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

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A LADY OF LIGHT

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

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

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

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER… AND DESIRE

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

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, October 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EXCERPT

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

A pistol.

She cocked it, desperately praying that it was loaded.

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

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

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

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

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

His voice was calm. Quiet.

With just a hint of menace.

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

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

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

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

“At the next village, then.”

“I think not.”

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

She shot him.

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

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

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

She reached forward and snatched it off.

And then gasped.

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

She knew because she recognized him.

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

God of the underworld.

God of the dead.

She had no reason to change her opinion now.

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

 

GIVEAWAY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

You can connect with Elizabeth at:

Her website * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Facebook * ~ * BookBub * ~ * Amazon.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband (Rokesbys #2) by Julia Quinn

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While you were sleeping…

With her brother Thomas injured on the battlefront in the Colonies, orphaned Cecilia Harcourt has two unbearable choices: move in with a maiden aunt or marry a scheming cousin. Instead, she chooses option three and travels across the Atlantic, determined to nurse her brother back to health. But after a week of searching, she finds not her brother but his best friend, the handsome officer Edward Rokesby. He’s unconscious and in desperate need of her care, and Cecilia vows that she will save this soldier’s life, even if staying by his side means telling one little lie…

I told everyone I was your wife

When Edward comes to, he’s more than a little confused. The blow to his head knocked out six months of his memory, but surely he would recall getting married. He knows who Cecilia Harcourt is—even if he does not recall her face—and with everyone calling her his wife, he decides it must be true, even though he’d always assumed he’d marry his neighbor back in England.

If only it were true…

Cecilia risks her entire future by giving herself—completely—to the man she loves. But when the truth comes out, Edward may have a few surprises of his own for the new Mrs. Rokesby.

Publisher and Release Date:  Avon, 30 May 2017

Time and Setting: 1779, New York Town
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

Amnesia, war, a long distance attachment, a Big Misunderstanding… Julia Quinn juggles all of the above in this entertaining second book in the Rokesby series.  The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is another enjoyable and engaging romance from Ms. Quinn; our hero is swoony – a classic British gentleman who’s also charming and likes to flirt, and our heroine is pragmatic, bold and brave, with a subtle beauty that steals our hero’s heart, and I happily traveled with them on their road to happily ever after.

Cecilia Harcourt has spent the last few years living quietly with her father in Derbyshire.  She spends her days corresponding with her beloved brother, Thomas – a soldier fighting in the Colonies –  and taking care of their father.  Through their letters, she knows much about Thomas’ life abroad, and about his closest friend, Edward Rokesby, to whom she’s also started writing. But the book begins, Cecilia’s life is in turmoil.

Shortly after receiving word that Thomas has been injured, their father dies.  Orphaned, and with her only brother injured and abroad, Cecilia’s is left with two equally unappealing options:  move in with her maiden aunt or marry her odious cousin Horace.  Desperate, Cecilia rejects both options and instead travels across the Atlantic, intending to nurse Thomas back to health. Unfortunately, when she arrives in the Colonies, her brother is missing.  A week of searching fails to turn up any news of him, but instead leads her to Edward Rokesby, who’s been hospitalized with a head trauma. Desperate to help him and stonewalled by senior officers, Cecilia makes another bold decision – she pretends she’s Edward’s wife in order to stay close to him.

Edward Rokesby awakens in a hospital bed confused, disoriented – and married.  He can’t remember the last six months of his life… which must be why he doesn’t remember his wife.  Though he does… vaguely.   He knows Cecilia Harcourt – she’s Thomas’s sister and faithful correspondent – so if everyone says she’s his wife, she must be.  Right?

Edward struggles to regain his memories and Cecilia struggles to reconcile herself to the lie she’s told.  From the very beginning it’s clear they like each other, and it’s a delight to watch them fall in love.  Ms. Quinn uses the correspondence between Thomas, Cecilia, and eventually Edward, to open each chapter and these snippets offer a lovely insight into their relationship before the make-believe marriage.  It’s obvious to the reader (and probably Thomas) they were falling for each other long before they met, and when they finally are together, it’s easy to believe it’s just a continuation of a love affair that started via their correspondence.

Though the relationship is a highlight – Edward is a charming husband, and Cecilia is a sweetly tart nursemaid and then shy, naïve wife – Ms. Quinn never lets the reader forget the lie at the heart of their make-believe union.  Even as Edward finds himself falling for Cecilia and pondering the logistics of their courtship and marriage, he’s constantly frustrated by his poor physical health and lack of memory.  Cecilia is conflicted by her feelings for Edward – she’s fallen in love with him, but doesn’t believe they can have a future together because of the lie – and desperate for news of Thomas.

As much as it was a pleasure to read about Edward and Cecilia, my enjoyment was diminished by the lie that unites them.  Cecilia’s persistent dishonesty overshadows every other element of the story, including their fragile happiness whenever they are together.  Her constant self-doubt and guilt, juxtaposed with Edward’s honest and candid affection, began to grow tedious.  I found myself wishing Ms. Quinn hadn’t made Edward quite so appealing right from the start, because it’s clear to the reader (though it isn’t to Cecilia) that if she simply confessed, Edward would have helped her – somehow.  But she persists in lying – even after the lie serves no discernible purpose but to make her suffer guiltily whenever Edward is close.

My dislike of the lie and how long Cecilia kept it going isn’t my only problem with the book.  Thomas’s disappearance is intriguing, mysterious, and suspicious, but after playing such a pivotal role in bringing Edward and Cecilia together, the resolution of his storyline is deeply unsatisfying. Edward and Cecilia continue to make inquiries, but no one seems to feel any urgency to discover why a soldier simply vanished.  Red herrings prove fruitless – and pointless. Instead of answers, Ms. Quinn gives us smug superior offers and an unsatisfying resolution.  What was Thomas doing when he went missing?  Was Edward with him?  Was he a spy?  Similarly, the backstory behind Edward’s head injury, gets short shrift – mostly because we’re constantly in Cecilia’s head as she struggles with her guilt and trying to find a way to tell Edward the truth.

That’s not to say that I disliked Cecilia.  She’s brave, tenacious and shows tremendous strength in the face of adversity.   Her love is strong and deep and she’s an appealing match for Edward. Unfortunately, Ms. Quinn diminishes all of that with Cecilia’s crushing insecurities, and it’s difficult to reconcile these conflicting elements of her personality.  It’s a treat to watch her fall for Edward – and how could she not?  He’s charming, flirtatious and not afraid to express his affection and I lived watching him fall for his make-believe wife.  Ms. Quinn also does a particularly good job of illustrating Edward’s frustration with the amnesia and his physical health as he tries to recover.  He’s alternately grumpy, angry and irritable – and it’s nice to see Cecilia manage all the good and bad facets of his personality with equal aplomb.

