The Bad Luck Bride (Cavensham Heiresses #1) by Janna MacGregor

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IS MARRIAGE A BLESSING OR A CURSE?

A man of honor, Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, will not rest until he exacts revenge on the man who destroyed his family. Just one more piece must fall into place for him to succeed he needs to convince his enemy s fiancee, the tragically beautiful Lady Claire Cavensham, to marry him instead.

Lady Claire s curse has always left her one misstep away from social ruin her past three engagements have gone awry, and now her fourth is headed in the same direction. . .until Alex, a man she barely even knows, shocks the ton and Claire by announcing their engagement. What begins as a sham turns into something deeper, and more passionate, than either Claire or Alex could have imagined. But when their secrets are revealed, will the truth behind their union scandalize them both or is their love strong enough to break the curse and lead them toward their happily ever after?

Rating: C+

The first twenty-five percent or so of Janna MacGregor’s début novel, The Bad Luck Bride, had me eagerly turning the pages, so thoroughly drawn was I into the story of a man who was so bent on revenge upon the former friend he held responsible for the death of his sister, that he would go to any lengths to completely ruin him, even going so far as to steal his fiancée. Unfortunately however, at around that point, the first of what turned out to be several rather flimsy misunderstandings made its appearance and although I was still interested to discover where the story was headed, my former enthusiasm had waned. There were also a number of issues – choppy writing, odd word choices – that took me out of the story on several occasions, as well as inconsistencies in the characterisation of both principals that were impossible to ignore and which have affected my final rating.

Alex Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke is distraught with grief over the suicide of his beloved sister, and is determined to exact rather more than a pound of flesh from the man he believes fathered the child she carried and was thus responsible for her final desperate act. When a friend prevents Alex issuing a challenge to Lord Paul Barstowe, he turns instead to a far more devious manner of engineering the man’s downfall. Knowing that Barstowe is deeply in debt as a result of his liking for high-stakes gaming, Alex secretly arranges for him to receive all the credit he asks for and then buys up all his debts, putting the other man completely at his mercy. The final humiliation is that Barstowe must break his betrothal to a wealthy heiress, Lady Claire Cavensham, the daughter of the late Duke of Langham, a young woman whose “bad luck” in having suffered three broken betrothals (for good reasons) has made her … if not quite a laughing stock, then someone who is frequently a subject of gossip among the ton.

Alex plans to marry the lady himself, but knows he’s got his work cut out for him given that Barstowe will be ex-fiancé number four. But, well, Alex is tall, dark, handsome and wickedly charming, so I’m not giving away any secrets when I say that he manages things to his satisfaction, although not without a hiccup or two along the way. Up to this point, I was fully engaged with the story, wondering when and how the cat was going to be let out of the bag and what angsty twists and turns would follow. But then, during a discussion just a couple of days before the wedding, when Alex jumps to a not completely unreasonable conclusion about Claire – a misunderstanding which is quickly corrected, I might add – she decides that he doesn’t trust her and that she can’t marry him. Having some inkling that she might try to bolt, Alex unfortunately compounds his mistake by laying a wager under a false name (sort of) which backs Claire into a corner and gives her no alternative but to go through with the wedding.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

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England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.

Rating: A

Confession time.  When I picked up The Jane Austen Project for review, I really didn’t expect it to be a book I couldn’t put down.  I thought the premise – two time travellers go back to 1815 to meet Jane Austen and secure a previously unpublished manuscript – was interesting (which was why I chose it) but also fraught with potential pitfalls in terms of tone and characterisation. I’m happy to admit that my scepticism was quickly laid to rest and to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining, compelling and unusual story that hooked me in from the first page and kept me glued to it throughout.

Doctor and Austen devotee Rachel Katzman and Professor Liam Finucane, an actor turned academic, were carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics for one particular mission – to go back in time to 1815, meet Jane Austen and locate the manuscript for The Watsons, a novel previously thought unfinished but which a newly discovered letter indicates was actually completed and subsequently destroyed by the author.  Rachel and Liam are charged with bringing back The Watsons and also more of Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, documents which later proved incredibly valuable in piecing together details of the author’s life, and of which only a few survive.  If Rachel can also figure out what caused Jane’s premature death at the age of forty-one, well, that would be a bonus.

The pair arrives, bedraggled and disoriented in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey with a small fortune in forged money hidden under their clothes and a cover story that they are Doctor William Ravenswood and his spinster sister, Mary, recently returned from Jamaica where they have sold off the family coffee plantation.  Unable to secure rooms at the local inn owing to their having no luggage and looking somewhat suspicious besides, they instead hire a post chaise and head to London where they take up residence in a fashionable town house and formulate their plan to get to know Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, who is, at that time, a successful banker.

