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Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne

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Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing fourteen-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder. . . and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, August 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1818
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

The Spymasters series is one of the best historical romance series ever written. If you’ve read them, you already know they’re wonderful; if you haven’t, they’re awesome and you should read them IMMEDIATELY. Each book works as a standalone, although they’re linked and it very much enhances your reading experience if you’re familiar with Ms. Bourne’s world. Her characters are complex, dynamic, flawed men and women who fall for each other against the backdrop of politics and espionage, and they’re wildly addictive, exciting and romantic. I’ve fallen in love with nearly all of her heroes (Oh, Adrian Hawkhurst. Be still my heart.), and her heroines are equally compelling. In Beauty Like the Night, we revisit Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met when she was a young girl fleeing the bloody French Revolution in The Forbidden Rose. Séverine – Sévie – has tried to leave the world of spying behind her and now works as a private investigator. But after she meets Raoul Deverney, she’s drawn back into the intrigues of British Intelligence and a past she’s tried to leave behind. Although Beauty Like the Night isn’t quite as good as I hoped it would be – it’s a bit slow in the middle and I wish our principals spent more time together – it’s still pretty great.

Asleep in her room late one night, Sévie abruptly awakens certain she isn’t alone – but she isn’t frightened. Life has shaped her into a brave, intelligent and supremely capable woman who’s more than capable of defending herself from anyone stupid enough to steal into her bedroom. She’s right; she isn’t alone in the room, but her guest makes it clear he has no plans to hurt her. In fact, he appears to know exactly who and how dangerous she is and wants Sévie to tell him where she’s keeping Pilar, a twelve-year-old girl who’s been missing since her mother – his wife – was killed three months ago. The handsome stranger (is he French? Spanish?) makes it clear that although Pilar is not his daughter, he’s anxious to find her – and an amulet that went missing at the same time. Sévie is curious about her enigmatic intruder who’s convinced she has information about the murder, the missing girl, and the amulet – but she can’t help him. She’s never met Pilar or his ex-wife Sanchia, and has no idea where the missing amulet might be.

Raoul Deverney knows Séverine de Cabrillac. She’s the same woman – a spy – he encountered a decade ago in Spain and he’s never forgotten her. Sleep tousled, beautiful, dangerous – she coolly denies knowing Pilar, Sanchia or anything about the missing amulet and he wants to believe her. But ever since he discovered the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bed frame, he’s certain she must be involved somehow despite her denials. Séverine obviously doesn’t recognize Raoul but is curious about his identity, and he refuses to give her any clues about who he is or how they might know one another. Reluctant to leave, Raoul vows to himself he will find out just how she’s involved in his wife’s murder, and he can’t resist a quick caress of her soft cheek before he retreats to the window and vanishes over the edge.

When Raoul next appears – he’s silently slipped into Sévie’s locked office – she’s frustrated by his ability to get past her defenses (personal and professional), but she isn’t surprised to see him. He wants her to help him find Pilar and the missing amulet, and though it’s obvious neither completely trusts the other, Sévie agrees to help him anyway. She has suspicions about just who and what he is, but she keeps them to himself: Raoul is a mystery she plans to solve as she finds Pilar. Oh reader, these first meetings between Sévie and Raoul are so delicious… and fortunately for us, they characterize the duration of their relationship. From the moment Sévie spots Raoul in her bedroom, they’re captivated by each other – held in thrall whenever the other is near. Every interaction between them is thick with tension, and the torturous slow-burn of their relationship/courtship – both of them trying to deny the attraction between them… well, it’s a it’s a wicked, wonderful pleasure as Ms. Bourne forces them to work together to figure out just who murdered Sanchia and what happened to Pilar and the amulet.

Although the chemistry and sexual tension between Sévie and Raoul are highlights of Beauty Like the Night, what elevates this rather complex tale of espionage over other similarly excellent spy novels is the group of secondary characters that comprise Sévie’s world. As Sévie and Raoul pursue clues in their case and try to fight their growing attraction and affection for each other, their investigation dangerously intersects with another one led by the Head of British Intelligence (and Sévie’s brother-in-law) Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker). Via her childhood as the adopted daughter of Doyle, and close relationships with the spies who comprise its highest echelon, Sévie is privy to the details of British Service’s investigation. She’s intrigued by links between the two cases and how Raoul might be involved, but Hawker and Doyle – shrewd, intelligent, and fiercely protective of Sévie – are suspicious of her charming, mysterious, and obviously enamored client. Though Sévie pretends disinterest in Raoul around them, it’s clear to the two men – who play at being detached and dispassionate observers of Sévie’s investigation/client/potentially disastrous affair that there’s more to Raoul and the relationship than Sévie lets on. Their involvement in her case, and vice versa, adds a nice levity to the novel and the intense relationship between the principals.

It’s impossible to say more about the investigation at the heart of this love story without spoiling it, so I won’t; suffice it to say Ms. Bourne cleverly and brilliantly connects the dots of the slow burn romance between Sévie and Raoul, their mutually dark pasts, and a deadly betrayal that linked them long ago. As the case evolves, we slowly learn more about Raoul – where he came from; how he acquired his extremely lethal skills – and as the cases coalesce, neither Sévie or Raoul can fight their mutual attraction. Both principals are damaged, but find solace in each other. That succor – along with their intense physical attraction – eventually helps them overcome their distrust of each other enough to believe in a future together. Sévie and Raoul are dynamic, dangerous and riveting individual characters and as a pair… well, it’s a terrific match-up. And contrary to my early expectations – that Sévie would outshine anyone she was paired with; or that Ms. Bourne couldn’t possibly deliver another hero as deliciously wicked, lethal and sexy as Hawker – I fell hard for the enigmatic Raoul. I liked him. Big time.

The combination of engrossing plot, engaging principals and secondary characters, and a delicious slow-burn love affair results in another wonderful addition to the Spymasters series. Though it isn’t my favorite, (that honor is reserved for The Black Hawk (duh!)), it’s yet another terrific addition to Ms. Bourne’s catalog, cementing her status as one of my favorite historical writers of all time. My advice? You should read it (and the other Spymasters novels if you haven’t) right away.

Catching Captain Nash (Dashing Widows #6) by Anna Campbell


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Home is the sailor, home from the sea…
Five years after he’s lost off the coast of South America, presumed dead, Captain Robert Nash escapes cruel captivity, and returns to London and the bride he loves, but barely knows. When he stumbles back into the family home, he’s appalled to find himself gate-crashing the party celebrating his wife’s engagement to another man.

No red-blooded naval officer takes a challenge like this lying down; but five years is a long time, and beautiful, passionate Morwenna has clearly found a life without him. Can he win back the wife who gave him a reason to survive his ordeal? Or will the woman who haunts his every thought remain eternally out of reach?

