Beauty Like the Night (Spymasters #6) by Joanna Bourne

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Sèverine de Cabrillac, orphan of the French revolution and sometime British intelligence agent, has tried to leave spying behind her. Now she devotes herself to investigating crimes in London and finding justice for the wrongly accused.

Raoul Deverney, an enigmatic half-Spaniard with enough secrets to earn even a spy’s respect, is at her door demanding help. She’s the only one who can find the killer of his long-estranged wife and rescue her missing fourteen-year-old daughter.

Sèverine reluctantly agrees to aid him, even though she knows the growing attraction between them makes it more than unwise. Their desperate search for the girl ​unleashes treason and murder. . . and offers a last chance for two strong, wounded people to find love.

Rating: A-

Beauty Like the Night, the eagerly awaited sixth book in Joanna Bourne’s widely acclaimed Spymasters series, tells the story of Séverine de Cabrillac, whom we first met as a very young child caught up in the revolutionary terror of late eighteenth century Paris in The Forbidden Rose.  Ten years after being brought to England by William Doyle, Sévie ran off to war where she joined Military Intelligence and gained an impressive reputation as a spy, a woman who took many names, who wore many disguises, who was always frighteningly effective.  Returned to London and now in her late twenties, she operates a small investigative agency – and is still frighteningly effective.  But her involvement with politics and espionage is far from over, as is shown when she becomes involved in the hunt for a murderer, a missing child… and a traitor.

Séverine’s reputation for getting results as an investigator is every bit as remarkable as her reputation as a spy.  Clever, uncompromising and tenacious, she is known to never back down or be frightened off, and it’s said that once she is involved with a case, it’s as good as solved.  Her name and reputation are partly responsible for leading Raoul Deverney to her bedroom late one night, when he casually requests the return of a twelve-year-old girl named Pilar, who has been missing since the murder of her mother – his wife – some three months earlier.  The girl is not his daughter, but she has in her possession, an amulet, a family heirloom he is anxious to recover. Séverine knows nothing of the girl or the amulet and is, not surprisingly, rather alarmed by the sudden appearance of a man bearing a knife at her bedside.  Yet nothing of this shows in her demeanour as she coolly denies all knowledge of both girl and amulet, assessing the intruder and deducing he’s either mad or deadly – quickly realising he’s not the former.  Their discussion ended,  he disappears into the night, but not before he has promised they will meet again – and ventured a brief touch to her cheek, which Séverine finds oddly unsettling.

Raoul Deverney is well acquainted with the name of de Cabrillac and has no doubt that the woman he encountered in Spain a decade earlier could have committed or been involved in the murder of his estranged wife.  But would she be party to the kidnap of a young girl?  He can’t be so sure about that.  Yet his search of his late wife’s  apartment revealed the words ‘amulet’ and ‘de Cabrillac’ scratched into Pilar’s bedframe – so there’s no question Séverine is involved in some way.  He just has to work out how.

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

A Dance with Seduction (A Spy in the Ton #3) by Alyssa Alexander

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Vivienne Le Fleur is one of London’s most sought after opera dancer and one of England’s best weapons: the spy known as the Flower. When a French agent pressures her to change allegiance by abducting her sister, Vivienne is forced to seek the help of the only man in London who doesn’t want her.

Maximilian Westwood, retired code breaker, doesn’t like surprises or mysteries and The Flower is both. When she sneaks into his study in the middle of the night with a coded message, he’s ready to push her out whatever window she arrived through. Except Maximilian is unable to turn away a woman in trouble. Determined to rescue Vivienne’s sister, they engage in a game of cat and mouse with French spies that requires all of Vivienne’s training and Maximilian’s abilities. Bound together by secrecy, they discover there is more between them than politics and hidden codes, but love has no place among the secrets of espionage…

Rating: B

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a new novel from Alyssa Alexander, so I eagerly pounced on A Dance with Seduction, which, while released by a different publisher, is a continuation of her A Spy in the Ton series. I enjoyed her last book, a tightly written, sexy historical thriller and looked forward to more of the same. The plot – which pairs a female British spy with a bookish former code-breaker (I do love a nerdy hero!) – is intriguing and well put-together, and sees our intrepid heroine trying to thwart the attempts of a dangerous French spy to turn her into a double agent and involve her in a treasonous assassination plot. It’s a good read, but didn’t quite meet my expectations which, I admit, were high based on how much I’d enjoyed her previous book, In Bed with a Spy.