Posing as acquaintances of a distant Austen relative, they wrangle an introduction to Henry who is everything they expect from what they know of him: good-looking, charming and gregarious, it’s easy to see why Jane referred to him as her favourite brother.  Over the next few weeks, they become part of Henry’s intimate circle and eventually, as planned, are introduced to his sisters and other family members when they visit London.  Cassandra Austen is brusque and most definitely suspicious of her brother’s new acquaintances while Jane is quiet and circumspect, clearly not a woman who allows people to get to know her easily and who doesn’t rush headlong into friendships.  The portrayal of Jane Austen is one of those potential pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say that this is a very credible portrait of her in which she comes across exactly as I’m sure many of us imagine her to have been – intelligent, witty, considered and insightful.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian

the-soldiers-scoundrel

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A scoundrel who lives in the shadows

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life-one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is only matched by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men only meant for each other.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance is a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely accomplished piece of work that sees a prickly former-thief-turned-investigator working with the son of an earl to establish the identity of a blackmailer and falling in love along the way. This is no light-hearted romp, however; during the course of the story, the author explores the realities of the class differences lying between the two men and takes a look at the inequalities inherent in a justice system which really only operated in favour of the wealthy and influential.

Former valet, former thief and former perpetrator of various other illegal activities, Jack Turner now runs his own business working as an investigator and righter of wrongs for those in society – the poor and women – who have little or no recourse to justice via normal means. His life on the wrong side of the law and then as a servant has only served to reinforce his own opinions about the ‘nobs’, the gentlemen of the nobility who largely regard themselves as untouchable and if his work gives him the opportunity to even the score a little, then he regards it as a job well done.

So Jack isn’t best pleased when Mr Oliver Rivington – second son of the Earl of Rutland – bursts into his office one day, demands to know why his sister recently paid Jack a large sum of money, and refuses to leave until he gets an answer. Realising he can’t get rid of the man without causing a scene, Jack allots Rivington a seat in a dark corner while he interviews his latest client, a young, married lady who is being blackmailed over a series of letters exchanged with a former beau.

A serious leg wound after a decade in the army has led the former Captain Rivington to sell his commission and he has returned home eager to embark upon a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos and frequent lawlessless of the army. His experiences with the sort of riot and mayhem wreaked by a victorious force following a battle have made him determined to uphold the law and respect due process, so the idea that Jack Turner could have employed less than legal means in order to help Charlotte sits badly with him, no matter that whatever Jack actually did has kept her drunken, abusive husband away overseas for the last two years.

Both men are rather surprised to recognise the sudden sexual attraction that crackles between them, and both ruthlessly tamp it down. Jack doesn’t want anything to do with aristrocrats, no matter how pretty they are, and Oliver is most certainly not going to become embroiled with a criminal. Realising that Jack is probably going to resort to law-breaking in order to help Mrs. Wraxhall, Oliver is determined to find a way of getting the lady’s letters back without using illegal means to do so, and begins making inquiries of his own.

When it seems that a journey to Mrs. Wraxhall’s former home in Yorkshire will be needed to dig up more information on the lady’s past, Jack very reluctantly agrees to accept Oliver’s help. After all, a prettily behaved, good-looking gentleman like him will be able to open doors that are closed to Jack, and Oliver will probably be able to charm people into revealing confidences that Jack’s gruffness would be unlikely to encourage. And while his intense fascination with Rivington irritates him, the attraction is obviously mutual and also impossible to ignore, so Jack decides that he might as well indulge himself while he can. It’s not something he does very often; he doesn’t do emotional entanglements and the only people in his life he trusts are his brother and sister, but he’s certainly not averse to taking Oliver to bed.

Oliver is similarly captivated by Jack – a man he is coming to know as having his own code of honour that he lives by, no matter how strongly he might deny it. Oliver recognises that Jack’s gruffness is his way of keeping people at arms’ length and he very much wants to break through that barrier and show Jack that he’s worth caring about.

Cat Sebastian has crafted a very well-balanced tale in which the relationship between the protagonists takes centre stage, while also offering an intriguing sub-plot about the blackmail investigation. As I said at the outset, she takes a look at the inequality in a justice system that permitted the upper classes to – sometimes literally – get away with murder while it would hang a starving man for stealing a crust. And worse, a system that would turn a blind eye to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage or a woman being threatened in the vilest terms. But there is no heavy-handed sermonising or info-dumping; her observations are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, adding richness and colour to an already readable and entertaining story.

