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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Brambles and Thorns by Jocelyn Kirk

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Elena Bellwood’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother dies and leaves her penniless. She is forced to move from her beloved home in New York City to live with an aunt in Connecticut—an aunt she never knew existed. During her journey north, she meets Benjamin Garrick, a blunt-spoken gentleman with a strange hobby. Against her will, Elena finds herself attracted to his manly demeanor, and she is both pleased and flustered to learn he is a close friend of her aunt and lives in the same village.

In her new life with Aunt Rosalie, Elena begins to question her past. Why had she never been told of her aunt? What is the significance of the odd items she found in her mother’s bedroom? Who is the stranger in town that seems always to be staring at her? To answer these questions, Elena must explore past secrets that tear apart her world.

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EXCERPT

The duke took her hand and kissed it.

“Thank you for coming, Your Grace.” She seated herself and the duke did likewise. Willa entered, and Elena ordered tea.

“I owe you an apology,” the duke began, “for not attending your mother’s funeral. I was out of the city for a few days on business, and the weather forced me to stay in Queens for an extra day.”

“Pray do not distress yourself. No one can stop snow when it decides to fall. You are here now, and I am deeply grateful for it.”

Willa came in with tea, and Elena served it. The duke sipped the hot liquid and devoured two of the sweet buns Willa placed on the table. He said nothing while he ate, rather surprising Elena with his silence.

Perhaps, she reasoned, he is gathering his courage for the presentation of his proposals. She attempted to wait patiently.

Finally, he spoke. “Miss Bellwood, what are your future plans?”

A thrill ran through her. “I…am not certain.”

“Have you no family to go to? You are not contemplating remaining in New York alone, I trust.”

“No. I have an aunt in Connecticut. I suppose I must go to her, unless…”

The duke started to speak but halted his words. He sighed and took her hand.

“I am fond of you, Elena, and because I care for you, I cannot be satisfied with being less than honest. To you I will speak the truth.”
“My dear duke, what do you mean?”

“I believe—correct me if I am mistaken—my attentions to you may perhaps have given rise to expectations…”

Elena instantly decided to be as frank as he. She took a deep breath and attempted to speak calmly. “Yes, perhaps they did, on my mother’s part, if not quite certainly my own.”

“If you recall, I was going to wait upon you on the day of your mother’s death.”

“Yes.”

“My purpose in calling was to request a private interview with you…”

“A private interview?”

“Yes. I feared that there had been some talk about us, and I wanted you to know, to forewarn you before the news broke.”

“Forewarn me? Your Grace, what do you mean?”

He smoothed his trousers. “Elena, a few days before your mother died, I engaged myself to Miss Julia Howarth—”

“Engaged yourself! Do you mean…?”

“Engaged to be married, yes.”

“Dear God! You were dancing with me—flirting with me—while engaged to another woman! That is despicable!”

He shrugged. “When you are in my arms, Elena, I find it impossible to think of anyone but you. I am not quite in love with you, but very near.”

She stared at him in horror and disbelief. “You are half in love with me, but then you—but why not…?”

He answered her unarticulated question. “My dear, you have no dowry, whereas Miss Howarth will bring the equivalent of thirty thousand English pounds. I am thirty-six years old, not a foolish young blade who would marry out of unalloyed devotion to the object of his desires. My inquiries as to your inheritance were met with the shocking information of your mother’s indebtedness. And now…rumor has it that you are destitute.”

“Good God!” Elena cried, unable to control her tongue. “You, with your wealth, would spurn me because my mother left no money?”

“Calm yourself, my dear, I pray you. The reason I am wealthy—and my family is wealthy—is because we never take any material step without a consideration of the financial aspects of it. I find you extremely charming and attractive, and I was willing to make you my choice even if your mother’s estate had been moderate. But no man in my condition of life would be so foolish as to take a bride who brings nothing to the marriage—not wealth nor noble blood nor future property. I would be a laughingstock.”

Elena leaned back in her chair, barely able to breathe from the shock of his revelations. She felt giddy and faint. She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to find breath to form words. The duke poured sherry and attempted to hold the glass to her lips, but she pushed his hand away with such force that the sweet wine spilled on the settee and splashed her silk gown.

“Elena, I beseech you, calm yourself. I am here to offer you a different type of proposal, and you may very well find this one equally to your liking.”

She raised her eyes to his face and stared at him. A cold chill ran down her back, and she shivered.

“Surely you are aware that most men in my position in life marry for wealth or family considerations, often to women for whom they have little desire. In such cases, it is customary for a gentleman to…to…”

“To keep a mistress?” Elena gasped, able to speak at last.

