A Taste of Honey (Lively St. Lemeston #4) by Rose Lerner

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Robert Moon risked everything, including his father’s hardwon legacy, to open his beloved Honey Moon Confectionery on the busiest street in Lively St. Lemeston. Now he’s facing bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

When a huge catering order comes in, he agrees to close the sweet-shop for a week to fill it. There’s only one problem: his apprentice is out of town, so his beautiful shop-girl Betsy Piper must help Robert in the kitchen.

Betsy’s spent the last year trying to make her single-minded boss look up from his pastries and notice that she would be the perfect wife. Now the two of them are alone in a kitchen full of sweet things. With just one week to get him to fall in love with her, she’d better get this seduction started…

She soon discovers that Robert brings the same meticulous, eager-to-please attitude to lovemaking that he does to baking, but can kisses—no matter how sweet—compete with the Honey Moon in his heart?

Rating: B

I remember Robert Moon, the owner of the confectionery and patisserie in Lively St. Lemeston, as the shy but rather appealing young man who attempted to woo the heroine of the first book of the series, Sweet DisorderHis patroness, Lady Tassell, encouraged his courtship by offering him the money he needed to pay off all his debts because she desperately wanted to prevent Phoebe Sparks from marrying her son, Nick.  Well, now the sweet sweet-maker at last gets his own story in A Taste of Honey, an erotic novella that is the fourth in Rose Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston series.  Set in a fictional Sussex village, the three previous books have treated readers to – among other things – an in depth look at the way local politics worked outside of London in the early nineteenth century, a wonderfully detailed exploration of the life lived by those below stairs and a thought-provoking look at how an initially unequal marriage can become something true and lasting.  The author writes beautifully and with great insight and scope, but given the length and nature of this tale, the focus here is firmly on the central couple and their foibles and insecurities.

Robert Moon risked everything when he sold his family’s bakery in order to open the Honey Moon confectionery in Lively St. Lemeston.  Unfortunately, the shop isn’t doing as well as he’d hoped, or, at least, hasn’t done well enough quickly enough which means he is in financial difficulties, and if it hadn’t been for the help of Phoebe and Nick Dymond six months earlier, he could easily have found himself declaring bankruptcy.  Things since then have been going reasonably well, but he still isn’t making enough money to be able to afford to get married, and he longs to ask the lovely Betsy Piper, who works in his shop, to be his wife.  But thoughts of matrimony are going to have to wait – again – while he works to fulfil the large order he has just received from the rather officious Mrs. Lovejoy to supply the food for the town assembly in a week’s time.  It’s a very tall order and one which means Robert will need to close the shop for a week in order to meet the deadline – but if he can pull it off, the money he will earn will bring closer his dream of proposing to Betsy.

Betsy has harboured hopes of her employer for best part of a year, but hasn’t so far managed to divert his attention from his pastries and other gorgeous confections.  She wants so much to prove to Robert that she will make him a good wife that when he asks if she will work as his assistant while he prepares the food for the assembly, she jumps at the chance to help him.  But, as her friend points out, what Betsy needs is to get Robert to see her as a woman rather than a helpmeet, because she’s already proved her usefulness to him in that way many times over.  Betsy realises this is true. If Mr. Moon is not seeing her as anything other than a useful employee, it’s time to change tack; she needs to take the initiative and seduce him, and if, once the assembly is over, he still hasn’t asked her to marry him, she will accept he’s not likely to and will find another job.

Thrown into close proximity in the kitchen, Betsy soon finds – and takes – the opportunity to seduce Robert, and (lucky Betsy!) quickly discovers that her employer is as thorough, meticulous and inventive when it comes to lovemaking as he is when making tarts or ice cream.  Both characters are relatively inexperienced (he’s a virgin, she isn’t but had just the one lover quite some time ago), so we witness them experimenting and learning together, working out what they like and how to give pleasure to one another.  The sex scenes – and there are quite a few – are earthy, awkwardly charming and sometimes clumsy; but there’s an undeniable sweetness to them and there’s never any doubt that these two people care for each other and share a connection that relates to more than just the sexual.
While Robert and Betsy are getting to know each other physically, they are also making discoveries about each other on a personal level.  Betsy comes to understand how important the Honey Moon is to Robert, his fear of failure and of letting everyone down and his ambitions for the shop, how he wants it to be

“A slice of joy, a morsel of calm when they’ve need of it.  A place that won’t ever turn them away.”

