Archives

Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne

Purchase Now from Amazon

Severine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing fourteen-year-old daughter.

Severine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl unleashes treason and murder. . . and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, August 2017

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

Review by Em

The Spymasters series is one of the best historical romance series ever written. If you’ve read them, you already know they’re wonderful; if you haven’t, they’re awesome and you should read them IMMEDIATELY. Each book works as a standalone, although they’re linked and it very much enhances your reading experience if you’re familiar with Ms. Bourne’s world. Her characters are complex, dynamic, flawed men and women who fall for each other against the backdrop of politics and espionage, and they’re wildly addictive, exciting and romantic. I’ve fallen in love with nearly all of her heroes (Oh, Adrian Hawkhurst. Be still my heart.), and her heroines are equally compelling. In Beauty Like the Night, we revisit Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met when she was a young girl fleeing the bloody French Revolution in The Forbidden Rose. Séverine – Sévie – has tried to leave the world of spying behind her and now works as a private investigator. But after she meets Raoul Deverney, she’s drawn back into the intrigues of British Intelligence and a past she’s tried to leave behind. Although Beauty Like the Night isn’t quite as good as I hoped it would be – it’s a bit slow in the middle and I wish our principals spent more time together – it’s still pretty great.

Asleep in her room late one night, Sévie abruptly awakens certain she isn’t alone – but she isn’t frightened. Life has shaped her into a brave, intelligent and supremely capable woman who’s more than capable of defending herself from anyone stupid enough to steal into her bedroom. She’s right; she isn’t alone in the room, but her guest makes it clear he has no plans to hurt her. In fact, he appears to know exactly who and how dangerous she is and wants Sévie to tell him where she’s keeping Pilar, a twelve-year-old girl who’s been missing since her mother – his wife – was killed three months ago. The handsome stranger (is he French? Spanish?) makes it clear that although Pilar is not his daughter, he’s anxious to find her – and an amulet that went missing at the same time. Sévie is curious about her enigmatic intruder who’s convinced she has information about the murder, the missing girl, and the amulet – but she can’t help him. She’s never met Pilar or his ex-wife Sanchia, and has no idea where the missing amulet might be.

Raoul Deverney knows Séverine de Cabrillac. She’s the same woman – a spy – he encountered a decade ago in Spain and he’s never forgotten her. Sleep tousled, beautiful, dangerous – she coolly denies knowing Pilar, Sanchia or anything about the missing amulet and he wants to believe her. But ever since he discovered the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bed frame, he’s certain she must be involved somehow despite her denials. Séverine obviously doesn’t recognize Raoul but is curious about his identity, and he refuses to give her any clues about who he is or how they might know one another. Reluctant to leave, Raoul vows to himself he will find out just how she’s involved in his wife’s murder, and he can’t resist a quick caress of her soft cheek before he retreats to the window and vanishes over the edge.

When Raoul next appears – he’s silently slipped into Sévie’s locked office – she’s frustrated by his ability to get past her defenses (personal and professional), but she isn’t surprised to see him. He wants her to help him find Pilar and the missing amulet, and though it’s obvious neither completely trusts the other, Sévie agrees to help him anyway. She has suspicions about just who and what he is, but she keeps them to himself: Raoul is a mystery she plans to solve as she finds Pilar. Oh reader, these first meetings between Sévie and Raoul are so delicious… and fortunately for us, they characterize the duration of their relationship. From the moment Sévie spots Raoul in her bedroom, they’re captivated by each other – held in thrall whenever the other is near. Every interaction between them is thick with tension, and the torturous slow-burn of their relationship/courtship – both of them trying to deny the attraction between them… well, it’s a it’s a wicked, wonderful pleasure as Ms. Bourne forces them to work together to figure out just who murdered Sanchia and what happened to Pilar and the amulet.

Although the chemistry and sexual tension between Sévie and Raoul are highlights of Beauty Like the Night, what elevates this rather complex tale of espionage over other similarly excellent spy novels is the group of secondary characters that comprise Sévie’s world. As Sévie and Raoul pursue clues in their case and try to fight their growing attraction and affection for each other, their investigation dangerously intersects with another one led by the Head of British Intelligence (and Sévie’s brother-in-law) Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker). Via her childhood as the adopted daughter of Doyle, and close relationships with the spies who comprise its highest echelon, Sévie is privy to the details of British Service’s investigation. She’s intrigued by links between the two cases and how Raoul might be involved, but Hawker and Doyle – shrewd, intelligent, and fiercely protective of Sévie – are suspicious of her charming, mysterious, and obviously enamored client. Though Sévie pretends disinterest in Raoul around them, it’s clear to the two men – who play at being detached and dispassionate observers of Sévie’s investigation/client/potentially disastrous affair that there’s more to Raoul and the relationship than Sévie lets on. Their involvement in her case, and vice versa, adds a nice levity to the novel and the intense relationship between the principals.

