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I Dared the Duke (Wayward Wallflowers #2) by Anna Bennett

I dared the duke

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Alexander Savage, the Duke of Blackshire, is known throughout the ton for three things: the burn scars on his neck, his ornery disposition, and the trail of broken hearts behind him. None of which would concern Miss Elizabeth Lacey in the least—if she weren’t living under his roof. As his grandmother’s companion, Beth is all too concerned with the moody and compelling duke. Incensed by his plans to banish the sweet dowager duchess to the country, Beth refuses to do his bidding. If Alex wants her help, he’s going to have to take her dare…and grant her three wishes.

Alex adores his grandmother, which is precisely why she must leave. A string of unfortunate incidents has him worried for the safety of everyone around him—including the dowager’s loyal and lovely companion, Beth. But the notorious wallflower isn’t as meek as she appears, and as their battle of wills heats up, so does Alex’s desire. He’s dangerously close to falling in love with her…and revealing secrets he’d rather keep hidden. How can he convince her that his darkest days are behind him—and that, for the first time in forever, his heart is true?

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Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, April 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1818
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3 stars

Review by Sara

I Dared the Duke continues the story of the three Lacey sisters, known as The Wilted Wallflowers after they were cruelly teased during their first season in London. Middle sister Beth Lacey gets the spotlight here and her story is enjoyable enough and a marginal improvement from the series’ début My Brown-Eyed Earl.

Miss Elizabeth Lacey hasn’t quite found her footing since her family’s social change of fortune. For years she and her sisters were cruelly teased for their unfashionable appearance, lack of fortune and their uncle’s eccentricities. Her sister’s recent marriage to an earl has raised their standing within the ton, but even with their newfound wealth, Beth isn’t comfortable facing the same people who so easily scorned her, so she offers herself as a companion to the elderly Dowager Duchess of Blackshire. The arraignment makes Beth feel needed and the duchess benefits from Beth’s attention. Everything is comfortable for Beth until the duchess’ grandson, the current Duke of Blackshire arrives home. Alexander Savage is strikingly handsome, even with the scars on his neck, but his attitude towards Beth is anything but attractive. He’s curt, dismissive and seems put-out that his grandmother has hired a companion without his knowledge.

Alex has arrived back at his London town house with the singular task of moving his beloved grandmother away from possible threats to his person. Over the last few weeks, Alex has fallen victim to more than a few accidents under very suspicious circumstances. The idea that someone is targeting him has him fearful that the perpetrator will shift their attention to the only person left that he cares for. Coming home to find that his grandmother has brought in a companion is an inconvenience and Alex makes it very clear to the pretty, young Miss Lacey that her services are no longer required. He doesn’t count on Beth digging in her heels about not leaving the duchess’ side and instead accuses Alex of neglect towards the only family he has left. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, yet to reveal his fears or his plans about capturing the person threatening him to Beth isn’t something Alex can do.

Beth and Alex are at loggerheads until he changes tactics on her. Rather than seeing Beth as an impediment to his plans, he instead asks for her help to convince his grandmother that moving to the country would be beneficial. Beth, still believing Alex to be a rogue who cares little for the aging duchess, adds the condition that she’ll help him if he’ll grant the older woman three wishes to make her remaining time in London more memorable. The requests the dowager makes seem easy enough for Alex to facilitate; however in spending time with his grandmother he is also enjoying Beth’s company and soon a friendship of sorts develops between the pair. It isn’t long before their closeness gives way to the attraction that’s been simmering since their first meeting, yet they are each reluctant to pursue a relationship for differing reasons. Alex still fears that anyone close to him could be in mortal danger, while Beth doesn’t want to give herself over to a man reputed to be a bed-hopping libertine.

I Dared the Duke is more light and fluffy than it is deep and character driven. Beth and Alex are easy to read about but they’re not very substantial past their interactions with each other. The gossip has painted Alex as a promiscuous rake; however he’s anything but. It’s never made 100% clear why Alex would want to have that kind of reputation follow him around London and it really only serves as a motivation for the accidents that have been following him. Otherwise, Alex is a fairly well adjusted individual and it makes him a little boring. There isn’t much of an edge to him or anything underneath the role he’s adopted as London’s greatest lover. A small secret about his awareness of Beth before meeting her is folded into his backstory but it only becomes a conflict for about a page. Then it’s dismissed in the name of love.

