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Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne

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Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing fourteen-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder. . . and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, August 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1818
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

The Spymasters series is one of the best historical romance series ever written. If you’ve read them, you already know they’re wonderful; if you haven’t, they’re awesome and you should read them IMMEDIATELY. Each book works as a standalone, although they’re linked and it very much enhances your reading experience if you’re familiar with Ms. Bourne’s world. Her characters are complex, dynamic, flawed men and women who fall for each other against the backdrop of politics and espionage, and they’re wildly addictive, exciting and romantic. I’ve fallen in love with nearly all of her heroes (Oh, Adrian Hawkhurst. Be still my heart.), and her heroines are equally compelling. In Beauty Like the Night, we revisit Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met when she was a young girl fleeing the bloody French Revolution in The Forbidden Rose. Séverine – Sévie – has tried to leave the world of spying behind her and now works as a private investigator. But after she meets Raoul Deverney, she’s drawn back into the intrigues of British Intelligence and a past she’s tried to leave behind. Although Beauty Like the Night isn’t quite as good as I hoped it would be – it’s a bit slow in the middle and I wish our principals spent more time together – it’s still pretty great.

Asleep in her room late one night, Sévie abruptly awakens certain she isn’t alone – but she isn’t frightened. Life has shaped her into a brave, intelligent and supremely capable woman who’s more than capable of defending herself from anyone stupid enough to steal into her bedroom. She’s right; she isn’t alone in the room, but her guest makes it clear he has no plans to hurt her. In fact, he appears to know exactly who and how dangerous she is and wants Sévie to tell him where she’s keeping Pilar, a twelve-year-old girl who’s been missing since her mother – his wife – was killed three months ago. The handsome stranger (is he French? Spanish?) makes it clear that although Pilar is not his daughter, he’s anxious to find her – and an amulet that went missing at the same time. Sévie is curious about her enigmatic intruder who’s convinced she has information about the murder, the missing girl, and the amulet – but she can’t help him. She’s never met Pilar or his ex-wife Sanchia, and has no idea where the missing amulet might be.

Raoul Deverney knows Séverine de Cabrillac. She’s the same woman – a spy – he encountered a decade ago in Spain and he’s never forgotten her. Sleep tousled, beautiful, dangerous – she coolly denies knowing Pilar, Sanchia or anything about the missing amulet and he wants to believe her. But ever since he discovered the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bed frame, he’s certain she must be involved somehow despite her denials. Séverine obviously doesn’t recognize Raoul but is curious about his identity, and he refuses to give her any clues about who he is or how they might know one another. Reluctant to leave, Raoul vows to himself he will find out just how she’s involved in his wife’s murder, and he can’t resist a quick caress of her soft cheek before he retreats to the window and vanishes over the edge.

When Raoul next appears – he’s silently slipped into Sévie’s locked office – she’s frustrated by his ability to get past her defenses (personal and professional), but she isn’t surprised to see him. He wants her to help him find Pilar and the missing amulet, and though it’s obvious neither completely trusts the other, Sévie agrees to help him anyway. She has suspicions about just who and what he is, but she keeps them to himself: Raoul is a mystery she plans to solve as she finds Pilar. Oh reader, these first meetings between Sévie and Raoul are so delicious… and fortunately for us, they characterize the duration of their relationship. From the moment Sévie spots Raoul in her bedroom, they’re captivated by each other – held in thrall whenever the other is near. Every interaction between them is thick with tension, and the torturous slow-burn of their relationship/courtship – both of them trying to deny the attraction between them… well, it’s a it’s a wicked, wonderful pleasure as Ms. Bourne forces them to work together to figure out just who murdered Sanchia and what happened to Pilar and the amulet.

Although the chemistry and sexual tension between Sévie and Raoul are highlights of Beauty Like the Night, what elevates this rather complex tale of espionage over other similarly excellent spy novels is the group of secondary characters that comprise Sévie’s world. As Sévie and Raoul pursue clues in their case and try to fight their growing attraction and affection for each other, their investigation dangerously intersects with another one led by the Head of British Intelligence (and Sévie’s brother-in-law) Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker). Via her childhood as the adopted daughter of Doyle, and close relationships with the spies who comprise its highest echelon, Sévie is privy to the details of British Service’s investigation. She’s intrigued by links between the two cases and how Raoul might be involved, but Hawker and Doyle – shrewd, intelligent, and fiercely protective of Sévie – are suspicious of her charming, mysterious, and obviously enamored client. Though Sévie pretends disinterest in Raoul around them, it’s clear to the two men – who play at being detached and dispassionate observers of Sévie’s investigation/client/potentially disastrous affair that there’s more to Raoul and the relationship than Sévie lets on. Their involvement in her case, and vice versa, adds a nice levity to the novel and the intense relationship between the principals.

It’s impossible to say more about the investigation at the heart of this love story without spoiling it, so I won’t; suffice it to say Ms. Bourne cleverly and brilliantly connects the dots of the slow burn romance between Sévie and Raoul, their mutually dark pasts, and a deadly betrayal that linked them long ago. As the case evolves, we slowly learn more about Raoul – where he came from; how he acquired his extremely lethal skills – and as the cases coalesce, neither Sévie or Raoul can fight their mutual attraction. Both principals are damaged, but find solace in each other. That succor – along with their intense physical attraction – eventually helps them overcome their distrust of each other enough to believe in a future together. Sévie and Raoul are dynamic, dangerous and riveting individual characters and as a pair… well, it’s a terrific match-up. And contrary to my early expectations – that Sévie would outshine anyone she was paired with; or that Ms. Bourne couldn’t possibly deliver another hero as deliciously wicked, lethal and sexy as Hawker – I fell hard for the enigmatic Raoul. I liked him. Big time.

