His Royal Secret (Royal Secret #1) by Lilah Pace

his royal secret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

James, the handsome, cosmopolitan Prince of Wales, is used to being in the public eye. But he’s keeping a king-sized secret…James, next in line for the throne, is gay.

He’s been able to hide his sexual orientation with the help of his best friend and beard, Lady Cassandra. Sometimes he feels like a coward for not coming out, but he daren’t risk losing the crown. If he did, the succession would fall on his deeply troubled younger sister, Princess Amelia. To protect her, James is willing to live a lie.

While on holiday, he meets Benjamin Dahan—a rugged international reporter with a globe-trotting, unattached life—who catches far more than James’s eye. And when Ben is transferred to London, it seems fate may finally be smiling on James.

But what began as a torrid fling grows into something far more intimate and powerful. Soon James will have to decide who he is, what he wants from life and love, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for the truth…

Rating:A

This book, and its upcoming sequel, His Royal Favourite, are set in an alternate Great Britain in which – if I read it right – Queen Victoria and the House of Windsor didn’t exist. It’s 2012, the reigning monarch is eighty-three year old King George IX of the House of Hanover, and the next in line to the throne is his grandson, James, who became Prince of Wales following the tragic deaths of his parents in a plane crash a decade earlier when he was nineteen.

James is handsome, charming and popular. He is well aware of how privileged his life is but also knows what is expected of him as the Prince of Wales now, and, in probably not so many years, as King of England. As the actual royal family must, James has to cope with life in the goldfish bowl that is the public eye and with the constant attention of the tabloid press, the gossip magazines and the paparazzi. This is stressful and difficult at the best of times, but for James it makes his life even harder than it already is, because he is gay. He had come out to his father, who was surprised but fully supportive and the two of them had intended to discuss a strategy for James to come out publicly once Prince Edmund returned from his trip to Austraila. Unfortunately, Edmund was killed before he could do so, and James remains in the closet, understanding the ramifications his homosexuality could have in relation to the monarch’s position as Head of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth, and convinced that the British public will not accept a gay man as the next king. He also knows that, should he step aside – whether voluntarily or because he has been forced to do so – the burden of future sovereignty will fall upon his sister, Amelia, an emotionally fragile and troubled young woman who would not be able to cope with all the demands such a position would place upon her.

So James continues to live a lie, protected by his long-term friend, Lady Cassandra who knows the truth and has acted as James’ beard for the last ten years. She is frequently the target of vicious attacks in the tabloids, which have got much worse lately because she has been seen in the company of another man. She is one of the small number of people who know the truth about James’ sexuality, and even though she thinks he should come out, she continues to stand by him in spite of the huge personal cost.

James is on a royal visit to Kenya when he meets Benjamin Dahan, an Israeli-born German national who is staying at the same complex. Ben sees a guy stuck outside in a downpour and invites him to take shelter on his patio without at first realising who he is. He quickly does realise, of course, but it’s immediately clear that James likes the informality and the opportunity to be a normal guy just having a drink with someone. They drink, chat, play a rather sexually-charged game of chess and end up in bed together. James has to be incredibly careful given his position, and this is the first time in three years he has let himself give in to his sexual urges. He was badly burned by his last relationship, in which the man he thought cared for him betrayed him when things ended between them, so James is naturally wary – but there is something about Ben that makes him feel comfortable. Ben tells James he writes, and doesn’t correct James’ assumption that he is a novelist when in fact, he is a journalist who reports on economic and financial matters for a major news organisation. When James discovers this at the end of their encounter, he is utterly horrified and accuses Ben of having deliberately used him – but he has just received news that his grandfather has had a stroke and that he needs to return to London right away. Sick with trepidation and fear, James waits for the story to break – but it never does, and he realises that, unlike so many other reporters, Ben was not out to get a story.

