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Honor Before Heart (Emerald Belles #1) by Heather McCorkle

honor before heart

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Risking it all for love and valor . . .

When Corporal Sean MacBranian awakens after being injured in battle, he is sure the luck o’ the Irish has run out on him. Or that he’s died and gone to Heaven. There can be no other explanation for the blond-haired, blue-eyed angel standing before him. But his “angel” is a truehearted lass named Ashlinn, and she wears a nurse’s uniform. Her tender ministrations have brought him back from the brink of death—and have given him a new reason for living.

Ashlinn knows their parting is inevitable; her handsome hero must return to the 69th infantry of the Union army, and there are no guarantees of his safe return. With most of her family already destroyed by the war ravaging America, she is sure she cannot survive another loss. Yet she feels powerless against the draw of Sean’s strong and steady heart. Neither time nor distance nor the danger of battle seems to lessen their bond. But when their secret letters are intercepted, the devoted nurse’s love will face the ultimate test . . .

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Publisher and Release Date: Lyrical Press, March 2017

Time and Setting: Virginia, 1862
Genre: American Historical Romance (Civil War period)
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Honor Before Heart is a sweetly romantic story set against the horrors of the American Civil War. McCorkle has definitely done her homework to show the brutality and personal cost faced by those who fought or lost someone in the war, although I wish that a bit more had been done to develop the characters past their basic outlines and turn them into a man and woman I could fully connect with.

Ashlinn O’Brian’s life has been changed forever by the war. Her three brothers heard the call to arms and enlisted in the Northern army. After two of them died from poorly treated wounds Ashlinn has been desperately searching the battlefields to find her youngest brother to hopefully save him from dying too. Ashlinn learned everything she could from her parents, a progressive doctor and a midwife, and her skills at keeping patients alive has made her more than a few enemies in the army camp hospital she works in. The latest battle on the shores of the James River has littered the ground with the bodies of dead Union and Confederate soldiers but Ashlinn’s prayers are answered that none of the men she finds are her brother. Before returning to the safety of the army camp Ashlinn’s attention is drawn to her faithful dog Cliste dragging something by the river bank. Getting closer to the water Ashlinn sees that the dog is trying to help a Union soldier who is unconscious but bleeding heavily from a gut wound. Knowing she’s the man’s only hope for survival, Ashlinn gets him into a makeshift shelter and treats his injuries using the supplies she always carries with her.

Corporal Sean MacBranian had escaped injury during the battle only to be caught by a Rebel soldier he found abusing a dog. He managed to kill the Southerner but not before the man got a few good hits on Sean’s person. The pain of his injuries knocks him out and for a moment Sean is certain he’s died when he wakes up to the beautiful face of a guardian angel leaning over him. Fortunately for Sean, his angel is a nurse who knows better ways to heal severe injuries than slicing and dicing up a patient. Ashlinn’s skills at suturing his wounds and keeping them clear of infection allow him to regain some of his strength so they can move out of enemy territory. As they travel Sean finds that Ashlinn is a well-spoken young woman but every so often he can hear a bit of a brogue seeping into her words. As an immigrant from Ireland, Sean is drawn to that little hint of Ashlinn’s own background as it’s something special they share.

Upon arriving safely at the army’s encampment Sean and Ashlinn try to keep their relationship on a cordial level since the war could separate them at any moment. Ashlinn has already learned the difficult lesson that caring for someone makes it agonizing to watch them march into an uncertain future on the battlefield. Sean, too, has seen many good men die and fears that his growing feelings for Ashlinn might become a distraction when his focus should be on the soldiers who serve under him. What neither of them counted on was how strong their bond had already become after Ashlinn saved his life and Sean protected her from the unwanted advances of the camp’s brutal doctor. They become inseparable after Sean is deployed into another battle and Ashlinn knows she would be lost if he were killed in action. Their new relationship is tested when Ashlinn discovers proof that her brother is alive but the circumstances of his disappearance may make her choose between her family and a future with Sean.

Honor Before Heart is tonally perfect for the period –  I could almost see everything happening to Ashlinn and Sean through a sepia-colored lens. One would think that the importance of social status would be something easily ignored while living in an army camp; however Ashlinn’s background as a wealthy Northerner is something that matters to Sean. He is aware that his own status as an Irish immigrant puts him much lower in class than her family even thought they, too, had immigrated generations earlier. There is also a black mark on his family’s name that Sean is hesitant to reveal since it was part of the reason he came to America to start a new life. Once he decides to pursue Ashlinn he adjusts their situation within the camp to always provide a chaperone or keep their meetings within the bounds of propriety. It makes their romance very sweet for most of their courting.

Unfortunately those sepia-colored lenses cannot hide the fact that Sean and Ashlinn never seem to grow or change much throughout the course of the story. Sean is a noble man who fights for the Union to bring freedom to the Southern slaves. Ashlinn is an intelligent and enlightened woman far ahead of her times when it comes to the care of the sick and injured in the field. Those two ideas are discussed between characters many times and serve as the major points of conflict when Ashlinn’s methods are challenged by the male doctors or Sean is captured by a Southern plantation owner. Long passages of the story paint vivid pictures of the brutal conditions Ashlinn is fighting against in the field hospitals, yet that’s all she seems to be fighting for. We don’t really know why her family joined the fight or what her thoughts are about the political side of things.

