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

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A LADY OF LIGHT

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

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

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

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER… AND DESIRE

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

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, October 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EXCERPT

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

A pistol.

She cocked it, desperately praying that it was loaded.

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

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

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

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

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

His voice was calm. Quiet.

With just a hint of menace.

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

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

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

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

“At the next village, then.”

“I think not.”

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

She shot him.

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

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

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

She reached forward and snatched it off.

And then gasped.

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

She knew because she recognized him.

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

God of the underworld.

God of the dead.

She had no reason to change her opinion now.

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

 

GIVEAWAY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

You can connect with Elizabeth at:

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The Duke (Devil’s Duke #3) by Katharine Ashe

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Six years ago, when Lady Amarantha Vale was an innocent in a foreign land and Gabriel Hume was a young naval officer, they met . . . and played with fire.

Now Gabriel is the dark lord known to society as the Devil’s Duke, a notorious recluse hidden away in a castle in the Highlands. Only Amarantha knows the truth about him, and she won’t be intimidated. He is the one man who can give her the answers she needs.

But Gabriel cannot let her learn his darkest secret. So begins a game of wit and desire that proves seduction is more satisfying—and much more wicked—the second time around…


Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 2017

Time and Setting: Jamaica and Scotland, 1817/1823
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

If you follow my reviews you already know I’m a big fan of Katharine Ashe.  The Falcon Club series is one of my favorites, and I’ve enjoyed each of the books in her spin-off Devil’s Duke series.  The Duke is yet another great addition to her catalog and I enjoyed most of it.  Unfortunately, Ms. Ashe tries to do a bit too much within the framework of her story – touching on abuse and slavery before the novel concludes – and seems to lose sight of the central plot, a second chance love affair between her very compelling principals.  But I liked it anyway!  The principal characters have great chemistry, their love affair spans years and oceans, and it’s another memorable addition to this marvelous series.

Lady Amarantha Vale grew up knowing exactly what kind of man she would one day fall in love with.  As a young girl, discussing love and marriage with her sister Emily, she didn’t worry about her father’s plans for her future; Amarantha was certain she would eventually meet and marry her true love.  At seventeen, she thought she’d found him – the Reverend Paul Garland, a young missionary bound for Jamaica.  Unfortunately for Amarantha, shortly after traveling across the ocean to marry Paul and begin their life together, she meets the true love of her life – naval officer Gabriel Hume, after she’s forced to shelter with him during a horrific hurricane.

When Lt. Gabriel Hume disembarked in Jamaica, he never expected to find himself alone in a cellar with a beautiful, unmarried woman.  Handsome and charming, Gabriel is immediately attracted to Amarantha, but recognizing how frightened she is, sets out to calm her.  The pair end up passing a companionable evening getting to know each other and keeping their fear at bay.  By the time the night ends, Gabriel knows he’s fallen in love with the lovely – engaged – Amarantha, and decides to do whatever he can to win her.

Emerging from the cellar, Gabriel and Amarantha discover an island ravaged by the effects of the hurricane.   Gabriel returns to his ship and Amarantha to Paul – only to discover him busy with plans to repair his damaged church.  She finds work volunteering at a hospital for the island’s poor, and it’s there that Gabriel locates her.  He sets out to woo her away from her fiancé – visiting her every day, lending her a hand whenever he can, and slowly but surely charming the lovely Aramantha.

It’s clear from the moment they meet that these two are destined for each other, but it takes time and patience for Gabriel to convince her to leave her fiancé.  She’s finally decided to break off the engagement when Gabriel receives orders to depart Jamaica.  Amarantha promises to wait for him, but shortly after he sets sail, she learns he’s lost at sea.  Devastated, Amarantha privately mourns Gabriel… until his cousin informs her that he’s alive and living with another woman.  Furious, heartbroken and alone, she marries Paul and vows to forget Gabriel.

This first (and best) part of The Duke is fabulous.  From the first moments in the cellar to their last moments together – when they can barely keep their hands to themselves and Amarantha promises to wait for Gabriel, I smiled and sighed and swooned as these two fell in love.  Gabriel is naughty, patient, kind and sweet, and he works hard to charm Amarantha and win her affections.  Amarantha knows she’s fallen for the handsome captain, but fights her feelings – she’s betrothed to Paul and plans to honor her commitment to him regardless of the love she feels for Gabriel.  When she finally decides to break her engagement and Gabriel begs her to wait for him… Oh reader!  It’s been such a delicious tease hoping for these two to get together… until Ms. Ashe dashes our hopes with the disappointing news that Gabriel has taken up with another woman.  Along with Aramantha, I WAS DEVASTATED.