A month later, James is astonished to see Ben at a charity event in London, and finds the opportunity to speak to him privately. They apologise to each other and agree to get together again, which they do later that night. This marks the beginning of a passionate affair which both men know can be nothing more than sex, but that suits them. James’ life is not his own most of the time which means he can’t really entertain the idea of anything long-term; and Ben has trust and commitment issues as the result of a previous relationship, so a no-strings affair with lots of great sex is absolutely what he wants.

But it’s not long before things start to change between them, and they become more emotionally involved than they had wanted or expected. The sex scenes are quite numerous and hot, but the author also does a great job with showing how their relationship is evolving and how they care for each other, mostly through a series of little things and gestures, which are very telling. Even though Ben is determined to keep himself from becoming emotionally invested, it soon becomes clear that he can’t. James is a kind, generous, loving man, and even though Ben, as a journalist, has some idea of how little privacy James has, he is nonetheless unprepared for the enormity of it and can’t help being weirded out by all the custom and protocol that surrounds the prince’s position.

One of the most impressive things about this book is the picture Lilah Pace has painted of the day-to-day “job” of being a member of the royal family, or The Firm, as it is known. She aptly describes the different attitudes and power conflicts within the family; has a firm grasp of the political implications of James’ sexuality and absolutely nails the difficulties of the constant 24/7 year-round scrutiny faced by someone in James’ situation. James is a man with a strong sense of duty and honour, mindful of what is owed to his position and determined to do his absolute best, yet he can’t speak out or answer back those who will pounce on the slightest misstep – so it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to come out and open his life up to minute scrutiny.

Ben is just as likeable, a bit of a grouchy bear, and somewhat bewildered by the world into which he has suddenly been drawn courtesy of his association with James. I particularly liked the way we are shown him coming to a gradual realisation as to the truth of what James’ life is actually like, and how he comes to understand his decision to keep his sexuality a secret. The chemistry between the two men is seriously hot, but one can also feel the love and affection running alongside it. There are some wonderfully poignant moments between James and his sister Amelia (or Indigo, as she prefers to be known), and I don’t mind admitting that I had a lump in my throat near the end, when Ben decides to stand by James at a difficult time.

His Royal Secret is book one of a duology, so the story here ends with an HFN and the knowledge that there is much more to come in the next book, His Royal Favourite. I raced through both of them one after the other in the same afternoon, and had to wonder why the two weren’t just published as one long (but not overlong) book rather than in two halves. Whatever the reason, His Royal Secret is a thoroughly enjoyable read that makes a wonderfully romantic, sexy and gripping story out of an unusual premise and, as I said in my original note at Goodreads, “I can’t think of a single thing I disliked… Not one.”

Advertisements

Mister O. by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Sebastian York

Mister O

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Just call me Mister O. Because your pleasure is my superpower.

Making a woman feel “oh god that’s good” is the name of the game, and if a man can’t get the job done, he should get the hell out of the bedroom. I’m talking toe-curling, mind-blowing, sheet-grabbing ecstasy. Like I provide every time.

I suppose that makes me a superhero of pleasure, and my mission is to always deliver.

Sure, I’ve got an addiction to giving, but step right up, and you’ll also find a man with a hot exterior, a kickass job, a razor-sharp wit, and a heart of gold. Yeah, life is good…. And then I’m thrown for a loop when a certain woman asks me to teach her everything about how to win a man. The only problem? She’s my best friend’s sister, but she’s far too tempting to resist – especially when I learn that sweet, sexy Harper has a dirty mind, too, and wants to put it to good use. What could possibly go wrong as I give the woman I’ve secretly wanted some no-strings-attached lessons in seduction?

No one will know, even if we send a few dirty sexts. Okay, a few hundred. Or if the zipper on her dress gets stuck. Not on that! Or if she gives me those f–k-me eyes on the train in front of her whole family.

The trouble is the more nights I spend with her in bed, the more days I want to spend with her out of bed. And for the first time ever, I’m not only thinking about how to make a woman cry out in pleasure – I’m thinking about how to keep her in my arms for a long time to come.

