Along Came a Rogue (The Secret Life of Scoundrels #2) by Anna Harrington

Along Came a Rogue
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THE WICKEDEST SECRET . . .
Major Nathaniel Grey is free to bed whomever he wants, whenever he chooses, and that’s exactly how he likes it. His only loyalties are to country and the two friends he served with-brothers he’d do anything for. So when one of them is gravely injured and asking for his little sister, Grey will move heaven and earth to bring her home. He’s greeted not by the gangly girl he remembers, but a stunningly beautiful woman holding a loaded musket. And he’s utterly captivated by her . . .

IS A SECRET SEDUCTION
Once upon a time, Emily would have loved nothing more than a stolen hour with her brother’s best friend, the dashing officer who captured her heart and soul. But things are different now-and so is she. Gone is the eager young woman who believed in love. In her place is a widow weighed down with secrets who desperately needs to disappear before they’re revealed. But Grey’s sinfully sexy smile offers protection unlike anything she’s ever known, tempting her to risk everything . . . even her heart.

Rating: B-

This second book from new author Anna Harrington is an enjoyable story with an engaging central couple and a steamy romance that is based around one of my favourite tropes – that of youthful would-be lovers who come together some years later and discover they never really got over each other. That aspect of Along Came a Rogue works well in the sense that the author shows clearly that there is a strong bond between the protagonists, despite their separation; but while the book is very readable and well-written, the pacing is uneven, there are places where things could have been tightened up and there is one particular plot point that is redundant.

Five years before the book begins, sixteen-year-old Lady Emily Matteson became infatuated with the dashingly handsome Captain Nathaniel Grey, a friend of her brother’s. Even then Grey had the sort of reputation to cause the respectable matrons of society to want to lock up their daughters; added to which he is a nobody – the son of a blacksmith who has made his own way in life through dint of hard work, he is doubly unsuitable as a match for a well-bred young lady. Not that anything so permanent crossed his mind when Emily one day asked him to kiss her so that she would know what to do when she had a suitor. Against his better judgement, Grey gave in to her pleas, only to be thrown out of the house at gunpoint when they were discovered in a full lip-lock.

Five years later, and now a major, Grey has been relieved from active duty due to an injury and has been offered a prestigious position in Spain, one he is keen to take up as soon as possible. But his plans are changed abruptly when his good friend Thomas Matteson is attacked by thieves and severely injured. With death hovering close by, Thomas begs Grey to fetch Emily from her home in Yorkshire. The last time they saw each other was years ago, and they quarreled – and Thomas wants desperately to see her. Grey sets off immediately and arrives at Snowden Hall travel-stained and weary only to be shot at and threatened by a harpy he doesn’t immediately recognise as the “stick with blond braids” he’d kissed all those years ago. And when he does recognise her, he’s stunned to discover that the vibrant, happy young woman he left behind has become a woman haunted by fears she won’t disclose and whose immediate reaction to his presence is to try to push him away.

Ms Harrington creates a potent atmosphere of tension and menace in these early chapters, and achieved a good balance between making me want Emily to confide in Grey and let him help her, and not wanting the suspense to come to an end too soon. She wisely opts not to drag it out, but once we find out why Emily is behaving as she is, and after she and Grey have to flee her home to escape the danger, the story starts to drag until it reaches the last few chapters.

Once Emily and Grey have left Yorkshire and she has told him about her situation, the plot shifts to concentrate more on their relationship and on the … I was going to say development of the romance, but to be honest, this is another place the book falls down, in that the author places a great reliance on the fact that Grey and Emily were smitten with each other before and it doesn’t take much to rekindle those embers. In spite of Emily’s initial hostility and Grey’s determination to get to the bottom of it, the mental lusting gets going speedily, and not long after that, the lusting – and the relationship – turns physical. The love scenes are sensual and well-written, but – again, there’s a but – the inclusion of several of them as the couple journeys to London slows the pacing and I was tempted to skim them.