Ms. Quinn quietly, precisely and deliberately develops Edward and Cecilia’s growing love for one another… until Thomas’s fate is revealed.   The news about Thomas (OMG I HATED IT) opens the floodgates to more truths, and the novel becomes wholly engrossing as it races to its conclusion.  The final chapters are passionate, frantic and funny – and I loved them.

All in all, The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is a tender, romantic slow burner that captivates – but also frustrates, because the lie central to the story overshadows and diminishes other intriguing storylines. I did enjoy it, however, and would say that it’s not necessary to read Because of Miss Bridgerton, the first book in the Rokesby series to enjoy it as it works both as a standalone or introduction to the series.


EXCERPT

Manhattan Island

July 1779

His head hurt.

Correction, his head really hurt.

It was hard to tell, though, just what sort of pain it was. He might have been shot through the head with a musket ball. That seemed plausible, given his current location in New York (or was it Connecticut?) and his current occupation as a captain in His Majesty’s army.

There was a war going on, in case one hadn’t noticed.

But this particular pounding—the one that felt more like someone was bashing his skull with a cannon (not a cannonball, mind you, but an actual cannon) seemed to indicate that he had been attacked with a blunter instrument than a bullet.

An anvil, perhaps. Dropped from a second-story window.

But if one cared to look on the bright side, a pain such as this did seem to indicate that he wasn’t dead, which was also a plausible fate, given all the same facts that had led him to believe he might have been shot.

That war he’d mentioned… people did die.

With alarming regularity.

So he wasn’t dead. That was good. But he also wasn’t sure where he was, precisely. The obvious next step would be to open his eyes, but his eyelids were translucent enough for him to realize that it was the middle of the day, and while he did like to look on the metaphorical bright side, he was fairly certain that the literal one would prove blinding.

So he kept his eyes closed.

But he listened.

He wasn’t alone. He couldn’t make out any actual conversation, but a low buzz of words and activity filtered through the air. People were moving about, setting objects on tables, maybe pulling a chair across the floor.

Someone was moaning in pain.

Most of the voices were male, but there was at least one lady nearby. She was close enough that he could hear her breathing. She made little noises as she went about her business, which he soon realized included tucking blankets around him and touching his forehead with the back of her hand.

He liked these little noises, the tiny little mmms and sighs she probably had no idea she was making. And she smelled nice, a bit like lemons, a bit like soap.

And a bit like hard work.

He knew that smell. He’d worn it himself, albeit usually only briefly until it turned into a full-fledged stink.

On her, though, it was more than pleasant. Perhaps a little earthy. And he wondered who she was, to be tending to him so diligently.

“How is he today?”

Edward held himself still. This male voice was new, and he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone to know he was awake yet.

Although he wasn’t sure why he felt this hesitancy.

“The same,” came the woman’s reply.

“I am concerned. If he doesn’t wake up soon…”

“I know,” the woman said. There was a touch of irritation in her voice, which Edward found curious.

“Have you been able to get him to take broth?”

“Just a few spoonfuls. I was afraid he would choke if I attempted any more than that.”

The man made a vague noise of approval. “Remind me how long he has been like this?”

“A week, sir. Four days before I arrived, and three since.”

A week. Edward thought about this. A week meant it must be… March? April?

No, maybe it was only February. And this was probably New York, not Connecticut.

But that still didn’t explain why his head hurt so bloody much. Clearly he’d been in some sort of an accident. Or had he been attacked?

“There has been no change at all?” the man asked, even though the lady had just said as much.

But she must have had far more patience than Edward, because she replied in a quiet, clear voice, “No, sir. None.”

The man made a noise that wasn’t quite a grunt. Edward found it impossible to interpret.

“Er…” The woman cleared her throat. “Have you any news of my brother?”

Her brother? Who was her brother?

“I am afraid not, Mrs. Rokesby.”

Mrs. Rokesby?

“It has been nearly two months,” she said quietly.

Mrs. Rokesby? Edward really wanted them to get back to that point. There was only one Rokesby in North America as far as he knew, and that was him. So if she was Mrs. Rokesby…

“I think,” the male voice said, “that your energies would be better spent tending to your husband.”

Husband?

“I assure you,” she said, and there was that touch of irritation again, “that I have been caring for him most faithfully.”

Husband? They were calling him her husband? Was he married? He couldn’t be married. How could he be married and not remember it?

Who was this woman?

Edward’s heart began to pound. What the devil was happening to him?

“Did he just make a noise?” the man asked.

“I… I don’t think so.”

She moved then, quickly. Hands touched him, his cheek, then his chest, and even through her obvious concern, there was something soothing in her motions, something undeniably right.

“Edward?” she asked, taking his hand. She stroked it several times, her fingers brushing lightly over his skin. “Can you hear me?”

He ought to respond. She was worried. What kind of gentleman did not act to relieve a lady’s distress?

“I fear he may be lost to us,” the man said, with far less gentleness than Edward thought appropriate.

“He still breathes,” the woman said in a steely voice.

The man said nothing, but his expression must have been one of pity, because she said it again, more loudly this time.

He still breathes.”

“Mrs. Rokesby…”

Edward felt her hand tighten around his. Then she placed her other on top, her fingers resting lightly on his knuckles. It was the smallest sort of embrace, but Edward felt it down to his soul.

“He still breathes, Colonel,” she said with quiet resolve. “And while he does, I will be here. I may not be able to help Thomas, but—”

Thomas. Thomas Harcourt. That was the connection. This must be his sister. Cecilia. He knew her well.

Or not. He’d never actually met the lady, he felt like he knew her. She wrote to her brother with a diligence that was unmatched in the regiment. Thomas received twice as much mail as Edward, and Edward had four siblings to Thomas’s one.

Cecilia Harcourt. What on earth was she doing in North America? She was supposed to be in Derbyshire, in that little town Thomas had been so eager to leave. The one with the hot springs. Matlock. No, Matlock Bath.

Edward had never been, but he thought it sounded charming. Not the way Thomas described it, of course; he liked the bustle of city life and couldn’t wait to take a commission and depart his village. But Cecilia was different. In her letters, the small Derbyshire town came alive, and Edward almost felt that he would recognize her neighbors if he ever went to visit.

She was witty. Lord, she was witty. Thomas used to laugh so much at her missives that Edward finally made him read them out loud.

Then one day, when Thomas was penning his response, Edward interrupted so many times that Thomas finally shoved out his chair and held forth his quill.

“You write to her,” he’d said.

So he did.

Not on his own, of course. Edward could never have written to her directly. It would have been the worst sort of impropriety, and he would not have insulted her in such a manner. But he took to scribbling a few lines at the end of Thomas’s letters, and whenever she replied, she had a few lines for him.

