Beguiled (Enlightenment #2) by Joanna Chambers

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Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful — and on Murdo’s part, bitter — but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.

Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

Rating: B+

Beguiled is the middle book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy of novels set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, and I’ll say right off the bat that this is a series in which the books really do need to be read in order.  The romance between the studious advocate, David Lauriston, and the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour develops across all three books, plus there is an overarching secondary plotline running through them  – so there will be spoilers for book one, Provoked, in this review.

Provoked ended with Murdo and David parting and not really expecting to see each other again.  They move in very different circles, and while there’s no question that their brief ‘fling’ had affected them both deeply – in David’s case perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit – both of them believed that a longer term relationship between them was impossible.  In the two years since they last met, David has continued to build his advocacy practice and has gained himself a reputation for diligence and efficacy that means that he is kept busy by a steady stream of work.

David is more confident and more self-assured than he was when we first met him.  He hasn’t forgotten Murdo, and realises now that he has learned something from their brief time together, which I suppose can be best expressed as “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.  Still, he is mostly content, although very concerned over the failing health of his mentor, Mr. Chalmers, whose daughter, Elizabeth, has recently married and moved away.  In Provoked, it was clear that both father and daughter had hopes of David, but while he was very fond of Elizabeth and was also struggling to really and thoroughly accept his sexuality, David felt that taking a wife would be hypocritical and wasn’t prepared to do as other men in his situation did (and as Murdo had declared was his intention) and marry a woman while continuing to take male lovers.

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

Murder on Black Swan Lane (Wrexford & Sloane #1) by Andrea Penrose

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In Regency London, an unconventional scientist and a fearless female artist form an unlikely alliance to expose unspeakable evil . . .

The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. He does not suffer fools gladly. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.

Rating: B+

Murder on Black Swan Lane is the first book in a new series of Regency-era historical mysteries by Andrea Penrose (who also writes as Andrea Pickens and Cara Elliot), which sees a satirical cartoonist teaming up with a scientifically-minded earl to investigate a couple of gruesome murders. The mystery is well-put together and includes some fascinating detail about the chemical sciences as they were understood at the beginning of the 19th century – the author has clearly done her homework – and we’re introduced to an engaging set of characters who will, I hope, continue to appear throughout the series.

The Earl of Wrexford (who doesn’t appear to have an actual name, just a title) has recently been publicly denounced as the worst kind of dissolute rake by the pompous, puffed-up Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and the sort of man whom boredom inspires to ever more reckless behaviour, Wrexford responds to his accuser by unleashing his razor-sharp wit in a clever rebuttal, which is printed in the Morning Gazette. An increasingly vitriolic and very public argument ensues between the two men which is eagerly documented every step of the way by the popular satirist A.J Quill, whose cartoons persistently skewer those at the highest levels of society, shining a light on the darkest misdeeds on the rich and powerful.

When the Reverend Holworthy is found dead in a church on Black Swan Lane, almost decapitated, his face disfigured by some sort of chemical, suspicion immediately alights upon Wrexford, whose rather eccentric interest in chemistry is widely known. With Quill’s uncannily accurate drawings and pithy captions stirring up public opinion against him, Wrexford decides it’s time to find out where the cartoonist is getting his information.

A talented artist, Charlotte Sloane picked up her late husband’s pen after his death some eight months earlier and has continued to produce satirical cartoons using his pseudonym, A.J Quill. She guards her identity judiciously, knowing that if it’s discovered that the scourge of the ton is a woman she will be completely ruined and unable to earn a living. So the last thing she wants or expects is to discover the Earl of Wrexford on her doorstep demanding to see A.J Quill. Charlotte’s attempts at deflection become increasingly desperate, at which point the earl realises the truth and offers her a deal. If she will agree to share such information as comes her way regarding the investigation, he will keep her secret and pay for the information. Charlotte is furious at being backed into a corner, but she has no alternative. She is living from hand to mouth as it is, and can ill afford to turn down the money the earl offers or risk being exposed as A.J Quill, so she takes the deal.