The biggest problem I had with the story, though, is with Emily’s sudden realisation late on in the story that if Grey were to abandon his posting to Spain and remain in England with her, he would come to resent her because she has tied him down and stopped him doing all the things he wanted to do with his life. I really dislike this sort of self-sacrifice and the “I know what is best for you” attitude adopted by those characters who attempt to martyr themselves because they are convinced they will make the person they love miserable. Grey is initially presented as the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type – he even tells Emily that he uses women for sex and that’s all he wants, giving her the chance to change her mind about becoming his lover. But he comes to realise that he’s changing and that some things are more important than his career, while Emily is regressing emotionally for reasons that are ridiculously flimsy. She tries to get Grey to believe she no longer wants him because she has a position to uphold in society and he is a commoner – he does have a bee in his bonnet about the fact that he is barely tolerated by the ton, and gets his own back by bedding bored society wives – but he knows her better than that and won’t give up.

And this brings me to the redundant plot point I mentioned. Grey has always told his friends that he is the son of a village blacksmith, whereas in fact, he’s an orphan. I’m not sure what difference this knowledge would have made to them or to his career, but when Emily rejects him, he decides he needs to find out the truth once and for all. He confronts his benefactor, and finally discovers the truth of something he has long suspected and which suddenly makes him a more eligible match for her. I can’t say much more without spoilers, but suffice to say, it makes no sense and the story would have been better off without it.

In spite of my criticisms, Along Came a Rogue is by no means a bad book and I’m going to give it a qualified recommendation. The writing is generally strong, and the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did given its faults, says something about Anna Harrington’s abilities as a storyteller. Grey’s character growth, in particular, is handled well and even though I wanted to smack some sense into Emily in the latter parts of the book, they make a well-matched couple and I came away from the novel satisfied that they had each got what they deserved.

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Rake Most Likely to Seduce (Rakes on Tour #3) by Bronwyn Scott

rake most likely to seduce

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‘All gamblers are alike in luck…’

Although when Nolan Gray enters a high-stakes game in Venice, facing a ruthless opponent, he’ll need more than just luck. He can’t start losing now…especially when the virginity of the enthralling Gianna Minotti hangs in the balance!

Fate is on his side, and Nolan seizes victory. But leaving in a gondola with Gianna and not collecting on his tantalising prize pushes Nolan to his limits! Can he help her claim her freedom when really he wants to claim her for his own?

Rating: B-

There’s one thing to be said for Harlequin book titles – they’re very much WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) – so the hero of Rake Most Likely to Seduce, the third book in Bronwyn Scott’s Rakes on Tour series, is pretty much just that – a man who likes his drink, his gambling and most definitely his women. Nolan Gray embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe with his three best friends, but has reached Venice accompanied by only one of them, as the other two have recently married.

Unlike his friends, Nolan is not independently wealthy and supports himself by his efforts at the card tables, which are usually met with a large degree of success; indeed the only time he ever loses is if he wants to as his excellent memory and knowledge of strategy give him the edge over his opponents. Nolan looks set for another lucrative night at the tables until Count Agostino Minotti makes one desperate bid to win their current game, wagering the only thing he retains of value – his daughter’s virginity. Nolan is aghast. For one thing, he has no need to win a woman and for another, what kind of callous bastard would do such a horrible thing? Thinking he is doing the young woman a favour by getting her away from a father who would treat her so badly, Nolan accepts, wins, leaves with his winnings, and then says goodbye to the lovely Gianna Minotti, having no intention whatsoever of becoming any further embroiled in what is clearly an unpleasant family situation.

But Gianna has other ideas. She has no desire to belong to any man, but leaving with the handsome Englishman might buy her the time she needs in order to secure her independence. In just under four weeks, she will turn twenty-two and will gain control of the significant inheritance left to her by her mother, a former courtesan who married a nobleman in an attempt to secure respectability for her children. Since her death five years earlier, Gianna has been at the mercy of the count, who, in his desperation to get his hands on her money is trying to force her into marriage. If she can evade him for a few more weeks she will be safe, so she grabs the chance to get away from him, if only for a few days, while she lays her plans. Those plans, however, seem as though they will be thwarted before they have been fully formed when Nolan tells her that she is free to go and that he has no intention of bedding her. Gianna is dismayed – not so much at the not-bedding part, but because she has nowhere else to go in Venice. Her treatment at the hands of the count has made her very wary of trusting any man, so she is faced with trying to inveigle Nolan into helping her without revealing too much about herself and her situation.

