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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.

Wild, Wicked Scot (Highland Grooms #1) by Julia London

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Wicked intrigue unfolds as an unlikely marriage leads to a path of risky desire in the lush, green Scottish Highlands…

Born into riches and groomed in English luxury, Margot Armstrong didn’t belong in a Scottish chieftain’s devil-may-care world. Three years ago she fled their marriage of convenience and hasn’t looked back—except to relive the moments spent in wild, rugged Arran McKenzie’s passionate embrace. But as their respective countries’ fragile unity threatens to unravel, Margot must return to her husband to uncover his role in the treachery before her family can be accused of it.

Red-haired, green-eyed Margot was Arran’s beautiful bride. Her loss has haunted him, but her return threatens everything he has gained. As the Highland mists carry whispers of an English plot to seize McKenzie territory, he must outmanoeuvre her in games of espionage…and seduction. But even as their secrets tangle together, there’s nothing to prevent love from capturing them both and leading them straight into danger.

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Publisher and Release Date: HQN Books, December 2016

Time and Setting: England and Scotland, 1706-10
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Wendy

A marriage of convenience is a favourite trope of mine and in Wild Wicked Scot Margot Armstrong certainly hits it lucky in her father’s choice of husband, the deliciously rugged Scottish chieftain Arran McKenzie, Baron of Balhaire. However, these are dangerous times between England and Scotland and this marriage of convenience is built upon very shaky ground with Margot a pawn in the games of powerful men and the politics of the two countries.

The story opens with a prologue and a series of flashbacks. In the prologue Margot is an immature seventeen year old with very entrenched ideas as to what makes the perfect man; and unfortunately for her, Arran McKenzie doesn’t tick any of those boxes. But she has no choice in the matter, and in the interests of her powerful father and her Wild Wicked Scot, she is the sacrificial lamb in their machinations to help broker an uneasy alliance between Scotland and England – not to mention the added bonus of money and lands which such a union will bring. As the story gets underway Margot has already left her husband and is now returning to him after an absence of three years. Their marriage had floundered after only four months when she ran back to England.

Arran McKenzie is a lovely character, well developed and extremely likeable and my sympathy was with him all the way through. To begin with, Margot is quite irritating – although to be fair, she was very young, and she did her limited, childish best to fit into Arran’s world. But her attempt to transport her much loved tonnish lifestyle into the depths of the Scottish Highlands was, quite obviously, doomed to failure, especially as she only half-heartedly attempted to become the Laird’s lady in truth. Margot considered herself to be neglected outside of the bedchamber, but she failed to understand what a busy man Arran was with his many responsibilities – to his clan, his prosperous, time-consuming continental sea trading business and the personal training of his first rate soldiers. And so Margot runs away and returns to her frivolous lifestyle in England. Then, after three years during which she has no contact whatsoever with her husband, her autocratic father again pulls her strings and she is sent back to Balhaire, this time with the hidden agenda of spying on her husband. Quite understandably, she is subjected to a host of suspicious Scots; not least of whom is her husband who cannot believe that she has suffered a complete about-turn.

There are a number of inconsistencies about the relationship between Arran and Margot that niggled at me. They obviously enjoyed a very satisfactory love-life after their marriage, which I would have thought would have counted in Arran’s favour. But no, this isn’t enough for Margot to try to build a life with her gorgeous husband so she just ups and leaves without a word. That said, the problems don’t all fall on her side, because Arran just lets her go without even asking her why. Then, he meekly sends her enough money to live comfortably even though her desertion has humiliated him in front of his entire clan. None of this rings true. Nor does the fact that Arran is repeatedly described as being ‘wild and wicked’, when he’s nothing of the sort; he’s just a man with lusty appetites for all things, and is a loyal, honourable man with oodles of integrity right from the beginning – and he’s certainly no push-over. I also couldn’t believe that Margot’s father would have accepted her return to his house after only four months, especially given the trouble he went to to arrange the match. Margot is somewhat redeemed once she begins to see Arran as he really is and sets out determinedly to win his love and trust, but her character is definitely the least engaging of the two.

There is a reasonably well developed plot which deals with the question of Arran’s loyalties, but because of the inconsistencies in the romance, I was taken out of the story and found this fairly important point overshadowed. The author’s attempts to use the highland vernacular – in particular her overly frequent use of the word “aye” – were also very distracting.

Overall, Wild, Wicked Scot is an uneven read, and is raised to the slightly above average bracket by the character of Arran, who is simply gorgeous. The story is nicely written so I would be interested to see how the rest of the series plays out.

VIRTUAL TOUR: Lord Sebastian’s Secret (The Duke’s Sons #3) by Jane Ashford

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Proud. Cunning. Battle-hardened. Lord Sebastian Gresham is the epitome of military might and excellence. He’s wealthy. The son of a Duke. There’s just one problem: he can’t read. It’s those damned words. He doesn’t see them in the same way everyone else does. It’s a secret he’ll never tell, certainly not to his new bride-to-be.

Brilliant. Witty. Beautiful. Lady Georgina Stane has always known she’d make the perfect bride, that is, if her eccentric family didn’t scare off every potential suitor from London to Bath. After carefully orchestrating a London season with her parents out of the picture, she secured an engagement to an impeccable gentleman. And when Lord Sebastian arrives at her family’s estate to meet her parents, she’s not about to let their antics ruin her perfect marriage.

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Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, January 2017

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

Review by Lady Cicely

Can love survive secrets? Lord Sebastian Gresham is madly in love with Lady Georgina Stane and she with him; however, they both harbor secrets.

Georgina’s secret comes to light the moment Sebastian steps foot in her family home. Georgina fears it will affect Sebastian enough for him to call off the wedding, and it soon appears her fears may be well founded.

Sebastian is terribly ashamed of his secret. So ashamed his family isn’t aware of it, and it’s something only his trusted valet knows. It’s a secret he prays his beloved will never uncover, for if she does he worries she will no longer love him. When Sebastian’s secret comes to light will it cement the love between them or break them apart?

A pack of pugs, an eccentric family (and that’s putting it mildly), mischievous sisters, and a loon governess provide added stress to the lovebirds while entertaining the reader.

Lord Sebastian’s Secret is the third in Jane Ashford’s series The Duke’s Sons. Ms. Ashford writes a sweet tale of love no matter the circumstances, and her writing style pulled me into feeling each character’s fears. She had me laughing at the antics of Georgina’s family, holding my breath in anticipation of Georgina’s reaction when she learns Sebastian’s secret and weeping when Georgina learns what it is and the way she handles it.

This is the first book I have read of Ms. Ashford’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her mention of Sebastian’s family, their suspicions of his difficulty and the way they handle it has me wanting to go back and read the rest of the series.

EXCERPT

Sebastian closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. He could all too easily picture the astonishing news that he had eloped running through his family—the letters flying back and forth, the disbelief and consternation. The surreptitious brotherly smirking. An image of his mother’s astonished face made him wince.

“Some people think I don’t care about convention,” muttered the marquess. “Not true. And this was too much. An elopement!”

“Except that it wasn’t, Papa,” Georgina pointed out. “It was an unfortunate accident. I think you might have had more faith in my character.”

Frowning at the floor, the older man said something too softly to be heard. Sebastian thought it might have been,

“It wasn’t you I was worried about.”

“The duchess is sending your brother,” said Georgina’s mother. She tried to speak blandly, but Sebastian got a clear sense of a woman getting the better of an argument at last.

