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The Major Meets His Match (Brides for Bachelors #1) by Annie Burrows

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The major must wed

Wastrel, rebel, layabout…just a few of the names Lord Becconsall has hidden his quick intellect and sharp wit behind over the years. Recently titled, ex-military and required to wed, Jack views ton ladies with a cynical eye… Until he falls upon–quite literally–Lady Harriet Inskip.

After years of being overlooked, Harriet cannot believe that Lord Becconsall is the only person to truly see her. But between his taunts and her fiery disposition, it’s soon clear that the major has finally met his match!

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

Time and Setting: London, 1816 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

The Major Meets His Match is the first in a new, three-book series from Annie Burrows entitled Brides for Bachelors.  The bachelors in question are gentlemen who have been friends since their schooldays, but who were separated when they went off to war and have just recently reunited.  They are discovering that picking up their friendship where they left off isn’t going to be easy; they’re different people now, and it’s going to take a bit of work and understanding if they are to forge their former bond anew.

Jack Hesketh, Viscount Becconsall, is a third son who never thought to inherit and who is well aware that his father favoured his elder brothers and regarded him as the runt of the litter.  He was never expected to amount to much, and when, at school, he was threatened by bullies because of his – then – small stature, he avoided too many drubbings by playing the fool and making the bullies laugh so that eventually they forgot why he had been their target.  He has carried this tendency with him into adulthood; even though he is now a decorated military officer – a Major – he still hides his quick mind, sharp wit and true emotions behind a wall of teasing and joking, sometimes so successfully that even his closest friends find it easy to forget that his quips and jests are a cover.

It’s this automatic reaction that lands him in trouble when, after a reunion turned into an all-night carouse that has lasted until morning, Jack makes a wager that he can ride the Marquess of Rawcliffe’s prize stallion through Hyde Park while drunk without falling off.  He is barrelling through the park when he startles another rider, a young woman, who, believing his horse has bolted, tries her best to stop it.  Jack comes a-cropper, the young woman dismounts to ascertain if he is injured and Jack, deciding to take advantage of their relative positions, pulls her on top of him and kisses her soundly.

Lady Harriet Inskip is taking part in the Season under the auspices of her Aunt Susan, who would have a fit if she knew her niece was out riding in the park alone at such an early hour.  But Harriet needed to shake off the restrictions of society for just a little while and a swift gallop was just the thing – although she hadn’t expected another rider to come bursting from the trees at full pelt. Harriet is simultaneously concerned for his safety and irritated by his idiocy and disregard for the safety of others – but nevertheless, she does what she can to calm the runaway horse and then, in spite of the voice in her head telling her to fetch help, to see to its rider.

The last thing she expects is to find herself being kissed… and worse, enjoying it.  But the interlude ends quickly when the unknown rider’s friends make an appearance, and Harriet, indignant and furious, hurries away.

One of Jack’s friends – the haughty Marquess of Rawcliffe – opines that the young woman lying on top of Jack must have been a lightskirt, but Jack protests to the contrary and also realises that not only had she felt right in his arms, he’d liked her spirit and enjoyed their brief verbal fencing match.  He wants to see her again, but can’t possibly admit that outright to his friends, so retreating to his default of joking to hide his real feelings, Jack makes a wager with Rawcliffe; whoever can locate the young lady and determine whether she is an innocent or otherwise will win their bet.

The story follows the course of Jack and Harriet’s relationship as they meet at society balls and outings and continue to strike sparks off each other.  At first, Jack assumes that Harriet’s forthright, often prickly manner is designed to put off potential suitors, but eventually realises that it’s her defence mechanism.  Nobody has ever taken much notice or care of her and her instinctive reaction whenever Jack says something complementary is to view it with suspicion and shrug it off or respond with a tart comment.  Yet as they come to know each other, they begin to realise that they have more in common than they thought.  Both Jack and Harriet have been discounted and often ignored by those who should have shown them love and affection and have learned to hide their hurt and self-doubt  – in Jack’s case, behind joking good humour and in Harriet’s behind sharp-tongued put-downs and a façade of indifference.  It’s going to take an act of courage on both their parts to drop their guards and admit the depth of their feelings for each other.

