A Good Debutante’s Guide to Ruin by Sophie Jordan (audiobook) – Narrated by Carmen Rose

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The last woman on earth he would ever touch…

Declan, the Duke of Banbury, has no interest in ushering Rosalie Hughes, his stepsister, into society. Dumped on him with nowhere else to go, he’s determined to rid himself of the headstrong debutante by bestowing on her an obscenely large dowry, making her the most sought after heiress of the Season.

…is about to become the only one he wants.

But Rosalie isn’t about to go along with Declan’s plans. Surrounded by fortune hunters, how is she supposed to find a man who truly wants her? Taking control of her fate, Rosalie dons a disguise and sneaks into Sodom, a private club host to all manner of illicit activity – and frequented by her infuriatingly handsome stepbrother.

Rating: B- for narration; B for content

A Good Débutante’s Guide to Ruin is the first in a new series from Sophie Jordan, and if you can get past the rather daft idea of two innocent, well-bred young ladies sneaking out to a sex club, being provided with suitably skimpy clothing by the owner/madam, and not being recognized by the male relatives they encounter there, it’s an enjoyable story which boasts plenty of sizzling chemistry between the two leads.

Twenty-year-old Rosalie Hughes completed her education at a Yorkshire school two years earlier, but her mother has ignored all the polite reminders to come collect her daughter. Rosalie’s only other family is the step-brother she hasn’t seen for over a decade. Declan, now the Duke of Banbury, was fifteen when his father threw him out of the family home. He is not best pleased at finding a young woman he hardly knows on his doorstep, but he is at heart a gentleman and allows her to stay, calling on his aunt to move in and act as chaperone.

Rosalie is relieved at the fact he doesn’t turn her out, but rather bewildered by his coldness and thinly veiled hostility towards her. It’s clear that she worshipped him as a child and continues to carry a torch for him. But for Declan, Rosalie only dredges up painful memories of her mother Mélisande , who caused his rift with his father and whose lies and deceit have coloured his attitude towards women ever since. All he wants to do is get rid of Rosalie so he can return to his normal round of drinking, gaming and whoring.

Declan decides that the best way to be rid of Rosalie is to marry her off, so he lets it be known that he has settled a large dowry upon her. Rosalie isn’t against marriage, and, trying to set aside her childish fancy for Declan, knows the best she can hope for is to be able to find a kind and considerate husband. But before she settles, she wants to live a little, so when Declan’s cousin Aurelia suggests they slip out and pay a visit to Sodom, the notorious sex club frequented by the young men of the ton, Rosalie agrees. On the appointed night, skimpily gowned and heavily masked, the girls are escorted through the club by its mysterious lady owner, and get an eyeful of various amorous encounters (!). While Aurelia is quite happy to hang around and watch, Rosalie decides that what she’d like is to be kissed for the first time, and by someone who knows what he’s doing.

The identity of the selected orally experienced paragon will come as no surprise.

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

The Accidental Abduction by Darcie Wilde

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After having his proposal rejected by a beautiful but flighty woman, Harry vows he is done with unpredictable and impetuous women for good. Until beautiful and fierce Leannah Wakefield barrels into his life, inadvertently kidnapping him while on a wild carriage ride and leaving him all too eager to get back in the saddle…

Leannah would sacrifice everything to protect her family. So upon hearing of her sister’s intended elopement, she races across London to stop the ill-advised ceremony before it can happen. However, when her mad journey picks her up an unlikely stowaway, one who ignites her desire beyond all reason, she’s the one who ends up hastily wedding a handsome and secretive stranger.

But as Leannah and Harry immediately encounter opposition, jealousy, and suspicion of their hurried nuptials, they begin to doubt that their unquenchable passion can truly lead to a happy marriage—especially when both the bride and groom have devastating secrets to hide…

Rating: C+

This is Darcie Wilde’s second book, and having seen some favourable reviews for her début, Lord of the Rakes, I was keen to give her a try. I found her writing style to be engaging and was especially pleased to discover that she has put a different spin on the well-used trope of two people who barely know each other getting married. There are plenty of marriage-of-convenience and compromised-into-marriage stories which feature a couple with little prior knowledge of each other tying the knot and then falling in love, but in The Accidental Abduction, the two central characters – Harry Rayburn and Leannah Wakefield – meet in less than auspicious circumstances, feel an incredibly strong attraction towards each other and marry on impulse, believing they can sort everything else out later.

