Hard-Hearted Highlander (Highland Grooms #3) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An indomitable governess…a brooding Highlander…a forbidden affair…

An ill-fated elopement cost English-born governess Bernadette Holly her reputation, her unsuitable lover and any chance of a future match. She has nothing left to fear–not even the bitter, dangerously handsome Scot due to marry her young charge. Naive wallflower Avaline is terrified to wed Rabbie Mackenzie, but if he sends her home, she will be ruined. Bernadette’s solution: convince Rabbie to get Avaline to cry off…while ignoring her own traitorous attraction to him.

A forced engagement to an Englishwoman is a hard pill for any Scot to swallow. It’s even worse when the fiancee in question is a delicate, foolish young miss–unlike her spirited, quick-witted governess. Sparring with Bernadette brings passion and light back to Rabbie’s life after the failed Jacobite uprising. His clan’s future depends upon his match to another, but how can any Highlander forsake a love that stirs his heart and soul?

Rating: C+

I’ve enjoyed the previous two books in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series in spite of my general aversion to Scottish/Highland set romances; both books are strongly character driven with, in the case of the first book, Wild Wicked Scot, a dash of politics and intrigue thrown in to add an extra layer of interest. So I’ve been looking forward to this third book, in which the hero is Rabbie Mackenzie, younger son of Laird Arran and his English wife, Margot. But I’m afraid I can’t say that I enjoyed Hard Hearted Highlander as much as the other books, mostly because the eponymous hero is such a miserable bastard for well over half of the story, and it’s difficult to find any vestige of sympathy or liking for a man who is so ill-mannered and self-centred.

That’s not to say that Rabbie doesn’t have grounds for what is immediately apparent is a case of severe depression. The book is set in 1750, five years after the Battle of Culloden, and takes place in a very different world to the previous novel. Many families and clans were wiped out on the battlefield and after, and of those who weren’t many have fled – to the cities, or overseas – and the landscape has been forever changed. Even the powerful Mackenzie clan is struggling to look after its own; their neutrality in the conflict did not protect them from the widely wrought devastation and times are hard.

Like many of his countrymen, Rabbie is frustrated and bitter about the huge change the battle has wrought in the Highlander way of life, but he is also mired in grief for the woman he loved, Seona MacBee, who was killed, along with her family, either during or after the uprising. It’s been years since her death, but Rabbie mourns her every day, and continues to scowl and growl his way through life, much to the consternation of his family. They love him dearly and hate to see him so melancholy, but don’t know what to do to help – and know that he would probably reject it if they tried.

As the Mackenzies struggle to rebuild their fortunes after the rebellion, it becomes necessary for Laird Mackenzie to broker a match between Rabbie and the young daughter of Lord Kent, an English nobleman who has purchased the nearby estate of Kileaven and looks set to buy up other lands around Balhaire. If that happens, there won’t be enough land to sustain even the small number of Mackenzies who are left, and a this arrangement is the only way to protect Balhaire and its dependents. Rabbie recognises the importance of this marriage to his family and agrees to marry the girl. He doesn’t care – he’s dead inside anyway.

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

Brighter than the Sun (KGI #11) by Maya Banks (audiobook) – Narrated by Tad Branson

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The Kelly Group International (KGI): A super-elite, top secret family run business.

Qualifications: High intelligence, rock-hard body, military background.

Mission: Hostage/kidnap victim recovery. Intelligence gathering.

Handling jobs the US government can’t.

As the last unattached member of the Kelly clan, Joe is more than ready to risk life and limb on any mission he’s assigned to, but when it comes to love, he’ll keep his distance. He’s content to watch his brothers become thoroughly domesticated.

Zoe’s had nothing but heartbreak in her life, and she’s determined to start over with a completely new identity thanks to her college friend Rusty Kelly. But it’s the gorgeous smile and tender words of Joe Kelly that begin to weaken her resolve to never risk her heart again. And Joe will have to put everything on the line to save Zoe when secrets of her past resurface – and threaten to tear them apart.

