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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.

 

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

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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.

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.

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Publisher and Release Date: KJC Books, August 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1923
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Paranormal Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Caz

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Rescued from Ruin #7) by Elisa Braden

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Never judge a man by his cover…

Society knows the affable Earl of Dunston for his flashy waistcoats and rapier wit. Lady Maureen Huxley knows him as Henry Thorpe, her best friend—an irresistibly kissable, strictly platonic friend. Which means her dreams of marriage, motherhood, part-time cookery, and full-time domestic bliss must be fulfilled elsewhere. But after three seasons and a parade of fickle suitors, Maureen’s hopes are fading. Worse, she suspects Henry is to blame.

Never trust a man with too many secrets…

Years spent hunting his father’s murderer through London’s dark underworld have honed Henry Thorpe into a deadly blade with one purpose—catching a killer of fathomless evil. Nothing mattered more until Maureen Huxley came along. To keep her safe, he must keep her at arm’s length. Yet he can’t resist drawing her close, making her laugh, dreaming of doing wicked things to her lush body. Very well, perhaps he also dissuaded some of her suitors. But what’s a little deception between friends?

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…

With his enemy growing bolder and Maureen contemplating marriage to another man, Henry is caught in the crossfire between his mission and his heart. Any move could exact a devastating cost. But losing the woman he loves is one price he refuses to pay.

Publisher and Release Date: Elisa Braden, June 2017

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

Review by Sara

Elisa Braden isn’t quite a new-to-me author, but after reading a book in the Rescued from Ruin series two years ago she sort of dropped off my radar. What a mistake that was! After reading an extremely positive review for Confessions of a Dangerous Lord I knew this was my chance to rediscover her world of noble spies and deadly secrets.

The last few London seasons haven’t been as successful as Lady Maureen Huxley would have hoped. She’s watched her older sister and good friends find love and marry their perfect match while Maureen has seen her own suitors lose interest. The only bright spot in continuing to attend the balls and receptions in town is meeting up with her best friend Henry Thorpe, Lord Dunston. Their private in-jokes and easy dialog have kept Maureen from getting deflated when men seem to dance around her rather than choosing her for a partner. Once upon a time Maureen dreamed of sharing a life with the handsome, dashing earl but Henry made it devastatingly clear that he was not looking for a wife. That should have been the end of their relationship, yet Henry has continued to be a friendly presence in her life and Maureen was reluctant to push away the only man she really cared for.

With the current season in full swing, and with her mother pushing her towards the newly arrived and eligible Lord Holstoke, Maureen risks her heart one last time to see if Henry returns her affections. Though there is no shortage of sparks between them he still tells Maureen that friendship is all that he can offer. Disheartened, Maureen tries her best to push her feelings for Henry aside so she can stop comparing each new man against the one she can never have. When Lord Holstoke begins to show some interest in Maureen she doesn’t experience the same deep feelings for him as she does for Henry, but his kisses are pleasant and she hopes that their companionship will be enough to sustain her.

Henry Thorpe has sacrificed many things in order to pursue the man responsible for his father’s murder. For years Henry has played the carefree fop while out among the ton, all the while hiding his true purpose of gathering clues towards capturing the criminal mastermind known only as The Investor. The first time he ever met Maureen Huxley he was capivated by her beauty as much as her open and innocent nature. In a perfect world, Henry would never have had to choose between her and his pursuit for justice, but his foe is a master of manipulating people and hurting them where it counts. From experience, Henry knows that if The Investor ever learned how important Maureen is to him, her life would be in danger. Rather than declaring just how much he loves her, Henry has contented himself with being her friend and not so gently discouraging any man who might take her away from him. Everything in Henry’s life comes into sharp focus the night that Maureen tells him “goodbye” and means to move on with her courtship with Lord Holstoke. If he continues his current path and keeps searching for The Investor it will cost him the only woman he’s ever loved; however to finally open himself up to her love means exposing all of the darkness and lies he’s hidden from her to keep her safe.

