TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.

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TBR Challenge: Waking Up Married by Mira Lynn Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Her first thought: “Who are you?”

It’s the morning after her cousin’s bachelorette party in Vegas and Megan Scott wakes up with the mother of all hangovers. Even worse, she’s in a stranger’s penthouse having woken up with something else as well – a funny, arrogant, sexy…husband!

Up until now, finding even a boyfriend had seemed impossible – been there, got the broken heart, sworn off men for good. Then a few martinis with Carter…no, Connor Reed and she’s gone from first meet to marriage in one night!

Megan wants a lawyer. But Connor’s shocking bombshell?

“I don’t want a divorce.”

Rating: C+

Scrolling through my Kindle to find a contemporary romance to read for this month’s prompt, I stumbled upon Mira Lyn Kelly’s Waking Up Married, one of the titles in Harlequin’s short-lived Kiss line (which is published as Mills & Boon Modern Tempted in the UK).  I’ve read a couple of the author’s more recent titles and enjoyed them – funny, sexy and sweet, they’re written with a secure but deft hand and boast attractive principals and a strong supporting cast.  I went into this one hoping for more of the same and found it, for the most part, but the story as a whole is rather let down by the hero who spends most of the novel trying to persuade the heroine into doing something she isn’t sure she wants to do.

Megan Scott is in Vegas with a group of (very bitchy) girlfriends, and they’re out partying before being bridesmaids at the wedding of one of their number the next day.  Megan has decided that she doesn’t want or need a man – she has never fallen in love with one and doesn’t think she is capable of it – instead, she intends to fulfil her desire for motherhood by a visit to the local sperm bank.

Connor Reed is surprised – in a good way – when the gorgeous woman he’d noticed earlier as he’d walked by her table approaches him and asks him if he’ll walk her out of the bar.  Her friends have been egging her on all night, and she won’t hear the end of it if she leaves the bar alone.  It’s an odd request, but he agrees, and he and Megan end up spending the next few hours together, during which they really do ‘click’; Megan tells Connor a bit about her seeming inability to fall in love, which she puts down to the fact that her mother has been married seven times (and had boyfriends in between) and having no desire to follow the path of falling in love and being repeatedly left.  As the night progresses,  Connor becomes more and more convinced that Megan wants the same things from life that he does.  Of course, they take in more than a few more drinks along the way, which is how Megan ends up with her head stuck down the great white telephone the next morning with the hangover from hell – and discovers she’s now Mrs. Reed.

In the spirit of ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, she tells her new husband they made a horrendous mistake and that they should start divorce proceedings immediately – and is stunned when Connor tells her he wants their marriage to stand.  Megan can’t believe what she’s hearing, but Connor persuades her to hear him out over breakfast.  From what Megan told him the previous night, it seems she wants the same things from a relationship that he does:

“All the vital components that make a relationship successful, without any of the emotional messiness to drag it down. It’s about respect, caring and commitment. Shared goals and compatible priorities. It’s about treating a marriage like a partnership instead of some romantic fantasy. It’s about two people liking each other.”

– and he’s one hundred percent there for that sort of marriage.

Even though Megan has decided she’s probably never going to find ‘the one’, a marriage like the one Connor is suggesting sounds terribly calculating, and she’s not sure it’s what she wants for the rest of her life.  But she agrees to a three month trial – although with no sex allowed – and moves into Connor’s house.

One of the things I liked straight away about Waking Up Married is that the ‘Oh no – we got drunk, got married and must get a divorce as quickly as possible’ trope doesn’t quite pan out that way, because while Megan and Connor did get married while drunk, Connor knew exactly what they were doing when they walked down the aisle.  The trouble is though, that I wasn’t wild about the idea that he was aware of what they were doing while Megan wasn’t; she can’t even remember saying her vows, or much of what Connor told her the previous night.  And while Connor is devastatingly handsome and extremely charming, he’s also incredibly manipulative; for the majority of the book, he’s doing his damnedest to convince Megan that what he wants is what she wants, too, which he does by being Mr. Reasonable and Mr. Unflappable, even when Megan tries everything she can think of to rile him or get him to give up – which seemed a bit mean considering she had actually agreed to give him and their marriage a chance to work out. Neither of them covers themselves in glory here, but fortunately, this stalemate isn’t allowed to continue and things start to look up – until Connor turns into an idiot not far from the end and only manages to turn things around in the last page or two.