Looks like the real adventures of Mister Orgasm have only just begun…

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Anyone who knows me or reads my reviews regularly will know that I’m not really one for Contemporary romance. I freely admit to sneaking in the odd Harlequin Presents now and again, but I’m not into tattooed bikers, hockey players (or anything sport-related), Navy SEALs, firefighters, lawyers… and being British, I don’t get the appeal of small-town America. With all that said, though, I’m not averse to sampling something different occasionally, and when I was scrolling through Audible’s new releases pages recently, this caught my eye. Not only was the title one that made me grin and click to find out more, I’ve heard a lot of good things about narrator Sebastian York, so I decided to give it a go.

As one would expect from something called Mister O., it’s a very sexy book. It’s also very funny and, because the story is told entirely from the male point of view, refreshingly different. Add in a superb performance from Mr. York, and you’ve got a thoroughly entertaining listen.

Nick Hammer is twenty-nine, single, successful and knows how lucky he is to have landed his ideal gig. A few years back, his online comic strip – The Adventures of Mister Orgasm – was picked up by a television network and is now a hugely popular late night TV show. Once a weedy nerd with pencil and paper forever in hand, Nick is now a seriously hot nerd; glasses, great hair, toned body – he’s all that and a bag of chips. And fortunately for the women he dates, he is just as dedicated to the pursuit of female pleasure as his fictional creation.

It would have been easy for Nick to be an arrogant arsehole, but he isn’t. He’s genuinely aware of how lucky he’s been in his life; he’s charming and self-deprecating, and while he loves women, he’s a one-woman-at-a-time kinda guy, describing himself as a serial monogamist. He has, however, been single for a few months now, ever since the last woman he was with – a romance writer – jetted off to Italy to research her new book. There’s someone he’s seriously interested in, but – and I don’t know if this is a genuine guy thing or just a romance novel convention – she’s his best friend’s little sister and therefore strictly off-limits.

Harper Holiday has known Nick for years and they are great friends who get each other in a way many other people don’t. A few months back, something changed between them when the two of them decided to wind up her brother and make him think that they were getting it on. That prank involved a bit of touching and groping, and Harper hasn’t been able to forget the look and feel of Nick’s hard body and warm skin under her hands. But she knows she’s not his type, and is content with his friendship. Mostly.

Harper is a great character. She’s vibrant, funny and insightful, but when it comes to men, she’s hopeless. She’s a magician, and makes her living by performing at children’s parties and events, but while she loves her job, it’s also quite a lonely one. Most of her time is spent with kids and parents, so she doesn’t have many opportunities to interact with single men. When Nick witnesses her getting tongue-tied around a guy she likes, and realises that she has absolutely no idea when a man is interested in her, he’s stunned. Harper is the girl of his dreams (with alarming frequency) – how can she not know how attractive she is?

Things start to ramp up between them when Harper shyly asks Nick for dating advice. Naturally, he’s appalled at the thought of teaching her how to be with another man, but when he realises how alone she feels and how important it is to her, he can’t say no.

There’s no question where this is headed – it’s a romance novel after all! Flirty texting, dirty sexting, multiple Os on multiple surfaces… it’s all here; and it’s hot and sexy and sweet and filthy and incredibly honest. But it also becomes about much more than just sex and I really enjoyed listening to Nick’s thought processes as lust turns to love.

In addition to the humour and the male PoV, another thing the story has going for it is that it’s wonderfully free of contrived angst and drama. There’s a point towards the end when I wondered if things might be headed that way but Nick and Harper are intelligent adults who actually TALK to each other, so thankfully, it doesn’t go there.

