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RETRO REVIEW: Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, September 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Major Meets His Match (Brides for Bachelors #1) by Annie Burrows

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The major must wed

Wastrel, rebel, layabout…just a few of the names Lord Becconsall has hidden his quick intellect and sharp wit behind over the years. Recently titled, ex-military and required to wed, Jack views ton ladies with a cynical eye… Until he falls upon–quite literally–Lady Harriet Inskip.

After years of being overlooked, Harriet cannot believe that Lord Becconsall is the only person to truly see her. But between his taunts and her fiery disposition, it’s soon clear that the major has finally met his match!

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

Time and Setting: London, 1816 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

The Major Meets His Match is the first in a new, three-book series from Annie Burrows entitled Brides for Bachelors.  The bachelors in question are gentlemen who have been friends since their schooldays, but who were separated when they went off to war and have just recently reunited.  They are discovering that picking up their friendship where they left off isn’t going to be easy; they’re different people now, and it’s going to take a bit of work and understanding if they are to forge their former bond anew.

Jack Hesketh, Viscount Becconsall, is a third son who never thought to inherit and who is well aware that his father favoured his elder brothers and regarded him as the runt of the litter.  He was never expected to amount to much, and when, at school, he was threatened by bullies because of his – then – small stature, he avoided too many drubbings by playing the fool and making the bullies laugh so that eventually they forgot why he had been their target.  He has carried this tendency with him into adulthood; even though he is now a decorated military officer – a Major – he still hides his quick mind, sharp wit and true emotions behind a wall of teasing and joking, sometimes so successfully that even his closest friends find it easy to forget that his quips and jests are a cover.

It’s this automatic reaction that lands him in trouble when, after a reunion turned into an all-night carouse that has lasted until morning, Jack makes a wager that he can ride the Marquess of Rawcliffe’s prize stallion through Hyde Park while drunk without falling off.  He is barrelling through the park when he startles another rider, a young woman, who, believing his horse has bolted, tries her best to stop it.  Jack comes a-cropper, the young woman dismounts to ascertain if he is injured and Jack, deciding to take advantage of their relative positions, pulls her on top of him and kisses her soundly.

Lady Harriet Inskip is taking part in the Season under the auspices of her Aunt Susan, who would have a fit if she knew her niece was out riding in the park alone at such an early hour.  But Harriet needed to shake off the restrictions of society for just a little while and a swift gallop was just the thing – although she hadn’t expected another rider to come bursting from the trees at full pelt. Harriet is simultaneously concerned for his safety and irritated by his idiocy and disregard for the safety of others – but nevertheless, she does what she can to calm the runaway horse and then, in spite of the voice in her head telling her to fetch help, to see to its rider.

The last thing she expects is to find herself being kissed… and worse, enjoying it.  But the interlude ends quickly when the unknown rider’s friends make an appearance, and Harriet, indignant and furious, hurries away.

One of Jack’s friends – the haughty Marquess of Rawcliffe – opines that the young woman lying on top of Jack must have been a lightskirt, but Jack protests to the contrary and also realises that not only had she felt right in his arms, he’d liked her spirit and enjoyed their brief verbal fencing match.  He wants to see her again, but can’t possibly admit that outright to his friends, so retreating to his default of joking to hide his real feelings, Jack makes a wager with Rawcliffe; whoever can locate the young lady and determine whether she is an innocent or otherwise will win their bet.

The story follows the course of Jack and Harriet’s relationship as they meet at society balls and outings and continue to strike sparks off each other.  At first, Jack assumes that Harriet’s forthright, often prickly manner is designed to put off potential suitors, but eventually realises that it’s her defence mechanism.  Nobody has ever taken much notice or care of her and her instinctive reaction whenever Jack says something complementary is to view it with suspicion and shrug it off or respond with a tart comment.  Yet as they come to know each other, they begin to realise that they have more in common than they thought.  Both Jack and Harriet have been discounted and often ignored by those who should have shown them love and affection and have learned to hide their hurt and self-doubt  – in Jack’s case, behind joking good humour and in Harriet’s behind sharp-tongued put-downs and a façade of indifference.  It’s going to take an act of courage on both their parts to drop their guards and admit the depth of their feelings for each other.

