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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Brambles and Thorns by Jocelyn Kirk

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Elena Bellwood’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother dies and leaves her penniless. She is forced to move from her beloved home in New York City to live with an aunt in Connecticut—an aunt she never knew existed. During her journey north, she meets Benjamin Garrick, a blunt-spoken gentleman with a strange hobby. Against her will, Elena finds herself attracted to his manly demeanor, and she is both pleased and flustered to learn he is a close friend of her aunt and lives in the same village.

In her new life with Aunt Rosalie, Elena begins to question her past. Why had she never been told of her aunt? What is the significance of the odd items she found in her mother’s bedroom? Who is the stranger in town that seems always to be staring at her? To answer these questions, Elena must explore past secrets that tear apart her world.

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EXCERPT

The duke took her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you for coming, Your Grace.” She seated herself and the duke did likewise. Willa entered, and Elena ordered tea.

“I owe you an apology,” the duke began, “for not attending your mother’s funeral. I was out of the city for a few days on business, and the weather forced me to stay in Queens for an extra day.”

“Pray do not distress yourself. No one can stop snow when it decides to fall. You are here now, and I am deeply grateful for it.”

Willa came in with tea, and Elena served it. The duke sipped the hot liquid and devoured two of the sweet buns Willa placed on the table. He said nothing while he ate, rather surprising Elena with his silence.

Perhaps, she reasoned, he is gathering his courage for the presentation of his proposals. She attempted to wait patiently.

Finally, he spoke. “Miss Bellwood, what are your future plans?”

A thrill ran through her. “I…am not certain.”

“Have you no family to go to? You are not contemplating remaining in New York alone, I trust.”

“No. I have an aunt in Connecticut. I suppose I must go to her, unless…”

The duke started to speak but halted his words. He sighed and took her hand.

“I am fond of you, Elena, and because I care for you, I cannot be satisfied with being less than honest. To you I will speak the truth.”
“My dear duke, what do you mean?”

“I believe—correct me if I am mistaken—my attentions to you may perhaps have given rise to expectations…”

Elena instantly decided to be as frank as he. She took a deep breath and attempted to speak calmly. “Yes, perhaps they did, on my mother’s part, if not quite certainly my own.”

“If you recall, I was going to wait upon you on the day of your mother’s death.”

“Yes.”

“My purpose in calling was to request a private interview with you…”

“A private interview?”

“Yes. I feared that there had been some talk about us, and I wanted you to know, to forewarn you before the news broke.”

“Forewarn me? Your Grace, what do you mean?”

He smoothed his trousers. “Elena, a few days before your mother died, I engaged myself to Miss Julia Howarth—”

“Engaged yourself! Do you mean…?”

“Engaged to be married, yes.”

“Dear God! You were dancing with me—flirting with me—while engaged to another woman! That is despicable!”

He shrugged. “When you are in my arms, Elena, I find it impossible to think of anyone but you. I am not quite in love with you, but very near.”

She stared at him in horror and disbelief. “You are half in love with me, but then you—but why not…?”

He answered her unarticulated question. “My dear, you have no dowry, whereas Miss Howarth will bring the equivalent of thirty thousand English pounds. I am thirty-six years old, not a foolish young blade who would marry out of unalloyed devotion to the object of his desires. My inquiries as to your inheritance were met with the shocking information of your mother’s indebtedness. And now…rumor has it that you are destitute.”

“Good God!” Elena cried, unable to control her tongue. “You, with your wealth, would spurn me because my mother left no money?”

“Calm yourself, my dear, I pray you. The reason I am wealthy—and my family is wealthy—is because we never take any material step without a consideration of the financial aspects of it. I find you extremely charming and attractive, and I was willing to make you my choice even if your mother’s estate had been moderate. But no man in my condition of life would be so foolish as to take a bride who brings nothing to the marriage—not wealth nor noble blood nor future property. I would be a laughingstock.”

Elena leaned back in her chair, barely able to breathe from the shock of his revelations. She felt giddy and faint. She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to find breath to form words. The duke poured sherry and attempted to hold the glass to her lips, but she pushed his hand away with such force that the sweet wine spilled on the settee and splashed her silk gown.

