Sinful Scottish Laird (Highland Grooms #2) by Julia London

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Widowed and forced to remarry in three years’ time or forfeit her son’s inheritance, Daisy Bristol, Lady Chatwick, has plenty of suitors vying for her hand and her fortune. But a letter from a long-lost love sends Daisy and her young son to her Scottish Highland estate to buy time for his return. Along the way she encounters the powerful Cailean Mackenzie, laird of Arrandale and a notorious smuggler, and she is utterly and unwillingly bewitched.

Cailean has no use for any Sassenach in his glen. But Daisy’s brazen, flirtatious nature and alluring beauty intrigue him. When her first love appears unexpectedly at her estate, Cailean knows that a passionate woman like Daisy cannot marry this man. And to prevent the union, Cailean must put his own life at risk to win her heart.

Rating: B

Julia London returns to the Scottish Highlands in the region of Balhaire for Sinful Scottish Laird, the second book in her Highland Grooms series. Like the previous book, Wild Wicked Scot, the story takes place during a time of great unrest, with the Jacobites who are loyal to the deposed Stuart kings still actively trying to topple the Hanoverian monarchy installed just over three decades earlier. Unlike that book, however, the political background here is much more low key, even though there is the ever present discontent among the Highland population at their treatment by the English, especially when it concerns the ridiculously high taxes that are being levied on the basic goods that are needed to survive.

Shortages and high taxation rates naturally encourage the growth of “Free Trade” – smuggling – and Cailean Mackenzie, oldest son and heir of Laird Arran Mackenzie (hero of Wild Wicked Scot) and his brother Aulay frequently cross the seas to France in order to bring in cargoes of necessities as well as the finest French wines and brandies that can be sold at a tidy profit.

When he isn’t engaged in piracy, Cailean spends most of his time at his estate, Arrandale, working upon the house he is building for himself there. A youthful romance-gone-wrong has left him shy of emotional involvement and preferring to keep his relations with women informal and short-lived. At thirty-five, he has decided that love and marriage isn’t for him; he has grown to like his own company and solitary pursuits and is content to leave it to his brothers Aulay and Rabbie to secure the Mackenzie succession.

Daisy Bristol, the widow of Viscount Chatwick, has travelled to the Highlands to hide out at the hunting lodge of Auchenard, which is part of her late husband’s estate and now belongs to her nine-year-old son, Ellis. In his will, the late viscount stipulated that Daisy must marry within three years of his death, or her son’s inheritance will be forfeit – meaning Ellis will inherit the estate, but not the money to support it.  Naturally, Daisy is furious; her husband actually told her to her face that he believed she would mismanage their son’s finances, which is why he added that claue to his will AND instructed Bishop Craig to help find Daisy a suitable second husband.  Not wishing to subject herself to the control of another man – at least, not straight away – Daisy has put off marrying again for the past two years, but now realises the error of her ways as her time is running out.  But then, out of the blue, news reaches her that she thinks will solve her problems.  Before her parents made the match with Chatwick, Daisy had fallen in love with a young naval officer, Robert Spivey, but because he was not of her rank, was not allowed to marry him and he went away to sea.  But now he has returned, and Daisy hopes that perhaps they can rekindle their romance with a happier outcome this time.  But the bishop is eager to arrange a betrothal for her, and because her situation is widely known and there is no shortage of men eager to marry her money, Daisy decides it will be safer for her to get away from London and all those fortune-hunting potential suitors in order to await Rob’s return.

She, her son and their entourage are not far from their destination, when their carriage wheel breaks and they are stuck in the middle of nowhere.  A group of riders approaches and offers help, but the English party is suspicious and believes they are about to be set upon – all except Daisy, who keeps a clear head and engages the leader of the men in conversation.  Inside, however, she’s anything but calm.  The big, handsome Scotsman with the piercing blue eyes stirs her blood and steals her breath, and it’s all she can do to politely send him on his way.  But she can’t stop thinking about him, and the strength of her reaction; she’s been a widow for two years, and even when her husband was in good health, she’s never experienced such intense desire.

Over the next days and weeks, Daisy and Cailean encounter each other frequently, and while he is initially grumpy and downright hostile towards her, he gradually begins to admire her spirit and to enjoy spending time with Ellis, a quiet, but friendly boy who, Cailean realises, has had no proper male role model in his life.  I liked that it’s Daisy who makes no secret of her admiration of Caliean and her attraction to him, while he’s adamant that he isn’t interested in her flirtation and doesn’t want to be “trifled with” – although as he comes to know her, he certainly does flirt back a little, and shows that beneath his guarded exterior is a man possessed of considerable warmth, charm and humour.

