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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

romancing mister bridgerton audio

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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.

The Wallflower Duchess by Liz Tyner

the wallflower duchess

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No other woman will do for the determined duke…

To Lily Hightower, Edge is still the adventurous boy she grew up with, even though he’s now become the formidable Duke of Edgeworth. So when he doesn’t propose to her sister as everyone expects, shy Lily marches right up to him to ask why…

Wallflower Lily is amazed to learn that she is the duke’s true choice. She’s hiding a secret that, if he found out, could threaten everything. But Lily is the duchess of his dreams–and Edge is determined to make her his!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, March 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars

Review by Caz

Being a fan of friends-to-lovers stories, The Wallflower Duchess sounded as though it would be right up my alley; a fairly simple story about two long-time friends and neighbours starting to see each other in a new light and falling in love. That is, in essence, exactly what it is, but I was less than enthralled by the execution; the writing is quite disjointed in places and the central characters are barely two-dimensional. Neither of them made much of an impression on me, making it impossible for me to really get invested in their rather lukewarm romance.

Ever since he was old enough to understand, Lord Lionel, heir to the Duke of Edgeworth, knew what it meant to be a duke. He has been raised to be mindful of his responsibilities for those who depend on him; to display impeccable manners and good breeding at all times – in short, to be perfect. But after he became the duke, he began to realise that perhaps his father’s insistence on perfection had removed him too far from the people in his charge. Unfortunately, however, an accident when he ventured to move among his tenants to see what their lives were like led to Edgeworth – Edge to his intimates, of which there are not many – being so badly burned (on his legs) that at one point, his life was in jeopardy.

Upon his recovery, he discovers that the accident – and another recent life-threatening incident in which he was thrown from his horse – has somewhat altered his perspective on life. He knows that his father had always intended him to marry Miss Abigail Hightower, the younger daughter of their life-long neighbours, but secretly had always preferred the elder daughter, Lily, with whom he had sometimes played when they were children. Two brushes with death mean that Edge isn’t going to put off asking for her hand any longer, and he does so, in full confidence of his being accepted.

But Lily isn’t going to fall into his arms so readily. First of all, she had no idea that Edge had any interest in her, given that she believed he was destined for her sister, and second of all, she doesn’t want to be married to as high profile a figure as a duke. Lily has her own reasons for wanting to blend into the background and live a quiet life, not least of which is her belief that she is illegitimate; and her parents’ disastrous marriage, which often led to scenes of high drama and histrionics on the part of her highly strung mother, has most definitely given her a distaste for the institution, which she insists, is not for her.

Edge is not particularly upset by her refusal, and calmly goes about the business of changing her mind, his first step being to prove that the man she calls father really IS her father, and that her illegitimacy was a cruel taunt made by her mother when her parents were in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row. Lily finds it difficult to believe the truth, and is, naturally, hurt at the discovery that even her own father hadn’t bothered to disabuse her of her belief that she was the daughter of the local blacksmith.

With this barrier to her acceptance of Edge removed, Lily does start to soften her attitude towards him, and to allow herself to acknowledge the truth, which is that she is deeply attracted to him and always has been. His gentle persuasion gradually erodes her resistance to his suit and she agrees to marry him, even though she is still keeping one rather large and important secret from him. Unfortunately, the uncovering of one secret leads to the uncovering of others, one of which is like a slap in the face for Edge, who had never envisaged that the woman he has loved for so long could effect such a betrayal.