It’s impossible to say more about the investigation at the heart of this love story without spoiling it, so I won’t; suffice it to say Ms. Bourne cleverly and brilliantly connects the dots of the slow burn romance between Sévie and Raoul, their mutually dark pasts, and a deadly betrayal that linked them long ago. As the case evolves, we slowly learn more about Raoul – where he came from; how he acquired his extremely lethal skills – and as the cases coalesce, neither Sévie or Raoul can fight their mutual attraction. Both principals are damaged, but find solace in each other. That succor – along with their intense physical attraction – eventually helps them overcome their distrust of each other enough to believe in a future together. Sévie and Raoul are dynamic, dangerous and riveting individual characters and as a pair… well, it’s a terrific match-up. And contrary to my early expectations – that Sévie would outshine anyone she was paired with; or that Ms. Bourne couldn’t possibly deliver another hero as deliciously wicked, lethal and sexy as Hawker – I fell hard for the enigmatic Raoul. I liked him. Big time.

The combination of engrossing plot, engaging principals and secondary characters, and a delicious slow-burn love affair results in another wonderful addition to the Spymasters series. Though it isn’t my favorite, (that honor is reserved for The Black Hawk (duh!)), it’s yet another terrific addition to Ms. Bourne’s catalog, cementing her status as one of my favorite historical writers of all time. My advice? You should read it (and the other Spymasters novels if you haven’t) right away.

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

Purchase Now from Amazon

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, July 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrel #3) by Sarah MacLean

L

Purchase Links: Amazon * ~ * B&N * ~ * Google * ~ * iBooks * ~ * Kobo

The one woman he will never forget…

Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has lived the last three years in self-imposed solitude, paying the price for a mistake he can never reverse and a love he lost forever. The dukedom does not wait, however, and Haven requires an heir, which means he must find himself a wife by summer’s end. There is only one problem—he already has one.

The one man she will never forgive…

After years in exile, Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, returns to London with a single goal—to reclaim the life she left and find happiness, unencumbered by the man who broke her heart. Haven offers her a deal; Sera can have her freedom, just as soon as she finds her replacement…which requires her to spend the summer in close quarters with the husband she does not want, but somehow cannot resist.

A love that neither can deny…

The duke has a single summer to woo his wife and convince her that, despite their broken past, he can give her forever, making every day… The Day of the Duchess.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, June 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1836
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Fans of Ms. MacLean rejoice: The Day of the Duchess is a terrific conclusion to her Scandal & Scoundrel series.  In it, the author returns to the intriguing scene that opened The Rogue Not Taken, when, in front of large and captive audience, Sophie Talbot shoved her brother-in-law Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into a fishpond after witnessing him in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his duchess, her sister, Seraphina.  I re-read the the scene to remind myself of how haughty, vile and despicable Haven was, and I suspect I’m not the only person who picked up The Day of the Duchess certain there was no way to redeem him.  But I’m here to tell you you’re wrong and Ms. MacLean’s redemption of this character is nothing short of miraculous.  I loved him by the time this story concluded, and you will too.  Ms. MacLean pulls out all the big guns in this emotional, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting love story.

When The Day of the Duchess opens, it’s been two years and seven months since Haven last saw his wife.  He’s spent part of every day missing her, wanting her, and searching for her, but she’s vanished.  From the first, it’s clear Haven regrets their past and he wants Seraphina back.  Though we know what happened at the disastrous party when Sophie pushed Haven into the pond, we know nothing of their relationship before this.  On this morning, Haven is in his chambers reflecting on his efforts to find Sera and making plans to resume his search the moment the Parliamentary session closes.  He takes his seat in the House of Lords and just as the Lord Chancellor calls an end to the season, an entrance in the hall disrupts his speech.  Haven ignores the interruption until a loud voice – a voice he recognizes – raises the hairs on the back of his neck. When he finally spots impeccable dressed, tall and beautiful woman on the floor he already knows who it is.

Christ.  She was here.

Here.  Nearly three years searching for her, and here she was, as though she’d been gone mere hours.  Shock warred with an anger he could not have imagined, but those emotions were nothing compared to the third feeling.  The immense, unbearable pleasure.

She was here.

Finally.

Again.

It was all he could do not to move.  To gather her up and carry her away.  To hold her close.  Win her back. Start fresh.

Except she doesn’t seem to share the sentiment and instead, after watching him for a moment, she declares, “I am Seraphina Bevingstoke, Duchess of Haven.  And I require a divorce.”

A story like The Day of the Duchess is a challenge to review for several reasons.  Told in chapters that alternate between Haven and Seraphina’s PoV, and the past and present, it’s nearly impossible to review it without spoiling its secrets.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say, the relationship between Haven and Seraphina masterfully illustrates the power of a misunderstanding to morph into something so big and so damaging it destroys everything and everyone in its path. The dissolution of their relationship, the scene at the fishpond, Haven’s effort to win back his wife and her affections – all are all plagued by misunderstandings – and as Ms. MacLean flips back and forth in time and PoV, it’s easy to see how and why.  Understanding, however, does nothing whatsoever to diminish the heartbreak and sadness you feel as the author slowly and painfully peels back the layers of Haven and Sera’s relationship.  In flashbacks we witness their first meeting (it’s brilliant and wonderful and funny and romantic), how deeply and intensely they fall in love and then how quickly it all falls apart.  Seraphina, after misunderstanding Haven’s intentions, makes a decision that painfully and irrevocably changes everything.  Their passionate love affair abruptly turns into something tawdry, ugly and miserable, and it’s difficult to convey the whiplash of emotions I experienced reading it. Your heart will ache as their history is slowly revealed, and after Sera’s declaration in the House of Lords, it’s difficult to see how Ms. MacLean will effect a second chance at love for these two.