Thomas carried a miniature of her, and even though he said it was several years old, Edward had found himself staring at it, studying the small portrait of the young woman, wondering if her hair really was that remarkable golden color, or if she really did smile that way, lips closed and mysterious.

Somehow he thought not. She did not strike him as a woman with secrets. Her smile would be sunny and free. Edward had even thought he’d like to meet her once this godforsaken war was over. He’d never said anything to Thomas, though.

That would have been strange.

Now Cecilia was here. In the colonies. Which made absolutely no sense, but then again, what did? Edward’s head was injured, and Thomas seemed to be missing, and…

Edward thought hard.

…and he seemed to have married Cecilia Harcourt.

He opened his eyes and tried to focus on the green-eyed woman peering down at him.

“Cecilia?”

GIVEAWAY

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About the Author

Julia Quinn is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five novels for Avon Books, and one of only sixteen authors ever to be inducted in the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

You can connect with Julia at:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

The Wicked Cousin covers 3

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Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

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Publisher and Release Date: Stella Riley, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1777
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!

SPOTLIGHT & GIVEAWAY: Proud Mary (Roxton Saga #5) by Lucinda Brant

RHR-Proud-Mary-Lucinda-Brant

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The Roxtons are back! Romance. Drama. Intrigue. Family secrets. There’s never a dull moment for the 18th Century’s first family…

Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.

Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.

Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.

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OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Sprigleaf Pty Ltd.

Time and Setting: Gloucestershire, 1777
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I love historical romance series featuring large families and covering a sizable period of time, and Lucinda Brant’s Roxton books fit that bill. The series begins in Paris in 1745, moves to Georgian England, and covers nearly thirty years, during which the expected births, deaths, love affairs, and marriages occur.

Proud Mary, the fifth book, opens in 1777 and features Lady Mary Cavendish, widow of Sir Gerald Cavendish, who has been dead for two years. Sir Gerald and Lady Mary were minor characters in the earlier books, where we learned that Gerald was a conceited bag of hot air who was shunned by Polite Society, disliked by his neighbors, and cruel to his wife and daughter. Lady Mary was completely under his thumb, which is not surprising since she grew up with a domineering snob of a mother, the Countess of Strathsay.

Sir Gerald was both impressed and envious that Mary was the daughter of an earl, a great-granddaughter of King Charles II, and a cousin to the Duchess of Roxton. Indeed, beginning when she was twelve, Mary had spent the happiest years of her life living at Roxton’s estate as a member of the family. When she returned to her mother, Lady Strathsay drilled into Mary’s head that women of her station had a higher calling than their inferiors, that she must precisely follow the rigid rules of society, and that she owed a duty to her noble lineage to marry well and produce sons. Mary was so browbeaten and miserable that she accepted an arranged marriage to Sir Gerald.

Now Sir Gerald is dead, leaving Mary with a nice estate (for her lifetime), Abbeywood, and a mountain of debts. In a final act of maliciousness, Gerald named the local squire, Christopher Bryce, as co-guardian, with the Duke of Roxton, of Mary’s daughter Theodora. “Teddy,” as she is known to all is a ten-year-old tomboy who likes nothing better than riding and hiking the wilds of Gloucestershire. She adores her “Uncle Christopher,” and he clearly returns the feeling. Seeing the sweet interplay between them is the first hint that Christopher has a heart beneath his overly sober exterior.

Christopher is charged with running Abbeywood and helping retire the debts that Gerald left behind. He is a strict administrator, and Mary chafes under his budgetary restraints. Mary politely loathes him, and while he is punctiliously correct toward Mary, he has quietly been in love with her since he returned to Gloucestershire eight years ago. Christopher’s years away from home are a mystery to Mary and the rest of their neighbors, and Christopher knows that his shameful secrets from that time would horrify a gentle lady such as she. For reasons unknown, he left suddenly for the Continent at the age of eighteen and cut himself off entirely from his parents. More than a decade later, he returned home to nurse his dying mother and brought his blind Aunt Kate to live with him. Unbeknownst to everyone, he also has done a bit of spying for England’s Spymaster General, Lord Shrewsbury, and to that end he had befriended Sir Gerald, whom Shrewsbury suspected of selling secrets to the French.

Squire Bryce was portrayed as dour and tyrannical in the previous Roxton book Dair Devil, which led me to have some skepticism about his suitability as a hero in this book. Ms. Brant, however, cleverly allows the reader to discover the real Christopher at the same time that Mary does. They begin to have forthright conversations, and along with Mary we learn that Christopher is an honorable man with strong principles but also strong emotions, which he keeps deeply hidden. Christopher grows more deeply in love with Mary, but knowing that she is an aristocrat and he is the son of nobody, he accepts that there can never be anything between them. He also comes to realize that Gerald had lied and exaggerated about virtually everything – even claiming that Roxton was Teddy’s true father. Gerald was no spy, Christopher decides, and so the hunt must continue.

Mary feels an attraction to Christopher, but she does not consider him as a possible mate even though she is desperately lonely. She is thirty years old and has never been in love or been loved. She has never shared a passionate kiss with any man, nor did the selfish Sir Gerald ever show her pleasure in the marriage bed. She loves her daughter with all her heart, but hopes she still has the capacity to love a man. Since her mother is insisting that it’s Mary’s duty to her family to marry again, she hopes that perhaps she will find love with a new husband.

When Mary pays a rare visit to Christopher’s office one day, he is not a little surprised when she announces that there is a ghost in the house. The couple join forces to discover tangible evidence of an intruder and set out to detect his true identity. His unmasking turns their little world upside down and threatens to bring an end to their budding romance, for the ghost is actually the man whom Mary once hoped to marry. I won’t disclose more, as I think the clever twists and turns of this story should not be spoiled.

Mary and Christopher make a lovely couple, and all of my misgivings about him melted away. In fact, by the time Mary realizes that she has fallen in love with him, I was a little bit in love too. It was wonderful to watch Mary fall for him, always fighting her mother’s little voice in her head pointing out his unsuitability for an earl’s daughter. Equally wonderful was watching Mary gain confidence in herself and fighting to overcome the years of being denigrated and bullied by her mother and her husband. Christopher, for his part, gradually and with great reluctance reveals his past to a shocked Mary, expecting at every turn that she will turn away from him in disgust. Of course, she does not.

I always feel a bit like a time traveler when reading one of Ms. Brant’s books. Using her impeccable research, she creates such an authentic 18th century world, and employing her wonderful imagination, she writes multi-layered stories with intricate plots. These talents are put to particularly good use in Proud Mary. I think that we 21st century readers often have a difficult time appreciating the class-based strictures of the past, and many authors who write cross-class romances downplay the difficulties that would have faced the duke who married his housekeeper, for example. Ms. Brant does not fall into the trap of making things easy for Mary and Christopher, however, and I felt a better understanding of how oppressive, yet widely accepted, the class structure was. It helps here that Mary’s Roxton relations are accepting of their relationship, but then we have seen in earlier books that they are somewhat non-conformist and powerful enough to do as they please.

