The Negotiator (Games People Play #2.5) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lauren Gallagher’s life changed almost three years ago. After her husband disappeared at sea, she was left with a failing pleasure boat company and more than a few secrets. Now, after years spent rebuilding the business and paying off the pile of debts, she finally feels in control. But when she finds her husband, actually dead, on the floor, she becomes the leading suspect in his murder investigation.

Garrett McGrath wants Lauren in his bed, not his heart. He doesn’t do emotions, but every time he sees her, holding himself back gets harder and harder. When Lauren comes under suspicion for killing her previously presumed-dead husband, he knows he has to help her, any way he can.

But as the danger becomes more intense and Garret and Lauren grow closer than either planned, they’re in danger of losing everything…including their hearts.

Rating: C+

In HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series, the heroes are all men who bonded in their youth when they were taken under the wing of someone named Quint, who saved them from the downward spirals they were in, helped all of them learn to utilise their unique skill-sets and set them on the straight and narrow.

Years later, the ‘Quint Five’ are all well-placed and powerful individuals who are often called upon by government departments and law enforcement to undertake missions and cases that they can’t touch.  In book one, The Fixer, we met Wren – an enigmatic man whose speciality is making problems go away – and his second-in-command, former Black Ops, professional negotiator, Garrett McGrath.

In The Enforcer (book two) Garrett was sent along to ride shotgun on the mission undertaken by Matthias Clarke, another of the five, whose private security firm is often used by Wren in the course of his business.  Garrett immediately captured my attention; his gregarious, wise-cracking ways were such a contrast to the gruff, taciturn Matthias (I do love a smart-mouthed charmer!) and so many tough-guy heroes are dark, brooding and almost miserable that it was a refreshing change to come across one who knew how to lighten up.   I’ve been looking forward to his book, but I confess that I’d hoped for a full-length novel rather than a novella.  I’m not the greatest fan of novellas anyway (few authors really know how to get them right) and Garrett is such a great character that he deserved more page time.

The Negotiator picks up a few months after the events of The Enforcer, which took place in the small, seafront town in Annapolis where Matthias was searching for a woman named Kayla Roy who was suspected of murder.   One of the secondary characters in the book was Kayla’s friend, Lauren Gallagher, who runs a pleasure boat and fishing tour business; and for the past few months, a rather smitten Garrett has travelled regularly to Annapolis to spend time with Lauren, who adamantly refuses to go on a date with him.  She tries to tell him it’s because she’s older than he is (by five years) or because she was a mess and … he could do better.  But Garrett is a shrewd man and knows there’s more to it than that – and he has his theories as to what that ‘more’ is.  Still, the one thing Lauren hasn’t said is that she’s not interested, so he continues to hope that she will eventually open up and let him in.

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


Scandal at the Christmas Ball by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott

This title may be purchased from Amazon

One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love affairs! 

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye 

At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair will make for a very different future…

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott 

As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife, and certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way to bring her to surrender?

Rating: B (B+ for the Kaye, C for the Scott)

Scandal at the Christmas Ball is the second collaboration between historical romance authors Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott, and, like their previous work, Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, takes place at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore, a widely liked, respected and highly influential couple who are regarded as powerbrokers within the ton and whose invitations are much sought after.

Among their guests this Yuletide are the duke’s nephew and heir, Vale Penrith, Lady Viola Hawthorne, a shockingly fast young woman who goes out of her way to do and say outrageous things, and a former officer of the Scots Guards, Drummond MacIntosh, whose army career ended somewhat ignominiously three years earlier, just after the Battle of Waterloo.

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye (Grade: B+)

Ms. Kaye is one of the few authors of historical romance who regularly writes about untitled, non-aristocratic progatonists, and she continues that trend in this poignant, tender and sometimes heart-wrenching story about an ex-army officer and an ill-treated, down-on-her-luck governess who find each other one Christmas but who will face some difficult choices if they are ever to make a life together.

Drummond MacIntosh has lived a somewhat reclusive existence for the past three-and-a-half years owing to the huge scandal that attended his catastrophic fall from grace.  With his reputation in tatters, he has finally accepted that he needs help if he is ever going to claw his way back from ruin and carve out a new and useful existence.  No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington himself arranged Drummond’s invitation to the Brockmores’ Christmas house party, but as Drummond wryly notes, the Duke wouldn’t have done such a thing if it hadn’t been ultimately useful to himself; he needs a man of Drummond’s good sense, practicality and ability to lead men at his back and is presenting Drummond to Brockmore “for inspection” as it were.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in Drummond’s mouth; he doesn’t want to be beholden to Wellington (or to anyone) and certainly not on terms which attempt to brush years of exile under the carpet and blame Drummond for acting as his conscience dictated.

