Checkmate, My Lord by Tracey Devlyn

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A desperate mother falls in love with the spymaster she’s forced to betray.

THE STAKES ARE HIGH, THE PLAYERS IN POSITION…

Catherine Ashcroft leads a quiet life caring for her precocious seven-year-old daughter, until a visitor delivers a startling ultimatum. She will match wits with the enigmatic Earl of Somerton, and it’s not just her heart that’s in danger.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN…

Spymaster Sebastian Danvers, Earl of Somerton, is famous for his cunning. Few can outwit him and even few dare challenge him–until now. After returning to his country estate, his no-nonsense neighbor turns her seductive wiles on him–but why would a respectable widow like Catherine risk scandal for a few passionate nights in his bed?

Rating: A-

Checkmate, My Lord is a truly enthralling romantic thriller set in the year before Trafalgar, and while it’s the second book to feature the secret organisation of the Nexus it’s not necessary to have read the first (A Lady’s Revenge) in order to be able to follow the story.

At the beginning of the book, the recently widowed Catherine Ashcroft has made her way to the London residence of Sebastian Danvers, Earl of Somerton, to see if he is able to shed any light on the recent death of her husband, from whom she had been estranged for several years.

Danvers was a friend of Jeffrey Ashcroft and they are also neighbors, as their country estates adjoin each other. But what Catherine does not know is that Sebastian is head of the Nexus, a network of informants, couriers and spies who are dedicated to keeping England safe from the threat of invasion; or that her husband was one of his agents. She does, however, suspect that there is more to Ashcroft’s death than a random attack or robbery gone wrong; and her desire to know more leads her into a web of deceit and treachery which ultimately endangers her life and that of her young daughter.

Sebastian has worked for the British government for a number of years, and has a reputation for intelligence, ruthlessness, and calculating cold-heartedness. He inherited his earldom at the age of twelve and has no family, so has had to be self-sufficient for most of his life. He knows that the enemy will exploit any weakness and knows, too, that becoming emotionally involved with anyone could prove dangerous for both them and him; he maintains his distance behind a steely façade of hard-nosed efficiency.

He does, however, agree to make Catherine aware of what he learns about her husband, all the while meaning – for her own protection – to present her with a story he feels is sufficient to appease her curiosity.

Right off the bat, the two are strongly attracted to each other. They have met before of course, but although there is a hint that Catherine has perhaps been carrying a torch for him for a while, Sebastian’s personal code would never have allowed him embark on an affair with his friend’s wife. In any case, because of the nature of his work, he does not allow himself to form permanent relationships; yet now, he finds himself unable to stop Catherine from haunting his thoughts and dreams.

Even worse, not only does Sebastian have to struggle with his growing attraction to the widow, but with the fact that he has been temporarily relieved of his command while he is subject to an investigation. He therefore leaves London for the country where he has promised Catherine that he will reveal what he has so far discovered about her husband’s death.

Sebastian and Catherine are soon unable to deny the explosive nature of the attraction between them, and agree to embark on a no-strings-attached affair until he returns to London. But an enemy of Sebastian’s has begun to foster doubts in Catherine’s mind about the earl’s true loyalties, and enlists her help to expose him as a traitor.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’ll be the first to say that the story itself is far from original, but Devlyn’s skill in telling her story pulled me into it right from the start, and the pace never slackened. The characters of Sebastian and Catherine are well-drawn and the sexual tension between them really sizzles. I especially liked the fact that they came to their “arrangement” in a mature (if unromantic) way and that Catherine wasn’t at all missish about the fact that she was as keen to embark on a sexual relationship with Sebastian as he was with her.

The romance develops well and the writing shows us the vulnerability beneath the surface of these two strong people. Both are guarding their hearts carefully; Sebastian because he doesn’t want to endanger Catherine, and she because she wants a man who will put his family before the affairs of the country, unlike her late husband and – we learn – her father. I especially enjoyed the way that Sebastian gradually comes to the realization that, after years spent learning how to be an earl and to run his estates, and then years spent in the service of his country, it’s time for him to live his own life and pay attention to his own wants and needs. Devlyn sews the seeds of his enlightenment throughout the story, which makes his eventual decision about his future all the more believable.

I did have a problem with the fact that Catherine was so ready to suspect Sebastian – someone she knew vaguely – on the word of a man she knew not at all; and that, even though she was allowed sufficient freedom to go to his bed each night, she took so long to confide in him and ask for help. Also, with the fact that Sebastian was so reluctant to tell Catherine anything about her husband’s death. He frequently left her with the impression that he didn’t want to tell her what he had discovered and never explained that he was trying to keep her out of danger by telling her as little as possible. I’m also puzzled as to what the title has to do with the actual story! But they are minor irritants, and in no way spoiled my enjoyment.

There is a likeable cast of secondary characters, including Cora and Ethan from the first book, Catherine’s supportive and eminently sensible mother, and her lively and charming six-year-old daughter, Sophie. There’s intrigue, murder, and a truly despicable villain; but nothing is superfluous and everything is tightly pulled together as the story fairly rattles along towards an eminently satisfactory conclusion. I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes a dollop adventure and intrigue in with their historical romance, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more from this author.

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