TBR Challenge: Tempting a Sinner (Sinners Club #2) by Kate Pearce

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Cold Calculation

Within the circles of British intelligence, Benedict, Lord Keyes, is known for his cold brilliance and strict military demeanor. Yet this icy exterior masks a man of smoldering passion and scorching sexuality who will do anything to keep his past a secret. . .

Sultry Satisfaction

Miss Malinda Keyes refuses to be intimidated by Lord Keyes. In fact, she enjoys a good battle, especially one of erotic wiles and carnal cunning. Determined to expose his lordship’s past, she will use every wanton weapon in her arsenal to tease and tempt this sinner into the ultimate sensual surrender. . .

Rating: B

I’m not normally one for reading erotic romance. I have nothing against the genre – I’ve just tended to leave it to one side as I had the impression that the majority of the books given that label contained wall-to-wall sex and no plot. I have no objection to wall-to-wall-and-other-flat-surfaces – sex; but I like books to have a decent story as well, so I’ve tended to give the more erotic tales a wide berth.

But August’s TBR prompt is Luscious Love Scenes – erotica or a sensual read. The majority of the books I read contain sex scenes, but this is a reading challenge, so I decided to step outside my comfort zone and try an erotic romance. The problem is that I don’t own any – but a recent browse through NetGalley brought me Tempting a Sinner by Kate Pearce, which seemed like just the ticket.

It’s the second full-length novel (there’s also a prequel novella) in Ms Pearce’s Sinners’ Club series, so called because the club itself, while operating as a gentleman’s club – which, unsually, allows female members – also provides a discreet environment for those employed by the government in sensitive positions to blow off steam, and to “explore their sexuality” (probably in other ‘sensitive positions’! And oh, God, it’s going to be difficult to write this review without indulging in double-entendres and “ooh, matron!” jokes!)

First things first then – there is plenty of sex in the book of various persuasions. M/F, F/F, M/M, M/F/M, F/M/F, sex toys, voyeurism, group sex, a bit of light bondage… something for everyone! It’s well-written, and it’s hot; and it fortunately stays the right side of the thin line that runs between “hawt” and “funny”, which can be quite a difficult thing to do, so kudos to the author for that. Props to her, too, for not having her protagonists have sex at stupid times; there’s none of this – “we’re being chased by the bad guys, but we must shag, NOW!” nonsense.

The story centres around Lord Benedict Keyes and his estranged wife, who haven’t seen each other in the eighteen years since their youthful marriage. Both were “army brats”, although from opposite sides of the tracks.

Benedict is the son of a marquess while Malinda’s father was a common soldier, but the pair more or less grew up together because both families followed the drum. I always enjoy a story where the central couple are friends before they become romantically involved, and while we don’t see much of them as children and adolescents, an undercurrent of deep friendship permeates the book, and the reader gets a very strong sense of the fact that here are two people who knew each other very well – so much so that even though they have both changed in the intervening years, they are still able to discern the other’s thoughts and emotions. It’s that deep connection between the two protagonists which surprised me most about the book, because I really hadn’t expected to find something like that in the pages of an erotic romance.

Benedict and Malinda’s marriage was a hasty one following the sudden death of her father while on assignment in Spain. They are very much in love, but the marquess is furious that his son has married a “nobody” and immediately separates the pair by telling Malinda a whopping great lie that has her haring off the day after the wedding. He lies to Benedict, too, telling him that Malinda has accepted money in return for agreeing to an annulment – as a way to ensure that he will never seek her out.

Both characters are therefore starting from points of extreme suspicion and distrust when they finally meet again, and Ms Pearce does a very good job in portraying those emotions and in breaking down their barriers gradually, so that their eventual reconciliation happens at a realistic pace. Because this is an erotic romance, the fact that Benedict and Mally are conflicted about their feelings for each other doesn’t prevent them from jumping into bed frequently, but the author very clearly establishes the difference between the physical and the emotional. Both characters at some point, use sex as a means of manipulation and in order to gain the upper hand, but there are also some very tender, intimate moments that provide real insight into their relationship and are, in a way, far sexier than any amount of bonking could ever be. For example, in this scene, after Benedict has brought Malinda back to London from the country and they have been discussing the plan of action for dealing with Benedict’s father, who they suspect may be behind a plot to harm Malinda, they are preparing for bed like any other long-married couple.

He sat to remove his boots and took off his breeches then his shirt. His body gleamed so enticingly in the candlelight that Malinda had to look away. He climbed into bed beside her and blew out the candle.

“Tomorrow, we should look for a maid for you.”

