her brother, whose fortune (or lack thereof) is linked to the card table. He selfishly wagers Ianthe’s future to save his own; Sir Charles, her obsessed hunter, stalks Ianthe, unwilling to allow anything or anyone to come between him and his prey; and Robert, the bastard son who’s succeeded despite a scandalous beginning, her savior, who doesn’t believe in love – but falls for Ianthe despite his best effort not to.

Ianthe is a polarizing figure.  Though it’s easy to sympathize with her for the tough choices she’s had to make since her parents’ deaths, her decision making process is odd, and I struggled to like her through the middle portion of the book.  She persists in refusing to marry Robert even though she is attracted to him, and knowing that the smarmy Sir Charles is lurking in the background; and once she does agree, she lets a past indiscretion assume such mountainous proportions that it threatens to wreck their fledgling relationship.  Despite her resolve to be the respectable bride he desires, her secrets prevent her from finding any happiness in her marriage.  From this point on, the marriage of convenience trope gives way to my least favorite trope of all – the BIG Misunderstanding.  Ianthe persists in keeping her past from Robert, even when it’s apparent he’s trying to make more of their marriage than the business agreement they initially agreed to.  We spend chapter after chapter hoping Ianthe will finally come clean but when she does, it’s in the frenetic closing chapters, and only after she’s forced to do so.  I didn’t like her dishonesty and though I rooted for her and Robert, I disliked her character by the time the story concluded.

I liked Robert from the moment we meet him, but he’s not perfect either.  He has a quick temper and despite his wealth, power and success, he’s insecure.  The bastard son of a lecherous lord with grabby hands for his household staff, he was raised by a single mother who both loved and resented him.  He’s managed to rise above the unfortunate circumstances of his birth, but his relationship with his now dead father still has the power to hurt him, and high society still snubs him.  Those flaws only made me like him more, and though I admired his willingness to persevere in the face of Ianthe’s hot/cold behavior and her secrets (he knows she has them, he just doesn’t know what they are), it doesn’t ring true to his character.  He’s a tough and ambitious businessman with good instincts and I’m forced to conclude it’s his physical response that carries the day – because with all her baggage – she’s hard to love.

I was entertained by The Convenient Felstone Marriage, but my increasing dislike of the heroine, spoiled my enjoyment of the story as a whole.  I think Ms. Fletcher is a strong writer and I liked the premise of the story, I only wish she spent more time developing the principals and their relationship and less on the Big Misunderstanding that keeps them apart – a big turn-off for this romance reader.

The Pleasures of Passion (Sinful Suitors #4) by Sabrina Jeffries

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When Niall Lindsey, the Earl of Margrave, is forced to flee after killing a man in a duel, he expects his secret love, Brilliana Trevor, to go with him, or at the very least wait for him. To his shock, she does neither and sends him off with no promise for the future. Seven years and one pardon later, Niall returns to England disillusioned and cynical. And being blackmailed by the government into working with his former love to help catch a counterfeiter connected to her father doesn’t improve his mood any. But as his role as Brilliana’s fake fiancé brings his long-buried feelings to the surface once again, he wonders who is more dangerous—the counterfeiter or the woman rapidly stealing his heart.

Forced to marry another man after Niall was exiled, the now widowed Brilliana wants nothing to do with the reckless rogue who she believes abandoned her to a dreary, loveless life. So having to rely on him to save her father is the last thing she wants, much less trusts him with….But as their scheme strips away the lies and secrets of their shared past, can she let go of the old hurt and put her pride aside? Or will the pleasures of their renewed passion finally enable them both to rediscover love?

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, June 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1830
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

The Pleasures of Passion surprised me. I didn’t expect to end up liking the story for its heroine, Brilliana Trevor. Bree was introduced in The Danger of Desire, book three of the Sinful Suitors series as a widow and mother trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her husband died unexpectedly. She didn’t come across as especially sympathetic considering that she admits to her sister-in-law that she never loved her husband. I felt Bree was a weak character and wasn’t very excited to read a whole story about her reuniting with the man she’s always carried a torch for. Fortunately Sabrina Jeffries does a good job within the first few pages of Bree’s story to show just how strong a person she could be.

Miss Brilliana Payne was only seventeen years old when she fell in love. While visiting Bath so her invalid mother could take the waters, Bree met Niall Lindsey at one of the few social gatherings she was allowed to attend. Niall was everything that Brilliana had hoped for in a suitor; kind, attentive and he made her feel that her middle-class upbringing was not a problem for him as the heir to an earldom. The one flaw in Niall’s perfection was his reluctance to introduce her to his family or to meet with her father to ask for her hand. When she receives an urgent message from Niall, Bree is certain that he will finally declare himself and they can begin planning for a future together. Sadly, Niall’s reasons for a quick meeting are because he was involved in a duel and has to flee the country to protect himself. Bree’s heart is torn in two when Niall pleads for her to go with him; however she cannot leave her sick mother alone with her feckless father. Unable to choose between her family and her future, Bree tells Niall that she won’t leave England with him now but hopes they can be reunited soon.

Months after Niall’s departure, Bree’s life takes an unexpected turn. Her father’s gambles and loses big to another gentleman who suggests that he’ll forgive the debt if Brilliana marries his son, Reynold Trevor. With no word from Niall and hoping to protect her mother from ruin, Bree has no choice but to accept the marriage. The intervening years are difficult for Bree as, while she likes her new husband, she can’t love him. The best thing to come from their marriage is a son; however his arrival is bittersweet as Reynold dies not long after his birth. As a widow, Bree gains a bit of freedom, but years of protecting herself from men who took advantage of her (like her father) have made Bree reluctant to begin a new relationship. Nothing can prepare her for the shock she experiences when she is suddenly reunited with the one man she’s spent seven years trying to forget.

Niall Lindsey, now the Earl of Margrave, spent his years in exile working with the Home Office as a spy within the social circles of Spain. When his superior, Lord Fulkham, finally found a way to get him pardoned it was a welcome relief to escape the world of espionage. Of course, a great spymaster never really lets an asset get away and Niall is soon recruited to uncover evidence of a counterfeiter passing fake banknotes at several gambling hells. All signs point to Sir Oswald Payne being the culprit and Niall is tasked with getting close to the man to find proof of his counterfeiting. Lord Fulkham tells Niall that the easiest way to gain the man’s trust is to use his daughter as a means of introduction and doesn’t give Niall any chance to escape a reunion with the former Miss Payne. Seeing Brilliana again after seven years brings back all the painful memories of her betrayal when he needed her support. Learning from his father that Brilliana married another while Niall was alone on the Continent was a crushing blow to his heart from which he has never quite recovered.

