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Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Publisher and Release Date: KJC Books, August 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1923
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Caz

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

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.

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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, August 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Anna Campbell, June 2017

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, July 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Never judge a man by his cover…

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

Never trust a man with too many secrets…

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

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…

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

Publisher and Release Date: Elisa Braden, June 2017

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

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

Publisher and Release Date: Lochlaber Press, June 2017

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

Review by Jenny Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LADY + DUKE = TRUE LOVE?

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

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

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

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does love really heal all wounds?

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, July 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrel #3) by Sarah MacLean

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The one woman he will never forget…

Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has lived the last three years in self-imposed solitude, paying the price for a mistake he can never reverse and a love he lost forever. The dukedom does not wait, however, and Haven requires an heir, which means he must find himself a wife by summer’s end. There is only one problem—he already has one.

The one man she will never forgive…

After years in exile, Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, returns to London with a single goal—to reclaim the life she left and find happiness, unencumbered by the man who broke her heart. Haven offers her a deal; Sera can have her freedom, just as soon as she finds her replacement…which requires her to spend the summer in close quarters with the husband she does not want, but somehow cannot resist.

A love that neither can deny…

The duke has a single summer to woo his wife and convince her that, despite their broken past, he can give her forever, making every day… The Day of the Duchess.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, June 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1836
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Fans of Ms. MacLean rejoice: The Day of the Duchess is a terrific conclusion to her Scandal & Scoundrel series.  In it, the author returns to the intriguing scene that opened The Rogue Not Taken, when, in front of large and captive audience, Sophie Talbot shoved her brother-in-law Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into a fishpond after witnessing him in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his duchess, her sister, Seraphina.  I re-read the the scene to remind myself of how haughty, vile and despicable Haven was, and I suspect I’m not the only person who picked up The Day of the Duchess certain there was no way to redeem him.  But I’m here to tell you you’re wrong and Ms. MacLean’s redemption of this character is nothing short of miraculous.  I loved him by the time this story concluded, and you will too.  Ms. MacLean pulls out all the big guns in this emotional, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting love story.

When The Day of the Duchess opens, it’s been two years and seven months since Haven last saw his wife.  He’s spent part of every day missing her, wanting her, and searching for her, but she’s vanished.  From the first, it’s clear Haven regrets their past and he wants Seraphina back.  Though we know what happened at the disastrous party when Sophie pushed Haven into the pond, we know nothing of their relationship before this.  On this morning, Haven is in his chambers reflecting on his efforts to find Sera and making plans to resume his search the moment the Parliamentary session closes.  He takes his seat in the House of Lords and just as the Lord Chancellor calls an end to the season, an entrance in the hall disrupts his speech.  Haven ignores the interruption until a loud voice – a voice he recognizes – raises the hairs on the back of his neck. When he finally spots impeccable dressed, tall and beautiful woman on the floor he already knows who it is.

Christ.  She was here.

Here.  Nearly three years searching for her, and here she was, as though she’d been gone mere hours.  Shock warred with an anger he could not have imagined, but those emotions were nothing compared to the third feeling.  The immense, unbearable pleasure.

She was here.

Finally.

Again.

It was all he could do not to move.  To gather her up and carry her away.  To hold her close.  Win her back. Start fresh.

Except she doesn’t seem to share the sentiment and instead, after watching him for a moment, she declares, “I am Seraphina Bevingstoke, Duchess of Haven.  And I require a divorce.”

A story like The Day of the Duchess is a challenge to review for several reasons.  Told in chapters that alternate between Haven and Seraphina’s PoV, and the past and present, it’s nearly impossible to review it without spoiling its secrets.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say, the relationship between Haven and Seraphina masterfully illustrates the power of a misunderstanding to morph into something so big and so damaging it destroys everything and everyone in its path. The dissolution of their relationship, the scene at the fishpond, Haven’s effort to win back his wife and her affections – all are all plagued by misunderstandings – and as Ms. MacLean flips back and forth in time and PoV, it’s easy to see how and why.  Understanding, however, does nothing whatsoever to diminish the heartbreak and sadness you feel as the author slowly and painfully peels back the layers of Haven and Sera’s relationship.  In flashbacks we witness their first meeting (it’s brilliant and wonderful and funny and romantic), how deeply and intensely they fall in love and then how quickly it all falls apart.  Seraphina, after misunderstanding Haven’s intentions, makes a decision that painfully and irrevocably changes everything.  Their passionate love affair abruptly turns into something tawdry, ugly and miserable, and it’s difficult to convey the whiplash of emotions I experienced reading it. Your heart will ache as their history is slowly revealed, and after Sera’s declaration in the House of Lords, it’s difficult to see how Ms. MacLean will effect a second chance at love for these two.