“Are you tired of having to deal with my corset?”

“No, I can’t say that will ever become a chore.”

She stared up at the canopy above their heads. “I cannot afford a maid.”

He sighed. “Let’s not argue about this again. You sought my protection and I need you to look respectable. Having me as your ladies’ maid will not suffice.”

“I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.”

“I know that. But you aren’t used to London society.”

She snorted. “You’re afraid I’ll show you up.”

He moved so suddenly that she found herself underneath him. “Your inferiority complex is showing.”

“Which is why we never would have succeeded as a married couple. Society will never accept a peer married to a common sergeant’s daughter.”

“Good Lord, you sound just like my father.” He gave her a tiny shake. “Peers have married actresses and known whores. The entire royal family is a scandal. No one would give a damn. The only person who cares about it is you.”

“Go away, Benedict.”

[…]

She flopped onto her back. “Are you ever going to stop talking?”

“Probably not. I do some of my best thinking just before I fall asleep.”

“This isn’t ‘thinking’; it’s rambling.”

There is a strong sense of connection between them outside the bedroom, too, as they work together to solve an eighteen year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of a valuable military shipment which is closely linked to both families. Both principals are strongly characterised, even during the sex scenes when they don’t suddenly have personality transplants and become different people. They tease, they jibe, they fight – they treat each other out of bed in much the same way as they do in it. I will admit to sometimes thinking that their sexual preferences seemed a little at odds with the way I was starting to see them, however. Benedict, for example, is a man with a sterling reputation for loyalty and honour, as well as one who is utterly ruthless and dedicated to his work. He’s handsome (naturally!), can be very charming and has a softer side that he allows nobody to see, and I couldn’t quite reconcile that man with the one who ties his wife to a chair and then uses sex toys to stimulate himself while he masturbates in front of her!

But this is an erotic romance, so I’m prepared to go with the flow on things like that! :P

I enjoyed the book and may read others by this author at some point. I don’t think I’m going to go hunting out erotic romances by the bucket-load, as I suspect I’ve been lucky with finding one with a satisfyingly complex plot in addition to well-drawn characters, lots of hot sex and a convincing second-chance romance. If you enjoy a good mystery combined with some down ‘n’ dirty lovin’, then Tempting a Sinner is definitely worth a look.

The Traitor (Captive Hearts #2) by Grace Burrowes

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As a young boy, British-born Sebastian St. Clair was abandoned in France and forced to join the French army in order to survive.

Now that the war is over, he has returned home to his beloved England, and is determined to live a quiet life as a country gentleman. He believes that his wish is about to come true when he begins to fall for his elderly aunt’s lovely companion, Miss Millicent Danforth.

But the French are not quite ready to let him go, and they’ve devised a devious plot that could destroy everything that Sebastian holds dear. He will have to use all of his wits if he plans on escaping this scheme with his life … and his love.

Rating: A

In this, the second book in Ms Burrowes’ Captive Hearts trilogy, the story focuses on Lord Sebastian St. Clair – aka Robert Girard, former officer in the French army and a man known to have tortured a number of British army officers during the Napoleonic War. Among those men was Christian Severn, Duke of Mercia (hero of The Captive), who suffered more at Girard’s hands than any of the other officers.

It’s a pretty tall order for an author to take a man like Girard/St. Clair and turn him into a romantic hero, but Grace Burrowes does it with panache, aplomb and any number of other adjectives that describe total success.

As a very young man, Sebastian – born of an English father and a French mother – is with his parents visiting relatives in France. When war breaks out between the two old enemies, his father is summoned back to England, but there is no safe way for his wife and son to accompany him and they remain in France. When his mother dies not long afterward, Sebastian is left alone and makes the only decision he can make if he is to survive – he joins the French army.

He rises through the ranks until he becomes known for his ability to read men and to get information out of them – not necessarily by threats or coercion – and he later becomes one of their most successful interrogators. Choosing to go by his middle names – Robert Girard – Sebastian finds himself in an impossible and truly terrible situation when he is detailed to extract information from English officers while also keeping his more vicious and bloodthirsty superior officer, Henri Anduvoir, happy with the information he obtains and the physical damage done to the captives.

At the end of The Captive, we learned that St. Clair had in fact been doing his best to help the men sent into his custody, and those revelations continue in The Traitor.

When the war ends, Sebastian returns to England, now as Baron St. Clair – widely known as the Traitor Baron – wanting nothing more than to be allowed to live his life as an obscure English gentleman. Unfortunately, however, it seems that each English officer who suffered at his hands is out for revenge, and when the book starts, Sebastian has already survived four duels. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that not all those duels have been motivated solely by their challengers and that there is someone pulling strings behind the scenes. Sebastian is an embarrassment to people on both sides of the Channel and must therefore be disposed of in a way that will not cause an international incident.