Even though Gianna is a virgin, she isn’t clueless about sex and thinks to use the strength of the attraction that flares between her and Nolan to distract him and stop him asking too many questions. But Nolan is a highly intelligent and resourceful man, and much as he would like to take Gianna to his bed, he quickly realises that there is more to her situation than she is telling him and that she is in serious trouble.

Over the course of the few days they spend together, the couple discovers they have more in common that they could ever have imagined. The son of a puritanical father, Nolan feels responsible for events he could not have prevented, but for which he nonetheless feels himself obliged to atone. This gives him a unique perspective on Gianna’s situation and serves to deepen the already strong connection between them. The storyline has plenty of action as the pair races to stay a step ahead of the count, and the final confrontation is suitably climactic and fraught with danger.

Both Nolan and Gianna are attractive characters and I enjoyed watching them gradually begin to trust each other enough to open up about their pasts and for Gianna to trust Nolan with her greatest secrets. For all his protestations that he’s not the sort of man who looks after anyone other than number one, Nolan is revealed through his actions to be the opposite. Even when he is suspicious of Gianna’s motives, he wants to help and protect her, sometimes against his better judgement. I wasn’t wild about the way Gianna takes so long to trust him and keeps trying to manipulate him, but given her experience of men up to that point consisted of a man who threatened and beat her, I can understand why she acted as she did.

Bronwyn Scott’s historicals are at the hotter end of the HH/M&B scale, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint in that department; the chemistry between Nolan and Gianna is terrific and the love scenes are nice and steamy. Gianna may be a virgin, but as the daughter of a courtesan it’s easy to believe she’s a little more clued up about sex than the average virginal young woman at the time. Ms Scott’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of La Serenissima, from the canals and gondolas to the piazzas and markets are wonderfully evocative and round out the story nicely.

Rake Most Likely to Seduce is a quick and enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend to anyone looking for an historical romance with a dash of adventure in a setting that’s slightly different to the norm.

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The Groom Wore Plaid (Highland Weddings #2) by Gayle Callen

the groom wore plaid

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Maggie McCallum’s dreams about her new fiancé aren’t the romantic sort. It’s not just that she was bartered to Owen Duff like a piece of property to end a clan feud. She’s also haunted by premonitions of his death on their upcoming wedding day. Yet the exasperating Highlander won’t let her call it off, even though his life and his clan are both in jeopardy.

Owen has wanted Maggie in his bed since he first glimpsed her years ago. If their union restores peace between their clans, so much the better. But while lusting after another chief’s sister had its risks, growing to trust Maggie is far more dangerous. Owen is falling deeply in love with the one woman he cannot hope to claim . . . and survive.

Rating: C+

The Groom Wore Plaid is the sequel to Gayle Callen’s The Wrong Bride, and the story in this book picks up more or less where the first ended, with Maggie McCallum agreeing to wed Owen Duff, the new Earl of Aberfoyle, in order to satisfy a long-standing agreement between their two clans. Because Maggie’s brother Hugh had indeed fallen in love with the wrong bride – Owen’s cousin rather than his sister – there was no other way to secure a lasting peace between the two families – but now, Maggie is wondering whether her hasty agreement to Owen’s suggestion was the right one.

Even though they had met briefly as children, it wasn’t until a chance meeting in Edinburgh some ten years before this story commences that Owen and Maggie became friends. Owen’s enthusiasm for scientific pursuits thoroughly intrigued Maggie who, as a woman, was denied the opportunity to learn anything other than deportment and embroidery. She took delight in the companionship of someone who treated her as an equal and didn’t think her curiosity inappropriate or unladylike, even as she recognised that there was more to her feelings for Owen than friendship. Their idyll ended abruptly, however, when the strength of the attraction between them almost overwhelmed their common sense, and Owen had to tell Maggie he had been betrothed as a child to a young woman chosen by his father. Deeply upset at Owen’s duplicity, Maggie vowed never to see him again, but later that very night, she had a vivid dream showing his fiancée surrounded by water, a vision Maggie knew foretold the young woman’s death by drowning.

Growing up, Maggie learned to be very cautious about telling others of her ‘gift’, fearing accusations of witchcraft (at worst) or social ostracism, but she knew she would not be able to live with herself if she did nothing to try to save the life of Owen’s betrothed. She went to see him once more to tell him of her dream, but Owen dismissed her fears as ridiculous, putting them down to jealousy and anger.