Reluctantly, Niall and Bree agree to fake an engagement as cover for their mission to ingratiate themselves with Sir Oswald. Their forced closeness reopens many old wounds but also triggers a re-examination of the misunderstandings and actions that led to their separation years before. What is quickly discovered is that the love Bree and Niall held for each other never really died; however it may be impossible to rekindle as Niall is still holding some secrets close to his chest and Bree finds it very hard to trust him with her heart a second time.

The Pleasures of Passion is a good story that sometimes gets lost in its repetitiveness. Brilliana and Niall have trust issues in their early relationship and once they’re reunited those same trust issues are the obstacle in the way of their rekindled romance. Niall withholds things from Bree right up until the bitter end rather than taking a leap of faith that she would understand why he had kept her in the dark for so long. One could argue that he had lived for seven years protecting his family’s honor and it was a difficult habit to break; however it unnecessarily strains their relationship. Bree finds it hard to let go of the past as a small part of her feels the life for which she was destined was taken away because of her father’s, her husband’s and even Niall’s actions. There wouldn’t be a story if Bree just fell over and accepted Niall’s apologies and let him back into her heart, but she is constantly wondering if Niall really loves her or will be there if things go wrong in the case against her father. Fortunately, readers know from Niall’s viewpoint that he’s ready to commit to her no matter the circumstances, so we play along with her uncertainties until she can see that, too.

The counterfeiting storyline is actually a great way to get Niall and Brilliana to talk to each other and Ms. Jeffries keeps the reader guessing about the identity of the real criminal. Having the investigation always a part of the conversation works to move the story further but also lays the groundwork for the next two books in the Sinful Suitors series. The Pleasures of Passion is a stronger story than the last book and I hope to see this upward trend continue.

The Most Dangerous Duke in London (Decadent Dukes Society #1) by Madeline Hunter

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NOTORIOUS NOBLEMAN SEEKS REVENGE
Name and title: Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton.
Affiliation: London’s elite Society of Decadent Dukes.
Family history: Scandalous.
Personality traits: Dark and brooding, with a thirst for revenge.
Ideal romantic partner: A woman of means, with beauty and brains, willing to live with reckless abandon.
Desire: Clara Cheswick, gorgeous daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

FAINT OF HEART NEED NOT APPLY
Clara may be the woman Adam wants, but there’s one problem: she’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than getting married—especially to a man said to be dead-set on vengeance. Though, with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if his desire for justice is sincere—along with his incredibly unnerving intention to be her husband. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for Adam clearly comes with a cost. But who knew courting danger could be such exhilarating fun?

Publisher and Release Date: Zebra, May 2017

Time and Setting: Warwickshire and London, 1822
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

The Most Dangerous Duke in London gets Madeline Hunter’s new Decadent Dukes Society series off to a strong start with an extremely readable and engaging tale of a man seeking revenge, an old family enmity and the woman caught in the middle. The romance is a delightful, sensual slow-burn, and in addition, there’s mystery and intrigue, a whiff of espionage, lots of witty banter and a wonderfully written friendship between the hero and his two closest friends (both of whom will feature in future books).

Adam Penrose, the Duke of Stratton has recently returned to England after living in for the past five years, during which he has acquired a reputation for having a quick temper and for fighting and killing his opponents in duels – thus earning himself him the moniker of “The Dangerous Duke”. Adam left the country following his father’s death, which is widely thought to been at his own hand following rumours that he was engaged in treasonous activities, rumours Adam believes were fuelled by the hints and accusations of the late Earl of Marwood. There has long been bad blood between the two families, and now Adam is determined to find out if his suspicions about Marwood are true and to make someone pay for driving his father to his grave. Given the long-standing enmity between the Penroses and the Cheswicks, Adam is therefore surprised to receive an invitation to visit the dowager Countess of Marwood, who states her belief that it’s time the two families patched up their differences.

Adam is highly sceptical, but plays along until the countess proposes that he should marry her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, thus burying the hatchet in the time-honoured tradition of marital alliance. Lady Emilia is pretty and amiable, but Adam isn’t interested in a schoolroom chit – he prefers spirited women with minds of their own, and when he meets Lady Clara, the current earl’s half-sister, Adam decides straight away that she will suit him very well indeed.

Lady Clara Cheswick is the only child of her father’s first marriage and was his favourite among his children. He left her very comfortably off when he died, so Clara doesn’t need to marry if she doesn’t want to, and, at twenty-four, she is on the shelf and quite happy to keep it that way. She’s intelligent, strong-willed and independent, and is content to focus her considerable energies on her publishing venture, Parnassus, a magazine written and produced by women for women which is starting to achieve success. When Adam proposes marriage, Clara doesn’t take him at all seriously, telling him that she isn’t interested in marrying him or anyone, but Adam won’t take no for an answer and sets about courting her.

Clara can’t deny that Adam is a very attractive man, or that she’s drawn to him; he’s sexy and witty and clever and makes it very clear that the qualities that her family regard as problematic and unladylike – her desire for independence and the fact that she not only has her own opinions but makes no bones about voicing them – are qualities he likes and admires. He is genuinely interested in what she has to say about any number of topics, and doesn’t talk down to her or treat her as though she’s a hothouse flower. Adam insists his proposal of marriage was quite serious – and as Clara spends time with him and gets to know him, she is increasingly tempted to believe him, but can’t quite shake her suspicions that there is something else behind his stated intention. Perhaps, given her close relationship with her late father, Adam is primarily interested in getting close to her in order to find out if she knows anything about the late earl’s possible involvement in his father’s death? Or maybe he wants to use her – somehow – as an instrument of revenge?

