Winterblaze (Darkest London #3) by Kristen Callihan

winterblaze

Once blissfully in love . . .

Poppy Lane is keeping secrets. Her powerful gift has earned her membership in the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, but she must keep both her ability and her alliance with the Society from her husband, Winston. Yet when Winston is brutally attacked by a werewolf, Poppy’s secrets are revealed, leaving Winston’s trust in her as broken as his body. Now Poppy will do anything to win back his affections . . .

Their relationship is now put to the ultimate test.

Winston Lane soon regains his physical strength but his face and heart still bear the scars of the vicious attack. Drawn into the darkest depths of London, Winston must fight an evil demon that wants to take away the last hope of reconciliation with his wife. As a former police inspector, Winston has intelligence and logic on his side. But it will take the strength of Poppy’s love for him to defeat the forces that threaten to tear them apart.

Rating: A

I had to restrain myself from picking up this book as soon as I’d finished the previous one, Moonglow. I’ve become a big fan of this series, but as there are only six books in it so far, I’m trying to ration myself! Clearly, however I’m not doing very well at that, as I only managed to hold out for about two weeks before I gave in and started Winterblaze.

The storyline actually begins in Moonglow when Inspector Winston Lane of Scotland Yard CID is brutally attacked by a werewolf, and would have been killed were it not for the timely intervention of a mysterious, winged figure who saved him in the nick of time. Between the events of books two and three, Winston has recovered, but has also made a number of alarming discoveries, not the least of which is that his wife of fourteen years – Poppy, the eldest of the three Ellis sisters – has been living a double life for the entirety of the time they have known each other. Thanks to his brothers-in-law, Ian Ranulf, Marquis of Northrop and Lord Benjamin Archer, Winston has learned about the existence of the SOS – the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals (an organisation dedicated to preventing humans from finding out about the existence of demons, werewolves, shape-shifters and the other supernatural beings in their midst), and also, thanks to them, has learned how to fight and otherwise defend himself from attack.

Dreadfully scarred and considerably bulked-up, Winston has left England – and Poppy – deeply wounded by her betrayal, and, having left his job, is angry,bereft and aimless.

Poppy is devastated by Winston’s abandonment, but her work at the SOS is important and she tries to focus on that exclusively to block out the hurt she is feeling. In fact, that’s more or less been the pattern of her life – secrets she was charged with keeping after her mother’s death have weighed heavily on her, but she has to carry them alone and her dedication to her work has led her to deceive not only her husband, but her sisters, too.

Winston has been away for three months when Poppy receives an anonymous note threatening his life. He might not want to be around her, but she is not prepared to see him come to harm, so she boards the ship on which he is due to travel from Calais, determined to keep him safe. Their reunion is filled with angry words and bitterness. Yet there is worse to come, a betrayal years in the making which threatens not just their happiness, but their very lives.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot other than that it’s gripping and superbly executed, with plenty of action and “OMGNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” moments along the way. But as with the other books in the series I’ve read so far, what turns a well-plotted, exciting story into a fantastic all-round read is the strong characterisation and the depth Ms Callihan gives to the central relationship between Winston and Poppy. We get to see their life together unfold in a series of flashbacks – from their first meeting up until their marriage – and the strength of their attraction and love for each other just leaps off the page. In their present, when it seems their marriage is in tatters, that attraction and love is still there, burning even more brightly if that is possible, yet they are both going to have to come to terms with the lies and the betrayals if they are going to have a chance of a future at all, let alone a future together.

In the earlier books, Poppy and Winston are presented as the epitome of a happy – albeit rather staid – marriage, but as Winterblaze progresses, we are shown that both of them have fooled themselves to an extent, and that while their love for each other has never been in doubt, their marriage has perhaps not been all they had believed it to be. Over the course of this story, we see them rediscovering each other – sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, as these are two proud people who have an intense dislike of showing weakness or vulnerability – and coming to a new understanding and appreciation of each other. It’s not easy, and there are moments of recrimination and many harsh words, but when push comes to shove, these are two people who mean the world to each other and who will do what they must to ensure the happiness and well-being of the other, no matter the cost to themselves.

I love the way we see both characters start to adjust to the newly revealed realities they are discovering about each other. Winston has to admit that his wife is more than capable of kicking his arse without lifting a finger – not an especially pleasant thought for a man who has been brought up to believe women are to be protected at all costs. Wonderfully, however, while Winston’s protective instincts may be screaming at him to pull her out of danger, he is also completely turned-on by his warrior-queen of a wife (he’s always dubbed her “Boadicea”) and finds an unexpected delight in knowing what she’s capable of. And while Poppy has always known that her husband had a very keen mind, she now comes to truly value his methodical approach and his ability to see the bigger picture. (All the newly acquired muscle and his way with a swordstick don’t hurt either!) Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with, something which is showcased brilliantly in a fight scene which had me thinking of them as a Victorian “Mr & Mrs Smith”!

