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RETRO REVIEW: Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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When Truelove Becket’s betrothed went missing in a naval battle, she vowed never to marry unless she found someone she loved as much. In the seven years since then, the quiet vicar’s daughter has lived a simple and contented life helping the poor people of her village. But now another man has asked for her hand in marriage and, unsure if she is ready to commit to him, she agrees to accompany her beautiful cousin Arabella on a trip to visit friends so she can take time to think it over.

Viscount Drake cut a dashing figure when he returned from war to a hero’s welcome, but the Battle of Waterloo left him a shattered and haunted man. As his dreams are invaded by the terrors of war he becomes a sleepless shell of a man, and as his torment grows he begins to wonder if marriage to the lovely Arabella will help restore him again. But as Arabella coquettishly flirts to secure Drake’s hand and his riches, it is the pretty and practical True he turns to for solace.

With the weight of her marriage proposal bearing down on her, True finds herself irresistibly attracted to Drake’s quiet dignity and genuine distress, just as he finds himself drawn to her honest nature and soothing compassion. When a spark of passion ignites between these two who have both lost so much to war, they will have to confront their biggest fears—and everyone else’s plans for their futures—to discover if love can truly cure all ills.

Publisher and Release Date: Originally published by Zebra in 2001.  Digital reissue, Beyond the Page, 2015

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Regency Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

The story of the poor relation who falls in love with the well-to-do handsome hero destined to marry another (who is completely wrong for him) is a familiar one, but while Donna Lea Simpson’s Miss Truelove Beckons ostensibly follows that pattern, the author actually subverts the trope of the “evil other woman” and crafts a story of more weight and substance than is found in many other Regency romances.

Major General Lord Wycliffe Prescott, Viscount Drake, son and heir of the Earl of Leathorne, joined the army when he was just eighteen, and served for a number of years before almost meeting his end at the Battle of Waterloo.  He was lauded as a hero on his return to England, but he couldn’t feel less like one; he saw too much death, bloodshed and wanton destruction, killed too many men and came too close to death himself to feel anything but disgusted by the war and his part in it.  Fortunately for Drake, the only outward evidence of his long service is a bad leg injury which has left him with a slight limp, but on the inside he’s a mess, haunted by memories and worn down by dreams and nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis.  His parents love him dearly but don’t know what to do to help him; naturally, it’s something Drake doesn’t discuss with them, but his mother can hear him screaming at night and is desperately worried for him.

In an attempt to divert Drake’s attention, Lady Leathorne decides it’s time to further a match between her son and Miss Arabella Swinley, the daughter of one of her oldest friends.  Although nothing has been settled officially, the ladies have long cherished the idea of such a thing coming to pass, so the countess invites Lady and Miss Swinley to Lea Park for a few weeks, sure that an engagement will shortly ensue.

The Swinley ladies duly arrive, accompanied by their cousin, Miss Truelove Beckett, the daughter of the country vicar and in whose house Arabella had spent much of her childhood.  She and Truelove – True – used to be very close, but in the years since Arabella’s come-out (and since she has been wholly subject to her mother’s influence) True has sadly noticed her younger cousin becoming more and more spoiled and more and more like her mother, who is sharp, haughty and not always kind.

True has come to Lea Park at Arabella’s request, and also because she needs time to consider the proposal made her by the local curate, Mr. Bottleby.  Seven years earlier, the man True loved was killed and she vowed never to marry unless it was to someone she loved as much as she’d loved Henry.  But she doesn’t want to be alone forever or be a burden on her father; Mr. Bottleby is a good man and True yearns to be useful… but she isn’t sure he will provide the sort of companionship she longs for.

