Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Eva Kaminsky and Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. While an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets – secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she left behind.

Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon never met.

Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers that surrounded Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – B

Having very much enjoyed listening to The Wicked City earlier this year (and being a fan of this author’s alter-ego, Juliana Gray), I was keen to listen to Beatriz Williams’ latest offering, Cocoa Beach, which follows a young widow as she tries to discover the truth about the estranged husband who recently perished in a house fire at his Florida home. It is loosely linked to both The Wicked City and the book which preceded it, A Certain Age, insofar as some of the characters have either appeared or been mentioned in one or both of those novels, but otherwise Cocoa Beach can be enjoyed as a standalone.

In 1917, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York to drive ambulances back and forth between the trenches and the field hospitals of Northern France. The USA has not yet joined the war, but she and a group of other volunteers led by the wealthy and formidable Mrs. DeForest are out there “doing their bit”, in whatever capacities they can be useful. On a trip to pick up some wounded men and take them to the hospital Mrs. DeForest has set up in an old château, Virginia meets the handsome, charismatic Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, an army surgeon, and he ends up travelling back to the hospital with her in order to inspect the facilities. There’s an instant frisson of attraction between the two, although Virginia is wary; not only is he quite a bit older than she is (she’s twenty-one, he’s mid-thirties) and almost too good to be true, but her complicated relationship with her stern, reclusive father means she has little experience with men and is uncomfortable around them. Yet by the end of this brief time spent together, Virginia is desperately smitten and so, it seems, is Simon, and he tells her he’s going to write to her. Virginia is on cloud nine – until one of the other girls in her unit tells her Simon is married, with a young son.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Saving Mr. Perfect (Penelope Blue #2) by Tamara Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being a retired jewel thief certainly has its perks.

1. Oh, wait.
2. No it doesn’t.

Without the thrill of the chase, life’s been pretty dull. I garden, I drive my gorgeous husband up the wall, and I watch as my old world slowly slips away. But what’s that old saying? When one thief closes the door…a copycat jimmies open a window.

And now all fingers at the FBI are pointed at me.

Set up to take the fall for thefts worth millions, I have no choice but to strap on my heels and help my FBI agent husband track the thief. Grant might not think he needs a partner, but this is one case only a true professional can solve. Besides, I’ve got to know who’s been taking my bad name in vain.

Let’s just hope curiosity doesn’t kill the cat burglar.

Rating: B

Book two in Tamara Morgan’s Penelope Blue trilogy, Saving Mr. Perfect picks up about six months after the end of Stealing Mr. Right, with former-jewel-thief-extraordinaire Penelope Blue trying to adapt to a “normal” life and keep out of trouble – but she’s miserable and bored witless.

She and her gorgeous FBI agent husband Grant Emmerson have agreed they want to make a go of their marriage (which Penelope had tried to tell herself in the first book was just a means to an end), but she’s not cut out to be a housewife and is feeling decidedly sidelined. Her friends – and former colleagues – are cagey around her, and worst of all, she thinks Grant may suspect her of being the “Peep Toe Prowler”, the thief responsible for a spate of recent jewel thefts from a number of extremely wealthy Manhattan residents.

She isn’t of course, but it seems that whoever it is is a copycat and out to throw suspicion in Penelope’s direction, so naturally she wants to get to the bottom of it and find out who it is. But Grant doesn’t want her involved; he’s ruffled enough feathers as it is by simply being married to Penelope who, in addition to being a jewel thief is also the daughter of one of the FBI’s most wanted, the infamous thief, Warren Blue. Grant wants Penelope to fly under the radar rather than risk getting herself arrested, which isn’t all that an unreasonable request from a loving husband, but still… Penelope can’t just sit back and let someone frame her for crimes she isn’t committing.

Add in to the mix the reappearance of Penelope’s hated stepmother, Tara, a suspicious but bumbling FBI agent who seems obsessed with Grant and Pen’s formidable grandmother, and it all adds up to another well-plotted romp into which the author throws the odd curveball while creating an entertaining and often very funny story that, while not as much of a romance as the previous book, nonetheless shows us how Grant and Pen’s marriage is evolving and how they are evolving with it. I admit that I did miss the scorching sexual chemistry of the first book, but I enjoyed how the author looks at Pen’s relationships with those around her and how they have changed – with Tara and Riker especially – and at her situation as someone who is now neither fish nor fowl, having left her life of crime, but not really being part of her husband’s law-abiding world either. I also liked that we got some of the story from Grant’s PoV this time; he needed to be rather inscrutable in Stealing Mr. Right so the reader was never quite sure which side he was on, but now we know he’s a good guy who loves his wife and just wants to keep her safe, it was nice to get into his head occasionally to see where he was coming from.