Five years later, the widowed Amarantha is determined to find her friend Penny, who departed Jamaica for Scotland and hasn’t been heard from since.  She follows Penny’s trail to Leith, where she finds her friend and learns of the Devil’s Duke, a man rumored to kidnap vulnerable women and hold them captive in his remote castle.  Suspicious, Amarantha sets out to discover the truth about the Devil’s Duke and discovers… Well, reader, you know who it is, don’t you?   It’s Gabriel – the man she loved so long ago – but he’s not the man she once knew.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Amarantha discovers that Gabriel is the Devil’s Duke – or even why and how he’s earned the nickname, because from the moment she discovers why Penny sought out Gabriel, Ms. Ashe’s story goes a bit sideways.  It’s convoluted and messy and difficult to explain without spoiling the plot.  Suffice it to say that while I do think the author makes it work, if the relationship between Gabriel and Amarantha weren’t so delicious, my feelings about this novel might be decidedly different.

But Gabriel and Amarantha are a dynamic and fiery pair.  She thinks he abandoned her; he thinks she gave up on him.  But shh…THEY STILL LOVE EACH OTHER ANYWAY!  From the very beginning, Amarantha demonstrated a willingness to follow her heart – even when it led her to mad, impetuous decisions.  She’s frustrating and difficult to like – because even though she’s loving and loyal to her friends (and her former husband), she’s blind to the hurt she caused Gabriel, and unwilling to accept the blame for their long separation.  She steadfastly followed Paul to Jamaica, only to realize she loved another man.  But then she gave up on Gabriel – with so little evidence of his guilt, and married Paul anyway… Yowsers.  I sympathized – she was young, alone and it looked like Gabriel had played her false, but she gave up so easily!  And Gabriel… when he courts Amarantha in Jamaica and then just patiently lets her burn out all that stubborn anger in Scotland.  Sigh.  I loved him.  I never felt like her let her get away with her selfish shenanigans – reader, he knew she was trying to fight through her feelings for him.  He did!  He took it and took it and then set her straight.  And once he sensed she was relenting, he didn’t let up.  Though I didn’t personally love Amarantha, Gabriel did – and through his eyes, I liked her anyway.  I loved this pair and their sexy love/hate relationship.

Once Amarantha arrives in Scotland and we begin to discover the secrets the Devil’s Duke is keeping, Ms. Ashe moves the plot forward at a furious pace.  It’s compelling reading, and though Ms. Ashe masterfully incorporates elements of slavery and domestic abuse into the narrative, the novel length prohibits her from fully exploring some of the more tantalizing storylines introduced via her secondary characters.  It’s a missed opportunity.

The Duke is sweeping, romantic… and sets the stage for the next book (and couple) to come.  It’s not my favorite in the series, but it’s a worthy addition, and as per usual with Ms. Ashe, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

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

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

A marriage most convenient

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

OUR REVIEW

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


EXCERPT

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

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

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

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

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

What in the hell just happened?

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

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they’d take what they needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had she not been about to rob the train.

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


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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


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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, October 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught by the Scot (Made to Marry #1) by Karen Hawkins


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When the dark Duke of Hamilton loses his beloved wife, he heeds her dying wish that he make certain her three brothers marry well for she fears they are all headed to ruin. Heartsick, the Duke approaches the task with a heavy hand, ordering the three brothers to marry within three months or forego their inheritance.

The middle brother, the dashing Conner Douglas, is not about to give up his independence, but he knows marriage doesn’t always mean one much change, does it? If anything, being married to a pliable sort of female would give him even more opportunity to seduce the married women of the ton. So he heads straight for the most pliable female he knows – a childhood acquaintance and now mousy spinster, the English born and bred Miss Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe.

Conner is so certain Theodora will joyously agree to marry him, that he takes his time traveling to her house and has only one month to secure her hand and marry. Yet when he arrives at her parents’ house he discovers that Theodora has just run away with a local landowner – a farmer, no less! Unknown to Conner, Theodora has been wildly, passionately in love with him for years. But she’s accepted he only sees her as a friend. Unable to sit forever in her parents’ front parlor and wait for what will never happen, Theodora decided to marry someone comfortable in the hopes they might at least become good partners.

Unaware of Theodora’s feelings, Conner isn’t about to let ‘the perfect wife’ get away so easily. But as Conner seduces Theodora, his own feelings stir. And after surviving a trip of mishaps and traps, he discovers that he can’t image her marrying anyone but him.

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, September 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, early 19th Century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Caught by the Scot is the first in a new series from Karen Hawkins which features a trio of brothers who are given four months in which to get married if they are to receive their respective inheritances under the terms of their sister’s will.  It’s an undemanding and very readable friends-to-lovers story in which the principal conflict comes from the fact that the hero and heroine want different things from life, and it’s touch-and-go as to whether they are prepared to compromise in order to be together.

