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A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

a gathering storm

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When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.
In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

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Publisher and Release Date: Riptide Publishing, April 2017

Time and Setting: Porthkennack, Cornwall, England, 1853
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

A Gathering Storm, part of the Porthkennack series of books by five award-winning, British LGBT!+ authors is terrific.  It’s romantic, tender, frustrating and sexy and I gobbled it up in one sitting.  I loved nearly everything about it (my only quibble is a major spoiler you’ll have to read the book to discover for yourself), and I recommend it heartily to fans of both historical and contemporary romance.  Although the Porthkennack books are somewhat linked, A Gathering Storm can be read as a standalone.

After being ridiculed by his peers for publicly defending a spiritualist in London, famed scientist Sir Edward  – Ward – Fitzwilliam has retreated to the remote village of Porthkennack on the Cornish coast.  Grief stricken following the death of his beloved identical twin, Ward is convinced his brother spoke to him from beyond the veil during a particularly violent electrical storm he witnessed whilst at sea, and he is convinced that if conditions are right he can recreate the experience and commune with the dead.  He’s chosen to build a home, Varhak Manor, in Porthkennack because the location and weather (with a bit of his own manipulation) seem conducive to recreating the stormy conditions he experienced at sea.  In order to prove his theories, Ward will also need the assistance of human subjects, but false rumors about his research abound meaning that few of the locals are willing to help him.  Desperate, he heads to the village pub to solicit additional candidates, which is where he learns some tantalizing information about the handsome man at the bar.

Nicholas Hearn is land steward for the Roscarrock family, the wealthiest landowners in Porthkennack.  The illegitimate son of Jacob Roscarrock, who abandoned him and his Romany mother shortly after his birth, Nick lives a mostly solitary life.  Handpicked by his grandfather – who does not publicly acknowledge him – to train as a land steward (following Jacob’s sudden and untimely death), Nick is neither family or servant; the ‘gypsy bastard’ lives alone in a cottage on the edge of the estate.   Despite his recently deceased mother’s reputation as a clairvoyant, and an all too real experience with a horrific ghost when he was younger, Nick is skeptical about the possibility of reaching through the veil to speak with the dead. He’s curious but not interested in participating in Sir Edward’s experiments, especially as the handsome, wealthy aristocrat strikes him as just the type of high-handed toff he usually avoids.

Shortly after the scene in the bar, Nick is forced to reconsider.  When Sir Edward witnesses Nick and another man kissing in the woods, he doesn’t threaten to reveal what he’s seen but the threat is implied.  Angry with himself and the circumstance in which Sir Edward discovered him, Nick agrees to help with his research. His indiscretion, and Ward’s reaction, set the narrative in motion.

Stoic about how events have unfolded, Nick arrives at Varhak Manor unwilling to be charmed by his handsome host and blackmailer.  With his harsh voice (a permanent side effect of a childhood bout of diphtheria) and aristocratic manner, Nick expects Ward to act every bit the entitled and wealthy gentleman he is.  He doesn’t expect Sir Edward to be nervous or uncomfortable, or for him to treat him as an equal.  He is, and he does, but he’s also fascinating, engaging, and convinced he can commune with the dead.  Experience has taught Nick to be cautious, so he carefully masks his emotions even though he’s secretly charmed by his host.  Ward is similarly smitten with Nick, but because he finds him so hard to read, he also keeps his growing fondness for his ‘volunteer’ under wraps.

A Gathering Storm is broken into chapters that span the weeks and months Ward and Nick spend together attempting to recreate Ward’s shipboard experience. Ward is frustrated by their lack of progress, Nick is skeptical as to whether it’s even possible, and both are increasingly infatuated with the other.   Nick begins to spend increasing amounts of time at Varhak Manor, and I loved how Ms. Chambers slowly builds the sexual tension and attraction between the men.  She truly tortures the reader as we wait for these two lovely people to admit they’ve fallen for each other.  But they persist in denying their feelings until Ward has a close brush with death and Nick finally kisses him.  Their first kiss is passionate, frantic and blissful and it’s clear to them (and us) they belong in each other’s arms.

Ward and Nick have each had a past relationship with another man, but those experiences were vastly different. Nick gives Ward his first ever kisses, and Ward gives Nick an education in the pleasures of lovemaking.  When they’re intimate, it’s explicit, sexy, wicked and wonderful.  Despite their differences – and they’re truly opposites in every way – they fall hard and fast for each other and Ward is particularly appealing.  He often reads as a slightly nerdy, naïve scientist, but when his clothes come off, he’s confident and delightfully dirty.  It’s a nice contrast to his everyday persona (Nick likes it too).  When Ward invites Nick to travel with him on an overnight trip and attend a seance with him, Nick agrees to go.  He’s eager to spend time with his lover, and worried that Ward’s grief might make him prey for those who might seek to take advantage of it.

