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With This Christmas Ring by Manda Collins

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Miss Merry Parks makes a deathbed promise to a schoolfriend that her infant daughter will be taken to her absent father. There’s only one problem—to find the baby’s father, she’ll have to consult his cousin, Viscount Wrotham, the man she jilted five years ago. The man she couldn’t forget.

Alex Ponsonby, Viscount Wrotham, is stunned to find Merry Parks—looking more lovely than ever–on his doorstep with an infant in her arms. His shock soon turns to dismay when he learns his own cousin William is the man who abandoned his wife and child. As head of the family he’s duty bound to see right is done. But he can’t let this opportunity pass. He’ll take Merry and the baby to his cousin, but he’ll woo her back in the process.

Merry agrees to travel with Alex and the baby to Wrotham Castle, where the entire Ponsonby family has gathered for Christmas, but her plans to see the baby settled then leave are ruined by a snowstorm. After five years apart, Alex and Merry will spend the week getting reacquainted. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the holiday, or the magic of the season, but there could be something else in the air this Yuletide…A Christmas Reunion.

Publisher and Release Date: Swerve, October 2017

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

Review by Sara

With This Christmas Ring is a delightful holiday story full of second chances. A couple has the chance to clear up the misunderstandings that pulled them apart years before and in true Christmas fashion, a child’s birth brings everyone joy, love and the miracle of a happy ending.

Five years ago Miss Merry Parks and Alexander Ponsonby, Viscount Wrotham were engaged to marry. Their courtship had been a whirlwind affair but for each of them it was a perfect match. Merry saw Alex as a man who would love and appreciate his family before all others; Alex appreciated Merry’s intelligence and her kind heart. The only formalities left before they posted the bans were for Merry to meet the rest of the Ponsonby family, including Alex’s grandmother the dowager Viscountess. That fateful meeting between the young, insecure Merry and the formidable family matriarch changed everything and suddenly the engagement was off. Merry returned to her father’s home to serve as his secretary and try to heal her wounded heart. Her love for Alex never waned but her life soon became a routine of academic studies and supporting her friends whenever they needed her.

That need brings everything full circle when Merry’s best friend Charlotte dies giving birth to a baby girl. Before she passes, Charlotte reveals that she had been married in secret to Mr. William Ponsonby, cousin of Merry’s former betrothed. Merry swears to her friend that she will care for the baby and reunite the child with her father but Charlotte can’t tell her where William might be. Merry understands that to fulfil Charlotte’s dying wish she will have to reunite with Alex and hope that he will help her despite their uncomfortable parting years before.

Alexander Ponsonby has recently returned to England after spending a year in France in order to reconnect with his mother. The former Viscountess Wrotham had abandoned Alex when he was a young child to escape the abuse of his father; however in learning the truth, Alex also learns that his grandmother had played a part in pushing the young Viscountess to leave. Knowing that his grandmother is not above manipulating things to her liking, Alex has started considering the circumstances of his broken betrothal to Merry Parks. He never forgot the beautiful, smart young woman and has every intention of finding her and perhaps working out a way for them to be together again. His quest to reunite with Merry is over before it begins when she arrives at his town house with a baby in her arms and a story about his cousin’s secret marriage.

It seems too farfetched to believe his cousin William would marry and then never tell anyone but Merry has never been the type to lie. The Ponsonby family is gathered to celebrate Christmas at their home in Kent and Alex knows where he can find William to get the truth of the matter. Merry takes her role of the baby’s protector seriously and seems hesitant to leave her in anyone else’s care so Alex convinces her to travel with him to Kent to confront William and see that the baby is safe with her father. He also hopes that the journey will provide a chance for him to talk to Merry about her decision years before. If she’d reveal her reasons about why she left perhaps Alex can show her that their future will be happier if she can give their love a second chance.

Merry and Alex’s romance is the kind that is both simple and complex at once. Their love for each other is very clear but when they first were together there were challenges that neither one wanted to see. Merry was very sheltered in her father’s household and was perhaps not mature enough to see what it would take to be married to a peer like Alex. She needed to discover herself and find the inner confidence that could protect her from outside influences like the dowager Viscountess. Alex had lived through the pain of his mother’s abandonment but it had left a hole in his heart that Merry’s love might not have been enough to fill. In the five years of their separation he finds the courage to confront his mother about her choice and is mature enough to understand that a relationship is as much about giving as it is taking. Every moment he spends with Merry during the Christmas celebration he gives her his heart again in little ways; trusting her, protecting her and letting her take what she needs to feel safe enough to open her own heart again.

I enjoyed With this Christmas Ring, not only for Merry and Alex’s romance but also for another smaller second chance story that happens in the background. It’s a little different from Manda Collins’ usual style of romance with a hint of mystery, but it’s still very sweet and satisfying. For those who want to start their Christmas reading a little early or just love a story of people finding another chance to be together, this is a novella that I definitely recommend.

RETRO REVIEW: Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

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When Truelove Becket’s betrothed went missing in a naval battle, she vowed never to marry unless she found someone she loved as much. In the seven years since then, the quiet vicar’s daughter has lived a simple and contented life helping the poor people of her village. But now another man has asked for her hand in marriage and, unsure if she is ready to commit to him, she agrees to accompany her beautiful cousin Arabella on a trip to visit friends so she can take time to think it over.

Viscount Drake cut a dashing figure when he returned from war to a hero’s welcome, but the Battle of Waterloo left him a shattered and haunted man. As his dreams are invaded by the terrors of war he becomes a sleepless shell of a man, and as his torment grows he begins to wonder if marriage to the lovely Arabella will help restore him again. But as Arabella coquettishly flirts to secure Drake’s hand and his riches, it is the pretty and practical True he turns to for solace.

With the weight of her marriage proposal bearing down on her, True finds herself irresistibly attracted to Drake’s quiet dignity and genuine distress, just as he finds himself drawn to her honest nature and soothing compassion. When a spark of passion ignites between these two who have both lost so much to war, they will have to confront their biggest fears—and everyone else’s plans for their futures—to discover if love can truly cure all ills.

Publisher and Release Date: Originally published by Zebra in 2001.  Digital reissue, Beyond the Page, 2015

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Regency Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

The story of the poor relation who falls in love with the well-to-do handsome hero destined to marry another (who is completely wrong for him) is a familiar one, but while Donna Lea Simpson’s Miss Truelove Beckons ostensibly follows that pattern, the author actually subverts the trope of the “evil other woman” and crafts a story of more weight and substance than is found in many other Regency romances.