But she does! To refresh, it’s clear from the start that Haven wants Seraphina back – as his wife, lover and friend – and that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win her back.  But Sera, despite her inconvenient attraction to THE LOVE OF HER LIFE, doesn’t want a reunion – she wants a divorce.  So Haven decides to give her one – IF she’ll attend a house party and help him select her replacement and his next duchess.  Seraphina is desperate, Haven is devious – and similarly desperate (for her lurve), and this is a writer who knows how to make magic out of a mess.  Seraphina agrees to his plan, but she brings protective reinforcements – her sisters – who’ve never forgiven Haven.  Careful reader – I can imagine your eyes rolling.  Yes, it’s silly and ridiculous.  But, it’s so well done, you enjoy every moment anyway.  Haven makes a move, Seraphina checks it, and the game continues apace.  This plot device (the fake find-a-wife-house party) wherein Haven slowly woos his reluctant wife, paired with well-drawn secondary characters – women with whom Haven pretends to have an interest and Sera’s fascinating and devious sisters, keep this clever conceit afloat long after it should have grown tiresome, and provides ample time for these two to rediscover their love and affection for each other.

Obviously, all the plotting and scheming in the world wouldn’t hold our attention if the principals weren’t equally compelling.  Haven – Mal to Sera – cheated.  It is difficult to get past that.  However, once Ms. MacLean finally slots into place Mal’s childhood and the events that preceded his MASSIVE MISTAKE, I understood it – even if I didn’t like it.  Yes, I’m being deliberately vague.  You’ll see.  The Mal we get to know in this story is appealing, charming and chock full of regret.  He’s also a handsome, wealthy and powerful duke.  Reader, when he sets out to make amends and prove to Sera he’s worthy of her love, he’s irresistible.  Sera is similarly appealing.  Haven is smitten from the moment he meets her – and so are we.  She’s delightful, charming, mysterious… and she keeps him on his toes.  The moment (oh, it’s awful) when she decides to leave Haven and any hope for a reconciliation, her pain and heartbreak are palpable.  But the Sera that emerges is like a phoenix from the ashes, and she makes Haven work hard for her forgiveness – and I was glad of it.

The Day of the Duchess isn’t perfect.  The house party drags out a bit too long and Sera’s sisters – though loyal and entertaining – are a bit too conveniently ‘just what Seraphina needs’ at any given moment; though they’re still a likeable lot.  The happily ever after is hard earned and well deserved by the time it arrives, although again, I wish Ms. MacLean hadn’t drawn it out quite so much.  The pacing in the second half is the only reason I’m not giving the book five stars.

Slow pace aside, The Day of the Duchess ends the Scandal & Scoundrel series on a high note.  Every chapter – past and present – resonates emotionally and viscerally, and this romance and relationship stayed with me long after the last page was read.  This is Ms. MacLean at her best.


EXCERPT

Chapter 1

DESERTED DUKE DISAVOWED!

August 19, 1836

House of Lords, Parliament

She’d left him two years, seven months ago, exactly.

Malcolm Marcus Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven looked to the tiny wooden calendar wheels inlaid into the blotter on his desk in his private office above the House of Lords.

August the nineteenth, 1836. The last day of the parliamentary session, filled with pomp and idle. And lingering memory. He spun the wheel with the six embossed upon it. Five. Four. He took a deep breath.

Get out. He heard his own words, cold and angry with betrayal, echoing with quiet menace. Don’t ever return.

He touched the wheel again. August became July. May. March.

January the nineteenth, 1834. The day she left.

His fingers moved without thought, finding comfort in the familiar click of the wheels.

April the seventeenth, 1833.

The way I feel about you . . . Her words now—soft and full of temptation. I’ve never felt anything like this.

He hadn’t, either. As though light and breath and hope had flooded the room, filling all the dark spaces. Filling his lungs and heart. And all because of her.

Until he’d discovered the truth. The truth, which had mattered so much until it hadn’t mattered at all.

Where had she gone?

The clock in the corner of the room ticked and tocked, counting the seconds until Haven was due in his seat in the hallowed main chamber of the House of Lords, where men of higher purpose and passion had sat before him for generations. His fingers played the little calendar like a virtuoso, as though they’d done this dance a hundred times before. A thousand.

And they had.

March the first, 1833. The day they met.

So, they let simply anyone become a duke, do they? No deference. Teasing and charm and pure, unadulterated beauty.

If you think dukes are bad, imagine what they accept from duchesses?

That smile. As though she’d never met another man. As though she’d never wanted to. He’d been hers the moment he’d seen that smile. Before that. Imagine, indeed.

And then it had fallen apart. He’d lost everything, and then lost her. Or perhaps it had been the reverse. Or perhaps it was all the same.

Would there ever be a time when he stopped thinking of her? Ever a date that did not remind him of her? Of the time that had stretched like an eternity since she’d left?

Where had she gone?

The clock struck eleven, heavy chimes sounding in the room, echoed by a dozen others sounding down the long, oaken corridor beyond, summoning men of longstanding name to the duty that had been theirs before they drew breath.

Haven spun the calendar wheels with force, leaving them as they lay. November the thirty-seventh, 3842. A fine date—one on which he had absolutely no chance of thinking of her.