Their trip starts on a high note but ends in disaster.  The crisis that tears Nick and Ward apart (reader, you knew it was coming) is brilliantly played.  In these few small pivotal scenes, Ms. Chambers returns full circle to the themes she developed at the start of the book.  Nick is left struggling against feelings of inferiority in his relationship with Ward and confused about his place in Porthkennack.  Who is he? Gypsy? Bastard? Or someone still to be discovered?  Lost, miserable and unwilling to give Ward a second chance, Nick doesn’t know who he truly is.  Ward, knowing he precipitated their break-up with just the sort of high-handed, unfeeling behavior Nick expected, is horrified and sickened.  He’s left to grieve the loss of his brother, and of his relationship with Nick.  He loves him but doesn’t know what to do to fix things.  Their separation persists until a storm forces them together once again.

A Gathering Storm features terrific storytelling, wonderfully developed characters (principal and secondary) and holds you in its thrall from start to finish.  An epilogue offers a delightful peak at Ward and Nick’s life months later.  I loved it – but kept waiting for one scene that never came (it’s the reason I deducted half a star).  I’m hopeful the author revisits these characters (and she’s hinted there’s more of the story to come), because I’m not ready to let them go.  You won’t be either.

A Perfect Gentleman by Candace Camp

a perfect gentleman

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Forced to marry an American heiress to save his family, Graeme Parr, Earl of Montclair, vowed their marriage would be in name only. Abigail Price thought handsome, aristocratic Graeme was her knight in shining armor, rescuing her from her overbearing father. But when she was spurned by her husband on their wedding night, Abigail fled home to New York.

Now, years later, Abigail has returned. But this sophisticated, alluring woman is not the drab girl Graeme remembers. Appalled by her bold American ways but drawn to her beauty, Graeme follows her on a merry chase through London’s elegant ballrooms to its dockside taverns—why is his wife back? What could she want of him now?

Torn between desire and suspicion, Graeme fears that Abby, like her unprincipled father, has a devious plan to ruin him. But is Abigail’s true desire Graeme’s destruction…or winning his love at last?

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Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, March 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1871
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

A Perfect Gentleman combines two of my favourite tropes – an arranged marriage and a second-chance romance – so I had fairly high expectations of the book from the outset, and I’m pleased to report that, apart from a niggle about the secondary plotline, those expectations were met.

The novel opens with a prologue set ten years before the bulk of the story, just before the wedding night of Graeme and Abigail Parr, whose marriage has been arranged by their respective fathers, the Earl of Montclair and American industrialist, Thurston Price. Abigail knows her new husband doesn’t love her and that he has married her in order to gain sufficient funds to be able to save the family estate, but Graeme’s behaviour has always been courteous and gentlemanly towards her, and she hopes that in time, affection – perhaps even love – will grow between them. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Price has taken underhand steps to make sure his prospective son-in-law could not back out of the agreement, threatening to reveal damaging information about his father if he tried to wriggle off the hook. Backed into a corner and further angered by a thoughtless comment made by his new father-in-law, Graeme finally snaps, and, believing Abigail to be complicit in her father’s plots, accuses her of blackmail, informs her that he’s in love with someone else and walks out of their hotel room in a furious rage.

Devastated, Abigail packs up her things and heads back to New York, where she remains for the next ten years.

Even though he later regretted his outburst at his young bride, Graeme was not particularly disturbed by her high-tailing it back to America, even though he’s never completely understood why. He continues to support her financially, but is quite happy to live a kind of bachelor existence, although, of course, he cannot marry the woman he loves or sire an heir, meaning that his title – he has become Earl of Montclair in the intervening years – will pass out of the direct line. The last thing he expects to hear, then, is that his wife is in London and causing quite a stir; not only because of her return after such a long absence, but because she is much sought after and surrounded by attentive gentlemen wherever she goes. This doesn’t fit with Graeme’s remembrance of his bride as rather a mousy young woman, but when first he sees her again, he is forced to acknowledge that the intervening years have seen her transform into a vibrant beauty who captivates all around her. But he’s not especially pleased to see her, and is suspicious of her motives for coming to England after so many years of separation. Their initial meeting, at a ball, is cordial, but Abigail is not forthcoming as to the reasons for her presence until some days later, when she tells Graeme that she wants a baby. He refuses, horrified at the thought of sharing a child with a woman he still dislikes – although he admits to himself that he’s not exactly averse to taking part in the act that would create that child – until Abigail then asks him for a divorce so that she can remarry. Graeme is equally horrified at this prospect; he has striven to do the right thing and act in a gentlemanly manner all his life, and has no wish to incur the scandal that would follow a divorce. He and Abigail reach an agreement; they will live as man and wife until she conceives, and any child she has will be brought up in England.

