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The Duke (Devil’s Duke #3) by Katharine Ashe

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Six years ago, when Lady Amarantha Vale was an innocent in a foreign land and Gabriel Hume was a young naval officer, they met . . . and played with fire.

Now Gabriel is the dark lord known to society as the Devil’s Duke, a notorious recluse hidden away in a castle in the Highlands. Only Amarantha knows the truth about him, and she won’t be intimidated. He is the one man who can give her the answers she needs.

But Gabriel cannot let her learn his darkest secret. So begins a game of wit and desire that proves seduction is more satisfying—and much more wicked—the second time around…


Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 2017

Time and Setting: Jamaica and Scotland, 1817/1823
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

If you follow my reviews you already know I’m a big fan of Katharine Ashe.  The Falcon Club series is one of my favorites, and I’ve enjoyed each of the books in her spin-off Devil’s Duke series.  The Duke is yet another great addition to her catalog and I enjoyed most of it.  Unfortunately, Ms. Ashe tries to do a bit too much within the framework of her story – touching on abuse and slavery before the novel concludes – and seems to lose sight of the central plot, a second chance love affair between her very compelling principals.  But I liked it anyway!  The principal characters have great chemistry, their love affair spans years and oceans, and it’s another memorable addition to this marvelous series.

Lady Amarantha Vale grew up knowing exactly what kind of man she would one day fall in love with.  As a young girl, discussing love and marriage with her sister Emily, she didn’t worry about her father’s plans for her future; Amarantha was certain she would eventually meet and marry her true love.  At seventeen, she thought she’d found him – the Reverend Paul Garland, a young missionary bound for Jamaica.  Unfortunately for Amarantha, shortly after traveling across the ocean to marry Paul and begin their life together, she meets the true love of her life – naval officer Gabriel Hume, after she’s forced to shelter with him during a horrific hurricane.

When Lt. Gabriel Hume disembarked in Jamaica, he never expected to find himself alone in a cellar with a beautiful, unmarried woman.  Handsome and charming, Gabriel is immediately attracted to Amarantha, but recognizing how frightened she is, sets out to calm her.  The pair end up passing a companionable evening getting to know each other and keeping their fear at bay.  By the time the night ends, Gabriel knows he’s fallen in love with the lovely – engaged – Amarantha, and decides to do whatever he can to win her.

Emerging from the cellar, Gabriel and Amarantha discover an island ravaged by the effects of the hurricane.   Gabriel returns to his ship and Amarantha to Paul – only to discover him busy with plans to repair his damaged church.  She finds work volunteering at a hospital for the island’s poor, and it’s there that Gabriel locates her.  He sets out to woo her away from her fiancé – visiting her every day, lending her a hand whenever he can, and slowly but surely charming the lovely Aramantha.

It’s clear from the moment they meet that these two are destined for each other, but it takes time and patience for Gabriel to convince her to leave her fiancé.  She’s finally decided to break off the engagement when Gabriel receives orders to depart Jamaica.  Amarantha promises to wait for him, but shortly after he sets sail, she learns he’s lost at sea.  Devastated, Amarantha privately mourns Gabriel… until his cousin informs her that he’s alive and living with another woman.  Furious, heartbroken and alone, she marries Paul and vows to forget Gabriel.

This first (and best) part of The Duke is fabulous.  From the first moments in the cellar to their last moments together – when they can barely keep their hands to themselves and Amarantha promises to wait for Gabriel, I smiled and sighed and swooned as these two fell in love.  Gabriel is naughty, patient, kind and sweet, and he works hard to charm Amarantha and win her affections.  Amarantha knows she’s fallen for the handsome captain, but fights her feelings – she’s betrothed to Paul and plans to honor her commitment to him regardless of the love she feels for Gabriel.  When she finally decides to break her engagement and Gabriel begs her to wait for him… Oh reader!  It’s been such a delicious tease hoping for these two to get together… until Ms. Ashe dashes our hopes with the disappointing news that Gabriel has taken up with another woman.  Along with Aramantha, I WAS DEVASTATED.

Five years later, the widowed Amarantha is determined to find her friend Penny, who departed Jamaica for Scotland and hasn’t been heard from since.  She follows Penny’s trail to Leith, where she finds her friend and learns of the Devil’s Duke, a man rumored to kidnap vulnerable women and hold them captive in his remote castle.  Suspicious, Amarantha sets out to discover the truth about the Devil’s Duke and discovers… Well, reader, you know who it is, don’t you?   It’s Gabriel – the man she loved so long ago – but he’s not the man she once knew.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Amarantha discovers that Gabriel is the Devil’s Duke – or even why and how he’s earned the nickname, because from the moment she discovers why Penny sought out Gabriel, Ms. Ashe’s story goes a bit sideways.  It’s convoluted and messy and difficult to explain without spoiling the plot.  Suffice it to say that while I do think the author makes it work, if the relationship between Gabriel and Amarantha weren’t so delicious, my feelings about this novel might be decidedly different.

But Gabriel and Amarantha are a dynamic and fiery pair.  She thinks he abandoned her; he thinks she gave up on him.  But shh…THEY STILL LOVE EACH OTHER ANYWAY!  From the very beginning, Amarantha demonstrated a willingness to follow her heart – even when it led her to mad, impetuous decisions.  She’s frustrating and difficult to like – because even though she’s loving and loyal to her friends (and her former husband), she’s blind to the hurt she caused Gabriel, and unwilling to accept the blame for their long separation.  She steadfastly followed Paul to Jamaica, only to realize she loved another man.  But then she gave up on Gabriel – with so little evidence of his guilt, and married Paul anyway… Yowsers.  I sympathized – she was young, alone and it looked like Gabriel had played her false, but she gave up so easily!  And Gabriel… when he courts Amarantha in Jamaica and then just patiently lets her burn out all that stubborn anger in Scotland.  Sigh.  I loved him.  I never felt like her let her get away with her selfish shenanigans – reader, he knew she was trying to fight through her feelings for him.  He did!  He took it and took it and then set her straight.  And once he sensed she was relenting, he didn’t let up.  Though I didn’t personally love Amarantha, Gabriel did – and through his eyes, I liked her anyway.  I loved this pair and their sexy love/hate relationship.

Once Amarantha arrives in Scotland and we begin to discover the secrets the Devil’s Duke is keeping, Ms. Ashe moves the plot forward at a furious pace.  It’s compelling reading, and though Ms. Ashe masterfully incorporates elements of slavery and domestic abuse into the narrative, the novel length prohibits her from fully exploring some of the more tantalizing storylines introduced via her secondary characters.  It’s a missed opportunity.