Waking Up Married was enjoyable-  but ultimately forgettable – fluff.  I liked both protagonists, and the way Connor was so clueless as to the real state of his feelings about Megan was oddly sweet; he’s a nice blend of alpha and beta hero, a man who wants to protect and support his woman while also applauding her desire for independence.  On the downside, her being independent means less aggro for him and none of those nasty romantic luuurve cooties, so it’s not an entirely altruistic trait.  Ms. Kelly opts to give both characters a backstory that explains their reluctance to pursue love, but it’s very sketchy and could perhaps have been a little more developed; and I also have to admit that I wasn’t always comfortable with Connor’s more manipulative side.

I can’t recommend Waking Up Married without reservations, but if you enjoy rom-coms and are looking for an afternoon quickie (!), it might hit the spot.

TBR Challenge – Some Brief Folly (Sanguinet Saga #1) by Patricia Veryan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The Napoleonic wars are at their height on the Continent when Miss Euphemia Buchanan, young, much sought-after, and unattainable, decides to journey from London to Bath with her brother Simon and her young page Kent to spend the Christmas holidays with Great Aunt Lucasta. Along the way, she entreats Simon to detour past the imposing lines of Dominer, the palatial country estate of Garret Hawkhurst, the appallingly dangerous rake responsible (or so it is rumored) for the deaths of his own wife and child.

But disaster strikes in the form of a landslide, and the Buchannan’s coach is overturned and brought within inches of complete destruction. It is only through the bravery and immediate efforts of a passing gentleman that Euphemia and her wounded brother and page are rescued at all. But Euphemia’s grateful thanks turn to horror when she realizes her rescuer is none other than the infamous Garrett Hawkhurst, and that she has no recourse but to help Simon and Kent convalesce within the walls of Dominer itself…

Rating: B+

Patricia Veryan wrote around thirty-five historical romances set in the Georgian and Regency periods between 1978 and 2002, and until recently, they were all out of print.  Fortunately, over the last few years, many have been made available digitally, and I read The Wagered Widow for one of last year’s TBR Challenge prompts.  Ms. Veryan’s books are often compared to Georgette Heyer’s, and on the strength of the couple I’ve read, I’d certainly say they’re worth checking out if you’re a Heyer fan.  Ms. Veryan seems to have had a similar gift for writing observational humour and sparkling dialogue, and for creating interesting characters who operate within the societal norms of the period. But while the vast majority of Heyer’s books are set in the Regency, many of Patricia Veryan’s take place in the Georgian era ; two series  – The Golden Chronicles and Tales of the Jewelled Men – are set in the early-mid 18th century, and I certainly plan on reading those as soon as I can find the time.

My choice for March’s Prompt of Sugar or Spice was Some Brief Folly, which IS set in the Regency and is the first (loosely linked) book in the author’s Sanguinet Saga.  It’s one of those rake-of-blackest-reputation-meets-spunky-heroine stories, and there’s definitely a more than a little of Venetia’s Damerel in our hero, Garret Hawkhurst, and The Grand Sophy’s titular character in our heroine, Miss Euphemia Buchanan. But that isn’t to call Some Brief Folly derivative – I think most of the cynical rakes in historical romance owe something to Damerel anyway – because it’s definitely got a life of its own, and one of its storylines takes a particularly unusual direction.

Euphemia – Mia – Buchanan is delighted when her brother, Lieutenant Sir Simon Buchanan comes home on a long medical leave, owing to a serious shoulder injury sustained while fighting with Wellington’ forces in Spain.  With Christmas approaching, they make plans to travel to Bath to spend the festive season with their Aunt Lucasta and other members of their family, but what is supposed to be a brief detour to take a peek at Dominer, the grand residence of Garret Hawkhurst – an infamous rake widely believed to have killed his wife and son – leads to a serious accident in which their coach is overturned.  Fortunately, help arrives quickly in the form of the dangerous Hawkhurst himself and his servant, but while Euphemia and Simon are quickly dragged from the wrecked carriage, Euphemia’s page, Kent (whom she had rescued from a cruel chimney sweep some months earlier) has been thrown over the edge of a steep cliff, and is barely hanging on for his life.  To Euphemia’s astonishment, Hawkhurst immediately sets about a rescue, endangering his own life by climbing down the cliff at the end of a makeshift rope to bring the boy back up – and then offers them hospitality at Dominer.