Love lost and found? Or love lost forever?
Since hearing of her beloved husband’s death, Morwenna Nash has been mired in grief. After five grim years without him, she must summon every ounce of courage and determination to become a Dashing Widow and rejoin the social whirl. But she owes it to her young daughter to break free of old sorrow and find a new purpose in life, even if that means accepting a loveless marriage.

It’s like a miracle when Robert returns from the grave, and despite the awkward circumstances of his arrival, she’s overjoyed that her husband has come back to her at last. But after years of suffering, he’s not the handsome, laughing charmer she remembers. Instead he’s a grim shadow of his former dashing self. He can’t hide how much he still wants her—but does passion equal love?

Can Morwenna and Robert bridge the chasm of absence, suffering and mistrust, and find the way back to each other?

Publisher and Release Date: Anna Campbell, June 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance (novella)
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Throughout Anna Campbell’s Dashing Widows series readers have seen love come in many forms. Friends become lovers, two people get a second chance at a relationship and an unlikely pair find they have much in common. Catching Captain Nash is a reunion between a man thought forever lost and the woman who mourned the loss of her true love. Their romance tugs at a different set of heartstrings and is an emotional way to end an enjoyable series of books.

Morwenna Nash was married at a young age to the man of her dreams. The dashing, handsome Captain Robert Nash made her laugh and was her perfect match for the months they were together before he shipped out with his crew to South America. When the news came that her husband had been lost along with his crew, Morwenna was devastated. She had just learned that she was pregnant with Robert’s child, and days later she was a widow mourning the loss of her husband as well as the future they’d planned together.

After five years, the pain of losing Robert hasn’t quite gone away but with the encouragement of his family Morwenna decides to marry again in order to provide her daughter Kerenza with a father-figure. Reluctantly pushed into a Season in London, Morwenna has seen her two closest friends find love again and she begins a courtship with the amiable Lord Garson. Their relationship has none of the passion that Morwenna shared with Robert, but Lord Garson is a nice enough man who loves her and is good to Kerenza. Moments away from pledging her life to a new husband Morwenna is shocked when the ceremony is interrupted by Robert Nash, returned from the dead and furious to see his wife marrying another.

Robert’s return to England is a miracle but Morwenna can see right away that the man who has come back to her isn’t quite the same Robert Nash who left five years before. This new Robert is withdrawn, edgy and seems a shell of the vibrant man she fell in love with. Their first night together is an awkward evening full of stilted conversations that provide Morwenna with little information about where her husband has been or what he endured to come back to her. The physical connection she and Robert shared flares to life; however it’s a test of Morwenna’s love and patience to find her husband within the wounded soul who is now virtually a stranger to her.

Catching Captain Nash is unusual for a romance novella in that all of the light, warm emotions of a love newly discovered are absent. Instead readers experience the heavier, deeper sense of an enduring love that can motivate people into doing incredible things. Morwenna has held her memories of Robert close to her heart for the five years she thought him dead and has used that love to give her the strength to raise her daughter alone. She has refused to open herself up to another man and is uncertain about her remarriage right up until the moment that Robert reappears. As he slowly opens up to her and Morwenna sees that there’s a future again for them it gives her hope, which she’d all but abandoned years before.

Robert’s love for Morwenna is what kept him sane during his imprisonment and torture at the hands of pirates. When Robert comes back to England a small part of him is ready to slip back into the life that he’d left five years earlier; however he’s quick to discover that life has continued without him and he’s no longer the Captain Nash everyone around him remembers. There are no resources for someone with PTSD so Robert has to find ways to heal himself and rediscover where he fits in Morwenna’s life. His surprise at learning he’s a father motivates Robert to push through the difficult memories and reconnect with his wife. He too begins to hope that he’ll once again be the kind of man that Morwenna can love despite his physical and emotional scars. As they move closer towards a full reconciliation it’s incredibly moving to watch Robert crawl out of the darkness towards Morwenna’s light.

Unfortunately, all of the emotional breakthroughs that Morwenna and Robert experience seem dictated less by how things unfold in the story and more by the author’s design.  As I was reading, I was completely engaged with the characters and happy for their reunion but once I was finished with the novella I felt like I had been manipulated to feel that way.  Once I separated the romance from the rest of the story I saw that there’s nothing else there.  No real plot and no growth for either character, except for Robert’s amazing ability to manage his PTSD in record time.  The story’s flow is character-driven only in that we finally see a happy ending for the last Dashing Widow but that’s about all we get.  The novella’s short length is the most likely culprit as to why a skilled author like Ms. Campbell would resort to telling over showing but it was definitely noticeable.  Catching Captain Nash may not be the strongest story within the Dashing Widows series but it is still one that I can recommend.

Too Scot to Handle (Windham Brides #2) by Grace Burrowes

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Colin MacHugh, a former officer in Wellington’s army, is thrust into polite society when his brother inherits a Scottish dukedom, though Colin dreads mingling in candlelit ballrooms while matchmakers take aim at his fortune and his freedom. He’s also not very fond of the drink-gamble-swive-repeat lifestyle of his new gentlemen friends. So when offered the opportunity to join the board of directors at the local orphanage, he jumps at the chance to put his business acumen to use. And to spend more time with the alluring Anwen Windham . . .

Anwen is devoted to helping the orphanage regain its financial footing. And she’s amazed at the ease in which Colin gains the respect of the former pickpockets and thieves at the House of Urchins. But when a noble gentleman who wants Anwen for himself accuses Colin of embezzling funds, everything is on the line – the safety of the young boys in their charge, their love for each other . . . and even Colin’s very life.

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, July 2017

Time and Setting: Regency London
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

Most romance readers know what it means to ‘glom’ an author (no, I don’t know the origin).  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ‘glomming’ is what you do when you feel a connection to a book and promptly read everything else in the author’s back catalog – preferably as quick as you can.  I’ve glommed many authors – including Grace Burrowes – and after reading The Heir (which I loved and still remains a favorite) I proceeded to swiftly glom everything else she’d written up to that point.  The downside to glomming an author with a large back catalog?  Sometimes you become too familiar with the author and the books begin to sound the same.  Can you see where this is going?

Ms. Burrowes is obviously fond of the Windham family.  Family members make appearances in many of her books, which is totally fine… unless you aren’t quite as fond of them as she is.  (Me).  I stopped reading her books after suffering Windham burnout.  I still liked her writing, the stories and the characters very much – but I needed a break.  Too Scot to Handle was meant to be the end of my self-imposed exile.  I hoped the focus on the Duke and Duchess of Moreland’s nieces would lessen their (often overwhelming) presence in these stories.  To my dismay, the duke and duchess are ever present, ever omniscient, and ever deeply involved in the resolution of the major story conflict.  Let me be clear:  I like the Windham family.  But their presence is invariably one note: either you’re with them and therefore a good person, or you aren’t, and you’re bad.  This ‘rule’ proves true here as well and whether you simply like or love this book follows a similar pattern.  If you like the Windhams, you’ll like this book, and if you don’t… it’s still good, but slightly less enjoyable.