The romance that develops between Jack and Harriet is laced with wit, tenderness, charm and a nice simmer of sexual tension as they trade barbs while coming to a greater awareness of each other. The central characters are strongly characterised and I particularly appreciated the depiction of Harriet as an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to express her opinions, but who also recognises that there are some rules she needs to follow.  Ms. Burrows does a very good job of depicting the complicated relationship Harriet has with her mother and her dawning appreciation of what her aunt – whom she had initially regarded as trying to stifle her with convention – is trying to do for her by sponsoring her Season.  This appreciation leads to the introduction of a sub-plot regarding some stolen rubies which I found rather insipid, but which, as it is not concluded here, I’m assuming is going to run through the rest of the series.

Jack and his friends – who still call each other by the nicknames drawn from Greek mythology they used at school – are well-drawn also, as is their friendship which, they discover, needs to be worked on given the changes they have all gone through.  The marquess – aka Zeus – seems to be cold and unfeeling, but in an unguarded moment, lets something slip that tells Jack that there is more going on beneath his hard exterior than he would have others believe.  Then there’s Atlas – Captain Bretherton – a naval officer who has returned from war almost literally a shadow of his former self, a man broken in body and spirit, who seems to be drifting through life without a purpose.  Both are intriguing secondary characters here, and I’m looking forward to reading their stories in due course.

My reservations about the plotline concerning the rubies aside, I enjoyed The Major Meets His Match.  If you’re looking for a warm, humorous and emotionally satisfying historical romance, you could do worse than give this one a try.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: An Heiress in Disguise by Jennifer Wenn

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Hell will freeze over before Miss Philomena Aubrey willingly marries the insufferable Honorable Luther Whyte. Her mother had angled Mina’s quite hefty dowry in front of the vicar and secured him, but Mina still resisted. When Mrs. Aubrey threatens to force her into the marriage, Mina’s father hides his daughter with a friend of his as he leaves for an extended business trip.

A wounded war hero, burdened by guilt after inadvertently sending his French fiancée to death, Lord James Darling keeps his family as far away from his tormented heart as possible. But as he keeps bumping into his mother’s new lady’s maid, he grows suspicious—is she a spy?—and sets out to expose her, only to find himself mesmerized by her feistiness and her warm heart.

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EXCERPT

“Miss Ayle,” he greeted her coldly, and she made sure to curtsy as humbly as she could muster.

“My lord.”

“If you are searching for my brother, you will probably have to go back to where you came from. If I know him correctly, he is still in bed.”

She wanted to roll her eyes over his rudeness but managed to keep her eyeballs still as she recognized the jealousy oozing from him. So instead she shrugged lightly, hiding her excitement. “I wouldn’t know, my lord, I haven’t seen him since we parted in the gallery last night.”

He didn’t answer that, but as he dismounted she thought he looked a bit less rigid.

“Did my mother send you for me?”

She almost groaned. Why hadn’t she thought of that? It would have been a much better and much more valid excuse for seeking him out, rather than mumbling something airy about how she had happened to bump into him while visiting the horses. Had she been a bit better on planning ahead, thinking one step further, she could gladly have told him that his mother wanted to see him, because that would have meant walking with him through the castle.

But unfortunately she hadn’t thought so far. To be completely truthful, she hadn’t thought much about it at all, as she had been too excited to see him again after her nightly conclusions. So she simply made another curtsy and shook her head as solemnly as she could muster. “No, my lord.”

He didn’t say anything in response, only handed the horse’s reins to the stable boy and watched the beautiful animal disappear deeper into the large stable, while she grabbed the sudden opportunity to gawk at him.

He was the picture of a country gentleman, beyond splendid even if he was clad in a scruffy brown riding outfit which had seen better days a decade or two ago. But the rich brown color of the worn cloth made his blond hair shine and his light gray eyes glisten. He was such a handsome man! The more she took in his appearance, the more certain she became about him being the one for her.