“Elena, I beseech you, calm yourself. I am here to offer you a different type of proposal, and you may very well find this one equally to your liking.”

She raised her eyes to his face and stared at him. A cold chill ran down her back, and she shivered.

“Surely you are aware that most men in my position in life marry for wealth or family considerations, often to women for whom they have little desire. In such cases, it is customary for a gentleman to…to…”

“To keep a mistress?” Elena gasped, able to speak at last.

He shrugged. “To put it plainly, yes.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jocelyn’s fascination with life in the 1800s began when she was a teenager and started reading historical novels. She was influenced by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Jocelyn resides in the historic town of Mystic, Connecticut.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Scot Beds His Wife (Victorian Rebels #5) by Kerrigan Byrne

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Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants—including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity…

A marriage most convenient

Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry—and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own…

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Press, October 2017
Time and Setting: Scottish Highlands, 1880
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

The Scot Beds His Wife is fifth in Kerrigan Byrnes’ Victorian Rebels series and a sequel to the third book The Highlander. Gavin St. James is half-brother to previous hero Laird Liam MacKenzie but the two are hardly fraternal. It’s Gavin’s plans to dissolve ties to his brother’s clan that starts everything in motion and it takes a brash American to put the stubborn Scot on a different path.

Gavin St. James grew up desperate to extricate himself from the legacy of his cruel father, the late Marquess Ravencroft. The abuse Gavin lived through left physical and emotional scars that never healed enough for him to find peace within his family. He once thought that his older brother Liam was his ally against their father, but their relationship soured as the Marquess’ manipulations drove them apart. Gavin later escaped when he inherited the earldom of Thorne through his mother’s family; however he found it was an empty role as he was still dependent on the Mackenzie finances. Earning his own wealth could only come by expanding his landholding and the perfect parcel was right next door – the deserted Ross estate of Erradale. After receiving a quick influx of ready cash, Gavin makes an offer to the last surviving member of the Ross family, who has been living in America for ten years. The response he receives is a firm “No” but Gavin is undeterred. Using the law to press the issue, Gavin has his solicitor inform the expatriate Miss Alison Ross that if she does not take residence on her property the lands will be deemed abandoned and resold.

An ocean away, Samantha Masters thought marriage to Bennett Masters would be first step in a new life full of opportunities, yet she soon learned that her new in-laws were criminals. Their latest scheme has the Masters brothers holding up a train carrying government funds to San Francisco. When something goes wrong, Samantha makes a horrific choice that saves an innocent life but puts a price on her head. The young woman she saves is very forgiving and offers Samantha a chance to leave America if she’s willing to live a lie in a foreign land indefinitely. Grabbing the chance, Samantha leaves her old name behind and travels to Scotland to become Miss Alison Ross, taking possession of Erradale and halting the schemes of the enemy Earl of Thorne. Samantha is met at the Wester Ross train station by a handsome Scotsman who provides assistance when her handbag is stolen. She’s quick to learn her hero is in fact Gavin St. James, the very man the real Alison had warned her about. Sensing his helpfulness was all a trick to get “Alison” to surrender her lands in thanks for saving her, Samantha explains that she will never hand over Erradale and will turn the derelict lands into a thriving cattle ranch to rival those in the American West.

The adversarial relationship between Samantha and Gavin fuels them to push relentlessly for their own goals. Gavin is shocked that “Alison” doesn’t fall for his seduction but he is soon back on track to subvert her efforts to improve Erradale. Samantha tries to keep away from Gavin but each time they meet. their war of words hides an undercurrent of attraction. Everything changes when investigators from America show up at Erradale and Gavin saves Samantha from being killed in a fire. For the first time in their acquaintance, Gavin sees the frightened young woman hiding behind bravado and salty language. It awakens something inside him he was reluctant to admit; that this bonny lass had become someone that he cares for. Knowing he can’t ignore those feelings forever and seeing a way for both of them to get what they want, Gavin offers “Alison” the protection of his name. In turn, he’ll assume control of Erradale through their marriage of convenience. Samantha knows their marriage won’t be legal since she’s not the real Alison Ross but the unwelcome discovery that she’s pregnant pushes her to accept Gavin’s proposal to give her unborn child a better name than that of an outlaw family. She soon finds that lying to Gavin is the most difficult thing she’s ever faced as his flirtatious manner hides a man who deserves honesty and love to save him from the pain in his past.

