Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’d done it! Plain, invisible Evelyn had escaped…

Fed up with being a doormat to her evil stepmother, heiress Evelyn Bradshaw pays a dissolute rake to pose as her betrothed so she can secure her freedom. But then her fake fiancé leaves her with his estranged brother Finn Matlock and disappears!

Having withdrawn from the world the last thing Finn needs is the temptation of a woman, especially one like Evie. She has an irritating habit of causing chaos wherever she goes and being in places she shouldn’t…including, as he soon learns, his heart!

Rating: B+

In Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal, Virginia Heath offers an enjoyable re-working of the Cinderella story in which our downtrodden – but determined –  heroine is a fully-rounded character with a nicely fleshed-out backstory who doesn’t need to rely on her Prince not-so Charming in order to effect her escape from her horrible relatives.  Prince –or rather, Lord – Grumpy is, however a rather attractive consequence of that escape, and watching the sparks fly as they gradually and quite plausibly fall in love makes for a lovely, romantic read.

Miss Evelyn Bradshaw is twenty-six, plump, frumpy and firmly on the shelf.  Having spent the best part of the last decade nursing first her mother, and then her father when he fell ill some years later, she feels that youth has passed her by and that love and marriage are no longer things to which she can aspire.  Her father’s remarriage to a selfish money-grabber with two equally unpleasant daughters saw Evelyn – Evie – constantly belittled and thrust into the background to the extent that even she believes herself to be practically invisible; but his death offers her the prospect of freedom.  Mr. Bradshaw has left his considerable fortune to Evie, and she is finally determined to escape her step-mother’s orbit, leave London for good and make a life for herself somewhere else.  All Evie has to do is scrape up the courage to announce her plans, but even though Hyacinth Bradshaw has not treated Evie well (although she’s stopped short of getting her to clean the grates and scrub the floors!), Evie has never been able to forget her father’s insistence that she treat her stepmother with respect, and has always done whatever it took to ensure a quiet life.

Unable to just come out and tell Hyacinth of her determination to set up her own home, Evie instead offers the sum of five thousand pounds to the handsome but dissolute Fergus Matlock, Marquis of Stanford, if he will pretend to be her fiancé for the next few months.  The Marquis, who is deeply in debt, agrees to the scheme, and Evie is set to travel to his Yorkshire estate on the pretext of preparing for their wedding. In reality, she will look about for a house to purchase and once she has found one, the betrothal will quietly be ended, and Evie will remain in Yorkshire, well away from London and her stepmother’s constant bullying.

Arriving at Stanford Hall a few days later in the company of her elderly aunt, Evie is pleasantly surprised to discover the place in a much better state of repair than she had been led to believe.  Later that night, when Evie can’t sleep, she wanders down to the library, only to come across Fergus, who is supposed to be staying at a local inn in order to observe the proprieties.  But something is not quite right about him and Evie soon discovers why; he’s not Fergus at all, but his identical twin brother Finnegan, and this is Matlock House, not Stanford House.  It’s clear there is no love lost between the brothers, and Finn makes very clear his displeasure at his twin’s presumption in dumping his fiancée at his house, but Evie refuses to be intimidated by his ungracious manner. Nonetheless, she feels she should remove to Stanford House as soon as possible, but true to form as a cad of the first order, Fergus has already left Yorkshire with the advance on the “fee” Evie had given him.  Finn is not surprised – he tells Evie (not for the first time) that his brother is an unreliable wastrel and that she shouldn’t marry him, but this is the new Evie, the Evie that sticks up for herself and doesn’t cower when confronted with the scowling, brusque brother of a marquis, and she insists that she knows perfectly well what Fergus is and that he suits her well enough.

Finn Matlock is a widower of some three years, and since his wife’s death, has buried himself in this corner of Yorkshire, his life consisting of seeing to his estate business and not much else.  He doesn’t socialise, he doesn’t have guests  – until now – and he wants to keep it that way – so the stirrings of attraction he feels towards his brother’s voluptuous fiancée are both unexpected and unwelcome.  Yet very soon, he finds himself admiring her backbone and determination as much as her lush body and, though he’d never admit it, looking forward to breakfast each day, as that’s the only time of day he dares to let himself spend with her.  Every morning, he not-so-subtly baits her, enjoying her completely unfazed responses to his jibes about his brother and his attempts to persuade her not to marry him, her casual manner of taking no notice of his heavy hints about her departure and the way she ignores his regular criticisms of her – admittedly horrible – clothes (a leftover from the days of Hyacinth’s influence over her wardrobe).

