The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide by Virginia Heath

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

“Choosing a wife is not a task that should be undertaken lightly.”

Bennett Montague, sixteenth Duke of Aveley, is seeking the perfect bride. He’s narrowed his search to five worthy “Potentials”…until the arrival of his aunt’s companion unravels his carefully laid plans.

Having fought for everything she has, Amelia Mansfield is incensed by Bennett’s wife-selection methods. But as she’s forced to spend time in his company, she begins to see another side to Bennett—and that man is infinitely more tantalizing and enticing…

Rating: B+

In Her Enemy at the Altar, Virginia Heath impressed me with her ability to craft an enjoyable story, create complex, likeable characters and to deliver a romance that is sensual and emotionally nuanced. In her latest book, The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide, she displays those talents once again while also putting a slightly different spin on the stuffy-aristocrat-unravelled-by-unconventional-heroine trope. It’s this aspect of the story that marks it out as something a bit different; the heroine with reformist tendencies who shows the hero the error of his snobbish ways is an often used plotline, but the heroine’s experiences in this story add a touch of authenticity to her words, and serves to make her dedication to the various causes she espouses all the more believable and understandable.

Although she is the daughter of a viscount, Amelia Mansfield heartily dislikes any and all aristocrats – with good reason, as the reader will come to know. Given that dislike, it’s somewhat ironic that she lives among them because of her position as companion to Lady Worsted, whose nephew, the Duke of Aveley is one of England’s most highly respected politicians. He is also, much to Amelia’s disapproval, the author of The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide to Selecting the Perfect Bride, which offers such pearls of wisdom as:

Marry a woman who thinks before she speaks. It will save you a great deal of time not having to correct her.

And –

A wife’s first duty is to obey her husband. Therefore, it is the husband’s first duty to enlighten her as to what he wants her to do.

– to gentlemen wishing to marry.

Amelia fully expects to find the duke to be dull, pompous and overbearing, so the fact that she finds herself strongly attracted to him is both unwelcome and annoying. But on the few occasions she converses with him, she gradually discovers him to be charming, and, most surprisingly, quite shy, leading her to suspect that beneath the detached and unemotional face he presents to the world is a sensitive, passionate man who holds back his emotions because he believes they weaken him.

Bennett Montague, sixteenth  Duke of Aveley has spent practically his entire adult life following in the footsteps of his father, an austere, extremely correct and upstanding man who took his duty as a member of the government very seriously and who worked tirelessly in service of his country.  Aged just thirty, Bennett is highly respected in parliamentary circles for his dedication, his ambition and his fine mind, and is widely tipped as a future Prime Minister.  He is also, as he comes to realise, lonely, even when he is surrounded by people.  Practically everyone he meets wants something from him, whether it is the latest batch of debutantes hoping to snare themselves a ducal husband, or the various gentlemen and members of the house who hope to sway him to their causes; and the feeling that he would quite like to be appreciated for himself and not what he can do for others has crept up upon him so slowly that he hasn’t really noticed it.

And he probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that desire or his loneliness had it not been for the presence in his home of his aunt’s outspoken companion.  Amelia’s ability to speak passionately on political issues and her insistence on challenging him at every opportunity are not things Bennett has previously encountered in a lady, but the passion and conviction with which she speaks and her willingness to go toe-to-toe with him are mentally stimulating while her loveliness stimulates his interest in other ways.

Although nobly born Amelia has, through no fault of her own, fallen on hard times and suffered almost the worst life has to offer.  Her father married her mother – an American heiress – for her money, and when she failed to produce the required heir after twelve years of marriage, he cast her and Amelia off and managed to have the marriage annulled.  I admit here that I have no idea as to how feasible this would have been, but given the near impossibility of divorce at this period I imagine it would have been just as difficult.  Unlike a divorce, however, the effect on Amelia was completely different, as an annulment means that the marriage never happened and thus branded her as illegitimate.  She and her mother suffered terrible hardship, having to take lodgings in the poorest areas of town in order to eke out what money they had, and when her mother became ill and it was no longer possible for Amelia to work, their only option was the workhouse.  After her mother’s death, Amelia managed to find employment and claw her way up and out of the gutter through dint of her own hard work and gumption.  It’s this aspect of her background which makes this novel stand out; there are plenty of historical romances that tell of well-born young ladies having to become governesses or companions, but I don’t think there are so many where such a heroine finds herself forced to choose between a workhouse or starving on the streets.