Two weeks after Maggie’s warning, the girl and her family were drowned.

A decade later, Maggie is still resentful of Owen’s treatment of her, both in not telling her he was engaged and in so casually dismissing her dream as nonsense. Over the years, she has trained herself to prevent having dreams that foretell the future, forcing herself to wake up before they take hold; but on her first night at Castle Kinlochard, she dreams of Owen lying in a pool of blood on their wedding day. Terrified at the thought of losing him, she begs him to release her from the betrothal , but his reaction is as dismissive as before and he remains committed to their contract. Going back on his word will risk the already uneasy peace between the Duffs and the McCallums and Owen is not prepared to do that. He is already regarded with suspicion by his own clan because of his father’s insistence on living in London in the style of an English earl and knows he has a lot of prejudice to overcome before the clan accepts him fully as their chief. Taking a bride from a rival family is an ages old solution to enmity, and even though Owen is annoyed at having had his choices in that regard taken away from him, he can’t find it in him to be too dissatisfied with his bargain. Maggie is beautiful, intelligent and spirited and he wants her as much as he ever did. Maggie feels a similar pull towards Owen, but his refusal to take her dream seriously only tells her that he still doesn’t trust her and that he never will.

Like Owen, Maggie also has to struggle against the prejudice she encounters at the castle, and there are many who do not forgive and forget and are not at all happy at the presence of a McCallum in their midst. A series of supposed “accidents” – burned out barns, stolen cattle – seem to be the work of a disgruntled clan member, but when Maggie finds a symbol of evil intent in her bedchamber, it seems there might be more at work than a simple grudge.

Maggie is an estimable heroine for the way she is so focused on saving Owen at the cost of her own happiness, but I disliked her bitterness. She keeps harping on to herself about how he doesn’t trust her because he hadn’t believed her dream from a decade ago, yet I had to wonder how she could have expected a different reaction from a man whose interest lay in science. I also found it a bit odd that she was still angry at him for not telling her he was engaged back then. I can understand her being upset at the time, but hanging on to it for ten years – and ten years after the woman died– seemed a bit much.

Owen’s distrust of Maggie is also a little overdone at the beginning, but I could forgive him to an extent because he has so much to do and learn and is a man beset on all sides. He must take a wife not of his choosing, confront the suspicions of his clan on both his account and Maggie’s, prove himself worthy of respect and able to lead … it’s a difficult balancing act, and it quickly becomes clear that he is prepared to work hard to claim his Scottish heritage and that it is important to him. I admired that about him, and soon found myself getting impatient on his behalf at all Maggie’s silly stratagems to try to get him to cry off, like trying to make herself look fat, or making him shirts that didn’t fit properly.

There’s a nice touch – or ridiculous co-incidence, depending how you want to look at it – when Maggie realises that she and Owen have always been bound to each other, and while the chemistry between the couple isn’t going to strip paint off the walls, it simmers along nicely as Maggie and Owen help and support each other and rediscover something of their old friendship.

Ultimately, The Groom Wore Plaid is an easy, undemanding read and the protagonists are attractive, though not compelling, characters. That, actually, is an apt description of the book – attractive but not compelling. I didn’t have strong feelings about it either way after I finished it; it’s a book I read and liked well enough, but not one I’m likely to revisit.

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The Rogue Not Taken (Scandals & Scoundrels #1) by Sarah MacLean (audiobook) – Narrated by Justine Eyre

the rogue not taken audio

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lady Sophie’s Society Splash!

When Sophie, the least interesting of the Talbot sisters, lands her philandering brother-in-law backside-first in a goldfish pond, she shocks society and finds herself the target of very public aristocratic scorn, leaving her no choice but to flee, vowing to start a new life far from London . Unfortunately, the carriage in which she stows away isn’t saving her from ruin . . . it’s filled with it.

Rogue’s Reign of Ravishment!

Kingscote, “King,” the Marquess of Eversley, has never met a woman he couldn’t charm, which results in a reputation far worse than the truth, a general sense that he’s more pretty face than proper gentleman, and an irate summons home to the Scottish border. When King discovers stowaway Sophie, however, the journey becomes anything but boring!

