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VIRTUAL TOUR: It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian

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Some of Ben Sedgwick’s favorite things:

Helping his poor parishioners

Baby animals

Shamelessly flirting with the handsome Captain Phillip Dacre

After an unconventional upbringing, Ben is perfectly content with the quiet, predictable life of a country vicar, free of strife or turmoil. When he’s asked to look after an absent naval captain’s three wild children, he reluctantly agrees, but instantly falls for the hellions. And when their stern but gloriously handsome father arrives, Ben is tempted in ways that make him doubt everything.

Some of Phillip Dacre’s favorite things:

His ship

People doing precisely as they’re told

Touching the irresistible vicar at every opportunity

Phillip can’t wait to leave England’s shores and be back on his ship, away from the grief that haunts him. But his children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors and he must set things right. The unexpected presence of the cheerful, adorable vicar sets his world on its head and now he can’t seem to live without Ben’s winning smiles or devastating kisses.

In the midst of runaway children, a plot to blackmail Ben’s family, and torturous nights of pleasure, Ben and Phillip must decide if a safe life is worth losing the one thing that makes them come alive.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon Impulse, December 2017
Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Em

A few of my favorite things:

Cat Sebastian

Queer historical romance

But not, I’m sad to say, It Takes Two to Tumble.  In this first book of Cat Sebastian’s new series, Seducing the Sedgwicks, a stern, widowed naval captain returns home to find his three wild and wayward children under the care of the local vicar.  A relationship that begins in animosity quickly transitions into a love affair…which somehow makes everything wrong in life, right.  Though I found much to like here, I struggled with the pacing of the central plot and with the development of the secondary storylines.

Ben Sedgwick is happy.  After an unconventional childhood as one of five children raised by eccentric, bohemian (and neglectful) parents, he finds fulfillment in his quiet, predictable life as country vicar in the bucolic village where he was raised.  Though he’s frustrated by the recent suffering of his flock at the hands of their landlord Martin Easterbrook, his faith is less dogmatic than pragmatic, and he offers what comfort he can. Betrothed to his closest friend, Alice Crawford, he’s surprised when her father asks a favor. Could he possibly step in and check the wayward behavior of absent naval captain Phillip Dacre’s children?  Since the death of their mother two years ago, the children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors, and their wild behavior grows worse every day.  With future familial harmony in mind – and the expected arrival of Captain Dacre in the next two weeks –  Ben reluctantly agrees to the request.  He decamps for Barton Hall, to see what can be done.

Phillip Dacre has made a life for himself at sea. Although he knows it’s long past time he visited his children, and his sister’s last letter has left him deeply concerned about their well-being, the thought of being away from his ship fills him with dread.  Only a promised visit from the ship’s surgeon – his closest friend since the death of his beloved lieutenant, McCarthy, provides any relief from the bleakness of his thoughts.

Sending word of his arrival ahead, he hopes to be greeted by his children, but instead finds an empty house.  When a servant informs him they’re in the orchard with the vicar, he expects to find them in prayer or singing hymns; instead, they’re up in the cherry trees – as is the vicar.  When the handsome clergyman drops to the ground with a curse and introduces himself, Phillip struggles to control his temper.  The meeting goes from bad to worse as Ben informs him just why he’s been watching the children -.and then has the temerity to suggest how Phillip might approach them moving forward.

After this less than auspicious beginning, Ms. Sebastian positions Ben and Phillip as quasi-adversaries who unfortunately, also suffer an inconvenient attraction to each other.  The novel unfolds in their alternating PoVs as each tries to do what he feels is right. Phillip, who still mourns the loss of McCarthy, and regrets he never confessed the truth of his feelings to him, is adrift without his late wife who managed the children and the estate.  He loves his children, but he doesn’t know how to be a father to them.

Ben has always known and suppressed his attraction to men – but something about Phillip staggers him.  He doesn’t castigate himself for his lustful thoughts about the other man, but he’s overwhelmed by his feelings, which put his previously orderly, predictable world in turmoil.  Phillip is in his thoughts, his dreams, his heart… and everything he wants from Phillip feels like a betrayal of his commitment to Alice.  He suffers that too.

Both Phillip and Ben struggle with their lustful feelings for each other, but they go from wanting to having in the blink of an eye.  Days after their first meeting, the sexual tension between them – characterized by heated/longing glances, angry conversations about the children and Ben’s faith, and brief and (not so) inadvertent touches – gives way to passionate kisses and frantic, furtive couplings whenever and wherever they can sneak away.  Phillip leads and Ben exuberantly follows, and the lead-up to their love affair is nicely fraught with tension and angst.  They’re both flawed, likeable – loveable – men, but too much of their story is wrapped in their sexual relationship, and it’s difficult to see when they actually get to know the person they’re falling for.

Meanwhile, there are several additional narratives that Ms. Sebastian fails to adequately develop. Philip’s children suddenly become lovable and better behaved, Alice conveniently falls in love with a visiting friend, and a beloved brother shrugs off a painful sacrifice he made years ago for the good of the family.   Now reader, you and I both know there are MANY successful romance novels wherein the principal couple fall in love quickly, the romance evolves in a brief span of time and love conquers all somehow rings true.  But not this time.  I have no quibble with the short length of time it takes for Phillip and Ben to fall in love; unfortunately, it’s everything else – the resolution of so many complex secondary plotlines – that felt rushed and contrived.  That said, though I disliked the plot deus ex machina that simultaneously resolves Ben’s professional future and Easterbrook’s storyline, I liked how the author dovetailed Phillip’s inability to read (which his son Jamie has inherited) with Ben’s future plans.  It’s a sympathetic and brilliant merging of the two storylines.

It’s been a struggle to grade It Takes Two to Tumble.  The writing is strong, the setting is beautifully realized and the principals are appealing.  But in this awkward mash-up?  Homage? to The Sound of Music and Seven Summer Nights by Harper Fox, the author can’t seem to decide whether she’s writing a disney-esque fairy tale, a story of forbidden love or both.  It’s a seductive premise, but I didn’t find this happily ever after believable – or plausible.  Really, it was all much too much, and despite the authors typical lovely writing, It Takes Two to Tumble is overstuffed and underdeveloped.

EXCERPT

After the fact, Phillip thought he might have handled the situation a bit more gracefully if the children hadn’t been in a tree. But he was not at his best, having walked the distance from the coaching inn to the house, with each step growing more disoriented by the sheer familiarity of the terrain. Surely the place ought to have changed. But every rock and tree aligned precisely with memories Phillip hadn’t even realized he still had.

Despite having sent a messenger ahead with the approximate time of his arrival, the children were not waiting in the hall to greet him. Of course they wouldn’t be, he told himself. That had been Caroline’s doing, and she was gone. Their failure to appear was just further proof of how badly Phillip’s intervention was needed. He needed to get to work turning them into well-behaved, competent midshipmen. Children, he corrected himself. Yes, children.

The servant who opened the door told Phillip he’d find the children in the orchard with the vicar. Phillip found this surprising, as nothing in Ernestine’s final letter had indicated religiosity as part of the children’s reign of terror. But instead of discovering the children at work in prayer or singing hymns, he found them high up in a cherry tree.

The plain fact of the matter was that children did not belong in trees, at least not when they ought to be in the hall awaiting their father’s return. Nor did vicars belong in trees at any time whatsoever. He might not have much experience with either, and thank God for it, but he knew trees were not the natural habitat of either class of person. He had expected to see his children for the first time in two years in a setting that was slightly less arboreal. Somewhere he could properly see them and they could properly see him and they could all say whatever the hell they were supposed to say in this situation without Caroline to manage things. Instead all he got was a glimpse of booted feet vanishing higher into the branches accompanied by the sound of stifled laughter.

The vicar spotted him first, and promptly swung down from the tree to land at Phillip’s feet. At least, Phillip assumed it was the vicar, and not some stray stable hand who had taken to capering about the orchard. But didn’t vicars wear uniforms of some sort? Special hats or black coats? The chaplain on the ship always had. This fellow was in his shirtsleeves, and if that weren’t bad enough, his sleeves were rolled up. The chaplain had never done that. The chaplain had been about sixty. And bald. This fellow had wheat-colored hair that needed a cut and freckles all over his face. He was nothing like the chaplain. Unacceptable.

“Oh damn,” the vicar said. Phillip gritted his teeth. Swearing was another thing the chaplain had never done. “I mean drat,” the man said, his freckled face going pink. “Bother. You must be Mr. Dacre.”

“Captain Dacre,” Phillip said frostily. This fellow had to go. No discipline. No sense of decorum. No wonder the children ran amok if they spent time in this man’s company. “You have the advantage of me,” he said, not bothering to conceal his frown. He never did.

“Ben Sedgwick,” the vicar said, smiling in a lopsided, bashful way. He stuck his hand out, and Phillip had no choice but to take it. The vicar’s hand was warm and his grip was firm, and Phillip’s gaze automatically drifted down to the man’s exposed forearm, sun-burnished and dusted with light hair.

“Thank you, Mr. Sedgwick,” Phillip said. “You may take yourself off.” His effort to dismiss this careless young vicar was interrupted by a rustle of leaves and the thud of a child landing at his feet.

The child was tall, lanky, and excessively rumpled. “Edward,” Phillip said, briefly startled by the changes a lapse of two years wrought in children. Phillip had last seen his older son as a coltish child of eleven. Now Phillip could discern two things—one, that he looked very much like Caroline, and two, that he was not best pleased to see his father. For an instant, Phillip could hardly blame him. Phillip had never much enjoyed seeing his own father either. When the navy had taken his own father away for years at a time, Phillip had rather thought they had all been the better for it.
He held out his hand and noticed the barest hesitation before his son took it. “You look so much like—”

“I know I look like Mama,” Edward said coolly, dropping his father’s hand. “I have a looking glass.” His scowl was so intent that Phillip opened his mouth to scold the boy. “Mr. Sedgwick,” Edward said, turning to the vicar, “I’m going to finish my history lesson.” Without waiting for a response from Sedgwick or so much as a by-your-leave from Phillip himself, the child dashed off towards the house.

While Phillip had always striven to keep order on his ship in less brutal ways, some captains wouldn’t have hesitated to have boys flogged for even less blatant insubordination. Phillip swallowed his anger and turned his attention to the tree, where he could see two pairs of dangling feet.

“Margaret,” Phillip called up into the tree. “James.”

“Oh, they won’t come down,” Sedgwick said cheerfully. “Not a chance.”

“Excuse me?”

“I wouldn’t even bother calling them. They’ll stay up there until the sun sets or until the spirit moves them otherwise.” He seemed utterly undisturbed by this. His eyes were actually sparkling, for God’s sake.

“And you permit this?”

Sedgwick’s brow furrowed. This was the first lapse in the blithe and idiotic good cheer he had displayed since Phillip’s arrival. “Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it. Rope them like a couple of stray sheep? They’re safer up there than they are getting into whatever devilry they might seek out elsewhere. Really,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning close in a way that made Phillip instinctively mirror the pose until he realized what he was doing and straightened up. Proximity was the last thing he needed with this man. “The tree’s been a godsend.

They haven’t been capering about the rooftops even once since they discovered how climbable the cherry trees are.”
Phillip blinked. “What I meant,” he said slowly, “was that perhaps you would like to tell them to come down.”

“Tell them?” the vicar repeated, as if Phillip had suggested a satanic ritual. “Won’t do a blessed thing other than inspire them to more mischief, I’m afraid. No, no, leave them safely up there, and when they’re hungry they’ll come inside.”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done,” Phillip said in precisely the tone he’d use towards a sailor about to be assigned morning watch for the foreseeable future. “But now that I’ve returned I’ll see to engaging a proper tutor.”