Mia knows the rumours about Hawkhurst – Hawk – of course, and over the course of her stay at Dominer gleans further information about his past, but she has already realised that the rumours and the reality of the man she sees every day are vastly different.  For sure, Hawk is quick tempered and intensely cynical, but beneath that is a compassionate, honourable man who cares deeply for his family and who possesses a sharp, sometimes wicked sense of humour, and Euphemia – whose string of admirers have nicknamed her “The Unattainable” – can’t help falling for him.

The rumours surrounding the death of Hawk’s wife and son are so heinous that any attempts to refute them proved so impossible that he eventually gave up trying and retreated to his country estate, where he now lives with his two aunts, his cousin (who is his heir) and his younger sister, Stephanie.  Euphemia is unlike the women who so often set their caps at him – or rather, at his wealth; she’s funny, down-to-earth and doesn’t flinch at his bad moods and sharp tongue.  She used to follow the drum with her father, so it takes a lot to faze her; a characteristic which proves invaluable, especially in the later part of the story.

Their relationship is nicely done – they have cracking chemistry and their verbal exchanges are effervescent, simply bubbling with wit and attraction, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  Hawk’s name is mud and he has no wish to bring Mia down into the dirt with him – and it seems that while both admit they have finally found the love of their life, Hawk’s intransigence on this point looks set to part them.

Some Brief Folly is an enjoyable read that fairly bowls along and boasts an engaging cast, an interesting secondary romance and two very well suited central characters, but it’s a book of two halves.  The first – which concentrates on the romance – is wonderful, as Hawk and Mia strike sparks off each other and his true nature is revealed.  He’s still a bit of a grouch – with good reason, as we learn later – but it’s clear that it’s a surface crustiness and that underneath is a warm and caring man who has been dealt a tough hand.  The second half, though, is devoted more to solving the mystery of who is trying to kill Hawk and why, and while it’s well done, it’s a bit too busy, and there’s one plot point that’s been foreshadowed throughout which is perhaps a stretch of credulity too far.

The secondary characters in the story are very well drawn; scatty, accident-prone Aunt Dora is a hoot, Stephanie is a sweet, kind girl with a steel backbone, Colley (the heir) is a young man trying to find his place who worships his cousin even though they are frequently at odds, and Simon is a decent man caught between a rock and a hard place who has to make some hard choices.  His is the interesting direction I mentioned earlier; he’s married to a woman who married him for money and status who, when the book opens, has just given birth to a second child Simon can’t have fathered.  He wants a divorce and she won’t give him one – although the author has tripped up here, because I believe that at this time, if a man wanted to divorce his wife and had sufficient money and influence to do so, he didn’t need her to agree to it.  I won’t spoil the story, but Ms. Veryan doesn’t follow the obvious path here, and while that plotline isn’t completely successful, I nonetheless appreciated the attempt to do something a bit different.

Had the book continued along the lines of the first half, Some Brief Folly would have been an easy A grade/DIK, but the change of direction in the second half pulls it back somewhat.  Even so, it’s well-written and engaging, and certainly something I’d recommend to historical romance fans who don’t mind sacrificing steam in favour of witty banter and good ol’ sexual tension.

TBR Challenge: A Certain Magic by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Piers Westhaven and Alice Penhallow have always been close friends, even during their marriages to other partners. Now they are both widowed, and Piers, who needs an heir, has asked his friend to help him choose a new bride.

Alice has always been in love with him herself, but hiding her feelings has become second nature to her. As a boy, he dearly loved her too until his best friend announced his intention of courting and marrying her. Soon their mutual passion begins to break through the careful bonds each has imposed upon it just as Piers is being trapped into offering marriage to someone else.

Will honor permit them to speak the heart’s truth before it is too late? Or is it already too late for them–again?

Rating: B

A Certain Magic is one of thirty Regency Romances that Mary Balogh wrote for Signet between 1985 and 1998. Most of those have been out of print for some time, but fortunately for those of us who missed them when they first came out, a number of them are gradually making their way back into circulation as ebooks. Dating from 1991, A Certain Magic is a charming friends-to-lovers romance exhibiting the thoughtful characterisation and insight that are among the author’s trademarks.

