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Dashing all the Way by Celeste Bradley, Eva Devon, Elizabeth Essex and Heather Snow

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A Rake for Christmas by Eva Devon

Lady Evangeline Pennyworth is done with being a wallflower and turns to London’s most notorious rake, demanding he teach her how to be desirable. After witnessing the love of his parents devolve into pain and anger, Anthony Basingstoke has vowed never to be swept away by passion, even if he finds himself taken by this wallflower in a way he’s never been before. Only a Christmas miracle will make true love a gift that will last forever.

Up on the Rooftops by Elizabeth Essex

Mischievous widow Caledonia Bowmont longs for London’s Christmas cheer, but a string of jewel thefts has brought the festive season to a standstill—and Society accuses the Scottish Wraith, Tobias McTavish. Toby is determined to clear his name and reclaim the life he’s built, so with Cally’s help, he heads up on the rooftops to trap the thief. Will they stop the high-carat crime, or find the hidden gem of lasting love instead?

The Very Debonair Lady Claire by Heather Snow

When Claire Barton’s twin is murdered, she takes his place in the War Department to flush out his killer. Her ruse works perfectly—until the man who once broke her heart becomes her new spymaster. The worst mistake of Andrew Sedgewick’s life was walking away from Claire that Christmas six years ago. Now that he’s found her again, he doesn’t intend to let her go—if they both survive this holiday season.

A Liar Under the Mistletoe by Celeste Bradley

Fearless Amie Jackham doesn’t attend balls to dance, she’s there for the thrill of robbing the lockboxes of the unscrupulous. With the notorious Vixen still at large, Liar’s Club spy Lord Elliot Hughes is taking the opportunity to clean out a few lockboxes for the good of Crown and Country—and leaving the Vixen’s trademark lacy handkerchief behind. Thief and spy can’t resist each other in this sexy, catch-me-if-you-can Liar’s Club holiday novella.

Publisher and Release Date: ERB Publishing, October 2017

Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Jenny Q

I’m loving these Christmas anthologies because I get to try a bunch of new-to-me authors, and with my reading time growing scarcer, I can manage a novella at a time while getting in the holiday spirit!

Dashing All the Way features four extremely well written and satisfying Regency novellas. I will offer my thoughts on each story and then on the collection as a whole.

A Rake for Christmas: Two people feeling the lack of that “something more” in their lives find it in each other when they least expect it. The story could have spent more time exploring their backgrounds since their experiences have taken heavy tolls on them both, but they are both very likable leads, and this is a sweet and emotional love story that’s also and nice and Christmassy. (There are no sex scenes.)

Up on the Rooftops: Sparks fly between a bored widow and a reformed thief in this tale that features wonderful banter, a playful relationship, and possibly the hottest carriage sex I’ve ever read! It also features a dangerous mystery with lots of action and excitement. Though the climactic scene takes place during a masquerade ball, Christmas is only mentioned in passing with no depiction of traditions or holiday ambiance.

The Very Debonair Lady Claire: A grieving sister impersonates her twin brother and goes undercover in the Crown’s code-breaking office in an effort to discover who murdered him and why, but her plans threaten to blow up in her face when the new head of the intelligence department turns out to be none other than the man who broke her heart six years earlier. This is a smart and suspenseful espionage story featuring a sweet and sexy second-chance romance, and in a nice twist, the masquerade ball from the previous story serves as the backdrop for the climactic scenes. My favorite of the bunch for the characters and the love story, but again, very little by way of Christmas ambiance.

A Liar Under the Mistletoe: A thief desperately trying to support her family and a young spy for the notorious Liars Club target the same mark and realize they are a great danger to each other in spite of the sizzling attraction between them. This ended up being my least favorite of the bunch. There’s too much time spent on acquainting or re-aquainting the reader with numerous characters from previous books in the Liars Club series, and the hero and heroine hardly spend any time together as they are playing a game of cat-and-mouse, so their connection certainly seems more like lust at first sight rather than something more meaningful. But this one does feature a bit more Christmas than the previous two.

All four of these authors were new to me, and I was very impressed with the quality of the writing and their ability to spin a satisfying romantic tale in such a short space. A little more Christmas in a couple of them would have made the collection even better, but so far this is my favorite of this year’s Christmas romance collections.

 

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

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Previously titled Pistols for Two, this collection includes three of Heyer’s earliest short stories, published together in book form for the very first time. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.


Publisher and Release Date: Sourcebooks Casablanca, October 2017
Time and Setting: Georgian & Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance – Short Stories
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

If you’re already a fan of the great Georgette Heyer – the author who pretty much invented the Regency Romance single-handedly – then it won’t take much persuasion from me to send you in the direction of this newly re-issued collection of the author’s short stories, most of them written for and published in prestigious women’s magazines of the 1930s. There are fourteen in this collection, of which eleven were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two; Snowdrift contains those plus three that have been newly discovered by the author’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester. Is it worth obtaining this new collection to read those new stories? On balance, I’d say that yes, it is, especially as one of the new stories (Pursuit) turned out to be one of my favourites of the set.

I don’t plan on reviewing each individual story here, as that would take more space than I have, so instead I’ll cherry pick as, like most anthologies, there are some excellent stories and some not quite so good ones. Each one features character types and plot elements that will be familiar to regular readers of historical romance; cross-dressing heroines, elopements, mistaken identity, dashing military men, second-chance romance, duels, high-stakes card games, regency-slang and, best of all, those handsome, authoritative heroes and their intelligent, witty heroines. Fans of the author’s will no doubt recognise the seeds of some of the plots and characters who later appear in some of her full-length novels here, too. I’ll also add a couple of words of caution. While very enjoyable, this is an anthology best dipped in and out of rather than read all at once; and these are short stories, so some of the romances are fairly perfunctory and in many cases, rely on insta-love. I’m not a fan, but in this case, it’s mostly forgivable due to the short length and the fact that the stories are beautifully written and enjoyable for so many other things besides the romances, so full are they of Heyer’s trademark laser-sharp social observation, sparkling dialogue and clever characterisations.

And so to the cherry picking. Pistols for Two is a rather unusual story in that it turns a frequently used trope on its head. Two lifelong friends discover that they are in love with the same young woman – another childhood friend who has grown into a beauty – and through misunderstanding and mischance, end up facing each other on the field of honour. Told through both their points of view, the young lady in question is a peripheral character and the author does a terrific job of describing the prickly, adolescent pride of the two young gents.