To say the couple is enthusiastic about the act of procreation is an understatement; the crackling awareness of each other that has been evident since their first meeting after Abigail’s return ignites in the bedroom – and other places – leading to some nicely sensual scenes between them, while they are also coming to a greater understanding of each other and what has led them to this point. Ten years on, this is a couple that is wiser as well as older, and the fact that they actually talk things out is very refreshing in a genre in which misunderstandings and lack of communication are so often used as plot devices. Both Graeme and Abigail have to acknowledge and come to terms with past errors as they learn the truth about what prompted their marriage and separation; and this part of the story, where we get to watch them slowly fall in love is beautifully done.

The secondary plotline, which is a mystery in which it becomes gradually apparent that someone is out to harm Abigail, is less successful, however. The storyline itself is intriguing – concerning the secret Thurston Price had threatened to reveal about the late Earl – but the execution is somewhat clumsy, and while I didn’t guess as to the identity of the culprit until near the end, it was because that person was such an unlikely choice and the motive rather flimsy rather than any clever red herrings on the part of the author.

But don’t let that put you off; the mystery is most definitely a background element to the developing love story, which is front and centre throughout. Graeme and Abigail are attractive and engaging characters, and their romance has a definite ring of maturity about it, which I really appreciated. I came away from A Perfect Gentleman feeling optimistic about their future – and very much looking forward to Ms. Camp’s next book, which will feature Graeme’s somewhat enigmatic cousin, James de Vere.

Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox

seven summer nights

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It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.

He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.

It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.

It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…

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Publisher and Release Date: FoxTales, November 2016

Time and Setting: Rural England, 1946
Heat Level:
Genre: Historical Romance (m/m)
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Magical, romantic, suspenseful, and deeply moving, Harper Fox hits only high notes in Seven Summer Nights, setting the bar high for historical and queer romantic fiction. Ostensibly a love story about a forbidden romance, it’s also part fantastical mystery and suspenseful thriller. Secrets abound: men loving each other when homosexuality was a sin and homophobia rampant; a mysterious church with hidden pagan symbolism and villagers with old and closely held secrets; and a battlefield memory that threatens the life of our weary hero. All demand our attention, but Ms. Fox carefully and capably guides the reader to a satisfying conclusion. The village of Droyton Parva, an idealized imagining of rural country life and a character in and of itself, becomes the home you never knew you longed for. Interesting secondary characters, living in the village and its vicarage, are similarly well developed. The prose is lyrical, the principals are engaging, and the multifaceted story is romantic, compelling and thrilling.

Rufus Denby is a devastated and lonely shell of the man he was before the outbreak of WWII. Once a famed archaeologist, he’s now a decorated war veteran slowly losing his will to live. Shell-shocked since his last horrific moments on the battlefield, Rufus struggles to remember his last moments in the trenches at Fort Roche, and to control recurrent and uncontrollable violent outbursts. After a recent ‘episode’ on an excavation site he only vaguely remembers, and a brief hospitalization, Rufus is back in London. A no-nonsense but sympathetic supervisor gently lets him go, then suggests he go to see her cousin, a vicar, in Droyton Parva. The church is falling apart and requires extensive renovation, but the vicar believes ancient artwork inside might be archaeologically significant. Perhaps Rufus could visit the church and determine whether it’s worth preserving? Nearly destitute, bewildered by his life, lonely, sad and desperate, Rufus heads to Droyton.

The vicar was right about the church. Unable to locate him at the vicarage, Rufus visits on his own and recognizes its paintings are archaeologically significant, but the symbolism is confusing. Willing to wait to speak to the vicar, an exhausted Rufus falls asleep in the choir loft. His sleep is interrupted by visions of a naked woman being chased through the woods… but when Rufus awakens, he isn’t sure if the dream was real. Unable to trust his own mind and feeling like he might be losing it, he sets off to find the vicar.