Vivienne La Fleur – the Flower – was recruited to a life of espionage when she was little more than a girl, and even though the Napoleonic Wars have ended, she continues to work for the British government at the direction of her ‘commander’ or handler, Lord Wycomb. Her public persona is that of one of London’s finest opera dancers, and as Wycomb’s mistress, but while she does live as a kept woman, he does not share her bed – although she suspects he would like to.

During the war, Vivienne was frequently in contact with Maximillian Westwood, the country’s top code-breaker. When the war ended, he retired from government service and now puts his facility with something like eleven different languages to use by working as a translator. He might be the scion of an aristocratic family, but as a younger son, he has to make his own way and his own living, which he does by translating documents, books and whatever else comes his way. He’s done with secret codes and espionage but it seems that secret codes and espionage aren’t done with him when the Flower pays him a late night visit and asks him to decode a short message for her.

Maximillian – who thinks Max is a ridiculous appellation – has no desire to become entangled with secrets and intrigue once again, and points out that he no longer works for government spymasters. But Vivienne explains that this is something personal, and clearly, the message is of some importance to her, so he agrees and tells her to come back in the morning.

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

Where the Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12) by C.S. Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

London, 1813. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is no stranger to the dark side of the city, but he’s never seen anything like this: the brutalized body of a 15-year-old boy dumped into a makeshift grave on the grounds of an abandoned factory. One of London’s many homeless children, Benji Thatcher was abducted and tortured before his murder – and his younger sister is still missing. Few in authority care about a street urchin’s fate, but Sebastian refuses to let this killer go unpunished.

Uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing children, Sebastian is drawn into a shadowy, sadistic world. As he follows a grim trail that leads from the writings of the debauched Marquis de Sade to the city’s most notorious brothels, he comes to a horrifying realization: Someone from society’s upper echelon is preying upon the city’s most vulnerable. And though dark, powerful forces are moving against him, Sebastian will risk his reputation and his life to keep more innocents from harm….

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

It’s the rare author who can reach the twelfth book in a long-running series and still keep coming up with fresh ideas and interesting developments, but C.S. Harris manages to do both those things and more in her latest Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, Where the Dead Lie. In this new instalment, our aristocratic sleuth becomes involved in the search for the perpetrators of the most horrible crimes upon the weakest, most vulnerable members of society – London’s street children. It’s a disturbing listen at times – as it should be, given the subject matter – and Ms. Harris doesn’t pull her punches when describing the plight of these often very young children who have been left parentless and homeless through no fault of their own, and how they are repeatedly betrayed by those privileged few who should be helping rather than taking advantage of them.

This is one of those series where the books really need to be listened to in order, and I would imagine it’s difficult to just pop in and out, reading some books and not others. Each of the mysteries is self-contained and reaches a satisfying ending, but just as compelling as those individual tales is the overarching story of Sebastian’s search for the truth about his birth and what happened to his errant mother, his difficult relationship with his father, the Earl of Hendon, and the intense animosity lying between Sebastian and his father-in-law, Lord Jarvis, cousin to the Regent and the power behind the throne.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

A Counterfeit Heart (Secrets and Spies #3) by K.C. Bateman


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

As Sabine de la Tour tosses piles of forged banknotes onto a bonfire in a Paris park, she bids a reluctant farewell to her double life as a notorious criminal. Over the course of Napoleon’s reign, her counterfeits destabilized the continent and turned scoundrels into rich men, but now she and her business partner must escape France—or face the guillotine. Her only hope of surviving in England is to strike a deal with the very spy she’s spent her career outrunning. Now after meeting the arrogant operative in the flesh, Sabine longs to throw herself upon his mercy—and into his arms.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, is prepared to take any risk to safeguard England from the horrors of the French Revolution. To lure the insurgents out from the shadows, he’s even willing to make a pact with his archenemy: Philippe Lacorte, the greatest counterfeiter in Europe. But when a cheeky, gamine-faced beauty proves herself to be Lacorte, Richard is shocked—and more than a little aroused. Unlike the debutantes who so often hurl themselves at him, this cunning minx offers a unique and irresistible challenge. Richard will help her. But in return, he wants something that even Sabine cannot fake.

