TBR Challenge – A Duchess in Name (Grantham Girls #1) by Amanda Weaver

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Victoria Carson never expected love. An American heiress and graduate of Lady Grantham’s finishing school, she’s been groomed since birth to marry an English title—the grander the better. So when the man chosen for her, the forbidding Earl of Dunnley, seems to hate her on sight, she understands that it can’t matter. Love can have no place in this arrangement.

Andrew Hargrave has little use for his title and even less for his cold, disinterested parents. Determined to make his own way, he’s devoted to his life in Italy working as an archaeologist. Until the collapse of his family’s fortune drags him back to England to a marriage he never wanted and a woman he doesn’t care to know.

Wild attraction is an unwanted complication for them both, though it forms the most fragile of bonds. Their marriage of convenience isn’t so intolerable after all—but it may not be enough when the deception that bound them is finally revealed.

Rating: B+

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.

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Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing youth. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles always finds fresh, new angles to pursue in her stories and peoples them with characters in unusual walks of life – and her new novella, Unfit to Print, is no exception.  Set in late Victorian London, one of the protagonists is a purveyor of naughty books and has a shop in Holywell Street, which was, at that time, the centre of London’s porn trade; while the other is a somewhat uptight lawyer who views the whole business with a degree of distaste.  The novella boasts a mystery to be solved, a relationship to be rekindled and a mountain of filth to be shifted, and all of it is deftly and expertly done in well under two hundred pages.

Vikram Pandey and Gilbert Lawless are from minority – albeit fairly well-do-do – backgrounds, and met at boarding school several years before the story opens.  Vik’s father had been a high-ranking government official in India, while Gil is the result of a liaison between a black housemaid and a wealthy gentleman who publicly acknowledged him, paid for his education and treated him as a son.  Gil and Vik bonded at school and became the best of friends in spite of the fundamental differences in their natures, Gil seeming never to have a care in the world while Vik was always a little uptight and reserved. But one day when they were sixteen, both their lives were upended when Gil disappeared without warning or a word to anyone.  Vik was devastated, but his enquiries at school were always met with stony silence and disapproval, and eventually he stopped asking about or looking for Gil, believing him to be dead. He must be, or surely he’d have got word to Vik somehow, to tell him what happened.

In fact, Gil was removed from school and pretty much cast onto the streets on the day his father died and his half-brother inherited the estate.  Gil begged and scraped a living and now runs a small bookshop on Holywell Street near the Strand which, at that time, contained the largest concentration of porn shops in England.  Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller is Gil’s two-fingered-salute to the brother who, he later learned, cheated him out of his father’s last bequest, as well as to the “kind of respectability that means keeping other people in line while you do as you please.”

He is surprised when his cousin Percy asks him to attend Matthew Lawes’ funeral – and not at all surprised when he discovers there was an ulterior motive for inviting him. It seems his uncle was a connoisseur of pornography of all sorts, and faced with a massive library of books and photographs which could cause the family huge embarrassment, (not to mention large fines and possible imprisonment!)  they want Gil to take it all away and dispose of it.  Gil isn’t interested in most of it, but some of the books – one of them particularly rare – catch his eye, so he decides he might as well get what he can out of it, and agrees to have the lot transported to his shop.  It’s when he’s looking through some of the photographs that he recognises the likeness of a young lad – a rent boy – named Errol, who was found dead in a local alley just three weeks earlier.

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

Cold Blooded (Cold Justice #9) by Toni Anderson

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A journalist searching for the truth about her best friend’s death—and the FBI agent who needs her to stop. 

Disgraced investigative journalist Pip West is devastated when she discovers her best friend’s body face-down in a tranquil lake. When cops and federal agents determine that her friend overdosed then drowned, Pip knows they’re mistaken and intends to prove it.

Special Agent Hunt Kincaid doesn’t trust journalists and has no patience for Pip’s delusions, especially since her meddling could reveal why the FBI is interested in her friend’s last days. The dead scientist worked at the cutting edge of vaccine research and might have a connection to a new, weaponized, vaccine-resistant anthrax strain that just hit the black market.