Reverend Archie Thorne returned to rural Sussex after the war, but lost his faith along the way. A motorcycle-riding chaplain in wartime, Archie lives a full and purposeful life in Droyton, but though his home and parish keep him busy, he’s lonely. Warm and loving, he has a habit of collecting the waifs and strays of the village, and spends afternoons trying to keep the church from falling into ruin and caring for his flock… while frequently sneaking away to work on his motorcycle and have a smoke. When Rufus finally tracks him down and introduces himself as the archaeologist sent by his cousin, Archie recognizes a kindred lost soul. He’s also intensely attracted to his handsome visitor. Long repressed desire flares to life, and despite the societal danger attached to falling for another man, Archie finds himself irresistibly drawn to Rufus, and sets out to collect him, too.

Rufus is also attracted to the handsome vicar but carefully conceals it. A failed pre-war relationship (reader: I’m massively understating this) has taught him to be cautious, though the more time he spends with Archie, the more he wants him. When Rufus finally makes a subtle pass at him, he’s rewarded and charmed by Archie’s exuberant and enthusiastic response. A tender and affectionate romance blossoms, but to Rufus’s chagrin and secret pleasure, an eager (and lustful) Archie often forgets the dangers inherent in their relationship. The village, the household and the parish are ever underfoot, and with Rufus’s warning in mind, the beginning of their relationship is marked by passionate, frantic and furtive couplings. Archie knows Rufus continues to suffer the sins of his past and that the trauma of his life as a soldier still torments him, and Rufus senses their relationship soothes something dark in Archie’s history. Their love is deeply passionate and profoundly moving, and Ms. Fox ‘s prose shines whenever they are together on the page.

I want to tell you more about this charming pair, but though the central relationship is rich and satisfying, there’s so much more to Seven Summer Nights. Rufus and Archie spend their days in the church trying to discern the meanings behind the ancient (pagan?) artwork and discerning if there’s something hidden deep beneath the church itself. This mystery, with roots deep in Droyton’s past, is both fascinating and creepy. But Ms. Fox doesn’t rush the narrative and she slowly parcels the truth out bit by bit via discoveries at the church and in telling revelations about Droyton’s villagers. The unraveling of the church’s history and the labyrinth below it mirror the slow unraveling of the chaos in Rufus’s mind. That slow and painful disentangling, and Rufus’s frustrating inability to remember events on the battlefield at Fort Roche, set up the third and thrilling narrative – Rufus’s war experience and its aftermath.

From the opening chapters of the novel, Ms. Fox imbues Rufus’s fearful forgotten last moments on the battlefield with darkness and despair. As Rufus struggles to remember (or forget?) what happened, allegations arise against Rufus’s superior, his deceased brother-in-law, Charles, who served with him on the front. Rufus is the only one who can corroborate the allegations, but Charles’s father, Brigadier Spence,with whom Rufus’s sister Rosemary still lives, will do anything to preserve England’s heroic version of his son.

Shortly after an ill-timed visit from his sister Rosemary, Rufus is (falsely) accused of a violent crime he can’t remember committing. Desperate and convinced he must be guilty, Rufus flees Droyton, sacrificing himself to Brigadier Spence and the asylum (it’s anything but) he established for injured war veterans. Rufus’s escape, the asylum, Archie’s tortured realization when he realizes where he’s gone…it’s awful and heart wrenching. It’s impossible to delve too deeply into this juicy bit of storytelling without spoiling it, suffice it to say, any doubt either man had about their love for each other, or the power of that love to transcend their darkest, most profoundly humbling moments, are laid to rest in several brilliant, heart stopping chapters. Afterwards, the novel resumes its almost leisurely ebb and flow as Rufus and Archie solve the mysteries of the church and its significance among the villagers.

Seven Summer Nights is the compassionate and redemptive tale of two men trying to heal after the horrors of war. Harper Fox deftly weaves a powerful anti-church, anti-establishment message throughout the novel – the message is powerful, yet subtle. Profoundly moving, enchanting and charming, this is a novel that stays with you long after you finish it.

Can falling in love restore lost faith and heal a tortured soul? The answer, after reading this beautiful, poignant novel, is a resounding yes.