Penelope is a great narrator and I like her, her sense of humour and her insecurities, but I have to admit that some of the things that bugged me about her characterisation in the previous book are still present here and continued to bug me. She’s efficient and competent when it comes to being a thief, but in other areas she is rather naïve and doesn’t always think things through – Continue reading “Saving Mr. Perfect (Penelope Blue #2) by Tamara Morgan”

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The game is afoot as Charlotte Holmes returns in the atmospheric second novel in USA Today bestseller Sherry Thomas’s Victorian-set Lady Sherlock series.

Being shunned by Society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she’s had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she’s not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time—or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Rating: A

Reviewing mysteries is always a challenge as anyone who’s tried it will know.  And with one of this calibre, it’s even more difficult, because I want to tell you just how GOOD this book is, but I can’t tell you too much for fear of giving too much away and spoiling your enjoyment.  I could just say a) “Sherry Thomas is a genius – go buy this book!”, or b) “Don’t waste time here – go buy this book!”,   but that isn’t much of a review, so I will attempt – somehow – to do justice to this terrific story and author… and will no doubt fail miserably, at which juncture you should simply heed the advice given in points a) and b).

Note: I think it would be possible to enjoy this as a standalone, but I really would recommend reading A Study in Scarlet Women first. There are spoilers for that book in this review.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up on the day after the events that concluded the previous book.  Charlotte Holmes, ably assisted by her closest friend, Lord Ingram Ashburton, and Inspector Treadles of Scotland Yard, has solved the Sackville murder case and learned of the existence of an infamous criminal mastermind by the name of Moriarty.  In addition, Charlotte worked out that that Lord Ingram – Ash to his friends – had pulled strings behind the scenes in order to make sure she wasn’t left alone on the streets after she ran from her father’s house, and orchestrated her meeting with the army widow and former actress with whom Charlotte now resides, Mrs. John Watson.  Charlotte doesn’t like being beholden to Ash, especially not as their friendship, while generally strong, has been sometimes strained since his ill-advised marriage six years earlier.

Charlotte and Mrs. Watson have formed a working partnership as investigators, using the identity of Sherlock Holmes as a front for their operation.  Holmes suffers from a debilitating illness, so clients meet with his ‘sister’ – Charlotte – while the detective listens to the conversation from the next room.  It’s with some surprise that Charlotte identifies their latest prospective client, Mrs. Finch, as Lady Ingram, Ash’s wife.  Mrs Watson is concerned about accepting the lady as a client given their friendship with her husband, but Charlotte believes her need must be very pressing if it has driven her to seek Holmes’ help, and agrees to the meeting – although as Charlotte cannot afford to be recognised, the part of Sherlock’s sister will be taken by Mrs. Watson’s niece, Penelope Redmayne.  ‘Mrs. Finch’ explains that she is seeking information regarding the man she fell in love with before she married Lord Ingram, a young man deemed unsuitable by her parents, whose financial situation demanded she marry someone wealthy. While she and her erstwhile love agreed not to meet or write to each other once she was married, they planned a yearly assignation – on the Sunday before his birthday, they would both take a walk past the Albert Memorial at 3 pm, so they could each see that the other was alive and well. This year, however, her sweetheart did not keep the appointment, and she wants Sherlock Holmes to find out why. Penelope asks Lady Ingram for as many details as she can provide, but when she identifies the man in question as Myron Finch, Charlotte is stunned. Myron Finch is her illegitimate half-brother.

While Charlotte and Mrs. Watson set about looking into the disappearance of Mr. Finch, Charlotte is also mulling over the proposal of marriage she has received – the second one, in fact – from Lord Bancroft Ashburton, Lord Ingram’s older brother. Charlotte is fully cognizant of the benefits marriage to him would bring. It would rehabilitate her – to an extent – in the eyes of society and would soften her father’s stance towards her; she could care for her sister, Bernadette (who has some sort of mental disability) and could openly spend time with her other sister, Livia and generally return to the life to which she had been born. But even though Bancroft recognises and respects Charlotte’s keen intellect, he clearly expects her to discontinue her investigations as Sherlock Holmes, and she’s not sure that’s something she’s willing to give up.

