The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

the queer principles of kit webb

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too.  In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two.  But it’s still an entertaining read.

After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London.  It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored.  He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day.  Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse,  Kit is instantly intrigued.

Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare.  Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous.  After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan.  Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.

Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation.  To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are).  It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.

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

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

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

Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

mine till midnight

Their lives defy convention . . .

When an unexpected inheritance elevates her family to the ranks of the aristocracy, Amelia Hathaway discovers that tending to her younger sisters and wayward brother was easy compared to navigating the intricacies of the ton. Even more challenging: the attraction she feels for the tall, dark and dangerously handsome Cam Rohan.

Their desire consumes them both . . .

Wealthy beyond most men’s dreams, Cam has tired of society’s petty restrictions and longs to return to his ‘uncivilized’ Gypsy roots. When the delectable Amelia appeals to him for help, he intends to offer only friendship – but intentions are no match for the desire that blindsides them both. Can a man who spurns tradition be tempted into that most time-honoured arrangement: marriage? Life in London society is about to get a whole lot hotter . . .

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C+

Mine Till Midnight is book one in Lisa Kleypas’s series about the Hathaway family; it was published in 2007 and an audio recording – with Rosalyn Landor at the microphone – was released in 2009. That version was never available worldwide however; only one or two of the series was actually available in the UK before now (the same is true of the earlier and perennially popular (pun intended!) Wallflower series.) Last year, I noticed first two or three titles in the Hathaways series appearing at Audible UK and immediately assumed that they were reissues of the 2009 recordings – but they’re not; they’re brand new recordings.

The five Hathaway siblings were not born to wealth and privilege. Instead, they were thrust into the upper echelons of society when Leo – the only male sibling – inherited a viscountcy from a distant relative, although unfortunately, the title comes with only a modest fortune. Leo has been in a downward spiral for the last year or so, since the death of the young woman he planned to marry, which is how come we first meet our heroine Amelia – the oldest of the four female Hathaways – as she is planning to drag Leo out of Jenner’s (the club owned by Sebastian St. Vincent). She’s accompanied by her adoptive brother Merripen – a Rom (here’s one change from the original – “Gypsy” has been changed to “Rom”) – and they pull up outside the club in time to witness an altercation between some obviously drunk patrons who are vying for the attentions of a prostitute. Before things can get nasty, the fight is broken up by another man – a younger one with dark hair, gleaming hazel eyes and the face of an angel who, for all he is dressed like a gentleman, obviously isn’t one. He’s Cam Rohan (also a Rom), the club’s manager – and just looking at him is enough to take Amelia’s breath away. But she quickly squashes the ripples of nerves and heat that run through her to focus on her reason for being there, irritated when Rohan waves off her concern for her brother as nothing to do with him. It’s only when Merripen speaks to him in their own language that he at last agrees to allow them inside to search for Leo, and on learning that Leo has left the club for a nearby brothel, and of Amelia’s intention to seek him out there, Cam arranges transportation and accompanies them to retrieve the errant viscount.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

Prairie Bride (Dodge City Brides #1) by Julianne Maclean (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlotte North

Prairie Bride

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

A loveless marriage of convenience on the Kansas prairie turns out to be far more than she bargained for….

He’s part of the west 

Briggs Brigman has been burned once before, and the last thing he needs is a beautiful wife who will spend hours in front of the mirror, primping herself. He knows how hard the prairie can be on a woman, and all he wants is a stalwart bride who won’t complain about hauling water from the creek….

She’s a city girl with no idea what she’s in for….

All Sarah MacFarland wants is to escape her fearful life in Boston and start fresh with a new identity. Answering an advertisement for a mail order bride seems like the perfect solution, until she meets her soon-to-be husband – a ruggedly handsome, strapping farmer who leaves her breathless on their wedding night. But is it possible that two tormented souls can find happiness, when all they know is betrayal, and when trust is the only way out of a tumultuous past that simply won’t stay buried? 

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C

The mail order bride trope is a common one in Western Historical Romance, but up until now, I haven’t actually read or listened to one. When Julianne Maclean’s Prairie Bride – book one in her Dodge City Brides series – showed up with the excellent Charlotte North listed as the narrator, I decided it was time to give one a go.