As Christopher and Mary work toward their happily ever after, we get to see all of her extended family – all of whom, along with young Teddy, play a role in bringing Christopher and Mary together.

Ms. Brant has said that her next book will be Henri-Antoine’s story, but dare we hope that someday there is one pairing Teddy and Jack? I suppose that I am looking for ways for the Roxton Family Saga to continue for a long time. I will add that while Proud Marycan be read as a standalone, there is much more pleasure to be had by reading the series in order and learning to know and love this family as much as I and many other readers have.

Each book has been a joy to read, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

EXCERPT

“A-a—ghost? You saw a ghost?”

Christopher resisted the urge to roll his eyes and huff his disbelief. A ghost!? God grant him patience. He had interrupted his busy morning schedule for this. Correction. He had interrupted it for her. But she was talking fanciful nonsense.

Yet, in the years he had known her, fanciful was not a word he associated with the daughter of the Earl of Strathsay. Prim, and practical, yes. And proud—oh yes, the Lady Mary was very proud. But fanciful? Never. So there had to be some basis in fact for her belief in a ghost, the fear in her eyes told him so. She truly believed it.

And he believed her. It was just that he did not believe the house was haunted.

So he took a moment to compose himself, lest he appear supercilious, and awaited further explanation.

Lady Mary took his silence for condescending disbelief.