Drake and True are almost immediately drawn to each other and Drake is surprised to find himself telling True things he’s never told anyone about the memories that haunt him and the guilt he carries.  She is a good listener and never judges him, knowing the right things to say and when to ask questions and when to remain silent. Her calm, rational demeanour has a strong effect on Drake, who finds her presence to be the one thing that can truly soothe him; their friendship definitely has a positive effect on Drake and she helps him to realise that he needs something useful to occupy him. This takes the form of a school which will employ veterans skilled in various trades to train other veterans so that they can find work – and for the first time since he returned from war, Drake is finally starting to feel like a whole person once more.

The growing friendship between Drake and True is not looked upon with favour by either his mother or Lady Swinley, although as Lady Leathorne begins to see the improvement in her son’s manner and health, she realises that the most important thing is that he is well and happy – and if Miss Becket is the woman to make him happy, then her social status is of no matter.  Lady Swinley, however, is a different matter; Drake is to marry Arabella, and she is not about to let her mousy cousin cut out her daughter, an acknowledged diamond of the first water.  Arabella at first comes across as a spoilt brat.  She simpers, swoons and pretends to be a dim-wit in the attempt to display all those qualities that so enamour gentlemen of the ton, but none of this has any effect on Drake, who thinks she must be a ninny.  But recognising that his mother’s heart is set on his marrying Arabella, he makes an effort to talk to her and actually finds that she’s not at all as empty-headed as she seems.  Unlike many other books in which the heroine’s rival is a nasty piece of work, Arabella really isn’t; as True has seen, she’s too much influenced by her mother’s mercenary nature, and by Lady Swinley’s constant harping at her about what she should be doing to attract Drake’s interest.

True is terribly torn.  She has fallen in love with Drake, but can see that Arabella is bewildered and disgusted by any mention he makes of the war while recognising that Arabella will make him a much better viscountess than she ever could.  Yet she also knows that Drake needs someone who will understand and love him in a way Arabella is unlikely ever to be able to.  And then there’s Mr.  Bottleby, who is awaiting her answer to his proposal…

Miss Truelove Beckons is a charming and well-written romance that tackles the difficult subject of PTSD in a sensitive way.  So many historical romances set during this period feature heroes returned from war with physical and/or mental injuries which are often glossed over, but that’s not the case here.  Drake is clearly a very troubled man; he suffers sleep deprivation because of his horrific dreams and frequently withdraws into himself during the day… and the reader really feels his pain and desperation.  True is good and kind, but she’s not a doormat; perhaps she’s a bit too good to be true (!) but she’s never overly sweet or cloying.

Although Lady Swinley is a bit of a caricature, the other secondary characters are well-drawn and contribute much towards this book being a cut above average.  Drake’s parents are especially well-done, and the brief insights we are given into their marriage are very poignant, while Arabella becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.  The writing is excellent and the central relationship is nicely developed, although if you like a bit of steam in your romances, this might not be the book for you, as things are fairly low-key with only a few kisses exchanged.  There’s no question that True and Drake are attracted to each other and that their romance is one born of friendship – but while I don’t need to read sex scenes in a romance novel, I do like there to be a decent amount of sexual tension and there isn’t a great deal of that here, which is why I knocked half-a-star off my final rating.

Nonetheless, Miss Truelove Beckons is definitely worth checking out if you are after a well-written, character-driven romance with a bit more heft than is normally found in the genre.

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


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England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1919
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Mystery
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

Anna Lee Huber is a new to me author, though I’m fond of mysteries and historical romance, so it’s no surprise that many of my friends have recommended her books to me.  Unfortunately, my TBR pile somehow precluded me from reading her books each time I’ve made the attempt, so I was happy to get this first book in her new Verity Kent series for review.

Widowed when her husband Sidney was shot in a skirmish at the end of the World War I, Verity has spent the past year and a half trying to dull the pain of her loss in parties and evenings out with friends.  When she receives an invitation to an engagement party for one of Sidney’s fellow officers, an emotionally fragile Verity initially intends to decline.  But shortly after she receives the invitation, a cryptic letter arrives referencing her work for the Secret Service (a secret she kept from everyone, including Sidney) and suggesting Sidney might have committed treason before his death.  Shocked and unwilling to believe her husband guilty of treason, Verity decides to attend the weekend house party and do some investigating of her own.