Even though I have no direct experience with this trope, I’ve been around Romancelandia long enough to have been able to make a reasonable guess as to what the story would be about – and I was pretty much spot on. A young woman running from her past travels from the city to the back of beyond to marry a man she’s never seen, doesn’t expect quite the primitive standard of her new home but decides to make the best of it, falls for her husband (who is, fortunately, hot as hell) her past catches up with her, drama ensues – The End.

If by that you infer that the story is predictable – then you’re inferring correctly.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Catch a Duke (Rogues to Riches #6) by Grace Burrowes

how to catch a duke uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘I have come to ask you to kill me, my lord.’

Miss Abigail Abbott desperately needs to disappear-permanently-and the only person she trusts to help her do that is Lord Stephen Wentworth, heir to the Duke of Walden. Stephen is brilliant, charming, and-when he needs to be-absolutely ruthless. So ruthless that he proposes marriage instead of “murder” to keep Abigail safe.

Stephen was smitten the instant his sister introduced him to Abigail, a woman with the dignity and determination of a duchess and the courage of a lioness. When she accepts his courtship of convenience, he also discovers she kisses like his most intimate wish come true. For Abigail, their arrangement is a sham to escape her dangerous enemies. For Stephen, it’s his one chance to share a lifetime with the lady of his dreams-if only he can convince her his love is real.

Rating: B-

How to Catch a Duke is the sixth and final book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series about the members of the Wentworth family.  The first book – My One and Only Duke – saw a ducal title conferred upon Quinton Wentworth, a wealthy banker from extremely humble origins who grew up doing whatever jobs he could find in order to provide for his younger siblings, and subsequent books have followed the various family members as they’ve each found their HEAs.  The hero of How to Catch a Duke is Stephen, Quinn’s younger brother and heir whom we first met as a brilliant, mercurial teen whose insight and often biting wit was shadowed by melancholy, and whose frustrations over his disability – his abusive father smashed Stephen’s knee when he was a child and he needs a cane (sometimes two) to walk – came through strongly.  Ten years later, Stephen is still brilliant and mercurial; he’s also charming, loyal, generous and quite ruthless when he wants to be and hasn’t let his physical limitations stop him from shagging his way across the continent or from ‘dallying’ extensively in England with a variety of willing partners.

When this book opens, Stephen receives a visit from Miss Abigail Abbott, the enquiry agent who recently did some work for his sister Constance (The Truth About Dukes).  In a dramatic opening, Abigail tells Stephen that she has “come to ask you to murder me, my lord.”  – which is, of course, not what she means at all; what she wants is to disappear while she attempts to find out why someone – a marquess no less – is out to do her harm.  Abigail is cagey, but Stephen – being Stephen – quickly works out who it is and promptly offers to kill him instead.

The next morning over breakfast, Abigail explains that Lord Stapleton believes her to be in possession of some letters he wants returned – which she is unable to do as she no longer has them.  She refuses to answer Stephen’s questions as to the identity of the writer and recipient of the letters, simply saying that the marquess is not entitled to them and is clearly prepared to go to any lengths to get them.  Stephen recognises that Abigail – whom he already admires for her spirit and no-nonsense attitude (and lusts after for her other attributes) – is genuinely scared, and suggests that instead of faking her death, they should pretend to be engaged and that she should go to stay under Quinn’s protection at Walden House while they work out how to retrieve the letters or get Stapleton to stop hounding her – and preferably both.
I’m generally a fan of Grace Burrowes’ novels, although I’ve long since given up trying to keep up with them all! I enjoy her quirky writing style and the strong familial connections she creates in her stories, and although I haven’t read all the books in this series, I’ve read enough of them to be able to know who most of the characters are and how they relate to one another – so this isn’t the place to start with the Wentworths! But with all that said, I had a number of issues with the book that mean I can’t grade it more highly. The plot is stretched thin and moves very slowly until well into the second half, and I didn’t feel a great deal of chemistry between Stephen and Abigail, who become lovers very quickly, before they really know each other. And while I applaud Ms. Burrowes for writing a couple who talk frankly about sex and their past relationships, I found it hard to believe a young unmarried woman – even one who had had a lover – would have felt comfortable discussing such things with a man she didn’t know all that well. Then there’s the fact that Stephen makes no bones about the fact that he’s had intimate relationships with a few men as well as women, and Abigail takes that in her stride, too (as, it seems, do other members of the family). On the one hand, it’s great to see such a supportive, non-judgmental reaction, but on the other, their easy, unconcerned acceptance seemed too modern.