– for the local community.  And Robert is surprised to discover that Betsy’s fears of not being good enough echo his own; even though to him, she’s perfect.

One of the things that Ms. Lerner does so well in all of her books is that she allows her characters to be human and, well, normal.  Sometimes they’re selfish.  Sometimes they’re irritable, or just downright unpleasant.  Yet their flaws and frustrations are easy to understand and their dilemmas are realistic; and even given the shortened timeline necessitated by the shorter page-count of a novella, the author nonetheless manages to create a suitable amount of believable tension and drama while bringing her two lovers to a greater understanding of themselves and each other.

The descriptions of the food and cooking processes of the period are evocative and the book is full of lovely turns of phrase which bring the scenes fully to life in the mind’s eye.  It’s not necessary to have read the other books in the series to enjoy this one – although I’d strongly recommend doing so because they’re very good. A Taste of Honey is a sweet and spicy addition to the Lively St. Lemestonseries, and if you’re in the mood for a quick, saucy read, then it might be just what you’re looking for.

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The Secret of My Seduction (Scandals #4.5) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The final chapter in the Scandals series…

Rule #1: Be discreet

No one suspects Bathsheba Crawford of being the anonymous author of a wickedly scandalous series of naughty novels. But she is.

Rule #2: Do not fall in love

When she approaches her publisher, rakish Liam MacGregor, with an indecent proposal, he’s shocked. But he accepts.

Rules were made to be broken…

The requirements for their affair are simple: complete secrecy and no romantic attachment. But the more they see each other… the more pleasure they find in each other’s arms…the harder it becomes to remember the rules…

Rating: B

One of the things linking together the books in Caroline Linden’s recent Scandals series was Fifty Ways to Sin, the series of erotic pamphlets featuring the amorous adventures of the anonymous Lady Constance, a woman whose uninhibited pursuit of sexual pleasure captured the imagination of thousands of readers throughout England. The final book in the series, Six Degrees of Scandal, revealed the identity of the author, and saw the publication of the final instalments in the promised fifty stories, giving Lady Constance her own happy ending in the arms of a mystery lover and closing the book on the series.

But did it?

Bathsheba Crawford who, together with her brother, Daniel, had been responsible for printing the original pamphlets, was reluctant to say goodbye to their illicit enterprise. Not only had the money made from publishing Fifty Ways made them secure financially, she had, on occasion, edited the stories for publication, and had enjoyed being part of something that celebrated a woman’s sexuality and her search for love. So she decided to try her hand at writing something similar, and, when The Secret of My Seduction opens, has been writing a series of successful stories entitled Tales of Lady X for a number of months, now. Her brother knows nothing of this, however; Bathsheba’s publisher is Liam MacGregor – the owner and editor of the London Intelligencer, a popular news and gossip sheet – who appeared briefly in the final stages of Six Degrees when his presses helped meet the demand for the final issues of Fifty Ways to Sin.

But Bathsheba has a problem. While she has plenty of ideas for her stories, her writing is becoming stale, and she is becoming bored with writing the same thing over and over. She’s not a virgin, but her few sexual experiences were not exactly exciting and she has never experienced the sort of passion described by Lady Constance, which makes it difficult to write about in a believable way. So she comes up with the idea of asking Liam to make love to her in order to further her knowledge. After all, she tells him in her typically no-nonsense way, it will be to both their benefits – it will make her writing better and hopefully increase sales – and, she says, if the rumours about him and his prowess with the ladies are true, then she should certainly gain some useful experience in his bed.

Liam is stunned by her request, and his first instinct is dismissal – until Bathsheba suggests finding someone else to help her instead.  At that point, of course, Liam’ protective instincts kick in, and he changes his mind, realising that perhaps seducing the plainly dressed, often overlooked, but very forthright Bathsheba Crawford won’t exactly be a hardship.