Drummond’s situation is mirrored by that of Miss Joanna Forsythe, a governess who has been invited to the party so she can meet a prospective employer.  Joanna had a comfortable position in the household of Lady Christina Robertson, but has been reduced to teaching at a ramshackle school in return for her bed and board, after she was wrongly accused of theft and dismissed without a character. Like Drummond, she has been invited to the Brockmores with a view to improving her situation, but also like him, the hoped for “improvement” falls short.  Joanna had hoped for an apology after her innocence was discovered and the real culprit owned up. But instead, her former employer wants to buy her off by the offer of an excellent new position and a sum of money.

Even before they know of the similarities of their respective situations, Drummond and Joanna are strongly drawn to each other and very soon find themselves exchanging confidences… and increasingly heated kisses.  I admit that the pair progresses to this stage rather quickly but Ms. Kaye creates such a strong emotional connection between them, and imbues their burgeoning relationship with such depth and longing that it’s possible to overlook its somewhat speedy beginning.  This is a pair of ordinary people in very difficult circumstances who demonstrate the importance of a spotless reputation to those who had to earn their living, for without it, there was little to no chance of their ever securing decent employment. But with Drummond on the verge of a prestigious appointment and a return from the cold, how can Joanna – and her tarnished reputation – stand in his way?

This is a beautifully wrought, heartfelt romance between two people in difficult circumstances.  I was completely gripped by Drummond’s story and applaud Ms. Kaye for the introduction of a character motivated by compassion whose actions were so misunderstood and reviled.  He’s not a character-type I’ve read in historical romance before, and I could be singing the author’s praises for that alone.  But added to a very well-crafted romance and a strong, determined heroine in the form of Joanna, A Governess for Christmas  makes my list of favourite seasonal reads.

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott (Grade: C)

In this story, a rather proper gentleman finds himself reluctantly fascinated by the most unsuitable sort of woman he could ever have imagined would attract him.  Vale Penrith, heir to the Duke of Brockmore, has still not recovered from the deaths of his father and older brother some years ago, and continues to find his role as a ducal heir somewhat ill-fitting.  He really would prefer to be left to his own devices in the library, but knows he will have to do his bit and take part in the various activities planned for the duration of the party.  He is also aware that while the Brockmores’ Christmas parties don’t have the same match-making reputation as their summer affairs, his uncle has a prospective bride lined up for him – something else he doesn’t want anything to do with.

Lady Viola Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Calton, is a determined, high-spirited woman whose deepest desire is to go to Vienna to study music.  “The Shocking Beauty” as she is known, has quite the scandalous reputation, all of it designed to put off any suitors so she can remain unwed and pursue her dreams of Vienna and a musical career.  She reckons that one final, massive scandal at the Brockmores’ party should do the trick once and for all and cause her parents to give up on their attempts to marry her off.  Hence her decision to climb a ladder to hang mistletoe from a chandelier in the hall while wearing no underwear; perched at the top, affording the crowd of young men below a glimpse of her ankles (and possibly other things besides) she manages to achieve her end just before the ladder wobbles and she falls – literally – into the arms of Vale Penrith, who is appalled and annoyed at such reckless, outrageous behaviour.

Viola likes what she sees, but Penrith, while gorgeous, is a stuffed shirt and not at all the sort of man she’d be interested in.  But when her friend, Lady Anne, tells Viola that her parents are trying to arrange a match with Penrith while she – Anne – is in love with someone else, Viola agrees to help her out by providing a distraction.  The problem is that she finds herself being distracted by Vale – who is not at all the cold fish she had first imagined – as much as he is distracted by her, and the more time they spend together, the more they discover about what lies behind their social masks and the more they are drawn together.

I have to say straight off that I really didn’t care for Viola in this story.  I admired her desire to forge her own path in her life, but her methods – which are, basically, to shock as many people as often as possible – are childish, and she behaves more like a mistress or courtesan than a duke’s daughter, drinking spirits, smoking and playing billiards with the men.  I’m sure not all young ladies at this time were as pure and virginal as fiction would have us believe, but Viola goes a little too far in the opposite direction for my taste.  Vale is much more likeable, but because I disliked the heroine, it was difficult to understand what he saw in her beyond the physical and I found it difficult to believe that two people possessed of such opposing personality types could forge a lasting relationship.