My heart was breaking for him before I’d got even a quarter of the way through the book. Here is a man who found himself – through no fault of his own – between a rock and a hard place, and who nonetheless managed to engineer a situation in which all parties gained something in the end. All parties, that is, except himself. He lives with the constant threat of death and has pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he won’t live to be an old man – and accepts that as his due. He’s carrying a weight of guilt and sadness that informs his every action and decision, and the writing communicates it brilliantly, even in those moments when he is attempting to be more lighthearted. The one thing he is trying to do above all else is to protect those close to him – which at this point is his sole living relative, his aunt Frederica (Freddie), which he does to the best of his ability by making sure that he isn’t seen in her company very often.

Milly Danforth joins Lady Freddie’s household as her companion. Until recently, Milly lived with her two aunts, and before that with her cousins, who treated her as an unpaid drudge and regard her as a simpleton because (highlight to read spoiler) she suffers from what we would today recognise as some form of dyslexia and is unable to read or write. One of Milly’s aunts has recently died, and the other, knowing that she won’t be around for much longer either, sends Milly off to find herself a suitable post, somewhere she will thrive and be well treated.

Lady Freddie is one of those splendidly outspoken and eccentric older ladies that are often found in the pages of historical romances. She’s independent and clever and during Sebastian’s absence managed the St. Clair estates, and now is keen for him to make sure of the succession by marrying and setting up his nursery. But Sebastian knows he probably won’t live long enough to do either of those things, and he certainly doesn’t want to single out any woman by his attentions, as it would likely make her a target.

Yet he is drawn to Milly, who is intelligent and very perceptive. Their romance develops slowly at first, although there is plenty of chemistry between them, and I really appreciate the way Ms Burrowes takes her time, having the couple get to know each other fairly well before heating things up a bit. The central relationship is beautifully developed and both characters display great insight towards each other, each understanding the hurts and humiliation the other has suffered and able to relate to them in some way.

MilIy is kind and accepting, but is utterly fierce when it comes to Sebastian, whether she’s defending him to himself or to others. She understands why he did what he did, reminds him that he wasn’t the only one and that he is just as worthy of forgiveness as the next person. Most of all, I love that she simply won’t allow him to give up.

Sebastian is rather a remarkable hero. Not only does Ms Burrowes turn a man who practiced torture upon other human beings into a romantic lead, she reveals him to be a man of incredible courage, intellect and insight. When forced into fighting a duel, he does not merely accept that the men who challenge him are out for revenge, he also understands that he is a necessary part of their own healing process. He never retaliates, he never protests he was following orders or gives any other excuses; he just submits to the insults or punches or whatever is meted out to him, because he believes that doing so will help those men to assuage some of their own guilt and pain. And because he believes he deserves it.

He’s a complex and fascinating character and is quite possibly Ms Burrowes’ most memorable hero – and that’s saying something, because she’s created quite a few of them!

There’s an added touch of suspense in the story created by Sebastian’s growing uncertainty about the loyalty of his long-time companion and bodyguard, Michael Brodie (whose story is next up, in The Laird). Ms Burrowes has once again written a superb male friendship, one in which it’s clear that these two people would do anything for each other, no matter how often they gripe and snipe. Christian and Gilly, the Duke and Duchess of Mercia make guest appearances, and there’s an interesting relationship burgeoning between those two characters, too, despite what happened between them. Both have a very strong respect for the other, and Christian finds himself unexpectedly interested in – and with some sympathy for – Sebastian’s situation.

The identity of the villain of the piece is obvious, but while the behind-the-scenes machinations against Sebastian are part of the story, they’re not the whole. At the heart of The Traitor is a man who has suffered extreme betrayal and the loss of hope even as he was working tirelessly to preserve the lives of others, a man whose sense of loyalty and honour are so strong that he sacrificed his piece of mind and will possibly sacrifice his life because he wanted to do the right thing.

And at his side is a woman who will fight just as fiercely for what she knows to be right. The final confrontation is, I admit, a teeny bit OTT, but by that time, I was so invested in Milly, Sebastian and their story that I really didn’t care.

Put simply, this is a wonderful book and a superb follow up to The Captive – don’t miss it. Bring on The Laird!

The Escape (Survivor’s Club #3) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering.