“I did not see it, Mr. Bryce. I heard it.”

~~~

Mary knew the moment she uttered the word ghost that Mr. Bryce did not believe her.

It was not so much his tone as the way in which his square jaw clamped shut, and his nostrils flared as he pressed his lips together, as if forcing himself not to smile. She was surprised he hadn’t punctuated his incredulity with a roll of his fine eyes. It must have taken all his self-control not to laugh out loud, too.

But she was not deterred by his skepticism. She had expected it; would have been surprised had he reacted in any other way. She had been incredulous herself. But it was the only explanation that made sense. After all, no one had used Sir Gerald’s rooms since his death two years ago. And if anyone did enter them, it was the servants during the autumn cleaning in preparation for winter, to dust what was not under holland covers, and to check that the fireplaces, one in the bedchamber and one in the dressing room, were not inhabited by rodents or birds. And then the servant door by which they had entered was locked again, and the key given to the housekeeper. The main door to the bedchamber, which led onto the corridor, had been locked and this key given to Lady Mary on the day of her husband’s funeral. She had not unlocked it since.

The autumn clean had been over a month ago now. And there was no reason for any of the servants to enter those rooms again, nor had they. She had checked with the housekeeper. And certainly no one would enter them at night, which was when she had heard the noises. And so she told Mr. Bryce, doing her best to appear as if she were discussing the everyday, and not something incorporeal. And because she was delaying for as long as possible confiding in him what she feared most.

“And where did you hear this specter, my lady?”

“I was in my bedchamber. The noises came from Sir Gerald’s dressing room.”

“Thank-you for the clarification. What time was this?”

“At night. It was late.”

“You were not—dreaming—perhaps?”
“No. I thought so at first. I thought I was having a nightmare. But when I was fully awake I knew I was not dreaming, which was far more disturbing than any nightmare.”

“Did you hear these—noises—just the once?”

“No. I was woken again later that night by similar noises. Which is why I-I decided to come to you.”

“Do you think that perhaps what you heard was a cat on the roof, or a bird nesting in the tree outside your window?

Or indeed, it may have been a branch of that tree scraping against the window pane?”

Mary considered this for a moment, then shook her head.

“No, Mr. Bryce. The noises could not have been made by those things. The sounds were different entirely. And it was a still night—has been still all this week. So there was no wind to stir the branches, or whistle through the sills.”

“What precisely did you hear, my lady?”

“My first thought, when I was still half-asleep, was that it was Sir Gerald come through from his bedchamber to visit me. To do so he must walk through his dressing room, which is the room that divides his bedchamber from mine…”

“And so you heard footfall?” Christopher gently prompted when Mary’s voice trailed off and she looked down at her hands.

Mary shook her head again, then slowly lifted her gaze to his brown eyes.

“No. Not footfall…”

GIVEAWAY

 

Lucinda is offering FIVE lucky people the chance to win an eCopy of Proud Mary, book five in her acclaimed Roxton Saga!

Enter at Rafflecopter, below. The Giveaway is open for the next seven days and winners will be notified shortly after the closing date. No purchase is necessary

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucinda-Brant-AuthorLucinda Brant is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of award-winning Georgian historical romances and mysteries. Her novels are described as “smart, witty, historical adventures full of heart wrenching drama with a happily ever after”. Lucinda is a university trained historian and a retired history and geography teacher who now writes full time. She has been researching and reading about the 18th Century for forty years, and still finds the Georgian era just as fascinating now as then. Lucinda drinks too much coffee and is addicted to Pinterest. Come join her there in her 18th Century world: http://www.pinterest.com/lucindabrant/, and also at:
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Thief’s Daughter by Victoria Cornwall

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Hide from the thief-taker, for if he finds you, he will take you away…

Eighteenth-century Cornwall is crippled by debt and poverty, while the gibbet casts a shadow of fear over the land. Yet, when night falls, free traders swarm onto the beaches and smuggling prospers.

Terrified by a thief-taker’s warning as a child, Jenna has resolved to be good. When her brother, Silas, asks for her help to pay his creditors, Jenna feels unable to refuse and finds herself entering the dangerous world of the smuggling trade.

Jack Penhale hunts down the smuggling gangs in revenge for his father’s death. Drawn to Jenna at a hiring fayre, they discover their lives are entangled. But as Jenna struggles to decide where her allegiances lie, the worlds of justice and crime collide, leading to danger and heartache for all concerned…

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EXCERPT

A variety of faces were turned to watch the sale. Men, women and children craned their necks for a better view, eager to see what was happening. Only one man, who stood on the edge of the crowd and casually leaned against a cart, had no interest in the farce. From his stance and jet-black hair, Jenna instantly recognised him as the man who had helped her escape. There was no mistaking him, as there were few men with such well-balanced features that held strength and kindness in equal measures. He was looking at her intently through narrowed eyes and she wondered if he recognised her, too. Heat rushed to her face, making her feel exposed and a little panicked. Furtively, she moved her mop in front of her face hoping to block his view. The last thing she needed while she was trying to be hired was him asking questions.

Keeping her eyes lowered, she heard the wife sale progress as the men agreed a price of two shillings and a quart of beer, and the lover emerged victorious. The crowd erupted about Jenna, but she dared not look up in case the stranger was still looking at her. Instead she remained rooted to the spot hoping that he would soon be on his way.

The wife sale completed, the woman and her lover walked through the crowd, their noses tilted upwards, their arm interlinked and both with a slight swagger to their step. The crowd was delighted at the unplanned entertainment and even broke into a spontaneous applause when the pair granted them a joint bow before finally exiting the square. The fayre slowly returned to normal and Jenna took the opportunity to furtively glance up. She saw him moving through the thinning crowd, and then she lost sight of him. He is gone, she thought, relieved, but she should have known better. His earlier attention had indicated an interest in her, and when she heard a man’s boots climb onto the left side of the stage, she did not need to look to know it was him.

The woman with the florid complexion ordered Jenna to show her hands. Obediently Jenna held one out, whilst trying to keep the mop head in the right position to obstruct the stranger’s view of her face. When the man’s well-shaped hand suddenly closed around the handle of her mop and brushed against hers, a wave of unfamiliar sensations swept over her. They caught the breath in her throat and slowed her mind to that of a drunkard, leaving her little choice, but to allow him to take it. With her mop in his hand, the dark-haired stranger watched in silence as the woman examined her.

The larger woman looked at her now free hand. Satisfied, she ordered Jenna to open her mouth and show her teeth, before checking for lice in her clothes and hair. Jenna closed her eyes in shame at being examined like livestock. The man continued to say nothing, even when he handed the mop back to her when the examination was complete. His brows furrowed deep in thought, and for the briefest of moments she wondered if he was considering hiring her. However, when the woman offered a price he remained silent and when the ribbon was pinned onto Jenna’s dress to confirm that she was hired, he turned and walked away.

Jenna frowned as she watched him leave. His presence had unnerved her, but strangely, now that he was leaving, she felt disappointed that he had not bothered to barter for her. Had he come onto the stage to hire her, but on closer inspection thought better of it? The truth was, the handsome stranger had rejected her, and rejection is never a pleasant feeling to have.

*****

From a short distance away, Jack watched the woman lead Jenna Kestle away. He had been shocked to see her again and found himself marvelling at life’s habit of tossing coincidences in one’s path. Moments before he caught sight of her he had been thinking about her, and then she was there, standing on a makeshift stage waiting to be hired.

At first he put it down to mistaken identity, or worse his imagination playing tricks on him, but the longer he watched her, the more he was convinced it was her.

The woman’s hair, previously hidden below a battered tricorn, was in fact long. Today, it was neatly plaited and lay over one shoulder. The last time he saw her, her feminine shape was hidden under boy’s clothing. Now it captivated his attention and drew him towards the stage, while a devil on his shoulder whispered in his ear and encouraged him to hire her. Jack almost succumbed, but thankfully saw sense and walked away. He knew that having an extra pair of ears beneath his roof was far too dangerous. It was best he kept his distance until he had completed what he had come here to do.