He shrugged. “To put it plainly, yes.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jocelyn’s fascination with life in the 1800s began when she was a teenager and started reading historical novels. She was influenced by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Jocelyn resides in the historic town of Mystic, Connecticut.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Murder in the Forbidden City (Qing Dynasty Mysteries #1) by Amanda Roberts

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Peking, 1867

When one of the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting is killed in the Forbidden City, she orders Inspector Gong to find the killer. Unfortunately, as a man, he is forbidden from entering the Inner Court. How is he supposed to solve a murder when he cannot visit the scene of the crime or talk to the women in the victim’s life? He won’t be able to solve this crime alone.

The widowed Lady Li is devastated when she finds out about the murder of her sister-in-law, who was serving as the Empress’s lady-in-waiting. She is determined to discover who killed her, even if it means assisting the rude and obnoxious Inspector Gong and going undercover in the Forbidden City.

Together, will Lady Li and Inspector Gong be able to find the murderer before he – or she – strikes again?

Readers who enjoy historical mysteries by authors such as Victoria Thompson, Deanna Raybourn, and Anne Perry are sure to love this exciting start to a new series by Amanda Roberts.

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EXCERPT

The empress, high up on her dais, wept uncontrollably. The baubles dangling from her elaborate hairdo quivered as she hid her face in her trembling hands.

The dead girl, one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting, was lying on a long table in front of Inspector Gong. The investigation has already been botched beyond solving. The girl had been moved from the scene of the crime. Who knew how many people had trampled through the scene itself. The eunuchs had probably worked quickly to clean up the mess. The other men present, the ministers and advisors, had no words to comfort the empress. Everyone of importance was there except for the emperor himself. Such horrors were not appropriate for a child.

“Who did this?” the empress shrieked. “I demand to know!”

The room stayed silent as she resumed her crying. The empress, young as she was, was a formidable force, yet the Inspector knew the killer would not make himself, or herself, known just because the empress demanded it. This was one situation where the empress was not going to get her way.

“Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong finally said, “may I have a closer look at the body?”

The empress nodded her consent. “Just don’t touch her!” she yelled.

“Of course,” the Inspector replied, even though her demand was ridiculous. How could he get a complete understanding of what happened if he couldn’t examine the body fully? He approached the girl and kneeled down next to her. She had been stabbed several times in her neck and chest, her qaopao ripped open where the knife slashed through the beautiful fabric. Dark splotches of blood stained the light blue satin. The blood was dark, almost black. Even though blood typically darkened over time, it seemed unnaturally dark. Her hands were bloody as well and showed evidence of a struggle. Someone else’s blood, perhaps. Her hair was a mess and her shoes were gone. She had fought back and most likely tried to flee from her attacker. Her jaw was tightly clenched and her eyes closed. Her death had been frightening and painful.

“What was her name?” the inspector asked in a loud clear voice so all could hear. He stood straight and crossed his arms as he looked around the room.

“Lady Yun,” one of the eunuchs replied.

“How old was she?” he asked.

“Fifteen, sir.”

The inspector grunted. Fifteen. And she was beautiful, even in death. The long eyelashes of her closed eyes lay upon her pale cheeks.

“Who were her family?” he asked.

“She had no male relatives,” the eunuch replied.

“She was an orphan?” the Inspector asked.

“No, sir. She has a mother, but she is sickly. She was primarily cared for by her brother and sister-in-law until her brother’s death. Her sister-in-law is her guardian, but the girl had been living here at the Forbidden City for the last year.”

“I’ll need to speak to her sister-in-law,” he said. “Has she been informed yet of the girl’s death?”

“No, sir.”

“Good, I want to be the one to tell her. I need to see her reaction.”

“Whatever you need,” the empress finally spoke up, “it shall be yours. You must find who did this.”

“I need to see where she was killed, and speak to all the other ladies of the inner court who knew her.”

The room gasped and the empress starred at him in shock. The men began to murmur and argue among themselves.

“That is not possible,” one of the men said loudly, pointing a finger at the inspector. “No man can be allowed in the inner court. It is for the women’s protection.”

“Protection?” the inspector asked. “One of the empress’s own ladies was murdered inside the very walls of the Forbidden City. Make no mistake; if someone could kill this girl, no one here is safe. Look at her hands, the stab wounds. She must have screamed. How could no one have heard her? I must be allowed to inspect every aspect of this crime if any member of the royal family wishes to feel safe in their own home again.”

