Once Upon a Maiden Lane (Maiden Lane #12.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Miss Mary Whitsun is far too intelligent to fall for the rakish charms of a handsome aristocrat. But when the gentleman in question approaches her in a bookshop, mistaking her for his fiancée, Lady Johanna Albright, the flirtatious encounter only raises more questions. Could Mary, a servant raised in a St Giles orphanage, actually be Lady Joanna’s long-lost twin sister? If so, Mary has been betrothed since birth—to the rakishly handsome artistocrat himself.

Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, is far too intrigued by Mary to let her go so easily. He’s drawn to her sharp mind, indomitable spirit, and the fiery way in which she dismisses him—ladies simply don’t dismiss Lord Blackwell. But as Mary makes her first hesitant steps into society, she can’t help but wonder if she truly has a place in Henry’s world—or in his heart.

Rating: C+

While Duke of Desire is the final full-length book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s long-running and incredibly popular Maiden Lane series, that wasn’t quite The End, as the author is treating us to a novella or two to round the series off and, in Once Upon a Maiden Lane, brings us back to where it all began – the streets and slums of the St. Giles area of London.

Some of the reviews I’ve read of Duke of Desire made mention of the fact that the book didn’t really feel like the end of a series; most of the time, such books feature cameos from characters from the previous books, filling pages with happy families as everyone catches up with each other. That doesn’t happen in Duke of Desire, and I, for one, was glad of it, because it would have been much too implausible and would have detracted from the main story. Instead, Ms. Hoyt kept her powder dry and has presented us with Once Upon a Maiden Lane – a novella featuring Mary Whitsun, who appeared regularly in the earlier books as one of the older orphan girls raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children run by the Makepeace family. (This will be followed in December by Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which will feature a very long-awaited story for Viscount D’Arque).

As is implied by the title, this story has a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Mary is a young woman now, and resides in the household of Lord and Lady Caire (Wicked Intentions) where she is employed as a nursemaid to the Caires’ two young children.

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

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Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (Audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham, Billie Fulford-Brown, Morag Sims, Gary Furlong, Derek Perkins, Greg Wagland, Antony Ferguson, Jane Copland and Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes – as everyone does – that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafés of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently….

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict – but how? – and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war, he also faces personal battles back home, where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears – and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris – a cherished packet of letters in hand – determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Last Christmas in Paris is a beautifully written, superbly narrated epistolary novel which centres around the correspondence exchanged between three friends during the years of the First World War. I suspect the degree to which any listener will enjoy the story will depend on whether one enjoys novels that consist entirely of letters; personally, I’m a big fan of that literary device, so that, added to the fact that I have a particular interest in the history of the period, plus the list of excellent narrators attached to the project pretty much ensured my enjoyment of this audiobook. And enjoy it I did, although ‘enjoy’ seems rather a feeble word to describe how I feel about it now that I’ve finished listening to it. I was so caught up in this story of friendship, emancipation, love, loss, tragedy, hope, despair… a real gamut of emotions, that I couldn’t bear to set it aside; I listened to it in only two or three sittings and, when I finished it, felt that strange sense of emptiness that always seems to descend when I’ve finished reading or listening to something really good – that feeling of “what do I do now?”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Catalyst (Flashpoint #2) by Rachel Grant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a food storage depot in famine-struck South Sudan is torched, American aid worker Brie Stewart flees, only to land in a market where she’s the next item up for auction. Is the attack on the aid facility another assault upon the war-torn fledgling democracy, or has her family set her up as a pawn in their quest for oil rights?

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford crossed paths with Brie years ago when she was a shill for her family’s company, pushing a pipeline that threatened his tribe’s land. Determined to lead the rescue operation to save her, he won’t let her abduction—or the attraction that flares between them—get in the way of settling their unfinished business.

The Green Beret’s skills are put to the test in the flooded grasslands of South Sudan, where they must battle nature and dangerous factions who are after more than oil. Bastian and Brie put their hearts on the line as they find themselves embroiled in a conflict that extends beyond country and continent. Together they must douse the spark before it reaches the flashpoint and engulfs everything they hold dear.

Rating: B+

I’ve become a huge fan of Rachel Grant’s particular blend of complex, steamy and intricately plotted romantic suspense novels over the past year or so, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Catalyst, the second book in her Flashpoint series. Like the previous book, Tinderbox, Catalyst is set in a real-life flashpoint, this time in South Sudan, a young nation embroiled in an ongoing civil war, and features characters based at the (fictional) US military outpost of Camp Citron in Djibouti. There are some things in this book that may be difficult to read about – in particular the buying and selling of women and children – and the way that the plight of so many people in desperate need is thrust aside in favour of big business and political expediency made my blood boil on more than one occasion. Ms. Grant tells a gripping, well-paced and impeccably researched story that pulled me in from the start and kept me transfixed until the nail-biting conclusion.