The best thing about the book is undoubtedly Stephen, probably the most complex and damaged character of all the Wentworths. He’s living with a terrible secret as well as a disability that has caused many to see him as ‘less than’ and has spent most of his life compensating for it in one way and another; not just in his legendary prowess between the sheets, but in many other ways, too, channelling what had been, in youth, self-destructive impulses into creative ones. The other thing I really liked was the new and greater understanding that develops between him and Quinn. Although Stephen had no wish to feel it, he couldn’t help resenting Quinn for being able to do things he couldn’t and for being able to escape their father’s cruelties, and Quinn has seen Stephen as somewhat spoiled, and self-indulgent, and has even been jealous of his intelligence. There’s never been any question that they’d do anything for each other, but they’ve always been a bit wary of each other, too, and I was pleased to see those misunderstandings finally laid to rest.

There’s a large-ish secondary cast of Wentworth siblings and in-laws I enjoyed re-visting, the villain of the piece is suitably nasty (although no match for Stephen), and the author skilfully weaves a realistic look at the plight of the less fortunate into the background of the story – whether it’s the soldiers returning from war to find there was no work and no help for them, or children, forced to work from the age of six as climbing boys or in mines and factories.

I liked many things about How to Catch a Duke, but unfortunately, the romance isn’t at the top of the list. I’ve been intrigued by Stephen since he first appeared in the book one, so I had high hopes for his book and I really wanted to like it more than I did, but even so, it’s certainly worth a qualified recommendation.

To Love and to Loathe (Regency Vows #2) by Martha Waters

to love and to loathe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The only thing they can agree on is that the winner takes all

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, are as infamous for their bickering as for their flirtation.

Shortly before a fortnight-long house party at Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when he appears at her home with an unexpected proposition.

After finding his latest mistress unimpressed with his bedroom skills, Jeremy suggests that they embark on a brief affair. He trusts Diana to critique him honestly, and she’ll use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana has bet Jeremy that he will marry within the year, and she intends to use his proposal to her advantage.

But in this battle, should the real wager be who will lose their heart to the other first?

Rating: B+

To Love and To Loathe is the follow-up to Martha Waters’ 2020 début historical romance, To Have and To Hoax.  AAR’s reviewer was less than impressed with it, citing problems with the premise and immaturity of the leads, and overall, reviews were mixed. With so many other books to review on my plate, I didn’t get around to reading it, so I can’t offer an opinion.  But I wanted to give the author a try, so I picked up this second book in The Regency Vows series, because I am a sucker for that whole Beatrice and Benedick sparring-couple-who-are-desperately-in-love-but-would-deny-it-to-the-death thing.  And I’m glad I did, because To Love and To Loathe is funny, clever and sexy, featuring complex, well-rounded characters and incorporating pertinent observations about the nature of privilege and the unfairness of the patriarchal norms and laws that deprived women of autonomy.

At the age of eighteen, the Honourable Diana Bourne is well aware that most men are fools, but a man doesn’t need to be clever to be possessed of a hefty fortune, which is exactly what she’s looking for.  Since the death of their parents, she and her brother have lived with relatives who have seen her as nothing but a burden and who resent the expense her presence incurs.  So Diana is determined to snare a wealthy husband so she will never have to worry about something as vulgar as money ever again.

The one tiny glitch in her plan is her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham, who while just as much of a fool as every other man, is nonetheless a massively enticing fool who has only to walk into a room to turn the head of every woman in it – and set Diana’s heart beating just a bit faster than she would like.  But no matter how handsome and charming Jeremy is (or how strongly she’s attracted to him), he’s irresponsible,  overly fond of drink and women, and – most importantly – almost broke, so he won’t suit Diana’s purposes at all.

A few years later, Diana is a wealthy widow and Jeremy is still cutting a swathe through the beds of the bored wives and widows of the ton.  Their inability to agree on anything is widely known throughout society, as is the fact they’re engaged in a game of one-upmanship involving a constant barrage of well-aimed barbs and cleverly chosen put-downs.  On one particular evening when Willingham again scoffs at the idea of matrimony, Diana impulsively wagers him that he’ll be married within the year – or she’ll pay him the sum of one hundred pounds.  Of course, Willingham accepts – and only afterwards does Diana realise it was perhaps not the wisest thing she’s ever done, because honestly, she can’t see him marrying in the next twelve months, either.