What should have been a fairly simple “hero-in-pursuit” story of two childhood friends realising they belong together is, sadly, marred by the fact that the book is overly busy. Lily comes from a difficult family – her parents were forever arguing and when her mother eventually left, it was relief Lily felt, rather than pain. Believing, herself to be “outside” the family (because she thought she was not her father’s child), Lily assumed the role of guardian to her younger sister and tried to protect her from the emotional fallout and the gossip, while she decided that becoming emotionally involved with anyone would only lead to misery. And while Edge’s early life was more settled than Lily’s he also had to adjust to the fact that his family wasn’t as perfect as he had believed it to be, and now has to face up to what he now regards as a serious mistake in the way he dealt with the effect of the revelations that split his family apart.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that the two central characters are very poorly defined, in spite of all their emotional baggage. Lily is a mass of insecurities who just seems to want to hide away all the time, and Edge, while clearly the product of enormous privilege is fairly bland. There is almost zero chemistry between them; in fact the first sex scene (of two – and they’re both little more than a paragraph, really) happens pretty much out of the blue in the sense that there is no emotional build up to it at all, and no discussion of possible consequences or even why they are going to bed together.

I also didn’t find the writing style to be especially engaging; at the beginning of the book in particular, it’s choppy in the way the author jumps from scene to scene without really telling me what was happening, so I felt rather adrift for the first few chapters. Things are hinted at and alluded to, but not in a way that enabled me to get a firm grasp on either events or characters. The second half works better, and for all that Edge’s character is underdeveloped, I discovered him to be quite sweet in an awkward kind of way, while Lily’s insistence on believing she was like her mother was patently ridiculous and got very annoying very quickly.

Lily and Edge both had the potential to be interesting and attractive, but lacked depth and were instead pretty much one-note characters I didn’t really warm to. The number of plot elements introduced made the book perhaps a little too busy, and this, together with the lack of romantic chemistry and weak characterisation made The Wallflower Duchess a bit of a disappointment overall.

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct (Rules for the Reckless #5) by Meredith Duran

a lady's code of misconduct

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A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL…
Trapped in the countryside, facing an unwanted marriage and the theft of her fortune, Jane Mason is done behaving nicely. To win her freedom, she’ll strike a deal with the most dangerous man she knows—a rising star in politics, whose dark good looks mask an even darker heart.

…NEVER GOES TO PLAN.
The bitter past has taught Crispin Burke to trust no one. He’ll gladly help a lovely young heiress, provided she pays a price. Yet when a single mistake shatters his life, it is Jane who holds the key to his salvation. And in a world that no longer makes sense, Crispin slowly realizes that she may be the only thing worth fighting for…

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Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, February 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1860
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

Fans of Meredith Duran have had a fairly long time to wait between the publication of her last novel – Luck Be a Lady – and this new one, which is billed as the fifth in her Rules for the Reckless series, but I’m pleased to report that the wait, while frustrating, was well worth it. In A Lady’s Code of Misconduct, she has once again dazzled me with the beauty and focus of her writing, and her ability to craft a tightly-knit, intriguing plot and wonderfully complex, imperfect and highly intelligent characters who very quickly take on lives of their own in the mind of the reader.

The story centres around the political career and machinations of Mr. Crispin Burke MP, the second son of Viscount Sibley and most definitely the black sheep of his family. With ambitions to become Prime Minister, Burke has steadily drawn many in the Commons to his side by means of threats, blackmail and bribery; his name is a byword for corruption in parliamentary circles and it seems as though he is about to achieve his goal. His Penal Reform bill, a punitive, unfair piece of legislation, has enough support to defeat the government and unseat Palmerston.

Burke’s closest ally is Philip Mason, a man with as black a heart and as few principals, and who is currently supporting himself and his family at the expense of his niece, Jane, whose father left his considerable fortune to her at his death. Mason is unable to touch the principal amount, but has been syphoning off everything he could for years, and intends to marry her to his son in order to keep the money in the family. Jane is twenty-three, but has never had a season and is not allowed to go beyond the gates, so she has, in effect, been a prisoner for the past six years. But worse than all that is the fact that she has had to pretend to be a brainless ninny for all of that time. Her late parents were progressive, so she was well-educated and brought up to think for herself and not to be afraid to express her opinions – but her uncle believes women should be seen and not heard and Jane has had to suppress that side of herself while she has bided her time and waited for an opportunity to escape.