Also unusual for an historical is the fact that neither protagonist is titled. Harry is very wealthy, but his money comes from trade, and while Leannah was brought up a “lady”, her family is poor as church mice.

The story opens with Harry proposing – unsuccessfully – to one of the belles of the ton, a beautiful but empty-headed young woman. On his way home from drowning his sorrows, Harry attempts to save a woman who is struggling with a pair of runaway horses, and ends up jumping into her carriage in order to help her. But it seems that she’s not struggling at all – she’s pushing her horses hell-for-leather in order to catch up with her eloping younger sister, and doesn’t stop despite having taken on an unwanted passenger.

When one of the horses throws a shoe, the woman has no alternative but to stop and admit defeat. But Harry isn’t so easily deterred. The weather is bad and if he and his “abductress” are stuck in it, so are her sister and her beau; he suggests they head for the nearest inn as they need shelter, and it’s quite possible that her quarry will have had to hole up there as well.

Leannah Wakefield is so used to having to do everything for herself and her family on her own that she is initially dismissive of Harry’s offers of help. However, she can’t continue her pursuit with a horse that needs shoeing, and reluctantly accepts that Harry is right, and they need to shelter from the storm and find somewhere to have the horse re-shod.

Leannah is a widow and has, since the death of her much older husband, been the glue holding her family together. Her father is ill, her young brother is just twelve and her younger sister, Genny, is both beautiful and headstrong, and it’s all Leannah can do to keep their heads above water. Quite naturally, this sort of existence has worn her down over the two years since her husband’s death, and meeting someone like Harry, strong, reliable and full of confidence – justifiably so, it seems – brings home to her just how much she’s missed having someone to care for her for a change. Harry’s presence also awakens her baser instincts – he’s young, well-built and good-looking, and…well, some aspects of widowhood have been more difficult for her than others.

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

Till Next We Meet by Karen Ranney

Till Next Meet

Catherine Dunnan is devastated when her beloved goes off to war – and only his promise to write often can sustain her in her loneliness. And what letters they are, filled with heartfelt emotions that move her to respond in kind. But then the unthinkable occurs. He is cruelly lost to her, and his beautiful words of passion and devotion cease forever.

When Moncrief agreed to write warm and loving missives in a fellow officer’s name, he never expected he’d become so enamored of the incomparable lady who answered them, a woman he has never met. Returning to England to assume the unexpected title of duke, Moncrief is irresistibly drawn to the beauty who has unwittingly won his heart. More than anything, he yearns to ease Catherine’s sadness with his tender kisses. But once she learns his secret, will his love be spurned?.

Rating: A-

I chose this book in response to one of the prompts for the AAR Days of the Week Reading Challenge, which was for Wednesday – Read an epistolary novel, or a book where letters, phone, text or email messages are relevant to the story.

I like epistolary novels in general – I’ve read several classics like Fanny Burney’s Evelina or Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but I haven’t read too many when it comes to more recently written titles, so this was a prompt I was keen to take up. I had a few options on hand to choose from: Laura Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly or Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy are both books in which letters exchanged by the central characters play an important part, but in the end, I went for Karen Ranney’s Till Next We Meet, which has a flavour of Cyrano de Bergerac about it.

Moncrief (and I’m never sure whether that’s his first or last name, as he’s rarely referred to as anything else), a Colonel in the British army serving in Canada has, for some months, been writing to the wife of one of his officers – Captain Harry Dunnant – because the man can’t be bothered to do so himself. It’s not as though Moncrief makes a habit of doing such things, but the letter Harry laughingly tosses at him touches him deeply; Catherine Dunnant pours her heart and soul into her letters and Moncrief is able to discern the loneliness that often lies beneath her words. This speaks to something deep inside him: Moncrief is a respected officer and commander, but he has been in the army and away from home for fourteen years, doesn’t have any strong family ties and is a very lonely man at heart. He tells himself at the outset that he will simply respond to Mrs Dunnant’s letter in order to allay her fears about her husband, but when she writes in response, he is unable to resist the temptation to continue their correspondence, even though he knows it is ill-advised. Months pass, and Moncrief comes to realise that he has fallen in love with the witty, generous and loving woman who shines through in the letters. The correspondence has to come to an abrupt end with Harry Dunnant’s death, and Moncrief believes that the letter he writes to Catherine, advising her of her husband’s demise will be his last.

