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An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

an unseen attraction

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Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship. . . .

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding . . . it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

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Publisher and Release Date:Loveswept, February 2017

Time and Setting: London, October 1873
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

I’m a recent convert to the talented writing skills of KJ Charles, my initiation being her magnificent Society of Gentleman series. I was therefore very pleased when given the opportunity to read and review An Unseen Attraction, the first in her new Sins of the City series. I admit that I approached it with a little trepidation, because not in my wildest dreams would I have believed that I could enjoy a story about a cockney Victorian taxidermist and an Anglo-Indian lodging-house keeper. I guess it’s testament to the author’s original and arresting style of writing that I was hooked from the first page and couldn’t put the book down. An Unseen Attraction is an engrossing and plausible story which only just touches on the aristocracy which in itself is a refreshing change in an historical romance. This story – and the two books we still have to look forward to in this trilogy – is about real people, with real personal problems and real jobs and I absolutely loved it.

Clem Talleyfer keeps a lodging house for skilled artisans, and prides himself on his standards. His lodgers like and respect him and that’s understandable because he is an extremely likeable young man; well spoken and with the darkly handsome good looks associated with his mixed race heritage – an Indian mother and an aristocratic English father. Rowley Green has taken the shop next door and has set himself up as a preserver – or, as we’d call him today, a taxidermist. Rowley is a quiet, unassuming and unexceptionable young man, whose dark past is reason enough for him to wish to blend in quietly and lead a non-confrontational lifestyle; another reason he prefers his rather solitary profession. He is neat and tidy, slight of stature, with a mop of tow-coloured hair and wire-rimmed spectacles – and Clem has been drawn to the quiet dignity of the man and more than a little attracted to him since he joined the lodgers at Talleyfer’s eight months previously. Unbeknownst to Clem, the attraction is mutual and their joint dilemma is how to discover if each feels the same about the other and how to make a move or declaration at a time when men such as they had to hide their sexual preferences for fear of prosecution. The two begin to explore their liking for each other in the simple domesticity of sharing a cup of tea by Clem’s parlour fireside of an evening in quiet companionship.

The author does a terrific job in developing these two characters and I found myself drawn to the very ‘unusual-ness’ of them. It was obvious to me from early on in the story – and the author confirmed it in her notes at the end – that Clem suffers from dyspraxia. KJ Charles’ explanations of his foibles; his difficulty concentrating on a subject, his clumsiness – which some mistake for stupidity, his dislike at being part of a jostling crowd, his inability to understand a double-entendre, sarcasm or to take a hint – are spot-on. I have a friend whose child suffers with this condition which is why I recognised it immediately and it underscored to me how very thorough the author’s research is and how interesting and touching to give her character this very real problem which often goes undiagnosed, even in this day and age. Clem’s vulnerability only heightens his appeal – who couldn’t love him? And the fact that Rowley loves Clem – understands his idiosyncrasies and helps him to cope without being judgemental or critical only serves to endear him to me more; and it wasn’t long before this quiet, plain little man had wiggled his way into my affections along with the gorgeous Clem – two adorable, out-of-the-ordinary characters who are quite clearly made for each other.

The only fly in Clem’s ointment is the elderly, drunken vicar, Lugtrout, who lives at Talleyfer’s under sufferance, his presence being a condition of the lease set up by Clem’s aristocratic half-brother who owns the lodging house and employs Clem as its manager. There is an excellent plot going on at the same time as Clem and Rowley are discovering each other and making tentative steps in their love affair. The drunken vicar is delivered – extremely dead – onto the lodging house doorstep; there are empty teeth sockets in the vicars gaping mouth and some finger tips missing too – so this is definitely no accidental death! As well as this mystery, Rowley’s shop is illegally entered and searched and then later on in another incident it is set on fire and Rowley attacked. It isn’t long before Clem and Rowley accept that the crimes are connected and the two become even closer as they put their heads together to solve the mystery that is scaring them both to death.

An Unseen Attraction is a most unusual and compelling story and extremely well researched too – I know an awful lot more regarding the recording of births deaths and marriages in England than I ever did before! Plus the amount of research the author must have undertaken in order to write with such authority on a subject like taxidermy is phenomenal – lets face it, it’s not a subject that would appeal to the average reader – and her extensive research served its purpose because I was intrigued by Rowley’s craft; the skill and talent involved, and shall now look at stuffed animals with new eyes and added interest when next I visit the Natural History Museum. The murder/mystery is gripping and plausible and the setting sinister and threatening with the tension ratcheting up as a deadly fog descends and cloaks Victorian London in a pea-souper which thickens and obliterates the daylight to hang in the atmosphere and render visibility to nigh on nil. And the terror and fear felt by our two unlikely detectives as they finally discover the identity of the murderer and the reasons surrounding all that has befallen them is palpable. An Unseen Attraction is a fascinating page turner of a story with never a dull moment, some genuinely amusing ones and a charmingly tender romance between two ordinary yet extraordinary characters. My guess is that K.J Charles has another winner under her belt and I shall wait in anticipation for the next in what promises to be an excellent trilogy.

The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge by Elisabeth Hobbes

the saxon outlaw's revenge

At the mercy of her enemy!

Abducted by Saxon outlaws, Constance Arnaud comes face-to-face with Aelric, a Saxon boy she once loved. He’s now her enemy, but Constance must reach out to this rebel and persuade him to save her life as she once saved his

Aelric is determined to seek vengeance on the Normans who destroyed his family. Believing Constance deserted him, he can never trust her again. Yet, as they are thrown together and their longing for each other reignites, will Aelric discover that love is stronger than revenge?