 

GIVEAWAY

a Rafflecopter giveaway

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

New York Times, Washington Post & USA Today bestseller Sarah MacLean is the author of historical romance novels that have been translated into more than twenty languages, and winner of back-to-back RITA Awards for best historical romance from the Romance Writers of America.

Sarah is a leading advocate for the romance genre, speaking widely on its place at the nexus of gender and cultural studies. She is the author of a monthly column celebrating the best of the genre for the Washington Post. Her work in support of romance and the women who read it earned her a place on Jezebel.com’s Sheroes list of 2014 and led Entertainment Weekly to call her “gracefully furious.” A graduate of Smith College & Harvard University, Sarah now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Author Links: WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

Purchase Links: Amazon * ~ * B&N * ~ * Google * ~ * iBooks * ~ * Kobo

Rogue. Libertine. Rake. Lord Courtenay has been called many things and has never much cared. But after the publication of a salacious novel supposedly based on his exploits, he finds himself shunned from society. Unable to see his nephew, he is willing to do anything to improve his reputation, even if that means spending time with the most proper man in London.

Julian Medlock has spent years becoming the epitome of correct behavior. As far as he cares, if Courtenay finds himself in hot water, it’s his own fault for behaving so badly—and being so blasted irresistible. But when Julian’s sister asks him to rehabilitate Courtenay’s image, Julian is forced to spend time with the man he loathes—and lusts after—most.

As Courtenay begins to yearn for a love he fears he doesn’t deserve, Julian starts to understand how desire can drive a man to abandon all sense of propriety. But he has secrets he’s determined to keep, because if the truth came out, it would ruin everyone he loves. Together, they must decide what they’re willing to risk for love.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, July 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Cracking open Cat Sebastian’s newest standalone (loosely linked to her two earlier novels), I was nervous.  I loved both her previous books and wasn’t sure she’d be able to top them.  She does.  The Ruin of a Rake ruined me for family, friends, and the beach (where I happened to be with them on vacation) because once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.  It’s romantic, funny and wonderful and my favorite work of hers… so far.  I loved the two principals: starchy and proper Julian Medlock and his protegé (of sorts) Lord Courtenay, rogue, libertine and rake who needs Julian’s help in order to rehabilitate his public image.  Theirs is an opposites attract match made in heaven and I enjoyed every single bit of their fumbling, bumbling, sexy courtship.

The premise of The Ruin of a Rake is simple:  Lord Courtenay’s reputation is in tatters.  He wants to spend time with his nephew, Simon, but Simon’s guardian – Lord Radnor, one of the principals featured in The Lawrence Browne Affair – thinks he’s a bad influence, and refuses him access.  His cause isn’t helped by the recent publication of The Brigand Prince of Salerno, which details the wicked exploits of Don Lorenzo, who is rumored to be based on Courtenay himself.  Courtenay finds himself stranded in London, pockets to let, affairs in disarray and a social pariah, and he doesn’t know what to do.   Lady Eleanor Standish, a close friend of both Courtenay and Radnor, sees how deeply hurt Courtenay is by Radnor’s refusal and intercedes on his behalf.  Instead of turning to Radnor to plead his case, she asks her brother Julian for help.  Julian Medlock is a paragon among gentlemen.  His behavior is impeccable, he only cultivates friendships with the best of the ton, his dress is the epitome of good fashion and he’s as clever as a fox. He’s the perfect person to help rehabilitate Courtenay’s reputation and lend him an air of respectability. Despite his misgivings and a significant secret he’s keeping, he agrees to help.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that Medlock’s reluctance to help Courtenay is largely because of his inconvenient attraction to him.  He’s alternately resigned and annoyed by his lustful thoughts (oh he’s such an adorable curmudgeon), and Ms. Sebastian has great fun with the oh, so stuffy Medlock,  brilliantly capturing his flustered frustration whenever Courtenay is nearby.  It’s hard not to laugh as he tries and fails to control his physical and emotional responses to the other man whilst trying to encourage him to control his own wayward impulses.  He tries to resist his handsome companion, but he just can’t seem to help his body’s traitorous response.  And Courtenay certainly doesn’t make it easy for him.

Medlock decides to take Courtenay to the opera for their first public outing.  He realizes he might have made a mistake shortly after they’re seated in the box he’s reserved.  They’re alone in the dark, Courtenay is sprawled in his seat and Julian is desperately trying to keep any part of his body from touching the other man.  When Courtenay begins to quote passages from The Brigand (which he’s brought with him), and the conversation somehow strays to manhandling and Courtenay’s fondness for both men and women, Julian is beside himself and Courtenay is amused to discover his prim and stuffy companion has decidedly lecherous thoughts about him.  He’s deliberately provocative, delighting in tormenting and teasing Medlock and draws him further into the darkness of the box where they share a passionate kiss.  Melock eventually does pull away (before they get to any of the more interesting stuff) and pretends to be outraged by Courtenay’s behavior.  Courtenay isn’t surprised but he is affected and after the opera, he finds himself remembering the kiss with alarming frequency.