Alice Penhallow has been a widow for two years. She loved her husband dearly, but is moving on with her life and is comfortably settled in Bath, where she has made new friends and enjoys the sights and activities the city has to offer. A summons from her brother sees her travelling to London and to the house she owns in Cavendish Square – much to her brother’s dismay as he had wanted her to move in while his wife and children are ill. But much as she loves her nieces and nephews, Allie sticks to her guns and insists on staying at her own house and going back and forth; she has no intention of dwindling into the role of widowed and put-upon aunt.

She is pleased when her oldest friend, Piers Westhaven pays a call on her as they haven’t seen each other in some time. Alice, Webster (her late husband), and Piers grew up together, and continued to be close friends even after Alice and Web married, paying regular visits to each other in the country where their estates were next door to each other. Not long after Alice married his best friend, Piers, too, got married, to a sweet young woman named Harriet who, sadly died in childbirth a number of years earlier. Now aged thirty-six, Piers has reluctantly decided it’s probably time for him to look about him for another wife, especially as he has recently learned he is heir to a barony for which he will, at some point, need to provide an heir.

Breezily, he informs Alice – Allie – of his intention, and almost jokingly talks about looking over the current crop of debutantes to see if one will suit him – but Allie is not amused. She is afraid Piers will repeat the mistake he made with Harriet, choosing someone young, timid and biddable, who will not suit him at all. There is also the fact that Allie is now able to admit to herself that she has loved Piers since she was fourteen; she loved her husband and their life together, but, given no sign that Piers would ever return her feelings, she married Web and subjugated her feelings for Piers into friendship. She admits to being the tiniest bit jealous at the idea of Piers taking a wife – but more importantly, she wants him to be happy and knows a schoolroom miss will make him miserable.

Allie has no idea that Piers is as much in love with her now as he has been for the last fifteen years. He fell for her when she was just fifteen, but by then, Web had made his determination to marry her known, and being an honourable chap, Piers backed off and never let either of his dearest friends know the truth. He married Harriet in an unsuccessful attempt to forget Allie, and still carries a burden of guilt over her death; if she hadn’t been pregnant, she wouldn’t have died, but worse, he never really loved her and he can’t forgive himself for it.

Unlike so many heroes in his situation, Piers isn’t your typical grumpy, brooding sort, and instead, buries his deeper feelings beneath a blanket of conviviality and general good humour. He’s always ready with a joke or bon mot and is never serious – although Allie knows that about him and she is the one person with whom he ever drops the façade. Unfortunately, his tendency to look for the ridiculous in pretty much everything around him leads to make a huge mistake; one of the current crop of debutantes is the granddaughter of a cit who wants to secure a titled husband for her. Piers is handsome, wealthy and relatively young (albeit twice the girl’s age) and Mr. Borden has him firmly in his sights. Piers, who is amused by the man’s gaucherie and his stories of How I Made My Fortune in Fish, fails to see the trap being set for him until it’s too late.

I’ll admit that Piers’ willful blindness is a bit hard to swallow; he’s far from stupid and he knows he’s playing with fire, but in spite of his own knowledge and Allie’s warnings, he just can’t stop himself from doing things he knows are unwise – although I suspect he is still somehow beating himself up about his first wife and deep down, feels he doesn’t deserve to be happy.

But I enjoyed the book in spite of that niggle. It’s not a flashy story; nothing much happens other than that we follow these two people as they try to work out whether it’s worth risking years of friendship in order to see if there’s a chance there could be something more between them. Both Allie and Piers are likeable, attractive and mature characters (he’s thirty-six, she’s thirty) who have a wealth of shared experience behind them as well as a shared sense of humour. They obviously know each other extremely well and like each other a great deal; they banter back and forth quite beautifully and their friendship is wonderfully written. But the author also imbues their exchanges with a palpable sense of longing which grows as the story progresses, creating a quiet, gentle and touching love story that left this reader with the warm fuzzies.

“There has to be mutual respect and liking, a mutuality of mind, a companionship, a friendship.”

“And that is it? That is all?” he asked, smiling at the top of her head.

“And something else,” she said quietly. “Something in addition to all those things. Something that words cannot express. A certain magic.”