The marquess glared at the group with a mixture of defiance and contrition.

“Which brother?” Sebastian asked.

“Randolph,” supplied his hostess.

Sebastian groaned softly. If anything could have killed his appetite at this point, the news that a brother had been dispatched to sort him out would have done it. He supposed this was his mother’s idea of just retribution for what she probably characterized as “antics.” She would have known that he would never elope.

If she’d had to send a brother, she could’ve drafted Robert. He’d have made a joke of the whole matter and charmed everyone so thoroughly that they saw it the same way. Alan or James might have refused to be embroiled in such a tangle at all. Nathaniel was still on his honeymoon. Mama couldn’t order him and Violet about quite so easily, anyway.

Randolph, though. Sebastian nearly groaned again. Randolph was usually glad for an excuse to take a few days’ leave from his far-northern parish. And he positively delighted in helping. Sebastian supposed that was why he’d become a parson. Part of the reason. He’d also been asking “why” since he could speak. According to family legend, that had been the first word Randolph learned. Sebastian certainly remembered being followed about by a relentlessly inquisitive toddler.

Nathaniel, a responsible six-year-old, had become so tired of saying he didn’t know that he’d taken to making things up. Sebastian still sometimes had to remind himself that discarded snakeskins were products of reptilian growth rather than intense surprise. Sebastian smiled. Randolph had spent several months trying to startle snakes out of their skin after that tale.

Then Sebastian’s smile died, and he put down his last sandwich. Randolph would revel in Mr. Mitra and the marquess’s lectures on reincarnation. There would be no end to his questions, or to the incomprehensible discussions after the ladies had left the dinner table. Sebastian only just resisted putting his head in his hands.

Georgina was looking at him, though, her expression anxious. He tried a reassuring smile. From her response, he judged that it was only marginally effective. He bolstered it, vowing to deal with Randolph. He would face anything to save her distress.

Georgina stood, holding her still half-full plate to her chest. “I believe I’ll go to my room now,” she said. “I’m quite tired.”

Her father looked guilty, her mother approving. Sebastian wondered at the determination on her face. It seemed excessive for a walk up a few steps. Was her leg hurting? One look at her father told him he would not be allowed to assist her to a bed.

Night had deepened by the time Georgina managed to hunt down Hilda and corner her in a little-used reception room, where she’d apparently been holed up for a good while, judging from the cake crumbs. Georgina stationed herself between her youngest sister and the door and confronted her with hands on hips. “Have you lost your mind?” she demanded.

For a moment, it seemed that Hilda might deny everything, but then she slumped back on the sofa and let out a long sigh. “I only meant to leave you overnight, but everything went wrong from the very first. Whitefoot didn’t like being led. He jerked the rein right out of my hand and ran away. I had to take your Sylph to the Evans farm before I could chase after him. It took hours before I got him there as well.” She paused and looked indignant. “Emma abandoned me! She turned tail and rode home. And she’s been practically hiding in her bedchamber ever since.”

“Perhaps she feels a sense of remorse for having done something absolutely outrageous,” Georgina suggested.

Hilda wrinkled her nose. “Well, we came back first thing the next morning to get you.”

“That does not excuse…”

“And you were gone!” Hilda actually dared to look reproachful. “As if you’d vanished into thin air.”

“Thick mud, more like,” said Georgina.

“If you had just waited, or only walked a little way along the trail, we would have found you. And there wouldn’t have been such a very great fuss. Why didn’t you? How could you be so clumsy as to fall into a gully?” Hilda cocked her head. “I never even knew it was there.”

“Don’t even dream of blaming this on me!” Georgina gazed at her sister. They were alike in coloring and frame, but apparently their minds ran on entirely different paths.

GIVEAWAY

There are TEN (10) copies of the first book in The Duke’s Sons series – Heir to the Duke up for grabs – enter the giveaway at Rafflecopter!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

jane-ashford_-author-photoJANE ASHFORD, a beloved author of historical romances, has been published in Sweden, Italy, England, Denmark, France, Russia, Latvia, and Spain, as well as the United States. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews.

You can connect with Jane at www.janeashford.com * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Goodreads

VIRTUAL TOUR : Lady Claire is All That (Keeping Up With the Cavendishes #3) by Maya Rodale

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Her Brains

Claire Cavendish is in search of a duke, but not for the usual reasons. The man she seeks is a mathematician; the man she unwittingly finds is Lord Fox: dynamic, athletic, and as bored by the equations Claire adores as she is by the social whirl upon which he thrives. As attractive as Fox is, he’s of no use to Claire . . . or is he?

Plus His Brawn

Fox’s male pride has been bruised ever since his fiancée jilted him. One way to recover: win a bet that he can transform Lady Claire, Society’s roughest diamond, into its most prized jewel. But Claire has other ideas—shockingly steamy ones. . .

Equals A Study In Seduction

By Claire’s calculations, Fox is the perfect man to satisfy her sensual curiosity. In Fox’s estimation, Claire is the perfect woman to prove his mastery of the ton. But the one thing neither of them counted on is love . . .

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EXCERPT

“Just who does she think she is?” Fox wondered aloud.

“She’s Arabella Vaughn. Beautiful. Popular. Enviable. Every young lady here aspires to be her. Every man here would like a shot with her,” Mowbray answered.

“She’s you, but in petticoats,” Rupert said, laughing.

It was true. He and Arabella were perfect together.

Like most men, he’d fallen for her at first sight after catching a glimpse of her across a crowded ballroom. She was beautiful in every possible way: a tall, lithe figure with full breasts; a mouth made for kissing and other things that gentlemen didn’t mention in polite company; blue eyes fringed in dark lashes; honey gold hair that fell in waves; a complexion that begged comparisons to cream and milk and moonlight.

Fox had taken one look at her and thought: mine.

They were a perfect match in beauty, wealth, social standing, all that. They both enjoyed taking the ton by storm. He remembered the pride he felt as they strolled through a ballroom arm in arm and the feeling of everyone’s eyes on them as they waltzed so elegantly.

They were great together.

They belonged together.

Fox also remembered the more private moments—so many stolen kisses, the intimacy of gently pushing aside a wayward strand of her golden hair, promises for their future as man and wife. They would have perfect children, and entertain the best of society, and generally live a life of wealth and pleasure and perfection, together.

Fox remembered his heart racing—nerves!—when he proposed because this beautiful girl he adored was going to be his.

And then she had eloped. With an actor.

It burned, that. Ever since he’d heard the news, Fox had stormed around in high dudgeon. He was not accustomed to losing.

“Take away her flattering gowns and face paint and she’s just like any other woman here,” Fox said, wanting it to be true so he wouldn’t feel the loss so keenly. “Look at her, for example.”

Rupert and Mowbray both glanced at the woman he pointed out—a short, frumpy young lady nervously sipping lemonade. She spilled some down the front of her bodice when she caught three men staring at her.

“If one were to offer her guidance on supportive undergarments and current fashions and get a maid to properly style her coiffure, why, she could be the reigning queen of the haute ton,” Fox pointed out.

Both men stared at him, slack jawed.

“You’ve never been known for being the sharpest tool in the shed, Fox, but now I think you’re really cracked,” Mowbray said. “You cannot just give a girl a new dress and make her popular.”

“Well, Mowbray, maybe you couldn’t. But I could.”