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford is surprised to recognise a familiar face one night in the bar at the camp – Gabriella Prime, the daughter of Jeffrey Prime Sr., owner of one of the world’s largest energy corporations. The last time Bastian saw her, she was in full ball-buster ‘Princess Prime’ mode – designer clothes, killer heels, full make-up – in her role as Prime Energy’s PR executive, defending the company’s plan to screw over the native American tribes of East Washington by building an oil pipeline that would ignore even the most basic environmental rules. The woman in front of him now, a decade later, is different, though. The outward trappings of the corporate shill and billionaire boss’s daughter are gone; over the last decade, Gabriella Prime has cleaned up, grown a conscience and left her old life behind her. She deliberately sabotaged PE’s plans for the Northwest oil pipeline, cut all ties with her father and brothers, legally changed her last name to Stewart (her mother’s name) and for the past five years has lived and worked under the radar for USAID in South Sudan. Bastian is rather stunned to discover that Brie Stewart is an aid-worker who lives from pay-day to pay-day like everyone else – and maybe a little suspicious that such a ruthless leopard could have changed its spots, but he has to admit to a reluctant admiration for the guts it must have taken to thwart her father’s plans and then to re-invent herself. But that doesn’t tell him what he really wants to know – which is what she’s doing in Djibouti hanging out with the camp ‘spook’, the enigmatic CIA operative, Savannah James.

One month later, the aid station Brie works at is attacked and she and her three co-workers are forced to flee for their lives. Brie manages to evade capture for a couple of days, but her luck runs out and she is taken to the very slave market she had been summoned to Camp Citron to talk to Savannah James about.

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

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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 . . . ?

Rating: A

A new book from Loretta Chase is always cause for celebration, and her latest, A Duke in Shining Armor, gets her new Difficult Dukes trilogy off to a start worthy of much festivity.  On the face of it, it’s the very simple story of two people falling in love with the ‘wrong’ (right) person and having to decide what they are willing to risk to be together; but this is Loretta Chase and in her hands, ‘simple’ encompasses fully-rounded characters with real emotional depth, lots and lots of wonderful, witty dialogue, a beautifully developed romance and a good helping of sharp-eyed social observation.

Lady Olympia Hightower, only daughter of the Earl of Gonerby, has spent the majority of her seven London Seasons sitting on the sidelines with the wallflowers and dowagers. She’s practical, sensible, not the least bit dashing and not the sort of young lady men notice.  In fact, her one claim to fame is that she has been voted Most Boring Girl of the Season for seven years in a row.  So the last thing she expects is to receive a marriage proposal from the gorgeously handsome but dissolute Duke of Ashmont, referred to as ‘His Grace with the Angel Face’ by his closest friends and fellow Dis-Graces, the Duke of Blackwood and the Duke of Ripley.  With financially irresponsible parents and six brothers to be provided for Olympia knows what must be done.  Ashmont is well-heeled – if not especially well-behaved – so she accepts his proposal and preparations for the wedding go on apace.

Hugh Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, has literally just returned from a year spent abroad, so is surprised, on the eve of the wedding, to be pressed into service as groomsman. He does his job well; Ashmont arrives on time the next morning (albeit a little worse for wear from the previous night’s carouse and subsequent fight) and now all that is wanted is the blushing bride – of whom there is no sign.  Worried that the longer the wait, the drunker and more aggressive Ashmont will become, Ripley tries to find her – only to come upon her when she’s half-way out the library window declaring her intention to take a breath of air in Kensington Gardens.  In her wedding dress.  In the rain. It’s obvious Olympia has been crying and he can also smell the strong whiff of brandy about her – but before he can stop her, she’s out of the window and running away.  Ripley tells himself he shouldn’t be the one to hare off in pursuit – she’s not his fiancée after all – but Ashmont put him in charge of ensuring the wedding goes smoothly, and it can’t do that without a bride. After a brief hesitation, he follows her and the pair embarks upon the journey if not quite from hell, then one in which pretty much everything that can go wrong – does.