But there’s no question that Jack and Oliver’s romance is at the heart of this book, and it’s by turns funny, tender, sexy, and wonderfully romantic. The two men complement each other in terms of their personalities and outlook; Jack is all rough edges, where Oliver is polished politeness and charm; Jack is outspoken where Oliver is more considered – and they make a terrific couple. I particularly liked their playfulness with each other, and the sense that, in spite of the class difference, they are equals in the relationship. I’ve not read m/m romance very widely, but in some I’ve read there is one experienced character and one who is less so or perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his sexuality. It’s refreshing to see that isn’t the case here, and I really liked how, despite his blushes, Oliver is shown to be every bit as comfortable with himself and his preferences as Jack – and, when called for, just as naughty 😉 Even though they hide things from each other to start with, once they get to know and accept one another, there’s a lovely honesty to their relationship, a true caring that goes deeper than lust or attraction, and Ms. Sebastian has done a superb job in conveying that depth through their words and actions.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel captivated me from start to finish and is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central romance is wonderfully portrayed, the characterisation is excellent and I loved Oliver and Jack to bits. I can’t wait for more from Ms. Sebastian and am eagerly awaiting her next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – next year.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (audiobook) – Narrated by Katie Schorr

the hating game

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

NEMESIS (n)
1) An opponent or rival whom a person cannot best or overcome
2) A person’s undoing
3) Joshua Templeman

Lucy Hutton has always been certain that the nice girl can get the corner office. She prides herself on being loved by everyone at work – except for imposing, impeccably attired Joshua Templeman.

Trapped in a shared office, they’ve become entrenched in an addictive, never-ending game of one-upmanship. There’s the Staring Game, The Mirror Game, The HR Game. Lucy can’t let Joshua beat her at anything – especially when a huge promotion is on offer.

If Lucy wins, she’ll be Joshua’s boss. If she loses, she’ll resign. So why is she questioning herself? Maybe she doesn’t hate him. And just maybe, he doesn’t hate her either. Or maybe this is just another game . . .

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B+

If you’re part of the online romance community in even the smallest way, you are unlikely to have missed all the buzz about Sally Thorne’s début novel, The Hating Game, a flirty, funny and sexy Rom Com between two co-workers who are forced to share an office following the merger of the two publishing companies for which they work.

Lucinda – Lucy – Hutton and Joshua Templeman hated each other on sight. Or so they tell themselves. But unfortunately, their roles as executive assistants to the CEOs of Gamin Publishing and Bexley Publishing respectively, mean they spend their days in forced proximity, and have, over the past year, honed their verbal sniping and games of one-upmanship – some of them rather juvenile but nonetheless very funny – into an art form.

Lucy firmly identifies with the Gamin Publishing company, having an artistic, rather bohemian self-image, while she places Joshua firmly in the Bexley camp, rigid and boringly efficient, exemplified by the fact that he organises his shirts by the days of the week, wearing the same colour on a particular day. She’s well-liked, charming and helpful, where Josh is a bully whose fearsome scowls and bad temper are legendary.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Jilting the Duke (The Muses’ Salon #1) by Rachael Miles

jilting the duke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Aidan Somerville, Duke of Forster, is a rake, a spy, and a soldier, richer than sin and twice as handsome. Now he is also guardian to his deceased best friend s young son. The choice makes perfect sense except that the child s mother is the lovely Sophia Gardiner, to whom Aidan was engaged before he went off to war. When the news reached him that she had married another, his ship had not yet even left the dock.

Sophia does not expect Aidan to understand or forgive her. But she cannot allow him to stay her enemy. She s prepared for coldness, even vengeance but not for the return of the heedless lust she and Aidan tumbled into ten years ago. She knows the risks of succumbing to this dangerous desire. Still, with Aidan so near, it s impossible not to dream about a second chance…

Rating: B-

Rachael Miles’ début novel, Jilting the Duke is an entertaining and well-crafted story featuring a pair of attractive and strongly-characterised protagonists and a well-drawn set of secondary characters. There is a lot going on – perhaps too much at times – but at its heart are a well-written second-chance romance and an intriguing espionage story, both of which pulled me into the book and which were compelling enough to enable me to see past some of the flaws I’ll discuss later in this review.

Ten years earlier, Aidan Sommerville, third son of an impoverished duke, had to make his own way in the world and had chosen the army as his profession. Having no means to support a wife, he and Sophia Gardiner became secretly engaged before he went to war, but mere weeks after they parted, he was heart-broken to learn that she had married his best friend, Tom, Lord Wilmot and moved to Italy with him. Years later, and following the deaths of his father and older brothers, Aidan became the Duke of Forster and has worked hard to turn his fortunes around at the same time as he continues to work for the British government as a Home Office agent. He has never really recovered from Sophia’s betrayal, and grabs at the chance to revenge himself upon her when she returns to England a widow with a nine year old son.

Sophia has lived quietly in the year since her husband’s death, as dictated by the custom of mourning, but now, she receives unwelcome news in the form of a letter written by Tom before his demise, telling her that he wants Aidan to assume the co-guardianship of their son, Ian. She is naturally fearful that Aidan will want to remove the boy from her care, given that women had no rights over their children, as well as worrying about how she will react to Aidan and he to her. She is pleasantly surprised when Aidan turns out to be conciliatory and not at all desirous of taking custody of her son, but rather makes suggestions which she can see are going to be of great help to Ian as he makes a new life for himself in England.