This daily ritual becomes important to Evie, too, as she likes the way Finn challenges her and the person she is when she’s with him. She is sure that a handsome, wealthy man like him could have no real interest in an overly plump, aging spinster like her – even if he wasn’t still in love with his late wife – and recognises that falling for him is a terrible idea.  But even as she realises that, she knows it’s too late for caution; the real Finn, the kind, protective man who hides his deep hurt and true nature beneath that outer shell of bad-temper and cynicism has stolen her heart.

Away from London, Evie transforms from the doormat she’s always describing herself as into a more confident, independent young woman who is looking forward to the rest of her life because it will be one she has built on her own terms.  This is one of the things that makes this version of the fairy tale so appealing;  Evie finds the wherewithal to go out and make a life of her own from within and doesn’t need a man to rescue her – although she does, of course find true love along the way.  And for all his outward grumpiness, Finn is perfect for her.  He is determined to fight his ever growing attraction to Evie, but her vitality and her growing self-confidence are so completely enticing that it eventually proves irresistible; so not only is Evie changed by their association, but Finn also comes to accept that the guilt he still feels over his wife’s death is misplaced, and that he is allowed to be happy and move on with his life.

This is – I think – the fourth book of Ms. Heath’s I’ve read and I continue to be impressed by her strong storytelling and thoughtful characterisations.  While Miss Bradshaw’s Bought Betrothal undoubtedly treads a well-worn path, the author has managed to keep it fresh by throwing in a number of small, but satisfying twists that add depth and insight to this familiar tale.  She writes with a great deal of warmth and humour, creating the most wonderful chemistry between her principals as well as treating us to some moments of poignancy and emotional truth that quite took my breath away.

If you haven’t yet tried a book by Virginia Heath, then you have a treat in store.  I guarantee that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back to read her others and then, like me, will be eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.


At Close Range (Tracers #11) by Laura Griffin


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a lakeside tryst ends in a double murder, police detective Daniele Harper arrives on the scene determined to get answers. Clues are everywhere, but nothing adds up. Dani turns to the Delphi Center crime lab for help, but soon regrets it when her secret attraction to their chief firearms examiner threatens to distract her from the most important case of her career.

As a ballistics expert and former Navy SEAL, Scott Black knows firearms, and he knows he can help Dani unravel her case. Scott has managed to hide his interest in his best friend’s younger sister for years, but when her investigation brings them together, the sparks between them quickly get out of control. Scott resolves to keep his hands off Dani and his eyes on the goal—identifying a killer. But when that killer zeroes in on Dani, all bets are off. There isn’t a line Scott won’t cross to convince Dani to trust him so that he can help her take down a ruthless murderer who has her in his sights.

Rating: B+

Although At Close Range is the eleventh book in Laura Griffin’s Tracers series, I didn’t feel as though I’d missed out by not having read the previous ten books.  Information about the Tracers themselves and the highly advanced forensic facility at which they work is disseminated quickly and without getting bogged down in too much detail; and even though some characters from the earlier novels make appearances, they are here as secondary characters and there’s no overlap of their stories with this one.

The plot is fast-moving and complex, with plenty of action and suspense and a focus on a particular area of science which is very relevant, giving the story a really up-to-the-minute feel.  But not everything is flashy and hi-tech; the plotlines and characteristics are very strongly grounded in reality – even for a Brit whose knowledge of the US justice system comes primarily from watching the various police procedurals which grace our TV screens ;).

Recently-minted Detective Daniele (Dani) Harper is both pleased and wary when she is assigned as lead detective on the case of the double homicide of a college professor and the young woman with whom he was having an affair.  While it’s flattering that her boss, Ric Santos, feels she’s up to the job, the fact that the victims were both on staff at the local university means the case is going to attract a lot of media attention, and deep down, Dani is worried that she’s not ready to take on a leadership role.  But she’s nothing if not tenacious so she grits her teeth and throws herself into the investigation, determined not to let Ric down and to show that she – the daughter of a cop and sister of a prosecutor with the DA’s office – has earned her place through dint of sheer hard work and not because of her family connections.

Firearms and ballistics expert Scott Black joined the Tracers – the forensic team at the Delphi Center – when a knee injury forced him to retire from his work as a Navy SEAL. He and Dani have known each other for around fifteen years owing to his friendships with her brothers, so he’s always treated her like his best friend’s kid sister.  But that changed a few months earlier when they shared a drunken New Year’s Eve kiss, and things have been awkward between them ever since.  Dani has fancied Scott for years, but never thought anything would come of it – and while he is equally attracted to her, according to the unwritten code of guy friendship, his friend’s little sister is strictly off limits.