In a sombre, almost heart-breaking opening chapter, we learn of the death in childbed of Anna, the Duchess of Hamilton, who has left behind a baby son, a grieving widower and the three younger brothers to whom she was more of a mother than a sister.  One of Anna’s dearest wishes was to see her brothers happily settled with families of their own, and in order to honour that wish, her husband presents Connor, Jack and Declan Douglas with an ultimatum; get married within four months or forfeit the fortune left them by their sister.  The brothers aren’t best pleased and, as each of them is quite secure financially, they aren’t too worried at the prospect of forfeiting the money – until the Duke tells them that he will give it to their family’s greatest enemies, the Campbells, if they do not do as Anna wished.

The brothers agree to the terms and are discussing the sort of wives they want when Conner hits upon the perfect solution to his situation.  Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe, the sister of one of his best friends is well-born, practical and pretty enough, although rather quiet – and, as the daughter of a diplomat, will have no trouble managing his household in his frequent and lengthy absences overseas.  She’s on the shelf and is sure to be grateful for his offer, so Connor confidently expects to be able to do as his sister wanted within the time limit and decides to enjoy the last of his bachelorhood, nonchalantly waving off his brothers’ surprise that he isn’t going to propose to Thea straight away.  But Conner isn’t worried.  Thea’s safely stowed at her father’s house and will be waiting for him when he eventually shows up, right?

Wrong.

When Conner finally emerges from his month long carouse and arrives at Cumberbatch House, it’s to find the place in uproar following Thea’s elopement with a local squire.  Needless to say, Connor is shocked – and furious – that Thea hasn’t been calmly sitting there waiting for him, and sets off in pursuit, determined to bring her to her senses and make her his bride.

Thea has been in love with Conner for years, but knows he has never seen her as anything but his best friend’s little sister.  She also knows that Conner loves nothing so much as his career as a highly successful privateer; he loves the freedom to come and go as he pleases and doesn’t like staying in one place too long, things which are diametrically opposed to those Thea wants from life.  Having spent most of her life travelling with her parents as her father moved from one ambassadorial post to another, she is tired of not having anywhere she can really call home.  So when the handsome and very agreeable Squire Lance Fox starts courting her, she encourages his interest and accepts his proposal of marriage.

For once, Thea is going to do something exciting and unexpected… except she bargains without Lance’s inept driving which lands them in a ditch and their vehicle in need of repair.  This delay enables Conner to catch up with them at the first inn he comes to – and he almost immediately makes Thea the most arrogant, condescending marriage offer ever, to which she, not surprisingly, says an emphatic “no”.

Once Conner has recovered from the shock of being turned down in favour of another man he decides to try to convince Thea to break her engagement by proving to her that there is true passion between them.  But no matter how knee-weakening Conner’s kisses, Thea knows he’s wedded to the sea and is not the man to make her a home and spend his life at her side.  She continues to resist his sensual blandishments, at which point Conner realises he needs to change tack.  Rather than trying to sweep her off her feet, she needs to spend enough time with Lance to see what Conner has already seen – that she and her devoted fiancé are completely ill-suited.  Lance believes Thea to be something she’s not and Conner knows that he’ll drive her barmy within weeks.  Lance has the idea that Thea is a perfect specimen of demure womanhood and will meekly accept his every instruction and suggestion without complaint, whereas Conner knows all too well that Thea has a brain and knows how to use it; she’s not afraid to voice her own opinions and most definitely won’t appreciate being treated like some sort of delicate flower.

Conner’s machinations – which include engaging the most unsuitable chaperone in the history of chaperones – are devious and sometimes amusing, especially when they backfire and only make the likelihood of Thea’s changing her mind even more remote.  I liked that Thea is wise to his game, and also that as the ill-fated elopement continues, she sheds her rose-tinted view of Conner and sees him as the man he really is.  And Conner, well… he starts out seeming like a conceited git; he’s so sure that Thea will fall into his arms and weep with gratitude at the prospect of marrying him, yet it’s telling that she’s the first – and only – woman he thinks of when he learns he has to find a wife.  Of course, it takes the prospect of losing Thea to open Conner’s eyes to the truth of his feelings for her and for him to realise that he wants her enough to consider making some substantial changes to his way of life so that they can be together.