The inspector knew he was making things worse. There was no evidence that the killer would strike again or that the empress or child-emperor were in danger, but unless he was allowed behind the sealed doors of the inner court, he would never find the killer. If he had to frighten the empress out of her wits to achieve his goal, he would do so.

The room erupted in yelling and arguments. The empress was no longer crying, but was looking around the room with her large, dark eyes.

“Inspector,” she finally said, silencing the room. “Are you saying you think I could be in danger?”

“I do not know, Your Majesty,” he said. “But I can rule nothing out. I do not know if Lady Yun was the target of the killer’s rage or if she only got in the way. I do not know if the killer has fled or if he, or she, is within this very room.” Another round of gasps followed. “What I do know,” he continued, “is that this investigation should be the throne’s priority, and to do my job properly, to bring the killer to justice, I need to be allowed into the inner court of the women.”

The empress opened her mouth to speak, but she was interrupted by a court minister by the name of Song. “No!” he said firmly. “It is forbidden and improper. You cannot violate the sacred space of the women’s quarters. To do so would be as violating the women themselves.”

“Minister,” Inspector Gong nearly laughed. “Investigating a murder would hardly be the same as taking a woman to bed…at least in my case.” Several of the other men laughed.

“This is no laughing matter,” Minister Song erupted. “If you cannot do your job from outside of the inner court, then you are not worthy of your title and should be stripped of your rank and salary immediately!”

“Now, see here, Minister…” the inspector began.

“I agree,” another minister interrupted. “Is his job worth doing if it violates the integrity of the empress?”

Several other men spoke up in agreement.

“Enough,” the empress finally said, her voice clear and even. The room went quiet. She was calm now. Even her hands were steady. “I agree this case should be of the utmost importance. My own safety and the safety of the emperor rely on it.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Inspector Gong replied.

“However,” she continued, “we cannot allow this killer, whoever he is, disrupt our lives and the way things are done. Tradition and court procedure are at the very center of the throne and the country. I have to agree with the ministers. You cannot be allowed to enter the inner court, Inspector.”

“So you will allow a killer to go free?” he asked. “Allow a murderer to perhaps roam your very halls?”

“No,” she said. “You will find the killer. And you will do so quickly so that we can make sure my son is safe. You will have everything you need at your disposal, but you will do so from outside the inner court.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Amanda Roberts is a writer and editor who has been living in China since 2010. Amanda has an MA in English from the University of Central Missouri. She has been published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies around the world and she regularly contributes to numerous blogs. Amanda can be found all over the Internet, but her home is TwoAmericansinChina.com.

An Unnatural Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles


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On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, October 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873/4
Genre: Historical Romantic Mystery
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read An Unsuitable Heir twice now and enjoyed it both times, although perhaps more so the second time around.  A re-read helped me better appreciate all Ms. Charles accomplishes in 246 pages; it also helped me decide how I wanted to approach my review.  An Unsuitable Heir presents (for me) a unique challenge – instead of simply asking myself whether I liked it and why (and then sharing it with you), I had to first ensure I understood it, and could therefore appreciate – and review – it properly.  Ultimately, I’ve decided the principal characters and the complexity of their relationship is stronger than the mystery/plot that wraps up the trilogy, and for that reason, my grade represents a compromise of sorts.

If you’ve read the first two books in the Sins of the City trilogy (and really you must, or none of this will make sense and you’ll spoil the mystery), you know that the overarching story concerns the missing heir to the Moreton earldom. When An Unnatural Vice concluded, private inquiry agent Mark Braglewicz had located the missing Godfrey twins, Repentance and Regret, who now call themselves Pen and Greta Starling, and informed them that they are the children of the late Earl of Moreton and his first wife, Emmeline Godfrey.  Mark is miserable, the twins are miserable – and angry – and a killer is still on the loose, intent, it would seem, on preventing Pen becoming the Earl of Moreton.

An Unsuitable Heir opens weeks before the appearance of Pen and Greta and the chaos that ensues at the end of the previous novel once Pen is introduced as the heir to the Morton estate.  A newspaper advertisement asking for information about them leaves the twins apprehensive and they decide to take a week off from performing and lie low.  Owing to the horrible pea-souper that descends on London, this period of quiet is extended and Pen, who is frustrated and bored heads out one evening, with the intention of having a drink at the nearby Gin Kitchen.  On the way, he meets a lost stranger, who offers to buy Pen drink in exchange for directions. Pen agrees and spends an enjoyable afternoon with his new acquaintance.