The man had the nerve to look hurt. Really, what had he expected? If Phillip had wanted his children to run about like South Sea pirates, he could have stayed on his ship where he belonged, thank you very much. But instead he would hire a tutor for the boys and a governess for Margaret. And when they were ready, he’d send them off to school, where they belonged.

“About that,” the vicar said slowly. “I’m not sure you’ll find a tutor. They’ve run through a good half dozen and I fear that well has run quite dry.”

“A half dozen!” Ernestine hadn’t mentioned that in her last letter. Or at least he was fairly certain she hadn’t. He knew there had been some trouble engaging suitable help, but quite possibly she had obscured the details. Well, it was a good thing he was here, then. He would see to it that his household was as it ought to be, that his children were on a safe course, and then he’d go back to sea. Two months. He had turned far more insalubrious characters into perfectly disciplined first-rate sailors in less time than that, hadn’t he? He was used to commanding dozens of men in clockwork precision. Surely he could make a couple of children—his own children, at that—fall in line.

“Never mind that,” he said. “I have everything in hand. Good day,” he added when the vicar didn’t seem inclined to take the hint and leave.

“Good luck,” the vicar said, gathering his discarded outer garments and carelessly dropping his hat onto his head.

Phillip thought he heard the man laugh as he made his way towards the house.

Ben gave it fifteen minutes before Captain Dacre came begging for help. Half an hour at the outside.

Likely as not, the captain would be tied to a burning post before Ben had his valise packed.

GIVEAWAY – CLICK HERE

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian.  This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 12/15/2017 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address.  Duplicates will be deleted.

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.

You can connect with Cat at: her website * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Goodreads * ~ * Amazon * ~ * Newsletter

VIRTUAL TOUR: A Duke in Shining Armor (Difficult Dukes #1) by Loretta Chase

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Not all dukes are created equal. Most are upstanding members of Society. And then there’s the trio known as Their Dis-Graces.

Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, will never win prizes for virtue. But even he draws the line at running off with his best friend’s bride. All he’s trying to do is recapture the slightly inebriated Lady Olympia Hightower and return her to her intended bridegroom.

For reasons that elude her, bookish, bespectacled Olympia is supposed to marry a gorgeous rake of a duke. The ton is flabbergasted. Her family’s ecstatic. And Olympia? She’s climbing out of a window, bent on a getaway. But tall, dark, and exasperating Ripley is hot on her trail, determined to bring her back to his friend. For once, the world-famous hellion is trying to do the honorable thing.

So why does Olympia have to make it so deliciously difficult for him . . . ?

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, November 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1833
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 STAR TOP PICK

Review by Em

Charming, clever, funny and romantic in equal parts, A Duke in Shining Armor is a wonderful start to Ms. Chase’s newest series, Difficult Dukes.  The difficult duke in this case is trying, for the first time in his life, to do the right thing.  Unfortunately for our beleaguered hero, he’s trying to do the right thing on behalf of a bewildered heroine, who’s become hopelessly entangled in trying not to do the wrong thing.  Confused?  So was he.  Marvelously so.  Our principals are forced together on the road trip from hell, wherein everything that can go wrong, does.  Except, it doesn’t.  Because when the couple finally reaches what they think is the end of the road, their arrival marks the start of a very different kind of journey – a lifetime together.  Just as fate intended.

When Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, returns to England after a year abroad, he’s surprised to discover his boon companion, the Duke of Ashmont – aka ‘His Grace with the Angel Face,’ – engaged to be married.  Pressed by Ashmont to act as his best man, Ripley applies himself to the role with gusto – ensuring Ashmont makes it to the altar after a night of carousing and a brief street brawl.  Unfortunately, and despite his best efforts, things quickly go awry.  The bride, Lady Olympia Hightower, is nowhere to be found, and Ashmont is steadily drinking himself into a stupor. Hoping to avoid a scene and eager to move things along, Ripley takes it upon himself to track down the missing bride.  When he does, he’s completely unprepared for the sight that greets him:  Lady Olympia Hightower, dressed in a frothy concoction of lace and tulle and beads, balanced on the window ledge.  After spotting Ripley, she tells him she just needs a breath of air, drops out of the window and starts running; Ripley, the ever dutiful groomsman, is forced to follow. In the rain. Without his hat.

Lady Olympia isn’t quite sure how she found herself on the run from her own wedding. After spending the majority of seven London Seasons as a perpetual wallflower, voted Most Boring Girl of the Season seven years in a row, Olympia had little hope of landing one of the eligible bachelors who paid her little notice.  But when the handsome and wealthy Duke of Ashmont asked her to marry him, Olympia didn’t hesitate to do her duty.  The only daughter of the spendthrift Duke of Gonerby, sister to six brothers, Olympia quickly grasped that marriage to Ashmont was an answer to her family’s unspoken prayers.  Her parents are ecstatic, Ashmont is smitten, and Olympia… well, she’s been having serious second thoughts.  So that’s why, on the morning of her wedding, bolstered by several cups of brandy-laced tea, Olympia finds herself with one foot on either side of the open library window, plotting her escape.  She’s in the midst of a tipsy pep talk when the Duke of Ripley opens the door and spots her.  Fueled by liquid courage, Olympia drops to the ground and takes off.

Olympia tries hard to shake Ripley.  As their road trip from hell gets underway, she’s slightly drunk, frustrated by her uncomfortable attire, and annoyed by her handsome companion.  He refuses to simply let her go and insists, between entreaties to return to the wedding ceremony, on accompanying her to her aunt’s home in Twickenham – where she hopes to hide and ride out the disgrace of bolting from her own wedding.  To her dismay, it soon becomes clear to her that Ripley is nothing like she assumed.  He’s intelligent, clever, funny – his wicked and dry sense of humor is simply delicious – and once she gets a glimpse of him sans clothes (you’ll see), she can’t shake a very inconvenient attraction to… well, every single thing about him.  A sober Olympia finds herself daydreaming about her very stubborn champion, wishing he was the man she was destined to marry.  But after a lifetime spent on the shelf, unnoticed and underappreciated, Olympia’s skewed vision of herself leaves her with all kinds of doubt about her own appeal to a man like Ripley.  Certain she offers little that would appeal to the handsome rake, Olympia is resigned to a life of infamy after jilting the Duke of Ashmont.

Ripley is determined to return Olympia to Ashmont, and even as each of his overly optimistic plans fail, he’s relentlessly hopeful that things will somehow turn out in the end.  He can’t quite believe Ashmont landed Olympia for his duchess, but he tries to do right by his friend.  Meanwhile, as the trip progresses and he’s forced to spend time with Olympia, Ripley begins to recognize she’s everything he never realized he wanted and needed in his own life.   Ripley starts to resent Ashmont, wanting beautiful, funny, sharp and intelligent Olympia for himself.  He’s frustrated by Olympia’s self-doubt and insecurity, and annoyed at the part he played in making her feel that way. She’s magnificent and he can’t help his attraction to everything about her – her mind, her body, her sense of humor, her beauty… Ripley, world renowned rake, falls hard for his bespectacled companion and it’s awesome.

When all his best laid plans go awry, and Ashmont fails to catch up to them, Ripley eventually steers them to the home of his favorite aunt, Lady Charles Ancaster.  Aunt Julia, who practically raised the three Dis-Graces (Ripley, Ashmont, and their friend, Blackwood), is quick to chastise her nephew for his role in the debacle of Olympia’s wedding day… but she also sees what Ripley and Olympia try hard not to – that they’ve fallen in love.  She’s a terrific secondary character, playing a pivotal role in the second act/resolution of the story.  If she wasn’t a fictional character, I’d be tempted to high-five her.

Reader, because the journey – with all of its highlights and lowlights (and there are many) – is such a delightfully entertaining trip, I’m reluctant to spoil it for you.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say that nothing goes as planned, and in the span of a few short days, Ms. Chase somehow crafts a love match between Olympia and Ripley that feels profoundly real, romantic and special.  Meanwhile, Ashmont and Blackwood desperately try to track the pair down – and Ripley, determined to honor his friendship, tries valiantly not to fall for Olympia.  His friendship and loyalty are tested as the novel comes to a close, but Ms. Chase deftly delivers a happily ever after that honors both.  I’m eager to find out just who the sweetly befuddled Ashmont ends up with – and to discover what’s led to the estrangement between Blackwood and his wife, Ripley’s sister.  Ripley’s story is a marvelous introduction to the trio, and I can’t wait for more of these Difficult Dukes.

Loretta Chase was a favorite historical romance author before I picked up A Duke in Shining Armor. But this romantic, funny, enchanting and redemptive road trip from hell is simply terrific and her best, most memorable work to date.   A Duke in Shining Armor is one of my favorite novels of 2017.


EXCERPT

Prologue
London
Early morning of 11 June 1833

The Duke of Ashmont was not a very good duke—rather an awful one, actually. And so nobody could be in the least surprised to see him, drunk as an emperor—that was to say, ten times as drunk as a lord—staggering down the steps of Crockford’s Club on the arm of one of his two best friends.

This one was Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley. Where Ashmont was fair-haired, blue-eyed, and angelic-­looking, Ripley was dark. Unlike Ashmont, he did not appear to be spun of dreams and gossamer, and women did not follow his movements with the moonstruck expressions they accorded His Grace with the Angel Face.

On a good day, someone had said once, Ripley’s face resembled that of a wolf who’d been in too many fights.

Furthermore, though his slightly older title ranked him a notch or two higher in precedence than Ashmont, Ripley was merely as drunk as a lord. He could still distinguish up from down. When, therefore, His Grace of Ashmont showed an inclination to stumble in the downhill direction, toward St. James’s Palace, Ripley hauled him about.

“This way,” he said. “Hackney stand up ahead.” “Right,” Ashmont said. “Can’t miss the wedding.

Not this one. It’s me doing it. Me and Olympia. Have to be there. Promised.”

“You will be,” Ripley said as he led his friend across the street. The wedding had been news to him, the choice of bride a shock: Lady Olympia Hightower, of all women. She was the last girl on earth he’d thought would marry Ashmont—or any of them, for that matter.

Not that Ripley knew her very well. Or at all. They’d been introduced, yes, years ago. That was in the days when respectable persons still introduced Ripley and his two friends to innocent girls. But those were not the kinds of girls the ducal trio wanted. Gently bred maidens were for marrying, and marriage was sup-posed to be years away, sometime in the dim, distant future.

Apparently, the future had arrived while Ripley wasn’t looking.

First the Duke of Blackwood, the other of his two boon companions, had married Ripley’s sister over a year ago, a few days before Ripley left for the Conti-nent. Now Ashmont was doing it. Ripley had heard the happy news mere hours after his return to London yesterday.

No, he’d returned the day before, because today was yesterday now. He’d come to Crockford’s because he wanted a decent meal, and Crockford’s Ude was the next best thing to Ripley’s own chef, Chardot, who’d come down with a foul cold sometime during the Channel crossing.

Chardot went with him everywhere because he was amply paid to do so, and Ripley liked his comfort. Having been forced, for no sane reason, to live like a pauper during his boyhood, he lived like a king now.

Ripley was debating with himself whether, on the whole, he’d better have stayed abroad, when four men spilled out of a narrow court, one crashing into Ash-mont, with force enough to dislodge him from Ripley’s light grasp and push him into a shop front.

Ashmont bounced back with surprising energy. “You clumsy, bleeding, half-­wit! I have to get married, you bloody arsehole!” At the same moment, he drove his fist at the fellow’s face.

One of the man’s friends tried to butt in. With a sigh, Ripley grabbed him by the back of the collar. The fel-low swung at him, obliging Ripley to knock him into the gutter.

What happened after that was what often happened when Ashmont was about: a lot of filthy language and filthy fighting, and men rushing out of the clubs, shout-ing bets, and a female or two screaming somewhere.