War? Or More?

He thinks she’s trying to trick him into marriage. She wouldn’t have him if he were the last man on earth. But carriages bring close quarters, dark secrets, and unbearable temptation, making opposites altogether too attractive . . .

Rating: Narration – C; Content – B

Although I enjoyed reading The Rogue Not Taken, the first book in Sarah MacLean’s new Scandals and Scoundrels series, the audio wasn’t an automatic review choice as I haven’t been impressed by Justine Eyre’s narration in the past. The last time I heard her in a British-set historical, I found it hard going and couldn’t finish it because of a number of vocal mannerisms I found extremely irritating, but that was a few years back and I decided to try her again – with mixed results.

The story is basically a road-trip romance that begins when a mix up sees Lady Sophie Talbot, desperate to escape from a serious gaffe at a ton party, stowing away on the carriage belonging to the Marquess of Eversley, one of society’s most infamous rogues. Sophie is one of the five Talbot sisters, the other four of whom feature regularly in the scandal sheets and seem to enjoy their status as gossip-fodder. Sophie, on the other hand, has never done anything remotely scandalous – until she catches her eldest sister’s husband in flagrante delicto with another woman, and is so incensed that she calls him a whore and pushes him into an ornamental fishpond in front of hundreds of members of the ton.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Study in Scandal (Scandalous #2) by Caroline Linden

a study in scandal

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After a youthful infatuation went terribly wrong, Lady Samantha Lennox gave up all thought of suitors and happily-ever-after. But when she angers her strict and demanding father, the Earl of Stratford, he retaliates by arranging a marriage for her to a man she could never admire, much less love. In a panic, Samantha flees to London, only to find herself lost, alone, and nearly kidnapped—until an unlikely hero saves her.

Lord George Churchill-Gray is an artist, not a knight in shining armor, but he doesn’t hesitate to rescue Samantha from disaster and offer her temporary sanctuary. He wouldn’t mind if she repaid him by modeling for his latest painting. He’s enchanted by her face… her smile… all of her, really. But with every study he sketches, he falls a little more in love with her, and Samantha begins to suspect her scandalous actions might lead to the sort of love she never thought to find…

Rating: B

This novella falls between books two and three (It Takes a Scandal and Love in the Time of Scandal) in Caroline Linden’s Scandalous series, and tells the story of Lady Samantha Lennox, the sister of Benedict (hero of book three) and daughter of the cruel and dictatorial Earl of Stratford.

Ms Linden very quickly outlines Samantha’s backstory in the first chapter, but readers of the other books will know that when little more than a girl, she stole a large sum of money from her father in order to help a friend. Unfortunately, her plan backfired and Stratford accused Sebastian Vane of stealing it, and it’s only at the end of It Takes a Scandal that Samantha is eventually persuaded to put things right.

The earl is a harsh and unforgiving man, and intends to punish his daughter by marrying her to the depraved son of a marquess, a man many suspect to be mad. There is nothing her brother or mother can do to help her, and Samantha must resign herself to a life even more miserable to the one she has lived hitherto.

The author very quickly paints a picture of Samantha as a lonely and unhappy young woman, which is not surprising given that her father is unloving, dictatorial and downright nasty, and she has never been allowed to have any friends or, at the advanced (for the time) age of twenty three, any suitors.

When she next goes into Richmond to do some shopping, she impulsively boards the coach for London, intending to find her brother, Benedict, at his regiment’s quarters. When she arrives, she is almost immediately accosted by a couple of men who attempt to abduct her, but are thwarted by the intervention of a gentleman who saves her when she is pushed into the river. He takes her back to his lodgings and gives her into the care of his landlady, insisting on giving up his own rooms so that Samantha can stay the night.

The young man is George, Lord Churchill-Gray, the youngest son of the Duke of Rowland, known familiarly as Gray. He is a gifted artist, and hopes to soon have some of his paintings exhibited by the Royal Academy.

When she recovers from her ordeal, Samantha initially pretends not to know who she is or what she is doing in London, although Gray is sure she is pretending to amnesia simply because she doesn’t want to tell. After a couple of days, she is well enough to go home, and decides that is what she must do; she has no money and no friends to go to and thus no alternative but to return home.