Which brings me to once again admire this author’s ability to create the most incredibly scorching sexual tension between her protagonists. Winston and Poppy might have been regarded as staid by others, yet they were clearly anything BUT staid in the bedroom, as it seems the methodical, upright Lane of the Yard was a bit of a devil between the sheets! Lucky for Poppy, he still is ;-)

Winterblaze is a superb read, and one I’m sure I’ll return to. The balance between the romance and the action is just about perfect, the storytelling is wonderful and the plot is exciting and well-paced; but the biggest draw for me is the way in which Ms Callihan so clearly shows the depth of the love between Winston and Poppy and how they have forged a new partnership from the ashes of the old one.

The set up for the next book, Shadowdance is very intriguing – I love an adversarial couple falling for each other, and Mary Chase and Jack Talent appear to hate each others’ guts. But what happens to Jack in Winterblaze is clearly going to change him, and I can’t wait to see where the story is going to go.

The Price of Blood (Emma of Normandy #2) by Patricia Bracewell (audiobook) – Narrated by Heather Wilds

price of blood

Unwillingly thrust into marriage to England’s King Æthelred, Emma has given the king a son and heir, but theirs has never been a happy marriage. In The Price of Blood, Bracewell returns to 1006 when a beleaguered Æthelred, still haunted by his brother’s ghost, governs with an iron fist and a royal policy that embraces murder.

As tensions escalate and enmities solidify, Emma forges alliances to protect her young son from ambitious men – even from the man she loves. In the north there is treachery brewing, and when Viking armies ravage England, loyalties are shattered and no one is safe from the sword.

Rating: B for narration; A for content

This is the second book in a trilogy about Emma of Normandy who was Queen of England at the beginning of the eleventh century, some decades before the Norman invasion of 1066. This is a little-known period of history and not one often come across in historical fiction, but Patricia Bracewell brings it to vibrant life, skilfully fleshing out historical figures and events to create a compelling and complex story.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Wicked Reputation by Madeline Hunter

his wicked reputation

She was a sensible woman.

He was a man who could drive a woman senseless with desire.

Gareth Fitzallen is celebrated for four things: his handsome face, his notable charm, his aristocratic connections, and an ability to give the kind of pleasure that has women begging for more. Normally he bestows his talents on experienced, worldly women. But when he heads to Langdon’s End to restore a property he inherited—and to investigate a massive art theft—he lays plans to seduce a most unlikely lady.

Eva Russell lives a spinster’s life of precarious finances and limited dreams while clinging to her family’s old gentry status. She supports herself by copying paintings while she plots to marry her lovely sister to a well-established man. Everyone warns her of Gareth’s reputation, and advises her to lock her sister away. Only it is not her sister Gareth desires. One look, and she knows he is trouble. One kiss, however, proves she is no match for this master of seduction.

Rating: B-

This is the first in a new series from Ms Hunter featuring three ducal sons, two of whom are legitimate and a third who is not – and this is his book. It’s an entertaining story; the central characters are likeable and intelligent, and there is an intriguing secondary plot surrounding the possible art theft the hero is asked to investigate. But when I finished the book, I couldn’t help feeling there was something missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Gareth Fitzallen is the bastard son of late Duke of Aylesbury. His father openly acknowledged him and he shares a strong bond of friendship and affection with two of his half-brothers, Lance and Ives. The eldest brother, Percy, who assumed the dukedom upon their father’s death, has also recently died, and it’s no secret that none of the brothers is inclined to mourn him very much. While Gareth’s relationship to Aylesbury has undoubtedly opened some doors to him, he’s pretty much made his own way in the world, making his his living as an art dealer and broker. Now Percy is dead, Gareth has hopes of being at last able to take possession of a property left him by his father, his claim to which the unpleasant and malicious Percy had deliberately tied up in legal knots in Chancery.

Travelling to the Midlands in order to take possession of his inheritance, Gareth is not far from the house when he accidentally manages to run a young woman into a muddy puddle. Naturally she is not best pleased, but refuses his help when he offers to carry the rather large package she is struggling with, and her acerbic reaction to him piques his interest.

