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Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

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Previously titled Pistols for Two, this collection includes three of Heyer’s earliest short stories, published together in book form for the very first time. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.


Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, October 2017
Time and Setting: Georgian & Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance – Short Stories
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

If you’re already a fan of the great Georgette Heyer – the author who pretty much invented the Regency Romance single-handedly – then it won’t take much persuasion from me to send you in the direction of this newly re-issued collection of the author’s short stories, most of them written for and published in prestigious women’s magazines of the 1930s. There are fourteen in this collection, of which eleven were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two; Snowdrift contains those plus three that have been newly discovered by the author’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester. Is it worth obtaining this new collection to read those new stories? On balance, I’d say that yes, it is, especially as one of the new stories (Pursuit) turned out to be one of my favourites of the set.

I don’t plan on reviewing each individual story here, as that would take more space than I have, so instead I’ll cherry pick as, like most anthologies, there are some excellent stories and some not quite so good ones. Each one features character types and plot elements that will be familiar to regular readers of historical romance; cross-dressing heroines, elopements, mistaken identity, dashing military men, second-chance romance, duels, high-stakes card games, regency-slang and, best of all, those handsome, authoritative heroes and their intelligent, witty heroines. Fans of the author’s will no doubt recognise the seeds of some of the plots and characters who later appear in some of her full-length novels here, too. I’ll also add a couple of words of caution. While very enjoyable, this is an anthology best dipped in and out of rather than read all at once; and these are short stories, so some of the romances are fairly perfunctory and in many cases, rely on insta-love. I’m not a fan, but in this case, it’s mostly forgivable due to the short length and the fact that the stories are beautifully written and enjoyable for so many other things besides the romances, so full are they of Heyer’s trademark laser-sharp social observation, sparkling dialogue and clever characterisations.

And so to the cherry picking. Pistols for Two is a rather unusual story in that it turns a frequently used trope on its head. Two lifelong friends discover that they are in love with the same young woman – another childhood friend who has grown into a beauty – and through misunderstanding and mischance, end up facing each other on the field of honour. Told through both their points of view, the young lady in question is a peripheral character and the author does a terrific job of describing the prickly, adolescent pride of the two young gents.

In A Clandestine Affair, we have an older hero and heroine who clearly share some sort of romantic history. Elinor Tresilian’s niece, Lucy, wants badly to marry the man she loves, Mr. Arthur Roseby, who happens to be the cousin of Lord Iver – who is vehemently opposed to the match. As it happens, Miss Tresilian is not overly in favour either, but headstrong Lucy is determined to have her way. When the couple elopes, Elinor and Lord Iver set off in pursuit, bickering and sniping along the Great North Road until… they aren’t.

A Husband for Fanny sees the young widow, Honoria Wingham, shepherding her lovely daughter, Fanny through the Season and hoping to secure the best and wealthiest husband for her. The Marquis of Harleston is certainly most attentive and would be an excellent match… so why does Honoria feel just the tiniest pang of jealousy when she sees how well the marquis and her daughter get along? You can see the twist in this one coming a mile off, but it’s an engaging story nonetheless.

To Have the Honour. Newly returned from war, young Lord Allerton discovers he has inherited a mountain of debt along with his title. His mother, however, is still spending money at the old rate, because Allerton has been betrothed to his cousin Hetty since the cradle; as she is a great heiress, once they are married their money woes will be over. But Allerton dislikes the idea of marrying for money and, not realising that Hetty has been in love with him for years,  tells her that he will not hold her to the arrangement between their families and she is free to choose for herself. Some timely scheming behind the scenes means that all ends well.

Hazard is one of my favourites; in it a young woman is staked in a game of chance by her weaselly half-brother, and is ‘won’ by the very drunk Marquis of Carlington. Foxed though he is, Carlington admires Helen’s spirit and insists they leave for Gretna Green right away. Helen is remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and I loved the way she issued a little payback to her not-swain the next day. Their dash to Scotland is fortuitously interrupted – by Carlington’s fiancée, no less…

Of the three new stories, Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road, the first is my favourite, being another elopement story in which an older couple once again takes centre stage. Mary Fairfax and the Earl of Shane are pursuing his ward (and her charge) Lucilla, who has eloped with the man she loves, Mr. Monksley, who will shortly be shipping out to the Peninsula with his regiment. In Runaway Match, the lovely Miss Paradise convinces her friend, Rupert, to elope with her so she can foil her father’s plans to marry her to the old, odious Sir Roland. She has never met her intended, but is horrified to realise he has followed them all the way to Stamford. Or has he? And in Incident on the Bath Road, the handsome, wealthy but ennui-laden Lord Reveley (always courted, never caught) is on his way to Bath when he encounters a chaise accident and takes up the young Mr. Brown who explains that he has urgent business in the city. This urgent business turns out to be going to the aid of the lovely Miss X, who is going to be forced into a distasteful marriage… and Reveley’s life turns out not to be quite so boring after all.

