A Duke in Shining Armor (Difficult Dukes #1) by Loretta Chase (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Hugh Philemon Ancaster, seventh Duke of Ripley, will never win prizes for virtue. But even he draws the line at running off with his best friend’s bride. All he’s trying to do is recapture the slightly inebriated Lady Olympia Hightower and return her to her intended bridegroom.

For reasons that elude her, bookish, bespectacled Olympia is supposed to marry a gorgeous rake of a duke. The ton is flabbergasted. Her family’s ecstatic. And Olympia? She’s climbing out of a window, bent on a getaway. But tall, dark, and exasperating Ripley is hot on her trail, determined to bring her back to his friend. For once, the world-famous hellion is trying to do the honorable thing.

So why does Olympia have to make it so deliciously difficult for him . . . ?

Rating: Narration – A+: Content – A

Was there any likelihood that this, the latest release from the phenomenal author/narrator team of Loretta Chase and Kate Reading, was going to get anything other than top marks? Nah. It’s fabulous, in terms of both narration and content. In A Duke in Shining Armor, book one in her new Difficult Dukes series, Ms. Chase presents listeners with a wonderfully realised, character-driven road-trip romance that’s full of the insight, warmth, humour and sparkling dialogue that is so characteristic of her stories. Add Kate Reading’s outstanding narration to the mix, and you’ve got just over eleven hours of unequivocal audiobook joy to look forward to. I promise.

Lady Olympia Hightower is the only female child of the Earl and Countess of Gonerby and is, at the age of twenty-six, rather firmly on the shelf. The only thing she has achieved during the course of her seven London Seasons is to be named “Most Boring Girl of the Season” each year, so the proposal of marriage from the young, wealthy and utterly gorgeous Duke of Ashmont comes completely out of the blue. Ashmont is one of three disreputable gentlemen known as “Their Disgraces” thanks to their reputations for drunken carousing, high-stakes gaming, fighting-duels and inveterate womanising (the others being their Graces of Blackwood and Ripley), and will most likely make a terrible husband, but Olympia knows her duty. Instead of carefully planning how best to support their six sons after the earl’s demise, her impractical parents have lavished money upon kitting her out each season, pinning their hopes on her making an auspicious marriage and providing for her brothers that way. She’s a practical, no-nonsense sort of girl, so she accepts Ashmont’s proposal.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr. Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession…or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

Rating: Narration – A+ Content – A-


Those two names up there in the review title should be enough to tell you why you need to go and buy this audiobook at once. The combination of Ms. Riley’s wonderfully intelligent writing and Mr. Wyndham’s extraordinary skills as a narrator is always a delight to experience, and in The Wicked Cousin, book four in the author’s Rockliffe series of Georgian-set romances, both author and narrator are at the top of their game.

Following the death of his twin brother, Theo, at the age of eight, young Sebastian Audley, now the only son and heir of Viscount Wingham, spends the best part of the next thirteen years chafing at being wrapped up in several layers of cotton wool and over-protected to the point of suffocation. So naturally, as soon as he is able to do so, he sets about raising merry hell, which he does up and down the length and breadth of Europe with such great success that his exploits become the stuff of legend and his name regularly appears in the scandal sheets.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

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.

TBR Challenge: Again, My Lord (Twist #2) by Katharine Ashe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one that got away . . .

Six years ago, Tacitus Everard, the Marquess of Dare, made the worst mistake of his life: courting vibrant, sparklingly beautiful Lady Calista Chance—until she broke his heart.

Is the only one she wants.

Six years ago, Calista Holland made the biggest misstep of her life: begging handsome, wealthy Lord Dare to help her run away from home—then marrying someone else.

Now, trapped by disaster in a country inn, Calista has one day to convince the marquess she’s worth a second chance, and Dare has one goal, to steer clear of déjà vu. But when the day takes an unimaginable twist, what will it take to end up in each other’s arms?

Rating: A-

I had a bit of a struggle to find a book to suit this month’s prompt to read a book in a series I’m behind on, because I’m pretty much caught up with all the ones I’m currently following. There are some I haven’t started yet, but I wanted to try to stick to the prompt and finally, I came up with Again, My Lord, the second book in Katharine Ashe’s Twist series. In the two books in the series so far, she’s taken a couple of well-known movie plots as her starting points and adapted them into historical romances which, while certainly out of the ordinary in terms of the premise, are nonetheless well done and very entertaining, possessing a depth of understanding and exploration of character motivation that wasn’t possible in the films which inspired them.

Tacitus Caesar Everard, Marquess of Dare has two requirements in a bride. First, she must have good teeth; second, she should be someone with whom he could live a contented, sensible life without becoming emotionally involved. When he meets the vivacious, eighteen-year-old Lady Calista Chance (sister of Ian, hero of My Lady, My Lord), Tacitus is delighted to note that she has excellent teeth and that she is so different from him in terms of personality – she’s lively and outgoing whereas he tends to be shy and somewhat subdued – that there’s little chance of his falling in love with her, and immediately decides she’s the girl for him.