Finally, that opportunity has arrived – only to be thwarted by the odious Crispin Burke. Even though Jane has encountered him numerous times over the years, this is the first time she has really talked to him or even been close to him, and she is simultaneously surprised and repelled to discover that he holds a strange fascination for her. He’s a beautiful man, no question, but he’s ruthless, amoral and rotten to the core and his methods disgust her – but he offers her some advice and a way of avoiding her uncle’s wrath, in exchange, naturally, for something he wants – information on something involving Mason. Jane has no alternative but to agree to do as he asks.

Not long after this, and shortly before the final reading of his bill, Burke is attacked and left for dead on the London streets. Having taken his advice and inveigled her uncle into bringing her to London, Jane hatches an audacious plan, one that was also suggested to her by Burke, albeit with a different outcome in mind. She uses a fraudulently obtained – but legitimate – marriage certificate and announces that she and Burke were recently – and secretly – married. She will shortly be a widow according to the doctors, and her marriage will release her father’s fortune into her hands, meaning that she can finally achieve her dream of travelling to New York and making a new life for herself.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Crispin survives – although there are big gaps in his memory and he can remember little of what happened over the past five years. Now caught in a lie, Jane feels guilty and unsure, but decides that she needs to play along with the fake marriage, at least until the legalities surrounding the release of her inheritance are completed. I’m normally a little sceptical about amnesia plots, but didn’t blink when I learned that this book used one, because I knew that Meredith Duran would make it work. She does that and then some; the way she transforms Crispin from a ruthless, conscienceless politician to a man of honour and sound principles who genuinely wants to make the world a better place is brilliant, but more importantly, it’s believable. There are still facets of the old Burke remaining – the keen mind, the devilish sense of humour, the aura of implacability and sense of his being a dangerous man, but the more he finds out about his old self, the more determined he becomes to face the demons of his past, eradicate them and move on.

Because he can’t afford others to see how much his injuries have affected him, Crispin asks for Jane’s help in navigating his way through all his political alliances and connections. She can’t deny that being able, after so long, to use her brain and have her opinions listened to and respected is incredibly flattering and freeing, or that the ‘new’ Crispin is compassionate, thoughtful, unexpectedly vulnerable and incredibly attractive.

Jane is just as satisfyingly complex a character as Crispin, and her story of self-discovery is equally compelling. Her situation as the virtual prisoner of her uncle evokes sympathy, and her character is set up as a kind of representation of truth and justice… yet as the story progresses, she is shown to have been as deceitful and secretive in her way as Crispin has been in his. The way that she comes to understand herself more, and also to understand what drove Crispin to take the path of blind, conscienceless ambition is superbly done, as is Crispin’s conviction that no matter what he can or cannot remember, his feelings for Jane won’t change. I loved that Jane tries to spare him learning the worst of himself and that when he does, it just makes him stronger and all the more determined to become a better man.

The chemistry between the protagonists is intense, and their romance develops believably and at a realistic pace. Jane gradually overcomes her suspicions and opens herself to the attraction she realises she has long felt for Crispin, even though she can’t quite let go of her fear that the ‘old’ him could return at any moment. And I loved that Crispin never questions his marriage; for him, Jane is his rock from the moment he awakens, building on the hints of interest she sparked in him even before his attack and showing clearly but subtly that his feelings for her run deep.

A Lady’s Code of Misconduct is a must-read for fans of this author and of historical romance in general. The political background is interesting, well-researched and smoothly incorporated so the reader never feels as though they are being given a history lesson, and the plot which gradually emerges – relating to the information the ‘old’ Crispin was seeking from Jane – is intriguing and suspenseful. Add in the wonderful romance and two compelling but vulnerable and flawed protagonists, and you’ve got an un-put-downable book which I’m already sure will go down as one of my favourite books of the year.

Historical romance really doesn’t get better than this.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

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An earl hiding from his future . . . 

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . . 

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives? 

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, February 2017
Time and Setting: London and Cornwall, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

Lawrence Browne Affair CoverCat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl  – was one of my favourite books of 2016.  Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.

Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.  While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness.  He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy.  His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth.  Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too.  He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday.  He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.

The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother.  His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London.  He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark.  Once a con-man, always a con-man…

Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene.  Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly.  But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them.  Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man.  Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns.  Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself.  Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.

There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together.  Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there.  He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life.  Or if he even wants to.

The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other.   Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness.  Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love.  It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case.  If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.

EXCERPT

Cornwall, 1816

All this fuss about a couple of small explosions. As far as Lawrence cared, the explosions were entirely beside the point. He had finished experimenting with fuses weeks ago. More importantly, this was his house to burn to the ground if that’s what he wanted to do with it. Hell, if he blew the godforsaken place up, and himself right along with it, the only person who would even be surprised was the man sitting before him.

“Five servants quit,” Halliday said, tapping Lawrence’s desk in emphasis. Dust puffed up in tiny clouds around the vicar’s fingertips. “Five. And you were woefully understaffed even before then.”

Five fewer servants? So that was why the house had been so pleasantly quiet, why his work had been so blissfully undisturbed.

“There was no danger to the servants. You know I keep them away from my work.” That was something Lawrence insisted on even when he wasn’t exploding things. The very idea of chattering maids underfoot was enough to discompose his mind even further. “And I conducted most of the actual explosions out of doors.” Now was probably not the time to mention that he had blown the roof off the conservatory.

“All I’m suggesting is a sort of secretary.” Halliday was dangerously unaware of how close he was to witnessing an explosion of the metaphorical variety. “Somebody to keep records of what you’ve mixed together and whether it’s likely to”—he puffed his cheeks out and made a strange noise and an expansive gesture that Lawrence took to represent explosion—“ignite.”

The Reverend Arthur Halliday did not know what was good for him. If he did, he would have fled the room as soon as he saw Lawrence reach for the inkwell. Lawrence’s fingers closed around the object, preparing to hurl it at the wall behind the vicar’s head. Sod the man for even suggesting Lawrence didn’t know how to cause an explosion. He hadn’t invented Browne’s Improved Black Powder or even that bloody safety fuse through blind luck, for God’s sake.

“Besides,” Halliday went on, “you said you need an extra set of hands for this new device you’re working on.”

Oh, damn and blast. Lawrence knew he shouldn’t have told the vicar. But he had hoped Halliday might volunteer to help with the device himself, not badger Lawrence into hiring some stranger. The vicar was convenient enough, and when he wasn’t dead set on sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, he wasn’t entirely unpleasant company.

“I’ve had secretaries,” Lawrence said from between gritted teeth. “It ends badly.”

“Well, obviously, but that’s because you go out of your way to terrify them.” Halliday glanced pointedly at the inkwell Lawrence still held.

And there again was Halliday missing the point entirely. Lawrence didn’t need to go out of his way to frighten anyone. All he had to do was simply exist. Everyone with any sense kept a safe distance from the Mad Earl of Radnor, as surely as they stayed away from rabid dogs and coiled asps. And explosive devices, for that matter.
Except for the vicar, who came to Penkellis Castle three times a week. He likely also called on bedridden old ladies and visited the workhouse. Maybe his other charity cases were grateful, but the notion that he was the vicar’s good deed made Lawrence’s fingers curl grimly around the inkwell as he plotted its trajectory through the air.

“I’ll take care of the details,” Halliday was saying. “I’ll write the advertisement and handle the inquiries. A good secretary might even be able to manage the household a bit,” the vicar said with the air of a man warming to his topic, “get it into a fit condition for the child—”

“No.” Lawrence didn’t raise his voice, but he slammed his fist onto the desk, causing ink to splatter all over the blotter and the cuff of his already-inky shirt. A stack of papers slid from the desk onto the floor, leaving a single dustless patch of wood where they had been piled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a spider scurry out from under the papers.

“True,” Halliday continued, undaunted. “A housekeeper would be more appropriate, but—”

“No.” Lawrence felt the already fraying edges of his composure unraveling fast. “Simon is not coming here.”