“Gentlemen . . .” Rupert cut in. “I don’t care for the direction of this conversation.”

“You honestly think you can do it,” Mowbray said, awed.

He turned to face Mowbray and drew himself up to his full height, something he did when he wanted to be imposing. His Male Pride had been wounded and his competitive spirit—always used to winning—was spoiling for an opportunity to triumph.

“I know I can,” Fox said with the confidence of a man who won pretty much everything he put his mind to—as long as it involved sport, or women. Arabella had been his first, his only, loss. A fluke, surely.

“Well, that calls for a wager,” Mowbray said.

The two gentlemen stood eye to eye, the tension thick. Rupert groaned.

“Name your terms,” Fox said.

“I pick the girl.”

“Fine.”

“This is a terrible idea,” Rupert said. He was probably right, but he was definitely ignored.

“Let me see . . . who shall I pick?” Mowbray made a dramatic show of looking around the ballroom at all the ladies nearby. There were at least a dozen of varying degrees of pretty and pretty hopeless.

Then Mowbray’s attentions fixed on one particular woman. Fox followed his gaze, and when he saw who his friend had in mind, his stomach dropped.

“No.”

“Yes,” Mowbray said, a cocky grin stretching across his features.

“Unfortunately dressed I can handle. Shy, stuttering English miss who at least knows the rules of society? Sure. But one of the Americans?”

Fox let the question hang there. The Cavendish family had A Reputation the minute the news broke that the new Duke of Durham was none other than a lowly horse trainer from the former colonies. He and his sisters were scandalous before they even set foot in London. Since their debut in society, they hadn’t exactly managed to win over the haute ton, either, to put it politely.

“Now, they’re not all bad,” Rupert said. “I quite like Lady Bridget . . .”

But Fox was still in shock and Mowbray was enjoying it too much to pay any mind to Rupert’s defense of the Americans.

“The bluestocking?”

That was the thing: Mowbray hadn’t picked just any American, but the one who already had a reputation for being insufferably intelligent, without style or charm to make herself more appealing to the gentlemen of the ton. She was known to bore a gentleman to tears by discussing not the weather, or hair ribbons, or gossip of mutual acquaintances, but math.

Lady Claire Cavendish seemed destined to be a hopeless spinster and social pariah.

Even the legendary Duchess of Durham, aunt to the new duke and his sisters, hadn’t yet been able to successfully launch them into society and she’d already had weeks to prepare them! It seemed insane that Fox should succeed where the duchess failed.

But Fox and his Male Pride had never, not once, backed away from a challenge, especially not when the stakes had never been higher. He knew two truths about himself: he won at women and he won at sport.

He was a winner.

And he was not in the mood for soul searching or crafting a new identity when the old one suited him quite well. Given this nonsense with Arabella, he had to redeem himself in the eyes of the ton, not to mention his own. It was an impossible task, but one that Fox would simply have to win.

“Her family is hosting a ball in a fortnight,” Mowbray said. “I expect you to be there—with Lady Claire on your arm as the most desirable and popular woman in London.”

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, December 2016
Time and Setting: England, 1824
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

The books in Maya Rodale’s current series, Keeping Up With the Cavendishes are all loosely based on well-known movie plots. The first book, Lady Bridget’s Diary… well, that’s pretty obvious. The second, Chasing Lady Amelia is a retelling of Roman Holiday and Lady Claire is All That is a reworking of the popular teen-movie from 1999, She’s All lady-claire-is-all-mm-cThat, which is itself described as a revamp of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. This seems to be a bit of a trend in historical romance at the moment – if we’re not bombarded by overly-cutesy (and mostly ridiculous) song title-titles, we’re getting recycled plots from a medium that wasn’t even around at the beginning of the 19th century; and that makes it really hard to maintain any level of historical accuracy, as characters have to be made to think and do things to fit the plot that vary from “unlikely” to “implausible” to “Just – No.”

That doesn’t mean this isn’t an enjoyable book, because it is. I breezed through it in two sittings; it’s well-written, the two progagonists are engaging and Ms. Rodale has some good points to make about how we sometimes need to adjust our perceptions of self and others if we’re going to be true to ourselves and be the people we’re meant to be. I often find myself saying of this author’s books that they’re ones I will pick up when I want to read something light-hearted and fun and am prepared to check my “historical accuracy” hat at the door. And if that’s what you’re in the mood for, then it’ll likely work for you.

The Cavendish family – three sisters, one brother – moved to London when James Cavendish unexpectedly inherited a dukedom. The three books in the series so far comprise the sisters’ stories, and the storylines run more or less concurrently – which means they can be read in pretty much any order. Their chaperone in London is the Dowager Duchess of Durham, and she is doing her best to ensure that the siblings are accepted into London society. That’s not an easy task, given the rigidity of English society of the time, and the propensity to look down noses at those uncouth, brash Americans – but it’s also true that the Cavendishes aren’t making it all that easy on themselves either. Youngest sister Amelia is impatient with all the rules and conventions and does her best to deliberately flout them, and oldest sister Claire has only one purpose in mind – to meet the renowned Duke of Ashbrooke and discuss advanced mathematics with him. To deter any potential suitors, Claire talks about maths to anyone who will listen – which isn’t anybody for very long.

Lord Fox is very much the equivalent of the US college Jock in the film. He’s gorgeous, fit and excels at pretty much every physical activity he puts his mind to; hunting, fencing, boxing… women… you name it, he’s the best at it. He readily admits that he’s not the sharpest tool in the box, and doesn’t see the trap being set for him when Lord Mowbray wagers that Fox can’t take a wallflower and turn her into the darling of the ton. Fox, whose equally lovely fiancée recently dumped him to run off with an actor, is feeling a little bit bruised – he’s a winner, not a loser – and only realises what he’s let himself in for when Mowbray insists on choosing the recipient of Fox’s assistance – Lady Claire Cavendish.

The plotline is straightforward and proceeds as expected, but what makes the book readable is the way Ms. Rodale handles the gradually evolving perceptions of Fox and Claire, both in terms of how they think of themselves and how they see each other. Not to put too fine a point on it, Claire thinks Fox is stupid; and even though, as the story progresses, she starts to see that his is a different kind of intelligence, she continues to believe that because they don’t match each other intellectually, they don’t belong together. And while Fox is initially all about the wager, he’s impressed by Claire’s “brainbox”; even when he has no idea what she is talking about, he likes the sound of her voice and way her passion for her topic animates her. He comes to appreciate her for what and who she is and doesn’t want her to change, even though it means losing the wager.

On the downside, however, Claire is fairly self-obsessed, and she’s the sort of person who keeps having to remind everyone how smart she is in order to validate her own sense of self-worth. And she’s pretty hard on Fox, making it clear that he’s too dumb for her even though she’s happy to snog and grope him at every available opportunity. He is, however, clever enough to recognise that she’s only interested in his body.

Fox isn’t perfect, either, and his constant refrain of “I win at everything” gets irritating fast, but he’s rather endearing for all that. He is what he is and doesn’t try to be something he’s not – and I liked that he is prepared to go out on a limb for what he wants and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.

Another flaw is that while the couple does get to know each other well enough to begin to reassess their opinions, there’s no real sense of their actually falling in love. One minute, they’re not in love, and the next they are – and it’s something we’re told rather than shown.