Okay, so this is a terribly contrived set up, but once the reader has rolled their eyes and moved on, The Secret of My Seduction is a very well-written, sexy novella that delivers more than just a hundred-page bonk-fest.  Yes, there are several sex-scenes, but in this story that’s kind of the point, and I wasn’t expecting otherwise.  More importantly, though, the author does a great job in those scenes of revealing more about the characters through their interactions under very intimate circumstances.  Bathsheba knows that she has long harboured feelings for Liam and tells herself sternly that anything more than the physical release he is offering her is out of the question. And Liam is surprised to discover in Bathsheba a woman after his own heart – rational, logical, persistent and passionate – and begins to wonder if he really had not given any thought to seducing her before she asked him to, or if he’d secretly longed to all along.

Ms. Linden also fleshes out both characters quite well considering the limited page count, with Bathsheba probably being the more well-defined of the two.  Life hasn’t been easy for her – following the death of her parents, the failure of the family printing business and her brother’s return from war unable to work, it was her sheer determination to grasp what opportunities she could that saw her and Daniel resurrecting their old printing press to print the first issue of Fifty Way to Sin. Liam is perhaps a little more of your stereotypical tall, dark, handsome sex-god of a hero, but his competitive relationship with his brother and his obvious fondness for his family adds some shading to his characterisation and rounds him out a little.

The sex scenes are steamy, intensely romantic and very well-written and the chemistry between Bathsheba and Liam is evident from their first scene together.  This builds steadily throughout the story to culminate in an explosive wall-banger(!) which I think will make my personal “hottest of 2017” list.  The story moves fairly quickly without feeling rushed, although I did think that Liam’s realisation of the truth of his feelings for Bathsheba was a little fast.  That said though, I liked that he wasn’t afraid to admit it and was then ready to go after what he wanted and the final scene, wherein he answers all her questions about love, seduction and kissing is sweet and maybe just a little bit melty 😉

The Secret of My Seduction is a quick, sexy read that works both as a standalone and as a nice coda to the Scandals series.

When the Marquess Falls (Hellions of Havisham Hall #3.5) by Lorraine Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The Marquess of Marsden always follows the rules. Expected from birth to adhere to decades of tradition, he plans to marry a proper young woman from a good family. But when a beautiful, and completely unsuitable, woman snags his heart, he begins to realize that to get what you want, sometimes you have to break the rules.

Linnie Connor dreams of the independence of running her very own bakery. And while she may be allowed to be a marquess’ childhood companion, the baker’s daughter never ends up with the handsome nobleman. Determined to achieve at least one of her dreams, Linnie makes plans to leave her sleepy village for London, intent on purging him from her heart. And yet, when an invitation to the Marsden annual ball arrives, she can’t refuse her one chance to waltz in his arms.

It will be a night that stirs the flames of forbidden desires and changes their lives forever.

Rating: B-

I knew, when I picked up this coda novella to Lorraine Heath’s Hellions of Havisham series, that I was going to be reduced to a quivering wreck by the end of it. I suppose that’s a considerable achievement on the part of the author – zero-to-sobbing in under 100 pages!

If you’ve read the final book in the trilogy, The Viscount and the Vixen, then you’ll know where When the Marquess Falls is going to end up, but I nonetheless appreciate the fact that Ms. Heath decided to tell the story of Marsden and his Linnie, which is very sweet and very sad – although don’t despair, there IS an HEA (albeit a slightly different sort of one). In terms of the structure, it’s more of a series of vignettes than a cohesively plotted novella, but that format works well here.

By the time we met George St. John, Marquess of Marsden in Falling into Bed with a Duke, he had already lost the love of his life following the birth of their son six years earlier. He stopped all the clocks, stopped caring about anything very much, and acquired the sobriquets the “mad marquess” or “mad Marsden” because the few remaining servants at Havisham Hall often heard him talking to his dead wife.

But it wasn’t always that way – and in this novella, we get to see George and Linnie’s first meeting when he’s twelve and she’s eight, and how, in spite of the massive differences in their stations (he’s a peer, she’s a baker’s daughter) they forge a friendship that remains steadfast as they grow older. By the time they’re in their twenties, friendship isn’t all they want from each other – but nothing else is possible, and in any case, Linnie has plans to move to London and set up a bakery of her own and George must find a suitable lady to marry.  The strength of the connection between them is impossible to deny – but finding a way to be together might be just plain impossible.