Of course, Cailean eventually discovers that Daisy has laid waste to all the barriers he’d erected around his heart, but there is more separating them than the fact that he’s a Scot and she’s English.  It’s true that the English are not looked upon kindly by the Scots – and vice-versa – but there’s also the fact that with Ellis holding an English title, he needs to be educated and brought up in England so that he can make the connections he will need later in life.  And complicating things still further,  there’s the unexpected appearance in Scotland of Robert Spivey, formerly Captain Spivey of the Royal Navy – and the man who has been trying to apprehend Cailean and Aulay for more than a year.

I confess that I’m not the greatest fan of books with the words Highland or Scot in the title, as many of those I’ve read seem to have recycled the same plots and characters, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this series so far. Sinful Scottish Laird is an extremely readable, character-driven romance in which the relationship between Cailean and Daisy remains front and centre throughout. The obstacles they have to face are very real, and although they are perhaps overcome a little too conveniently by the end, the journey on which the author takes us in order to get there is well put-together and contains moments of poignancy and heartbreak.  There is a well-drawn secondary cast, and the background of hardship and political instability against which the tale is set permeates the story without being intrusive or detracting from the main storyline.  The romance is lovely, the central characters are likeable, and the writing is infused with warmth and humour, making this a book I’d certainly recommend to others.

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Convenient Proposal to the Lady (Hadley’s Hellions #3) by Julia Justiss

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

‘Duty can also be pleasure, Lady Alyssa…’

When politician Benedict Tawny set out to save Lady Alyssa from a nefarious plot, he never expected to find himself trapped in a compromising situation with the alluring lady! Now duty demands he propose…and claim her as his bride! Tainted by his illegitimacy, Ben knows he can’t give Alyssa the life of luxury she deserves. But if he can convince her to succumb to the undeniable heat between them, their convenient marriage might just lead to the love of a lifetime!

Rating: A-

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is the third book in Julia Justiss’ series featuring Hadley’s Hellions, four young men who forged strong friendships at school and university and who are now united in their dedication to bringing about political reform. While the romance in each book is most definitely to the fore, there’s enough social and political detail to add depth and an extra layer of interest to each story. That, combined with my favourite trope of a marriage of convenience made this entry in the series an especially enjoyable one.

Benjamin Tawny was born on the wrong side of the blanket to a viscount and a former governess. His father publicly acknowledges him, and has always provided for Ben and his mother, enabling Ben to go to school and university, which has helped him to make the sorts of connections necessary for him to pursue his chosen career. But Ben has never been particularly well-disposed towards the viscount, believing him to have been a heartless seducer who left the woman he had ruined to social ostracism and censure.

In spite of being base born, Ben is, like his fellow Hellions, a rising star in the political firmament; he has represented his parliamentary seat for almost eight years, has earned the respect of his constituents and has a reputation for being honest, determined, hard-working and above all, honourable. So when he overhears a group of men making a wager as to who can seduce and ruin a young lady, and knowing the sort of treatment meted out to ‘fallen’ women, he can’t stand by and do nothing. He decides to seek out Lady Alyssa Lambourne and warn her that she has been made the target of a plot by Lord Denbry solely because of the enmity that lies between him and Lady Alyssa’s brother.

Ben is lucky enough to encounter the lady one morning when she is alone and out sketching.  He is rather unnerved by the strong spark of sensual awareness he feels around her, and just as surprised to discover that he has never met anyone quite like her; she’s direct, clever, fiery and an extremely talented artist to boot.  Alyssa feels drawn to Ben even though she is initially suspicious of both him and his motives;  but she agrees to take his warning on board and observe the behaviour of the single young gentlemen who are present at the house-party she is attending.  She also agrees to meet Ben the following morning to report on her findings – and sure enough, she tells him that not only are two of the men (known to be Denbry’s cronies) paying her more attention than she thinks she warrants, but Denbry himself has arrived and is doing his best to ingratiate himself with her.  Alyssa is furious and plans to revenge herself on these men who think her so stupid and so desperate as to fall for their lies – but Ben tries to caution her against it, reminding her that Denbury can still ruin her by dropping a few well-chosen words in receptive ears.  Alyssa is adamant, however.  She doesn’t care about her reputation and in fact, thinks a slur on it may be to her advantage, as it might force her domineering father to finally wash his hands of her, meaning she can get away and start living her own life. And it does indeed appear as though her plan has sent his-smarmy-lordship away with his tail between his legs.   But unfortunately, Alyssa’s triumph is short lived; Denbry’s revenge is not long in coming and if not for Ben’s timely intervention she would have been completely ruined.  And worse, it seems that Ben is the one who will be ruined if Alyssa persists on turning down the proposal of marriage he makes her in order to salvage her reputation.