Medlock tries valiantly to keep his distance and help Courtenay redeem his reputation, especially since the more time they spend together, the more he’s convinced of his goodness and kindness.  Meanwhile, Courtenay does his best to please his clever and crafty companion, all the while subtly encouraging the passionate side of Julian he glimpses when they’re alone together.  And it doesn’t take much to ignite the spark between them.  A late night discussion about the state of Courtenay’s affairs turns flirtatious and shortly thereafter the men become lovers.  Their physical relationship is sexy, hot and delightfully wicked, but their emotional intimacy with each other is particularly moving.  Courtenay, for all his rakish ways, just wants to be loved and appreciated; Medlock, so confident in public, is tender and sensitive when it’s just the two of them alone together.  Once Medlock discovers why Courtenay’s finances and estate are in such disarray, he focuses his intellect and cleverness on helping him and his efforts don’t go unnoticed.  Courtenay is besotted by his brilliant and devious lover, and willing to do whatever Julian thinks is necessary to rehabilitate his finances and reputation.  It isn’t long before realizes he’s fallen in love with his fierce defender.

Ostensibly a redemption story about Courtenay, The Ruin of a Rake is also a rumination on the power of love to surprise and delight when we least expect it.  Neither Courtenay nor Medlock are initially thrilled by Eleanor’s meddling, but shortly after they begin to spend time together, they realize most of their assumptions about each other were wrong.  What begins as a playful and slightly naughty friendship quickly evolves into an intensely tender and affectionate love affair that catches them both off guard.  Courtenay and Medlock are wonderful, sharply drawn characters, opposites in every way but one – their mutual willingness to accept and embrace each other’s imperfections.

Meanwhile, as Julian and Courtenay secretly fall for each other, Ms. Sebastian spins out a secondary plot involving Lady Eleanor.  Married, but left alone for the past six years, she’s caught off guard when her husband arrives at their home in London.  This parallel narrative – why her husband has been absent for so long, Julian’s role in their separation, their reunion – develops just in time to disastrously intersect with Julian and Courtenay’s relationship.   Witnessing these two men – who’ve obviously fallen deeply in love – suffer and doubt each other is deeply affecting, but fear not – their eventual reunion is bittersweet, moving – and funny.

Once Ms. Sebastian establishes her delightfully opposite in every way principals, The Ruin of a Rake details their often funny, heartbreaking and sexy road to happily ever after.  Perhaps the most delightful thing about this novel is the way in which both principals discover how the assumptions and presumptions they’ve each made about the other are not only wrong, but hurtful.  Funny, naughty and moving, The Ruin of a Rake is my front runner for best historical romance of the year.

EXCERPT

London, 1817

Julian pursed his lips as he gazed at the symmetrical brick façade of his sister’s house. It was every bit as bad as he had feared. He could hear the racket from the street, for God’s sake. He pulled the brim of his hat lower on his forehead, as if concealing his face would go any distance toward mitigating the damage done by his sister having turned her house into a veritable brothel. Right in the middle of Mayfair, and at eleven in the morning, when the entire ton was on hand to bear witness to her degradation, no less. Say what one wanted about Eleanor—and at this moment Julian could only imagine what was being said—but she did not do things by halves.

As he climbed the steps to her door, the low rumble of masculine voices drifted from an open second story window.

Somebody was playing a pianoforte—badly—and a lady was singing out of key.

No, not a lady. Julian suppressed a sigh. Whoever these women were in his sister’s house, they were not ladies. No lady in her right mind would consort with the sort of men Eleanor had been entertaining lately. Every young buck with a taste for vice had made his way to her house over these last weeks, along with their mistresses or courtesans or whatever one was meant to call them. And the worst of them, the blackguard who had started Eleanor on her path to becoming a byword for scandal, was Lord Courtenay.

A shiver trickled down Julian’s spine at the thought of encountering the man, and he could not decide whether it was from simple, honest loathing or something much, much worse.

The door swung open before Julian had raised his hand to the knocker.

“Mr. Medlock, thank goodness.” The look of abject relief on the face of Eleanor’s butler might have struck Julian as vaguely inappropriate under any other circumstance. But considering the tableau that presented itself in Eleanor’s vestibule, the butler’s informality hardly registered.

Propped against the elegantly papered wall, a man in full evening dress snored peacefully, a bottle of brandy cradled in his arms and a swath of bright crimson silk draped across his leg. A lady’s gown, Julian gathered. The original wearer of the garment was, mercifully, not present.

“I came as soon as I received your message.” Julian had not been best pleased to receive a letter from his sister’s butler, of all people, begging that he return to London ahead of schedule. Having secured a coveted invitation to a very promising house party, he was loath to leave early in order to evict a set of bohemians and reprobates from his sister’s house.

“The cook is threatening to quit, sir,” said the butler. Tilbury, a man of over fifty who had been with Eleanor since she and Julian had arrived in England, had gray circles under his eyes. No doubt the revels had interrupted his sleep.

“And I’ve already sent all but the—ah—hardiest of the housemaids to the country. It wouldn’t do for them to be imposed upon. I’d never forgive myself.”

Julian nodded. “You were quite right to send for me. Where is my sister?” Several unmatched slippers were scattered along the stairs that led toward the drawing room and bedchambers. He gritted his teeth.

“Lady Standish is in her study, sir.”

Julian’s eyebrows shot up. “Her study,” he repeated. Eleanor was hosting an orgy—really, there was no use in pretending it was anything else—but ducked out to conduct an experiment. Truly, the experiments were bad enough, but Julian had always managed to conceal their existence. But to combine scientific pursuits with actual orgies struck Julian as excessive in all directions.