In A Clandestine Affair, we have an older hero and heroine who clearly share some sort of romantic history. Elinor Tresilian’s niece, Lucy, wants badly to marry the man she loves, Mr. Arthur Roseby, who happens to be the cousin of Lord Iver – who is vehemently opposed to the match. As it happens, Miss Tresilian is not overly in favour either, but headstrong Lucy is determined to have her way. When the couple elopes, Elinor and Lord Iver set off in pursuit, bickering and sniping along the Great North Road until… they aren’t.

A Husband for Fanny sees the young widow, Honoria Wingham, shepherding her lovely daughter, Fanny through the Season and hoping to secure the best and wealthiest husband for her. The Marquis of Harleston is certainly most attentive and would be an excellent match… so why does Honoria feel just the tiniest pang of jealousy when she sees how well the marquis and her daughter get along? You can see the twist in this one coming a mile off, but it’s an engaging story nonetheless.

To Have the Honour. Newly returned from war, young Lord Allerton discovers he has inherited a mountain of debt along with his title. His mother, however, is still spending money at the old rate, because Allerton has been betrothed to his cousin Hetty since the cradle; as she is a great heiress, once they are married their money woes will be over. But Allerton dislikes the idea of marrying for money and, not realising that Hetty has been in love with him for years,  tells her that he will not hold her to the arrangement between their families and she is free to choose for herself. Some timely scheming behind the scenes means that all ends well.

Hazard is one of my favourites; in it a young woman is staked in a game of chance by her weaselly half-brother, and is ‘won’ by the very drunk Marquis of Carlington. Foxed though he is, Carlington admires Helen’s spirit and insists they leave for Gretna Green right away. Helen is remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and I loved the way she issued a little payback to her not-swain the next day. Their dash to Scotland is fortuitously interrupted – by Carlington’s fiancée, no less…

Of the three new stories, Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road, the first is my favourite, being another elopement story in which an older couple once again takes centre stage. Mary Fairfax and the Earl of Shane are pursuing his ward (and her charge) Lucilla, who has eloped with the man she loves, Mr. Monksley, who will shortly be shipping out to the Peninsula with his regiment. In Runaway Match, the lovely Miss Paradise convinces her friend, Rupert, to elope with her so she can foil her father’s plans to marry her to the old, odious Sir Roland. She has never met her intended, but is horrified to realise he has followed them all the way to Stamford. Or has he? And in Incident on the Bath Road, the handsome, wealthy but ennui-laden Lord Reveley (always courted, never caught) is on his way to Bath when he encounters a chaise accident and takes up the young Mr. Brown who explains that he has urgent business in the city. This urgent business turns out to be going to the aid of the lovely Miss X, who is going to be forced into a distasteful marriage… and Reveley’s life turns out not to be quite so boring after all.

While Georgette Heyer’s full-length novel allow her strengths – tightly-written plots, characterisation and witty banter – to shine fully, there are enough glimpses of all those things in these short stories to make them well worth reading, whether you’re a long-time fan (as I am) or a newcomer to her work. Snowdrift and Other Stories is just the book to have on hand when you don’t have time to settle into a full-length novel and want a quick romance fix.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, narrated by Christian Coulson

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Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.


Publisher and Release Date: Harper Audio, October 2017

Time and Setting: 18th Century England and Europe
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Young Adult/Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 5 stars / Narration: 5 stars

Review by Em

I loved Mackenzi Lee’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue when I read it earlier this year, and when I decided to listen to the audio version in order to review it here, I doubted I could like it any better. Reader, I DID.  A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (in audio) is my favorite book of 2017.  This version, with Christian Coulson’s fabulous, spot-on narration elevates all the best parts of this marvelous book; I laughed, I cried, I grimaced and swooned my way through it.  It’s that good.  Read it – or listen to it (even better) and prepare to fall in love with its naughty, charming, and mischievous hero Henry Montague, his best friend Percy, and indomitable younger sister Felicity as they embark on a truly grand tour.

AGGTVAV is the (sometimes cautionary) tale of two lifelong friends making their Grand Tour told from the point of view of Henry ‘Monty’ Montague.  Monty is an unrepentant rake: handsome, flirtatious, charming, funny, lazy and largely oblivious to his many faults.  Though graced with good looks (and dimples), a winning personality and a wealthy family, life hasn’t been easy for Monty.   His father shows nothing but contempt for him, and his constant abuse – both physical and emotional – has led Monty to believe his life has no value or purpose.  He’s also utterly and completely in love with his best friend Percy, whom he’s convinced has no romantic feelings for him whatsoever. Emotionally adrift, fated to spend his life pining for the one man he can never have, and facing a bleak future at his father’s side, Monty is determined this Grand Tour will be memorable in all the best ways – drinking, debauchery, gambling and wild adventures.

Much to his dismay, Monty’s father has other ideas and informs Monty, moments before their departure, that they will be accompanied by Mr. Lockwood, who will ensure the group (Monty, Percy, and Monty’s younger sister Felicity – en route to a year of finishing school) behave appropriately, soak up the local culture, visit all the most significant and edifying sights. Most worryingly, he will report back and if Monty strays in any way he will be immediately cut-off and forced to make his own way in life.

The group sets off and the Grand Tour is everything Monty hoped it wouldn’t be.  Lockwood barely leaves them time to themselves, Felicity is buried in her books, Monty is rarely permitted a drink, and his heart aches with longing for Percy.  Finally, in a fortuitous turn of events, Monty and Percy manage a night out in Paris.  They drink, they gamble, they flirt… and then they passionately kiss.  Monty can’t believe his good fortune, but in typical Monty fashion mucks things up by hedging about his feelings. The evening ends in harsh words and a distance between them – quite the opposite of how Monty hoped it would unfold.

After their evening out  an awkward tension springs up between the pair and Monty, in typical fashion, promptly makes it worse.  Days later, attending an afternoon garden party at Versailles, he observes Percy talking to another guest who’s clearly (to Monty’s eyes) flirting with his friend.  Assuming the worst, Monty proceeds in short order to tell off his host,  get drunk, engage in an inappropriate liaison, and then, when interrupted in flagrante, runs naked through a room full of party guests to escape.

Much as expected, Mr. Lockwood informs the trio the Grand Tour is over.  He makes plans to drop Felicity at school and Percy in Holland (where he will attend law school), but in a stroke of (good?) luck, their carriage is overtaken by highway robbers.  Forced out of the carriage and onto their knees, it quickly becomes clear these aren’t your typical highwayman, and that they’re looking for something.  After a brief scramble with their captors, Percy manages to knock the leader out with his ever present fiddle case, and the three take off into the woods leaving Mr. Lockwood to fend for himself.  When they finally pause to take stock of their situation, Monty belatedly realizes the men are likely after the small box he swiped as he made his his calamitous exit from Versailles.