The sparks fly between Adam and Clara right from their first meeting, and their relationship unfolds gradually and deliciously as Adam finds ways to spend time with Clara – to her initial exasperation – and they slowly come to appreciate each other’s wit, intelligence and sense of humour. These are two mature adults who never underestimate each other as they match one another quip for quip, their verbal sparring a deliciously sensual courtship and prelude to a later, more intimate relationship. The romance is very well-developed; there’s none of the immediate and anachronistic bed-hopping or insta-lust that characterises so many historical romances these days, which is always a refreshing discovery. Adam never wavers in his determination to marry Clara, and his persistence is charming and often funny; he’s generous and forthright, answering Clara’s questions about his motivations honestly and is never less than charming and gentlemanly towards her. I was also impressed with the way that Ms. Hunter has managed to create a credibly independent heroine who is not too modern; Clara wants to make her own way in the world, but is also mindful of her reputation and knows she has to at least appear to operate within the confines of society.

The plotline that revolves around Adam’s search for the truth about his father is well set up and executed, weaving in and out of the romance but never overwhelming it; and when the resolution comes it’s unexpected and quite clever.

With two multi-faceted and strongly characterised principals, an entertaining and well-drawn secondary cast, a sensual romance and a dash of intrigue, The Most Dangerous Duke in London is a thoroughly engaging read and one I’d recommend to fans of the author and of historical romance in general.

An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

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In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, June 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance with mystery elements
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

An Affair With a Notorious Heiress (Scandalous Gentlemen of St. James #4) by Lorraine Heath

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The son of a duke and an infamous mother, Alistair Mabry, Marquess of Rexton, fought his way to respectability. Now, the most eligible bachelor in London, marriage-shy Rexton will take only a wife with an impeccable reputation, good breeding, and a penchant for staying out of the gossip sheets. But when he strikes a deal to be seen “courting” a sweet young debutante whose notorious older sister has blemished her chances for marriage, Rexton is unexpectedly drawn to the highly inappropriate, calamitous Tillie, Lady Landsdowne herself.

After a scandalous incident that sent shockwaves throughout society and disgraced her, Tillie refuses to cower in the face of the ton. Instead, she will hold her head high as she serves as chaperone for her younger sister, but Tillie is convinced Rexton’s courtship is shrouded with secrets—ones she vows to uncover. However, doing so requires getting dangerously close to the devilishly handsome and forbidden marquess…

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, May 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1882
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Wendy

I love Lorraine Heath’s books. They’re empathetic, sensitive and frequently deal with issues we come across in our modern day lives, but without the two hundred years or so of information and research available to us today, or the benefit of hindsight. But An Affair with a Notorious Heiress didn’t work as well for me as her previous books. In it, Ms. Heath tackles a scandalous divorce and its effects on the ex-wife of an earl. However, the distressing feelings that Mathilda (Tillie), Lady Landsdowne, must have experienced as a social outcast were lacking in the intense emotion that Lorraine Heath is so good at evoking and I kept waiting for the lump in my throat – but it didn’t happen.

Alistair Mabry, Marquess of Rexton, is the product of a loving, albeit, unconventional union. His mother began her early life thieving on the streets of London in order to survive, and eventually became a partner in a successful gaming hell where she met, fell in love with, and married The Duke of Greystone (Surrender to the Devil). Rexton adores his wise and worldly mother but even so, ran the gauntlet of cruel jibes and treatment from schoolmates until he learned to fight back and eventually gained the respect of his peers. Now a grown man he knows it’s time he was thinking of marriage, but in light of his own experiences he is determined that his wife will be the model of propriety.

One of Rexton’s passions is his race horses, so when an opportunity arises to secure the stud services of a much lauded stallion, he cannot resist the bargain he is offered. All he has to do is to bring American heiress, Miss Virginia (Gina) Hammersley, into fashion by allowing the ton to believe he may be interested in her as a potential bride. How difficult can it be? She’s very young, but she’s also pretty, personable and without guile – but and it is a big but, she is also the younger sister of the notorious Mathilda Paget, who brazenly fought through the courts for the right to keep her empty title and London residence following her divorce. Still, Rexton is prepared to do his best to ensure Gina’s acceptance by the ton, but he reckons without his immediate attraction to big sister Tillie, who is not in on the subterfuge and believes him to be earnestly courting Gina. She is determined that her sister will marry a man who cares for her and not her considerable fortune. Most importantly though, he must treat Gina with the respect she, Tillie, did not receive at the hands of her husband and his family. Tillie accompanies Rexton and Gina as chaperone whenever she is able, and soon sees that Rexton is not the husband for Gina, mainly because she feels his attraction to her. I found this difficult to fathom; Tillie is notorious and was caught kissing a footman whilst still married – although this is explained later in the story. Surely even she can see that her chaperonage could be the kiss-of-death to her sister’s aspirations?

As the story unfolds, Rexton and Tillie’s already strong attraction to each other becomes more and more apparent, but although the building of the romance is sweet and sexy, especially on Rexton’s part, Tillie is rather prickly and not as likeable as he is. I also didn’t feel the intense sensuality that Lorraine Heath is usually so adept at conveying and normally achieves with satisfying and swoon-worthy results.

There are no startling revelations, although because this is a Lorraine Heath book, I kept expecting something more to happen. She does, however, do a very good job of highlighting how unfair life was for a divorced woman of the time – shunned and cut by the very society that accepts her-ex husband as a ‘jolly-good-fellow’. Rexton is a lovely, honourable man and Tillie a beautiful, still young, but embittered woman who rarely smiles, but is chipped from her block of ice by the love of a good man; these two belonged together and I did want them to reach their HEA, but there is something of the substance normally prevalent in Ms. Heath’s writing missing.

An Affair with a Notorious Heiress might compare well to other historical romances, but it’s not not up to the standard I have come to expect from this author. With that said, her writing is no less eloquent and most of the characters are no less likeable and well developed as many of her others. Someone choosing to read a Lorraine Heath novel for the first time may enjoy this one, but I’m afraid her fans, like myself, may be slightly disappointed.

VIRTUAL TOUR: From Duke Till Dawn (The London Underground #1) by Eva Leigh

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Years ago, the Duke of Greyland gave his heart—and a princely sum of money—to a charming, destitute widow with unparalleled beauty. But after one passionate night, she slipped from his bed and vanished without a trace. And just when he’s given up hope of ever seeing her again, Greyland finds her managing a gaming hell. He’s desperate to have her… until he discovers everything about his long-lost lover was a lie.