The combination of engrossing plot, engaging principals and secondary characters, and a delicious slow-burn love affair results in another wonderful addition to the Spymasters series. Though it isn’t my favorite, (that honor is reserved for The Black Hawk (duh!)), it’s yet another terrific addition to Ms. Bourne’s catalog, cementing her status as one of my favorite historical writers of all time. My advice? You should read it (and the other Spymasters novels if you haven’t) right away.

Scandalous Ever After (Romance of the Turf #2) by Theresa Romain

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Does love really heal all wounds?

After being widowed by a steeplechase accident in Ireland, Lady Kate Whelan abandons the turf. But once her mourning is complete, her late husband’s debts drive her to seek help in Newmarket amidst the whirl of a race meet. There she encounters antiquities expert Evan Rhys, her late husband’s roguish friend―whom she hasn’t seen since the day of his lordship’s mysterious death.

Now that fate has reunited them, Evan seizes the chance to win over the woman he’s always loved. But once back within the old stone walls of Whelan House, long-held secrets come to light that shake up everything Kate thought she knew about her marriage. Now she wonders who she can trust with her heart―and Evan must decide between love and a truth that will separate him from all his heart desires.

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, July 2017

Time and Setting: England, Wales and Ireland, 1818
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

This second full-length novel in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series takes up the story of Kate Durham née Chandler, the elder Chandler daughter, widow of the Earl of Whelan and mother of two young children.  Scandalous Ever After is the sort of strongly written, character-driven and emotionally satisfying romance at which this author excels, and there’s a dash of mystery, too, which eventually turns out to be linked to one of the secondary plotlines featured in book one, A Gentleman’s Game.

When Kate was just seventeen, she was swept off her feet by the handsome Conall Durham, and after a whirlwind courtship, married him and left England to live at his estate in Ireland.  Con’s best friend, Evan Rhys, a Welsh historian and archaeologist, was a frequent visitor, and the three of them spent many an evening together chatting, laughing and sampling the excellent local whiskey.  Evan and Kate developed a strong and – they’d thought – lasting friendship, even though unbeknownst to Kate, Evan had fallen in love with her the moment they met.  Over the years, Kate watched Con running up debts he couldn’t pay and put up with his infidelities – and while Evan remonstrated with his friend, Con continued on his own merry way until he was killed as the result of a fall from his horse.  Shortly before this, the two men argued violently, after which Evan left and has never returned; he and Kate haven’t seen each other in the two years since Con’s death.

Kate hasn’t been home to Newmarket since she married, but she is back in England now, hoping to ask her father for help in settling the massive debt Connor left behind.  While she’s there, she attends a lecture on antiquities – and specifically, the way in which the collectors’ market is currently being inundated with fakes – given by her old friend Evan Rhys.  She has been hurt by his continued absence from her life and hopes they can regain something of their former friendship, unaware of the true nature of his feelings for her and that he harbours some guilt about the argument he and Con had on the day he died.  Evan is surprised to see Kate, but can’t deny that he’s missed her – and decides to woo her now that she is free and out of mourning.  But he knows it won’t be easy; over the years Kate has placed him in the role of “dependable friend” and he’ll have to take things slowly if he is to get her to see him as a lover.

Unfortunately for Kate, Sir William is unable to help her with her financial woes, so she decides to return to Ireland and Evan offers to escort her, telling her that he wants to look into the sudden flood of fake antiquities that appear to have been made from stone that comes from close to the Whelan estate.  Once there, it becomes apparent that not only does Evan have cause for his suspicions but also that Con’s death was no accident – and that the machinations of the mysterious villain who cast a long shadow in the previous book continue to pursue the Chandler family, although to what end is not yet apparent.

Scandalous Ever After is a skilfully blended story of romance and mystery, with the focus very firmly on the fragile new relationship that Kate and Evan are building together.  They have terrific chemistry and their many verbal exchanges are witty, funny and utterly delightful; such naturalistic dialogue is one of this author’s strengths, and it’s much in evidence here as Kate and Evan flirt, argue and tease their way towards a new understanding of themselves and each other.  That’s not to say it’s an easy journey for either of them, especially after Kate takes a leap of faith and invites Evan to her bed – and almost immediately regrets her decision, because she is scared that by changing the nature of their relationship she will lose his friendship, and she couldn’t bear that.  Over the years, she has become so many different women – wife, mother, countess, manager – that she has lost sight of herself and her own wants and needs.  Spending time with her family – and with Evan’s on the way to Ireland (no matter that both families are very, very different) – has brought into sharp focus the fact that she doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not in Ireland and not at home; and if she loses Evan’s friendship she will be truly alone.  She tells him she wants them to forget their one night together and go back to the way things were – and can’t understand why Evan doesn’t agree it’s for the best, and why he eventually begins to pull back from her.

Evan is a gorgeous beta hero; an intellectual who can crack a dirty joke along with the best of them and whose concern and love for Kate shines through in his words and actions.  He’s kind, charming and perceptive, but his upbringing by a mother who constantly belittled him has left him a little emotionally bruised and he’s suffered bouts of depression throughout his life – something Kate tackles superbly, offering understanding, compassion and acceptance.