If you’re more tolerant of the spoiled and outrageous type of heroine than I am, this story might work better for you than it did for me.

Ultimately, Scandal at the Christmas Ball is something of an uneven read, but is worth it for the Kaye story alone.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane (Maiden Lane #12.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Miss Mary Whitsun is far too intelligent to fall for the rakish charms of a handsome aristocrat. But when the gentleman in question approaches her in a bookshop, mistaking her for his fiancée, Lady Johanna Albright, the flirtatious encounter only raises more questions. Could Mary, a servant raised in a St Giles orphanage, actually be Lady Joanna’s long-lost twin sister? If so, Mary has been betrothed since birth—to the rakishly handsome artistocrat himself.

Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, is far too intrigued by Mary to let her go so easily. He’s drawn to her sharp mind, indomitable spirit, and the fiery way in which she dismisses him—ladies simply don’t dismiss Lord Blackwell. But as Mary makes her first hesitant steps into society, she can’t help but wonder if she truly has a place in Henry’s world—or in his heart.

Rating: C+

While Duke of Desire is the final full-length book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s long-running and incredibly popular Maiden Lane series, that wasn’t quite The End, as the author is treating us to a novella or two to round the series off and, in Once Upon a Maiden Lane, brings us back to where it all began – the streets and slums of the St. Giles area of London.

Some of the reviews I’ve read of Duke of Desire made mention of the fact that the book didn’t really feel like the end of a series; most of the time, such books feature cameos from characters from the previous books, filling pages with happy families as everyone catches up with each other. That doesn’t happen in Duke of Desire, and I, for one, was glad of it, because it would have been much too implausible and would have detracted from the main story. Instead, Ms. Hoyt kept her powder dry and has presented us with Once Upon a Maiden Lane – a novella featuring Mary Whitsun, who appeared regularly in the earlier books as one of the older orphan girls raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children run by the Makepeace family. (This will be followed in December by Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which will feature a very long-awaited story for Viscount D’Arque).

As is implied by the title, this story has a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Mary is a young woman now, and resides in the household of Lord and Lady Caire (Wicked Intentions) where she is employed as a nursemaid to the Caires’ two young children.  On her afternoon off, she is browsing in a bookshop when she is approached by an extremely handsome young man – clearly an aristocrat – and addressed as Lady Joanna.  Mary, who is distrustful of handsomeness and even more distrustful of it when it comes in an aristocratic package, makes clear to the gentleman, who introduces himself as Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, that she does not find his joke at all funny; but when his friend, John Seymour, also points out Mary’s strong resemblance to Lady Joanna Albright, she becomes very suspicious.  It seems that the very same year she was left at the orphanage, the twin daughters of the Earl of Angrove were abducted, and while one of them, Lady Joanna, was subsequently returned to her family, the elder twin, Lady Cecilia, was not.  Blackwell, who was betrothed to Cecilia as a boy, is expected to marry Joanna instead but isn’t keen.  She’s like a sister to him, and besides, she’s in love with someone else.  Enchanted by Mary’s loveliness and her spirited response to him, Blackwell is determined to prove that she is Lady Cecilia – and then to make her his wife as originally intended.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane is more or less your basic Cinderella story, although this being Elizabeth Hoyt, it’s not quite that simple.  It seems that someone isn’t wild about Lady Cecilia’s return and doesn’t waste any time in trying to harm Mary; and while the ladies of the Albright family – her mother, sister and grandmother – welcome Mary with open arms, the Earl is less than friendly towards his long-lost daughter…

The romance between Mary and Blackwell is nicely done, if a little rushed, and, as one would expect of such an accomplished storyteller, the writing is deft, humorous, poignant and laced with the sort of earthy sensuality that is Ms. Hoyt’s trademark.  I did, however scratch my head at the inclusion of the excerpts from The Curious Mermaid, the ‘legend’ which graces the opening of each chapter, which is basically The Little Mermaid subverted; and honestly, I didn’t quite see why it was there other than to preserve continuity with the rest of the books in the series.