Beth’s misperceptions of Alex’s character are there so she doesn’t immediately swoon for him. She’s unwilling to be just another notch on his bedpost so she keeps him at arm’s length in order to protect her heart. When Beth discovers why Alex is so keen to have the duchess out of London she quickly drops her prejudices and wants to be a part of his investigation into who’s been threatening him. It’s a nice way to further the relationship building but once again it falls on the airy side of storytelling. Beth’s need to be needed is a character flaw; however everyone around her seems to think it’s her singular strength. Instead of being comfortable in her own skin, Beth needs the constant reassurance that she’s made a difference for someone else. It’s difficult to get behind a character who defines herself by how others see her.

Readers looking for an easy, light read will find that I Dared the Duke fits the bill nicely. The story has its charms and the emotions expressed towards the end of the book are heartwarming. I’m not compelled to continue The Wayward Wallflowers series past this story but it was a nice diversion between the more dramatic and weighty romances.

You May Kiss the Bride (Penhallow Dynasty #1) by Lisa Berne

you may kiss the bride

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Wealthy and arrogant, Gabriel Penhallow knows it’s time to fulfill his dynastic duty. All he must do is follow the ‘Penhallow way’: find a biddable bride, produce an heir and a spare, and then live separate lives. It’s worked so well for generations, certainly one kiss with the delectable Livia Stuart isn’t going to change things. Society dictates he marry her, and one chit is as good as another as long as she’s from a decent family.

But Livia’s transformation from an original to a mundane diamond of the first water makes Gabriel realize he desperately wants the woman who somehow provoked him into that kiss. And for all the ladies who’ve thrown themselves at him, it’s the one who wants to flee whom he now wants. But how will he keep this independent miss from flying away?

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Publisher and Release Date: Avon, April 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1811
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3 stars

Review by Sara

Author Lisa Berne had a great idea creating a series revolving around a wealthy and influential family without a peer in the mix. Her début ,You May Kiss the Bride is a throwback to the classics where characters like Mr. Darcy were a catch without a title in front of their names. Unfortunately the author’s inexperience shines through more than her unique ideas, with poorly rendered characters and a rather juvenile storyline.

Livia Stuart is constantly making the best of the circumstances she’s been dealt in life. When her parents died in India she was shuffled off to her aunt and uncle’s home in Wiltshire but their care has been anything but attentive. Their neighbor Lady Glanville’s daughter Cecily is a constant thorn in her side, parading her wealth and beauty in front of Livia at any social gathering and gifting Livia with her old dresses in the name of Christian charity. Livia has tried to remain above Cecily’s pettiness but it’s becoming harder to swallow her envy when the girl and her mother are always visiting her home to share news of their good fortune.

Their latest visit brings news that the esteemed Mrs. Penhallow has chosen Cecily as the perfect bride for her grandson, Gabriel. The Penhallow family is one of the wealthiest in England and an association with them will bring prestige to any young woman lucky enough to marry the heir. Lady Glanville brags that Mrs. Penhallow and her grandson are visiting their estate so that Cecily can be presented to Gabriel and their betrothal made official. Livia finds herself a little jealous of Cecily’s betrothal but is happier that the neighborhood mean girl will be off to marry and will leave Wiltshire behind.

Gabriel Penhallow isn’t thrilled at the idea of marrying a woman hand-picked by his grandmother but the time has come for him to continue the family’s legacy. It’s expected that all the Penhallow men will marry, sire an heir and use their wealth and connections to influence noblemen around England. Gabriel escaped the pressures of his name for a time by working abroad as a diplomat, but his grandmother has started reminding him that it’s his duty to continue the Penhallow tradition. Arriving at the Glanville estate, Gabriel is unimpressed by his potential bride but figures that one debutante is much like another and their marriage will be comfortably convenient. When he leaves the house for a walk, Gabriel gets lost in the unfamiliar lands where he meets a beautiful woman walking through a wooded area and he’s immediately attracted to her. From her dress and her manner of speaking Gabriel sees that she’s a servant and isn’t be the sort of woman he could dally with.

