From London with Love (Reckless Brides #3) by Diana Quincy

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Emilia St. George is moments away from marrying the admired grandson of a duke when the man who once jilted her decides to kidnap her at the altar. It’s the second time in five years Hamilton Sparrow has ruined her wedding day, and Emilia isn’t about to forgive him. The mere sight of her ex-fiancé revives painful memories—and, most regrettably, aching desires that refuse to be ignored.

Scanning the guests at Emilia’s wedding, Sparrow spots a familiar face: an assassin he recognizes from his days as a spy in France. Whisking Emilia away, he’s pleasantly surprised by her newly formed curves. Could this be the same flame-haired slip of a girl once promised to Sparrow? And does the fop she still insists on marrying realize what a prize she is? True, Sparrow left Emilia at the altar. But he’s afraid that the only way to right that particular wrong is to risk the one thing he’s always guarded: his heart.

Rating: C+

This third book in Diana Quincy’s Rebellious Brides series is an enjoyable read featuring a central couple who have known each other for years and were actually supposed to marry five years earlier – until the groom cried off on the morning of the wedding for reasons he never discussed with his betrothed.  I enjoy a good second-chance romance, and this one is carried off fairly well, but I am getting just a bit tired of the hero who won’t risk his heart because “a nasty woman betrayed me/used me/broke my heart so I can never love again”.  I realise that there are a plethora of such heroes in historical romances, but some of their reasons are more compelling than others, and I wasn’t completely convinced by those attributed to our hero, Hamilton Sparrow (yep – you read that right) and there were times I really wanted to tell him to just man up and get over it already.

Five years since the first time she was supposed to walk down the aisle, Emilia St. George is about to attempt the trip again, this time in order to marry Mr Edmund Worsley, the grandson of the Duke of Arthingon.  But before she can get as far as taking the first step, her erstwhile bridegroom suddenly reappears, informs her that her life may be in danger and insists that she leaves with him immediately.  Once Emilia has stopped laughing, she refuses in no uncertain terms, and Sparrow, a man who is by no means as puny as his namesake, is left with no alternative than to bodily haul her out of the church and into his waiting carriage.

When they are attacked by a man Sparrow knows to be a highly-paid assassin, Emilia starts to take the possibility of a threat to her life seriously – and to wonder who could be trying to kill her.  She’s her father’s only child and heir to his immense fortune, but her fiancé does not want for money, and besides, if she were to die before their wedding he’d get nothing, so he doesn’t have a motive.  But if something should happen to her, her father’s heir would be her cousin, Dominick Ware, a man with a shady past, a tendency to disappear, and who, for reasons we don’t learn in this book, is suspected of killing his own parents. It doesn’t help that when Sparrow was attacked by the assassin, Emilia bashed the man’s head in with a rock, so they’re unable to interrogate him due to the fact that he’s unconscious and probably near death.  Sparrow and Emilia agree that Ware needs to be found and questioned – but first, they must return to Emilia’s home to lay the whole matter before her father and arrange for Emilia’s protection, so leaving a man with important information and a potentially fatal head wound in the care of trusted servants, the couple heads back to town.

Emilia is well aware that she is marrying Worsley for reasons other than love.  Her dearest wish is to travel – first to Paris, then Italy and perhaps Greece – and seeing that her husband-to-be is a diplomat, she is looking forward to visting many different places to study their art and culture.  She’s a highly skilled artist and her dearest wish is to complete the copy of a painting she had worked on with her beloved grandfather, but which was left unfinished at his death.  (That isn’t to say she’s a forger – art students frequently copy the masters in order to gain an understanding of the techniques employed so that they can use them to develop their own skill).  When one particular painting (called Portrait of a Youth in Profile) goes missing – and then turns up in the collection of the notorious reprobate (and friend of Sparrow’s) the Duke of Sunderford – there’s yet another layer of intrigue added to the mix, as it seems that Emilia and Sparrow have not only to discover who is out harm her, but also to find out who could have gained access to her studio and then passed off her copy of the Portrait as an original Italian masterwork.

The identity of the villain isn’t too difficult to guess, so the story is as much a ‘whydunnit’ as it is a ‘whodunnit’, and there’s plenty of action and interesting revelations to keep things trundling nicely along. The relationship between Emilia and Sparrow is well-realised; the sparks fly from the outset, and the author allows them time to get to know each other again for the people they really are.  The problem is that they are both characters I’ve read hundreds of times before; Emilia is ashamed of her vibrant red hair (afraid it makes her look like a whore), thinks she’s too plump (which of course, she’s not, she’s built like a goddess), and believes that because men don’t want wives with minds of their own, she must simper around her fiancé and defer to his obviously more informed opinions, whereas the real her is vibrant, clever and passionate. I did, however, like that Emilia felt able to be herself with Sparrow because, not having anything to lose or prove, she didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t; and that Sparrow came to see and fully appreciate her for the woman she really is and to see what he’d lost by not marrying her when he had the chance.