As This Side of Murder opens, Verity – lost in thoughts of her husband, the letter, and the houseparty – nearly collides with another car.  When the handsome driver emerges, they engage in a flirtatious exchange about her driving and the driver’s own car – a pale yellow Rolls-Royce – and soon realize they’re both on their way to Walter Ponsonby’s engagement party.  After her companion introduces himself as Max Westfield, Earl of Ryde, Verity is startled when he asks if she’s Sidney Kent’s widow.  He reveals that he knew her husband – they attended Eton at the same time and served together during the war.  When they finally part and head to Poole Harbour, Verity finds herself wondering about Max and their meeting.  Why is he attending the party?  How well did he know her husband?  Could he be the letter writer?

Boarding the yacht that will take them to Umbersea Island for the party, Verity makes yet another discovery.  Though she expected the guest list to include some of Sidney’s fellow officers, it appears to be made up almost entirely of them.  It’s an odd group to invite for an engagement party, and, suspicious and overwhelmed by fresh grief for her husband, Verity climbs aboard determined to get to know the men who once fought alongside him – and to determine, once and for all, if he committed treason.

When she arrives on the island, Verity is greeted by her hosts and handed another letter. Exhausted by the journey and the prospect of the weekend ahead, she retreats to her room to read it – only to discover someone was there before her.  A battered copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which bears an inscription from her to Sidney, lies on the counterpane with yet another note tucked inside.  Verity is convinced the author is one of her fellow guests, but a separate discovery – intentionally hidden in the binding of the book? – seems to suggest Sidney might have been passing coded messages.  Verity isn’t sure whether her secret correspondent is working with – or against – her as she searches for the truth.

The initial trip to Umbersea Island casts a pervasive sense of foreboding and disquiet that runs throughout the book. Verity is suspicious of the other guests, and it’s obvious they are tense and ill at ease with each other. Something seems off, and it seems like the only person she can trust is Max – but even then, she’s unclear as to whether he can be trusted or not.  Most of the guests have history, and it soon becomes apparent that the men of the former Thirtieth Company have dark secrets they’ve kept hidden until this weekend.  As the engagement party continues apace, Verity simultaneously tries to crack the code contained in The Pilgrim’s Progress, get to the bottom of the tension between the guests, and determine if there’s a traitor in their midst.  No one is above suspicion, and when guests begin dying, Verity becomes desperate to discover what really happened to Sidney in his last days.

Ms. Huber paints Verity as an intelligent and independent woman who passionately loved her husband and hoped for a happily ever after with him following the war.  She alludes to Verity’s secret life working for the British Secret Service – but for some reason, she keeps the specifics of her work deliberately vague.  I never felt like I got to know Verity, aside from her feelings for Sidney (and maybe Max), and rather than leading an investigation, Verity seems more often to be in the right place at the right time to move the narrative forward.  When she cracks the code hidden in Sidney’s book, I sighed.  With only vague references to a history with the Secret Service, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe she knows so much about code breaking – and frankly, the skill just read like a convenient plot device.  We get to know the other guests at the party through the lens of Verity’s thoughts, but frankly, it was hard to keep track of all of them.  The guests each briefly star in the narrative, and then Ms. Huber focuses our attention on someone else. I never felt like I knew any of them well enough to suspect them as they were all – with the exception of Max – awful in their own way!  I liked Max despite Ms. Huber’s obvious efforts to make him a suspect, but without him, I’m not sure Verity would have ever ‘solved’ this case.  He’s definitely the more aggressive investigator – even though Verity kept information from him – and he rather conveniently ensures Verity is in the right place at the right time to discover new clues.  I had high hopes for him and Verity in future books… but, well, let’s just say I don’t believe Ms. Huber does.