Coming into the series as a new-ish reader, I was unaware of Lord Dunston’s role in several of the other stories as an important secondary character. His pursuit of The Investor has been a thread running in the background of a few other main character’s stories, but through it all Henry has remained steadfast. In Confessions of a Dangerous Lord readers are finally allowed to know his thoughts, his motivations and understand everything his hunt has cost him. Maureen is the one thing in his life that Henry has refused to part with, accepting their limited relationship while wishing for a life where he was free to marry her. Seeing Maureen moving forward and pursuing her own goals of a happy marriage and children is painful for him and we see his struggle to retain that steadfast resolve while his heart and head battle. I love any story that has a hero so devoted to his love that he’ll move mountains for her, and here Henry has that same dedication, even though Maureen can never know it.

Maureen could have easily fallen into the standard character outline of a naïve woman whose emotions overwhelm her common sense when it comes to the man she loves. I’m so happy to say that she never crosses that line. She is more open with her feelings as she is experiencing them, whether it’s sadness at Henry pushing her away or anger when he reveals some of the lies he’s told her for years. That Maureen doesn’t fly off the handle and sulk or even make things worse for their relationship by completely pulling away when she learns of Henry’s deception, shows that she’s more self-aware than Henry or her family give her credit for. Ms. Braden’s skills are on full display by balancing the angst levels required when a reader is already clued into a character’s true feelings. We know that Henry and Maureen are destined for each other; however the threat of The Investor is so palpable that even I was questioning how they would find happiness.

I regret that I haven’t been reading the Recued from Ruin series all this time as it seems like I’ve been missing out on some incredibly detailed and captivating stories. Confessions of a Dangerous Lord reads perfectly on its own but I know I’ll be seeking all of the books I’ve missed to get the full story of Henry’s search for The Investor and to know some of Maureen’s friends and family more intimately. I highly recommend this story and hope that Ms. Braden has more intrigues to come for her cast of characters.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian

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

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

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

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, July 2017

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

Review by Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT

London, 1817

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lady Standish is in her study, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cat Sebastian lives in a swampy part of the South with her husband, three kids, and two dogs. Before her kids were born, she practiced law and taught high school and college writing. When she isn’t reading or writing, she’s doing crossword puzzles, bird watching, and wondering where she put her coffee cup.

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A Warriner to Rescue Her (Wild Warriners #2) by Virginia Heath

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Tempted by the damsel in distress!

Captain James Warriner is startled to find a curvaceous beauty caught up a tree in his orchard! Despite his shattered leg, he rescues Miss Cassandra Reeves, then is determined to have nothing more to do with the enticing vicar’s daughter.

Except when Cassie seeks Jamie out to apologize, they find themselves persuaded to work together on her storybook. Secret liaisons with the dashing soldier make Cassie wish Jamie would rescue her once more… by making her his wife!

Publisher and Release Date: Harlequin Historical, July 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1814
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Sara

I selected A Warriner to Rescue Her because of the high marks awarded this author’s work by my fellow reviewers, who, I’m happy to say, didn’t steer me wrong!. The four Warriner brothers are outcasts in their community due to the sins of their forefathers and no matter how hard they work to redeem the family’s name it’s an uphill climb. Things are made worse when a militant reverend moves into their town and is set on making an example of the scandalously Wild Warriners.

Captain James Warriner is back home recovering from a debilitating leg wound that nearly cost him his life. The injury has left him with deep physical scars as well as the nightmares associated with how he was hurt which continually plague him. Jaime’s only comfort recently has been his love of painting and riding on his brother’s lands. While out riding through the family’s orchard Jamie is surprised to hear a woman’s voice calling out for help. Searching the area he comes across a pony wandering the path and a pair of stocking-clad legs hanging from the branches of a tree. Jamie is reluctant to help the woman out of the tree as his leg injury will make it difficult to support her weight, but his gentlemanly honor won’t let him leave. The rescue attempt goes about as poorly as Jamie predicted and he soon finds himself down on the ground with the distressed woman falling on top of him. Uncomfortable with being seen as a hero by the beautiful – if chatty – young woman, Jamie excuses himself from the scene and hopes the whole thing will be quietly forgotten.