After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws – until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey. Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Rating: Narration A; Content B+

This is the third book in Ms Balogh’s Survivors Club series of books that follows a group of war veterans who were physically and/or mentally wounded in the Napoleonic Wars.

In The Escape, our hero is Sir Benedict Harper, whose legs were so badly damaged that he was told he would never walk again. Through a combination of his own sheer bloody-mindedness and the support of his friends, he has confounded expectations – and though he will never be able to walk without the aid of his canes, he does walk and is able to live a more or less normal life. Previously a career soldier, that avenue of occupation is now closed to him, and because he has still not worked out exactly what he wants to do with his life, he’s restless and aimless.

While riding one day, Benedict almost runs down a young woman who is walking her dog, and in his shock at how close he’d come to inflicting serious injury upon her, he yells at her and blames the dog for spooking his horse. When he calms down, however, he realises how ungentlemanly his conduct was, and determines to apologise to the lady for his poor conduct.

Samantha McKay is twenty-four, and a widow of some four months. Her husband of seven years has recently died following a protracted illness caused by injuries sustained in the war, and during that time she was his sole carer. Despite the fact that she discovered the truth of her husband’s selfish, philandering nature not long after their marriage, and even though he was fractious and demanding throughout the course of his illness, Samantha took “for better, for worse” at face value, and devoted herself to his care for five years. His sister, Lady Matilda, now resides with Samantha, and feels it her duty to squash every little piece of joy Samantha may be able to find in her life. Being in “deep mourning”, they never go anywhere other than to church, they must be heavily veiled when venturing outside, the house has taken on the aspect of a mausoleum, and Matilda is adamant that her esteemed father, the lofty Earl of Heathmoor, would not approve of their doing anything as sinful as calling upon a neighbour or going out for a walk.

But Samantha has had enough of living for others and has decided that now it’s time to live for herself. When Ben discovers the identity of the woman he almost mowed down, he asks his sister to accompany him on a visit, during which he manages to apologise to Samantha. They find it surprisingly easy to talk to each other about personal subjects and a friendship quickly develops between them. Ben invites Samantha to ride with him – and his sister, of course – but her intention to do that pushes Lady Matilda over the edge and she packs her bags and leaves in a huff. Samantha is rather glad to see the back of her – but when the coach returns a few days later, complete with several burly servants and a letter from the earl instructing her that she will be taking up residence under his roof where he can make sure she behaves in an appropriate manner, Samantha is distraught.

She remembers suddenly that she had been bequeathed a cottage in Wales some years ago by her great aunt. She has no idea exactly where it is or whether it’s habitable, but if she wants her freedom, then it’s her only chance. Ben has already planned to travel for a while and he offers to accompany Samantha on her journey.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Seduction of Sarah Marks by Kathleen Bittner Roth

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England, 1857

After a blow to her head, Sarah Marks awakens in a strange bed with a strange man and no memory of how she got there. Her handsome bedmate, Lord Eastleigh, tells her she’s suffering from amnesia, and the best course of action is to travel home with him until she recovers her memory.

Lord Eastleigh has his own reasons for helping Sarah and keeping her close. Reasons he cannot tell her. As they struggle to restore her memory, their undeniable, inadvisable attraction grows—until Sarah finally remembers the one thing that could keep them apart forever.

Rating: C+

The Seduction of Sarah Marks is the first in a new series from this author. It’s an enjoyable read overall, though some of the plot points were overly contrived and the writing, while generally good, felt rather rough-edged and unpolished in places. But the book did hold my interest, and there were some engaging characters clearly being set up to feature in future books that I may seek out.

The story opens with the eponymous heroine waking in a bed not her own next to a man – also not her own. But she can’t remember anything other than that her name is Sarah Marks (which isn’t actually her name, but I’ll refer to her that way for the purposes of this review). She has no idea where she comes from, where she was going, or how she came to be in this situation, and is, understandably more than a little panicked at finding herself in bed with a complete stranger.

Here’s where the first of the contrivances I mentioned comes in, because it turns out that this chap – who introduces himself as Augustus Malvern, Lord Eastleigh – is a fellow amnesia sufferer. And not only that, he has a personal physician residing at his home who is somewhat of an expert, having treated Eastleigh since he returned from the Crimean war several years previously minus most of his memories. In the intervening years, his memory has returned, although there are still some chunks missing.

Eastleigh tells Sarah not to try too hard to remember things about herself, as that’s likely to make things worse – and then suggests that she accompany him to his home in Kent. She is immediately alive to the impropriety of such a thing and tries to refuse, but as Eastleigh points out, he can’t leave her alone at a roadside inn, and as she has no idea where she lives, what other option is there? His physician, Doctor Hemphill, will likely be able to help her, and she can rest until she regains her memories and they can work out a more suitable plan of action.