The romance that develops between Jack and Harriet is laced with wit, tenderness, charm and a nice simmer of sexual tension as they trade barbs while coming to a greater awareness of each other. The central characters are strongly characterised and I particularly appreciated the depiction of Harriet as an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to express her opinions, but who also recognises that there are some rules she needs to follow.  Ms. Burrows does a very good job of depicting the complicated relationship Harriet has with her mother and her dawning appreciation of what her aunt – whom she had initially regarded as trying to stifle her with convention – is trying to do for her by sponsoring her Season.  This appreciation leads to the introduction of a sub-plot regarding some stolen rubies which I found rather insipid, but which, as it is not concluded here, I’m assuming is going to run through the rest of the series.

Jack and his friends – who still call each other by the nicknames drawn from Greek mythology they used at school – are well-drawn also, as is their friendship which, they discover, needs to be worked on given the changes they have all gone through.  The marquess – aka Zeus – seems to be cold and unfeeling, but in an unguarded moment, lets something slip that tells Jack that there is more going on beneath his hard exterior than he would have others believe.  Then there’s Atlas – Captain Bretherton – a naval officer who has returned from war almost literally a shadow of his former self, a man broken in body and spirit, who seems to be drifting through life without a purpose.  Both are intriguing secondary characters here, and I’m looking forward to reading their stories in due course.

My reservations about the plotline concerning the rubies aside, I enjoyed The Major Meets His Match.  If you’re looking for a warm, humorous and emotionally satisfying historical romance, you could do worse than give this one a try.

Traitor in Her Arms (The Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

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After her late husband leaves her in debt to some dangerous people, Lady Gabrielle McCullough is forced to become a thief. In the intervening years, her skills have not gone unnoticed. After being recruited by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the mysterious do-gooder spiriting aristocrats out of revolutionary France, Gabrielle crosses the Channel for the most daring mission of her life. Accompanying her is the Earl of Sedgwick, a thief in his own right and an enticingly masculine presence. The man is not to be trusted—nor is Gabrielle’s body when he’s near.

Ramsey Barnes would not say he is an honorable man. His whole life has been based on a lie; why change now? Although it pains him to deceive the tantalizing Gabrielle, he’s working toward an altogether different objective: unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Ramsey fails, his blackmailer will ruin him. But when Ramsey’s confronted with the carnage of the Reign of Terror, he seeks refuge in Gabrielle’s heated embrace. Now he faces a terrible choice: betray the woman who’s stolen his heart—or risk losing everything.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, August 2017

Time and Setting: Paris, 1793
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

In Shana Galen’s latest book Traitor in Her Arms the legendary Scarlett Pimpernel and his mission to save French nobles during the Revolution is the catalyst to many events in the story. I was surprised how little we see of the man himself but he still plays a very important role. Two secret quests, one to save an innocent woman’s life and the other to learn the Pimpernel’s true identity bring heroine and hero together under the best and worst of circumstances.

Lady Gabrielle McCullough has a secret. The debts her late husband left behind put her on the verge of ruin but she’s been hiding the truth with the assistance of a wealthy friend. When selling paintings and family heirlooms wasn’t enough to settle things with a few unscrupulous money lenders, Gabrielle turned to thievery. Her skills have grown over time and she’s managed to grab more than a few choice pieces while attending the social gatherings of the Season. Her next target is an antique lapis lazuli necklace that belonged to Cleopatra which should earn her enough to pay off the final creditor. Breaking into the owner’s room to collect the necklace wasn’t a problem; however her task is complicated when she finds another thief is already in the room and has grabbed the jewels.

Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgewick hasn’t been very honest with the ton himself. Most of his deceptions are fairly harmless but when someone learns his deepest secret, Ramsey could face ruin. Unwilling to risk his lands and the people who depend on the earldom, Ramsay hopes that he can steal the rare and valuable necklace to bribe his blackmailer to give up her evidence against him. With the piece in hand Ramsay never expected Gabrielle McCullough to appear in the room on a similar mission to take the necklace. Ramsey distracts Gabrielle with a kiss and leaves the building with the jewels but all his effort is pointless when his blackmailer refuses to trade. Instead she uses her power over Ramsey to force him on an almost impossible mission with the promise of his freedom when the task is complete. With no other options Ramsey accepts her challenge to learn the true identity of the elusive Scarlett Pimpernel.