But in terms of the characterisation, Sparrow is similarly stereotypical. He’s knee-weakeningly gorgeous (of course) but a woman done him wrong so he has sworn off love and just sleeps around instead.  He’s also recently inherited an impoverished title, so has resigned from the job he loves – as a Home Office agent – in order take up the reins of his crumbling estates and see if there’s any way he can possibly hold back the tide of debt about to engulf him.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, the evil woman who broke his heart was a spy who leaked valuable information to the French which caused the capture, torture and deaths of a number of his men.  Sparrow is thus guilt-ridden as well as debt-ridden, so even if he did have a heart to give to Emilia, he would still not be worthy of her.

To sum up, From London With Love is fast-moving and entertaining romp, and I certainly didn’t dislike it.  But it relies on too many conveniences and contrivances for the plot to work, and I got particularly stuck on the fact that the paid assassin Sparrow spots at the beginning is so expediently incapacitated, forcing Sparrow and Emilia to solve the mystery on their own.  I also couldn’t get past the fact that SHE BASHED HIS HEAD IN WITH A ROCK – yet they expect him to be able to spill the beans when he recovers.  The ending falls into the “how convenient” category, too, with the baddie abducting Emilia when Sparrow is conveniently away from London (interrogating rock-guy who has made an amazing recovery), yet he somehow miraculously manages to get to the destination in time to Save The Day.

Diana Quincy is a good storyteller and can certainly create strong, attractive characters, but From London With Love is nothing new and the author doesn’t manage to transcend the tropes.  I’ll keep an eye out for her future books and will probably read some of them, but she hasn’t yet convinced me to make her a place on my auto-read list.

The Duke’s Secret Heir by Sarah Mallory

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

“This, madam, changes everything.”

Years ago, in the Egyptian desert, Ellen Tatham fell wildly in love and exchanged vows with Max Colnebrooke. But, when made to believe Max could not be trusted, she fled…

Now, Max is back in England to take up the reins as Duke of Rossenhall. And when he spies Ellen at a ball, the sparks are hard to contain! Little does Max know, though, that Ellen has a secret… And soon, he must learn to embrace an unexpected heir, and an unexpected—and disconcertingly defiant—duchess!

Rating: B

The Duke’s Secret Heir is a second-chance romance that is loosely related to Sarah Mallory’s previous series, The Infamous Arrandales by virtue of the fact that its heroine appeared as a secondary character in The Chaperone’s Seduction. Miss Ellen Tatham as she then was, was a wealthy heiress of just seventeen, and her good-humoured level-headedness was a refreshing change from the sort of immature tantrum-throwing-teens often found within the pages of romance novels.

Having her own fortune – albeit one that came from trade – enabled Ellen to live an independent life and she spent some time after her come-out travelling with her former teacher and friend, Mrs. Ackroyd. While in Egypt some four years earlier, Ellen met and fell in love with Major Max Colnebrooke, and after a two-week, whirlwind romance, married him.  After just a few weeks, the uncertain military and political situation in the region meant that it was unsafe for Ellen to remain with Max, so he arranged for her to travel back to England with the assistance of a fellow officer, and they agreed that she would wait for Max in Portsmouth.

Unfortunately, however, amid all the confusion of the British occupation of Alexandria, Ellen and her companion were unable to adhere to Max’s plan, and instead left Egypt with the assistance of the French Consul who saw them safely to France and then arranged for them to be smuggled back to England.  On her return, Ellen is shocked to discover that there is no record whatsoever of Max’s presence in Egypt; there were no regiments stationed south of Cairo and most certainly there was no military chaplain in the area.  Devastated, she concludes she has been duped, believing that Max arranged a fake marriage just so he could get her into bed.

When Max learned that Ellen had left Egypt with the French Consul, he immediately assumed the worst and believed that she had deserted him for a new lover.  Mired in grief and rage, Max recklessly undertook increasingly dangerous missions, many of which resulted in loss of life or serious injury to others while he himself remained unscathed and for which, years later, he now carries a huge burden of guilt.