The Duke is sweeping, romantic… and sets the stage for the next book (and couple) to come.  It’s not my favorite in the series, but it’s a worthy addition, and as per usual with Ms. Ashe, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Scot Beds His Wife (Victorian Rebels #5) by Kerrigan Byrne

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Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants—including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity…

A marriage most convenient

Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry—and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own…

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Press, October 2017
Time and Setting: Scottish Highlands, 1880
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

The Scot Beds His Wife is fifth in Kerrigan Byrnes’ Victorian Rebels series and a sequel to the third book The Highlander. Gavin St. James is half-brother to previous hero Laird Liam MacKenzie but the two are hardly fraternal. It’s Gavin’s plans to dissolve ties to his brother’s clan that starts everything in motion and it takes a brash American to put the stubborn Scot on a different path.

Gavin St. James grew up desperate to extricate himself from the legacy of his cruel father, the late Marquess Ravencroft. The abuse Gavin lived through left physical and emotional scars that never healed enough for him to find peace within his family. He once thought that his older brother Liam was his ally against their father, but their relationship soured as the Marquess’ manipulations drove them apart. Gavin later escaped when he inherited the earldom of Thorne through his mother’s family; however he found it was an empty role as he was still dependent on the Mackenzie finances. Earning his own wealth could only come by expanding his landholding and the perfect parcel was right next door – the deserted Ross estate of Erradale. After receiving a quick influx of ready cash, Gavin makes an offer to the last surviving member of the Ross family, who has been living in America for ten years. The response he receives is a firm “No” but Gavin is undeterred. Using the law to press the issue, Gavin has his solicitor inform the expatriate Miss Alison Ross that if she does not take residence on her property the lands will be deemed abandoned and resold.

An ocean away, Samantha Masters thought marriage to Bennett Masters would be first step in a new life full of opportunities, yet she soon learned that her new in-laws were criminals. Their latest scheme has the Masters brothers holding up a train carrying government funds to San Francisco. When something goes wrong, Samantha makes a horrific choice that saves an innocent life but puts a price on her head. The young woman she saves is very forgiving and offers Samantha a chance to leave America if she’s willing to live a lie in a foreign land indefinitely. Grabbing the chance, Samantha leaves her old name behind and travels to Scotland to become Miss Alison Ross, taking possession of Erradale and halting the schemes of the enemy Earl of Thorne. Samantha is met at the Wester Ross train station by a handsome Scotsman who provides assistance when her handbag is stolen. She’s quick to learn her hero is in fact Gavin St. James, the very man the real Alison had warned her about. Sensing his helpfulness was all a trick to get “Alison” to surrender her lands in thanks for saving her, Samantha explains that she will never hand over Erradale and will turn the derelict lands into a thriving cattle ranch to rival those in the American West.

The adversarial relationship between Samantha and Gavin fuels them to push relentlessly for their own goals. Gavin is shocked that “Alison” doesn’t fall for his seduction but he is soon back on track to subvert her efforts to improve Erradale. Samantha tries to keep away from Gavin but each time they meet. their war of words hides an undercurrent of attraction. Everything changes when investigators from America show up at Erradale and Gavin saves Samantha from being killed in a fire. For the first time in their acquaintance, Gavin sees the frightened young woman hiding behind bravado and salty language. It awakens something inside him he was reluctant to admit; that this bonny lass had become someone that he cares for. Knowing he can’t ignore those feelings forever and seeing a way for both of them to get what they want, Gavin offers “Alison” the protection of his name. In turn, he’ll assume control of Erradale through their marriage of convenience. Samantha knows their marriage won’t be legal since she’s not the real Alison Ross but the unwelcome discovery that she’s pregnant pushes her to accept Gavin’s proposal to give her unborn child a better name than that of an outlaw family. She soon finds that lying to Gavin is the most difficult thing she’s ever faced as his flirtatious manner hides a man who deserves honesty and love to save him from the pain in his past.

The books in the Victorian Rebels series never fail to use the tortured past of the hero to create a rich, emotional story. Each man has their own ways to deal with their demons and Gavin hides behind his smile and uses women for temporary pleasure to escape his pain. When Samantha doesn’t fall for his charms Gavin has to dig deep inside of himself to find ways around her stubbornness. What he finds inside is a man who desires love but has never felt comfortable exposing himself to anyone. The prologue of The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t as disturbing as in some of the earlier books; however once the reader comes to understand how desperately Gavin has suppressed the romantic side of himself, those moments where his innocence was destroyed become all the more unsettling.

Samantha is also very different from previous heroines as she’s action oriented, direct, profane and has just as many walls around her heart as Gavin does. Samantha has been fighting for stability and a true sense of belonging ever since her childhood on a ranch in Nevada Territory with her adoptive family. Her marriage was an ill-conceived desire to create a family with someone she thought was devoted to her, and escaping to Scotland is a chance for Samantha to try one more time to restart her life. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her need to build up Erradale for herself just as much as to protect it for the real Alison’s benefit.

The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t the strongest release within the Victorian Rebels series but the developments for the Mackenzie family and a few hints at what’s to come make this a must read for fans and a good entry point for new readers.


EXCERPT

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband’s beautiful brown eyes.

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.

Though they’d known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.
Alison’s hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other’s in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.

What in the hell just happened?

Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn’t have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?
To God?

This morning she’d been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.

This afternoon, she’d been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.

This evening, because of what she’d just done, of what they’d all just done . . . chances were good that she’d be hanged.

This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.

Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.

This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters, themselves, as the gang didn’t generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn’t only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often . . . federal funds.

Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.

And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn’t allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans . . .

Then they’d take what they needed.

This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.
No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a “frightened” female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.

The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha’s job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.

“People are sheep,” Boyd had always said. “They’ll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom.”

On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn’t foremost on the mind of the average American.

Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.

At first, Alison’s friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she’d found herself enjoying Alison’s company.

She’d not known many women her age, least of all friendly ones.

Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.

Had she not been about to rob the train.

Had there not been more gunshots than were agreed upon . . .


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Whether she’s writing about Celtic Druids, Victorian bad boys, or brash Irish FBI Agents, Kerrigan Byrne uses her borderline-obsessive passion for history, her extensive Celtic ancestry, and her love of Shakespeare in every book. She lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains with her handsome husband and three lovely teenage girls, but dreams of settling on the Pacific Coast. Her Victorian Rebels novels include The Highwayman and The Highlander.

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The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance by Mimi Matthews

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A PROUD BEAUTY 

Society beauty Sylvia Stafford is far too pragmatic to pine. When the tragic death of her gamester father leaves her destitute and alone, she finds work as a governess in a merchant’s household in Cheapside. Isolated from the fashionable acquaintance of her youth, she resigns herself to lonely spinsterhood until a mysterious visitor convinces her to temporarily return to her former life–and her former love.