The books in the Victorian Rebels series never fail to use the tortured past of the hero to create a rich, emotional story. Each man has their own ways to deal with their demons and Gavin hides behind his smile and uses women for temporary pleasure to escape his pain. When Samantha doesn’t fall for his charms Gavin has to dig deep inside of himself to find ways around her stubbornness. What he finds inside is a man who desires love but has never felt comfortable exposing himself to anyone. The prologue of The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t as disturbing as in some of the earlier books; however once the reader comes to understand how desperately Gavin has suppressed the romantic side of himself, those moments where his innocence was destroyed become all the more unsettling.

Samantha is also very different from previous heroines as she’s action oriented, direct, profane and has just as many walls around her heart as Gavin does. Samantha has been fighting for stability and a true sense of belonging ever since her childhood on a ranch in Nevada Territory with her adoptive family. Her marriage was an ill-conceived desire to create a family with someone she thought was devoted to her, and escaping to Scotland is a chance for Samantha to try one more time to restart her life. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her need to build up Erradale for herself just as much as to protect it for the real Alison’s benefit.

The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t the strongest release within the Victorian Rebels series but the developments for the Mackenzie family and a few hints at what’s to come make this a must read for fans and a good entry point for new readers.


EXCERPT

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband’s beautiful brown eyes.

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.

Though they’d known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.
Alison’s hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other’s in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.

What in the hell just happened?

Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn’t have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?
To God?

This morning she’d been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.

This afternoon, she’d been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.

This evening, because of what she’d just done, of what they’d all just done . . . chances were good that she’d be hanged.

This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.

Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.

This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters, themselves, as the gang didn’t generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn’t only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often . . . federal funds.

Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.

And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn’t allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans . . .

Then they’d take what they needed.

This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.
No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a “frightened” female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.

The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha’s job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.

“People are sheep,” Boyd had always said. “They’ll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom.”

On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn’t foremost on the mind of the average American.

Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.

At first, Alison’s friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she’d found herself enjoying Alison’s company.

She’d not known many women her age, least of all friendly ones.

Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.

Had she not been about to rob the train.

Had there not been more gunshots than were agreed upon . . .


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Whether she’s writing about Celtic Druids, Victorian bad boys, or brash Irish FBI Agents, Kerrigan Byrne uses her borderline-obsessive passion for history, her extensive Celtic ancestry, and her love of Shakespeare in every book. She lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains with her handsome husband and three lovely teenage girls, but dreams of settling on the Pacific Coast. Her Victorian Rebels novels include The Highwayman and The Highlander.

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An Unnatural Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles


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On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, October 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873/4
Genre: Historical Romantic Mystery
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read An Unsuitable Heir twice now and enjoyed it both times, although perhaps more so the second time around.  A re-read helped me better appreciate all Ms. Charles accomplishes in 246 pages; it also helped me decide how I wanted to approach my review.  An Unsuitable Heir presents (for me) a unique challenge – instead of simply asking myself whether I liked it and why (and then sharing it with you), I had to first ensure I understood it, and could therefore appreciate – and review – it properly.  Ultimately, I’ve decided the principal characters and the complexity of their relationship is stronger than the mystery/plot that wraps up the trilogy, and for that reason, my grade represents a compromise of sorts.

If you’ve read the first two books in the Sins of the City trilogy (and really you must, or none of this will make sense and you’ll spoil the mystery), you know that the overarching story concerns the missing heir to the Moreton earldom. When An Unnatural Vice concluded, private inquiry agent Mark Braglewicz had located the missing Godfrey twins, Repentance and Regret, who now call themselves Pen and Greta Starling, and informed them that they are the children of the late Earl of Moreton and his first wife, Emmeline Godfrey.  Mark is miserable, the twins are miserable – and angry – and a killer is still on the loose, intent, it would seem, on preventing Pen becoming the Earl of Moreton.