Once Monty, Percy and Felicity are separated from Mr. Lockwood, AGGTVAV hits its stride, detailing their misadventures across the Continent as they seek to restore the box to its rightful owner.  There are plot twists, manhunts, guns, double crosses, swords, pirates, true love and more – and you’re never quite sure what (wonderful) thing the author has up her sleeve next.  But it all works, and Monty, our intrepid guide, transcends the busy narrative and steals the show.  Charming, naughty and desperately in love with Percy, Monty somehow begins to find himself as the story unfolds.  Though it would be easy to dismiss Monty as simply a selfish and (disastrously) impetuous teenager, Ms. Lee has crafted a truly delightful, funny and marvelously entertaining hero for the ages.  Monty is far, far from perfect – but his faults are part of his charm, and his adoring – pure – love for Percy, make him impossible to dislike.

Much of what makes AGGTVAV such a great story are the supremely well-written principal and secondary characters.  Percy patiently endures Monty’s frequent and recurring missteps, stoically supporting him through thick and thin.  But despite a relatively privileged life, he’s still the biracial son of a West Indies landowner, and he’s spent a lifetime dealing with the thinly veiled racism and condescension of his peers – and Monty’s ignorance of the same.  For the past few years he’s also been keeping a significant and life changing secret from Monty;  when it comes to light, it threatens the future of their relationship.  When I initially read AGGTVAV, I thought Felicity made a nice contrast to her brother and Percy, but she didn’t particularly stand out to me.  I felt very different listening to the audio version.  A bluestocking in training, Felicity more than holds her own against Monty – she’s smart, wickedly funny, wise and wonderful, and without her, the story just wouldn’t be the same.  She’s a terrific contrast to the sweetness of Percy and naughtiness of her brother and the three of them together are a wonderful combination.

Although Ms. Lee’s writing is fantastic, Christian Coulson’s amazing narration truly brings this story to life.  He perfectly captures Monty’s voice – his charm, his confusion over his feelings for Percy, his sad acceptance of his father’s brutality, his wicked humor, his uncertainty about his life and it’s meaning and I loved his interpretation of the character.  He does a similarly excellent job with Percy’s voice – somber, amused and bemused; and he nails Felicity’s dry sense of humor and no nonsense approach to life.  I wasn’t as fond of his Spanish accent – but that’s a very minor quibble and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the audio at all.  Mr. Coulson is a revelation and his reading of AGGTVAV is nothing short of masterful.  Bravo.

Funny, romantic, and special, A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is this year’s best YA novel; with Christian Coulson’s narration, it’s simply the best – full stop.

Satyr’s Son (Roxton Family Saga #6) by Lucinda Brant

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London, 1786. Lord Henri-Antoine has returned from the Grand Tour to a life of privilege and excess. A vast inheritance allows him every indulgence, free from responsibility. Yet, Henri-Antoine maintains a well-ordered existence, going to great lengths to conceal an affliction few understand and many fear.

Miss Lisa Crisp is a penniless orphan who relies on the charity of relatives to keep her from the poorhouse. Intelligent and unflappable, Lisa will not allow poverty to define her. She leads a useful life working among the sick poor.

Under startling circumstances, Henri-Antoine and Lisa meet. There is instant attraction. When they find themselves attending the same wedding in the country, Henri-Antoine offers Lisa a scandalous proposition, one she should refuse but yearns to accept. Following her heart could ruin them both.

Publisher and Release Date: Sprigleaf Pty., October 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1786
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

In Satyr’s Son, Lucinda Brant has created a worthy conclusion to the Roxton Family Saga. This Cinderella-inspired love story features Henri-Antoine Hesham – the younger son of the late fifth Duke of Roxton and his beloved duchess Antonia – who meets his match in lowly but proud Lisa Crisp. Knowing this to be the last of the series, I joyfully savored this book, as I have its full-length predecessors, and although the earlier books are excellent, one need not have read them in order to enjoy this one. The dramatis personae are numerous, however, so I shall try to sketch them out in this review. The new reader may also choose to refer to the family tree appearing at the beginning of the book.

In Noble Satyr, Henri-Antoine’s parents meet and fall deeply in love, with the duke forsaking his debauched life to experience the unexpected joys of marriage and fatherhood with his much younger wife. Antonia and her “Monseigneur” have thirty wonderful years together, until he dies, and Antonia is inconsolable, almost to the point of madness. In Autumn Duchess however she finds love again with Jonathan Strang Leven, a nabob who inherits a Scottish dukedom from a distant relative. To her and everyone else’s surprise, she gives birth to a daughter, Elsie, now a precocious young miss at age eight.

In Midnight Marriage Julian, their eldest son, is forced by his father to marry the very young Deborah Cavendish and immediately sent on an eight-year grand tour with his tutor, Martin. Thanks to the gods of Romancelandia, Julian and Deb meet again as adults and fall in love. Now, Julian is the sixth Duke of Roxton, and he and his duchess have seven lively children who are the apple of their grandmother’s eye.

Dair Devil and Proud Mary focus on the Fitzstuart/Cavendish clan, Antonia’s cousins. Alasdair Cavendish returned from fighting in the American colonies to become a dashing, self-centered rogue, but he is brought to heel by his love for retiring spinster Rory Talbot. They are now the Earl and Countess of Strathsay. Dair’s sister, Lady Mary, is the heroine of Proud Mary. In the earlier books, Mary was unhappily married to Sir Gerald Cavendish, a self-centered social climber who tried to exploit his connections to the Roxtons. Upon his death, Lady Mary and their daughter Theodora were left virtually destitute, with the estate entailed upon the teenaged heir, Jack. Their neighbor, country squire Christopher Bryce, is Theodora’s guardian, and acting upon the wishes of Sir Gerald he refuses to allow “Teddy” (as she prefers to be called) to mingle with her Roxton relatives. True love wins out however when the socially inferior squire with the scandalous past finally declares his love for Lady Mary and is surprised to find himself welcomed into the extended Roxton tribe.

Whew. Got all that? As Satyr’s Son opens, all of these characters, and more, are planning to gather at Treat, the Roxton estate, for the wedding of Teddy Cavendish to her distant cousin Jack, now Sir John Cavendish, MP. As it happens, the groom has been Henri-Antoine’s closest friend since their schooldays. In the earlier books, Jack and Teddy seemed destined for one another, and now it is coming to pass.

But before the wedding festivities begin, we must become acquainted with Lisa Crisp, the orphaned nineteen-year-old woman who lives with Dr. and Mrs. Warner and assists in Dr. Warner’s dispensary. Although Lisa is Mrs. Warner’s cousin, she is treated as something less than a member of the family yet more than a lowly servant. Mrs. Warner is self-absorbed and indolent, while the doctor is kindly but engrossed by his medical practice. Neither of them gave much thought to Lisa.