But she does! To refresh, it’s clear from the start that Haven wants Seraphina back – as his wife, lover and friend – and that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win her back.  But Sera, despite her inconvenient attraction to THE LOVE OF HER LIFE, doesn’t want a reunion – she wants a divorce.  So Haven decides to give her one – IF she’ll attend a house party and help him select her replacement and his next duchess.  Seraphina is desperate, Haven is devious – and similarly desperate (for her lurve), and this is a writer who knows how to make magic out of a mess.  Seraphina agrees to his plan, but she brings protective reinforcements – her sisters – who’ve never forgiven Haven.  Careful reader – I can imagine your eyes rolling.  Yes, it’s silly and ridiculous.  But, it’s so well done, you enjoy every moment anyway.  Haven makes a move, Seraphina checks it, and the game continues apace.  This plot device (the fake find-a-wife-house party) wherein Haven slowly woos his reluctant wife, paired with well-drawn secondary characters – women with whom Haven pretends to have an interest and Sera’s fascinating and devious sisters, keep this clever conceit afloat long after it should have grown tiresome, and provides ample time for these two to rediscover their love and affection for each other.

Obviously, all the plotting and scheming in the world wouldn’t hold our attention if the principals weren’t equally compelling.  Haven – Mal to Sera – cheated.  It is difficult to get past that.  However, once Ms. MacLean finally slots into place Mal’s childhood and the events that preceded his MASSIVE MISTAKE, I understood it – even if I didn’t like it.  Yes, I’m being deliberately vague.  You’ll see.  The Mal we get to know in this story is appealing, charming and chock full of regret.  He’s also a handsome, wealthy and powerful duke.  Reader, when he sets out to make amends and prove to Sera he’s worthy of her love, he’s irresistible.  Sera is similarly appealing.  Haven is smitten from the moment he meets her – and so are we.  She’s delightful, charming, mysterious… and she keeps him on his toes.  The moment (oh, it’s awful) when she decides to leave Haven and any hope for a reconciliation, her pain and heartbreak are palpable.  But the Sera that emerges is like a phoenix from the ashes, and she makes Haven work hard for her forgiveness – and I was glad of it.

The Day of the Duchess isn’t perfect.  The house party drags out a bit too long and Sera’s sisters – though loyal and entertaining – are a bit too conveniently ‘just what Seraphina needs’ at any given moment; though they’re still a likeable lot.  The happily ever after is hard earned and well deserved by the time it arrives, although again, I wish Ms. MacLean hadn’t drawn it out quite so much.  The pacing in the second half is the only reason I’m not giving the book five stars.

Slow pace aside, The Day of the Duchess ends the Scandal & Scoundrel series on a high note.  Every chapter – past and present – resonates emotionally and viscerally, and this romance and relationship stayed with me long after the last page was read.  This is Ms. MacLean at her best.


EXCERPT

Chapter 1

DESERTED DUKE DISAVOWED!

August 19, 1836

House of Lords, Parliament

She’d left him two years, seven months ago, exactly.

Malcolm Marcus Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven looked to the tiny wooden calendar wheels inlaid into the blotter on his desk in his private office above the House of Lords.

August the nineteenth, 1836. The last day of the parliamentary session, filled with pomp and idle. And lingering memory. He spun the wheel with the six embossed upon it. Five. Four. He took a deep breath.

Get out. He heard his own words, cold and angry with betrayal, echoing with quiet menace. Don’t ever return.

He touched the wheel again. August became July. May. March.

January the nineteenth, 1834. The day she left.

His fingers moved without thought, finding comfort in the familiar click of the wheels.

April the seventeenth, 1833.

The way I feel about you . . . Her words now—soft and full of temptation. I’ve never felt anything like this.

He hadn’t, either. As though light and breath and hope had flooded the room, filling all the dark spaces. Filling his lungs and heart. And all because of her.

Until he’d discovered the truth. The truth, which had mattered so much until it hadn’t mattered at all.

Where had she gone?

The clock in the corner of the room ticked and tocked, counting the seconds until Haven was due in his seat in the hallowed main chamber of the House of Lords, where men of higher purpose and passion had sat before him for generations. His fingers played the little calendar like a virtuoso, as though they’d done this dance a hundred times before. A thousand.

And they had.

March the first, 1833. The day they met.

So, they let simply anyone become a duke, do they? No deference. Teasing and charm and pure, unadulterated beauty.

If you think dukes are bad, imagine what they accept from duchesses?

That smile. As though she’d never met another man. As though she’d never wanted to. He’d been hers the moment he’d seen that smile. Before that. Imagine, indeed.

And then it had fallen apart. He’d lost everything, and then lost her. Or perhaps it had been the reverse. Or perhaps it was all the same.

Would there ever be a time when he stopped thinking of her? Ever a date that did not remind him of her? Of the time that had stretched like an eternity since she’d left?

Where had she gone?

The clock struck eleven, heavy chimes sounding in the room, echoed by a dozen others sounding down the long, oaken corridor beyond, summoning men of longstanding name to the duty that had been theirs before they drew breath.

Haven spun the calendar wheels with force, leaving them as they lay. November the thirty-seventh, 3842. A fine date—one on which he had absolutely no chance of thinking of her.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

New York Times, Washington Post & USA Today bestseller Sarah MacLean is the author of historical romance novels that have been translated into more than twenty languages, and winner of back-to-back RITA Awards for best historical romance from the Romance Writers of America.

Sarah is a leading advocate for the romance genre, speaking widely on its place at the nexus of gender and cultural studies. She is the author of a monthly column celebrating the best of the genre for the Washington Post. Her work in support of romance and the women who read it earned her a place on Jezebel.com’s Sheroes list of 2014 and led Entertainment Weekly to call her “gracefully furious.” A graduate of Smith College & Harvard University, Sarah now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

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