Those hoping for the big Maiden Lane reunion that didn’t happen in Duke of Desire will find it here, although Ms. Hoyt very wisely doesn’t include speaking parts for everyone!  I had to smile at the name bestowed upon Val’s (the Duke of Montgomery) three-year-old daughter, which is every bit as flamboyant as one would expect given who her father is; and it was nice to check in with some of the characters we haven’t seen or heard of for a while.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane is a charming little story that makes a nice coda to the series, but ultimately, it suffers from novella-itis – an underdeveloped story and characters.  I was grateful for the chance to go back to where it all began, but ultimately, this is one for the fans.

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

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Previously titled Pistols for Two, this collection includes three of Heyer’s earliest short stories, published together in book form for the very first time. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

Rating: B

If you’re already a fan of the great Georgette Heyer – the author who pretty much invented the Regency Romance single-handedly – then it won’t take much persuasion from me to send you in the direction of this newly re-issued collection of the author’s short stories, most of them written for and published in prestigious women’s magazines of the 1930s. There are fourteen in this collection, of which eleven were previously published in the anthology Pistols for Two; Snowdrift features those plus three that have been newly discovered by the author’s biographer, Jennifer Kloester. Is it worth obtaining this new collection to read those new stories? On balance, I’d say that yes, it is, especially as one of the new stories (Pursuit) turned out to be one of my favourites of the set.

I don’t plan on reviewing each individual story here, as that would take more space than I have, so instead I’ll cherry pick as, like most anthologies, there are some excellent stories and some not quite so good ones. Each one features character types and plot elements that will be familiar to regular readers of historical romance; cross-dressing heroines, elopements, mistaken identity, dashing military men, second-chance romance, duels, high-stakes card games, regency-slang and, best of all, those handsome, authoritative heroes and their intelligent, witty heroines. Fans of the author’s will no doubt recognise the seeds of some of the plots and characters who later appear in some of her full-length novels here, too. I’ll also add a couple of words of caution. While very enjoyable, this is an anthology best dipped in and out of rather than read all at once; and these are short stories, so some of the romances are fairly perfunctory and in many cases, rely on insta-love. I’m not a fan, but in this case, it’s mostly forgivable due to the short length and the fact that the stories are beautifully written and enjoyable for so many other things besides the romances, so full are they of Heyer’s trademark laser-sharp social observation, sparkling dialogue and clever characterisations.

And so to the cherry picking. Pistols for Two is a rather unusual story in that it turns a frequently used trope on its head. Two lifelong friends discover that they are in love with the same young woman – another childhood friend who has grown into a beauty – and through misunderstanding and mischance, end up facing each other on the field of honour. Told through both their points of view, the young lady in question is a peripheral character and the author does a terrific job of describing the prickly, adolescent pride of the two young gents.

In A Clandestine Affair, we have an older hero and heroine who clearly share some sort of romantic history. Elinor Tresilian’s niece, Lucy, wants badly to marry the man she loves, Mr. Arthur Roseby, who happens to be the cousin of Lord Iver – who is vehemently opposed to the match. As it happens, Miss Tresilian is not overly in favour either, but headstrong Lucy is determined to have her way. When the couple elopes, Elinor and Lord Iver set off in pursuit, bickering and sniping along the Great North Road until… they aren’t.

A Husband for Fanny sees the young widow, Honoria Wingham, shepherding her lovely daughter, Fanny through the Season and hoping to secure the best and wealthiest husband for her. The Marquis of Harleston is certainly most attentive and would be an excellent match… so why does Honoria feel just the tiniest pang of jealousy when she sees how well the marquis and her daughter get along? You can see the twist in this one coming a mile off, but it’s an engaging story nonetheless.

To Have the Honour. Newly returned from war, young Lord Allerton discovers he has inherited a mountain of debt along with his title. His mother, however, is still spending money at the old rate, because Allerton has all but been betrothed to his cousin Hetty since the cradle; as she is a great heiress, once they are married their money woes will be over. But Allerton dislikes the idea of marrying for money and tells Hetty that he will not hold her to the arrangement between their families and she is free to choose for herself. Some timely scheming behind the scenes means that all ends well.