“You,” he said, nudging the sleeping man with the toe of his boot. He was not climbing over drunken bodies, not today, not any day. “Wake up.” The man opened his eyes with what seemed a great deal of effort. “Who are you? No, never mind, I can’t be bothered to care.” The man wasn’t any older than Julian himself, certainly not yet five and twenty, but Julian felt as old as time and as irritable as a school mistress compared to this specimen of self-indulgence. “Get up, restore that gown to its owner, and be gone before I decide to let your father know what you’ve been up to.” As so often happened when Julian ordered people about, this fellow complied.

Julian made his way to Eleanor’s study, and found her furiously scribbling at her writing table, a mass of wires and tubes arranged before her. She didn’t look up at the sound of the door opening, nor when he pointedly closed it behind him. Eleanor, once she was busy working, was utterly unreachable. She had been like this since they were children. He felt a rush of affection for her despite how much trouble she was causing him.

“Eleanor?” Nothing. He stooped to gather an empty wine bottle and a few abandoned goblets, letting them clink noisily together as he deposited them onto a table. Still no response. “Nora?” It almost physically hurt to say his childhood name for her when things felt so awkward and strained between them.

“It won’t work,” came a low drawl. “I’ve been sitting here these past two hours and I haven’t gotten a response.”

Banishing any evidence of surprise from his countenance, Julian turned to see Lord Courtenay himself sprawled in a low chair in a shadowy corner. There oughtn’t to have been any shadows in the middle of the day in a bright room, but trust Lord Courtenay to find one to lurk in.
Julian quickly schooled his face into some semblance of indifference. No, that was a reach; his face was simply not going to let him pretend indifference to Courtenay. He doubted whether anyone had ever shared space with Lord Courtenay without being very much aware of that fact. And it wasn’t only his preposterous good looks that made him so . . . noticeable. The man served as a sort of magnet for other people’s attention, and Julian hated himself for being one of those people. As far as he could tell, the man’s entire problem was that people paid a good deal too much attention to him. But one could hardly help it, not when he looked like that.

GIVEAWAY

a Rafflecopter giveaway

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cat 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.

Author Links:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher


Purchase Now from Amazon

“I have a proposal for you…”

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, June 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Purchase Now from Amazon

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

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

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

Publisher and Release Date: Harper Perennial, May 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

a gathering storm

Purchase Now from Amazon

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.
In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

add-to-goodreads-button

Publisher and Release Date: Riptide Publishing, April 2017

Time and Setting: Porthkennack, Cornwall, England, 1853
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

A Gathering Storm, part of the Porthkennack series of books by five award-winning, British LGBT!+ authors is terrific.  It’s romantic, tender, frustrating and sexy and I gobbled it up in one sitting.  I loved nearly everything about it (my only quibble is a major spoiler you’ll have to read the book to discover for yourself), and I recommend it heartily to fans of both historical and contemporary romance.  Although the Porthkennack books are somewhat linked, A Gathering Storm can be read as a standalone.

After being ridiculed by his peers for publicly defending a spiritualist in London, famed scientist Sir Edward  – Ward – Fitzwilliam has retreated to the remote village of Porthkennack on the Cornish coast.  Grief stricken following the death of his beloved identical twin, Ward is convinced his brother spoke to him from beyond the veil during a particularly violent electrical storm he witnessed whilst at sea, and he is convinced that if conditions are right he can recreate the experience and commune with the dead.  He’s chosen to build a home, Varhak Manor, in Porthkennack because the location and weather (with a bit of his own manipulation) seem conducive to recreating the stormy conditions he experienced at sea.  In order to prove his theories, Ward will also need the assistance of human subjects, but false rumors about his research abound meaning that few of the locals are willing to help him.  Desperate, he heads to the village pub to solicit additional candidates, which is where he learns some tantalizing information about the handsome man at the bar.

Nicholas Hearn is land steward for the Roscarrock family, the wealthiest landowners in Porthkennack.  The illegitimate son of Jacob Roscarrock, who abandoned him and his Romany mother shortly after his birth, Nick lives a mostly solitary life.  Handpicked by his grandfather – who does not publicly acknowledge him – to train as a land steward (following Jacob’s sudden and untimely death), Nick is neither family or servant; the ‘gypsy bastard’ lives alone in a cottage on the edge of the estate.   Despite his recently deceased mother’s reputation as a clairvoyant, and an all too real experience with a horrific ghost when he was younger, Nick is skeptical about the possibility of reaching through the veil to speak with the dead. He’s curious but not interested in participating in Sir Edward’s experiments, especially as the handsome, wealthy aristocrat strikes him as just the type of high-handed toff he usually avoids.

Shortly after the scene in the bar, Nick is forced to reconsider.  When Sir Edward witnesses Nick and another man kissing in the woods, he doesn’t threaten to reveal what he’s seen but the threat is implied.  Angry with himself and the circumstance in which Sir Edward discovered him, Nick agrees to help with his research. His indiscretion, and Ward’s reaction, set the narrative in motion.

Stoic about how events have unfolded, Nick arrives at Varhak Manor unwilling to be charmed by his handsome host and blackmailer.  With his harsh voice (a permanent side effect of a childhood bout of diphtheria) and aristocratic manner, Nick expects Ward to act every bit the entitled and wealthy gentleman he is.  He doesn’t expect Sir Edward to be nervous or uncomfortable, or for him to treat him as an equal.  He is, and he does, but he’s also fascinating, engaging, and convinced he can commune with the dead.  Experience has taught Nick to be cautious, so he carefully masks his emotions even though he’s secretly charmed by his host.  Ward is similarly smitten with Nick, but because he finds him so hard to read, he also keeps his growing fondness for his ‘volunteer’ under wraps.