Major General Lord Wycliffe Prescott, Viscount Drake, son and heir of the Earl of Leathorne, joined the army when he was just eighteen, and served for a number of years before almost meeting his end at the Battle of Waterloo.  He was lauded as a hero on his return to England, but he couldn’t feel less like one; he saw too much death, bloodshed and wanton destruction, killed too many men and came too close to death himself to feel anything but disgusted by the war and his part in it.  Fortunately for Drake, the only outward evidence of his long service is a bad leg injury which has left him with a slight limp, but on the inside he’s a mess, haunted by memories and worn down by dreams and nightmares he experiences on a nightly basis.  His parents love him dearly but don’t know what to do to help him; naturally, it’s something Drake doesn’t discuss with them, but his mother can hear him screaming at night and is desperately worried for him.

In an attempt to divert Drake’s attention, Lady Leathorne decides it’s time to further a match between her son and Miss Arabella Swinley, the daughter of one of her oldest friends.  Although nothing has been settled officially, the ladies have long cherished the idea of such a thing coming to pass, so the countess invites Lady and Miss Swinley to Lea Park for a few weeks, sure that an engagement will shortly ensue.

The Swinley ladies duly arrive, accompanied by their cousin, Miss Truelove Beckett, the daughter of the country vicar and in whose house Arabella had spent much of her childhood.  She and Truelove – True – used to be very close, but in the years since Arabella’s come-out (and since she has been wholly subject to her mother’s influence) True has sadly noticed her younger cousin becoming more and more spoiled and more and more like her mother, who is sharp, haughty and not always kind.

True has come to Lea Park at Arabella’s request, and also because she needs time to consider the proposal made her by the local curate, Mr. Bottleby.  Seven years earlier, the man True loved was killed and she vowed never to marry unless it was to someone she loved as much as she’d loved Henry.  But she doesn’t want to be alone forever or be a burden on her father; Mr. Bottleby is a good man and True yearns to be useful… but she isn’t sure he will provide the sort of companionship she longs for.

Drake and True are almost immediately drawn to each other and Drake is surprised to find himself telling True things he’s never told anyone about the memories that haunt him and the guilt he carries.  She is a good listener and never judges him, knowing the right things to say and when to ask questions and when to remain silent. Her calm, rational demeanour has a strong effect on Drake, who finds her presence to be the one thing that can truly soothe him; their friendship definitely has a positive effect on Drake and she helps him to realise that he needs something useful to occupy him. This takes the form of a school which will employ veterans skilled in various trades to train other veterans so that they can find work – and for the first time since he returned from war, Drake is finally starting to feel like a whole person once more.

The growing friendship between Drake and True is not looked upon with favour by either his mother or Lady Swinley, although as Lady Leathorne begins to see the improvement in her son’s manner and health, she realises that the most important thing is that he is well and happy – and if Miss Becket is the woman to make him happy, then her social status is of no matter.  Lady Swinley, however, is a different matter; Drake is to marry Arabella, and she is not about to let her mousy cousin cut out her daughter, an acknowledged diamond of the first water.  Arabella at first comes across as a spoilt brat.  She simpers, swoons and pretends to be a dim-wit in the attempt to display all those qualities that so enamour gentlemen of the ton, but none of this has any effect on Drake, who thinks she must be a ninny.  But recognising that his mother’s heart is set on his marrying Arabella, he makes an effort to talk to her and actually finds that she’s not at all as empty-headed as she seems.  Unlike many other books in which the heroine’s rival is a nasty piece of work, Arabella really isn’t; as True has seen, she’s too much influenced by her mother’s mercenary nature, and by Lady Swinley’s constant harping at her about what she should be doing to attract Drake’s interest.

True is terribly torn.  She has fallen in love with Drake, but can see that Arabella is bewildered and disgusted by any mention he makes of the war while recognising that Arabella will make him a much better viscountess than she ever could.  Yet she also knows that Drake needs someone who will understand and love him in a way Arabella is unlikely ever to be able to.  And then there’s Mr.  Bottleby, who is awaiting her answer to his proposal…

Miss Truelove Beckons is a charming and well-written romance that tackles the difficult subject of PTSD in a sensitive way.  So many historical romances set during this period feature heroes returned from war with physical and/or mental injuries which are often glossed over, but that’s not the case here.  Drake is clearly a very troubled man; he suffers sleep deprivation because of his horrific dreams and frequently withdraws into himself during the day… and the reader really feels his pain and desperation.  True is good and kind, but she’s not a doormat; perhaps she’s a bit too good to be true (!) but she’s never overly sweet or cloying.

Although Lady Swinley is a bit of a caricature, the other secondary characters are well-drawn and contribute much towards this book being a cut above average.  Drake’s parents are especially well-done, and the brief insights we are given into their marriage are very poignant, while Arabella becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.  The writing is excellent and the central relationship is nicely developed, although if you like a bit of steam in your romances, this might not be the book for you, as things are fairly low-key with only a few kisses exchanged.  There’s no question that True and Drake are attracted to each other and that their romance is one born of friendship – but while I don’t need to read sex scenes in a romance novel, I do like there to be a decent amount of sexual tension and there isn’t a great deal of that here, which is why I knocked half-a-star off my final rating.

Nonetheless, Miss Truelove Beckons is definitely worth checking out if you are after a well-written, character-driven romance with a bit more heft than is normally found in the genre.

The Duke (Devil’s Duke #3) by Katharine Ashe

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Six years ago, when Lady Amarantha Vale was an innocent in a foreign land and Gabriel Hume was a young naval officer, they met . . . and played with fire.

Now Gabriel is the dark lord known to society as the Devil’s Duke, a notorious recluse hidden away in a castle in the Highlands. Only Amarantha knows the truth about him, and she won’t be intimidated. He is the one man who can give her the answers she needs.

But Gabriel cannot let her learn his darkest secret. So begins a game of wit and desire that proves seduction is more satisfying—and much more wicked—the second time around…


Publisher and Release Date: Avon, September 2017

Time and Setting: Jamaica and Scotland, 1817/1823
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

If you follow my reviews you already know I’m a big fan of Katharine Ashe.  The Falcon Club series is one of my favorites, and I’ve enjoyed each of the books in her spin-off Devil’s Duke series.  The Duke is yet another great addition to her catalog and I enjoyed most of it.  Unfortunately, Ms. Ashe tries to do a bit too much within the framework of her story – touching on abuse and slavery before the novel concludes – and seems to lose sight of the central plot, a second chance love affair between her very compelling principals.  But I liked it anyway!  The principal characters have great chemistry, their love affair spans years and oceans, and it’s another memorable addition to this marvelous series.