One of the things the author does very well in this book is to show clearly how little control women had over their own lives at this time.  Women were the property of their menfolk, had no rights and, in the upper echelons especially, reputation was everything and the conventions had to be very strictly observed.  Alyssa wants to live independently and pursue a career as an artist but cannot do so without the funds – an inheritance from an aunt – that her father withholds from her.  Given her father’s brutal treatment of her, it’s no wonder that she does not want to transfer control of her life from one man to another and thus rejects Ben’s proposal – but his arguments and promise that he will allow her to pursue her artistic career eventually win her around, and even though she has misgivings, she agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Ben hopes for more than that, however, knowing that Alyssa is as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and counts himself fortunate that his bride is a woman he can respect and admire as well as desire.  For reasons he can’t quite fathom, Alyssa is skittish, so he promises not to attempt to seduce her, hoping desperately that she will come to him when she is ready to consummate their marriage.  But Alyssa is determined that won’t happen. She already feels more for Ben than she thinks is wise, and is sure that if she makes love with him, she won’t be able to stop herself falling for him completely.

Both characters are extremely likeable and have to deal with long-standing issues that inform their choices as adults.  Even though he is a successful, self-made man and a member of parliament, Ben can’t help feeling the stigma of being born illegitimate; and Alyssa has been so constantly belittled by her father and brother that she is awkward in company and believes she can never be the sort of wife Ben really needs.  Yet the depth of their regard for each other shines through from the very beginning, and the intensity of their physical attraction leaps off the page.  The romance develops naturally from their friendship, and the fact that they are open with each other and talk about their hopes and fears is very refreshing.  There is a handful of secondary characters who are nicely fleshed-out – the villain chillingly so – and I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we were given of the changing relationship between Ben and his father.

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is a beautifully written, touching romance between two characters whose flaws and insecurities only add to their attractiveness and whose dilemmas feel very real.  This is one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read recently, and I’m recommending it without hesitation.

My Dangerous Duke (Inferno Club #2) by Gaelen Foley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

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This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Rohan Kilburn, the Duke of Warrington, has quite a reputation. He’s “The Beast” – a debauched rake whose many exploits echo in the countryside surrounding his ancient familial castle. In truth, he’s devoted his life to the Inferno Club, swearing off love for duty in an attempt to thwart a tragic family curse.

Beautiful spitfire Kate Madsen wants nothing to do with “The Beast” after she is mistakenly abducted by smugglers and delivered into his fearsome clutches. Rohan similarly refuses to fall for her, mindful of the many dangers in his life. But when she starts to thaw his icy heart, Rohan knows he will do anything to make Kate his own.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C

I really struggled with the first few hours of My Dangerous Duke, and had I not been listening for review, there’s a good chance I might have abandoned it. The narration by Marian Hussey is fine – in fact, it’s the best thing about the audiobook – and she’s a massive improvement on Annette Chown, who narrated the previous instalment in the Inferno Club series. But the early part of the story progresses at the speed of a snail moving through molasses and is weighed down by lots of irrelevant and overly descriptive prose, so much so that I wished (and here I’m dating myself) I could cut and splice large chunks of it so as to keep things moving.

Fortunately, however, things do start to pick up a bit after that, as the hero and heroine finally meet and begin interacting. The story is one of murky secrets, dark deeds and feats of derring-do; in fact, the last section of the book turns into a cross between Indiana Jones and a computer game, as our intrepid heroes head off on the trail of a hidden treasure. There are plenty of sparks flying between them, although I’m somewhat weary of the hero who believes he is unworthy of love because He is A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things – and that’s the source of most of the conflict in the romance. I also had to check the publication date of the book – 2010 – because there’s an old-skool feel to My Dangerous Duke (especially when it comes to some of the wince-inducing purple prose – I hope Ms. Hussey was well compensated for having to utter lines like this: He knew how to safely wield the oversized weapon with which Nature had endowed him) that made me think it must have been written in the 90s or earlier.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Wildfire (Fire #3) by Anne Stuart

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Her power-hungry husband takes pleasure in her pain, but she’s done playing the victim.