“You can’t keep him off forever, you know, now that he’s back in England. It’s his home, and he’ll own it one day.”

When Lawrence was safely dead and buried, Simon was welcome to come here and do what he pleased. “I don’t want him here.” Penkellis was no place for a child, madmen were not fit guardians, and nobody knew those facts better than Lawrence himself, who had been raised under precisely those conditions.

Halliday sighed. “Even so, Radnor, you have to do something about this.” He gestured around the room, which Lawrence thought looked much the same as ever. One hardly even noticed the scorch marks unless one knew where to look. “It can’t be safe to live in such a way.”

Safety was not a priority, but even Lawrence wasn’t mad enough to try to explain that to the vicar.

“Villagers won’t even walk past the garden wall anymore. And the stories they invent…” The vicar wrung his hands.

“A secretary. Please. It would ease my mind to know you had someone up here with you.”

A keeper, then. Even worse.

But Lawrence did need another set of hands to work on the communication device. If Halliday wouldn’t help, then Lawrence had no other options. God knew Halliday had been right about the local people not wanting anything to do with him.

“Fine,” he conceded. “You write the advertisement and tell me when to expect the man.” He’d say what he needed to in order to end this tiresome conversation and send the vicar on his way.

It wasn’t as if this secretary would last more than a week or two anyway. Lawrence would see to that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CatCat Sebastian lives in a swampy part of the South with her husband, three kids, and two dogs. Before her kids were born, she practiced law and taught high school and college writing. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s doing crossword puzzles, bird watching, and wondering where she put her coffee cup.

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Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal by Virginia Heath

miss bradshaw
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She’d done it! Plain, invisible Evelyn had escaped…

Fed up with being a doormat to her evil stepmother, heiress Evelyn Bradshaw pays a dissolute rake to pose as her betrothed so she can secure her freedom. But then her fake fiancé leaves her with his estranged brother Finn Matlock and disappears!

Having withdrawn from the world the last thing Finn needs is the temptation of a woman, especially one like Evie. She has an irritating habit of causing chaos wherever she goes and being in places she shouldn’t…including, as he soon learns, his heart!

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

Time and Setting: London and Yorkshire, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

In Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal, Virginia Heath offers an enjoyable re-working of the Cinderella story in which our downtrodden – but determined –  heroine is a fully-rounded character with a nicely fleshed-out backstory who doesn’t need to rely on her Prince not-so Charming in order to effect her escape from her horrible relatives.  Prince –or rather, Lord – Grumpy is, however a rather attractive consequence of that escape, and watching the sparks fly as they gradually and quite plausibly fall in love makes for a lovely, romantic read.

Miss Evelyn Bradshaw is twenty-six, plump, frumpy and firmly on the shelf.  Having spent the best part of the last decade nursing first her mother, and then her father when he fell ill some years later, she feels that youth has passed her by and that love and marriage are no longer things to which she can aspire.  Her father’s remarriage to a selfish money-grabber with two equally unpleasant daughters saw Evelyn – Evie – constantly belittled and thrust into the background to the extent that even she believes herself to be practically invisible; but his death offers her the prospect of freedom.  Mr. Bradshaw has left his considerable fortune to Evie, and she is finally determined to escape her step-mother’s orbit, leave London for good and make a life for herself somewhere else.  All Evie has to do is scrape up the courage to announce her plans, but even though Hyacinth Bradshaw has not treated Evie well (although she’s stopped short of getting her to clean the grates and scrub the floors!), Evie has never been able to forget her father’s insistence that she treat her stepmother with respect, and has always done whatever it took to ensure a quiet life.

Unable to just come out and tell Hyacinth of her determination to set up her own home, Evie instead offers the sum of five thousand pounds to the handsome but dissolute Fergus Matlock, Marquis of Stanford, if he will pretend to be her fiancé for the next few months.  The Marquis, who is deeply in debt, agrees to the scheme, and Evie is set to travel to his Yorkshire estate on the pretext of preparing for their wedding. In reality, she will look about for a house to purchase and once she has found one, the betrothal will quietly be ended, and Evie will remain in Yorkshire, well away from London and her stepmother’s constant bullying.