Then it was over. Their foes lay strewn about the pavement. Ripley didn’t wait to count or identify them. He collected Ashmont from the railing he’d slumped against and trudged to the corner with him. He sig-naled, and the first in line of the hackneys plodded their way. He threw Ashmont into the decrepit coach and directed the driver to Ashmont House.

Servants waited up, as they were accustomed to do, for Ashmont. They bore him up the stairs to his bed-room and undressed and washed him without fuss.


GIVEAWAY – CLICK HERE

GIVEAWAY TERMS & CONDITIONS:  Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback copy of A Duke In Shining Armor by Loretta Chase.  This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance.  Giveaway ends 12/5/2017 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address.  Duplicates will be deleted.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Loretta Chase has worked in academia, retail, and the visual arts, as well as on the streets-as a meter maid-and in video, as a scriptwriter. She might have developed an excitingly checkered career had her spouse not nagged her into writing fiction. Her bestselling historical romances, set in the Regency and Romantic eras of the early 19th century, have won a number of awards, including the Romance Writers of America’s Rita. For more about her past, her books, and what she does and doesn’t do on social media, please visit her website www.LorettaChase.com.

You can also connect with Loretta at: Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Goodreads * ~ * Amazon

VIRTUAL TOUR: It’s Hard Out Here for a Duke (Keeping Up with the Cavendishes #4) by Maya Rodale

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Some Mistakes…

When American-born James Cavendish arrives in London tomorrow, he’ll become the Duke of Durham. Some might be ecstatic at the opportunity. Not James. He’s a simple man, fond of simple pleasures. And right now, nothing could be more pleasurable than spending his last night of freedom with a beautiful stranger.

Are Far Too Good…

One wild night, Meredith Green, companion to the dowager Duchess of Durham, said yes to a man she thought she’d never see again. Suddenly, they’re living under the same roof, where Meredith is expected to teach James how to be a duke-while trying not to surrender to temptation a second time.

To Be Forgotten

For a duke and a commoner, marriage would be pure scandal. Yet nothing has ever felt as right as having Meredith in his arms…and in his bed. Soon he must choose-between a duty he never desired, and a woman he longs for, body and soul…

EXCERPT

Though Miss Meredith Green lacked birth, or wealth, or many other qualifications one would assume of a gently bred lady, she had been raised to be one. She could curtsy with the best of them, expertly arrange both flowers and seating arrangements for dinner parties, and could recite pages from Debrett’s Book of the Peerage. These were just a few of her accomplishments.

As such, she should not be here, in the public room of the Queen’s Head Tavern and Coaching Inn. Especially not alone and especially not at night, where any old ruffian might think he could take a liberty with her, to put it nicely.

Which is why she should not have allowed the barmaid to add a generous splash of whiskey to her tea.

Which is probably why she was encouraging the ocular advances of a handsome man with whom she was not acquainted.

Meredith had noticed him the moment he walked in, tall and lanky but strong, with unfashionably long brown hair that fell rakishly in his eyes. What color were they, she wondered? She didn’t need to know. There was nothing she could do with this information. There was absolutely no point to her knowing.

She badly wanted to know.

So she dared one glance, then another.

Do not look. Do not look. Do not look.

Her better judgment was roundly ignored. Before she knew it they were somehow flirting from opposite sides of the room without even saying a word.

It was the sort of thing that made a girl’s heart beat giddily and her toes start to tap under her skirts. Thanks to years of training, she kept her posture poised and her movements elegant, but under her skirts, her toes were tapping.

This, this was what she need tonight: a distraction. The past few months had been trying, and the next few promised to be challenging as well, albeit in a different way. She had only tonight to live for herself.

She darted another look in his direction.

He was watching her. This truth elicited a slight smile from her lips. But she shouldn’t take pleasure in this.

She ducked her head.

But her heart beat quickly and she wondered: Would he come over?

He shouldn’t. He really should not. She absolutely should not encourage him. But life was full of should-nots, and tonight Meredith wanted to say yes.

It had been a bit of a day—on top of quite a week, and one hell of a month. Or two or three. Her visit to her ailing mother in Hampshire revealed a dispiriting truth: the life choices of Miss Meredith Green were few, and less than thrilling. Nevertheless, she had made her choice to return to London and live the restrained and dignified life of a lady’s companion.

Emphasis on restrained. When one relied on one’s spotless reputation for her very existence, one comported herself accordingly. One did not give or receive heated glances across crowded rooms.

But Meredith embarked on a little whiskey-infused rationalization: until she stepped foot in London, she could afford to live a little loosely. For one night, she might indulge in the sort of wicked behavior—and passion—that she’d have to refuse forevermore.

That was just the splash of whiskey talking, she told herself. It was just the strain of recent events wreaking havoc with her common sense. It was her mother’s bad influence. She’d had the great luck to be raised to be A Lady. She oughtn’t forget that.

Do not look. Do not look. Do not look.

She looked. Oh, she looked.

His gaze sparkled. Like he knew what inner turmoil and rationalization his glances inspired. This time, she didn’t look away.

Oh, goodness, he was coming over. Her heart beat faster and faster as his long strides brought him closer and closer until he was standing beside her, leaning casually against the bar.

Gentlemen did not lean.

“What is a beautiful woman like you doing alone in a place like this?”


GIVEAWAY: Click HERE to enter

TERMS & CONDITIONS: Open to US shipping addresses only. One winner will receive a paperback set of the first three books in the Keeping Up With the Cavendishes series by Maya Rodale. This giveaway is administered by Pure Textuality PR on behalf of Avon Romance. Giveaway ends 12/12/2017 @ 11:59pm EST. Avon Romance will send the winning copies out to the winner directly. Limit one entry per reader and mailing address. Duplicates will be deleted.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MAYA RODALE began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence. She is now the bestselling and award winning author smart and sassy romances. She lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own.

You can connect with Maya at: her website * ~ *  Facebook * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Goodreads * ~ * Amazon


VIRTUAL TOUR: Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane #12) by Elizabeth Hoyt

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A LADY OF LIGHT

Refined, kind, and intelligent, Lady Iris Jordan finds herself the unlikely target of a diabolical kidnapping.  Her captors are the notoriously evil Lords of Chaos.  When one of the masked-and-nude!-Lords spirits her away to his carriage, she shoots him…only to find she may have been a trifle hasty.

A DUKE IN DEEPEST DARKNESS

Cynical, scarred, and brooding, Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has made it his personal mission to infiltrate the Lords of Chaos and destroy them.  Rescuing Lady Jordan was never in his plans.  But now with the Lords out to kill them both, he has but one choice: marry the lady in order to keep her safe.

CAUGHT IN A WEB OF DANGER… AND DESIRE

Much to Raphael’s irritation, Iris insists on being the sort of duchess who involes herself in his life—and bed.  Soon he’s drawn to both to her quick wit and her fiery passion.  But when Iris discovers that Raphael’s past may be even more dangerous than the present, she falters.  Is their love strong enough to withstand not only the Lords of Chaos but also Raphael’s own demons?

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Forever, October 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1742
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series has had an impressive run, managing to captivate and entertain readers over a dozen uniformly good novels.  More recently, she’s seamlessly merged the long-running Ghost of St. Giles storyline into a new mystery surrounding the secretive and depraved Lords of Chaos.  This group has plagued Maiden Lane heroes and heroines over the last three books, but in the excellent Duke of Desire, the Lords finally get their comeuppance.  Although I’m sad that Duke of Desire represents an end to the series, I’m happy to tell you this last novel is romantic and profoundly moving, and concludes the series on a high note.  A note of caution before I continue:  The Lords of Chaos are a depraved and sadistic lot who regularly host revels in which their masked members rape and abuse men, women and children.  The hero of Duke of Desire is the son of their former leader, and the victimization of children and rape of women drive the narrative in this book.

The story opens in the midst of a revelry hosted by the Lords of Chaos.  They’ve kidnapped and held captive the Duchess of Kyle, and on this evening she’s to be violated and sacrificed as a form of revenge on the group’s hunter and nemesis, Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle.  Unfortunately, they’ve kidnapped the wrong woman.

Lady Iris Jordan was returning home from Kyle’s wedding when she was forcibly taken from her carriage.  Bound, dirty and hungry, she’s terrified of the naked men in masks arrayed around her in the firelight, diverted only  after their leader, Dionysus, introduces her as the Duchess of Kyle.  She’s quick to correct him, and then listens as a man wearing a wolf mask approaches Dionysus and claims her for himself.  Her original kidnapper attempts to intervene and keep her for the group, but Dionysus allows the wolf to take her away after promising to kill her when he’s done.  Iris is marched to a carriage and angrily tossed in – but she hasn’t given up on hopes of escape.  She frantically searches under the carriage seats for a weapon and when the wolf returns and reveals himself, she shoots him.

Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, has finally infiltrated the Lords and plans to destroy them for good.  But he had to abruptly change strategy when he recognized the woman bound before him.  Since meeting her at a ball a few short months ago, he hasn’t been able to put Lady Iris Jordan out of his mind.  Claiming her for himself is the only way to save her.

Bleeding and hurt from the bullet wound to his shoulder, Raphael explains to Iris that he was only trying to rescue her, and that when the Lords discover she’s alive, she’ll be in even more danger.  Desperate to protect her and destroy their common enemy, Raphael, in a desperate solution to buy them more time, proposes they marry.  As his wife, he (and his loyal group of bodyguards) can offer Iris protection as he pursues his revenge on the Lords of Chaos.   After arriving home, a clergyman is summoned and before Iris quite knows what’s happening, she’s married.

The revelry, escape and marriage happen in the opening chapters of Duke of Desire, and Ms. Hoyt somehow managed to convince this reader that it all made sense.  It’s a bit insane and frantic, but much like her heroine, Iris, I decided to go with it and you should too.  The marriage provides the means for Ms. Hoyt to unite two souls who belong together.  Raphael is tortured by memories of his father (a former Dionysus), and a childhood trauma that scarred him for life.  He’s powerful, cold and consumed with plans for revenge on the Lords of Chaos, but he’s also deeply attracted to and affected by Iris and he’s determined to keep her close and safe.  Iris was married to an indifferent, older husband and then after his death, she’s lived a quiet life in her older brother’s household.  She’s alarmed by her attraction to her husband – a virtual stranger – but something about him calls to her.  She’s determined to demand more from this second marriage despite its less than auspicious beginning, and she’s unwilling to meekly follow Raphael’s directions.

As the novel unfolds, Raphael continues his attempts to infiltrate and destroy the Lords of Chaos, but Ms. Hoyt wisely focuses her attention on developing Iris and Raphael as individuals, and then as a romantic couple once it’s clear they’ve fallen for each other.  Duke of Desire deals with some heavy subject matter and Raphael’s secrets aren’t your typical romance novel fare – his past is marked by a deeply troubling climatic event, and even after Iris convinces him to reveal his past, he struggles to overcome it.  Though Iris hasn’t ‘suffered’ at quite the same level her husband has, she’s still damaged by her past as the wife of an indifferent husband.  I found the relationship between these two profoundly moving, and the way they inch towards each other – physically and emotionally – satisfying on every level.  Their physical relationship is particularly well done – they have a passionate attraction to each other – and I loved Iris’s willingness to seduce her husband and satisfy her own curiosities about lovemaking.  Raphael is overwhelmed by his attraction to Iris, and his futile attempts to resist her bold attempts to seduce him are priceless.  He can’t resist her, and when he allows himself to give in… it’s sexy and naughty and wonderful.  They’re a terrific match-up and perhaps one of my favorite Maiden Lane pairings.