Bedchamber Games (Rakes of Cavendish Square #3) by Tracy Anne Warren

bedchamber game

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Rosamund Carrow has spent years learning the law by assisting her barrister father, despite the frustrating truth that the profession is closed to women. When he dies unexpectedly, necessity compels her to disguise herself as a man so she can step into the courtroom to finish his cases. She’s willing to put her reputation at risk, but she never expects that the greatest peril will be to her heart…

Lord Lawrence Byron is a rising star in London’s legal circles, despite his reputation as an unrepentant rakehell. When an upstart young barrister defeats him in court, he’s determined to discover everything he can about his rival. He’s stunned when he uncovers the shocking secret that his new opponent is actually a beguiling, brilliant woman…one he can’t help but want in his bed. Passion draws them together as they break all the rules, but it may lead to something more lasting—like love…

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Publisher and Release Date: Jove, March 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1821
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Wendy

Bedchamber Games the third in Tracy Anne Warren’s The Rakes of Cavendish Square series is Lord Lawrence Byron’s story and I’ve been eagerly anticipating its publication. So far I’ve loved everything about the warm, unorthodox Byron family and the fact that this latest story has a barrister at its centre – well, two actually – only whetted my appetite more.  Tracy Anne Warren sets her scene particularly realistically as I know the part of London she describes and can see in my minds eye the barristers in their wigs, gowns billowing out behind them, hurrying along between their chambers and the courts, clerks struggling along with piles of documents in their wake.

Lord Lawrence and his identical twin, Lord Leo, whose extremely intriguing and unusual story was told in The Bedding Proposal, are the sexiest twosome on legs. Both studied law but only Lawrence has pursued it as a career, and he’s made quite a name for himself, as he rarely loses a case. It is with some shock that he finds himself out-manoeuvred in court by a clever young barrister he has met only briefly. Not a little miffed, he decides he needs to get to know his opponent and makes an effort to befriend the young, slightly awkward Ross Carrow. It takes only a few times in his company to uncover the truth; Ross Carrow, is in fact, Rosamund Carrow, a smart and clever young woman.

Women were not allowed to study or practice law in Regency England, but Rosamund, with the collusion of her brother, Bertram, dresses like a man and takes on the cases her father left outstanding at his sudden death. She uses the credentials and name of her cousin – who hasn’t practised law for many years and lives in the north of England – and in this way avoids detection by her peers. Bertram has always had a bad stutter which worsens when under stress, so they decide that Rosamund will be the lead counsel for the remaining cases. She had been her father’s ‘right-hand-man’ since she was a child and has learnt her skills well under his tutelage; has a keen, analytical brain, and a quick tongue and from the moment she out-argues Lawrence in open court and wins her case he is intrigued.

Lawrence Byron is a drop-dead gorgeous rakehell, and pretty much any woman he wants is his for the asking. But once he has discovered Rosamund’s secret and is over the chagrin of being duped by a woman he is enchanted by her. She not only attracts him physically, but her intelligence and ability to argue like a man has him captivated and charmed as no other woman has had the power to do and he cannot resist using his not inconsiderable charms to seduce her. For her part, Rosamund has been attracted to Lawrence from their first meeting, but no matter how intelligent and clever she may be, she’s still very much the innocent and succumbs to Lawrence’s seductive onslaught with alacrity and they embark on a clandestine, passionate and steamy affair which leaves them both reeling,

Normally the girl-dressed-as-a-boy trope leaves me cold but Tracy Anne Warren has really pulled this one off in a believable manner. No man of the time – in their very male world – would expect to see a woman in court wearing barrister robes, let alone arguing with male logic, therefore no-one questions it.  There are some amusing moments during Lawrence’s outings with the slightly effeminate young ‘man’ before he gets his light bulb moment. He begins to doubt his own sexuality after hoisting a rather drunken young barrister up into his curricle and is faced with a well-rounded bottom; a ladies man to his bones, he doesn’t feel at all comfortable and is left worrying and pondering his reaction for days.

Although the story is almost entirely centred around the love story and passionate affair of Lawrence and Rosamund there is a slight tension running throughout. Lawrence is an ambitious young man whose eventual goal is to become a judge and to this end, he is tentatively courting the only daughter of a renowned high court judge who would very much like to see his daughter aligned with the clever young barrister and his powerful family. Lawrence is blasé about the courtship, seeing it leading only to a marriage of convenience and being of the opinion that love, or the lack thereof, doesn’t matter, whereas his career does. That is – until he starts to fall for Rosamund, who has no such connections. This is Lawrence’s dilemma and he doesn’t handle it well; I wanted to give him a damn good shake and tell him to look under his nose.

I adored this story.  Tracy Anne Warren’s eloquent writing style is very much to my taste – witty, funny and sexy. My one complaint is that such a lovely story fizzled out with a rather mediocre ending – I would have liked to have seen more drama leading up to the final page. Don’t get me wrong Bedchamber Games is a compelling love story and one that I highly recommend, but I felt that Ms. Warren missed an opportunity to create a little more tension – everything was in place for it. Nevertheless this is a lovely, romantic story that does an excellent job in highlighting how very unfair life was in this period to women with the brains and inclination to use them but with society’s dictates refusing them the opportunity. I’m definitely planning on reading more of this author’s work – and if, like me, you love a sexy barrister – hold onto your hat!