When Scott arrives at the crime scene, Dani isn’t sure whether to be relieved or dismayed.  She knows he’s the best at what he does, but doesn’t want the feelings she still harbours for him to get in the way of their working together.  Worse, it’s obvious right from the start that this is going to be a tough case.  The crime scene is surprisingly unhelpful; the female victim had no ID or phone – or none that was found – and the bullets and shell-casings retrieved are useless.  Good old-fashioned policing reveals the dead woman to have been Tessa Lovett, research assistant to James Ayres, professor of microbiology, and the woman with whom he’d been having an affair for quite some time.  Moreover, both victims had previously worked together in New Mexico, and both had recently relocated to San Marco – to a less prestigious university – and taken pay cuts, neither of which makes sense.

The ante is well and truly upped when Dani’s house is broken into late at night and her ID and laptop are stolen.  She gives chase but is unable to catch up with the interloper – and it becomes even more evident that she’s dealing with something other than a simple crime of passion perpetrated against an adulterous husband.  Events take an even more surprising turn when Scott is implicated in the crime and he is suspended from duty.  Whoever is behind the murders has planned meticulously, always seeming to be one step ahead of Dani in a bewildering game of cat and mouse as each lead she uncovers seems doomed to be cut off before she can pursue it.  And although Scott is officially off the case, he’ll be damned before he leaves the task of proving his innocence to someone else, even someone he trusts as much as Dani.  But his determination to protect her as well as to find out who has framed him risks the integrity of the evidence and the entire case; and when the perpetrators put them firmly in the firing line, their relationship is tested even as the ever-present attraction between them ignites into something neither is quite sure how to handle.

The suspense story is extremely well-put together, with lots of unforeseeable twists and turns and moments of high-octane drama, and I found myself on the edge of my seat several times.  Ms. Griffin really knows how to pile on the tension without taking things too far; as an example, there’s a brilliant set-piece around the middle of the book which is a terrific example of how to write a heroes-in-peril action scene, and in which the descriptions and imagery are so vivid that it was like I was watching a movie in my head.

The romance between Scott and Dani is well done, too, although it’s secondary to the suspense plot.  The pair has known each other for years, so their unacknowledged mutual attraction is of fairly long standing and the chemistry between them is pretty intense.  Since he came back from Afghanistan, Scott’s only relationships have been of the one-night variety, and even though he wants Dani, he tries to hold back, believing she deserves better than him.  His mixed signals – one minute he’s kissing her, the next he’s keeping his distance – and his insistence on pursuing his own investigation infuriate the hell out of Dani, but she also knows there’s no-one else she’d rather have watching her back.  They circle around each other warily, neither of them wanting to admit to anything they can’t pull back from, but as the danger intensifies, it becomes impossible for them to go on denying that there’s more between them than sexual attraction.

At Close Range is an exciting, action-packed story that certainly won’t be the last I’ll read by Laura Griffin.  The plot is well-constructed and the resolution is audacious but plausible with cleverly planted clues; and the two principals are strongly characterised and well-matched.  Because the novels are standalones, it’s the sort of series one can dip in and out of, so I’ll definitely be revisiting the team at the Delphi Center in the not too distant future.

Between the Devil and the Duke (Season for Scandal #3) by Kelly Bowen


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Their love was always in the cards.
He should have thrown her out. But when club owner Alexander Lavoie catches a mysterious blonde counting cards at his vingt-et-un table, he’s more intrigued than angry. He has to see more of this beauty—in his club, in his office, in his bed. But first he’ll have to devise a proposition she can’t turn down.

Gossip said he was an assassin.
Common sense told her to stay away. But Angelique Archer was desperate, and Lavoie’s club offered a surefire way to make quick money—until she got caught. Instead of throwing her out though, the devil offers her a deal: come work for him. Refusing him means facing starvation, but with a man so sinfully handsome and fiercely protective, keeping things professional might prove impossible.

Rating: A-

Kelly Bowen is one of the best of the bunch of new authors of historical romance to have emerged in the last couple of years, and she continues to show herself more than deserving of the praise her novels have received. I’ve reviewed a few and rated them highly, impressed by her ability to craft strong plotlines and characters, and to imbue her dialogue with unforced humour and realism. Best of all, she writes a strong, well-developed romance that sizzles with sexual tension while also showing the protagonists becoming emotionally intimate. Her current Season for Scandal series makes use of an unusual premise, and, in the last two books (Duke of My Heart and A Duke to Remember) she’s allowed her heroines to positively shine as independent, intelligent women who make their own rules while continuing to live within the bounds set by society. Not for Ms. Bowen the curl-tossing, foot-stamping, annoying “feisty” heroine; no, her ladies are clever, pragmatic, determined, and – when called for – devious; qualities which make them irresistibly attractive to their heroes, men who are secure enough in their masculinity to be able to appreciate their unique talents.