The love story is beautifully nuanced and the love scenes are sensual as we see Evan and Kate tentatively exploring the possibilities for more than friendship at the same time as they fear to take the steps that will irretrievably change things between them.  It’s true that Evan is now more willing to put his heart on the line while Kate struggles with the fear that she could lose him and allows that fear to push her to retreat from him and from what she really wants; and there were times this reader found Kate’s reticence just a teeny bit frustrating.  Yet in the two years since Con’s death, Evan allowed his fear of rejection to keep him far away from the temptation Kate presented, so he, too, has been guilty of running from his deepest desires.

My one complaint about the story overall is that Kate’s inability to realise why Evan is so hurt when she wants to ‘go back to how things were’ goes on a little too long – and it’s hard to believe she can really be so obtuse about it when he has been her closest friend for so many years.  That point knocked my final grade down a little, but didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book and isn’t going to prevent my recommending Scandalous Ever After to others.

The Most Dangerous Duke in London (Decadent Dukes Society #1) by Madeline Hunter

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NOTORIOUS NOBLEMAN SEEKS REVENGE
Name and title: Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton.
Affiliation: London’s elite Society of Decadent Dukes.
Family history: Scandalous.
Personality traits: Dark and brooding, with a thirst for revenge.
Ideal romantic partner: A woman of means, with beauty and brains, willing to live with reckless abandon.
Desire: Clara Cheswick, gorgeous daughter of his family’s sworn enemy.

FAINT OF HEART NEED NOT APPLY
Clara may be the woman Adam wants, but there’s one problem: she’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than getting married—especially to a man said to be dead-set on vengeance. Though, with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if his desire for justice is sincere—along with his incredibly unnerving intention to be her husband. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for Adam clearly comes with a cost. But who knew courting danger could be such exhilarating fun?

Publisher and Release Date: Zebra, May 2017

Time and Setting: Warwickshire and London, 1822
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

The Most Dangerous Duke in London gets Madeline Hunter’s new Decadent Dukes Society series off to a strong start with an extremely readable and engaging tale of a man seeking revenge, an old family enmity and the woman caught in the middle. The romance is a delightful, sensual slow-burn, and in addition, there’s mystery and intrigue, a whiff of espionage, lots of witty banter and a wonderfully written friendship between the hero and his two closest friends (both of whom will feature in future books).

Adam Penrose, the Duke of Stratton has recently returned to England after living in for the past five years, during which he has acquired a reputation for having a quick temper and for fighting and killing his opponents in duels – thus earning himself him the moniker of “The Dangerous Duke”. Adam left the country following his father’s death, which is widely thought to been at his own hand following rumours that he was engaged in treasonous activities, rumours Adam believes were fuelled by the hints and accusations of the late Earl of Marwood. There has long been bad blood between the two families, and now Adam is determined to find out if his suspicions about Marwood are true and to make someone pay for driving his father to his grave. Given the long-standing enmity between the Penroses and the Cheswicks, Adam is therefore surprised to receive an invitation to visit the dowager Countess of Marwood, who states her belief that it’s time the two families patched up their differences.

Adam is highly sceptical, but plays along until the countess proposes that he should marry her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, thus burying the hatchet in the time-honoured tradition of marital alliance. Lady Emilia is pretty and amiable, but Adam isn’t interested in a schoolroom chit – he prefers spirited women with minds of their own, and when he meets Lady Clara, the current earl’s half-sister, Adam decides straight away that she will suit him very well indeed.

Lady Clara Cheswick is the only child of her father’s first marriage and was his favourite among his children. He left her very comfortably off when he died, so Clara doesn’t need to marry if she doesn’t want to, and, at twenty-four, she is on the shelf and quite happy to keep it that way. She’s intelligent, strong-willed and independent, and is content to focus her considerable energies on her publishing venture, Parnassus, a magazine written and produced by women for women which is starting to achieve success. When Adam proposes marriage, Clara doesn’t take him at all seriously, telling him that she isn’t interested in marrying him or anyone, but Adam won’t take no for an answer and sets about courting her.

Clara can’t deny that Adam is a very attractive man, or that she’s drawn to him; he’s sexy and witty and clever and makes it very clear that the qualities that her family regard as problematic and unladylike – her desire for independence and the fact that she not only has her own opinions but makes no bones about voicing them – are qualities he likes and admires. He is genuinely interested in what she has to say about any number of topics, and doesn’t talk down to her or treat her as though she’s a hothouse flower. Adam insists his proposal of marriage was quite serious – and as Clara spends time with him and gets to know him, she is increasingly tempted to believe him, but can’t quite shake her suspicions that there is something else behind his stated intention. Perhaps, given her close relationship with her late father, Adam is primarily interested in getting close to her in order to find out if she knows anything about the late earl’s possible involvement in his father’s death? Or maybe he wants to use her – somehow – as an instrument of revenge?

The sparks fly between Adam and Clara right from their first meeting, and their relationship unfolds gradually and deliciously as Adam finds ways to spend time with Clara – to her initial exasperation – and they slowly come to appreciate each other’s wit, intelligence and sense of humour. These are two mature adults who never underestimate each other as they match one another quip for quip, their verbal sparring a deliciously sensual courtship and prelude to a later, more intimate relationship. The romance is very well-developed; there’s none of the immediate and anachronistic bed-hopping or insta-lust that characterises so many historical romances these days, which is always a refreshing discovery. Adam never wavers in his determination to marry Clara, and his persistence is charming and often funny; he’s generous and forthright, answering Clara’s questions about his motivations honestly and is never less than charming and gentlemanly towards her. I was also impressed with the way that Ms. Hunter has managed to create a credibly independent heroine who is not too modern; Clara wants to make her own way in the world, but is also mindful of her reputation and knows she has to at least appear to operate within the confines of society.