Henri-Antoine is busy leading a dissolute life in London in the manner of his late father when a drinking bout at a friend’s home causes him to fall into a seizure. He has suffered from the “falling sickness” (epilepsy) since birth, but his condition is hidden from all except his close family and his pal Jack. By happenstance, Lisa is in the house when this incident occurs, and her medical knowledge allows her to discretely assist Henri-Antoine until the seizure passes. Afterward, he visits the dispensary to thank Lisa and is astonished to see that she toils among the poorest and sickest people in London. When he learns that Lisa helps the doctor’s illiterate patients by writing letters to their families, he buys Lisa a beautiful rosewood writing box with mother-of-pearl inlay. (A short visit to the author’s Pinterest page reveals a picture of such a box, along with other wonderful illustrations.)

Henri-Antoine is intrigued by Lisa, but the two never expect to see one another again. Imagine Lisa’s surprise and delight then when she receives a wedding invitation from her best schoolfriend Teddy. It turns out that Lisa’s aunt was Antonia’s personal maid and close friend for many years, and Antonia had arranged for Lisa to attend an exclusive girls’ school. After rumors of Lisa’s scandalous behavior got her expelled from school, she and Teddy lost touch with one another, but once again fairy-godmother Antonia finds Lisa, and insists that she be allowed to attend the wedding.

The romance between Henri-Antoine and Lisa blooms as they spend time together at Treat. To describe what happens there would be spoilerish, but suffice it to say that Henri-Antoine behaves badly at times, and he is a rather difficult hero to like. Some readers have disapproved of him so much that they graded the book downward, but overall I found his behavior understandable, if not especially admirable. And where Henri-Antoine is sometimes cynical and thoughtless, Lisa is kind and gentle and brings light into his life.

For this reader, the pleasure of catching up with all of the Roxton family nine years after the events in Proud Mary more than made up for some less pleasant parts. Because Lisa is the newcomer to this world, we see the extended Roxton family through Lisa’s eyes and hear their backstories through her ears.

Brant gives her readers her usual perfect mixture of history, romance, and family, setting much of the book in the glittering environs of Treat (think Bleheim Palace). So, time-travel back to 1786 and revel in the setting, the characters, and the story.

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.

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


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England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Publisher and Release Date: Kensington, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1919
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Mystery
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

Anna Lee Huber is a new to me author, though I’m fond of mysteries and historical romance, so it’s no surprise that many of my friends have recommended her books to me.  Unfortunately, my TBR pile somehow precluded me from reading her books each time I’ve made the attempt, so I was happy to get this first book in her new Verity Kent series for review.

Widowed when her husband Sidney was shot in a skirmish at the end of the World War I, Verity has spent the past year and a half trying to dull the pain of her loss in parties and evenings out with friends.  When she receives an invitation to an engagement party for one of Sidney’s fellow officers, an emotionally fragile Verity initially intends to decline.  But shortly after she receives the invitation, a cryptic letter arrives referencing her work for the Secret Service (a secret she kept from everyone, including Sidney) and suggesting Sidney might have committed treason before his death.  Shocked and unwilling to believe her husband guilty of treason, Verity decides to attend the weekend house party and do some investigating of her own.

As This Side of Murder opens, Verity – lost in thoughts of her husband, the letter, and the houseparty – nearly collides with another car.  When the handsome driver emerges, they engage in a flirtatious exchange about her driving and the driver’s own car – a pale yellow Rolls-Royce – and soon realize they’re both on their way to Walter Ponsonby’s engagement party.  After her companion introduces himself as Max Westfield, Earl of Ryde, Verity is startled when he asks if she’s Sidney Kent’s widow.  He reveals that he knew her husband – they attended Eton at the same time and served together during the war.  When they finally part and head to Poole Harbour, Verity finds herself wondering about Max and their meeting.  Why is he attending the party?  How well did he know her husband?  Could he be the letter writer?

Boarding the yacht that will take them to Umbersea Island for the party, Verity makes yet another discovery.  Though she expected the guest list to include some of Sidney’s fellow officers, it appears to be made up almost entirely of them.  It’s an odd group to invite for an engagement party, and, suspicious and overwhelmed by fresh grief for her husband, Verity climbs aboard determined to get to know the men who once fought alongside him – and to determine, once and for all, if he committed treason.

When she arrives on the island, Verity is greeted by her hosts and handed another letter. Exhausted by the journey and the prospect of the weekend ahead, she retreats to her room to read it – only to discover someone was there before her.  A battered copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which bears an inscription from her to Sidney, lies on the counterpane with yet another note tucked inside.  Verity is convinced the author is one of her fellow guests, but a separate discovery – intentionally hidden in the binding of the book? – seems to suggest Sidney might have been passing coded messages.  Verity isn’t sure whether her secret correspondent is working with – or against – her as she searches for the truth.

The initial trip to Umbersea Island casts a pervasive sense of foreboding and disquiet that runs throughout the book. Verity is suspicious of the other guests, and it’s obvious they are tense and ill at ease with each other. Something seems off, and it seems like the only person she can trust is Max – but even then, she’s unclear as to whether he can be trusted or not.  Most of the guests have history, and it soon becomes apparent that the men of the former Thirtieth Company have dark secrets they’ve kept hidden until this weekend.  As the engagement party continues apace, Verity simultaneously tries to crack the code contained in The Pilgrim’s Progress, get to the bottom of the tension between the guests, and determine if there’s a traitor in their midst.  No one is above suspicion, and when guests begin dying, Verity becomes desperate to discover what really happened to Sidney in his last days.

Ms. Huber paints Verity as an intelligent and independent woman who passionately loved her husband and hoped for a happily ever after with him following the war.  She alludes to Verity’s secret life working for the British Secret Service – but for some reason, she keeps the specifics of her work deliberately vague.  I never felt like I got to know Verity, aside from her feelings for Sidney (and maybe Max), and rather than leading an investigation, Verity seems more often to be in the right place at the right time to move the narrative forward.  When she cracks the code hidden in Sidney’s book, I sighed.  With only vague references to a history with the Secret Service, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe she knows so much about code breaking – and frankly, the skill just read like a convenient plot device.  We get to know the other guests at the party through the lens of Verity’s thoughts, but frankly, it was hard to keep track of all of them.  The guests each briefly star in the narrative, and then Ms. Huber focuses our attention on someone else. I never felt like I knew any of them well enough to suspect them as they were all – with the exception of Max – awful in their own way!  I liked Max despite Ms. Huber’s obvious efforts to make him a suspect, but without him, I’m not sure Verity would have ever ‘solved’ this case.  He’s definitely the more aggressive investigator – even though Verity kept information from him – and he rather conveniently ensures Verity is in the right place at the right time to discover new clues.  I had high hopes for him and Verity in future books… but, well, let’s just say I don’t believe Ms. Huber does.