An Unsuitable Heir opens weeks before the appearance of Pen and Greta and the chaos that ensues at the end of the previous novel once Pen is introduced as the heir to the Morton estate.  A newspaper advertisement asking for information about them leaves the twins apprehensive and they decide to take a week off from performing and lie low.  Owing to the horrible pea-souper that descends on London, this period of quiet is extended and Pen, who is frustrated and bored heads out one evening, with the intention of having a drink at the nearby Gin Kitchen.  On the way, he meets a lost stranger, who offers to buy Pen drink in exchange for directions. Pen agrees and spends an enjoyable afternoon with his new acquaintance.

Mark Braglewicz doesn’t exactly lie about who he is, but he was never really lost, and after spending an afternoon with Pen Starling, he knows he’s at last found the Godfrey twins.  Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting his professional responsibilities and finds himself attracted to his beautiful companion.  The pair make plans to meet the following evening, but the planned meeting doesn’t come off.  Returning to practice at the theatre, they discover Mark Braglewicz, a private enquiry agent, has been asking questions about them.

After a heated confrontation wherein the twins deliver a scathing set-down and refuse to hear Mark out, he eventually finds a way to speak to Pen by lying in wait for him after a performance.

Mark slid out of the shadows as quietly as he could, and caught up within a few paces.  “Hello, Pen.”

Pen stopped and looked around.  Those high boots put him a good two inches above Mark, and he didn’t look friendly.  “Oh, it’s you.  Why don’t you go away?”

“Because I need to talk to you,” Mark said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t need to talk to you.”  Pen turned on his heel.

“Mate, you do.  I swear it’s important, and I owe you a drink.  Come and have a quick one with me.  Please?”

Pen turned back to face him fully.  There were a few dark ringlets framing his face; he was indeed painted, with his eyes darkened and, Mark suspected, reddened lips.  He looked…

He looked strange.  Phyllis at the Jack would never dress like this, both male and female.  Mark wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.

Pen agrees to join him only after Mark reluctantly agrees not to discuss why he’s been searching for the twins, and the men head off to the Jack and Knave, a place we could get a drink and nobody would look at you twice.  

With the investigation off the table, Pen and Mark spend the night talking and falling for each other.  One of the pleasures of this book is the marvelous way Ms. Charles develops the tender affection Mark and Pen feel for each other, in spite of how different they are.  Pen isn’t a him or a her – Pen is Pen.  And to Mark, Pen is just beautiful – his bit of stuff.  He doesn’t struggle to understand the person he’s falling for, he just falls.  For Pen, Mark is a gift.  A man who wants Pen’s love, and accepts Pen in all his incarnations – his bit of rough.  It’s such a romantic and tender love without expectations or demands, and it’s wonderful.  I admit I struggled a bit understanding who Pen is or wants to be, but this is where I believe my second reading was so beneficial. It didn’t matter; they belong together.  Though I think Pen’s character is in very capable hands with Ms. Charles, what transcends the page, her writing and the complexity of the novel and the relationship, is the simplicity of the affection and love that emerges between the men – Mark loves Pen, Pen loves Mark – without judgment or reservations.

Ms. Charles does a marvelous job introducing us to Pen and Greta, whom readers assumed they already knew quite a bit about, through Mark’s eyes and experiences.  As we already know, once Mark forces the earldom on Pen – their relationship changes.  Pen feels betrayed – he has no desire to become an Earl, and his inability to do so (because really, it will kill him) presents all sorts of challenges – with his sister, the Godfrey family, with Mark, with his career… and Mark is similarly devastated.  But when the killer goes after Pen, Mark, unable to stay away and still trying to protect and safeguard Pen, returns to his lover’s side, and it becomes clear that though this novel is ostensibly about uncovering the identity of a killer – and Ms. Charles keeps us in suspense until the bitter end – its larger focus is on the relationship at its heart – the one developing between its two damaged, complex and enigmatic principal characters, and on the families we choose vs. the one we’re given.