He watched her body sway to the movement of the cart as her new employer took her away from him. For a brief moment he felt a strange sense of loss for a woman he knew so little about. True, she had never been far from his thoughts. The last time he had seen her she was being chased by a crowd. It was only natural that he would feel concern for her welfare, he thought. He need not have worried as he remembered their hands briefly touching. Although her hand felt tense, during her examination she had a tilt to her chin, which showed determination – a trait he recognised in himself. He knew in that moment that he need not be concerned for her, for he saw that she was of strong character which would bode well for her future.

This newly acquired knowledge freed him from feeling concern for her and he found himself laughing a little too loudly at his earlier foolishness

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

victoria cornwallVictoria Cornwall grew up on a farm in Cornwall. She can trace her Cornish roots as far back as the 18th century and it is this background and heritage which is the inspiration for her Cornish based novels.

Victoria is married, has two grown up children and a black Labrador, called Alfie. She likes to read and write historical fiction with a strong background story, but at its heart is the unmistakable emotion, even pain, of loving someone.

Following a fulfilling twenty-five year career as a nurse, a change in profession finally allowed her the time to write.

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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Black Sheep and the Rotten Apple by K.A. Merikan

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“How does one start a relationship with another man when it is forbidden?”

“One needs to decide that the other man is worth dying for.”

Cornwall, 1785

Sir Evan Penhart. Baronet. Highwayman. Scoundrel.
Julian Reece. Writer. Wastrel. Penniless.

No one forces Julian Reece to marry. Not his father, not his brother. No one.

When he is thrust into a carriage heading for London to meet his future bride, his way out comes in the form of an imposing highwayman, riding a horse as black as night. Julian makes a deal with the criminal, but what he doesn’t expect is that despite the title of baronet, the robber turns out to be no gentleman.

Sir Evan Penhart is pushed into crime out of desperation, but the pact with a pretty, young merchant’s son turns out to have disastrous consequences. Not only is Evan left broke, but worse yet, Julian opens up a Pandora’s box of passions that are dark, needy, and too wild to tame. With no way to lock them back in, rash decisions and greedy desire lead to a tide that wrecks everything in its way.

But Julian might actually like all the sinful, carnal passion unleashed on him. How can he admit this though, even to himself, when a taste of the forbidden fruit could have him end up with a noose around his neck? And with highway robbery being a hanging offense and the local constable on their back, Julian could lose Evan before he can decide anything about the nature of his desires.

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EXCERPT

Evan’s grip on the nightshirt tightened. Oh, what he’d now give for being a valet not a baronet. “Since when does a merchant’s son need a valet?” he asked, already imagining unbuttoning the embroidered buttons of the vest, and leaning in for—

“Since he can afford one,” said Julian coolly and stretched his throat, approaching the fire. “I am your guest, and yet so far I’ve been only offered discourtesy. Or do you not know that you are being rude?”

Julian was a spoiled idler, but it was himself that Evan despised most right now, because with all his attitude, and the outlandish idea to strip his own father of money, Julian was still the most beautiful creature that had graced this house in years. Standing there by the fire, the rich green color of his outfit complemented the flames as if he’d gotten dressed today, knowing he’d be here in the evening.

Evan lost patience. For Julian, for himself, for the whole situation dragging out and testing him.

He walked past the armchair, and approached Julian without a word. He pushed him at the warm wall by the fireplace, and his fingers went straight for the buttons of Julian’s waistcoat.

A sharp gasp left Julian’s lips, and he remained frozen, slim, graceful fingers trailing along the faded tapestry depicting the battle of Troy. He stopped resisting, as if Evan’s impudence left him weaponless. He stared at the wall, possibly frightened but unresisting.

So Evan carried on. Pulled off the coat. Unbuttoned the waistcoat. When the shape of a stiffened nipple appeared where the shirt clung to Julian’s body, Evan was ready to eat Julian alive. But he would not. He’d stay calm and move past all this.

Julian’s breath wheezed, and he clawed his fingers into the tapestry, his body hot like nothing else Evan had touched in years. Even the fire burning so close couldn’t compare to the warmth streaming from underneath the fine linens.

“How am I doing?” Evan asked when the tension became too much. He pulled on the silk of Julian’s cravat, untying it from around his neck, and his heart was speeding up at the sight of the throat underneath the thin fabric.

“Dreadfully,” said Julian through his teeth and still refused to look at Evan. “I wouldn’t let you near me with a razor, but maybe you’d like to blacken my boots once you’re done.”

Evan backed away half a step and pulled on Julian’s shirt. “Do you want to borrow my nightshirt, or would you rather sleep naked?”

The flush on Julian’s cheeks darkened, and his nostrils flared as he finally met Evan’s gaze with a fiery passion. “What was your profession before you chose this walk of life? Certainly not service.” He frowned, glancing at Evan from head to toe. “The black… a rogue clergyman perhaps?”

Evan shook his head, proceeding to pull off the shirt. “Wrong, Mr. Reece. I am a sinner.”

Julian didn’t resist anymore and pulled up the stained shirt. When the fine fabric stretched over his face, the pale, flawless chest came into view. There was a pleasant definition to Julian’s muscles, but his body was doubtlessly one that had never been forced to do physical labor, and had instead gained the harmonious shape through sports and other leisure activities. The short bristle of hair on his chest was a reminder that Julian wasn’t a boy anymore, and as he stretched to finally untangle himself out of the shirt, his abdomen became a bundle of the most delicious muscle. Evan barely suppressed a moan.

“Sin is but a man’s invention to keep the masses from straying off the path they’re meant for, Mr. Noir,” Julian said, bright red. He spun around and reached back his hand. “The shirt, please.”

Evan took his time watching every inch of skin on show, but passed the garment to Julian. “Not in need of my services anymore, I presume?” He would not mind pulling off Julian’s breeches as well and getting to see what a fine ass hid underneath, but that would have been a stretch for his patience.

“You’re a worse valet than I’d ever be.” Julian promptly pulled the linen over his head, obscuring his fair skin and shape, and only then did he begin unfastening his breeches.

Evan kept silent, anticipating the faint shape he’d get to see underneath the shirt, courtesy of the fireplace behind Julian. This sudden infatuation felt childish, yet he still couldn’t resist the butterfly that got caught in his net instead of a grasshopper.

Julian pulled off his stockings, breeches, linen drawers, and there it was, the shadow of his graceful ass peeking through the nightshirt. Evan chewed on his lip, watching Julian storm through the room and climb into bed without a word.

Evan’s heart thudded with bloodlust, as if he were a wolf following a deer. At this moment, he didn’t even regret his robbery being a failure, because he hadn’t felt this alive in years.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

K. A. Merikan is the pen name for Kat and Agnes Merikan, a team of writers, who are taken for sisters with surprising regularity. Kat’s the mean sergeant and survival specialist of the duo, never hesitating to kick Agnes’s ass when she’s slacking off. Her memory works like an easy-access catalogue, which allows her to keep up with both book details and social media. Also works as the emergency GPS. Agnes is the Merikan nitpicker, usually found busy with formatting and research. Her attention tends to be scattered, and despite pushing thirty, she needs to apply makeup to buy alcohol. Self-proclaimed queen of the roads.

They love the weird and wonderful, stepping out of the box, and bending stereotypes both in life and books. When you pick up a Merikan book, there’s one thing you can be sure of – it will be full of surprises.

Visit Kat and Agnes at http://kamerikan.com/

Only a Duke Will Do (To Marry a Rogue #2) by Tamara Gill

only a duke will do

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Without a Season, Lady Isolde Worthingham captured the Duke of Moore’s heart at a country dance. But on the eve of her wedding, a scandal that rocked the ton and sent her fleeing to Scotland alone and unwed, leaves her perfectly planned future in a tangle of disgrace and heartbreak.

Merrick Mountshaw, the Duke of Moore, loathes the pitiful existence he portrays to the ton. With a scandalous wife he never wanted, who flaunts her many indiscretions, life is a never-ending parade of hell. When the one woman he loved and lost returns to London, he knows he can no longer live without her.

But vows and past hurts are not easily forgotten. Love may not win against the ton when a too proper lord and lady play by the rules.

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Publisher and Release Date: Entangled Publishing, February 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1805
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by: Heather C.