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, December 2016

Time and Setting: England, 1068
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Heather C.

The Normans have recently defeated the Saxons and the bad blood is still brewing between those in charge and those who are subjugated. Aelric, a Saxon, lost his whole family when they were hung as traitors by the local baron, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of Constance, the girl with whom he is in love. Aelric subsequently goes on the run and his relationship with Constance abruptly ends, but years later when they have a chance encounter they have to work through their feelings to determine what – if anything – still remains between them.

There is not nearly enough historical fiction, romantic or otherwise, set around the time of the Norman invasion of England, a time full of so much upheaval and change that it is ripe for storytelling. Hobbes takes advantage of this upheaval and uses it to create the conflict between the main couple in this story. They are from two very different worlds and the place they live in is still very volatile and they must tread carefully.

Aelric and Constance have not seen or heard of each other for eight years.  While they remember the youthful love they shared, so much has changed in the time they have been apart; they have grown up and lived through many life experiences.  Can they get past all of the hurt and the secrets that have built up over time? Constance and Aelric are well-crafted characters; they are multidimensional and one can feel their emotions, the hurt and anger most keenly, and it’s easy to understand how difficult it will be for them to put the past behind them. For what they went through it would be very difficult to put the past behind them. I can’t say that I could identify with either of them exactly, but I found them realistic and interesting. The author has chosen to give Constance a physical disability, but while that makes the character unique,  I would have liked it to maybe have had more of an importance given that it was pointed out extensively early on. The peripheral characters are not as well fleshed-out as the two princials, but there are enough details to give the reader a sense of who they are, which was enough to enable me to keep track of who’s who.

The romance is primarily an emotional one as the Constance and Aelric rebuild their relationship and determine what they mean to each other. Although there are a couple of sex scenes – which have vastly different tones from each other – sex definitely takes a backseat in this novel. Beyond the romance, this story is chock full of drama right from the first scene. There is an ambush, a hostage situation, a mass execution, some spying, and a foiled plot that unfolds in an awesome way. The best part is that none of this felt out of place; the characters still acted very much the way I would expect them to for the time in which they live.

If you are looking for a book that is more of the action packed variety and lighter on the romance, or if you are looking for something set in an oft overlooked setting, The Saxon Outlaw’s Revenge this might be one to consider. It kept my attention all the way through and I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Stealing the Rogue’s Heart (Rookery Rogues #4) by Erica Monroe

stealing the rogue's heart

WHEN AN UNDERWORLD PRINCESS…

Beautiful, innocent Mina Mason has led a sheltered life as the sister to the most notorious crime lord in England. Her family’s wealth and expectations keep her in a gilded cage, never able to act on her true desires. Like kissing — and engaging in far more scandalous behavior with–Charlie Thatcher, her childhood best friend. As a member of a rival gang, Charlie is distinctly off-limits.

FALLS FOR THE WRONG MAN…

Charlie Thatcher has known since he was a boy where his loyalties should lie: with the Chapman Street Thieves, who saved him from a brutal death in the dark alleys of the Ratcliffe rookery. As a bartender for the Three Boars public house, he protects his fellow brothers with his mind and his fists. But when one of those members threatens Mina’s safety, Charlie’s primal, protective instincts are triggered–and his defense of her puts them both in danger.

PASSION MAY BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

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Publisher and Release Date: Quillfire Publishing, January 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1833
Genre: Historical Romance novella
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

Two street gangs, both alike in villainy,
In filthy London where we lay our scene.
From old rivalries to a fragile peace,
Torn asunder fighting for a girl’s esteem.

There is nothing like a romance between star-crossed lovers. The conflicts seem insurmountable but the emotions are almost as large to keep characters fighting for their relationship. In Stealing the Rogue’s Heart, Erica Monroe borrows a little from Romeo and Juliet to set the stage for her tale of love ripped apart by the brutality of the London slums.

In the Rookeries, loyalty to your gang is more important than blood or family. Control of the East End between three equally powerful street gangs: the Kings, the Chapman Street Gang and the Tanners, has kept the area in a state of relative peace for many years. Unfortunately the death of the Tanners’ leader has created a power vacuum that the other two gangs are ready to fill. Tensions are high but Mina Mason has always found a safe refuge from the danger in the company of her good friend Charlie Thatcher. Mina’s position as the younger sister of the Kings’ leader has kept her insulated from threats and Charlie’s ties to the Chapman Street Gang have also shielded her from unwanted attention. Little does Mina realize that her feelings of safety and protection are an illusion easily shattered.

Charlie has loved Mina for almost as long as he’s known her but his allegiance to the Chapman Street Gang doesn’t exactly put him in a position to court her. The Mason family is viewed as near royalty within the Rookeries and Mina has grown up with every convenience the Kings’ money can buy her. Charlie has had to content himself with being Mina’s friend and companion when she leaves her virtual palace to sit in his bar while he works. What Charlie doesn’t realize is that Mina’s reasons for being at his workplace have everything to do with her own deep feelings for him. She has long known that her love for Charlie goes well beyond the friendship he offers. One word from him and Mina would give up all of the luxuries her name affords her to live a simple life with a man who appreciates her for herself and not what her connections would bring.

Mina’s fear that her brother is planning to marry her off to someone loyal to the Kings has her hiding where she is the most comfortable – in Charlie’s pub. Unaware that hostilities between the gangs has reached its boiling point Mina makes the mistake of lingering too long within Chapman Street Gang territory and catches the eye of the wrong man. When he tries to assault her, Mina finds protection in Charlie’s arms; however the fight that ensues in the bar lights a fuse within both groups and Mina’s brother feels the time is right to make his power play andMina becomes a bargaining chip in his plans for more money and influence. Charlie’s actions to defend Mina put a target on his back by his own people and the murder of his opponent in the bar fight forces them to make an example of his perceived disloyalty. With an all-out war on the horizon Mina and Charlie must decide if their devotion to each other is stronger than any influence the gangs have on their lives.