TBR Challenge: Lord St. Claire’s Angel by Donna Lea Simpson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Celestine Simons was of good family, but an untimely death and a shortage of funds forces the homely spinster to take a position as governess at the estate of Lord Langlow and his wife. Never one to bemoan her change in fortune, Celestine is content to spend her days raising and overseeing their children, knowing in her heart she will never have any of her own.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, Langlow’s brother, is a rogue and seducer, content to while away his days pursuing pleasure—and driving his brother and sister-in-law mad by reducing their female staff to lovelorn fools with his flirtations. When he learns on his annual Christmas visit that the drab Celestine was hired as governess solely to thwart his dalliances, he devises a scheme to both stir her heart and spite his family’s interfering ways.

But as his game unfolds, the cunning St. Claire discovers this conquest may be more challenging than expected when the thoughtful and intelligent Celestine begins to fire an ache in his own heart. And what began as an amusement to give the plain, timid miss an innocent thrill is turning into much more, as St. Claire realizes she may be the one giving him the thrill—and teaching him in a way only a governess can that real beauty lies beneath the surface and that true love is often found where you least expect it.

Rating: A-

For December’s prompt of a Holiday Read, I went with Lord St. Claire’s Angel, a Traditional Regency which is, on the surface, your basic fairy-tale type story of a plain-Jane who finds love with a handsome rake. But Donna Lea Simpson has turned that familiar plotline into something that transcends the trope. Our sometimes not-at-all likeable hero really IS a rake; a self-absorbed, all-round selfish bastard, until he falls in love with a young woman whose goodness and unconditional love set him on the path to becoming a better man. Ms. Simpson took quite a chance in making him so unpleasant at times; prone to self-deception, he will always take the easy path if there is one – but St. Claire’s many faults somehow make him more real, even though there were times I wanted to smack him around the head. Our heroine, Celestine Simons, is one in a long line of down-on-their-luck ladies forced to take employment who has learned to expect little from life. It’s once again a tribute to the author’s storytelling and her ability to create complex, believable characters that while Celestine does occasionally seem bent on martyrdom, there’s more to her than a stereotypical goody-two-shoes; she’s come down in the world, but is determined to make her own way in life and stand on her own two feet, no matter how hard it may be.

Lord St. Claire Richmond, younger brother of the Marquess of Langlow, is handsome, charming, wealthy and, at the age of thirty-two, has managed to avoid the marital noose and intends to keep it that way. He’s not damaged or brooding, but as a second son, he wasn’t brought up to have responsibilities or any purpose in life, so he devotes his time to pleasure. He is making his annual Yuletide visit to the family estate for the weeks-long Christmas house-party and anticipates the usual round of respectable games and activities – and hopes for some not so respectable ones with some of the widows and bored wives likely to be in attendance. He is fond of his brother, although he regards the marquess as somewhat hen-pecked by his wife, Elizabeth, and certainly doesn’t envy him his social position and attendant responsibilities.

Gently-born Celestine Simons found herself in straightened circumstances around a year earlier after the death of her father, and took a position as governess to the Langlows. At twenty-eight, she is unprepossessing and suffers with an arthritic condition that can badly affect her hands, Celestine recognises she’s destined to remain a spinster and that working with children is the closest she will ever come to having a family of her own. Even so, she is somewhat hurt when she overhears the Marchioness telling her husband that one of the main reasons she hired Celestine was because she is plain and therefore unlikely to attract the attentions of Lord St. Claire when he visits – unlike the previous governess who plainly set her cap at the handsome devil the year before and had to be dismissed.

St. Claire may be many things, but he’s not stupid. As soon as he sees the drab Celestine, he is immediately wise to his sister-in-law’s machinations and, refusing to be outmanoeuvred, decides to strike up a flirtation with the governess anyway. In one of the most condescendingly obnoxious thought processes I’ve ever read in a romance hero, he reasons to himself that she will be grateful for the attention from a handsome lord, and that if he can steal a few kisses, he’ll be giving her something pleasant to look back on in the long years of spinsterhood ahead.

But Celestine isn’t stupid either. While she isn’t blind to St. Claire’s charms, and in fact comes to realise that there is an intelligent, thoughtful man behind the rakish exterior, she also suspects he’s playing a game with her when he markedly singles her out – and really wishes he wouldn’t. She can’t afford to lose her position, and St. Claire shows no sign of realising just what damage his notice of her could do.