The plotline that revolves around Adam’s search for the truth about his father is well set up and executed, weaving in and out of the romance but never overwhelming it; and when the resolution comes it’s unexpected and quite clever.

With two multi-faceted and strongly characterised principals, an entertaining and well-drawn secondary cast, a sensual romance and a dash of intrigue, The Most Dangerous Duke in London is a thoroughly engaging read and one I’d recommend to fans of the author and of historical romance in general.

VIRTUAL TOUR: From Duke Till Dawn (The London Underground #1) by Eva Leigh

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Years ago, the Duke of Greyland gave his heart—and a princely sum of money—to a charming, destitute widow with unparalleled beauty. But after one passionate night, she slipped from his bed and vanished without a trace. And just when he’s given up hope of ever seeing her again, Greyland finds her managing a gaming hell. He’s desperate to have her… until he discovers everything about his long-lost lover was a lie.

In truth, Cassandra Blake grew up on the streets, picking pockets to survive. Greyland was a mark—to be fleeced and forgotten—but her feelings for the duke became all too real. Once he learns of her deception, however, the heat in his eyes turns to ice. When her business partner absconds with the gaming hell proceeds—leaving unsavory investors out for blood—Cassandra must beg the man she betrayed for help.

Greyland wants compensation, too, and he’ll assist her under one condition: she doesn’t leave his sight until her debts are paid. But it’s not long before the real Cassandra—the smart, streetwise criminal—is stealing his heart all over again.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, May 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about other books by this author is the way she manages to create strong, intelligent heroines who are assertive and independent while still continuing to function in a society that essentially thought women were lesser beings and wanted to shove them into a corner marked “seen, not heard”.  It’s a difficult line to tread; if you go too far, your heroine is shrewish and difficult to like, if you don’t go far enough, your heroine may be too much of a doormat to appeal to a modern audience.  But Eva Leigh manages to get the balance just about right, mostly because she writes about women who are not just decorative ornaments; her heroines often have to make their own livings and have learned the hard way that the one person they can always rely on (until they meet their hero, that is!) is themselves – and she does this without making them so modern as to require too much suspension of disbelief that they could exist in Regency England.  Cassandra Blake, her heroine in From Duke Till Dawn is one of those women, someone who has used her wits and intelligence to make a life for herself in a hostile world.

Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland has been brought up to be perfect.  The perfect duke.  The perfect gentleman.  The perfect… everything.  Even at thirty-eight, he still hears his father’s booming strictures about the importance of duty and responsibility, and he has done everything possible to live up to his sire’s expectations.  But he’s hit a snag in terms of fulfilling one of the most important duties to his dukedom in that the demure and very eligible young lady to whom he had betrothed himself has just run off to Gretna Green with the another man.  While there’s nothing Alex would rather do than slope off home to lick his wounds in solitude, he knows he has to put on a brave face and be seen out in society to show that the young woman’s actions have not affected him.  In truth, they haven’t much – Alex wasn’t in love with the girl, he’s just annoyed and embarrassed at being jilted.

He’s in this morose state when his two best friends find him and insist on taking him to the newest gambling den in London.  Alex’s heart isn’t in it, but he goes anyway – and is astonished when he hears a voice he’d thought never to hear again, the voice of the woman he’s nicknamed his Lost Queen. Two years earlier while in Cheltenham, Alex met and fell for a lovely widow named Cassandra Blair, a woman possessed of a quick mind as well as great beauty, and felt a intensely strong connection to her.  She disappeared after their one night together, and although he never expected to see her again, Alex has never forgotten her.  Yet now, here she is, as beautiful and poised as ever and Alex is smitten all over again.

Cassandra Blake is shocked at seeing the Duke of Greyland again and berates herself for returning to London where she’d known she would run the risk of meeting him again.  But when her old mentor, Martin Hughes, offered her a job in which she could earn enough money to leave her life of swindling behind her and go legitimate, she couldn’t turn it down.  She’s tired of the constant dishonesty and wants to live honestly – but first needs to be able to afford to do so.

Alex was supposed to have simply been a mark, a rich man she could take for a few hundred pounds, yet their brief time together meant something to Cassandra, so she falls back into her role of the beleaguered widow and makes up a story to account for the fact she left Alex so precipitately. Naturally, however, secrets such as these will out, and when Alex overhears Hughes suggesting that Cassandra try to fleece him again, he is furious and hurt by her betrayal, swearing to make her pay for her crimes.

Cassandra is completely unprepared for the visceral hurt she experiences at the disgust and betrayal in Alex’s eyes, but she has done what she has done in order to survive and doesn’t back down in the face of his angry accusations.  She can’t help being afraid of his threats of retribution; but when she discovers that Hughes has done a bunk with all their money, she has more pressing concerns to face. Hughes borrowed a lot of money from a lot of shady characters in order to set up the club, and the moment news of his disappearance gets out, Cassandra knows her life will be worth less than nothing if she remains alone and unprotected.  Terrified, she realises that she knows only one person in London she can trust absolutely – but he hates her and may well decide to leave her to her fate.