I won’t spoil who Dionysus is, or reveal how Raphael’s investigation into the Lords of Chaos eventually concludes, except to say the resolution is a bit convoluted, and the final revelation of Dionysus is anticlimactic.  After a three novel build-up, and chapters detailing Dionysus’ machinations against Raphael, I wish Ms. Hoyt had spent a bit more time developing the leader and his backstory.  We know a bit about his awful history – enough to feel some sympathy for what he’s become – but the ending to this MAJOR storyline is rushed and unsatisfying.

While Duke of Desire is ostensibly about Raphael’s efforts to destroy the Lords of Chaos, it’s the redemptive love affair – passionate, tender and perfect – forged in a desperate attempt to thwart the depraved Lords of Chaos, that, quite rightly, takes centre stage.  It  shouldn’t work – but it does.  He’s damaged, she’s determined, and though the premise of their marriage seems ludicrous, Ms. Hoyt capably navigates their tricky road to happily ever after.


EXCERPT

Desperately she flung herself at the opposite seat and tugged it up. Thrust her hand in.

A pistol.

She cocked it, desperately praying that it was loaded.

She turned and aimed it at the door to the carriage just as the door swung open.

The Wolf loomed in the doorway—still nude—a lantern in one hand. She saw the eyes behind the mask flick to the pistol she held between her bound hands. He turned his head and said something in an incomprehensible language to someone outside.

Iris felt her breath sawing in and out of her chest.

He climbed into the carriage and closed the door, completely ignoring her and the pistol pointed at him. The Wolf hung the lantern on a hook and sat on the seat across from her.

Finally he glanced at her. “Put that down.”

His voice was calm. Quiet.

With just a hint of menace.

She backed into the opposite corner, as far away from him as possible, holding the pistol up. Level with his chest. Her heart was pounding so hard it nearly deafened her. “No.”

The carriage jolted into motion, making her stumble before she caught herself.

“T-tell them to stop the carriage,” she said, stuttering with terror despite her resolve. “Let me go now.”

“So that they can rape you to death out there?” He tilted his head to indicate the Lords. “No.”

“At the next village, then.”

“I think not.”

He reached for her and she knew she had no choice.

She shot him.

The blast blew him into the seat and threw her hands up and back, the pistol narrowly missing her nose.

Iris scrambled to her feet. The bullet was gone, but she could still use the pistol as a bludgeon.

The Wolf was sprawled across the seat, blood streaming from a gaping hole in his right shoulder. His mask had been knocked askew on his face.

She reached forward and snatched it off.

And then gasped.

The face that was revealed had once been as beautiful as an angel’s but was now horribly mutilated. A livid red scar ran from just below his hairline on the right side of his face, bisecting the eyebrow, somehow missing the eye itself but gouging a furrow into the lean cheek and catching the edge of his upper lip, making it twist. The scar ended in a missing divot of flesh in the line of the man’s severe jaw. He had inky black hair and, though they were closed now, Iris knew he had emotionless crystal-gray eyes.

She knew because she recognized him.

He was Raphael de Chartres, the Duke of Dyemore, and when she’d danced with him—once—three months ago at a ball, she’d thought he’d looked like Hades.

God of the underworld.

God of the dead.

She had no reason to change her opinion now.

Then he gasped, those frozen crystal eyes opened, and he glared at her. “You idiot woman. I’m trying to save you.”

 

GIVEAWAY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Hoyt is the New York Times bestselling author of over seventeen lush historical romances including the Maiden Lane series. Publishers Weekly has called her writing “mesmerizing.” She also pens deliciously fun contemporary romances under the name Julia Harper. Elizabeth lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with three untrained dogs, a garden in constant need of weeding, and the long-suffering Mr. Hoyt.

You can connect with Elizabeth at:

Her website * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Facebook * ~ * BookBub * ~ * Amazon.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Scot Beds His Wife (Victorian Rebels #5) by Kerrigan Byrne

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Gavin St. James, Earl of Thorne, is a notorious Highlander and an unrelenting Lothario who uses his slightly menacing charm to get what he wants—including too many women married to other men. But now, Gavin wants to put his shady past behind him…more or less. When a fiery lass who is the heiress to the land he wishes to possess drops into his lap, he sees a perfectly delicious opportunity…

A marriage most convenient

Samantha Masters has come back to Scotland, in a pair of trousers, and with a whole world of dangerous secrets from her time spent in the Wild West trailing behind her. Her only hope of protection is to marry—and to do so quickly. Gavin is only too willing to provide that service for someone he finds so disturbingly irresistible. But even as danger approaches, what begins as a scandalous proposition slowly turns into an all-consuming passion. And Gavin discovers that he will do whatever is necessary to keep the woman he has claimed as his own…

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: St. Martin’s Press, October 2017
Time and Setting: Scottish Highlands, 1880
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Sara

The Scot Beds His Wife is fifth in Kerrigan Byrnes’ Victorian Rebels series and a sequel to the third book The Highlander. Gavin St. James is half-brother to previous hero Laird Liam MacKenzie but the two are hardly fraternal. It’s Gavin’s plans to dissolve ties to his brother’s clan that starts everything in motion and it takes a brash American to put the stubborn Scot on a different path.

Gavin St. James grew up desperate to extricate himself from the legacy of his cruel father, the late Marquess Ravencroft. The abuse Gavin lived through left physical and emotional scars that never healed enough for him to find peace within his family. He once thought that his older brother Liam was his ally against their father, but their relationship soured as the Marquess’ manipulations drove them apart. Gavin later escaped when he inherited the earldom of Thorne through his mother’s family; however he found it was an empty role as he was still dependent on the Mackenzie finances. Earning his own wealth could only come by expanding his landholding and the perfect parcel was right next door – the deserted Ross estate of Erradale. After receiving a quick influx of ready cash, Gavin makes an offer to the last surviving member of the Ross family, who has been living in America for ten years. The response he receives is a firm “No” but Gavin is undeterred. Using the law to press the issue, Gavin has his solicitor inform the expatriate Miss Alison Ross that if she does not take residence on her property the lands will be deemed abandoned and resold.

An ocean away, Samantha Masters thought marriage to Bennett Masters would be first step in a new life full of opportunities, yet she soon learned that her new in-laws were criminals. Their latest scheme has the Masters brothers holding up a train carrying government funds to San Francisco. When something goes wrong, Samantha makes a horrific choice that saves an innocent life but puts a price on her head. The young woman she saves is very forgiving and offers Samantha a chance to leave America if she’s willing to live a lie in a foreign land indefinitely. Grabbing the chance, Samantha leaves her old name behind and travels to Scotland to become Miss Alison Ross, taking possession of Erradale and halting the schemes of the enemy Earl of Thorne. Samantha is met at the Wester Ross train station by a handsome Scotsman who provides assistance when her handbag is stolen. She’s quick to learn her hero is in fact Gavin St. James, the very man the real Alison had warned her about. Sensing his helpfulness was all a trick to get “Alison” to surrender her lands in thanks for saving her, Samantha explains that she will never hand over Erradale and will turn the derelict lands into a thriving cattle ranch to rival those in the American West.

The adversarial relationship between Samantha and Gavin fuels them to push relentlessly for their own goals. Gavin is shocked that “Alison” doesn’t fall for his seduction but he is soon back on track to subvert her efforts to improve Erradale. Samantha tries to keep away from Gavin but each time they meet. their war of words hides an undercurrent of attraction. Everything changes when investigators from America show up at Erradale and Gavin saves Samantha from being killed in a fire. For the first time in their acquaintance, Gavin sees the frightened young woman hiding behind bravado and salty language. It awakens something inside him he was reluctant to admit; that this bonny lass had become someone that he cares for. Knowing he can’t ignore those feelings forever and seeing a way for both of them to get what they want, Gavin offers “Alison” the protection of his name. In turn, he’ll assume control of Erradale through their marriage of convenience. Samantha knows their marriage won’t be legal since she’s not the real Alison Ross but the unwelcome discovery that she’s pregnant pushes her to accept Gavin’s proposal to give her unborn child a better name than that of an outlaw family. She soon finds that lying to Gavin is the most difficult thing she’s ever faced as his flirtatious manner hides a man who deserves honesty and love to save him from the pain in his past.

The books in the Victorian Rebels series never fail to use the tortured past of the hero to create a rich, emotional story. Each man has their own ways to deal with their demons and Gavin hides behind his smile and uses women for temporary pleasure to escape his pain. When Samantha doesn’t fall for his charms Gavin has to dig deep inside of himself to find ways around her stubbornness. What he finds inside is a man who desires love but has never felt comfortable exposing himself to anyone. The prologue of The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t as disturbing as in some of the earlier books; however once the reader comes to understand how desperately Gavin has suppressed the romantic side of himself, those moments where his innocence was destroyed become all the more unsettling.

Samantha is also very different from previous heroines as she’s action oriented, direct, profane and has just as many walls around her heart as Gavin does. Samantha has been fighting for stability and a true sense of belonging ever since her childhood on a ranch in Nevada Territory with her adoptive family. Her marriage was an ill-conceived desire to create a family with someone she thought was devoted to her, and escaping to Scotland is a chance for Samantha to try one more time to restart her life. I loved her no-nonsense attitude and her need to build up Erradale for herself just as much as to protect it for the real Alison’s benefit.

The Scot Beds His Wife isn’t the strongest release within the Victorian Rebels series but the developments for the Mackenzie family and a few hints at what’s to come make this a must read for fans and a good entry point for new readers.


EXCERPT

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband’s beautiful brown eyes.

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.

Though they’d known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.
Alison’s hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other’s in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.

What in the hell just happened?

Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn’t have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?
To God?

This morning she’d been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.

This afternoon, she’d been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.

This evening, because of what she’d just done, of what they’d all just done . . . chances were good that she’d be hanged.

This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.

Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.

This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters, themselves, as the gang didn’t generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn’t only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often . . . federal funds.

Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.

And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn’t allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans . . .

Then they’d take what they needed.

This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.
No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a “frightened” female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.

The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha’s job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.

“People are sheep,” Boyd had always said. “They’ll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom.”

On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn’t foremost on the mind of the average American.

Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.

At first, Alison’s friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she’d found herself enjoying Alison’s company.

She’d not known many women her age, least of all friendly ones.

Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.

Had she not been about to rob the train.

Had there not been more gunshots than were agreed upon . . .


GIVEAWAY

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Whether she’s writing about Celtic Druids, Victorian bad boys, or brash Irish FBI Agents, Kerrigan Byrne uses her borderline-obsessive passion for history, her extensive Celtic ancestry, and her love of Shakespeare in every book. She lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains with her handsome husband and three lovely teenage girls, but dreams of settling on the Pacific Coast. Her Victorian Rebels novels include The Highwayman and The Highlander.

You can connect with Kerrigan at:

Her Website * ~ * Twitter * ~ * Facebook * ~ * Pinterest * ~ * Instagram

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrel #3) by Sarah MacLean

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The one woman he will never forget…

Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has lived the last three years in self-imposed solitude, paying the price for a mistake he can never reverse and a love he lost forever. The dukedom does not wait, however, and Haven requires an heir, which means he must find himself a wife by summer’s end. There is only one problem—he already has one.

The one man she will never forgive…

After years in exile, Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, returns to London with a single goal—to reclaim the life she left and find happiness, unencumbered by the man who broke her heart. Haven offers her a deal; Sera can have her freedom, just as soon as she finds her replacement…which requires her to spend the summer in close quarters with the husband she does not want, but somehow cannot resist.