Hazard is one of my favourites; in it a young woman is staked in a game of chance by her weaselly half-brother, and is ‘won’ by the very drunk Marquis of Carlington. Foxed though he is, Carlington admires Helen’s spirit and insists they leave for Gretna Green right away. Helen is remarkably matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and I loved the way she issued a little payback to her not-swain the next day. Their dash to Scotland is fortuitously interrupted – by Carlington’s fiancée, no less…

Of the three new stories, Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road, the first is my favourite, being another elopement story in which an older couple once again takes centre stage. Mary Fairfax and the Earl of Shane are pursuing his ward (and her charge) Lucilla, who has eloped with the man she loves, Mr. Monksley, who will shortly be shipping out to the Peninsula with his regiment. In Runaway Match, the lovely Miss Paradise convinces her friend, Rupert, to elope with her so she can foil her father’s plans to marry her to the old, odious Sir Roland. She has never met her intended, but is horrified to realise he has followed them all the way to Stamford. Or has he? And in Incident on the Bath Road, the handsome, wealthy but ennui-laden Lord Reveley (always courted, never caught) is on his way to Bath when he encounters a chaise accident and takes up the young Mr. Brown who explains that he has urgent business in the city. This urgent business turns out to be going to the aid of the lovely Miss X, who is going to be forced into a distasteful marriage… and Reveley’s life turns out not to be quite so boring after all.

While Georgette Heyer’s full-length novel allow her strengths – tightly-written plots, characterisation and witty banter – to shine fully, there are enough glimpses of all those things in these short stories to make them well worth reading, whether you’re a long-time fan (as I am) or a newcomer to her work. Snowdrift and Other Stories is just the book to have on hand when you don’t have time to settle into a full-length novel and want a quick romance fix.

Tequila Sunrise (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3.5) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former FBI agent Melissa “Mel” Cruz spent years skirting the line between life and death, knowing the next assignment might be her last. Back from overseas and eager to enjoy life outside the Bureau, she’s ready to give Danny Talley a Christmas Eve he’ll never forget.

A proven asset in high-stakes missions, Danny’s known for having the skill and brains to get the job done. When the Talley flagship is hijacked during the company holiday party, he’ll do anything to save his family, his love and everything they’ve all worked so hard to build. But their enemies have a secondary protocol—leave no survivors—and that plan is already in play.

Navigating through a tangled web of lies and betrayal, Mel and Danny race against the clock to retake the ship before their future goes up in flames. As the seconds tick down, they’re forced to face their greatest fear—losing each other.

Rating: B-

Tequila Sunrise is the final book in Layla Reyne’s fabulous Agents Irish and Whiskey series, and takes place a few months after the events of Barrel Proof. It’s also a neat bridge between this series and her next romantic suspense project which is going to feature Nic Price and Cam Byrne, who both appeared as important secondary characters in the earlier novels, and who both have key roles to play in this story. Tequila Sunrise is a quick, action-packed read in which Melissa Cruz, our favourite, kick-ass, ball-busting (ex)FBI agent, gets to shine in all her Ramboesque glory. Or maybe I should call her Jane McClane… *wink*

Not long after recovering from near fatal injuries inflicted by an explosion at the end of Barrel Proof, Special Agent in Charge Melissa Cruz of the San Francisco FBI decided to make a career change, and is now dividing her time between private investigative work (as a bounty-hunter of sorts) and head of security for Talley Enterprises, the shipping company run by her lover, Daniel Talley. Danny is the younger brother of Aidan (Irish) and has a reputation as a bit of a lothario; he and Mel began a relationship which ran in the background of the trilogy and by the end of the final book, they are well-and-truly an item.

The story opens on Christmas Eve as Mel is coming home from a job, wanting nothing more than to get back to Danny and for them to spend some time together. When she is held up the airport, and then finds out that Aidan, who is also on his way back to San Francisco, has been delayed, her instincts tell her something isn’t right.

The Talley family is hosting a massive holiday party that evening, to celebrate Christmas, John Talley’s upcoming retirement and the commissioning of Talley Enterprises’ newest ship, the Ellen, named after the Talley matriarch, Aidan and Danny’s mother. All the Talley ships are named for the Talley women and this, the final ship built by John Talley before he hands the company over to Danny, is the finest ship in their fleet and the envy of their competitors. With a large gathering of employees, family, investors and media on board, it’s an extremely high-profile event – and when Danny learns of the simultaneous delays that have affected both Mel and Aidan, he can’t help but be concerned.