But when, out of devilment, he accompanies Celestine and a couple of the other servants to a choir practice at the local church, he suddenly finds himself out of his depth. He is utterly spellbound by the unexpected beauty of Celestine’s singing voice; by the passion and the strength of spirit on display, and is profoundly affected by it. It’s an important turning point for him – although, I hasten to add, he doesn’t become a reformed character overnight. But from that point onwards, the reader is with him on his journey towards that reformation, a journey on which he makes mistakes, doesn’t always follow through on his decisions and sometimes deliberately sets out to sabotage his own good intentions. Ms. Simpson does a superb job of showing the reader that he’s falling in love without being aware of doing so – all St. Claire knows is that Celestine is far from the dowd he initially thought her and that she is possessed of great inner beauty and strength. It’s not until fairly late in the book that he finally wakes up to the truth – and his brutal honesty and determination to fight for the woman he loves go a very long way towards mitigating his earlier immaturity and thoughtless actions.

Both central characters are very well drawn, and even when St. Claire is acting like an idiot, there is still something about him that is engaging and that draws the reader to him. The same is true of Celestine – without the idiocy! – she’s an intelligent, generous and loving young woman who wants to do what she can to help the people in her life, and the author really does get to grips with exactly what life was like for a woman in her position, neither servant nor family and completely dependent on the goodwill of her employers.
There are lots of stories out there featuring rakish heroes who finally turn their lives around when they meet the right woman, but Lord St. Claire’s Angel is one of the best examples I’ve read. I said at the outset that making St. Claire selfish and unlikeable was a risk, but it contributes to the overall believability of the tale; had he not been like that, his transformation would not have been so dramatic and we wouldn’t be rooting so hard for him to see the error of his ways.

While the festival itself doesn’t play a large part in the story, the ideas of love and redemption that are so strongly associated with Christmas are major themes throughout the novel. Combined with a tender, deeply-felt romance, well-drawn secondary characters and a lovely, wintry feel, Lord St. Claire’s Angel is the perfect seasonal read.

Note: This book was originally published in 1999, and then reissued with some revisions by the author in 2013. Just a tad annoyingly – and the author has done this in some of her other books – some of the names have been changed; the hero in the old print version is named Lord Justin St. Claire, whereas in the new version, he’s Lord St. Claire Richmond. His brother, Lord Langlow was originally Lord Ladymead, and the heroine’s aunt Emily is now Lady Sedgley rather than, as she was originally, Lady Delafont. (Incidentally, Emily’s book, Lady Delafont’s Dilemma, has been reissued as Married to a Rogue.)

I have referred to the characters by the names they have been given in the 2013 version.

TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

TBR Challenge – My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady by day, Robin Hood by night…

Arabella Knightley is an earl’s granddaughter, but it’s common knowledge that she spent her early years in London’s gutters. What the ton doesn’t know is that while Arabella acts the perfect young lady by day, at night she plays Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Adam St Just is one of Society’s most sought after bachelors. He’s also the man responsible for Arabella Knightley’s nickname: Miss Smell o’ Gutters—a mistake he regrets, but can never erase.

Bored by polite society, Adam sets out to unmask the elusive thief … but he’s not prepared for what he discovers.

Rating: A-

The Historicals prompt in the TBR Challenge is my Busman’s Holiday, but it can nonetheless be quite difficult to choose a book from the many still sitting unread on my Kindle. In the end, I decided to go for something I was pretty certain would be a winner and picked up Emily Larkin’s My Lady Thief, a standalone title that was first published as The Unmasking of a Lady in 2010, under her Emily May pen-name. Every book I’ve read by this author has proved to be extremely enjoyable and well-written; she creates attractive, well-rounded characters and puts them in interesting situations and her romances are always well-developed and laced with sexual tension. My Lady Thief most ably continues that impressive track record.