Three years ago, ex-operative Sophie Jordan made the mistake of falling in love—and marrying—her target. Now she’s paying for it tenfold. Her husband might be one of the sexiest men alive, but he’s also a psychopath. She’s been a virtual prisoner, and the time has come for retribution—and escape.

Undercover agent Malcolm Gunnison has his orders: get intel from Sophie’s arms-dealer husband, then kill him. He plans to get rid of her, too, if she gets in his way, but he’s unprepared when she gets under his skin instead. Whose side is she on? And what is she hiding behind those mesmerizing eyes?

Sophie vowed to never fall for another man again, but this sexy undercover agent is different. With danger mounting, can Malcolm and Sophie trust each other—and their growing passion—enough to get out of this operation alive?

Rating: B-

Any long-time romance reader probably has a favourite type of hero.  Protective alphas, arrogant arseholes, smooth spies and men of action… and then there are Anne Stuart heroes, who, as anyone familiar with her work will know, are a mixture of all the above with the aresholery often dialled up to the max.  But you know what?  They’re my blind spot.  They’re so full of testosterone, over-the-top masculine and fiercely protective of their women (albeit not quite at caveman levels) that they’re almost caricatures… but I still don’t care – I love ‘em.

The big saving grace is probably that your Anne Stuart alpha-hole hero isn’t a Neanderthal. He’s  highly-intelligent, well-educated, frighteningly competent, seriously hot – and ultimately redeemable.   Yes, any sane woman would probably run a mile in the opposite direction if she met one, but fortunately, this is highly stylised fiction, and Ms. Stuart always manages to redeem these ruthless men admirably.  But I can accept that her particular brand of gamma hero is an acquired taste, and if those types of characters aren’t for you, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise.

But for those of us who do drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, Malcolm Gunnison, the hero of Wildfire – the third in the author’s current Fire series – is another in a long line of those guilty-pleasure heroes we love to hate.  Mal is sent by the Committee  – a covert, international organization that paid no attention to legal or moral implications in its quest to make the world a safer place – to the Caribbean island of Isla Mordita to meet with Archer MacDonald, international arms and drug dealer, and the man behind the development of a new biological agent, RU48 (also known as Pixiedust!) which is unlike any chemical weapon previously developed.  Mal’s cover as an ex-Committee agent now acting as the middle-man for a potential buyer works perfectly to convince Archer that he’s dealing with a man every bit as dangerous as himself.

Mal’s job is to find out everything he can about the weapon, kill Archer and get out – and it’s up to him whether he gets the man’s wife out with him or leaves her there.  A former CIA and State Department agent, Sophie Jordan was in the early stages of her Committee training when she was made part of a team sent to undertake surveillance on Archer and made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying him – only to discover, too late, that the man was a ruthless psychopath.  When Archer discovered she had been a Committee agent, he ordered her murder.  Sophie narrowly escaped death, but the bullet damaged her spine and for the past two years, she has been confined to a wheelchair, a literal prisoner on the island subject to the not so tender mercies of her husband, who takes delight in playing psychological games, and abusing her both emotionally and physically.  But a year ago, she began to regain the use of her legs, and without anyone knowing, has been building her strength and training for the day when she will kill Archer and get the hell outta Dodge.

When Archer insists she join him in welcoming their latest guest to the island, Sophie is not at all prepared for the reaction Malcolm Gunnison elicits in her.  Since her accident, she has maintained the fiction of being desperately in love with her husband, who no longer has any use for her and enjoys taunting her about her lack of sexual appeal.  He has brought several attractive men to the island and paraded them in front of her trying to provoke a reaction, but she has remained completely unmoved – until now.  Even so, it’s clear that Gunnison is just as much of a ruthless, murderous bastard as her husband, and she has no intention of allowing herself to be diverted from her purpose.