Pip is thrown off her game by grief and her unexpected attraction to the handsome federal agent. Hunt battles the same unwelcome pull, determined to resist the heat that threatens to consume them both. But the more Pip digs, the closer she gets to both the sexy FBI agent, and to a bioweapons terrorist who’s more than capable of cold-bloodedly sacrificing anyone who gets in his way.

Rating: B

I’ve been reading more and more romantic suspense novels of late, and although Toni Anderson is an author who’s been on my radar for a while, for some reason, I’ve not yet got around to reading anything of hers.  After reading her guest post at AAR a few weeks ago, I decided to rectify that, and picked up the latest in her Cold Justice series – Cold Blooded – for review.  It’s the ninth full-length novel in the series (which also includes a novella), but I had no problems whatsoever following the story, so I can say with confidence that it works perfectly well as a standalone.  I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of the genre; the plot is topical and well-executed, the characters are likeable and while the romantic angle is perhaps more low key than I normally like, it makes sense within the context of the story that this pair would take a bit of time to warm up to each other.

Pip West’s career as an investigative journalist might well be over following the recent publication of her story about police corruption that led to a dirty cop murdering his wife and kids before turning his gun on himself.  Devastated and burdened with guilt, Pip has fled her home in Florida and driven to rural Georgia, intending to stay with her best friend, Cindy – a research scientist at nearby Blake University – while she gets herself together and works out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  Arriving at her friend’s remote cabin on Lake Allatoona, Pip is worried when she sees her Cindy’s car outside, but can find no trace of her.  Upstairs on the balcony, she sees something floating in the lake and is horrified to realise it’s Cindy.  Panicked and horrified, Pip manages to drag the body out of the water and to call 911 – but it’s too late.

Following the discovery of a terrorist cell in possession of weaponised anthrax, Special Agent Hunt Kincaid, WMD co-ordinator at the Atlanta field office of the FBI, has been tasked with reaching out to anyone in the area whose work involves the use of bacillus anthracis.  Intelligence suggests that this new strain has come from a US source, so Hunt and his counterparts throughout the US are being alerted and given similar tasks, but given the number of government facilities, universities and biotech companies in the area – including the Centre for Disease Control – the Atlanta office is the first on the case.

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

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2) by Cat Sebastian

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Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Rating: B+

This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing.  It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.

If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life.  Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth.  Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will,  and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.

Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street.  The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can.  Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip.  Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.

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

Firestorm (Flashpoint #3) by Rachel Grant


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CIA covert operator Savannah James is after intel on a potential coup in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but she needs a partner fluent in Lingala to infiltrate the organization. Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan is the perfect choice, except he doesn’t like her very much. He doesn’t trust her, either, despite the sparks that flare between them, fierce and hot. Still, he accepts the assignment even though their cover requires Savvy to pose as his mistress.

They enter battle-worn Congo to expose the financing for the coup. A trail of cobalt, gold, and diamonds leads them into the heart of a jungle in which everyone is desperate to find the mother lode of ore and gems. Betrayal stalks them as they follow the money, but Savvy will stop at nothing to bring down the would-be dictator before he can ignite a firestorm that will engulf all of Africa.

Deep in the sultry rainforest, spy and Green Beret forge a relationship more precious than diamonds, but Cal knows Savvy is willing to sacrifice anything—or anyone—to complete her mission. As they near the flashpoint, Cal will have to save her from the greatest threat of all: herself.

Rating: A

I’ve been eager to get my hands on Firestorm, the third book in Rachel Grant’s gripping Flashpoint series, for months – and it was definitely worth the wait.  This is one high-octane, high-stakes ride; steamy, complex, intricately plotted, politically astute and emotionally fraught, Firestorm is easily one of the best romantic suspense novels I’ve read in ages and Ms. Grant is clearly an author at the top of her game.