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

The Day of the Duchess (Scandal & Scoundrels #3) by Sarah MacLean

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The one woman he will never forget…
Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, has lived the last three years in self-imposed solitude, paying the price for a mistake he can never reverse and a love he lost forever. The dukedom does not wait, however, and Haven requires an heir, which means he must find himself a wife by summer’s end. There is only one problem—he already has one.

The one man she will never forgive…
After years in exile, Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, returns to London with a single goal—to reclaim the life she left and find happiness, unencumbered by the man who broke her heart. Haven offers her a deal; Sera can have her freedom, just as soon as she finds her replacement…which requires her to spend the summer in close quarters with the husband she does not want, but somehow cannot resist.

A love that neither can deny…
The duke has a single summer to woo his wife and convince her that, despite their broken past, he can give her forever, making every day The Day of the Duchess.

Rating: B+

Sarah MacLean concludes her Scandal and Scoundrels series with The Day of the Duchess, the book many of us have been eagerly anticipating since Sophie, youngest of the scandalous Talbot sisters, pushed Malcolm Bevingstoke, Duke of Haven, into an ornamental fish pond in book one, The Rogue Not Taken. Sophie’s actions were prompted when she caught her eldest sister’s husband in flagrante delicto with another woman in front of half the ton – including the pregnant duchess herself, and I suspect we were all cheering Sophie on for her defence of her sister and calling Haven all kinds of bastard for cheating on his wife.

But in spite of that, I was eager to read the story behind a marriage that had obviously disintegrated and descended into bitterness and betrayal and fervently hoped that the author would write it for us. Bringing an estranged couple together when they have so much baggage between them is a difficult task to accomplish without glossing over the events that tore them apart, or spending so much time wallowing that the HEA doesn’t ring true, but Ms. MacLean has done it with considerable aplomb. It’s an angsty book, the emotions are raw and messy; and although I do have a few reservations, this is, for the most part, the story I wanted it to be.

The first few chapters alternate between the present and the past, as we’re shown the events that culminate in the long-absent Seraphina, Duchess of Haven, striding into the male bastion that is the House of Lords and demanding a divorce. Her husband is as shocked to see her as everyone else; he hasn’t seen or heard from her in the two years and seven months since she left him, and it’s very clear when we see in him in the opening scene that he has felt her absence every hour of every day of every one of those years and months.

Haven and Sera met three years earlier and were both immediately smitten. I’m not calling it insta-love; it’s more like a coup de foudre, a lightning strike that affects both of them deeply and draws them together, and is based on far more than simple, physical attraction. Over the ensuing weeks, Sera and Haven see each other quite often; so often, in fact, as to draw the attention of the gossips. With none of their meetings taking place in public and Haven not even having made the attempt to meet her family, Sera is swayed by the seeds of doubt that her mother plants in her mind. When Lady Talbot suggests that Sera engineers a situation that will make sure of Haven once and for all, Sera, who is confident in her heart that Haven does want to marry her, and is just as sure that he is everything she wants, agrees to a secret tryst with him. When they are found in an extremely compromising position by her mother – and his – Sera can’t deny her part in the scheme, but instead of it leading to something both of them want, it’s the beginning of the end. Haven is deeply in love with Sera and had every intention of proposing to her, but now he’s in the middle of his worst nightmare; being forced to wed a woman who doesn’t want him for himself but for his title.

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

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord (Rescued from Ruin #7) by Elisa Braden

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Never judge a man by his cover…
Society knows the affable Earl of Dunston for his flashy waistcoats and rapier wit. Lady Maureen Huxley knows him as Henry Thorpe, her best friend—an irresistibly kissable, strictly platonic friend. Which means her dreams of marriage, motherhood, part-time cookery, and full-time domestic bliss must be fulfilled elsewhere. But after three seasons and a parade of fickle suitors, Maureen’s hopes are fading. Worse, she suspects Henry is to blame.