Danny can’t wait to see Mel again; they’ve spent almost as much time apart as they have spent it together during the course of their relationship and both of them are eager to do something about that.  At Danny’s side and just as eager to be reunited with the love of his life is Aidan’s fiancé, former FBI agent Jameson Walker, who has been eagerly embraced by the large Talley clan and whom Danny already thinks of as a brother.

Mel and Aidan are finally able to make their separate ways to the party, but before they can get on board, the Ellen is hi-jacked by a team of mercenaries.  With the ship locked down and the family and guests held hostage, it’s up to Jamie and Danny to save the day, or at least buy everyone some time while a rescue can be effected.  Danny may be a civilian, but he knows how to think on his feet and he’s proved his mettle by helping Aidan and Jamie in the past. Mel is on the outside, but she sure as hell isn’t going to sit and wait while the man she loves is in danger; with an arsenal worthy of Rambo and a sense of irony to rival Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, Mel sneaks aboard to lend much more than a hand in taking down the bad guys.

It’s true that the plot owes more than a little to Die Hard, but I love that movie, so I didn’t care.  The action does, perhaps move a little too quickly at times, but Ms. Reyne also allows for slower moments of introspection, especially in the short flashbacks to Danny’s childhood with his brothers, Mel’s with Gabe and to various stages in Danny’s  relationship with Mel.  The little insights to his early family life are really poignant, and when it comes to Mel and Danny, I liked reading about these two people with demanding, high-powered jobs realising that they want more from life and deciding to do whatever it takes to make it work between them.  I also appreciated that Mel, at forty-five, is an older heroine with a great sense of self, and no qualms about the fact that the love of her life is thirteen years her junior. Go, Mel!

On the downside, however, there is a slightly frenetic feel to the whole thing, and while I did enjoy the flashbacks, I can’t deny that they give the novella a slightly disjointed feel overall.  And as happened in the novels, Jamie’s Mad Hacking Skillz are something of a deus ex machina at times; it’s likely I wouldn’t have understood what he was doing had Ms. Reyne elaborated, but even so, there’s a sense that they’re something of a get out of jail free card when there’s no other way out of a given situation.

I enjoyed meeting all the characters again, and seeing how things are working out for them a few months on.  There’s a schmaltzy family Christmas scene at the end that somehow made me want to go ‘aww’ rather than lapse into a sugar-induced coma, and the glimpses we’re given of Cam and Nic’s seemingly combative relationship has well and truly whetted my appetite for the stories to come.  Tequila Sunrise is a high-stakes, fast-paced and nicely steamy read that provides a great coda to the Agents Irish and Whiskey series.

Twelfth Night with the Earl (Sutherland Sisters #3) by Anna Bradley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

As far as Ethan Fortescue is concerned, his family’s seat in Cornwall is only a source of torment, one that he’s managed to avoid for two years. Now that he’s the Earl of Devon however, he can close the door on his haunted past by locking up the cursed place for good. But upon arriving at Cleves Court, he is shocked to find the house aglow with Christmas celebrations, filled with music and laughter. And right at the center of the holiday madness is the infuriating—and eternally tempting—Theodosia Sheridan . . .

Thea has always loved the town of Cleves, especially at the holidays. As a girl, she also loved Ethan with all her heart. It’s painful to see how his brother’s tragic death has embittered him. Still, she will do anything to make sure the town thrives—even if it means going to battle with Ethan to save Cleves Court. Now she has only until Twelfth Night to make a Christmas miracle happen—by proving that his childhood home can be a source of love and wonder. But before long, she finds herself wondering if she’s trying to save the house—or its handsome master…

Rating: B

This emotionally charged novella is billed as the third book in Anna Bradley’s current Sutherland Sisters series, although it doesn’t actually feature a Sutherland. It’s linked to the other books by virtue of the fact that its hero, Ethan Fortescue, Earl of Devon, is one of the secondary characters from Lady Charlotte’s First Love. In Twelfth Night with the Earl, Ethan takes centre stage as a thoroughly Scrooge-like figure who returns to his family home in Cornwall (and I did wonder why the Earl of Devon has his family seat in the next county) with the intention of closing it up for good so that he can finally bury the painful memories that reside there. I confess that when I started reading, I thought I was in for a clichéd, grouchy-lord- lightened-up-by-spunky-heroine sort of thing – I’m not a fan – but fortunately, Ms. Bradley doesn’t go that route and I was instead very pleased to read a nuanced story about the importance of facing up to grief, loss and guilt that also included a tender and heartwarming rekindled romance.