Ms. Hawkins writes with a very sure hand; the relationship between Conner and Thea is well drawn and the dialogue is sharp and often funny, but while I enjoyed Caught by the Scot, it didn’t have that certain something that elevated it from the merely “good”, and didn’t really offer anything I haven’t read hundreds of times before.  I also got very tired very quickly of the written out dialect; all the “dinnae”s and “cannae”s and “mon”s and “verra”s that are so often found in stories featuring Scottish characters, and which are completely unnecessary.  It’s not that I found the text difficult to read or understand, it’s just an affectation that annoys me; the author tells us this character is a Scot, so unless I’m told otherwise, they have a Scottish accent which I’m quite capable of imagining for myself.

With that said, fans of sexy Scottish heroes should find much to enjoy in Caught by the Scot, which is by turns poignant, sensual and funny.  I may well stick around for the next book to see how the next Douglas brother is Made to Marry.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

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“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.”

Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet—until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!

Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart, because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret—her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defenses. But when her former fiancé returns, Lizzie realizes that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust—with her heart and her son…

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

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

Review by Em

Honestly, when my editor offered me His Mistletoe Wager for review, I had fairly low expectations.  NOT because I don’t like Ms. Heath’s books – I do!  But in general, I’m not fond of Christmas stories or secret babies, and my experience reading Harlequin Historicals has been a bit hit or miss.  So you can imagine my surprise when I fell in love with this book right from the start.  The premise (the wager referenced in the title), the principals, even the secret baby – everything works.  Charming, romantic and funny, His Mistletoe Wager is one of my favorite  books this year, and Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is my new favorite reformed rake. Friends.  Let’s keep it real.   I ❤ Hal.

On the day of her wedding, Lady Elizabeth Wilding is eagerly awaiting her (late) bridegroom.  As her anxious father paces in the vestry next to her, she keeps herself calm with loving thoughts of Charles, the Marquess of Rainham, and the babe she carries – a secret she’s kept for the past two months.  But the wedding never takes place; after a long delay she learns that Charles isn’t coming.  He’s departed for Gretna Green with a much richer prospect, leaving Lizzie pregnant, alone and with her heart shredded into irreparable pieces.

Fast forward five years… Henry Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge, is desperately trying to escape the crush of the Renshaw ball by hiding out on their frigidly cold terrace.  Hal used to largely avoid the parties and balls in favor of other, more appealing amusements, but this year the eligible, rich, handsome new earl is expected to make more than just an appearance.  The Renshaw ball marks the start of a hellish month of festive holiday functions he’s expected to attend.  Hal’s lost in thought, exhausted from trying to avoid marriage minded mamas and their eager daughters, worrying that something is missing in his life, when his brother-in-law approaches – joking that he hopes he hasn’t interrupted a lover’s tryst.

Aaron Wincanton, Viscount Ardleigh (hero of Her Enemy at the Altar), might be joking, but Hal is tired of all the overeager women hounding him. Aaron rather unsympathetically teases him for being wealthy, handsome and single, but then proposes a challenge.

“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal. Each one in a different location and all five before Twelfth Night.  Let us call it The Mistletoe Wager, in a nod to the season.”  

Their bets always had names and there had been some momentous ones.  The North Road Race.  The Serpentine Swim.  The Fisticuffs Experiment and the ill-conceived and often-lamented Naked Night in Norfolk, when they both nearly froze to death trying to brave the winter weather sitting out in the elements on the exposed beach of Great Yarmouth.  They had hastily agreed to end that one early when they simultaneously lost feeling in their gentlemen’s areas.

The loser has to muck out the other’s stables single-handed; Hal is so confident he can win, he eagerly accepts.  But Aaron adds one last detail – he gets to pick the woman Hal has to kiss.

Now, you already know who the lucky lady is don’t you?  It’s Lizzie, whom Hal has nicknamed Sullen Lizzie. Unsociable.  Unapproachable.  Unreachable.  For years, Lizzie has indulged her father’s desire to see her wed by accompanying him to dinners, parties and balls, and pretending a willingness to marry, but after having her heart broken by Charlie, she’s vowed to remain a single mother.  She’s managed to keep her son Georgie a secret – only her father and their household staff even know he exists – but she’s grown weary of keeping him hidden in London, and it’s become harder to keep the secret.  Lizzie has a plan in place to leave London with Georgie as soon as the season ends, but she knows it will devastate her father.  She’s decided to wait until Twelfth Night, and the Earl of Redbridge’s ball, to tell him of her plans.