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

A Daring Arrangement (The Four Hundred #1) by Joanna Shupe (audiobook) – Narrated by Roxy Isles

Lady Honora Parker must get engaged as soon as possible, and only a particular type of man will do. Nora seeks a mate so abhorrent, so completely unacceptable, that her father will reject the match – leaving her free to marry the artist she desires. Who then is the most appalling man in Manhattan? The wealthy, devilishly handsome financier Julius Hatcher, of course!

Julius is intrigued by Nora’s ruse and decides to play along. But, to Nora’s horror, Julius transforms himself into the perfect fiancé, charming the very people she hoped he would offend. It seems Julius has a secret plan of his own – one that will solve a dark mystery from his past and perhaps turn him into the kind of man Nora could truly love.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

I enjoyed reading Joanna Shupe’s recent Knickerbocker Club series, named for the group of wealthy, powerful men determined to make their mark on late nineteenth century New York. The author did a terrific job in those books with her descriptions of the city’s Gilded Age – which hasn’t been used very often as a setting for historical romance – so I was pleased to discover that her new series – The Four Hundred – is set in the same place and time period. A Daring Arrangement, the first book, sees the daughter of an English earl, who has been sent to America in disgrace, entering into a false betrothal with a self-made New York businessman whose name is a byword for scandal.

Lady Honora – Nora – Parker was caught by her father, the Earl of Stratton, in the arms of the young man she hopes to marry, a penniless artist. Believing the man to be a fortune hunter, the earl immediately sent Nora to stay with her aunt and uncle in New York in the hope that she will forget her swain and find a suitable husband there. But Nora has other ideas. If word gets back to her father that she has made a most inappropriate alliance, he is sure to summon her home immediately – and Nora thinks she has found just the man in Julius Hatcher, a man as famous for his business acumen as he is infamous for the reputation for fast living which regularly earns him column inches in the gossip sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tequila Sunrise (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3.5) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former FBI agent Melissa “Mel” Cruz spent years skirting the line between life and death, knowing the next assignment might be her last. Back from overseas and eager to enjoy life outside the Bureau, she’s ready to give Danny Talley a Christmas Eve he’ll never forget.

A proven asset in high-stakes missions, Danny’s known for having the skill and brains to get the job done. When the Talley flagship is hijacked during the company holiday party, he’ll do anything to save his family, his love and everything they’ve all worked so hard to build. But their enemies have a secondary protocol—leave no survivors—and that plan is already in play.

Navigating through a tangled web of lies and betrayal, Mel and Danny race against the clock to retake the ship before their future goes up in flames. As the seconds tick down, they’re forced to face their greatest fear—losing each other.

Rating: B-

Tequila Sunrise is the final book in Layla Reyne’s fabulous Agents Irish and Whiskey series, and takes place a few months after the events of Barrel Proof. It’s also a neat bridge between this series and her next romantic suspense project which is going to feature Nic Price and Cam Byrne, who both appeared as important secondary characters in the earlier novels, and who both have key roles to play in this story. Tequila Sunrise is a quick, action-packed read in which Melissa Cruz, our favourite, kick-ass, ball-busting (ex)FBI agent, gets to shine in all her Ramboesque glory. Or maybe I should call her Jane McClane… *wink*

Not long after recovering from near fatal injuries inflicted by an explosion at the end of Barrel Proof, Special Agent in Charge Melissa Cruz of the San Francisco FBI decided to make a career change, and is now dividing her time between private investigative work (as a bounty-hunter of sorts) and head of security for Talley Enterprises, the shipping company run by her lover, Daniel Talley. Danny is the younger brother of Aidan (Irish) and has a reputation as a bit of a lothario; he and Mel began a relationship which ran in the background of the trilogy and by the end of the final book, they are well-and-truly an item.

The story opens on Christmas Eve as Mel is coming home from a job, wanting nothing more than to get back to Danny and for them to spend some time together. When she is held up the airport, and then finds out that Aidan, who is also on his way back to San Francisco, has been delayed, her instincts tell her something isn’t right.

The Talley family is hosting a massive holiday party that evening, to celebrate Christmas, John Talley’s upcoming retirement and the commissioning of Talley Enterprises’ newest ship, the Ellen, named after the Talley matriarch, Aidan and Danny’s mother. All the Talley ships are named for the Talley women and this, the final ship built by John Talley before he hands the company over to Danny, is the finest ship in their fleet and the envy of their competitors. With a large gathering of employees, family, investors and media on board, it’s an extremely high-profile event – and when Danny learns of the simultaneous delays that have affected both Mel and Aidan, he can’t help but be concerned.

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