Lady Amarantha Vale grew up knowing exactly what kind of man she would one day fall in love with.  As a young girl, discussing love and marriage with her sister Emily, she didn’t worry about her father’s plans for her future; Amarantha was certain she would eventually meet and marry her true love.  At seventeen, she thought she’d found him – the Reverend Paul Garland, a young missionary bound for Jamaica.  Unfortunately for Amarantha, shortly after traveling across the ocean to marry Paul and begin their life together, she meets the true love of her life – naval officer Gabriel Hume, after she’s forced to shelter with him during a horrific hurricane.

When Lt. Gabriel Hume disembarked in Jamaica, he never expected to find himself alone in a cellar with a beautiful, unmarried woman.  Handsome and charming, Gabriel is immediately attracted to Amarantha, but recognizing how frightened she is, sets out to calm her.  The pair end up passing a companionable evening getting to know each other and keeping their fear at bay.  By the time the night ends, Gabriel knows he’s fallen in love with the lovely – engaged – Amarantha, and decides to do whatever he can to win her.

Emerging from the cellar, Gabriel and Amarantha discover an island ravaged by the effects of the hurricane.   Gabriel returns to his ship and Amarantha to Paul – only to discover him busy with plans to repair his damaged church.  She finds work volunteering at a hospital for the island’s poor, and it’s there that Gabriel locates her.  He sets out to woo her away from her fiancé – visiting her every day, lending her a hand whenever he can, and slowly but surely charming the lovely Aramantha.

It’s clear from the moment they meet that these two are destined for each other, but it takes time and patience for Gabriel to convince her to leave her fiancé.  She’s finally decided to break off the engagement when Gabriel receives orders to depart Jamaica.  Amarantha promises to wait for him, but shortly after he sets sail, she learns he’s lost at sea.  Devastated, Amarantha privately mourns Gabriel… until his cousin informs her that he’s alive and living with another woman.  Furious, heartbroken and alone, she marries Paul and vows to forget Gabriel.

This first (and best) part of The Duke is fabulous.  From the first moments in the cellar to their last moments together – when they can barely keep their hands to themselves and Amarantha promises to wait for Gabriel, I smiled and sighed and swooned as these two fell in love.  Gabriel is naughty, patient, kind and sweet, and he works hard to charm Amarantha and win her affections.  Amarantha knows she’s fallen for the handsome captain, but fights her feelings – she’s betrothed to Paul and plans to honor her commitment to him regardless of the love she feels for Gabriel.  When she finally decides to break her engagement and Gabriel begs her to wait for him… Oh reader!  It’s been such a delicious tease hoping for these two to get together… until Ms. Ashe dashes our hopes with the disappointing news that Gabriel has taken up with another woman.  Along with Aramantha, I WAS DEVASTATED.

Five years later, the widowed Amarantha is determined to find her friend Penny, who departed Jamaica for Scotland and hasn’t been heard from since.  She follows Penny’s trail to Leith, where she finds her friend and learns of the Devil’s Duke, a man rumored to kidnap vulnerable women and hold them captive in his remote castle.  Suspicious, Amarantha sets out to discover the truth about the Devil’s Duke and discovers… Well, reader, you know who it is, don’t you?   It’s Gabriel – the man she loved so long ago – but he’s not the man she once knew.

I’m not going to tell you what happens once Amarantha discovers that Gabriel is the Devil’s Duke – or even why and how he’s earned the nickname, because from the moment she discovers why Penny sought out Gabriel, Ms. Ashe’s story goes a bit sideways.  It’s convoluted and messy and difficult to explain without spoiling the plot.  Suffice it to say that while I do think the author makes it work, if the relationship between Gabriel and Amarantha weren’t so delicious, my feelings about this novel might be decidedly different.

But Gabriel and Amarantha are a dynamic and fiery pair.  She thinks he abandoned her; he thinks she gave up on him.  But shh…THEY STILL LOVE EACH OTHER ANYWAY!  From the very beginning, Amarantha demonstrated a willingness to follow her heart – even when it led her to mad, impetuous decisions.  She’s frustrating and difficult to like – because even though she’s loving and loyal to her friends (and her former husband), she’s blind to the hurt she caused Gabriel, and unwilling to accept the blame for their long separation.  She steadfastly followed Paul to Jamaica, only to realize she loved another man.  But then she gave up on Gabriel – with so little evidence of his guilt, and married Paul anyway… Yowsers.  I sympathized – she was young, alone and it looked like Gabriel had played her false, but she gave up so easily!  And Gabriel… when he courts Amarantha in Jamaica and then just patiently lets her burn out all that stubborn anger in Scotland.  Sigh.  I loved him.  I never felt like her let her get away with her selfish shenanigans – reader, he knew she was trying to fight through her feelings for him.  He did!  He took it and took it and then set her straight.  And once he sensed she was relenting, he didn’t let up.  Though I didn’t personally love Amarantha, Gabriel did – and through his eyes, I liked her anyway.  I loved this pair and their sexy love/hate relationship.

Once Amarantha arrives in Scotland and we begin to discover the secrets the Devil’s Duke is keeping, Ms. Ashe moves the plot forward at a furious pace.  It’s compelling reading, and though Ms. Ashe masterfully incorporates elements of slavery and domestic abuse into the narrative, the novel length prohibits her from fully exploring some of the more tantalizing storylines introduced via her secondary characters.  It’s a missed opportunity.

The Duke is sweeping, romantic… and sets the stage for the next book (and couple) to come.  It’s not my favorite in the series, but it’s a worthy addition, and as per usual with Ms. Ashe, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Three Abductions and an Earl (Parvenues & Paramours #1) by Tessa Candle

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London-hating dreamer, Lydia Norwood, has failed spectacularly as a débutante. Now an encoretante whose family has lost a fortune, Lydia discovers that the beau monde is hard on a nouveau riche social climber, particularly one who is no longer riche and only wants to climb trees. Lydia must stave off effrontery and conniving competitors long enough to make a good match, or else incur society’s scorn by earning her own money. Falling for the unattainable Lord Aldley is a distraction she cannot afford. But they share such an enchanted history, how can her heart resist?

The tragically virtuous Earl of Aldley is tired of ambitious families hurling debutantes at his head, but cannot hide in France forever. He returns to London to seek out the mysterious tree-climbing girl who once saved him from a scheming chit, and finds more than he bargained for. Abductions, seductions, trickery and injury all endanger Lydia, but Lord Aldley’s heart is imperiled beyond rescue. He has only just found her; will he lose her forever to his enemy, his best friend, or his own dangerous mistake?

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EXCERPT

Lydia Norwood was not quite the thing with her freckles and red hair, and she knew it. But Lydia did not want to be a débutante. She wanted to be left in peace in the countryside.

Her mother’s eager anticipation of the season had propelled the Norwood family to London in early September while the weather was still warm, and in time to escape the stink of fall agricultural activities at Nesterling Lodge.