An Unsuitable Heir – much like the trilogy it concludes – is moving, challenging and special, and the development of Pen and Mark’s relationship rather brilliantly dovetails with the (happy ever after) resolution of the trilogy.

The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance by Mimi Matthews

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A PROUD BEAUTY 

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

A SCARRED BEAST

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

A SECOND CHANCE

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


Publisher and Release Date: Perfectly Proper Press, September 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.

Seducing Mr. Sykes (Cotswold Confidential #2) by Maggie Robinson

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No one at Puddling-on-the-Wold ever expected to see Sarah Marchmain enter through its doors. But after the legendary Lady’s eleventh-hour rejection of the man she was slated to marry, she was sent here to restore her reputation . . . and change her mind. It amused Sadie that her father, a duke, would use the last of his funds to lock her up in this fancy facility—she couldn’t be happier to be away from her loathsome family and have some time to herself. The last thing she needs is more romantic distraction . . .

As a local baronet’s son, Tristan Sykes is all too familiar with the spoiled, socialite residents of the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation—no matter how real their problems may be. But all that changes when he encounters Sadie, a brave and brazen beauty who wants nothing more than to escape the life that’s been prescribed for her. If only Tristan could find a way to convince the Puddling powers-that-be that Sadie is unfit for release, he’d have a chance to explore the intense attraction that simmers between them—and prove himself fit to make her his bride . . .


Publisher and Release Date:  Lyrical Press, June 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1882
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Readers return to Maggie Robinson’s fictional Cotswold village of Puddling-on-the-Wold for the second book in her Cotswold Confidential series, Seducing Mr. Sykes.  It’s a (mostly) lighthearted romantic comedy in which a determinedly unconventional young woman who doesn’t want to get married finds herself strongly attracted to a rather starchy young man who is intent on keeping his head down and living a quiet life.  It might not win any prizes for originality, but it’s a nicely-written, undemanding and fun read that kept me engaged and entertained for the time it took me to read it.

The small village of Puddling-on-the-Wold has for some decades, been used as a kind of rehabilitation centre for members of the nobility who have gone off the rails.  With a calmly ordered programme of healthful exercise and diet and a lack of anything vaguely stimulating, the village offers a simple, quiet environment for those sent there to take stock and make changes to their lives.  All the villagers are party to the reasons their ‘visitors’ are sent there and are in on the cures, and the place is now so popular as to be able to provide a decent living for the people who live there.  Puddling’s board of trustees is now run by the absentee Sir Betram Sykes, whose son, Tristan, takes his responsibilities to the place very seriously.  When a fire at one of the cottages means that the inhabitant – Lady Sarah Marchmain – must quickly find somewhere else to stay, he is not enamoured of the idea that she moves to Sykes House while the cottage is repaired and made habitable again.  It’s not that Tristan is especially worried about the proprieties;  he doesn’t actually live in the house, preferring to reside at a small folly in the grounds which he, an architect by profession, has modified to suit his own taste and comfort.  But Lady Sarah –Sadie – is a handful of tall, well-endowed, red-haired impetuosity and Tristan – whose scandalous divorce some years previously from a woman of similarly high-spirits has left him somewhat wary of women in general – wants as little to do with her as possible.