On the eve of her wedding, Lady Isolde is thrown a major curveball when her fiancé Merrick, the Duke of Moore is found in a compromising position with another woman, who happened to have been one of her closest friends. Merrick had no alternative but to call off his wedding to Isolde and marry her friend instead. Isolde ran away to Scotland to lick her wounds, but now, five years later she has come out of hiding from the shame of that ignominious day determined to find happiness again and move beyond the love she still feels for Merrick. But her every step is plagued by the machinations of the wife who stole her place, and the continuing presence of Merrick in her life. Because her heart still belongs to him, Lady Isolde must find out if she can move on and be content in a marriage without love while also discovering if it is possible for her to have any type of relationship with the man she almost married.

It’s obvious, right from the first pages of Only A Duke Will Do, that the romance is going to be an uphill battle. The heroine loses her man to someone she thought she could trust, so not only does she lose the love of her life, but also loses a long-established, close female bond. Isolde is crushed, to say the least. Her decision to return to society after five years is a brave one, but she wants the security of a husband and family and going about in London society is the best way to find both those things, even if love is no longer possible. Isolde is one strong woman as she handles seeing her former love move among her friends, deals with the hatred that his wife spews her way, and tries to balance the expectations of the ton. I give her kudos for not falling apart completely, because I would have! We also see things from Merrick’s point of view and learn of the poisonous relationship that his marriage has become. He loves Isolde even now and while he wants the best for her, it also kills him to see her moving on. The back and forth of wills between these two is well done as they both struggle to do what is right.

The relationship, or what remains of it, between Isolde and Merrick is the driving factor in this novel. The romance is primarily the smolder, the yearning, and the question of whether they can ever find their happily ever after. I was rooting for these two from the beginning, but even more than halfway through I wasn’t sure if there was any future for them.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book is that the drama and conflict are established right from the start. The reader doesn’t really have a chance to get behind Isolde and Merrick as a couple before they are ripped apart, and it’s natural to side with Isolde in the early stages. As the book progresses, Merrick’s situation begins to become clearer, and that’s when you start to want to see them together; I believe that this mirrors Isolde’s understanding of her situation nicely. (I should probably point out here that there is no cheating in this story; Merrick and Isolde still love each other, but they don’t commit adultery). While there is no defined “good” character in the novel, although I suppose it could be argued that Isolde is representative of it, there is a very defined “bad” character and she just oozes malice with her every word and move. I was not a fan and was very happy with her character’s outcome.

I raced through the pages of this novel, staying up much later than I should have to finish reading it because I needed to know if Isolde and Merrick would work it out or not. I will be looking forward to the next novel that Tamara Gill puts out as I have thoroughly enjoyed her work thus far.

Married for His Convenience by Eleanor Webster

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A plain countess…

Tainted by illegitimacy, plain Sarah Martin has no illusions of a grand marriage. So when the Earl of Langford makes her a proposal which will take her one step closer to finding her half-sister, she can’t refuse!

Sebastian’s dreams of romance died with his late wife’s affair, so now he needs a convenient wife to act as governess for his silent daughter. Yet Sarah continues to surprise and challenge him, and soon Sebastian can’t deny the joy his new bride could bring to his life – and into his bed!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical December 2016

Time and Setting: England, 1794
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Wendy

The title of this book attracted me as I’m rather fond of the ‘marriage of convenience’ trope. There are a number of  potentially interesting plot lines in this story, but there are far too many of them going on at the same time to be plausible and none are particularly well developed, making it an easy book to put down.  What saved it – enabling me to give it 3 stars – is that it is nicely written with likeable characters.

Sarah Martin has led a rather sad life which luckily, has barely touched her – she has been blessed with a sunny disposition and mostly sees life through rose-coloured spectacles. Sarah lived the first years of her life with her older sister, Charlotte, and their glamorous mother in London, only rarely seeing her rather austere, much older father. After her mother’s death she discovers that she is illegitimate and that Charlotte is her half-sister; and unless I missed something in this tumult of happenings, I couldn’t quite work out at what point Charlotte disappeared into the depths of London. Perhaps it was when Sarah’s father made it clear that he was prepared to care only for Sarah… but in any case, he takes her home her to his wife. I bet that went down well! His wife is mentally unstable but is also a religious zealot and I’m sure her condition couldn’t have been helped by having her husband’s bastard dropped onto her when she herself is childless. Eventually he ups and dies leaving kind and caring Sarah to the not so tender mercies of her guardian.

Sebastian, Earl of Langford, needs a mother and carer for his severely traumatised daughter, who is part of just one of the too many plotlines running through this story. Suffice it to say that the child has withdrawn into herself and refuses to speak. Both his son and daughter were taken to France by his adulterous wife when she ran off with her lover, and he is now desperate to rescue his son.  His wife is now dead at the hands of Madame Guillotine and although Sebastian’s little girl has been returned to him, she has been so badly affected that she is unable to cast any light on what has happened to her brother. Understandably, Sebastian is not in a romantic state of mind and in his desperation to do the right thing, seeks for help with his little girl which in turn will free him to continue his search for his son.

Sebastian has witnessed Sarah rescuing and caring for a rabbit that had been caught in a trap. He sees this kind, soft-hearted girl in action whom he sees has a calming effect on damaged creatures and so it occurs to him that despite her dubious birth, she’ll do fine. He no longer wants love and finds it difficult to trust, so the fact that she has a caring and nurturing manner is good enough for his purposes. He eventually persuades Sarah to marry him, although not without difficulty, as she is aware that her lack of beauty, social skills and bastardy make her a poor match for an earl.  But once Sebastian mentions that they will go to London, she immediately agrees. Again another plot line that I will not go into.

Honestly, my head was buzzing by this time and I kept losing track of what was happening. I liked the main characters and there are some amusing moments, such as when Sarah is drunk on her wedding night, but on the whole the entire story is full of implausible plot lines, animals and children popping up all over the place. For instance, there’s a boy called Fred who listens at doors and immediately understands and acts upon complicated instructions. And there’s Sarah racing across the country on a horse when she can barely ride and with no clue as to where she’s going but miraculously ending up in the place she needs to be! There’s a mysterious character called The Lion – I’m still confused about him! And then there’s the authors unfortunate proclivity with the ‘word’ um… I started noticing this about one third of the way through the book and it was very irritating.

This was a difficult book to grade, because as I said the writing is good and the characters are likeable but it seems to me that the author has an overactive imagination and could have shared these plots amongst three books and developed them further to greater effect. So yes, Married for his Convenience did live up to its title, because the hero and heroine did marry for his convenience but there was just too much going on for plausibility.

Duke of Pleasure (Maiden Lane #11) by Elizabeth Hoyt

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IN THE ARMS OF DANGER

Bold. Brave. Brutally handsome. Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, is the king’s secret weapon. Sent to defeat the notorious Lords of Chaos, he is ambushed in a London alley-and rescued by an unlikely ally: a masked stranger with the unmistakable curves of a woman.

IN THE HEAT OF DESIRE

Cocky. Clever. Courageously independent. Alf has survived on the perilous streets of St. Giles by disguising her sex. By day she is a boy, dealing in information and secrets. By night she’s the notorious Ghost of St. Giles, a masked vigilante. But as she saves Hugh from assassins, she finds herself succumbing to temptation . . .

ONE KISS WILL CHANGE THEIR LIVES FOREVER

When Hugh hires Alf to investigate the Lords of Chaos, her worlds collide. Once Hugh realizes that the boy and the Ghost are the same, will Alf find the courage to become the woman she needs to be-before the Lords of Chaos destroy them both?

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Publisher and Release Date: Forever, November 2016

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

Review by Wendy

It’s difficult to believe that Elizabeth Hoyt has managed to keep interest in this series alive for so long, with readers continuing to eagerly await each new book. And surprisingly – because this has not always been my experience with other long running series – the stories seems to be getting stronger. I really enjoyed Duke of Pleasure, and in fact I think it is my favourite so far.