Yet Lydia quickly found that she preferred the smell of freshly applied manure to the stench of the ton’s superiority over the nouveau riche. She preferred her horse to high society, where the company, like the flow of weak tea, was as insipid as it was abundant.

It was getting harder to slip away somewhere quiet to read, but the day’s trip with her mother to a pleasure garden outside of the city gave her just such an opportunity. While her mother was engrossed in inspecting the many rare varieties of rose bush within the gardens, Lydia quietly sneaked off down one of the promenades into the woods.

She trailed her fingers over bark and leaves, inhaling the life-affirming sylvan fragrance as she ambled along, finally deciding upon the perfect tree to climb. It had a limb ideally angled for propping her back against the trunk, and from the upper branches she was mostly invisible to the promenade below.

The warm air brought the scent of some flowering bush—she knew not what kind, for she simply could not attend to such irrelevancies, but it was pleasant. She settled into a contented slouch and found her page in The Necromancy of Abruggio. Then voices interrupted her solitude.

“Listen, we have not much time, Mrs. Havens. He should be coming along this way any minute. Here are two guineas. You may keep them if you agree to assist me.”

“What shall I do, Miss Worth?”

“When we meet him and turn back to walk with him, you will lose the heel to your boot right about here. Bang at it with this rock, that should loosen it. Then I shall send you back to the hall by the fastest path. He might offer to accompany you, but you must refuse all assistance, and be very persuasive.”

“Of course, Miss Worth. I understand completely.”

Lydia could not help spying on this exchange, and watched Mrs. Havens tuck the coins into the handle of her parasol. She thought it was an incredibly foolish scheme. And what was the point of having a duenna or companion or whatever she was, if she could so easily be bribed to abandon her post. How did this lend countenance to anyone?

The two schemers passed out of her hearing. She dismissed it as more of the stupidity inherent in society, and returned to her novel.

To her irritation, her repose was shortly interrupted again.

“These gardens are heavenly, are they not?” Miss Worth had returned.

“I should say that they fall rather into the realm of earthly delights. That is their design, it would seem.” It was a man’s voice, deep and strong and smooth, and, Lydia thought, quite bored.

Anyone with such a voice would have a distinct advantage in the world, an ability to influence the listener with the pure beauty of the sound. Indeed, she found herself a little spellbound by it. Who was he?

“Oh, quite right. How clever!” Miss Worth simpered. “According to the on-dits, the master has actually constructed these ruins and temples that you see scattered around the grounds to lend romance to the landscapes. But they look for all the world like they are authentic. Delightful, is it not?”

Lydia winced. This was just the sort of inane prattle that she was trying to escape, and now she was a captive audience, for she could hardly shuffle out of the tree, excuse herself and scurry away. Could she? No, no. Of course not.

“I suppose the romance is diminished somewhat by the knowledge that they are recent artifices rather than ancient artefacts.” The beautiful voice vibrated through Lydia. It was terribly distracting.

“Oh, how you have a way with words, my lord!”

The party was coming into view, and Lydia peeked through the branches of her perch to spy upon them. Mrs. Havens dawdled behind and appeared to be fidgeting with her boot. She was sensibly dressed, with mousy hair, and when she stood up she revealed a remarkably plain face. An ideal companion for the other lady, then.

Miss Worth wore a pink day dress, rabidly frothing with lace, and held a matching parasol, which was unnecessary in the shade of the trees.
The young lady was decidedly pretty—that is, her prettiness was the product of decision. She had some natural appeal, with blue eyes, blond curls, and a slightly up-turned nose, but her hair, dress, bearing, and way of lowering her lashes demurely all fixed her as pretty in a premeditated sort of way.

Lydia wondered if it were having the desired effect on the gentleman, or whether the romance were diminished somewhat by the knowledge of the artifice.

“Miss Worth, my lord, forgive me. I am afraid that I must turn back.” Mrs. Havens interrupted the tête-à-tête.

“Whatever is the matter, Mrs. Havens?” Miss Worth’s mouth formed a dainty rosebud O of concern.

“My boot heel has come free. I shall turn back. Perhaps there is a servant at the hall who might fix it. If so, I shall catch up with you later.”

Lydia wished she could see the face of the lord, but as he was a great deal taller than the ladies, any view of his head was entirely blocked. She could not make out anything aside from well-tailored clothes and broad, nicely shaped shoulders.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tessa Candle is a lawyer, world traveler, and author of rollicking historical regency romance. She also lays claim to the questionable distinction of being happily married to the descendant of a royal bastard.

When she is not slaving over the production and release of another novel, or conducting research by reading salacious historical romances with heroines who refuse to be victims, she divides her time between gardening, video editing, traveling, and meeting the outrageous demands of her two highly entitled Samoyed dogs. As they are cute and inclined to think too well of themselves, Tessa surmises that they were probably dukes in a prior incarnation.

Those wishing to remain apprised of the status on her patent for the Rogue-o-matic Self-ripping Bodice should subscribe to Tessa Candle Updates on her website.

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Caught by the Scot (Made to Marry #1) by Karen Hawkins


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When the dark Duke of Hamilton loses his beloved wife, he heeds her dying wish that he make certain her three brothers marry well for she fears they are all headed to ruin. Heartsick, the Duke approaches the task with a heavy hand, ordering the three brothers to marry within three months or forego their inheritance.

The middle brother, the dashing Conner Douglas, is not about to give up his independence, but he knows marriage doesn’t always mean one much change, does it? If anything, being married to a pliable sort of female would give him even more opportunity to seduce the married women of the ton. So he heads straight for the most pliable female he knows – a childhood acquaintance and now mousy spinster, the English born and bred Miss Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe.

Conner is so certain Theodora will joyously agree to marry him, that he takes his time traveling to her house and has only one month to secure her hand and marry. Yet when he arrives at her parents’ house he discovers that Theodora has just run away with a local landowner – a farmer, no less! Unknown to Conner, Theodora has been wildly, passionately in love with him for years. But she’s accepted he only sees her as a friend. Unable to sit forever in her parents’ front parlor and wait for what will never happen, Theodora decided to marry someone comfortable in the hopes they might at least become good partners.

Unaware of Theodora’s feelings, Conner isn’t about to let ‘the perfect wife’ get away so easily. But as Conner seduces Theodora, his own feelings stir. And after surviving a trip of mishaps and traps, he discovers that he can’t image her marrying anyone but him.

Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, September 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, early 19th Century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Caz

Caught by the Scot is the first in a new series from Karen Hawkins which features a trio of brothers who are given four months in which to get married if they are to receive their respective inheritances under the terms of their sister’s will.  It’s an undemanding and very readable friends-to-lovers story in which the principal conflict comes from the fact that the hero and heroine want different things from life, and it’s touch-and-go as to whether they are prepared to compromise in order to be together.