The Rookery Rogues series is like a unicorn within the genre of Historical Romance. The setting and all of the characters are far, far away from the nobility or lavish country estates normally found in such stories . Mina, for as much as she is a rich girl within the sphere that she and Charlie come from, is still living off money gained through criminal activities. Charlie comes from almost nothing and his position in the Chapman Street Gang has forced him to fight or steal just to keep his place as a trusted lieutenant in the organization. The odds are against their ever escaping the rookeries but they both cling to the small bit of happiness they find in each other. Both characters are exceedingly likeable even if the circumstances they live in are dreary or perhaps more on the morally grey spectrum.

I haven’t read the other stories within this series; however Stealing the Rogue’s Heart seems to be a tipping point for serious changes within the Rookeries and both gangs. Watching Charlie and Mina come together while the worlds of the Kings and Chapman Street Gang are poised to fall apart makes this simple love story even more complex. Erica Monroe has just gained herself a new fan and I’ll be interested to see if the events here will be mentioned in future stories.

Claiming Mister Kemp (Baleful Godmother #4) by Emily Larkin

claiming mr kemp

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Lucas Kemp’s twin sister died last year. He’s put aside his mourning clothes, but not his heartache. If Lucas ever needed a friend, it’s now—and who should walk in his door but Lieutenant Thomas Matlock…

Lucas and Tom are more than just best friends; they’ve been in love with each other for years. In love with each other—and pretending not to know it.

But this time, Tom’s not going to ignore the attraction between them. This time, he’s going to push the issue.

He’s going to teach Lucas how to laugh again—and he’s going to take Lucas as his lover…

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Publisher and Release Date: Emily Larkin, February 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1808
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Wendy

I have heard such great things about Emily Larkin recently and read some excellent reviews from respected reviewers and friends. When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Claiming Mister Kemp I jumped at the opportunity and was not disappointed. From the first page to the last, I was invested in this delicious love story, the fourth in the author’s Baleful Godmothers series and shall definitely read the first three books on the strength of it. Having said that, it can be read as a standalone, especially as I believe it is the only m/m romance of the series.

Lieutenant Thomas Matlock has arrived back from Portugal in time to celebrate the birthday of his long-time friend, Lucas Kemp, only to find him completely inebriated and wallowing in solitude and tears as he remembers his twin sister, Julia. who died tragically, sixteen months earlier. Tom knows he loves Lucas as more than a friend, and following a recent brush with death he is determined that he will not not hide it from Lucas any longer. Tom is aware that he risks their long and close friendship but has decided that the time has come to acknowledge his desire and love and to make Lucas face up to it at the same time. Living in an era when they could be hanged for their sexual proclivities, Tom is risking a lot more than simple rejection.

Very much the worse for drink, and with his defences down, Lucas shares a passionate encounter with Tom. The next day he is ashamed but nevertheless having had a taste of what a relationship with Tom can bring him he can’t help secretly craving more. The next few fragile weeks pass and their tentative steps towards a relationship and maybe love seems possible, and for the first time in the dreadful months since the death of his beloved twin, it seems likely that Tom’s love and support may help Lucas to retreat from the edge of the black abyss on which he has been teetering.

These are two very compelling characters. Tom, the devil-may-care, army officer who has little material wealth and needs to work for a living is a happy, upbeat chap whom I couldn’t help liking. And then there’s the utterly gorgeous, privileged Lucas, rich, handsome and hopelessly innocent to boot. He has tried to be ‘normal’ but despite his best attempts has had no success with the opposite sex and is deeply ashamed of that fact and the fact that he is so strongly attracted to his best friend.

I loved this voyage of discovery for these two lovely men who have nursed their secret love for one another since their youth and Tom’s determination to make Lucas accept and acknowledge his love and desire without shame. Claiming Mister Kemp has quite a small word count and yet the author has managed to convey sensuality, love and passion whilst still acknowledging and highlighting Lucas’s reluctant love and overwhelming guilt. The story doesn’t feel rushed, which is no doubt helped by the fact that the lovers have a shared past – albeit as friends. Ms. Larkin certainly carried me along on this ride and she had me rooting for these two young men every step of the way; I wanted Lucas to overcome his guilt and for him and Tom to arrive at their well-deserved happy ending.  This is a compelling, heart-warming story and now that I have experienced an Emily Larkin gem I shall certainly put her on my reading list for the future.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

VT-LawrenceBrowneAffair-CSebastian_FINAL

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An earl hiding from his future . . . 

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . . 

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives? 

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, February 2017
Time and Setting: London and Cornwall, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

Lawrence Browne Affair CoverCat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl  – was one of my favourite books of 2016.  Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.

Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.  While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness.  He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy.  His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth.  Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too.  He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday.  He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.

The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother.  His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London.  He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark.  Once a con-man, always a con-man…

Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene.  Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly.  But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them.  Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man.  Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns.  Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself.  Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.

There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together.  Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there.  He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life.  Or if he even wants to.

The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other.   Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness.  Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love.  It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case.  If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.

EXCERPT

Cornwall, 1816

All this fuss about a couple of small explosions. As far as Lawrence cared, the explosions were entirely beside the point. He had finished experimenting with fuses weeks ago. More importantly, this was his house to burn to the ground if that’s what he wanted to do with it. Hell, if he blew the godforsaken place up, and himself right along with it, the only person who would even be surprised was the man sitting before him.