Sebastian York is a narrator I’ve been aware of for some time, but because he narrates mostly Contemporary and New Adult romances, I’ve never listened to him before. Boy, have I been missing out! He has a lovely, deep baritone that can quite easily send shivers down the spine and his manner of delivery and comic timing are perfect. This is a first person narrative and he totally inhabits the character of Nick Hammer, bringing him to life in all his deadpan, honest and sexy glory. Mr. York’s female voices are very good, too, a slight hike in pitch and softening of tone working well to portray Harper and the various female secondary characters, all of whom are very clearly differentiated. The sex scenes are frequent – I have no idea what the sex-scene/page-count ratio is, but it’s pretty high! – but they’re very well written and narrated with self-assurance and absolute conviction.

Mister O. turned out to be one of those impulse decisions that paid off, supplying me with eight hours of funny, sexy entertainment. If you like your audiobooks on the steamy side, then you should definitely check it out.

A Gentleman’s Position (Society of Gentlemen #3) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

a gentleman's position audio

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon.

Among his eccentric though strictly principled group of friends, Lord Richard Vane is the confidant on whom everyone depends for advice, moral rectitude, and discreet assistance. Yet when Richard has a problem, he turns to his valet, a fixer of unparalleled genius – and the object of Richard’s deepest desires. If there is one rule a gentleman must follow, it is never to dally with servants. But when David is close enough to touch, the rules of class collide with the basest sort of animal instinct: overpowering lust.

For David Cyprian, burglary and blackmail are as much in a day’s work as bootblacking – anything for the man he’s devoted to. But the one thing he wants for himself is the one thing Richard refuses to give: his heart. With the tension between them growing to be unbearable, David’s seemingly incorruptible master has left him no choice. Putting his finely honed skills of seduction and manipulation to good use, he will convince Richard to forget all about his well-meaning objections and give in to sweet, sinful temptation.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

K.J. Charles’ Society of Gentlemen trilogy is easily one of the best series of historical romances I’ve read and listened to in recent years. There’s more than enough history to satisfy those of us who like our historicals to pay more than lip-service to the moniker, the romances are all beautifully written and the characters are engaging and fully-rounded.

In terms of the historical background, the previous books in the series (A Fashionable Indulgence and A Seditious Affair) have made excellent use of the rather unsettled political situation in England in 1820. This was a country looking over its shoulder at revolution and those in power were not above resorting to underhand means in order to root out those who were brave enough to speak against the abuses of power being perpetrated against the populace. In A Gentleman’s Position, however, the author turns her attention to a smaller canvas and focuses on domestic issues, taking an unvarnished look at the difficulties inherent in pursuing a relationship outside of one’s class.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Glitterland by Alexis Hall (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

Alexis-Hall,-GLITTERLAND-online-usage-800x800
This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Ash Winters is barely holding on, near drowning in his own darkness and fear. He lives a gray shadow of a life, sullen and cynical, unable to remember hope or happiness – much less the distant, fading glitterball of love. It has to be a sick joke of the universe that he finds himself hooked up with good-humored Essex boy Darian Taylor, a wannabe model in a sparkly jacket and a fake tan. Darian may not be an intellectual giant, but he’s hysterically funny, and he’s got the courage to challenge Ash to live again.

Just being able to laugh is extraordinary enough to Ash. Loving may be a gift he can’t bear to accept, even if his denial breaks the biggest heart he’s ever known.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content: A

Glitterland is a book that’s been on my radar for a while as a result of the many great reviews I’ve seen which have praised its emotional depth, humour and the intelligence and beauty of the writing, but I haven’t yet found the time to read it. I often end up listening to audio versions of books I can’t get round to reading, so when this came up for review – as another of the titles Laura Kinsale has chosen to produce with Nicholas Boulton narrating – I immediately said “yes, please!”

And once I’d clicked “start”, I couldn’t stop. I listened to the whole thing almost non-stop, because I was so very quickly caught up in the story of “posh” Ash and “Essex boy” Darian, which made me laugh very loudly, wince in pain and tear up on several occasions, sometimes all at once.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

add-to-goodreads-button

A Seditious Affair (Society of Gentlemen #2) by K.J Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

a seditious affair audio

This title is available to purchase from Audible via Amazon

Silas Mason has no illusions about himself. He’s not lovable or even likable. He’s an overbearing idealist, a radical bookseller and pamphleteer who lives for revolution…and for Wednesday nights. Every week he meets anonymously with the same man, in whom Silas has discovered the ideal meld of intellectual companionship and absolute obedience to his sexual commands. But, unbeknownst to Silas, his closest friend is also his greatest enemy, with the power to see him hanged – or spare his life.