In spite of those criticisms, there’s no question Ms. Rodale is an accomplished author and she writes the familial relationships in this story very well. This is very much a wallpaper historical though, so if you like historical romance that has a strong sense of period, in which the characters speak and act as though they could plausibly come from the 19th century instead of the 21st, then it might not work for you. And then there is the usual complement of Americanisms – by far the worst of which is the constant use of the word “math”. Given that Claire is a mathematician, this is only to be expected, but in England we refer to “mathS” with an “s” on the end (it’s a contraction of mathematicS, after all). It got very annoying very quickly.

Ultimately, Lady Claire is All That is a well-written piece of romantic fluff that’s entertaining and easy to read. Anyone in the mood for something in that line could do a lot worse than to pick it up.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

maya-rodale-colourMaya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence and it wasn’t long before she was writing her own. Maya is now the author of multiple Regency historical romances. She lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own.

You can connect with Maya at: www.mayarodale.com * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Goodreads

In Debt to the Enemy Lord by Nicole Locke

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“You have a debt to pay. You owe me your life.” 

Anwen, bastard of Brynmor, has fought hard to find her place in the world. But she’s forced to rethink everything when she’s saved from death by her enemy Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu. Instead of releasing her, he holds her captive…

Teague trusts no one. So, with ominous messages threatening his life, he must keep Anwen under his watch, no matter how much her presence drives him wild. And when passionate arguments turn to passionate encounters, Teague must believe that the strength of their bond will conquer all!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, December 2016

Time and Setting: Wales, 1290
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Wendy

I have always been a fan of medieval historical fiction written by authors such as Elizabeth Chadwick, and was therefore attracted to In Debt to the Enemy Lord, which I found to be well written with nicely developed and intriguing characters. In fact it was the description of the characters which drew me to the book in the first place.

Teague, Lord of Gwalchdu, is the kind of dark, brooding, solitary character, that often appeals to me if done well – and in this I was not disappointed. His subordinates respect him, but also fear him, even going so far as to cross themselves as he passes them by. With no close friends, his only real confidant is his brother, Rhain. Teague’s innate loneliness is apparent from the beginning; he is in the unenviable position of having a foot in two camps with an English father and Welsh mother. And when these two nations went to war, Teague fought for the English, in the process earning himself the moniker of traitor by the Welsh. The war is now over and they are all living an uneasy peace under the reign of the victor, King Edward I, who defeated the armies of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (the last ever King of Wales). Much has been lost, and he is fighting an uphill battle in order to win the trust of the defeated Welsh. This has only compounded Teague’s isolation and loneliness further; and even though there are mitigating factors – which are revealed later on in the story – he refuses to justify his actions in siding with the English. He has learned to fully trust only himself, and to a lesser degree, his younger brother.

On a ride around his holdings, a beautiful girl literally falls out of a tree, demanding as she does that he catch her. He does so and it doesn’t take Teague long to realise that his life will never be the same again. Alone and unloved he may have been up until now, but this girl, Anwen, from the neighbouring castle and who considers him her enemy, will shake his – until now – unshakable foundations. Anwen is the beautiful, illegitimate daughter of a Welsh prince and even though Teague manages to break her fall, she still hits her head, and from the description of her injuries and behaviour is suffering from severe concussion. She is nursed back to health by Teague’s servants and his aunt, a religious zealot. He is intrigued by the golden beauty and feels compelled to watch over her at night while she is still unconscious and helpless – holding her hand whilst she hovers between life and death.

Teague has been receiving mysterious threatening messages and is, quite understandably, unnerved by them. He mistrusts anyone and everyone, even the young woman who quite literally drops into his life; although the idea that she could fall into his arms at the exact moment he was underneath it in order to gain access to the inner sanctum of Gwalchdu is rather a stretch. For one thing, the letters appeared long before Anwen comes on the scene and for another, the fact that Teague would even consider such a scenario goes against the picture the author has drawn of him as a master strategist and nobody’s fool.

Once Anwen is reasonably recovered she is anxious to return to her own people, but she comes across as fickle and rather shrewish, quickly forgetting the kindnesses and care she has been shown and constantly throwing the word “Traitor” at Teague. Anwen, it seems, will never forgive what she perceives as the wrong he did to her people by fighting for the English. The spark between them that ignites after Anwen’s fall grows into a full blown attraction once she is conscious and aware of him, but I grew a little fed up with her constant carping and nagging. It is very obvious as the story progresses and we learn more about Teague that he is a good and honourable man. Nevertheless, Anwen continues to berate him to such an extent that when she finally accepts that he is rather a decent chap – I wanted to cheer.

The relationship between Teague and Anwen continues to grow and the author does this very well. In fact I loved her approach in the more intimate scenes between them, which, although reasonably explicit, are subtle and tasteful, with none of the sensuality being lost with the lack of vivid description. But each time I thought that they had finally reached an understanding, she doubts him again –  or when he is more forceful in his authority than she likes – we are back to square one. Misunderstandings per se are not a problem with me generally, but I do get irritated when there are too many or they go on for too long as is the case here.

On the whole, most of the characters are rather dark and complex and I found this novel to be no light, comfortable read; which is not necessarily a bad thing as I like some angst, but I found I was forever looking for hidden meanings and depths which I felt I could be missing. Although this is a medieval romance, the story is rather intense with little light relief which is fine in historical fiction where we are dealing with historical facts but is not what I look for in a romance. Plus on two occasions I was taken completely out of the story when the author used the word ‘centimetre’! The identity of the villain is obvious from the start, although there’s a twist at the end that I admit I hadn’t seen coming. On the whole, In Debt to the Enemy Lord is a nicely written story and I wouldn’t mind reading more by Nicole Locke, but perhaps not stories set in this era – my preference is definitely for medieval-era historical fiction. However, my prejudices are my own and I can recommend the book to readers who enjoy medieval romances.

The Rebel of Clan Kincaid (Highland Warrior #2) by Lily Blackwood

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LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD

Since childhood, Magnus has been led to believe he is the Laird Alwyn’s bastard, and raised to hate the Clan Kincaid. But when he learns he is without a doubt the son of the murdered Laird Kincaid, his life as he has always known it is shattered. Now, hiding his knowledge and his fury, he returns to Burnbryde Castle, awaiting the chance to strike against the man whose treachery robbed him of his legacy. His first act of rebellion: to steal a kiss from the redheaded beauty who’s betrothed to the Alwyn’s eldest son and heir.

Since her arrival at Burnbryde, Tara Iverach has been confined to a tower to guard her virtue before she marries. But after a surprise embrace with a lean, bare-chested Highlander who claims to be the Alwyn’s oldest son, she can’t contain her excitement over her good fate. Unfortunately, he is the wrong eldest son, and she is set to marry his cruel and lecherous half brother, Hugh. Can Magnus conquer his rivals and claim his Kincaid destiny before the woman who’s captured his heart becomes his sworn enemy’s bride?

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Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2016

Time and Setting: 14th Century Scotland
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1.5
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Review by Jenny Q

I do enjoy a Scottish Highlands tale, and the description of this one really intrigued me. Who doesn’t like a good tale of betrayal and vengeance? The Rebel of Clan Kincaid is second in a series, following right on the heels of The Beast of Clan Kincaid, and while I may have understood some of the politics and secondary characters better had I read it, this one stands alone just fine.