Sarah agrees reluctantly, and although she is very wary of Eastleigh, she can’t fail to notice that he’s a very attractive man. The attraction is mutual – although most of Eastleigh’s attempts at friendly conversation are met with gentle and not-so-gentle rebuffs, as Sarah struggles with the reality of her situation. There’s the merest hint at the idea that perhaps her desire to keep a distance between them is stems from more than her disorientation and anxiety over her memory loss.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Andrew: Lord of Despair (Lonely Lords #7) by Grace Burrowes

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Andrew Alexander will do anything to protect those he loves…

After a tragic yachting accident leaves him wracked with guilt and despair, Andrew Alexander becomes certain he doesn’t deserve to be around his own family, let alone the beautiful, forthright Astrid Worthington. He wanders for years, only allowing himself respite from his self-imposed exile when he thinks Astrid safely married. He returns home to find instead that the only woman he’s ever loved has been recently – and mysteriously – widowed.

…especially from himself.

When Andrew leaves, Astrid refuses to pine. She finds an amiable husband and contents herself with a cordial if unexciting marriage. But her husband’s sudden death and Andrew’s reappearance threaten to break her heart all over again. When Astrid’s life is threatened, she finds Andrew will do anything to protect her not only from her enemies, but also from the truth of his dark past.

Rating: B+

Many of the books in Ms Burrowes’ Lonely Lords series have included an element of mystery or suspense alongside the romance, but Andrew has the feel of a gothic romance about it from fairly early on.

It also relates strongly to the book that preceeds it – Gareth – which makes sense, as Andrew is Gareth’s youngest brother. As with most of the books in the series, it does work as a standalone, as Ms Burrowes includes sufficient backstory for a newcomer to the series, but I think one needs to have read Gareth in order to fully appreciate both the storyline and the characterisation of Andrew himself.

Andrew Alexander and his mother are the only survivors of a boating accident thirteen years before which took the lives of the rest of their family. Gareth was the one member of the family who had not been on the expedition, and as a result, had to live for years with accusations and gossip accusing him of engineering the accident so that he could inherit his grandfather’s title. Gareth’s reaction was to work hard and play even harder, gaining himself the reputation of the greatest womaniser in London. Andrew, meantime, grew up and went to University, presenting to the world an open, sunny disposition that, as his story shows, hides a wealth of heavily suppressed self-loathing and despair.

During the events of the previous book, Andrew fell in love with the heroine’s sister, Astrid, but for reasons known only to himself felt that he had to separate himself from her. So despite his horror of travelling by sea, he left the country.

Four years later, Andrew returns to England only to discover that Astrid, married two years previously to Herbert Allen, Viscount Amery, has recently been widowed and is very likely pregnant. Andrew’s feelings for her haven’t changed, and neither have hers for him – but believing himself to be unworthy of the love of any decent woman, and even less worthy of being entrusted with the care of a child, Andrew instead determines to stand her friend, and nothing more.

But as the couple begins to get to know each other again, and Astrid reveals the truth of her marriage to a man who spent more time and money on his horses and his mistress than his wife, and whose physical intimacies were limited to a quick lift of her nightgown once a week, Andrew finds himself unable to remain aloof. Their short-lived relationship from years earlier had not seen them become lovers, but even so, Andrew knows Astrid is a passionate woman for whom the lack of the simple comfort offered by the touch of another person must have been truly miserable. So he offers that which she has been denied – a physical relationship borne of real affection and full of the passion she longs for – making it clear to her that he can give her nothing more.

Like her sister Felicity, Astrid is no shrinking female. She understands too well the limitations placed upon her as a woman, but her inner strength will not allow her to lose the man she loves without a fight. She accepts Andrew’s offer of an affair, determined to try to discover why he feels as he does and then perhaps, to find a way to get him to stay.

While this is going on, Astrid’s brother David, Viscount Fairly, has heard gossip that perhaps Astrid’s husband took his own life and has also learned that the money that should have been her widow’s portion has been stolen and spent, no doubt by Herbert on his mistress, horses and other sporting pursuits. Gareth, Andrew and David become suspicious that there is more going on than meets the eye, and their suspicions fall mainly upon Douglas Amery, Herbert’s younger brother and now holder of the viscountcy. Douglas is a cold fish, and a stickler for propriety, unlike the youngest Allen brother, Henry, who is a gregarious spendthrift, rather like Herbert. Henry is clearly his mother’s favourite, too, and the pair complain regularly about the economies Douglas is imposing upon them in his effort to shore up the severely depleted family finances. Astrid does not feel comfortable around her brother-in-law, and is even less so when she is reminded that, as head of the family, Douglas has the right to assume guardianship of her child and to remove it from her care should he so wish.