Hal knows he has to be at the top of his game with the very beautiful Lizzie, and after observing her – she’s seated in the furthest corner of the room, alone, seemingly daring anyone to approach – he joins her.  Lizzie rudely suggests he go somewhere else, but when he doesn’t, she finds herself reluctantly charmed by her handsome companion. After her father approaches with yet another eligible bachelor, Hal feigns interest in her to keep the other man at bay… and then proposes that he and Lizzie help each other.  Hal needs a love interest so as to deter the women who hope to marry him, and Lizzie needs a way to halt her father’s matchmaking.  Hal is confident he can coax five kisses out of Lizzie as the holiday season ramps up, and although Lizzie initially refuses, he doesn’t relent and stays close to her.  After spending time with Hal, Lizzie reluctantly discovers she likes him and agrees.

Reader, there’s so much more to this story than the Mistletoe Wager, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Discover it for yourself by reading this delightfully charming and romantic novel!  Lizzie’s secret – that she has a five year old son – plays a significant role as the tale unfolds, but the relationship between Hal and Lizzie is always the focus.  Hal is the best kind of rakish hero.  Handsome, appealing, good and kind, protective to a fault, naughty and mischievous… well, I fell for him just as hard as Lizzie does.  His internal PoV is deliciously funny, wicked and endearing – he’s bewildered by his feelings for Lizzie and slow to realize he’s fallen in love with her.  But once he does, he gives 100% to helping her and making her happy.  Lizzie is similarly likeable.  Though her character doesn’t really blossom until she opens herself up to Hal’s affections, she’s guarded for good reason.  Charlie’s betrayal hurt her deeply and the wound has never healed.  Her love for Georgie and her beloved papa is intense, and she’s a sharp, witty, tender match for Hal. When her ‘shield,’ Hal, offers to help her – and manages to heal her wounded heart – she’s overwhelmed by the prospect of a future with or without him, though from the start, their ‘fake’ relationship is clearly anything but.  Lizzie and Hal are a sophisticated, mature and sexy pairing… and everything I hope for in a romance novel.

Ms. Heath’s secondary characters are equally good and I particularly loved Lizzie’s father.  He embraced his unwed, pregnant daughter when most fathers at this time would have cast her out, and it’s clear her happiness is his.  Hal’s sister Connie is terrific (I love their sibling squabbles), and her husband, Hal’s best friend/fiercest competitor in all sorts of mischievous shenanigans, Aaron, is the best – loyal, smart and kind.  There is a truly vile bad guy (of course!) and the reprehensible Charlie makes a re-appearance, but all these folks simply enhance an already great story.  The road to happily ever after has quite a few potholes, but it’s a joyous trip nonetheless.

His Mistletoe Wager is a good bet, a sure thing, and a guaranteed pay out.  Give a gift to yourself this holiday season and read this marvelously romantic and charming holiday romance.

 

A Dance With Seduction (A Spy in the Ton #3) by Alyssa Alexander

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Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.

Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…

Publisher and Release Date: Entangled Select Historical, July 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Alyssa Alexander returns to her world of spies and intrigues in A Dance With Seduction, matching a code breaker hero with a seductive agent of the crown. It’s a mix of danger, drama and just the right touch of deception to draw readers in.

Vivienne Le Fleur was literally plucked from obscurity to become one of England’s best spies. Hidden in plain sight posing as a courtesan, Vivienne uses her beauty and charms to learn men’s deepest secrets. Throughout the war with Napoleon she was the Home Office’s best weapon, as she could get into places a man couldn’t enter without suspicion. After the war ended, her efforts domestically have been to seek out those who supported the French from England’s shores and uncover their treason. It’s not the life Vivienne would have chosen for herself years before; however continuing to serve gives her the chance to protect her young sister from having to struggle in life as Vivienne did. Unfortunately, however, the illusion of safety is broken when she is contacted by a French agent known as The Vulture who knows about her hidden sister as well as Vivienne’s investigations into certain English nobles. Hoping to turn Vivienne into a double-agent he threatens her sister unless she follows the instructions left in a coded message. Code breaking was never one of the skills than Vivienne mastered but she knows of someone who can easily unlock The Vulture’s secrets.

Maximilian Westwood did his service for King and Country by using his cryptology skills to break French codes during the war and help the Home Office in an administrative role. He was never a field agent and actually disliked dealing with spies and their duplicitous ways. Now the war is over, Max has happily removed himself from the world of spies and returned to an academic life translating texts for paying clients. His world away from political intrigues is interrupted late one evening by the arrival of the beautiful agent he’s known as “The Flower”. Her request that he help her translate a coded message is a seemingly easy task but not one he’s eager to accept as getting involved with her can only spell danger. She assures him it’s a one-time request and he agrees – but when he sees who has sent her the message his senses go on high alerts. The Vulture was one of the greatest threats to England’s spy network in the war and seeing him active again in peacetime could be a precursor to something terrible. Needing to know how Vivienne is involved with a dangerous French spy, Max puts himself directly in her path to get answers.