“Five servants quit,” Halliday said, tapping Lawrence’s desk in emphasis. Dust puffed up in tiny clouds around the vicar’s fingertips. “Five. And you were woefully understaffed even before then.”

Five fewer servants? So that was why the house had been so pleasantly quiet, why his work had been so blissfully undisturbed.

“There was no danger to the servants. You know I keep them away from my work.” That was something Lawrence insisted on even when he wasn’t exploding things. The very idea of chattering maids underfoot was enough to discompose his mind even further. “And I conducted most of the actual explosions out of doors.” Now was probably not the time to mention that he had blown the roof off the conservatory.

“All I’m suggesting is a sort of secretary.” Halliday was dangerously unaware of how close he was to witnessing an explosion of the metaphorical variety. “Somebody to keep records of what you’ve mixed together and whether it’s likely to”—he puffed his cheeks out and made a strange noise and an expansive gesture that Lawrence took to represent explosion—“ignite.”

The Reverend Arthur Halliday did not know what was good for him. If he did, he would have fled the room as soon as he saw Lawrence reach for the inkwell. Lawrence’s fingers closed around the object, preparing to hurl it at the wall behind the vicar’s head. Sod the man for even suggesting Lawrence didn’t know how to cause an explosion. He hadn’t invented Browne’s Improved Black Powder or even that bloody safety fuse through blind luck, for God’s sake.

“Besides,” Halliday went on, “you said you need an extra set of hands for this new device you’re working on.”

Oh, damn and blast. Lawrence knew he shouldn’t have told the vicar. But he had hoped Halliday might volunteer to help with the device himself, not badger Lawrence into hiring some stranger. The vicar was convenient enough, and when he wasn’t dead set on sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, he wasn’t entirely unpleasant company.

“I’ve had secretaries,” Lawrence said from between gritted teeth. “It ends badly.”

“Well, obviously, but that’s because you go out of your way to terrify them.” Halliday glanced pointedly at the inkwell Lawrence still held.

And there again was Halliday missing the point entirely. Lawrence didn’t need to go out of his way to frighten anyone. All he had to do was simply exist. Everyone with any sense kept a safe distance from the Mad Earl of Radnor, as surely as they stayed away from rabid dogs and coiled asps. And explosive devices, for that matter.
Except for the vicar, who came to Penkellis Castle three times a week. He likely also called on bedridden old ladies and visited the workhouse. Maybe his other charity cases were grateful, but the notion that he was the vicar’s good deed made Lawrence’s fingers curl grimly around the inkwell as he plotted its trajectory through the air.

“I’ll take care of the details,” Halliday was saying. “I’ll write the advertisement and handle the inquiries. A good secretary might even be able to manage the household a bit,” the vicar said with the air of a man warming to his topic, “get it into a fit condition for the child—”

“No.” Lawrence didn’t raise his voice, but he slammed his fist onto the desk, causing ink to splatter all over the blotter and the cuff of his already-inky shirt. A stack of papers slid from the desk onto the floor, leaving a single dustless patch of wood where they had been piled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a spider scurry out from under the papers.

“True,” Halliday continued, undaunted. “A housekeeper would be more appropriate, but—”

“No.” Lawrence felt the already fraying edges of his composure unraveling fast. “Simon is not coming here.”

“You can’t keep him off forever, you know, now that he’s back in England. It’s his home, and he’ll own it one day.”

When Lawrence was safely dead and buried, Simon was welcome to come here and do what he pleased. “I don’t want him here.” Penkellis was no place for a child, madmen were not fit guardians, and nobody knew those facts better than Lawrence himself, who had been raised under precisely those conditions.

Halliday sighed. “Even so, Radnor, you have to do something about this.” He gestured around the room, which Lawrence thought looked much the same as ever. One hardly even noticed the scorch marks unless one knew where to look. “It can’t be safe to live in such a way.”

Safety was not a priority, but even Lawrence wasn’t mad enough to try to explain that to the vicar.

“Villagers won’t even walk past the garden wall anymore. And the stories they invent…” The vicar wrung his hands.

“A secretary. Please. It would ease my mind to know you had someone up here with you.”

A keeper, then. Even worse.

But Lawrence did need another set of hands to work on the communication device. If Halliday wouldn’t help, then Lawrence had no other options. God knew Halliday had been right about the local people not wanting anything to do with him.

“Fine,” he conceded. “You write the advertisement and tell me when to expect the man.” He’d say what he needed to in order to end this tiresome conversation and send the vicar on his way.

It wasn’t as if this secretary would last more than a week or two anyway. Lawrence would see to that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CatCat Sebastian lives in a swampy part of the South with her husband, three kids, and two dogs. Before her kids were born, she practiced law and taught high school and college writing. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s doing crossword puzzles, bird watching, and wondering where she put her coffee cup.

You can connect with Cat at: Website * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Goodreads

Between the Devil and the Duke (Season for Scandal #3) by Kelly Bowen

between the devil and the duke

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Their love was always in the cards.

He should have thrown her out. But when club owner Alexander Lavoie catches a mysterious blonde counting cards at his vingt-et-un table, he’s more intrigued than angry. He has to see more of this beauty-in his club, in his office, in his bed. But first he’ll have to devise a proposition she can’t turn down.

Gossip said he was an assassin. Common sense told her to stay away. But Angelique Archer was desperate, and Lavoie’s club offered a surefire way to make quick money-until she got caught. Instead of throwing her out though, the devil offers her a deal: come work for him. Refusing him means facing starvation, but with a man so sinfully handsome and fiercely protective, keeping things professional might prove impossible . . .