A love that neither can deny…

The duke has a single summer to woo his wife and convince her that, despite their broken past, he can give her forever, making every day… The Day of the Duchess.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, June 2017

Time and Setting: England, 1836
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

Fans of Ms. MacLean rejoice: The Day of the Duchess is a terrific conclusion to her Scandal & Scoundrel series.  In it, the author returns to the intriguing scene that opened The Rogue Not Taken, when, in front of large and captive audience, Sophie Talbot shoved her brother-in-law Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into a fishpond after witnessing him in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his duchess, her sister, Seraphina.  I re-read the the scene to remind myself of how haughty, vile and despicable Haven was, and I suspect I’m not the only person who picked up The Day of the Duchess certain there was no way to redeem him.  But I’m here to tell you you’re wrong and Ms. MacLean’s redemption of this character is nothing short of miraculous.  I loved him by the time this story concluded, and you will too.  Ms. MacLean pulls out all the big guns in this emotional, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting love story.

When The Day of the Duchess opens, it’s been two years and seven months since Haven last saw his wife.  He’s spent part of every day missing her, wanting her, and searching for her, but she’s vanished.  From the first, it’s clear Haven regrets their past and he wants Seraphina back.  Though we know what happened at the disastrous party when Sophie pushed Haven into the pond, we know nothing of their relationship before this.  On this morning, Haven is in his chambers reflecting on his efforts to find Sera and making plans to resume his search the moment the Parliamentary session closes.  He takes his seat in the House of Lords and just as the Lord Chancellor calls an end to the season, an entrance in the hall disrupts his speech.  Haven ignores the interruption until a loud voice – a voice he recognizes – raises the hairs on the back of his neck. When he finally spots impeccable dressed, tall and beautiful woman on the floor he already knows who it is.

Christ.  She was here.

Here.  Nearly three years searching for her, and here she was, as though she’d been gone mere hours.  Shock warred with an anger he could not have imagined, but those emotions were nothing compared to the third feeling.  The immense, unbearable pleasure.

She was here.

Finally.

Again.

It was all he could do not to move.  To gather her up and carry her away.  To hold her close.  Win her back. Start fresh.

Except she doesn’t seem to share the sentiment and instead, after watching him for a moment, she declares, “I am Seraphina Bevingstoke, Duchess of Haven.  And I require a divorce.”

A story like The Day of the Duchess is a challenge to review for several reasons.  Told in chapters that alternate between Haven and Seraphina’s PoV, and the past and present, it’s nearly impossible to review it without spoiling its secrets.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say, the relationship between Haven and Seraphina masterfully illustrates the power of a misunderstanding to morph into something so big and so damaging it destroys everything and everyone in its path. The dissolution of their relationship, the scene at the fishpond, Haven’s effort to win back his wife and her affections – all are all plagued by misunderstandings – and as Ms. MacLean flips back and forth in time and PoV, it’s easy to see how and why.  Understanding, however, does nothing whatsoever to diminish the heartbreak and sadness you feel as the author slowly and painfully peels back the layers of Haven and Sera’s relationship.  In flashbacks we witness their first meeting (it’s brilliant and wonderful and funny and romantic), how deeply and intensely they fall in love and then how quickly it all falls apart.  Seraphina, after misunderstanding Haven’s intentions, makes a decision that painfully and irrevocably changes everything.  Their passionate love affair abruptly turns into something tawdry, ugly and miserable, and it’s difficult to convey the whiplash of emotions I experienced reading it. Your heart will ache as their history is slowly revealed, and after Sera’s declaration in the House of Lords, it’s difficult to see how Ms. MacLean will effect a second chance at love for these two.

But she does! To refresh, it’s clear from the start that Haven wants Seraphina back – as his wife, lover and friend – and that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win her back.  But Sera, despite her inconvenient attraction to THE LOVE OF HER LIFE, doesn’t want a reunion – she wants a divorce.  So Haven decides to give her one – IF she’ll attend a house party and help him select her replacement and his next duchess.  Seraphina is desperate, Haven is devious – and similarly desperate (for her lurve), and this is a writer who knows how to make magic out of a mess.  Seraphina agrees to his plan, but she brings protective reinforcements – her sisters – who’ve never forgiven Haven.  Careful reader – I can imagine your eyes rolling.  Yes, it’s silly and ridiculous.  But, it’s so well done, you enjoy every moment anyway.  Haven makes a move, Seraphina checks it, and the game continues apace.  This plot device (the fake find-a-wife-house party) wherein Haven slowly woos his reluctant wife, paired with well-drawn secondary characters – women with whom Haven pretends to have an interest and Sera’s fascinating and devious sisters, keep this clever conceit afloat long after it should have grown tiresome, and provides ample time for these two to rediscover their love and affection for each other.

Obviously, all the plotting and scheming in the world wouldn’t hold our attention if the principals weren’t equally compelling.  Haven – Mal to Sera – cheated.  It is difficult to get past that.  However, once Ms. MacLean finally slots into place Mal’s childhood and the events that preceded his MASSIVE MISTAKE, I understood it – even if I didn’t like it.  Yes, I’m being deliberately vague.  You’ll see.  The Mal we get to know in this story is appealing, charming and chock full of regret.  He’s also a handsome, wealthy and powerful duke.  Reader, when he sets out to make amends and prove to Sera he’s worthy of her love, he’s irresistible.  Sera is similarly appealing.  Haven is smitten from the moment he meets her – and so are we.  She’s delightful, charming, mysterious… and she keeps him on his toes.  The moment (oh, it’s awful) when she decides to leave Haven and any hope for a reconciliation, her pain and heartbreak are palpable.  But the Sera that emerges is like a phoenix from the ashes, and she makes Haven work hard for her forgiveness – and I was glad of it.

The Day of the Duchess isn’t perfect.  The house party drags out a bit too long and Sera’s sisters – though loyal and entertaining – are a bit too conveniently ‘just what Seraphina needs’ at any given moment; though they’re still a likeable lot.  The happily ever after is hard earned and well deserved by the time it arrives, although again, I wish Ms. MacLean hadn’t drawn it out quite so much.  The pacing in the second half is the only reason I’m not giving the book five stars.

Slow pace aside, The Day of the Duchess ends the Scandal & Scoundrel series on a high note.  Every chapter – past and present – resonates emotionally and viscerally, and this romance and relationship stayed with me long after the last page was read.  This is Ms. MacLean at her best.


EXCERPT

Chapter 1

DESERTED DUKE DISAVOWED!

August 19, 1836

House of Lords, Parliament

She’d left him two years, seven months ago, exactly.

Malcolm Marcus Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven looked to the tiny wooden calendar wheels inlaid into the blotter on his desk in his private office above the House of Lords.

August the nineteenth, 1836. The last day of the parliamentary session, filled with pomp and idle. And lingering memory. He spun the wheel with the six embossed upon it. Five. Four. He took a deep breath.

Get out. He heard his own words, cold and angry with betrayal, echoing with quiet menace. Don’t ever return.

He touched the wheel again. August became July. May. March.

January the nineteenth, 1834. The day she left.

His fingers moved without thought, finding comfort in the familiar click of the wheels.

April the seventeenth, 1833.

The way I feel about you . . . Her words now—soft and full of temptation. I’ve never felt anything like this.

He hadn’t, either. As though light and breath and hope had flooded the room, filling all the dark spaces. Filling his lungs and heart. And all because of her.

Until he’d discovered the truth. The truth, which had mattered so much until it hadn’t mattered at all.

Where had she gone?

The clock in the corner of the room ticked and tocked, counting the seconds until Haven was due in his seat in the hallowed main chamber of the House of Lords, where men of higher purpose and passion had sat before him for generations. His fingers played the little calendar like a virtuoso, as though they’d done this dance a hundred times before. A thousand.

And they had.

March the first, 1833. The day they met.

So, they let simply anyone become a duke, do they? No deference. Teasing and charm and pure, unadulterated beauty.

If you think dukes are bad, imagine what they accept from duchesses?

That smile. As though she’d never met another man. As though she’d never wanted to. He’d been hers the moment he’d seen that smile. Before that. Imagine, indeed.

And then it had fallen apart. He’d lost everything, and then lost her. Or perhaps it had been the reverse. Or perhaps it was all the same.

Would there ever be a time when he stopped thinking of her? Ever a date that did not remind him of her? Of the time that had stretched like an eternity since she’d left?

Where had she gone?

The clock struck eleven, heavy chimes sounding in the room, echoed by a dozen others sounding down the long, oaken corridor beyond, summoning men of longstanding name to the duty that had been theirs before they drew breath.

Haven spun the calendar wheels with force, leaving them as they lay. November the thirty-seventh, 3842. A fine date—one on which he had absolutely no chance of thinking of her.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

New York Times, Washington Post & USA Today bestseller Sarah MacLean is the author of historical romance novels that have been translated into more than twenty languages, and winner of back-to-back RITA Awards for best historical romance from the Romance Writers of America.

Sarah is a leading advocate for the romance genre, speaking widely on its place at the nexus of gender and cultural studies. She is the author of a monthly column celebrating the best of the genre for the Washington Post. Her work in support of romance and the women who read it earned her a place on Jezebel.com’s Sheroes list of 2014 and led Entertainment Weekly to call her “gracefully furious.” A graduate of Smith College & Harvard University, Sarah now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Author Links: WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

VIRTUAL TOUR: Loveweaver by Tracy Ann Miller

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The year is 895. Slayde’s job as an top military leader of Kent is to rid England of the last of the Viking raiders. But Llyrica is no ordinary Viking. She’s a beauty with a mysterious past … and a talent for weaving song spells. Even as Slayde saves her from drowning, he knows Llyrica will be a dangerous distraction.

Llyrica is now a stranger in a strange land on a mission to fulfill a deathbed promise. But she must also find her missing brother. This man, Slayde, known as The StoneHeart in his country, seems determined to block her at every turn. And yet she can’t help but be drawn to the affectionate, loving side of him that awakens when he sleeps – The sleepwalker.

Unknown to both Llyrica and Slayde, each will use the other to accomplish their quests. Both will also fall under the song spell that she wove into the braid of his tunic.

Will her Lovespell ensure a happily ever after for them? Or condemn them to a love that was never meant to be?

EXCERPT


“I have learned that a woman will use her soft curves, tender touches and sweet voice to drive a man to do her bidding. Just as you think to do now.” Slayde flung her linen shroud aside, and caught her up in his arms to pull her against him. A black lock of his hair fell unto his brow. “And these silks you wear. Know it will not work on me, vixen.”

She drew a deep breath when he indicated no knowledge of her crimes. But her awareness that the sleepwalker dwelt beneath StoneHeart’s clothes and weapons quickened her pulse in the most tantalizing places. “A mishap brought me here for sure. But I have no notion to what you now refer. I merely sit here, in my everyday garments, in your house and weave. If I have insulted you again by teaching Elfric something other than what you and your father deem proper for a man to know, I pray your pardon.”

“I may grant it if the other boys do not bloody his nose when they find he has been at a female craft.” He crushed her closer until impulse dictated she slip her arms around his waist. The thick muscles of his back tightened under her splayed fingers.

“That is an odd fear of yours, I think, that you will appear as less than a man. But it is an unfounded fear given the size of your … when I see evidence of your …” Her face heated. “Your height and large hands and shadowed jaw and chin.”

His mouth twitched almost imperceptibly in one corner. “I was taught to be a man and so should Elfric. Our father is gone, so I am in his stead. Every boy needs a father to raise him thus, or a man to take the father’s place.”

On her brother’s behalf, Llyrica felt keenly this lack of father. If Haesten had been a different man, she would not be cast alone on foreign turf in search of him, or under an obligation to avenge her mother’s beatings at his hand. A rare tear glazed each eye.

“You will neither change our arrangement, nor try and be rid of me. I have Father Byrnstan’s vow and the asylum of his church.” In a short time, she would also have a braid imbued with a lovesong.

“You give a fine example of how a woman works. You say one thing, but by the soft molding of your body, the pout on your lips and tears in your eyes, you plead for another.”