The story begins with Magnus, raised as the bastard son of the Laird Alwyn, discovering that he is really the son of the murdered Laird Kincaid and that he has been serving his parents’ murderer all his life. Initially thrown for a loop, Magnus soon develops a burning desire for vengeance and vows to bide his time until the day he can prove Alwyn guilty and avenge the death of his parents and the loss of their ancestral lands. As a fierce warrior and chief of the laird’s war band, he is in the ultimate position to enact his plan with the help of his newfound brother, Niall. But the arrival of his half brother Hugh’s betrothed threatens everything when Magnus falls in love with the vulnerable yet surprisingly brave beauty.

Tara Iverach, ward to the powerful Earl of Buchan, has spent the past five years in a priory. When the earl pays her a surprise visit, Tara hopes for a life outside the convent, and she is about to receive her wish, but at a terrible cost. Her beloved older sister, Arabel, has died, and Buchan needs Tara to take her place in a wedding designed to strengthen his alliance with Alwyn. But life at the Alwyn stronghold of Burnbryde turns out to be a nightmare rather than a dream. Locked in a tower, deprived of companionship except for a maid and the ailing Lady Alwyn, Tara quickly becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death. Her betrothed is a malicious, angry man who takes pleasure in terrifying her, and Buchan’s intentions and ambitions prove to be less than honorable. The only bright spot is her growing attraction to her betrothed’s half brother, the handsome and noble Magnus. But their illicit romance is fraught with danger, and though Magnus promises to help her escape marriage to Hugh, when his ulterior motives come to light, Tara realizes the only person she can rely on is herself. But will she be able to pull off a daring escape by herself? And if she does, will she be able to leave Magnus to his fate?

There were some things I loved about this book and some things I did not. What it has going for it: a good bit of history, following the warring of the clans after King David II’s death and featuring the real figures of the Earls of Buchan and Carrick; likeable and compelling characters in Magnus and Tara; and some last-minute twists I didn’t see coming that really bumped the story up in my estimation. What I’ve marked against it: the romance is more of a love-at-first-sight thing, which doesn’t allow for much relationship development; too much internal dialogue that grows repetitive over the course of the story; a couple of cliched plot devices that cheapen the story, including the big misunderstanding; and villains that were too over-the-top to be believable – although one of them eventually merited some compassion and understanding when one of those big twists was revealed at the end.

The unpredictable resolution of the plot threads and an incredibly romantic ending satisfied me and cemented The Rebel of Clan Kincaid as a book that I can recommend to my fellow romance lovers despite my complaints. If you’re a fan of Scottish romances, this one has a more unique setting and underlying historical thread than most. I was so intrigued by Niall and the mystery surrounding the third long-lost Kincaid brother that I do plan to read the other books in the series.

The Earl (Devil’s Duke #2) by Katharine Ashe

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How does a bookish lady bring an arrogant lord to his knees? Entice him to Scotland, strip him of titles and riches, and make him prove what sort of man he truly is.

Opposites…

Handsome, wealthy, and sublimely confident, Colin Gray, the new Earl of Egremoor, has vowed to unmask the rabble-rousing pamphleteer, Lady Justice, the thorn in England’s paw. And he’ll stop at nothing.

Attract.

Smart, big-hearted, and passionately dedicated to her work, Lady Justice longs to teach her nemesis a lesson in humility. But her sister is missing, and a perilous journey with her archrival into unknown territory just might turn fierce enemies into lovers.

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon, October 2016
Time and Setting: England and Scotland, 1822
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 Stars

Review by Jenny Q

I had not read Katharine Ashe before, and I found the description of The Earl so intriguing that I jumped at the chance to review it. This is the second book in the Devil’s Duke series, which is a spin-off of the popular Falcon Club series; and while some brief snippets of backstory are included for new readers like me, I did find myself a tad confused as a lot of names and incidents were mentioned throughout that I was unfamiliar with. Though I probably would have had a bit more understanding and appreciation for the backdrop this story is set against had I read the previous books, the main story and romance in The Earl was able to stand alone just fine.

The story begins with a heartbreaking prologue featuring Colin Gray, the future Earl of Egremoor, as a child who cannot speak, and I was instantly sucked into the story, burning through the early pages as Colin, aka Peregrine, and Emily, aka Lady Justice, are introduced, and we learn that though they don’t know each other’s true identities, these two enemies share a long and troubled history. Having been abandoned by her only friend at the age of nine, Emily has forged her own path in life, championing women’s and working class rights while eschewing the traditional role of wife and mother society expects of her. Her alter ego – crusading pamphleteer, Lady Justice – has made quite the name for herself, and she’s also made a few enemies, including Colin, who she calls out in her pamphlets for refusing to support her causes. She has also struck up a correspondence with the mysterious Peregrine, member of a shadow group that specializes in finding lost people, and now she needs his help. Her own sister has gone missing, and Emily is determined to find her. But the price may be too high to pay: Peregrine wants to meet Lady Justice face-to-face. She finally agrees to a nighttime meeting in a shadowy park, and manages to hide her identity; but during the brief and intense exchange, she discovers a shocking truth: Peregrine is none other than Colin Gray, the man who broke her heart and never looked back so many years ago, a man who represents everything she hates about English society. Emily abruptly tells him she’s changed her mind and no longer needs his help and flees before he can discern who she is.

Though the lady insists she no longer needs his help, Colin is determined to find the woman anyway, and when he does, he will finally unmask Lady Justice and expose her for the charlatan she is. He begins his journey in Scotland, planning to travel to the woman’s last-known location, when he runs into the last person he ever expected to see on the road, Emily Vale, his best friend from childhood, and a woman he has tried to hard to forget. She’s not best pleased to see him either. After realizing she can’t count on Peregrine to help, she’s taking finding her sister into her own hands and is answering a mysterious summons to visit Castle Kallin, home of the maligned “Devil Duke.” Unfortunately, she and Colin are quickly thrown into close quarters when they are mistaken for a pair of highwaymen wreaking havoc on the countryside, going so far as to murder an innocent woman, and all while one dresses like a woman and the other uses Colin’s name. On the run from vengeful villagers, the two try to stay a step ahead of vigilante justice as they make their way to the castle, Colin determined to find out why Emily holds such a grudge against him and Emily determined to fight her growing attraction to him. But danger and desire have a way of thwarting the best-laid plans…

This story has an interesting premise, and it does stand out as being different from your average Regency romance, but I found the execution a little disappointing. After a compelling beginning and an intense start to the adventure, the story grew repetitive. Colin and Emily run, they argue, they’re attracted to each other, they’re found, they escape, and repeat. Over and over again. I liked both characters, and they had interesting backgrounds, but they were both so stubborn, and they held on to their grudges and secrets for too long. However, when they finally did give in to their attraction, I found those scenes to be some of the sweetest, sexiest, and most romantic I’ve read in quite some time. And the descriptions of the Scottish countryside they are running through are thoroughly transporting. But the mystery of Emily’s sister is not resolved; in fact, it seems to be a setup for the next book in the series, so not getting a payoff there was rather disappointing. I found the resolution of the case of mistaken identity to be very predictable, as was the behavior of both Colin and Emily when Lady Justice’s identity was finally revealed. But I give Colin big props for calling Emily out on her hypocrisy in passing judgment on everyone else while she hides in anonymity, causing her to do some real soul searching and achieve true character growth; and his actions at the end are swoon-worthy.