Arriving at Stanford Hall a few days later in the company of her elderly aunt, Evie is pleasantly surprised to discover the place in a much better state of repair than she had been led to believe.  Later that night, when Evie can’t sleep, she wanders down to the library, only to come across Fergus, who is supposed to be staying at a local inn in order to observe the proprieties.  But something is not quite right about him and Evie soon discovers why; he’s not Fergus at all, but his identical twin brother Finnegan, and this is Matlock House, not Stanford House.  It’s clear there is no love lost between the brothers, and Finn makes very clear his displeasure at his twin’s presumption in dumping his fiancée at his house, but Evie refuses to be intimidated by his ungracious manner. Nonetheless, she feels she should remove to Stanford House as soon as possible, but true to form as a cad of the first order, Fergus has already left Yorkshire with the advance on the “fee” Evie had given him.  Finn is not surprised – he tells Evie (not for the first time) that his brother is an unreliable wastrel and that she shouldn’t marry him, but this is the new Evie, the Evie that sticks up for herself and doesn’t cower when confronted with the scowling, brusque brother of a marquis, and she insists that she knows perfectly well what Fergus is and that he suits her well enough.

Finn Matlock is a widower of some three years, and since his wife’s death, has buried himself in this corner of Yorkshire, his life consisting of seeing to his estate business and not much else.  He doesn’t socialise, he doesn’t have guests  – until now – and he wants to keep it that way – so the stirrings of attraction he feels towards his brother’s voluptuous fiancée are both unexpected and unwelcome.  Yet very soon, he finds himself admiring her backbone and determination as much as her lush body and, though he’d never admit it, looking forward to breakfast each day, as that’s the only time of day he dares to let himself spend with her.  Every morning, he not-so-subtly baits her, enjoying her completely unfazed responses to his jibes about his brother and his attempts to persuade her not to marry him, her casual manner of taking no notice of his heavy hints about her departure and the way she ignores his regular criticisms of her – admittedly horrible – clothes (a leftover from the days of Hyacinth’s influence over her wardrobe).

This daily ritual becomes important to Evie, too, as she likes the way Finn challenges her and the person she is when she’s with him. She is sure that a handsome, wealthy man like him could have no real interest in an overly plump, aging spinster like her – even if he wasn’t still in love with his late wife – and recognises that falling for him is a terrible idea.  But even as she realises that, she knows it’s too late for caution; the real Finn, the kind, protective man who hides his deep hurt and true nature beneath that outer shell of bad-temper and cynicism has stolen her heart.

Away from London, Evie transforms from the doormat she’s always describing herself as into a more confident, independent young woman who is looking forward to the rest of her life because it will be one she has built on her own terms.  This is one of the things that makes this version of the fairy tale so appealing;  Evie finds the wherewithal to go out and make a life of her own from within and doesn’t need a man to rescue her – although she does, of course find true love along the way.  And for all his outward grumpiness, Finn is perfect for her.  He is determined to fight his ever growing attraction to Evie, but her vitality and her growing self-confidence are so completely enticing that it eventually proves irresistible; so not only is Evie changed by their association, but Finn also comes to accept that the guilt he still feels over his wife’s death is misplaced, and that he is allowed to be happy and move on with his life.

This is – I think – the fourth book of Ms. Heath’s I’ve read and I continue to be impressed by her strong storytelling and thoughtful characterisations.  While Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal undoubtedly treads a well-worn path, the author has managed to keep it fresh by throwing in a number of small, but satisfying twists that add depth and insight to this familiar tale.  She writes with a great deal of warmth and humour, creating the most wonderful chemistry between her principals as well as treating us to some moments of poignancy and emotional truth that quite took my breath away.

If you haven’t yet tried a book by Virginia Heath, then you have a treat in store.  I guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back to read her others and then, like me, will be eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.