In truth, Cassandra Blake grew up on the streets, picking pockets to survive. Greyland was a mark—to be fleeced and forgotten—but her feelings for the duke became all too real. Once he learns of her deception, however, the heat in his eyes turns to ice. When her business partner absconds with the gaming hell proceeds—leaving unsavory investors out for blood—Cassandra must beg the man she betrayed for help.

Greyland wants compensation, too, and he’ll assist her under one condition: she doesn’t leave his sight until her debts are paid. But it’s not long before the real Cassandra—the smart, streetwise criminal—is stealing his heart all over again.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, May 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about other books by this author is the way she manages to create strong, intelligent heroines who are assertive and independent while still continuing to function in a society that essentially thought women were lesser beings and wanted to shove them into a corner marked “seen, not heard”.  It’s a difficult line to tread; if you go too far, your heroine is shrewish and difficult to like, if you don’t go far enough, your heroine may be too much of a doormat to appeal to a modern audience.  But Eva Leigh manages to get the balance just about right, mostly because she writes about women who are not just decorative ornaments; her heroines often have to make their own livings and have learned the hard way that the one person they can always rely on (until they meet their hero, that is!) is themselves – and she does this without making them so modern as to require too much suspension of disbelief that they could exist in Regency England.  Cassandra Blake, her heroine in From Duke Till Dawn is one of those women, someone who has used her wits and intelligence to make a life for herself in a hostile world.

Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland has been brought up to be perfect.  The perfect duke.  The perfect gentleman.  The perfect… everything.  Even at thirty-eight, he still hears his father’s booming strictures about the importance of duty and responsibility, and he has done everything possible to live up to his sire’s expectations.  But he’s hit a snag in terms of fulfilling one of the most important duties to his dukedom in that the demure and very eligible young lady to whom he had betrothed himself has just run off to Gretna Green with the another man.  While there’s nothing Alex would rather do than slope off home to lick his wounds in solitude, he knows he has to put on a brave face and be seen out in society to show that the young woman’s actions have not affected him.  In truth, they haven’t much – Alex wasn’t in love with the girl, he’s just annoyed and embarrassed at being jilted.

He’s in this morose state when his two best friends find him and insist on taking him to the newest gambling den in London.  Alex’s heart isn’t in it, but he goes anyway – and is astonished when he hears a voice he’d thought never to hear again, the voice of the woman he’s nicknamed his Lost Queen. Two years earlier while in Cheltenham, Alex met and fell for a lovely widow named Cassandra Blair, a woman possessed of a quick mind as well as great beauty, and felt a intensely strong connection to her.  She disappeared after their one night together, and although he never expected to see her again, Alex has never forgotten her.  Yet now, here she is, as beautiful and poised as ever and Alex is smitten all over again.

Cassandra Blake is shocked at seeing the Duke of Greyland again and berates herself for returning to London where she’d known she would run the risk of meeting him again.  But when her old mentor, Martin Hughes, offered her a job in which she could earn enough money to leave her life of swindling behind her and go legitimate, she couldn’t turn it down.  She’s tired of the constant dishonesty and wants to live honestly – but first needs to be able to afford to do so.

Alex was supposed to have simply been a mark, a rich man she could take for a few hundred pounds, yet their brief time together meant something to Cassandra, so she falls back into her role of the beleaguered widow and makes up a story to account for the fact she left Alex so precipitately. Naturally, however, secrets such as these will out, and when Alex overhears Hughes suggesting that Cassandra try to fleece him again, he is furious and hurt by her betrayal, swearing to make her pay for her crimes.

Cassandra is completely unprepared for the visceral hurt she experiences at the disgust and betrayal in Alex’s eyes, but she has done what she has done in order to survive and doesn’t back down in the face of his angry accusations.  She can’t help being afraid of his threats of retribution; but when she discovers that Hughes has done a bunk with all their money, she has more pressing concerns to face. Hughes borrowed a lot of money from a lot of shady characters in order to set up the club, and the moment news of his disappearance gets out, Cassandra knows her life will be worth less than nothing if she remains alone and unprotected.  Terrified, she realises that she knows only one person in London she can trust absolutely – but he hates her and may well decide to leave her to her fate.

Alex is astonished when Cassandra arrives at his home begging for his help and has half a mind to have her thrown out – but then he realises that she is genuinely distressed, and while he is still deeply hurt by her deception, he certainly doesn’t want her dead.  Believing that now he knows the truth he will be able to stop himself falling for her all over again, he agrees to help her to find Hughes, and in the process, discovers much about himself and the sort of man he really is and wants to be.  I loved this aspect of the story and watching Alex gradually become his own man in truth, shedding much of his reserve and preoccupation with propriety and perfection, while retaining the parts of his character that make him a truly wonderful and memorable romantic hero.

Cassandra, too, finds her perceptions changing, her mentor’s betrayal finally opening her eyes to the truth about the hurt she must have caused those she had targeted and stolen from in the past.  More than that, though, now that she is no longer part of the underground criminal community, she is forced to deal with her mistakes and face the consequences rather than running from them and jumping into the next con.

Ms. Leigh’s depiction of London’s criminal underworld is one of the book’s many strong points.  Once Alex agrees to help Cassandra, he is plunged into a world he had never really known existed, one which has its own rules and pecking order, where morality is fluid and where nothing is ever black and white.  It’s a real eye-opener for Alex, who soon discovers that he has to set aside some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs if he is to protect Cassandra, and ends up asking himself some difficult questions about what is truly important to him as a man versus the Greyland title.

Alex and Cassandra’s romance is imbued with sensuality and a palpable longing which builds deliciously to a fever pitch and some nicely steamy love scenes.  But their emotional connection is strong, too, with both of them gradually lowering their defences to allow the other to see them as they truly are.  There’s a real sense of honesty between them once they start to work together, with  Alex even coming to respect and understand some of Cassandra’s choices while she recognises this new blossoming of trust for the gift it is.

From Duke Till Dawn is a terrific read, and one I’m happy to recommend most strongly.  I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through the London Underground, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more.

EXCERPT

London, England
1817

A woman laughed, and Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland felt the sound like a gunshot to his chest.

It was a very pleasant laugh, low and musical rather than shrill and forced, yet it sounded like The Lost Queen’s laugh. Alex could not resist the urge to glance over his shoulder as he left the Eagle chophouse. He’d fancifully taken to calling her The Lost Queen, though she was most assuredly a mortal woman. Had she somehow appeared on a busy London street at dusk? The last time he’d seen her had been two years ago, in the spa town of Cheltenham, in his bed, asleep and naked.

