Sinless (The Shaws #1.5) by Lynne Connolly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lord Darius Shaw has never been in love before. But when he renews his acquaintance with lawyer Andrew Graham in a raid on a molly house, where men meet men for forbidden pleasure, they discover mutual feelings as deep as they are dangerous. For while society will turn a blind eye to an aristocrat’s transgressions, Andrew has far more at stake. The son of city merchants, Andrew has a disastrous marriage in his past, and a young daughter to support. He could lose his livelihood, his reputation and even his life—and drag Darius down with him.

Darius and Andrew’s only choice is to deny the true nature of their relationship. But when an enemy Italian spy threatens their secret—and their futures—the two set out to catch him. And in the process they are forced to face their desires—and make a life-changing decision.

Rating: C-

Sinless is book 1.5 in Lynne Connolly’s new series The Shaws, a continuation or spin-off of her seven book Emperors of London series about the powerful Vernon family.  The Shaws are closely related to the Vernons (cousins I think), and some of them appeared in the earlier series as secondary characters.  Book one of The ShawsFearless, featured Lord Valentinian Shaw (both families had a penchant for naming their offspring after Roman emperors) a rake and hellraiser who found himself in court on a murder charge. Thanks to the efforts of barrister Andrew Graham, Val was exonerated and in Sinless, we meet Andrew again as he works to unmask a traitor and tries not to give in to the strong attraction that sparks between him and Val’s twin brother, Lord Darius.

Andrew has been sent by General Court to join a raid on a molly house (a brothel catering to homosexual men) in order to meet a man who is in possession of a list containing details of a network of spies.  As the raid starts and Andrew begins the search for his contact, he is surprised to see Lord Darius Shaw, poised and coolly collected in the midst of the chaos.  Andrew and Darius engage in a brief, wary conversation when Andrew spots the man he is looking for, only to be prevented from confronting him by Darius, who grabs Andrew and kisses him, allowing the other man to make his escape.

Darius has reasons of his own for interfering.  The list contains the names of diplomats and military agents placed throughout Europe by his family and the government, so when he learned of its existence and that it was being offered for sale, he determined to get hold of it himself in order to prevent its being sold to England’s enemies and his family’s rivals.  He had managed to befriend the man in possession of the list with the intention of using their friendship and … shared interests… to obtain it, but the raid put paid to his plans so now he has to find another way – and his first step is to speak to Andrew Graham again in order to find out what he knows.

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

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A Conspiracy in Belgravia (Lady Sherlock #2) by Sherry Thomas (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading


This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Being shunned by society gives Charlotte Holmes the time and freedom to put her extraordinary powers of deduction to good use. As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective”, aided by the capable Mrs. Watson, she has had great success helping with all manner of inquiries, but she is not prepared for the new client who arrives at her Upper Baker Street office.

Lady Ingram, wife of Charlotte’s dear friend and benefactor, wants Sherlock Holmes to find her first love, who failed to show up at their annual rendezvous. Matters of loyalty and discretion aside, the case becomes even more personal for Charlotte as the missing man is none other than Myron Finch, her illegitimate half-brother.

In the meanwhile, Charlotte wrestles with a surprising proposal of marriage, a mysterious stranger woos her sister Livia, and an unidentified body surfaces where least expected. Charlotte’s investigative prowess is challenged as never before: Can she find her brother in time – or will he, too, end up as a nameless corpse somewhere in the belly of London?

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A

This second book in Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series is one of my most awaited releases of this year, and it fulfilled all my expectations. A Conspiracy in Belgravia picks up the day after the previous book, A Study in Scarlet Women concludes, and while might not be absolutely necessary to have read or listened to that in order to fully appreciate this latest instalment, I’d strongly recommend it, as one of the real delights of both books is the way the author presents and develops her characters. While we’re given enough information here to work out who is who and how everyone relates to one another, it’s not the same as experiencing it first hand in book one.