In the four years since her marriage, Ellen has made a life for herself in the Northern spa town of Harrogate, where she is widely liked and respected.  But her settled existence is thrown into chaos one evening at a ball, when she is introduced to the Duke of Rossenhall – who is none other than her estranged husband, the man she had known as Max Colnebrooke.  Both she and Max are completely unprepared for such an event, and their meeting is fraught with thinly veiled hostility.  When they are able to have a conversation, it becomes very clear to Ellen that Max is labouring under a misapprehension about the circumstances of her departure from Egypt, and that he is extremely bitter and furiously angry. He informs her that their marriage was legal and that she is his duchess – for as long as it will take him to procure a divorce.  He doesn’t care about the cost or the scandal; he just cannot countenance being married to a woman who betrayed him so easily.  Ellen quickly admits that she had jumped to the wrong conclusions, but Max is adamant – until confronted with something he had not even considered, a little boy of around three years of age who addresses Ellen as “Mama”. Max knows not even a moment’s doubt; the boy’s resemblance to him is too great for him to believe otherwise than that he is looking at his son.

The existence of James – Jamie – changes everything. Max may not care about damaging Ellen’s reputation, but he is not prepared to tarnish his heir’s name with scandal, and he coldly informs his wife that they are to remain married for the sake of the boy.  Ellen is genuinely repentant for having so easily believed the worst of Max and hopes that perhaps they can eventually become friends, even if there is no longer the possibility of there being any deeper feeling between them.  But Max is bitter and aloof – and angry at the idea that Ellen had deliberately concealed the fact of his son’s existence from him, making the likelihood of amicable co-existence recede even further.

While the story is based around a Big Misunderstanding, Ms. Mallory doesn’t allow it to go on for too long so that after the first few chapters, both Max and Ellen know that what they believed about the circumstances surrounding their marriage and Ellen’s departure to have been erroneous.  Ellen wants to apologise and move forward, but Max is unable to get past his resentment, blaming his devastation at her desertion for his willingness to throw himself into the path of danger over and over again, his despair driving him to undertake the most difficult and life-threatening missions available.  He can’t deny that he is still strongly attracted to his wife, but because he blames himself – and indirectly, her – for the deaths and injuries sustained by many of his comrades, he cannot find it in himself to let go of his guilt and admit the possibility of reconciliation.

Max blaming Ellen for HIS recklessness is distasteful; his resentment has little foundation and while Ms. Mallory doesn’t try to make his position acceptable or palatable, it’s difficult to have any sympathy for him, especially in the early stages of the book when he is thoroughly disagreeable to Ellen.  What the author does very well, though, is to show the real affection that grows between Max and his son, and the way in which Ellen so quickly makes herself an indispensible part of the life of his home and his estate.  She is intelligent, sensible and unfailingly polite to everyone, no matter what their station; and that includes putting up with her miserable, stuck-up sister-in-law, the dowager Duchess, who believes almost everyone to be beneath her notice and does not hesitate to make it clear that she considers the daughter of a tradesman unfit to be a duchess. It’s clear that neither Ellen nor Max has stopped loving or desiring each other – but the question is whether Max can ever put his own prejudices aside and allow himself to love Ellen and make a life with her.  His internal struggles are well done; the author expertly conveys how torn he is between the guilt he stubbornly tries to cling to and the truth he sees every day – Ellen’s love for and care of their son, her excellent management of his home and her essential goodness.  My main criticism of this aspect of the story is that the ending is rather rushed;  Max has had plenty of time, it’s true, to realise that he is tormenting himself for no good reason, but it takes him a little too long to admit it.

The Duke’s Secret Heir is well-written and the motivations and emotions of the characters are shown and explained really well; even though, as with Max’s issues, I couldn’t agree with them.  I enjoyed the book, but I can’t deny that Max’s determination to shut Ellen out because of his own faults and misconceptions caused me to lower my final grade a little.  Even so, it’s an entertaining, angsty read, and one that should appeal to those who enjoy second-chance romances.

Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother #3) by Emily Larkin

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s more than just an heiress…

Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.

Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing—to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret—including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

Rating: B+

Trusting Miss Trentham is the third book in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series of historical romances with a paranormal twist.  Owing to the good deed done by one of their ancestresses, each of the heroines is entitled to receive a gift from their Faerie Godmother – whom they call Baletongue – on their twenty-first or twenty-fifth birthday (depending on their line of descent).  These stories are primarily romances, however, so if you’re looking for a high-concept paranormal, you won’t find it here.  The love stories are at the centre of these books, and Ms. Larkin writes those with a great deal of insight and assurance, imbuing her tales with a strong sense of period and peopling them with interesting and engaging characters who behave and think in a manner that is appropriate for the time.