A SCARRED BEAST

Colonel Sebastian Conrad is no longer the dashing cavalry officer Sylvia once fell in love with. Badly scarred during the Sepoy Rebellion, he has withdrawn to his estate in rural Hertfordshire where he lives in near complete seclusion. Brooding and tormented, he cares nothing for the earldom he has inherited–and even less for the faithless beauty who rejected him three years before.

A SECOND CHANCE

A week together in the remote Victorian countryside is the last thing either of them ever wanted. But when fate intervenes to reunite them, will a beastly earl and an impoverished beauty finally find their happily-ever-after? Or are some fairy-tale endings simply not meant to be?


Publisher and Release Date: Perfectly Proper Press, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1860
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

Based on the beautiful cover and catnip tropes – a wounded hero, opposites, second chance love – and its fairy tale premise, I had high hopes for The Lost Letter and I wasn’t disappointed.  Mimi Matthews’ début novel is deeply romantic, and I enjoyed every (little) bit of it.  Her principals are an appealing pair, and the circumstances that force them apart – just as they’ve fallen deeply in love – hooked me right away.  On the downside,  Ms. Matthews does her principals – and the story – a disservice by delivering neither a traditionally short novella or full-length novel, and it’s a missed opportunity.  Secondary characters are underdeveloped, which is unfortunate for many reasons, but mostly because I liked them and wanted to know more about their backstories and motivations.  The Lost Letter is a sweetly moving love story… I just wish there had been more of it.

Sylvia Stafford never thought she would end up in Cheapside working as a governess, but when her father lost everything in a game of cards and then took his own life, she had few other options.  Destitute and alone – abandoned by fair-weather friends and without family to turn to –  Sylvia became governess to the two young daughters of the merchant Dinwoody family.  Treated fairly and with kindness by her employers, she’s spent the past two years trying (and failing) to forget the past and make peace with her new station in life.  Unfortunately, her memories of Sebastian Conrad have been harder to forget.

Three years earlier, Sylvia fell deeply in love with Colonel Sebastian Conrad, the second son of the Earl of Radcliffe.   She spent a heady season falling in love, but never confessed her feelings to him; when Sebastian was sent to India to help put down the Sepoy Rebellion shortly after their first kiss, Sylvia penned dozens of letters to him finally confessing her love and devotion.  To her dismay, Sebastian never responded.  Desperate for some sign of his affection, Sylvia continued to write even in the face of his rejection and in spite of her father’s (selfish) entreaties to find another, wealthier suitor.  After her father committed suicide, Sylvia knew she would never see or hear from Sebastian again.  Still hurt by his rejection but resigned to life as a spinster, Sylvia has made peace with the past and tried to forget Sebastian.

Unbeknownst to Sylvia, Sebastian returned to England badly wounded and with his face horribly disfigured.  Upon his return, he learned his father and brother were dead, and that he was now the Earl of Radcliffe.  But when his sister Julia swooned after seeing his injuries for the first time, Sebastian retreated to the family home in rural Hertfordshire, choosing to spend his days living in lonely isolation with only his valet (and former batman) Milsom for company.  His only comfort is a lock of hair given to him by Sylvia Stafford the last time he saw her.  Despite fond memories of the blissful weeks they spent together before he left for India – memories that helped him survive the horrors of war and a subsequent confinement after he was injured – he’s never forgotten Sylvia, or forgiven her for jilting him. Oops.

Fortunately, we have Sebastian’s much younger sister – the beautiful, meddling, Lady Julia Harker – willing and able to reunite this stubborn, lovesick pair, which she does with the help of the delightfully impertinent Milson.  A relentlessly optimistic and hopeful Lady Julia becomes convinced that if she can bring Sylvia to Sebastian, her brother will be happy once again, and after a bit of digging, she tracks Sylvia to Cheapside and implores her to come with her to Hertfordshire.

Oh reader.  Lady Julia is silly and ridiculous, and the premise on which this story unfolds is flimsy at best, but I liked it anyway!  Sebastian and Sylvia cherish memories of their past (the flashbacks are a highlight), and Ms. Matthews does a wonderful job contrasting who they are with who they once were.  When Julia arrives with a friend, Sebastian is irritated, but when he spots Sylvia, he’s shocked.  Memories of Sylvia assail him… but unfortunately, in a comedy of errors perpetuated by his flighty sister, Sebastian mistakenly assumes Sylvia is only after his fortune.  Resentful and hurt after her long ago rejection (and unaware of her father’s suicide), he’s rude, condescending and dismissive, treating her like the fortune hunter he believes her to be.  Sylvia is similarly overwhelmed to see Sebastian again, and horrified by what he must have suffered.  She isn’t horrified by him, but for him, and despite the pain of his long ago rejection she struggles to forge a friendship with him.

The Lost Letter relies heavily on one of my least favorite romantic tropes – the Big Misunderstanding – but Ms. Matthews doesn’t belabor it once our principals reunite in Hertfordshire.   Sylvia reveals early on that she did indeed write to Sebastian, but Sebastian – shocked to learn Sylvia never jilted him – fails to tell her he never received her letters.  I’m not going to tell you why Sebastian never received the letters (that little mystery is solved by Milsom), but his omission results in yet another misunderstanding that further delays a reunion between the couple. When Sebastian finally discovers what Sylvia wrote to him long ago, the letter overwhelms him and… well, this jaded romance reader may have shed a tear, too.

Sebastian, our “Beast,” and Sylvia, our “Beauty,” are a wonderfully opposite pair.  It’s easy to see how they fell for one another, and once they finally reunite, sparks fly right away.  I do wish Ms. Matthews had spent more time developing her principals, because even though I liked them and their relationship, and I sympathized with the circumstances that forced them apart – a credit to Ms. Matthews’ strong writing – we deserved more time getting to know them when they first fell for each other (before their lives changed so dramatically), and once they finally reunite and the truth behind their separation is revealed.  I’m torn over my feelings for Lady Julia; she’s often inappropriate and ridiculous for a person in her position in Victorian era England, but I liked her anyway and am willing to overlook those faults.  Lady Julia always has Sebastian’s best interests at heart, and despite his rebuffing her attempts to get close to him, she perseveres.  It’s an oddly endearing sisterly love.  I also enjoyed Milsom and his meddling… I don’t usually like ‘buddy valets’, but the relationship between these two men and their genuine affection for one another strikes just the right balance between friend and employer.

The Lost Letter, though short (too short!) is an emotionally satisfying second chance love story.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but Ms. Matthews does a terrific job developing the attraction between Sylvia and Sebastian, and delivers a happily ever after that’s both romantic and believable.  I’ll be looking forward to more from this promising new historical romance author.