Sadie has been sent to Puddling by her father, the Duke of Islesford,  whose regard for her extends only as far as she can be useful to him.  Being a man who keeps a lavish lifestyle and likes to gamble, he’s in debt and looking to sell his daughter – who stands to inherit a substantial fortune on her twenty-fifth birthday – to the highest bidder.  Sadie’s hoydenish behaviour has already frightened off a couple of would-be suitors, and the duke is getting desperate.  Puddling is his final attempt to get her to toe the line before he commits her to an asylum and takes control of her money.  Most of the village’s guests stay for a month before returning home, but Sadie has already been there for an extra week and continues to behave outrageously in the hope that she will be able to prolong her stay while she searches for a means to escape her father.  The problem, however is that the all-too-handsome Tristan Sykes seems to have seen through her scheme to extend her stay and is completely wise to her attempts to make herself appear unstable and still in need of treatment.  So in a way, the fire (which wasn’t her doing) is a blessing in disguise as it will get her out of the village, away from the watchful eyes – and perhaps give her a chance to make her escape.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Tristan comes upon Sadie in a state of undress while she is exploring the attics looking for something to wear (all her clothes were lost in the fire) and is shortly followed by her father, who immediately accuses Tristan of compromising his daughter and insists the two of them get married.  Appalled, the couple tries to tell the duke that nothing happened, but he insists, threatening to blacken Tristan’s name, brand him as unfit to have charge of a rehabilitation facility and ruin Puddling and its community in the process.

Maggie Robinson has crafted an entertaining and rather charming ‘opposites attract’ story which, for all its surface light-heartedness has some darker undertones.  Sadie hasn’t known any warmth or affection since the death of her mother when she was a child; and her father’s plan to put her in an asylum was, sadly, not an unheard of one at the time, when locking away ‘troublesome’ females was an easy solution when a woman didn’t fit the accepted pattern or do as she was told.  Tristan’s status as a divorced man had a deleterious effect on his life and career and now all he wants is to live a quiet life, without the sort of tempers and tantrums his first – now deceased – wife was prone to.  He fights his attraction to Sadie at first, because her behaviour leads him to believe that she is unstable – which, to be fair, is what she wants him to think – but as he comes to know her and to know her story, he realises he has misjudged her and that he wants to keep her close.

The author has a deft touch with the humour and has created two likeable characters who have to leave behind their emotional baggage if they are to make a life together.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are sensual and well-written, but I have a couple of reservations overall that prevent me from rating the book more highly.  One is that Tristan so easily takes comments made by Sadie’s father and former fiancé at face value, and the other is that while Sadie’s behaviour is understandable given the way she has been treated by her father, her mulish, immature antics continue way past the point at which my understanding gave way to irritation.

With those provisos in mind, if you’re looking for a fairly light-hearted, amusing and sensual historical romance, I’d venture to suggest that Seducing Mr. Sykes might fit the bill.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Love and Mayhem by Luanna Stewart

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Sybil is happily on the shelf, tending to her sheep. But she fears she’ll depart this life without experiencing physical love, which she suspects is rather enjoyable. When her long-lost fiancé returns from sea, she decides he’s the lucky man who’ll receive her virginity.

Max is eager to return to his sugar plantation and has no intention of remaining in London. However, he didn’t bargain on a wilful, pretty, exasperating spinster determined to take him to her bed.

He insists on marriage, but she wants only his body. Her heart is not part of the deal. Unfortunately, love doesn’t always follow the rules.

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EXCERPT

Kissing Max was delicious, and she was eager to continue. When they returned home, she’d invite him into the study. Or they could go to his house. Did she dare?

Their inconvenient audience had not taken itself off as evidenced by the approaching swish of skirts.

She pushed against his chest again, harder. “Please, this has gone far enough.”

“I would argue, but apparently this is neither the time nor the place.” He placed one last kiss on her forehead before stepping back, though he kept one arm around her waist, preventing her escape. “Is there something you needed to say, madam?” He spoke to the interlopers, for there were indeed two matrons approaching, in a frosty tone.

Sybil would be hesitant to intrude further if faced with his scowl. And she knew him. At least, she thought she did. But during the last few days she’d discovered more than a handsome face, an admirable physique, and a charming smile. Here was a man who listened to her ideas and considered her opinions. A man who made her feel safe and comfortable. A man who could fill her days and weeks with delicious kisses.

The two women who had stumbled upon their tryst got rather red in the face and pursed their lips. The taller of the two took a step closer. “Who are you, sir? And what do you mean by manhandling this poor child?” She fairly bristled with indignation and outrage.

He sketched a brief bow. “Maxwell Bretherton at your service. Allow me to present my affianced bride, Miss Sybil Woodbridge.”