Miss Letitia Trentham is one of the wealthiest women in England and has, by the age of twenty-seven, turned down around two-hundred proposals of marriage.  Having chosen the gift of being able to detect lies, she has rebuffed just about every fortune hunter in the country  – who are the only men to have offered for her. She knows she is not pretty or possessed of the other sorts of qualities likely to attract men; she doesn’t simper or defer, plus she’s intelligent and not afraid to show it, which isn’t a much admired quality on the marriage mart.  She has just turned down yet another hopeful when she is approached by a tall, gaunt man with a military bearing and an undeniable air of exhaustion who has heard of her uncanny ability to be able to tell truth from lies – and who asks for her help.

Icarus Reid, formerly a major in His Majesty’s army, resigned his commission after the battle of Vimeiro and, although not completely recovered from a serious illness, has travelled back to England.  He explains to Letty that he is searching for a traitor; he, a Portuguese officer and three scouts were betrayed before the battle and captured, and Reid is the only one of them who survived.  He desperately wants to discover the identity of that traitor and then take steps to have him brought to justice, and he asks Letty if she will accompany him to meet with his two main suspects and use her talent for detecting lies to help him uncover the truth.

Letty senses that Reid is a potentially dangerous man and is naturally wary; but after hearing his story and extracting a promise that he will not kill whichever of the men turns out to have been responsible, she agrees to accompany him to meet with the suspects, even though one of them is a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Information gleaned gives Reid three more names to investigate, but none of those men are in London.  Exhilarated at the newfound feeling of freedom she has experienced as a result of the subterfuges needed to ensure she was able to meet Reid in secret, Letty offers to accompany him to Basingstoke to find the first of the men on the list.  Reid is reluctant to accept  because of the damage that could be done to her reputation; his behaviour in insisting she enter a prison and spend time in the company of unsavoury men was less than honourable and he is not feeling particularly proud of himself as a result.  But Letty has a plan – and even though he knows he should not allow her to become any more involved, Reid’s desire to root out the traitor is stronger than his gentlemanly instincts.

The tone of Trusting Miss Trentham is rather more sombre than the previous two books, but that is quite fitting considering that the hero is an extremely troubled man who continues to be plagued by nightmares and memories of the terrible things he endured during his military service.  As Letty and Reid travel to Basingstoke and then further, she begins to have suspicions as to what is distressing him so deeply, but Reid steadfastly refuses to tell the truth about what happened to him at Vimeiro or to let her get close to him.  Yet her quiet, steadfast care of him every night when he wakes, sick and disorientated from his tortured dreams starts to break down his resistance and he slowly begins to reassess her, to value her intelligence, her kindness and her determination and discovers – against his better judgement – that he can’t bear the idea of being without her.

Ms. Larkin does a fantastic job in conveying the depth of Reid’s anger and despair, and the way in which Letty’s calming presence in his life and their growing intimacy gradually start to remind him of what it’s like to be alive.  I can’t remember the last time I read – or if I ever have read – a hero of a romance novel quite like him; so worn out and tormented by memories – and I should say here that Ms. Larkin makes no bones about what happened to him in Portugal.  Her descriptions are not graphic but they are disturbing nonetheless.

Letty is a wonderful character and again, is quite unlike many other historical romance heroines I’ve read.  She’s incredibly wealthy and, she thinks, rather plain, and has given up on the idea of finding a man who wants her for herself and not her money and decided to dedicate her life and considerable fortune to charitable works.  I liked her persistence, her kindness and her practical nature; and her concern for propriety rings very true for a woman of her time.  But she hasn’t realised quite how hemmed in she has been by it until she resorts to deception in order to meet Reid to go to the Marshalsea.  For the sake of respectability, she and Reid travel as man and wife, and Letty discovers a real sense of freedom at not being surrounded by servants or people toadying to her, so much so, that the thought of returning to her former life is somewhat depressing.

The relationship that develops between the couple progresses slowly and is quietly understated, which is feels exactly right given the tenor of the story.  Letty’s initial infatuation develops into something far deeper as she begins to see past the man burdened by misdirected guilt and self-hatred to the man Reid could and should be, the good-natured, easy-going and confident man with whom she is falling more in love every day.