Naturally, Bennett tries hard to adhere to his original plan of selecting himself the perfect bride, but very soon finds it impossible to ignore the fact that the only woman he can envisage spending his life with is Amelia.  Yet he has spent so long determined to follow his father’s plan for him that it’s difficult for him to face up to the fact that he needs to live his own life and not someone else’s.  Amelia, too, struggles to break through the conditioning of her past, but ultimately learns to see beyond the title to the man behind it.  The romance between the couple develops at a sensible pace as they both have to adjust their preconceptions before their unlikely friendship gradually moves to become something more.  The sexual tension between them simmers along nicely, and while the ending is perhaps a little bit too good to be true, it’s nonetheless a perfectly plausible and uplifting one for this thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable romance.  The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide gets a big thumbs-up – and Virginia Heath has earned herself a place on my auto-buy list.

Tempting the Earl (Muses’ Salon #3) by Rachael Miles

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Olivia Walgrave is finished with being a countess. Writing under a pen name, her controversial column for the scandal sheets provides her with some income and far more excitement than managing a country estate. Besides, in the three years since the wars have ended, her dashing husband hasn’t spent one night under their roof. So Olivia has prepared a plan, and an annulment. All she needs is his consent…

Harrison Walgrave, the Earl of Levesford, let his father coerce him into marriage, but his true devotion is to his Parliamentary career—and his secret work for the Home Office. Yet now, with freedom in his grasp, he finds he cannot so easily release his wife. Seeing her stirs a hunger no other woman has reached. A distraction now, when he is a breath away from revealing a ring of traitors, could be deadly. Still, wherever his investigations lead, the thought of Olivia lingers. It might be obsession. It might be treason. But the only way to escape the temptation is to succumb…

Rating: B-

Tempting the Earl is the third book in Rachael Miles’ Muses Salon series, and even though I was a little disappointed in the previous one (Chasing the Heiress)  I wanted to read this because it makes use of one of my favourite tropes – the estranged couple who has to learn how to be married again.  Or, as in this case, learn to be together full-stop, given that they have spent the six years of their marriage living apart.  This aspect of the story is handled fairly well, but, as I found to be the case with the previous books, once the author starts to broaden her canvas and pick up some of the threads laid down in those earlier stories, things become far too busy and the romance gets sidelined.

We’ve met Harrison Levesford, Earl of Walgrave (for some reason, these names have been transposed in the synopsis) in the earlier books, as a friend and fellow Home Office agent of the two Sommerville brothers – Aidan and Colin – who were the heroes of those stories.  Like them, Walgrave is a spy, dedicated to keeping his country safe, but he is also an active and highly respected Member of Parliament, an exceptional orator and a man widely tipped for high political office.  What very few people know is that he has a wife living at his country estate with whom he has not communicated directly for the past six years.  Forced into a marriage he most emphatically did not want, Walgrave joined the Navy a few short weeks after the wedding and has not returned home since.

His father insisted that he had chosen Harrison a wife perfectly suited to him, which his son interpreted as meaning a woman who was practical, demure and ultimately dull.  Olivia Fallon fulfilled the first two of those expectations, so the intensity of Harrison’s attraction to her was both unexpected and very welcome, as he found his modest wife to be surprisingly passionate in bed.  Even so, he went to sea, leaving the very capable Olivia to oversee his estate, not even taking the trouble to let her know when he returned to England and took up his position at the Home Office.

We learn these facts about Walgrave and Olivia’s past as the story progresses and through a few flashbacks, rather than as a prologue or first chapter, and the gradual unfolding of their history is well done.  Their reunion is prompted by Olivia’s demand for a separation based on the fact that the marriage was not actually legal. Walgrave has been quite happy with the status quo, so the request unsettles him and he makes his way home to try to find out what has prompted her request after six years of what he had believed was a convenient arrangement for them both.