A loyal, well-born gentleman official, Dominic Frey is torn apart by his affair with Silas. By the light of day, he cannot fathom the intoxicating lust that drives him to meet with the radical week after week. In the bedroom everything else falls away. Their needs match, and they are united by sympathy for each other’s deepest vulnerabilities. But when Silas’ politics earn him a death sentence, desire clashes with duty, and Dominic finds himself doing everything he can to save the man who stole his heart.

Rating: A for narration; A+ for content

I couldn’t resist picking up this second book in K. J. Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series as soon as I’d finished listening to book one, A Fashionable Indulgence. A Seditious Affair contains all the ingredients that made the earlier book such a compelling listen; excellent narration, strong characters, a steamy, but deeply-felt and well-developed romance and a terrific story that makes excellent use of the historical setting.

Some of the events of A Seditious Affair run concurrently with those in A Fashionable Indulgence, so anyone who has read or listened to that book will already be familiar with some of the references herein and with the protagonists of this story, well-to-do, upstanding Home Office official Dominic Frey, and bookshop owner and political polemicist Silas Mason.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

add-to-goodreads-button

A Seditious Affair (Society of Gentlemen #2) by K.J Charles

a seditious affair

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Silas Mason has no illusions about himself. He’s not lovable, or even likable. He’s an overbearing idealist, a Radical bookseller and pamphleteer who lives for revolution . . . and for Wednesday nights. Every week he meets anonymously with the same man, in whom Silas has discovered the ideal meld of intellectual companionship and absolute obedience to his sexual commands. But unbeknownst to Silas, his closest friend is also his greatest enemy, with the power to see him hanged—or spare his life.

A loyal, well-born gentleman official, Dominic Frey is torn apart by his affair with Silas. By the light of day, he cannot fathom the intoxicating lust that drives him to meet with the Radical week after week. In the bedroom, everything else falls away. Their needs match, and they are united by sympathy for each other’s deepest vulnerabilities. But when Silas’s politics earn him a death sentence, desire clashes with duty, and Dominic finds himself doing everything he can to save the man who stole his heart.

Rating: A+

The second book in K.J Charles’ Society of Gentlemen trilogy, A Seditious Affair contains all the ingredients I enjoyed so much in A Fashionable Indulgence, which I read in the summer. I was so impressed by Ms Charles’ writing and the wonderful way she wove the romantic relationship through a gripping story of social and political unrest, attempted murder and conflicting loyalties that to say I was chomping at the bit to read this next in the series is a massive understatement.

But the wait was well worth it, because A Seditious Affair is, amazingly, even better than the previous novel. Some of its events run concurrently with those in A Fashionable Indulgence, so readers of that book will already be familiar with the protagonists of this story; lawyer and Home Office official Dominic Frey and Silas Mason, bookseller and free-thinking political activist.

Every Wednesday night for the past year, Dom and Silas have been meeting anonymously, at a discreet house of assignation. Although he is a gentleman of good breeding and a powerful official, when it comes to the bedroom, Dominic likes it rough; he wants to surrender control, to be forced to submit to the man he has dubbed his “brute”. Neither knows the others identity, but over the year they have been meeting, they have become friends and companions as well as sexual partners, enjoying the intellectual aspect of their relationship as much as the sexual side.

K.J Charles sets the tone of their relationship right from the opening page, with a searingly hot sex scene after which the couple starts chatting companionably about their week. It’s poignant, almost domestic and utterly brilliant, the deep emotional connection between them so strongly drawn that it drew me in straight away and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished the book.

