Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer (Scandal and Disgrace #1) by Georgie Lee


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A stolen kiss from a spy!

Working undercover for the government, Bartholomew Dyer must expose a nefarious plot to make Napoleon the ruler of England! He needs access to the highest echelons of Society to find those involved, so he’s forced to enlist the help of the woman who jilted him five years ago—Moira, Lady Rexford.

Moira’s widowed, yet still as captivating as ever, and Bart’s determined not to succumb to her charms a second time. But as they race against time Bart suspects it’s not their lives at greatest risk—it’s their hearts…

Rating: C+

I’ve read a number of books by Georgie Lee over the last few years, and while I’ve enjoyed some more than others, she has yet to write the book that wows me and turns her into an auto-read author. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting, because although Courting Danger with Mr. Dyer, is a more than decent read, it doesn’t have the wow factor, either.

The eponymous Mr. Dyer – Bartholomew – is the fifth son of Lord Denning, who doesn’t care all that much about his children beyond his heir and his spare. Bart’s choice of career has alienated him from his father even further; as a successful and high-profile barrister, his name frequently appears in the newspapers, something his father dislikes intensely. What Denning doesn’t know, however, is that Bart also works for the Alien Office as part of a department dedicated to rooting out traitors working to undermine England’s safety and stability. The irony that the one part of his life that would probably make his father proud is the one part of it he can’t tell him about isn’t lost on Bart.

The book opens when Bart’s close friend and colleague, Frederick, Earl of Fallworth tells him that he will no longer assist him in his quest to foil the plot by a group known as the Rouge Noir to overthrow the government and hand England over to Bonaparte. Bart is frustrated and angry; someone like Freddie has the entrée to circles that are not easily accessible to Bart but Freddie is adamant. Since the loss of his young wife he has been a broken man, drinking heavily and taking little interest in the running of his home and estates. But now, he is determined to do better, and is unwilling to risk his safety – or that of his young son – any longer. Bart is surprised when their heated discussion is interrupted by Freddie’s sister, Moira, the widowed Countess of Rexford, and the woman whom, five years earlier, Bart had hoped to marry but whose family disdained him and encouraged her to marry elsewhere.

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

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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.

That first, late-night encounter between Raoul and Séverine sets the tone for their interactions throughout the story.  Both are cautious, fiercely intelligent and almost terrifyingly capable; they don’t trust easily or often and find the strong attraction that sparks between them to be a major inconvenience.  But it’s impossible to ignore.  The sexual chemistry between the pair is delicious and understated, which makes it even better; there’s no overdone mental lusting, just a simmering attraction that builds inexorably as they join forces to investigate murder and treason.

Readers of the previous books will already know that Séverine is part of the inmost circle at the top level of British intelligence, very much one of a close-knit family united by bonds of friendship and loyalty, if not by blood. Her brother-in-law is Adrian Hawkhurst (Hawker) and her adoptive father is William Doyle, both of them incredibly shrewd, intelligent and dedicated men who do what must be done to protect England from the threats it continues to face.  Some of my favourite parts of the book were the interactions between Hawker and Doyle and I loved those little touches that reminded me of how far Hawker has come from the scruffy, teenage street-urchin of The Forbidden Rose.  It’s obvious that these two know each other so well that verbal communication is almost unnecessary – although Hawker’s never going to shut up so that won’t happen! – and that they would do anything for each other.  It’s a wonderfully written friendship/familial relationship (they’ve always been like father and son) that gladdened my heart whenever they appeared on the page.  Their relationship with Séverine is equally well-done; they are protective and want to be even more so, but recognise that she can take care of herself and would not thank them for their interference, especially when it comes to her complicated relationship with a certain handsome former freedom-fighter and possible traitor.

I liked both central characters very much.  Séverine is an admirable heroine, confident in her abilities yet not oblivious to the fact that her way of life can a dangerous one, and Raoul is the sort of hero I always fall for. Intelligent, witty and coolly competent (because there’s nothing sexier than a man who knows what he’s doing!), he’s perfect for Séverine and it’s clear that theirs is a meeting of understanding as well as hearts, and that they will go through life as equals.  If I have a complaint it’s that he’s probably TOO perfect – but I was so charmed by him that I really didn’t care.

The historical romance sub-genre is littered with spy stories, and some of them are very good.  But then one reads a book by Joanna Bourne and the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’ is brought into sharp focus.  It’s not just that Ms. Bourne’s writing is sublime, the relationships are well-developed and the characters are attractive and well-rounded; it’s her amazing subtlety, her ability to convey things that aren’t said, and the way she imbues her characters with incredible spirit and intelligence but allows them to be vulnerable, too.  Séverine is tough and capable, but she is haunted by some of the decisions she made during the war, most notably the one which ultimately led to the death of the young French officer with whom she had fallen in love. And when Raoul – who is every bit as formidable as Séverine  (and possibly more so in some areas) – realises that Pilar was shamefully neglected, his wilful blindness is brought home to him and he is assailed by the guilt which ultimately drives him to find her.