I’m reluctant to spill any details of the house party only because I don’t want to reveal any secrets that might spoil the story.  That said, I’m not sure how my telling you – in detail – everything leading up to the denouement would really ‘spoil’ it for you.  Ms. Huber slowly but surely reveals the secrets that bind the guests together (there is an intrigue that links them to each other – and to Sidney) and ratchets up the tension…but when she introduces a ridiculous, convoluted plot twist ending, it just made me mad.  In hindsight, I see some of the clues she spread in the text… but really, if someone saw this coming, bravo.  I didn’t, I don’t see how you could, and I hated it.

Hmm… so would I recommend This Side of Murder?  Oh reader!  I’m torn.  I liked it, but I was easily and often distracted from it.  I wanted to like Verity, but I never really connected with her or the mystery and found it difficult to keep up with the secondary characters – about whom we know very little aside from their relationship to Verity’s dead husband.  It seems like Verity’s (very interesting) past will be more fully explored in future novels, and I’m curious about it.  But if those books feature her passively watching and waiting for events to unfold,  I’ll pass.

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.

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.

VIRTUAL TOUR: Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

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England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.

Publisher and Release Date: Endeavour Press, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1650
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645, in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community but does not permit her to become involved.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country and then moves south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.


Excerpt

James made his way down Jury Street through the livestock market and pens of bleating lambs. Someone had forgotten to latch a crate properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted in before they were beaten away.

Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely he would find her here, amongst the stalls of linens, laces and ribbons. Hats and coifs intermingled, and for a moment all he could see was a blur of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.

Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.

He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought, and drew closer.

Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.

He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind, or to seek instruction?”

Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.

“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”

James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”

“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”

Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.

“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.

James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.

“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.

“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.

“How would you know this?”

“I know everyone here.”

“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”

James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected, Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”

Elizabeth’s head dipped.

“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”

“Indeed, your information is correct.”

“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.

“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”

“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”

“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.

“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”

A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.

“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wityou can do better.

She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”

“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.

“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.

“Naturally, by your speech.”

“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.

“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”

Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.

“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”

James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”

“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.

“Owl.”

“Owl?”

“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.

Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”

“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”

“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”

“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”

“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.

“Welcome home.”

With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.

“Unmistakable.” He grinned.

“The verdict?”

“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”

“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”

This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”

“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.

“What of our wager?” James called out to her.

Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”

James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.

“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.

“Nay, not yet,” he smiled, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.

 

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Traitor’s Knot

About the Author

Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast, with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). She blogs about English history and storytelling at her blog, the 17th Century Enthusiast, and is an editor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Cryssa’s debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, a romantic tale of adventure set during the English Civil War. Traitor’s Knot is the first in a series of adventures spanning from the ECW to the Restoration and is now available from Endeavour Press.

For more information visit Cryssa’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Harper Perennial, May 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waltzing With the Earl by Catherine Tinley

waltzing with the earl

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The Earl of Shalford needs to marry into money to save his estate. Wealthy and beautiful Henrietta Buxted should be the perfect candidate. So why does his eye keep wandering to her quiet cousin, Charlotte Wyncroft?

Charlotte watches Henrietta’s games of courtship with wry amusement. That is until a stolen dance reveals a hidden side to the earl. Penniless Charlotte knows that she’s far from a suitable match, yet, in Adam’s arms she can dream of the happily-ever-after she’s always wanted!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, March 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1814
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Wendy

Kindly but henpecked Mr. Frederick Buxted is placed in the rather uncomfortable position of having to explain to his overbearing wife why he has agreed to the temporary guardianship of his deceased cousin’s attractive young daughter, Charlotte. Her father, Colonel Sir Edward Wyncroft, has some loose ends to tie up across the channel before he resigns his commission and finally settles down. Until now, and following the early death of her mother, his beloved Lottie has followed the drum with him; but now, although father and daughter are normally inseparable, the Colonel needs to know she is safe and cared for while he gives his full attention to his last duties. Mrs. Louisa Buxted is less than impressed by the arrival of her husband’s young and attractive relative; especially as she has two daughters of her own and sees all other young women as competition in her aspirations for them.