Eva Russell lives with her younger sister in greatly reduced circumstances, thanks to their late brother’s profligacy. She generates a little extra income by selling paintings, but rather than selling her own work, which she doesn’t think is very good, she instead paints copies of the far more skilfully wrought and attractive works she discovered stowed away in the attics of the seemingly abandoned house that is her nearest neighbour. So she has good reason for not accepting help with her burden – it’s a painting she has “borrowed” from Gareth’s house.

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

Wicked My Love (Wicked Little Secrets #2) by Susanna Ives

wicked my love

A smooth-talking rogue and a dowdy financial genius…
Handsome, silver-tongued politician Lord Randall doesn’t get along with his bank partner, the financially brilliant but hopelessly frumpish Isabella St. Vincent. Ever since she was his childhood nemesis, he’s tried—and failed—to get the better of her.

Make a perfectly wicked combination…

When both Randall’s political career and their mutual bank interests are threatened by scandal, he has to admit he needs Isabella’s help. They set off on a madcap scheme to set matters right. With her wits and his charm, what could possibly go wrong? Only a volatile mutual attraction that’s catching them completely off guard…

Rating: B

Wicked My Love is the second book in Ms Ives’ Wicked Little Secrets series – although there are no characters from the previous book involved, so it works perfectly well as a stand-alone. The author sets her romance against the backdrop of the world of banking and finance in the mid-19th century, and has provided the reader with enough historical background for the story to be convincing, but she never gets so caught up in the minutiae of the subject so as to give the impression she’s delivering a lecture. Her two principals are engaging and likeable, although the hero is probably the more sympathetic of the two, as – contrary to the often used trope – he’s the charming, socially confident, empathetic one, while the heroine is an awkward, shy genius who finds it hard to connect with people.

Isabella St. Vincent and Viscount Randall (we never learn his first name) have known and disliked each other since childhood, when they were forced into each other’s company by virtue of the fact that their fathers had gone into business together. A couple of decades on, their relationship retains a veneer of hostility, although on Randall’s side, his dislike manifests itself in an affectionate teasing and innuendo that the rather matter-of-fact Isabella often fails to understand.

Since her father’s death, Isabella has taken over his part in the running of the Bank of Lord Hazlewood. But when one of the partners purchases some fraudulent stock at the same time as Randall finds himself, for the first time, on the wrong end of a political argument, things suddenly take a downturn for both of them. Randall’s political career is on the verge of ruin and Isabella is terrified there will be a run on the bank – so the two quasi-enemies team up in order to save the bank and, perhaps, save Randall’s career, embarking on a series of frantic journeys around the country as they try to discover who is behind the attempt to ruin them.

Isabella is tightly buttoned up and determined to suppress messy things like emotions; and at the age of twenty-nine, is beginning to despair of ever finding love and having a family of her own. She has also gained a degree of fame as the author of a book of financial advice for women, and is uncomfortable with the fact that she has become known as an advocate for womens’ rights and independence. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in both those things – it’s just that she’s naturally shy, and finds it difficult to reconcile those beliefs with her desire for marriage.

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

The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer (audiobook) – Narrated by David Collins

spanish bride

When Brigade-Major Harry Smith met the beautiful Juana María, an instant spark formed between the two fiery, energetic souls. The two fell deeply in love with one another from the first moment and the Spanish bride accompanied him throughout all his campaigns, where she rode freely among the troops. The intensity of their marriage is made all the more gripping as it is played out against the Peninsular War of Napoleon versus Wellington.

The Spanish Bride is both an endearing true love story and a detailed account of Wellington’s battles and strategies, which Heyer studied intensely for this unforgettable novel.

Rating: B+ for narration; B- for content

Although Georgette Heyer is principally known for writing a large number of sparkling Regency Romances and Comedies of Manners, she also wrote a number of mysteries and several books of historical fiction based on real events. One of the best known of these is An Infamous Army which is said to include some of the most well-researched descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo, and which, as a result, is (or was) a set text at Sandhurst! The Spanish Bride is in a similar vein, although whereas in Army the principal characters are fictional, Brigade-Major Harry Smith and his young bride Juana actually existed, as did the other characters in the book. This is one of the few of Georgette Heyer’s novels that I haven’t yet read, so I came to it without really knowing much about the story, other than that it’s very firmly based in fact, and that much of the dialogue and detail about the events within are taken directly from Harry Smith’s autobiography.

The story quickly introduces Harry – brash, young, impetuous but a superb soldier and leader of men, one of those who yells “Come on!” to his men and fights at their side rather than an officer who sits back and lets them get on with it. He’s already acquired a reputation for being indestructible – he’s escaped so many battles relatively unscathed that he’s practically a legend.