Ethan Fortescue hasn’t been to Cleves Court for two years, not even returning there after becoming the Earl of Devon a year earlier. He detests the place and has one object in travelling to the wilds of Cornwall just before Christmas – to close the house down for good. He arrives in a bad mood and somewhat the worse for drink, expecting the place to be dark, freezing and damp with only a skeleton staff of servants on hand; so pulling up to the front of the house to find it well-lit and with some sort of social gathering going on inside comes as something of a shock.

Furious, Ethan storms in and demands to know what’s going on, and is surprised and hurt when he discovers his childhood friend – and the only woman he has ever loved – Thea Sheridan, at the centre of it all. His anger and sense of ill-usage get the better of him, and he berates her in front of everyone, accusing her of acting without permission in holding the party and of stealing from him, accusations she calmly refutes.

Much as Thea has longed for Ethan to return to Cleves Court, the last thing she expected was for him to appear on Christmas Eve, half-drunk, obnoxious and yelling at the top of his voice.  She’s cherished a tendre for him since she was a girl – not that anything could happen between an earl and an orphan of uncertain birth – but his haughty, surly manner and insistence that he wants the place permanently closed ruins a few cherished daydreams nonetheless.

In spite of that, his arrival provides the opportunity Thea has long hoped for.  She knows Ethan’s memories of the house are painful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he has still not come to terms with the death, years earlier, of his older brother, Andrew.  She is naturally upset at the prospect of losing her home, but is even more saddened by the change in the man she’s loved for so long, and wants nothing more than to help him to deal with the distressing memories the house holds for him.  She knows that no matter how far he runs, Ethan will never be able to leave those memories behind him, and hopes that by reminding him of happier times, of lives full of love, family and friendship, she might be able to change his mind.

Ethan agrees to stay until Twelfth Night, after which he will return to London and Thea will make arrangements to close the house.  At first Ethan behaves like a complete dickhead – he’s demanding and offensive to such an extent that the servants refuse to go near him, leaving everything to Thea – which requires a bit of a stretch of credulity because Ethan would have been well within his rights to sack the lot of them for failing to do their jobs.  Still, Thea gives as good as she gets, knowing that if she refuses to rise to his bait, it will drive him nuts.  Eventually however, their barbed exchanges turn more towards teasing and a little flirtation, reminding them both of the feelings they have long harboured for each other.  Ms. Bradley builds the sexual tension between the pair very well, and brings some real emotional weight to the final part of the story in which Ethan finally opens up to Thea and begins to process the heart-breaking truths he has tried for so long to avoid.

Twelfth Night With the Earl turned out to have a lot more depth than I had been expecting from a Christmas-related novella, and I’m glad I read it, although it nags at the back of my brain that I never found out why Ethan choses to visit Cleves Court over Christmas. He obviously doesn’t want to be there, but he inherited his earldom a year earlier and I couldn’t understand why he’d want to be somewhere he hated and expected to be so inhospitable over Christmas.  I also wasn’t wild about the ending; the author decides to inject a bit of last-minute tension by mirroring a particularly upsetting, long-ago event – and it’s contrived and overly dramatic.

The few inconsistencies I’ve mentioned are reflected in my overall grade, but when all’s said and done, I enjoyed reading Twelfth Night With the Earl in spite of those reservations. If you’re looking looking for a quick, seasonally-themed read that isn’t overly saccharine, you might want to consider picking it up.

Discovering Miss Dalrymple (Baleful Godmother #6) by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Who is he?

At the age of four Alexander St. Clare was stolen by gypsies and sold to a chimney sweep. At the age of five he was reunited with his father. His history is no secret—everyone in the ton knows of his miraculous rescue.

But when Alexander finds his father’s diaries, he discovers that there may be a secret buried in his past…

Georgiana Dalrymple knows all about secrets. She has several herself—and one of those secrets is her ability to find missing people.

When Alexander turns to her for help, Georgiana sets out to discover just who he actually is…

Rating: B

Readers who have been following Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmotherseries will know that the various novels and novellas are linked by virtue of the fact that the heroines all receive a carefully chosen magical gift upon a landmark birthday (twenty-one, twenty-three or twenty-five, depending on the particular branch of the family they belong to) in recognition of a long-ago favour performed by one of their ancestors for the Faerie Godmother, Baletongue. Charlotte Appleby (Unmasking Miss Appleby) can shape-shift, Letty Trentham (Trusting Miss Trentham) can tell if someone is lying, and when Georgiana Dalrymple reached her twenty-third birthday, she chose the gift of being able to find things.