The owner of the laugh turned out to be a completely different woman—brunette rather than blonde, petite and round rather than lithe and willowy. She caught Alex staring and raised her eyebrows. He bowed gravely in response, then continued toward the curb.

Night came on in indigo waves, but the shops spilled golden light in radiant patches onto the street.
The hardworking citizens of London continued to toil as the upper echelons began their evening revelries. Crowds thronged the sidewalk, while wagons, carriages, and people on horseback crammed the streets. A handful of pedestrians recognized Alex and politely curtsied or tipped their hats, murmuring, “Good evening, Your Grace.” Though he was in no mood for politeness, responsibility and virtue were his constant companions—had been his whole life—and so rather than snapping, “Go to the devil, damn you!” he merely nodded in greeting.

He’d done his duty. He’d been seen in public, rather than disappearing into the cavernous chambers of his Mayfair mansion, where he could lick his wounds in peace.

The trouble with being a duke was that he always had to do his duty. “You are the pinnacle of British Society,” his father had often said to him. “The world looks to you for guidance. So you must lead by example. Be their True North.”

This evening, before dining, Alex had taken a very conspicuous turn up and down Bond Street, making certain that he was seen by many consequential—and loose-lipped— figures in the ton. Word would soon spread that the Duke of Greyland was not holed up, sulking in seclusion. His honor as one of Society’s bulwarks would not be felled by something as insignificant as his failed marriage suit to Lady Emmeline Birks. The Dukes of Greyland had stood strong against Roundheads, Jacobites, and countless other threats against Britain. One girl barely out of the schoolroom could hardly damage Alex’s ducal armor.

But that armor had been dented by The Lost Queen. Far deeper than he would have expected.

Standing on the curb, he signaled for his carriage, which pulled out of the mews. He tugged on his spotless gloves as he waited and adjusted the brim of his black beaver hat to make certain it sat properly on his head. “Always maintain a faultless appearance,” his father had reminded him again and again. “The slightest bit of disorder in your dress can lead to rampant speculation about the stability of your affairs. This, we cannot tolerate. The nation demands nothing less than perfection.”

Alex’s father had been dead for ten years, but that didn’t keep the serious, sober man’s voice from his mind. It was part of him now—his role as one of the most powerful men in England and the responsibilities that role carried with it. Not once did he ever let frivolities distract him from his duties.

Except for one time . . .

Forcing the thought from his mind, Alex looked impatiently for his carriage. Just as the vehicle pulled up, however, two men appeared and grabbed his arms on each side.

Alex stiffened—he did not care for being touched without giving someone express permission to do so. People on the street also did not normally seize each other. Was it a robbery? A kidnapping attempt? His hands curled instinctively into fists, ready to give his accosters a beating.

“What’s this?” one of the younger men exclaimed with mock horror. “Have I grabbed hold of a thundercloud?”
“Don’t know about you,” the other man said drily, “but I seem to have attached myself to an enormous bar of iron. How else to explain its inflexibility?” He tried to shake Alex, to little avail. When he wanted to be, Alex was absolutely immovable.

Alex’s fingers loosened. He tugged his arms free and growled, “That’s enough, you donkeys.”
Thomas Powell, the Earl of Langdon and heir to the Duke of Northfield, grinned, a flash of white in his slightly unshaven face. “Come now, Greyland,” he chided. A hint of an Irish accent made his voice musical, evidence of Langdon’s early years spent in his mother’s native County Kerry. “Is that any way to speak to your oldest and dearest friends?”

“I’ll let you know when they get here.” Alex scowled at Langdon, then at Christopher Ellingsworth, who only smirked in response.

Alex took a step toward his carriage, but Ellingsworth deftly moved to block his path, displaying the speed and skill that had served him well when he’d fought on the Peninsula.

“Where are you running off to with such indecorous haste?” Ellingsworth pressed. He held up a finger. “Ah, never tell me. You’re running back to the shelter of your Mayfair cave, to growl and brood like some big black bear in a cravat.”

“You know nothing,” Alex returned, despite the fact that Ellingsworth had outlined his exact plans for the rest of the night.

Ellingsworth looked at Langdon with exaggerated pity. “Poor chap. The young Lady Emmeline has utterly shattered his heart.”

Alex shouldered past Ellingsworth, only to have Langdon move to stand in his way.

“My heart is not shattered because of Lady Emmeline,” Alex snapped. At least that much was the truth.

“But why shouldn’t your heart be strewn in pieces throughout Regent’s Park?” Langdon mused. “You courted the young lady for several months, and you told Ellingsworth and I that you’d already received her father’s grateful acceptance of a marriage offer.”

“She never agreed to anything,” Alex said flatly.

“A modest girl, that Lady Emmeline.” Ellingsworth nodded with approval. “She wouldn’t have said yes right away. They never do. Nothing to be alarmed by.”

“How would you know?” Alex’s voice was edged. Ellingsworth had little experience with offering for ladies’ hands, committed as he was to a life of reckless pleasure.

Langdon added, “It’d be unseemly for an earl’s daughter to eagerly snap up a marriage proposal the moment it was offered.”

Alex scowled. Despite the fact that, at thirty-eight, he was sixteen years her senior, they would suit well as a wedded couple. Lady Emmeline had been perfectly trained in the responsibilities of an aristocratic wife. Though he wished she stated her own opinion rather than constantly agreeing with him, there were worse faults one could find in a prospective bride.

They could marry at Christmas, eight months from now. It would be a small but elegant wedding, followed by a lavish breakfast and a wedding journey in the Lake District. And then, if everything went well, in less than a year, Alex and Lady Emmeline might welcome their first child—hopefully a boy so the line would be secure. It would’ve been precisely the sort of match Alex’s
father would have approved, considering Lady Emmeline’s faultless background and her spotless reputation.

“Look at him now, mooning away,” Langdon sighed, smugly thwarting Alex’s attempts to step around him. “He looks poorly.”

It would be bad form to knock his friend to the ground. Damn the social niceties that dictated a man couldn’t punch another without repercussions.

“Perhaps he should be bled,” Ellingsworth suggested with his habitual smirk. It was his constant companion since returning from the War, as if he refused to take anything seriously.