With that said, I enjoyed enough of Honor Before Heart to recommend it. The calm pace of the story creates the perfect conditions for a romance to thrive but the darkness of war is always present. It’s nice to believe that something as beautiful as love will survive past all of the hate.

A Lady Without a Lord (Penningtons #3) by Bliss Bennet

a lady without a lord

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A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theophilius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined she’ll succeed

Harriot Atherton has a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father and discovering the missing money, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?

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Publisher and Release Date: Bliss Bennet, February 2017

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

Review by Sara

A Lady Without a Lord is the third in Bliss Bennet’s Penningtons series and the first book I’ve read by this author. The story she’s created has a lot of good character moments that kept me reading from cover to cover; however her distinctive writing style was a bit harder to engage with.

Lord Theophilius Pennington is charming, witty and always makes a good impression on everyone – except the members of his family. Growing up as heir, Theo was pressured from an early age to take an interest in the family’s properties as well as follow his father into the political arena. Unfortunately, difficulties with numeracy gave Theo’s family the impression that he was lazy or not suited to the tasks required of a future viscount. When their father died, Theo’s younger sister Sibilla worked to maintain the family’s political activism by marring a man whose drive for social change mirrored her own ambitions. Meanwhile Theo was content to allow his land steward to manage the books and keep him informed of problems while he lived a carefree life in London. Everything changes when it’s time to pay out Sibilla’s dowry and it’s discovered that the Pennington family accounts are barely solvent. Hoping to hide this new problem from his sister, Theo swears his new brother-in-law to secrecy while he makes an emergency trip to meet with his steward for an explanation.

Miss Harriot Atherton is surprised and just the smallest bit alarmed when the new Lord Saybrook comes back to his estate wanting to meet immediately with her father. Mr. Atherton is the long serving steward for the Pennington family but for the last year it’s really been Harry keeping accounts and reporting everything in her father’s name. She has been hiding the fact that her father’s mind has been slipping and he can no longer manage his responsibilities without help. When Harry learns that Theo’s unannounced visit to the country is motivated by the shocking loss of over four thousand pounds, she is scared that her father’s disability will be discovered as well as her own interference in the running of the estate.

Living at his estate again reminds Theo that the responsibilities of his title are not limited to just having a seat in parliament. There are many people who depend on the Saybrook viscountcy for their livelihood and it’s been his error to ignore how important his involvement in local matters is. Theo finds himself discussing many community concerns with Harry and rekindling their childhood friendship. Their closeness stirs an attraction between the pair that is initially viewed as an inconvenience by them both. As they work to find the missing dowry, Theo’s interest for Harry becomes focused on her other qualities, such as her intelligence and her patience, while Harry is drawn to Theo’s amiable nature. Swaying even his staunchest critics with charm is something she would have difficulty doing but for Theo it is second nature. Unfortunately the secrets she’s keeping from Theo could derail the trust they’ve built and the new emotions he brings out in her.

Both main characters in A Lady Without a Lord are written to allow them their normal human insecurities while still building up their appeal as romantic leads. Theo’s difficulties with mathematics are drawn from a real life condition called dyscalculia, which, in a family of high achievers this disability forced him to hide behind a nonchalant disposition. Harry’s self-doubts are also deeply rooted, as the result of losing her mother at an early age and never quite catching on socially. Each of them has learned to become a people-pleaser in order to mask their fears or disappoint those closest to them. In partnering together to find the missing money or by forcing each other to work outside of their comfort zones, Theo and Harry discover there’s much more to their personalities. Harry helps Theo understand that his charm can be used to get things done while he shows her it’s alright to have aspirations of her own outside of what others may want from her.

I enjoyed A Lady Without a Lord but found it a challenge to get excited for Theo and Harry’s love affair. Passions are kept at a cool or warm level throughout their courtship and I found myself missing some of the sparks – either real or manufactured through events – that ignite a romantic relationship. Since I liked both characters I have to put some of this dispassion at the door of Ms. Bennet’s style of writing. Things are described well and events flow smoothly, but there’s an almost clinical approach to how things unfold. The skewed focus is almost like the author wants to show readers just how much research she did on conditions such as dementia, and I dislike feeling like I’m being schooled while I’m being entertained. But with that said, my curiosity about the next couple to be featured in The Penningtons series and a hope of seeing more of Theo and Harry’s HEA motivates me to give this author another try.

The Duke (Victorian Rebels #4) by Kerrigan Byrne

the duke

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He is noble, notorious, and takes no prisoners…

They say that now His Grace, Collin Talmage, Duke of Trenwyth has only one hand, he might finally be a mere mortal, but no one seems willing to test the theory. Rich as Midas, big as a Viking, beautiful as Adonis, and lethal as a feral wolf, he is the English Empire’s golden son. But now he’s lost everything. Most of his family died in a terrible accident, his protégé and closest friend betrayed him on the battlefield, and his left hand was cut off while he was a prisoner of war. The only thing that’s kept him going until now is the memory of a night spent in the arms of a mysterious raven-haired woman almost a year ago…

Imogen Pritchard is a nurse by day, but a fallen woman—and a spy—by night. Seduced on the job years ago by a Duke who mourned for the loss of his family, Imogen has never shaken the memory of the man’s despair—or the fathomless depths of pleasure he brought to her. But as the threat of betrayals, blackmail, and secrets abound, Imogen and Collin are thrown back together in a dizzying swirl of dangerous games and earthshattering desire. But can their love overcome the everything that threatens to tear them apart?