The story is insightful and intelligently written, boasting an engrossing plot, a well-developed cast of secondary characters and two compelling and well-matched principals who thoroughly and obviously relish the challenge to their wits and their hearts presented by the other.  It is perhaps not as high-stakes as some of the earlier books in the series, but it’s no less enjoyable for that; there are still plots to be foiled, evil-doers to be defeated and truths to be uncovered – and I was glued to the story every step of the way.

Beauty Like the Night is a great read and a terrific addition to what is easily one of the finest series of historical romance novels around.  Unlike most of the earlier books in the series, this one can work as a standalone, although I think readers will get more out of it if they’re familiar with the other stories and characters – and if you haven’t read them, my advice would be to do so at once.  You’re in for a rare treat.

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

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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.

The code is complicated, but presents no real problem for Maximillian apart from the final symbol, which is something like an Egyptian hieroglyph but isn’t – and which is oddly familiar.  Disgruntled because he can’t place it, he tells Vivienne that he hasn’t been able to completely finish the work, but she isn’t concerned.  The message is clear, and while she doesn’t care to enlighten Maximillian as to the signatory, she knows all too well who it’s from – an elusive, ruthless French agent known as the Vulture – and the instructions contained in the note are telling her to steal a document from an Englishman… and deliver it to a Frenchman.

Vivienne is chilled to the bone, because she knows what this means.  The Vulture wants her to work against the British, probably to become a double agent, but she is determined to resist – until her younger sister, Anne, is abducted, which changes everything.  Vivienne had kept the existence of her sibling a secret, making it seem as though she was nothing more than a maid in her household to try to prevent Anne being used as leverage against her. Somehow, the Vulture has discovered the truth and Vivienne is distraught.  Frantic to discover her sister’s whereabouts, Vivienne risks everything, walking a tightrope between espionage and treason; between trying to make it seem as though she is co-operating with the enemy while at the same time scheming to bring him down.  She has become so used to relying on herself and herself alone, that Vivienne doesn’t even tell Maximillian the whole truth. She lets him believe she is concerned for a girl in her employ who has gone missing, his insistence on helping her, standing by her and trusting her to know what she’s doing just adding to the burden of guilt she already carries for failing to keep her sister safe.

I enjoyed the pairing of the resourceful spy with the rather grumpy scholar. Maximillian is an endearing beta hero who really steps up to the plate when he realises Vivienne is in trouble, despite the fact that he’s unfamiliar with her world of shady characters, late night break-ins and shadowy double-dealing.  He never talks down to her or treats her as anything less than the highly competent operative that she is; in fact, he’s the only man who really sees Vivienne as anything other than the exquisitely beautiful dancer, the delicate ‘flower’ she pretends to be.  It’s obvious from the start that he is attracted to Vivienne, but also that he has firmly quashed those feelings because he believes her to be under the protection of another man, while Vivienne has to maintain the appearance of being another man’s mistress and also feels that she can’t allow herself to be distracted by her growing attachment to Maximillian, no matter that he’s handsome, kind and honourable – and that he refuses to let her to push him away.

Vivienne has long believed that her line of work is incompatible with relationships, and continues to think that, but she’s never wanted a man as much as she wants Maximillian and decides at last that while there’s no ‘forever’ in their future, they can at least enjoy each other for a while.  There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between the pair which eventually translates into some sensual kisses and love scenes, but reality intrudes when the Vulture attempts to force Vivienne’s hand and Maximillian realises how little she has trusted him.

Ms. Alexander has penned an entertaining story and created a couple of attractive protagonists and a strongly drawn secondary cast, but Vivienne’s failure to confide in Maximillian – who repeatedly shows himself to be trustworthy and to have her best interests at heart – goes on for too long.  This becomes frustrating and sometimes makes her difficult to like, although her inner conflicts – her need to protect her sister, and her doubts as to who the real person is beneath the spy – are well expressed.   The writing is strong, although I can’t help feeling that the editor should have picked up and eliminated the majority of the constant references to Vivienne’s ‘lithe dancer’s body’ or ‘strong dancer’s legs’ or ‘dancer’s grace’ – honestly, it got to the stage when it seemed there was mention of her profession on every page and it became very distracting.  I also hope that ‘Carleton House’ will have been corrected to ‘Carlton House’ in the finished product (I read an advance copy), an error which jumped out at me every time I read it.

Overall however, I’m happy to recommend A Dance with Seduction to others.  It’s well-written and well-conceived and I’m pleased that Ms. Alexander has re-surfaced and am looking forward to reading more of her work.

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

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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

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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.