But Gray sees how terrified she is, and eventually she tells him something of her story, although does not reveal her identity as a daughter of the Earl of Stratford, knowing that Gray’s father is one of the earl’s oldest enemies.

He arranges for her to remain at his lodgings and the time Samantha spends there is the happiest she’s ever known. Whether she’s helping with the housework or cataloguing Gray’s paintings, she has a degree of freedom and the friendship of a handsome young man – and even though she knows little of men, begins to wonder what it might be like to be kissed and held; and to dream of something more than friendship.

Samantha and Gray are attractive protagonists who are perfect for each other. There’s a lovely scene in Gray’s studio when he asks her to draw something (all well-bred young ladies learned to draw) and together they produce a cute little scene which tells Gray more than Samantha realises about her situation. He is a true gentleman, considerate, kind and honourable, who wants the best for Samantha and who is prepared to fight for her when the worst happens, and Stratford finds out where she is.

In spite of the relatively small page-count, the two protagonists are strongly characterised and undergo a good amount of character development. Samantha learns what it is to live rather than simply exist and gains the courage to stand up to her father; Gray is devoted to his art, but discovers that there are some things in life that are even more important. The romance is sweet and well-developed and I’d certainly recommend A Study in Scandal to fans of this series.

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To Steal a Heart (Secrets and Spies #1) by K.C Bateman

to steal a heart
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Forced to do the bidding of a corrupt government minister, Marianne de Bonnard agrees to plant incriminating evidence in the offices of France’s most notorious spymaster. Under cover of night, the tightrope-walking thief puts her skills to good use—until her aerial stunt is foiled when her target appears in the window and, with consummate poise, helps Marianne off the wire and into his lair. The tremors that run through her body are not just from fear; there’s an unwanted frisson of desire there, too. But is it because of her elegant, wickedly handsome host . . . or his proposition?

Nicolas Valette has had plans for his graceful trespasser since he witnessed her unique skills at the Cirque Olympique. Sinuous as a cat, Marianne is perfect for his next mission, but she refuses his generous offer for fear of disobeying her family’s tormenter. When their mutual enemy auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder, Nicolas leaps at the chance to purchase her cooperation. Keeping her will be like trying to tame a wild animal, but what’s life without a little risk? Besides, Nicolas and Marianne both want the same thing: revenge—and, perhaps, something else that’s equally delicious.

Rating: A-

I was lucky enough to read a number of very strong début novels last year, and that trend is continuing into 2016 with K.C Bateman’s To Steal a Heart, (Secrets and Spies book 1), an action-packed, sexy romantic adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The story grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished it – which I did in about two sittings.

Marianne Bonnard has worked at the Cirque Olympique as a tightrope walker and circus performer for the last five or six years, ever since the death of her parents in a fire. This left her and her younger sister, Sophie, with nobody but each other, and everything Marianne does is focused on keeping Sophie safe and well. After the fire, they were brought to Paris by their slimy cousin Duval, a corrupt official with responsibility for overseeing the city’s many brothels, who threatened to put the girls – then aged ten and fourteen – to work in one of them. But Marianne struck a deal with him. If she could find a way to earn enough money to more than pay for their keep, she would do that instead, on condition that he left Sophie alone. Duval agreed, although not without conditions, which are that Sophie remains in Paris under his control and that Marianne steals and spies for him.

Her latest assignment is to plant some incriminating evidence in the apartment of Nicolas Valette, spymaster, protégé of two of France’s most powerful men, and, according to some, one of the most dangerous men in France. But Valette’s reputation for being one step ahead the game is not undeserved; on the night Marianne is due to break into his study, he is there waiting for her, aware of what she’s there to do. But instead of killing her or turning her in, he makes her an offer. He will protect her sister and destroy Duval if she will undertake to work on one mission for – and with – him.

I’m not going to give the game away, save to say that the mission is an audacious one and Ms Bateman does a terrific job in balancing the romance with the action-based elements of the plot. Marianne and Valette are instantly attracted to each other, but the author rightly focuses on the task at hand, keeping their attraction at a simmer and allowing it to develop through thoughts and feelings as they circle warily around each other. Nicolas is controlled and frighteningly competent, yet we’re shown Marianne gradually getting under his skin, especially during the time they spend together as he puts her through a gruelling training regime. He pushes her to her limits time and again and she tries to hate him for it – but he knows what she’s going to be up against and what she’s going to have to be able to do if she’s going to survive. The sexual chemistry between them is smoking hot and some of the best I’ve read; and their acerbic, sharp-tongued verbal sparring is perfectly done.