Some months later sees Moncrief travelling back to his home of Balidonough in Scotland as the newly minted Duke of Lymond. A third son, he had never expected to inherit lands and title, but his years in the army have most definitely prepared him for running a large estate and directing lots of servants as well as imbuing him with an air of authority and command. On his way home, he cannot resist paying a visit to Catherine Dunnant’s home – and is shocked to find an unkempt and somewhat addled young woman still in the throes of deep grieving who is clearly being seriously neglected.

Returning the following day, Moncrief finds Catherine near death from a laudanum overdose. It’s touch and go but he saves her life – only to be accused by the local vicar of compromising her. Without stopping to question his motives too much, Moncrief marries her and removes her to Balidonough as soon as she is well enough.

Catherine is still in an agony of grief over Harry’s death and doesn’t remember her re-marriage or, in fact, remember much of anything. She immediately senses that Moncrief is a good man, and finds his assertion that he married her because she needed rescuing to be somewhat disconcerting – but is not ready to surrender her heartache and make a new life for herself.

Till Next We Meet is a terrific story, beautifully told. Moncrief is a hero to die for – he’s already more than half in love with Catherine right from the start, and isn’t afraid to admit it to himself. Outwardly, he’s autocratic and severe, but we already know from his letters that inside, he’s tender-hearted and rather romantic. His self-confidence and competence are immediately attractive, as is the fact that he takes his new responsibilities seriously, cares deeply about his land and dependents, and wants to make their lives better. One of the things I really enjoyed about the way the author portrays him is that we don’t get a physical description of him until Catherine starts to see him clearly, and then after that, that each time we see him through her eyes, she notices more and more about his physical presence and how absolutely gorgeous he is. (He’s the hero of a romance – it’s a given he’s gorgeous!) But of course, he’s gorgeous on the inside, too, and that’s the man Catherine fell in love with, sight unseen.

While Catherine starts out as rather a pathetic figure, a woman whose (misplaced) grief is so strong that she is careless of her own life, as she recovers and gains strength, both the reader and Moncrief begin to see once again the young woman who wrote those beautiful letters, so full of love and longing. I appreciate that the author doesn’t have her railing against her marriage and accusing Moncrief of all sorts of iniquity – she accepts the situation, and realises that sooner or later, she is going to have to make something of it. She does, however, have her own, subtle ways of letting her new husband know that she’s not ecstatic about their hasty marriage, such as continuing to wear her widow’s weeds, and the fact that she sleeps with “Harry’s” letters beneath her pillow. But as the story progresses, she begins to regain her spirit, and I was almost cheering at the point in the story when she finally snaps and tells some obnoxious guests and relatives where to get off.

There are hints throughout the story that perhaps Catherine’s near-death from an overdose had not been an accident, and later, an incident at Balidonough seems to suggest that either Moncrief or Catherine is in danger, but the author has kept the mystery element of the story very low key, giving priority to the relationship developing between her central couple. So it comes as rather a surprise – and one which I enjoyed – to find the tension ramping up in the later chapters as the plot and culprit are revealed.

The relationship between Moncrief and Catherine is beautifully developed and presented, with Catherine gradually coming to appreciate Moncrief’s sterling qualities and to value his company and his affection. The sexual tension between the couple builds slowly, and because Catherine has asked for time to get to know Moncrief better before consummating the marriage, it’s fairly late in the story before things progress from heated looks and touches. But when it does, the passion between them is almost uncontrollable, and it’s well worth the wait ;) My one criticism is that it took too long for Moncrief to own up to the fact that he is the author of “Harry’s” letters; he is given several opportunities throughout the book to fess up, but each time, he shies away from it for no really compelling reason that I could fathom.

Fortunately however, this is a minor niggle, because the rest of the story really is excellent. The characterisation is strong all-round, with even the minor characters being fully-rounded, and the author has created an atmosphere that is sombre without being depressing or gloomy. The loneliness endured by both Moncrief and Catherine is vividly evoked, and their gradual coming together is a true delight to read; they are so deserving of happiness in their lives that the pleasure and contentment they eventually find with each other feels as though it has been fully earned.

The Trouble With Honor by Julia London (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Desperate times call for daring measures as Honor Cabot, the eldest stepdaughter of the wealthy Earl of Beckington, awaits her family’s ruin. Upon the earl’s death she and her sisters stand to lose the luxury of their grand home – and their place on the pedestal of society – to their stepbrother and his social-climbing fiancée. Forced to act quickly, Honor makes a devil’s bargain with the only rogue in London who can seduce her stepbrother’s fiancée out of the Cabots’ lives for good.