I’m reluctant to spill any details of the house party only because I don’t want to reveal any secrets that might spoil the story.  That said, I’m not sure how my telling you – in detail – everything leading up to the denouement would really ‘spoil’ it for you.  Ms. Huber slowly but surely reveals the secrets that bind the guests together (there is an intrigue that links them to each other – and to Sidney) and ratchets up the tension…but when she introduces a ridiculous, convoluted plot twist ending, it just made me mad.  In hindsight, I see some of the clues she spread in the text… but really, if someone saw this coming, bravo.  I didn’t, I don’t see how you could, and I hated it.

Hmm… so would I recommend This Side of Murder?  Oh reader!  I’m torn.  I liked it, but I was easily and often distracted from it.  I wanted to like Verity, but I never really connected with her or the mystery and found it difficult to keep up with the secondary characters – about whom we know very little aside from their relationship to Verity’s dead husband.  It seems like Verity’s (very interesting) past will be more fully explored in future novels, and I’m curious about it.  But if those books feature her passively watching and waiting for events to unfold,  I’ll pass.

The Lost Letter: A Victorian Romance by Mimi Matthews

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A PROUD BEAUTY 

Society beauty Sylvia Stafford is far too pragmatic to pine. When the tragic death of her gamester father leaves her destitute and alone, she finds work as a governess in a merchant’s household in Cheapside. Isolated from the fashionable acquaintance of her youth, she resigns herself to lonely spinsterhood until a mysterious visitor convinces her to temporarily return to her former life–and her former love.

A SCARRED BEAST

Colonel Sebastian Conrad is no longer the dashing cavalry officer Sylvia once fell in love with. Badly scarred during the Sepoy Rebellion, he has withdrawn to his estate in rural Hertfordshire where he lives in near complete seclusion. Brooding and tormented, he cares nothing for the earldom he has inherited–and even less for the faithless beauty who rejected him three years before.

A SECOND CHANCE

A week together in the remote Victorian countryside is the last thing either of them ever wanted. But when fate intervenes to reunite them, will a beastly earl and an impoverished beauty finally find their happily-ever-after? Or are some fairy-tale endings simply not meant to be?


Publisher and Release Date: Perfectly Proper Press, September 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1860
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

Based on the beautiful cover and catnip tropes – a wounded hero, opposites, second chance love – and its fairy tale premise, I had high hopes for The Lost Letter and I wasn’t disappointed.  Mimi Matthews’ début novel is deeply romantic, and I enjoyed every (little) bit of it.  Her principals are an appealing pair, and the circumstances that force them apart – just as they’ve fallen deeply in love – hooked me right away.  On the downside,  Ms. Matthews does her principals – and the story – a disservice by delivering neither a traditionally short novella or full-length novel, and it’s a missed opportunity.  Secondary characters are underdeveloped, which is unfortunate for many reasons, but mostly because I liked them and wanted to know more about their backstories and motivations.  The Lost Letter is a sweetly moving love story… I just wish there had been more of it.

Sylvia Stafford never thought she would end up in Cheapside working as a governess, but when her father lost everything in a game of cards and then took his own life, she had few other options.  Destitute and alone – abandoned by fair-weather friends and without family to turn to –  Sylvia became governess to the two young daughters of the merchant Dinwoody family.  Treated fairly and with kindness by her employers, she’s spent the past two years trying (and failing) to forget the past and make peace with her new station in life.  Unfortunately, her memories of Sebastian Conrad have been harder to forget.

Three years earlier, Sylvia fell deeply in love with Colonel Sebastian Conrad, the second son of the Earl of Radcliffe.   She spent a heady season falling in love, but never confessed her feelings to him; when Sebastian was sent to India to help put down the Sepoy Rebellion shortly after their first kiss, Sylvia penned dozens of letters to him finally confessing her love and devotion.  To her dismay, Sebastian never responded.  Desperate for some sign of his affection, Sylvia continued to write even in the face of his rejection and in spite of her father’s (selfish) entreaties to find another, wealthier suitor.  After her father committed suicide, Sylvia knew she would never see or hear from Sebastian again.  Still hurt by his rejection but resigned to life as a spinster, Sylvia has made peace with the past and tried to forget Sebastian.

Unbeknownst to Sylvia, Sebastian returned to England badly wounded and with his face horribly disfigured.  Upon his return, he learned his father and brother were dead, and that he was now the Earl of Radcliffe.  But when his sister Julia swooned after seeing his injuries for the first time, Sebastian retreated to the family home in rural Hertfordshire, choosing to spend his days living in lonely isolation with only his valet (and former batman) Milsom for company.  His only comfort is a lock of hair given to him by Sylvia Stafford the last time he saw her.  Despite fond memories of the blissful weeks they spent together before he left for India – memories that helped him survive the horrors of war and a subsequent confinement after he was injured – he’s never forgotten Sylvia, or forgiven her for jilting him. Oops.

Fortunately, we have Sebastian’s much younger sister – the beautiful, meddling, Lady Julia Harker – willing and able to reunite this stubborn, lovesick pair, which she does with the help of the delightfully impertinent Milson.  A relentlessly optimistic and hopeful Lady Julia becomes convinced that if she can bring Sylvia to Sebastian, her brother will be happy once again, and after a bit of digging, she tracks Sylvia to Cheapside and implores her to come with her to Hertfordshire.

Oh reader.  Lady Julia is silly and ridiculous, and the premise on which this story unfolds is flimsy at best, but I liked it anyway!  Sebastian and Sylvia cherish memories of their past (the flashbacks are a highlight), and Ms. Matthews does a wonderful job contrasting who they are with who they once were.  When Julia arrives with a friend, Sebastian is irritated, but when he spots Sylvia, he’s shocked.  Memories of Sylvia assail him… but unfortunately, in a comedy of errors perpetuated by his flighty sister, Sebastian mistakenly assumes Sylvia is only after his fortune.  Resentful and hurt after her long ago rejection (and unaware of her father’s suicide), he’s rude, condescending and dismissive, treating her like the fortune hunter he believes her to be.  Sylvia is similarly overwhelmed to see Sebastian again, and horrified by what he must have suffered.  She isn’t horrified by him, but for him, and despite the pain of his long ago rejection she struggles to forge a friendship with him.