Gabrelle’s anger at losing the necklace to Ramsey is paired with frustration at her own attraction to the man. Her financial crisis hasn’t left Gabrielle any time to play the merry widow and any interest in Ramsey would distract her from collecting enough money to settle Lord McCullough’s debts. Fearing she’s out of time and options Gabrielle is saved from penury when she’s invited into a darkened drawing room and a stranger offers her the chance to become a heroine. The Scarlet Pimpernel is thought to be a myth in Gabrelle’s social circles but the man is real and he knows all about her skills at obtaining rare objects. He tells Gabrielle a tale of a Frenchwoman and her daughter who are slated for execution unless he can find and collect the precious Le Saphir Blanc bracelet. The Pimpernel believes that Gabrielle’s familiarity with Paris and her lock-picking skills will enable her to find the Le Saphir Blanc and negotiate for the woman’s release from prison. Gabrielle is hesitant to accept the Pimpernel’s mission but she cannot ignore the horrors happening on the Continent.

Traitor in Her Arms gets off to a slow start while Gabrielle and Ramsey’s different paths are laid out; however they quickly converge as the reality of the Revolution is revealed to them both. In the style of many an adventure, the couple soon find themselves protecting each other from unexpected dangers and complications to both of their missions. Ms. Galen pulls no punches when describing the fervor of the French citizens to destroy the nobility and some of the atrocities committed are very hard to digest. Both Ramsey and Gabrielle initially approach their tasks as either impersonal transactions or noble quests to save innocent lives, but when they see what the French are doing to their own it changes that perspective for them both and it forces them to reevaluate what is important in their own lives. The relationship between them grows from that new perspective and they each learn to trust despite Ramsey telling Gabrielle that it’s dangerous to put any faith in him.

The story requires a suspension of disbelief that can get in the way of the romance and the dual missions surrounding the Scarlet Pimpernel. Gabrielle may have good intentions in going to Paris but she’s completely out of her depth when it comes to the deceptions and maneuvering it takes to complete her job. Ramsey and other characters must come to her aid more often than not and it becomes frustrating to see just how useless she really is. It’s also somewhat disturbing to have Ramsey following along with Gabrielle and pushing her to succeed when we know that his motivations are mostly selfish. Their love story is awkwardly woven throughout important plot points and I cringed at a completely inappropriate sex scene while they’re running for their lives. Too much of the story’s focus is on the Revolution and the madness that had overtaken the French, giving less time for a believable romance to develop.

I’ve always enjoyed Shana Galen’s books for their romantic adventures but Traitor in Her Arms seems more intent on exploring the Scarlet Pimpernel’s legacy than showcasing its own main couple. I plan on continuing with the Scarlet Chronicles series but with an understanding that the books are historical fiction with a romantic slant.

Seducing Mr. Sykes (Cotswold Confidential #2) by Maggie Robinson

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No one at Puddling-on-the-Wold ever expected to see Sarah Marchmain enter through its doors. But after the legendary Lady’s eleventh-hour rejection of the man she was slated to marry, she was sent here to restore her reputation . . . and change her mind. It amused Sadie that her father, a duke, would use the last of his funds to lock her up in this fancy facility—she couldn’t be happier to be away from her loathsome family and have some time to herself. The last thing she needs is more romantic distraction . . .

As a local baronet’s son, Tristan Sykes is all too familiar with the spoiled, socialite residents of the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation—no matter how real their problems may be. But all that changes when he encounters Sadie, a brave and brazen beauty who wants nothing more than to escape the life that’s been prescribed for her. If only Tristan could find a way to convince the Puddling powers-that-be that Sadie is unfit for release, he’d have a chance to explore the intense attraction that simmers between them—and prove himself fit to make her his bride . . .


Publisher and Release Date:  Lyrical Press, June 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1882
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Readers return to Maggie Robinson’s fictional Cotswold village of Puddling-on-the-Wold for the second book in her Cotswold Confidential series, Seducing Mr. Sykes.  It’s a (mostly) lighthearted romantic comedy in which a determinedly unconventional young woman who doesn’t want to get married finds herself strongly attracted to a rather starchy young man who is intent on keeping his head down and living a quiet life.  It might not win any prizes for originality, but it’s a nicely-written, undemanding and fun read that kept me engaged and entertained for the time it took me to read it.