The suspense plot is full of twists and turns, and there’s no question that Ms. Stuart really knows how to ramp up the tension; all in all I found Wildfire a hard book to put down. The characters are engaged in an intense and potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Mal and Archer circling around each other, assessing and trying to get the upper hand, even as Mal and Sophie are doing much the same thing as they try to work out whether they can trust each other or not.  The sexual chemistry between them is intense, the sex scenes are steamy and Mal and Sophie are undoubtedly in lust with each other, but the idea that a romantic relationship could have developed between them is harder to buy into.  Sophie has been isolated for the past two years, suffered a serious trauma and has been subject to a sadistic, manipulative man.  Yes, her training as an operative would have heightened her natural survival instincts and taught her self-reliance, but I couldn’t help thinking that given her circumstances, she might have fallen for anyone who had supported her and shown her that she wasn’t on her own anymore.  I also found it difficult to believe that Sophie – who is frequently described as tough, intelligent and highly competent – could have been so gullible as to have dismissed everything she’d learned about Archer during her training and fallen so easily and completely for him.  Much mention is made of the fact that she was inexperienced when she was sent on that fateful mission, but she worked for the security services for a number of years before being recruited by the Committee, and that level of naïveté just doesn’t ring true.  On the positive side, though, I admired her sheer guts and determination in the face of such overwhelming odds.  She’s under no illusions now, and her hatred of Archer is so visceral that the reader can actually feel it.

And Mal … well, he’s a pretty stereotypical Stuart hero – dangerous, frighteningly competent and utterly ruthless when called for – but that’s a potent and sexy combination that never seems to get old, and I’m not complaining.

While this is the third in a series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the previous two books before starting this one; I think they can probably be read in any order.  Even taking into account the drawbacks I’ve mentioned, Wildfire is still a fast-paced, edgy page-turner that kept me engrossed from start to finish.  I’m sure fans of Ms. Stuart and her unique, dark brand of romantic suspense will enjoy it.

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship. . . .

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding . . . it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

Rating: B+

K.J. Charles announced a while back that her new Sins of the Cities series of historical romances would feature stories in the mould of Victorian Sensation Fiction:

“… channelling my love for Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Dickens in his wilder moods, and the other glorious writers of complicated plots with scandals, secrets and shenanigans up the wazoo.”

To say I was excited at the prospect of something like this coming from one of my favourite writers is a gross understatement; I read a steady diet of books by those authors – and others – throughout my twenties and thirties, so I eagerly snapped up An Unseen Attraction, eager to see how Ms. Charles would employ the conventions and stylistic features of that particular genre of fiction in her story.  And she does not disappoint.  It’s all here – swirling Pea-Soupers, sinister figures lurking in the dark, a long-buried family secret, manipulative relatives who are not what they seem…  and an endearingly innocent protagonist and the stalwart love of his life who support each other through life-threatening events and unpleasant revelations.  The main difference, of course, is that those characters are both male, and the author has done a fabulous job in translating the traditional role of the artless heroine who is – unknowingly – under threat from the machinations of an evil relative to a male character who is similarly circumstanced.

That character is Clem Talleyfer, who keeps a quiet, respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell which was, even in mid-Victorian times, an area where multiculturalism flourished.  Clem is English, but was born to a white father and Indian mother, and he feels comfortable there, where –

There were Jews, Italians, Indians, Germans, Arabs and Africans and Chinese and more, all going about their own business like everybody else.

He has kept the lodging house for about eight years, and is good at it because he’s a “people person”; he’s a good listener and a kind, compassionate man with a good heart.  He’s quiet, reserved and methodical; he doesn’t like crowds or noise and finds it difficult sometimes to organise his thoughts, but he takes pride in his work – although he wishes the drunken Reverend Lugtrout, who lives at the house at the behest of Clem’s brother, who owns the place, would take himself somewhere else.

He has never understood his brother’s stipulation about Lugtrout having to live there, but there isn’t much he can do about it as the man has never shown any inclination to leave.  But when he is murdered and left unceremoniously on Clem’s doorstep, things take an abruptly menacing turn, threatening not only Clem’s safety, but that of the man he has come to love, Rowley Green, the taxidermist who rents the shop next door.