Lord James Darling had none of what she considered the less attractive qualities the Honorable Luther Whyte possessed and rejoiced in showing off. Instead he was a wallflower by choice, always on the edge of whatever company wherein he found himself. His body was in one place, but his mind, his heart, and his soul were elsewhere. He had an air of loneliness, but instead of seeking the company of others he preferred to keep everyone at as many arms’ lengths as he could.

Especially when it came to his family.

Looking at him, she couldn’t help but think she had to save him. She had to bring him back to life. Back to his family. Something dark bothered him—it was obvious to anyone who took a good look at him, and she had to admit she was desperate to find out what it could be.

Jamie was a mystery, and for better or for worse, she couldn’t walk away from the riddle he presented.

When he noticed her staring at him, he frowned, unimpressed. “Was there something else, Miss Ayle?”

“No. my lord.”

“Are you curtsying to me?”

He seemed aghast, as if something with her bobbing her knees bothered him. Of course she had to do it again, to tease him, and received yet another frown.

“We both know you are anything but a maid, so please stop the knee bending.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And stop calling me that.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I said stop it.”

She kept quiet for a second more before lowering her gaze so he couldn’t see the twinkle in her eyes. “Of course, my lord.”

He surprised her by being quite resourceful, grabbing her chin with his strong fingers and forcing her to look him in the eye. “I said stop it.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I mean it.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Stop it before I do something we both will regret,” he said, lowering his head until their noses almost met.

Feeling his breath against her lips stirred something inside her, and she couldn’t hold back a shiver of delight. Mesmerized, she stared into his eyes, watching them as they turned warmer, burning into her.

“Whatever you say, my lord.”

His gaze turned darker, hotter, and before she could think one straight thought he lowered his head until their lips almost touched. “What would you say if I do the unthinkable and kiss you?”

“Thank you?”

He stared at her for a second, as if in shock over her honest and direct approach. His normal coldness disappeared as he reluctantly smiled down at her. Slowly, he lifted his other hand and put it around her neck, stroking the sensitive skin of her neck with his thumb.

“Remember that you asked for it,” he whispered.

“I did.” Her voice was only a whisper away from audible, but he still caught the meaning of what she’d said to him, and before either of them had a chance to stop this insanity, he lowered his head until his lips pressed against hers determinedly.

The groan which slipped out from him as their lips met made her knees weak, and a moan ripped itself out from her chest in response to his pleasure and the divine feeling of his full lips against hers. He planted small, delicious kisses on both her lips before returning to her upper lip and the corner of her mouth, as if he couldn’t decide which part of her mouth he liked best. Tenderly, he nibbled on her lower lip, sending waves of pleasure through her. Just as she thought this couldn’t get any better, his tongue forced its way into her mouth, and she died a thousand divine deaths.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

So who am I? Well, to do it the short way… I’m a devoted mother of four children (beloved little monsters), married to my very own hero and best friend (deeply in love for more than twenty years), owner of one cat (whom I didn’t get to name Elvis) who rules our home without mercy. Completely addicted to coffee (who isn’t?). I live in western Sweden, in a house that is constantly growing and therefore is never finished. Did I mention my husband is a builder…

I’m totally addicted to TV shows such as Elementary, The Blacklist, Person of Interest, Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS and Castle to mention a few. I’m still in mourning as a few of my all time favourites was cancelled this spring. Rest in Peace CSI and The Mentalist.

I’m currently writing on a fifth novel in The Royal Family series in which Lord Sebastian Darling will meet his match.

Find out more about Jennifer and her books at The Wild Rose Press and https://jenniferwenn.wordpress.com/.

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare

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When girl meets Duke, their marriage breaks all the rules…

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.

His terms are simple:
– They will be husband and wife by night only.
– No lights, no kissing.
– No questions about his battle scars.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.

But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
– They will have dinner together every evening.
– With conversation.
– And unlimited teasing.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, August 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

Tessa Dare’s brand of historical romance is always a mix of fairy tale, romantic comedy and a light, airy tone. The Duchess Deal has fun pairing its grumpy, reclusive duke with a kind and sensible young woman who is ill-suited to the ton but perfect for him.