So as you can see, I have mixed feelings about this book. If you’ve read the previous books, of course you have to read this one, and knowing more than I did about the backdrop, you may get more enjoyment out of it than I did. It’s well written, and I was able to follow along well enough, but what started out as exciting and unique slowly grew tedious and predictable. But The Earl is saved by a good ending, and I was intrigued enough by the members of the Falcon Club to go back and add the other books to my reading list.

VIRTUAL TOUR: My Brown Eyed Earl (Wayward Wallflowers #1) by Anna Bennett

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Miss Margaret Lacey is brainy and beautiful, but she’s also penniless, and at the ripe old age of twenty-three society has declared her a spinster. For her part, Meg is less concerned with her empty dance card than with her empty bank account. She resolves to make her own way as a governess but discovers her new employer is the Earl of Castleton—the vexingly handsome man she rejected one fateful day, eight years ago.

William Ryder has never forgotten Meg, the elusive girl next door who claimed she’d rather shave her head than marry him. Now she’s the governess, but Will plans to teach her a few lessons of his own. As stolen kisses lead to passionate nights, Will and Meg just might find true love where they least expect it…

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EXCERPT

Will leaned forward on his elbows and pinched the bridge of his nose. Somehow, in the space of a week, his highly ordered, luxurious life had fallen apart.

First, Marina, the beautiful widow he’d been seeing, hinted that she wanted more than the mutually pleasurable arrangement they’d agreed to, forcing Will to break things off with her.

Next, his recently deceased cousin’s mistress showed up on Will’s doorstep with the twin girls, threatening to leave them at an orphanage unless he took them in.

And then last night, he attended a dinner party in honor of his mother’s birthday. In front of a dozen guests, she announced her sole wish: that her son marry before she turned fifty—in exactly one year. After choking on his wine, Will promised to give the matter some thought.

Then he had gone directly to his club and drunk him- self into oblivion.

Jesus. He stood, ran his hands through his hair, and checked his reflection in a mirror between a pair of book- cases. Gibson was right—he looked like hell.

Bad enough to scare off a potential governess.

He swiped the cravat off his chair, slung it around his neck, hastily tied it in some semblance of a knot, and but- toned his jacket. There was nothing to be done about the stubble on his chin or the faint imprint the desk blotter had left on his cheek, so he threw back the rest of his coffee and congratulated himself. Within the hour he’d have a governess to manage the twins, and at least one aspect of his life would be set to rights.

Gibson was already shuffling down the corridor. “My lord,” he intoned from the doorway, “may I present Miss Lacey.”

Will blinked. Lacey . . . it was a common name. Surely the potential governess couldn’t be—

She glided into the study and cast a wary look his way.

“Good afternoon, Lord Castleton. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

Dear God. It was her. The vicar’s daughter who thought she was too damned good for him. Standing in his study, cloaked in a drab dress that might have been lilac once but now more closely resembled gray. No ribbons adorned her brown hair. No ringlets framed her face. In fact, the only decoration she wore was the light smattering of freckles across her nose.

The butler raised his bushy brows. “I was not aware that you were already acquainted.”

“Thank you, Gibson. That will be all.”

The butler left reluctantly, closing the door behind him. Miss Lacey pressed her lips together as though she longed to say something and silence herself at the same time. From what he recalled of her tongue, it was best kept under lock and key.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Will demanded.

“Applying for the governess position. I assumed you knew.”

“No,” he said curtly.

“I see.” She glanced over her shoulder at the door. “Per- haps it would be better if I—”

“Be seated, Miss Lacey.” He inclined his head toward the armchair in front of his desk.

She hesitated, and for a moment he thought she’d refuse. But then she walked toward the chair, looked at the seat, and froze. Just as stubborn as he remembered, unbiddable as ever.

He bristled. “Perhaps you’d prefer to remain standing for the entire interview?”

“No. It’s only . . .”

“You object to meeting in my study?”

She narrowed eyes that were not quite green, but not quite brown either. “No, but I hoped to avoid sitting on this.” In one, fluid motion she leaned over the chair, picked up a pink, lace-edged scrap of satin between her thumb and index finger, and dangled it in front of his face.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, October 2016

Time and Setting: London 1817
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by: Heather C.

Following the loss of her parents, Margaret (called Meg by friends) and her sisters go to live with a slightly eccentric but well-meaning, uncle who exists on the fringes of the ton. She should be moving within society, but instead she finds herself applying for the job of governess and the position just happens to be for a man whose proposal she spurned several years ago. How will she fare, educating two little girls and interacting with the man she almost married?

The story told here, of a governess and the lord of the house falling for each other, isn’t anything new; it’s a frequent trope in historical fiction and romance, but it felt rather fresh in the hands of Anna Bennett. Meg and Will are not newly acquainted with each other, in fact they have known each other since childhood, but that is an element that they have to try and navigate in their new relationship of employer and employee. However, Bennett makes this story about more than just the budding romance; there is also the chaos that two six-year-old girls bring the equation too, and they are quite the whirlwind that both brings Meg and Will together and pushes them apart.

I found Will to be a more engaging character than Meg. While he might be a playboy (at least at the beginning) he is genuinely likeable, earnest, and evolves the most during the course of the novel. Meg, on the other hand, is rather static throughout; she fears falling for Will and becoming even more maligned by the ton. She is the sister who is willing to take one for the team and is resigned to her destiny to remain a spinster. She pushes against any chance that she could be happy and carries a lot of guilt that she lets get in the way of her happiness. It became slightly frustrating to deal with this same character trait over and over and I wanted to scream at her to just get over herself!

Bennett (who has already published a number of historical romances under the name Anne Barton) does a great job of fleshing out her characters, even the secondary ones, which I appreciated as sometimes this doesn’t happen in romance novels. The children are a handful, but each of the twins has her own distinct identity. We get to know Meg’s sisters, Julie and Beth, who I’m thinking will star in their own novels as the Wayward Wallflowers series continues.

There is a little thread of mystery here and the identity of the “mystery man” was not something I saw coming. That it wasn’t obvious was great, but I do like it when there are some clues if you read it right, which wasn’t the case here. It made sense, but I would have appreciated the opportunity to attempt to get there myself.

The romance is sweet and spicy and there are many complex emotions that occur to bring the pair together and also push them apart. As is often the case in romance novels, the experienced man is teaching the novice woman the ways of the romantic world, which was sweet and their sexual relations escalate from there.

I look forward to reading more of this series and spending more time with the Lacey sisters.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

annabennett_credanneardizzoneAnna Bennett started swiping romances from her mom’s bookshelf as a teenager and decided that books with balls, dukes, and gowns were the best. So, when she had the chance to spend a semester in London she packed her bags—and promptly fell in love with the city, its history, and its pubs. She dreamed of writing romance, but somehow ended up a software analyst instead.

Fortunately, a few years and a few careers later, Anna found her way back to writing the stories she loves and won the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart®. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children, who try valiantly not to roll their eyes whenever she quotes Jane Austen. Other weaknesses include reality TV, cute shoes, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

You can connect with Anna at: her website * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter.

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit by Juliana Gray

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February, 1906. As the personal secretary of the recently departed Duke of Olympia—and a woman of scrupulous character—Miss Emmeline Rose Truelove never expected her duties to involve steaming through the Mediterranean on a private yacht, under the prodigal eye of one Lord Silverton, the most charmingly corrupt bachelor in London. But here they are, improperly bound on a quest to find the duke’s enigmatic heir, current whereabouts unknown.