When Astrid suffers a fall one day, she puts it down to the fact that the early stages of pregnancy have made her feel very unwell and that she is subject to fainting fits. The men, however, are more suspicious, and realise that the only way to keep Astrid safe is to remove her from Amery’s orbit altogether. And the only way to do that is for her to marry someone of equal or higher status with plenty of money to pitch into a legal battle should one become necessary. There’s only one man on hand who fits that bill, and when a further incident indicates, without doubt, that Astrid’s life is in danger, she and Andrew are married without delay.

The story that unfolds is both a tender and rather tragic love-story as well as a fairly well-handled mystery. The identity of the villain is never in doubt (given that the next book in the series is Douglas’ story), but the plot twists are deftly executed, and the mystery storyline works well.

I find that every book of Ms Burrowes’ I read invariably requires a handful of tissues, but the final chapters of Andrew are so emotionally charged, that I could have done with a whole box full! A series of utterly heart-rending circumstances conspire to have Andrew finally admit the reasons behind the depth of his self-hatred to Gareth, who is also going through his own personal version of hell. I said in my review of Gareth that the relationship between the brothers was one of the highlights of the book, and that continues to be the case here, as they talk and take comfort from each other at a truly dark time.

Andrew is a very strong addition to the Lonely Lords series; one of the more emotionally charged and angst-ridden, but if, like me, you enjoy being put though the emotional mangle, that won’t put you off.

Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

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Sensible and lonely, Olivia Mather survives by her wits—and her strict policy of avoiding trouble. But when she realizes that the Duke of Marwick might hold the secrets of her family’s past, she does the unthinkable, infiltrating his household as a maid. She’ll clean his study and rifle through his papers looking for information.

Alastair de Grey has a single reason to live: vengeance. More beautiful than Lucifer, twice as feared, and thrice as cunning, he’ll use any weapon to punish those who fooled and betrayed him—even an impertinent maid who doesn’t know her place. But the more fascinated he becomes with the uppity redhead, the more dangerous his carefully designed plot becomes. For the one contingency he forgot to plan for was falling in love…and he cannot survive being fooled again

Rating: A

Alastair de Grey, Duke of Marwick was one of the most important political masterminds in the country, a man tipped as a potential prime minister, as well one whose power and connections behind the schemes earned him the moniker of “kingmaker”.

Following the sudden death of his wife, Margaret, Alastair discovered that what he had considered to be the perfect marriage was nothing but a sham. His wife was not only regularly unfaithful to him, but the men she chose to betray him with were his political enemies men, to whom she would divulge his plans and political secrets. From the letters that emerged after her death, not only was she actively conspiring against him, she and her lovers were laughing at him behind his back.

The manner of her death – from an overdose of opium – and his discovery of her treachery sent Alastair into a downward spiral. At the beginning of the previous book in the series,(That Scandalous Summer) he was arguing with his brother Michael, over the fact that Alastair, wanting nothing more to do with marriage, was demanding his brother marry and get to work producing an heir without delay. That argument led to a rift between them, and to Alastair’s committing a number of spiteful, vengeful acts (such as closing down the hospital he funded), which certainly painted him in a most appalling light.

The overwhelming rage he feels at the actions of his wife and her lovers, and at himself for allowing himself to be duped; his self-pitying frustration and the constant temptations to violence he feels have turned him into a recluse. He doesn’t leave his rooms, he barely eats and takes no interest in anything at all. His servants are terrified of going near him because of the threat of violence and as a result are running wild in the house with nobody to care what becomes of either house or master.

Olivia Mather – now going by the name of Olivia Johnson – appeared in That Scandalous Summer as companion and secretary to the heroine, Elizabeth Chudderly, who is now married to Michael de Grey. It was clear throughout that book that Olivia had something to hide, and at the end, she left Elizabeth’s employ, having stolen some letters that had been written by the late Duchess of Marwick. She plans to enter the duke’s house in order to steal information from him relating to Lord Bertram, a political associate of Alastair’s, and the man who threatens her very existence. Once in possession of what she believes to be damning evidence that could ruin him, Olivia plans to blackmail Bertram into leaving her alone.

Olivia presents herself at the house as an applicant – the sole applicant – for the position of housemaid, only to find herself offered the job of temporary housekeeper. She doesn’t want that, but circumstances conspire to force her hand, and she accepts the post.