As an inducement, Bancroft gifts Charlotte with a set of puzzles, which includes a message encoded using a Vignère cipher, a fiendishly difficult code that takes Charlotte some days to decipher. Once decoded, the message leads her to an address in Hounslow, North West of London, where she and Lord Ingram unexpectedly encounter Inspector Treadles. A man has been murdered – and appears to have named his killer before he died. Could he perhaps be the missing Mr. Finch? Or could he somehow be tied to Finch’s disappearance? Or, worse still, are Finch and the murder victim somehow tied to the mysterious Moriarty, a name which seems to inspire fear in those who know it, and someone of whom even the unflappable Bancroft seems to be wary?

Well… I’m not saying. As is clear, though, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I admit that I sometimes had to refer to the numerous highlights I’d made on my Kindle to refresh my memory about something, but for the most part, the story rattles along famously as Sherry Thomas skillfully pulls the disparate mystery threads together and then unravels them, bringing events to a climax I most certainly didn’t see coming. Just as impressive as her plotting is the way in which she continues to explore and develop her characters and the relationships between them, building on what we know of them from the previous book and rounding them out even more. We don’t see as much of Treadles in this story, but it’s clear that he’s been upset by the discovery of the deceit practiced by his good friend Lord Ingram (over Holmes’ true identity) and isn’t sure what to make of Charlotte any longer. There’s a romance in the offing for Livia, who is charmed by a mysterious young man who seems to see and appreciate her for who she is and doesn’t talk down to her or dismiss her interests; and we get to know a little more of the circumstances which led to Ash’s marriage to a society beauty he later learned had married him only for his money.

Anyone with any knowledge of this author’s work will already know that her work is highly creative and imaginative; she fashions strong, well-developed and engaging characters, crafts complex interweaving plots, and her historical romances are among the best in the genre. I should, however, warn anyone hoping for romantic developments between Charlotte and Ash that things between them don’t progress a great deal (if at all). The author sheds more light on Ash’s feelings towards Charlotte, showing he knows her better than anyone (and there’s a nice touch at the end where Charlotte both acknowledges this and admits she’s glad it’s Ash who knows her so well) and Charlotte… well, she doesn’t necessarily wish Ash had married her, she would just prefer he hadn’t married at all. She’s someone who relies on observation and logic and doesn’t have room for sentiment; yet in the face of all the logical reasons she should marry Bancroft, a small part of her can’t ignore the fact that she doesn’t find him attractive while his brother… is a different matter entirely.

There’s so much more to A Conspiracy in Belgravia than I can possibly say here. The characters, the relationships, the mystery … all are richly detailed and superbly constructed, making this a truly compelling, un-put-downable read. I stand by my original points a) and b). Just go and buy it.

Seducing Mr. Sykes (Cotswold Confidential #2) by Maggie Robinson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No one at Puddling-on-the-Wold ever expected to see Sarah Marchmain enter through its doors. But after the legendary Lady’s eleventh-hour rejection of the man she was slated to marry, she was sent here to restore her reputation . . . and change her mind. It amused Sadie that her father, a duke, would use the last of his funds to lock her up in this fancy facility—she couldn’t be happier to be away from her loathsome family and have some time to herself. The last thing she needs is more romantic distraction . . .

As a local baronet’s son, Tristan Sykes is all too familiar with the spoiled, socialite residents of the Puddling Rehabilitation Foundation—no matter how real their problems may be. But all that changes when he encounters Sadie, a brave and brazen beauty who wants nothing more than to escape the life that’s been prescribed for her. If only Tristan could find a way to convince the Puddling powers-that-be that Sadie is unfit for release, he’d have a chance to explore the intense attraction that simmers between them—and prove himself fit to make her his bride . . .

Rating: B-

Readers return to Maggie Robinson’s fictional Cotswold village of Puddling-on-the-Wold for the second book in her Cotswold Confidential series, Seducing Mr. Sykes.  It’s a (mostly) lighthearted romantic comedy in which a determinedly unconventional young woman who doesn’t want to get married finds herself strongly attracted to a rather starchy young man who is intent on keeping his head down and living a quiet life.  It might not win any prizes for originality, but it’s a nicely-written, undemanding and fun read that kept me engaged and entertained for the time it took me to read it.