Lord Colin MacHugh is a former army captain with a reputation for strong leadership, intelligence, and an ability to maintain an icy, cool composure in the face of adversity.  When we catch up with him he’s engaged in a battle of a much different kind.  Older brother Hamish is the new Duke of Murdoch, and his inheritance means the newly minted “Lord Colin” must also take his place in society.  Hamish and his new wife Megan Windham (The Trouble with Dukes), are away on honeymoon so Colin is forced to brave his first London Season as escort to his two younger sisters.  With the help of another former officer, Winthrop Montague, he’s struggling to adhere to a baffling set of unspoken rules regarding proper gentleman’s etiquette, trying to avoid marriage minded mamas and their vapid daughters, all the while keeping his eye on his sisters.  He hopes to decamp for Scotland as soon as he possibly can – but for now, he remains in London – bored, frustrated and eager for the Season to come to a close.

Anwen Windham is frustrated, fed up and tired.  She’s visiting the Home for Wayward Urchins, a charity she supports and loves, and after yet another Board meeting in which fellow board members have failed to appear, she’s enduring the headmaster’s condescension as he explains the precariousness of their financial position and likelihood of the Home closing in the near future.  Anwen, well aware the home requires benefactors and money to stay afloat knows Mr. Hitchings can’t solve her problem – a lack of money to take care of her orphan boys – so she makes her exit, and runs smack into Colin MacHugh.

Colin recognizes Anwen is upset and tries to defuse her anger with humor but she doesn’t appreciate his attempts to minimize her feelings.  She’s prickly, he’s relentlessly charming; Anwen likes Colin and his interest in her charity – and as it turns out, the timing of their meeting is fortuitous.  Anwen needs advice, Colin needs a charitable endeavor of his own and he has ideas and suggestions that can help, and their common cause presents an opportunity to spend more time together.  Anwen is delighted and charmed when Colin listens to her thoughts and opinions and acts on them; Colin is impressed with Anwen’s dedication to the orphan boys and her passionate nature.  It’s simply a matter of time before a friendly partnership evolves into a romantic affection and Ms. Burrowes doesn’t belabor their courtship with false starts or misunderstandings.  Colin falls for Anwen, Anwen falls for Colin, and before long they’re sneaking away for kisses, rainbows (I can’t.  I’m sorry.  You’ll have to read it to understand it. I cringed each time I read it.) and more whenever they can sneak away.

But it’s not all romantic interludes and rainbows once Colin and Anwen pledge themselves to each other and the charity (despite the Duchess of Moreland’s involvement).  Winthrop Montague – after a prank that goes awry – sours on Colin and decides Anwen would make a good wife for him.  Ms. Burrowes does a nice job contrasting the lecherous, irresponsible, spendthrift Winthrop (and his sister Rosalyn) with Colin and Anwen; I wish we got to spend more time with these two despicable secondary characters.  Montague’s machinations are petty and potentially life threatening for Colin, but with the help of the Windham family (sigh) – and the orphan boys so beloved by Anwen – good (the Windham way!) eventually triumphs over evil.

I liked the principals in Too Scot to Handle (minor quibble: this title doesn’t make any sense), but I wasn’t as fond of the evolution of their relationship.  Instalust is a tricky trope – especially in historical romance – and I’m not sure Ms. Burrowes quite balances the development of the relationship with the central conflict.  They’re a sweet couple, the orphans are a nice cause to rally ‘round – but this is a slow paced, low angst affair and at times it drags.   Though the writing is strong – and I particularly enjoyed the conversations between Colin and Anwen, and the bizarrely conceited PoVs of the Montague siblings (they’re delightfully snobby and awful) – Ms. Burrowes sacrifices the development of these juicy characters in order to (unnecessarily) incorporate more familiar Windhams.  The book flits between romance, intrigue, and chummy scenes of sisterhood and ‘buck up’ conversations with the duke and duchess, but it lacks depth.  Oh, Ms. Burrowes.  I like your writing, your romantic pairings and your “bad” guys!  Stop taking the easy way out.  Give your principals a chance to solve their own problems or introduce new characters/friends – REALLY ANYONE – other than the Windhams for help.

Too Scot to Handle is another enjoyable, if slightly dull, addition to Ms. Burrowes catalog.  Fans of her earlier books will find familiar characters in abundance, though newer audiences might find themselves scratching their heads wondering how these folks know so much about each other so quickly.  Regardless of your start point, Too Scot to Handle is a nice mix of historical romance comfort food – satisfying, romantic and uplifting.

 

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Rescued from Ruin #7) by Elisa Braden

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Never judge a man by his cover…

Society knows the affable Earl of Dunston for his flashy waistcoats and rapier wit. Lady Maureen Huxley knows him as Henry Thorpe, her best friend—an irresistibly kissable, strictly platonic friend. Which means her dreams of marriage, motherhood, part-time cookery, and full-time domestic bliss must be fulfilled elsewhere. But after three seasons and a parade of fickle suitors, Maureen’s hopes are fading. Worse, she suspects Henry is to blame.

Never trust a man with too many secrets…

Years spent hunting his father’s murderer through London’s dark underworld have honed Henry Thorpe into a deadly blade with one purpose—catching a killer of fathomless evil. Nothing mattered more until Maureen Huxley came along. To keep her safe, he must keep her at arm’s length. Yet he can’t resist drawing her close, making her laugh, dreaming of doing wicked things to her lush body. Very well, perhaps he also dissuaded some of her suitors. But what’s a little deception between friends?

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…

With his enemy growing bolder and Maureen contemplating marriage to another man, Henry is caught in the crossfire between his mission and his heart. Any move could exact a devastating cost. But losing the woman he loves is one price he refuses to pay.

Publisher and Release Date: Elisa Braden, June 2017

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

Review by Sara

Elisa Braden isn’t quite a new-to-me author, but after reading a book in the Rescued from Ruin series two years ago she sort of dropped off my radar. What a mistake that was! After reading an extremely positive review for Confessions of a Dangerous Lord I knew this was my chance to rediscover her world of noble spies and deadly secrets.

The last few London seasons haven’t been as successful as Lady Maureen Huxley would have hoped. She’s watched her older sister and good friends find love and marry their perfect match while Maureen has seen her own suitors lose interest. The only bright spot in continuing to attend the balls and receptions in town is meeting up with her best friend Henry Thorpe, Lord Dunston. Their private in-jokes and easy dialog have kept Maureen from getting deflated when men seem to dance around her rather than choosing her for a partner. Once upon a time Maureen dreamed of sharing a life with the handsome, dashing earl but Henry made it devastatingly clear that he was not looking for a wife. That should have been the end of their relationship, yet Henry has continued to be a friendly presence in her life and Maureen was reluctant to push away the only man she really cared for.