“I sat at the loom with no intention of pleading anything from you. Until you came, hauled me against you, and said you would throw me out. You then reminded me that my brother and I have been without a father. If this is an example of how a man works, then I may not praise the job that Ceolmund did in raising you.”

He straightened with new intensity, his arms muscles flexed around her, his chest, abdomen and thighs turned to stone. His manpart pressed so hard against her that Llyrica felt it throb. “This is how a man works, vixen. This is how I work.”

About the Author

Although Tracy Ann Miller is primarily a graphic designer, (see her work at tracymillerdesigns.com) she has been writing novels for over 20 years.

She was an active member of the National Romance Writers of America with her local chapter, The Virginia Romance Writers. It was there she honed her craft by attending workshops, conferences, and by coordinating The VRW’s Fool for Love Contest.

Before being published, she entered and won numerous writing contests, including The Fool for Love Contest for Loveweaver, and the Between the Sheets best love scene contest for The Maiden Seer.

She writes to keep the hero and heroine interacting in story as much as possible (no long separations) and of course they get a spectacular happily ever after.

For more information, please visit Tracy Ann Miller’s blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon.

VIRTUAL TOUR: The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband (Rokesbys #2) by Julia Quinn

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While you were sleeping…

With her brother Thomas injured on the battlefront in the Colonies, orphaned Cecilia Harcourt has two unbearable choices: move in with a maiden aunt or marry a scheming cousin. Instead, she chooses option three and travels across the Atlantic, determined to nurse her brother back to health. But after a week of searching, she finds not her brother but his best friend, the handsome officer Edward Rokesby. He’s unconscious and in desperate need of her care, and Cecilia vows that she will save this soldier’s life, even if staying by his side means telling one little lie…

I told everyone I was your wife

When Edward comes to, he’s more than a little confused. The blow to his head knocked out six months of his memory, but surely he would recall getting married. He knows who Cecilia Harcourt is—even if he does not recall her face—and with everyone calling her his wife, he decides it must be true, even though he’d always assumed he’d marry his neighbor back in England.

If only it were true…

Cecilia risks her entire future by giving herself—completely—to the man she loves. But when the truth comes out, Edward may have a few surprises of his own for the new Mrs. Rokesby.

Publisher and Release Date:  Avon, 30 May 2017

Time and Setting: 1779, New York Town
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Em

Amnesia, war, a long distance attachment, a Big Misunderstanding… Julia Quinn juggles all of the above in this entertaining second book in the Rokesby series.  The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is another enjoyable and engaging romance from Ms. Quinn; our hero is swoony – a classic British gentleman who’s also charming and likes to flirt, and our heroine is pragmatic, bold and brave, with a subtle beauty that steals our hero’s heart, and I happily traveled with them on their road to happily ever after.

Cecilia Harcourt has spent the last few years living quietly with her father in Derbyshire.  She spends her days corresponding with her beloved brother, Thomas – a soldier fighting in the Colonies –  and taking care of their father.  Through their letters, she knows much about Thomas’ life abroad, and about his closest friend, Edward Rokesby, to whom she’s also started writing. But the book begins, Cecilia’s life is in turmoil.

Shortly after receiving word that Thomas has been injured, their father dies.  Orphaned, and with her only brother injured and abroad, Cecilia’s is left with two equally unappealing options:  move in with her maiden aunt or marry her odious cousin Horace.  Desperate, Cecilia rejects both options and instead travels across the Atlantic, intending to nurse Thomas back to health. Unfortunately, when she arrives in the Colonies, her brother is missing.  A week of searching fails to turn up any news of him, but instead leads her to Edward Rokesby, who’s been hospitalized with a head trauma. Desperate to help him and stonewalled by senior officers, Cecilia makes another bold decision – she pretends she’s Edward’s wife in order to stay close to him.

Edward Rokesby awakens in a hospital bed confused, disoriented – and married.  He can’t remember the last six months of his life… which must be why he doesn’t remember his wife.  Though he does… vaguely.   He knows Cecilia Harcourt – she’s Thomas’s sister and faithful correspondent – so if everyone says she’s his wife, she must be.  Right?

Edward struggles to regain his memories and Cecilia struggles to reconcile herself to the lie she’s told.  From the very beginning it’s clear they like each other, and it’s a delight to watch them fall in love.  Ms. Quinn uses the correspondence between Thomas, Cecilia, and eventually Edward, to open each chapter and these snippets offer a lovely insight into their relationship before the make-believe marriage.  It’s obvious to the reader (and probably Thomas) they were falling for each other long before they met, and when they finally are together, it’s easy to believe it’s just a continuation of a love affair that started via their correspondence.

Though the relationship is a highlight – Edward is a charming husband, and Cecilia is a sweetly tart nursemaid and then shy, naïve wife – Ms. Quinn never lets the reader forget the lie at the heart of their make-believe union.  Even as Edward finds himself falling for Cecilia and pondering the logistics of their courtship and marriage, he’s constantly frustrated by his poor physical health and lack of memory.  Cecilia is conflicted by her feelings for Edward – she’s fallen in love with him, but doesn’t believe they can have a future together because of the lie – and desperate for news of Thomas.

As much as it was a pleasure to read about Edward and Cecilia, my enjoyment was diminished by the lie that unites them.  Cecilia’s persistent dishonesty overshadows every other element of the story, including their fragile happiness whenever they are together.  Her constant self-doubt and guilt, juxtaposed with Edward’s honest and candid affection, began to grow tedious.  I found myself wishing Ms. Quinn hadn’t made Edward quite so appealing right from the start, because it’s clear to the reader (though it isn’t to Cecilia) that if she simply confessed, Edward would have helped her – somehow.  But she persists in lying – even after the lie serves no discernible purpose but to make her suffer guiltily whenever Edward is close.

My dislike of the lie and how long Cecilia kept it going isn’t my only problem with the book.  Thomas’s disappearance is intriguing, mysterious, and suspicious, but after playing such a pivotal role in bringing Edward and Cecilia together, the resolution of his storyline is deeply unsatisfying. Edward and Cecilia continue to make inquiries, but no one seems to feel any urgency to discover why a soldier simply vanished.  Red herrings prove fruitless – and pointless. Instead of answers, Ms. Quinn gives us smug superior offers and an unsatisfying resolution.  What was Thomas doing when he went missing?  Was Edward with him?  Was he a spy?  Similarly, the backstory behind Edward’s head injury, gets short shrift – mostly because we’re constantly in Cecilia’s head as she struggles with her guilt and trying to find a way to tell Edward the truth.

That’s not to say that I disliked Cecilia.  She’s brave, tenacious and shows tremendous strength in the face of adversity.   Her love is strong and deep and she’s an appealing match for Edward. Unfortunately, Ms. Quinn diminishes all of that with Cecilia’s crushing insecurities, and it’s difficult to reconcile these conflicting elements of her personality.  It’s a treat to watch her fall for Edward – and how could she not?  He’s charming, flirtatious and not afraid to express his affection and I lived watching him fall for his make-believe wife.  Ms. Quinn also does a particularly good job of illustrating Edward’s frustration with the amnesia and his physical health as he tries to recover.  He’s alternately grumpy, angry and irritable – and it’s nice to see Cecilia manage all the good and bad facets of his personality with equal aplomb.

Ms. Quinn quietly, precisely and deliberately develops Edward and Cecilia’s growing love for one another… until Thomas’s fate is revealed.   The news about Thomas (OMG I HATED IT) opens the floodgates to more truths, and the novel becomes wholly engrossing as it races to its conclusion.  The final chapters are passionate, frantic and funny – and I loved them.

All in all, The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is a tender, romantic slow burner that captivates – but also frustrates, because the lie central to the story overshadows and diminishes other intriguing storylines. I did enjoy it, however, and would say that it’s not necessary to read Because of Miss Bridgerton, the first book in the Rokesby series to enjoy it as it works both as a standalone or introduction to the series.


EXCERPT

Manhattan Island

July 1779

His head hurt.

Correction, his head really hurt.

It was hard to tell, though, just what sort of pain it was. He might have been shot through the head with a musket ball. That seemed plausible, given his current location in New York (or was it Connecticut?) and his current occupation as a captain in His Majesty’s army.

There was a war going on, in case one hadn’t noticed.

But this particular pounding—the one that felt more like someone was bashing his skull with a cannon (not a cannonball, mind you, but an actual cannon) seemed to indicate that he had been attacked with a blunter instrument than a bullet.

An anvil, perhaps. Dropped from a second-story window.

But if one cared to look on the bright side, a pain such as this did seem to indicate that he wasn’t dead, which was also a plausible fate, given all the same facts that had led him to believe he might have been shot.

That war he’d mentioned… people did die.

With alarming regularity.

So he wasn’t dead. That was good. But he also wasn’t sure where he was, precisely. The obvious next step would be to open his eyes, but his eyelids were translucent enough for him to realize that it was the middle of the day, and while he did like to look on the metaphorical bright side, he was fairly certain that the literal one would prove blinding.

So he kept his eyes closed.

But he listened.

He wasn’t alone. He couldn’t make out any actual conversation, but a low buzz of words and activity filtered through the air. People were moving about, setting objects on tables, maybe pulling a chair across the floor.

Someone was moaning in pain.

Most of the voices were male, but there was at least one lady nearby. She was close enough that he could hear her breathing. She made little noises as she went about her business, which he soon realized included tucking blankets around him and touching his forehead with the back of her hand.

He liked these little noises, the tiny little mmms and sighs she probably had no idea she was making. And she smelled nice, a bit like lemons, a bit like soap.

And a bit like hard work.

He knew that smell. He’d worn it himself, albeit usually only briefly until it turned into a full-fledged stink.

On her, though, it was more than pleasant. Perhaps a little earthy. And he wondered who she was, to be tending to him so diligently.

“How is he today?”

Edward held himself still. This male voice was new, and he wasn’t sure he wanted anyone to know he was awake yet.

Although he wasn’t sure why he felt this hesitancy.

“The same,” came the woman’s reply.

“I am concerned. If he doesn’t wake up soon…”

“I know,” the woman said. There was a touch of irritation in her voice, which Edward found curious.

“Have you been able to get him to take broth?”

“Just a few spoonfuls. I was afraid he would choke if I attempted any more than that.”

The man made a vague noise of approval. “Remind me how long he has been like this?”

“A week, sir. Four days before I arrived, and three since.”

A week. Edward thought about this. A week meant it must be… March? April?

No, maybe it was only February. And this was probably New York, not Connecticut.

But that still didn’t explain why his head hurt so bloody much. Clearly he’d been in some sort of an accident. Or had he been attacked?

“There has been no change at all?” the man asked, even though the lady had just said as much.

But she must have had far more patience than Edward, because she replied in a quiet, clear voice, “No, sir. None.”

The man made a noise that wasn’t quite a grunt. Edward found it impossible to interpret.

“Er…” The woman cleared her throat. “Have you any news of my brother?”

Her brother? Who was her brother?

“I am afraid not, Mrs. Rokesby.”

Mrs. Rokesby?

“It has been nearly two months,” she said quietly.

Mrs. Rokesby? Edward really wanted them to get back to that point. There was only one Rokesby in North America as far as he knew, and that was him. So if she was Mrs. Rokesby…

“I think,” the male voice said, “that your energies would be better spent tending to your husband.”

Husband?

“I assure you,” she said, and there was that touch of irritation again, “that I have been caring for him most faithfully.”

Husband? They were calling him her husband? Was he married? He couldn’t be married. How could he be married and not remember it?

Who was this woman?

Edward’s heart began to pound. What the devil was happening to him?

“Did he just make a noise?” the man asked.

“I… I don’t think so.”