In Between the Devil and the Duke, the third book in the series, we meet Lady Angelique Archer, a young woman carrying the weight of her family’s responsibilities on her slim shoulders. Her father, the Marquess of Hutton, died recently in a carriage accident, but left very little money to his four children; and her older brother, the new marquess, is very quickly spending what little there is on drink, women, gambling and dodgy investments. Angelique is at her wit’s end. Her younger twin brothers risk being kicked out of Harrow if she can’t find the money to pay their fees; the household bills are mounting and she has already sold everything of value that isn’t nailed down. Her brother shows no sign of relinquishing his dissolute – and expensive – lifestyle, so it’s up to her to find a solution. While she’s very beautiful, Angelique never “took” during her one season, acquiring herself a reputation as The Marble Maiden owing to her inability to dance or make small talk or display any of the accomplishments required of a débutante. So given that reputation and that her current state of impoverishment is unlikely to remain a secret for long, marrying money is not an option. Not that she wants to sell herself off to the highest bidder anyway. An almost-betrothal to one of her brother’s closest friends, was a near escape and it’s one she has no wish to repeat.

We met Alexander Lavoie in Duke of My Heart, and learned that he is a partner in Chagarre and Associates, the business run by Ivory Moore (now Duchess of Alderidge), which is one of the best kept secrets in London.  The firm specialises in fixing the seemingly disastrous and making scandal disappear, and is discreet, efficient and very expensive.  Alex is also the proprietor of a highly successful gaming establishment, and thus very well placed to learn the sorts of secrets in which the firm trades. Rumoured to have been both a spy and an assassin, he is charming, clever, manipulative, and dangerously sexy – but completely unprepared for the sudden fascination he experiences for the anonymous woman playing quietly at the vingt-et-un table who wins a lot more than she loses.

She hasn’t gone unnoticed by him on her previous visits, but on this particular night, she is on the receiving end of some unwelcome attention from one of the men at her table,  so Alex steps in to politely but firmly encourage him to desist.  Alex is already curious about her – she obviously knows what she’s doing at the card table, but isn’t blatant about it; she loses small amounts, wins large ones and knows how to use her physical assets to distract a man and put him off his game.

When Alex realises that behind Angelique’s lovely exterior lies a brilliant mathematical mind, he offers her a job.  He can tell that she’s not at his club for fun or to indulge in the thrill of the forbidden; she needs the money, but he doesn’t know why, and is determined to ferret out the truth.  He knows a woman in trouble when he sees one; and when he encounters her brother and two of his inebriated friends, he begins to have an inkling of its source.

The story that follows is well-plotted and nicely paced, as Alex and Angelique – with the help of Ivory and Max – start to piece together the truth concerning the late marquess’ finances, uncovering a trail of smuggling,  blackmail and murder.  It’s an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story, and I was completely caught up in it and anxious to know what was going to happen next.

The romance is very well done, too. The sparks fly between Angelique and Alex right from the start; the tension between them at their first meeting is thick enough to be cut with a knife and the connection between them is intense.  I love a smitten hero in a romance, and there’s no doubt that Alex is well and truly bowled over by Angelique – but what I loved even more is that while he’s undoubtedly physically attracted to her, he’s just as wowed by her mental acuity.  Following on from his offer of employment, Angelique presents him with a proposal as to how she can maximise the profits from her vingt-et-un table – and for Alex, it’s a real coup de foudre; he is “rather afraid he had just fallen in love.” 

Angelique is just as strongly attracted to Alex, although her experience with the men in her life who were supposed to look after her and didn’t – her father, her brother – makes her understandably cautious about trusting anyone but herself.  She tries to keep Alex out, but his kindness and his persistence gradually break down her barriers until she realises she can trust him absolutely. They are a very well-matched couple, not just mentally, but in the way they are able to provide something the other has been missing. Alex encourages Angelique to be herself in a way that nobody else ever has and I really enjoyed watching her self-confidence blossom as the result of his love and acceptance; and Alex, who has preferred to remain aloof and never shared much of himself with anyone, finds the sort of contentment with Angelique that he’d never expected to feel.

Between the Devil and the Duke is a really enjoyable story, and I loved every minute of it.  The story is engrossing, the characterisation is excellent and the love scenes are sensual and romantic. Kelly Bowen has further cemented her place as one of the best of the historical romance authors currently writing, and I’m eagerly looking forward to her next book.

Seven Minutes in Heaven (Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers #3) by Eloisa James


This title may be purchased from Amazon

All of Eugenia Snowe’s problems start when Edward Reeve, an arrogant bastard son of an earl, bursts into her registry office. He wants a governess and he wants her. She gives him the governess he demands, but she refuses to give herself.

No question that Eugenia enjoys crossing wits with the brilliant inventor, but she will never tarnish her reputation with an affaire, particularly with a man who doesn’t realize she’s a lady!

She holds her ground… until he kidnaps her.