With the current season in full swing, and with her mother pushing her towards the newly arrived and eligible Lord Holstoke, Maureen risks her heart one last time to see if Henry returns her affections. Though there is no shortage of sparks between them he still tells Maureen that friendship is all that he can offer. Disheartened, Maureen tries her best to push her feelings for Henry aside so she can stop comparing each new man against the one she can never have. When Lord Holstoke begins to show some interest in Maureen she doesn’t experience the same deep feelings for him as she does for Henry, but his kisses are pleasant and she hopes that their companionship will be enough to sustain her.

Henry Thorpe has sacrificed many things in order to pursue the man responsible for his father’s murder. For years Henry has played the carefree fop while out among the ton, all the while hiding his true purpose of gathering clues towards capturing the criminal mastermind known only as The Investor. The first time he ever met Maureen Huxley he was capivated by her beauty as much as her open and innocent nature. In a perfect world, Henry would never have had to choose between her and his pursuit for justice, but his foe is a master of manipulating people and hurting them where it counts. From experience, Henry knows that if The Investor ever learned how important Maureen is to him, her life would be in danger. Rather than declaring just how much he loves her, Henry has contented himself with being her friend and not so gently discouraging any man who might take her away from him. Everything in Henry’s life comes into sharp focus the night that Maureen tells him “goodbye” and means to move on with her courtship with Lord Holstoke. If he continues his current path and keeps searching for The Investor it will cost him the only woman he’s ever loved; however to finally open himself up to her love means exposing all of the darkness and lies he’s hidden from her to keep her safe.

Coming into the series as a new-ish reader, I was unaware of Lord Dunston’s role in several of the other stories as an important secondary character. His pursuit of The Investor has been a thread running in the background of a few other main character’s stories, but through it all Henry has remained steadfast. In Confessions of a Dangerous Lord readers are finally allowed to know his thoughts, his motivations and understand everything his hunt has cost him. Maureen is the one thing in his life that Henry has refused to part with, accepting their limited relationship while wishing for a life where he was free to marry her. Seeing Maureen moving forward and pursuing her own goals of a happy marriage and children is painful for him and we see his struggle to retain that steadfast resolve while his heart and head battle. I love any story that has a hero so devoted to his love that he’ll move mountains for her, and here Henry has that same dedication, even though Maureen can never know it.

Maureen could have easily fallen into the standard character outline of a naïve woman whose emotions overwhelm her common sense when it comes to the man she loves. I’m so happy to say that she never crosses that line. She is more open with her feelings as she is experiencing them, whether it’s sadness at Henry pushing her away or anger when he reveals some of the lies he’s told her for years. That Maureen doesn’t fly off the handle and sulk or even make things worse for their relationship by completely pulling away when she learns of Henry’s deception, shows that she’s more self-aware than Henry or her family give her credit for. Ms. Braden’s skills are on full display by balancing the angst levels required when a reader is already clued into a character’s true feelings. We know that Henry and Maureen are destined for each other; however the threat of The Investor is so palpable that even I was questioning how they would find happiness.

I regret that I haven’t been reading the Recued from Ruin series all this time as it seems like I’ve been missing out on some incredibly detailed and captivating stories. Confessions of a Dangerous Lord reads perfectly on its own but I know I’ll be seeking all of the books I’ve missed to get the full story of Henry’s search for The Investor and to know some of Maureen’s friends and family more intimately. I highly recommend this story and hope that Ms. Braden has more intrigues to come for her cast of characters.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

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Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Publisher and Release Date: Lochlaber Press, June 2017

Time and Setting:
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Paranormal Historical Romance
Rating: 4 Stars

Review by Jenny Q

I’ve grown a bit tired of the same old, same old in historical romance. Regencies and Highland stories just aren’t doing it for me any more, so I’m finding myself drawn to more unique settings and a little something extra, like a mystery or books with paranormal/supernatural elements. Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk world is one of my favorites because it features all of the above, and this latest installment, second in the Blue Blood Conspiracy spinoff series, does not disappoint.

What I love about this series is that there is a well-developed and complex plot running throughout, and though the love story is central to each book, the overall series arc and each couple’s role in it is a fantastic backdrop. With each book, more puzzle pieces fall into place while tantalizing possibilities for future stories and the series conclusion pop up. But that also makes it hard to recap plots for these books without giving away spoilers from previous books, so forgive me if I seem a little vague.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up right where Mission Improper left off. The Company of Rogues solved one case only to discover it’s but a piece of a much larger conspiracy, one that endangers everyone in London. Three years after the revolution that toppled the Echelon that ruled the lower classes of humans, mechs, and verwulfen with an iron hand, someone is fomenting rebellion again, and the fragile peace that thousands lived and died for is in danger of shattering. Add to that the discovery of a deadly new virus that kills the unkillable – blue bloods – a virus that could wipe out an entire species if it falls into the wrong hands, and the stakes have never been higher for the Rogues. Anxious to prove herself, Ava McLaren is thrilled when she is assigned to study the virus and track down its origins, but in order to do so she has to put up with bodyguard Liam Kincaid, the gruff mech who has never disguised his dislike of Ava’s kind. But as the two work together and stumble upon one deadly discovery after another, the attraction that simmers between them boils over. And besides, what’s a little fun on the side going to hurt? But as their investigation grows more dangerous, they suddenly find themselves in danger of losing much more than their hearts.

The Mech Who Loved Me has everything I’ve come to expect from McMaster: compelling characters, sizzling sexual tension, mystery, danger, and of course, true love. But it also explores deeper themes of race, equality, self-worth, and sacrifice, which makes it so much richer. This one differs a bit from the previous books in this series in that it is a good bit naughtier. Kincaid likes to use the F-, P-, and C-words a lot, so be forewarned if that’s not your thing. But though he can be gruff and crude, he is also sweet and romantic; his unwavering support and encouragement in the face of Ava’s insecurities is swoon-worthy. Among the brash personalities in the Company of Rogues, Ava often feels overlooked or less worthy, but Kincaid sees her for what she is: brilliant and beautiful. Ava’s sleuthing skills and powers of deduction are in full force, not only on the case but in detecting the heart of the man behind the facade and the secrets he’s been keeping. They are complete opposites, but they complement each other, and together they make a perfect whole.

I’m knocking off  a star for the predictability of some plot points, but overall this is another solidly good story from McMaster. She has already revealed who the last three books will be about, and I can’t wait to watch those couples come together and see how the blue blood conspiracy plays out. If you’re looking for something different in romance and you’re open to a little fantasy, check out the London Steampunk series. But I recommend starting at the beginning with Kiss of Steel. Smart, sexy, inventive romances with dimensional and memorable characters in a rich and fascinating story world… What more could a girl want?

Duke With Benefits (Studies in Scandal #2) by Manda Collins

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LADY + DUKE = TRUE LOVE?