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

VT-LawrenceBrowneAffair-CSebastian_FINAL

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An earl hiding from his future . . . 

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

A swindler haunted by his past . . . 

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

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives? 

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

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT

Cornwall, 1816

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A keeper, then. Even worse.

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

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

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

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

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

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

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Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, January 2017

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

Review by Vikki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal by Virginia Heath

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harlot and the Sheikh (Hot Arabian Nights #3) by Marguerite Kaye

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A defiant woman… in a desert king’s world!

Inheriting a broken kingdom, Prince Rafiq made a vow – to restore its pride by winning a prestigious horse race. To ensure success he hires an English expert. But even notoriously controlled Rafiq is shocked when his new employee is introduced… as Miss Stephanie Darvill!

Stephanie is determined to leave her shameful past and broken dreams behind – she will prove to Rafiq she deserves his trust! But this hard-hearted desert sheikh calls to Stephanie in the most primal of ways…dare she give in to her wildest desires?

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, February 2017

Time and Setting: Arabia 1815
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Wendy

If there’s one thing readers can be sure of with a Marguerite Kaye novel it’s superb writing, in-depth and expert research and captivating storytelling. In The Harlot and the Sheikh the third in her Hot Arabian Nights series we meet another of Ms. Kaye’s capable, independently-minded heroines. And even though I’ve never been attracted to ‘sheikh’ stories in general – I adored this one with its delectable but flawed leading-man and a heroine ahead of her time with nothing left to lose but maybe everything to gain if she can only pull off her audacious ploy.

Miss Stephanie Darvill has left home under a cloud after a liaison with an officer in her father’s regiment left her reputation in tatters. Her father has a considerable reputation as a veterinary surgeon attached to the Seventh Hussars and Stephanie has worked alongside him most of her life and is now almost as knowledgeable as he. Prince Rafiq al-Antarah’s string of valuable blue-blooded race horses are in danger from a mysterious disease which has beset his stud and which thus threatens his bid to win the prestigious Sabr, the famous endurance race that is key to the prosperity and prestige of his people. Some years earlier, Rafiq’s father lost the race in a moment of madness which has had far-reaching consequences not only for Bharym, but for Rafiq personally. Forced to make a decision based on his father’s actions, the prince is now severely troubled and feels that winning the race is the only way to make amends for his own actions.

When Stephanie arrives and declares herself to be at the palace at his invitation Rafiq is astonished and not a little displeased, because he had expected her father to respond to his request for help.  Stephanie persuades him that she is up to the job and as time is short and there is no one else he can call on, Rafiq gives her a contract as his Royal Horse Surgeon. Besides which, he is not a little impressed by her temerity, determination and strength of character not to mention her attractiveness and an ability to speak his language like a native, a fact for which she can thank her Egyptian mother.

These are two of Marguerite Kate’s most compelling characters yet. Stephanie has been badly hurt but is strong and determined to gain her independence, a fact she thinks will help her to rise above her fall from grace and repay the faith her parents’ have placed in her. She is highly intelligent, determined and shows she is no pushover as she fronts up to the prejudices she faces in Rafiq’s stables where a woman’s presence is considered to be unlucky. Rafiq is immediately struck by her uncompromising honesty, not a quality he has experienced much in his dealings with others. Stephanie doesn’t promise to save his beloved horses but she promises to try. Rafiq is utterly honourable as well as being the most deliciously handsome man that she has ever encountered and it isn’t long before the two are exploring their physical attraction to each other, although after her previous experience, Stephanie is naturally wary and anxious not to make this relationship into something it is not.

I loved the way Ms. Kaye developed the romance between Rafiq and Stephanie; the attraction between them simmers from their first meeting and builds slowly and sensually. He winkles out her past – bit-by-bit – and shows her by word and deed that he is not remotely shocked, and gradually helps her to rebuild her sense of her self-esteem by his actions and attentions to her. In turn she teaches him a little about bending his long held views and rules and relaxing the strictures in his everyday life and in his palace. In short, Rafiq begins to see Stephanie as a breath of fresh air and she quickly becomes a necessity in his life.