What follows is a delicious slow-burn of a story in which Alastair is gradually coaxed back into the world of the living by OIivia, who stands up to him, regularly disobeys his orders, answers him back and, most importantly, tells him the truth and refuses to allow him to wallow in self-pity when he has so much to offer. Marwick insists he’s not a good man – and it’s true that he’s not your run-of-the-mill romantic hero. He’s rude, arrogant and downright unpleasant, but there’s an incredible intensity about him that is immediately captivating and attractive, in spite of the nasty side of him we see initially. He can’t let go of his rage, but the reason he won’t leave his rooms or the house is not the expected one – he won’t go out because he’s afraid that if he does, he’ll kill someone.

By degrees, Olivia re-humanises him, and along the way the reclusive duke and his no-nonsense housekeeper indulge in a number of completely inappropriate (given their relative statuses) conversations in which they argue and bicker constantly. Marwick sacks Olivia several times, but she always ignores him. (At this point, I had to wonder if Ms Duran is a West Wing fan – fellow fans will no doubt recall that in the early days, Josh Lyman was forever firing his devoted assistant, Donna – who was delightfully “impervious” and never listened to him, either).

“He held it up so she could see the spine:The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas.

“Ah, a tale of revenge. Are you seeking inspiration?”

He gave her a rather threatening smile. “So far, our hero seems spineless.”
“You must be in the early section, then. I assure you, after Dantes spends years and years locked away, growing into a ragamuffin, he emerges quite deadly. Why, the first thing he does is to cut his hair.”

He slammed shut the book. “You are peculiarly deaf to the cues most servants know to listen for. Was there some purpose to your visit? If not, you are dismissed.”

She held up the mirror again. “Here is my purpose: you look like a wildebeest. If your valet—”

“I don’t believe you know what a wildebeest looks like,” he said mildly.

Hesitantly she lowered the mirror. He was right; she hadn’t the faintest idea what a wildebeest looked like. “Well, you look how a wildebeest sounds like it should look.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.” He opened his book again. “ ‘Sheepdog’ was the better choice.”

As the story develops and as Olivia discovers more about her employer – about his intellect, his altruism and real commitment to good governance – as well as getting to know him as a person (they have a lovely conversation about books which reveals much about them as individuals and shows why they belong together) – the harder she finds it to go through with her plans to deceive him and steal the information she needs. But she is getting desperate, and with time running out, she has to take her chances which, unfortunately, don’t go to plan.

The pace speeds up once Alastair discovers Olivia’s duplicity, and revelations and plot developments come thick and fast. But through it all, there are these two, wounded people who share a deep emotional connection and who need each other very much. It’s a mark of how far he has travelled that Alastair is able to forgive Olivia for her betrayal, and there is a crucial and wonderful moment in which he finally realise the selfishness and weakness of his actions in closeting himself away with his thoughts of revenge. When he learns Olivia’s true identity and her reasons for concealing it, he is floored to think that this young woman – who has no family or friends, no-one to care for her, look after her or fight her battles against someone who would do her harm – has been fighting against the darkness since she was sixteen years old. His way of dealing with betrayal was to retreat into himself. He had that luxury. Olivia, alone and friendless – and a woman – had no alternative but to fight.

The romance is beautifully written, and Ms Duran takes her time with it, building the sexual tension gradually but potently, giving even the slightest touch a real emotional and sensual punch:

“A little shock bolted through her. She stared down at his head, all that luxuriantly waving blond hair, and suddenly felt unable to move. This job required her to touch him. To plunge her hands through his hair and . . . handle him.

For no apparent reason, she suddenly recalled the feel of his hands on her wrists. His thumbs slipping across her pulse. Her stomach somersaulted.
[. . . ]
As she gathered up his locks, her fingers brushed along the base of his neck. His shoulders were solid muscle—even here, at their tops. She could feel them flex a little beneath her fingertips, and the sensation made her redden.
She shifted her hand up, to avoid that muscled bulk. But now her knuckles skated along the nape of his neck, and his bare skin was startlingly warm, very smooth. Three snips bared his nape—and she found herself staring, somehow startled by it: the whole strong shape of his neck, thick and muscled, corded as he bent forward to allow her better access.

His spine made a hard knob of bone at the base of his neck. In public, his collar would always hide this nexus of muscle and bone, even when his hair did not. It was a secret, intimate, vulnerable place. How many eyes had beheld it? His valet . . . and his late wife. Perhaps she had kissed it. It seemed like a spot one would enjoy kissing, were one his lover.