While Georgette Heyer’s full-length novel allow her strengths – tightly-written plots, characterisation and witty banter – to shine fully, there are enough glimpses of all those things in these short stories to make them well worth reading, whether you’re a long-time fan (as I am) or a newcomer to her work. Snowdrift and Other Stories is just the book to have on hand when you don’t have time to settle into a full-length novel and want a quick romance fix.

RETRO REVIEW: Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, September 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUDIO REVIEW: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers, narrated by Hamish McKinlay

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David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.

David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Publisher and Release Date: Joanna Chambers, August 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, 1820 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Running Time: 5 hours 52 minutes
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read the Enlightenment trilogy three times – it’s one of my most favorite historical series, queer or straight.  I love how Ms. Chambers paces the central relationship over the course of the trilogy, neatly dovetailing it with an intriguing subplot that similarly plays out over the three books, while also linking the actions of her principal characters to the time period.  Well drawn secondary characters play central roles in the progress of the story, but the focus remains on the romantic relationship at its heart.  Although Provoked is my least favorite of the three books that comprise the trilogy, it’s still tremendously compelling and entertaining.  To my happy surprise, narrator Hamish McKinlay’s terrific narration further elevates this moving, frustrating story; I’m delighted to tell you he does a marvelous job bringing the characters and novel to life.  Provoked is provoking… and a wonderful prelude of what’s to come.

David Lauriston is slowly and steadily building his reputation as an advocate in Edinburgh.   Despite humble origins and a lack of family connections, he’s managed to make a place for himself in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.  However, when Provoked opens, his loyalty to crown and country is in question.  He’s spent the past months unsuccessfully defending a group of weavers accused of treason.  On this day, he’s witnessed the execution of two of the men he defended, and though he’s convinced of their innocence, he’s aware that the case has raised concerns that David similarly harbours radical sympathies.  Stopping overnight at an inn on his way back to Edinburgh, he enters the dining room and to his dismay, discovers it full of locals and travelers discussing the case.  Fortunately, the innkeeper spots him lurking in the doorway and directs him to a private room.

Left on his own and lost in his thoughts, a somber David is surprised by the arrival of another dinner guest. Murdo Balfour is also staying at the inn, and after the two men introduce themselves, he joins David for dinner.  Mr. Balfour is handsome, urbane and charming, and David finds himself – against his better judgement – captivated and attracted to his companion.  The air is electric as an undercurrent of attraction pulses between them; after a couple of drams of whisky, a few charged glances, and a whispered exchange of words, David finds himself on his knees in a dark alleyway sucking Murdo’s cock.  But unlike most of David’s furtive, shameful experiences with men, the encounter doesn’t end there.  Instead, Murdo pulls him up, kisses him – whispering all the naughty things he’d like to do with David – and brings him off with his hand.  David knows he’ll hate himself for lapsing soon enough, but for now, just the memory of Balfour and his dark, dirty words is enough to inflame him again… and again… and again.

David returns to Edinburgh determined to put the night behind him, but even new professional opportunities aren’t enough to enable him to forget Balfour.  He’s consumed with thoughts of the man… until he’s approached by Euan MacLennan, brother of one of the convicted weavers, who believes a government agent betrayed the convicted men.  Armed with a vague idea of what the man looks like and a possible connection to the daughter of a senior advocate, Euan is desperate and determined to track down the agent and avenge his brother; David, fearing what Euan might do if he locates the man, cautions him to be careful – but offers to help.