Alex is astonished when Cassandra arrives at his home begging for his help and has half a mind to have her thrown out – but then he realises that she is genuinely distressed, and while he is still deeply hurt by her deception, he certainly doesn’t want her dead.  Believing that now he knows the truth he will be able to stop himself falling for her all over again, he agrees to help her to find Hughes, and in the process, discovers much about himself and the sort of man he really is and wants to be.  I loved this aspect of the story and watching Alex gradually become his own man in truth, shedding much of his reserve and preoccupation with propriety and perfection, while retaining the parts of his character that make him a truly wonderful and memorable romantic hero.

Cassandra, too, finds her perceptions changing, her mentor’s betrayal finally opening her eyes to the truth about the hurt she must have caused those she had targeted and stolen from in the past.  More than that, though, now that she is no longer part of the underground criminal community, she is forced to deal with her mistakes and face the consequences rather than running from them and jumping into the next con.

Ms. Leigh’s depiction of London’s criminal underworld is one of the book’s many strong points.  Once Alex agrees to help Cassandra, he is plunged into a world he had never really known existed, one which has its own rules and pecking order, where morality is fluid and where nothing is ever black and white.  It’s a real eye-opener for Alex, who soon discovers that he has to set aside some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs if he is to protect Cassandra, and ends up asking himself some difficult questions about what is truly important to him as a man versus the Greyland title.

Alex and Cassandra’s romance is imbued with sensuality and a palpable longing which builds deliciously to a fever pitch and some nicely steamy love scenes.  But their emotional connection is strong, too, with both of them gradually lowering their defences to allow the other to see them as they truly are.  There’s a real sense of honesty between them once they start to work together, with  Alex even coming to respect and understand some of Cassandra’s choices while she recognises this new blossoming of trust for the gift it is.

From Duke Till Dawn is a terrific read, and one I’m happy to recommend most strongly.  I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through the London Underground, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more.

EXCERPT

London, England
1817

A woman laughed, and Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland felt the sound like a gunshot to his chest.

It was a very pleasant laugh, low and musical rather than shrill and forced, yet it sounded like The Lost Queen’s laugh. Alex could not resist the urge to glance over his shoulder as he left the Eagle chophouse. He’d fancifully taken to calling her The Lost Queen, though she was most assuredly a mortal woman. Had she somehow appeared on a busy London street at dusk? The last time he’d seen her had been two years ago, in the spa town of Cheltenham, in his bed, asleep and naked.

The owner of the laugh turned out to be a completely different woman—brunette rather than blonde, petite and round rather than lithe and willowy. She caught Alex staring and raised her eyebrows. He bowed gravely in response, then continued toward the curb.

Night came on in indigo waves, but the shops spilled golden light in radiant patches onto the street.
The hardworking citizens of London continued to toil as the upper echelons began their evening revelries. Crowds thronged the sidewalk, while wagons, carriages, and people on horseback crammed the streets. A handful of pedestrians recognized Alex and politely curtsied or tipped their hats, murmuring, “Good evening, Your Grace.” Though he was in no mood for politeness, responsibility and virtue were his constant companions—had been his whole life—and so rather than snapping, “Go to the devil, damn you!” he merely nodded in greeting.

He’d done his duty. He’d been seen in public, rather than disappearing into the cavernous chambers of his Mayfair mansion, where he could lick his wounds in peace.

The trouble with being a duke was that he always had to do his duty. “You are the pinnacle of British Society,” his father had often said to him. “The world looks to you for guidance. So you must lead by example. Be their True North.”

This evening, before dining, Alex had taken a very conspicuous turn up and down Bond Street, making certain that he was seen by many consequential—and loose-lipped— figures in the ton. Word would soon spread that the Duke of Greyland was not holed up, sulking in seclusion. His honor as one of Society’s bulwarks would not be felled by something as insignificant as his failed marriage suit to Lady Emmeline Birks. The Dukes of Greyland had stood strong against Roundheads, Jacobites, and countless other threats against Britain. One girl barely out of the schoolroom could hardly damage Alex’s ducal armor.

But that armor had been dented by The Lost Queen. Far deeper than he would have expected.

Standing on the curb, he signaled for his carriage, which pulled out of the mews. He tugged on his spotless gloves as he waited and adjusted the brim of his black beaver hat to make certain it sat properly on his head. “Always maintain a faultless appearance,” his father had reminded him again and again. “The slightest bit of disorder in your dress can lead to rampant speculation about the stability of your affairs. This, we cannot tolerate. The nation demands nothing less than perfection.”

Alex’s father had been dead for ten years, but that didn’t keep the serious, sober man’s voice from his mind. It was part of him now—his role as one of the most powerful men in England and the responsibilities that role carried with it. Not once did he ever let frivolities distract him from his duties.

Except for one time . . .

Forcing the thought from his mind, Alex looked impatiently for his carriage. Just as the vehicle pulled up, however, two men appeared and grabbed his arms on each side.

Alex stiffened—he did not care for being touched without giving someone express permission to do so. People on the street also did not normally seize each other. Was it a robbery? A kidnapping attempt? His hands curled instinctively into fists, ready to give his accosters a beating.

“What’s this?” one of the younger men exclaimed with mock horror. “Have I grabbed hold of a thundercloud?”
“Don’t know about you,” the other man said drily, “but I seem to have attached myself to an enormous bar of iron. How else to explain its inflexibility?” He tried to shake Alex, to little avail. When he wanted to be, Alex was absolutely immovable.