Ms. Heath paints George and Linnie with broad brushstrokes, but they’re both warm and engaging characters and you are just rooting for them to be together.  The glimpses we got of Marsden in The Viscount and the Vixen as a man capable of great charm and warmth are borne out here, as George emerges as an honourable, kind man who is prepared to fly in the face of convention for the woman he loves.  And Linnie is… well, she’s a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but she’s lovely; brave, intelligent and loving, it’s easy to see why, after a few years of marriage, she won over all but the biggest sticklers in the neighbourhood.

I enjoyed the story, but given that Lorraine Heath is one of those authors who usually finds a way to rip out my heart and stomp on it, I had to make sure I had the Kleenex handy.  If you haven’t read any of the books to which this novella is related, then it won’t make much sense to you – and please take note that even though it is set partly before the Hellions series begins, it’s NOT a prequel.

A quick read, and a nice way to round out the series, When the Marquess Falls really is one for the fans.  If you’ve read the series and want to find out a little more about Marsden, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but you can leave the series at The Viscount and the Vixen without missing anything.

NB: The final 10% of the Kindle edition is a preview of Ms. Heath’s forthcoming novel, An Affair With a Notorious Heiress.

Wanted, A Gentleman by K.J. Charles

wanted-a-gentleman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

By the good offices of Riptide Publishing
KJ Charles’s new Entertainment

WANTED, A GENTLEMAN
Or, Virtue Over-Rated

the grand romance of

Mr. Martin St. Vincent . . . a Merchant with a Mission, also a Problem
Mr. Theodore Swann . . . a humble Scribbler and Advertiser for Love

Act the First:

the offices of the Matrimonial Advertiser, London
where Lonely Hearts may seek one another for the cost of a shilling

Act the Second:

a Pursuit to Gretna Green (or thereabouts)

featuring

a speedy Carriage
sundry rustic Inns
a private Bed-chamber
***
In the course of which are presented

Romance, Revenge, and Redemption
Deceptions, Discoveries, and Desires

the particulars of which are too numerous to impart

Rating: B+

This new novella from the pen of K.J. Charles is a Regency Era road-trip undertaken in order to foil the elopement of an heiress and her unsuitable beau.

The couple has been corresponding secretly by placing messages in the pages of the Matrimonial Advertiser, a news-sheet dedicated to publishing what we would today call Lonely Hearts advertisements, and run by Mr. Theodore Swann, a jobbing writer who owns and runs the paper as well as scribbling romantic novels on the side.

Into his dingy City office one day, bursts Mr. Martin St. Vincent, a well-built, well-dressed and obviously well to-do black man, who is trying to discover the identity of the man who has been corresponding with the seventeen year-old daughter of his former owner. He’s blunt and not in the mood for humour, small-talk or any of Theo’s sales patter – and quickly cuts to the chase by asking Theo to put a price on his assistance.

Before he can discover the man’s identity however, the young lady elopes with her swain, and the family turns to Martin for help. A former slave, his relationship to the Conroys – who, by the standards of the day treated him well – is a difficult one, but he used to play with the young woman when she was a child and read her stories… and it’s for her sake that he agrees to try to find her and bring her home safely.

Realising he’ll need help – and having been reluctantly impressed with Theo’s quick wits and sharp tongue (among other things) – Martin asks Theo to go with him – and after they have agreed on a large fee, Theo agrees.

This is a novella of some 150 pages, but K.J Charles does such a superb job with the characterisation of her two principals and adds such depth to their personalities and stories that I came away from the novella feeing – almost – as though I’d read a full-length novel. There’s a spark of attraction between the two men from the start, and this builds gradually as they travel and get to know each other better, but what is so wonderful is the way the relationship between them grows alongside it. Martin is a former slave, and while he doesn’t feel he owes anything to his former master, he can’t help resenting the fact that he has been very lucky when compared to so many others:

“I was kept in the household, and freed on such generous terms that I have been able to prosper ever since, and how can I resent that?”

“That sounds to me the kind of generosity that could kill a man.”

“It is. It sticks in my throat like thistles, it chokes me.”