“Do you speak Italian?”

“A little. Laurent taught me. Especially swearwords. ‘Vaffunculo,’” she offered sweetly, “means go f—“

I know what it means,” he said with a dark chuckle. “Good. We’re Italian. You’re my wife, Fatima.”

Nerves made her snippy. “My father would be so proud. He always hoped I’d marry a lying turncoat spy.”

There’s never the sense that these characters are flirting just for the sake of it; rather, the things Valette and Marianne say and do arise naturally out of the situations in which they find themselves. Unlike so many historical romantic spy stories where the espionage plot is nebulous and clearly little more than a way of throwing the hero and heroine together, in To Steal a Heart, there’s a real sense of danger and of something important being at stake.

I won’t deny that there’s a modernity of tone to some aspects of the storyline and dialogue, but it’s not obtrusive and this is one of those books where the story is so entertaining and the characters so engaging as to make it easy to overlook the odd slip. The plot is well-thought out and the characterisation of the leads is excellent. Marianne reminds me somewhat of Annique from Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady. She’s determined, courageous, skilled and quick-witted, and won’t take any crap from the men around her; and like Grey, Valette knows she can handle herself and doesn’t try to cosset her or wrap her up in cotton wool. Nicolas Valette is, quite simply, sex on legs. Handsome, dangerously charming, highly intelligent, devious and completely ruthless, he is the sort of man from whom one would probably run a mile in real life, but as the hero of a romance novel? Oh, yes please! *swoon*

Valette’s life for the past six years has been ruled by his overwhelming desire for revenge against Napoleon for the murder of his younger brother, while Marianne has to overcome the events of her past in order to move forward. These aspects of their characters are dealt with reasonably well, although in the end, Nicolas’ desire for revenge almost costs them both dear. Because of that, I am a little torn over the events which lead up to the ending of the book. Nicolas makes a choice which is so perfectly in character that it’s difficult to see how he could have made a different one, but it means he and Marianne are not together at a crucial point in the story. It’s true she’s not a heroine who needs saving and does pretty well on her own, thank-you-very-much – but I still felt just the tiniest bit cheated that they weren’t together at that point. That said, I have to applaud Ms Bateman for the direction she takes because to have done things differently would have been out of character for both of them.

I dithered over the final grade for To Steal a Heart, wondering whether to give it a B+ or an A- and thus make it a DIK. I’ve gone with my gut instinct – the DIK – mainly because the high level of engagement I experienced and sheer entertainment value mean it’s a book I’m likely to re-read. And on top of that, the writing and characterisation are superb, the romance is hot, snarky and tender and the hero is delicious. I couldn’t ask for much more in an historical romance and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever Ms Bateman comes up with next.

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An American in Scotland (McIain #3) by Karen Ranney

an american in scotland
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Rose MacIain is a beautiful woman with a secret. Desperate and at her wits’ end, she crafts a fake identity for herself, one that Duncan MacIain will be unable to resist. But she doesn’t realize that posing as the widow of the handsome Scotsman’s cousin is more dangerous than she knew. And when a simmering attraction rises up between them, she begins to regret the whole charade.

Duncan is determined to resist the tempting Rose, no matter how much he admires her arresting beauty and headstrong spirit. When he agrees to accompany her on her quest, their desire for each other only burns hotter. The journey tests his resolve as their close quarters fuel the fire that crackles between them.

When the truth comes to light, these two stubborn people must put away their pride and along the way discover that their dreams of love are all they need.

Rating: C

I enjoyed the previous two books in Karen Ranney’s McIain series, so was looking forward to An American in Scotland, which features Duncan MacIain, the steady and dependable owner of the MacIain family’s textile business, and who has appeared as a secondary character in the earlier novels. In the first book, In Your Wildest Scottish Dreams Duncan’s mill was struggling because of the difficulty of obtaining sufficient quantities of cotton from America owing to the Civil War, and the book’s hero, Lennox Cameron, was the owner of a successful ship-building business whose latest venture was building ships to run the blockade around US waters. He wasn’t the only one engaged in such activities, and as a result, Glasgow became a –perhaps unlikely – centre of intrigue, as spies for the Union flooded the city trying to root out Confederate sympathisers and cut off their enemies’ supply lines.