The small village of Puddling-on-the-Wold has for some decades, been used as a kind of rehabilitation centre for members of the nobility who have gone off the rails.  With a calmly ordered programme of healthful exercise and diet and a lack of anything vaguely stimulating, the village offers a simple, quiet environment for those sent there to take stock and make changes to their lives.  All the villagers are party to the reasons their ‘visitors’ are sent there and are in on the cures, and the place is now so popular as to be able to provide a decent living for the people who live there.  Puddling’s board of trustees is now run by the absentee Sir Betram Sykes, whose son, Tristan, takes his responsibilities to the place very seriously.  When a fire at one of the cottages means that the inhabitant – Lady Sarah Marchmain – must quickly find somewhere else to stay, he is not enamoured of the idea that she moves to Sykes House while the cottage is repaired and made habitable again.  It’s not that Tristan is especially worried about the proprieties;  he doesn’t actually live in the house, preferring to reside at a small folly in the grounds which he, an architect by profession, has modified to suit his own taste and comfort.  But Lady Sarah –Sadie – is a handful of tall, well-endowed, red-haired impetuosity and Tristan – whose scandalous divorce some years previously from a woman of similarly high-spirits has left him somewhat wary of women in general – wants as little to do with her as possible.

Sadie has been sent to Puddling by her father, the Duke of Islesford,  whose regard for her extends only as far as she can be useful to him.  Being a man who keeps a lavish lifestyle and likes to gamble, he’s in debt and looking to sell his daughter – who stands to inherit a substantial fortune on her twenty-fifth birthday – to the highest bidder.  Sadie’s hoydenish behaviour has already frightened off a couple of would-be suitors, and the duke is getting desperate.  Puddling is his final attempt to get her to toe the line before he commits her to an asylum and takes control of her money.  Most of the village’s guests stay for a month before returning home, but Sadie has already been there for an extra week and continues to behave outrageously in the hope that she will be able to prolong her stay while she searches for a means to escape her father.  The problem, however is that the all-too-handsome Tristan Sykes seems to have seen through her scheme to extend her stay and is completely wise to her attempts to make herself appear unstable and still in need of treatment.  So in a way, the fire (which wasn’t her doing) is a blessing in disguise as it will get her out of the village, away from the watchful eyes – and perhaps give her a chance to make her escape.

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Tristan comes upon Sadie in a state of undress while she is exploring the attics looking for something to wear (all her clothes were lost in the fire) and is shortly followed by her father, who immediately accuses Tristan of compromising his daughter and insists the two of them get married.  Appalled, the couple tries to tell the duke that nothing happened, but he insists, threatening to blacken Tristan’s name, brand him as unfit to have charge of a rehabilitation facility and ruin Puddling and its community in the process.

Maggie Robinson has crafted an entertaining and rather charming ‘opposites attract’ story which, for all its surface light-heartedness has some darker undertones.  Sadie hasn’t known any warmth or affection since the death of her mother when she was a child; and her father’s plan to put her in an asylum was, sadly, not an unheard of one at the time, when locking away ‘troublesome’ females was an easy solution when a woman didn’t fit the accepted pattern or do as she was told.  Tristan’s status as a divorced man had a deleterious effect on his life and career and now all he wants is to live a quiet life, without the sort of tempers and tantrums his first – now deceased – wife was prone to.  He fights his attraction to Sadie at first, because her behaviour leads him to believe that she is unstable – which, to be fair, is what she wants him to think – but as he comes to know her and to know her story, he realises he has misjudged her and that he wants to keep her close.

The author has a deft touch with the humour and has created two likeable characters who have to leave behind their emotional baggage if they are to make a life together.  They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are sensual and well-written, but I have a couple of reservations overall that prevent me from rating the book more highly.  One is that Tristan so easily takes comments made by Sadie’s father and former fiancé at face value, and the other is that while Sadie’s behaviour is understandable given the way she has been treated by her father, her mulish, immature antics continue way past the point at which my understanding gave way to irritation.

With those provisos in mind, if you’re looking for a fairly light-hearted, amusing and sensual historical romance, I’d venture to suggest that Seducing Mr. Sykes might fit the bill.

To Sir Phillip With Love (Bridgertons #5) by Julia Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sir Phillip knew that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, and so he’d proposed, figuring that she’d be homely and unassuming, and more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except…she wasn’t. The beautiful woman on his doorstep was anything but quiet, and when she stopped talking long enough to close her mouth, all he wanted to do was kiss her… and more. Did he think she was mad?