An illegitimate son of a duke, George Easton was born of scandal and grows his fortune through dangerous risks. But now he and Honor are dabbling in a perilous dance of seduction that puts her reputation and his jaded heart on the line. And as unexpected desire threatens to change the rules of their secret game, the stakes may become too high even for a notorious gambler and a determined, free-spirited debutante to handle.

Rating: A for narration; B for content

The Trouble with Honor, the first book in a new series from Ms London, tells the story of the eldest of the four Cabot sisters. With their sick father not expected to live much longer and their mother gradually succumbing to what we would today recognise as dementia, Miss Honor Cabot has little alternative but to assume parental responsibility for her younger sisters.

She’s vivacious and beautiful, and has not been without male admirers. Having had her heart broken a couple of years previously by a young man who showed every sign of being equally smitten until he offered for another woman, Honor has been reluctant to look for a suitable husband. But now, with her family situation as it is, she is starting to think she has left it too late to make any match, for what man will want – or be able to afford – the burden of three sisters and a sick mother?

The difficulty of the sisters’ situation is exacerbated by the fact that their stepbrother is engaged to be married to Miss Monica Hargrove, whom Honor has convinced herself will use her influence over him to see them all turned out of the house before the ink is dry on the marriage license.

Honor needs to buy them all some time while she finds herself a suitably rich and biddable husband. The plan she comes up with is, to be honest, pretty daft; she thinks that if she can separate her brother and his fiancée, he will have nobody urging him to turn them out and shut their mother away in a home in the far wilds of Wales and they’ll be safe for a little longer. With that plan in mind, she approaches Mr George Easton, illegitimate – and unacknowledged – son of a royal duke; a man with a reputation as a gambler and risk-taker – and asks for his help. She wants him to “turn Monica’s head” – he’s handsome, charming and an expert in the art of seduction, and Monica is an attractive young woman, so it shouldn’t prove too onerous or difficult a task.

Honor has, however, reckoned without George’s perceptiveness. He may have a reputation for recklessness, but he’s no fool and immediately discerns the reasons behind Honor’s request:

“With [your father] on his deathbed, you fear that a new countess will not look kindly to keeping four stepsisters as they should like to be kept.”

She finds his insight more than a little disturbing – and for his part, even though he’s stunned by her audacity, George can’t help but be intrigued and admire Honor’s cheek… as well as other parts of her anatomy :P

But admiration wins out, and against his better judgement the deal is struck, with George agreeing to draw Monica into a flirtation at the next available opportunity.

Given the improbable premise and a heroine whose determination to destroy her stepbrother’s happiness seemed certain to make her unlikeable, I had a few misgivings about the story, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d listen to Rosalyn Landor read the phone book, I might have set it aside and moved on to something else. But her performance drew me in and kept me listening; and I ended up enjoying the audiobook more than I thought I would. The story has a few flaws, but none of them were so huge as to pull me out of it and fortunately, Honor does grow up during the course of the book and come to admit her plan was unkind and ridiculous. In fact, as her character is gradually revealed to be rather more than the spoiled, selfish young woman she at first seems, I found myself warming to her. She really doesn’t care about being able to afford fashionable clothes or hats – all she wants is to be able to look after her sisters and make sure their mother is cared for. Her options are limited – sadly typical for a young woman of the time – but she’s not one to sit back and take whatever hand fate deals her, and she goes for what she wants – even if her methods might be somewhat questionable. In that, she’s similar to George, who is also someone who is willing to go out on a limb for what he wants.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The King’s Falcon by Stella Riley

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A tale of plots and playhouses … war and witchcraft … love and loyalty.

Following his coronation in Scotland, Charles ll leads an army south to reclaim his throne but the dream ends in a crushing defeat at Worcester, leaving no alternative but flight. With little more than the clothes on their backs, Ashley Peverell and Francis Langley manage to reach Paris where Ashley, known to some as The Falcon, resumes his under-cover and unpaid work for the King.

Beautiful, stubborn and street-wise, Athenais de Galzain has risen from the slums of Paris to become the Marais Theatre’s leading actress. Unfortunately, this brings her to the attention of the Marquis d’Auxerre – an influential nobleman of unsavoury reputation who is accustomed to taking what he wants.