The small village of Puddling-on-the-Wold has for some decades, been used as a kind of rehabilitation centre for members of the nobility who have gone off the rails.  With a calmly ordered programme of healthful exercise and diet and a lack of anything vaguely stimulating, the village offers a simple, quiet environment for those sent there to take stock and make changes to their lives.  All the villagers are party to the reasons their ‘visitors’ are sent there and are in on the cures, and the place is now so popular as to be able to provide a decent living for the people who live there.  Puddling’s board of trustees is now run by the absentee Sir Betram Sykes, whose son, Tristan, takes his responsibilities to the place very seriously.  When a fire at one of the cottages means that the inhabitant – Lady Sarah Marchmain – must quickly find somewhere else to stay, he is not enamoured of the idea that she moves to Sykes House while the cottage is repaired and made habitable again.  It’s not that Tristan is especially worried about the proprieties;  he doesn’t actually live in the house, preferring to reside at a small folly in the grounds which he, an architect by profession, has modified to suit his own taste and comfort.  But Lady Sarah –Sadie – is a handful of tall, well-endowed, red-haired impetuosity and Tristan – whose scandalous divorce some years previously from a woman of similarly high-spirits has left him somewhat wary of women in general – wants as little to do with her as possible.

Sadie has been sent to Puddling by her father, the Duke of Islesford,  whose regard for her extends only as far as she can be useful to him.  Being a man who keeps a lavish lifestyle and likes to gamble, he’s in debt and looking to sell his daughter – who stands to inherit a substantial fortune on her twenty-fifth birthday – to the highest bidder.  Sadie’s hoydenish behaviour has already frightened off a couple of would-be suitors, and the duke is getting desperate.  Puddling is his final attempt to get her to toe the line before he commits her to an asylum and takes control of her money.  Most of the village’s guests stay for a month before returning home, but Sadie has already been there for an extra week and continues to behave outrageously in the hope that she will be able to prolong her stay while she searches for a means to escape her father.  The problem, however is that the all-too-handsome Tristan Sykes seems to have seen through her scheme to extend her stay and is completely wise to her attempts to make herself appear unstable and still in need of treatment.  So in a way, the fire (which wasn’t her doing) is a blessing in disguise as it will get her out of the village, away from the watchful eyes – and perhaps give her a chance to make her escape.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Tristan comes upon Sadie in a state of undress while she is exploring the attics looking for something to wear (all her clothes were lost in the fire) and is shortly followed by her father, who immediately accuses Tristan of compromising his daughter and insists the two of them get married.  Appalled, the couple tries to tell the duke that nothing happened, but he insists, threatening to blacken Tristan’s name, brand him as unfit to have charge of a rehabilitation facility and ruin Puddling and its community in the process.

Maggie Robinson has crafted an entertaining and rather charming ‘opposites attract’ story which, for all its surface light-heartedness has some darker undertones.  Sadie hasn’t known any warmth or affection since the death of her mother when she was a child; and her father’s plan to put her in an asylum was, sadly, not an unheard of one at the time, when locking away ‘troublesome’ females was an easy solution when a woman didn’t fit the accepted pattern or do as she was told.  Tristan’s status as a divorced man had a deleterious effect on his life and career and now all he wants is to live a quiet life, without the sort of tempers and tantrums his first – now deceased – wife was prone to.  He fights his attraction to Sadie at first, because her behaviour leads him to believe that she is unstable – which, to be fair, is what she wants him to think – but as he comes to know her and to know her story, he realises he has misjudged her and that he wants to keep her close.

The author has a deft touch with the humour and has created two likeable characters who have to leave behind their emotional baggage if they are to make a life together.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are sensual and well-written, but I have a couple of reservations overall that prevent me from rating the book more highly.  One is that Tristan so easily takes comments made by Sadie’s father and former fiancé at face value, and the other is that while Sadie’s behaviour is understandable given the way she has been treated by her father, her mulish, immature antics continue way past the point at which my understanding gave way to irritation.

With those provisos in mind, if you’re looking for a fairly light-hearted, amusing and sensual historical romance, I’d venture to suggest that Seducing Mr. Sykes might fit the bill.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Anna Campbell, June 2017

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, July 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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LADY + DUKE = TRUE LOVE?

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

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

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

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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