Olivia is an orphan whose father seems to have been involved in some very suspicious dealings.  He disappeared when she was about five years old, and she was taken in by Sir Roderick Walgrave, Harrison’s father (and I stopped here to wonder a) how Walgrave is an earl while his father was only a knight and b) why Sir Roderick’s last name is Walgrave and not Levesford) and sent to Miss Finch’s School for Exceptional Girls.  Olivia agreed to the marriage for a number of reasons, not least of which was her great affection for and gratitude towards Sir Roderick for everything he did for her and because it was one way of keeping herself safe and hidden away from those who had been her father’s associates.  She came to love her handsome young husband in the short time they spent together and had hoped that he would come to love her, too, but his abrupt departure and subsequent failure to inform her of his return proved to her that she meant nothing to him.

Had Walgrave remained and taken time to come to know the woman he’d married, he would have learned that she was much more than the quiet country mouse he had assumed her to be.  When we first meet Olivia, she is hurrying through the London streets looking desperately for somewhere to hide from a man she suspects is following her. We learn that she is the writer of a popular newspaper column under the pseudonym of An Honourable Gentleman in which she regularly rails against social injustice and advocates reform.  And not only that, but like her estranged husband, Olivia is a government agent, currently engaged in trying to root out the traitors who are using the periodical press to convey state secrets to the enemy.

So far, so good.  We’ve got a Regency Era Mr. and Mrs. Smith on our hands, and I anticipated a bit of a cat-and-mouse game as Olivia sought to evade exposure while she and her husband rekindled their earlier passion and fell in love all over again.  That – with a few added elements of intrigue and suspense – would have been enough to sustain the story, but the romantic development is diluted by all the other plot elements that are piled on and it became difficult to keep track of all the different plotlines and who was working for whom and why.

There is an overarching plot running through the three books in the series relating to some coded documents left to the possession of Sophia, heroine of the first book, Jilting the Duke.  While the documents are now in the hands of the Good Guys, the code has yet to be broken. Add to this the further machinations of the mysterious Charters and his henchman,  a woman intent on revenge on Olivia’s father, Walgrave’s search for a traitor, Olivia’s other secret identity as the author of gothic novels, the strange presence of seven very eccentric scholars who pretty much live on the estate, and it was all too much.  I thought I might have to resort to making a flow chart.

On the positive side, I enjoyed the brief glimpses we were given of the relationship between Walgrave and his two closest friends, the two principals are engaging, attractive characters and the chemistry between them simmers nicely – which makes it even more frustrating to think that there was a potentially satisfying, well-constructed romance in there somewhere.  Olivia and Walgrave do get their HEA in this book, but there are lots of threads left hanging, which would have been fine if there hadn’t been so many of them, and if they’d made more sense during the course of this story.  I’ve read and reviewed all three books in this series so far, and it’s been interesting from my point of view to look back and find that I have made similar comments about each of them, most significantly that the novels are “too busy”.  Ms. Miles can clearly craft a decent plot, but she is apt to throw in too much, with the result that the plotlines are underdeveloped and the sheer number of them can cause confusion.  I came away from the book with a vague sense of having read something that wasn’t quite finished; there are several unresolved plot threads left hanging at the end but I venture to suggest that Ms. Miles might need to consider wrapping some of them up soon or readers may get tired of waiting.

Arriving at a final grade was difficult.  Ultimately, Tempting the Earl worked better than Chasing the Heiress, to which I gave a C+, so I’m going to give this a very qualified recommendation with a B-.

Unforgiven (Horsemen Trilogy #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Woodfall and Hayes families have been bitter rivals for nearly a century. Now, after eight years, Kenneth returns home and realizes his underlying love for Miss Moira Hayes. For her, he is willing to forget the past. But can she?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

It’s a brave author who decides to write a novel in which one of the central characters is infuriatingly stubborn, who frequently, as the saying goes, cuts off her nose to spite her face, and who, because of those things is often downright unlikeable. In Unforgiven (originally published in 1998), the second book in her Horseman trilogy, Mary Balogh shows herself to be one such author, as she introduces us to Miss Moira Hayes, a young woman who is so intractable and determined to protect herself and her emotions that she almost loses her chance at happiness with the man she (won’t admit she) loves.