I loved the main protagonists – Hugh Fitzroy, Duke of Kyle is a charismatic, gorgeous man although perhaps Duke of Pleasure is an inappropriate moniker because he is actually quite a vulnerable and serious man. His main concern is to win the love and trust of his motherless sons but he has also been tasked, by his father King George II, with bringing down the Lords of Chaos. This secret society of depraved aristocrats is an evil force to be reckoned with, and as well as their nefarious activities, they wield immense power within the upper echelons of society. Then there’s Alf – street urchin/information dealer/gatherer by day, Ghost of St.Giles by night. Normally the trope of a girl passing herself off as a boy does not appeal to me but Elizabeth Hoyt pulls it off admirably here, and I adored the cheeky, cocky, girl/boy character who was tempted to kiss her duke.

Hugh had left England for the continent after his marriage – which had started out as a passionate love match – fizzled out, to be replaced by a soul destroying hatred, with fierce rows and his wife’s perfidy driving them apart. He left in order to preserve his sanity and only returns when he hears of his wife’s death and in order to comfort the small sons who barely remember him and are hurting and grieving for their mother. He has returned an embittered man, vowing never to allow love to cloud his judgement again. Mindful of his duty to his little boys, however, he has already chosen his wife’s replacement – that is until a tiny phantom throws a spanner in the works.

Alf, abandoned by her mother at the age of five, has learned to take care of herself. She was fortunate enough to be rescued and cared for in the early days  by the leader of a street gang, who reasoned that she would be more likely to survive if she dressed and acted like a boy. Consequently, this is the only life she has ever really known and now aged twenty-one, her cohorts and people around her in the slums of St Giles know her only as Alf – the boy. She has left the gang, and has an extraordinary talent for climbing and making a quick escape across the rooftops and overcrowded slums where she lives. She has also been taught to fence with much skill and success by a previous – now retired – Ghost of St. Giles, Godric St.John and has regular fencing lessons with him to hone her skills. It is on one of her nightly patrols of the slums as The Ghost that she comes into contact with Hugh Fitzroy who is investigating a lead to the Lords of Chaos and finds himself cornered in the filthy backstreets of St. Giles. She and Hugh fight together and defeat his attackers but before leaving to escape back across the rooftops Alf impulsively kisses Hugh before running off into the night.  He feels an immediate attraction to the lithe, slim body that is undoubtedly a woman beneath the mask and costume, and is confused by the stirring of excitement and interest that he hasn’t felt in a long while. The next day, by coincidence, Hugh sends one of his men to find Alf – the known information dealer – to see if the street boy can find any information on the Lords of Chaos, never guessing that she is the phantom fighter – and kisser – who saved his life.

From then on it is only a matter of time before the ghost and Alf are revealed as the lovely young woman she is beneath the boys trappings and Hugh is in a dilemma. On the one hand he relishes the excitement she stirs in him and which he thought was long gone, but on the other hand he wants peace and security for himself and his boys with the women he has chosen to be his wife.

Elizabeth Hoyt has an immense talent for drawing her readers into the world she has created. She is bold and outrageous, her sexy love scenes earthy but not crude, her storylines well-crafted and intriguing. There seems to be a duke on every street corner and – even more unlikely in this case – one who is seriously attracted to a girl who dresses and acts like a boy during the daytime and runs around in a ridiculous harlequin costume by night, fights like a man and drops her h’s! And yet we believe in these characters, love them, root for them and most of all, want them to be happy. This is the attraction in Ms. Hoyt’s writing – she doesn’t pretend to conform, she’s imaginative, her characters larger than life, compelling and likeable. Duke of Pleasure is a thoroughly enjoyable read with lovely characters and I’m eagerly looking forward to Duke of Desire next year.

The Tinker’s Daughter by Stuart S. Laing

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Edinburgh, June 1746

In the summer of 1746, a caravan of wandering Gypsies arrive in Edinburgh bringing with them Libby Oliver, a mysterious young woman with a troubled history. Caught in a struggle between a dangerous figure from her past, and forced to do the evil bidding of a man she had thought she could trust, she is desperate to escape from all those who wish to control her for their own nefarious ends.

When the chance for love, happiness and a future of her own choosing presents itself, will she have the courage to seize the moment, or will she remain as no more than the beautiful prize in a struggle between those she has come to despise?

Following a brutal murder in a dank courtyard, the finger of suspicion is pointed firmly in her direction. Desperate to escape injustice, she turns to the one man who she believes can help her: Robert Young of Newbiggin.

Unfortunately he is bedridden with illness, while a plot involving shadowy figures from within the ranks of Edinburgh’s council and powerful guilds swirls in the background.

It will fall to his wife, Euphemia, to search for the truth on the filth choked streets of old Edinburgh, see that the guilty are brought to justice, and allow Libby to find the happiness so long denied her.

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Publisher and Release Date: Stuart S. Laing, June 2016

Time and Setting: Edinburgh, June 1746
Genre: Historical Mystery with romantic elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Wendy

Set in post-Culloden Edinburgh, The Tinker’s Daughter opens with a darkly sinister, clandestine meeting in the early hours of the morning. A group of sober, unnamed men who are highly respected members of the city’s Guild of Hammermen, has gathered to discuss an incident they were all involved in thirty years previously when they were apprentices and which has now come back to haunt them. There are various threads of mystery and intrigue running throughout the story and most, in one way or another lead to Libby Oliver and the menacing figure of her adopted father, Balen Oliver, leader of a band of gypsies. Libby is a mysterious, beautiful young woman with an exceptional talent for playing the fiddle; the combination of her fear, musical talents and extraordinary beauty is exploited by Balen, who puts her to work in the streets and taverns around the old town of Edinburgh and its castle. The people of the granite city are still recovering from the devastating effects of the battle of Culloden one month previously and Libby’s musical ability is a light relief and much appreciated by the people of Edinburgh who are anxious to forget their woes. It is on one such appearance that Libby makes the acquaintance of Alice Galbraith who is attracted by her mesmerising music, beauty and person-ability; she stands to listen and watch with Euphemia Young, the youthful wife of Robert Young.

Robert is a kind of private detective whose services are much in demand when the more respectable citizens of Edinburgh don’t really want the Town Guard or other law enforcement involved. Unfortunately when he is approached by one such ‘respectable’ citizen for help, Robert is sick – smitten with a gastric/lung complaint, which renders him so weak and unwell that he is unable to leave his bed. Euphemia is more than capable of standing in for her husband, and with the help of Shug Nicolls, a local tough-guy, she relishes the opportunity to do some investigating of her own.

Alice Galbraith works in an exclusive club, which caters mainly for men, although a few women number among its clients. Alice’s preference is for women, but if she is to make a living, she must cater for the men, too, no matter how distasteful she finds it. This is an interesting departure for this author and I liked that he tackled this shadowy world. Alice and Libby are immediately attracted to each other in a more than friendly manner, but the romance between them lacks something when compared to the strong sense of love and affection that exists between Robert and Euphemia, which is funny and sweet, with the kind of light hearted banter between a fairly newly married young couple that is touching and believable.

Characterisation is Stuart Laing’s strong point, especially when it comes to the working class males of Edinburgh, such as Shug Nicolls and Sgt Angus Maclan of the Town Guard. These men are so real and so very amusing, imbued with an earthiness, quick wit and humour, and I found myself chuckling along with their witty repartée.

The Tinker’s Daughter is the tenth in the A Robert Young of Newbiggin Mystery series, and although the books are all related with many of the characters appearing in all ten books, it can be read as a stand-alone. There is a glossary of Scots words/dialect at the beginning of the book and to anyone not familiar with the vernacular it might be necessary to refer to it from time to time, as the story is rich in Scottish slang. There is an element of romance in The Tinker’s Daughter but it is mild and definitely secondary to the mystery which has an interesting twist; one that I did not see coming. Stuart Laing takes us on a guided tour of the filthy alleyways and streets of working class Edinburgh with his graphic descriptions; and his research, scholarship and love for his city and its people shows in every word.