Rating: B+

I counted K.C. Bateman as one of my “discoveries” of 2016 after I read her terrific début novel, To Steal a Heart, an action-packed, sexy, adventure story set in Napoleonic France. The book boasted many of the ingredients l love in historical romance – a central couple forced into proximity by circumstance, lots of sexually-charged and very funny banter, an intriguing plot, chemistry off the charts and a charming, deliciously dangerous hero. Ms. Bateman followed that with A Raven’s Heart and delivered another fabulous adventure story, this time featuring a couple who have loved each other for years, but have never owned up to it for fear of rejection. In A Counterfeit Heart, the third book in the author’s Secrets and Spies series, the action takes place almost entirely in England and the story draws on some of the real life plots made by Napoléon to destabilise the English economy by flooding the country with millions of pounds worth of forged banknotes.

Richard Hampden, Viscount Lovell, has appeared as a secondary character in the previous books, and we have learned that, like his brother Nicolas (To Steal a Heart) and his closest friend, William Ravenswood (A Raven’s Heart) he works for the British government. Even though Napoléon has been defeated, he still has many sympathisers who would like spark a revolution in England, and for the past few months, Richard has been tracking a group of anti-monarchists in London who are part of the old network of spies placed in England by the French. Richard has been trying to locate the elusive forger, Philippe Lacorte, with a view to engaging him to forge letters from Napoléon to his English sympathisers in order to lure them out, but Lacorte remains stubbornly hard to pin down and all Richard’s efforts to find him have so far been unsuccessful. Imagine his shock, therefore, when a young woman, a lovely, elfin creature, arrives at his London home late one night, introduces herself as Sabine de la Tour – and promptly announces that she is Philippe Lacorte.

For years, Sabine’s friend and partner, Anton Carnaud, acted as go-between for her and the man who had overseen Napoléon’s counterfeiting operation, General Jean Malet. With Napoléon now imprisoned on St. Helena, Malet is the only man at large who knows about the fake fortune Bonaparte had amassed – and he wants it for himself. Sabine’s home has been ransacked and Anton, as Malet’s only link to Lacorte, is in danger. Sabine decides to flee to England; the English have been trying to engage Lacorte’s services for months, and with the money she can earn working for them, she will be able to afford to buy passage to America for Anton and to make a new life for herself wherever she wants to go.

Stunned by Sabine’s announcement though he is, Richard is no fool and is naturally suspicious of her claim. Being young, handsome, wealthy and in possession of a title, he is used to women throwing themselves at him and at first suspects that some sort of entrapment scheme is afoot, but when Sabine writes a note in a perfect copy of his own hand in front of his very nose, he can’t deny that she’s who she says she is and demands to know what she wants in exchange for her services as a forger.

Even though desperation has led her to Richard Hampden’s door, Sabine is not naïve enough to believe that he will meekly agree to her ten-thousand pound price. She is well aware that she is facing a wily, clever man, and calmly explains that she is still in possession of the half a million pounds in forged notes with which Napoléon had planned to flood Britain, and that if Richard does not agree to her terms, then she will put the counterfeit notes into circulation.

What ensues is a sexy game of cat-and-mouse between two equally sharp-witted, devious opponents whose intense attraction to each other burns up the pages. Sabine is brave and smart, matching wits with Richard every step of the way and holding her own against him in their battle of wills, while he, having believed her at first to be a blackmailing baggage, is surprised to find himself utterly captivated by her sneaky, conniving brain every bit as much as he lusts after her body. The chemistry between the couple is scorching, and Ms. Bateman once again proves herself a master of the art of sexually-charged banter and saucy double-entendre. Both protagonists are strongly drawn and well-rounded, and I enjoyed the way Sabine is gradually disabused of her belief that Richard is little more than an arrogant, self-entitled aristocrat, discovering that he is also incredibly resourceful, useful in a fight and not above getting his hands dirty – literally and metaphorically – when the need arises. As the story progresses, the real Richard emerges as a deeply loyal and honourable man who is dedicated to rooting out evil and protecting his countrymen and who will stop at nothing to protect his country and those close to him.

The other main relationship in the book is the one between Richard and his brother-in-law, Raven, which is characterised by sharp insight and brotherly mockery as Raven watches his friend finally succumb to the thrall of the one woman stubborn and infuriating enough to capture his heart. It’s nicely written with just the right amount of teasing on Raven’s part and sardonic denials on Richard’s, and there’s no question that these two will always have each other’s backs.