“I’m not marrying you.” She finally broke free of his hold and attempted to straighten her hat. He’d surely become addled from all his years under the tropical sun. Not only had he not properly proposed marriage, but she’d not said yes. Nor would she. She didn’t want a husband. And certainly not one who would think nothing of ordering her about. Even if it was Max. With his kisses.

“We’ll discuss this later.” Max’s breath tickled her ear, his voice a low growl. “I don’t want these fine ladies to fall under a misapprehension.”

“I think they interpreted the situation quite accurately.” With her hat firmly in place she faced the women, determined to brazen this out. What a lot of fuss and bother over an unimportant embrace. She smoothed her gloves. Yes, unimportant. Well, to anyone else but her, certainly. But it didn’t mean anything. Mutual attraction. And if she wanted to explore that attraction further, it was no one’s concern but hers. And Max’s, of course. She glanced at him quickly, fearing she’d ventured beyond mutual attraction.

“Shall we summon a constable, miss?” The short, plump woman clearly wanted to leave the awkward scene, but didn’t want to abandon Sybil to potential ravishment.

“No, you needn’t summon help.” Max appeared to be talking through clenched teeth. He put his arm around her again, scandalously higher than her waist. In fact, his thumb touched her breast. The heat of his hand seeped through his glove and her gown, chemise and corset. Her nipples tightened. Her private parts tingled as she imagined his bare hand touching her bare skin, smoothing over all areas seldom exposed.

The tall, horsey looking woman grabbed Sybil by the elbow and pulled her from Max’s embrace, propelling her along the path. “We will escort you home, young lady. There has been more than enough of this foolishness.”

Max grasped Sybil’s other arm and pulled her to a stop. She stood suspended between the two like a marionette. “I told you, madam, we are to be wed. There is nothing improper about us spending time alone together.” Max attempted to pry the woman’s fingers from Sybil’s arm.

“Max, stop it.” Sybil swatted at his hand. “You are causing a scene. Ma’am, I am quite safe with this gentleman. He is a friend of my brother. He is returning me to my home right this minute.”

“The hell I am. We aren’t finished here yet.”

“We are quite finished. We were finished nine years ago when you disappeared at sea.”

The plump woman gasped. “It is you, the one they were talking about in Teacher’s Tea Room. Hester, he’s known to Lady Arabella. He’s the man who became a pirate rather than marry some grasping chit.”

Sybil spun on the interfering busybody. “I was not some grasping chit. He made a promise and broke it. Not so much as a letter did I receive.”

The tall woman finally released Sybil’s arm. “I am acquainted with Lady Arabella.” She looked down her long nose, a gleam in her eye. “And now you mean to trap this man into marriage. Is that the plan, girl?”

“I mean no such thing. I have no intention of marrying this—him.” Just her luck to run into one of the few people in London acquainted with her family. The woman’s nose twitched, no doubt excited to be near the center of a scandal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Luanna Stewart has been creating adventures for her imaginary friends since childhood. As soon as she discovered, and devoured, her grandmother’s stash of medical romance novels, all plots had to lead to a happily-ever-after.

Luanna writes full time, concentrating on sexy romantic suspense, steamy paranormal romance, and spicy historical romance.

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Luanna now lives in Maine with her dear husband, two college boys, two cats, and one surviving gold fish. When she’s not torturing her heroes and heroines, she can be found in her kitchen whipping up something chocolate.

Visit Luanna on her website: http://www.luannastewart.com/

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Mad for the Marquess (Reluctant Hearts, Volume 1) by Jess Russell

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James Drake, Marquess of Devlin, had everything—until he was found covered in blood, standing over a dead girl. Now locked away in a madhouse, he has one short year to recover his memories and prove his sanity, or be condemned for life. But the demons inside Devlin’s head are far easier to battle than the evil surrounding him at Ballencrieff Asylum.

Anne Winton hardly expects to find her calling—or love—while working in a lunatic asylum. But despite all warnings, the “Mad Marquess” proves dangerously fascinating to innocent Anne. She vows to save him not only from his adversaries, but from himself.