Indeed, for most of the book, Moira professes to hate Kenneth Woodfall, believing him to have been responsible, albeit indirectly, for the death of her brother some years earlier. Thus, his return to his Cornwall estate following his years of army service is an extremely unwelcome shock.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Fair Princess (Improper Princesses #1) by Vanessa Kelly (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

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Despite being the illegitimate daughter of a prince, Gillian Dryden is happily ignorant of all social graces. After growing up wild in Italy, Gillian has been ordered home to England to find a suitable husband. And Charles Valentine Penley, the excessively proper, distractingly handsome Duke of Leverton, has agreed to help transform her from a willful tomboy to a blushing debutante.

Powerful and sophisticated, Charles can make or break reputations with a well-placed word. But his new protégée, with her habit of hunting bandits and punching earls, is a walking scandal. The town is aghast, but Charles is thoroughly intrigued. Tasked with taking the hoyden in hand, he longs to take her in his arms instead. Can such an outrageous attraction possibly lead to a fairy tale ending?

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B-

My Fair Princess is the first book in Vanessa Kelly’s new Improper Princesses series, which is a spin-off of her previous one, Renegade Royals. Just as the heroes of those books were all illegitimate sons of various Royal Dukes (they were a promiscuous lot!), the heroines of these are the illegitimate daughters of various Royal Dukes. It should be noted that George III and Queen Charlotte had seven adult sons, most of whom liked to put it about more than a bit, so this handful of wrong-side-of-the-blanket offspring is most certainly within the bounds of possibility 😉

The illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Cumberland, Gillian Dryden has lived for most of her life in Sicily with her mother and step-father, to whom she became very close. Gillian was heartbroken when he was murdered by bandits, and swore to hunt them down and kill them. She is making good on her vow, but when her latest escapade doesn’t go according to plan, there is no alternative but for Gillian and her mother to leave Sicily immediately, which they do with the help of her half-brother (another royal by-blow) Griffin Steele.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Baron (Knickerbocker Club #2) by Joanna Shupe

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Born into one of New York’s most respected families, William Sloane is a railroad baron who has all the right friends in all the right places. But no matter how much success he achieves, he always wants more. Having secured his place atop the city’s highest echelons of society, he’s now setting his sights on a political run. Nothing can distract him from his next pursuit—except, perhaps, the enchanting con artist he never saw coming . . .

Ava Jones has eked out a living the only way she knows how. As “Madame Zolikoff,” she hoodwinks gullible audiences into believing she can communicate with the spirit world. But her carefully crafted persona is nearly destroyed when Will Sloane walks into her life—and lays bare her latest scheme. The charlatan is certain she can seduce the handsome millionaire into keeping her secret and using her skills for his campaign—unless he’s the one who’s already put a spell on her . . .

Rating: B+

The heroes in Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series are all rich, influential businessmen, some of them self-made, like Emmett Cavanaugh (hero of the first book, Magnate) and some, like Will Sloane in Baron, born into a wealthy family of New York blue-bloods whose standing in society is not all that different to that of the members of the English nobility on the other side of the Pond.

Will has spent most of his life spitting in the eye – metaphorically, of course – of his late father, a man who constantly belittled his son and believed he would never amount to much. Becoming the man of the family in his late teens, those taunts have driven Will, who has not only ably managed Northeast Railroad, the company built by his father, but greatly expanded it, adding considerably to his own and the family’s wealth and standing in doing so.

Now in his early thirties, Will continues to push himself incredibly hard, working all the hours God sends and then some; even though he knows he needs to slack off a bit. But he has started to feel that perhaps it’s time for him to make a change, and that change looks set to come quite soon, as he has been invited to join the ticket for the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New York, as lieutenant governor for former senator John Bennett.