In a sombre, almost heart-breaking opening chapter, we learn of the death in childbed of Anna, the Duchess of Hamilton, who has left behind a baby son, a grieving widower and the three younger brothers to whom she was more of a mother than a sister.  One of Anna’s dearest wishes was to see her brothers happily settled with families of their own, and in order to honour that wish, her husband presents Connor, Jack and Declan Douglas with an ultimatum; get married within four months or forfeit the fortune left them by their sister.  The brothers aren’t best pleased and, as each of them is quite secure financially, they aren’t too worried at the prospect of forfeiting the money – until the Duke tells them that he will give it to their family’s greatest enemies, the Campbells, if they do not do as Anna wished.

The brothers agree to the terms and are discussing the sort of wives they want when Conner hits upon the perfect solution to his situation.  Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe, the sister of one of his best friends is well-born, practical and pretty enough, although rather quiet – and, as the daughter of a diplomat, will have no trouble managing his household in his frequent and lengthy absences overseas.  She’s on the shelf and is sure to be grateful for his offer, so Connor confidently expects to be able to do as his sister wanted within the time limit and decides to enjoy the last of his bachelorhood, nonchalantly waving off his brothers’ surprise that he isn’t going to propose to Thea straight away.  But Conner isn’t worried.  Thea’s safely stowed at her father’s house and will be waiting for him when he eventually shows up, right?

Wrong.

When Conner finally emerges from his month long carouse and arrives at Cumberbatch House, it’s to find the place in uproar following Thea’s elopement with a local squire.  Needless to say, Connor is shocked – and furious – that Thea hasn’t been calmly sitting there waiting for him, and sets off in pursuit, determined to bring her to her senses and make her his bride.

Thea has been in love with Conner for years, but knows he has never seen her as anything but his best friend’s little sister.  She also knows that Conner loves nothing so much as his career as a highly successful privateer; he loves the freedom to come and go as he pleases and doesn’t like staying in one place too long, things which are diametrically opposed to those Thea wants from life.  Having spent most of her life travelling with her parents as her father moved from one ambassadorial post to another, she is tired of not having anywhere she can really call home.  So when the handsome and very agreeable Squire Lance Fox starts courting her, she encourages his interest and accepts his proposal of marriage.

For once, Thea is going to do something exciting and unexpected… except she bargains without Lance’s inept driving which lands them in a ditch and their vehicle in need of repair.  This delay enables Conner to catch up with them at the first inn he comes to – and he almost immediately makes Thea the most arrogant, condescending marriage offer ever, to which she, not surprisingly, says an emphatic “no”.

Once Conner has recovered from the shock of being turned down in favour of another man he decides to try to convince Thea to break her engagement by proving to her that there is true passion between them.  But no matter how knee-weakening Conner’s kisses, Thea knows he’s wedded to the sea and is not the man to make her a home and spend his life at her side.  She continues to resist his sensual blandishments, at which point Conner realises he needs to change tack.  Rather than trying to sweep her off her feet, she needs to spend enough time with Lance to see what Conner has already seen – that she and her devoted fiancé are completely ill-suited.  Lance believes Thea to be something she’s not and Conner knows that he’ll drive her barmy within weeks.  Lance has the idea that Thea is a perfect specimen of demure womanhood and will meekly accept his every instruction and suggestion without complaint, whereas Conner knows all too well that Thea has a brain and knows how to use it; she’s not afraid to voice her own opinions and most definitely won’t appreciate being treated like some sort of delicate flower.

Conner’s machinations – which include engaging the most unsuitable chaperone in the history of chaperones – are devious and sometimes amusing, especially when they backfire and only make the likelihood of Thea’s changing her mind even more remote.  I liked that Thea is wise to his game, and also that as the ill-fated elopement continues, she sheds her rose-tinted view of Conner and sees him as the man he really is.  And Conner, well… he starts out seeming like a conceited git; he’s so sure that Thea will fall into his arms and weep with gratitude at the prospect of marrying him, yet it’s telling that she’s the first – and only – woman he thinks of when he learns he has to find a wife.  Of course, it takes the prospect of losing Thea to open Conner’s eyes to the truth of his feelings for her and for him to realise that he wants her enough to consider making some substantial changes to his way of life so that they can be together.

Ms. Hawkins writes with a very sure hand; the relationship between Conner and Thea is well drawn and the dialogue is sharp and often funny, but while I enjoyed Caught by the Scot, it didn’t have that certain something that elevated it from the merely “good”, and didn’t really offer anything I haven’t read hundreds of times before.  I also got very tired very quickly of the written out dialect; all the “dinnae”s and “cannae”s and “mon”s and “verra”s that are so often found in stories featuring Scottish characters, and which are completely unnecessary.  It’s not that I found the text difficult to read or understand, it’s just an affectation that annoys me; the author tells us this character is a Scot, so unless I’m told otherwise, they have a Scottish accent which I’m quite capable of imagining for myself.

With that said, fans of sexy Scottish heroes should find much to enjoy in Caught by the Scot, which is by turns poignant, sensual and funny.  I may well stick around for the next book to see how the next Douglas brother is Made to Marry.

His Mistletoe Wager by Virginia Heath

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“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal.”

Notorious rake Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is certain he’ll win his Christmas bet—until he learns he’ll be stealing Lady Elizabeth Wilding’s kisses. A woman who refuses to be charmed!

Once jilted, Lizzie must guard her heart, because the ton is unaware of her scandalous secret—her son! Despite their increasing attraction, she can’t risk the persistent Hal bringing down her defenses. But when her former fiancé returns, Lizzie realizes that perhaps Hal’s the one man she can trust—with her heart and her son…

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

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Honestly, when my editor offered me His Mistletoe Wager for review, I had fairly low expectations.  NOT because I don’t like Ms. Heath’s books – I do!  But in general, I’m not fond of Christmas stories or secret babies, and my experience reading Harlequin Historicals has been a bit hit or miss.  So you can imagine my surprise when I fell in love with this book right from the start.  The premise (the wager referenced in the title), the principals, even the secret baby – everything works.  Charming, romantic and funny, His Mistletoe Wager is one of my favorite  books this year, and Henry Stuart, Earl of Redbridge, is my new favorite reformed rake. Friends.  Let’s keep it real.   I ❤ Hal.

On the day of her wedding, Lady Elizabeth Wilding is eagerly awaiting her (late) bridegroom.  As her anxious father paces in the vestry next to her, she keeps herself calm with loving thoughts of Charles, the Marquess of Rainham, and the babe she carries – a secret she’s kept for the past two months.  But the wedding never takes place; after a long delay she learns that Charles isn’t coming.  He’s departed for Gretna Green with a much richer prospect, leaving Lizzie pregnant, alone and with her heart shredded into irreparable pieces.