Shortly after the siege and fall of Badajoz, he and a fellow officer are approached by a Spanish noblewoman who asks for their protection for her younger sister, Juana, who is just fourteen. Immediately struck by her beauty, Harry is smitten and insists on marrying her as it’s the only way he can keep her safe. Juana only has eyes for Harry, too, and the pair is quickly married, to the astonishment – and against the advice – of many of Harry’s friends and colleagues.

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

TBR Challenge: Moonglow (Darkest London #2) by Kristen Callihan

moonglow

Once the seeds of desire are sown . . .

Finally free of her suffocating marriage, widow Daisy Ellis Craigmore is ready to embrace the pleasures of life that have long been denied her. Yet her new-found freedom is short lived. A string of unexplained murders has brought danger to Daisy’s door, forcing her to turn to the most unlikely of saviors . . .

Their growing passion knows no bounds . . .

Ian Ranulf, the Marquis of Northrup, has spent lifetimes hiding his primal nature from London society. But now a vicious killer threatens to expose his secrets. Ian must step out of the shadows and protect the beautiful, fearless Daisy, who awakens in him desires he thought long dead. As their quest to unmask the villain draws them closer together, Daisy has no choice but to reveal her own startling secret, and Ian must face the undeniable truth: Losing his heart to Daisy may be the only way to save his soul.

Rating: B+

I’m not normally one for vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters or paranormal romances in general, but having read and heard such good things about the first book in this series – Firelight – I finally got around to listening to the audio version last year and was so completely hooked that I decided to read or listen to the rest of the series. It’s been a while since I listened to that book, but this month’s prompt of “series catch-up” gave me the ideal excuse to read book two, Moonglow.

The things I’d enjoyed so much about the first story are very much in evidence in this one – the Victorian setting, a terrific storyline, strong characterisation and the amazing chemistry the author creates between her two protagonists. Once again, I was sucked in pretty much from the word go.

Daisy Ellis is the middle of the three Ellis sisters, the youngest of whom, Miranda, was the heroine of Firelight. Daisy was married off to a much older, abusive man six years earlier, and has recently been widowed. Determined to enjoy her new freedom, she is out for a night on the tiles with a friend when a gruesome double-murder abruptly puts an end to her plans for the evening.

Ian MacKinnon, the Marquis of Northrup was one of the secondary characters in Firelight, a menacing presence whose infatuation with Miranda set him up rather as the villain of the piece. Ian is a Lycan – and here, I admit I was grateful for the explanation as to what that actually is, as I’d never have known the difference between a Lycan and a Werewolf otherwise!** – an immortal being who is almost two hundred years old. He was cast out from his home and people when he refused to take his rightful place as The Ranulf (the chief of all the Lycans) and allowed his younger brother to assume the role. He’s alone, tired of his empty life and all but dead inside – his mortal wife and son are dead and while he doesn’t want to go through life alone, he can’t bear the thought of experiencing such pain again.

But when he steps in to rescue Daisy from meeting the same gory fate as her friend, he finds himself immediately attracted to her beautiful face and body, impressed by her intelligence and courage – and begins to feel that perhaps there is something worth living for in his life after all. When it emerges that the murderer is a maddened werewolf whose killing spree seems to be somehow related to Daisy’s unique perfume, Ian swears to protect her – indeed, he’s the only one who can – while they attempt to find out who is behind the attacks and stop them.

Moonglow is an exciting story with plenty of action and a couple of plot twists I absolutely did NOT see coming. The set pieces – the scene at Highgate Cemetery where Daisy, having believed herself to be merely human discovers that she, like Miranda, possesses supernatural powers; or the Lycan’s merciless treatment of Ian – are so vividly written as to put the reader right in the centre of the action. In the case of the latter scene, that might not be such a good thing, because what happens to Ian is devastatingly brutal and difficult to read.

Ian and Daisy have endured their own personal versions of hell – Daisy from a violent husband and Ian as the result of his wife’s suicide – so they both bring a fair bit of emotional baggage to their relationship. Ian knows that falling for Daisy is stupid and that he’s only opening himself up to more devastating hurt – but he can’t help it. He’s a man who feels things very deeply, hiding that truth behind the world-weary, supercillous persona he adopts in public. Ms Callihan redeems him splendidly, turning him from an almost-villain in the last book into a loyal, honourable hero in this one. Watching these two emotionally bruised, proud people come together is a real delight, and even though their relationship in the early stages seems more based on lust than anything else, Ms Callihan develops it very skilfully so that we see that lust turn to love as the couple forges a strong bond based on mutual loyalty and trust.