Eloise Bridgerton couldn’t marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking…and wondering…and before she knew it, she was in a hired carriage in the middle of the night, on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except…he wasn’t. Her perfect husband wouldn’t be so moody and ill-mannered, and while Phillip was certainly handsome, he was a large brute of a man, rough and rugged, and totally unlike the London gentlemen vying for her hand. But when he smiled…and when he kissed her…the rest of the world simply fell away, and she couldn’t help but wonder…could this imperfect man be perfect for her?

Rating: Narration – A+ Content – A-

This fifth instalment in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series is one of the books I have somehow not got around to reading, and which, for some reason I can’t remember, I had thought to be one of the weaker books in the series. This new audio version has laid that misconception firmly to rest however, and is, I think, now one of my favourites of the set. To Sir Phillip With Love is perhaps not as light-hearted as many of the author’s other titles, but it clearly shows that she has the ability to tackle difficult themes and write deeply flawed characters that listeners can root for even as we’re wanting to smack some sense into them or questioning the wisdom – of lack thereof – of their actions.

One such character is Sir Phillip Crane, a widower whose eight-year-old twins are a complete handful. He inherited his baronetcy upon the death of his older brother, and seems to have also inherited his brother’s fiancée, Marina, a very distant cousin of the Bridgerton family. When he receives a note of condolence upon Marina’s death from Eloise Bridgerton, his response engenders a cordial correspondence which lasts a year, and ends in his suggesting that perhaps Miss Bridgerton might be open to the idea of marrying him. It’s an odd notion, to be thinking of marriage to a woman he has never met, but from the tone of her letters, Phillip judges Eloise to be an amenable, sensible kind of woman – and quite honestly, he is so desperate for someone to run his house and, more urgently, manage his children, that marriage to almost anyone would be preferable to things continuing as they are.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rake’s Guide to Seduction (Reece Family Trilogy #3) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He Must Rely On His Talents In The Bedroom…

Anthony Hamilton cannot help it. The way he looks, the way he lives, his past–it all conspires to make him a man men fear, women desire. His name fills gossip circles in a seemingly endless, lurid drama. But he’s never forgotten the only woman he’s ever truly wanted–yet could never have. . .

To Make Her Fall In Love. . .

Celia Reece knew Anthony well before he forged his scandalous reputation. The young man she remembers spoke kindly to her, made her laugh, and his devilish good looks always quickened her pulse. But Celia’s mother had other designs–designs that didn’t include marriage to Anthony. Now, Celia is widowed, and her mother is intent on finding her a new husband. Refusing to let any obstacle stand in his path this time, Anthony sets out to win Celia’s heart by using the same skills that made him London’s most irresistible rake…

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden’s A Rake’s Guide to Seduction is one of her earliest published titles, having originally appeared in 2008.  It’s now being reissued with a rather fetching new cover (in paperback), and as it’s a book I haven’t yet read, this gave me a good excuse reason to add it to my pile of review books.  This, I quickly discovered, was a very good move, because it’s a lovely, gently moving character-driven romance featuring a young widow who is given second chance at love and the man who has secretly loved her for many years.

Anthony Hamilton, Viscount Langford, was a scandal from the moment he was born.  Almost certainly a cuckoo in the nest, be grew into a wild boy and proceeded to get himself thrown out of three schools, after which, having finished his education at Oxford, he embarked upon a life of debauchery in London, his reputation as a high-stakes gamester and seducer of wealthy widows and bored wives very quickly earning him the blackest of reputations while also rendering him utterly fascinating to the members of the ton.  The fact that he is gorgeous, remarkably discreet and closely guards his privacy only increases his allure.

Anthony – who, owing to his estrangement from his father now chooses to style himself as plain Mr. Hamilton – spent many of his holidays from school at Ainsley Park, the home of his closest friend, David Reece.  David’s younger sister, Celia, remembers Anthony fondly; he’d been like another brother who helped launch her kites and tie her fishing lines.  As he grew older and his reputation grew worse, her mother banned Anthony from visiting, although now Celia is ‘out’, she sees him  from time to time and finds it amusing that he is now so very wicked that young ladies are afraid to do so much as walk past him alone. She has never believed him to be quite as black as he is painted; indeed, her own brothers have not exactly been pattern cards of propriety in the past and she can’t really see why Anthony should be singled out for such gossip and censure.