Please note that as this is an ongoing series, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Listeners of A Study in Scarlet Woman will know that Charlotte, having thoroughly disgraced herself, ran away from home and is now living with Mrs. John Watson, a former actress and widow of an army officer. She and Charlotte have gone into the private investigation business together; Charlotte presents herself as the sister of Sherlock Holmes, an invalid with an exceptional talent for detection who listens to his clients from his sick bed while his “sister” speaks to them from the sitting room next door. Only a very few people know that Sherlock doesn’t exist, and the aim is to keep it that way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Duke of Danger (The Untouchables #6) by Darcy Burke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After killing his opponent in a duel, Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is known as the Duke of Danger. Tortured by guilt, he shields himself with a devil-may-care attitude. However, when he kills another man in another duel, he’s beyond redemption, even though it wasn’t his fault. He refuses to smear a dead man’s name, especially when he’s left behind a blameless widow who doesn’t deserve an even bigger scandal.

Widowed and destitute, Lady Emmaline Townsend must marry the man of her parents’ choosing or beg unsympathetic relatives for support. The only way out is to ask for help from the one man she’s sworn to hate, the man who owes her anything she asks, the man who killed her husband. They strike a devil’s bargain in which passion simmers just beneath the surface. But her dead husband’s transgressions come back to haunt them and threaten their chance at love.

 

Rating: B

I’ve been enjoying Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series, although I’ll admit I was rather disappointed in the last instalment, The Duke of Defiance and wasn’t sure I was going to read further. But I decided to put that one down as an aberration and I’m glad I picked up The Duke of Danger, which is a much more strongly-written and well-conceived story than the previous one. The eponymous duke isn’t actually a duke, but the ducal nicknames were invented – tougue-in-cheek – to show that the gentlemen in question were of the highest echelons of society and far above the touch of the young ladies who coined them – as well as to be alliterative ;). The Duke of Danger shows a different side to the dashing hero who has fought many duels and escaped with nary a scratch; Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, is a man of great integrity and honour who has acquired his moniker because of his involvement in a couple of duels in which he either killed or badly wounded his opponent, but who in in no way sees these events as badges of honour. Instead, he is haunted by the fact he has taken life in cold blood and hates himself for it.

It’s with a heavy heart, and as a last resort, that Lionel calls out Viscount Townsend for threatening to besmirch the honour of a lady who is one of Lionel’s oldest and dearest friends. He gave Townsend every chance to recant, but the man refused, leaving Lionel with one alternative – he will shoot wide in order to merely graze his opponent and take whatever comes his way. But when Townsend turns and fires before the end of the count, Lionel reacts instinctively and out of self-preservation – and shoots the man in the leg instead. It’s believed the wound is not a fatal one – but days later Townsend dies and impulsively, Lionel pays a visit to his widow, telling her she can call on him if there is ever anything she needs. After that, as he has done before, Lionel leaves England to escape the gossip and in an attempt to dull the agony of regret.

Townsend’s death has left his young widow, Lady Emmaline, with nothing but debts.  She is furious with Axbridge, furious with Townsend for leaving her in this position, and furious with her parents who are set on forcing her to remarry a man who is distasteful to her.  She fell madly in love with Townsend and consented to elope with him in spite of her parents’ misgivings; misgivings which were borne out when her husband started to spend more and more time away from home, stopped coming to her bed and began to incur large gambling debts.   She can’t help feeling a sense of relief that she has been released from a marriage which was clearly heading for disaster, but then feels guilty for it, and angry at herself.  Emmaline has quickly transitioned from the happy, optimistic debutante who ran away with the man she loved and has become jaded, cynical and hardened.  When she hears Axbridge has returned to England she hatches a plan to humiliate him in front of a large gathering of the ton, but has to change tack when her father tells her he has bestowed her hand in marriage to the lecherous Sir Duncan Thayer.  She reminds Axbridge of his offer to do anything he can to help her and tells him that he can do something – he can marry her.  She makes it clear that the marriage will be in name only and that he must accept that she will never forgive him.   She will live in his house until he can purchase a house for her and while she is there she expects to have as little to do with him as possible.  She will not take meals with him, she will not accompany him into society, she will certainly not provide him with an heir.  In exchange he will settle her remaining debts and will provide for her for the rest of her life.

It’s a terrible deal, but Lionel feels it’s his just desserts given the pain he has caused her, and they are married by special license the very next day.