Miss Cassandra Reeves cannot forget the handsome man who saved her from her own silliness. Her own Sir Galahad wasn’t too happy when she landed on him and Cassie feels guilty about possibly injuring him during the rescue. It’s not the impression Cassie hoped to make with the first person she’s met in Retford since she and her father, the Reverend Reeves, moved to the small town. Hoping to apologize for trespassing on the Warriner lands – and perhaps make a better impression – Cassie walks to the Markham Manor the following day and is met by the very friendly Countess of Markham and the still gruff Captain Warriner. In her nervousness, Cassie becomes a fount of information about the incident in the orchard, her recent move from another city and her love of writing stories.

The countess is charmed by Cassie and sees that Jaime’s interest in the young woman isn’t as well disguised as he believes. After hearing Cassie share her latest story – a vivid retelling of the events at the orchard from her pony’s viewpoint – the countess suggests that Jaimie could supply illustrations for the tale and together they could submit the work to a publisher. Jamie is not amused by his sister-in-law’s blatant matchmaking and is certain that Cassie, who is so effervescent and lively, would never look twice at a broken soldier who can offer her nothing. He’s sure that their parting will be the last time he’ll share a moment with Cassie and a small part of his heart is saddened by the thought. Unfortunately divine intervention, through the fire and brimstone approach of Reverend Reeves, will bring Jamie and Cassie closer together than they can even imagine.

A Warriner to Rescue Her opens with such a meet-cute moment for Jamie and Cassie that I was certain that the rest of the book would follow this light and frothy approach to their romance. Little did I realize that Ms. Heath was just softening her readers for the real emotional wallops to follow. Cassie’s bright and cheery demeanor is hiding such pain that it actually hurt to hear everything she’s lived through under the thumb of her radical and controlling father. Reverend Reeves is fanatical about his religion, his piousness and the belief that his daughter bears the sins of the mother who ran away from their family. As Cassie has grown up she’s learned to hide her true personality from her father or else suffer punishments that range from cruel indifference to psychological torture. When the Reverend’s focus is turned on the Warriner family Cassie is appalled to see her new friends judged and berated from gossip and hearsay. Sadly, when she tries to defend the family in just the smallest way she is made to pay the price.

Jamie truly becomes Cassie’s white knight in that he offers her support and doesn’t judge her by the terrible words her father spreads about his family. He gets to be the hero for Cassie without intending to and being there for her awakens something that he had thought long dead from his experiences during the war – a purpose. That small spark reawakens dreams of a wife and family of his own as well as thoughts of the future rather than being mired in the past. Each time he and Cassie meet Jamie lets her see a little more of his own true self – a romantic at heart – and a man who can appreciate the beauty in the simplest of things. As much as I shared in Cassie’s pain from her father’s abuse I reveled in Jamie’s reawakening to life and how much he still had to give to the right partner.

A Warriner to Rescue Her has so many of the story elements that I adore in romance. Through humor, warmth and understanding, two lonely souls find their perfect match and it creates a wonderful reading experience. I will be going back to read the first book of the Wild Warriners series as soon as I can and will eagerly look for the next Warriner brother’s story.

An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

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In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Publisher and Release Date: Loveswept, June 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1873
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance with mystery elements
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

AUDIO REVIEW: Fair, Bright and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2) by Elizabeth Kingston, narrated by Nicholas Boulton

fair bright and terrible

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Wales is conquered, and Eluned has lost everything: her country, her husband, her hope. All that remains is vengeance, and she will stop at nothing to have it.

When Robert de Lascaux is asked to marry the woman he has loved for eighteen years, he never hesitates. No wealth has ever mattered to him as much as Eluned has. But she, it seems, does not want him at all. Trapped in a web of intrigue, revenge, and desire, they cannot forget their past – but can they dare to share a future?

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Publisher and Release Date: Elizabeth Kingston, April 2017

Time and Setting: Wales, 1282
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content; 5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

In my opinion, Elizabeth Kingston is one of the best – if not THE best – newly published author writing in the historical genre. Fair, Bright and Terrible, the second in her Welsh Blades series ticks every single box on my list of requirements for a stimulating, entertaining and engrossing read/listen. With narrator Nicholas Boulton added into the mix I was quite literally in book heaven – enthralled from beginning to end. This story follows directly on from The King’s Man and covers the true and bloody period in Welsh/English history where the last Welsh Prince Llewelyn is ruthlessly disposed of in the most barbaric of medieval methods.