Rowley is a small, generally unprepossessing man, who lives a quiet, generally unprepossessing life and likes it that way.  But he can’t deny the pull of attraction he feels towards the handsome Clem, with his beautiful eyes, dark skin and oddly charming manner.  Clem is similarly smitten with the neat, precise Mr. Green, who is never impatient with him and who is comfortable with silence.  Their habit of taking tea together of an evening leads to a genuine friendship and eventually to more in a way that feels natural, unhurried and, quite simply, lovely.  The depth of understanding between them is apparent, and even though they both have their faults and sometimes make missteps, they are strong enough and confident enough in themselves and in their love for each other to be able to weather those storms.

The descriptions of London’s East End with its dingy streets and dangerous alleyways, the Pea-Soupers (fogs) and the local watering-holes and shops are all very evocative and put the reader right there on the rain-soaked cobbles next to the gutters running with all sorts of unsavoury muck.  The author offers some interesting perspectives on Rowley’s profession; while it may have something of an “ick” factor nowadays, taxidermy was very popular in the Victorian era and the way in which Clem and Rowley’s thoughts about it are so often in sync is another way of showing how perfect they are for one another.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot – which is superbly constructed and in which the author has not only made several nods to nineteenth century sensation novels, but has also somehow given the whole thing an understated quality that makes events all the more plausible.  I will say, though, that while the mystery is wrapped up as far as Clem and Rowley are concerned, there is a cliffhanger at the end which is obviously going to be picked up in the next book, so be warned that you might not want to read the last page until the next book comes out in June!

An Unseen Attraction is a terrific book and one I’m more than happy to recommend.  K.J. Charles is a superb storyteller and has once again crafted both an intriguing and engrossing story and a tender romance between two well-drawn protagonists whose unique personality traits inform their emotional and sexual relationships.  Add to that the way she so thoroughly immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London,  and the strong cast of secondary characters – some of whom will star in future books  – and it’s fair to say that she’s got another winning series on her hands.

Lady Claire is All That (Keeping Up With the Cavendishes #3) by Maya Rodale (audiobook) – narrated by Saskia Maarleveld

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

In the third installment of Maya Rodale’s captivating, witty series, a marquess finds his fair lady – but must figure out how to keep her.

Her brains…

Claire Cavendish is in search of a duke but not for the usual reasons. The man she seeks is a mathematician; the man she unwittingly finds is Lord Fox: dynamic, athletic, and as bored by the equations Claire adores as she is by the social whirl upon which he thrives. As attractive as Fox is, he’s of no use to Claire…or is he?

Plus his brawn…

Fox’s male pride has been bruised ever since his fiancée jilted him. One way to recover: win a bet that he can transform Lady Claire, society’s roughest diamond, into its most prized jewel. But Claire has other ideas – shockingly steamy ones.

Equals a study in seduction.

By Claire’s calculations Fox is the perfect man to satisfy her sensual curiosity. In Fox’s estimation Claire is the perfect woman to prove his mastery of the ton. But the one thing neither of them counted on is love.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

Anyone familiar with Maya Rodale’s current Keeping Up with the Cavendishes series can’t fail to have noticed that the plots of the previous books in the series (Lady Bridget’s Diary and Chasing Lady Amelia) have been loosely based on famous films**. The plot of Lady Claire Is All That, the third instalment, is no exception, deriving a storyline from the 90s movie She’s All That, which in turn borrowed its plot from Pygmalion.

The basic premise is that of high-school jock – in this case an incredibly handsome, ridiculously wealthy, hugely popular marquess – meets and falls for high-school geek – here, a new-to-London American lady who is obsessed with mathematics and widely thought to be rather odd. It’s a fun, fluffy listen for the most part, but amid the froth, Ms. Rodale manages to make some pertinent points about sexism and feminism, and to include some moments of insight and introspection on the parts of both hero and heroine as they come to realise they need to make some major re-evaluations of their sense of self and plans for the future.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Blindsided (Men of Steele #3) by Gwen Hernandez

blindsidedThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE’S RUNNING FOR HER LIFE
Framed for espionage, reformed hacker Valerie Sanchez has no choice but to run. Worse, when the proof of her innocence is destroyed, things turn deadly. Can she trust the sexy terrorist hunter who mysteriously turns up to protect her, or is he the real threat?

HE’S HOT ON HER TRAIL
Former Marine sniper Scott Kramer’s job was supposed to be easy. Follow the hot computer geek who stole plans for classified weapons until she meets her buyer, then let law enforcement take over. But when Valerie becomes an assassin’s target, Scott’s gut says she’s innocent. Now, he must risk his life—and his heart—to keep her safe.