I do love the marriage-of-convenience trope, and I don’t think I’ve read a romance before in which the heroine marries the man who killed her husband, so kudos to Ms. Burke for coming up with an unusual premise, and for creating a couple of interesting and engaging characters.  Emmaline is certainly not easy to like at first, determined as she is to make Lionel’s life a misery. Eventually, however, she begins to admit that her first marriage had been failing and that she had not been happy for some time.  Lionel is by far the easier of the two to sympathise with, even though he occupies some rather shaky moral ground because he has killed two men and believes himself ultimately responsible for the death of a third.  He duelled for sound, honourable reasons; once to avenge his father’s death, once to protect a child and once to protect a friend – but even so, he is filled with self-hatred and believes he no longer deserves the sort of happiness he has always longed for and had experienced as the child of two loving parents who cared for him and each other very deeply.

Emmaline eventually realises that in attempting to punish Lionel by dooming him to loneliness, she is punishing herself as well, so she starts to relent just a little.  She takes a few meals with him, engages him in conversation… and begins to realise that she has badly misjudged him.  But even then, things are not at all easy and it seems that for every step forward the two make in their relationship, they take two back.  The sparks fly between them right from the start, and the author creates and builds the sexual tension between them extremely well; but even once they have broken Emmaline’s no-sex rule, the road ahead of them is still strewn with potential pitfalls.

One thing they have strongly in their favour is that they actually communicate with each other honestly, which is very refreshing in a genre prone to secrets and misunderstandings. There are a couple of times in the story when I suspect a less experienced author may have chosen to have one or other character keep a secret in order to create unnecessary drama; Ms. Burke wisely doesn’t take that option, and I very much appreciated it.

The Duke of Danger is angsty, but not overwhelmingly so, and the HEA is certainly very hard-won, and well-deserved.  The secondary plotline involving the search for a blackmailer is deftly dovetailed into the romance, and serves to flesh out the backstory involving Townsend and the reasons for the duel as well as to provide some drama towards the end.  There are a couple of details that had me scratching my head  (I thought that when challenged to a duel, the challengee got to choose the weapons, time and place, not the challenger), but overall, this is an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying read with an unusual premise, and most definitely earns a recommendation.

An Unsuitable Heir (Sins of the Cities #3) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

On the trail of an aristocrat’s secret son, enquiry agent Mark Braglewicz finds his quarry in a music hall, performing as a trapeze artist with his twin sister. Graceful, beautiful, elusive, and strong, Pen Starling is like nobody Mark’s ever met—and everything he’s ever wanted. But the long-haired acrobat has an earldom and a fortune to claim.

Pen doesn’t want to live as any sort of man, least of all a nobleman. The thought of being wealthy, titled, and always in the public eye is horrifying. He likes his life now—his days on the trapeze, his nights with Mark. And he won’t be pushed into taking a title that would destroy his soul.

But there’s a killer stalking London’s foggy streets, and more lives than just Pen’s are at risk. Mark decides he must force the reluctant heir from music hall to manor house, to save Pen’s neck. Betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust, Pen never wants to see his lover again. But when the killer comes after him, Pen must find a way to forgive—or he might not live long enough for Mark to make amends.

Rating: B

I freely admit that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get my hands on this third and final instalment of K.J. Charles’ Sins of the Cities trilogy, eager to discover who has been violently disposing of anyone with knowledge of the missing heir to the Moreton earldom and to find out how all the pieces of the puzzle the author has so cleverly devised fit together.

Note: The books in this series could be read as standalones (although I wouldn’t advise it!), but there is an overarching plot that runs through all three, so there are spoilers in this review.

A trail of arson and murder began – literally – on the doorstep of unassuming lodging house keeper, Clem Tallyfer, when the dead, mutilated body of one of his lodgers, the drunken, foul-mouthed Reverend Lugtrout, was dumped on the front steps.  An investigation by two of Clem’s friends – journalist Nathaniel Roy and private enquiry agent, Mark Braglewicz – revealed that someone was trying to do away with anyone who knew that the Earl of Morton (Clem’s half-brother) had committed bigamy.  He entered into a marriage in his youth with a beautiful young woman of low social standing and soon abandoned her, not knowing she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl she named Repentance and Regret – who have since disappeared without trace. These facts have set in train a series of events which have led to blackmail, abduction, arson and murder; someone is killing those with any knowledge of the earl’s first marriage and is trying to find his children – most importantly his legal heir – likely with similarly nefarious intent.