Charlotte arrives at the Buxted household amid a bustle of excitement at the thought of meeting and spending time with her female cousins and also at finally seeing and experiencing the delights of London. Her natural exuberance and unaffected beauty is refreshing and attractive – too attractive for Henrietta, the eldest Buxted daughter, her mother’s favourite child and generally the centre of attention. The contrast between Charlotte and Henrietta is vast; whereas Charlotte’s beauty is quiet and understated and her nature kind and conciliatory, Henrietta is stunningly beautiful and she turns heads wherever she goes – but she’s shallow and selfish with a penchant for cruel jibes. She and her social climbing mother are on the hunt for an advantageous match.

Adam Fanton, Earl of Salford is the chosen target for Mrs. Buxted’s machinations. He has a beautiful country estate and the title to go with it but is unfortunately not wealthy, meaning his priority is to find a well dowered wife. He is thus the ideal target for a conniving mama and a superficial, spoilt young lady. No fool, Adam realises what the two of them are up to, so he decides to open the field, so to speak, and hold a house party. Along with a few unattached men, Adam invites the Buxted family, including their unwelcome houseguest, Charlotte, and, much to Henrietta’s disgust, another rich family with a mama on the lookout for a titled husband for her daughter. Adam, however, is in a dilemma because the more he is in Charlotte’s company the more he realises how very much he likes and admires her. In an understated manner she shows herself to be kind, capable and helpful – especially in her dealings with his elderly great aunt who becomes easily flustered at her added responsibilities in being Adam’s hostess for the duration of the party. Charlotte’s lack of dowry is a deciding factor, however, and Adam is a man who knows his duty, a fact which is laboured throughout and quickly becomes annoying. Charlotte finds Adam rather aloof and arrogant to start with, but her opinion of him changes as she spends time in his company and realises that he is a rather serious young man. As her feelings develop she sees the futility of falling for him.

Up until this point the premise – although a well-worn one – is reasonably well-handled and the dialogue is nicely written, with some witty repartée. Unfortunately, however, the book goes downhill when plausibility is stretched to its limits after Henrietta, on discovering that she is not the only young lady to be considered as a suitable match for the earl – lies on the floor like a two year old having a tantrum – wailing and drumming her heels! Things further descend into the realm of the farcical as the storyline becomes more and more outrageous with so much packed in that the author’s only success is overcomplication. At about 4O% into the story, events begin to switch back and forth between France and the house party – all very confusing – and I actually back-tracked to check to see if I’d missed something. It all feels contrived – maybe the author wanted to inject some real drama into her story but it only succeeded in taking me out of it. There is a twist at the end which I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting but even then (and I know this is Romancelandia) everything is just a little too neatly tied off. Adam and Charlotte share a few close interactions, although this is a very gentle romance with nothing more than kissing and smouldering looks; but frustratingly, after each occasion one or the other of them misunderstands the situation and I wished that they would just talk to each other!

I ruminated over the grading for Waltzing with the Earl and finally decided on three stars because although I had some niggles, the characterisation is good, it’s nicely written and it does contain some genuinely amusing and witty moments, especially between Charlotte and Adam. The book held my interest for at least the first half before running away with itself, so while I can’t give it a ringing endorsement, there are at least some things about it to enjoy.

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

RHR-Proud-Mary-Lucinda-Brant

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

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

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

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

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OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Sprigleaf Pty Ltd.

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

Review by Lady Wesley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT

“A-a—ghost? You saw a ghost?”

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

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

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

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

Lady Mary took his silence for condescending disbelief.

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At night. It was late.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What precisely did you hear, my lady?”

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

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

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

“No. Not footfall…”

GIVEAWAY

 

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

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

the wallflower duchess

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No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams–and Edge is determined to make her his!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, March 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Caz

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.