 

A Taste of Honey (Lively St. Lemeston #4) by Rose Lerner


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Robert Moon risked everything, including his father’s hardwon legacy, to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery on the busiest street in Lively St. Lemeston. Now he’s facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

When a huge catering order comes in, he agrees to close the sweet-shop for a week to fill it. There’s only one problem: his apprentice is out of town, so his beautiful shop-girl Betsy Piper must help Robert in the kitchen.

Betsy’s spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. Now the two of them are alone in a kitchen full of sweet things. With just one week to get him to fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…

She soon discovers that Robert brings the same meticulous, eager-to-please attitude to lovemaking that he does to baking, but can kisses—no matter how sweet—compete with the Honey Moon in his heart?

Publisher and Release Date: Rose Lerner, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Era, Sussex, England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance Novella
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The world of Ms. Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston is much different to the one I experience in my usual historical romantic reading, and it always takes me a few chapters to adjust and settle in. These stories aren’t about dukes and duchesses, wealthy tradesman or even ruthless and diabolical men and women who have used cunning and smarts to become powerful . Instead, the Lively St. Lemeston series features normal people with very human, real and recognizable problems. Yet although I can appreciate (and like) Ms. Lerner’s affectionate and moving portrayals of everyday men and women, A Taste of Honey doesn’t deliver on the escapism I look for when I crack open a romance novel. Fortunately, Ms. Lerner is a terrific writer and the quality of this story transcends its tough luck premise; though short, A Taste of Honey is a sweetly moving and erotic workplace romance in which the romantic relationship that develops between its flawed principals is awkward, charming, and oddly endearing – and in spite of myself, I smiled when it ended.

It’s been quite a while since I read Sweet Disorder, the first book in the series, and I only vaguely remembered Robert Moon, the hero of this story. But for those of you who haven’t read that novel (it’s not necessary), or are similarly memory-challenged, he owns the Honey Moon Confectionary in Lively St. Lemeston and when we first met him, local elections loomed, the Tories needed more votes to secure their candidate, and the Honey Moon wasn’t turning a profit. Desperate to secure the financial future of his shop (and despite a secret affection for his shopgirl, Betsy Piper), Robert agreed to marry a young local widow in order to secure two additional votes for the Tories in exchange for financial security at the Honey Moon. The pair were ill-matched, the plot convoluted and destined to fail, and the widow fell in love with and married another man. When A Taste of Honey begins, Robert is still single and wants to marry Betsy… but the shop is nearly bankrupt, and he faces a possible stint in debtor’s prison. Unwilling to pursue a relationship with the beautiful Betsy with the Honey Moon on the verge of failing, he keeps his regard for her to himself.

The solution to Robert’s problems arrives in the form of a large catering order from the haughty Mrs. Lovejoy, who is hosting the local assembly and wants Robert to cater the event. Payment for the order will keep the Honey Moon open, provide funds to pay off his creditors and means Robert will finally be able to pursue Betsy. Unfortunately, his apprentice Peter is out of town; fulfilling the large order will require him to close his shop for a week, work non-stop with Betsy to complete the order on time, and take on additional debt. Robert agrees despite his misgivings about Mrs. Lovejoy (who frequently changes her mind and seems to dislike Betsy), and concerns about the small margin for error should they fail.

Meanwhile, Betsy harbors a secret tendre for Robert. She wants to marry him, support him at the shop and be his helpmeet in every way. Hurt by his proposal to the widow Phoebe Stark – despite knowing why he did it, and tortured by thoughts that Robert doesn’t think she is good enough for him – she’s convinced this week working together is just what she needs to secure his affections. When her closest friend urges her to seduce him, she decides she will – if she has to. Not quite a virgin (she had a brief liaison some time back), she isn’t afraid of sex or pleasure and she wants Robert. So, after a long morning working alongside him, and growing increasingly bold with her suggestive innuendos that he fails to respond to, she seduces him.

Robert is a virgin. He’s shocked when Betsy suggests they have an affair, but he’s more than willing… and eager. What follows – a week in which they awkwardly and sweetly discover pleasure in each other – only complicates their relationship. Robert is consumed with thoughts of Betsy and all the things he wants to do to and with her, but convinced he can’t commit to her until his the future of the shop is secure. Betsy is similarly consumed with her feelings for Robert; she’s convinced she can and should be his partner at the Honey Moon and in life, but she’s hurt by his focus on the shop and silence on the subject of their relationship. Meanwhile, between passionate and erotic encounters in the kitchens, they work together to fill the catering order – which the insufferable and condescending Mrs. Lovejoy changes on a daily basis.

A Taste of Honey is a novella and the pace of the story is necessarily brisk, but Ms. Lerner paces the relationship perfectly. After all, Betsy and Robert knew and liked each other long before this story began and compressing their relationship into the week Robert has to fill the catering order is cleverly done. Unfortunately, the short format doesn’t provide much opportunity to explore the principal characters outside of their relationship to each other, and if you aren’t already familiar with Robert and Betsy from Sweet Disorder, you may wish you knew a bit more about them and the secondary characters that comprise the community of Lively St. Lemeston. That said, I liked both principals very much, and Ms. Lerner does a terrific job balancing their sexual exploration with their discoveries about each other – his/her fears, dreams and desires. In lovemaking, they’re eager and adventurous partners; outside of it, they’re cautious and plagued with doubts. It’s a frustrating, tender and confusing courtship… until the horrible Mrs. Lovejoy (more like killjoy) unknowingly helps them find their way to a deliciously satisfying happily ever after, complete with a side dish of revenge.

The Lively St. Lemeston series takes a very different approach to the Regency-era novels most romance readers have grown accustomed to. I won’t lie – I still love my dukes, rakes and tortured heroes – but Ms. Lerner makes a compelling case for this alternate version – ordinary men and women and their equally strong hopes and dreams. It’s not quite the escape I usually like in my romance novels, but it’s a fascinating, addictive and romantic version nonetheless. Readers looking for something a bit different should sample this sweet and charming honey of a story.

The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare

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When girl meets Duke, their marriage breaks all the rules…

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.

His terms are simple:
– They will be husband and wife by night only.
– No lights, no kissing.
– No questions about his battle scars.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.

But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
– They will have dinner together every evening.
– With conversation.
– And unlimited teasing.
– Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, August 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

Tessa Dare’s brand of historical romance is always a mix of fairy tale, romantic comedy and a light, airy tone. The Duchess Deal has fun pairing its grumpy, reclusive duke with a kind and sensible young woman who is ill-suited to the ton but perfect for him.