Miss Arabella Knightley is beautiful, poised, intelligent, self-assured and the granddaughter of an earl – a most eligible parti were it not for the fact that her early years were spent in the London slums owing to the fact that her father, the second son of an earl, was cast off by his father for marrying her mother without permission. When, after her husband’s death, Arabella’s mother, Thérèse, approached the earl for help, he agreed to take in the daughter but not the mother. Unwilling to be parted from her child, Thérèse took Arabella to live with a friend of her late husband’s and became the man’s mistress. After this, she was rumoured to have had a number of protectors, but eventually she and her daughter ended up in the slums. After her death when Arabella was twelve, the old earl took his granddaughter in and made her the heir to his fortune after his sons all died without issue. So not only is Arabella beautiful, on her twenty-fifth birthday, she will inherit a considerable fortune – but she is not interested in marriage and intends instead to retire to the country and run the girl’s school she has secretly set up. Good society tolerates her because of her lineage and wealth, but she knows she is not really accepted, and, for the most part, doesn’t care. She presents a calm, unruffled exterior to the ton, the veiled and not-so-veiled insults she elicits merely glancing off her façade of tough insouciance and affecting her not at all. Apart from that one time six years earlier when she’d learned that Adam St. Just – handsome, wealthy, charming and one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors – had described her to his set as smelling of the gutters, and the nickname had stuck. She is still referred to behind hands and fans as “Miss Smell O’Gutters”.

Adam St. Just heartily regrets his actions that day, which had been borne of anger and frustration after his callous father had taken him to task about the fact that he had singled out “the daughter of a French whore” for his attentions. Adam had neither known nor cared about Miss Arabella Knightley’s origins, having been struck by her beauty and intelligence – but his father’s disdainful interference had sent Adam to the bottle and he’d been well into his cups when he’d made that damaging, crass remark. In the intervening years, he and Miss Knightley have done their best to avoid contact with each other, although moving in the same circles means that they are often present at the same events. Adam is therefore surprised –and not especially pleased – to see Arabella sitting with his sister one evening and to note that whatever Miss Knightley is saying to Grace is being well received and seems to have bolstered her spirits, which have been somewhat dampened of late.

Adam is very protective of his sister, and it worries him that she does not appear to be enjoying the season as so many other young ladies are. When he discovers the cause – that she has been blackmailed over some letters she wrote to a young man with whom she’d believed herself in love – Adam is furious with the man and the blackmailer, guilty that he had not seen how miserable Grace was and curious as to the identity of the person – identified merely as “Tom” – who has returned the letters and the jewellery with which Grace had bought the blackmailer’s silence.

Given that readers are privy to Tom’s true identity from the start, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arabella quickly emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who goes one step further from stealing from the rich to feed the poor. She uses the proceeds from her thefts to finance the school she has set up outside London for girls who might otherwise be forced into prostitution AND chooses as her victims those members of the ton who have been cruel, duplicitous or just downright mean to those weaker than themselves.

Adam becomes determined to discover the identity of the mysterious Tom, and finds himself developing a sneaking respect for the man, who seems only to steal from people who can a) afford it and b) deserve it. It’s only when he starts to look deeper that he begins to suspect Tom’s true identity – and once all is revealed to him, his respect for Tom – Arabella – only increases.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and engaging, and their romance is beautifully written. The way these two circle around each other warily, alternately flirting and mocking and then retreating when threatened with exposing their vulnerabilities had me glued to the pages and their progression from suspicious enmity to admiration to love is perfectly paced and wonderfully romantic. I particularly liked the way Adam is gradually shown to be altering his perceptions of Arabella; to start with he admits he is strongly attracted to her, but that there can be no question of his marrying her, but as the story progresses and he comes to know and understand her better, he is entirely captivated by her; her intelligence, her spirit and her compassion – and sees her for the woman she really is. As Arabella starts to let Adam know her, she shows him something of what her life was like as a child, and exposes him to a side of London he has never seen or really considered. What he sees appals him, and he is genuinely motivated to do something positive and practical to help, while also being more impressed than ever by Arabella’s determination and strength of character.

The chemistry between Adam and Arabella is sizzling, although I have to say that the first sex scene (which comes quite late on) is a little off-key and that, together with a very poor decision Arabella makes near the end, accounts for this book not getting a straight A grade. Otherwise, My Lady Thief is a terrific read that features two fully-rounded and sympathetic central characters, a strong secondary cast and an intriguing storyline. If you’ve never read this author before, this would be a great place to start; and if you’re familiar with her work, it most certainly won’t disappoint.