Hard-Hearted Highlander (Highland Grooms #3) by Julia London

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An indomitable governess…a brooding Highlander…a forbidden affair…

An ill-fated elopement cost English-born governess Bernadette Holly her reputation, her unsuitable lover and any chance of a future match. She has nothing left to fear–not even the bitter, dangerously handsome Scot due to marry her young charge. Naive wallflower Avaline is terrified to wed Rabbie Mackenzie, but if he sends her home, she will be ruined. Bernadette’s solution: convince Rabbie to get Avaline to cry off…while ignoring her own traitorous attraction to him.

A forced engagement to an Englishwoman is a hard pill for any Scot to swallow. It’s even worse when the fiancee in question is a delicate, foolish young miss–unlike her spirited, quick-witted governess. Sparring with Bernadette brings passion and light back to Rabbie’s life after the failed Jacobite uprising. His clan’s future depends upon his match to another, but how can any Highlander forsake a love that stirs his heart and soul?

Rating: C+

I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series in spite of my general aversion to Scottish/Highland set romances; both books are strongly character driven with, in the case of the first book, Wild Wicked Scot, a dash of politics and intrigue thrown in to add an extra layer of interest. So I’ve been looking forward to this third book, in which the hero is Rabbie Mackenzie, younger son of Laird Arran and his English wife, Margot. But I’m afraid I can’t say that I enjoyed Hard Hearted Highlander as much as the other books, mostly because the eponymous hero is such a miserable bastard for well over half of the story, and it’s difficult to find any vestige of sympathy or liking for a man who is so ill-mannered and self-centred.

That’s not to say that Rabbie doesn’t have grounds for what is immediately apparent is a case of severe depression. The book is set in 1750, five years after the Battle of Culloden, and takes place in a very different world to the previous novel. Many families and clans were wiped out on the battlefield and after, and of those who weren’t many have fled – to the cities, or overseas – and the landscape has been forever changed. Even the powerful Mackenzie clan is struggling to look after its own; their neutrality in the conflict did not protect them from the widely wrought devastation and times are hard.

Like many of his countrymen, Rabbie is frustrated and bitter about the huge change the battle has wrought in the Highlander way of life, but he is also mired in grief for the woman he loved, Seona MacBee, who was killed, along with her family, either during or after the uprising. It’s been years since her death, but Rabbie mourns her every day, and continues to scowl and growl his way through life, much to the consternation of his family. They love him dearly and hate to see him so melancholy, but don’t know what to do to help – and know that he would probably reject it if they tried.

As the Mackenzies struggle to rebuild their fortunes after the rebellion, it becomes necessary for Laird Mackenzie to broker a match between Rabbie and the young daughter of Lord Kent, an English nobleman who has purchased the nearby estate of Kileaven and looks set to buy up other lands around Balhaire. If that happens, there won’t be enough land to sustain even the small number of Mackenzies who are left, and a this arrangement is the only way to protect Balhaire and its dependents. Rabbie recognises the importance of this marriage to his family and agrees to marry the girl. He doesn’t care – he’s dead inside anyway.

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

The Vicar’s Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

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Cassie, the youngest of six daughters in the Wilton family, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There’s only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn.

Evan Glenside, a soft-spoken, East London clerk, has just been named his great-uncle’s heir and, though he is eager to learn all that will be required of him, he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position.

A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. But then Evan begins to court Lenora, thinking she is the author of the letters.

As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar’s daughter be able to reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

Rating: C

The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.

It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.

When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.

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

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve. An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.

In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Highland Dragon’s Lady (Highland Dragons #2) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Regina Talbot-Jones has always known her rambling family home was haunted. She also knows her brother has invited one of his friends to attend an ill-conceived séance. She didn’t count on that friend being so handsome… and she certainly didn’t expect him to be a dragon.

Scottish Highlander Colin MacAlasdair has hidden his true nature for his entire life, but the moment he sets eyes on Regina, he knows he has to have her. In his hundreds of years, he’s never met a woman who could understand him so thoroughly… or touch him so deeply. Bound by their mutual loneliness, drawn by the fire awakening inside of them, Colin and Regina must work together to defeat a vengeful spirit – and discover whether their growing love is powerful enough to defy convention.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C-

I’m not a great fan of paranormal romances in the main (although I adored Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London books), but I read one of the other titles in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragon series a while back and enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading or listening to another one. Until recently, only the first book, Legend of the Highland Dragon has been available in audio format, but Tantor Audio has now issued books two and three, The Highland Dragon’s Lady and Night of the Highland Dragon (which is the one I’ve read). With Derek Perkins once again lending his considerable narrating skills to the project, I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting story filled with magic and mysterious goings on.

Two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. Because while there’s certainly magic and mysterious goings on, the story isn’t very exciting. In fact, it was so dull in places that even Mr. Perkins couldn’t save it or stop my mind wandering, and I found myself backtracking several times throughout the listen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

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When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.