Initially, Anne is only a pawn in Devlin’s bid to gain his freedom, until he begins to see her not just as a means to an end, but as a beautifully passionate woman. He must choose: compromise the woman he loves, or languish forever in hell.

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EXCERPT

Very well, she would let her hair down. Really, men could be children at times. She pulled the first pin and slid it into her pocket. By the second, he had stopped dead and stood watching her as if something crucial might be lost if he moved. It finally dawned on her thick brain in the middle of removing the third that she had his entire attention. Of course that knowledge made her fumble the fourth. As she scrambled to pick it up, her hair fell in a rush, the ends brushing the rug.

“I have been aching to see that since I knocked your bonnet off in the great hall the first day you came.”

He was so close, nearly face to face with her. Taking the pin from her shaking fingers, his hands framed her face and then brushed over her head, searching for more pins. When he found them all, he released her hair. It fell heavy and swinging down her back and over her breasts.

Wishing to hide or to savor this moment, she closed her eyes. He smelled of linseed oil and cloves. And something else that was deep and earthy, as if he had just sprung from the ground.

His hand brushed her skirt. She blinked. He dipped into her pocket and then dropped the pins. The bone of his knuckle hovered next to her thigh. Only one thinnish petticoat between them.

She would slip her hand in with his and then lift her mouth—

He jerked the delicious heat away and then yanked her to her feet.

“Stop looking at me that way, for God’s sake. How am I to concentrate on anything?”

Stupid tears pricked at her eyes. So foolish, persisting in the belief that his smallest gesture might be one of seduction. Steeling herself she met his gaze.

His breath came fast, and the hand he had just withdrawn from her clenched white with tension. Not just in anger, but something else as well.

She would find out what the something was. Insolent and stubborn, Mrs. Abbot had called her. Her knees still bore the scars from being made to kneel on sharp stones from morning prayers until tea. Lord Devlin would find out his Owl, as he called her, could be tenacious as a hawk when she truly wanted something.

“Sit down. Quickly.”

She did so. But not quickly.

“Lie back in the chair. Yes… No! Don’t touch your hair. Now drape yourself over the chair’s arms. Yes, exactly, your head back like that. Now, lick your lips and look at me.”

She loved these orders. He exuded power in giving them, but she had learnt a valuable lesson today.

She had a bit of power as well.

Waiting until his full attention was back on her, only then did she lick her lips and arch her back ever so slightly.

“Yes. All right.” His Adams Apple bobbed in his neck. “Now you may resume your story. I think we left off yesterday just when the Troll-Lord was about to remove Cristabelle’s wings. And don’t skimp on the details. You know how I like seeing everything.”

“My stories are no longer free.” His gaze snapped to meet hers. “But I am prepared to trade you for the next installment.” Flirting with disaster she was. Not only her position here at Ballencrieff, but something more dire, her heart. So be it. She would suffer the consequences of both.

His eyes were entirely fixed on her lips. His chain clanked against the bare floor. “A trade?” He flicked his paintbrush against his open palm. “It would appear, Miss Owl, you are learning the ways of the world. Very well, I am open to a fair trade. What would you have of me?”

She sat up straighter, struggling to maintain her new-found power. “A kiss.”

His brush dropped to the floor.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

As a girl Jess escaped the world of rigorous ballet class and hideous math homework into the haven of toe wriggling romance novels. Now she writes them! Jess lives in New York City with her husband and son and disappears to the Catskill Mountains whenever she can. She is a sometime actress, award-winning batik artist, and accomplished seamstress. Along with her sewing machine, she loves power tools, and, what’s more, she knows how to use them. Jess is currently working on renovating a condo in uptown Manhattan (The Lipstick on a Pig Project) and writing two other stories for the Reluctant Hearts series, Captivated by the Countess, and Daft for a Duke.

Visit Jess at https://jessrussellromance.com/

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

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

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

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

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

Publisher and Release Date: Lochlaber Press, June 2017

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

Review by Jenny Q

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

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

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

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

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

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher


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“I have a proposal for you…”

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, June 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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