Shortly after the wager is made – and just before Diana is to travel to Jeremy’s country estate for his annual house party – he comes to her seeking her help on a very delicate matter.  His most recent mistress implied he couldn’t satisfy her in bed – and Jeremy can’t get her accusations out of his mind.  Looking for reassurance, he turns to the only woman he knows he can rely on to tell him the absolute truth – and suggests to Diana that they embark on a brief affair during the house party.  Diana isn’t inclined to agree to this – until he points out that a discreet affair with him will send the right signals to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

“I’m not certain that the signal I’m looking to send is that I’ve joined the legion of women who’ve lifted their skirts for the Marquess of Willingham.  I’m surprised they haven’t formed a society. With matching hats.”

She’s still not convinced – until Jeremy points out:

“If nothing else, it would finally dispel whatever this is between us,” he added, waving his hand at the space between them… “And don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean… Because I know you do.”

Of course as any romance reader knows, the old let’s-do-it-once-to-get-it-out-of-our-systems chestnut never works the way the participants intend it to.  Diana and Jeremy are obviously head-over-heels for each other from the get-go and have been that way for years, but there are obstacles preventing both of them from fully acknowledging the truth of their feelings for one another – obstacles that feel authentic to who these two people are; flawed but immensely likeable characters who learn about themselves as they gradually reveal more of their true selves to each other.

I really liked that Diana and Jeremy were so clear-sighted about each other, even as they had things to learn about one another.  Jeremy viewed the younger Diana’s eagerness to marry as somewhat mercenary, but didn’t know the reasons behind it; Diana suspects Jeremy is hiding his intelligence behind the wastrel he presents to society, but hasn’t fully understood the depth of his grief and anger over the death of the older brother who left him with a title and responsibilities he’d not been brought up to and didn’t want.  They’re both perspicacious and fully up to each other’s weight when it comes to their ‘merry war’, and their chemistry as they snark and flirt their way towards their HEA is terrific.

I liked them individually and together.  Diana is clever and funny and her status as a widow means she’s allowed more freedom to do as she wants than an unmarried woman would be, so her reluctance to consider giving up her independence in another marriage is understandable. And I loved Jeremy, a decent, considerate, generous man who has spent years making certain no-one would ever expect anything of him or take him too seriously because of his deep sense of unworthiness.  Their inner conflicts are very well articulated and I loved watching them come to a greater understanding of one another.

I really enjoyed the book, but there are a few things that keep it just out of DIK territory.   Part of Diana’s plan to win the wager involves her trying to find someone else to get Jeremy married off to – and she decides to throw him together with Lady Helen, a young woman known to be desperate to find a husband and who is widely disliked.  Hints are dropped that Lady Helen is not what she seems, but Diana doesn’t know this and her determination to marry the man she loves (even if she isn’t ready to admit to it) to a young woman who is so patently wrong for him and would make him utterly miserable just didn’t sit right with me.  I get that it was a mark of Diana’s desperation not to admit to how she felt about Jeremy, but it felt childish and petty.

The Big Mis that occurs near the end is a misfire, and I wasn’t wild about the amount of time given to setting up a future book in the series, which interrupted the flow of the main narrative. It’s well done and skilfully integrated into conversation and multi-character scenes, but I could still have done with a bit less of it.

All in all however, To Love and To Loathe is great fun. The writing is crisp and clever, the characters are engaging and the dialogue sparkles.  For those of you who – like me –  have been struggling to find really good historical romance lately, I’m happy to say that it’s well worth a look.

A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

King’s Man (Outlawed #1) by Sally Malcolm


This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when the love of your life becomes your enemy?

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together as intimate friends, and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of the conflict…

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him.

The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is quite different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost to the war.

The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. And despite everything that still divides them, old passions begin to stir…

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is their tangled past too painful to forgive?

Rating: A

In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle.  This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that  combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.

In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont.  Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes.  (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory).  But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought.  Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more;  and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.

Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London.  Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London.  It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents.  But he won’t be travelling alone.

Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel BenjaminTalmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors.  In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down.  But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.

Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list.  The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves.  But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.

Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible.  Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet.  Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour.  The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.

Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful.  Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses.  In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating.  I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.

Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.