Alex’s fingers loosened. He tugged his arms free and growled, “That’s enough, you donkeys.”
Thomas Powell, the Earl of Langdon and heir to the Duke of Northfield, grinned, a flash of white in his slightly unshaven face. “Come now, Greyland,” he chided. A hint of an Irish accent made his voice musical, evidence of Langdon’s early years spent in his mother’s native County Kerry. “Is that any way to speak to your oldest and dearest friends?”

“I’ll let you know when they get here.” Alex scowled at Langdon, then at Christopher Ellingsworth, who only smirked in response.

Alex took a step toward his carriage, but Ellingsworth deftly moved to block his path, displaying the speed and skill that had served him well when he’d fought on the Peninsula.

“Where are you running off to with such indecorous haste?” Ellingsworth pressed. He held up a finger. “Ah, never tell me. You’re running back to the shelter of your Mayfair cave, to growl and brood like some big black bear in a cravat.”

“You know nothing,” Alex returned, despite the fact that Ellingsworth had outlined his exact plans for the rest of the night.

Ellingsworth looked at Langdon with exaggerated pity. “Poor chap. The young Lady Emmeline has utterly shattered his heart.”

Alex shouldered past Ellingsworth, only to have Langdon move to stand in his way.

“My heart is not shattered because of Lady Emmeline,” Alex snapped. At least that much was the truth.

“But why shouldn’t your heart be strewn in pieces throughout Regent’s Park?” Langdon mused. “You courted the young lady for several months, and you told Ellingsworth and I that you’d already received her father’s grateful acceptance of a marriage offer.”

“She never agreed to anything,” Alex said flatly.

“A modest girl, that Lady Emmeline.” Ellingsworth nodded with approval. “She wouldn’t have said yes right away. They never do. Nothing to be alarmed by.”

“How would you know?” Alex’s voice was edged. Ellingsworth had little experience with offering for ladies’ hands, committed as he was to a life of reckless pleasure.

Langdon added, “It’d be unseemly for an earl’s daughter to eagerly snap up a marriage proposal the moment it was offered.”

Alex scowled. Despite the fact that, at thirty-eight, he was sixteen years her senior, they would suit well as a wedded couple. Lady Emmeline had been perfectly trained in the responsibilities of an aristocratic wife. Though he wished she stated her own opinion rather than constantly agreeing with him, there were worse faults one could find in a prospective bride.

They could marry at Christmas, eight months from now. It would be a small but elegant wedding, followed by a lavish breakfast and a wedding journey in the Lake District. And then, if everything went well, in less than a year, Alex and Lady Emmeline might welcome their first child—hopefully a boy so the line would be secure. It would’ve been precisely the sort of match Alex’s
father would have approved, considering Lady Emmeline’s faultless background and her spotless reputation.

“Look at him now, mooning away,” Langdon sighed, smugly thwarting Alex’s attempts to step around him. “He looks poorly.”

It would be bad form to knock his friend to the ground. Damn the social niceties that dictated a man couldn’t punch another without repercussions.

“Perhaps he should be bled,” Ellingsworth suggested with his habitual smirk. It was his constant companion since returning from the War, as if he refused to take anything seriously.

“I am perfectly well.” Alex looked back and forth between these two rogues whom he called friends. “No need to call for a quack.”

“He’s already had an amputation,” Langdon noted, raising a brow as he always did. “One prospective bride—gone.” He made a sawing motion at his ankle, as if cutting the shackles of matrimony.

Alex glanced down at his own lower leg, as if he could see the invisible links that might have bound him to Lady Emmeline. He’d come so close to becoming a married man and sharing the rest of his life with one woman—the faultless duke his father had bred him to be. It hardly mattered that Alex felt nothing for the gel other than a sense of distant respect. She would have made a fine duchess.

“We were at White’s yesterday when we heard about what happened,” Langdon said with disapproval. “Didn’t even tell your two closest friends that Lady Emmeline had run off with a cavalry officer. No, we had to hear it from Lord Ruthven, of all people.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Leigh is the pen name of a RITA® Award-nominated romance author who writes novels chock-full of smart women and sexy men. She enjoys baking, Tweeting about boots, and listening to music from the ’80s. Eva and her husband live in Southern California.

Author Links:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

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Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

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Publisher and Release Date: Stella Riley, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1777
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!

A Counterfeit Heart (Secrets and Spies #3) by K.C Bateman

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As Sabine de la Tour tosses piles of forged banknotes onto a bonfire in a Paris park, she bids a reluctant farewell to her double life as a notorious criminal. Over the course of Napoleon’s reign, her counterfeits destabilized the continent and turned scoundrels into rich men, but now she and her business partner must escape France — or face the guillotine. Her only hope of surviving in England is to strike a deal with the very spy she’s spent her career outrunning. Now after meeting the arrogant operative in the flesh, Sabine longs to throw herself upon his mercy — and into his arms.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, is prepared to take any risk to safeguard England from the horrors of the French Revolution. To lure the insurgents out from the shadows, he’s even willing to make a pact with his archenemy: Philippe Lacorte, the greatest counterfeiter in Europe. But when a cheeky, gamine-faced beauty proves herself to be Lacorte, Richard is shocked—and more than a little aroused. Unlike the debutantes who so often hurl themselves at him, this cunning minx offers a unique and irresistible challenge. Richard will help her. But in return, he wants something that even Sabine cannot fake.