A Gathering Storm is broken into chapters that span the weeks and months Ward and Nick spend together attempting to recreate Ward’s shipboard experience. Ward is frustrated by their lack of progress, Nick is skeptical as to whether it’s even possible, and both are increasingly infatuated with the other.   Nick begins to spend increasing amounts of time at Varhak Manor, and I loved how Ms. Chambers slowly builds the sexual tension and attraction between the men.  She truly tortures the reader as we wait for these two lovely people to admit they’ve fallen for each other.  But they persist in denying their feelings until Ward has a close brush with death and Nick finally kisses him.  Their first kiss is passionate, frantic and blissful and it’s clear to them (and us) they belong in each other’s arms.

Ward and Nick have each had a past relationship with another man, but those experiences were vastly different. Nick gives Ward his first ever kisses, and Ward gives Nick an education in the pleasures of lovemaking.  When they’re intimate, it’s explicit, sexy, wicked and wonderful.  Despite their differences – and they’re truly opposites in every way – they fall hard and fast for each other and Ward is particularly appealing.  He often reads as a slightly nerdy, naïve scientist, but when his clothes come off, he’s confident and delightfully dirty.  It’s a nice contrast to his everyday persona (Nick likes it too).  When Ward invites Nick to travel with him on an overnight trip and attend a seance with him, Nick agrees to go.  He’s eager to spend time with his lover, and worried that Ward’s grief might make him prey for those who might seek to take advantage of it.

Their trip starts on a high note but ends in disaster.  The crisis that tears Nick and Ward apart (reader, you knew it was coming) is brilliantly played.  In these few small pivotal scenes, Ms. Chambers returns full circle to the themes she developed at the start of the book.  Nick is left struggling against feelings of inferiority in his relationship with Ward and confused about his place in Porthkennack.  Who is he? Gypsy? Bastard? Or someone still to be discovered?  Lost, miserable and unwilling to give Ward a second chance, Nick doesn’t know who he truly is.  Ward, knowing he precipitated their break-up with just the sort of high-handed, unfeeling behavior Nick expected, is horrified and sickened.  He’s left to grieve the loss of his brother, and of his relationship with Nick.  He loves him but doesn’t know what to do to fix things.  Their separation persists until a storm forces them together once again.

A Gathering Storm features terrific storytelling, wonderfully developed characters (principal and secondary) and holds you in its thrall from start to finish.  An epilogue offers a delightful peak at Ward and Nick’s life months later.  I loved it – but kept waiting for one scene that never came (it’s the reason I deducted half a star).  I’m hopeful the author revisits these characters (and she’s hinted there’s more of the story to come), because I’m not ready to let them go.  You won’t be either.

Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox

seven summer nights

Purchase Now from Amazon.

It’s 1946, and the dust of World War Two has just begun to settle. When famous archaeologist Rufus Denby returns to London, his life and reputation are as devastated as the city around him.

He’s used to the most glamorous of excavations, but can’t turn down the offer of a job in rural Sussex. It’s a refuge, and the only means left to him of scraping a living. With nothing but his satchel and a mongrel dog he’s rescued from a bomb site, he sets out to investigate an ancient church in the sleepy village of Droyton Parva.

It’s an ordinary task, but Droyton is in the hands of a most extraordinary vicar. The Reverend Archie Thorne has tasted action too, as a motorcycle-riding army chaplain, and is struggling to readjust to the little world around him. He’s a lonely man, and Rufus’s arrival soon sparks off in him a lifetime of repressed desires.
Rufus is a combat case, amnesiac and shellshocked. As he and Archie begin to unfold the archaeological mystery of Droyton, their growing friendship makes Rufus believe he might one day recapture his lost memories of the war, and find his way back from the edge of insanity to love.

It’s summer on the South Downs, the air full of sunshine and enchantment. And Rufus and Archie’s seven summer nights have just begun…

add-to-goodreads-button

Publisher and Release Date: FoxTales, November 2016

Time and Setting: Rural England, 1946
Heat Level:
Genre: Historical Romance (m/m)
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Magical, romantic, suspenseful, and deeply moving, Harper Fox hits only high notes in Seven Summer Nights, setting the bar high for historical and queer romantic fiction. Ostensibly a love story about a forbidden romance, it’s also part fantastical mystery and suspenseful thriller. Secrets abound: men loving each other when homosexuality was a sin and homophobia rampant; a mysterious church with hidden pagan symbolism and villagers with old and closely held secrets; and a battlefield memory that threatens the life of our weary hero. All demand our attention, but Ms. Fox carefully and capably guides the reader to a satisfying conclusion. The village of Droyton Parva, an idealized imagining of rural country life and a character in and of itself, becomes the home you never knew you longed for. Interesting secondary characters, living in the village and its vicarage, are similarly well developed. The prose is lyrical, the principals are engaging, and the multifaceted story is romantic, compelling and thrilling.