Lady Daphne Forsyth is a brilliant mathematician with a burning passion for puzzles. When she learns that the library belonging to her benefactress houses the legendary Cameron Cipher—an encrypted message that, once solved, holds the key to great riches—Daphne is on the case. Unfortunately, her race to unlock the cipher’s code is continually thwarted by a deliciously handsome distraction she hadn’t counted on. . .and cannot resist.

Dalton Beauchamp, the Duke of Maitland, is curious as to why Daphne is spending so much time snooping around his aunt’s bookshelves. He’s even more intrigued by her bold yet calculating manner: She is unapologetic about her secret quest. . .and the fiery attraction that develops between them both. But how can they concentrate on solving a perplexing enigma once the prospect of true love enters the equation?

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

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Manda Collins’ Studies in Scandal series focuses on four young women brought together as co-heiresses to an eccentric bluestocking’s estate. Lady Celeste Beauchamp never met the ladies before she died but had handpicked them for their achievements in academic fields normally dominated by men. It’s an interesting premise for a series and one that worked well in the first book Ready, Set, Rogue – one of my favorites so far this year – but may have already run its course by this second story. I wanted to be wowed by Duke with Benefits and instead feel a little underwhelmed.

Lady Daphne Forsyth is a mathematical genius with a special gift for cracking codes and seeing patterns in the simplest of tasks. Being named as one of Lady Celeste’s heirs was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one, because the terms of the will requiring Daphne to reside at Beauchamp House for a year has given her the chance to escape her father’s house and his schemes to use her talents to cheat at cards. Living alongside three other women has been a learning curve for Daphne as her way with numbers doesn’t necessarily translate into a way with words. Her direct manner of speaking has managed to shock and confuse her roommates on more than one occasion and remembering to filter her responses is something she’s yet to master. The only resident of the house who accepts Daphne’s pointed approach to things is Lord Dalton Beauchamp, Duke of Maitland.

Dalton originally came to Beauchamp House at the request of his cousin the Marquess of Kerr when the man believed all the spinsters-turned-heiresses had somehow manipulated Lady Celeste (their aunt) to name them in the will. While Kerr was more aggressive in challenging the women’s claim on Beauchamp House (and managed to fall in love with his main adversary), Dalton felt that getting to know them was the better way to understand why they had been chosen. He is very quickly drawn to the beautiful Lady Daphne and is more amused than offended by her plain way of stating things. That amusement quickly changes to shock when Daphne approaches Dalton to discuss her attraction to him and suggests that they embark on a sexual relationship with each other. Unwilling to take advantage of Daphne, Dalton takes a step back from his flirtations but still wants to have Daphne in his life. Remaining at Beauchamp House gives him the chance to convince the fiercely independent woman that their mutual feelings are worth more than just a fling.

Feeling rejected by Dalton, Daphne throws herself into solving a mystery left for her by Lady Celeste in a letter only delivered when Daphne arrived at Beauchamp House. The Cameron Cipher was a puzzle left by a Scottish lord who supposedly hid a fortune in gold intended for the Jacobite cause. For decades, fortune hunters and fame seekers have looked for clues or evidence that the cipher and the treasure were real, most with no success. Daphne grew up hoping that she would be the one to find the cipher and decrypt it, not for the money but for the idea that a woman could solve the unsolvable. When a man from Daphne’s past shows up at Beauchamp House sniffing for clues about the Cameron Cipher she gets a little suspicious; however when he ends up dead in the library Daphne realizes she’s closer to finding the treasure than anyone before her.

Duke with Benefits is a fairly good story that uses the mystery of the Cameron Cipher to pull Dalton and Daphne together as a team. Lady Celeste’s clues about the document’s whereabouts are written as riddles that encourage Daphne to keep up the hunt but also force her to seek help in the task. It’s a difficult road for Daphne because she’s been forced through experience to depend on no one but herself, and it takes Dalton’s patience to show her that assistance doesn’t always come at a price. Their partnership works well as she’s the analytical one and he’s the people pleaser; where Daphne sees the patterns within the riddles and understands Lady Celeste’s thinking, Dalton is charming and knows how to get past a servant’s cool demeanor or a protective daughter’s defenses so they unwittingly help in the search for the cipher. Another reviewer likened the pair to the main characters of the TV series Bones and it’s an apt description. The duo can bounce ideas of each other, get annoyed and even find happiness in solving a difficult task and they’re always a team.

So why the low rating? Unfortunately it comes down to my feelings for both main characters. Daphne is somewhat dispassionate in her relationship with Dalton. She’s attracted to him and eventually realizes that she loves the man; however she remains aloof and marginalizes what Dalton might be feeling about her. Dalton’s motivations and feelings for Daphne are pretty straightforward but there’s very little depth to him. He tries to be a perfect gentleman and a protector of women so as to distance himself from his father’s reputation as a womanizer and that’s what defines his character. Most of Dalton’s scenes in the book are reacting to something Daphne says or does and he doesn’t carry many scenes on his own. In a romance I need the character’s emotions or their personal journey to move the story along but in the case of this book, it’s the mystery keeping them motivated, not their relationship.

My disappointment in Duke with Benefits isn’t enough for me to give up on the series but I may be more guarded with my expectations for the next book. Readers who appreciate a more plot-driven story over a romantic character based one should find a lot to enjoy and may be more forgiving in their rating.

Scandalous Ever After (Romance of the Turf #2) by Theresa Romain

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Does love really heal all wounds?

After being widowed by a steeplechase accident in Ireland, Lady Kate Whelan abandons the turf. But once her mourning is complete, her late husband’s debts drive her to seek help in Newmarket amidst the whirl of a race meet. There she encounters antiquities expert Evan Rhys, her late husband’s roguish friend―whom she hasn’t seen since the day of his lordship’s mysterious death.

Now that fate has reunited them, Evan seizes the chance to win over the woman he’s always loved. But once back within the old stone walls of Whelan House, long-held secrets come to light that shake up everything Kate thought she knew about her marriage. Now she wonders who she can trust with her heart―and Evan must decide between love and a truth that will separate him from all his heart desires.

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, July 2017

Time and Setting: England, Wales and Ireland, 1818
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

This second full-length novel in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series takes up the story of Kate Durham née Chandler, the elder Chandler daughter, widow of the Earl of Whelan and mother of two young children.  Scandalous Ever After is the sort of strongly written, character-driven and emotionally satisfying romance at which this author excels, and there’s a dash of mystery, too, which eventually turns out to be linked to one of the secondary plotlines featured in book one, A Gentleman’s Game.

When Kate was just seventeen, she was swept off her feet by the handsome Conall Durham, and after a whirlwind courtship, married him and left England to live at his estate in Ireland.  Con’s best friend, Evan Rhys, a Welsh historian and archaeologist, was a frequent visitor, and the three of them spent many an evening together chatting, laughing and sampling the excellent local whiskey.  Evan and Kate developed a strong and – they’d thought – lasting friendship, even though unbeknownst to Kate, Evan had fallen in love with her the moment they met.  Over the years, Kate watched Con running up debts he couldn’t pay and put up with his infidelities – and while Evan remonstrated with his friend, Con continued on his own merry way until he was killed as the result of a fall from his horse.  Shortly before this, the two men argued violently, after which Evan left and has never returned; he and Kate haven’t seen each other in the two years since Con’s death.