An expert on anachronisms, Maximilian Haywood was last seen at an archaeological dig on the island of Crete. And from the moment Truelove and Silverton disembark, they are met with incidents of a suspicious nature: a ransacked flat, a murdered government employee, an assassination attempt. As they travel from port to port on Max’s trail, piecing together the strange events of the days before his disappearance, Truelove will discover the folly of her misconceptions—about the whims of the heart, the motives of men, and the nature of time itself…

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, October 2016

Time and Setting: 1906, England and various locales in the Mediterranean
Genre: Historical mystery with paranormal elements
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Lady Blue

The beloved Duke of Olympia is dead, and his great-nephew and heir is nowhere to be found. The duke’s grieving duchess calls upon Emmeline Truelove, the late duke’s secretary, to travel to the Mediterranean, find the heir, and bring him home to his new dukedom. The duchess has also arranged for the Marquess of Silverton to accompany Emmeline, which does not make her happy, as her first impression of him is that he’s a shallow wastrel. The marquess (Freddie) is, in fact, a rakish, witty man, but he’s also an excellent fighter and a trained agent. Emmeline, who is called by her last name “Truelove” for most of this story, is not at all delighted with this situation, but agrees to travel with Freddie to find the missing Mr. Haywood, now the new duke. Truelove’s agreeing to go on this quest is also against the advice (demand) of the deceased Queen Victoria, who regularly appears to have conversations with her. Yes, Truelove communicates regularly with the former monarch, as well as with her own deceased father.

During the course of their travels, the prickly Truelove fends off any flirtatious attempts by Freddie with biting remarks, which he happily volleys. It soon becomes apparent that Haywood has not just gone off on his own – there is some nefarious plot afoot. The current events happening are directly related to a mythological tale (or is it?) from the past – and even involves the future.

This adventurous story is certainly a departure from previous books by Juliana Gray, and I give her credit for this intricate and detailed plot. A Most Extraordinary Pursuit undoubtedly held my attention and entertained me, but I did not become invested in the protagonists and their almost-sort of-romance. When I don’t find myself rooting for the characters to be together, or truly care for their future, the book doesn’t touch my emotions, and isn’t my preferred type of read. There are many unanswered questions, which I’m sure will be addressed in future books featuring Emmeline Truelove. If you enjoy a rollicking adventure with a bit of time-travel, some paranormal elements and plenty of witty banter, I believe this might well hit the spot.

The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel by Jennifer McQuiston

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Every girl dreams of a hero . . .

No one loves books more than Miss Mary Channing. Perhaps that’s why she’s reached the ripe old age of six-and-twenty without ever being kissed. Her future may be as bland as milk toast, but Mary is content to simply dream about the heroes and adventures she reads about in her books. That way she won’t end up with a villain instead.

But sometimes only a scoundrel will do.

When she unexpectedly finds herself in the arms of Geoffrey Westmore, London’s most notorious scoundrel, it feels a bit like a plot from one of her favorite novels. Suddenly, Mary understands why even the smartest heroines can fall prey to a handsome face. And Westmore is more handsome than most. But far worse than the damage to her reputation, the moment’s indiscretion uncovers an assassination plot that reaches to the highest levels of society and threatens the course of the entire country.

When a tight-laced miss and a scoundrel of epic proportions put their minds together, nothing can stand in their way. But unless they put their hearts together as well, a happy ending is anything but assured.

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EXCERPT

London, May 29, 1858

The smell should have been worse.

She’d expected something foul, air made surly by the summer heat. Just last week she’d read about the Thames, that great, roiling river that carried with it the filth of the entire city and choked its inhabitants to tears. Her rampant imagination, spurred on by countless books and newspaper articles, had conjured a city of fetid smells, each more terrible than the last. But as Miss Mary Channing opened her bedroom window and breathed in her first London morning, her nose filled with nothing more offensive than the fragrance of . . .

Flowers.

Disconcerted, she peeked out over the sill. Dawn was just breaking over the back of Grosvenor Square. The gaslights were still burning and the windows of the other houses were dark. By eight o’clock, she imagined industrious housemaids would be down on their knees, whiting their masters’ stoops. The central garden would fill with nurses and their charges, heading west toward Hyde Park.

But for now the city—and its smells—belonged solely to her.

She breathed in again. Was she dreaming? Imagining things, as she was often wont to do? She was well over two hundred miles from home, but it smelled very much like her family’s ornamental garden in Yorkshire. She didn’t remember seeing a garden last night, but then, she had arrived quite late, the gaslight shadows obscuring all but the front steps. She’d been too weary to think, so sickened by the ceaseless motion of the train that she’d not even been able to read a book, much less ponder the underpinnings of the air she breathed.

She supposed she might have missed a garden. Good heavens, she probably would have missed a funeral parade, complete with an eight-horse coach and a brass band.

After the long, tiresome journey, she’d only wanted to find a bed.

And yet now . . . at five o’clock in the morning . . . she couldn’t sleep.

Not on a mattress that felt so strange, and not in a bedroom that wasn’t her own.

Pulling her head back inside, she eyed the four-poster bed, with its rumpled covers and profusion of pretty pillows. It was a perfectly nice bed. Her sister, Eleanor, had clearly put some thought into the choice of fabrics and furniture. Most women would love such a room. And most women would love such an opportunity—two whole months in London, with shops and shows and distractions of every flavor at their fingertips.

But Mary wasn’t most women. She preferred her distractions in the form of a good book, not shopping on Regent Street. And these two looming months felt like prison, not paradise.

The scent of roses lingered in the air, and as she breathed in, her mind settled on a new hope. If there was a flower garden she might escape to—a place where she might read her books and write in her journal—perhaps it would not be so terrible?

Picking up the novel she had not been able to read on the train, Mary slipped out of the strange bedroom, her bare feet silent on the stairs. She had always been an early riser, waking before even the most industrious servants back home in Yorkshire. At home, the cook knew to leave her out a bit of breakfast—bread and cheese wrapped in a napkin—but no one here would know to do that for her yet.

Ever since she’d been a young girl, morning had been her own time, quiet hours spent curled up on a garden bench with a book in her lap, nibbling on her pocket repast, the day lightening around her. The notion that she might still keep to such a routine in a place like London gave her hope for the coming two months.

She drifted down the hallway until she found a doorway that looked promising, solid oak, with a key still in the lock. With a deep breath, she turned the key and pulled it open. She braced herself for knife-wielding brigands. Herds of ragged street urchins, hands rifling through her pockets. The sort of London dangers she’d always read about.

Instead, the scent of flowers washed over her like a lovely, welcome tide.

Oh, thank goodness.

She hadn’t been imagining things after all.

Something hopeful nudged her over the threshold of the door, then bade her to take one step, then another. In the thin light of dawn, she saw flowers in every color and fashion: bloodred rose blooms, a cascade of yellow flowers dripping down the wrought iron fence. Her fingers loosened over the cover of her book. Oh, but it would be lovely to read here. She could even hear the light patter of a fountain, beckoning her deeper.

But then she heard something else above those pleasant, tinkling notes.

An almost inhuman groan of pleasure.

With a startled gasp, she spun around. Her eyes swam through the early morning light to settle on a gentleman on the street, some ten feet or so away on the other side of the wrought iron fence. But the fact of their separation did little to relieve her anxiety, because the street light illuminated him in unfortunate, horrific clarity.

He was urinating.

Through the fence.

Onto one of her sister’s rosebushes.