This all provided a fascinating background to the central romance in that book, especially for someone like me who knows little about the history of the American Civil War and even less about Glasgow’s involvement in it. It was clear in that story – just as it is in this one – that Duncan and people like him were not particularly sympathetic to the Confederate cause, but that they needed to do what they must in order to maintain their own livelihoods and those of the people who depended on them.

That aspect of the historical background features strongly in this latest addition to the series, as Rose O’Sullivan risks life and limb to run the blockade in order to travel to Scotland to sell the last of the cotton produced by her brother-in-law’s plantation to his Scottish cousin. Born in New York, Rose went to live at the Glengarden plantation outside Charleston with her sister Claire when she married its owner, Bruce MacIain.

When Rose arrives at the home of the Scottish branch of the family, she is exhausted and half-starved, nervous at not knowing what to expect and terrified because this is her last hope of providing for her family back at home. When the MacIains make the assumption that she is the widow of their American cousin Bruce, who has gone off to fight for the South, she doesn’t correct them, believing it best Duncan believes she has the right to sell the cotton by right of her supposed marriage. She knows that repaying the MacIains for their kindness with deception is a horrible thing to do, but if she can’t persuade Duncan to not only purchase the cotton, but to then run the blockade in order to retrieve it, her family will likely starve.

The first third or so of the book takes place in Scotland while Rose waiting anxiously for Duncan’s decision, with the rest of it covering the events of their journey to retrieve the cotton and their experiences at Glengarden. The journey is a dangerous one, made moreso when, in Nassau, Duncan is told that their ship is under surveillance and that orders have been given for its capture. And then there is the fact that Bruce, who has returned from the war minus a leg, hates Rose implacably for many reasons, not least of which are her sympathy for and kindness to the plantation slaves and her refusal to defer to him and bend to his wishes as every “good” Southern woman should do to the men around her.

Rose is an admirable character who has endured much for her beliefs and who refused to break, even when she was beaten, whipped and forced to work in the fields alongside the slaves. I liked her strength and courage, but the problem is that we are told, over and over and over about what Rose endured at Glengarden, about what a total bastard Bruce is, about her sympathy for the slaves, about the decadence and superficiality of the Southern lifestyle, about how Rose isn’t demure and submissive… honestly, if I was told once, I was told ten times and while it was interesting the first couple of times, the continual repetition really slows the pacing and disrupts the flow of the story.

Duncan is a decent hero, but isn’t fully fleshed out as a character. He’s kind, decent, responsible, and, perhaps, regarded as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud by his family. By the end of the book, he’s thinking about how much more adventurous he’s become since meeting Rose, but overall, he’s pretty bland.

My other major issue with the book is that for a romance, it doesn’t have much romance in it! I reached 35% on my Kindle, and Rose and Duncan had interacted only a few times. By that time, she’s been in Glasgow for a few weeks, and we’re told that she is attracted to Duncan and he to her, but I wasn’t shown that, and I certainly didn’t feel it. In fact, there is very little chemistry between them, and the romance, such as it is, is low key and not at all well developed. Both characters are straightforward, decent people, so there is no inner conflict to propel their relationship forward, or to provide those little lumps and bumps along the way which we like to watch them work out. It’s true that they are in a potentially life-threatening situation, but they have no control over that, and other than to make them go through that whole “let’s shag, for tomorrow we could die!” thing, it doesn’t have much bearing on their relationship.

Ultimately, I’m afraid that An American in Scotland proved to be a real slog and was tough to finish. I had to force myself to actually read rather than skim large sections of it because of the amount of repetition, and was disappointed at the lack of any real emotional connection between the hero and heroine, which ultimately led to my feeling rather disconnected from the novel as a whole. If I’d been grading the book solely as a romance, I doubt it would have scraped a C-, but because the writing is so strong, and the historical background so well-researched and interesting, I’m upping it to a C.

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