There are some truly visceral emotional gut-punches in the story, not least of which is the one near the end which threatens to separate Ian and Daisy forever. The revelation is shocking – but I have to confess that I wasn’t completely happy with the resolution. It’s the only way the story could have gone, I suppose, but it’s probably my least favourite part of the book.

While all this is going on, we’re introduced to more of the elements making up Ms Callihan’s world of Darkest London; the SOS (Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals), the GIMs (Ghosts in the Machine), as well as vampires, shape-shifters and other supernatural characters that will no doubt feature in future books.

There are a couple of small inconsistencies that niggled a bit, such as when Daisy so easily leaves her sister Poppy when the latter’s husband is fighting for his life and Poppy needs emotional support – but I could let that go, as Daisy isn’t in a particularly good place, mentally, at that point, either. My biggest problem with the story (apart from the way in which the HEA is achieved) is the way in which Ian reverses his decades-old position about assuming his rightful place as Alpha of the clan in the blink of an eye. He does have reasons for it, but he seems to accept it too easily.

In all honesty though, those really are minor niggles rather than major reservations, because Moonglow is a terrific book. The mystery is very well executed, Ian and Daisy are strong, attractive characters and their romance is well-developed. The author creates the most incredible sexual tension between her principals; the air fairly crackles whenever they’re “on stage” together, and when they do eventually come together, the love scenes are hot, sexy and earthy.

I was captivated from start to finish, and can’t wait to move on to the next book, Winterblaze.

**A Lycan is (apparently!) an immortal who possesses the qualities of both man and wolf, and who is able to exert a measure of control over his “wolfish” tendencies. Whereas a werewolf is more wolf than man – and once a Lycan turns fully, he can never turn back.

A Sinful Deception (Breconridge Brothers #2) by Isabella Bradford

sinful deception

Lord Geoffrey Fitzroy leads a charmed existence. As the second son of the Duke of Breconridge, he has none of the responsibilities of his older brother and all of the advantages, leaving handsome Geoffrey free to enjoy his rakish pursuits. And pursue them he does, leaving hearts fluttering all over London. But one night, at a ball teeming with high society’s most sought-after beauties, only one truly intrigues him: the regal, aloof, and mysterious Miss Serena Palmer.

Magnificently dressed and wearing jewels befitting a queen, the lady is considered the prize of the season, a noble-born heiress raised in India. But even as Geoffrey’s fascination grows, Serena deftly deflects his curiosity—and with good reason: Serena’s exotic past contains a perilous secret that could destroy her. Yet her plan to live in safe solitude is thwarted by her hungry heart, and soon Geoffrey’s passionate seduction finds her blissfully bed—and wed. Will her deception destroy her chance at happiness as Geoffrey’s wife? Or will the devotion of her new husband reveal the only truth worth embracing: her undying love?

Rating: C

I was intrigued by the blurb for this, the second in the author’s Breconridge Brothers series, because the heroine, Lady Serena Carew, is described as being “a noble-born heiress raised in India”, which is a little out of the ordinary for the genre. I will admit to having been slightly underwhelmed by Ms Bradford’s previous trilogy (I rated all three books at between 3 and 4 stars on Goodreads), but was interested enough in this one to be willing to give the author another try.

The story is a fairly simple one of two young people who have their own reasons for not wanting to marry (at all), and whose families would wish other matches for them – but who are drawn to each other so strongly that those considerations become unimportant in the face of their desire for each other. The problem, however, is that I wasn’t convinced that what the hero and heroine felt for each other was much more than desire, and that meant that I came away from the book feeling as though there was something lacking.

Lady Serena lost her beloved father and her half-sister when she was just a child, as the result of a virulent illness which struck their home and killed everyone except her. Rescued when close to death, she was torn from the arms of her dead sister and carried away, almost through the flames, as the house was burned to the ground to wipe out the infection. She now resides in London with her grandfather, an elderly but rather ferocious marquis who is incredibly protective of her, unwilling to accept any suitor but those of the highest pedigree.

Sadly, his list doesn’t include Lord Geoffrey Fitzroy, the second son of the Duke of Breconridge. Breconridge may be a duke, but his lineage is tainted by bastardy, which is tantamount to heresy in the marquis’ book! Still, Geoffrey has nothing more in mind than a flirtation, perhaps some kissing, when he bets his brother that he will be able to get the reputedly aloof Lady Serena to dance with him at a ball. Geoffrey is well aware of the effect his handsome face and form have on the ladies, and is utterly assured of his success. He does indeed manage to persuade Serena to dance with him, and then out on to the darkened terrace and into a surprisingly personal conversation – which is when it hits him that his heart could be in as much danger as the lady’s reputation.

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