The Lost Letter relies heavily on one of my least favorite romantic tropes – the Big Misunderstanding – but Ms. Matthews doesn’t belabor it once our principals reunite in Hertfordshire.   Sylvia reveals early on that she did indeed write to Sebastian, but Sebastian – shocked to learn Sylvia never jilted him – fails to tell her he never received her letters.  I’m not going to tell you why Sebastian never received the letters (that little mystery is solved by Milsom), but his omission results in yet another misunderstanding that further delays a reunion between the couple. When Sebastian finally discovers what Sylvia wrote to him long ago, the letter overwhelms him and… well, this jaded romance reader may have shed a tear, too.

Sebastian, our “Beast,” and Sylvia, our “Beauty,” are a wonderfully opposite pair.  It’s easy to see how they fell for one another, and once they finally reunite, sparks fly right away.  I do wish Ms. Matthews had spent more time developing her principals, because even though I liked them and their relationship, and I sympathized with the circumstances that forced them apart – a credit to Ms. Matthews’ strong writing – we deserved more time getting to know them when they first fell for each other (before their lives changed so dramatically), and once they finally reunite and the truth behind their separation is revealed.  I’m torn over my feelings for Lady Julia; she’s often inappropriate and ridiculous for a person in her position in Victorian era England, but I liked her anyway and am willing to overlook those faults.  Lady Julia always has Sebastian’s best interests at heart, and despite his rebuffing her attempts to get close to him, she perseveres.  It’s an oddly endearing sisterly love.  I also enjoyed Milsom and his meddling… I don’t usually like ‘buddy valets’, but the relationship between these two men and their genuine affection for one another strikes just the right balance between friend and employer.

The Lost Letter, though short (too short!) is an emotionally satisfying second chance love story.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but Ms. Matthews does a terrific job developing the attraction between Sylvia and Sebastian, and delivers a happily ever after that’s both romantic and believable.  I’ll be looking forward to more from this promising new historical romance author.

 

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

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Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body that surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Publisher and Release Date: Berkley, September 2017
RHR Classifications: Historical mystery, with a touch of romance
Time and Setting: London 1886
Heat Level: N/A
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

I am breathless. Not to mention sleepless, as I had to stay up late to finish this amazing book. Sherry Thomas is simply a genius – twisting classic Sherlockian memes into complicated knots and then gradually untying them so that we’re left with a beautiful seamless ribbon of an adventure tinged with romance. A Conspiracy in Belgravia is most definitely going on my “playing chess not checkers” shelf.

This is the second Lady Sherlock book, and as we learned in the first, Miss Charlotte Holmes has set herself up as the supposed sister of an invalid brother, Sherlock, who is brilliant at solving baffling mysteries and who occasionally assists Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard. Charlotte is estranged from her aristocratic parents and lives with Mrs. John Watson, the colorful widow of an Army officer. Together, they maintain the facade of an ailing Sherlock living at 221B Baker Street. Charlotte interviews the clients while ‘Sherlock’ listens from his bedchamber. Only a few people know that Sherlock does not exist, including Charlotte’s sister Livia, Inspector Treadles, and Lord Ingram Ashburton – Ash – Charlotte’s closest friend since childhood.

Shortly before our story begins, Charlotte had helped expose a triple murderer, and here I must offer a suggestion: read A Study In Scarlet Women first. While this book could be read as a standalone, I think that a reader’s understanding and enjoyment would be enhanced by reading them in order.

Charlotte receives a note requesting an appointment from a Mrs. Finch, but Charlotte immediately recognizes the notepaper and realizes that the letter comes from Lady Ingram Ashburton. The situation is rather tricky, as Ash and his wife are not a happy couple, living virtually separate lives under the same roof for the sake of propriety and their two young children. Moreover, Ash and Charlotte are secretly in love with one another, although they would never admit it or act upon it. Ash is too honorable, and Charlotte is too unromantic to think of love. There is a palpable undercurrent of attraction though.

Charlotte accepts Lady Ingram’s request, but to avoid being recognized by her, Mrs. Watson’s niece Penelope poses as Sherlock’s sister. It turns out that Lady Ingram is looking for help in locating a young man, Myron Finch, with whom she fell in love before marrying Ash. For financial and social reasons, they could not marry but they agreed to meet once a year at the Albert Memorial, not speaking or acknowledging one another but merely passing to see that each was still alive and well. This year, however, Mr. Finch did not appear, and Lady Ingram wants Holmes to locate him and discover the reason. Imagine Charlotte’s surprise when Penelope repeats this story to her, for Myron Finch is Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother, a son her father had supported but kept a secret from his wife and daughters. (Charlotte knows about him because she and Livia routinely snooped in their father’s office when he was out of town.)

Charlotte is in for another surprise that day, when Ash’s older brother, Lord Bancroft Ashburton, pays her a call and proposes marriage. (For you Sherlockians, Bancroft is a Mycroft Holmes sort of character who holds a position in the government and can pull strings when needed.) Bancroft is the opposite of his brother Ash – cerebral, decidedly uncharismatic, and obsessively curious about everything and everyone. Charlotte agrees to consider his proposal, as it does present some advantages for her. Marriage to Bancroft would redeem her reputation in society, which was ruined when she ran away from home after being deliberately caught in flagrante with a married man. It would enable a reconciliation with her family and enable her to offer care for her mentally disabled sister Bernadette and to visit openly with Livia. However, she would be required to give up her Sherlock Holmes persona and distance herself from the socially unsuitable Mrs. Holmes. Bancroft offers her a consolation, though: “given that mental exertion gives you pleasure, I shall be happy to supply the necessary exercises. After all, I come across them on a regular basis.” With that, he gives her a dossier of six envelopes containing the details of unsolved mysteries. One of them involves breaking a virtually impossible cipher, but Charlotte is up to the job, which leads her and Ash to a London house where Inspector Treadles is investigating a murder.

Of course, I cannot resist saying that from there, the game is afoot. It is far too complicated to even begin to describe how this murder ties into the search for Myron Finch, but it does. In the incredibly skillful hands of Sherry Thomas though, the intricate plot works and everything falls into place at the end. Not only is the adventure marvelously structured, the characters are fascinating. Charlotte is logical and unromantic, and yet she hesitates to marry Bancroft given that she finds his brother more attractive. We feel great sympathy for Ash, trapped as he is in a miserable marriage to a deceitful woman who only married him for his money. Little sister Livia meets a mysterious young man who seems to like her despite her oddities and quirks. We also learn more about the tribulations of Inspector Treadles, a man happily married to an heiress but living on a detective’s income. He has women problems. His wife admits that she would like to run her father’s business, and the “magnificent boon to his career,” Sherlock Holmes, “turned out to be a woman with loose morals and no remorse.”