Ward will stop at nothing to convince Eugenia that they’re meant to be together. He promises her heaven.

She gives him seven minutes.

Rating: B-

Seven Minutes in Heaven is the third in Eloisa James’  Desperate Duchess by the Numbers series which is a kind of Desperate Duchesses TNG – the heroes and heroines featured in these books appeared as children in some of the earlier stories and are now grown up and getting their own.  This means that there are some references to characters from and events that took place in both series; I confess that while I’ve read the previous two books in the By the Numbers series (Three Weeks with Lady X and Four Nights with the Duke), I haven’t read all of the Desperate Duchesses books which meant that I was sometimes a bit adrift as to who was related to whom.  But for the most part, Seven Minutes works perfectly well as a standalone.

Mrs. Eugenia Snowe has been a widow for some seven years, having lost her young husband in a boating accident.  The daughter of a marquess, she now owns and operates a very exclusive agency that supplies governesses to the best families, and even though her social standing has taken a just the tiniest bit of a dip because she engages in ‘trade’, she is nonetheless regarded as a woman of the highest standing and steadiest character throughout society. (I don’t think we’re told why she styles herself ‘Mrs.’ when she is entitled to be called ‘Lady’.  Mind you, if she had used her title, there would be no book.)

Eugenia has become very much a ‘dull boy’ over the last few years, rarely taking the time to visit friends and family or attend any of the various society events to which she is regularly invited.  She is still not fully over Andrew’s death and even though, as a woman of beauty, brains and fortune, she could have her pick of men, she isn’t ready to remarry.  Although, as her best friend and assistant, Susan, points out, as a widow, she doesn’t have to marry a man in order to enjoy one 😉  Eugenia liked the physical side of marriage, but has never thought about the possibility of engaging in a discreet affaire… and she probably wouldn’t have done, had not the handsome, overbearing and persistent Mr. Edward Reeve,  bastard son of the Earl of Gryffin, barged into her office demanding a replacement governess  for his eight and nine year-old half-siblings.

Reeve –or Ward, as he is known to his friends – is in a bind.  His own irregular birth has never really bothered or hindered him, but when his half-brother and half-sister are literally dumped on his doorstep following the death of their mother, Ward takes them in and determines to do his best to care for them.  But it’s not easy.  For one thing, Lizzie and Otis were brought up in a travelling acting troupe and their behaviour is unconventional to say the least; and for another, their mother was the eccentric (widely regarded as mad) Lady Lisette, who ran off with a man half her age. Her mother, the Duchess of Gilner is now set on wresting the guardianship of her grandchildren from Ward, in the face of the wishes of both their parents.

Ward knows the duchess to be a despotic, uncaring woman and is equally determined that the children remain with him – but he needs to show that he can care for them.  Otis needs to be prepared to go to Eton, and Lizzie needs to be educated and taught all the things the daughter of a viscount needs to know.  The children have obviously not had an easy time of it, and I liked the way in which Ms. James makes the reader aware of that without making anything overly sensational or maudlin.  It’s very clear that these are children desperately in need of love, security and normalcy, and that they are going to need careful nurturing for a while until they get used to the fact that they have a permanent place in the world and in their brother’s life.

The replacement governess doesn’t work out either, and Ward is becoming desperate.  So he travels to London, determined to ask Eugenia to return to Oxfordshire with him – temporarily – so that she can see the children for herself and spend some time with them in order to better appreciate the task facing him.

According to the book synopsis, Ward ‘kidnaps’ Eugenia, but fortunately, she is quite happy to go with him, making it clear that she is open to the idea of having an affair with him. Their conversation at this point is laden with amusing and steamy double-entendres and sexually-charged banter;  but given these two people barely know each other and have really only corresponded up until now, it feels inappropriate – it’s too much too soon.

Much like Mary Poppins, Eugenia is able to see what Lizzie and Otis really need and begins to build a relationship with them – and not like Mary Poppins, does it while she and Ward are engaged in a relationship of another kind.  He finds himself thinking about permanence, but dismisses the idea quickly.  Because of his illegitimacy and his mother’s terrible reputation, Ward needs to marry well if Otis and Lizzie are going to be able to hold up their heads in society.  He needs a wife above reproach, a Lady with a capital ‘L’, one ‘to the manor born’ to ensure that they are received everywhere; and a former governess – Ward seems to be the only person in England who is ignorant of Eugenia’s pedigree – won’t cut the mustard.  So he is prepared to sacrifice his own happiness for the sake of his brother and sister and let Eugenia go at the end of her two week’s stay.