Livia is furious when the handsome man she meets in the forest arrogantly assumes she’s an uneducated servant. From his fashionable clothes and haughty manner Livia is certain this is Mr. Penhallow, but rather than correcting his presumption, Livia acts up the role of a servant and gives Gabriel confusing directions back to Cecily’s home. Later than evening when her aunt is discussing their invitation to Lady Glanville’s ball, Livia sees a chance to get one-up her neighbor and throw Gabriel’s arrogance back in his face. She creates a stunning gown from Cecily’s cast-offs and makes a dramatic entrance at the ball. Gabriel notices her right away, and is angry at her deception as well as aroused by her beauty. When he catches Livia leaving the ballroom with their host’s son it bothers Gabriel more than it should, but he follows her out onto the terrace where he interrupts her conversation and then rashly allows his temper and attraction to get the better of him. He kisses her in full view of the ballroom and soon he and Livia have an audience of his almost-betrothed, her mother and his grandmother. The last witness is Livia’s uncle who insists his niece is now ruined and must marry Gabriel.

What should follow this episode is the standard romantic storyline of a marriage of convenience between two enemies, soon to be lovers. It doesn’t quite work out that way and most of that can be attributed to Livia and Gabriel’s childish behavior. Livia doesn’t want to be married to an arrogant ass like Gabriel so she runs away. His pride gets in the way of managing Livia’s own anger and fear at their situation so he makes a rash declaration that they will marry but in name only. Within a matter of chapters Gabriel has taken sex off the table when that was the only motivation he had for getting married in the first place. These two knuckleheads have a very hard time talking without taking petty jabs and exploiting the insecurities they can see in their partner. As they are forced into each other’s company, lust seems to take over all the decision making. Gabriel’s no-sex policy is quickly thrown out the window, but they still don’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything important between them.

The story picks up a bit when Gabriel and his grandmother are faced with evidence that the Penhallow legacy is rather hollow. Livia then becomes the strongest character because of her experience having to take control and reshape her life in unfortunate circumstances. Both Gabriel and Mrs. Penhallow come to appreciate Livia for the kind and loving woman she really is underneath all the emotional walls she’s had in place since her parents death years before. She holds the family together through the crisis and Gabriel discovers that giving his heart over to his wife is a long buried tradition within the Penhallow family that should be revived.

While there are some problems in You May Kiss the Bride I feel like the story should be graded on a bit of a curve as this is the author’s first published work. The characters could have used just a tad more common sense; however there was still a romantic side of the story that I liked. I will reserve my judgement on Ms. Berne and the entire Penhallow Dynasty series until the next book is released.

The Highland Duke (Lords of the Highlands #1) by Amy Jarecki

the highland duke

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She’ll put her life on the line for him . . .

When Akira Ayres finds the brawny Scot with a musket ball in his thigh, the healer has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to save his life. Even if it means fleeing with him across the Highlands to tend to his wounds while English redcoats are closing in. Though Akira is as fierce and brave as any of her clansmen, even she’s intimidated by the fearsome, brutally handsome Highlander who refuses to reveal his name.

Yet she can never learn his true identity.

Geordie knows if Akira ever discovers he’s the Duke of Gordon, both her life and his will be forfeit in a heartbeat. The only way to keep the lass safe is to ensure she’s by his side day and night. But the longer he’s with her, the harder it becomes to think of letting her go. Despite all their differences, despite the danger-he will face death itself to make her his . . .

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Publisher and Release Date: Forever, March 2017
Time and Setting: Scottish Highlands, 1703
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 5 stars

Review by Sara

I was drawn to The Highland Duke for its promise of a hidden identity story. Once I began reading I discovered it was so much more and was quickly caught up in the adventure, danger and romance all set against the Jacobite uprisings of the early 1700’s.