In book one of the series, we met Eluned of Ruardean who was a strong driving force in the life of her daughter, Gwenllian whom she relentlessly controlled. I disliked Eluned intensely and she didn’t grow on me one iota, so when I realised that Fair, Bright and Terrible was Eluned’s story, I approached it with trepidation and some pre-conceived prejudices. I carried on disliking her, especially after she marries the compellingly likeable and adorable hero of the story, Robert de Lascaux. How, I wondered, could this gorgeous man have loved this woman for eighteen years? And this is where Elizabeth Kingston shows her immense talent for character development – because by the end of the story I understood, respected, and actually liked and admired Eluned.

As the story begins, Eluned’s dreams of a successful uprising to bring independent sovereignty back to Wales is in tatters following King Edward I’s ruthless suppression of the recent rebellion. Coming hard upon the heels of this defeat is the news that her long absentee husband has died in the Holy Land and her son is eager for her to remarry in order to augment his lands and standing. Her husband-to-be is none other than Robert de Lascaux, with whom she had a passionate affair some eighteen years earlier. She put this behind her long ago, but Robert is delighted and immediately agrees to the match, hoping to take up where they left off. Throughout the story, Eluned appears as a woman who does nothing without good reason; she always comes across as cold, calculating and controlling, and her marriage to Robert is no different. Overjoyed at being re-united with his former love, he is destined to be disappointed as he quickly realises that the love he has nurtured is not returned. It quickly becomes apparent that Eluned has a hidden agenda, her goal being admittance to the court of Edward and his inner circle.

I continued to dislike Eluned, especially as she treats the sweet natured and utterly honourable Robert with such cold disdain. But, slowly and cleverly over the course of the story, Ms. Kingston peels away, layer by layer, Eluned’s prejudices and shows her reluctant and hidden love for Robert, well buried under the baggage her life has acquired over the past eighteen years. Ironically it is the appearance and actions of her despised Norman son-in-law, Ranulf (The King’s Man), which finally knocks down the walls she has erected and we are finally allowed to see the woman she really is. Bravo Elizabeth Kingston – what a compelling, clever story and the fact that you persuaded me to like and admire this woman whom I had disliked for the best part of two books is quite remarkable.

As to the narration – what can I say other than that as usual, Nicholas Boulton gives a faultless performance and shows what a first rate actor he is? His voice is smooth, pleasing and utterly addictive to the listener; anything with his name on it is always going to get my attention. My initial dislike for Eluned was perpetuated by the exceptional manner in which he portrays her cold disdain, the emptiness and hopelessness she feels and can’t change… but then, as her defences begin to crumble, he effects a subtle softening of tone; her voice still recognisable but transformed from cold disdain into loving warmth. Mr. Boulton is one of only a handful of narrators who is equally good at portraying men and women. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Robert – at first buoyant and happy as he meets his beloved after eighteen years apart, but then as he realises his love is not returned, quiet, wary and subdued. And of course, a particular favourite of mine is the fierce Norman lord, Ranulf Ombrier – a fierce man brought to his knees by the love of his warrior wife, Gwenllian and their two little boys. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I hope that this isn’t the last in the series. Hopefully we may get to see what happens to William, Eluned’s sixteen year old son.

Fair, Bright and Terrible is an exciting, heart warming piece of historical fiction with a beautiful romance at its centre and is strongly recommended.

AUDIO REVIEW: Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London. Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for…well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret…and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone’s preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same – especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide…is she his biggest threat – or his promise of a happy ending?

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Publisher and Release Date: AUDIOBOOK EDITION – Recorded Books, April 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1824
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 4.5 stars, Narration: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favourites in the genre, and one of my favourite examples of it is Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton, the fourth book in her iconic series about the eight Bridgerton siblings.
Colin is the third son, and has featured in the previous books as a good-humoured, devil-may-care sort of chap; easy going with a killer smile, good sense of humour, able to laugh at himself and always ready with a quip or witty rejoinder. He’s all of those things, but by the age of thirty-three, has started to feel a little disgruntled at being thought of by practically everyone in society as just “A Bridgerton”. His brother is the viscount, his next eldest brother, Benedict, is making a name for himself as an artist but Colin… well, he’s not sure exactly what and who he is, and doesn’t quite know what he wants to do or to be, either.