I liked Ward’s protectiveness of them, and Otis and Lizzie themselves are engaging – if a little too precocious to be believable.  But the use of this particular device to create the conflict in the romance is so flimsy as to be see-through.  We’re to believe that Ward really can’t recognise that Eugenia IS a lady, in spite of the odd spurt of behaviour HE (the model of propriety himself – not!)  considers unladylike?  We’re to believe that nobody, but NOBODY – the person who suggested he employ a Snowe’s governess for example – remarked upon her social standing, even in passing?  Her assistant, Susan, who is the one who tells Ward where to find Eugenia on the day he ‘kidnaps’ her, never mentioned it?  There’s living outside of society and there’s living under a rock.

Ms. James writes with her customary elegance and assurance, and there is no question that she is a dab hand with the risqué banter and sexy love scenes.  But overall, the book lacks… heart, for want of a better word.  Ward is a stereotypically handsome, virile, protective hero with a soft side he doesn’t often show and Eugenia is, well, she’s Practically Perfect in Every Way.  It seems there is nothing she cannot do, whether it’s in the bedroom or the kitchen.  She is a woman with no flaws and I just couldn’t warm to her.

Seven Minutes in Heaven  was an easy read, but ultimately one from which I felt rather disconnected .  Neither of the protagonists really came to life or made me want to know them better; and when I finished I found myself equating it with a perfectly polished piece of veneer – a beautiful surface but with nothing substantial underneath.

The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

“This, madam, changes everything.”

Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…

Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!

Rating: B

The Duke’s Secret Heir is a second-chance romance that is loosely related to Sarah Mallory’s previous series, The Infamous Arrandales by virtue of the fact that its heroine appeared as a secondary character in The Chaperone’s Seduction. Miss Ellen Tatham as she then was, was a wealthy heiress of just seventeen, and her good-humoured level-headedness was a refreshing change from the sort of immature tantrum-throwing-teens often found within the pages of romance novels.

Having her own fortune – albeit one that came from trade – enabled Ellen to live an independent life and she spent some time after her come-out travelling with her former teacher and friend, Mrs. Ackroyd. While in Egypt some four years earlier, Ellen met and fell in love with Major Max Colnebrooke, and after a two-week, whirlwind romance, married him.  After just a few weeks, the uncertain military and political situation in the region meant that it was unsafe for Ellen to remain with Max, so he arranged for her to travel back to England with the assistance of a fellow officer, and they agreed that she would wait for Max in Portsmouth.

Unfortunately, however, amid all the confusion of the British occupation of Alexandria, Ellen and her companion were unable to adhere to Max’s plan, and instead left Egypt with the assistance of the French Consul who saw them safely to France and then arranged for them to be smuggled back to England.  On her return, Ellen is shocked to discover that there is no record whatsoever of Max’s presence in Egypt; there were no regiments stationed south of Cairo and most certainly there was no military chaplain in the area.  Devastated, she concludes she has been duped, believing that Max arranged a fake marriage just so he could get her into bed.

When Max learned that Ellen had left Egypt with the French Consul, he immediately assumed the worst and believed that she had deserted him for a new lover.  Mired in grief and rage, Max recklessly undertook increasingly dangerous missions, many of which resulted in loss of life or serious injury to others while he himself remained unscathed and for which, years later, he now carries a huge burden of guilt.

In the four years since her marriage, Ellen has made a life for herself in the Northern spa town of Harrogate, where she is widely liked and respected.  But her settled existence is thrown into chaos one evening at a ball, when she is introduced to the Duke of Rossenhall – who is none other than her estranged husband, the man she had known as Max Colnebrooke.  Both she and Max are completely unprepared for such an event, and their meeting is fraught with thinly veiled hostility.  When they are able to have a conversation, it becomes very clear to Ellen that Max is labouring under a misapprehension about the circumstances of her departure from Egypt, and that he is extremely bitter and furiously angry. He informs her that their marriage was legal and that she is his duchess – for as long as it will take him to procure a divorce.  He doesn’t care about the cost or the scandal; he just cannot countenance being married to a woman who betrayed him so easily.  Ellen quickly admits that she had jumped to the wrong conclusions, but Max is adamant – until confronted with something he had not even considered, a little boy of around three years of age who addresses Ellen as “Mama”. Max knows not even a moment’s doubt; the boy’s resemblance to him is too great for him to believe otherwise than that he is looking at his son.

The existence of James – Jamie – changes everything. Max may not care about damaging Ellen’s reputation, but he is not prepared to tarnish his heir’s name with scandal, and he coldly informs his wife that they are to remain married for the sake of the boy.  Ellen is genuinely repentant for having so easily believed the worst of Max and hopes that perhaps they can eventually become friends, even if there is no longer the possibility of there being any deeper feeling between them.  But Max is bitter and aloof – and angry at the idea that Ellen had deliberately concealed the fact of his son’s existence from him, making the likelihood of amicable co-existence recede even further.