Celia is young, beautiful, vivacious and, as the sister of a duke, much sought after.  After interrupting her and an over-amorous swain one evening, she and Anthony have the first real conversation they’ve had in a long time and he is suddenly struck by an almost unwelcome realisation – that she’s no longer the little girl he knew and that he’s in love with her and has been for some time.  But it’s hopeless. No brother who truly cares about his sister is going to give her hand in marriage to a man with a reputation like Anthony’s… yet her image is burned into his brain, her lemon scent haunts him and he can’t forget their conversation:

“Anyone who took the trouble to know you would accept you,” Celia insisted ignoring his efforts to turn the subject.

“You’ve gone and ruled out every woman in England.” He leaned over the railing, squiting into the darkness.

“Except myself,” Celia declared and then she stopped.  Good heavens, what had she just said?

The fact that she doesn’t see him as the decadent wastrel society believes him to be gives Anthony the courage to approach her brother to ask for permission to court her – only to be told that he has just sanctioned the betrothal between Celia and Lord Bertram, the young man who has gained her affections.

Four years pass, during which Celia discovers that the man she married was not the charming, solicitous young man she had fallen for, but was instead selfish, disgruntled, unfaithful and very quick to relegate her to the ranks of Things That Do Not Matter. His death from pneumonia sees Celia returning to her family, but she’s a very different young woman to the one who left amid such happiness and celebration. Subdued, quiet and depressed, Celia feels out of place and uncomfortable; everyone else has moved forward without her and in spite of her mother’s attempts to make it seem otherwise, Celia can’t pretend things haven’t changed.

Deeply worried about her daughter’s state of mind, the dowager decides to cheer Celia up by arranging a house party to which she invites many of her old friends. Her intentions are good, but being forced into company with these young women with whom she no longer has anything in common only serves to make Celia feel even more disconnected. The one bright spot is that her brother David has invited Anthony Hamilton to the party, and even though her mother is obviously not pleased that he is there, he’s the one person outside her family Celia is pleased to see and with whom she feels able to be herself. And Anthony, who is truly saddened at the change in Celia, determines to make her smile once more and, perhaps, to see if there is any possibility she could be persuaded to throw in her lot with the most scandalous man in society.

Caroline Linden has created a truly beautiful love story between two people whose lives haven’t been easy or turned out as they hoped. Celia’s depression is sympathetically and realistically presented, as is her growth from someone blinded by a childish ideal of love to a more mature woman who is able to recognise and accept real, deep love and affection. Her worry that because she made the wrong choice once she may do so again is understandable, but ultimately, she doesn’t allow that fear to control her and I found her willingness to open her heart again to be admirable.

As for Anthony… well, he’s dreamy. *sigh* He’s no saint, but he’s no rake, either; his reputation is largely the result of gossip and misunderstanding which, because of his reluctance to discuss it has become a self-perpetuating myth. Over the years he has learned to ignore what is said of him; as he tells Celia, even if he told the truth, nobody would believe him. One of the loveliest moments in the book is the point at which Celia realises he has never had anyone in his corner to stand up for him, and then determines she will be that person.

The romance between Celia and Anthony is beautifully developed, and there’s never any question they are perfect for one another and that their love for each other is genuine. The author writes with insight about society marriages of the time through the words and attitudes of Celia’s friends who have become bitter and bitchy; and I rather liked the hint of a romance blossoming between her somewhat starchy mother and Anthony’s big, braw, Scottish uncle.

The book’s one flaw is in the sudden plot twist thrown in near the end, which is why I ended up not giving it a straight A grade; the story doesn’t really need it, although I did appreciate it as an opportunity for Celia to show her faith in Anthony in the face of the doubts exhibited by everyone around her.

Caroline Linden is a ‘must-read’ author for me these days, and she’s one of a handful of historical romance authors who is able to craft a satisfying love story that functions within the social conventions of the time and in which the characters are believably rooted in the nineteenth century rather than being a group of twenty-first century people in period dress. Finding time to read favourite authors’ back-catalogues is difficult given the number of new books I read and review, but I’m really glad I made time for this one. A Rake’s Guide to Seduction is highly recommended.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

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Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Rating: B+

I’ll start this review by saying that while The Mech Who Loved Me could be read as a standalone novel, it probably won’t make much sense to you unless you have read at least some of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk books. In that series, the author introduces and develops her alternative vision of Victorian London in which the city is ruled by the elite blue bloods while other races – humans, mechs and verwulfen – are second class citizens (and in the case of verwulfen, even lower). At the end of the final book, Of Silk and Steam, the corrupt ruling elite – the Echelon – was overthrown by an alliance comprising all the races, including many blue bloods who opposed the harsh rule imposed by the prince-consort. This new series, London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy is set three years after those events, in a London where all the races now have freedom and equality, although things are by no means easy. Distrust, suspicion and hatred built up over generations doesn’t just disappear overnight; and now it appears that there is someone out there trying to stir up all those old feelings and open up all those old wounds to set the races at each others’ throats once more.