Rufus Denby is a devastated and lonely shell of the man he was before the outbreak of WWII. Once a famed archaeologist, he’s now a decorated war veteran slowly losing his will to live. Shell-shocked since his last horrific moments on the battlefield, Rufus struggles to remember his last moments in the trenches at Fort Roche, and to control recurrent and uncontrollable violent outbursts. After a recent ‘episode’ on an excavation site he only vaguely remembers, and a brief hospitalization, Rufus is back in London. A no-nonsense but sympathetic supervisor gently lets him go, then suggests he go to see her cousin, a vicar, in Droyton Parva. The church is falling apart and requires extensive renovation, but the vicar believes ancient artwork inside might be archaeologically significant. Perhaps Rufus could visit the church and determine whether it’s worth preserving? Nearly destitute, bewildered by his life, lonely, sad and desperate, Rufus heads to Droyton.

The vicar was right about the church. Unable to locate him at the vicarage, Rufus visits on his own and recognizes its paintings are archaeologically significant, but the symbolism is confusing. Willing to wait to speak to the vicar, an exhausted Rufus falls asleep in the choir loft. His sleep is interrupted by visions of a naked woman being chased through the woods… but when Rufus awakens, he isn’t sure if the dream was real. Unable to trust his own mind and feeling like he might be losing it, he sets off to find the vicar.

Reverend Archie Thorne returned to rural Sussex after the war, but lost his faith along the way. A motorcycle-riding chaplain in wartime, Archie lives a full and purposeful life in Droyton, but though his home and parish keep him busy, he’s lonely. Warm and loving, he has a habit of collecting the waifs and strays of the village, and spends afternoons trying to keep the church from falling into ruin and caring for his flock… while frequently sneaking away to work on his motorcycle and have a smoke. When Rufus finally tracks him down and introduces himself as the archaeologist sent by his cousin, Archie recognizes a kindred lost soul. He’s also intensely attracted to his handsome visitor. Long repressed desire flares to life, and despite the societal danger attached to falling for another man, Archie finds himself irresistibly drawn to Rufus, and sets out to collect him, too.

Rufus is also attracted to the handsome vicar but carefully conceals it. A failed pre-war relationship (reader: I’m massively understating this) has taught him to be cautious, though the more time he spends with Archie, the more he wants him. When Rufus finally makes a subtle pass at him, he’s rewarded and charmed by Archie’s exuberant and enthusiastic response. A tender and affectionate romance blossoms, but to Rufus’s chagrin and secret pleasure, an eager (and lustful) Archie often forgets the dangers inherent in their relationship. The village, the household and the parish are ever underfoot, and with Rufus’s warning in mind, the beginning of their relationship is marked by passionate, frantic and furtive couplings. Archie knows Rufus continues to suffer the sins of his past and that the trauma of his life as a soldier still torments him, and Rufus senses their relationship soothes something dark in Archie’s history. Their love is deeply passionate and profoundly moving, and Ms. Fox ‘s prose shines whenever they are together on the page.

I want to tell you more about this charming pair, but though the central relationship is rich and satisfying, there’s so much more to Seven Summer Nights. Rufus and Archie spend their days in the church trying to discern the meanings behind the ancient (pagan?) artwork and discerning if there’s something hidden deep beneath the church itself. This mystery, with roots deep in Droyton’s past, is both fascinating and creepy. But Ms. Fox doesn’t rush the narrative and she slowly parcels the truth out bit by bit via discoveries at the church and in telling revelations about Droyton’s villagers. The unraveling of the church’s history and the labyrinth below it mirror the slow unraveling of the chaos in Rufus’s mind. That slow and painful disentangling, and Rufus’s frustrating inability to remember events on the battlefield at Fort Roche, set up the third and thrilling narrative – Rufus’s war experience and its aftermath.

From the opening chapters of the novel, Ms. Fox imbues Rufus’s fearful forgotten last moments on the battlefield with darkness and despair. As Rufus struggles to remember (or forget?) what happened, allegations arise against Rufus’s superior, his deceased brother-in-law, Charles, who served with him on the front. Rufus is the only one who can corroborate the allegations, but Charles’s father, Brigadier Spence,with whom Rufus’s sister Rosemary still lives, will do anything to preserve England’s heroic version of his son.

Shortly after an ill-timed visit from his sister Rosemary, Rufus is (falsely) accused of a violent crime he can’t remember committing. Desperate and convinced he must be guilty, Rufus flees Droyton, sacrificing himself to Brigadier Spence and the asylum (it’s anything but) he established for injured war veterans. Rufus’s escape, the asylum, Archie’s tortured realization when he realizes where he’s gone…it’s awful and heart wrenching. It’s impossible to delve too deeply into this juicy bit of storytelling without spoiling it, suffice it to say, any doubt either man had about their love for each other, or the power of that love to transcend their darkest, most profoundly humbling moments, are laid to rest in several brilliant, heart stopping chapters. Afterwards, the novel resumes its almost leisurely ebb and flow as Rufus and Archie solve the mysteries of the church and its significance among the villagers.

Seven Summer Nights is the compassionate and redemptive tale of two men trying to heal after the horrors of war. Harper Fox deftly weaves a powerful anti-church, anti-establishment message throughout the novel – the message is powerful, yet subtle. Profoundly moving, enchanting and charming, this is a novel that stays with you long after you finish it.

Can falling in love restore lost faith and heal a tortured soul? The answer, after reading this beautiful, poignant novel, is a resounding yes.