“I am perfectly well.” Alex looked back and forth between these two rogues whom he called friends. “No need to call for a quack.”

“He’s already had an amputation,” Langdon noted, raising a brow as he always did. “One prospective bride—gone.” He made a sawing motion at his ankle, as if cutting the shackles of matrimony.

Alex glanced down at his own lower leg, as if he could see the invisible links that might have bound him to Lady Emmeline. He’d come so close to becoming a married man and sharing the rest of his life with one woman—the faultless duke his father had bred him to be. It hardly mattered that Alex felt nothing for the gel other than a sense of distant respect. She would have made a fine duchess.

“We were at White’s yesterday when we heard about what happened,” Langdon said with disapproval. “Didn’t even tell your two closest friends that Lady Emmeline had run off with a cavalry officer. No, we had to hear it from Lord Ruthven, of all people.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Leigh is the pen name of a RITA® Award-nominated romance author who writes novels chock-full of smart women and sexy men. She enjoys baking, Tweeting about boots, and listening to music from the ’80s. Eva and her husband live in Southern California.

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A Counterfeit Heart (Secrets and Spies #3) by K.C Bateman

a counterfeit heart

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As Sabine de la Tour tosses piles of forged banknotes onto a bonfire in a Paris park, she bids a reluctant farewell to her double life as a notorious criminal. Over the course of Napoleon’s reign, her counterfeits destabilized the continent and turned scoundrels into rich men, but now she and her business partner must escape France — or face the guillotine. Her only hope of surviving in England is to strike a deal with the very spy she’s spent her career outrunning. Now after meeting the arrogant operative in the flesh, Sabine longs to throw herself upon his mercy — and into his arms.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, is prepared to take any risk to safeguard England from the horrors of the French Revolution. To lure the insurgents out from the shadows, he’s even willing to make a pact with his archenemy: Philippe Lacorte, the greatest counterfeiter in Europe. But when a cheeky, gamine-faced beauty proves herself to be Lacorte, Richard is shocked—and more than a little aroused. Unlike the debutantes who so often hurl themselves at him, this cunning minx offers a unique and irresistible challenge. Richard will help her. But in return, he wants something that even Sabine cannot fake.

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Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, May 2017

Time and Setting: England and France 1816
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

I counted K.C. Bateman as one of my “discoveries” of 2016 after I read her terrific début novel, To Steal a Heart, an action-packed, sexy, adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The book boasted many of the ingredients l love in historical romance – a central couple forced into proximity by circumstance, lots of sexually-charged and very funny banter, an intriguing plot, chemistry off the charts and a charming, deliciously dangerous hero. Ms. Bateman followed that with A Raven’s Heart and delivered another fabulous adventure story, this time featuring a couple who have loved each other for years, but have never owned up to it for fear of rejection. In A Counterfeit Heart, the third book in the author’s Secrets and Spies series, the action takes place almost entirely in England and the story draws on some of the real life plots made by Napoléon to destabilise the English economy by flooding the country with millions of pounds worth of forged banknotes.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, has appeared as a secondary character in the previous books, and we have learned that, like his brother Nicolas (To Steal a Heart) and his closest friend, William Ravenswood (A Raven’s Heart) he works for the British government. Even though Napoléon has been defeated, he still has many sympathisers who would like spark a revolution in England, and for the past few months, Richard has been tracking a group of anti-monarchists in London who are part of the old network of spies placed in England by the French. Richard has been trying to locate the elusive forger, Philippe Lacorte, with a view to engaging him to forge letters from Napoléon to his English sympathisers in order to lure them out, but Lacorte remains stubbornly hard to pin down and all Richard’s efforts to find him have so far been unsuccessful. Imagine his shock, therefore, when a young woman, a lovely, elfin creature, arrives at his London home late one night, introduces herself as Sabine de la Tour – and promptly announces that she is Philippe Lacorte.

For years, Sabine’s friend and partner, Anton Carnaud, acted as go-between for her and the man who had overseen Napoléon’s counterfeiting operation, General Jean Malet. With Napoléon now imprisoned on St. Helena, Malet is the only man at large who knows about the fake fortune Bonaparte had amassed – and he wants it for himself. Sabine’s home has been ransacked and Anton, as Malet’s only link to Lacorte, is in danger. Sabine decides to flee to England; the English have been trying to engage Lacorte’s services for months, and with the money she can earn working for them, she will be able to afford to buy passage to America for Anton and to make a new life for herself wherever she wants to go.

Stunned by Sabine’s announcement though he is, Richard is no fool and is naturally suspicious of her claim. Being young, handsome, wealthy and in possession of a title, he is used to women throwing themselves at him and at first suspects that some sort of entrapment scheme is afoot, but when Sabine writes a note in a perfect copy of his own hand in front of his very nose, he can’t deny that she’s who she says she is and demands to know what she wants in exchange for her services as a forger.

Even though desperation has led her to Richard Hampden’s door, Sabine is not naïve enough to believe that he will meekly agree to her ten-thousand pound price. She is well aware that she is facing a wily, clever man, and calmly explains that she is still in possession of the half a million pounds in forged notes with which Napoléon had planned to flood Britain, and that if Richard does not agree to her terms, then she will put the counterfeit notes into circulation.

What ensues is a sexy game of cat-and-mouse between two equally sharp-witted, devious opponents whose intense attraction to each other burns up the pages. Sabine is brave and smart, matching wits with Richard every step of the way and holding her own against him in their battle of wills, while he, having believed her at first to be a blackmailing baggage, is surprised to find himself utterly captivated by her sneaky, conniving brain every bit as much as he lusts after her body. The chemistry between the couple is scorching, and Ms. Bateman once again proves herself a master of the art of sexually-charged banter and saucy double-entendre. Both protagonists are strongly drawn and well-rounded, and I enjoyed the way Sabine is gradually disabused of her belief that Richard is little more than an arrogant, self-entitled aristocrat, discovering that he is also incredibly resourceful, useful in a fight and not above getting his hands dirty – literally and metaphorically – when the need arises. As the story progresses, the real Richard emerges as a deeply loyal and honourable man who is dedicated to rooting out evil and protecting his countrymen and who will stop at nothing to protect his country and those close to him.