Fast forward five years… Henry Stuart, the Earl of Redbridge, is desperately trying to escape the crush of the Renshaw ball by hiding out on their frigidly cold terrace.  Hal used to largely avoid the parties and balls in favor of other, more appealing amusements, but this year the eligible, rich, handsome new earl is expected to make more than just an appearance.  The Renshaw ball marks the start of a hellish month of festive holiday functions he’s expected to attend.  Hal’s lost in thought, exhausted from trying to avoid marriage minded mamas and their eager daughters, worrying that something is missing in his life, when his brother-in-law approaches – joking that he hopes he hasn’t interrupted a lover’s tryst.

Aaron Wincanton, Viscount Ardleigh (hero of Her Enemy at the Altar), might be joking, but Hal is tired of all the overeager women hounding him. Aaron rather unsympathetically teases him for being wealthy, handsome and single, but then proposes a challenge.

“Five berries equal the five separate kisses I challenge you to steal. Each one in a different location and all five before Twelfth Night.  Let us call it The Mistletoe Wager, in a nod to the season.”  

Their bets always had names and there had been some momentous ones.  The North Road Race.  The Serpentine Swim.  The Fisticuffs Experiment and the ill-conceived and often-lamented Naked Night in Norfolk, when they both nearly froze to death trying to brave the winter weather sitting out in the elements on the exposed beach of Great Yarmouth.  They had hastily agreed to end that one early when they simultaneously lost feeling in their gentlemen’s areas.

The loser has to muck out the other’s stables single-handed; Hal is so confident he can win, he eagerly accepts.  But Aaron adds one last detail – he gets to pick the woman Hal has to kiss.

Now, you already know who the lucky lady is don’t you?  It’s Lizzie, whom Hal has nicknamed Sullen Lizzie. Unsociable.  Unapproachable.  Unreachable.  For years, Lizzie has indulged her father’s desire to see her wed by accompanying him to dinners, parties and balls, and pretending a willingness to marry, but after having her heart broken by Charlie, she’s vowed to remain a single mother.  She’s managed to keep her son Georgie a secret – only her father and their household staff even know he exists – but she’s grown weary of keeping him hidden in London, and it’s become harder to keep the secret.  Lizzie has a plan in place to leave London with Georgie as soon as the season ends, but she knows it will devastate her father.  She’s decided to wait until Twelfth Night, and the Earl of Redbridge’s ball, to tell him of her plans.

Hal knows he has to be at the top of his game with the very beautiful Lizzie, and after observing her – she’s seated in the furthest corner of the room, alone, seemingly daring anyone to approach – he joins her.  Lizzie rudely suggests he go somewhere else, but when he doesn’t, she finds herself reluctantly charmed by her handsome companion. After her father approaches with yet another eligible bachelor, Hal feigns interest in her to keep the other man at bay… and then proposes that he and Lizzie help each other.  Hal needs a love interest so as to deter the women who hope to marry him, and Lizzie needs a way to halt her father’s matchmaking.  Hal is confident he can coax five kisses out of Lizzie as the holiday season ramps up, and although Lizzie initially refuses, he doesn’t relent and stays close to her.  After spending time with Hal, Lizzie reluctantly discovers she likes him and agrees.

Reader, there’s so much more to this story than the Mistletoe Wager, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Discover it for yourself by reading this delightfully charming and romantic novel!  Lizzie’s secret – that she has a five year old son – plays a significant role as the tale unfolds, but the relationship between Hal and Lizzie is always the focus.  Hal is the best kind of rakish hero.  Handsome, appealing, good and kind, protective to a fault, naughty and mischievous… well, I fell for him just as hard as Lizzie does.  His internal PoV is deliciously funny, wicked and endearing – he’s bewildered by his feelings for Lizzie and slow to realize he’s fallen in love with her.  But once he does, he gives 100% to helping her and making her happy.  Lizzie is similarly likeable.  Though her character doesn’t really blossom until she opens herself up to Hal’s affections, she’s guarded for good reason.  Charlie’s betrayal hurt her deeply and the wound has never healed.  Her love for Georgie and her beloved papa is intense, and she’s a sharp, witty, tender match for Hal. When her ‘shield,’ Hal, offers to help her – and manages to heal her wounded heart – she’s overwhelmed by the prospect of a future with or without him, though from the start, their ‘fake’ relationship is clearly anything but.  Lizzie and Hal are a sophisticated, mature and sexy pairing… and everything I hope for in a romance novel.

Ms. Heath’s secondary characters are equally good and I particularly loved Lizzie’s father.  He embraced his unwed, pregnant daughter when most fathers at this time would have cast her out, and it’s clear her happiness is his.  Hal’s sister Connie is terrific (I love their sibling squabbles), and her husband, Hal’s best friend/fiercest competitor in all sorts of mischievous shenanigans, Aaron, is the best – loyal, smart and kind.  There is a truly vile bad guy (of course!) and the reprehensible Charlie makes a re-appearance, but all these folks simply enhance an already great story.  The road to happily ever after has quite a few potholes, but it’s a joyous trip nonetheless.

His Mistletoe Wager is a good bet, a sure thing, and a guaranteed pay out.  Give a gift to yourself this holiday season and read this marvelously romantic and charming holiday romance.

 

A Dance With Seduction (A Spy in the Ton #3) by Alyssa Alexander

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Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.

Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…

Publisher and Release Date: Entangled Select Historical, July 2017
Time and Setting: London, 1816
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Review Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Sara

Alyssa Alexander returns to her world of spies and intrigues in A Dance With Seduction, matching a code breaker hero with a seductive agent of the crown. It’s a mix of danger, drama and just the right touch of deception to draw readers in.

Vivienne Le Fleur was literally plucked from obscurity to become one of England’s best spies. Hidden in plain sight posing as a courtesan, Vivienne uses her beauty and charms to learn men’s deepest secrets. Throughout the war with Napoleon she was the Home Office’s best weapon, as she could get into places a man couldn’t enter without suspicion. After the war ended, her efforts domestically have been to seek out those who supported the French from England’s shores and uncover their treason. It’s not the life Vivienne would have chosen for herself years before; however continuing to serve gives her the chance to protect her young sister from having to struggle in life as Vivienne did. Unfortunately, however, the illusion of safety is broken when she is contacted by a French agent known as The Vulture who knows about her hidden sister as well as Vivienne’s investigations into certain English nobles. Hoping to turn Vivienne into a double-agent he threatens her sister unless she follows the instructions left in a coded message. Code breaking was never one of the skills than Vivienne mastered but she knows of someone who can easily unlock The Vulture’s secrets.