He sets about courting her, putting up at a country inn close to the Chance estate where he remains for a month while he takes Calista on drives and outings, usually accompanied by her younger siblings. Calista chatters on and teases him in a way he’s never experienced before and isn’t sure how to respond to; he doesn’t exactly dislike it, but can’t shake the feeling that perhaps she is simply making fun of him. Still, he continues to spend time with her, coming to realise that she has a keen mind behind the bubbly exterior and pretty face – and after a month has passed, decides that it’s time for him to make a formal offer. He is about to make his way to her home when she arrives at the inn and promptly tells him she is running away and asks him to take her to London. Believing Calista is asking him to take her to meet another man, Tacitus only now realises he’s fallen in love – and curses himself for an idiot. He takes her back home and leaves her without another word, determined to fall out of love as quickly as he’d fallen into it. But it’s not easy – even when, a few weeks later, he sees the notice in the paper of her marriage to another man.

Six years later, Lady Calista Holland is trying not to fall apart as she bids farewell to her five-year-old son, Harry, who is going to stay with her mother and sister for a month. Calista’s husband, however, has not granted her permission to accompany him; he’s very possessive and resents any of her time or attention being given to anything other than him, so all she is allowed to do is deliver Harry to her sister at the inn near the small village of Swinly and then she must return home immediately. Everything is set – when a huge horse thunders into the yard and would have knocked Harry down were it not for the fast reflexes of its rider. Calista is astonished to recognise the autocratic, severe, yet handsome-as-ever features of none other than the Marquess of Dare, the man she fell in love with six years ago and the man who abandoned her when she needed him the most.

The horrible weather only gets worse, aptly reflecting Calista’s gloomy mood, and when she wakes the next morning to discover that the storm is so bad as to have flooded the roads and made it impossible to leave the village her feelings are conflicted. On the one hand, she has a respite from her miserable, abusive husband; on the other, if she cannot get home on time, she has no doubt Richard will take out his anger on her and, later, their son.

I don’t want to spoil the twist in the story, although it will quickly become apparent once things get going, so I’m not going to say more about the plot. Instead, I’ll say that Again, My Lord is a wonderful tale of love and redemption that encompasses a gamut of emotions from dejection to elation, from despair to hope. The majority of the story is told in Calista’s PoV, so we are privy to her transformation from a woman who has been beaten down by life and who has little regard or care for anyone or anything – except her son, whom she loves dearly – to someone who knows how to live life to the fullest and make the most of each day and opportunity that comes along.

Through her eyes, we see that Tacitus has changed in the intervening years, too, and very much for the better. The oh-so-correct, somewhat gauche young man Calista first knew has become a man whose natural authority commands attention without his having to say a word; even better, he seems to have acquired a dry sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself somewhere along the way. He’s the most gorgeous romantic hero; thoughtful, sweet, passionate and kind and I loved the way the he’s so patient and considerate with Calista, even when he has no idea what she’s doing or talking about or when he’s irritated with her.

The romance that re-kindles between the two is extremely well developed – even moreso given the restrictions the author has imposed upon herself by the twist – as Calista and Tacitus gradually rediscover each other and fall in love all over again. In fact, it’s probably true to say they never really fell out of love with each other, but they have to get to know the people they are now, and it’s quite the journey for them both, albeit in different ways. It’s far from easy, however, and there’s a lot of heartache along the way for Calista especially, as she starts to realise that the time she has been granted to spend with Tacitus is a double-edged sword, because for her, every day brings new discoveries and new facets of him to fall in love with, whereas for him… well, suffice to say it’s not the same for Tacitus which is one of the things that adds such a note of poignancy to the story.

Katharine Ashe pulls off this unusual conceit with immense quantities of style and panache. Her writing is lyrical and completely engaging, the characterisation of the two leads is excellent and she’s one of those authors with a real talent for writing dialogue that feels natural and in which the humour is never forced. Again, My Lord has pretty much everything I could ask for in an historical romance, and is another of Ms. Ashe’s books to find its way onto my keeper shelf.

An Unnatural Vice by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel – or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust – and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – A

An Unnatural Vice is the second book in K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities series, a trilogy set in late Victorian London which revolves around the search for the missing heir to an earldom. Each book features one central couple whose romance is complete by the end, but the overarching story of blackmail, bigamy and murder is carried through each one, so while it’s possible to enjoy the books on their own, I’d recommend starting with book one, An Unseen Attraction to get the best out of the series.

Almost six years earlier, Nathaniel Roy lost the love of his life in a freak accident. Since then – and with the loving support of a number of good friends who include Clem Tallyfer (main protagonist of An Unseen Attraction), he’s put the pieces of his life back together, and channels his focus into his career as a journalist, dedicated to exposing the plight of the poor and shedding light on the shady practices of big business. Emotionally, however, he is frozen, still mourning his sunny-natured, gentle lover and has never, in the years since Tony’s death, felt attraction or desire for another man.

Until the night he sets eyes on Justin Lazarus for the first time.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Rating: A

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.