Their shared mission to expose The Vulture’s plans and prevent him from making a move to disrupt English affairs pulls both Vivienne and Max out of their comfort zones to form a lasting partnership. Vivienne has been a loner by necessity, only interacting with her handler and showing others the false personality of a practiced courtesan. Max has become a man of books and learning, eschewing any vices so as to distance himself from his wastrel brother’s reputation around London. Neither is living for themselves and Vivienne isn’t even certain where the real woman begins under all of the façades she’s adopted in order to survive. Working together makes Max and Vivienne face a mirror of sorts to discover depths they’ve never known. They each have skills that complement the other person, with Max being the analytical one and Vivienne having the strength and intuition to solve problems as they appear. The bond that grows from their working relationship slowly feeds into the attraction the pair have felt since their earliest interactions during the war.

Max is a wonderful Beta hero who isn’t threatened by Vivienne’s skills but still can be assertive when the moment calls for it. He fights to keep their relationship professional but cannot ignore the moments where Vivienne’s confidence slips and he sees the woman beneath the spy. Only then does he allow her to know of his insecurities and provide a safe place where she can drop the act of polished courtesan or skilled agent and just be herself. For Vivienne, her life was basically rewritten at a young age by those who always seemed to know better than her. Max never treats her in that fashion and tends to depend on her experience, letting her take the lead to show that she is more than who she was molded to be. As they uncover The Vulture’s network and follow the clues to protect her sister, Vivienne learns what is truly important to her in life. During the war it was always the mission, but in peacetimes it could be family, belonging and having the courage to fight for things that she wants for herself.

The slow pacing of A Dance With Seduction seemed incongruous when compared to the danger and stakes of Max and Vivienne’s mission. I had trouble completely losing myself in the story but felt that the plot, the characters and the consequences of their choices were all well described and meaningful. Overall the book works best to showcase two capable people learning to trust themselves while finding understanding in love with the last person they would expect.

A Taste of Honey (Lively St. Lemeston #4) by Rose Lerner


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Robert Moon risked everything, including his father’s hardwon legacy, to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery on the busiest street in Lively St. Lemeston. Now he’s facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

When a huge catering order comes in, he agrees to close the sweet-shop for a week to fill it. There’s only one problem: his apprentice is out of town, so his beautiful shop-girl Betsy Piper must help Robert in the kitchen.

Betsy’s spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. Now the two of them are alone in a kitchen full of sweet things. With just one week to get him to fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…

She soon discovers that Robert brings the same meticulous, eager-to-please attitude to lovemaking that he does to baking, but can kisses—no matter how sweet—compete with the Honey Moon in his heart?

Publisher and Release Date: Rose Lerner, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Era, Sussex, England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance Novella
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The world of Ms. Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston is much different to the one I experience in my usual historical romantic reading, and it always takes me a few chapters to adjust and settle in. These stories aren’t about dukes and duchesses, wealthy tradesman or even ruthless and diabolical men and women who have used cunning and smarts to become powerful . Instead, the Lively St. Lemeston series features normal people with very human, real and recognizable problems. Yet although I can appreciate (and like) Ms. Lerner’s affectionate and moving portrayals of everyday men and women, A Taste of Honey doesn’t deliver on the escapism I look for when I crack open a romance novel. Fortunately, Ms. Lerner is a terrific writer and the quality of this story transcends its tough luck premise; though short, A Taste of Honey is a sweetly moving and erotic workplace romance in which the romantic relationship that develops between its flawed principals is awkward, charming, and oddly endearing – and in spite of myself, I smiled when it ended.

It’s been quite a while since I read Sweet Disorder, the first book in the series, and I only vaguely remembered Robert Moon, the hero of this story. But for those of you who haven’t read that novel (it’s not necessary), or are similarly memory-challenged, he owns the Honey Moon Confectionary in Lively St. Lemeston and when we first met him, local elections loomed, the Tories needed more votes to secure their candidate, and the Honey Moon wasn’t turning a profit. Desperate to secure the financial future of his shop (and despite a secret affection for his shopgirl, Betsy Piper), Robert agreed to marry a young local widow in order to secure two additional votes for the Tories in exchange for financial security at the Honey Moon. The pair were ill-matched, the plot convoluted and destined to fail, and the widow fell in love with and married another man. When A Taste of Honey begins, Robert is still single and wants to marry Betsy… but the shop is nearly bankrupt, and he faces a possible stint in debtor’s prison. Unwilling to pursue a relationship with the beautiful Betsy with the Honey Moon on the verge of failing, he keeps his regard for her to himself.