She moved then, quickly. Hands touched him, his cheek, then his chest, and even through her obvious concern, there was something soothing in her motions, something undeniably right.

“Edward?” she asked, taking his hand. She stroked it several times, her fingers brushing lightly over his skin. “Can you hear me?”

He ought to respond. She was worried. What kind of gentleman did not act to relieve a lady’s distress?

“I fear he may be lost to us,” the man said, with far less gentleness than Edward thought appropriate.

“He still breathes,” the woman said in a steely voice.

The man said nothing, but his expression must have been one of pity, because she said it again, more loudly this time.

He still breathes.”

“Mrs. Rokesby…”

Edward felt her hand tighten around his. Then she placed her other on top, her fingers resting lightly on his knuckles. It was the smallest sort of embrace, but Edward felt it down to his soul.

“He still breathes, Colonel,” she said with quiet resolve. “And while he does, I will be here. I may not be able to help Thomas, but—”

Thomas. Thomas Harcourt. That was the connection. This must be his sister. Cecilia. He knew her well.

Or not. He’d never actually met the lady, he felt like he knew her. She wrote to her brother with a diligence that was unmatched in the regiment. Thomas received twice as much mail as Edward, and Edward had four siblings to Thomas’s one.

Cecilia Harcourt. What on earth was she doing in North America? She was supposed to be in Derbyshire, in that little town Thomas had been so eager to leave. The one with the hot springs. Matlock. No, Matlock Bath.

Edward had never been, but he thought it sounded charming. Not the way Thomas described it, of course; he liked the bustle of city life and couldn’t wait to take a commission and depart his village. But Cecilia was different. In her letters, the small Derbyshire town came alive, and Edward almost felt that he would recognize her neighbors if he ever went to visit.

She was witty. Lord, she was witty. Thomas used to laugh so much at her missives that Edward finally made him read them out loud.

Then one day, when Thomas was penning his response, Edward interrupted so many times that Thomas finally shoved out his chair and held forth his quill.

“You write to her,” he’d said.

So he did.

Not on his own, of course. Edward could never have written to her directly. It would have been the worst sort of impropriety, and he would not have insulted her in such a manner. But he took to scribbling a few lines at the end of Thomas’s letters, and whenever she replied, she had a few lines for him.

Thomas carried a miniature of her, and even though he said it was several years old, Edward had found himself staring at it, studying the small portrait of the young woman, wondering if her hair really was that remarkable golden color, or if she really did smile that way, lips closed and mysterious.

Somehow he thought not. She did not strike him as a woman with secrets. Her smile would be sunny and free. Edward had even thought he’d like to meet her once this godforsaken war was over. He’d never said anything to Thomas, though.

That would have been strange.

Now Cecilia was here. In the colonies. Which made absolutely no sense, but then again, what did? Edward’s head was injured, and Thomas seemed to be missing, and…

Edward thought hard.

…and he seemed to have married Cecilia Harcourt.

He opened his eyes and tried to focus on the green-eyed woman peering down at him.

“Cecilia?”

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About the Author

Julia Quinn is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five novels for Avon Books, and one of only sixteen authors ever to be inducted in the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

You can connect with Julia at:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS

VIRTUAL TOUR: From Duke Till Dawn (The London Underground #1) by Eva Leigh

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Years ago, the Duke of Greyland gave his heart—and a princely sum of money—to a charming, destitute widow with unparalleled beauty. But after one passionate night, she slipped from his bed and vanished without a trace. And just when he’s given up hope of ever seeing her again, Greyland finds her managing a gaming hell. He’s desperate to have her… until he discovers everything about his long-lost lover was a lie.

In truth, Cassandra Blake grew up on the streets, picking pockets to survive. Greyland was a mark—to be fleeced and forgotten—but her feelings for the duke became all too real. Once he learns of her deception, however, the heat in his eyes turns to ice. When her business partner absconds with the gaming hell proceeds—leaving unsavory investors out for blood—Cassandra must beg the man she betrayed for help.

Greyland wants compensation, too, and he’ll assist her under one condition: she doesn’t leave his sight until her debts are paid. But it’s not long before the real Cassandra—the smart, streetwise criminal—is stealing his heart all over again.

OUR REVIEW

Publisher and Release Date: Avon, May 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1817
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Caz

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about other books by this author is the way she manages to create strong, intelligent heroines who are assertive and independent while still continuing to function in a society that essentially thought women were lesser beings and wanted to shove them into a corner marked “seen, not heard”.  It’s a difficult line to tread; if you go too far, your heroine is shrewish and difficult to like, if you don’t go far enough, your heroine may be too much of a doormat to appeal to a modern audience.  But Eva Leigh manages to get the balance just about right, mostly because she writes about women who are not just decorative ornaments; her heroines often have to make their own livings and have learned the hard way that the one person they can always rely on (until they meet their hero, that is!) is themselves – and she does this without making them so modern as to require too much suspension of disbelief that they could exist in Regency England.  Cassandra Blake, her heroine in From Duke Till Dawn is one of those women, someone who has used her wits and intelligence to make a life for herself in a hostile world.

Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland has been brought up to be perfect.  The perfect duke.  The perfect gentleman.  The perfect… everything.  Even at thirty-eight, he still hears his father’s booming strictures about the importance of duty and responsibility, and he has done everything possible to live up to his sire’s expectations.  But he’s hit a snag in terms of fulfilling one of the most important duties to his dukedom in that the demure and very eligible young lady to whom he had betrothed himself has just run off to Gretna Green with the another man.  While there’s nothing Alex would rather do than slope off home to lick his wounds in solitude, he knows he has to put on a brave face and be seen out in society to show that the young woman’s actions have not affected him.  In truth, they haven’t much – Alex wasn’t in love with the girl, he’s just annoyed and embarrassed at being jilted.

He’s in this morose state when his two best friends find him and insist on taking him to the newest gambling den in London.  Alex’s heart isn’t in it, but he goes anyway – and is astonished when he hears a voice he’d thought never to hear again, the voice of the woman he’s nicknamed his Lost Queen. Two years earlier while in Cheltenham, Alex met and fell for a lovely widow named Cassandra Blair, a woman possessed of a quick mind as well as great beauty, and felt a intensely strong connection to her.  She disappeared after their one night together, and although he never expected to see her again, Alex has never forgotten her.  Yet now, here she is, as beautiful and poised as ever and Alex is smitten all over again.

Cassandra Blake is shocked at seeing the Duke of Greyland again and berates herself for returning to London where she’d known she would run the risk of meeting him again.  But when her old mentor, Martin Hughes, offered her a job in which she could earn enough money to leave her life of swindling behind her and go legitimate, she couldn’t turn it down.  She’s tired of the constant dishonesty and wants to live honestly – but first needs to be able to afford to do so.

Alex was supposed to have simply been a mark, a rich man she could take for a few hundred pounds, yet their brief time together meant something to Cassandra, so she falls back into her role of the beleaguered widow and makes up a story to account for the fact she left Alex so precipitately. Naturally, however, secrets such as these will out, and when Alex overhears Hughes suggesting that Cassandra try to fleece him again, he is furious and hurt by her betrayal, swearing to make her pay for her crimes.

Cassandra is completely unprepared for the visceral hurt she experiences at the disgust and betrayal in Alex’s eyes, but she has done what she has done in order to survive and doesn’t back down in the face of his angry accusations.  She can’t help being afraid of his threats of retribution; but when she discovers that Hughes has done a bunk with all their money, she has more pressing concerns to face. Hughes borrowed a lot of money from a lot of shady characters in order to set up the club, and the moment news of his disappearance gets out, Cassandra knows her life will be worth less than nothing if she remains alone and unprotected.  Terrified, she realises that she knows only one person in London she can trust absolutely – but he hates her and may well decide to leave her to her fate.

Alex is astonished when Cassandra arrives at his home begging for his help and has half a mind to have her thrown out – but then he realises that she is genuinely distressed, and while he is still deeply hurt by her deception, he certainly doesn’t want her dead.  Believing that now he knows the truth he will be able to stop himself falling for her all over again, he agrees to help her to find Hughes, and in the process, discovers much about himself and the sort of man he really is and wants to be.  I loved this aspect of the story and watching Alex gradually become his own man in truth, shedding much of his reserve and preoccupation with propriety and perfection, while retaining the parts of his character that make him a truly wonderful and memorable romantic hero.

Cassandra, too, finds her perceptions changing, her mentor’s betrayal finally opening her eyes to the truth about the hurt she must have caused those she had targeted and stolen from in the past.  More than that, though, now that she is no longer part of the underground criminal community, she is forced to deal with her mistakes and face the consequences rather than running from them and jumping into the next con.

Ms. Leigh’s depiction of London’s criminal underworld is one of the book’s many strong points.  Once Alex agrees to help Cassandra, he is plunged into a world he had never really known existed, one which has its own rules and pecking order, where morality is fluid and where nothing is ever black and white.  It’s a real eye-opener for Alex, who soon discovers that he has to set aside some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs if he is to protect Cassandra, and ends up asking himself some difficult questions about what is truly important to him as a man versus the Greyland title.

Alex and Cassandra’s romance is imbued with sensuality and a palpable longing which builds deliciously to a fever pitch and some nicely steamy love scenes.  But their emotional connection is strong, too, with both of them gradually lowering their defences to allow the other to see them as they truly are.  There’s a real sense of honesty between them once they start to work together, with  Alex even coming to respect and understand some of Cassandra’s choices while she recognises this new blossoming of trust for the gift it is.

From Duke Till Dawn is a terrific read, and one I’m happy to recommend most strongly.  I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through the London Underground, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more.

EXCERPT

London, England
1817

A woman laughed, and Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland felt the sound like a gunshot to his chest.

It was a very pleasant laugh, low and musical rather than shrill and forced, yet it sounded like The Lost Queen’s laugh. Alex could not resist the urge to glance over his shoulder as he left the Eagle chophouse. He’d fancifully taken to calling her The Lost Queen, though she was most assuredly a mortal woman. Had she somehow appeared on a busy London street at dusk? The last time he’d seen her had been two years ago, in the spa town of Cheltenham, in his bed, asleep and naked.

The owner of the laugh turned out to be a completely different woman—brunette rather than blonde, petite and round rather than lithe and willowy. She caught Alex staring and raised her eyebrows. He bowed gravely in response, then continued toward the curb.

Night came on in indigo waves, but the shops spilled golden light in radiant patches onto the street.
The hardworking citizens of London continued to toil as the upper echelons began their evening revelries. Crowds thronged the sidewalk, while wagons, carriages, and people on horseback crammed the streets. A handful of pedestrians recognized Alex and politely curtsied or tipped their hats, murmuring, “Good evening, Your Grace.” Though he was in no mood for politeness, responsibility and virtue were his constant companions—had been his whole life—and so rather than snapping, “Go to the devil, damn you!” he merely nodded in greeting.

He’d done his duty. He’d been seen in public, rather than disappearing into the cavernous chambers of his Mayfair mansion, where he could lick his wounds in peace.

The trouble with being a duke was that he always had to do his duty. “You are the pinnacle of British Society,” his father had often said to him. “The world looks to you for guidance. So you must lead by example. Be their True North.”

This evening, before dining, Alex had taken a very conspicuous turn up and down Bond Street, making certain that he was seen by many consequential—and loose-lipped— figures in the ton. Word would soon spread that the Duke of Greyland was not holed up, sulking in seclusion. His honor as one of Society’s bulwarks would not be felled by something as insignificant as his failed marriage suit to Lady Emmeline Birks. The Dukes of Greyland had stood strong against Roundheads, Jacobites, and countless other threats against Britain. One girl barely out of the schoolroom could hardly damage Alex’s ducal armor.

But that armor had been dented by The Lost Queen. Far deeper than he would have expected.