The other main relationship in the book is the one between Richard and his brother-in-law, Raven, which is characterised by sharp insight and brotherly mockery as Raven watches his friend finally succumb to the thrall of the one woman stubborn and infuriating enough to capture his heart. It’s nicely written with just the right amount of teasing on Raven’s part and sardonic denials on Richard’s, and there’s no question that these two will always have each other’s backs.

If I have a criticism, it’s that in the early stages of the story, the relationship between Sabine and Richard relies rather too heavily on insta-lust; the pair of them are pretty much panting for each other from the off, which felt rather overdone. But that’s really the only thing that didn’t work for me; the romance is otherwise well developed, with Richard and Sabine gradually coming to recognise and value the person behind the prickly forger and the haughty aristocrat as they get under each other’s skin and allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable in a way they have done with no-one else.

A Counterfeit Heart is a treat of a read for anyone who enjoys a well-plotted romantic adventure featuring a plucky heroine and a dangerously sexy hero who match wits and fall in love while foiling dastardly plots and rooting out the bad guys. I have enjoyed each book in the Secrets and Spies series and am looking forward to reading more by this talented author in the near future.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

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England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Publisher and Release Date: Harper Perennial, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1815
Genre: Historical/Time-Travel Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

I liked The Jane Austen Project. The premise – that two time travelers go back to 1815, and insinuate themselves into Jane Austen’s life – is fascinating and intriguing. Austen acolytes will no doubt love this fictional interpretation of her. Other readers (me) who find her less compelling – even in this flattering iteration – may be less enthused. Therein lies my difficulty with the grade and why I’ve only given the book four stars. It’s smart, well written and the premise is entertaining… but if you don’t believe the minutiae of Austen’s life makes for fascinating reading (me again), it’s also slightly dull.

Told exclusively in the point of view of Doctor Rachel Katzman, The Jane Austen Project explores the idea of time travel, and the ability of time travelers to affect changes in the future by altering past events in the context of one year in Jane Austen’s life. Rachel, a globe-trotting physician and Austen devotee, is one of two people specially selected by the The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics to travel back in time to 1815. The mission? To befriend the Austen family and obtain (steal) lost correspondence between Jane and her sister Cassandra, and bring back (again, steal) a copy of The Watsons, a novel she wrote and never published. Researchers believed The Watsons unfinished, but new information indicates Ms. Austen completed the novel and subsequently destroyed it. If Rachel, with her medical expertise, can also deduce why Ms. Austen died prematurely at the relatively young age of forty-one… even better.

Prior to their departure, Rachel and her traveling partner, actor-turned-academic Liam Finucane, spend a year together rigorously training and meticulously planning for the trip. Their backstory, that Doctor William Ravenwood and his spinster sister, Mary, have returned to England from Jamaica after selling their coffee plantation and divesting themselves of slaves, is specific enough to satisfy the mildly curious, but vague enough that any further inquiries about them would require time and effort to pursue.

When the book opens, Rachel and Liam have jumped back to 1815 from the future (it’s never specified when) and landed disheveled and disoriented in a field on the outskirts of the town of Leatherhead in Surrey. After a quick survey to ensure they haven’t suffered any adverse effects from the trip and that the large volume of counterfeit banknotes concealed in their clothing remains in place, they set off for a nearby inn. Unfortunately, the innkeeper is suspicious about their appearance when they arrive without any visible transport (if he only knew!) and without any bags, and declines to give them a room. When Liam flashes him a gold coin, he’s more than willing to arrange a post chaise to take them to London.

Once Rachel and Liam arrive in town, they set about securing themselves an entrée into the Austen family via Henry Austen, a banker, and Jane’s favorite brother. Posing as distant Austen relatives, Liam easily finagles a meeting with Henry and it isn’t long before Henry invites Doctor Ravenwood and his sister to dinner at his home. The evening is Rachel’s first opportunity to meet Henry and when she does, he’s everything she expected: handsome, charming, and friendly. He’s also flirtatious and clearly interested in her. Following the dinner the pair is welcomed into Henry’s circle of friends, and when Henry falls ill, Liam (as Doctor Ravenwood) is perfectly situated to offer him care and further insinuate himself in Henry’s life. The illness provides context for regular visits and, more significantly, opportunity for the Ravenwoods to meet Henry’s extended family. Shortly after Henry falls ill, Jane arrives, and when he doesn’t appear to improve, she summons the rest of the family to join her.

Though Henry is enthusiastic about the Ravenwoods, his family is less so. Cassandra is welcoming but remote; Jane is curious but guarded. Their relationship with Henry and his obvious affection for Rachel helps, but it isn’t until Rachel and Liam travel to the countryside with the family that a more profound friendship develops between them and Jane. But their deepening friendship also alters Rachel’s perspective on the mission. What kind of friend is she to admire and like Jane, all the while lying and plotting to steal from her? As the book progresses, Rachel and Liam struggle to reconcile their mission with their 1815 personas and relationships with the Austen family. When the book ends, I’m not sure Ms. Flynn ever satisfactorily answers those questions. Liam and Rachel are torn by their feelings about the mission and Jane, but the mission rapidly spirals out of control shortly before their planned departure date, and their hasty retreat robs them of any choice in the matter.

Rachel and her insightful point of view are particularly well done. Though her affection for Jane borders on creepy, I loved the contrasts between her various identities: past (spinster sister), present (bohemian physician), and future (murky). Frankly, she’s a much more interesting character than Ms. Austen. She struggles with her friendship with Jane, but also with her role on the mission. Single, independent, educated, and sexually liberated – Rachel is a model of modernity when she jumps through time. Forced to watch Liam ‘treat’ his patients, Rachel is a patient and curious doctor/coach. Though it’s obvious she longs to ask the questions Liam doesn’t think to ask, I thought she did an admirable job letting him lead. If I have any complaint about her, it’s that perhaps her transition to a woman’s life in 1815 happens a bit too easily. When she makes mistakes, they’re easily explained away by her experiences in Jamaica, and I never felt her identity – or their subterfuge – was at risk. I was more interested in the ways Rachel’s inherent goodness and some of her more impulsive decisions impacted the future.

As well developed as Rachel is, Liam remains an enigma from start to finish. Rachel’s impressions of him – so specific, so admiring during their time together – coupled with Ms. Flynn’s descriptions (he’s slightly obsessed with his clothing and vague about his past), made him a particularly curious and intriguing character. I think I like him?