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Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Press, February 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1879
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Kerrigan Byrne’s Victorian Rebels series brings to life dangerous men who are always one heartbeat away from succumbing to their darkest impulses. The love they find in the arms of their perfect women saves their souls. In The Duke, the formula is changed just slightly to introduce a man whose heart is so hardened he almost misses his chance at salvation.

Collin Talmage was never supposed to be the Duke of Trewyth. Knowing he was the spare to his father’s legacy gave Cole the freedom to join the military where he has used his strength and intelligence to good effect. His career as a soldier and spy comes to a tragic halt when his family is killed in an accident, immediately elevating him to one of the highest peerages in the realm. On the eve of his final assignment, Cole hopes to escape from the reality of his life for just a few moments in the company of his fellow soldiers. Their group arrives at the Bare Kitten Dance Hall where Cole quickly notices the beautiful barmaid serving the men. Pulling her away from the attentions of his closest companion, Cole arranges for Ginny to remain at his side for the rest of the evening and later to join him in his bed.

Imogen Pritchard, hiding her true identity under a black wig and a false name, wasn’t a whore and should never have been in a place as seedy as the Bare Kitten. Inheriting her father’s debt to the club’s proprietor forced her to work off the amount owed but she was promised she would never have to pay by working on her back. Unfortunately Cole’s money is more important to the owner than any agreement made with Imogen. With no option but to comply, Imogen is surprised by Cole’s care and lover-like treatment. His caresses and kisses ignite passions Imogen wasn’t aware she could feel, and in a single night her heart is lost to the man with eyes filled with a sorrow that Imogen wishes she could take from him.

A year passes before Imogen and Cole’s paths cross again. Cole disappears soon after leaving England and it’s feared he was killed or captured in the line of duty. Imogen can only hope he’s alive as she works at the Bare Kitten each night while maintaining her day job as a nurse at St. Margaret’s hospital. Starting a shift, she finds the hospital abuzz with the news of the arrival of an important patient – none other than the Duke of Trewyth – whom the doctors fear is dying from typhus. Imogen’s experience with the disease makes her question the diagnosis and she risks her position to have another doctor treat Cole. Her decision saves his life but the attending physician fires Imogen for insubordination. Things only get worse when a patron at the Bare Kitten tries to rape her, and she kills him in self defence. Imogen’s desperation leads her back to the hospital where the elderly Earl of Anstruther catches her stealing. The kind earl’s act of altruism saves Imogen and changes her life forever.

Once the real cause of his distress is discovered Cole’s body heals but his mind and spirit take another two years to recover. The torture he endured was only bearable by clinging to the memory of Ginny and the perfect night they shared before his life became a living hell. It’s the hope of finding his angel that becomes an obsession for Cole; so much so that he has little patience for any other women who cross his path. His main frustration comes in the form of his new neighbor Imogen, Lady Anstruther. Her ideas about social reform as well as her informality and common background all pick at Cole’s high principles. His attraction to the beautiful woman is something to be endured rather than embraced. However, when the young widow finds herself in mortal danger Cole is, surprisingly, the first one to offer his protection.

I am a die-hard fan of Ms. Byrne’s writing but I had some problems as I read The Duke. Imogen is a wonderfully fhree-dimensional character, full of compassion and grace while having to hold her family together against dire circumstances. Cole on the other hand remains aloof, bitter and angry from almost the first moments of his introduction right up the final pages of the story. Everything seems to happen around him while he remains rooted in place, stuck there by outdated ideals and a stubborn refusal to open his eyes to the gift he’s been given in Imogen. She has always been a balm to his wounded heart and yet when that healing happens without him realizing she is the same woman he’s been searching for, Cole pushes her away in the most crushing manner.

While not as compelling a story as the other books in the Victorian Rebels series, I would still recommend The Duke to readers who appreciate their heroes a bit on the dangerous side but dedicated to the happiness of their heroine.

Stealing the Rogue’s Heart (Rookery Rogues #4) by Erica Monroe

stealing the rogue's heart

WHEN AN UNDERWORLD PRINCESS…

Beautiful, innocent Mina Mason has led a sheltered life as the sister to the most notorious crime lord in England. Her family’s wealth and expectations keep her in a gilded cage, never able to act on her true desires. Like kissing — and engaging in far more scandalous behavior with–Charlie Thatcher, her childhood best friend. As a member of a rival gang, Charlie is distinctly off-limits.

FALLS FOR THE WRONG MAN…

Charlie Thatcher has known since he was a boy where his loyalties should lie: with the Chapman Street Thieves, who saved him from a brutal death in the dark alleys of the Ratcliffe rookery. As a bartender for the Three Boars public house, he protects his fellow brothers with his mind and his fists. But when one of those members threatens Mina’s safety, Charlie’s primal, protective instincts are triggered–and his defense of her puts them both in danger.