Emma Gladstone isn’t normally the type to arrive uninvited at someone’s home but there are times when desperation will make a woman do many things. Dressed in a luxurious – if a tad ostentatious – wedding gown, Emma knocks on the door of the Duke of Ashbury’s town house intent on collecting on a debt incurred by his former fiancée. The gaudy dress was to be the showpiece for the duke’s bride and no expense was spared; however when their engagement was broken, Emma was left with a completed gown and an unpaid bill. Showing up at the duke’s home wearing the garment in question, Emma hopes she can guilt him into paying for her services. The duke isn’t quite the man that she expected and she’s initially put off by his rather blunt demeanor but when he attacks her work and insults the dress it lights a fire within Emma. Making it very clear that she will not leave without payment, Emma prepares to do battle with the surly and scared man before her.

The interruption by a woman dressed in a monstrosity of a wedding gown would have been comical to Lord Ashbury years ago, but now it seems like fate. Arriving back in London after a long recuperation from injuries sustained at Waterloo, Ash has been working to plan for the future of the dukedom up to and including finding a wife and creating an heir. He’d already drafted a letter to his solicitor asking him to find a woman willing to enter a marriage of convenience so when a ready-made bride shows up in his study it’s a perfect solution. Ash shocks the beautiful seamstress by offering her either the three pounds she wanted for the dress or the chance to become his duchess. She balks at his offer and leaves with the money; however Ash is not deterred now that he’s found the perfect woman. In his mind a seamstress should be happy to accept his terms of a marriage to beget an heir after which she will have the freedom to live as she sees fit at one of his country estates.

Ash finds out which modiste Emma works for and shows up on the doorstep to propose a second time, fulling expecting her to accept. Emma is shocked that Ash would go to such lengths to offer a loveless marriage to a virtual stranger and she’s ready to decline again; however his plan to give her a property outside of London falls in with her own need to find somewhere to hide a friend and client dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Emma decides to marry Ash but counters his rules for their relationship with a few conditions of her own. Before she’ll accept his proposal Emma asks him for one kiss, believing that they both deserve a pleasant moment together before they turn the marriage into a business arrangement. Ash agrees and the kiss quickly turns passionate as their mutual attraction for each other starts to surface. He is stunned to realize that the unassuming seamstress has a sultry side that’s just begging for release. In the long-locked part of his heart, Ash is excited to find a woman who can look past his scars and find enjoyment in a physical relationship; however the sting of society’s cruelty about his appearance makes him wary of trusting her affection.

The Duchess Deal certainly has shades of Beauty and the Beast throughout, but Emma and Ash are much more than their fairy tale counterparts. Emma’s backstory is filled with betrayals and pain that she’s used to strengthen herself. She’s fiercely independent and has no problem questioning a duke to his face or forcing him to concede to her wishes rather than the reverse. That challenging approach to their relationship is what attracts Ash to her rather than a bland lady of the ton. In Emma, he sees someone to spar with intellectually and someone who comes to match him in appreciating the physical pleasures two people can find together. Once Ash is comfortable around his wife, his true personality begins to shine, revealing a man who cares very deeply but protects himself with sarcasm and feigned indifference to what others think of him.

Some of the secrets running in the background of Ash and Emma’s marriage complicate their romance but it’s nothing that ruins their story. Ash’s means of blowing off steam is to go out walking at night and his appearance starts to generate some unwanted attention. The newspapers label him the Monster of Mayfair and embellished stories of his attacking men in the streets or scaring young children create a divide between him and Emma when she begs him to take the headlines seriously and stop his behavior. Emma isn’t completely frank with Ash about her plans to help her pregnant friend without betraying the woman’s secret to her father and she manipulates Ash into venturing back into society all so that the woman’s father will accept his daughter traveling with the new duchess. When Emma’s plans are revealed at the same time that the authorities call for the capture of the Monster it becomes harder for Ash and Emma to trust that their spouse will support and protect them if needed.

I’ve long been a fan of Tessa Dare’s books and I’m very happy that The Duchess Deal follows her style to a tee. It’s very easy to get swept up in Emma and Ash’s romance and enjoy just how well they’re suited. I’m not certain what’s next in the Girl Meets Duke series but I’m already eager for its release.

VIRTUAL TOUR: Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

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England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.

Publisher and Release Date: Endeavour Press, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1650
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645, in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community but does not permit her to become involved.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country and then moves south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.


Excerpt

James made his way down Jury Street through the livestock market and pens of bleating lambs. Someone had forgotten to latch a crate properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted in before they were beaten away.

Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely he would find her here, amongst the stalls of linens, laces and ribbons. Hats and coifs intermingled, and for a moment all he could see was a blur of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.

Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.

He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought, and drew closer.

Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.

He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind, or to seek instruction?”

Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.

“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”

James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”

“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”

Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.

“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.

James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.

“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.

“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.

“How would you know this?”

“I know everyone here.”

“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”

James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected, Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”

Elizabeth’s head dipped.

“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”

“Indeed, your information is correct.”

“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.

“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”

“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”

“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.

“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”

A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.

“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wityou can do better.

She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”

“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.

“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.

“Naturally, by your speech.”

“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.

“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”

Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.

“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”

James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”

“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.

“Owl.”

“Owl?”

“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.

Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”

“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”

“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”

“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”

“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.

“Welcome home.”

With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.

“Unmistakable.” He grinned.

“The verdict?”

“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”

“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”

This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”

“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.

“What of our wager?” James called out to her.

Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”

James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.

“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.

“Nay, not yet,” he smiled, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.

 

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a signed paperback copy of Traitor’s Knot! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

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Traitor’s Knot

About the Author

Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast, with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). She blogs about English history and storytelling at her blog, the 17th Century Enthusiast, and is an editor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Cryssa’s debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, a romantic tale of adventure set during the English Civil War. Traitor’s Knot is the first in a series of adventures spanning from the ECW to the Restoration and is now available from Endeavour Press.

For more information visit Cryssa’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

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Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Publisher and Release Date: Lochlaber Press, June 2017

Time and Setting:
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Paranormal Historical Romance
Rating: 4 Stars

Review by Jenny Q

I’ve grown a bit tired of the same old, same old in historical romance. Regencies and Highland stories just aren’t doing it for me any more, so I’m finding myself drawn to more unique settings and a little something extra, like a mystery or books with paranormal/supernatural elements. Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk world is one of my favorites because it features all of the above, and this latest installment, second in the Blue Blood Conspiracy spinoff series, does not disappoint.