Mark Braglewicz doesn’t exactly lie about who he is, but he was never really lost, and after spending an afternoon with Pen Starling, he knows he’s at last found the Godfrey twins.  Unfortunately, he keeps forgetting his professional responsibilities and finds himself attracted to his beautiful companion.  The pair make plans to meet the following evening, but the planned meeting doesn’t come off.  Returning to practice at the theatre, they discover Mark Braglewicz, a private enquiry agent, has been asking questions about them.

After a heated confrontation wherein the twins deliver a scathing set-down and refuse to hear Mark out, he eventually finds a way to speak to Pen by lying in wait for him after a performance.

Mark slid out of the shadows as quietly as he could, and caught up within a few paces.  “Hello, Pen.”

Pen stopped and looked around.  Those high boots put him a good two inches above Mark, and he didn’t look friendly.  “Oh, it’s you.  Why don’t you go away?”

“Because I need to talk to you,” Mark said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t need to talk to you.”  Pen turned on his heel.

“Mate, you do.  I swear it’s important, and I owe you a drink.  Come and have a quick one with me.  Please?”

Pen turned back to face him fully.  There were a few dark ringlets framing his face; he was indeed painted, with his eyes darkened and, Mark suspected, reddened lips.  He looked…

He looked strange.  Phyllis at the Jack would never dress like this, both male and female.  Mark wasn’t entirely sure what was going on.

Pen agrees to join him only after Mark reluctantly agrees not to discuss why he’s been searching for the twins, and the men head off to the Jack and Knave, a place we could get a drink and nobody would look at you twice.  

With the investigation off the table, Pen and Mark spend the night talking and falling for each other.  One of the pleasures of this book is the marvelous way Ms. Charles develops the tender affection Mark and Pen feel for each other, in spite of how different they are.  Pen isn’t a him or a her – Pen is Pen.  And to Mark, Pen is just beautiful – his bit of stuff.  He doesn’t struggle to understand the person he’s falling for, he just falls.  For Pen, Mark is a gift.  A man who wants Pen’s love, and accepts Pen in all his incarnations – his bit of rough.  It’s such a romantic and tender love without expectations or demands, and it’s wonderful.  I admit I struggled a bit understanding who Pen is or wants to be, but this is where I believe my second reading was so beneficial. It didn’t matter; they belong together.  Though I think Pen’s character is in very capable hands with Ms. Charles, what transcends the page, her writing and the complexity of the novel and the relationship, is the simplicity of the affection and love that emerges between the men – Mark loves Pen, Pen loves Mark – without judgment or reservations.

Ms. Charles does a marvelous job introducing us to Pen and Greta, whom readers assumed they already knew quite a bit about, through Mark’s eyes and experiences.  As we already know, once Mark forces the earldom on Pen – their relationship changes.  Pen feels betrayed – he has no desire to become an Earl, and his inability to do so (because really, it will kill him) presents all sorts of challenges – with his sister, the Godfrey family, with Mark, with his career… and Mark is similarly devastated.  But when the killer goes after Pen, Mark, unable to stay away and still trying to protect and safeguard Pen, returns to his lover’s side, and it becomes clear that though this novel is ostensibly about uncovering the identity of a killer – and Ms. Charles keeps us in suspense until the bitter end – its larger focus is on the relationship at its heart – the one developing between its two damaged, complex and enigmatic principal characters, and on the families we choose vs. the one we’re given.

An Unsuitable Heir – much like the trilogy it concludes – is moving, challenging and special, and the development of Pen and Mark’s relationship rather brilliantly dovetails with the (happy ever after) resolution of the trilogy.

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


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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: A Secret Engagement (House of Caruthers Book 2) by Sarah Richmond

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Edmund Caruthers, London barrister and gentleman, defies his father and his class to represent the poor. With few paying customers, he struggles financially. He’s frustrated his betrothed won’t set a date to marry him.

Dolly Wycliffe dreams of becoming a famous milliner. She loves Edmund, but the life of a society matron isn’t for her. Edmund’s family and friends remind her that a girl who makes hats can’t become the wife of a distinguished barrister.

When a woman is found murdered in fashionable Mayfair, their two worlds collide. The victim is a shop girl and Dolly enlists Edmund’s help to find the killer. Edmund keeps a friend’s involvement a secret and Dolly realizes the toffs have rules they’re unwilling to break.

Is their love enough to overcome the obstacles ahead? Will marrying be a decision they’ll both come to regret?

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EXCERPT

Standing this close to Edmund Caruthers, her heart fluttering, the rest of her body reacting with scandalous desire, she didn’t want to be respectable.