Shortly after Euan’s visit, Ms. Chambers reunites David with Murdo when they find themselves guests at the same dinner party.  David’s intense attraction to Lord Balfour is undiminished, but he’s distracted when he uncovers a possible connection between his host and the man Euan seeks.  The men retire for drinks and David over imbibes in an attempt to distract himself from the effects of Balfour’s proximity, but he’s thwarted when Balfour departs at the same time.  What follows – a passionate interlude and heated words – sets the tone for each of their future encounters – which happen more often than David would like.  Balfour wants David and has no qualms pursuing him while publicly courting a woman.  David’s unwillingness to do the same – or to even entertain the possibility – angers and frustrates Balfour.  Mr. McKinlay does a marvelous job voicing both Balfour’s cynicism and David’s bewildered confusion over his erstwhile lover’s anger.

Told exclusively through David’s point of view, Ms. Chambers uses the dinner party to masterfully link the two central plot lines – David’s tumultuous relationship with Murdo and the search for the government agent who betrayed Euan’s brother.  The intricately plotting coalesces against the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it’s a clever bit of storytelling as the author uses David and Murdo to mirror what’s happening in Edinburgh.  Even as David struggles with guilt over his forbidden desires, he’s willing to question his government and its leaders; conversely, Murdo has no guilt or moral shame over his sexual desires, and though he recognizes the plight of the poor and unfortunate, he has no desire or interest in changing the status quo.  David and Murdo – enlightened in very different ways – are a fascinating match-up.  The combination of their scorching chemistry, intense attraction and clear affection  – though they try to disguise it – is richly compelling.  Their passion for each other is so well done.

I started listening to Provoked very familiar with the story, and unsure whether the audio version could anything new to my perceptions of it.  It did.  Although I struggled early on with Mr. McKinlay’s narration, it didn’t take long for me to begin to enjoy it – and to FINALLY begin to see David in a more sympathetic light. I, much like Murdo, struggled with what I perceived as David’s goody-two-shoes, self-righteous and sanctimonious persona.  But Mr. McKinlay somehow imbues the character with a kindness and sweetness, and an underlying sense of bewilderment over Murdo – he can’t reconcile how he feels for the man with his moral compass, and he really can’t understand what about him seems to trigger Murdo’s mercurial emotions when they’re together.  I finally LIKED David listening to him.  I particularly loved the narrator’s portrayal of Murdo in all his Provoked incarnations – charming, playful, naughty, angry, and even petulant – especially in his last encounter with David.  He’s a gorgeous character on the page, and in Mr. McKinlay’s voice he’s even more wonderful.  I’m not as fond of the narrator’s female voices – they just made me uncomfortable – but his portrayal of David and Murdo transcends these issues.

I didn’t think I could love the Enlightenment trilogy any more than I do, but Hamish McKinlay’s voice truly elevates Provoked.  I will anxiously await book two, and prepare to be beguiled (wink) by his voice all over again.

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

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The major must wed

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

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

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

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Publisher and Release Date:  Lyrical Press, June 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Publisher and Release Date: KJC Books, August 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1923
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Caz

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

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.

 

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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.

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

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Does love really heal all wounds?

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, July 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke of Defiance (The Untouchables #5) by Darcy Burke

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Difficult and defiant as a child, Bran Crowther, Earl of Knighton left England as a young man to pursue independence and adventure. He never expected to inherit the title and when duty calls him home, he still finds Society’s codes constricting and others’ expectations oppressive. Nevertheless, he needs a wife to be a mother to his young daughter, preferably a woman of intelligence and warmth who is, above all, immune to his idiosyncrasies—and to falling in love.

Widow Joanna Shaw isn’t interested in a second marriage, not after the loveless, passionless union she endured. She’d much rather dote on her young niece and nephew since they will likely be the only children in her life…until she meets a precocious girl, in desperate need of a mother. But her father, the so-called Duke of Defiance, is as peculiar as he is handsome, and Jo won’t take another risk with her heart. Their rules, however, are made to be broken, even when the consequences could destroy them both.

Publisher and Release Date: Darcy Burke, June 2017


Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Caz

I haven’t read all the books in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and can confidently say that each book works as a standalone.  The Duke of Defiance features a new central couple and briefly re-introduces readers to the “Untouchables”, gentlemen so named by their heroines because their lofty positions in society meant they were well beyond their touch.  Although as things have turned out, they obviously weren’t 😉

Mrs. Joanna Shaw is the widowed sister of Nora, the Duchess of Kendal, who was the heroine of book one, The Forbidden Duke.  Joanna – Jo – was unhappily married to a country clergyman for around eight years, and is now living with Nora while she decides what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  At thirty-one, she is still lovely and her position as the sister of a duchess gives her a certain cachet in society – but she is not sure if she wants to remarry.  Her late husband’s emotional cruelty has naturally soured her view of the institution, and her inability to conceive a child during eight years of marriage makes her a less attractive prospect as a wife.