Marguerite Kaye has a special ability to drop the reader into place and time, the sights, smells, soft sand beneath feet, even the tinkling of water from a fountain – all are an experience one can almost see, smell, feel and hear – it is one aspect of her writing that I have always admired.   The Harlot and the Sheikh boasts a beautifully crafted romance between two captivating characters and a clever, plausible plot which Marguerite Kaye has backed up in her author’s notes showing us her extensive research into many of the areas covered in this story. I highly recommend this novel and after meeting Christopher Fordyce towards the end of novel I am really looking forward to meeting him again when he gets his own story in the last of the series.

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell #2) by Deanna Raybourn

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Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution, who stands accused of the brutal murder of his mistress Artemisia. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

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Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, January 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical Mystery/Adventure with a hint of romance to come
Time and Setting: London, 1888
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Veronica Speedwell returns for her second adventure with Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known to all (except his family) as Stoker. Veronica, who has made a career of sorts of lepidoptery, is the natural daughter of a Very Important Person, as revealed in the first book, A Curious Beginning. Stoker is a viscount’s younger son, who fled his unhappy home as a young man, became a doctor in the Royal Navy, and now has a significant reputation as a naturalist. (He also practices taxidermy, which makes for a couple of fairly gross scenes.)

Veronica and Stoker are true soul mates, minus the romance (mostly). In the first book, Veronica mused,

“I recognized his nature as my own. It was as if we were two castaways from a far-off land, adrift among strangers whose ways we could not entirely understand. But something within us spoke the same language, for all our clashes of words.”

Both are committed non-conformists who disdain the rules of Victorian society. They are witty, highly intelligent, fearless, strong, and loyal, and they have come to trust one another. In a neat role-reversal, however, Veronica is the more plain-spoken, logical one, while Stoker is reticent, more emotional, and more easily embarrassed. Although he agrees to pose nude for a sculptor/suspect, Veronica often shocks him with her forthright attitudes about sex. Their conversations, and frequent arguments, crackle with intelligence and plenty of humor.

Both of these books are mysteries, but the stories are really about Veronica and Stoker and the emerging personal and professional relationships between these brilliant, eccentric people. Don’t get me wrong – the mystery here is quite good and full of palace intrigue, decadent noblemen, bohemian artists, gothic secret societies, and politics.

The characters, however, drive the story. After an inauspicious beginning in the first book, Veronica and Stoker are now fast friends and colleagues. Their patron, Lord Rosemorran, has employed them to catalogue his vast collection of “art, artifacts, natural history specimens, [and] mementos.” They live in separate out-buildings on Rosemorran’s Marylebone estate and work in the Belvedere, “built as a sort of freestanding ballroom and storehouse for an eccentric Rosemorran ancestor.”

Even though they spend their days together, neither Veronica nor Stoker has opened up to the other about their past lives. Each has many secrets, and Raybourn gradually reveals bits and pieces to the reader. Nor have they acknowledged the underlying sexual attraction between them, although there are baby steps in that direction in this book. We yearn to know more, but she gives us enough to satisfy, at least until the next book.

When Veronica insists upon investigating the murder for which Miles Ramforth has been convicted, despite Stoker’s deep reservations, he goes along, mostly out of a sense of protectiveness. I won’t go into the twists and turns in the plot; there are so many and, besides, the book will be more enjoyable not knowing what happens next. I did not figure out the truth on my own, and I caution readers that some characters are hiding a lot more than you think.

Raybourn also populates her book with a roster of characters who are, well, characters. She excels at this, and I am always entertained by the unusual people who surround the main couple. Lord Rosemorran is eccentric, but not nearly as colorful as his elderly visiting aunt, Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk. She is not exactly the dragon aunt often found in historical novels – she’s clearly fond of Veronica and flirts with Stoker – but she is fierce nonetheless. Scotland Yard’s Special Branch is ably led by the secretive Sir Hugo Montgomerie, who finds Veronica infuriating, while the “charmingly ambitious” Inspector Mornaday finds her alluring (and Stoker does not like it). The coterie of artists surrounding Sir Frederick Havelock, the greatest painter of the day, are appropriately unusual. Along with the murder victim, they all live at Havelock House, so Veronica and Stoker have lots of suspects to investigate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book but could not give it five-stars for one simple reason: Veronica is incredibly irritating, even though it isn’t always her fault. I think that Raybourn has overdone it in her effort to show how much of a non-conformist she is. Everyone reacts to her, so we hear too often about her professional achievements, her subtle beauty, and her shocking behavior. This is not a major criticism, and indeed a reader who has not read A Curious Beginning might not notice it. I expect Raybourn was attempting to include sufficient detail for new readers; I simply found it more than sufficient.