Discovering Miss Dalrymple is the sixth book in the series, and is, like most of the others, named for its heroine, although the stories in each have been as much about the hero’s journey as about the heroine’s.  In this book, however, the emotional weight is very firmly shouldered by the male lead, Alexander, Duke of Vickery (mostly known as Vic), with Georgiana providing constant, loving support as he struggles to make sense of new information he has been given about his past and to re-define himself in the light of what he has learned.

Vic and Georgiana more or less grew up together, alongside her brother, Oliver, and Vic’s closest friend, Hubert Cathcart. Six years earlier, just after realising he’d fallen in love with her, Vic had to put on a brave face when Georgiana and Hubert became engaged.  Tragically, however, the wedding never took place.  Hubert had travelled to Scotland to visit his grandfather and never returned; for years, nothing was known of what had happened until about a year before this story begins, his grave was found in a remote churchyard near Craigruie.

Vic is as much in love with Georgiana as he ever was, and has hopes that perhaps she may feel the same way.  He asks Lord Dalrymple for permission to court her and is given it – but before he can profess his love and ask for Georgina’s hand, he discovers something that turns his world upside down and makes him question everything he has ever known about himself.


He has always known what happened to him as a child; that when he was just four years old, he was abducted and sold to a chimney sweep in Exeter before he was found a year later and returned to his family.  After that, his relationship with his previously distant father had changed for the better, and the two had become very close.  It’s been a couple of years since his father died, and Vic is still moved to read some of the things the late duke wrote in his diaries about how proud he was of his son; but when Vic comes to an entry written shortly before his death, he is shocked to discover that toward the end of his life, his father had wondered if the boy he had rescued all those years ago was truly his own flesh and blood.

Shaken, Vic turns to Georgiana for help.  Around a year ago, she had finally discovered the whereabouts of Hubert’s grave, explaining that she had seen the location in a dream.  Another time, she had found a missing girl, once again, seeing the location in a dream.  (Of course, the reader knows how Georgiana actually found them.) Knowing this, Vic thinks that if he isn’t his father’s son, maybe Georgina will be able to find the real Alexander in the same way;  if not, then no such person exists and Vic will be able to accept that his father’s fears of having rescued the wrong boy were unfounded.

Discovering Miss Dalrymple is a long novella or short novel, depending on how you want to look at it, and it’s a fairly straightforward story in which Vic, Georgiana and her father undertake a short road-trip to see what they can find out about Alexander St. Clare, seventh Duke of Vickery, and the truth of what happened to him as a child.

Because it’s clear early on that Vic and Georgina are in love, there’s not a great deal of conflict in the story, which is focused on Vic’s search for the truth and his need to make sense of his life in light of the things he finds out.  But that in no way means there’s not much going on.  The author writes Vic’s sense of betrayal and confusion with a great deal of insight and the themes of love and trust which permeate the story are handled deftly, yet sincerely.  There’s a point at which Vic goes through the “I am not worthy of her” stage, although this isn’t spurred solely by his worries about his origins, but by the fact he is still terrified of the dark (which is understandable given he had been put to work as a climbing boy).  Ms. Larkin writes Vic’s visceral reactions to his fear in a way that jumps off the page and enables the reader to really feel his terror, but its inclusion feels a little misplaced within the context of the story, and I knocked my final grade down a bit because of it. On a positive note, though, this phase doesn’t last long, as Vic realises that Georgiana loves him regardless of his (perceived) weaknesses or who his real parents may have been and that the qualities that make him who he is – his sense of responsibility, his love of the land and his love for Georgiana – remain the same whether he’s a duke or a commoner.  The familial relationships are well drawn, too; Georgiana’s parents are wonderfully warm, witty and loving, and while we only see Vic’s father through his diary entries, he obviously loved his son and was deeply proud of him.

Discovering Miss Dalrymple is an enjoyable addition to a favourite and consistently entertaining series from an author who has very quickly earned a place on my ‘must read’ list. This story doesn’t quite have the intensity of some of the longer entries (Trusting Miss Trentham or Ruining Miss Wrotham, for instance), but it’s nonetheless a well-developed and emotionally satisfying read and I’m happy to recommend it.