Penelope Featherington has also appeared in the previous books as a close friend of the Bridgerton sisters, especially of Eloise. She was an object of catty remarks and ridicule for years, owing to her mother’s tendency to dress her in styles and colours that were completely wrong for her and for that lady’s almost maniacal desire to get her daughters married off. At twenty-eight, Penelope is now firmly on the shelf and is resigned to being the spinster daughter who will care for her mother into old age – although the one good thing about her being on the shelf is that she can dress how she wants and eschew the horrible clothes her mother made her wear.

Being a friend of the Bridgerton sisters means that Penelope has also been frequently in the company of the brothers, too, all of whom are friendly and treat her almost as one of the family, making a point of asking her to dance at balls or seeking her out at other functions. For years, Penelope has harboured a tendre for Colin, but has no hope of a return – why should he look at an unprepossessing woman like her when he’s one of society’s darlings; handsome, charming and witty, he is not without female admirers blessed with both youth and beauty and he can have any woman he wants.

Ms. Quinn freshens up the trope and gives it extra depth by virtue of her characterisation of the two principals. Colin is restless; he travels a lot and in fact spends more time abroad than he does in England. He is tired of being thought of as someone who is only good for a laugh and wants to actually do something with his life but he has no idea what until one day, Penelope inadvertently stumbles upon one of his travel journals and is so engrossed by his writing that she suggests he publish them. At first, Colin is furious at her having read his private journals and they quarrel, but eventually, her genuine enthusiasm and praise for his writing surprise and humble him and start him thinking that perhaps this is what he’s meant to do, and he takes her suggestion to heart.

Previously the perennial wallflower, Penelope has discovered that spinsterhood has its benefits; not only because she can dress as she wants, but because she feels free to be more herself and doesn’t have to put up with her mother’s constant attempts to marry her off. But Penelope has been keeping a huge secret from everyone around her for years; something that started as a way for her to fight back at those who looked down on her and that would ruin her if it ever got out. I’m not going to say more here because it’s a massive spoiler; but this secret is the book’s other major plotline and leads to some major conflict between Colin and Penelope later on.

But the real strength of this instalment in the series is in the characterisation and subtle development of the two leads. Penelope’s infatuation with Colin is of long-standing; she fell for his looks and charm without really knowing him, and during the course of the story discovers that he’s not the perfect man she had imagined. Colin knows Penelope only as the slightly plump, shy friend of his sisters, but through spending time with her, comes to realise that she’s also intelligent, quick-witted and lovely. Neither of them really knows how or why things are changing between them, they just know that they are, and those moments when they both start to really see each other – the best parts of any friends-to-lovers romance – are beautifully done.

Rosalyn Landor is, without question, one of the best narrators of historical romance around and her narrations of these previously unrecorded Bridgerton books (6, 7 and 8 were recorded some time ago, but not books 1-5) have been absolutely stellar. Romancing Mister Bridgerton is no exception; Ms. Landor’s pacing is excellent, her vocal characterisations of every single character are superb and in scenes where large numbers of characters appear, listeners can have no problems whatsoever working out who is speaking, so clear and expert is her manner of differentiating between all of them. It doesn’t matter if a character is old or young, male or female, aristocrat or servant, all are perfectly portrayed. I’m particularly fond of her interpretation of the formidable Lady Danbury, a wonderfully acerbic, perceptive but (secretly) kind elderly dowager of the sort so often found in historicals. Her portrayal of Colin, too, is spot on, and absolutely consistent with the way he was voiced in the earlier books in the series; suitably youthful and with a jaunty air that befits his reputation as a carefree young gentleman about town. But here, Ms. Landor is afforded the chance to explore another side of him, and she does it very well, adding a slight edge to his tone in some moments of heightened emotion or giving him a more seductive, husky note in the more intimate scenes.

If you’re a fan of historical romance audiobooks, you’ve no doubt listened to Rosalyn Landor already and know that her name on the front cover is a guarantee of an excellent narration. If you haven’t tried one, then the Bridgerton books can be listened to in any order, although I think you’ll get more out of them if you listen to them in order, as it will allow you to meet each sibling as they pop in and out of other stories in the series and get to know them better.

Whatever you do, though, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is another must listen for fans of this talented author/narrator pair and for fans of historical romance in general.