While the Prince’s Fronde flares up anew and turns the city into a battle-ground, Francis is bullied into helping his sister, Celia, obtain a divorce from Eden Maxwell. Currently working as a cryptographer in the Commonwealth’s intelligence service, Eden watches Cromwell creating a king-sized space for himself and begins to question the cause to which he has devoted a decade of his life.

From the first, Ashley and Athenais are drawn together with the unstoppable force of two stars colliding; a force which Ashley, lacking both money and prospects and aware of the frequency with which he’s required to risk his life, cannot deny but resolves to conceal. He has only two priorities; his work for Charles ll and his determination to protect Athenais from the Marquis. Both are to test him to the limits.

‘The King’s Falcon’ follows the Cavalier’s last crusade and the bitter, poverty-stricken exile that followed it, whilst also taking us behind the scenes at the Theatre du Marais. There is danger, intrigue and romance in this sequel to The Black Madonna and Garland of Straw.

Rating: A

The King’s Falcon is the long-awaited third instalment of Ms Riley’s projected quartet of novels set during the tumultuous period of the English Civil War. The two earlier books – The Black Madonna and Garland of Straw – were originally published in the 1990s and revised and republished digitally in 2013, so this is Ms Riley’s first new book in around twenty years. And yes – it was definitely worth the wait.

Like both the books that precede, it, The King’s Falcon is a very well-researched piece of historical fiction which has, at its heart, a strongly characterised and well-developed romance.

The eponymous Falcon was seen briefly in Garland of Straw, and is otherwise known as Ashley Peverell, a Colonel in the Royalist army. His stunning good looks and outward appearance of relaxed amiability hide a sharp intellect and a ruthlessness he has often put to use in the service of King and Country in his work as an intelligence gatherer and spy. Arriving in Scotland to witness the coronation of King Charles II, Ashley meets and strikes up a friendship with Francis Langley (also featured in the previous books), whose sister married Eden Maxwell, now a Colonel in the New Model Army. The story follows Ashley and Francis through the final and disastrous Worcester campaign of 1651, which was the last-ditch effort by the Royalists to re-instate the monarchy, and which ultimately led to Charles’ fleeing to safety in France.

With the king in exile and the Royalist cause seemingly defeated, the story after Worcester focuses more on the personal stories of Ashley and Francis, with both men becoming romantically involved and Ashley undertaking more covert and dangerous work on behalf of the king. Life for a couple of down-on-their-luck soldiers isn’t easy and the two are living practically hand-to-mouth in a dingy Parisian garret. Neither is rich – Ashley is a second son whose older brother switched sides at the last minute and Francis’ estates were sequestered by the Parliamentarians, so returning to England isn’t an option, and paid employment is almost impossible to come by.

On a previous trip to the city, Ashley had briefly caught a glimpse of a strikingly beautiful young actress at the Théâtre du Marais. She’d been playing a bit-part, but her looks and stage presence drew the eye of every man in the place – and Ashley hasn’t quite been able to put her out of his mind. Returning to Paris, he discovers the enchanting Mademoiselle Athenais de Galzain has now become a leading actress at the Marais, and he and Francis venture backstage one evening to meet her.

Athenais may be the toast of the Parisian theatrical world, but she’s a girl from the streets who does what she must to survive and make her way in life. Her father is an ex-soldier who spends most of his time in his cups, and her new found fame has brought her to the attention of the dissolute Marquis d’Auxerre, who intends to make her his mistress. Ever practical, Athenais has always known the time would come when she may have to consider taking such a step simply to safeguard the career she’s worked so hard to build.

But meeting Ashley Peverell changes everything, and Athenais finds herself drowning in an infatuation the like of which she’s never experienced. Ashley, too, is deeply smitten, and with circumstances conspiring to bring the pair into almost daily contact with each other, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his hands off the lovely Athenais. He’s practically destitute, and his work for the king often sees him in life-threatening situations, so feeling he has nothing to offer her he determines to keep her safe while keeping his distance.

The stage is set for a heartbreakingly sweet romance, but as Ashley and Athenais tiptoe around each other, Ms Riley never loses sight of the bigger picture, reminding the reader of the tumultuous times in which her characters are living. In France, the power struggle between the royal houses of France (some of them backed by forces from Spain and the Netherlands) erupts into violence on the Streets of Paris, leading to the temporary closure of the Marais. And in England, Eden Maxwell, now working as a cryptographer for Cromwell’s intelligence service, uncovers a plot which could have far-reaching consequences.