And Theo gets it. He sees Martin as a person, he believes he’s entitled to be angry:

“I, uh, feel strongly about gratitude. Forced gratitude, I mean, the kind piled on your debt as added interest. To be ground underfoot and then told to be thankful the foot was not heavier – I hate it.”

Their conversations are insightful and often humorous, showcasing many of the things I enjoy so much about this author’s work. Her research is impeccable and I always like the way she doesn’t just gloss over the social issues of the day. There wree moves towards abolition in England at this time, but there were still many people making money out of slavery; there was serious social inequality and no safety net for those who couldn’t afford even the most basic of life’s necessities; yet all these issues are addressed in a way that is not preachy or dry history lesson. Instead they arise naturally out of the direction taken by the story, the lives of the characters and the situations in which they live.

Both protagonists are attractive, likeable characters, although Theo is probably the more well-developed of the two, with a bit more light and shade to his persona. He’s quick witted, devious and sarcastic; and I really liked that his lady novelist alter-ego, Dorothea Swann, gives Ms. Charles the opportunity to make a few tongue-in-cheek observations about romantic fiction but also allows Theo to save the day.

Wanted, A Gentleman is beautifully written, the dialogue sparkles and Theo and Martin simply charmed me.

My only complaint is that the book ended too quickly.

Resisting Miss Merryweather (Baleful Godmother #2) by Emily Larkin

resisting-miss-merryweather

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She sees things no one else does…

Sir Barnaby Ware made a mistake two and a half years ago. A massive mistake. The sort of mistake that can never be atoned for.

He knows himself to be irredeemable, but the captivating and unconventional Miss Merryweather is determined to prove him wrong…

The daughter of a dancing master and a noblewoman, Miss Merryweather had an unusual upbringing. She sees things no one else sees—and she says things no one else says.

Sir Barnaby knows he’s the villain in this piece, but Miss Merryweather thinks he’s the hero—and she is damnably hard to resist…

Rating: B

I thoroughly enjoyed Unmasking Miss Appleby, the first book in Emily Larkin’s new Baleful Godmother series, and was curious about the secondary character of Sir Barnaby Ware, whom we learned had previously been the best friend of that book’s hero, Marcus, the Earl of Cosgrove. A couple of years earlier, Barnaby betrayed his friend in the worst way possible, by committing adultery with Marcus’ beautiful but manipulative wife. The two men had previously been like brothers, and it seemed that their friendship was irrevocably broken.

More than a year has passed since the events of the last book, and Barnaby is on his way to Marcus’ Devonshire estate, having accepted an invitation from his former friend and his new wife, who have recently become parents for the first time. Barnaby is understandably anxious; the last time he and Marcus met, things between them were barely civil, and he keeps telling himself this visit is not a good idea and that he should turn back. He is about to do that when he sees a young woman walking ahead of him; and when he stops to talk to her, discovers she is a friend of Marcus’ wife, also staying at Woodhuish Abbey. She asks Barnaby to escort her back there, and, as a gentleman, he can’t refuse, so now there is no question of retreat.

Anne Merryweather is Charlotte’s – now the Countess of Cosgrove – cousin, and like Charlotte, will be gifted with the magical ability of her choice upon her twenty-fifth birthday, which is only a few days away. But even without that, she has an uncanny facility for reading people and seeing beyond what someone says to the truth that lies behind their words. She knows what happened between Marcus and Barnaby, and knows that Barnaby is still eaten up with guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But the lovely, open-hearted Miss Merryweather – Merry to her friends – is determined to prove him wrong.

While the romance develops over just a few days, the author creates a genuinely strong connection between Barnaby and Merry, who is able to see past his guilt and self-loathing to the kind, compassionate man that he truly is. He has been resisting his attraction to her because of his belief that he’s not worthy of her, but when they are both trapped underground following a trip to explore some local caves, Barnaby steps up to the plate to become the man that Merry needs him to be.

Resisting Miss Merryweather is a lovely story of forgiveness and redemption, showing that’s it’s just as important to be able to forgive oneself as it is to obtain the forgiveness of others. While this is a novella, it doesn’t lack depth; the shame and despair Barnaby feels over his past actions is palpable, and the growing attraction between him and Merry is nicely done. The relationship between Barnaby and Marcus is very-well written, too – their interactions are infused with warmth despite the issues lying between them, and I liked the emphasis placed on going forward rather than looking back, the idea of Barnaby becoming an even better friend in the days to come.