Never trust a man with too many secrets…
Years spent hunting his father’s murderer through London’s dark underworld have honed Henry Thorpe into a deadly blade with one purpose—catching a killer of fathomless evil. Nothing mattered more until Maureen Huxley came along. To keep her safe, he must keep her at arm’s length. Yet he can’t resist drawing her close, making her laugh, dreaming of doing wicked things to her lush body. Very well, perhaps he also dissuaded some of her suitors. But what’s a little deception between friends?

Never provoke a man as dangerous as this one…
With his enemy growing bolder and Maureen contemplating marriage to another man, Henry is caught in the crossfire between his mission and his heart. Any move could exact a devastating cost. But losing the woman he loves is one price he refuses to pay.

Rating: B+

Confessions of a Dangerous Lord is the seventh book in Elisa Braden’s Rescued from Ruin series, and although it features a storyline that has obviously been present in some of the earlier novels, this is the first of Ms. Braden’s books I’ve read and I was able to follow along quite easily.  I won’t deny that there were a few times I wished I’d had a stronger grasp of how that plotline had evolved, but that’s down to me, and not any lack of skill on the part of the author – and anyway, it in no way detracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. The writing is strong and the opening scenario drew me in straight away, quickly supplying some necessary back-story without being an info dump.  The two principals are well-drawn, attractive characters, with the hero being one of those Pimpernel-esque types I’m particularly fond of; the garrulous society favourite who is widely believed to be interested only in horses and fashion but who is, beneath it all, fiercely intelligent, highly competent and utterly deadly.

Maureen Huxley has been in love with Henry Thorpe, Earl of Dunston, for pretty much the whole of the two years she has known him.  He’s wealthy, deliciously handsome, charming, kind, clever and makes her laugh – in short he’s perfect for her, apart from one small thing.  He doesn’t want her.  Or rather, he isn’t interested in her romantically, much preferring to remain on terms of friendship with her.  Reckoning that half a loaf is better than no bread at all, Maureen hides her disappointment at his rejection and they continue as friends, but lately, she has begun to wonder if her friendship with Henry may be scuppering her chances of making a suitable marriage.  She has been out for three seasons and hasn’t received so much as a single offer; she longs for a husband and family of her own and realises that the only way she is ever going to stand a chance of getting those things is to cut ties with Henry and try to make room in her heart for someone else.

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

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

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Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

The Drowned Girls (Angie Pallorino #1) by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared …

But Detective Angie Pallorino never forgot the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victim’s foreheads.

When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?

Then the body of a drowned young woman floats up in the Gorge, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.

Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake lose some unsettling secrets about her own past . . .
How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?

Rating: A-

The Drowned Girls – the first book in Loreth Anne White’s Angie Pallorino trilogy – is a superbly plotted, intense romantic thriller which sees the heroine trying to come to terms with family problems, the recent death of her work-partner and concerns about her own mental health – all while continuing to work as a detective in the Metro Victoria PD sex crimes unit and gunning for a promotion to the elite, all-male homicide division.

Angie has always been a bit difficult to work with.  She’s hot-tempered, stubborn and doesn’t work well with others, but she’s good at her job and truly believes she makes a difference by doing what she does, putting away the sick bastards who prey (mostly) on women and young girls.  But dealing with the sorts of things she has dealt with on a daily basis for the past six years has gradually taken its toll, and even before her partner was killed a few months earlier, Angie had begun to shut down her emotions and close herself off, to become all about the job and nothing else. But since his death, and the death of the child they were working to save from her abuser, Angie has pretty much gone down the rabbit-hole; she’s in a self-destructive downward spiral, driving herself harder and harder, having to work hard to contain her aggression and fury and needing to maintain control at all times, using meaningless sex with strangers as her coping mechanism and way of blowing off steam.