While the story is based around a Big Misunderstanding, Ms. Mallory doesn’t allow it to go on for too long so that after the first few chapters, both Max and Ellen know that what they believed about the circumstances surrounding their marriage and Ellen’s departure to have been erroneous.  Ellen wants to apologise and move forward, but Max is unable to get past his resentment, blaming his devastation at her desertion for his willingness to throw himself into the path of danger over and over again, his despair driving him to undertake the most difficult and life-threatening missions available.  He can’t deny that he is still strongly attracted to his wife, but because he blames himself – and indirectly, her – for the deaths and injuries sustained by many of his comrades, he cannot find it in himself to let go of his guilt and admit the possibility of reconciliation.

Max blaming Ellen for HIS recklessness is distasteful; his resentment has little foundation and while Ms. Mallory doesn’t try to make his position acceptable or palatable, it’s difficult to have any sympathy for him, especially in the early stages of the book when he is thoroughly disagreeable to Ellen.  What the author does very well, though, is to show the real affection that grows between Max and his son, and the way in which Ellen so quickly makes herself an indispensible part of the life of his home and his estate.  She is intelligent, sensible and unfailingly polite to everyone, no matter what their station; and that includes putting up with her miserable, stuck-up sister-in-law, the dowager Duchess, who believes almost everyone to be beneath her notice and does not hesitate to make it clear that she considers the daughter of a tradesman unfit to be a duchess. It’s clear that neither Ellen nor Max has stopped loving or desiring each other – but the question is whether Max can ever put his own prejudices aside and allow himself to love Ellen and make a life with her.  His internal struggles are well done; the author expertly conveys how torn he is between the guilt he stubbornly tries to cling to and the truth he sees every day – Ellen’s love for and care of their son, her excellent management of his home and her essential goodness.  My main criticism of this aspect of the story is that the ending is rather rushed;  Max has had plenty of time, it’s true, to realise that he is tormenting himself for no good reason, but it takes him a little too long to admit it.

The Duke’s Secret Heir is well-written and the motivations and emotions of the characters are shown and explained really well; even though, as with Max’s issues, I couldn’t agree with them.  I enjoyed the book, but I can’t deny that Max’s determination to shut Ellen out because of his own faults and misconceptions caused me to lower my final grade a little.  Even so, it’s an entertaining, angsty read, and one that should appeal to those who enjoy second-chance romances.

The Devil’s Daughter (Hidden Sins #1) by Katee Robert


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Growing up in a small town isn’t easy, especially when you’re the daughter of a local cult leader. Ten years ago, Eden Collins left Clear Springs, Montana, and never once looked back. But when the bodies of murdered young women surface, their corpses violated and marked with tattoos worn by her mother’s followers, Eden, now an FBI agent, can’t turn a blind eye. To catch the killer, she’s going to have to return to the fold.

Sheriff Zach Owens isn’t comfortable putting Eden in danger, even if she is an elite agent. And he certainly wasn’t expecting to be so attracted to her. As calm and cool as she appears, he knows this can’t be a happy homecoming. Zach wants to protect her—from her mother, the cult, and the evil that lurks behind its locked gates. But Eden is his only key to the tight-lipped group, and she may just be closer to the killer than either one of them suspects…

Rating: B

Katee Robert is probably best known for her sexy contemporary romances. With The Devil’s Daughter, she’s moved into romantic suspense territory, and has done so with a reasonable degree of success, penning a well-paced and gripping tale that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

Sheriff Zach Owens, a former Marine, saw enough killing, bloodshed and violence during his various tours of Iraq to have made him want to leave it behind him and settle down in the relatively quiet Montana backwater of Clear Springs. The worst he usually has to deal with involve the odd DUI, theft and minor crimes, and sometimes keeping a lid on the suspicion harboured by some of the locals towards Elysia, the large compound outside of town which is home to a religious cult. Most of the time, the town and the cult manage to co-exist peacefully, but when a local girl goes missing and her ultra-conservative, church-going parents insist that someone from the cult is responsible for her disappearance, Zach has to walk a tight-rope between doing everything he can to find the girl and keeping the simmering resentment of her parents and their supporters from igniting the tensions between Clear Springs and Elysia and provoking a serious incident.

Zach’s fears are confirmed when he receives news that the naked body of a teenager has been found just outside town and he fully expects this to be the missing girl – but it isn’t. It’s another local girl, one who was believed to have left town to attend college, hence the fact she’d not been missed. And to make things worse, the girl is linked to Martha Collins, the head of the commune at Elysia, by virtue of the fact that Martha wrote her letters of reference for college. Zach knows that any direct approach to Martha or her inner circle will be shut down and met with their usual brand of stonewalling, but with a murder directly linked to the group, and suspicions mounting that they have something to do with the other girl’s disappearance, Zach is going to have to tread carefully if he’s to stand any chance of getting answers, finding the missing teenager or solving the murder.