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Publisher and Release Date: Forever, January 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1820
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Kelly Bowen’s Season for Scandal series has introduced several intelligent and resourceful female characters but the third book Between the Devil and the Duke takes things one step further. Lady Angelique Archer is a true genius whose gift with mathematics may be the only salvation for her family. Her strength and composure in the face of overwhelming odds are bound to get noticed by a man who makes probability his living.

The mysterious woman had caught Alexander Lavoie’s eye from the first night she entered his gaming hell and made her way to his vingt-et-un tables to challenge the high rollers. Her skill at dominating against seasoned players marked her as someone to pay attention to; however her demeanor in the club and her quick exits at the end of play communicated to Alex this woman did not want anyone’s eyes on her. Alex is intrigued enough to personally come to her aid when another player tries to get too close to the masked beauty. His regard for her rises even more as she manages to outflank his every attempt to learn her identity. Impressed with her abilities at the table as well as her unflappable demeanor at his questioning Alex does the only thing he can to keep her within his sights just a little longer. He offers her a job.

Lady Angelique knows she shouldn’t even consider Alex Lavoie’s proposition but the need to keep her family’s dire straits hidden from the rest of London society makes the decision for her. Angelique’s father quietly sold off everything of value before he died and her brother, the new Marquess of Hutton, isn’t smart enough to realize that their family’s good name is hanging by a thread. The chance to earn money to keep her younger brothers in school and perhaps rebuild the finances of the marquessate is enticement enough; however Angelique’s attraction to Lavoie could become too much of a distraction. Alex assures her that their arrangement will be business only and Angelique accepts his conditions to run the vingt-et-un tables for the club. Their partnership immediately shows returns as the players all flock to her parlor to play against the enigmatic dealer, all while her identity is safely disguised with a stunning gown and a simple mask.

Angelique’s hope that her employment will save her family’s name is destroyed when her brother is accused of a heinous crime and the evidence points to his guilt. With no friends or family to turn to, Angelique finds herself in the offices of Chegarre and Associates, an organization known throughout the ton for its skill in fixing impossible problems with the utmost discretion. The discovery that Alex is a partner in the firm doesn’t surprise Angelique, considering his reputation as a former assassin and spy. What does surprise her is his unwavering support for her while trying to discover who has framed her brother. As secrets from her family’s past are uncovered, Angelique and Alex’s partnership is reclassified from just a business arrangement into something that goes much deeper for the both of them.

Between the Devil and the Duke may not have a lofty peer as a main character, but Alex Lavoie proves that nobility isn’t just a matter of bloodlines. His awareness of Angelique starts with her physical appearance but he is quick to change gears when he learns of her brilliance and treats her as an intellectual equal. Not once does he try to manage Angelique or disrespect her opinions as they search for clues to her brother’s supposed crime. It’s quite easy to fall a little in love with Alex just for the care he takes to protect Angelique at every turn while refusing to hide truths that could impact her life dramatically. From almost the start Alex is smitten with Angelique but he allows her to come to him and pace their budding relationship at a speed she is comfortable with.

I love that Angelique is the whole package – brains and beauty – yet she still has insecurities that keep her humble. She’s a little unnerved by her strong attraction to Alex but is equally dazed by his regard for her. Angelique knows that she is smart but was always told that she had to hide that part of herself from a man for fear they couldn’t accept a female who knows more than they do. Alex not only encourages Angelique to use her brain but her talent with numbers comes in handy to impress some very tough characters to help them. Their relationship is seductive for how honest Angelique can be around Alex. With him she feels safe enough to reveal who she is underneath all of the social polish required by her station.

Each story in the Season for Scandal series has given readers a hero/heroine pairing that feels like so much more than just a simple romantic relationship. These men and women truly complement each other and the stories, like Between the Devil and the Duke are immersive and enjoyable reads.

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh

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Humphrey Wescott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery…

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.

An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead…

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Publisher and Release Date: Jove Books, February 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Bath, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Wendy

I am a huge Mary Balogh fan and there’s one thing that never changes – as soon as she publishes a new book, I must have it – and I’m never disappointed; her imagination is endless and her storylines still original after decades of writing. In part, at least, some of her popularity and continuing success is in the subtlety and empathy always present in her story telling; in the unique way she has of presenting her out-of-the-ordinary characters as if she herself has walked in their shoes and experienced what they are feeling. Ms. Balogh has used this method to great effect in Someone to Hold, the second book in her Westcott series. And I could name at least two more of her books where I have felt this aspect of her writing very strongly.

In book one (Someone to Love) we met, Lady Camille Westcott, one of the disinherited daughters’ of the deceased Earl of Riverdale. At the will reading Camille and her family are left reeling by the shocking revelation that she and her two siblings are illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was – unbeknownst to anyone – a bigamous one. Camille reacts badly to these revelations and comes over as a thoroughly unlikeable character. But Ms. Balogh shows us that there’s a lot more to Camille than meets the eye.  I ended up liking her a lot and she earned my respect and sympathy, too.

After these life changing revelations Camille hides herself away at her grandmother’s house in Bath, refusing to go out unless heavily veiled. Then one day she wakes up, gives herself a good talking to and decides to take her life in hand – she has done nothing wrong, done nothing to feel ashamed of; she will live her life, such as it is, and hold her head high. She is drawn to the orphanage where her half-sister, Anastasia Westcott, or Anna Snow as she was known, had lived for most of her life and was later employed as a teacher. The orphanage is in need of a teacher once more, the one who had replaced Anna being unsuitable; impulsively Camille offers her services and is taken on on a trial basis. She cannot explain her need to do it, she has no experience with children or of teaching, but something impels her to walk in Anna’s shoes, even going so far as to remove from the luxury of her grandmother’s home and to take up residence in the tiny room Anna had occupied at the orphanage.