Standing on the curb, he signaled for his carriage, which pulled out of the mews. He tugged on his spotless gloves as he waited and adjusted the brim of his black beaver hat to make certain it sat properly on his head. “Always maintain a faultless appearance,” his father had reminded him again and again. “The slightest bit of disorder in your dress can lead to rampant speculation about the stability of your affairs. This, we cannot tolerate. The nation demands nothing less than perfection.”

Alex’s father had been dead for ten years, but that didn’t keep the serious, sober man’s voice from his mind. It was part of him now—his role as one of the most powerful men in England and the responsibilities that role carried with it. Not once did he ever let frivolities distract him from his duties.

Except for one time . . .

Forcing the thought from his mind, Alex looked impatiently for his carriage. Just as the vehicle pulled up, however, two men appeared and grabbed his arms on each side.

Alex stiffened—he did not care for being touched without giving someone express permission to do so. People on the street also did not normally seize each other. Was it a robbery? A kidnapping attempt? His hands curled instinctively into fists, ready to give his accosters a beating.

“What’s this?” one of the younger men exclaimed with mock horror. “Have I grabbed hold of a thundercloud?”
“Don’t know about you,” the other man said drily, “but I seem to have attached myself to an enormous bar of iron. How else to explain its inflexibility?” He tried to shake Alex, to little avail. When he wanted to be, Alex was absolutely immovable.

Alex’s fingers loosened. He tugged his arms free and growled, “That’s enough, you donkeys.”
Thomas Powell, the Earl of Langdon and heir to the Duke of Northfield, grinned, a flash of white in his slightly unshaven face. “Come now, Greyland,” he chided. A hint of an Irish accent made his voice musical, evidence of Langdon’s early years spent in his mother’s native County Kerry. “Is that any way to speak to your oldest and dearest friends?”

“I’ll let you know when they get here.” Alex scowled at Langdon, then at Christopher Ellingsworth, who only smirked in response.

Alex took a step toward his carriage, but Ellingsworth deftly moved to block his path, displaying the speed and skill that had served him well when he’d fought on the Peninsula.

“Where are you running off to with such indecorous haste?” Ellingsworth pressed. He held up a finger. “Ah, never tell me. You’re running back to the shelter of your Mayfair cave, to growl and brood like some big black bear in a cravat.”

“You know nothing,” Alex returned, despite the fact that Ellingsworth had outlined his exact plans for the rest of the night.

Ellingsworth looked at Langdon with exaggerated pity. “Poor chap. The young Lady Emmeline has utterly shattered his heart.”

Alex shouldered past Ellingsworth, only to have Langdon move to stand in his way.

“My heart is not shattered because of Lady Emmeline,” Alex snapped. At least that much was the truth.

“But why shouldn’t your heart be strewn in pieces throughout Regent’s Park?” Langdon mused. “You courted the young lady for several months, and you told Ellingsworth and I that you’d already received her father’s grateful acceptance of a marriage offer.”

“She never agreed to anything,” Alex said flatly.

“A modest girl, that Lady Emmeline.” Ellingsworth nodded with approval. “She wouldn’t have said yes right away. They never do. Nothing to be alarmed by.”

“How would you know?” Alex’s voice was edged. Ellingsworth had little experience with offering for ladies’ hands, committed as he was to a life of reckless pleasure.

Langdon added, “It’d be unseemly for an earl’s daughter to eagerly snap up a marriage proposal the moment it was offered.”

Alex scowled. Despite the fact that, at thirty-eight, he was sixteen years her senior, they would suit well as a wedded couple. Lady Emmeline had been perfectly trained in the responsibilities of an aristocratic wife. Though he wished she stated her own opinion rather than constantly agreeing with him, there were worse faults one could find in a prospective bride.

They could marry at Christmas, eight months from now. It would be a small but elegant wedding, followed by a lavish breakfast and a wedding journey in the Lake District. And then, if everything went well, in less than a year, Alex and Lady Emmeline might welcome their first child—hopefully a boy so the line would be secure. It would’ve been precisely the sort of match Alex’s
father would have approved, considering Lady Emmeline’s faultless background and her spotless reputation.

“Look at him now, mooning away,” Langdon sighed, smugly thwarting Alex’s attempts to step around him. “He looks poorly.”

It would be bad form to knock his friend to the ground. Damn the social niceties that dictated a man couldn’t punch another without repercussions.

“Perhaps he should be bled,” Ellingsworth suggested with his habitual smirk. It was his constant companion since returning from the War, as if he refused to take anything seriously.

“I am perfectly well.” Alex looked back and forth between these two rogues whom he called friends. “No need to call for a quack.”

“He’s already had an amputation,” Langdon noted, raising a brow as he always did. “One prospective bride—gone.” He made a sawing motion at his ankle, as if cutting the shackles of matrimony.

Alex glanced down at his own lower leg, as if he could see the invisible links that might have bound him to Lady Emmeline. He’d come so close to becoming a married man and sharing the rest of his life with one woman—the faultless duke his father had bred him to be. It hardly mattered that Alex felt nothing for the gel other than a sense of distant respect. She would have made a fine duchess.

“We were at White’s yesterday when we heard about what happened,” Langdon said with disapproval. “Didn’t even tell your two closest friends that Lady Emmeline had run off with a cavalry officer. No, we had to hear it from Lord Ruthven, of all people.”

GIVEAWAY

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Leigh is the pen name of a RITA® Award-nominated romance author who writes novels chock-full of smart women and sexy men. She enjoys baking, Tweeting about boots, and listening to music from the ’80s. Eva and her husband live in Southern California.

Author Links:   WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS

GUEST SPOT AND GIVEAWAY: Historical Hellions Box Set

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Purchase Links: Amazon * ~ * iBooks * ~ * B&N * ~ * Kobo

From bluestockings to scandalous heiresses, these strong-willed, unconventional historical romance heroines don’t let anything stand in their way when it comes to love and happily ever after. Featuring seven novellas and novels from award-winning and bestselling authors.

The Pursuit of Pleasure by Elizabeth Essex

Independent, politically-minded heiress Elizabeth Paxton has never wanted to marry, but longs for the freedom afforded to widows. The last thing she wants is dangerously attractive Captain Jameson Marlowe as a husband.

The Thief Steals Her Earl by Christina McKnight

The Earl of Cartwright is determined to find out who stole from his family. When he finds out the thief is the woman he’s fallen in love with, he must choose between duty and love.

Secrets in Scarlet by Erica Monroe

When a bluestocking with a scandalous past meets an idealistic sergeant, sparks fly as they work to solve a murder…but her secrets may lead to their undoing.

Sleeping Beau by Lila DiPasqua

Inspired by the tale of Sleeping Beauty–a scorching hot historical romance novella from the Fiery Tales series. One sleeping rake, one scorching kiss, one night of unforgettable passion…

The Art of Seduction by Eileen Richards

A spinster finds freedom as a theatre set painter until a chance meeting with the marquis who broke her heart has her questioning what she wants for her future.

The Madam’s Highlander by Madeline Martin

What’s the madam of a successful bawdy house in Edinburgh to do when she finds one of the English supported Black Watch soldiers needing to desert his post? She helps him, of course – but there’s a high price to pay.

Reckless Wager by Christy Carlyle

Victorian propriety and passions collide when a beautiful widow makes a wager with a wounded police detective bent on solving the Ripper mystery.


Heroines as Hellions: a Guest Post by Erica Monroe

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

erica monroeI have always been drawn to strong heroines. I am a child of the ‘90’s, growing up surrounded by American Girl dolls, highlighting women’s contribution to history, and stacks of Nancy Drew novels, teaching me that women could solve any problem with a bit of ingenuity and kindness. As I came of age, a plethora of television shows highlighting fierce women (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Charmed, the X-Files all come to mind immediately) constantly reminded me that my value is not determined by the opinions of others, but by how I perceive myself. In college, I studied authors who changed the course of literature with their refusal to blindly follow society’s dictates that women could not possibly write as well as men. Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch solidified not just my love for nineteenth century Britain, but for determined and smart, yet still flawed, heroines.

As I write this, Lady Gaga is blasting in my office, and I am surrounded by signs that say things like “like a boss” and “write your own life story” (as well as a gigantic poster from Rogue One with “Rebel” in big letters), all reminders to remain true to myself and my creative strengths. And indeed, I have forged a career for myself in writing dark, suspenseful historical romance, where the women are just as dangerous and capable as the men whose heart they capture. I write women who are survivors, who, despite many difficulties and obstacles, have fought tooth and nail to eke out a small place of happiness in a cruel world. When I write—and when I read for my own enjoyment—a book, I want the hero and heroine to be equal partners.

So it should come as no surprise that when my critique partner, Christina McKnight, and I sat down to outline a new historical romance boxed set, we chose “strong women” as our theme. Like me, Christina writes unconventional women, and heroes that embrace their uniqueness. Historical Hellions  contains seven novels and novellas (two of which have never been before published: The Madam’s Highlander and The Art of Seduction), all featuring revolutionary women blazing their own path. We’ve got a thief desperately trying to save her family from debt (The Thief Steals Her Earl), a woman who agrees to a marriage of convenience with her best friend in hopes she’ll become a widow (The Pursuit of Pleasure), a mysterious seductress (Sleeping Beau), and a widow who drives a hard bargain (Reckless Wager).

In my book, Secrets in Scarlet, my heroine Poppy has been shunned by her small English town because she had a child outside of marriage. Poppy moves to London, and begins working in a factory in the Spitalfields rookery under an assumed name—pretending to be a war widow, so that no one will know her daughter is illegitimate. But when another girl is murdered at the factory, the H-District Metropolitan Police’s investigation puts Poppy right in the crosshairs of Sergeant Thaddeus Knight… who would love nothing more than to solve the puzzle Poppy presents.

Secrets in Scarlet holds a special place in my heart because Poppy is somewhat of an unwilling rebel—her main concern is protecting her daughter. She thinks she’s cost herself her own happily ever after, because surely, no man would want a fallen woman. While Thaddeus’s love certainly strengthens Poppy’s sense of self-worth, she must learn for herself that her past does not weaken her. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I learned from growing up with so many excellent examples of strong women: strength manifests itself in many ways. Poppy is a quieter heroine, a bluestocking who’d rather spend her days at home surrounded by books. She struggles, and she has doubts and fears, but when it comes to seeking justice, she fights hard. In the end, she realizes that her past experiences have made her who she is today, able to empathize and love with great depth.

That’s what we hope to present to readers with the Historical Hellions set: women who are their own champions, who love passionately, who battle nearly impossible odds and still triumph. None of our heroines are perfect– just as none of us are—and it is their imperfections often that end up making them shine. We want readers to know that like these heroines, their uniqueness is wonderful, and they too can change the world.

Giveaway

Erica and her fellow authors are offering THREE (3) eCopies of the boxed set of Historical Hellions novels and novellas to three lucky winners. Enter at Rafflecopter below (no purchase is necessary). The giveaway is open for one week, and the winners will be notified shortly after the closing date.

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About the Authors

USA Today Bestselling Author Christina McKnight writes emotional and intricate Regency Romance with strong women and maverick heroes.
USA Today Bestselling Author Erica Monroe writes dark, suspenseful historical romance with an emphasis on women’s rights and social issues.
USA Today Bestselling Author Lila DiPasqua writes historical romances with heat, and her Fiery Tales features fairy tale reworkings.
USA Today Bestselling Author Madeline Martin heats up the Highlands with her historical romances.
USA Today Bestselling Author Christy Carlyle writes sensual historical romance set in the Victorian era.
RITA Award Nominee Elizabeth Essex writes award-winning historical romance full of adventurous heroines and their sea captain heroes.
Bestselling Author Eileen Richards writes lighthearted Regency romps.