PASSION MAY BE THEIR DOWNFALL.

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Publisher and Release Date: Quillfire Publishing, January 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1833
Genre: Historical Romance novella
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

Two street gangs, both alike in villainy,
In filthy London where we lay our scene.
From old rivalries to a fragile peace,
Torn asunder fighting for a girl’s esteem.

There is nothing like a romance between star-crossed lovers. The conflicts seem insurmountable but the emotions are almost as large to keep characters fighting for their relationship. In Stealing the Rogue’s Heart, Erica Monroe borrows a little from Romeo and Juliet to set the stage for her tale of love ripped apart by the brutality of the London slums.

In the Rookeries, loyalty to your gang is more important than blood or family. Control of the East End between three equally powerful street gangs: the Kings, the Chapman Street Gang and the Tanners, has kept the area in a state of relative peace for many years. Unfortunately the death of the Tanners’ leader has created a power vacuum that the other two gangs are ready to fill. Tensions are high but Mina Mason has always found a safe refuge from the danger in the company of her good friend Charlie Thatcher. Mina’s position as the younger sister of the Kings’ leader has kept her insulated from threats and Charlie’s ties to the Chapman Street Gang have also shielded her from unwanted attention. Little does Mina realize that her feelings of safety and protection are an illusion easily shattered.

Charlie has loved Mina for almost as long as he’s known her but his allegiance to the Chapman Street Gang doesn’t exactly put him in a position to court her. The Mason family is viewed as near royalty within the Rookeries and Mina has grown up with every convenience the Kings’ money can buy her. Charlie has had to content himself with being Mina’s friend and companion when she leaves her virtual palace to sit in his bar while he works. What Charlie doesn’t realize is that Mina’s reasons for being at his workplace have everything to do with her own deep feelings for him. She has long known that her love for Charlie goes well beyond the friendship he offers. One word from him and Mina would give up all of the luxuries her name affords her to live a simple life with a man who appreciates her for herself and not what her connections would bring.

Mina’s fear that her brother is planning to marry her off to someone loyal to the Kings has her hiding where she is the most comfortable – in Charlie’s pub. Unaware that hostilities between the gangs has reached its boiling point Mina makes the mistake of lingering too long within Chapman Street Gang territory and catches the eye of the wrong man. When he tries to assault her, Mina finds protection in Charlie’s arms; however the fight that ensues in the bar lights a fuse within both groups and Mina’s brother feels the time is right to make his power play andMina becomes a bargaining chip in his plans for more money and influence. Charlie’s actions to defend Mina put a target on his back by his own people and the murder of his opponent in the bar fight forces them to make an example of his perceived disloyalty. With an all-out war on the horizon Mina and Charlie must decide if their devotion to each other is stronger than any influence the gangs have on their lives.

The Rookery Rogues series is like a unicorn within the genre of Historical Romance. The setting and all of the characters are far, far away from the nobility or lavish country estates normally found in such stories . Mina, for as much as she is a rich girl within the sphere that she and Charlie come from, is still living off money gained through criminal activities. Charlie comes from almost nothing and his position in the Chapman Street Gang has forced him to fight or steal just to keep his place as a trusted lieutenant in the organization. The odds are against their ever escaping the rookeries but they both cling to the small bit of happiness they find in each other. Both characters are exceedingly likeable even if the circumstances they live in are dreary or perhaps more on the morally grey spectrum.

I haven’t read the other stories within this series; however Stealing the Rogue’s Heart seems to be a tipping point for serious changes within the Rookeries and both gangs. Watching Charlie and Mina come together while the worlds of the Kings and Chapman Street Gang are poised to fall apart makes this simple love story even more complex. Erica Monroe has just gained herself a new fan and I’ll be interested to see if the events here will be mentioned in future stories.

Between the Devil and the Duke (Season for Scandal #3) by Kelly Bowen

between the devil and the duke

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Their love was always in the cards.

He should have thrown her out. But when club owner Alexander Lavoie catches a mysterious blonde counting cards at his vingt-et-un table, he’s more intrigued than angry. He has to see more of this beauty-in his club, in his office, in his bed. But first he’ll have to devise a proposition she can’t turn down.

Gossip said he was an assassin. Common sense told her to stay away. But Angelique Archer was desperate, and Lavoie’s club offered a surefire way to make quick money-until she got caught. Instead of throwing her out though, the devil offers her a deal: come work for him. Refusing him means facing starvation, but with a man so sinfully handsome and fiercely protective, keeping things professional might prove impossible . . .

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Publisher and Release Date: Forever, January 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1820
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Kelly Bowen’s Season for Scandal series has introduced several intelligent and resourceful female characters but the third book Between the Devil and the Duke takes things one step further. Lady Angelique Archer is a true genius whose gift with mathematics may be the only salvation for her family. Her strength and composure in the face of overwhelming odds are bound to get noticed by a man who makes probability his living.