All the books in the series have been set in and around the fictional US base of Camp Citron on the outskirts of Djibouti.  The series is called Flashpoint for a very good reason; the stories take place in some of the most dangerous places in the world (the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Congo), which are – literally – potential flashpoints that turn on a knife-edge; unstable regions and countries open to exploitation by influences both foreign and domestic.  In this story, most of the action takes place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Russian-backed dictator-in-waiting, Jean Paul Lubanga, is planning to seize power and gain control of the country’s massive wealth in diamonds, minerals and uranium oxide.  Russian control of the DRC would destabilise the already precarious political situation in Central Africa, and most worrying of all, the likely supply of uranium to places like Syria and Iran could be the first step towards World War Three.  The stakes couldn’t be higher, and Camp Citron’s resident ‘spook’, Savannah James, has been tasked with finding out exactly how close Lubanga is to staging a coup.

Savannah – Savvy –  has been a prominent secondary character throughout the series, a coolly enigmatic and ruthless (when called for) woman who is believed throughout the camp to be working for the CIA, although nobody knows for sure.  She’s frighteningly competent and utterly dedicated to getting the job done by whatever means necessary –and sometimes those means aren’t pretty.  Most of the people on camp dislike her and give her a wide berth, although she’s found an ally of sorts in Master Sergeant Pax Blanchard (hero of Tinderbox, book one) and Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford (hero of Catalyst, book two), the latter in spite of the fact that she ordered Bastian to seduce his now-fiancée, Brie Stewart, in order to gain information about the links between Brie’s family and the Russian mafia.  The one man in Bastian and Pax’s circle who makes no attempt to hide his dislike of Savvy is Sergeant First Class Cassius Callahan (Cal); that he also happens to be the one man Savvy wants at her back as she infiltrates a gathering comprising some of the most dangerous men in the world is not about to make life any easier for either of them.

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

My One True Duchess (True Gentlemen #5) by Grace Burrowes

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Jonathan Tresham, heir to the Duke of Quimbey, needs a discreet ally to help him choose a wife from the mob of young ladies eager to become his duchess. When proper widow Theodosia Haviland rescues him from a compromising situation, he knows he’s found an advisor he can trust. Theo’s first marriage taught her the folly of indulging in romantic notions, and she’s determined that Jonathan Tresham’s intended be an ideal match for him, not some smitten ninnyhammer.

When Jonathan suggests Theo should be at the top of his list of possible duchesses, she protests, though she knows that Jonathan is kind and honorable despite his gruff exterior. The last person Theo can allow Jonathan to marry is a widow guarding scandalous secrets, even if she does also harbor an entirely inappropriate attraction to the one man she can never have.

Rating: B

Opening up a Grace Burrowes book these days is like going to visit old friends.  Even though each of her novels focuses on a different couple, the author has done such a thorough job of creating her own Regency world and peopling it with the many different families who move in the same elevated circles, that I know I’m going to meet up with at least one – and usually, several – familiar characters and enjoy their interactions with whichever of the principals they happen to be most closely involved with.  My Own True Duchess is book five in the True Gentlemen series, and in it, I was pleased to become reacquainted with the Duke of Anselm (The Duke’s Disaster) and several of the Dorning brothers (Will Dorning is the hero of Will’s True Wish) as well as the Earl and Countess of Haddonfield and the youngest Haddonfield, Lady Della.  While it probably helps to have at least a rough idea of who all these people are, it’s not essential;  they are all secondary characters and their stories don’t really affect the principal narrative, in which a close friend of Anselm’s is out to find himself a suitable bride.

Mr Jonathan Tresham, a mathematical genius and highly successful businessman, has lived in Europe for the last decade and made himself a tidy fortune.  Having recently become heir to the Duke of Quimbey, he has returned to England, knowing it is incumbent upon him to find himself a wife and set about securing the future of the dukedom.  The trouble is that there’s a strong chance he’s not going to be given the time or opportunity to consider his choice; most of the eligible young ladies in London and their mamas have already scented blood and are circling the waters, some of them going to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a proposal from him.  One of these enterprising young misses has managed to manoeuvre him into a deserted library, and Jonathan can feel the noose tightening – but the débutante’s hopes are dashed when a slightly older, poised and attractive woman enters the room and very politely and delicately runs her off.