There’s no question that Will’s desire for political office is partly influenced by the fact that his father had always wanted to wield political influence, but had never accomplished it. Will’s success will be yet another nose-thumbing to his sire, but before he can achieve it, a potential scandal in the form of a Russian spiritualist by the name Madame Zolikoff, needs to be dealt with, and quickly, before her association with Bennett – who sees her regularly for readings and advice – becomes known and makes the candidate into a laughing stock.

Attending one of her performances at a run-down theatre in one of New York’s less than salubrious districts, Will is surprised to find he rather likes what he sees. Zolikoff is a seductively attractive woman, and in spite of the fact that she’s a complete fake and he is determined to expose her as one, Will is strongly attracted to her. He confronts her backstage, equally surprised to discover that his physical size, obvious disapproval and, later, outright threats, don’t intimidate her in the least. She is forthright and defiant, telling him in no uncertain terms that she will not be scared away from her best client.

Ava Jones is not a woman to be intimidated easily – or at all – and certainly not by a pompous, snobbish, high-society railroad baron who has never known a day’s hardship in his life. The fact that’s he’s obscenely handsome is an unwanted distraction perhaps, but Ava has to keep her focus. She has to take care of her younger brothers and sister, aged twelve to fifteen, and her performances and private readings as Madame Zolikoff should mean that she will soon have enough money to be able to get them all out of their cramped lodgings in the city and away into the fresh air of the countryside.

The sparks fly between these two from the get go, and in spite of their obvious differences, there are a lot of similarities between them, too. Both have brought up younger siblings (Will’s younger sister, Lizzie, was the heroine of Magnate), and have suffered painful pasts; they work incredibly hard and are determined to succeed at what they do. Theirs is certainly never going to be one of those peacefully settled relationships because they are too much alike in many ways, but their mutual stubbornness is one of the factors that puts them on more of an equal footing than their respective situations might suggest. Will may be incredibly wealthy, but Ava isn’t interested in his money or what it can do for her; she sees a man in need and deserving of love and affection who needs someone to stand up to him occasionally, and for Will, Ava is the perfect combination of intelligence and determination, a woman who will challenge him and love him in equal measure.

Both Will and Ava are attractive, engaging characters and their romance is well-written, with plenty of sexual tension and nicely steamy love scenes. The strength of the attraction between them is intense, and the author balances that with the other plot elements extremely well, so that the whole story fairly races by, but in a good way; the way that has the reader so eager to find out what happens next that they continue reading until well into the early hours!

With all that said, a couple of bumpy patches towards the end of the book caused me to lower my final grade a little. Firstly Ava, who has been painted as a strong, self-reliant woman who is able to manage her family and her problems herself, is suddenly thrust into situations from which she needs rescuing, not just once, but twice. And while part of the appeal of the story has been in watching Will gradually unbend and shed some of his hauteur to become a man rather than a block of ice, the Big Romantic Gesture he makes feels completely out of character for the man we have come to know over the course of the book.

Otherwise, though, Baron is an engrossing, well-written tale. Ms. Shupe evokes the world and atmosphere of New York’s Gilded Age extremely well, there’s a great cast of secondary characters and I especially liked the passages which gave a glimpse into Ava’s tricks of the trade. The writing is confident and laced with humour and snappy dialogue. All in all, I’m definitely recommending Baron to fans of historical romance, especially those who are looking for something a little bit different.

The Earl (Devil’s Duke #2) by Katharine Ashe

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

How does a bookish lady bring an arrogant lord to his knees? Entice him to Scotland, strip him of titles and riches, and make him prove what sort of man he truly is.

Opposites…

Handsome, wealthy, and sublimely confident, Colin Gray, the new Earl of Egremoor, has vowed to unmask the rabble-rousing pamphleteer, Lady Justice, the thorn in England’s paw. And he’ll stop at nothing.

Attract.

Smart, big-hearted, and passionately dedicated to her work, Lady Justice longs to teach her nemesis a lesson in humility. But her sister is missing, and a perilous journey with her archrival into unknown territory just might turn fierce enemies into lovers.