In the previous book, An Unnatural Vicewe discovered that the twins – who go by Pen and Greta – have been hiding in plain sight for the past decade, earning money and acclaim as the Flying Starlings, the music-hall trapeze act Clem takes Rowley Green (the object of his affections) to see near the beginning of book one, An Unseen Attraction (hah! Clever, Ms. Charles – they’re an ‘attraction’ and are also ‘unseen’ for who they really are ;)).  Following Moreton’s death, the killer – whose identity and motivations remain unknown – steps up his attempts to find the twins, which is when Justin Lazarus, medium extraordinaire and self-proclaimed, all-round shifty bastard finds himself in big trouble. Forced to flee his home – and London – in fear for his life, when An Unsuitable Heir opens, Justin and Nathaniel Roy are hiding out at Nathaniel’s house in the country while Mark attempts to contact Pen and Greta and keep them safely hidden until such time as Pen can stake his claim to the title.

Readers of An Unnatural Vice will already know that Pen wants nothing to do with the earldom and will have some idea as to why. Mark quickly discovers this for himself when he manages to meet up with Pen, seemingly by accident at first, and inveigles him into going for a drink. He pretends to be unaware of Pen’s true identity, and is, for want of a better word, gobsmacked by his physicality and presence. Pen is gorgeous, with an athletic build, beautiful long hair and wears gold earrings and face paint – and Mark is captivated. He’s a pretty no-nonsense sort of bloke, and to him, beauty is beauty in whatever shape or form it takes; Pen is beautiful and Pen is… Pen. Mark would dearly love to get to know him better, but has to remind himself that Pen is the subject of an investigation and that Pen, Greta and two of his dearest friends – Clem and Nathaniel (because of Justin) – are in danger until Pen is installed as the Earl of Moreton.

But Pen does not want to live as an earl; in fact he doesn’t want to live as a man – or rather, he doesn’t want to live ‘just’ as a man. Because he isn’t. Nor is he a woman. He’s Pen. He’s a Flying Starling. He’s who he is and some days he wants to wear face paint and chiffon scarves; others he’s content to grow stubble and look in the mirror to see his large, well-muscled form and recognise himself. I can’t claim any expertise whatsoever in this area, but I know K.J. Charles is someone who takes great pains to get things like this right and I trust her judgement. All I can say is that her portrayal of Pen as gender-fluid is extremely well done and the way she writes him as sometimes being completely uncomfortable in his own skin and his reactions to it ring very true and made it easy for someone like me – a middle-aged, heterosexual woman – to understand his thoughts and emotions.

When Mark acts out of a need to keep Pen safe, it causes a deep rift between them; but it soon emerges that getting Pen out of London and down to the family seat at Crowmarsh might not have been the safest thing after all. A couple of ‘accidents’ point to the killer having followed the twins out of London, and while Pen’s uncle and would-be-earl, Desmond Taillefer, and his son try to downplay the threat, Clem sends Mark to the house in the hope that he will be able to get to the bottom of things and keep Pen alive.

I think it’s fair to say that An Unsuitable Heir is weighted firmly towards the mystery, which wasn’t really a problem, as I desperately wanted to know whodunnit and why. Pen’s inner conflict – over what it would mean to live the rest of his life as someone else – is extremely well done, as is his confrontational relationship with Desmond, who regards Pen as pretty much an abomination. Fortunately, Pen’s sister Greta is very much in his corner; she’s fierce and determined, and while she freely admits that she would like to have the settled, comfortable life of the sister of an earl, she understands perfectly what being forced to become something he is not will do to Pen and is prepared to stand by him. But all this – which is extremely insightful and well-written – means that the love-story takes a bit of a back seat and consequently feels less well-developed than those in the earlier books. That said, the pairing works well. Both Mark and Pen are different to the norm; Mark because of his disability (he was born with one arm) and Pen because of his fluid sexuality, so both of them have had to deal with prejudice and suspicion of one form or another for almost all their lives, which helps them to understand and empathise with each other.

The twists and turns of the plot make for an exciting finale, and I didn’t see the identity of the bad guy coming until shortly before the reveal. As in the all the best sensation novels, all ends well, and we leave our heroes – all of them – safe happy and looking forward to the future.