Wanted, A Gentleman by K.J Charles

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Purchase Now from Amazon

By the good offices of Riptide Publishing
KJ Charles’s new Entertainment

WANTED, A GENTLEMAN
Or, Virtue Over-Rated

the grand romance of

Mr. Martin St. Vincent . . . a Merchant with a Mission, also a Problem
Mr. Theodore Swann . . . a humble Scribbler and Advertiser for Love

Act the First:

the offices of the Matrimonial Advertiser, London
where Lonely Hearts may seek one another for the cost of a shilling

Act the Second:

a Pursuit to Gretna Green (or thereabouts)

featuring

a speedy Carriage
sundry rustic Inns
a private Bed-chamber
***
In the course of which are presented

Romance, Revenge, and Redemption
Deceptions, Discoveries, and Desires

the particulars of which are too numerous to impart

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How Many Miles?! – A Guest Post by K.J. Charles

My new book Wanted, A Gentleman, is a Georgian road-trip story. If that gives you visions of galloping freely through the great open roads, like Thelma and Louise with cravats, forget it. We’re in 1805 Britain. You might as well walk.

I’m hardly joking. One of the great irritants in historical or fantasy fiction for the literal-minded pedant such as myself is how easily some journeys fly by. The duke whisks the heroine into his well-sprung carriage on Pall Mall and the next thing you know they’re alone in his gothic estate on the Yorkshire Moors, listening to the mysterious howling of a spectral hound. This is very easily done for modern authors used to getting into a car, sticking on the radio, letting our minds wander and then finding ourselves where we want to be. And, let’s be honest, we’d rather be in the gothic estate, getting our fix of brooding, sexual tension, and running around in a nightie.

Nevertheless, even if you’re going to elide a Regency road trip with a sentence, that sentence probably has to begin, “After several days of an uncomfortable and tiresome journey…” because it was.

In Wanted, a Gentleman, our heroes Martin (reluctant pursuer of an eloping heiress) and Theo (his even more reluctant temporary sidekick) find themselves obliged to embark on a breakneck dash up north to catch the heiress before she and her swain cross the border to Scotland and get married. Martin has access, as they start their journey, to a state-of-the-art travelling chaise (what you might call a “high-speed chaise”, ahahaha) drawn by four horses. They are taking the Great North Road from London, one of the major roads in the country. You know how fast Martin and Theo are going to go, with all the resources wealth can throw at the journey in 1805?

About fourteen miles an hour.

Fourteen.

And 14mph is good. 14mph is what you can do on a good road with four horses, only not for long, because horses are not the same as internal combustion engines. To quote the great Diana Wynne Jones on horses in fantasy:

Horses are … capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame or put their hooves down holes, except when the Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  … Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.

Quite. Your actual horses had to be changed every 10-12 miles (that was a ‘stage’, and the stagecoach would stop at each staging post). This meant a stop, a wait for the ostler’s attention, hiring new horses which might well not be particularly good or energetic animals, getting them harnessed, and setting off again, only to repeat the whole procedure 10-12 miles later.

And this would not be comfortable. Coaches used springs and straps as a sort of suspension system but the roads were dreadful, full of ruts and potholes and rocks. Even 10mph would be dangerous, hard to achieve and hellaciously uncomfortable on many stretches of road.

It’s about 320 miles from London to Scotland. If you were on the road for twelve hours a day, in a good chaise and throwing money at the journey in order to go as fast as possible, that would still be a three-day journey of spine-jarring discomfort. Could be worse: in the stagecoach you’d be more likely to average 6mph in no more comfort at all.

On the plus side, this did mean that travellers had to spend an awful lot of time together, crammed onto a small seat, stuck in remote inns where they knew nobody, forced to share rooms in busy posthouses. Obviously that wasn’t much of a plus side for them, but it’s a boon for the historical romance writer. And who knows, Martin and Theo might even end up seeing the advantages…

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Riptide Publishing, January 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1805
Genre: Historical Romance novella
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

wanted-a-gentleman
This new novella from the pen of K.J. Charles is a Regency Era road-trip undertaken in order to foil the elopement of an heiress and her unsuitable beau.