If I have a criticism, it’s that in the early stages of the story, the relationship between Sabine and Richard relies rather too heavily on insta-lust; the pair of them are pretty much panting for each other from the off, which felt rather overdone. But that’s really the only thing that didn’t work for me; the romance is otherwise well developed, with Richard and Sabine gradually coming to recognise and value the person behind the prickly forger and the haughty aristocrat as they get under each other’s skin and allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable in a way they have done with no-one else.

A Counterfeit Heart is a treat of a read for anyone who enjoys a well-plotted romantic adventure featuring a plucky heroine and a dangerously sexy hero who match wits and fall in love while foiling dastardly plots and rooting out the bad guys. I have enjoyed each book in the Secrets and Spies series and am looking forward to reading more by this talented author in the near future.

Enchanting the Earl (The Townsends #1) by Lily Maxton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Llynmore Castle is the only place Annabel Lockhart has ever considered home. For years, she’s been able to live as she wished, freely roaming the wild moors. Now there’s a new earl, as arrogant as he is handsome, and he wants her out. But if he thinks she’ll go quietly, he’s in for a surprise.

Theo Townsend returned from war a changed man. After unexpectedly inheriting an earldom and a secluded castle in the Scottish Highlands to go with it, he thinks he’s found the perfect place to hide from the world—until he arrives to find a spirited, beautiful woman already in residence. He can’t just throw her out, but surely there’s a way to get her to leave on her own. The sooner she’s gone, the better, especially when he realizes there’s more than just mutual dislike between them.

Rating: B+

Lily Maxton gets her new series The Townsends off to a great start with the first book, Enchanting the Earl, a sweetly sensual character-driven romance set in a remote castle in the Scottish Highlands in 1812. It’s a short but charming enemies-to-lovers story in which the author skilfully balances the angst of the damaged hero with gentle humour and loving, familial relationships and brings a real depth to the characterisation of the principals and secondary cast.

A former soldier, Theo Townsend never expected to inherit an earldom or an ancestral pile in Scotland. Returned from fighting on the Peninsula damaged both mentally and physically, the newly minted Earl of Arden decides that the remoteness of Llynmore Castle will suit him admirably, affording him the opportunity to live in quiet solitude for the foreseeable future.  To his annoyance however, his brother and sisters have other ideas, and insist on accompanying him to see their new home which, Theo reflects, is at least big enough for him to be able to keep to himself and out of their way.

On arrival, Theo is further annoyed to discover that the castle is not, as he’d been led to believe, uninhabited.  In the courtyard, a striking but dishevelled young woman who is attempting to rescue a cat from a tree, introduces herself as Annabel Lockhart, and informs them that she resides there with her aunt, the widow of the previous earl’s brother.

Theo makes it immediately clear that he expects the ladies to leave, and says that he will have his solicitor find them somewhere else to live at the earliest opportunity. Annabel is furious at his arrogant high-handedness and dismayed at the prospect of having to leave the only real home and family she has ever known.  Orphaned as a child, she had been passed from relative to relative, most of whom took little notice of her and put her to work until one day she decided to seek out the scandalous aunt she had heard of over the years.  Travelling to Llynmore Castle, Annabel expected another rejection – but it never came.  Her aunt accepted her just as she was and the two of them have lived there contentedly ever since.

The sudden appearance of Theo and his family is a problem for more reasons than one, however.  Not long before the Townsends show up, Annabel’s sister, Fiona arrived unexpectedly with her four-year-old daughter, having run away from her abusive husband.  Annabel daren’t let anyone know her sister is there, and with four complete strangers in the castle, it’s imperative Fiona and Mary stay well hidden.  Annabel doesn’t think it will be too difficult to get rid of the earl and his family, but has to change her mind quite soon when it becomes clear that Theo has no intention of leaving, and her various strategems (some quite funny and others downright silly) fail to work.

Theo and Annabel strike sparks off each other from the get-go, even though they dislike each other intensely.  She thinks he’s arrogant (but handsome); he thinks she’s a hoyden who will be a bad influence on his sisters, and yet can’t fail to admire – and perhaps even envy – her zest for life and her outgoing, fearless nature.

As the days pass, Annabel begins to realise that Theo is not quite as cold and arrogant as she had thought.  She has already noticed that he’s an attractive man and has been annoyed at herself for feeling a strong, visceral pull towards him; but as they begin to unbend a little towards one another it’s clear to them both that they are in the grip of a strong mutual attraction.  The author does a fabulous job of building the romantic tension between Annabel and Theo; their first kiss is electrifying and the longing they feel for each other is palpable.