Rating: A

Readers of Katharine Ashe’s Falcon Club series will be well aware of the frequent, public, and bitingly sarcastic correspondence that has gone on between the club’s secretary, Peregrine, and the anonymous Lady Justice, pamphleteer, moral crusader and regular denouncer of the abuses and injustices wreaked upon the voiceless masses by the wealthy and privileged. That correspondence continued throughout The Rogue, the first in the author’s Devil’s Duke series, which inhabits the Falcon Club universe and features a number of the same characters. This is also true of The Earl, which references storylines from the earlier series, as well as one of the plotlines begun in The Rogue. That probably all sounds fairly complicated, and I would definitely say that someone new to this author’s work might not want to start here. At a pinch, The Earl could work as a standalone, but I think anyone picking it up without having read any of the earlier books would be at a disadvantage.

Right at the end of The Rogue, the unthinkable happened. Lady Justice, knowing of the Falcon Club’s skill in finding the missing and returning them home, was forced to seek help from the one man she detests above all others: Peregrine. Naturally, Peregrine is intrigued by the request and definitely not above gloating at how much it must stick in Lady Justice’s throat to have to ask him for help. He demands a face-to-face meeting with his nemesis; she refuses. He makes it clear that his help is conditional upon a meeting, and reluctantly the lady agrees, covering herself in a thick veil to prevent Peregrine discovering her identity.

Their meeting is as acrimonious as their written interactions have been, and only confirms Lady Justice’s belief that Peregrine is an arrogant, manipulative, ruthless, self-entitled bastard. Unfortunately, it also shows her something she had not expected – Peregrine is none other than Colin Gray, newly minted Earl of Egremoor, and a man she has known all her life.

Lady Emily Vane is a bit of an odd duck. Bookish and often shy in company as a child, she became a veritable chatterbox in the company of her dearest friend, a boy who could not speak, but whom she nonetheless adored, Colin Gray. Emily’s father and Colin’s were old friends and so the two children spent a great deal of time together as their respective families were happy to leave the two ‘oddities’ to their own devices. But when Colin was thirteen and Emily eight, things changed suddenly and irrevocably, and since then, they have been little more than mere nodding acquaintances. In the eighteen years since, Emily has become somewhat reclusive; the income she has earned over the years means she is independent of her father, can live alone and has no need of – or desire for – a husband. Living alone enables her to retain her anonymity and to continue to argue for reform, rail against injustice and highlight the plight of the oppressed in the pamphlets she continues to write as Lady Justice. Her current crusade is to find a way of getting the Domestic Felicity Act – a bill which will give women actual rights within marriage – introduced into Parliament.

Shocked as she is to discover Peregrine’s true identity, Emily manages to escape that encounter without being unmasked herself.  She needs Colin’s help to find her sister, Amarantha, who had been living in Jamaica until the recent death of her husband. But Amarantha has disappeared, last heard of making for Scotland in search of a friend, and Emily is worried.  Knowing she can’t possibly accept Colin’s help now – even if he agreed to give it – she sets off for Scotland with a couple of her servants, determined to find Amarantha herself.  But Emily has not long arrived at an inn near Loch Lomond when she discovers that Colin has followed leads of his own and that his trail has led him to the same place.  But before they can do more than exchange cold civilities, they find themselves in grave danger, owing to the fact that a man who bears a striking resemblance to Colin and is calling himself the Earl of Egremoor is wanted for murder and highway robbery.  This man has a smaller, fair-haired accomplice who has been seen dressed as a woman – which accounts for the fact that Emily and Colin have encountered such suspicion among the locals.  The animosity directed towards them very quickly reaches boiling point and the pair must act quickly if they are to escape with their lives.  Colin and Emily go on the run, making for the Duke of Loch Irvine’s castle at Kallin where they hope they will be able to get everything straightened out.  But it’s going to be a difficult journey through rough terrain and uncertain weather; and news of the fake earl’s deeds have already spread widely throughout the area, so seeking shelter is risky as they can’t trust anyone not to turn them in.  And all the while, Emily is desperate to keep her secret from the boy who broke her heart and has become a man who stands for everything she hates.