I love the way K.J. Charles has incorporated the elements of Victorian popular fiction into her plotlines; the writing is sublime and the characters are three-dimensional people with lives of their own whom I imagine laughing over a pint or two and bantering with Phyllis at the Jack and Knave long after I’ve finished reading their stories. Even though my final rating for An Unnatural Heir is a little lower than my grades for the other two books (principally because of the slightly underdeveloped romance) I am nonetheless recommending it and the entire Sins of the Cities trilogy very strongly.

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Rating: B+

With two series of historical mysteries already on the go – Lady Darby and Gothic Myths – Anna Lee Huber jumps into her new Verity Kent series with This Side of Murder, a smashing and engrossing tale of deceit, murder and betrayal set just after World War I.   As with Ms. Huber’s other books, the story is told in the first person from the heroine’s PoV, and there is plenty of astute observation and historical flavour that puts the reader firmly into the world of post-war England some seven months after the Armistice. The isolated island setting and disparate group of individuals who comprise the secondary cast list are most definitely reminiscent of some of the works of Agatha Christie, but this is no copy-cat story, and it will certainly work for fans of historical mysteries whether they’re fans of Christie or not (for the record, I’m not, and it certainly worked for me!).

Mrs. Verity Kent is about to decline an invitation to a house party to celebrate the engagement of one of her late husband’s closest friends when she receives an anonymous note indicating that Sidney  Kent may have been a traitor.  The sender clearly knows that Verity worked for the Secret Service during the war  – something she had never even told her husband – so intrigued, angry and wanting desperately to find out the truth, Verity changes her mind about the party and plans to attend, intending to see what she can find out from Sidney’s former comrades.

She is on her way to Poole Harbour at the wheel of her late husband’s prized possession, his Pierce-Arrow, when she almost collides with a Rolls Royce coming in the opposite direction.  Having ascertained no damage has been done or injury sustained, the driver of the Rolls, a handsome gentleman a few years Verity’s senior, introduces himself as Max, Lord Ryde.  During the course of their short conversation, Verity learns that not only is Max on the way to the Ponsonby house party, but that he had known Sidney and, for a short time, been his commanding officer.

Verity and Max jump back into their respective cars and head for the harbour, where the rest of the party is awaiting their arrival.  It’s a fairly disparate group; a few single men and women, three couples… none of whom appear – at first – to have a great deal in common, although it emerges that all of the men had served together in the same battalion as Sidney Kent, the “unlucky” Thirtieth – so-called because it was all but wiped out at the Somme.  Relations are strained and tensions run high as harsh words are exchanged and unpleasant accusations fly around; it’s clear this group of men doesn’t want to speak of or be reminded of their wartime experiences and actions – and just as clear that there are dangerous secrets being kept, secrets that someone is prepared to kill to protect.

Anna Lee Huber has crafted a truly captivating mystery here, one which has its roots in the trenches and on the mud-laden, bloody battlefields of northern France.  She very skillfully builds the tension and atmosphere of paranoia among the characters and does a superb job of portraying the post-war mood in England where so many people were coping with so much pain and loss and attempting to move past the horrible things they saw and did during the conflict.  There’s a real sense that the characters are barely able to contain their emotions beneath a thin veneer that could crack at any time, and while Verity is no exception, she’s a thoroughly likeable character; clever, resourceful and resilient. She married Sidney Kent shortly before he left for France and had been looking forward to beginning their lives together, but it was not to be.  They only managed to spend a few short periods of time together during his army leaves, and the fact that she never really had the chance to get to know Sidney has made her grief even more difficult to cope with. Like many others in her situation, she tried to numb the pain by drinking too much and partying too hard, using forced high spirits and plenty of booze as a survival mechanism.  But unlike many young women of her class, she was able to ‘do her bit’ during the war by working for the Secret Service, which did at least give her something to focus on besides her grief in the time immediately following Sidney’s death.  Now the war is over, she is struggling not only to cope with his loss, but also with the loss of the sense of purpose she had gained as a result of her work.