Annabel is easy to warm to, a generous free spirit who has at last found somewhere she feels loved and valued.  I loved how honest she was with Theo and that she was prepared to give him her trust – something that doesn’t come easily to her – and ask for his help when she needs it.  And Theo doesn’t disappoint, showing the honourable, loving man that lies beneath the scars and the gruff exterior.  But even though he has fallen hard for Annabel, he is guarded and closed off, fearful of allowing anyone to get close to him because he knows he’s broken; he’s not always certain of his sanity and is terrified of infecting those closest to him with the ugliness of his memories. His siblings adore him, and realise he’s trying to push them away, but they don’t know how to reach or help him.

Theo lost a leg and much of himself during the war, and while he copes well physically, mentally he’s a mess. Ms. Maxton details his PTSD with insight and understanding; his nightmares, his almost crippling reaction to loud noises or to things that trigger bad memories, and his belief that he has nothing to offer and is not worthy of love.  And because she understands that particular insecurity all too well, Annabel knows that the only person who can convince Theo to accept the love she offers him is himself.

Enchanting the Earl is a beautifully written love story between two people who haven’t had it easy.  Annabel has been able to (mostly) overcome her insecurities thanks to the love and acceptance she found with her aunt whereas Theo has yet to allow himself those things and to realise that he does deserve healing and happiness.  The fact that Annabel is wise enough to see that he has to want to get better is key, and I applaud Ms. Maxton for showing that.  It’s so easy, in these types of stories, to have the damaged character redeemed by love, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way, and in any case, I never feel as though as change for someone else is going to be a permanent one.  Change always has to come from within.

The secondary plotline concerning Annabel’s sister is well-executed and, sadly, quite believable, and while Theo’s brothers and sisters only play supporting roles, they are likeable and the familial relationships are very well written.  Enchanting the Earl is highly recommended and I’ll definitely be looking out for the other books in the series.

Marry in Haste (Marriage of Convenience #1) by Anne Gracie

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Major Calbourne Rutherford returns to England on the trail of an assassin, only to find he’s become Lord Ashendon, with the responsibility for vast estates and dependent relatives. Cal can command the toughest of men, but his wild half-sisters are quite another matter. They might just be his undoing.

When he discovers that Miss Emmaline Westwood, the girls’ former teacher, guides them with ease, Cal offers her a marriage of convenience. But strong-minded and independent Emm is neither as compliant nor as proper as he expected, and Cal finds himself most inconveniently seduced by his convenient wife.

Emm knows they didn’t marry for love, yet beneath her husband’s austere facade, she catches glimpses of a man who takes her breath away. As pride, duty and passion clash, will these two stubborn hearts find more than they ever dreamed of?

Rating: A-

I will admit that I was a little apprehensive about picking up Marry in Haste, the first in Anne Gracie’s new Marriage of Convenience series, having been rather disappointed with the last couple of books in her Chance Sisters quartet. But the premise of a hastily arranged marriage of convenience drew me like a moth to a flame, and I’m so glad it did because this is a delightful book and I loved it to bits. The two principals are beautifully drawn, well-rounded characters, and the hero – who is simply adorable – experiences a lot of of genuine personal growth throughout, something the author shows us beautifully without feeling the need to post signposts or drop anvils on our heads. There’s an entertaining secondary cast who likewise develop as the tale progresses, the romance is just lovely and I turned the final page feeling thoroughly satisfied with the outcome and confident that this hero and heroine were going to be happy together long after they’d reached their HEA.

Major Calbourne Rutherford – Cal to his friends – has spent the last decade fighting England’s enemies on the continent. With the Napoleonic Wars ended, his army duties have changed somewhat in the direction of diplomacy and intelligence work; the map of Europe has undergone such major changes over the past few years, that there are many negotiations to be made and settlements to be reached, and Cal is anxious to return to his post and his role in those events. But his current mission is one of a more personal nature. He is on the trail of the notorious assassin who murdered one of his closest friends, and after searching for him for two years is pretty sure that he is an English sharpshooter. Cal has returned to England determined to hunt him down once and for all – only to be greeted with the unexpected news of the death of his older brother.