Bran Crowther, the Earl of Knighton was a third son who never expected to inherit his father’s title.  But the recent deaths of his two elder brothers necessitates his return to England from the successful life he had built for himself in Barbados, and he and his five-year-old daughter, Evie, are finding it difficult to adjust.  Fortunately, however, Evie has found a good friend in Becky, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kendal, and when Bran arrives to collect Evie from a play date, he meets Mrs. Shaw and is immediately struck by her wit and good sense, as well as by her beauty.

Bran and Jo are attracted to each other, and their interactions are nicely judged and generally very honest.  They are initially brought together when Nora offers to help Bran to find a new nurse for Evie and then has to send Jo in her stead.  Bran is pleased to discover that Jo’s views fit with his own, and also finds her comments about the dos and don’ts of London society very helpful as he tries to settle into his new life.  When he – and Evie – practically beg Jo to become Evie’s governess, she finds she cannot refuse, even as she knows that being in close proximity to Bran day after day is not a good idea.  But she has come to love Evie as she is coming to love the girl’s father, and agrees to a trial period, trying not to think about what will happen when Bran eventually takes a wife who will be able to give him more children and, most importantly, an heir.

Jo’s concern about her lack of fertility is the main source of conflict in the romance, and it’s one I’m not particularly fond of.  The women in such stories always blame themselves without any reason to do so other than that they’re women and therefore the fault must lie with them!  Bran at least has the sense to suggest that it might not be Jo’s fault, but she is naturally very sensitive about it, and isn’t prepared to let him take the risk that she won’t be able to give him any more children.  Her belief is not helped by the insecurities about her womanliness fostered in her by her late husband, but it’s nonetheless a plot point that always makes me roll my eyes.

Bran is a no-nonsense sort of person, and his years of living away from the strictures of London society have made him careless of convention and proper behaviour.  He thinks nothing of allowing Evie to go without shoes when they are at home – to the intense disapproval of some of his starchier servants – or of divesting himself of cravat and coat in front of Jo, when it is certainly not the done thing to ‘disrobe’ in front of a lady.  (Not that Jo minds, of course😉)  When he describes how clothes make him “itchy” and then explains how, as a child, his mother regarded him as defiant because he refused to wear clothing or eat what he was given; how he could never sit still or remain in bed all night, I thought Ms. Burke may have been setting him up as someone with a condition such as ADHD or on the Autistic Spectrum, but this is never made clear.  Jo comes to recognise and accept Bran’s quirks, but other than having been brought up by an extremely harsh, unforgiving mother and a father who didn’t bother with his third son, we’re not really given much of an explanation for them, and for the most part they are just glossed over.  There’s an implication that Evie, too, has anxiety issues, but these are handled in more or less the same way.

And on the subject of Evie, much of the time she comes across as much older than the five years of age she is supposed to be.  At one point, she tells her father: “I was certain you might be falling in love” – which sounds more like a teenager, for instance, and she reads as more of a plot-moppet than a real child.  Children are hard to write well (Grace Burrowes is one of the very few romance authors who is able to get it right) and I’m afraid Ms. Burke has missed the mark. She’s also way off the mark when it comes to the master/servant relationship that should exist between Bran and Jo.  He pretty much treats her as the mistress of the house as soon as she sets foot in it, assigning her a bedchamber in the family wing, a maid of her own, and insisting upon her eating meals with him, to name just a few things no over governess would have been granted.  I get that Bran is supposed to be unfamiliar with society customs but Jo should know better and allows Bran to wave aside her very weak protests.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book does work as a standalone, but information about previous characters and situations is given in obvious info-dumps, rather than evolving naturally; and while the good-natured teasing between the four heroes of the previous books is one of the best things about the this one, it felt like overkill for all four of them to just happen to be around in order to meet Bran.

While the writing is strong and the love scenes are sensual, The Duke of Defiance is, sadly one of the weaker entries in this series. I do plan to read more by Darcy Burke, but I’m going to chalk this one up as a misfire.