Camille meets the earthy, down-to-earth, Joel Cunningham, a man who is as far removed from the perfectly correct aristocrats of her former life as he could be. Joel is also a former inmate of the orphanage and now returns twice weekly to give art lessons to the children in his free time. To make matters worse, he always had a soft spot for Anna – although she never wanted anything from him other than friendship. Joel and Camille begin their acquaintance by irritating each other intensely, but still, they are inexplicably attracted to each other. He reluctantly admires her approach to teaching even though she appears clueless and retains her stiff-upper-lip, starchy persona and rarely smiles. Nevertheless, she has a natural ability and engages the children to such a degree that they look forward to and enjoy her lessons. This is something else I have always noticed about Ms. Balogh’s writing; in her younger life she was a school teacher and it is apparent in the way she understands and talks about children – particularly in this story.

Joel, like Anna Snow before him, has always been supported by an anonymous benefactor; more recently that benefactor has paid for Joel to attend professional art lessons to further develop his natural artistic talent. As a result he has earned himself a reputation in Bath as a superior portrait painter, and Camille’s grandmother has jumped on the bandwagon of the well-heeled inhabitants of Bath and commissioned portraits of her granddaughters. Camille is not best pleased by this plan as it means yet more time in his company whilst he makes preliminary sketches of her. Joel has an unorthodox approach when compared to other portraitists; he likes to get to know and spend time with his subjects, observing them as they chat and capturing an inner something he alone sees – he then pours this knowledge into his art with such great effect that it sets him above his peers. As a result of his observations, he begins to see the real Camille beneath the prim and proper walls she has erected against the pain she has suffered and learned to hide; for years craving her selfish father’s affection but failing to gain even a crumb of his attention. As a result of their interaction, the attraction between them deepens and soon becomes more intense. But there are many hurdles to jump before they can achieve their HEA. Camille can’t just change overnight, raised as she was as a very proper young lady. Joel, on the other hand was brought up in an orphanage – so even though at this point in their lives they are both relatively poor, both illegitimate and, therefore, on the face of it – equal – the chasm between them seems wide indeed.

I loved both these characters – they’re so vulnerable and real. Joel is adorable – if annoying occasionally in his indecisiveness – and Camille has to learn to love and trust him in spite of it while at the same time, attempting to change the habits of a lifetime.  She also needs to believe in the unconditional love of her family and to accept that just because her father failed her doesn’t mean that her extended family has followed suit. The love story between Camille and Joel is a voyage of discovery for both of them as their previously held ideals and prejudices crumble and they learn to accept and admit their love for each other and finally find Someone to Hold against all odds. I enjoyed meeting the family again, too, especially Avery whom I adored in Someone to Love. He is still his omniscient, wise self, still going to great lengths to project his seeming ennui to all around him, whilst barely managing to disguise the deeply caring side of his nature. I am very much looking forward to book three in which we see Alexander – the reluctant earl who inherited his title by default – find his Someone to Wed. This is a lovely series so far and one I highly recommend.

 

To Tame a Wild Lady (Duke-Defying Daughters #2) by Ashlyn Macnamara

to tame a wild lady

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Lady Caroline Wilde is expected to ride sidesaddle, but she’s not about to embrace convention. She’s also expected to keep a chaste distance from men like Adrian Crosby, the new estate agent, yet she cannot cease her ogling—which is especially irksome considering their ongoing feud. Adrian insists that the fields must be planted; Caro needs those same fields to train her horses. But whenever she tries to put him in his place, Caro looks into his steely gaze and her words simply … disappear.

A bastard son who grew up on the Wyvern estate, Adrian was lucky enough to receive an education at the behest of the late marchioness. Now that he has set out on his own, Adrian knows better than to fall for Lady Caroline, the Duke of Sherrington’s daughter. Caroline is at once a thorn in his side and an exquisite temptation, especially when she’s playing the feisty daredevil. Adrian would give anything for a chance to tame her—and with Caro in the saddle, he just might get his wish.

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Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, January 2017

Time and setting:  1822, Suffolk, England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 Stars

Review by Vikki

This second book in Ashlyn Macnamara’s Duke Defying Daughters series, To Tame a Wild Lady is well-written with engaging characters, a great storyline and a fast pace. While there are no explosive, action-packed scenes, I did not miss them. This novel is an excellent example of why I love to read historical romance so much.

Lady Caroline loves riding astride with the wind tossing her curls about her face. Unfortunately, a duke’s daughter is expected to exhibit exemplary decorum, always. Her hoydenish ways get in the way of that much of the time.  The new estate agent is the type of man her father would never want her to acknowledge let alone find attractive, but she disagrees. He’s exactly the kind of man she wants.

Adrian Cosby arrives at Sherrington Hall, ready to take up the management of the duke’s estate. The previous steward was embezzling funds,  and now it’s Adrian’s responsibility to make sure the property becomes solvent again. What he does not count on is the duke’s hoydenish middle daughter trying to circumvent him at every turn.

Can he remember his station and deny his attraction when the lady is determined to capture his attention?

Lady Caroline’s character is charming in a different way. She is not interested in society. She loves her horses and wants to participate in a hunt desperate, which is not done by gently bred ladies during this history time. I loved her fierce determination to accomplish her goal. Her love for her sisters is endearing. I enjoyed her inner-turmoil over her growing feelings for Adrian. Ms. MacNamara writes with just the right amount of emotion, making me fall in love with Lady Caroline, even though, she is not my favorite character arch. Well done!