Or, for that matter, a lady.

He poured a ladle filled with lemonade into two pretty cut-glass cups and handed her one.

Although Edmund rarely took anything seriously, she could tell by the set of his jaw and his piercing stare he was serious now. Beyond serious, for the subject of setting a wedding date had become a sore point between them. They had been engaged for more than six months, in secret, but it seemed like only yesterday when he’d proposed marriage. What a wonderful day that’d been.

“Are you all right?” Edward’s gaze made her flood with heat.

She smiled. “Why do you ask?”

“You are quiet this evening,” he said.

“Am I?”

She knew precisely what he was after. She kept his ring on a ribbon tied around her neck. Her hand went reflexively to the top of her corset where the ring rested, ready to take its place on her finger. When that would be, if ever, she couldn’t say.

Dolly couldn’t live in his world. She would always fear, as she did now, of being caught out. She could suffer the humiliation for her own sake, but she wouldn’t subject Edmund to their scorn.

“You haven’t answered my question,” he said.

“More like an observation.”

He sipped his punch. “Alas, I stand corrected.”

She looked into his eyes. She did not doubt his love for her. Did he appreciate the difficulty of the obstacles ahead? What if they were insurmountable?

“You have been very patient,” she said. “More patient than I deserve.”

His gaze clouded. “Tell me why you won’t set a date for our wedding.”

She sighed. “You know perfectly well I must work for a living.”

“I thought the discussion about your career was settled. I will not expect you to give up the milliner’s shop or stop making your exquisite hats.”

“You may not, but others will.”

He looked away and tightened his jaw. What she’d said vexed him.

She continued. “Society frowns on women working. As a wife, I will be expected to stay home.”

“You place too much importance on what others think,” he said.

“Of course I do. It is a necessity of being in trade. I make hats. What my customers like is crucial to whether I sell them or not.”

Edmund shifted his feet. He could not refute the truth of what she’d said.

Dolly wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by engaging in an argument. “This is not the time and place to discuss such an important matter.” She put down her drink on a side table. “We should instead be celebrating Herbert and Cecilia’s good fortune.”

“There never does seem to be a good time,” he answered with irritation.

She didn’t know what more she could say to convince him. She didn’t belong here. Surely he knew that. Why did he persist thinking society would accept her after they were married? Was it some kind of game to him, a challenge to family and friends?

She took his drink from him and set it next to hers on the table. “Sir, would you like to dance?”

His sullen expression disappeared. Happily, Edmund never stayed cross for long. He took her hand and led her to the middle of the dancers.

Drawing her closer, he put his hand at her waist. Not an embrace exactly, but thrilling just the same.

“I consider myself a lucky man.”

She rested her arm on his shoulder. The scent of his shaving cream reminded her of a walk in the park. She looked up into his eyes and saw a hint of amusement in the glint in his eyes and the quirk of his mouth, as if the matter of setting a date was settled. It was easy for him to believe all would be well because he’d never known failure.

He guided her to the rhythm of the music: one, two, three, and her heart beat the same rhythm. She put her troubles out of her mind and enjoyed herself in the arms of a splendid fellow.

Edmund would be the first to admit the evening had gotten off to a bad start. He blamed himself. The Pemberton’s soiree contained people Dolly didn’t know, apart from Herbert and Cecilia. They’d landed in a sea of social sharks ready to bite at the least provocation and Dolly had every reason to be apprehensive.

The music ended with a flourish and the assembly clapped. He twirled his true love one last time.

She threw back her head and laughed.

Ah, that’s better.

She detached herself from his grasp. The heat of the room and the exertion, and dare he think, his close proximity had brought color to her face, especially to the apples of both cheeks. He found himself transfixed by her glowing skin, dark penetrating gaze, and perfect mouth.
He thought himself the happiest man alive. The only thing that could make him happier is for her to set a wedding date. Her lips parted, ready to speak. Had she made a decision?

Herbert approached them bearing drinks. “Here you are.” He handed one of the glasses to Dolly. Edmund took the other.

His friend’s timing couldn’t have been worse but there’d be other moments this evening. The Pemberton’s ballroom was alive with romance and Edmund would take advantage. He felt certain he would have his answer tonight.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Richmond is an award winning Historical Romance writer. Born in the mid-west, she now resides in Southern California with her husband and Welsh corgi. Sarah is an avid fan of the University of Michigan football, movies from the 1940’s and 50’s, and enjoys having lunch with her friends

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.

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.

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, July 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?

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

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LADY + DUKE = TRUE LOVE?

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

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

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

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

Review by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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