Rating: B

New-to-me author Gwen Hernandez has crafted a tightly plotted page-turner in Blindsided, the third book in her Men of Steele series.  The heroes are all ex-military men who now work for Kurt Steele’s  security firm, and even though this is the third in the series and some characters from the other books are referenced or make brief appearances, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Valerie Sanchez is the daughter of an infamous ‘black hat’ hacker (i.e, someone who hacks into computer systems with criminal intent) but although she worked alongside her Papá when younger, she now works for Aggressor International – a government funded organisation that hunts down terrorists – as one of their team of ‘white hat’ hackers, people employed to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security holes in the computer systems of their clients.  She’s an unashamed geek who loves her job and her current assignment is to hack into the servers of Westgate Defence Systems to find and report on any weaknesses in their online security.  With her partner, Jay Suresh, she has finally managed to find a way in, but before she can file her report, she discovers something odd; all the companies she has been employed to hack over the past few months suffered security breaches following her investigations.  Believing that this must mean the clients have not undertaken the security measures outlined in her various reports, she makes her concerns known to her boss, Duncan Hollowell.

Former marine sniper Scott Kramer, a member of the Steele Security team, has gone undercover as a new employee at Aggressor in order to undertake surveillance on a staff member suspected of stealing information from the company.  The few times he’s spoken to Valerie Sanchez, she’s seemed flustered and tongue-tied; she might be a bit geeky but his gut is telling him that this woman isn’t guilty of anything.  So he’s astonished when Hollowell tells him she’s downloaded several files relating to classified weapons systems and tells him to keep her under surveillance until the FBI team arrives to arrest her.

Valerie soon realises she’s been set up, but before she can make a run for it, the FBI is banging on her door.  She’s being escorted to a car when shots ring out – one of the agents is hit and someone screams at Valerie to run.  Watching all this, Scott heads after her, but does nothing to stop her getting away.

A couple of weeks later, and Scott has followed Valerie to Zachari, CA.  She hasn’t dared contact anyone, but is hoping she can meet up with Jay, as he’s the only one who can prove that they were actually assigned to work on Westgate’s systems and help her to clear her name.  She tracks him down at a local bar and he agrees – reluctantly – to help her, but as he leaves, he’s gunned down outside by a man Scott recognises as one of the FBI agents sent to arrest Valerie.

Realising that there is more going on than he knows, and because his gut is telling him that something isn’t right, Scott gets Valerie away. She doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her, but it soon becomes clear that Valerie isn’t the only one of them to have been set up;  Scott has been named as the sniper-accomplice who helped Valerie escape and there’s nothing for it but for them both to run until they can work out exactly what’s going on and how they can fix it.  Fortunately for Scott, his friends at Steele have his back and are prepared to do what they can, but ultimately, it’s down to Valerie’s computer skills and his more traditional physical and tactical ones to keep them alive while staying one step ahead of the people hunting them.

Blindsided is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced romantic thriller that makes excellent use of the cyber-crime plotline, although I confess I often felt like Scott when all the technical stuff went right over my head!  (Fortunately, there isn’t too much of it). The attraction between Valerie and Scott builds believably and at a good pace, and they are well-rounded characters whose flaws and insecurities make them seem that much more real and easy to relate to.  They come from very different backgrounds, but neither of them have had it easy and I liked the way that the gradual revelation of their pasts leads to a deeper understanding between them and brings them closer together.  Valerie’s Dad was murdered in front of her, and his lover, her Papá, went to prison for fraud, while Scott grew up with an abusive father who constantly belittled him and insisted Scott was a runt who would never amount to anything.   It’s a refreshing change in this particular sub- genre to discover a hero who isn’t your typical big, macho, muscle-bound ex-military type.  Scott is good-looking, he’s ripped and he’s hot, but he’s five-nine and wiry; he still suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex about his height and slight build which isn’t helped by the scars he now bears as the result of serious injuries incurred while on active duty.  And while Valerie has beauty to go with her brains, she’s spent most of her working life hiding it behind geeky classes and baggy clothes because as a woman in a very male oriented profession, she wants to be appreciated for her brains and not her boobs.

This is the first book I’ve read by Gwen Hernandez, but it won’t be the last.  The first book in the series, Blind Fury is now waiting for me on my Kindle, and I will certainly be checking out the other books in this series as and when they come out.