Kate hasn’t been home to Newmarket since she married, but she is back in England now, hoping to ask her father for help in settling the massive debt Connor left behind.  While she’s there, she attends a lecture on antiquities – and specifically, the way in which the collectors’ market is currently being inundated with fakes – given by her old friend Evan Rhys.  She has been hurt by his continued absence from her life and hopes they can regain something of their former friendship, unaware of the true nature of his feelings for her and that he harbours some guilt about the argument he and Con had on the day he died.  Evan is surprised to see Kate, but can’t deny that he’s missed her – and decides to woo her now that she is free and out of mourning.  But he knows it won’t be easy; over the years Kate has placed him in the role of “dependable friend” and he’ll have to take things slowly if he is to get her to see him as a lover.

Unfortunately for Kate, Sir William is unable to help her with her financial woes, so she decides to return to Ireland and Evan offers to escort her, telling her that he wants to look into the sudden flood of fake antiquities that appear to have been made from stone that comes from close to the Whelan estate.  Once there, it becomes apparent that not only does Evan have cause for his suspicions but also that Con’s death was no accident – and that the machinations of the mysterious villain who cast a long shadow in the previous book continue to pursue the Chandler family, although to what end is not yet apparent.

Scandalous Ever After is a skilfully blended story of romance and mystery, with the focus very firmly on the fragile new relationship that Kate and Evan are building together.  They have terrific chemistry and their many verbal exchanges are witty, funny and utterly delightful; such naturalistic dialogue is one of this author’s strengths, and it’s much in evidence here as Kate and Evan flirt, argue and tease their way towards a new understanding of themselves and each other.  That’s not to say it’s an easy journey for either of them, especially after Kate takes a leap of faith and invites Evan to her bed – and almost immediately regrets her decision, because she is scared that by changing the nature of their relationship she will lose his friendship, and she couldn’t bear that.  Over the years, she has become so many different women – wife, mother, countess, manager – that she has lost sight of herself and her own wants and needs.  Spending time with her family – and with Evan’s on the way to Ireland (no matter that both families are very, very different) – has brought into sharp focus the fact that she doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not in Ireland and not at home; and if she loses Evan’s friendship she will be truly alone.  She tells him she wants them to forget their one night together and go back to the way things were – and can’t understand why Evan doesn’t agree it’s for the best, and why he eventually begins to pull back from her.

Evan is a gorgeous beta hero; an intellectual who can crack a dirty joke along with the best of them and whose concern and love for Kate shines through in his words and actions.  He’s kind, charming and perceptive, but his upbringing by a mother who constantly belittled him has left him a little emotionally bruised and he’s suffered bouts of depression throughout his life – something Kate tackles superbly, offering understanding, compassion and acceptance.

The love story is beautifully nuanced and the love scenes are sensual as we see Evan and Kate tentatively exploring the possibilities for more than friendship at the same time as they fear to take the steps that will irretrievably change things between them.  It’s true that Evan is now more willing to put his heart on the line while Kate struggles with the fear that she could lose him and allows that fear to push her to retreat from him and from what she really wants; and there were times this reader found Kate’s reticence just a teeny bit frustrating.  Yet in the two years since Con’s death, Evan allowed his fear of rejection to keep him far away from the temptation Kate presented, so he, too, has been guilty of running from his deepest desires.

My one complaint about the story overall is that Kate’s inability to realise why Evan is so hurt when she wants to ‘go back to how things were’ goes on a little too long – and it’s hard to believe she can really be so obtuse about it when he has been her closest friend for so many years.  That point knocked my final grade down a little, but didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and isn’t going to prevent my recommending Scandalous Ever After to others.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

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Rogue. Libertine. Rake. Lord Courtenay has been called many things and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel supposedly based on his exploits, he finds himself shunned from society. Unable to see his nephew, he is willing to do anything to improve his reputation, even if that means spending time with the most proper man in London.

Julian Medlock has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. As far as he cares, if Courtenay finds himself in hot water, it’s his own fault for behaving so badly—and being so blasted irresistible. But when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes—and lusts after—most.

As Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve, Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety. But he has secrets he’s determined to keep, because if the truth came out, it would ruin everyone he loves. Together, they must decide what they’re willing to risk for love.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, July 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Cracking open Cat Sebastian’s newest standalone (loosely linked to her two earlier novels), I was nervous.  I loved both her previous books and wasn’t sure she’d be able to top them.  She does.  The Ruin of a Rake ruined me for family, friends, and the beach (where I happened to be with them on vacation) because once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.  It’s romantic, funny and wonderful and my favorite work of hers… so far.  I loved the two principals: starchy and proper Julian Medlock and his protegé (of sorts) Lord Courtenay, rogue, libertine and rake who needs Julian’s help in order to rehabilitate his public image.  Theirs is an opposites attract match made in heaven and I enjoyed every single bit of their fumbling, bumbling, sexy courtship.

The premise of The Ruin of a Rake is simple:  Lord Courtenay’s reputation is in tatters.  He wants to spend time with his nephew, Simon, but Simon’s guardian – Lord Radnor, one of the principals featured in The Lawrence Browne Affair – thinks he’s a bad influence, and refuses him access.  His cause isn’t helped by the recent publication of The Brigand Prince of Salerno, which details the wicked exploits of Don Lorenzo, who is rumored to be based on Courtenay himself.  Courtenay finds himself stranded in London, pockets to let, affairs in disarray and a social pariah, and he doesn’t know what to do.   Lady Eleanor Standish, a close friend of both Courtenay and Radnor, sees how deeply hurt Courtenay is by Radnor’s refusal and intercedes on his behalf.  Instead of turning to Radnor to plead his case, she asks her brother Julian for help.  Julian Medlock is a paragon among gentlemen.  His behavior is impeccable, he only cultivates friendships with the best of the ton, his dress is the epitome of good fashion and he’s as clever as a fox. He’s the perfect person to help rehabilitate Courtenay’s reputation and lend him an air of respectability. Despite his misgivings and a significant secret he’s keeping, he agrees to help.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that Medlock’s reluctance to help Courtenay is largely because of his inconvenient attraction to him.  He’s alternately resigned and annoyed by his lustful thoughts (oh he’s such an adorable curmudgeon), and Ms. Sebastian has great fun with the oh, so stuffy Medlock,  brilliantly capturing his flustered frustration whenever Courtenay is nearby.  It’s hard not to laugh as he tries and fails to control his physical and emotional responses to the other man whilst trying to encourage him to control his own wayward impulses.  He tries to resist his handsome companion, but he just can’t seem to help his body’s traitorous response.  And Courtenay certainly doesn’t make it easy for him.