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Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, May 2017

Time and Setting: England and France 1816
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

I counted K.C. Bateman as one of my “discoveries” of 2016 after I read her terrific début novel, To Steal a Heart, an action-packed, sexy, adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The book boasted many of the ingredients l love in historical romance – a central couple forced into proximity by circumstance, lots of sexually-charged and very funny banter, an intriguing plot, chemistry off the charts and a charming, deliciously dangerous hero. Ms. Bateman followed that with A Raven’s Heart and delivered another fabulous adventure story, this time featuring a couple who have loved each other for years, but have never owned up to it for fear of rejection. In A Counterfeit Heart, the third book in the author’s Secrets and Spies series, the action takes place almost entirely in England and the story draws on some of the real life plots made by Napoléon to destabilise the English economy by flooding the country with millions of pounds worth of forged banknotes.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, has appeared as a secondary character in the previous books, and we have learned that, like his brother Nicolas (To Steal a Heart) and his closest friend, William Ravenswood (A Raven’s Heart) he works for the British government. Even though Napoléon has been defeated, he still has many sympathisers who would like spark a revolution in England, and for the past few months, Richard has been tracking a group of anti-monarchists in London who are part of the old network of spies placed in England by the French. Richard has been trying to locate the elusive forger, Philippe Lacorte, with a view to engaging him to forge letters from Napoléon to his English sympathisers in order to lure them out, but Lacorte remains stubbornly hard to pin down and all Richard’s efforts to find him have so far been unsuccessful. Imagine his shock, therefore, when a young woman, a lovely, elfin creature, arrives at his London home late one night, introduces herself as Sabine de la Tour – and promptly announces that she is Philippe Lacorte.

For years, Sabine’s friend and partner, Anton Carnaud, acted as go-between for her and the man who had overseen Napoléon’s counterfeiting operation, General Jean Malet. With Napoléon now imprisoned on St. Helena, Malet is the only man at large who knows about the fake fortune Bonaparte had amassed – and he wants it for himself. Sabine’s home has been ransacked and Anton, as Malet’s only link to Lacorte, is in danger. Sabine decides to flee to England; the English have been trying to engage Lacorte’s services for months, and with the money she can earn working for them, she will be able to afford to buy passage to America for Anton and to make a new life for herself wherever she wants to go.

Stunned by Sabine’s announcement though he is, Richard is no fool and is naturally suspicious of her claim. Being young, handsome, wealthy and in possession of a title, he is used to women throwing themselves at him and at first suspects that some sort of entrapment scheme is afoot, but when Sabine writes a note in a perfect copy of his own hand in front of his very nose, he can’t deny that she’s who she says she is and demands to know what she wants in exchange for her services as a forger.

Even though desperation has led her to Richard Hampden’s door, Sabine is not naïve enough to believe that he will meekly agree to her ten-thousand pound price. She is well aware that she is facing a wily, clever man, and calmly explains that she is still in possession of the half a million pounds in forged notes with which Napoléon had planned to flood Britain, and that if Richard does not agree to her terms, then she will put the counterfeit notes into circulation.

What ensues is a sexy game of cat-and-mouse between two equally sharp-witted, devious opponents whose intense attraction to each other burns up the pages. Sabine is brave and smart, matching wits with Richard every step of the way and holding her own against him in their battle of wills, while he, having believed her at first to be a blackmailing baggage, is surprised to find himself utterly captivated by her sneaky, conniving brain every bit as much as he lusts after her body. The chemistry between the couple is scorching, and Ms. Bateman once again proves herself a master of the art of sexually-charged banter and saucy double-entendre. Both protagonists are strongly drawn and well-rounded, and I enjoyed the way Sabine is gradually disabused of her belief that Richard is little more than an arrogant, self-entitled aristocrat, discovering that he is also incredibly resourceful, useful in a fight and not above getting his hands dirty – literally and metaphorically – when the need arises. As the story progresses, the real Richard emerges as a deeply loyal and honourable man who is dedicated to rooting out evil and protecting his countrymen and who will stop at nothing to protect his country and those close to him.

The other main relationship in the book is the one between Richard and his brother-in-law, Raven, which is characterised by sharp insight and brotherly mockery as Raven watches his friend finally succumb to the thrall of the one woman stubborn and infuriating enough to capture his heart. It’s nicely written with just the right amount of teasing on Raven’s part and sardonic denials on Richard’s, and there’s no question that these two will always have each other’s backs.

If I have a criticism, it’s that in the early stages of the story, the relationship between Sabine and Richard relies rather too heavily on insta-lust; the pair of them are pretty much panting for each other from the off, which felt rather overdone. But that’s really the only thing that didn’t work for me; the romance is otherwise well developed, with Richard and Sabine gradually coming to recognise and value the person behind the prickly forger and the haughty aristocrat as they get under each other’s skin and allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable in a way they have done with no-one else.

A Counterfeit Heart is a treat of a read for anyone who enjoys a well-plotted romantic adventure featuring a plucky heroine and a dangerously sexy hero who match wits and fall in love while foiling dastardly plots and rooting out the bad guys. I have enjoyed each book in the Secrets and Spies series and am looking forward to reading more by this talented author in the near future.

A Warriner to Protect Her (Wild Warriners #1) by Virginia Heath

a warriner to protect her

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An heiress in distress and an earl in disgrace…

When heiress Violet Dunston escapes from an abduction, she finds an unlikely protector in Jack Warriner – a member of one of England’s most infamous families. Ensconced with mysterious Jack behind his manor’s walls, soon escape is the last thing on Letty’s mind!