Readers of A Fashionable Indulgence will recall Silas’ activities as a pamphleteer, writing about the injustices practiced on the British people by the ruling classes, and calling for drastic change. The book is set shortly after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, a peaceful gathering of workers which turned nasty when soldiers began firing on unarmed civilians. Readers of historical romance set in the Regency period will be familiar with the world of the ton; the seemingly endless round of balls and parties attended by our beautifully dressed heroes and heroines as, in the best tradition of escapist fiction, we are presented with a picture of grace, elegance and wealth . But in actuality, the decade from 1812 to 1822 was a period of great unrest in England. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the country was on the verge of great change in many ways, fuelled by bad harvests, large numbers of returning soldiers unable to find work and the massive inequalities between rich and poor. And in 1819, so many were prepared to speak out against the privileged classes that the government was driven to introduce the Six Acts, acts of parliament that pronounced every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his government. I confess, this isn’t a situation I knew much about before reading this book, but I found it fascinating.

On opposite sides of the political spectrum, “the brute” and “the Tory” are stimulated as much by their often voluble exchanges of ideas as by their sexual relationship. Dominic is all for the need to maintain order – people need rules, laws and government or there will be chaos; whereas Silas wants people to have a choice, even if they choose badly, and he will continue to speak out while he can. But the passing of the acts – one of which is a tax on printed material – makes Silas’ already precarious situation even more hazardous. Already believed to be the seditionist Jack Cade, Silas is struggling to stay one step ahead of the authorities who want to silence him. Dominic’s loyalties are stretched to their limit, and it’s hard to see how on earth these men who so obviously care very deeply for each other can possibly end up together. But what Ms Charles does so beautifully and convincingly is to show how both men have been changed by their association, so that when things come to a head and they have to make some difficult choices, those choices are perfectly within the bounds of possibility and don’t feel at all like some convenient plot device to ensure an HEA.

Set against the backdrop of the Cato Street Conspiracy, Ms Charles has done an amazing job of weaving a compelling and deeply romantic love story through the rich tapestry of real historical events. I admit that when the nature of the relationship between two such unlikely bedfellows was revealed, I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy the book as D/s relationships are not normally my cup of tea. But I was completely won over by both Silas and Dominic, who are wonderfully drawn, strong characters, and by the sheer depth of emotion that lies between them. We are re-introduced to a familiar cast of supporting characters including Julius and Harry from the previous book and Lord Richard Vane and his mysterious, seemingly omnipotent valet. Richard will be one of the protagonists in the next book, and is such an unpleasant stuffed-shirt in this one that I can’t imagine how Ms Charles is going to redeem him; although I’m sure she will, and in spectacular fashion.

Without doubt, A Seditious Affair is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

add-to-goodreads-button

The Widow Wager (The Notorious Flynns #3) by Jess Michaels

widow wager

Crispin Flynn has been on a downward spiral ever since he lost the woman he loved and watched his brother forced into a life he never would have chosen. His response has been drinking and gambling his way to utter ruin. One night, deep in his cups, he places a dangerous bet that results in him being forced to marry Gemma, the widow of the Earl of Laurelcross.

Gemma once had a passionate side, but has been hiding it ever since her much older husband died during the act of making love. Now she finds herself the much unwanted wife of one of the biggest libertines in London and the subject of even more gossip than ever.

Once they determine they cannot escape the marriage, the two begin a slow circling of each other. Passion is easy, but can they overcome mistrust and secrets in order to make the worst night of their lives one of their best? Or are they bound to lose each other before their love can take root?

Rating: C+

This is the third book in Ms. Michaels’ Notorious Flynns series, and focuses on Crispin, the younger brother of the new Duke of Hartholm, and a young man who has, for the past few months, been bent on self-destruction. It’s a fairly quick read, with possibly more sex scenes than one might normally find in a book of this length – not that I’m complaining! Jess Michaels writes them very well indeed, as one would expect of an author with fifty or so romances to her name. But the downside to that is that while Ms. Michaels has provided both hero and heroine with a fair amount of emotional baggage as a way of adding depth to their characterisation, the amount of time spent in the bedroom combined with the short-ish page-count means that their issues are resolved too quickly, especially considering the fact that Crispin is pretty much an alcoholic at the beginning of the story.