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – D

This eleventh book in Maya Banks’ KGI series of romantic suspense novels, Brighter than the Sun, would have been more appropriately titled Duller than the Dishwater. Honestly, I’m really glad I managed to listen to most of it while I was on the move, either around the house or in the car, otherwise I’d be suffering from the concussion incurred as a result of the number of times I’d’ve banged my head on the desk to keep myself awake.

I can’t believe this is supposed to be a romantic suspense novel. It’s a total misnomer, because it doesn’t possess much of either; the pacing is snail-like and there is NO action worth the name, NO suspense and NO romance, unless you count insta-lust as romance. And I don’t.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Enforcer (Games People Play #2) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Security expert Matthias Clarke hunts down people who don’t want to be found. His latest prey: the sole survivor of a massacre that killed his brother years ago. Kayla Roy claimed she was a victim of the carnage. Then she disappeared. Matthias thinks Kayla may have actually been the killer—and he wants justice.

Kayla Roy never stays in one place too long and never lets a man get too close. But keeping Matthias at arm’s length may be impossible. Dark and enigmatic, Matthias draws Kayla in from the start. She knows nothing about his connection to her dark past, or his thirst for vengeance. She only knows their attraction feels overpowering—and very dangerous.

Matthias’s suspicions about the sensual Kayla clash with his instinct to protect her, especially when he realizes her life is in danger. But Kayla’s not looking for a savior—especially one who seems hell-bent on tempting her down a lethal path.

Rating: B

The Enforcer is the second book in HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series of romantic suspense novels, which feature heroes who supply skills and services that are perhaps not available from typical law-enforcement organisations; finding people who don’t want to be found, obtaining and using sensitive information and providing security and protection to those who are unable – or don’t want – to go through normal channels. As such, they often operate in that shady area outside the law, doing what needs to be done even though they might need to cross lines in order to do it.

In The Fixer, book one in the series, we met the enigmatic Wren, head of a company specialising in intelligence and information gathering, and who, years earlier, was one of a group of young men who looked to be headed in completely the wrong direction until they were ‘rescued’ by a man named Quint who insisted they accomplish something with their lives. In the course of his business, Wren often has occasion to call upon the services provided by Quint Enterprises, the security firm run by the gruff, taciturn Matthias Clarke. The men are friends – as far as men like them can ever be friends – and more importantly, Wren is one of the very few people that Matthias trusts absolutely.

Matthias had a troubled childhood, growing up in a series of foster homes which ranged from okay to terrible. He’s a loner, and his work is his life; he does his job, eats when he’s hungry, has sex when he has the urge – and he’s content with that. But some months earlier, and completely out of the blue, he was contacted by the birth mother who abandoned him, Mary Patterson, who also told him that he’d had a younger half-brother, Nick, who had been murdered seven years earlier and the case has never been solved. While Matthias is fully aware of Mary’s attempt to manipulate him by trying to send him on a guilt-trip, he nonetheless feels some sort of responsibility to the brother he never knew, and agrees to see what he can find out.

Seven years earlier, Kayla Roy was the sole survivor of a brutal multiple murder. She became a prime suspect in the killings in the early stages of the investigation, but in the absence of any real evidence, she was never charged. Still, she disappeared not long afterwards and has spent the last seven years on the run, never putting down roots or staying too long in any one place. Now, however, she is the closest thing to settled she’s been in all that time, in the small, seafront town of Annapolis, where she waits tables at the local café.

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

Someone to Hold (Westcott #2) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve. An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

Someone to Hold, the second book in Ms. Balogh’s Westcott series, tells the story of Miss – formerly Lady – Camille Westcott, the eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, who discovered after his death that she, along with her brother and sister, was illegitimate because their parents’ marriage was bigamous.