When a comatose sixteen-year-old girl is found dumped at the foot of a statue of the Madonna in a local graveyard, having been brutally assaulted, mutilated and almost drowned and has the shape of a crucifix carved into her forehead, Angie is sure it’s the work of the same killer she and her partner had been trying to put away three years earlier.  There were two victims (that they knew of) both sexually assaulted and with a crucifix drawn on their foreheads with a red marker.  The further disfigurement of the latest victim would indicate that the perpetrator is escalating – and the discovery of another body bearing the same mutilations and signs of assault, this time one who has been wrapped in polythene and dumped in the river – definitely supports that theory and indicates that he is almost certainly going to strike again soon.

Sergeant James Maddocks, formerly of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) has recently moved to the area in order to be close to his daughter, Ginny, who is a student at the University of Victoria.  His marriage broke down under the strain placed upon it by his job and while the move to the Victoria PD is a bit of a step-backwards career wise, he wants to be near Ginny and to be a better dad.  He is assigned as lead on the case of the body found in the river, and when the victim from the graveyard dies, the case turns into a double homicide.

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

A Dangerous Deceit (Thief Takers #3) by Alissa Johnson

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Miss Jane Ballenger unexpectedly inherits her brother’s worldly goods—the furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac on which he frittered away their entire family fortune—the only thing to do is catalog the lot of it and sell it off piece by piece. How else will she continue to support Twillins Cottage, the one place she feels safe? Born with a peculiar hearing problem, Jane has long kept to her isolated home in the woods, content with the company of a few close friends, and far removed from those who would brand her an idiot and consign her to life in an asylum. So when the devilishly charming private investigator, Sir Gabriel Arkwright, turns up on her doorstep to claim her new belongings in the name of the crown, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her refuge, her loved-ones, and her well-guarded secret. Even if it means employing a bit of deception.

There are few things in life Sir Gabriel Arkwright enjoys more than a good mystery, especially when it’s a woman. Ever ready to take on an interesting puzzle, he’s determined to learn why the enigmatic Miss Ballenger has hidden herself away from the world. Before he can hope to ferret out the truth, however, Jane unearths national secrets hidden amongst her brother’s possessions. Now Gabriel must decide what’s more important, keeping state secrets out of the hands of a double agent, or protecting the woman who is quickly becoming more to him than just another mystery to solve…

Rating: A-

I am at a loss to understand why Alissa Johnson doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention afforded to the ‘big-name’ authors of historical romance. Every book of hers I’ve read has been superbly written, featuring well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, a well-constructed plot, subtle humour and a beautifully developed romance – yet for some reason, she’s very underrated. This third book in her Thief Takers series is another intelligently crafted character-driven romance, this time featuring a devilishly charming private investigator and a most unusual heroine who are forced to go on the run in order to protect some sensitive government information.

A Dangerous Deceit begins when Miss Jane Ballenger opens her front door on the extremely attractive face and person of Sir Gabriel Arkwright, one of the famous Thief Takers, a trio of former police officers who became instant celebrities when they solved a high-profile case of theft and rescued a duchess some ten or eleven years earlier. The most senior officer – Owen Renderwell – received a viscountcy and his colleagues, Arkwright and Samuel Brass were knighted; and the three of them went into business together as private investigators. Renderwell’s and Sir Samuel’s stories are told in the two previous books (A Talent for Trickery and A Gift for Guile), but all three work perfectly well as standalones – although I’d definitely recommend reading them, as they’re every bit as well-written and enjoyable as this one.

Sir Gabriel explains that he has been engaged by the Foreign Office to come to Jane’s remote cottage in order to retrieve some important information that is hidden among the personal effects belonging to her late brother, Edgar. Edgar spent the past fifteen years living the high life in St. Petersburg, frittering away his sister’s fortune as well as his own, leaving Jane with next to nothing. Now she is faced with the prospect of selling off his possessions so that she can keep a roof over her head and continue to support herself and the Harmons, the couple who have lived with her and looked after her since she was ten years old.

Jane is flustered – her tiny cottage is crammed to the rafters with trunks and boxes and God knows what else – but isn’t about to let someone waltz off with what is likely her only source of funds without some sort of security and insists that Sir Gabriel sign a contract promising the return of the goods once he has found what he is looking for.

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