Once again, Thomas inserts little factoids from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Livia is finding her inner muse and begins writing her own mystery story about a massacre in Utah related to a religious cult. (Sherlockians will immediately recognize elements of A Study in Scarlet.) And the arch-criminal Moriarty makes his presence known.

I read this on my Kindle, making lots of notes and highlights and flipping back to read some passages again. It is not an effortless read, even for someone who loves complex mysteries. But the effort is well worth it. Sherry Thomas is superbly talented, and it shows in every page of this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One more thing. Just when you think you have it all figured out – there is the last line of the book. Wow! I did not see that coming. Can’t wait for the next one.

The Major Meets His Match (Brides for Bachelors #1) by Annie Burrows

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The major must wed

Wastrel, rebel, layabout…just a few of the names Lord Becconsall has hidden his quick intellect and sharp wit behind over the years. Recently titled, ex-military and required to wed, Jack views ton ladies with a cynical eye… Until he falls upon–quite literally–Lady Harriet Inskip.

After years of being overlooked, Harriet cannot believe that Lord Becconsall is the only person to truly see her. But between his taunts and her fiery disposition, it’s soon clear that the major has finally met his match!

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

Time and Setting: London, 1816 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

The Major Meets His Match is the first in a new, three-book series from Annie Burrows entitled Brides for Bachelors.  The bachelors in question are gentlemen who have been friends since their schooldays, but who were separated when they went off to war and have just recently reunited.  They are discovering that picking up their friendship where they left off isn’t going to be easy; they’re different people now, and it’s going to take a bit of work and understanding if they are to forge their former bond anew.

Jack Hesketh, Viscount Becconsall, is a third son who never thought to inherit and who is well aware that his father favoured his elder brothers and regarded him as the runt of the litter.  He was never expected to amount to much, and when, at school, he was threatened by bullies because of his – then – small stature, he avoided too many drubbings by playing the fool and making the bullies laugh so that eventually they forgot why he had been their target.  He has carried this tendency with him into adulthood; even though he is now a decorated military officer – a Major – he still hides his quick mind, sharp wit and true emotions behind a wall of teasing and joking, sometimes so successfully that even his closest friends find it easy to forget that his quips and jests are a cover.

It’s this automatic reaction that lands him in trouble when, after a reunion turned into an all-night carouse that has lasted until morning, Jack makes a wager that he can ride the Marquess of Rawcliffe’s prize stallion through Hyde Park while drunk without falling off.  He is barrelling through the park when he startles another rider, a young woman, who, believing his horse has bolted, tries her best to stop it.  Jack comes a-cropper, the young woman dismounts to ascertain if he is injured and Jack, deciding to take advantage of their relative positions, pulls her on top of him and kisses her soundly.

Lady Harriet Inskip is taking part in the Season under the auspices of her Aunt Susan, who would have a fit if she knew her niece was out riding in the park alone at such an early hour.  But Harriet needed to shake off the restrictions of society for just a little while and a swift gallop was just the thing – although she hadn’t expected another rider to come bursting from the trees at full pelt. Harriet is simultaneously concerned for his safety and irritated by his idiocy and disregard for the safety of others – but nevertheless, she does what she can to calm the runaway horse and then, in spite of the voice in her head telling her to fetch help, to see to its rider.

The last thing she expects is to find herself being kissed… and worse, enjoying it.  But the interlude ends quickly when the unknown rider’s friends make an appearance, and Harriet, indignant and furious, hurries away.

One of Jack’s friends – the haughty Marquess of Rawcliffe – opines that the young woman lying on top of Jack must have been a lightskirt, but Jack protests to the contrary and also realises that not only had she felt right in his arms, he’d liked her spirit and enjoyed their brief verbal fencing match.  He wants to see her again, but can’t possibly admit that outright to his friends, so retreating to his default of joking to hide his real feelings, Jack makes a wager with Rawcliffe; whoever can locate the young lady and determine whether she is an innocent or otherwise will win their bet.

The story follows the course of Jack and Harriet’s relationship as they meet at society balls and outings and continue to strike sparks off each other.  At first, Jack assumes that Harriet’s forthright, often prickly manner is designed to put off potential suitors, but eventually realises that it’s her defence mechanism.  Nobody has ever taken much notice or care of her and her instinctive reaction whenever Jack says something complementary is to view it with suspicion and shrug it off or respond with a tart comment.  Yet as they come to know each other, they begin to realise that they have more in common than they thought.  Both Jack and Harriet have been discounted and often ignored by those who should have shown them love and affection and have learned to hide their hurt and self-doubt  – in Jack’s case, behind joking good humour and in Harriet’s behind sharp-tongued put-downs and a façade of indifference.  It’s going to take an act of courage on both their parts to drop their guards and admit the depth of their feelings for each other.

The romance that develops between Jack and Harriet is laced with wit, tenderness, charm and a nice simmer of sexual tension as they trade barbs while coming to a greater awareness of each other. The central characters are strongly characterised and I particularly appreciated the depiction of Harriet as an intelligent woman who isn’t afraid to express her opinions, but who also recognises that there are some rules she needs to follow.  Ms. Burrows does a very good job of depicting the complicated relationship Harriet has with her mother and her dawning appreciation of what her aunt – whom she had initially regarded as trying to stifle her with convention – is trying to do for her by sponsoring her Season.  This appreciation leads to the introduction of a sub-plot regarding some stolen rubies which I found rather insipid, but which, as it is not concluded here, I’m assuming is going to run through the rest of the series.

Jack and his friends – who still call each other by the nicknames drawn from Greek mythology they used at school – are well-drawn also, as is their friendship which, they discover, needs to be worked on given the changes they have all gone through.  The marquess – aka Zeus – seems to be cold and unfeeling, but in an unguarded moment, lets something slip that tells Jack that there is more going on beneath his hard exterior than he would have others believe.  Then there’s Atlas – Captain Bretherton – a naval officer who has returned from war almost literally a shadow of his former self, a man broken in body and spirit, who seems to be drifting through life without a purpose.  Both are intriguing secondary characters here, and I’m looking forward to reading their stories in due course.

My reservations about the plotline concerning the rubies aside, I enjoyed The Major Meets His Match.  If you’re looking for a warm, humorous and emotionally satisfying historical romance, you could do worse than give this one a try.

VIRTUAL TOUR: Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

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England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.

Publisher and Release Date: Endeavour Press, May 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1650
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Caz

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645, in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community but does not permit her to become involved.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country and then moves south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.


