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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.

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Zebra, May 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

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In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, June 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance with mystery elements
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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

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

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

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

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, May 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT

London, England
1817

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for one time . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Author Links:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

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

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

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

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Publisher and Release Date: Stella Riley, May 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More, please, Ms. Riley!

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

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

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

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Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, May 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUDIO REVIEW: Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London. Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for…well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret…and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone’s preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same – especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide…is she his biggest threat – or his promise of a happy ending?

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Publisher and Release Date: AUDIOBOOK EDITION – Recorded Books, April 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1824
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 4.5 stars, Narration: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favourites in the genre, and one of my favourite examples of it is Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton, the fourth book in her iconic series about the eight Bridgerton siblings.
Colin is the third son, and has featured in the previous books as a good-humoured, devil-may-care sort of chap; easy going with a killer smile, good sense of humour, able to laugh at himself and always ready with a quip or witty rejoinder. He’s all of those things, but by the age of thirty-three, has started to feel a little disgruntled at being thought of by practically everyone in society as just “A Bridgerton”. His brother is the viscount, his next eldest brother, Benedict, is making a name for himself as an artist but Colin… well, he’s not sure exactly what and who he is, and doesn’t quite know what he wants to do or to be, either.

Penelope Featherington has also appeared in the previous books as a close friend of the Bridgerton sisters, especially of Eloise. She was an object of catty remarks and ridicule for years, owing to her mother’s tendency to dress her in styles and colours that were completely wrong for her and for that lady’s almost maniacal desire to get her daughters married off. At twenty-eight, Penelope is now firmly on the shelf and is resigned to being the spinster daughter who will care for her mother into old age – although the one good thing about her being on the shelf is that she can dress how she wants and eschew the horrible clothes her mother made her wear.

Being a friend of the Bridgerton sisters means that Penelope has also been frequently in the company of the brothers, too, all of whom are friendly and treat her almost as one of the family, making a point of asking her to dance at balls or seeking her out at other functions. For years, Penelope has harboured a tendre for Colin, but has no hope of a return – why should he look at an unprepossessing woman like her when he’s one of society’s darlings; handsome, charming and witty, he is not without female admirers blessed with both youth and beauty and he can have any woman he wants.

Ms. Quinn freshens up the trope and gives it extra depth by virtue of her characterisation of the two principals. Colin is restless; he travels a lot and in fact spends more time abroad than he does in England. He is tired of being thought of as someone who is only good for a laugh and wants to actually do something with his life but he has no idea what until one day, Penelope inadvertently stumbles upon one of his travel journals and is so engrossed by his writing that she suggests he publish them. At first, Colin is furious at her having read his private journals and they quarrel, but eventually, her genuine enthusiasm and praise for his writing surprise and humble him and start him thinking that perhaps this is what he’s meant to do, and he takes her suggestion to heart.

Previously the perennial wallflower, Penelope has discovered that spinsterhood has its benefits; not only because she can dress as she wants, but because she feels free to be more herself and doesn’t have to put up with her mother’s constant attempts to marry her off. But Penelope has been keeping a huge secret from everyone around her for years; something that started as a way for her to fight back at those who looked down on her and that would ruin her if it ever got out. I’m not going to say more here because it’s a massive spoiler; but this secret is the book’s other major plotline and leads to some major conflict between Colin and Penelope later on.

But the real strength of this instalment in the series is in the characterisation and subtle development of the two leads. Penelope’s infatuation with Colin is of long-standing; she fell for his looks and charm without really knowing him, and during the course of the story discovers that he’s not the perfect man she had imagined. Colin knows Penelope only as the slightly plump, shy friend of his sisters, but through spending time with her, comes to realise that she’s also intelligent, quick-witted and lovely. Neither of them really knows how or why things are changing between them, they just know that they are, and those moments when they both start to really see each other – the best parts of any friends-to-lovers romance – are beautifully done.

Rosalyn Landor is, without question, one of the best narrators of historical romance around and her narrations of these previously unrecorded Bridgerton books (6, 7 and 8 were recorded some time ago, but not books 1-5) have been absolutely stellar. Romancing Mister Bridgerton is no exception; Ms. Landor’s pacing is excellent, her vocal characterisations of every single character are superb and in scenes where large numbers of characters appear, listeners can have no problems whatsoever working out who is speaking, so clear and expert is her manner of differentiating between all of them. It doesn’t matter if a character is old or young, male or female, aristocrat or servant, all are perfectly portrayed. I’m particularly fond of her interpretation of the formidable Lady Danbury, a wonderfully acerbic, perceptive but (secretly) kind elderly dowager of the sort so often found in historicals. Her portrayal of Colin, too, is spot on, and absolutely consistent with the way he was voiced in the earlier books in the series; suitably youthful and with a jaunty air that befits his reputation as a carefree young gentleman about town. But here, Ms. Landor is afforded the chance to explore another side of him, and she does it very well, adding a slight edge to his tone in some moments of heightened emotion or giving him a more seductive, husky note in the more intimate scenes.

If you’re a fan of historical romance audiobooks, you’ve no doubt listened to Rosalyn Landor already and know that her name on the front cover is a guarantee of an excellent narration. If you haven’t tried one, then the Bridgerton books can be listened to in any order, although I think you’ll get more out of them if you listen to them in order, as it will allow you to meet each sibling as they pop in and out of other stories in the series and get to know them better.

Whatever you do, though, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is another must listen for fans of this talented author/narrator pair and for fans of historical romance in general.

The Duke’s Unexpected Bride by Lara Temple

the duke's unexpected bride

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From country miss… to London duchess!

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

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

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, May 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Perfect Gentleman by Candace Camp

a perfect gentleman

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

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

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

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Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, March 2017

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

Review by Caz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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