The mysterious woman had caught Alexander Lavoie’s eye from the first night she entered his gaming hell and made her way to his vingt-et-un tables to challenge the high rollers. Her skill at dominating against seasoned players marked her as someone to pay attention to; however her demeanor in the club and her quick exits at the end of play communicated to Alex this woman did not want anyone’s eyes on her. Alex is intrigued enough to personally come to her aid when another player tries to get too close to the masked beauty. His regard for her rises even more as she manages to outflank his every attempt to learn her identity. Impressed with her abilities at the table as well as her unflappable demeanor at his questioning Alex does the only thing he can to keep her within his sights just a little longer. He offers her a job.

Lady Angelique knows she shouldn’t even consider Alex Lavoie’s proposition but the need to keep her family’s dire straits hidden from the rest of London society makes the decision for her. Angelique’s father quietly sold off everything of value before he died and her brother, the new Marquess of Hutton, isn’t smart enough to realize that their family’s good name is hanging by a thread. The chance to earn money to keep her younger brothers in school and perhaps rebuild the finances of the marquessate is enticement enough; however Angelique’s attraction to Lavoie could become too much of a distraction. Alex assures her that their arrangement will be business only and Angelique accepts his conditions to run the vingt-et-un tables for the club. Their partnership immediately shows returns as the players all flock to her parlor to play against the enigmatic dealer, all while her identity is safely disguised with a stunning gown and a simple mask.

Angelique’s hope that her employment will save her family’s name is destroyed when her brother is accused of a heinous crime and the evidence points to his guilt. With no friends or family to turn to, Angelique finds herself in the offices of Chegarre and Associates, an organization known throughout the ton for its skill in fixing impossible problems with the utmost discretion. The discovery that Alex is a partner in the firm doesn’t surprise Angelique, considering his reputation as a former assassin and spy. What does surprise her is his unwavering support for her while trying to discover who has framed her brother. As secrets from her family’s past are uncovered, Angelique and Alex’s partnership is reclassified from just a business arrangement into something that goes much deeper for the both of them.

Between the Devil and the Duke may not have a lofty peer as a main character, but Alex Lavoie proves that nobility isn’t just a matter of bloodlines. His awareness of Angelique starts with her physical appearance but he is quick to change gears when he learns of her brilliance and treats her as an intellectual equal. Not once does he try to manage Angelique or disrespect her opinions as they search for clues to her brother’s supposed crime. It’s quite easy to fall a little in love with Alex just for the care he takes to protect Angelique at every turn while refusing to hide truths that could impact her life dramatically. From almost the start Alex is smitten with Angelique but he allows her to come to him and pace their budding relationship at a speed she is comfortable with.

I love that Angelique is the whole package – brains and beauty – yet she still has insecurities that keep her humble. She’s a little unnerved by her strong attraction to Alex but is equally dazed by his regard for her. Angelique knows that she is smart but was always told that she had to hide that part of herself from a man for fear they couldn’t accept a female who knows more than they do. Alex not only encourages Angelique to use her brain but her talent with numbers comes in handy to impress some very tough characters to help them. Their relationship is seductive for how honest Angelique can be around Alex. With him she feels safe enough to reveal who she is underneath all of the social polish required by her station.

Each story in the Season for Scandal series has given readers a hero/heroine pairing that feels like so much more than just a simple romantic relationship. These men and women truly complement each other and the stories, like Between the Devil and the Duke are immersive and enjoyable reads.

The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory

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“This, madam, changes everything.”

Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…

Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!

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Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, January 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1811
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Sarah Mallory merges two romantic tropes together surprisingly well in her latest release, The Duke’s Secret Heir. A big misunderstanding separates our main characters for a time and their secret baby plays a major role in their strained reconciliation. What could have been a frustrating read becomes quite interesting as we see how a couple can overcome such difficulties to form a lasting relationship.

During a warm summer in Egypt, Miss Ellen Tatham and Major Max Colnebrooke fell in love. It was an instant attraction and a whirlwind courtship but Max and Ellen knew that it was meant to be and said their “I Do’s” in front of the army chaplain before consummating their marriage. Unfortunately the instability in the region pushes Max to arrange passage for his new wife and her companion back to England with another officer. Those plans unexpectedly change when Ellen is separated from the English forces and they are rescued from Egypt by a French diplomat who uses his connections to get her back home. The lines of communication between Max and Ellen are further complicated when she writes to the Home Office to locate her new husband and is told there is no record of a Major Colnebrooke stationed in Egypt. Fearing that she had fallen prey to a scoundrel and was now ruined for another, Ellen retreats back to her home and hopes her family will help her start over.

In the four intervening years Max and Ellen have become very different people from who they were in Egypt. Upon discovering that his wife had left the country with a Frenchman, Max threw himself into his command and led several successful charges on the French forces where he lost some good soldiers. His guilt over their deaths, compounded with his anger at Ellen’s betrayal led Max to ignore many of his responsibilities back in England including a dukedom he inherited from his older brother. Ellen’s life was thrown into turmoil once she realized she was carrying Max’s child and there was no way of finding the man she had married. With the support of her step-mother, Ellen built a life for herself in High Harrogate as an unassuming widow raising her son alone. The friendships she makes give her some comfort but everything in her life now revolves around her son James’ wellbeing.