Reid berates himself for not treating Letty more kindly, but he is driven by his purpose to the exclusion of pretty much all else, and he certainly doesn’t want to fall in love.  Letty’s care of him is extremely touching, clearly showing the truth of her feelings for him; she wants him to be well and happy, and unfortunately, in her pursuit of his happiness makes a major error one night which threatens to shatter what is already a fragile relationship.

Fortunately however, both Reid and Letty are mature enough to be able to talk it through and to move on in a positive way. In fact, apart from Reid’s refusal to talk about Vimeiro, all their conversations are characterised by honesty and good sense, clearly showing their mutual respect, and liking, even when they are both annoyed with one another. I also liked the way that Ms. Larkin effects Reid’s recovery; there’s no overnight cure, or, as Letty admits to herself, any guarantee that he will ever be completely healed, but there is the real sense that he has achieved closure and is ready to move on with his life. And if Letty’s love and unconditional support give Reid something worth living for, in return, he provides her with the love and happiness she’d never thought to have.

Trusting Miss Trentham goes to some dark places, but is no less enjoyable for that.  It doesn’t have quite the same sparkle as the first book – Unmasking Miss Appleby – but it’s certainly well-written, the characterisation of the two principals is excellent and the story is compelling.  There is a strongly written set of secondary characters as well, two of whom – Letty’s cousin, Lucas Kemp, and Lieutenant Tom Matlock, who served with Reid – are going to get their own story in the next book, Claiming Mister Kemp. Until then, however, Trusting Miss Trentham is another very strong entry in this entertaining and unusual series, and while it can be read as a standalone, I’d recommend starting at the beginning – simply because the earlier books are too good to miss.

Unforgiven (Horsemen Trilogy #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Woodfall and Hayes families have been bitter rivals for nearly a century. Now, after eight years, Kenneth returns home and realizes his underlying love for Miss Moira Hayes. For her, he is willing to forget the past. But can she?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B

It’s a brave author who decides to write a novel in which one of the central characters is infuriatingly stubborn, who frequently, as the saying goes, cuts off her nose to spite her face, and who, because of those things is often downright unlikeable. In Unforgiven (originally published in 1998), the second book in her Horseman trilogy, Mary Balogh shows herself to be one such author, as she introduces us to Miss Moira Hayes, a young woman who is so intractable and determined to protect herself and her emotions that she almost loses her chance at happiness with the man she (won’t admit she) loves.

Indeed, for most of the book, Moira professes to hate Kenneth Woodfall, believing him to have been responsible, albeit indirectly, for the death of her brother some years earlier. Thus, his return to his Cornwall estate following his years of army service is an extremely unwelcome shock.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Earl (Devil’s Duke #2) by Katharine Ashe

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

How does a bookish lady bring an arrogant lord to his knees? Entice him to Scotland, strip him of titles and riches, and make him prove what sort of man he truly is.

Opposites…

Handsome, wealthy, and sublimely confident, Colin Gray, the new Earl of Egremoor, has vowed to unmask the rabble-rousing pamphleteer, Lady Justice, the thorn in England’s paw. And he’ll stop at nothing.

Attract.

Smart, big-hearted, and passionately dedicated to her work, Lady Justice longs to teach her nemesis a lesson in humility. But her sister is missing, and a perilous journey with her archrival into unknown territory just might turn fierce enemies into lovers.

Rating: A

Readers of Katharine Ashe’s Falcon Club series will be well aware of the frequent, public, and bitingly sarcastic correspondence that has gone on between the club’s secretary, Peregrine, and the anonymous Lady Justice, pamphleteer, moral crusader and regular denouncer of the abuses and injustices wreaked upon the voiceless masses by the wealthy and privileged. That correspondence continued throughout The Rogue, the first in the author’s Devil’s Duke series, which inhabits the Falcon Club universe and features a number of the same characters. This is also true of The Earl, which references storylines from the earlier series, as well as one of the plotlines begun in The Rogue. That probably all sounds fairly complicated, and I would definitely say that someone new to this author’s work might not want to start here. At a pinch, The Earl could work as a standalone, but I think anyone picking it up without having read any of the earlier books would be at a disadvantage.

Right at the end of The Rogue, the unthinkable happened. Lady Justice, knowing of the Falcon Club’s skill in finding the missing and returning them home, was forced to seek help from the one man she detests above all others: Peregrine. Naturally, Peregrine is intrigued by the request and definitely not above gloating at how much it must stick in Lady Justice’s throat to have to ask him for help. He demands a face-to-face meeting with his nemesis; she refuses. He makes it clear that his help is conditional upon a meeting, and reluctantly the lady agrees, covering herself in a thick veil to prevent Peregrine discovering her identity.