Crispin Flynn has always had a reputation as a hell-raiser, but ever since his brother Rafe suddenly found himself in possession of a title and a wife he didn’t want, his downward spiral has accelerated. Waking up one morning to find himself married to a woman he has never met sobers him abruptly – albeit temporarily. He is determined to find a way out of the union – he was in his cups and appears to have won her in a game of cards, so it surely can’t be legal. His brother is a duke, and even though they have been somewhat estranged for a while, surely someone with his power and influence will be able to find Crispin a way out.

His new wife, Gemma, formerly the Countess of Laurelcross, is no happier at finding herself married to a notorious rake, but given the dreadful rumours that are already circulating throughout society about her, will be utterly and completely ruined should her new husband be able to cast her off. Society will care nothing for the fact that she was humiliated and all but sold by her avaricious father – but if it were only her own reputation at stake, Gemma would brave the censure in order to gain her freedom. Unfortunately, however, she has a younger sister who is still dependent on their father, and any further stain on Gemma’s name will attach itself to Mary as well.

Realising that there is no good way out of the marriage, Crispin and Gemma decide to make the best of things, although both of them are keeping secrets that they are reluctant to divulge. Gemma comes clean first, telling the story of her miserable first marriage to a man who just wanted a brood-mare and then became cruel when she didn’t fall pregnant, and then telling Crispin of the rumours circulating that she killed him. But she is disappointed when Crispin doesn’t return the favour. He’s been drinking himself into oblivion day after day, and has managed to lose more than half his fortune at the gaming tables – and he won’t tell her why.

There were a number of things I really liked about this story. The familial relationships between Crispin, Rafe and their sister (and their respective spouses) are very well written and show clearly that the Flynns are a close-knit, loving family who look out for each other no matter what. They welcome Gemma unconditionally, giving her the sort of affection and support she’s never previously experienced. Gemma herself is a great heroine – even though life has battered her about a fair bit, she’s not going to give in without a fight and will do whatever she must to prevent her sister from treading the same path. She regains her confidence and owns her own sexuality – which naturally delights her new husband – even though she’d been made to feel ashamed of her own desires in her previous marriage. She’s intuitive and sensitive, hoping that her love and acceptance will help him to climb out of the pit he’s been so industriously digging for himself. Crispin is an attractive hero, in spite of his drinking, and the author does a good job in showing how close to the edge he is all the time in his continual cravings for a drink. He does manage to resist for a time, but he slips eventually, despite his good intentions. The most attractive thing about him, though, is the way he asks for and respects Gemma’s opinion – which is something that takes her completely by surprise. They make a good couple, both having unpleasantness in their pasts but who have the potential to heal with the help of the other.

The problem with the book is that when Crispin’s motivations for his headlong rush into self-destruction are finally revealed, they’re really weak and make rather a nonsense of the whole thing. He’s been labouring under a massive misapprehension as to the true nature of the woman he’d loved and lost, but even so, his reaction – given the nature of their relationship – is extreme, and stretched my credulity too far. And the other problem is that he is able to get over his craving for alcohol without too much trouble; that’s an issue I’ve found in other books I’ve read where one of the protagonists has an addiction of some kind, so this one isn’t alone in that.

Those two things apart, The Widow Wager is a well written and enjoyable story that uses one of my favourite tropes – the forced marriage – and does it with aplomb. The characterisation is strong all around, the sex scenes are hot and we definitely get the sense of a strong emotional connection forming between Crispin and Gemma. Had Crispin’s motivations been rather more plausible, this would have been a very strong B grade book. As it is, I’m going with a C+ – it’s worth reading, but the big reveal was a disappointment.