In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: A-

Joanna Chambers’ A Gathering Storm is the sole historical entry in the Porthkennack series of queer romances written by five different award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ+ romance authors. All the books – the others are by Charlie Cochrane, J.L. Merrow, Alex Beecroft and Garrett Leigh – can be read in any order and are standalone titles; the link is the setting of Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history.

The story opens as Sir Edward Fitzwilliam Is travelling from Dublin to Anglesey on the night of a fierce, electrical storm.  The storm is at its height when Edward – Ward – experiences a strange phenomenon; he hears his twin brother, George, assuring him that all will be well at what Ward later realises must have been the moment of his brother’s death.  From that moment on, Ward becomes consumed by the idea of recreating the conditions that allowed the communication and devotes himself to the task, even though the wider scientific community – of which he had been a respected member – disapproves of his efforts to contact the departed and denounces him.

Following his disastrous public defence of  a sham medium in opposition to some of his highly respected colleagues, Ward retreats to the small seaside town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, where he purchases a plot of land close to a place known locally as ‘the Hole’, an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretches from cliff-top to seabed.  Stories of the supernatural cling to the place, but Ward’s interest is of a more scientific nature; he believes that the conditions experienced in that location during a storm will help him in his quest to recreate those he experienced on the night his brother communicated with him ‘from beyond the veil’.

But in order to prove that communication with the spirit world is possible, Ward also needs subjects willing to take part in his experiments, preferably people who have recently suffered a bereavement.  He asks his solicitor if he can help him find such people, but even though Ward offers to pay well, the locals are naturally sceptical; and once rumours begin circulating about his using mesmerism and electric shocks (he doesn’t) not even the promise of payment can induce anyone to sign up.

On a visit to a local tavern in hopes of drumming up some interest, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward at the neighbouring Roscarrock estate.  Nick is half Romany and, while it’s never publicly acknowledged, is the illegitimate grandson of his employer, old Godfrey Roscarrock.  Nick’s gypsy mother is widely believed to have been clairvoyant, and when Ward learns of this, he is convinced that Nick is the very man to assist him with his experiments – but Nick isn’t interested, or at least, he isn’t interested in what Ward is trying to do, although he is fascinated by the man himself.

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

Only a Mistress Will Do (House of Pleasure #3) by Jenna Jaxon

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The man of her dreams . . . belongs to another woman.

Destitute and without friends, Violet Carlton is forced to seek employment at the House of Pleasure in London. She steels herself for her first customer and is shocked when the man rescues her instead of ravishing her. A grateful Violet cannot help but admire the handsome Viscount Trevor. But she must curb her desire for the dashing nobleman she can never have because he is already betrothed to another . . .

Tristan had gone to the House of Pleasure for a last bit of fun before he became a faithful married man. But when he recognizes the woman in his bed, he becomes determined to save her instead. Now, his heart wars with his head as he falls for the vulnerable courtesan. Unable to break his betrothal without a scandal, Tris resolves to find Violet proper employment or a husband of her own. Still, his arms ache for Violet, urging him to abandon propriety and sacrifice everything to be with the woman he loves. . .

Rating: D+

It can be tempting, when you read hundreds of books a year, to confine yourself to picking up titles by authors whose work you know you are going to enjoy. But when it comes to reviewing, I make a point of sampling books by some of the newer names in historical romance, and sometimes I’m lucky and I find a new author to add to my ‘’must read’ list. Sadly, however, it’s been my experience that the ‘finds’ are in the minority.

Jenna Jaxon’s Only a Mistress Will Do is most definitely NOT a find; in fact I now wish I’d lost it before I even started. Its overly contrived plot relies heavily on coincidence and consists of one cliché after another; no sooner have our hero and heroine emerged unscathed from one melodramatic development than they are thrust into another. The protagonists are barely two-dimensional, their behaviour is inconsistent and frequently contradictory, and the big reveal before the halfway point is no surprise whatsoever. And worst of all, this is a ‘romance’ in which readers are repeatedly told the hero and heroine love each other but are never shown the relationship progressing. By a quarter of the way through the novel, we’re meant to believe they’re desperately in love, but there is no chemistry and no romantic development; honestly, had I not been reading the book for review, I’d have abandoned it well before the halfway point.

Violet Carlton has been left destitute following the recent death of her grandmother and has reached the point where the only thing of value she has left to sell is herself. Remembering the name of a brothel once mentioned by her deceased brother (who was killed more than a year earlier in a duel) Violet makes her way there and asks the madam to employ her. A lovely, well-bred virgin will fetch a high price, so the woman is quite happy to accommodate Violet, and five days later, she is sent her first client, the man who has bought and paid for her virtue.