Max slowly embraces his role as Duke of Rossenhall while keeping close ties with the men he served with and it’s the news of a friend’s illness that brings him to Harrogate. Hoping to make his friend’s last days as enjoyable as possible Max allows himself to be shown off to the local gentry and accepts an invitation to a ball held in town. It is there that his past and his present collide when his friend’s wife introduces him to her own good friend Mrs. Ellen Furnell. Furious at discovering his wife has been in England since their separation, Max barely controls himself enough to confirm to her that they are indeed married to each other and a divorce will be imminent. Ellen is brokenhearted to learn that her marriage was in fact legitimate but that her estranged husband has no love left in his heart for what they once were to each other. It’s only Max’s chance meeting with his son Jamie that stays his hand enough for them to discuss what might come next.

Reading The Duke’s Secret Heir was challenging because I found it difficult to like Max. He comes across as quite charming in Ellen’s memories of their time together in Egypt but from almost his first moments on the page he seems arrogant and unnecessarily cruel. When Ellen tries to explain what had happened during their escape Max hears her words but doesn’t listen to what she is saying. His attitude has been tainted by years of holding Ellen responsible for his own recklessness while leading his men into danger just to forget her. Somewhere in his mind Max realizes that blaming her for his own actions is wrong; however it was always easier to blame someone not involved rather than facing his own culpability.

I liked Ellen’s characterization and her willingness to accept her own mistakes that led to the years of separation. It’s much easier to understand why Ellen made the choices she did to hide herself and protect Jamie. I also loved how determined she is to become the duchess Max needs her to be despite his distrust towards her and how he fails to support her in those attempts. I never felt Ellen was a doormat kind of heroine but at some point I wished she would get angry right back at Max to perhaps snap him from his self-indulgent moping. For the most part she comes across as a caring, thoughtful woman who has learned her lessons and become much better for the experience.

Overall I liked The Duke’s Secret Heir enough to recommend it. The story moves quickly to get a reader past all the anger and sadness Max and Ellen feel at their reunion to let the second chance romance shine through.

Adored in Autumn (Seasons #4) by Jess Michaels

adored in autumn

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Viscountess Felicity Barbridge escaped a violent marriage with her life because she was willing to make desperate choices. Now those choices are back to haunt her, as is the object of her girlhood obsession, Asher Seyton.

Asher was never anything more than a servant’s son, but he’s elevated himself through an education and is now a respected solicitor. He only returns to his childhood home to help with a financial issue, but when he realizes Felicity is being threatened, he’s driven to stay and help. Even if he must now face all the feelings for her he tried to repress over the years.

Will Felicity be able to trust Asher enough to share more than passion? And will Asher’s own secrets unravel all they’ve built?

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Publisher and Release Date: The Passionate Pen January, 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1811
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

Jess Michaels brings her Seasons series to a satisfying close in her latest release Adored in Autumn. Threats that have been hanging over various members of the Danford family are all tied together in an investigation that gives a deserving woman a second chance at love.

At the close of the previous book, One Summer of Surrender, it was revealed that the late Duke of Kirkford had collected the scandalous secrets of the ton into a journal he frequently used for blackmail. His knowledge helped him keep many influential families in his pocket, and his threat to expose Viscountess Felicity Barbridge’s deepest secret allowed him to destroy her brother’s betrothal through clever manipulation. When he died the journal passed to his heir, who is just as unscrupulous as his cousin, leaving Lady Felicity fearful that everything in her past will be exposed, creating a scandal for her family. Fortunately, blackmail will often leave some kind of a money trail that a trained financier can follow. Felicity’s brother summons Asher Seyton – a friend of the family who has elevated himself from a former servant into a respected solicitor – and asks him to help them track down the new Lord Kirkford, who has gone into hiding.

Asher and Felicity were once desperately in love with each other; however his status as a footman in her household kept them from ever acting on their emotions other than one stolen kiss on the eve of her début. Soon after that night Felicity’s marriage to Lord Barbridge went from a dream courtship to a living nightmare as his violent temper became abusive and left her a shell of the vibrant girl she used to be. When he died Felicity thought she could somehow put her life back together but the scars her husband left on her were hidden deep in her heart. Seeing Asher again reminds Felicity of everything she lost when he supposedly ran away from her and their budding romance.

Asher’s return reawakens all of the love he still holds for Felicity but there is still a deep divide between her noble family line and his background in the servant class. He left her side years ago to protect her and give her a chance at an unencumbered life but is shocked to learn of the horrors she lived through with her husband. Helping her brothers track down the missing Kirkford serves as a kind of penance for leaving her to deal with a horrible man; however he’s not ready to answer Felicity’s pointed questions about why he abandoned her after their perfect moment together. The closer they come to finding the journal and saving Felicity’s reputation the harder it becomes for Asher to think about leaving her a second time.