The book can be read as a standalone, but works best as a companion piece to Unmasking Miss Appleby.

Sweetest Regret (novella) by Meredith Duran

sweetest-regret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

At a house party in the countryside, the joyful spirit of the Christmas season threatens to sweep Georgiana Trent under the mistletoe—and back into the arms of the dashing rogue who broke her heart two years ago. Little does she know that Lucas Godwin has no intention of leaving until he has reclaimed her as his own.

This novella was originally published in 2015 as part of the anthology What Happens Under the Mistletoe.

Rating: B-

An engaging, readable novella, Sweetest Regret tells the story of lovers reunited at Christmas.  Georgina Trent, daughter of the influential diplomat, Sir Philip Trent, is used to acting as her father’s hostess, but is annoyed when he announces he has to travel to Constantinople immediately, leaving her with a half-dozen house-guests to deal with until Boxing Day.  To make things worse, he tells her that one of the guests has stolen an important letter, he wants Georgina to find it and he has summoned Lucas Goodwin, one of his most able subordinates, to help her.

Georgina is infuriated.  Not only is her father leaving her in the lurch, he is throwing her into the orbit of the man who broke her heart two years ago.  While living in Munich with her father, Georgina met Lucas who was not only handsome and charming, but someone she could talk to and whom she felt was genuinely interested in her opinions.  They spent a fair amount of time together until one day, she discovered that he had up and left for a posting in Paris without so much as a goodbye.  Devastated, Georgina concluded she had been silly for thinking that a man like Lucas would be interested in an unassuming, ordinary-looking woman such as she, and picked up the threads of her old life.

Lucas is every bit as annoyed to have been summoned to Harlboro Hall as Georgina is to have him there.  Their reunion doesn’t get off to the best of starts, but as they search for the missing letter, they discover that the pull of attraction between them has never really gone away, and eventually find out exactly what led to their parting two years earlier.

This novella is well-written and the fact that there is a pre-existing relationship between the two principals means that the love story doesn’t feel rushed.  Ms. Duran does a very good job in showing the level of hurt and sadness that lies between them, and in describing Georgina’s life as being secondary to her father’s career and her deep-seated frustrations at the way he has treated her over the years. And Lucas gets an equally well fleshed-out backstory; he is the son of a scandalous match between the son of an earl and the coachman’s daughter, so he has had to work doubly hard to prove himself and get to where he is in his profession.   Both are likeable, attractive characters that are easy to root for, and I liked the way Lucas is prepared to put everything on the line for the woman he loves.

Other reviewers have pointed out the huge howler in the story;  we’re told that a couple of characters have gone out looking for a Christmas tree at 5.45am, which means they’d be stumbling about in darkness for a couple of hours, as it’s never light here until much before 8am in the latter part of December.  There are a few others, too, one being that Sir Philip is referred to as “Sir Trent” – which is a big no-no; a knight or baronet is always “Sir firstname”.   Another is the name of Georgina’s home – Harboro Hall – just doesn’t look like an English place name.  Harborough would be more likely.

Those errors apart, Sweetest Regret is an enjoyable seasonal novella and while not the author’s best work is well worth a look if you’ve got an hour to spare.

A Match Made in Mistletoe by Anna Campbell

a-match-made-in-mistletoe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A mistletoe wish…
All her life, Serena Talbot has been in love with the handsome boy next door, Sir Paul Garside. She always eagerly looks forward to Paul’s visit to her family over the Festive Season, even if he usually brings along his dark, sardonic friend Lord Hallam. This year, Serena is determined that Paul’s kiss under the mistletoe will lead to a proposal. Even if she has to enlist every ounce of Christmas magic she can get her hands on to make that happen.

But the mistletoe gets it wrong!
When Serena slips a sprig of mistletoe from the village kissing bough under her pillow, it’s not Paul who turns up in her dreams as the man she’s going to marry, but brooding, intense, annoying Giles Farraday, Marquess of Hallam. Still more annoying, once everyone arrives for the annual Christmas house party, she can’t stop watching Giles, and thinking about Giles. And kissing Giles, whether there’s mistletoe about or not. Now Paul wants to marry her, and Giles wants to seduce her–and Serena has a bone to pick with the old wives who came up with all this superstitious nonsense in the first place.