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

A Perfect Gentleman by Candace Camp

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Forced to marry an American heiress to save his family, Graeme Parr, Earl of Montclair, vowed their marriage would be in name only. Abigail Price thought handsome, aristocratic Graeme was her knight in shining armor, rescuing her from her overbearing father. But when she was spurned by her husband on their wedding night, Abigail fled home to New York.

Now, years later, Abigail has returned. But this sophisticated, alluring woman is not the drab girl Graeme remembers. Appalled by her bold American ways but drawn to her beauty, Graeme follows her on a merry chase through London’s elegant ballrooms to its dockside taverns—why is his wife back? What could she want of him now?

Torn between desire and suspicion, Graeme fears that Abby, like her unprincipled father, has a devious plan to ruin him. But is Abigail’s true desire Graeme’s destruction…or winning his love at last?

Rating: B+

A Perfect Gentleman combines two of my favourite tropes – an arranged marriage and a second-chance romance – so I had fairly high expectations of the book from the outset, and I’m pleased to report that, apart from a niggle about the secondary plotline, those expectations were met.

The novel opens with a prologue set ten years before the bulk of the story, just before the wedding night of Graeme and Abigail Parr, whose marriage has been arranged by their respective fathers, the Earl of Montclair and American industrialist, Thurston Price. Abigail knows her new husband doesn’t love her and that he has married her in order to gain sufficient funds to be able to save the family estate, but Graeme’s behaviour has always been courteous and gentlemanly towards her, and she hopes that in time, affection – perhaps even love – will grow between them. What she doesn’t know, however, is that Price has taken underhand steps to make sure his prospective son-in-law could not back out of the agreement, threatening to reveal damaging information about his father if he tried to wriggle off the hook. Backed into a corner and further angered by a thoughtless comment made by his new father-in-law, Graeme finally snaps, and, believing Abigail to be complicit in her father’s plots, accuses her of blackmail, informs her that he’s in love with someone else and walks out of their hotel room in a furious rage.

Devastated, Abigail packs up her things and heads back to New York, where she remains for the next ten years.

Even though he later regretted his outburst at his young bride, Graeme was not particularly disturbed by her high-tailing it back to America, even though he’s never completely understood why. He continues to support her financially, but is quite happy to live a kind of bachelor existence, although, of course, he cannot marry the woman he loves or sire an heir, meaning that his title – he has become Earl of Montclair in the intervening years – will pass out of the direct line. The last thing he expects to hear, then, is that his wife is in London and causing quite a stir; not only because of her return after such a long absence, but because she is much sought after and surrounded by attentive gentlemen wherever she goes. This doesn’t fit with Graeme’s remembrance of his bride as rather a mousy young woman, but when first he sees her again, he is forced to acknowledge that the intervening years have seen her transform into a vibrant beauty who captivates all around her. But he’s not especially pleased to see her, and is suspicious of her motives for coming to England after so many years of separation. Their initial meeting, at a ball, is cordial, but Abigail is not forthcoming as to the reasons for her presence until some days later, when she tells Graeme that she wants a baby. He refuses, horrified at the thought of sharing a child with a woman he still dislikes – although he admits to himself that he’s not exactly averse to taking part in the act that would create that child – until Abigail then asks him for a divorce so that she can remarry. Graeme is equally horrified at this prospect; he has striven to do the right thing and act in a gentlemanly manner all his life, and has no wish to incur the scandal that would follow a divorce. He and Abigail reach an agreement; they will live as man and wife until she conceives, and any child she has will be brought up in England.

To say the couple is enthusiastic about the act of procreation is an understatement; the crackling awareness of each other that has been evident since their first meeting after Abigail’s return ignites in the bedroom – and other places – leading to some nicely sensual scenes between them, while they are also coming to a greater understanding of each other and what has led them to this point. Ten years on, this is a couple that is wiser as well as older, and the fact that they actually talk things out is very refreshing in a genre in which misunderstandings and lack of communication are so often used as plot devices. Both Graeme and Abigail have to acknowledge and come to terms with past errors as they learn the truth about what prompted their marriage and separation; and this part of the story, where we get to watch them slowly fall in love is beautifully done.

The secondary plotline, which is a mystery in which it becomes gradually apparent that someone is out to harm Abigail, is less successful, however. The storyline itself is intriguing – concerning the secret Thurston Price had threatened to reveal about the late Earl – but the execution is somewhat clumsy, and while I didn’t guess as to the identity of the culprit until near the end, it was because that person was such an unlikely choice and the motive rather flimsy rather than any clever red herrings on the part of the author.

But don’t let that put you off; the mystery is most definitely a background element to the developing love story, which is front and centre throughout. Graeme and Abigail are attractive and engaging characters, and their romance has a definite ring of maturity about it, which I really appreciated. I came away from A Perfect Gentleman feeling optimistic about their future – and very much looking forward to Ms. Camp’s next book, which will feature Graeme’s somewhat enigmatic cousin, James de Vere.