Eden Collins escaped from the commune and her mother’s influence when she was eighteen. Now an agent working for the Behavioural Analysis Unit at the FBI, she’d never thought to return to Clear Springs, wanting to remain as far from there as possible, but when she’s anonymously sent a picture of the murdered girl, which clearly show tattoos identical to the ones Eden has, she knows she has to go back. Zach is initially suspicious of her presence and her motives. As Martha Collins’ daughter, Eden is not the most popular new face in town, and even Eden can understand why Zach feels the way he does. But she insists he needs all the help he can get in order to find the missing girl before she becomes the killer’s next victim.

The small-town setting of this story is used to great effect in creating an atmosphere of oppression and insularity which helps to build a sense of menace in the mind of the reader.  Another thing the author does very well is to show just how deeply affected Eden was and continues to be by her upbringing and life as the daughter of a clever, manipulative and ruthless woman.   Eden has been out of Elysia for a decade; she’s an intelligent, independent, capable woman who is obviously good at her job, and yet coming back to Clear Springs almost threatens wipe out those ten years.  She knows how controlling and devious Martha is, and knows she has to keep her wits about her if she’s not going to get sucked back in; and Ms. Roberts communicates Eden’s complicated feelings  about Martha and Elysia with insight and skill.

The suspense plot is well-executed and especially unsettling on the few occasions the story is told from the PoV of the murdered girls.  I had my suspicions as to the identity of the villain, but it wasn’t too obvious, and overall I was satisfied with the way that storyline played out.

I can’t say the same of the romantic aspect of the book, however, which comes as a surprise given Ms. Robert is known as a romance writer.  Zach and Eden are a good fit; intelligent, competent people who are dedicated to their jobs and who are both carrying around a bit of emotional baggage.  But the romance isn’t really given enough time to develop, and as a result, it feels as though it has just been tacked on.  Their first kiss, for example, comes out of the blue when their relationship really only consists of suspicion and work-related disagreements.   In this context, sniping at each other doesn’t work as verbal foreplay, and there isn’t much chemistry between them.  The book ends with an HFN rather than an HEA for Zach and Eden, with both of them agreeing to pursue a relationship while continuing with their jobs and lives in different places

The Devil’s Daughter is billed as being the first book in the Hidden Sins series, and I’m certainly not averse to reading more, but I’m hoping that Ms. Robert will be able to achieve more of a balance between the romance and the mystery in the next book.

The Scottish Duke by Karen Ranney (audiobook) – Narrated by Tim Campbell


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Though raised as a gentleman’s daughter, Lorna Gordon is obliged to take a position as an upstairs maid at Blackhall Castle when her father dies. Alex Russell, the Duke of Kinross, is the most tempting man she’s ever seen—and completely unattainable—until, at a fancy dress ball, Lorna disguises herself as Marie Antoinette and pursues an illicit tryst…with scandalous consequences.

Months after his mysterious seductress disappears, Alex encounters her again. Far from the schemer the distrustful duke assumed her to be, Lorna is fiercely independent and resourceful. She’s the one woman capable of piercing his defenses. But when danger threatens Lorna, Alex must prove himself not just the lover of her fantasies, but the man who will fight to protect her.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – B

The Scottish Duke is the first book in a new series from Karen Ranney, and is set in Victorian Scotland on the estate of the eponymous duke, Alexander Russell, Duke of Kinross. Alex is a scientifically minded gentleman – principally interested in the emerging science of fingerprinting – and on the day the book opens has suffered a big professional disappointment; his work was passed over by the Scottish Society for Scientific Achievement. His plan to hide away, sulk and get extremely drunk is going to be difficult to carry out given that he is hosting a grand, fancy-dress ball that evening, but he’s had enough of polite society and is well on the way to being half-cut when he notices the young woman dressed as Marie Antoinette and is immediately intrigued by her stillness. Unlike everyone else who is busy chatting, flirting and dancing, “Marie” is just taking stock of her surroundings, until their gazes meet and Alex decides it’s time to forego the drink and indulge in another of life’s pleasures.

The daughter of a renowned botanist, Lorna Gordon was forced to take work a maid at Blackhall Castle in order to support herself after her father’s death a couple of years earlier. She is infatuated with the Duke of Kinross, who is quite the handsomest man she has ever seen, and when she finds an old costume in the attics, decides to go to the ball in the hopes of seeing him. Her friend, Nan, tries to discourage her, but Lorna won’t be talked out of it; it’s her only chance of ever experiencing a society ball. And perhaps, getting to see the duke up close.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.