Katharine Ashe has impressed me immensely with her ability to write a gripping adventure yarn that takes full account of historical and political detail while also developing a complex and satisfying romance between two complicated, flawed individuals.  Emily can be difficult to like at times, as she is so intractable and willing to see the worst in Colin, although his high-handedness can be just as annoying as her insistence that he’s arrogant and uncaring about those less fortunate than himself.  Both characters have to face some harsh truths about themselves and their shared past, although it’s Emily who really needs to have the blinkers removed.  She has spent so long feeling hurt and betrayed by the one person in her life she thought knew and understood her that she has allowed her prejudices to cloud her judgement. But as they spend their days and nights running from danger, Emily gradually begins to realise that she is wrong and that Colin is a decent, honourable man who is strongly motivated to act for the good of others.

The pacing throughout is excellent, in terms of both the romance and the adventure. The romance needs time to develop given the fact that Colin and Emily have been estranged for years, and I loved the way it unfolds gradually as they both start to reassess each other.   We glimpse them as children and discover exactly what had bound them so strongly together; we experience Emily’s heartbreak, Colin’s shame and frustration; we feel for them as they reconnect and come to know each other as they are now, and when, towards the end, Emily finally reveals exactly what inspired her to become Lady Justice… I was choked up. It’s a masterstroke.

The chemistry between Peregrine and Lady Justice leapt off the page in the other books, and it burns even hotter between Colin and Emily in this one.  Emily is refreshingly un-missish about the fact that she finds Colin extremely attractive and the love scenes are possibly the most romantic, sexy and intense that Katharine Ashe has yet written.

The Earl is an enormously satisfying read on many levels. An exciting adventure and a sizzling romance all wrapped up in astute observation and social comment, this is historical romance at its best and it’s gone straight on to my keeper shelf.

Poison Evidence (Evidence #7) by Rachel Grant

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was supposed to be paradise…

Ivy MacLeod has the perfect opportunity to test her advanced remote sensing technology: mapping a World War II battle site in the islands of Palau. The project is more than an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise. It’s also an opportunity to distance her reputation from her traitorous ex-husband. But foreign intelligence agencies will kill to possess her invention, and paradise turns deadly when her ex-husband’s vicious allies attack. In desperation, she turns to Air Force pilot Jack Keaton. But is he the bigger threat? Jack might be protecting her as he claims…or he could be a foreign agent. Her compass is skewed by his magnetic pull and further thrown off when she learns her own government has betrayed her. Stranded on a tropical island with a man whose motives remain a mystery, Ivy must decide who is the spy, who is the protector, and who is the ultimate villain. She longs to trust the man who rescued her, but she’s risking more than her heart. Choose right, and she saves her country’s secrets—and her life. Choose wrong—and she risks nothing short of all-out war.

Rating: A-

Poison Evidence is the latest (seventh) book in Rachel Grant’s Evidence series of Romantic Suspense novels, and in it, she looks at the fascinating world of the technology of intelligence gathering and surveillance and how it can be used and adapted by academics seeking to study and enlighten as well as by those using it for far murkier purposes.

I have only read a couple of the books in the series so far, and one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is how the author has incorporated her own background and love of history and archaeology into the stories by having her heroines work in those particular fields, albeit in very diverse ways. I recently read book four, Incriminating Evidence, in which the heroine is an archaeologist who does all her own leg-work in her search for evidence of ancient settlements; here, Ivy MacLeod is a self-confessed tech-geek whose expertise is in geological archaeology and whose recent project of creating CAM – a complex computerised mapping system using infrared and Lidar (a detection system similar to Radar, but which uses lasers) is about to undergo its first field-test.

As this is number seven in a long-running series, this review may contain spoilers for the earlier books.

The past two years have been a really tough time for Ivy. A couple of years back, her husband, Patrick Hill, was exposed as a traitor and arms trafficker who sold weapons to Russian Mafiosa and Islamic terrorist groups; and his arrest and their divorce dragged Ivy’s name through the mud, too. Ivy was not involved with Hill’s treachery, but with the trial about to start, media attention has begun to swing towards her again, even though she is currently half a world away from the US, about to begin mapping a World War II battle site off the coast of a small island in Micronesia.