The solution to Robert’s problems arrives in the form of a large catering order from the haughty Mrs. Lovejoy, who is hosting the local assembly and wants Robert to cater the event. Payment for the order will keep the Honey Moon open, provide funds to pay off his creditors and means Robert will finally be able to pursue Betsy. Unfortunately, his apprentice Peter is out of town; fulfilling the large order will require him to close his shop for a week, work non-stop with Betsy to complete the order on time, and take on additional debt. Robert agrees despite his misgivings about Mrs. Lovejoy (who frequently changes her mind and seems to dislike Betsy), and concerns about the small margin for error should they fail.

Meanwhile, Betsy harbors a secret tendre for Robert. She wants to marry him, support him at the shop and be his helpmeet in every way. Hurt by his proposal to the widow Phoebe Stark – despite knowing why he did it, and tortured by thoughts that Robert doesn’t think she is good enough for him – she’s convinced this week working together is just what she needs to secure his affections. When her closest friend urges her to seduce him, she decides she will – if she has to. Not quite a virgin (she had a brief liaison some time back), she isn’t afraid of sex or pleasure and she wants Robert. So, after a long morning working alongside him, and growing increasingly bold with her suggestive innuendos that he fails to respond to, she seduces him.

Robert is a virgin. He’s shocked when Betsy suggests they have an affair, but he’s more than willing… and eager. What follows – a week in which they awkwardly and sweetly discover pleasure in each other – only complicates their relationship. Robert is consumed with thoughts of Betsy and all the things he wants to do to and with her, but convinced he can’t commit to her until his the future of the shop is secure. Betsy is similarly consumed with her feelings for Robert; she’s convinced she can and should be his partner at the Honey Moon and in life, but she’s hurt by his focus on the shop and silence on the subject of their relationship. Meanwhile, between passionate and erotic encounters in the kitchens, they work together to fill the catering order – which the insufferable and condescending Mrs. Lovejoy changes on a daily basis.

A Taste of Honey is a novella and the pace of the story is necessarily brisk, but Ms. Lerner paces the relationship perfectly. After all, Betsy and Robert knew and liked each other long before this story began and compressing their relationship into the week Robert has to fill the catering order is cleverly done. Unfortunately, the short format doesn’t provide much opportunity to explore the principal characters outside of their relationship to each other, and if you aren’t already familiar with Robert and Betsy from Sweet Disorder, you may wish you knew a bit more about them and the secondary characters that comprise the community of Lively St. Lemeston. That said, I liked both principals very much, and Ms. Lerner does a terrific job balancing their sexual exploration with their discoveries about each other – his/her fears, dreams and desires. In lovemaking, they’re eager and adventurous partners; outside of it, they’re cautious and plagued with doubts. It’s a frustrating, tender and confusing courtship… until the horrible Mrs. Lovejoy (more like killjoy) unknowingly helps them find their way to a deliciously satisfying happily ever after, complete with a side dish of revenge.

The Lively St. Lemeston series takes a very different approach to the Regency-era novels most romance readers have grown accustomed to. I won’t lie – I still love my dukes, rakes and tortured heroes – but Ms. Lerner makes a compelling case for this alternate version – ordinary men and women and their equally strong hopes and dreams. It’s not quite the escape I usually like in my romance novels, but it’s a fascinating, addictive and romantic version nonetheless. Readers looking for something a bit different should sample this sweet and charming honey of a story.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

AUDIO REVIEW: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers, narrated by Hamish McKinlay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.

David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Publisher and Release Date: Joanna Chambers, August 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, 1820 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Running Time: 5 hours 52 minutes
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read the Enlightenment trilogy three times – it’s one of my most favorite historical series, queer or straight.  I love how Ms. Chambers paces the central relationship over the course of the trilogy, neatly dovetailing it with an intriguing subplot that similarly plays out over the three books, while also linking the actions of her principal characters to the time period.  Well drawn secondary characters play central roles in the progress of the story, but the focus remains on the romantic relationship at its heart.  Although Provoked is my least favorite of the three books that comprise the trilogy, it’s still tremendously compelling and entertaining.  To my happy surprise, narrator Hamish McKinlay’s terrific narration further elevates this moving, frustrating story; I’m delighted to tell you he does a marvelous job bringing the characters and novel to life.  Provoked is provoking… and a wonderful prelude of what’s to come.

David Lauriston is slowly and steadily building his reputation as an advocate in Edinburgh.   Despite humble origins and a lack of family connections, he’s managed to make a place for himself in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.  However, when Provoked opens, his loyalty to crown and country is in question.  He’s spent the past months unsuccessfully defending a group of weavers accused of treason.  On this day, he’s witnessed the execution of two of the men he defended, and though he’s convinced of their innocence, he’s aware that the case has raised concerns that David similarly harbours radical sympathies.  Stopping overnight at an inn on his way back to Edinburgh, he enters the dining room and to his dismay, discovers it full of locals and travelers discussing the case.  Fortunately, the innkeeper spots him lurking in the doorway and directs him to a private room.