I think that might win the prize for the sexiest hair-cut ever :P

The characterisation is excellent all-round, but both Alastair and Olivia are among the most strongly written characters I’ve encountered in a while. Olivia is stubborn, sensible and independent, determined to do what she must alone, as always – yet she can’t help but be intrigued by and drawn to Alastair, who has become so convinced of his unworthiness and of the world’s darkness that he at first, thinks to drag her down with him. She sees that he’s not as devoid of hope as he wants to believe, and he finds it impossible to resist her challenges and her blandishments, so that eventually he wants to haul himself out of the pit he’s been digging for himself. I said before that he’s an unusual romantic hero because of the fact he’s so bloody unpleasant to start with, but, unlike so many heroes who have tortured pasts, or terrible experiences, who merely curl their lips and look down their noses at people, Alastair behaves in a way that makes complete sense. He’s an out-and-out pain in the arse whose position as a duke gives him the power and the right to do as he wants with and to whom he wants without a qualm. He’s nasty, he’s rude, he’s insulting, yet his behaviour, following the shattering of his life and his illusions about his marriage, is that of a wounded animal – creeping away to lick its wounds it will also lash out at anything that threatens it. And that, for me, is Alastair at the beginning of the book.

It’s a mark of how good a writer Ms Duran is that she can make the reader care about him, even when he’s behaving like a total bastard. And when he finally emerges from his bastard-dom, he’s true hero material; the intensity he exhibited when in his “beast” phase never really goes away, and serves to make him even more compelling.

My one complaint about the book is that the ending feels a bit rushed, but that’s a minor point because I loved it and was gripped from beginning to end.

Compromised by Kate Noble (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalind Ashford

compromised audio

Miss Gail Alton was not having a good day. Or a good year. First, she’s strong-armed into attending the Season as a foil to her beautiful sister,Evangeline. Then, while riding her mare in the park, she gets toppled by a stuffy, self-important, too-handsome-by-half “gentleman” who has the audacity to blame her for their fall into the chilly lake! Little does Gail know that the very same man will soon be found in a compromising position with her sister….

Forced into asking for Evangeline’s hand in marriage, Maximillian, Viscount Fontaine, can’t take his mind off the irksome girl who threw him from his horse and who can match wits with him at every turn. He’s determined to follow through with his best intentions, yet he can’t deny that Gail makes him want to cast propriety aside – and whisk away the sister of his soon-to-be bride….

Rating: Narration B-; Content C+

Compromised, originally published in 2008, was Kate Noble’s début novel, and while a little rough around the edges in some places, is nonetheless competently written and strongly characterised.

Maximillian, Viscount Fontaine, is heir to the reclusive and controlling Earl of Longsbowe, who, at the beginning of the story, threatens to disinherit his son if he does not marry within the next three months. Max, who has chosen to make his own, rather modest, way in the world rather than submit to his father’s manipulations and dictates, is forced to take the threat seriously, although actually, it’s rather a big plot hole. The earl threatens to have Max declared illegitimate so he can’t inherit, but I doubt he could have done so. If a child was born in wedlock – as Max was – it was legitimate, regardless of who supplied the sperm!

Fortunately for Max, he soon meets the beautiful and demure Miss Evangeline Alton at a ball, is completely captivated by her and decides that perhaps marriage won’t be such a hardship after all. In the romantic atmosphere of a moonlit conservatory, filled with the heady scents of exotic flowers, Max and the young lady share a kiss which, unhappily for them, is witnessed and therefore sure to lead to all sorts of damaging gossip. Determined to do the right thing, Max duly presents himself at the Alton’s home the following morning to make Evangeline an offer of marriage.

The Altons have only recently returned to London, having spent a number of years living abroad. Sir Geoffrey is a diplomat and father of two daughters, Evangeline and Abigail (Gail), and has recently remarried. Not only is he hopeful of a new and important government appointment, his new wife, Romilla, is determined to do her utmost to see the girls comfortably settled and accepted in society. Any gossip to the effect that Evie has been compromised could prove disastrous for the all their prospects, but Romilla comes up with a suitable plan of action. Max and Evie can be secretly engaged for a month, during which time he will publicly court her. When the month is up, their betrothal will be announced, thus scotching any rumours that it had to be hastily arranged. In order to make sure the courtship maintains the appearance of utter propriety and familial endorsement, Romilla specifies that a family member must accompany the couple at all times. Needless to say, this puts an incredible impediment in the way of Max and Evie getting to know each other – especially as their chaperone is usually Gail, whose relationship with Max is rather adversarial.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.