What I love about this series is that there is a well-developed and complex plot running throughout, and though the love story is central to each book, the overall series arc and each couple’s role in it is a fantastic backdrop. With each book, more puzzle pieces fall into place while tantalizing possibilities for future stories and the series conclusion pop up. But that also makes it hard to recap plots for these books without giving away spoilers from previous books, so forgive me if I seem a little vague.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up right where Mission Improper left off. The Company of Rogues solved one case only to discover it’s but a piece of a much larger conspiracy, one that endangers everyone in London. Three years after the revolution that toppled the Echelon that ruled the lower classes of humans, mechs, and verwulfen with an iron hand, someone is fomenting rebellion again, and the fragile peace that thousands lived and died for is in danger of shattering. Add to that the discovery of a deadly new virus that kills the unkillable – blue bloods – a virus that could wipe out an entire species if it falls into the wrong hands, and the stakes have never been higher for the Rogues. Anxious to prove herself, Ava McLaren is thrilled when she is assigned to study the virus and track down its origins, but in order to do so she has to put up with bodyguard Liam Kincaid, the gruff mech who has never disguised his dislike of Ava’s kind. But as the two work together and stumble upon one deadly discovery after another, the attraction that simmers between them boils over. And besides, what’s a little fun on the side going to hurt? But as their investigation grows more dangerous, they suddenly find themselves in danger of losing much more than their hearts.

The Mech Who Loved Me has everything I’ve come to expect from McMaster: compelling characters, sizzling sexual tension, mystery, danger, and of course, true love. But it also explores deeper themes of race, equality, self-worth, and sacrifice, which makes it so much richer. This one differs a bit from the previous books in this series in that it is a good bit naughtier. Kincaid likes to use the F-, P-, and C-words a lot, so be forewarned if that’s not your thing. But though he can be gruff and crude, he is also sweet and romantic; his unwavering support and encouragement in the face of Ava’s insecurities is swoon-worthy. Among the brash personalities in the Company of Rogues, Ava often feels overlooked or less worthy, but Kincaid sees her for what she is: brilliant and beautiful. Ava’s sleuthing skills and powers of deduction are in full force, not only on the case but in detecting the heart of the man behind the facade and the secrets he’s been keeping. They are complete opposites, but they complement each other, and together they make a perfect whole.

I’m knocking off  a star for the predictability of some plot points, but overall this is another solidly good story from McMaster. She has already revealed who the last three books will be about, and I can’t wait to watch those couples come together and see how the blue blood conspiracy plays out. If you’re looking for something different in romance and you’re open to a little fantasy, check out the London Steampunk series. But I recommend starting at the beginning with Kiss of Steel. Smart, sexy, inventive romances with dimensional and memorable characters in a rich and fascinating story world… What more could a girl want?

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher


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“I have a proposal for you…”

The last place respectable governess Ianthe Holt ever expected to be proposed to was in a train carriage…by a stranger…who had just accused her of trying to trap another man into marriage!

Shipping magnate Robert Felstone may be dashing, but he’s also insufferable, impertinent–and Ianthe’s only possible savior from her uncertain fate. She’s hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe there’s more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows…

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, June 2017

Time and Setting: Whitby, England 1865
Heat Level:2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The Convenient Felstone Marriage, set in the small town of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, is a refreshing change from most of the historical romance I read.  I liked the premise of the story and how Ms. Fletcher orchestrates a relationship between the principals, but unfortunately, once she delivers ‘the convenient Felstone marriage,’ the middle section lags and the ending is overly dramatic.  I might have been more forgiving had I liked our heroine a bit more, but she became less likeable as the story progressed and I had a hard time rooting for her.  Though the book is  entertaining and Ms. Fletcher’s writing is strong, I liked the idea of this story more than the execution of it.

Ianthe Holt is frustrated, annoyed and desperate.  Since the death of her beloved mother from consumption a year ago and her father’s grief stricken death not long after, her life has unraveled. Things go from bad to worse when her brother, Percy, tells her he hopes Ianthe will accept an offer of marriage from Sir Charles Lester, a man thirty years her senior and whose unnerving, creepy interest in her has always made her uncomfortable.   After a heated argument aboard the train in which they are traveling to Yorkshire, Percy can’t seem to understand why she won’t accept Sir Charles – and Ianthe waits for him to return to their compartment for the last leg  of the journey.

After pretending to be asleep as the brother and sister argued – loudly – in their shared compartment Robert Felstone is disturbed, enraged and unwilling to remain quiet.  What he overheard leads him to believe the woman is planning to trick a man into marriage, but when he accuses her of same, she surprises him with a fiery defense of her behavior. It quickly becomes clear to Robert the situation isn’t quite what it appeared, and when he discovers who the intended groom is – the lecherous Sir Charles Lester – he revisits his first impression of his angry companion. Compared to the beautiful woman who refused his offer of marriage earlier that morning because he wasn’t good enough for her, this woman is dowdy and severe.  But Robert, after his rejection, isn’t looking for a love match.  He needs a wife, she needs a husband – perhaps they can help each other.

Percy’s return to the train compartment interrupts the conversation between Ianthe and Robert. Before he arrives, Ianthe makes it clear to Robert that she finds his behavior offensive – he called her a schemer and then asked her to marry him! – and turns him down.  But after Percy introduces himself – and his sister – Robert finds himself disliking the brother, and curious about Ianthe.  Despite her earlier rejection, Robert decides to persevere in his pursuit of Miss Holt (he can’t quite figure out why) and he invites the pair to a ball that evening.

Ianthe has no intention of attending the ball, but events (and the author) conspire to get her there.  The evening represents a crossroads of sorts, and Ms. Fletcher deftly uses it to position and define how profoundly the the men in Ianthe’s life shape her future:  Percy, her brother, whose fortune (or lack thereof) is linked to the card table. He selfishly wagers Ianthe’s future to save his own; Sir Charles, her obsessed hunter, stalks Ianthe, unwilling to allow anything or anyone to come between him and his prey; and Robert, the bastard son who’s succeeded despite a scandalous beginning, her savior, who doesn’t believe in love – but falls for Ianthe despite his best effort not to.

Ianthe is a polarizing figure.  Though it’s easy to sympathize with her for the tough choices she’s had to make since her parents’ deaths, her decision making process is odd, and I struggled to like her through the middle portion of the book.  She persists in refusing to marry Robert even though she is attracted to him, and knowing that the smarmy Sir Charles is lurking in the background; and once she does agree, she lets a past indiscretion assume such mountainous proportions that it threatens to wreck their fledgling relationship.  Despite her resolve to be the respectable bride he desires, her secrets prevent her from finding any happiness in her marriage.  From this point on, the marriage of convenience trope gives way to my least favorite trope of all – the BIG Misunderstanding.  Ianthe persists in keeping her past from Robert, even when it’s apparent he’s trying to make more of their marriage than the business agreement they initially agreed to.  We spend chapter after chapter hoping Ianthe will finally come clean but when she does, it’s in the frenetic closing chapters, and only after she’s forced to do so.  I didn’t like her dishonesty and though I rooted for her and Robert, I disliked her character by the time the story concluded.