The battle had been fierce but Akira Ayres had no concern over the political war being fought near her home in Dunkeld. All she knew was that there would be many wounded still left on the field who needed her help as a healer. Searching the grounds of Hoord Moor for survivors, Akira is drawn to a nearby clump of trees by the sound of someone in distress. Following the moaning she finds a man dressed much better than any of the dead or wounded men she’s seen on the field. Before she can question who he is, Akira sees that he’s been shot in the leg and realizes that her skills may not be enough to treat that kind of injury. Her patient seems more concerned about leaving the field of battle than his injury and he commands her to do what she can to remove the musket ball and get him mobile.

George, Duke of Gordon, came to Hoord Moor to support his cousin and the Jacobites who were rising up against the royalist Marquis of Atholl. His wounded leg is nothing compared to the death sentence he will likely face if the Marquis’ guardsmen find him on the field with the other surviving clansmen. His only chance is to retreat from Dunkeld and travel back into his own territory or at least to lands controlled by a clan allied with his own. The beautiful healer might be his only chance at escape but without knowing where her loyalties lie there is no way he can tell her who he really is. Calling himself Geordie, he sends her off to purchase a horse while he continues to hide. Upon her return, Geordie fully intends to leave her behind and make his way alone to a neighboring clan; however the Captain of the guard gets there before he can leave and his wounded leg makes riding almost impossible. Understanding in an instant that he still needs the woman’s healing touch, Geordie pulls her onto the horse and together they ride farther into the Highlands and away from danger.

Akira has never been more than a few miles away from her home but her dedication to her patient keeps her with Geordie during his flight. Their slow progress through the dense forests of the Highlands keeps the pair in close company even while Akira forces herself to remain detached from the handsome man she knows is keeping secrets from her. With Geordie’s health getting worse the longer they ride away from danger, the more important it is for Akira to remain by his side despite the jeopardy he’s put her in. Their journey reveals Geordie to be verydifferent from the overbearing man she first cared for on the battlefield. He is considerate of her comfort, he protects her even at a great cost to himself, and he seems to find her attractive despite her Gypsy heritage.

Taking a risk that his feelings for her are sincere, Akira succumbs to her own attraction to Geordie in an incredible moment of sexual release. Unfortunately, however, once she discovers the truth of his identity any future she might have hoped to have with her Highlander are dashed. His position as a duke and her own background as an uneducated “tinker” puts them leagues apart in social class and in expectations. Added to that problem is the fear that the soldiers are still chasing after Geordie to prove he was supporting the Jacobites and her presence on Gordon land is all the evidence they’d need. It is only Geordie’s constant reassurances that his feelings are true that keeps Akira by his side; however the more she tries to be comfortable in the lavish world of the Duke of Gordon the less sure Akira is that her Geordie – the man underneath it all – will remain faithful to her.

The Highland Duke is a rich, romantic story from start to finish. Both Geordie and Akira are fully developed characters who each take a very personal journey of discovery. The labels each of them carry in society mean nothing while they are on the run. Akira is used to fighting against the inherent mistrust people have for her because she is a Gypsy. While traveling with Geordie she is treated as a true Scotswoman and appreciated for her skills and kindness rather than suspected due to her heritage. For Geordie, hiding his title from Akira is initially a way to keep himself safe but an unintentional side effect is that Akira treats him as she would any other man. Her concern for him never comes from what she hopes the exalted Duke of Gordon can do for her but is a heartfelt sentiment he has never felt from a woman before. That sense that he could be himself is freeing and gives Geordie the chance to strip himself of behaviors that were more associated with his title than who he really is.

Ms. Jarecki does an incredible job of weighing everything Geordie does with the politics of the time. The danger constantly nipping at his and Akira’s heels keeps the story from ever slowing down, even when the two have to take a moment to think about their relationship. His position as Duke of Gordon is only by the grace of Her Majesty, Queen Anne, and if it’s learned he is a Jacobite sympathizer it will cost his family everything. Still, when Akira is put at risk because of her association with him, Geordie is willing to sacrifice himself to prove that his loyalty to her is stronger than towards any sitting or deposed monarch.

I loved reading The Highland Duke. The book’s pace moves quickly but I never felt the characters or their emotions were left behind just to keep the plot going. I am eager to read the next book in the Lord of the Highlands series but may find myself revisiting Geordie and Akira’s story a second time just to revel in their perfect romance.

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…”