Who does not love an underdog? Adrian Crosby’s character fits that description perfectly. He is the son of a tenant and has no knowledge of his father. The steward at the Wyvern estate took him under his wing with the blessing of the late marchioness. Now he has a chance to fulfill a dream by taking the position of estate agent to the Duke of Sherrington. He has a problem. He is vastly attracted to the duke’s middle daughter, Lady Caroline, a hoyden to the extreme. I loved the inner-workings of his mind as he tries to push away the desire he feels for the lady. He is my favorite kind of hero, an honorable man.

Ms. MacNamara’s writing flows smoothly, it is descriptive without going too far, and she writes with plenty of heart. I now plan to read the first book in this series – not sure how I missed it. I highly recommend To Tame a Wild Lady to anyone who loves historical romances. This is one for my keeper shelf!

The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory

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“This, madam, changes everything.”

Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…

Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, January 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1811
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Sarah Mallory merges two romantic tropes together surprisingly well in her latest release, The Duke’s Secret Heir. A big misunderstanding separates our main characters for a time and their secret baby plays a major role in their strained reconciliation. What could have been a frustrating read becomes quite interesting as we see how a couple can overcome such difficulties to form a lasting relationship.

During a warm summer in Egypt, Miss Ellen Tatham and Major Max Colnebrooke fell in love. It was an instant attraction and a whirlwind courtship but Max and Ellen knew that it was meant to be and said their “I Do’s” in front of the army chaplain before consummating their marriage. Unfortunately the instability in the region pushes Max to arrange passage for his new wife and her companion back to England with another officer. Those plans unexpectedly change when Ellen is separated from the English forces and they are rescued from Egypt by a French diplomat who uses his connections to get her back home. The lines of communication between Max and Ellen are further complicated when she writes to the Home Office to locate her new husband and is told there is no record of a Major Colnebrooke stationed in Egypt. Fearing that she had fallen prey to a scoundrel and was now ruined for another, Ellen retreats back to her home and hopes her family will help her start over.

In the four intervening years Max and Ellen have become very different people from who they were in Egypt. Upon discovering that his wife had left the country with a Frenchman, Max threw himself into his command and led several successful charges on the French forces where he lost some good soldiers. His guilt over their deaths, compounded with his anger at Ellen’s betrayal led Max to ignore many of his responsibilities back in England including a dukedom he inherited from his older brother. Ellen’s life was thrown into turmoil once she realized she was carrying Max’s child and there was no way of finding the man she had married. With the support of her step-mother, Ellen built a life for herself in High Harrogate as an unassuming widow raising her son alone. The friendships she makes give her some comfort but everything in her life now revolves around her son James’ wellbeing.

Max slowly embraces his role as Duke of Rossenhall while keeping close ties with the men he served with and it’s the news of a friend’s illness that brings him to Harrogate. Hoping to make his friend’s last days as enjoyable as possible Max allows himself to be shown off to the local gentry and accepts an invitation to a ball held in town. It is there that his past and his present collide when his friend’s wife introduces him to her own good friend Mrs. Ellen Furnell. Furious at discovering his wife has been in England since their separation, Max barely controls himself enough to confirm to her that they are indeed married to each other and a divorce will be imminent. Ellen is brokenhearted to learn that her marriage was in fact legitimate but that her estranged husband has no love left in his heart for what they once were to each other. It’s only Max’s chance meeting with his son Jamie that stays his hand enough for them to discuss what might come next.

Reading The Duke’s Secret Heir was challenging because I found it difficult to like Max. He comes across as quite charming in Ellen’s memories of their time together in Egypt but from almost his first moments on the page he seems arrogant and unnecessarily cruel. When Ellen tries to explain what had happened during their escape Max hears her words but doesn’t listen to what she is saying. His attitude has been tainted by years of holding Ellen responsible for his own recklessness while leading his men into danger just to forget her. Somewhere in his mind Max realizes that blaming her for his own actions is wrong; however it was always easier to blame someone not involved rather than facing his own culpability.

I liked Ellen’s characterization and her willingness to accept her own mistakes that led to the years of separation. It’s much easier to understand why Ellen made the choices she did to hide herself and protect Jamie. I also loved how determined she is to become the duchess Max needs her to be despite his distrust towards her and how he fails to support her in those attempts. I never felt Ellen was a doormat kind of heroine but at some point I wished she would get angry right back at Max to perhaps snap him from his self-indulgent moping. For the most part she comes across as a caring, thoughtful woman who has learned her lessons and become much better for the experience.

Overall I liked The Duke’s Secret Heir enough to recommend it. The story moves quickly to get a reader past all the anger and sadness Max and Ellen feel at their reunion to let the second chance romance shine through.

Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal by Virginia Heath

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She’d done it! Plain, invisible Evelyn had escaped…

Fed up with being a doormat to her evil stepmother, heiress Evelyn Bradshaw pays a dissolute rake to pose as her betrothed so she can secure her freedom. But then her fake fiancé leaves her with his estranged brother Finn Matlock and disappears!

Having withdrawn from the world the last thing Finn needs is the temptation of a woman, especially one like Evie. She has an irritating habit of causing chaos wherever she goes and being in places she shouldn’t…including, as he soon learns, his heart!