Becoming an earl was never on Cal’s agenda. A second son, he was sent to school at the age of seven and at seventeen, was given the choice of going into the army or the church. The army suits him and he likes the life, but he knows he is ill-equipped to take on the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with a large estate and a peerage. And when he visits Bath to check up on his half-sisters, he also realises that he has absolutely no idea what to do with two suspicious, disobedient young women of eighteen and nineteen have a penchant for going their own way and making mischief.

It’s immediately obvious that Cal can’t leave the girls in the care of their Aunt Dottie, who, while she loves them dearly, has no control over them, so he approaches the headmistress of the school they attended to see if she will take them back – but she refuses.  While on his visit there, he encounters Miss Emmaline Westwood, one of their former teachers, and hits upon the idea of hiring her to look after the girls until such time as he can get them married off.  But she also refuses, leaving Cal with quite the quandary, which is then made worse when he discovers that his older brother left behind an eighteen-year-old daughter that none of the family knew about.

Faced with not two, but three female relatives he doesn’t know how to deal with, Cal again approaches Miss Westwood and practically begs her to come and work for him.  She calmly explains that while the money he is offering is attractive, her post will last only two or three years and doesn’t offer the sort of long-term security she is looking for.  Cal is about to leave – when he has a lightbulb moment.  Miss Westwood wants security?  She can have it as his countess; after all, he has to marry some time, and he’s already acknowledged to himself that he is strongly attracted to the lady so he could do much worse.  He proposes a marriage of convenience and – upon consideration – is accepted.  But a marriage between two virtual strangers is never going to be easy to navigate, especially when Cal seems to want to carry on as though nothing has changed.

I love a good marriage of convenience story, and this is a very good one indeed.  Ms. Gracie takes time to set up her characters and the situation so we are afforded ample time to get to know Cal and to see that under his rather brusque, authoritarian exterior is a good-hearted man capable of great kindness who wants to do the best for those in his care.  Having been in the army since he was seventeen, he’s used to making quick decisions and having his instructions and orders followed, and after a decade, such habits are hard to break.  He has to learn to be more flexible, to empathise and persuade rather than order and insist, and I loved the part when he – much to her surprise – adopts one of Emm’s strategies:

“I don’t know many men – no, make that any men – who would seek advice from a woman.”

He shrugged.  “Ten years in the army teaches a man to take advantage of local, expert knowledge, no matter what the source.”

It’s a telling exchange, showing clearly that Cal is adaptable and that he in no way sees Emm as beneath him or inferior.  He respects her intelligence, her skills, and her spirit, gradually coming to realise what an asset she is, and what a good thing he did by marrying her.  Of course, in the initial stages, all the convenience of the marriage is convenience for him, but as he and Emm get to spend more time with each other, talking and telling each other things they’ve told no-one else, they become friends, adding a deeper element to their relationship which has, up to this point, been mostly based on an intense physical attraction. The chemistry between them is terrific; there’s an element of slowly simmering sexual tension from their first meeting that ultimately leads to some sensually charged love scenes.

One of the things I really appreciated about the whole book is its aura of maturity.  Emm is keeping an old secret from Cal, but it’s dealt with quickly and sensibly without being turned into some big, overblown drama, which is incredibly refreshing in a genre that so frequently uses secrets and lies as plot points.  Cal and Emm actually talk to each other about important things, and their actions are generally properly thought-out and rational.  There’s no stupid running away or arguments based on flimsy plot-points; no, this is a look at a marriage which needs to be worked at and in which, if something isn’t right, the couple realises the need to face it and deal with it. Ms. Gracie also does a superb job in showing the way in which Cal’s family grows and develops around him, mostly thanks to his wife, but thanks to him, too, as he grows and develops with them, coming to see that he can’t continue with his life as it was before.

There’s a lot to love about Marry in Haste, not least of which is Cal, who is a truly wonderful hero.  He’s handsome, charming and sexy (of course!), but the way he turns from a man who wants nothing more than to escape to one who not only accepts but comes to enjoy his responsibilities, is skilfully done and a real delight to read.  And Emm is his perfect match in every way; insightful and compassionate, she helps Cal and the girls to become a real family, stands firm in the face of his formidable Aunt Augusta and, in the end, finds it completely impossible not to tumble head over heels in love with her husband.

The final section of the book – in which Emm also comes to see how loved she is in return – is nicely done, although a couple of last minute events are perhaps a little over-the-top (and account for the A- instead of a straight A).  But those are minor niggles. Marry in Haste is a gorgeously romantic read and one I’m only too pleased to recommend.