The King’s Falcon is a well-paced, beautifully-written story in which the author’s extensive research and breadth of knowledge of the period really shine through. Ms Riley’s prose is as crisp and incisive as it ever was, her eye for historical detail is flawless, and she weaves her multiple plot strands together seamlessly and with great skill. The principal romance is by turns sweet and sensual, and is filled with tenderness, humour and a real sense of deep trust and affection that enables Ashley and Athenais to support each other through some terrible times. Each of the principals is strongly characterised and the author has once again presented readers with a hero to swoon over in the form of the dashing Colonel Peverell. Ashley is fiercely intelligent, witty and deeply honourable, a military man with no desire to be a “hero”, but whose covert actions on behalf of his king surely give him the right to that particular epithet.

Athenais is similarly well fleshed-out and given a most intriguing backstory. She’s a young heroine (just twenty) but she’s an old head on young shoulders; pragmatic and quick-witted, she’s nobody’s fool, although she’d be the first to admit that her wits tend to go flying out the window when confronted with a certain handsome English officer.

I’ve had rather a soft-spot for Francis Langley since we first met him in The Black Madonna. In that book, he was a rather self-absorbed, pleasure-loving young man without many serious thoughts in his head. But he’s grown up, his experiences of warfare surely enough to change any man, and over the course of three novels, Francis has become more considered and aware of his situation and his own strengths and shortcomings. It’s wonderful to see him coming into his own here, as he finds his niche and the perfect outlet for his talents in his work for the Marais – and to see him meet his match at last.

This is the third book in a series, but I wouldn’t say that it’s absolutely necessary to have read the other two – although they’re so good, I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to read them! But because there are a few characters from them who either appear in this one, or are mentioned, I would definitely recommend doing so.

The King’s Falcon is a superb read, and I was completely captivated from first page to last. On a purely personal level, I’m thrilled that one of my favourite authors has resumed her writing career after such a long break, and following such a strong return, make no apologies for saying that I’m going to be very impatiently waiting for the next book in the series.

Warning: There is one (not graphic) scene of sexual assault in the book.

TBR Challenge: Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart

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Victim. Lover. Both? His dark game is seducing her– just as it was when they were young.

How can he still have that power over her? Eighteen years ago, she saw him die.

Wealthy, selfish, and greedy, the McDowell family raised Carolyn McDowell–a foster child–like a modern Cinderella. Neglected and ignored, good-hearted Carolyn adored scion Alexander despite it all, though even he tormented her.

When Alex ran away one night, Carolyn followed and witnessed his murder, though she never told anyone. Her beloved Alex died when he was seventeen. There was no doubt.

Eighteen years later, Carolyn returns to the decadent milieu of the McDowell clan to care for her dying foster mother, Sally. As greedy relatives gather to claim their inheritances, a stunning stranger arrives, claiming to be Alexander. To Carolyn’s utter shock, Sally greets her “son” without question, and no one but Carolyn believes he’s a fraud.

As she delves into the mysteries of both the past and present, Carolyn quickly realizes that the resurrected Alex is a dangerous combination of seduction and power. Is this stranger after the McDowell fortune, or is he really, somehow, the Alex of old, come back to claim her? How can he be an imposter and yet know family secrets only the real Alex would remember? Was someone helping him?

What would you do if the boy you loved returned almost twenty years later, and you fell in love with him all over again–even if you were sure it couldn’t be him?

Rating: A

This is my choice for the October prompt for the TBR challenge, which is to read a Paranormal or Romantic Suspense title.

I actually had this book lined up a few months ago for this very purpose. I haven’t read a massive number of Ms Stuart’s books, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and I know she’s the very doyenne of romantic suspense authors, so it seemed like a good bet.

Unusually for me, Shadow Lover is a contemporary – or rather, it was when it was originally published in 1999, but that’s still “contemporary” by my standards!

I tend to be a bit stingy when it comes to grading books; even with a book I’ve loved I sometimes shy away from hitting the 5 star button, or giving it an A, because there’s a tiny niggle or two which meant the book fell just slightly short. I will even admit to being guilty of finishing a book thinking “now, what did I find that means it’s not a 5-star book?” sometimes; of enjoying something a lot but thinking it must have been too good to be true.
But with this one? Nope. I thought about it for a bit and decided I really couldn’t find anything that bothered me to the extent of knocking down the rating.