The couple has been corresponding secretly by placing messages in the pages of the Matrimonial Advertiser, a news-sheet dedicated to publishing what we would today call Lonely Hearts advertisements, and run by Mr. Theodore Swann, a jobbing writer who owns and runs the paper as well as scribbling romantic novels on the side.

Into his dingy City office one day, bursts Mr. Martin St. Vincent, a well-built, well-dressed and obviously well to-do black man, who is trying to discover the identity of the man who has been corresponding with the seventeen year-old daughter of his former owner.  He’s blunt and not in the mood for humour, small-talk or any of Theo’s sales patter – and quickly cuts to the chase by asking Theo to put a price on his assistance.

Before he can discover the man’s identity however, the young lady elopes with her swain, and the family turns to Martin for help.  A former slave, his relationship to the Conroys – who, by the standards of the day treated him well – is a difficult one, but he used to play with the young woman when she was a child and read her stories… and it’s for her sake that he agrees to try to find her and bring her home safely.

Realising he’ll need help – and having been reluctantly impressed with Theo’s quick wits and sharp tongue (among other things) – Martin asks Theo to go with him – and after they have agreed on a large fee, Theo agrees.

This is a novella of some 150 pages, but K.J Charles does such a superb job with the characterisation of her two principals and adds such depth to their personalities and stories that I came away from the novella feeing – almost – as though I’d read a full-length novel.  There’s a spark of attraction between the two men from the start, and this builds gradually as they travel and get to know each other better, but what is so wonderful is the way the relationship between them grows alongside it.  Martin is a former slave, and while he doesn’t feel he owes anything to his former master, he can’t help resenting the fact that he has been very lucky when compared to so many others:

“I was kept in the household, and freed on such generous terms that I have been able to prosper ever since, and how can I resent that?”

“That sounds to me the kind of generosity that could kill a man.”

“It is. It sticks in my throat like thistles, it chokes me.”

And Theo gets it.  He sees Martin as a person, he believes he’s entitled to be angry:

“I, uh, feel strongly about gratitude.  Forced gratitude, I mean, the kind piled on your debt as added interest.  To be ground underfoot and then told to be thankful the foot was not heavier – I hate it.”

Their conversations are insightful and often humorous, showcasing many of the things I enjoy so much about this author’s work. Her research is impeccable and I always like the way she doesn’t just gloss over the social issues of the day.  Slavery had been abolished in England at this time, but there were still many people making money out of it; there was serious social inequality and no safety net for those who couldn’t afford even the most basic of life’s necessities; yet all these issues are addressed in a way that is not preachy or dry history lesson.  Instead they arise naturally out of the direction taken by the story, the lives of the characters and the situations in which they live.

Both protagonists are attractive, likeable characters, although Theo is probably the more well-developed of the two, with a bit more light and shade to his persona.  He’s quick witted, devious and sarcastic; and I really liked that his lady novelist alter-ego, Dorothea Swann, gives Ms. Charles the opportunity to make a few tongue-in-cheek observations about romantic fiction but also allows Theo to save the day.

Wanted, A Gentleman is beautifully written, the dialogue sparkles and Theo and Martin simply charmed me.

My only complaint is that the book ended too quickly.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

kj-magpieKJ Charles is a writer of mostly m/m historical romance, sometimes with fantasy. She has won several Rainbow Awards for her work and twice been voted Best LGBT+ Romance in the All About Romance annual poll. She is published by Loveswept and Samhain.

KJ is also a RITA-winning editor with twenty years’ publishing experience as a commissioning and line editor. She worked primarily in romance and children’s fiction, and is now freelance.

She lives in London with her husband, two kids, a wildly overgrown garden, and a cat with murder-management issues.

Connect with KJ at: www.kjcharleswriter.com * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Tumblr.