She’s a very relatable heroine and I very much enjoyed following her as she and Max try to work out who is murdering house-guests while she is quietly pursuing her own investigations into the accusations levelled at Sidney.  Verity is a little confused – and perhaps feels a bit guilty – about the fact that she is attracted to Max, but a sudden and very unexpected development gives her no time to contemplate it and instead causes her to question everything she knows about Sidney and her marriage and sends her investigation off in a different – and dangerous -direction.

The mystery is very well-constructed and kept me guessing throughout as I eagerly turned the pages, anxiously awaiting each new twist, turn and clue.  It’s wrapped up most satisfactorily by the end of the book and the evil-doers are brought to justice – but Verity is left with a completely new set of challenges to face, and I am eager to find out just how she confronts them.

This Side of Murder is a terrific start to this new series of historical mysteries and is a book I have no qualms about recommending to all, whether you’re a fan of the genre, the author, or are new to her work.

A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents—and Truelove’s courage—to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: A-

When I read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, the first of Juliana Gray’s historical mystery series featuring the intrepid Emmeline Truelove, I wasn’t – at first – quite sure what to think.  There’s a mystery, yes, and a bit of romance… but I wasn’t expecting the time travel element or the fact that the heroine has regular conversations with both her deceased father and the late Queen Victoria!  In the end, however, I enjoyed the story, which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before – or since, really – and in which the author does a great job of interweaving the various plot elements – mystery, romance, time-travel and oddness! – with a caper-type adventure and a hefty dose of Greek mythology.  The somewhat starchy Truelove and the gorgeously dashing Lord Silverton made a wonderfully odd couple as they struck sparks off each other throughout their travels and I was sorry to leave them at the end while also looking forward to the next book and hoping for answers to some of the many questions raised.

Before I go on, I should point out that there are likely to be spoilers for A Most Extraordinary Pursuit in this review, so if you haven’t yet read that book, proceed with caution.  And I’ll add that while it might be possible to read A Strange Scottish Shore on its own, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Maximillian Haywood – who became the Duke of Olympia upon the death of his formidable great uncle – has made a name for himself as an archaeologist, and specifically as one with expertise in historical anachronisms; in analysing objects discovered in strata at a time and place they shouldn’t have existed.  In the previous book, Max had gone missing – had been kidnapped, in fact – which is what led to Silverton and Truelove’s expedition to Greece to find him, and eventually to the discovery that Max is possessed of an incredible power which somehow enables him to reach through time and bring people through to the present or send them back to the past.  A Strange Scottish Shore picks up a few months after Truelove and Silverton parted on the Greek island of Skyros, having located the duke and gone their separate ways.

Truelove is no longer working as the Duke of Olympia’s secretary and instead heads up The Haywood Institute for the Study of Time which Max set up following his return from Greece.  He has sent for her to join him at a hunting party being held in the north of Scotland by Lord Thurso, where he has come across an object that doesn’t belong – but as she is boarding the train in London, Truelove catches sight of a familiar face, one of the men she, Silverton and Max had encountered on the Greek island of Naxos months earlier.  She knows he is likely following her to Scotland to get to Max and to get hold of the documents she is carrying to him – but before she can think more on the matter, she is joined in her first class compartment by none other than the Marquess of Silverton, looking as cheerfully handsome and nonchalant as ever as he informs her he’s received a telegram from Max and is also on the way to join the hunting party.

The sudden appearance of the red-haired man she had glimpsed in London sees Silverton haring off in pursuit, but following a scuffle, the man jumps from the train, and the ensuing delay while the matter is investigated leaves Silverton and Truelove unable to continue to their destination that day and forced to stay in Edinburgh overnight. Worried that perhaps the man is still following them, Silverton announces his intention to stay the night in her room, on the sofa of course – but when she wakes, he – and her document portfolio – are gone.

Truelove continues her journey and is met at Thurso station by Max, whom, she is troubled to discover, has no notion of what could have happened to their friend.  Once arrived at the castle, Max is able to show Truelove exactly what he has found that has so intrigued him.  Hidden away at the bottom of an old wooden chest is a suit made of a cool, slippery, unknown material that appears to have been fashioned for a tall, adult female.  The chest was found during the refurbishment being undertaken at one of the family’s properties in the Orkney Islands – an old, dilapidated castle which the present owner, Mr. Magnusson – the illegitimate son of Lord Thurso – intends to remodel into an exclusive hotel and resort. Neither Max nor Truelove has any idea what the suit is made of or its purpose, when Magnusson tells them it’s a selkie suit and then of the old family legend that tells of their ancestor – a fisherman – who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who came from the sea.  Having fallen instantly in love with her, the fisherman found her sealskin suit and hid it so she could never swim away and leave him – she stayed for seven years and bore him two children, but then found her suit and disappeared back into the sea.