Excerpt

James made his way down Jury Street through the livestock market and pens of bleating lambs. Someone had forgotten to latch a crate properly, and a pair of fluttering chickens escaped from their coop. The butcher tossed a scrap of offal over his shoulder, and stray dogs darted in before they were beaten away.

Turning on Market Square, James paused to survey the haberdashers. Surely he would find her here, amongst the stalls of linens, laces and ribbons. Hats and coifs intermingled, and for a moment all he could see was a blur of white and grey. About to turn away, his eyes at last fell upon the one he sought.

Elizabeth Seton browsed the household stalls, strolling at her leisure. James walked towards her, his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. She hovered over a collection of linens, and her fingers brushed over the cloths, but she did not linger beyond a curious moment. James kept a discreet distance, ever narrowing the gap. One slim hand held her skirts, raising them slightly to avoid a muddy puddle before she continued on her way.

He halted his progress when she became rooted at the bookseller’s. While fancy ribbons and laces had not attracted her interest, a stack of pamphlets and chapbooks made the difference. She struck up a conversation with the bookseller, laughing at something he said. James rubbed his chin, engrossed. An unusual maid, he thought, and drew closer.

Leaning over the small collection, her head tilted to peer at the titles. Hair secured in a sedate knot, a wayward tendril escaped its constraint. The wind lifted and teased the stray lock, contrasting to the paleness of her nape. James fought the urge to reach out and twist the strand in his fingers.

He bent forward and addressed her in a low tone, “Are you looking to improve your mind, or to seek instruction?”

Elizabeth started in surprise. Her eyes widened, and for the first time, he realised how blue they were. Almost immediately they narrowed, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond to his boldness. He knew he was being forward, but he had never won a thing without pressing his advantage.

“I am looking for a book on good manners, sir. I would not expect you to recommend one.”

James grinned. Without looking away, he addressed the bookseller, who watched them. “Master Ward, would you be so kind as to introduce us?”

“I would,” the man said. “Only I haven’t made the maid’s acquaintance myself.”

Amusement flitted across her lips. “Elizabeth Seton,” she announced.

“Mistress Seton, may I present James Hart, ostler at the Chequer and Crowne,” the bookseller said, fulfilling his duty.

James swept his hat from his head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Seton.” He rather liked saying her name.

“Master Hart.” Elizabeth canted her head and hesitated for a fraction. She looked at him openly and did not avert her eyes in modesty when he returned her gaze.

“You’re new to Warwick,” he said.

“How would you know this?”

“I know everyone here.”

“Not so,” she said. One brow arched ever so slightly. “You did not know me until this moment.”

James found her bewitching. “I stand corrected, Mistress Seton. Still, you are new to Warwick.”

Elizabeth’s head dipped.

“If I were to guess, I’d say you were Mistress Stanborowe’s niece. I’ve heard that Ellendale has a new resident.”

“Indeed, your information is correct.”

“Pray, allow me the privilege of calling on you.” James leaned against the stall and nearly sent a stack of books tumbling.

“My aunt values courtesy, and you, sir, are quite forward. I can only assume she would object.”

“I assure you, mistress, I am not an objectionable fellow,” he said. “Is that not right, Master Ward?”

“Quite true.” The man’s voice shook with laughter.

“There you have it,” James said. “If you can’t trust the word of a bookseller, all is lost.”

A small smile flitted at the corner of her mouth. James found the resulting dimple intriguing. “I must be leaving.” She picked up her purchase and prepared to depart. “God save you, sir, and good day.” She reached over to pay the bookseller, but Master Ward caught James’s warning frown and casually turned away.

“Are women from the south always so aloof?” James blurted, then cringed. Lagging wityou can do better.

She halted in surprise. “How did you know I came from the south?”

“Far south, I would guess,” he said, grasping the first thing that came to mind.

“How do you suppose?” Her eyes narrowed.

“Naturally, by your speech.”

“Indeed? I could be from London,” Elizabeth replied.

“You are as likely from London as I from Scotland.”

Elizabeth gave up trying to attract the bookseller’s attention and laid her coin atop a pile of chapbooks. She clutched her purchase to her chest in preparation for her escape.

“I will make you a wager,” he said. “If I can guess where you came from, you’ll allow me to call on you.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll wish you good day and trouble you no more.” James offered his hand, but she ignored it. “Do we have an agreement?”

Elizabeth held his gaze for a moment. She pursed her lips, and a hint of a dimple lurked at the corners. “Agreed.”

James smiled. He hadn’t forgotten what she had told the highwayman. “Let’s see—I’ll need one word from you.”

“Which one?” Elizabeth asked.

“Owl.”

“Owl?”

“Aye, the very one. Say it again.” He crossed his arms and waited. When she repeated it, he nodded. “’Tis perfectly clear. Your speech has a Dorset flavour.” For truth, she did have a lovely, soft way of speaking.

Elizabeth’s brow arched slightly. “Are you certain I am not from Hampshire?”

“Aye. Admit it, I’m correct.”

“Fine, then, but Dorset is quite large, and that does not prove your wit.”

“An exacting maid. No doubt you’ll want me to do better,” he said with a slow smile. “I’ll need another word from you, then. Two, if you please.”

“Truly? Which ones?” The breeze strengthened, and she brushed a tangled strand from her face. James caught the haunting scent of lavender.

“Welcome home.”

With a smile, she repeated the words. The rosy bow of her mouth fascinated him.

“Unmistakable.” He grinned.

“The verdict?”

“I would lay my life upon it. ’Tis a Weymouth cast.”

“Truly impressive.” Elizabeth’s blue eyes narrowed. “Such a clever fellow to know this only by my speech. Would you not agree, Master Ward?”

This time the bookseller laughed out loud. “Quite so, Mistress Seton.”

“Thank you for your stimulating instruction, Master Hart. I find my time has grown short. Good day.” She nodded farewell to the bookseller and started to walk away.

“What of our wager?” James called out to her.

Elizabeth stopped to face him. “I’ll honour our wager at the time of my choosing. You didn’t stipulate otherwise.”

James chuckled. Damned captivating woman. He crossed his arms across his chest and watched as she walked away. With a last swish of her blue skirts, she melted into the crowd.

“Aren’t you going after her, James?” Master Ward leaned forward.

“Nay, not yet,” he smiled, savouring the anticipation. He dearly loved a challenge.

 

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Traitor’s Knot

About the Author

Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast, with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). She blogs about English history and storytelling at her blog, the 17th Century Enthusiast, and is an editor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Cryssa’s debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, a romantic tale of adventure set during the English Civil War. Traitor’s Knot is the first in a series of adventures spanning from the ECW to the Restoration and is now available from Endeavour Press.

For more information visit Cryssa’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.