That minor quibble aside, this is a delightful book. Deanna Raybourn is an excellent writer has become one of my auto-buy authors. Readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of romance definitely should give this series a try.

Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother #3) by Emily Larkin

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Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.
Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing-to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret-including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

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Publisher and Release Date: Emily Larkin, January 2016
Time and Setting: England, 1808
Genre: Historical/Paranormal Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Emily Larkin is an author I’ve quickly come to admire. The men and women who populate her Baleful Godmother series are allowed to be plain in looks or sometimes broken in spirt but their stories are layered and compelling. In Trusting Miss Trentham the journey for the main characters to find love and redemption is difficult yet the payoff was considerable.

Miss Letitia Trentham knows when someone is lying. It’s an ability she chose on her twenty-first birthday from a fairy required to grant one wish to the female members of her family. Ever since that night Letitia has used her gift to weed out unwanted suitors and for six seasons it’s revealed the bitter truth that all of the men asking for her hand are more interested in her fortune than her heart. After declining yet another proposal Letitia’s night is off to a poor start when she’s approached by a soldier who seems to know about her truth-telling ability and has an unusual request for her: help him find justice for his men who were betrayed by one of their own. Torn between doing the proper thing of dismissing him or helping a man clearly in distress, Letitia takes the chance to use her ability to do something important.

Icarus Reid, recently retired from the King’s army, has one last mission to carry out and he’s willing to use whatever means necessary to discover who betrayed him and his men to the French. When a friend mentions Miss Trentham’s unique ability to sense lies he approaches her, desperate to use that skill while questioning the two most likely suspects. He’s surprised when she agrees to his plan despite the risks it poses to her reputation but Reid won’t allow this chance to find justice for his men slip away. Their first interview with a former soldier clears the man but their second interrogation reveals more suspects but no clearer a picture of who sold out his countrymen.

Dismayed that Reid’s quest could meet a dead end without her assistance Letitia arranges for them to travel together without anyone knowing she’s gone. The man that Reid once was would have immediately baulked at the idea of taking Letitia anywhere unchaperoned; however that person was lost forever on the banks of a river in Portugal. Now, he’s haunted nightly by memories of their senseless deaths and the torture he faced at the hands of French soldiers. Those nightmares make him cry out, alerting Letitia to his suffering. Unwilling to let her companion face another sleepless night Letitia finds a way to care for him that would scandalize her family but is necessary to give Reid some peace.

Their nightly routine allows Reid to rest but each morning after he senses just how much his presence jeopardizes Letitia’s good name. His mind tries to keep her at arm’s length but his heart needs her by his side as he faces the demons that have possessed him for months. Little by little their relationship moves from just a partnership to one that is completely new for Letitia. She loves Reid despite his wounded soul; but how can she plan a future with a man who has given up on living?

Trusting Miss Trentham has some dark undercurrents and can be quite heart-wrenching as readers are pulled deeper into Reid’s despondency. For a man driven by ideals such as duty and honor, his anguish at believing those have been stripped from him is palpable. It takes Letitia’s forceful approach of confronting that pain and looking at it from another angle for him to even begin to crawl out of the darkness. Reid is an interesting mix-up of hero types in a romantic story; he’s alpha-like in his relentless drive and his refusal to confront his feelings but those emotions lie so close to the surface that at other times he’s a beta-like man overwhelmed by how much he does care. His healing process over the course of the story feels realistic for what Reid endured and one can see that there is still a long way to go; however that he trusts Letitia and lets her help him are the most important steps.

I love Letitia for her indomitable spirt and her innocence. Her truth-sense may have protected her but it also put her into a gilded cage that not much could penetrate. Letitia could only let her guard down around people like her cousins who don’t seek to use her for their benefit. Once she agrees to work with Reid it puts her on a path of discovery, where sometimes white lies are necessary and some people have to lie to themselves to protect important personal secrets. A strong facet of Letitia’s character is her unselfishness and drive to help Reid no matter the cost to herself. She makes some mistakes while on that path but her need to see him heal is a mission more important to her than finding Reid’s traitor. Each little concession Reid makes is a major victory in Letitia’s eyes and she comes to love the man uncovered as he lets go of the past.

The magical aspects of Trusting Miss Trentham are kept very low-key so everything hinges on the journey Reid and Letitia take together both in body and mind. Just like the first book of the Baleful Godmother series there are two secondary characters who I am eager to see get their own story told and perhaps get another glimpse of Reid and Letitia’s continuing road towards a happy ending.