Their meeting is as acrimonious as their written interactions have been, and only confirms Lady Justice’s belief that Peregrine is an arrogant, manipulative, ruthless, self-entitled bastard. Unfortunately, it also shows her something she had not expected – Peregrine is none other than Colin Gray, newly minted Earl of Egremoor, and a man she has known all her life.

Lady Emily Vane is a bit of an odd duck. Bookish and often shy in company as a child, she became a veritable chatterbox in the company of her dearest friend, a boy who could not speak, but whom she nonetheless adored, Colin Gray. Emily’s father and Colin’s were old friends and so the two children spent a great deal of time together as their respective families were happy to leave the two ‘oddities’ to their own devices. But when Colin was thirteen and Emily eight, things changed suddenly and irrevocably, and since then, they have been little more than mere nodding acquaintances. In the eighteen years since, Emily has become somewhat reclusive; the income she has earned over the years means she is independent of her father, can live alone and has no need of – or desire for – a husband. Living alone enables her to retain her anonymity and to continue to argue for reform, rail against injustice and highlight the plight of the oppressed in the pamphlets she continues to write as Lady Justice. Her current crusade is to find a way of getting the Domestic Felicity Act – a bill which will give women actual rights within marriage – introduced into Parliament.

Shocked as she is to discover Peregrine’s true identity, Emily manages to escape that encounter without being unmasked herself.  She needs Colin’s help to find her sister, Amarantha, who had been living in Jamaica until the recent death of her husband. But Amarantha has disappeared, last heard of making for Scotland in search of a friend, and Emily is worried.  Knowing she can’t possibly accept Colin’s help now – even if he agreed to give it – she sets off for Scotland with a couple of her servants, determined to find Amarantha herself.  But Emily has not long arrived at an inn near Loch Lomond when she discovers that Colin has followed leads of his own and that his trail has led him to the same place.  But before they can do more than exchange cold civilities, they find themselves in grave danger, owing to the fact that a man who bears a striking resemblance to Colin and is calling himself the Earl of Egremoor is wanted for murder and highway robbery.  This man has a smaller, fair-haired accomplice who has been seen dressed as a woman – which accounts for the fact that Emily and Colin have encountered such suspicion among the locals.  The animosity directed towards them very quickly reaches boiling point and the pair must act quickly if they are to escape with their lives.  Colin and Emily go on the run, making for the Duke of Loch Irvine’s castle at Kallin where they hope they will be able to get everything straightened out.  But it’s going to be a difficult journey through rough terrain and uncertain weather; and news of the fake earl’s deeds have already spread widely throughout the area, so seeking shelter is risky as they can’t trust anyone not to turn them in.  And all the while, Emily is desperate to keep her secret from the boy who broke her heart and has become a man who stands for everything she hates.

Katharine Ashe has impressed me immensely with her ability to write a gripping adventure yarn that takes full account of historical and political detail while also developing a complex and satisfying romance between two complicated, flawed individuals.  Emily can be difficult to like at times, as she is so intractable and willing to see the worst in Colin, although his high-handedness can be just as annoying as her insistence that he’s arrogant and uncaring about those less fortunate than himself.  Both characters have to face some harsh truths about themselves and their shared past, although it’s Emily who really needs to have the blinkers removed.  She has spent so long feeling hurt and betrayed by the one person in her life she thought knew and understood her that she has allowed her prejudices to cloud her judgement. But as they spend their days and nights running from danger, Emily gradually begins to realise that she is wrong and that Colin is a decent, honourable man who is strongly motivated to act for the good of others.

The pacing throughout is excellent, in terms of both the romance and the adventure. The romance needs time to develop given the fact that Colin and Emily have been estranged for years, and I loved the way it unfolds gradually as they both start to reassess each other.   We glimpse them as children and discover exactly what had bound them so strongly together; we experience Emily’s heartbreak, Colin’s shame and frustration; we feel for them as they reconnect and come to know each other as they are now, and when, towards the end, Emily finally reveals exactly what inspired her to become Lady Justice… I was choked up. It’s a masterstroke.

The chemistry between Peregrine and Lady Justice leapt off the page in the other books, and it burns even hotter between Colin and Emily in this one.  Emily is refreshingly un-missish about the fact that she finds Colin extremely attractive and the love scenes are possibly the most romantic, sexy and intense that Katharine Ashe has yet written.

The Earl is an enormously satisfying read on many levels. An exciting adventure and a sizzling romance all wrapped up in astute observation and social comment, this is historical romance at its best and it’s gone straight on to my keeper shelf.