Medlock decides to take Courtenay to the opera for their first public outing.  He realizes he might have made a mistake shortly after they’re seated in the box he’s reserved.  They’re alone in the dark, Courtenay is sprawled in his seat and Julian is desperately trying to keep any part of his body from touching the other man.  When Courtenay begins to quote passages from The Brigand (which he’s brought with him), and the conversation somehow strays to manhandling and Courtenay’s fondness for both men and women, Julian is beside himself and Courtenay is amused to discover his prim and stuffy companion has decidedly lecherous thoughts about him.  He’s deliberately provocative, delighting in tormenting and teasing Medlock and draws him further into the darkness of the box where they share a passionate kiss.  Melock eventually does pull away (before they get to any of the more interesting stuff) and pretends to be outraged by Courtenay’s behavior.  Courtenay isn’t surprised but he is affected and after the opera, he finds himself remembering the kiss with alarming frequency.

Medlock tries valiantly to keep his distance and help Courtenay redeem his reputation, especially since the more time they spend together, the more he’s convinced of his goodness and kindness.  Meanwhile, Courtenay does his best to please his clever and crafty companion, all the while subtly encouraging the passionate side of Julian he glimpses when they’re alone together.  And it doesn’t take much to ignite the spark between them.  A late night discussion about the state of Courtenay’s affairs turns flirtatious and shortly thereafter the men become lovers.  Their physical relationship is sexy, hot and delightfully wicked, but their emotional intimacy with each other is particularly moving.  Courtenay, for all his rakish ways, just wants to be loved and appreciated; Medlock, so confident in public, is tender and sensitive when it’s just the two of them alone together.  Once Medlock discovers why Courtenay’s finances and estate are in such disarray, he focuses his intellect and cleverness on helping him and his efforts don’t go unnoticed.  Courtenay is besotted by his brilliant and devious lover, and willing to do whatever Julian thinks is necessary to rehabilitate his finances and reputation.  It isn’t long before realizes he’s fallen in love with his fierce defender.

Ostensibly a redemption story about Courtenay, The Ruin of a Rake is also a rumination on the power of love to surprise and delight when we least expect it.  Neither Courtenay nor Medlock are initially thrilled by Eleanor’s meddling, but shortly after they begin to spend time together, they realize most of their assumptions about each other were wrong.  What begins as a playful and slightly naughty friendship quickly evolves into an intensely tender and affectionate love affair that catches them both off guard.  Courtenay and Medlock are wonderful, sharply drawn characters, opposites in every way but one – their mutual willingness to accept and embrace each other’s imperfections.

Meanwhile, as Julian and Courtenay secretly fall for each other, Ms. Sebastian spins out a secondary plot involving Lady Eleanor.  Married, but left alone for the past six years, she’s caught off guard when her husband arrives at their home in London.  This parallel narrative – why her husband has been absent for so long, Julian’s role in their separation, their reunion – develops just in time to disastrously intersect with Julian and Courtenay’s relationship.   Witnessing these two men – who’ve obviously fallen deeply in love – suffer and doubt each other is deeply affecting, but fear not – their eventual reunion is bittersweet, moving – and funny.

Once Ms. Sebastian establishes her delightfully opposite in every way principals, The Ruin of a Rake details their often funny, heartbreaking and sexy road to happily ever after.  Perhaps the most delightful thing about this novel is the way in which both principals discover how the assumptions and presumptions they’ve each made about the other are not only wrong, but hurtful.  Funny, naughty and moving, The Ruin of a Rake is my front runner for best historical romance of the year.

EXCERPT

London, 1817

Julian pursed his lips as he gazed at the symmetrical brick façade of his sister’s house. It was every bit as bad as he had feared. He could hear the racket from the street, for God’s sake. He pulled the brim of his hat lower on his forehead, as if concealing his face would go any distance toward mitigating the damage done by his sister having turned her house into a veritable brothel. Right in the middle of Mayfair, and at eleven in the morning, when the entire ton was on hand to bear witness to her degradation, no less. Say what one wanted about Eleanor—and at this moment Julian could only imagine what was being said—but she did not do things by halves.

As he climbed the steps to her door, the low rumble of masculine voices drifted from an open second story window.

Somebody was playing a pianoforte—badly—and a lady was singing out of key.

No, not a lady. Julian suppressed a sigh. Whoever these women were in his sister’s house, they were not ladies. No lady in her right mind would consort with the sort of men Eleanor had been entertaining lately. Every young buck with a taste for vice had made his way to her house over these last weeks, along with their mistresses or courtesans or whatever one was meant to call them. And the worst of them, the blackguard who had started Eleanor on her path to becoming a byword for scandal, was Lord Courtenay.

A shiver trickled down Julian’s spine at the thought of encountering the man, and he could not decide whether it was from simple, honest loathing or something much, much worse.

The door swung open before Julian had raised his hand to the knocker.

“Mr. Medlock, thank goodness.” The look of abject relief on the face of Eleanor’s butler might have struck Julian as vaguely inappropriate under any other circumstance. But considering the tableau that presented itself in Eleanor’s vestibule, the butler’s informality hardly registered.

Propped against the elegantly papered wall, a man in full evening dress snored peacefully, a bottle of brandy cradled in his arms and a swath of bright crimson silk draped across his leg. A lady’s gown, Julian gathered. The original wearer of the garment was, mercifully, not present.

“I came as soon as I received your message.” Julian had not been best pleased to receive a letter from his sister’s butler, of all people, begging that he return to London ahead of schedule. Having secured a coveted invitation to a very promising house party, he was loath to leave early in order to evict a set of bohemians and reprobates from his sister’s house.

“The cook is threatening to quit, sir,” said the butler. Tilbury, a man of over fifty who had been with Eleanor since she and Julian had arrived in England, had gray circles under his eyes. No doubt the revels had interrupted his sleep.

“And I’ve already sent all but the—ah—hardiest of the housemaids to the country. It wouldn’t do for them to be imposed upon. I’d never forgive myself.”

Julian nodded. “You were quite right to send for me. Where is my sister?” Several unmatched slippers were scattered along the stairs that led toward the drawing room and bedchambers. He gritted his teeth.

“Lady Standish is in her study, sir.”

Julian’s eyebrows shot up. “Her study,” he repeated. Eleanor was hosting an orgy—really, there was no use in pretending it was anything else—but ducked out to conduct an experiment. Truly, the experiments were bad enough, but Julian had always managed to conceal their existence. But to combine scientific pursuits with actual orgies struck Julian as excessive in all directions.

“You,” he said, nudging the sleeping man with the toe of his boot. He was not climbing over drunken bodies, not today, not any day. “Wake up.” The man opened his eyes with what seemed a great deal of effort. “Who are you? No, never mind, I can’t be bothered to care.” The man wasn’t any older than Julian himself, certainly not yet five and twenty, but Julian felt as old as time and as irritable as a school mistress compared to this specimen of self-indulgence. “Get up, restore that gown to its owner, and be gone before I decide to let your father know what you’ve been up to.” As so often happened when Julian ordered people about, this fellow complied.