I liked Robert from the moment we meet him, but he’s not perfect either.  He has a quick temper and despite his wealth, power and success, he’s insecure.  The bastard son of a lecherous lord with grabby hands for his household staff, he was raised by a single mother who both loved and resented him.  He’s managed to rise above the unfortunate circumstances of his birth, but his relationship with his now dead father still has the power to hurt him, and high society still snubs him.  Those flaws only made me like him more, and though I admired his willingness to persevere in the face of Ianthe’s hot/cold behavior and her secrets (he knows she has them, he just doesn’t know what they are), it doesn’t ring true to his character.  He’s a tough and ambitious businessman with good instincts and I’m forced to conclude it’s his physical response that carries the day – because with all her baggage – she’s hard to love.

I was entertained by The Convenient Felstone Marriage, but my increasing dislike of the heroine, spoiled my enjoyment of the story as a whole.  I think Ms. Fletcher is a strong writer and I liked the premise of the story, I only wish she spent more time developing the principals and their relationship and less on the Big Misunderstanding that keeps them apart – a big turn-off for this romance reader.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

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England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Publisher and Release Date: Harper Perennial, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1815
Genre: Historical/Time-Travel Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

I liked The Jane Austen Project. The premise – that two time travelers go back to 1815, and insinuate themselves into Jane Austen’s life – is fascinating and intriguing. Austen acolytes will no doubt love this fictional interpretation of her. Other readers (me) who find her less compelling – even in this flattering iteration – may be less enthused. Therein lies my difficulty with the grade and why I’ve only given the book four stars. It’s smart, well written and the premise is entertaining… but if you don’t believe the minutiae of Austen’s life makes for fascinating reading (me again), it’s also slightly dull.

Told exclusively in the point of view of Doctor Rachel Katzman, The Jane Austen Project explores the idea of time travel, and the ability of time travelers to affect changes in the future by altering past events in the context of one year in Jane Austen’s life. Rachel, a globe-trotting physician and Austen devotee, is one of two people specially selected by the The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics to travel back in time to 1815. The mission? To befriend the Austen family and obtain (steal) lost correspondence between Jane and her sister Cassandra, and bring back (again, steal) a copy of The Watsons, a novel she wrote and never published. Researchers believed The Watsons unfinished, but new information indicates Ms. Austen completed the novel and subsequently destroyed it. If Rachel, with her medical expertise, can also deduce why Ms. Austen died prematurely at the relatively young age of forty-one… even better.

Prior to their departure, Rachel and her traveling partner, actor-turned-academic Liam Finucane, spend a year together rigorously training and meticulously planning for the trip. Their backstory, that Doctor William Ravenwood and his spinster sister, Mary, have returned to England from Jamaica after selling their coffee plantation and divesting themselves of slaves, is specific enough to satisfy the mildly curious, but vague enough that any further inquiries about them would require time and effort to pursue.

When the book opens, Rachel and Liam have jumped back to 1815 from the future (it’s never specified when) and landed disheveled and disoriented in a field on the outskirts of the town of Leatherhead in Surrey. After a quick survey to ensure they haven’t suffered any adverse effects from the trip and that the large volume of counterfeit banknotes concealed in their clothing remains in place, they set off for a nearby inn. Unfortunately, the innkeeper is suspicious about their appearance when they arrive without any visible transport (if he only knew!) and without any bags, and declines to give them a room. When Liam flashes him a gold coin, he’s more than willing to arrange a post chaise to take them to London.

Once Rachel and Liam arrive in town, they set about securing themselves an entrée into the Austen family via Henry Austen, a banker, and Jane’s favorite brother. Posing as distant Austen relatives, Liam easily finagles a meeting with Henry and it isn’t long before Henry invites Doctor Ravenwood and his sister to dinner at his home. The evening is Rachel’s first opportunity to meet Henry and when she does, he’s everything she expected: handsome, charming, and friendly. He’s also flirtatious and clearly interested in her. Following the dinner the pair is welcomed into Henry’s circle of friends, and when Henry falls ill, Liam (as Doctor Ravenwood) is perfectly situated to offer him care and further insinuate himself in Henry’s life. The illness provides context for regular visits and, more significantly, opportunity for the Ravenwoods to meet Henry’s extended family. Shortly after Henry falls ill, Jane arrives, and when he doesn’t appear to improve, she summons the rest of the family to join her.

Though Henry is enthusiastic about the Ravenwoods, his family is less so. Cassandra is welcoming but remote; Jane is curious but guarded. Their relationship with Henry and his obvious affection for Rachel helps, but it isn’t until Rachel and Liam travel to the countryside with the family that a more profound friendship develops between them and Jane. But their deepening friendship also alters Rachel’s perspective on the mission. What kind of friend is she to admire and like Jane, all the while lying and plotting to steal from her? As the book progresses, Rachel and Liam struggle to reconcile their mission with their 1815 personas and relationships with the Austen family. When the book ends, I’m not sure Ms. Flynn ever satisfactorily answers those questions. Liam and Rachel are torn by their feelings about the mission and Jane, but the mission rapidly spirals out of control shortly before their planned departure date, and their hasty retreat robs them of any choice in the matter.

Rachel and her insightful point of view are particularly well done. Though her affection for Jane borders on creepy, I loved the contrasts between her various identities: past (spinster sister), present (bohemian physician), and future (murky). Frankly, she’s a much more interesting character than Ms. Austen. She struggles with her friendship with Jane, but also with her role on the mission. Single, independent, educated, and sexually liberated – Rachel is a model of modernity when she jumps through time. Forced to watch Liam ‘treat’ his patients, Rachel is a patient and curious doctor/coach. Though it’s obvious she longs to ask the questions Liam doesn’t think to ask, I thought she did an admirable job letting him lead. If I have any complaint about her, it’s that perhaps her transition to a woman’s life in 1815 happens a bit too easily. When she makes mistakes, they’re easily explained away by her experiences in Jamaica, and I never felt her identity – or their subterfuge – was at risk. I was more interested in the ways Rachel’s inherent goodness and some of her more impulsive decisions impacted the future.

As well developed as Rachel is, Liam remains an enigma from start to finish. Rachel’s impressions of him – so specific, so admiring during their time together – coupled with Ms. Flynn’s descriptions (he’s slightly obsessed with his clothing and vague about his past), made him a particularly curious and intriguing character. I think I like him?

Time travel is a curious business. On the one hand, it provides the traveler with a past – or future – they can live and experience themselves. On the other hand, it provides the traveler with the opportunity of altering events in ways they can’t predict or prevent. Ms. Flynn touches on these bigger picture issues, but she doesn’t offer any easy answers. The final chapter of the book – after such a terrific premise for the story – left this reader unsatisfied with the answers she does provide.

If it sounds like I really liked this book, you’re right – I did! But I suspect the difference between liking and loving The Jane Austen Project is less about the story and the quality of Ms. Flynn’s writing (both good), than a simple question of just how interested in Jane Austen’s life you are. I’m not especially, and though Ms. Flynn’s fictionalized version of Jane is appealing, I didn’t find her nearly as compelling as most every other character in this story. Perhaps her brilliance was too subtle for me?