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

Time and Setting: London and Yorkshire, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

In Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal, Virginia Heath offers an enjoyable re-working of the Cinderella story in which our downtrodden – but determined –  heroine is a fully-rounded character with a nicely fleshed-out backstory who doesn’t need to rely on her Prince not-so Charming in order to effect her escape from her horrible relatives.  Prince –or rather, Lord – Grumpy is, however a rather attractive consequence of that escape, and watching the sparks fly as they gradually and quite plausibly fall in love makes for a lovely, romantic read.

Miss Evelyn Bradshaw is twenty-six, plump, frumpy and firmly on the shelf.  Having spent the best part of the last decade nursing first her mother, and then her father when he fell ill some years later, she feels that youth has passed her by and that love and marriage are no longer things to which she can aspire.  Her father’s remarriage to a selfish money-grabber with two equally unpleasant daughters saw Evelyn – Evie – constantly belittled and thrust into the background to the extent that even she believes herself to be practically invisible; but his death offers her the prospect of freedom.  Mr. Bradshaw has left his considerable fortune to Evie, and she is finally determined to escape her step-mother’s orbit, leave London for good and make a life for herself somewhere else.  All Evie has to do is scrape up the courage to announce her plans, but even though Hyacinth Bradshaw has not treated Evie well (although she’s stopped short of getting her to clean the grates and scrub the floors!), Evie has never been able to forget her father’s insistence that she treat her stepmother with respect, and has always done whatever it took to ensure a quiet life.

Unable to just come out and tell Hyacinth of her determination to set up her own home, Evie instead offers the sum of five thousand pounds to the handsome but dissolute Fergus Matlock, Marquis of Stanford, if he will pretend to be her fiancé for the next few months.  The Marquis, who is deeply in debt, agrees to the scheme, and Evie is set to travel to his Yorkshire estate on the pretext of preparing for their wedding. In reality, she will look about for a house to purchase and once she has found one, the betrothal will quietly be ended, and Evie will remain in Yorkshire, well away from London and her stepmother’s constant bullying.

Arriving at Stanford Hall a few days later in the company of her elderly aunt, Evie is pleasantly surprised to discover the place in a much better state of repair than she had been led to believe.  Later that night, when Evie can’t sleep, she wanders down to the library, only to come across Fergus, who is supposed to be staying at a local inn in order to observe the proprieties.  But something is not quite right about him and Evie soon discovers why; he’s not Fergus at all, but his identical twin brother Finnegan, and this is Matlock House, not Stanford House.  It’s clear there is no love lost between the brothers, and Finn makes very clear his displeasure at his twin’s presumption in dumping his fiancée at his house, but Evie refuses to be intimidated by his ungracious manner. Nonetheless, she feels she should remove to Stanford House as soon as possible, but true to form as a cad of the first order, Fergus has already left Yorkshire with the advance on the “fee” Evie had given him.  Finn is not surprised – he tells Evie (not for the first time) that his brother is an unreliable wastrel and that she shouldn’t marry him, but this is the new Evie, the Evie that sticks up for herself and doesn’t cower when confronted with the scowling, brusque brother of a marquis, and she insists that she knows perfectly well what Fergus is and that he suits her well enough.

Finn Matlock is a widower of some three years, and since his wife’s death, has buried himself in this corner of Yorkshire, his life consisting of seeing to his estate business and not much else.  He doesn’t socialise, he doesn’t have guests  – until now – and he wants to keep it that way – so the stirrings of attraction he feels towards his brother’s voluptuous fiancée are both unexpected and unwelcome.  Yet very soon, he finds himself admiring her backbone and determination as much as her lush body and, though he’d never admit it, looking forward to breakfast each day, as that’s the only time of day he dares to let himself spend with her.  Every morning, he not-so-subtly baits her, enjoying her completely unfazed responses to his jibes about his brother and his attempts to persuade her not to marry him, her casual manner of taking no notice of his heavy hints about her departure and the way she ignores his regular criticisms of her – admittedly horrible – clothes (a leftover from the days of Hyacinth’s influence over her wardrobe).

This daily ritual becomes important to Evie, too, as she likes the way Finn challenges her and the person she is when she’s with him. She is sure that a handsome, wealthy man like him could have no real interest in an overly plump, aging spinster like her – even if he wasn’t still in love with his late wife – and recognises that falling for him is a terrible idea.  But even as she realises that, she knows it’s too late for caution; the real Finn, the kind, protective man who hides his deep hurt and true nature beneath that outer shell of bad-temper and cynicism has stolen her heart.

Away from London, Evie transforms from the doormat she’s always describing herself as into a more confident, independent young woman who is looking forward to the rest of her life because it will be one she has built on her own terms.  This is one of the things that makes this version of the fairy tale so appealing;  Evie finds the wherewithal to go out and make a life of her own from within and doesn’t need a man to rescue her – although she does, of course find true love along the way.  And for all his outward grumpiness, Finn is perfect for her.  He is determined to fight his ever growing attraction to Evie, but her vitality and her growing self-confidence are so completely enticing that it eventually proves irresistible; so not only is Evie changed by their association, but Finn also comes to accept that the guilt he still feels over his wife’s death is misplaced, and that he is allowed to be happy and move on with his life.

This is – I think – the fourth book of Ms. Heath’s I’ve read and I continue to be impressed by her strong storytelling and thoughtful characterisations.  While Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal undoubtedly treads a well-worn path, the author has managed to keep it fresh by throwing in a number of small, but satisfying twists that add depth and insight to this familiar tale.  She writes with a great deal of warmth and humour, creating the most wonderful chemistry between her principals as well as treating us to some moments of poignancy and emotional truth that quite took my breath away.

If you haven’t yet tried a book by Virginia Heath, then you have a treat in store.  I guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back to read her others and then, like me, will be eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.