The MacDowell family is quintessentially (American) old money – a Park Avenue apartment, a house in Martha’s Vinyard, another in Vermont, Armani suits, perfect year-round tans, Mercedes in the garage etc… At the beginning of the story, Sally MacDowell, matriarch of the family, is dying of cancer and hasn’t long left to live. Around a year previously Carolyn Smith, the young woman Sally had fostered from the age of two, but never formally adopted, left her home and job, essentially putting her life on hold to go to stay with Sally at the family home in Vermont. Sally is being cared for by a full-time nurse, but Carolyn owes her a lot and thinks of her as a mother – and she wants to be with her for the last months of her life.

Sally’s ex-husband is dead, her only son disappeared (and is believed to have died) eighteen years ago and her closest living relatives are her younger brother, Warren and sister Patsy and Patsy’s children. All are self-centred and wealthy and stand to be much moreso when Sally passes as her large fortune will be divided between her siblings. Or rather, half of it will, because she has never altered the will she made when her son was alive in which he inherited half her money, and Warren and Patsy the other half between them. Given that Sally’s son, Alex, has never been found or declared officially dead, this means that Warren and Patsy face a lengthy period of probate (or whatever the American equivalent is!) before they will inherit anything.

This isn’t something about which Carolyn cares to think very much – she’s not concerned about the money at all; she’s there for Sally. Life plods along until one morning a stunningly gorgeous man appears at the house claiming to be Alex MacDowell. He certainly could be Alex (and I’m going to refer to him as such in this review). He’s the right age, bears a striking resemblance to the younger Alex and knows everything that Alex would have known up until he’d run away from home at the age of seventeen.

Sally, Warren and Patsy accept him almost without question, but Carolyn is torn. On the one hand, the possibility that Sally’s long-lost son has appeared to be with her in her final days will bring comfort to the dying woman. But on the other – Carolyn knows that this man can’t possibly be Alex MacDowell because she saw him die eighteen years ago on a deserted beach.

Alex and Carolyn grew up together and although in many ways, Alex had been the bane of her existence, by the time she’d reached adolescence, Carolyn had developed a massive crush on the handsome, charming, heartless and malicious hellion who would torment her one minute and show her a generous act of kindness the next.

Needless to say Alex’s reappearance reawakens all those old, confusing feelings. Alex knows Carolyn doesn’t like him and is desperately trying to have nothing to do with him; but he also knows that she’s the one person in the entire household that he absolutely HAS to convince that he is who he says he is.

To say much more about the plot would be to give too much away, but Ms Stuart kept me guessing right up until the last possible moment as to the identity of the man claiming to be Alex MacDowell – and even then, it wasn’t as simple a case as one might think. She’d convince me he was an imposter, and then the story would take a turn which would convince me otherwise. Even in those moments when the reader is inside Alex’s head, we’re never quite sure of his identity – even he thinks and speaks of himself in the third person at times, and the way the author continues to keep the reader guessing is utterly masterful. And she does it in such a great way, too – not by planting clues, which would probably have driven me up the wall, but instead, by keeping everything perfectly plausible and perfectly vague until she was ready to let me in on the secret.

Alex and Carolyn have great chemistry, as well as a lot of shared history. Her heart longs to believe he’s Alex, because she never got over him, while her head tells her it’s impossible and he’s just a con-man out to take advantage of a dying woman. Yet she can’t help gravitating towards Alex, no matter how much she tries to distance herself from him – and he knows it and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of it, continually needling her and getting under her skin about her relationship with the MacDowells and the way they’ve treated her over the years.

The plot is superbly crafted, with a twist or two I certainly didn’t see coming until they almost ran me over, but it’s the relationship between the two principals which is the big draw. Alex is almost indecently sexy – handsome, charming and clever, but with a ruthless streak and determination to get what he wants which fortunately, falls short of true arsehole-dom. Carolyn at first comes across as a bit of a drip, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that here is a woman with real strength of character, but who has cultivated the art of self-preservation to a high degree and never lets anyone get too close.

The small cast of secondary characters is drawn with fairly broad strokes, and while the identity of the villain had been narrowed down in the last few chapters, I still wasn’t 100% sure as to who it was until the last moment. But it’s Alex who is the driving force behind this book – he’s sarcastic, single-minded, sexy-as-hell – in short, he’s utterly compelling, and while he certainly hasn’t led a blameless life, he’s not a cold, heartless villain either.

This is one of those times where the skill of the plotting, characterisation and writing all add up to make one terrific read. I’m not saying the book is completely without flaws – it isn’t, because nothing is perfect. But the storytelling is fantastic, the hero is gorgeous and the sex is hot. Honestly – what more could a girl ask for?