The book fell from Mary’s hand. In all her imaginings of what dreadful things she might encounter on the streets of London, she’d never envisioned anything like this. She ought to bolt. She ought to scream. She ought to . . . well . . . she ought to at least look away.

But as if he was made of words on a page, her eyes insisted on staying for a proper read. His eyes were closed, his mouth open in a grimace of relief. Objectively, he was a handsome mess, lean and long-limbed, a shock of disheveled blond hair peeking out from his top hat. But handsome was always matter of opinion, and this one had “villain” stamped on his skin.

As if he could hear her flailing thoughts, one eye cracked open, then the other. “Oh, ho, would you look at that, Grant? I’ve an audience, it seems.”

Somewhere down the street, another voice rang out. “Piss off!” A snigger followed. “Oh, wait, you already are.”

“Cork it, you sodding fool!” the blond villain shouted back. “Can’t you see we’re in the presence of a lady?” He grinned. “Apologies for such language, luv. Though . . . given the way you are staring, perhaps you don’t mind?” He rocked back on his heels, striking a jaunty pose even as the urine rained down. “If you come a little closer, I’d be happy to give you a better peek.”

Mary’s heart scrambled against her ribs. She might be a naive thing, fresh from the country, and she might now be regretting her presumption that it was permissible to read a book in a London garden in her bare feet, but she wasn’t so unworldly that she didn’t know this one pertinent fact: she was not—under any circumstances—coming a little closer.

Or getting a better peek.

Mortified, she wrapped her arms about her middle. “I . . .that is . . . couldn’t you manage to hold it?” she somehow choked out. There. She’d managed a phrase, and it was a properly scathing one, too. As good as any of her books’ heroines might have done.

A grin spread across his face. Much like the puddle at the base of the rosebush. “Well, luv, the thing is, I’m thinking I’d rather let you hold it.” The stream trickled to a stop, though he added a few more drips for good measure. He shook himself off and began to button his trousers. “But alas, it seems you’ve waited too long for the pleasure.” He tipped a finger to the brim of his top hat in a sort of salute. “My friend awaits. Perhaps another time?”

Mary gasped. Or rather, she squeaked.

She could manage little else.

He chuckled. “It seems I’ve got a shy little mouse on my hands. Well, squeak squeak, run along then.” He set off down the street, swaying a bit. “But I’ll leave you with a word of advice, Miss Mouse,” he tossed back over one shoulder. “You’re a right tempting sight, standing there in your unutterables. But you might want to wear shoes the next time you ogle a gentleman’s prick. Never know when you’ll need to run.”

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 27, 2016

Time and Setting: England, 1858
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Maria Almaguer

A few years ago, I read and loved Jennifer McQuiston’s debut, What Happens in Scotland. It was an original and well-written page turner and, since then, she has consistently contributed to the historical romance genre with interconnected novels (and a charming novella) set in early Victorian England.

The Perks of Loving a Scoundrel is the third in her newest series, the Seduction Diaries, featuring the younger brother of Clare (heroine of the first book). Geoffrey Westmore once held much promise and a looked towards a bright future. But his time in the Crimea changed all that as war often does.

Mary Channing is a bookish spinster quietly and contentedly living in Yorkshire when she is summoned to London by her twin sister, Eleanor, to be with her for Eleanor’s final months of pregnancy. Mary is ambivalent because she would much rather stay at home with her books and quiet life but feels she cannot refuse because it is her beloved sister. But, as Mary notes in the very first entry in her diary, she’s also afraid to see Eleanor’s fulfilling life, with her anticipated child and her loving husband, a life she secretly longs for but assumes will never ever be hers.

The novel is interspersed with diary entries that Mary faithfully writes every chance she gets. On her very first morning in London, however, when she has just discovered a lovely patch of garden where she might spend her quiet morning in blissful solitude, she is rudely interrupted by a drunken stranger urinating on her sister’s flowers! This reader admits to feeling every bit as shocked as Mary but I do appreciate the authenticity and realism that Ms. McQuiston introduces in her colorful and very human stories. The odors of London (with its polluted Thames) opens the story and Mary’s first day in the city along with the urinating stranger who turns out to be our hero, Mr. Geoffrey Westmore.

It seems to me to be a bit of a new trend in historical romance – at least the ones I’m reading lately – that historical romance now add a dash of mystery to the love story. Juliana Gray did it in her most recent novella (The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match) and Ms. McQuiston does it here with the hero and heroine accidentally overhearing a plot to assassinate the Queen Victoria when they are caught in a library together and sharing several stolen and passionate kisses.

Geoffrey was once a happy-go-lucky young man, fond of pranks and with an ambition to study architecture. But his dreams crashed down during the war in the Crimea and he has tried to forget it by becoming an irresponsible wastrel, much to the dismay of his loving and loyal valet, Wilson. Wilson is a character who is extremely familiar and informal toward Geoffrey – he still calls him “Master Geoffrey” for example – and also admonishes his disgusting habits and lifestyle. This is not something most servants would ever do so either Ms. McQuiston took some liberties here or there possibly may have been some servants who were almost like family.

Geoffrey spends his days sleeping off his long nights of drinking and whoring with his best friend, Grant, with whom he also experienced the horrors of war. Both are troubled young men and this is the part of the story that didn’t quite work for me. Geoffrey’s turnabout in the face of being caught with Mary seems much too fast. I can kind of see how his loving and close family may have some influence on him – he doesn’t want them to be ashamed of him – but it’s hard to believe that an uptight and proper spinster would be the impetus for his sudden volte face.

Mary has her own melancholy past with great loss and grief that has made her afraid to experience life; she’d much rather read about the world and adventures in books. Her time in London is her one chance to break out of her shell but, until she overhears the scheme with Geoffrey, she isn’t motivated enough to make her life better. When she meets Geoffrey, she is attracted to him but I don’t quite feel the sparks and sexual tension between them. It feels more like Mary is desperate for a change and it’s an opportunity for Geoffrey to reform.

In stereotypical male fashion, however, Geoffrey doesn’t want Mary’s help in uncovering the traitors conspiring to murder the queen even though she has some pretty darn good ideas. But he discovers he likes her determination and willfulness – even if it drives him nuts – and she eventually becomes attractive to him. For her part, Mary is simultaneously attracted to and shocked by Geoffrey’s colorful past, something a good girl has no experience with. I guess you could say opposites attract.

Eventually, Geoffrey begins to question his dissolute life while Mary contemplates her boring one as they work together to uncover truth about the assassination plot. The mystery part of the story is engaging and lively and the ultimate villain is a surprise. I like the unexpected and unique plot twists that Ms. McQuiston creates.

But what I like best about this book – and the entire series – is the strong sense of family that is depicted realistically and lovingly. I did not read the second book in the series but I don’t think you need to read them in order to appreciate and follow the thread of the novels.

I enjoy Ms. McQuiston’s writing style; it flows nicely, her plots are fresh and imaginative, and her characters rich and likable. I just didn’t quite believe what seemed like Geoffrey’s speedy transformation from debauched aristocrat to devoted husband.

If you enjoy heroes and heroines working together to solve a mystery as they fall in love, you will like this story.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

jen-highres-90218417464A veterinarian and infectious disease researcher by training, Jennifer McQuiston has always preferred reading romance to scientific textbooks. She resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, their two girls, and an odd assortment of pets, including the pony she promised her children if mommy ever got a book deal.

You can connect with Jennifer at: her website * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Facebook.