Of course, this is all part of Aidan’s plan to gain her confidence, seduce her and then publicly ruin her, but even at this stage, it’s clear to the reader that his actions are not at all consistent with such a scheme. His intentions may be very dishonourable, but what Ms Miles shows us is a conflicted man who is still bitter and angry at Sophia, but who loves her as much as he ever did and whose desire for revenge is ultimately never strong enough to overcome the depth of his feelings for her.

Because of her censorious aunt and self-righteous prig of a brother, Sophia has learned to be very cautious about what she allows others to see, so at the beginning of the book is reserved and aloof. I enjoyed watching her gravitate towards Aidan and unbend in his company; and although she holds on to some of her secrets a little too long, she’s a relatable heroine and one I quickly came to like.

At the same time as Aidan is making a place for himself in the lives of Sophia and Ian, he is asked by his superiors at the Home Office to investigate an accusation of treason that has been levelled against Tom, who, in addition to being an authority on botany and author of several highly regarded tomes on the subject, was a British spy. The accusations extend to Sophia, but Aidan can’t believe either of them guilty and agrees to use his renewed closeness with her in order to find out the truth. It quickly becomes clear that the government isn’t the only interested party when one of Aidan’s brothers – the manager of the Wilmot estate – is brutally attacked by a mysterious intruder who is clearly looking for the papers which are believed to be in Sophia’s possession. With Sophia and Ian in danger, Aidan swiftly whisks them away from London intent on guarding them closely while he works to discover the identity of the traitor and to find the coded documents Tom sent to England just before his death.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a strong début and I was impressed by the author’s ability to tell a rollicking good story. There are, however, a number of flaws which brought my final grade down, and which I hope the author will be able to iron out as she develops as a writer.

One of the biggest problems is that, at several points in the book, it feels more like the second or third in a series than the first. There is a fairly large number of secondary characters in the story, most of them family members, and it seemed as though I was already supposed to know who they all are and how they ended up with their relative spouses. For example, reference is made to the dramatic events leading up to the wedding of Sophia’s cousin Malcolm and his wife and mention is made of the fact that she has a son andthey have a daughter. There’s clearly a story to tell about Aidan’s brother Colin (hero of the next book) and his wife as well. Whereas in many series books, the author sets up certain characters as sequel bait; here, it’s like they’re prequel bait, and while I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued at the thought of eventually reading those stories, the little snippets I was thrown made me feel as though I’d missed something important and distracted me from the book I was actually reading.

The pacing is good, but there is simply too much going on, which again, sometimes made me feel as though I’d missed something. Taken in random order, there is a dead spy-husband, a dead (possibly) spy-brother, a mistress, a secret love-child, secret codes, a ghostly apparition, an evil mastermind… Ms Miles clearly had a plan and organized everything well, but the book would have benefited from some judicious pruning so that she could have concentrated on fewer elements and perhaps developed them more.

Aidan and Sophia make a good couple and there are some nice moments of sexual tension between them, but the actual sex scenes are a little clumsy and therefore disappointing. I get the feeling the author wanted to write them, but was a bit shy of or reluctant to do so – and that reluctance is obvious on the page. Writing sex scenes is one of those things where you either go for it, or you don’t. If you’re going to write a sex scene, then go for it; you have to have the courage of your convictions or your readers won’t be convinced and the whole thing will be one big anticlimax (:P)

In her informative author’s notes at the end Ms Miles says that she has taken care with the language used in the story so as not to use words which were not in common usage at the time the book is set. I always applaud an author for this sort of attention to detail – but Ms Miles, why, when you were so careful with things like this did you fail to weed out the numerous Americanisms that appear? I keep repeating myself in reviews, but in England, we have pavements (not sidewalks), Autumn (not fall), suspenders are worn to hold up a man’s socks not his trousers (the over-the-shoulder-holding-up-trousers-things are called braces) and the only sort of pants worn by men here are underpants, which I’m sure isn’t what you meant when you used the term – they’d be pantaloons, breeches or trousers. If you can research which words might be anachronistic, then surely it’s not too hard to look up which words don’t travel across the Atlantic?

Having said all that, I’m still giving Jilting the Duke a qualified recommendation, because the thing that shines through all those flaws is the fact that Ms Miles is an excellent storyteller. Had she not been, the book would have received a much lower grade, or maybe it would still be languishing in my TBR pile. That it isn’t is down to the fact that she drew me into the story within the first few pages and engaged me sufficiently as to make me not want to put the book down. I will certainly be looking out for the next book in the Muses’ Salonseries, Chasing the Heiress, and will hope that some of these weaknesses have been addressed.

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

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

“Do you speak Italian?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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