Emma Gladstone isn’t normally the type to arrive uninvited at someone’s home but there are times when desperation will make a woman do many things. Dressed in a luxurious – if a tad ostentatious – wedding gown, Emma knocks on the door of the Duke of Ashbury’s town house intent on collecting on a debt incurred by his former fiancée. The gaudy dress was to be the showpiece for the duke’s bride and no expense was spared; however when their engagement was broken, Emma was left with a completed gown and an unpaid bill. Showing up at the duke’s home wearing the garment in question, Emma hopes she can guilt him into paying for her services. The duke isn’t quite the man that she expected and she’s initially put off by his rather blunt demeanor but when he attacks her work and insults the dress it lights a fire within Emma. Making it very clear that she will not leave without payment, Emma prepares to do battle with the surly and scared man before her.

The interruption by a woman dressed in a monstrosity of a wedding gown would have been comical to Lord Ashbury years ago, but now it seems like fate. Arriving back in London after a long recuperation from injuries sustained at Waterloo, Ash has been working to plan for the future of the dukedom up to and including finding a wife and creating an heir. He’d already drafted a letter to his solicitor asking him to find a woman willing to enter a marriage of convenience so when a ready-made bride shows up in his study it’s a perfect solution. Ash shocks the beautiful seamstress by offering her either the three pounds she wanted for the dress or the chance to become his duchess. She balks at his offer and leaves with the money; however Ash is not deterred now that he’s found the perfect woman. In his mind a seamstress should be happy to accept his terms of a marriage to beget an heir after which she will have the freedom to live as she sees fit at one of his country estates.

Ash finds out which modiste Emma works for and shows up on the doorstep to propose a second time, fulling expecting her to accept. Emma is shocked that Ash would go to such lengths to offer a loveless marriage to a virtual stranger and she’s ready to decline again; however his plan to give her a property outside of London falls in with her own need to find somewhere to hide a friend and client dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Emma decides to marry Ash but counters his rules for their relationship with a few conditions of her own. Before she’ll accept his proposal Emma asks him for one kiss, believing that they both deserve a pleasant moment together before they turn the marriage into a business arrangement. Ash agrees and the kiss quickly turns passionate as their mutual attraction for each other starts to surface. He is stunned to realize that the unassuming seamstress has a sultry side that’s just begging for release. In the long-locked part of his heart, Ash is excited to find a woman who can look past his scars and find enjoyment in a physical relationship; however the sting of society’s cruelty about his appearance makes him wary of trusting her affection.

The Duchess Deal certainly has shades of Beauty and the Beast throughout, but Emma and Ash are much more than their fairy tale counterparts. Emma’s backstory is filled with betrayals and pain that she’s used to strengthen herself. She’s fiercely independent and has no problem questioning a duke to his face or forcing him to concede to her wishes rather than the reverse. That challenging approach to their relationship is what attracts Ash to her rather than a bland lady of the ton. In Emma, he sees someone to spar with intellectually and someone who comes to match him in appreciating the physical pleasures two people can find together. Once Ash is comfortable around his wife, his true personality begins to shine, revealing a man who cares very deeply but protects himself with sarcasm and feigned indifference to what others think of him.

Some of the secrets running in the background of Ash and Emma’s marriage complicate their romance but it’s nothing that ruins their story. Ash’s means of blowing off steam is to go out walking at night and his appearance starts to generate some unwanted attention. The newspapers label him the Monster of Mayfair and embellished stories of his attacking men in the streets or scaring young children create a divide between him and Emma when she begs him to take the headlines seriously and stop his behavior. Emma isn’t completely frank with Ash about her plans to help her pregnant friend without betraying the woman’s secret to her father and she manipulates Ash into venturing back into society all so that the woman’s father will accept his daughter traveling with the new duchess. When Emma’s plans are revealed at the same time that the authorities call for the capture of the Monster it becomes harder for Ash and Emma to trust that their spouse will support and protect them if needed.