The Jane Austen Project is good or great depending on how you feel about Jane Austen. For me, it’s good – just not great.

The Duke’s Unexpected Bride by Lara Temple

the duke's unexpected bride

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From country miss… to London duchess!

Sophie Trevelyan has been enjoying her visit to London, even if her closest companion is an overweight pug! Then she encounters the dashing Duke of Harcourt, who intrigues her more than is strictly proper…

Max knows he must marry. He’s looking for the opposite of his high-spirited fiancée, who died some years ago, so he tries to keep his distance from bubbly Sophie. But when her life is endangered, Max feels compelled to rescue her…with a very unexpected proposal!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1819
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

In The Duke’s Unexpected Bride, Lara Temple has created a charming and entertaining riff on the “stuffy aristocrat meets breath-of-fresh-air heroine” trope in which the hero and heroine find themselves unexpectedly betrothed and having to find a way to reconcile their very opposite personalities.

Miss Sophie Trevelyan is enjoying the temporary escape from her overcrowded family home in the country afforded by her current visit to London to act as companion to her eccentric Aunt Minnie. Her aunt rarely rises from her bed so there is little for Sophie to do, but she is nonetheless enjoying having space and time to herself for a change, and is determined to beat the previous record for a Stay With Aunt Minnie (two weeks) set by one of her cousins.

Deciding that one of the most likely ways to earn her aunt’s approbation will be to take care of her overweight pug, Sophie manages to coax the dog out of the house and get him to waddle across to the gardens opposite her aunt’s town house, where, in spite of his bulk, he promptly discovers a liking for chasing birds. Unfortunately, he gives her the slip, running right into the path of a fashionable couple out for a stroll, who turn out to be her aunt’s neighbours. Chatting happily away, explaining who she is, why she’s in the garden and apologising for the dog’s escape, Sophie doesn’t notice that the gentleman is rather taken aback at her lack of propriety in speaking thus to a couple of perfect strangers – and cheerfully makes her way home, thinking that the couple are the most elegant people she has ever seen.

Max, Duke of Harcourt is simultaneously fascinated and irritated by the young woman’s lack of decorum, finding her outspoken friendliness and the absence of any trace of artifice in her manner refreshing while also thinking her rather too forward. Realising she must be one of Lady Minerva Huntley’s many relations, Max’s sister, Lady Hetty, suggests she might call upon the her at some point, after which they resume their discussion about Max’s search for a bride.

Bound by a promise to his late father to marry by his thirty-first birthday, Max is seeking a wife who is the epitome of modest womanhood and correct behaviour, someone who will never cause him a moment’s unease – in short, a woman the complete opposite of his previous fiancée, who was unconventionally lively, impetuous and highly-strung. The betrothal ended tragically, and Max has eschewed anything and anyone that smacks of impulsiveness or recklessness ever since. Yet when, a day or so later, he sees the young woman with the pug sitting in the gardens, sketching, he finds himself stopping to speak with her. And when, the next day, he meets her on the street, apparently on the way to see the exhibition at the Royal Academy, he offers to take her there himself, he’s unable to account for his behaviour. They haven’t been properly introduced, he had absolutely no reason to converse with her and none – other than concern for her safety and reputation – to act as her escort. Max still doesn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused by Sophie’s lively conversation and her disregard for – or lack of knowledge of – proper behaviour, but there’s no question that he’s well and truly smitten.

Having seen some of Sophie’s sketches, Max already knows that she is a talented artist, but during their visit to the exhibition, and as their conversation begins to take a turn from the awkward to the mutually enjoyable, he also realises she’s intelligent, witty and insightful. He enjoys both the afternoon and her company, until they are approached by Lord Wivenhoe, who proceeds to flirt with Sophie, much to Max’s annoyance.

When the rumour mill starts grinding with the news of Max’s having escorted an unknown young woman about, he chastises himself for his impulsive behaviour. But he can’t seem to help himself around Sophie; something about her has utterly bewitched him and he thinks that the sooner he is married to a suitably demure, ladylike young woman, the better. The problem is, however, that the ladies whom he is considering for the position of his duchess have all begun to seem stiff and uninteresting, and although he tries to tell himself that his desire for Sophie is simply a momentary aberration, he can’t quite convince himself and determines that the safest course is to stay away from her.

This proves to be more difficult than he had anticipated, however, especially when Lord Wivehnoe seems determined to pursue Sophie, in spite – and probably because – of Max’s attempt to warn the man off. When Sophie is placed in a very uncomfortable situation, Max declares publicly that she’s his betrothed – and their fate is sealed. Max is torn. On the one hand, he’s appalled at the sort of rash behaviour he thought he’d left behind him long ago, and on the other, he’s pleased at the knowledge that Sophie is now his and that he will soon be able to slake his lust for her in all sorts of extremely pleasurable ways.

I admit that during the early stages of the story, I had reservations about both protagonists. I wasn’t wild about Sophie because her innocent, quirky, girl-from-the-country-who-doesn’t-know-what’s-what persona rang slightly false; and while Max is presented as the model of propriety, he is fairly quick to break his own rules when it comes to Sophie, spending time alone with her and escorting her about unchaperoned – all of which made it difficult to completely accept him as the uptight, stuffy aristocrat he is supposed to be. Fortunately, however, my apprehensions were quickly dispelled, because Sophie is revealed to be clever, self-aware and perceptive; she knows she’s not perfect but doesn’t feel the need to apologise for her shortcomings and is all the more likeable because of it. And as the story progresses, Ms. Temple clearly shows that Max is struggling to work out what he truly wants as opposed to what he thinks he wants. His insecurities about the past are impinging upon his present and he has to decide what type of man he wants to be; one who embraces his present and looks forward to the future, or one who allows his past to push him down a path which isn’t right for him. Ms. Temple does an admirable job of flipping the “sophisticated hero/innocent heroine” trope on its head here, by having Sophie’s empathy and love for Max take the lead in their relationship, gradually bringing him to see that he can’t continue to look back, and I loved watching him come to thoroughly appreciate Sophie’s unique personality and to realise that he loves her because of it, rather than in spite of it.

The one false note struck in the book is in the final plot twist, which is somewhat melodramatic, and felt like it had simply been included in order to introduce a bit of last minute tension into the story.

In spite of the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed The Duke’s Unexpected Bride and would definitely recommend it to others. The romance is superbly developed, the chemistry between Max and Sophie is palpable and the love scenes are sensual and well-written. This is the second book I’ve read and enjoyed by Lara Temple, and she’s earned herself a place on my list of authors to watch.