At a government reception on Palau, Ivy is pleased to see that Jack Keaton – whom she’s nicknamed “Death Valley”, because he’s just that hot! – is also in attendance. In the two years since her life blew up in her face, she hasn’t been interested in men or sex, but over the last few days, the sight of a shirtless Jack, all toned muscle and sleek, smooth skin as he worked on deck of his charter yacht, seems to have re-ignited her libido, so she’s more than happy when he rescues her from the arsehole official who insists on making snide remarks about her ex and speculating on her level of involvement with his illegal activities.

It’s not long after Ivy and Jack have made their way into the garden when all hell breaks loose and the party is crashed by a group of terrorists – her ex-husband’s allies who are out to get their hands on CAM. Jack acts quickly, disposing of as many of the men as he can and then getting Ivy to safety aboard his yacht. Once they’re safe, the adrenaline rush only serves to intensify the attraction that has already been pulsing between them; Ivy hasn’t been with a man since her divorce and Jack is the only one she has wanted in all that time. The sex is hot, frantic and intensely satisfying – even as Jack knows that in the morning, he’s going to have to do something completely despicable.

Because Jack isn’t Jack at all.  He’s Dimitri Veselov, a Russian spy embedded and brought up in the US since his early teens.  He appeared in the previous book in the series, Cold Evidence, where he helped Luke Sevick (the hero of that book) to prevent a disaster that could have killed millions and wiped out a large part of the Pacific Northwest.  Jack/Dimitri disappeared after that, hoping against hope that he would be presumed dead, but that proved not to be the case, and his Russian puppet-masters are once again pulling the strings.  If he is ever to secure the release of the two people most dear to him in the world – his younger sister and her son – he must retrieve a prototype Russian surveillance drone that disappeared somewhere near Palau.

Access to CAM is vital if Dimitri is to carry out his mission, but he has to have Ivy’s help as well, as CAM is biometrically coded to her and she is the only person who knows how to operate it.  When she finds out that Jack isn’t who she’d believed him to be she is horrified to discover that she’s fallen victim to yet another deceitful bastard.  But Dimitri insists that his actions in getting her away have protected both her and the technology, and that he has no intention of harming her.  He can’t risk telling her exactly what is at stake for him, but he tries to show her by his words and deeds that he really is doing as he says and trying to keep her safe.

Without giving too much away, Ivy does come to see that Dimitri isn’t one of the bad guys and agrees to help him. Along the way, here’s plenty of action, tech-geekery, steamy sex scenes and a final twist I absolutely didn’t see coming that had my heart breaking for Dimitri as he discovers the depths of the deception that has been practiced upon him for almost his entire life.

There’s a lot going on in this story and quite a few characters from other novels in the series make cameo appearances, most notably Luke Sevick, Ian Boyd (Covert Evidence) and Curt and Mara Dominick (Body of Evidence).  But the author has included enough information about these people and how they all relate to each other for this book to work perfectly well as a standalone.  In fact, she’s done her job so well that I’m now planning to read them all so I can experience all those stories for myself.  The plot is extremely well-constructed and Ms. Grant’s knowledge of and love of her subject shines through as does the fact that her research into the sorts of technology featured in the story (which is mostly fictional – at the moment!) has been meticulous.  The characterisation of the two leads is excellent and the chemistry between them is smoking hot, from that first, fiery hook-up through the cat-and-mouse games they play as they metaphorically circle each other and try to work out exactly how far they can trust each other – if at all – to the deepening of the emotional bond that has been there almost from the start.  As Rike pointed out in her review of Cold Evidence, Ms. Grant can write a sex scene that scorches the pages but can also write one that shows a growing connection between the lovers that is truly romantic.

The novel’s pacing and the balance between thriller and romance is just about perfect. At no point did I ever feel as though one element was overshadowing the other, and I also enjoyed the archaeological and historical parts of the story.  Poison Evidence was pretty impossible to put down, which is exactly what one wants in a romantic thriller, and I have no hesitation in recommending it highly.