I’ve long been a fan of Tessa Dare’s books and I’m very happy that The Duchess Deal follows her style to a tee. It’s very easy to get swept up in Emma and Ash’s romance and enjoy just how well they’re suited. I’m not certain what’s next in the Girl Meets Duke series but I’m already eager for its release.

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.

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: My Hellion, My Heart (Lords of Essex #3) by Amalie Howard & Angie Morgan

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He fought battles for crown and country. She waged war for his heart.

Lord Henry Radcliffe, the scarred but sinfully sexy Earl of Langlevit, is a beast. The only way Henry can exorcise the demons of his war-ravaged past is through intense physicality. In and out of bed. An endeavor that has no shortage of willing participants.

Intent on scandalizing London, Princess Irina Volkonsky is a hellion and every gentleman’s deepest desire…except for one. Irina knows better than to provoke the wickedly forbidding earl, but she will stop at nothing short of ruination to win the heart of the only man she’s ever loved.

But when one scandalous kiss makes dangerous passions ignite, neither of them can fight their sizzling attraction. When a sinister plot emerges to threaten them both, they will have to fight one last battle, this time for the ultimate prize…love.

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EXCERPT

“You’re good with children,” her sister commented as they left. “You should think about having some of your own.”

“I am content with yours, thank you.”

“Irina—”
She stood, raising a hand and strode back to the window.

“I don’t want to fight with you about this, Lana. The truth is I have no interest in marrying anyone. And, yes, I do intend for London to be a repeat of Paris: diverting and fun. I won’t be anyone’s trophy.”

“Is it because of Lord Langlevit?”

Irina’s breath halted painfully in her lungs. She turned to face her sister, composing her face into a mask of indifference. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve carried a tendre for him for five years,” Lana said quietly. “Ever since you were fourteen. I suspect you still carry it, which is why no one else can measure up.”

A hundred reasons, excuses, words popped into Irina’s brain. Her sister had always been able to see right through her. She settled for four hard ones. “You mean my infatuation.”

“That doesn’t mean your feelings weren’t real.” Her sister rose unsteadily and met her at the window as Irina’s fingers wound into the folds of her skirts. “Certain events draw people close, tying them together in inexplicable ways. It’s not surprising that you…cared for Henry.”

“Hopelessly unrequited, as it were.”

“Be that as it may,” Lana said. “Henry is not the same man you knew, and I know you can see that for yourself. He has changed.”

“Because of France,” Irina whispered.

Lana nodded. “He’s never confided in me, but yes, Lady Langlevit has suggested that what happened to him is beyond understanding. I fear much of him was lost there.” She pulled Irina close. “I don’t want you to lose your heart to him and have it broken. You cannot save him, no matter how much you may wish to.” Her voice wavered. “Trust me, Henry does not want to be saved.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he told me so.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Amalie Howard’s love of romance developed after she started pilfering her grandmother’s novels in high school when she should have been studying. She has no regrets. A #1 Amazon bestseller and a national IPPY silver medalist, she is the author of My Rogue, My Ruin, the first in the Lords of Essex historical romance series, as well as several award-winning young adult novels critically acclaimed by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, VOYA, School Library Journal, and Booklist, including Waterfell, The Almost Girl, and Alpha Goddess, a Kid’s IndieNext title. She currently resides in Colorado with her husband and three children. Visit her at www.amaliehoward.com.

Angie Morgan lives in New Hampshire with her husband, their three daughters, a menagerie of pets, and an extensive collection of paperback romance novels. She’s the author of MY ROGUE, MY RUIN, the first book in the Lords of Essex historical romance series, as well as several young adult books, including The Dispossessed series written under the name Page Morgan. Critically acclaimed by Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, School Library Journal, VOYA, and The Bulletin, Angie’s novels have been an IndieNext selection, a Seventeen Magazine Summer Book Club Read, and a #1 Amazon bestseller. Visit her at www.AngieMorganBooks.com

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.

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.