Adored in Autumn is mostly a light historical romance that touches on the heavier subject of abuse and the difficult position women and their families were put in when a husband was abusive. Felicity could not leave her marriage, because in the eyes of the law she belonged to her husband and it was his right to discipline her if he saw fit. Her brothers saw the evidence of the abuse but were powerless to remove her from her husband’s house for exactly the same reasons. That she had no one to help her forces Felicity to make a terrible decision to protect herself but the fear and inability to trust anyone again doesn’t go away. It’s only Asher’s presence that unlocks Felicity’s emotions; however she has to deal with not only the good feelings of love and friendship he brings but also anger and sadness at what was lost between them.

The rekindled relationship between Asher and Felicity presents its own problems and circles back to a theme that has been important in two of the previous books in the Seasons series: the class divide within English society and the scandalous nature of marrying outside of the circle into which you are born. Ms. Michaels doesn’t ignore the stigmas Felicity could face by being with Asher; she has both characters consider the reality of a life together. I liked that Felicity sees her chance at happiness with Asher and doesn’t allow him to push her away because of his own fears that he isn’t good enough for a Lady.

I’ve enjoyed the Seasons series immensely and Adored in Autumn serves as a great send off for readers who have been there from the beginning. Unanswered questions find happy resolutions and each couple is showcased just enough to give that perfect sense of ”And They All Lived Happily Ever After…”

Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother #3) by Emily Larkin

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Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.
Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing-to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret-including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

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Publisher and Release Date: Emily Larkin, January 2016
Time and Setting: England, 1808
Genre: Historical/Paranormal Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

Emily Larkin is an author I’ve quickly come to admire. The men and women who populate her Baleful Godmother series are allowed to be plain in looks or sometimes broken in spirt but their stories are layered and compelling. In Trusting Miss Trentham the journey for the main characters to find love and redemption is difficult yet the payoff was considerable.

Miss Letitia Trentham knows when someone is lying. It’s an ability she chose on her twenty-first birthday from a fairy required to grant one wish to the female members of her family. Ever since that night Letitia has used her gift to weed out unwanted suitors and for six seasons it’s revealed the bitter truth that all of the men asking for her hand are more interested in her fortune than her heart. After declining yet another proposal Letitia’s night is off to a poor start when she’s approached by a soldier who seems to know about her truth-telling ability and has an unusual request for her: help him find justice for his men who were betrayed by one of their own. Torn between doing the proper thing of dismissing him or helping a man clearly in distress, Letitia takes the chance to use her ability to do something important.

Icarus Reid, recently retired from the King’s army, has one last mission to carry out and he’s willing to use whatever means necessary to discover who betrayed him and his men to the French. When a friend mentions Miss Trentham’s unique ability to sense lies he approaches her, desperate to use that skill while questioning the two most likely suspects. He’s surprised when she agrees to his plan despite the risks it poses to her reputation but Reid won’t allow this chance to find justice for his men slip away. Their first interview with a former soldier clears the man but their second interrogation reveals more suspects but no clearer a picture of who sold out his countrymen.

Dismayed that Reid’s quest could meet a dead end without her assistance Letitia arranges for them to travel together without anyone knowing she’s gone. The man that Reid once was would have immediately baulked at the idea of taking Letitia anywhere unchaperoned; however that person was lost forever on the banks of a river in Portugal. Now, he’s haunted nightly by memories of their senseless deaths and the torture he faced at the hands of French soldiers. Those nightmares make him cry out, alerting Letitia to his suffering. Unwilling to let her companion face another sleepless night Letitia finds a way to care for him that would scandalize her family but is necessary to give Reid some peace.

Their nightly routine allows Reid to rest but each morning after he senses just how much his presence jeopardizes Letitia’s good name. His mind tries to keep her at arm’s length but his heart needs her by his side as he faces the demons that have possessed him for months. Little by little their relationship moves from just a partnership to one that is completely new for Letitia. She loves Reid despite his wounded soul; but how can she plan a future with a man who has given up on living?

Trusting Miss Trentham has some dark undercurrents and can be quite heart-wrenching as readers are pulled deeper into Reid’s despondency. For a man driven by ideals such as duty and honor, his anguish at believing those have been stripped from him is palpable. It takes Letitia’s forceful approach of confronting that pain and looking at it from another angle for him to even begin to crawl out of the darkness. Reid is an interesting mix-up of hero types in a romantic story; he’s alpha-like in his relentless drive and his refusal to confront his feelings but those emotions lie so close to the surface that at other times he’s a beta-like man overwhelmed by how much he does care. His healing process over the course of the story feels realistic for what Reid endured and one can see that there is still a long way to go; however that he trusts Letitia and lets her help him are the most important steps.

I love Letitia for her indomitable spirt and her innocence. Her truth-sense may have protected her but it also put her into a gilded cage that not much could penetrate. Letitia could only let her guard down around people like her cousins who don’t seek to use her for their benefit. Once she agrees to work with Reid it puts her on a path of discovery, where sometimes white lies are necessary and some people have to lie to themselves to protect important personal secrets. A strong facet of Letitia’s character is her unselfishness and drive to help Reid no matter the cost to herself. She makes some mistakes while on that path but her need to see him heal is a mission more important to her than finding Reid’s traitor. Each little concession Reid makes is a major victory in Letitia’s eyes and she comes to love the man uncovered as he lets go of the past.