In book one, Mission Improper, readers were introduced (or re-introduced, as some appeared in minor roles in earlier books) to the characters who make up the newly formed Company of Rogues, a small, hand-picked team who are charged with finding out exactly who is trying to incite unrest among the population of London. Under the direction of the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn, this group of blue bloods, a verwulfen and a human/mech discover the existence of a shadowy organisation called the Rising Sons, a group intent on creating anarchy in order to disrupt the uneasy peace between the races, perhaps even on bringing down the queen. They also learn of the existence of a creature called the dhampir, something stronger, faster and even more powerful than a blue-blood which, given blue bloods are almost indestructible, poses a serious threat to anyone who dares to oppose them.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up pretty much where Mission Improper left off, and we’re plunged straight into the action with the discovery of a mysterious virus that appears to be killing blue bloods. Ava McLaren, who was previously a crime scene analyst for the Nighthawks (the organisation that polices London) is now a member of the Company of Rogues, and is eager to prove her skills as an investigator rather than being someone who works behind the scenes all the time. She is pleased when Malloryn assigns her to discover the nature and source of the virus, although the fact that the gruff, cynical mech Liam Kincaid is appointed as her bodyguard takes some of the shine off. A human made mech when he lost his hand, Kincaid has never hidden his dislike of blue bloods and he and Ava couldn’t be more different. He’s big, terse, rough round the edges and makes no secret of his womanising ways whereas Ava is dainty, almost ethereally lovely and prone to letting her words get away from her – and is a virgin to boot. She’s fiercely intelligent, logical and tired of being seen as weaker than the others in the team and someone who must be protected at all costs. I loved that she’s the sort of heroine who doesn’t have mad-fighting-skillz and who puts her intellect and her emotional strength to good use instead. She really shines as she works her way through clues and puzzles to uncover the truth, all the while she and Kincaid are plunged into one dangerous situation after another – and the attraction that has long simmered between them reaches boiling point.

At the beginning of the book, Ava is contemplating her spinsterhood and is somewhat depressed at the idea that she’s unlikely to ever experience passion, when a friend points out that she doesn’t have to have an actual relationship with a man for that. Ava is rather traditional, and hadn’t really given that possibility much thought… or she hadn’t until she met Kincaid and developed the sort of awareness of him that makes her breath hitch and her insides flutter. And Kincaid isn’t blind; Ava is attractive and he knows she’s interested in him, but the other Rogues have already warned him off on pain of many not nice things and besides, he doesn’t seduce virgins. It’s only when the virgin in question asks to be seduced that things get complicated and what was intended to be an affair of finite duration gains the potential to be something much more. The author does a great job of developing this ‘opposites attract’ romance, showing how what starts as a working relationship spills over into the personal as the pair begins to appreciate, trust and open up to one another. The chemistry between Ava and Kincaid is terrific, the sex scenes are hot and earthy and Kincaid proves to be a truly swoon-worthy hero, his ability to really see Ava for the brilliant woman she is helping her to stand up for herself and conquer her insecurities.

I also love the wider dimension Bec McMaster brings to her stories; her steam-powered world is already well-established, the politics and intrigue of this alternative London are intriguing and well thought-out, and I’m already loving the way she is developing the overarching plot, revealing a little more in each book while also making sure that each one is a satisfying story and romance in itself. My one complaint about this story is to do with the rather too convenient resolution to the situation that threatens Kincaid and Ava’s HEA – I can’t see what else the author could have done in order to resolve the issue, but even so, I wasn’t wild about it.

But that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of The Mech Who Loved Me, which is richly detailed and strongly written, featuring complex, well-developed characters, a well-paced, action-packed plot and a steamy romance, all of which kept me thoroughly engrossed and invested in the outcome. Believably dangerous villains help to keep the stakes high for our heroes; well-developed secondary and recurring characters add colour and depth (I’m already very intrigued by Malloryn and eagerly anticipating his story) and the next book in the series really can’t appear soon enough.