Jack may be an earl, but his father’s exploits have left him with nothing to offer except a tarnished name. He’s turned his back on the ton, but with Letty tempting him day and night, he finds himself contemplating the unthinkable – a society marriage!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, May 2017

Time and Setting: Nottinghamshire, 1813
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Wendy

Virginia Heath’s new Wild Warriners series looks to me to be a winner if A Warriner to Protect Her is anything to go by. The Warriner brothers are gorgeous, well developed, multi layered characters, each with their own story to tell, and I can’t see how Ms. Heath can fail.

Jack Warriner little realises how drastically his life is about to change when, one stormy winter’s night, on his way back from the local tavern, he comes across a terrified young woman, hands bound, a gag around her mouth – stumbling exhausted and frozen with fear. His protective instincts immediately come to the fore and he takes her home to his remote manor which is occupied only by himself and his three younger brothers. Too poor and destitute to afford staff, the brothers are jacks of all trades, caring for each other and trying to eke out a living on their crumbling estate. The author has done a terrific job of developing the relationship between the brothers and I loved the obvious affection, respect and camaraderie between them. All look to Jack, the eldest, as their leader – and it’s not hard to see why his brothers admire and follow him without question. Jack is actually an earl, an appellation he has long since shunned as it only serves to remind him of his notorious father; plus with no fortune or respect to back it up he sees it as an empty title. The four of them have always been cold-shouldered and despised by the locals as a result of their infamous ancestors, but more recently, and still in living memory, their despicable father. The produce and livestock they work so hard to raise and grow has to be traded and sold many miles away as no one wants to do business with the so-called ‘Wild Warriners’. So life really does have to be lived one day at a time with the brothers isolated from the society they have every right to be a part of.

Into this household drops Violet Dunston and immediately the brothers close ranks around her after discovering that she is being hunted by unscrupulous men who are trying to force her into marriage in order to avail themselves of her vast fortune. Because of their isolation and lack of staff, the Warriners are able to keep her safe from her abductors. Violet – Letty – is seriously ill after her ordeal and the brothers care for her tirelessly, Jack even going so far as to sleep on the bedchamber floor which he has vacated for her comfort, until she is out of danger.

Once she is recovered, the penny eventually drops and Letty realises how very poor the family is, she is determined to help them out in some way, especially when it becomes clear that they are too proud to accept her money. She sets out to prove to them all, but Jack in particular, that she is not the useless, beautiful and merely decorative, ‘Tea Heiress’, much lauded by the ton. As it is necessary for her to stay ‘lost’ for a complete month until she can gain control of her fortune, she decides that she will use the time to help the brothers in the house. Firstly by tackling their dusty, uncared for home and then in other ways such as cooking and caring for them, freeing them to be about their many outside duties on the estate.

Although Letty has a great rapport with all four brothers, it is Jack with whom she immediately clicks. She is more than happy to pursue a relationship with him and throws out many hints which are, to her chagrin, rebuffed. Although deeply attracted to her, Jack is too much of a gentleman to take advantage of a situation which he feels she might regret once her month with them is over and she is reinstated into her luxurious life. I did admire the fact that Jack sticks to his guns and refuses to act although sorely tempted. Letty becomes more and more frustrated by his apparent lack of interest in her despite her many invitations – some not too subtle.

Ms. Heath has shown Violet/Letty as two quite different people. There’s Violet, the incomparable of the season, pursued and admired for her beauty and wealth. And then there’s lonely Lettie, orphaned, unloved and feeling very strongly that her beauty and wealth are a millstone around her neck. Her unexpected but fortuitous meeting with the Warriner brothers is like a breath of fresh air in her life because they are prepared to help and keep her safe for no other reason than kindness for another human being, and she immediately warms to them and soon longs to be a part of this loving, dysfunctional family.

The author does an excellent job in developing the relationship between Jack and Letty, and the simmering, controlled sensuality between them fairly hops off the page. Jamie, very astutely, sees the battle his elder brother is fighting and teases him mercilessly about it in his quiet, taciturn manner. And the interaction between all four brothers, especially when the two younger members of the family join in are witty and amusing with a few double entendres thrown in which highlight Ms. Heath’s very amusing take on life and observational view of human nature.

The story nears its end and the ‘baddies’ re-appear – as they must if the story is to make sense and reach a satisfactory ending. Jack and Letty escape and the fraught chase back to London is plausibly achieved and obviously with the pair of them alone on the road for days… well,I’ll leave the rest for readers to find out. I’ll just say that it’s worth the wait!

If I have a criticism it is that the author imbues Letty with superpowers beyond even the most capable and resourceful of young ladies. In a few short weeks, she goes from being completely undomesticated, to cleaning, polishing, cooking (although to be fair her first attempt at cooking is an hilarious disaster) to eventually cooking a full Christmas lunch for five, making bread, washing for five and embroidering handkerchiefs for Christmas gifts in her spare time. I realise that the author had a lot to achieve in a relatively short word count, but this did stretch my credibility one step too far. Nevertheless, A Warriner to Protect Her is a lovely, heartwarming story with characters I loved and certainly want to know more about. Jamie’s is the next story in the series – A Warriner to Rescue Her – and as a secondary character in this book, he made a huge impression on me. I shall certainly follow this series on through to the end.

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.