Time travel is a curious business. On the one hand, it provides the traveler with a past – or future – they can live and experience themselves. On the other hand, it provides the traveler with the opportunity of altering events in ways they can’t predict or prevent. Ms. Flynn touches on these bigger picture issues, but she doesn’t offer any easy answers. The final chapter of the book – after such a terrific premise for the story – left this reader unsatisfied with the answers she does provide.

If it sounds like I really liked this book, you’re right – I did! But I suspect the difference between liking and loving The Jane Austen Project is less about the story and the quality of Ms. Flynn’s writing (both good), than a simple question of just how interested in Jane Austen’s life you are. I’m not especially, and though Ms. Flynn’s fictionalized version of Jane is appealing, I didn’t find her nearly as compelling as most every other character in this story. Perhaps her brilliance was too subtle for me?

The Jane Austen Project is good or great depending on how you feel about Jane Austen. For me, it’s good – just not great.

The Bad Luck Bride (Cavensham Heiresses #1) by Janna MacGregor

the bad luck bride

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IS MARRIAGE A BLESSING OR A CURSE?

A man of honor, Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, will not rest until he exacts revenge on the man who destroyed his family. Just one more piece must fall into place for him to succeed he needs to convince his enemy s fiancee, the tragically beautiful Lady Claire Cavensham, to marry him instead.

Lady Claire s curse has always left her one misstep away from social ruin her past three engagements have gone awry, and now her fourth is headed in the same direction. . .until Alex, a man she barely even knows, shocks the ton and Claire by announcing their engagement. What begins as a sham turns into something deeper, and more passionate, than either Claire or Alex could have imagined. But when their secrets are revealed, will the truth behind their union scandalize them both or is their love strong enough to break the curse and lead them toward their happily ever after?

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Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, May 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1812
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Sara

The Bad Luck Bride is an uneven story about love and revenge and in which luck, whether good or bad doesn’t really come into play for the main characters’ issues. Their problems mainly stem from misunderstandings and an unwillingness to listen to the good advice of others. Fortunately, author Janna MacGregor brings a vulnerability to both the hero and the heroine that compelled me to finish their story.

Lady Claire Cavensham has waited what seems like an eternity to get married. With three prior engagements broken due to unusual circumstances, Claire is all but convinced that the gossip about her being cursed must be true. Accepting the suit of fiancé number four was motivated more out of friendship and little bit of desperation, but Claire is ready to make the best of her upcoming marriage. With the announcement of her engagement to Lord Paul Barstowe scheduled for later that evening, Claire is hoping that her unlucky streak is finally at an end. Unfortunately the whispers in the ballroom about Lord Paul’s absence at the event and the note she receives from her missing fiancé quashes that dream. Mortified that she’s been jilted again so publicly, Claire makes her way out of the ballroom and is met by the handsome and friendly Marquess of Pembrooke. He offers her a sympathetic ear and a warm embrace just when she needs it the most. Bolstered by his calming presence, Claire prepares herself to reenter the fray but things go sideways as she’s discovered in Pembrooke’s arms. Suddenly the engagement announcement she anticipated is made, but with an entirely different fiancé!

Alexander Hallworth, Lord Pembrooke, couldn’t have planned the evening’s events any better. Hours before the ball ever started Alex had put the wheels in motion to secure Lady Claire as his betrothed and to humiliate Lord Paul in the bargain. The announcement of their engagement is the final piece in his revenge against the man who had been one of his closest friends until he betrayed Alex’s trust and in turn destroyed the life of Alex’s youngest sister. Now, all Alex has to do is marry the delightful Lady Claire and watch Lord Paul’s ruin as he now has no way to pay his outstanding gambling debts. Believing that he has the moral high ground, Alex allays Claire’s fears that she’s cursed to remain unmarried by wooing her and agreeing to the settlement demands she makes. There’s no need to let Claire know that their marriage was a set-up from the beginning if she’s happy with the final result.

Alex’s perceptions about his marriage and Claire change after they leave London for his ancestral home. There Claire finds little ways to heal some of the pain he’s held onto from memories of his sister’s tragedy. She becomes more important to him because of who she is rather than what she represented in his revenge against Lord Paul. Claire herself struggles to believe that her marriage to Alex is real and will last through any curse she carries. Hoping to break any spell she might be under, Claire forces herself to confront her own past, with varying results. It’s only Alex’s strong presence that lets Claire imagine she will overcome her fears to find happiness in the arms of someone who loves her. Sadly, when the truth of Alex’s revenge plot is revealed it breaks Claire’s heart and she runs from him. With his own heart firmly in Claire’s hands Alex has find a way to regain Claire’s trust before he himself is cursed with a lonely future.

The Bad Luck Bride starts off fairly strongly with Alex’s almost Shakespearean revenge plot and Claire’s wistful dream of finding a love that’s stronger than the demons she carries with her. The storyline unfolds much more dramatically than I expected from the cover description and I was ready to take the plunge with both characters into the darker sides of their psyches. Unfortunately once they are married things never quite get as deep or angsty as I thought they should have given all the emotional suffering Claire and Alex have lived through. Alex refuses to hear the advice from his best friend that his anger at Lord Paul is misplaced – or at the very least misconstrued from the facts he had about his sister’s tragedy. He pushes forward to influence Claire’s life without ever considering her feelings on the matter. Towards the end as he tries to reconcile with her Alex adjusts things to suit himself, not seeing how badly Claire has been affected by all of his manipulations.

I had more compassion for Claire throughout the story, but she, too, acts in ways that made it hard for me to completely side with her way of seeing situations. Claire is written as an intelligent and resilient young woman, and yet she is quick to believe in a curse that will eventually destroy any happiness in her life. After marrying Alex she suddenly becomes stubborn to the point of petulance and it strips her of all the definition she’s gained by staying strong in the face of gossip and unkind words. When she realizes that Alex has been steering their marriage from the beginning she fails to fight back and instead runs away to lick her wounds and turn to her uncle to fix the situation. I missed the plucky woman from the beginning of the book who stood up for what she wanted in her marriage even if the circumstances were out of her control.

While I had problems with The Bad Luck Bride I feel that Ms. MacGregor has some good stories to tell. The Bad Luck Bride just needed a bit of tightening of the loose threads and a clearer path towards Claire and Alex’s happy ending. Hopefully the series will improve upon this shaky start and another good voice in historical romance will be heard.