The magical aspects of Trusting Miss Trentham are kept very low-key so everything hinges on the journey Reid and Letitia take together both in body and mind. Just like the first book of the Baleful Godmother series there are two secondary characters who I am eager to see get their own story told and perhaps get another glimpse of Reid and Letitia’s continuing road towards a happy ending.

Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

My Rogue, My Ruin (Lords of Essex #1) by Amalie Howard and Angie Morgan

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The Marquess of Hawksfield’s lineage is impeccable and his title coveted, but Archer Croft is as far from his indulgent peers as he can get. His loathing for the beau monde has driven him to don a secret identity and risk everything in order to steal their riches and distribute them to the less fortunate.

Lady Briannon Findlay embraces her encounter with the Masked Marauder, a gentleman thief waylaying carriages from London to Essex. The marauder has stirred Brynn’s craving for adventure, and she discovers an attraction deeper than the charming thief’s mask.

Brynn is a revelation, matching Archer in intelligence, wit, and passion. Stubborn and sensuous in equal measure, she astonishes him at every turn, but when someone sinister impersonates Archer’s secret personality, and a murder is committed, Archer begins to think he doesn’t stand a fighting chance without her.

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Publisher and Release Date: Entangled Publishing, November 2016
Time and Setting: England, 1817
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3 stars

Review by Sara

I appreciate that new voices are appearing in the world of Historical Romances when only a few years ago some claimed the genre was dead. Amalie Howard and Angie Morgan have some good ideas to bring to the table in their first release My Rogue, My Ruin but not everything in the story works within the constraints of its historical setting.

What drew me into the story was the promise of a Robin Hood type hero and Lord Hawksfield is certainly dedicated to his mission to rob from the rich to give back to the poor. Archer Croft sees the debauched behavior of his father, the Duke of Bradburne, as the worst example of the privileged few controlling the wealth while the masses struggle daily. His mother was the first to teach him charity and compassion towards others when she raised one of her husband’s bastard children as her own daughter. After the duchess died,  Archer took it upon himself to continue her charitable work but found that the family’s coffers were being drained constantly by his father’s dissolute lifestyle. Having no control over his the duke’s expenditures, Archer instead turns towards other peers by creating a highwayman persona of the Masked Marauder who robs the carriages of the elite. Their wealth is redistributed and Archer’s conscience is clear since no one is truly hurt in the exchange.

During one of his evening raids as the Marauder, Archer stops the carriage of his neighbor Lord Dinsmore and his family. The plan for this robbery was the same as all of the others until he sees the man’s daughter, Lady Briannon. He’s impressed with the young woman’s bravery in the face of danger and there’s just a hint of attraction sparking between them even as he takes her jewelry. When he meets her later that evening as himself, he’s almost angry that she cannot recognize him as the man who she stood toe-to-toe with only hours earlier.

Lady Briannon is more than a little shaken up by her encounter with the Masked Marauder, but she is also uneasy over her reunion with her neighbor Lord Hawksworth, who is aloof and distant and such a contrast to his congenial father. As Brynn enters society she and Archer keep meeting each other but he throws out such mixed signals she cannot get a read off the man. One moment he seems interested in pursuing their acquaintance and then minutes later he is pushing her away. Archer would be the last sort of man Brynn would want to marry as she is more comfortable embracing her passions while he seems closed up and distant from everyone.

Circumstances are working against Brynn’s wish when she manages to put the clues about the Marauder’s identify together with some of the things she’s come to notice about Archer. Before she can even wrap her head around that discovery, a tragedy hits the Croft household and she is the only person who can provide Archer with an alibi to keep an investigator from learning his secret. To protect Archer and the Marauder from prosecution Brynn makes the ultimate sacrifice to her future by claiming she and Archer are betrothed. Knowing she has just tied herself to a man unwilling to marry, Brynn’s only hope is to help him find the person framing the Marauder for murder and then to end their fake betrothal with her heart intact.

At its core, My Rogue, My Ruin is a character driven story about Brynn and Archer’s passionate natures and how it drives their lives. A chronic illness in Brynn’s childhood has made her embrace each day of her life as she tries to experience as much as possible. She wants to feel that same exuberance in whomever she marries but doesn’t believe that Archer has an unguarded side. Archer has hidden his truest self behind so many masks that it’s become difficult for him to define the lines between the man, the Marquess and the Marauder. Both characters believe they are best serving their passions by continuing on the same paths and not letting the other person know their innermost thoughts or feelings. As they seek out the person trying to destroy Archer’s reputation and accept their betrothal they each find a better path by sharing themselves.

Unfortunately the co-authors’ inexperience with the Historical genre rears its head more than once as everything unfolds and it can take a reader quickly out of the story. Little anachronisms can normally be ignored, but there is a fairly large one that happens just after the mid-point that is world-shaking to a reader like me, who looks for a degree of historical accuracy. There are also several unanswered questions about secondary characters that feel less like a set-up for a sequel and more like storylines that failed to develop or were added just for the sake of creating problems for Brynn or Archer. I did like how the true villain of the story was kept a secret right up until the end when usually I can sniff out the likely suspect within a few pages of the crime. Perhaps with a little more attention to the setting and important historical details both authors will have more success with any follow-up books to My Rogue, My Ruin.