Left on his own and lost in his thoughts, a somber David is surprised by the arrival of another dinner guest. Murdo Balfour is also staying at the inn, and after the two men introduce themselves, he joins David for dinner.  Mr. Balfour is handsome, urbane and charming, and David finds himself – against his better judgement – captivated and attracted to his companion.  The air is electric as an undercurrent of attraction pulses between them; after a couple of drams of whisky, a few charged glances, and a whispered exchange of words, David finds himself on his knees in a dark alleyway sucking Murdo’s cock.  But unlike most of David’s furtive, shameful experiences with men, the encounter doesn’t end there.  Instead, Murdo pulls him up, kisses him – whispering all the naughty things he’d like to do with David – and brings him off with his hand.  David knows he’ll hate himself for lapsing soon enough, but for now, just the memory of Balfour and his dark, dirty words is enough to inflame him again… and again… and again.

David returns to Edinburgh determined to put the night behind him, but even new professional opportunities aren’t enough to enable him to forget Balfour.  He’s consumed with thoughts of the man… until he’s approached by Euan MacLennan, brother of one of the convicted weavers, who believes a government agent betrayed the convicted men.  Armed with a vague idea of what the man looks like and a possible connection to the daughter of a senior advocate, Euan is desperate and determined to track down the agent and avenge his brother; David, fearing what Euan might do if he locates the man, cautions him to be careful – but offers to help.

Shortly after Euan’s visit, Ms. Chambers reunites David with Murdo when they find themselves guests at the same dinner party.  David’s intense attraction to Lord Balfour is undiminished, but he’s distracted when he uncovers a possible connection between his host and the man Euan seeks.  The men retire for drinks and David over imbibes in an attempt to distract himself from the effects of Balfour’s proximity, but he’s thwarted when Balfour departs at the same time.  What follows – a passionate interlude and heated words – sets the tone for each of their future encounters – which happen more often than David would like.  Balfour wants David and has no qualms pursuing him while publicly courting a woman.  David’s unwillingness to do the same – or to even entertain the possibility – angers and frustrates Balfour.  Mr. McKinlay does a marvelous job voicing both Balfour’s cynicism and David’s bewildered confusion over his erstwhile lover’s anger.

Told exclusively through David’s point of view, Ms. Chambers uses the dinner party to masterfully link the two central plot lines – David’s tumultuous relationship with Murdo and the search for the government agent who betrayed Euan’s brother.  The intricately plotting coalesces against the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it’s a clever bit of storytelling as the author uses David and Murdo to mirror what’s happening in Edinburgh.  Even as David struggles with guilt over his forbidden desires, he’s willing to question his government and its leaders; conversely, Murdo has no guilt or moral shame over his sexual desires, and though he recognizes the plight of the poor and unfortunate, he has no desire or interest in changing the status quo.  David and Murdo – enlightened in very different ways – are a fascinating match-up.  The combination of their scorching chemistry, intense attraction and clear affection  – though they try to disguise it – is richly compelling.  Their passion for each other is so well done.

I started listening to Provoked very familiar with the story, and unsure whether the audio version could anything new to my perceptions of it.  It did.  Although I struggled early on with Mr. McKinlay’s narration, it didn’t take long for me to begin to enjoy it – and to FINALLY begin to see David in a more sympathetic light. I, much like Murdo, struggled with what I perceived as David’s goody-two-shoes, self-righteous and sanctimonious persona.  But Mr. McKinlay somehow imbues the character with a kindness and sweetness, and an underlying sense of bewilderment over Murdo – he can’t reconcile how he feels for the man with his moral compass, and he really can’t understand what about him seems to trigger Murdo’s mercurial emotions when they’re together.  I finally LIKED David listening to him.  I particularly loved the narrator’s portrayal of Murdo in all his Provoked incarnations – charming, playful, naughty, angry, and even petulant – especially in his last encounter with David.  He’s a gorgeous character on the page, and in Mr. McKinlay’s voice he’s even more wonderful.  I’m not as fond of the narrator’s female voices – they just made me uncomfortable – but his portrayal of David and Murdo transcends these issues.

I didn’t think I could love the Enlightenment trilogy any more than I do, but Hamish McKinlay’s voice truly elevates Provoked.  I will anxiously await book two, and prepare to be beguiled (wink) by his voice all over again.