In the previous book, Someone to Love, which announced this discovery, Camille was cold, hard, disdainful and full of hatred for the newly discovered half-sister whom she regarded as the cause of her own loss of rank and position. Making Camille into a heroine listeners could like and root for was something of a tremendous ask, but Mary Balogh does it with aplomb, giving a clear, warts-and-all portrait of a young woman who suddenly finds out that the life she has known is a lie, and who is struggling to gain a sense of self and identity in a world which has drastically changed around her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Highland Dragon’s Lady (Highland Dragons #2) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Regina Talbot-Jones has always known her rambling family home was haunted. She also knows her brother has invited one of his friends to attend an ill-conceived séance. She didn’t count on that friend being so handsome… and she certainly didn’t expect him to be a dragon.

Scottish Highlander Colin MacAlasdair has hidden his true nature for his entire life, but the moment he sets eyes on Regina, he knows he has to have her. In his hundreds of years, he’s never met a woman who could understand him so thoroughly… or touch him so deeply. Bound by their mutual loneliness, drawn by the fire awakening inside of them, Colin and Regina must work together to defeat a vengeful spirit – and discover whether their growing love is powerful enough to defy convention.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content: C-

I’m not a great fan of paranormal romances in the main (although I adored Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London books), but I read one of the other titles in Isabel Cooper’s Highland Dragon series a while back and enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading or listening to another one. Until recently, only the first book, Legend of the Highland Dragon has been available in audio format, but Tantor Audio has now issued books two and three, The Highland Dragon’s Lady and Night of the Highland Dragon (which is the one I’ve read). With Derek Perkins once again lending his considerable narrating skills to the project, I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting story filled with magic and mysterious goings on.

Two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. Because while there’s certainly magic and mysterious goings on, the story isn’t very exciting. In fact, it was so dull in places that even Mr. Perkins couldn’t save it or stop my mind wandering, and I found myself backtracking several times throughout the listen.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.

In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.

Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.

A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: A-

Joanna Chambers’ A Gathering Storm is the sole historical entry in the Porthkennack series of queer romances written by five different award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ+ romance authors. All the books – the others are by Charlie Cochrane, J.L. Merrow, Alex Beecroft and Garrett Leigh – can be read in any order and are standalone titles; the link is the setting of Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history.

The story opens as Sir Edward Fitzwilliam Is travelling from Dublin to Anglesey on the night of a fierce, electrical storm.  The storm is at its height when Edward – Ward – experiences a strange phenomenon; he hears his twin brother, George, assuring him that all will be well at what Ward later realises must have been the moment of his brother’s death.  From that moment on, Ward becomes consumed by the idea of recreating the conditions that allowed the communication and devotes himself to the task, even though the wider scientific community – of which he had been a respected member – disapproves of his efforts to contact the departed and denounces him.

Following his disastrous public defence of  a sham medium in opposition to some of his highly respected colleagues, Ward retreats to the small seaside town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, where he purchases a plot of land close to a place known locally as ‘the Hole’, an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretches from cliff-top to seabed.  Stories of the supernatural cling to the place, but Ward’s interest is of a more scientific nature; he believes that the conditions experienced in that location during a storm will help him in his quest to recreate those he experienced on the night his brother communicated with him ‘from beyond the veil’.

But in order to prove that communication with the spirit world is possible, Ward also needs subjects willing to take part in his experiments, preferably people who have recently suffered a bereavement.  He asks his solicitor if he can help him find such people, but even though Ward offers to pay well, the locals are naturally sceptical; and once rumours begin circulating about his using mesmerism and electric shocks (he doesn’t) not even the promise of payment can induce anyone to sign up.

On a visit to a local tavern in hopes of drumming up some interest, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward at the neighbouring Roscarrock estate.  Nick is half Romany and, while it’s never publicly acknowledged, is the illegitimate grandson of his employer, old Godfrey Roscarrock.  Nick’s gypsy mother is widely believed to have been clairvoyant, and when Ward learns of this, he is convinced that Nick is the very man to assist him with his experiments – but Nick isn’t interested, or at least, he isn’t interested in what Ward is trying to do, although he is fascinated by the man himself.

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