Maximilian Westwood did his service for King and Country by using his cryptology skills to break French codes during the war and help the Home Office in an administrative role. He was never a field agent and actually disliked dealing with spies and their duplicitous ways. Now the war is over, Max has happily removed himself from the world of spies and returned to an academic life translating texts for paying clients. His world away from political intrigues is interrupted late one evening by the arrival of the beautiful agent he’s known as “The Flower”. Her request that he help her translate a coded message is a seemingly easy task but not one he’s eager to accept as getting involved with her can only spell danger. She assures him it’s a one-time request and he agrees – but when he sees who has sent her the message his senses go on high alerts. The Vulture was one of the greatest threats to England’s spy network in the war and seeing him active again in peacetime could be a precursor to something terrible. Needing to know how Vivienne is involved with a dangerous French spy, Max puts himself directly in her path to get answers.

Their shared mission to expose The Vulture’s plans and prevent him from making a move to disrupt English affairs pulls both Vivienne and Max out of their comfort zones to form a lasting partnership. Vivienne has been a loner by necessity, only interacting with her handler and showing others the false personality of a practiced courtesan. Max has become a man of books and learning, eschewing any vices so as to distance himself from his wastrel brother’s reputation around London. Neither is living for themselves and Vivienne isn’t even certain where the real woman begins under all of the façades she’s adopted in order to survive. Working together makes Max and Vivienne face a mirror of sorts to discover depths they’ve never known. They each have skills that complement the other person, with Max being the analytical one and Vivienne having the strength and intuition to solve problems as they appear. The bond that grows from their working relationship slowly feeds into the attraction the pair have felt since their earliest interactions during the war.

Max is a wonderful Beta hero who isn’t threatened by Vivienne’s skills but still can be assertive when the moment calls for it. He fights to keep their relationship professional but cannot ignore the moments where Vivienne’s confidence slips and he sees the woman beneath the spy. Only then does he allow her to know of his insecurities and provide a safe place where she can drop the act of polished courtesan or skilled agent and just be herself. For Vivienne, her life was basically rewritten at a young age by those who always seemed to know better than her. Max never treats her in that fashion and tends to depend on her experience, letting her take the lead to show that she is more than who she was molded to be. As they uncover The Vulture’s network and follow the clues to protect her sister, Vivienne learns what is truly important to her in life. During the war it was always the mission, but in peacetimes it could be family, belonging and having the courage to fight for things that she wants for herself.

The slow pacing of A Dance With Seduction seemed incongruous when compared to the danger and stakes of Max and Vivienne’s mission. I had trouble completely losing myself in the story but felt that the plot, the characters and the consequences of their choices were all well described and meaningful. Overall the book works best to showcase two capable people learning to trust themselves while finding understanding in love with the last person they would expect.

A Taste of Honey (Lively St. Lemeston #4) by Rose Lerner


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Robert Moon risked everything, including his father’s hardwon legacy, to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery on the busiest street in Lively St. Lemeston. Now he’s facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

When a huge catering order comes in, he agrees to close the sweet-shop for a week to fill it. There’s only one problem: his apprentice is out of town, so his beautiful shop-girl Betsy Piper must help Robert in the kitchen.

Betsy’s spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. Now the two of them are alone in a kitchen full of sweet things. With just one week to get him to fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…

She soon discovers that Robert brings the same meticulous, eager-to-please attitude to lovemaking that he does to baking, but can kisses—no matter how sweet—compete with the Honey Moon in his heart?

Publisher and Release Date: Rose Lerner, September 2017

Time and Setting: Regency Era, Sussex, England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance Novella
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

The world of Ms. Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston is much different to the one I experience in my usual historical romantic reading, and it always takes me a few chapters to adjust and settle in. These stories aren’t about dukes and duchesses, wealthy tradesman or even ruthless and diabolical men and women who have used cunning and smarts to become powerful . Instead, the Lively St. Lemeston series features normal people with very human, real and recognizable problems. Yet although I can appreciate (and like) Ms. Lerner’s affectionate and moving portrayals of everyday men and women, A Taste of Honey doesn’t deliver on the escapism I look for when I crack open a romance novel. Fortunately, Ms. Lerner is a terrific writer and the quality of this story transcends its tough luck premise; though short, A Taste of Honey is a sweetly moving and erotic workplace romance in which the romantic relationship that develops between its flawed principals is awkward, charming, and oddly endearing – and in spite of myself, I smiled when it ended.

It’s been quite a while since I read Sweet Disorder, the first book in the series, and I only vaguely remembered Robert Moon, the hero of this story. But for those of you who haven’t read that novel (it’s not necessary), or are similarly memory-challenged, he owns the Honey Moon Confectionary in Lively St. Lemeston and when we first met him, local elections loomed, the Tories needed more votes to secure their candidate, and the Honey Moon wasn’t turning a profit. Desperate to secure the financial future of his shop (and despite a secret affection for his shopgirl, Betsy Piper), Robert agreed to marry a young local widow in order to secure two additional votes for the Tories in exchange for financial security at the Honey Moon. The pair were ill-matched, the plot convoluted and destined to fail, and the widow fell in love with and married another man. When A Taste of Honey begins, Robert is still single and wants to marry Betsy… but the shop is nearly bankrupt, and he faces a possible stint in debtor’s prison. Unwilling to pursue a relationship with the beautiful Betsy with the Honey Moon on the verge of failing, he keeps his regard for her to himself.

The solution to Robert’s problems arrives in the form of a large catering order from the haughty Mrs. Lovejoy, who is hosting the local assembly and wants Robert to cater the event. Payment for the order will keep the Honey Moon open, provide funds to pay off his creditors and means Robert will finally be able to pursue Betsy. Unfortunately, his apprentice Peter is out of town; fulfilling the large order will require him to close his shop for a week, work non-stop with Betsy to complete the order on time, and take on additional debt. Robert agrees despite his misgivings about Mrs. Lovejoy (who frequently changes her mind and seems to dislike Betsy), and concerns about the small margin for error should they fail.

Meanwhile, Betsy harbors a secret tendre for Robert. She wants to marry him, support him at the shop and be his helpmeet in every way. Hurt by his proposal to the widow Phoebe Stark – despite knowing why he did it, and tortured by thoughts that Robert doesn’t think she is good enough for him – she’s convinced this week working together is just what she needs to secure his affections. When her closest friend urges her to seduce him, she decides she will – if she has to. Not quite a virgin (she had a brief liaison some time back), she isn’t afraid of sex or pleasure and she wants Robert. So, after a long morning working alongside him, and growing increasingly bold with her suggestive innuendos that he fails to respond to, she seduces him.