Shortly after this discovery, Truelove and Max come face to face one more with their red-headed nemesis – who introduces himself as Hunter – and who seems to want something from them that they do not have.  He also has knowledge of the future, telling Max that he will write a book in 1921 about his experiences with time travel and says that he himself was born in 1985; but before he can explain further or harm either of them, Magnusson intervenes and Hunter escapes by diving out the window into the sea below.

When, the next day, Truelove receives a telegram from the duchess asking for information about Silverton’s whereabouts, she is forced to confront the heart-breaking truth; that he really is missing and she has no idea how to find him or even where to look for him.  Until something happens that makes her think that perhaps asking where to look is the wrong question…

A Strange Scottish Shore is an incredibly creative and entertaining story that kept me eagerly turning the pages as I wondered what had happened to Silverton, how – and if – Truelove was ever going to find him, exactly what Max’s power entails and how all of it related to the legend of the selkie, which is very cleverly woven throughout the novel with excerpts from it prefacing each chapter.  (The author points out in her note at the end that while this legend is her own invention, such stories are frequently to be found in Scottish folklore).  The characterisation of both leads is excellent and Truelove’s distinctive narrative voice is as strong as ever.  She is intelligent and perceptive, but wary of falling for Silverton, while he is a thoroughly charming rogue who, as her father tells her, should not be judged by the mask he wears.  Their relationship continues along the same lines as in the first book until his disappearance, when Truelove is forced to confront the truth of her feelings, and by her willingness to make a potentially life-changing sacrifice in order to find him, to admit that her attempts to resist him were useless.

The mix of romance, mystery and the supernatural is just about right for someone like me, who likes there to be an emphasis on the romance in mystery and adventure stories – and saying that is probably a bit of a spoiler, so I’m not going to say any more about the plot, which is complex without being impenetrable (but you do need to concentrate!) and superbly constructed.  Ms. Gray does answer some of the questions I had at the end of book one, but then proceeds to pose more and the book ends… if not quite on a cliffhanger, then certainly at a point at which it is clear that there is more to come.

A Strange Scottish Shore has cemented my commitment to this series, and I am eagerly looking forward to more. I’d definitely recommend both books to anyone who enjoys romantic historical mysteries and is on the lookout for something a little out of the ordinary.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Eva Kaminsky and Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. While an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets – secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she left behind.

Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon never met.

Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers that surrounded Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – B

Having very much enjoyed listening to The Wicked City earlier this year (and being a fan of this author’s alter-ego, Juliana Gray), I was keen to listen to Beatriz Williams’ latest offering, Cocoa Beach, which follows a young widow as she tries to discover the truth about the estranged husband who recently perished in a house fire at his Florida home. It is loosely linked to both The Wicked City and the book which preceded it, A Certain Age, insofar as some of the characters have either appeared or been mentioned in one or both of those novels, but otherwise Cocoa Beach can be enjoyed as a standalone.

In 1917, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York to drive ambulances back and forth between the trenches and the field hospitals of Northern France. The USA has not yet joined the war, but she and a group of other volunteers led by the wealthy and formidable Mrs. DeForest are out there “doing their bit”, in whatever capacities they can be useful. On a trip to pick up some wounded men and take them to the hospital Mrs. DeForest has set up in an old château, Virginia meets the handsome, charismatic Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, an army surgeon, and he ends up travelling back to the hospital with her in order to inspect the facilities. There’s an instant frisson of attraction between the two, although Virginia is wary; not only is he quite a bit older than she is (she’s twenty-one, he’s mid-thirties) and almost too good to be true, but her complicated relationship with her stern, reclusive father means she has little experience with men and is uncomfortable around them. Yet by the end of this brief time spent together, Virginia is desperately smitten and so, it seems, is Simon, and he tells her he’s going to write to her. Virginia is on cloud nine – until one of the other girls in her unit tells her Simon is married, with a young son.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.