A Christmas of confusion lies ahead! Will mistletoe magic lead the way to a happy ending?

Rating: B

Fans of Anna Campbell’s have been treated to a regular diet of new stories from her over the last year or so in the form of a series of novellas (Dashing Widows) and a couple of standalones.  Her writing is extremely assured, warm and intelligent; and she has the knack of creating the most delicious romantic tension between her couples, something I always look for and appreciate.  She has produced a novella for Christmas the last couple of years, and having enjoyed those, I eagerly picked up this year’s A Match Made in Mistletoe, the story of a young woman who comes to realise that the man of her dreams might not actually be the man for her.

Serena Talbot has been in love with Paul Garside for as long as she can remember, and is eagerly looking forward to the day when he will realise he feels the same way and ask her to be his wife. Like his friend Giles Farraday, the Marquess of Hallam, Paul is a regular visitor to the Talbot’s home; in fact, he and Giles spent most of their school holidays there, especially after Giles was orphaned at the age of eight.  Now in their twenties, the two young men have been on the town for a number of years, and there’s no question that they are a pair of very eligible bachelors.  Paul’s golden good-looks and his easy going manner make him a firm favourite with the ladies, although Serena is rather surprised to learn that it’s the darkly brooding Giles who is the most sought after. (Although to those of us who inhabit Romancelandia, this comes as no surprise!) As a child he was dark, swarthy and gangly and Serena has never quite been able to divorce the image of the boy from the man.

But that doesn’t matter. Paul – and Giles – are expected to arrive for the Christmas holiday, along with numerous family members and other friends, and Serena is convinced that this is finally going to be THE Christmas, the one where Paul declares himself and makes her dreams come true.  And it certainly seems that is going to be the case.  Paul makes his intentions perfectly clear – but strangely, it’s not his touch or his voice that is making her stomach flutter and her heart beat faster, but those of his saturnine friend.  How can that be possible?  How can Serena be in love with one man while another man’s kisses fire her blood and cause her to lose her wits?

The novella makes use of a couple of tropes I always enjoy; the besotted hero and long-time-friends-who-fall-in-love. Giles has loved Serena for years, but knowing of her preference for Paul, never thought he stood a chance with her and so cultivated an air of detachment, simply as a matter of self-preservation.  While he always looks forward to Christmases with the Talbot family – which are  full of love, fun and laughter – this year he anticipates heartbreak, as Paul has finally decided he’s ready to settle down and propose to Serena.  My favourite part of the friends-falling-in-love trope is that moment when they start to see each other through new eyes; and Serena’s dawning realisation – that she finally sees Giles and, moreover, likes what she sees and what she has come to know of the man he is inside – is superbly realised.

The idea that Giles would offer to teach Serena about kissing so that she will know what to do with Paul is a rather flimsy plot device, but Ms. Campbell has written Giles’ longing for Serena and the heat of the sexual tension between the couple so well that it’s easy to forgive the contrivance and just enjoy those sensually romantic moments.  But that’s not to say there’s nothing of substance in the story; there’s the real sense that we’re watching Serena mature before our eyes as she starts to see the difference between a girlish infatuation and real love and desire – and there’s a degree of angst in the sudden strain that their rivalry places on the relationship between Giles and Paul.  I also very much appreciated that Serena has a loving and very sensible mother – something that is quite rare in romances, as parents are often estranged, eccentric or otherwise no good at being there for their offspring.

Serena and Giles are attractive, well-rounded characters and their interactions are a delight to read.  While Serena may be naïve to begin with, she’s refreshingly honest with herself about her changing feelings, and Giles is a gorgeous hero; one whose life has been blighted by loss and who has learned to keep his feelings hidden – even as he longs to be known and loved.

Because the principals have known each other for years, their romance is believable and doesn’t feel rushed – plus Ms Campbell delays the seemingly obligatory sex scene until the epilogue, so it doesn’t feel unnaturally shoe-horned into the main story.  I’m not a big fan of novellas as a rule, but A Match Made is Mistletoe is one I’d definitely recommend if you have an hour or so to spare during the festive season.