Never Marry a Viscount (Scandal at the House of Russell #3) by Anne Stuart

nevermarryviscount

Sophie Russell was once society’s darling. But after the disgrace and death of her father, she now finds all doors firmly shut to her—including those of her family home. To discover the secrets now hidden within its beloved walls, she’ll pose as a cook and spy on the estate’s new owner, a broodingly handsome viscount, who may have schemed against the Russells. Instead of dishing up the truth, the viscount tempts Sophie with delicacies of his own…

Viscount Griffiths suspects that there is more to his new cook than meets the eye—especially since it was a mistress he hired sight unseen, not a cook. With the hope that her passion in the kitchen will extend to his bedchamber, he humors the beautiful interloper. But when that passion burns to brightest love, revelations may shake both of their wary hearts…

The final sensuous book in the Scandal at the House of Russell trilogy will lay the truth bare.

Rating: B

This, the final book in Ms Stuart’s Scandal at the House of Russell trilogy, focuses on Sophie, the youngest of the three Russell sisters who were left destitute after the sudden and suspicious death of their father.

Determined to prove that he was innocent of embezzling all the funds from his successful shipping company, and to identify his killer, the eldest of the ladies, Bryony, came up with the plan of infiltrating the households of the three prime suspects: The Earl of Kilmartyn, Captain Thomas Morgan, and Viscount Alexander Griffiths, whose family estate, Renwick, had become home to the Russell family after Mr Russell won it in a card game from the previous viscount.

With Bryony now married to Kilmartyn (and out of the country) and Madeleine somewhere in Plymouth investigating Morgan, Sophie has had enough of waiting out her days in the company of their old nanny in a cottage on the edge of the massive Renwick estate. It reverted to the possession of the Griffiths family on her father’s death, and the new viscount has recently taken up residence there. From the rumours circulating to the effect that he killed his first wife a decade ago, and her own fondness for gothic novels, Sophie has taken to thinking of him as “The Dark Viscount”, believing him to be brooding, haunted and quite possibly completely bonkers. But once she sets eyes on him, Sophie has to admit that while he’s certainly darkly brooding, the likelihood of his being a raving maniac is slight. He’s far too self-possessed, not to mention far too stunningly gorgeous to have taken to re-animating corpses or locking up madwomen in the attics.

(Personally, I don’t see that being gorgeous precludes that sort of thing – but I digress.)

When an opportunity presents itself for Sophie to take a leaf out of Bryony’s book and infiltrate the house of “her” suspect – she takes it, turning up at Renwick’s kitchen door at a time of complete chaos due to the presence of visitors in the house and the sudden departure of the cook. Sophie lets the staff believe she’s the replacement – she might not have done a day’s work in her life, but one thing she does know how to do is cook, and she throws herself into the new role with gusto.

Having already spent a few weeks ogling the masculine loveliness that is Alexander Griffiths from afar, Sophie is disturbed to find that he’s even more beautiful close-to, and is further unsettled by the air of dangerous sensuality he exudes and the keen interest he immediately takes in her. He might have an unsavoury reputation, but he’s never been one for bedding the females in his employ. Sophie is even more puzzled when he questions her as to her suitability for the position of cook, and insists on making certain that she has been sent there by one Mrs. Lefton, whom Sophie assumes must be the name of someone from the employment agency used to search for a replacement.

But Alexander isn’t at all concerned with Sophie’s culinary abilities and the position he’s talking about isn’t one in his kitchen. Mrs. Lefton is in fact the name of the madam he asked to find him a mistress, and Sophie’s repeated confirmations that Mrs. Lefton sent her leads to a series of misunderstandings and double entendres worthy of a Carry on Film.

I never undertake something without throwing myself into it completely, and I promise you that you will have absolutely no complaints about my … my cooking.” She stammered over the words. So they were going to speak in code, were they?

“Oh, I expect you’re an excellent … ah … cook. Mrs. Lefton would never have sent me a candidate who was unqualified. But there seems to be a certain lack of enthusiasm for some of the duties the job entails.”

“Oh, no, my lord… You will find that your faith in Mrs. Lefton’s judgment is not misplaced,” she continued. “I will stop at nothing in my efforts to please you. I am very creative and I promise to astonish your senses with delights you haven’t even dreamed of.”

Alexander obviously doesn’t realise she’s talking about her vol-au-vents!

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