Jonathan’s saviour is Mrs. Theodosia Haviland, a widow who lives in shabby-genteel almost-poverty with her sixteen-year-old sister and her seven-year-old daughter.  Her late husband – who had been heir to a viscountcy – died young (from the effects of dissipation) and hugely in debt, and the new viscount used the finds that should have reverted to Theo in order to pay them off, leaving her with nothing.  In addition, he refused to pay Haviland’s ‘debts of honour’ (gambling debts) which were massive and which have taken Theo years of scrimping and scraping to be able to settle.

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

Mine: A Novel of Obsession by J.L. Butler

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Young divorce lawyer Francine Day has methodically built her career doing everything right. She’s one big case away from securing her place among London’s legal elite. But when she meets her new client, Martin Joy, the natural caution that has protected Francine and fueled her rise melts away. Powerless to fight the irresistible magnetism between them, client and counsel tumble into a blistering affair that breaks every rule.

Though Martin insists his marriage is over, Francine doesn’t believe him. Certain details he’s told her don’t quite add up. Consumed with a passion she cannot control and increasingly obsessed with Martin’s relationship with his wife, Donna, Francine follows the woman one night . . . and discovers her having dinner with her supposedly soon-to-be-ex-husband.

The next morning, Francine awakens in her neighbor’s apartment with blood on her clothes and no recollection of what transpired after she spied Donna and Martin together. Then Francine receives more devastating news: Martin’s wife has vanished. That dinner was the last place anyone has seen Donna Joy alive.

Suddenly, Francine finds herself caught in a dangerous labyrinth of deception, lies, and secrets, in which one false move could lead to her undoing. What happened that night and why can’t Francine remember? Where is Donna and who is responsible for her disappearance? The further Francine goes to find answers, the tighter the net seems to draw—around her lover, herself, and the life she’s meticulously built.

Rating: B

The premise for J.L Butler’s Mine sounded really intriguing, as did the idea of a barrister heroine, so I jumped right in and was immediately pulled into the story.  I don’t read many mysteries (I tend to prefer romantic suspense), but this one grabbed me right away, and even though there were a few things about the plotline and central character that made me scratch my head, I was pretty much gripped from beginning to end.

Francine Day, a hard-working barrister in her late thirties is a bit of a misfit in her profession. She comes from a working class family, she doesn’t have a public school education and she’s from Lancashire, her voice still carrying a bit of the northern twang she grew up with.  She works mostly in the field of family law, and has made herself a reputation as one of the best divorce lawyers around, specialising in the marital splits of the very wealthy.  It’s this reputation that brings her a client by the name of Martin Joy, an obscenely wealthy investment banker whose wife is out to take him to the cleaners for everything she can get.  Donna Joy wants half of everything Martin owns, including half his future earnings – and he wants to protect the company he and his friend, Alex Cole, have built from nothing.

The initial meeting over and arrangements made for the preliminary hearing, Fran is surprised to bump into Martin a few days later, in Selfridges of all places, and he invites her to have a drink with him.  One drink leads to another and eventually leads to their ending up in bed at Martin’s East London apartment and to a passionate affair that is completely outside Fran’s normal experience of sex and relationships.

This should perhaps ring the alarm bells.  She’s built a career on being upfront and doing what’s right – possibly as a reaction against her rather ‘wild-child’, rebellious adolescence – and she’s being encouraged by her colleagues and superiors to apply to take silk (which means she will become a QC, Queen’s Counsel, which is a prestigious appointment in her profession), and needs to keep her nose clean.  But she’s never felt this way about anyone and the thrill of being with Martin pushes all thoughts of her career into the back seat.  Eventually, however, the stress of keeping their relationship a secret begins to take its toll, and Fran finds herself gradually drowning amid the lies, her heavy workload and the hints of resurgence of the bi-polar disorder that she normally keeps under control through medication.  Even as she recognises the absurdity of her actions, when she suspects Martin is lying to her, and that perhaps his marriage is not as dead as he claims it is, Fran follows him one night and sees him meeting Donna, for a meal and then continues to watch them as they return to her house late that night.

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