Robert is a virgin. He’s shocked when Betsy suggests they have an affair, but he’s more than willing… and eager. What follows – a week in which they awkwardly and sweetly discover pleasure in each other – only complicates their relationship. Robert is consumed with thoughts of Betsy and all the things he wants to do to and with her, but convinced he can’t commit to her until his the future of the shop is secure. Betsy is similarly consumed with her feelings for Robert; she’s convinced she can and should be his partner at the Honey Moon and in life, but she’s hurt by his focus on the shop and silence on the subject of their relationship. Meanwhile, between passionate and erotic encounters in the kitchens, they work together to fill the catering order – which the insufferable and condescending Mrs. Lovejoy changes on a daily basis.

A Taste of Honey is a novella and the pace of the story is necessarily brisk, but Ms. Lerner paces the relationship perfectly. After all, Betsy and Robert knew and liked each other long before this story began and compressing their relationship into the week Robert has to fill the catering order is cleverly done. Unfortunately, the short format doesn’t provide much opportunity to explore the principal characters outside of their relationship to each other, and if you aren’t already familiar with Robert and Betsy from Sweet Disorder, you may wish you knew a bit more about them and the secondary characters that comprise the community of Lively St. Lemeston. That said, I liked both principals very much, and Ms. Lerner does a terrific job balancing their sexual exploration with their discoveries about each other – his/her fears, dreams and desires. In lovemaking, they’re eager and adventurous partners; outside of it, they’re cautious and plagued with doubts. It’s a frustrating, tender and confusing courtship… until the horrible Mrs. Lovejoy (more like killjoy) unknowingly helps them find their way to a deliciously satisfying happily ever after, complete with a side dish of revenge.

The Lively St. Lemeston series takes a very different approach to the Regency-era novels most romance readers have grown accustomed to. I won’t lie – I still love my dukes, rakes and tortured heroes – but Ms. Lerner makes a compelling case for this alternate version – ordinary men and women and their equally strong hopes and dreams. It’s not quite the escape I usually like in my romance novels, but it’s a fascinating, addictive and romantic version nonetheless. Readers looking for something a bit different should sample this sweet and charming honey of a story.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Not a Gentleman by Loreen Augeri

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When Juliana Stevenson’s father dies under suspicious circumstances, her greedy uncle betroths her and her sister to vile men for his profit. They refuse to be part of his plan and flee, but her uncle hires an arrogant, demanding man to bring them back.

Needing money to care for his brother and sister and repair a manor in disrepair, Nicholas Blackstone agrees to find the women. He captures Juliana but not her sister and imprisons her in his manor until he can discover the whereabouts of her sibling.

Juliana’s body calls to Nicholas, but she can never be his — her life is already mapped out. Can they fight the passion pulling them together while her father’s killer stalks them?

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EXCERPT

The small, warm form lay still below him. Had he killed her? No. Her ragged gasps penetrated his fear. Nicholas hadn’t meant to land so hard, but the aggravating chit deserved it. She held a gun on him and threatened to shoot!

But she was a woman, and a small one at that. He jumped off her, grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet.

“Let go…of…me.” She panted as she fought to catch her breath.

“Are you hurt?”

“I don’t…know. Probably. You pounced on me.” She fought to free herself.

He released her. “You had a gun.”

Miss Stevenson brushed the dirt from her bodice and skirt. “You tried to kidnap us.”

“I wasn’t kidnapping you. I was returning you and your sister to your uncle. He is worried about you.” He strode to one side of the cave and scooped up the gun lying beside the wall.

“He doesn’t care for us. His concern is how much money our marriages will bring him.” She examined her palm and winced. “We won’t go back.”

“He is your guardian.” He peered at her hands. “You cut yourself.”

She glared at him. “It’s your fault, and he’s not my guardian. I am of age.”

“Well, Miss Emily isn’t, and he wants you both. Where will your sister hide?”

“I have no idea.”

She walked away. This female who didn’t reach his shoulder actually walked away. He thought this job would be quick and easy, and he would soon be with his brother and sister with money to start repairing the crumbling estate he inherited, so he could return to the army where he belonged. Where exasperating women didn’t question his orders and answered when asked for information. He ran to catch up and grabbed her elbow. “Where are you going?”

With defiance flashing in her green eyes, she jerked from his grip. “To wash my hands.”

He let her leave. She wouldn’t travel far. She didn’t have a horse. And neither did he. Her bag sat on the ground with supplies strewn around it. He stuffed the items inside and scanned the cave. He hadn’t missed anything. He exited and stalked to the ocean.

Miss Stevenson crouched at the water’s edge, swishing her hands in the cold water. The sun starting its descent highlighted the honey-colored swirls in her cinnamon-brown hair. She had removed her leather half boots and cotton stockings, and lifted the hem of her blue skirt and white petticoat to avoid the waves. White, slim ankles peeked out and called to his fingers to wrap around the fragile bones and caress the warm, soft skin. To continue up the leg…

What was he thinking? He had taken this job for the money not a sexual interlude. Other females could take care of those needs. Ones who wouldn’t point a gun at him. He ambled to Miss Stevenson and stopped behind her. “How are your hands?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

Exasperating chit. “Where will I find your sister?”

“I told you, I don’t know.” She swept her hands through the water.

“I think you do. Get up.”

She stilled and looked at him, her eyes wary. “Why?”

“Because we are leaving.”

She rose and faced him. “I am not returning to my uncle.”

“We are not going there. He wants you and Miss Emily taken to him together. Since I don’t have your sister… But I will find her with or without your help and when I do, you will go back. Now, put on your boots and stockings.”

“We’ll see about that,” she whispered to herself but loud enough for him to hear. She snatched her footwear and marched up the sand to a dry spot away from the waves. She jammed them on her feet muttering to herself. When she finished, she hugged her knees and stared at him. “If not to my uncle’s, where are we headed? As you can see, we have no horses.” A self-satisfied smirk spread across her face.

She would be trouble, but he had led hardened, seasoned men and she was a slip of a girl. “Warrior wouldn’t have wandered far. We will find him and then search for your sister.”

Her smile fell. “Forget my sister. You have me.”

He started toward her. She tensed.

He was glad to see he had some impact on her. “Your uncle stressed he particularly wanted Miss Emily. And I can see why. She is pretty and obeys orders. Now let’s go.” He stomped past her.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Loreen Augeri has always wanted to write. As a child, her stories were about the horses she enjoyed riding. Later in life, after taking a course taught by Hannah Howell, she turned to writing historical romances. She is a member of RWA and the New England Chapter. Loreen lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. Graduating with degrees in sociology and computer science, she now works in her local library. She loves to read historical romances, the hundreds of books stored in her basement attest to that, walk, dance, and spend time at the beach in the summer.

Visit Loreen on her website: http://www.loreenaugeri.com/