Julian made his way to Eleanor’s study, and found her furiously scribbling at her writing table, a mass of wires and tubes arranged before her. She didn’t look up at the sound of the door opening, nor when he pointedly closed it behind him. Eleanor, once she was busy working, was utterly unreachable. She had been like this since they were children. He felt a rush of affection for her despite how much trouble she was causing him.

“Eleanor?” Nothing. He stooped to gather an empty wine bottle and a few abandoned goblets, letting them clink noisily together as he deposited them onto a table. Still no response. “Nora?” It almost physically hurt to say his childhood name for her when things felt so awkward and strained between them.

“It won’t work,” came a low drawl. “I’ve been sitting here these past two hours and I haven’t gotten a response.”

Banishing any evidence of surprise from his countenance, Julian turned to see Lord Courtenay himself sprawled in a low chair in a shadowy corner. There oughtn’t to have been any shadows in the middle of the day in a bright room, but trust Lord Courtenay to find one to lurk in.
Julian quickly schooled his face into some semblance of indifference. No, that was a reach; his face was simply not going to let him pretend indifference to Courtenay. He doubted whether anyone had ever shared space with Lord Courtenay without being very much aware of that fact. And it wasn’t only his preposterous good looks that made him so . . . noticeable. The man served as a sort of magnet for other people’s attention, and Julian hated himself for being one of those people. As far as he could tell, the man’s entire problem was that people paid a good deal too much attention to him. But one could hardly help it, not when he looked like that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cat Sebastian lives in a swampy part of the South with her husband, three kids, and two dogs. Before her kids were born, she practiced law and taught high school and college writing. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s doing crossword puzzles, bird watching, and wondering where she put her coffee cup.

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A Warriner to Rescue Her (Wild Warriners #2) by Virginia Heath

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Tempted by the damsel in distress!

Captain James Warriner is startled to find a curvaceous beauty caught up a tree in his orchard! Despite his shattered leg, he rescues Miss Cassandra Reeves, then is determined to have nothing more to do with the enticing vicar’s daughter.

Except when Cassie seeks Jamie out to apologize, they find themselves persuaded to work together on her storybook. Secret liaisons with the dashing soldier make Cassie wish Jamie would rescue her once more… by making her his wife!

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, July 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1814
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Sara

I selected A Warriner to Rescue Her because of the high marks awarded this author’s work by my fellow reviewers, who, I’m happy to say, didn’t steer me wrong!. The four Warriner brothers are outcasts in their community due to the sins of their forefathers and no matter how hard they work to redeem the family’s name it’s an uphill climb. Things are made worse when a militant reverend moves into their town and is set on making an example of the scandalously Wild Warriners.

Captain James Warriner is back home recovering from a debilitating leg wound that nearly cost him his life. The injury has left him with deep physical scars as well as the nightmares associated with how he was hurt which continually plague him. Jaime’s only comfort recently has been his love of painting and riding on his brother’s lands. While out riding through the family’s orchard Jamie is surprised to hear a woman’s voice calling out for help. Searching the area he comes across a pony wandering the path and a pair of stocking-clad legs hanging from the branches of a tree. Jamie is reluctant to help the woman out of the tree as his leg injury will make it difficult to support her weight, but his gentlemanly honor won’t let him leave. The rescue attempt goes about as poorly as Jamie predicted and he soon finds himself down on the ground with the distressed woman falling on top of him. Uncomfortable with being seen as a hero by the beautiful – if chatty – young woman, Jamie excuses himself from the scene and hopes the whole thing will be quietly forgotten.

Miss Cassandra Reeves cannot forget the handsome man who saved her from her own silliness. Her own Sir Galahad wasn’t too happy when she landed on him and Cassie feels guilty about possibly injuring him during the rescue. It’s not the impression Cassie hoped to make with the first person she’s met in Retford since she and her father, the Reverend Reeves, moved to the small town. Hoping to apologize for trespassing on the Warriner lands – and perhaps make a better impression – Cassie walks to the Markham Manor the following day and is met by the very friendly Countess of Markham and the still gruff Captain Warriner. In her nervousness, Cassie becomes a fount of information about the incident in the orchard, her recent move from another city and her love of writing stories.

The countess is charmed by Cassie and sees that Jaime’s interest in the young woman isn’t as well disguised as he believes. After hearing Cassie share her latest story – a vivid retelling of the events at the orchard from her pony’s viewpoint – the countess suggests that Jaimie could supply illustrations for the tale and together they could submit the work to a publisher. Jamie is not amused by his sister-in-law’s blatant matchmaking and is certain that Cassie, who is so effervescent and lively, would never look twice at a broken soldier who can offer her nothing. He’s sure that their parting will be the last time he’ll share a moment with Cassie and a small part of his heart is saddened by the thought. Unfortunately divine intervention, through the fire and brimstone approach of Reverend Reeves, will bring Jamie and Cassie closer together than they can even imagine.

A Warriner to Rescue Her opens with such a meet-cute moment for Jamie and Cassie that I was certain that the rest of the book would follow this light and frothy approach to their romance. Little did I realize that Ms. Heath was just softening her readers for the real emotional wallops to follow. Cassie’s bright and cheery demeanor is hiding such pain that it actually hurt to hear everything she’s lived through under the thumb of her radical and controlling father. Reverend Reeves is fanatical about his religion, his piousness and the belief that his daughter bears the sins of the mother who ran away from their family. As Cassie has grown up she’s learned to hide her true personality from her father or else suffer punishments that range from cruel indifference to psychological torture. When the Reverend’s focus is turned on the Warriner family Cassie is appalled to see her new friends judged and berated from gossip and hearsay. Sadly, when she tries to defend the family in just the smallest way she is made to pay the price.

Jamie truly becomes Cassie’s white knight in that he offers her support and doesn’t judge her by the terrible words her father spreads about his family. He gets to be the hero for Cassie without intending to and being there for her awakens something that he had thought long dead from his experiences during the war – a purpose. That small spark reawakens dreams of a wife and family of his own as well as thoughts of the future rather than being mired in the past. Each time he and Cassie meet Jamie lets her see a little more of his own true self – a romantic at heart – and a man who can appreciate the beauty in the simplest of things. As much as I shared in Cassie’s pain from her father’s abuse I reveled in Jamie’s reawakening to life and how much he still had to give to the right partner.

A Warriner to Rescue Her has so many of the story elements that I adore in romance. Through humor, warmth and understanding, two lonely souls find their perfect match and it creates a wonderful reading experience. I will be going back to read the first book of the Wild Warriners series as soon as I can and will eagerly look for the next Warriner brother’s story.

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.