Slightly Married (Bedwyns #1) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Like all the Bedwyn men, Aidan has a reputation for cool arrogance. But this proud nobleman also possesses a loyal, passionate heart – and it is this fierce loyalty that has brought Colonel Lord Aidan to Ringwood Manor to honor a dying soldier’s request. Having promised to comfort and protect the man’s sister, Aidan never expected to find a headstrong, fiercely independent woman who wants no part of his protection, nor did he expect the feelings this beguiling creature would ignite in his guarded heart. And when a relative threatens to turn Eve out of her home, Aidan gallantly makes her an offer she can’t refuse: marry him, if only to save her home. And now, as all of London breathlessly awaits the transformation of the new Lady Aidan Bedwyn, the strangest thing happens: With one touch, one searing embrace, Aidan and Eve’s “business arrangement” is about to be transformed into something slightly surprising.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

Tantor is following its reissue of Mary Balogh’s Simply Quartet with new recordings of the Slightly series, six novels about the Bedwyn siblings which have been on the wish list of many a romance audio fan for some time, starting with Book 1, Slightly Married. Anyone who has read or listened to the Simply books will already have met most of the Bedwyns and be aware of who ends up with whom, but that doesn’t take anything away from the pleasure of being able to hear their stories in audio for the first time.

Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn, second of the four Bedwyn brothers has, in the manner of many second sons, made a career in the army. It has been a distinguished career, and he fully expects to continue to serve his country and to eventually rise to the rank of General. When he comes home on leave, his first task is to make his way to the home of Miss Eve Morris, the sister of a fallen comrade. Captain Percy Morris saved Aidan’s life at Ciudad Rodrigo, and his dying request was that Aidan inform Eve of his death in person and that he take care of her, “no matter what”.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Raven’s Heart (Secrets and Spies #2) by K.C. Bateman

a-ravens-heart

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England, 1815.

In the war against France, Heloise Hampden is a high-value asset to the Crown. When she cracks the enemy’s most recent communication, French agents are sent to kill her. But it’s the agent assigned to protect Heloise who poses the greatest threat to her heart: William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood. Heloise has quarreled with the man they call Raven since childhood, yet always maintained a chaste distance. She’s sure nothing will change, thanks to the disfiguring scar on her face.

Nothing has changed. Raven still wonders how Hell-cat Hampden’s lithe body would feel pressed against his, but for the mission he must remind himself that the woman takes more pleasure in ancient languages than she does in seduction.

His imprisonment six years ago broke him in a way that makes the prospect of love impossible — he’s a shadowed Hades pining for sun-kissed Persephone. Still, his heart beats like mad whenever he’s within ten paces of Heloise, and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her safe — even if that means taking her to Spain as an unwilling hostage. Protecting her from danger will be a challenge; protecting her from desire will be pure agony.

Rating: A-

I fairly raved about K.C. Bateman’s début novel, To Steal a Heart, earlier this year. It’s the rare first book that gets that sort of praise, but Ms. Bateman’s writing, characterisation, plotting and dialogue were so exceptionally good, and the book overall was so enjoyable that I couldn’t do anything other than award it DIK status. Naturally, I hoped that her second book, A Raven’s Heart, would be as good and simultaneously worried that it might not be – but I’m happy to say that it’s every bit as entertaining and well-put together as To Steal a Heart.

William de l’Isle, Viscount Ravenwood – known simply as Raven – played a small supporting role in the previous book when he aided the escape of the hero and heroine from France. He’s a close friend of the Hampden family – of Nic (hero of To Steal a Heart), and his brother Richard – who also work as government agents – and their younger sister, Heloise, a talented codebreaker and the bane of Raven’s existence. But when one of Heloise’s colleagues is murdered by a French agent and it becomes clear that she is now the next likely target, Raven is tasked with keeping her safe while the killer is tracked down and neutralised.

The trouble is that Raven and Heloise can’t be in the same room without annoying the hell out of each other. Raven frequently tells himself that there must be some sort of unwritten rule to the effect that thou shalt not lust after thy best friend’s little sister – but the trouble is that, unwritten rule or not, he is desperately attracted to Heloise, and no matter how much he tries to curb it, the attraction just won’t go away. All he can do is make sure she doesn’t discover how he feels, so, in the manner of overgrown schoolboys everywhere, he has to content himself with pulling her metaphorical pigtails by means of outrageous flirting and lots of delicious, snark-filled banter.

Heloise Hampden thinks that Raven is the most arrogant, infuriating man she has ever met. The trouble is, he’s also the most gorgeous, charming and witty man she’s ever met. He doesn’t want her though – she still cringes to think of the occasion, six years ago, when she plucked up the courage to kiss him and he rejected her – so what else can a girl do but give back as good as she gets in their verbal bouts and never let him know how she feels?

Okay, so it’s a well-trod path. Both characters are desperate for each other but for various reasons are determined not to let the other know how they feel. But the chemistry between Heloise and Raven is completely off the charts and their dialogue is just to die for. The highest compliment I can probably pay Ms. Bateman here is to say that many of these exchanges reminded me of Loretta Chase; they’re quick, snappy, witty, flirtatious, often quite revealing and, most importantly, feel completely natural and unforced.

(The pair are pretending not to know each other at a masked ball -)

“[Ravenwood’s] previous mistress was French. And the one before that an Italian opera singer. I suppose taking up with foreigners saves him from having to exert himself to actually talk to them.”

He slanted her a wicked sideways glance. “I’m fairly sure he doesn’t engage them for conversation.”

… “Well, I expect she’ll be released soon enough. Ravenwood seems to be able to snap his fingers and have any woman he wants.”

… “It’s true Ravenwood’s never had a problem attracting most women, “ he continued, as if they were discussing nothing more innocuous than the weather. “Nothing elicits desire in a female more than the promise of a ducal title and an outrageously large” – he paused teasingly – “house.”

She glanced up at the ceiling and pretended to admire the soaring architecture. “It’s certainly impressive,” she said, straight-faced. “Very… imposing.”

“Ravenwood would be delighted to hear it. A man never tires of women praising the size of his endowments.”

Raven isn’t at all pleased at the prospect of having to play nursemaid to the young woman who maddens and attracts him in equal measure, but on the other hand, he is driven to protect the people he cares about and there’s no way he is going to entrust her safety to anyone else.  When she decodes a message which may lead him to the location of a missing friend and fellow agent, Raven doesn’t hesitate to act.  He’s heading for Spain immediately, and as he isn’t leaving Heloise’s side, ergo, she’s going to Spain, too.

“People will think we’ve eloped.”

“Not if they know either one of us,” he replied succinctly.  “If we both disappear they’re more likely to assume I’ve murdered you and fled the country.”

The story then shifts to a Spain that has been ravaged by war.  From the bustling harbour at Santander to a countryside littered with burned out villages, Ms. Bateman does an excellent job with her descriptions of the landscape and in describing the difficulties of the journey that Heloise and Raven have to undertake.  As was the case in the previous book, the author strikes a good balance between the romance and the action, and does a good job in creating real sense of peril when necessary and delivering high-stakes drama that is never overplayed or drawn out.  I have a real weakness for adversarial couples who cover up their real feelings beneath layers of sexually-charged verbal sparring, and there are only a handful of authors who can do it this well.  Raven and Heloise absolutely hit the spot as a couple and as individuals; she’s forthright, clever and determined and he’s simply delicious – intelligent, witty, a bit naughty and fiercely competent, all qualities which turn me into mush.

For all his gorgeousness though, there’s one aspect of Raven’s character that doesn’t quite work and which makes use of one of my least favourite romance genre tropes – the “I am unclean and not worthy to kiss the hem of your raiment” one.  Raven is a spy and a ruthlessly efficient killer.  He’s killed often and kills without conscience, knowing he is doing what he has to do in order to protect others.  But that is his reason for believing he can’t be with Heloise; he is irrevocably sullied and his touch will contaminate her.  And there’s also the fact that a traumatic event that took place six years earlier has made him believe the only person he can ever rely on is himself, and he has therefore resigned himself to a life alone.   I can certainly understand why both those things would leave some mental and emotional scars, but I wasn’t really convinced, and he gets over them with very little trouble.

But those are minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things, and overall, A Raven’s Heart is a fast-paced, thoroughly entertaining novel that’s definitely going onto my keeper shelf.   The writing is confident and intelligent, the romance is sensual and well-developed, and K.C. Bateman’s research into and knowledge of the history of the period is evident from her descriptions of contemporary events and locations.  I’ll admit that the odd modern turn of phrase creeps in now and then, but that wasn’t enough to wipe the grin off my face when Raven and Heloise were butting heads, or spoil my overall enjoyment of the story.  You don’t need to have read To Steal a Heart in order to enjoy this, but if you enjoy romantic adventure stories in which the sexual tension between the principals is hot enough to melt your Kindle, then you won’t want to miss either book.