Sinful Scottish Laird (Highland Grooms #2) by Julia London

sinful-scottish-laird

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Widowed and forced to remarry in three years’ time or forfeit her son’s inheritance, Daisy Bristol, Lady Chatwick, has plenty of suitors vying for her hand and her fortune. But a letter from a long-lost love sends Daisy and her young son to her Scottish Highland estate to buy time for his return. Along the way she encounters the powerful Cailean Mackenzie, laird of Arrandale and a notorious smuggler, and she is utterly and unwillingly bewitched.

Cailean has no use for any Sassenach in his glen. But Daisy’s brazen, flirtatious nature and alluring beauty intrigue him. When her first love appears unexpectedly at her estate, Cailean knows that a passionate woman like Daisy cannot marry this man. And to prevent the union, Cailean must put his own life at risk to win her heart.

Rating: B

Julia London returns to the Scottish Highlands in the region of Balhaire for Sinful Scottish Laird, the second book in her Highland Grooms series. Like the previous book, Wild Wicked Scot, the story takes place during a time of great unrest, with the Jacobites who are loyal to the deposed Stuart kings still actively trying to topple the Hanoverian monarchy installed just over three decades earlier. Unlike that book, however, the political background here is much more low key, even though there is the ever present discontent among the Highland population at their treatment by the English, especially when it concerns the ridiculously high taxes that are being levied on the basic goods that are needed to survive.

Shortages and high taxation rates naturally encourage the growth of “Free Trade” – smuggling – and Cailean Mackenzie, oldest son and heir of Laird Arran Mackenzie (hero of Wild Wicked Scot) and his brother Aulay frequently cross the seas to France in order to bring in cargoes of necessities as well as the finest French wines and brandies that can be sold at a tidy profit.

When he isn’t engaged in piracy, Cailean spends most of his time at his estate, Arrandale, working upon the house he is building for himself there. A youthful romance-gone-wrong has left him shy of emotional involvement and preferring to keep his relations with women informal and short-lived. At thirty-five, he has decided that love and marriage isn’t for him; he has grown to like his own company and solitary pursuits and is content to leave it to his brothers Aulay and Rabbie to secure the Mackenzie succession.

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

Convenient Proposal to the Lady (Hadley’s Hellions #3) by Julia Justiss

convenient-proposal-to-the-lady

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‘Duty can also be pleasure, Lady Alyssa…’

When politician Benedict Tawny set out to save Lady Alyssa from a nefarious plot, he never expected to find himself trapped in a compromising situation with the alluring lady! Now duty demands he propose…and claim her as his bride! Tainted by his illegitimacy, Ben knows he can’t give Alyssa the life of luxury she deserves. But if he can convince her to succumb to the undeniable heat between them, their convenient marriage might just lead to the love of a lifetime!

Rating: A-

Convenient Proposal to the Lady is the third book in Julia Justiss’ series featuring Hadley’s Hellions, four young men who forged strong friendships at school and university and who are now united in their dedication to bringing about political reform. While the romance in each book is most definitely to the fore, there’s enough social and political detail to add depth and an extra layer of interest to each story. That, combined with my favourite trope of a marriage of convenience made this entry in the series an especially enjoyable one.

Benjamin Tawny was born on the wrong side of the blanket to a viscount and a former governess. His father publicly acknowledges him, and has always provided for Ben and his mother, enabling Ben to go to school and university, which has helped him to make the sorts of connections necessary for him to pursue his chosen career. But Ben has never been particularly well-disposed towards the viscount, believing him to have been a heartless seducer who left the woman he had ruined to social ostracism and censure.

In spite of being base born, Ben is, like his fellow Hellions, a rising star in the political firmament; he has represented his parliamentary seat for almost eight years, has earned the respect of his constituents and has a reputation for being honest, determined, hard-working and above all, honourable. So when he overhears a group of men making a wager as to who can seduce and ruin a young lady, and knowing the sort of treatment meted out to ‘fallen’ women, he can’t stand by and do nothing. He decides to seek out Lady Alyssa Lambourne and warn her that she has been made the target of a plot by Lord Denbry solely because of the enmity that lies between him and Lady Alyssa’s brother.

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

Wildfire (Fire #3) by Anne Stuart

wildfire

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Her power-hungry husband takes pleasure in her pain, but she’s done playing the victim.

Three years ago, ex-operative Sophie Jordan made the mistake of falling in love—and marrying—her target. Now she’s paying for it tenfold. Her husband might be one of the sexiest men alive, but he’s also a psychopath. She’s been a virtual prisoner, and the time has come for retribution—and escape.

Undercover agent Malcolm Gunnison has his orders: get intel from Sophie’s arms-dealer husband, then kill him. He plans to get rid of her, too, if she gets in his way, but he’s unprepared when she gets under his skin instead. Whose side is she on? And what is she hiding behind those mesmerizing eyes?

Sophie vowed to never fall for another man again, but this sexy undercover agent is different. With danger mounting, can Malcolm and Sophie trust each other—and their growing passion—enough to get out of this operation alive?

Rating: B-

Any long-time romance reader probably has a favourite type of hero.  Protective alphas, arrogant arseholes, smooth spies and men of action… and then there are Anne Stuart heroes, who, as anyone familiar with her work will know, are a mixture of all the above with the aresholery often dialled up to the max.  But you know what?  They’re my blind spot.  They’re so full of testosterone, over-the-top masculine and fiercely protective of their women (albeit not quite at caveman levels) that they’re almost caricatures… but I still don’t care – I love ‘em.

The big saving grace is probably that your Anne Stuart alpha-hole hero isn’t a Neanderthal. He’s  highly-intelligent, well-educated, frighteningly competent, seriously hot – and ultimately redeemable.   Yes, any sane woman would probably run a mile in the opposite direction if she met one, but fortunately, this is highly stylised fiction, and Ms. Stuart always manages to redeem these ruthless men admirably.  But I can accept that her particular brand of gamma hero is an acquired taste, and if those types of characters aren’t for you, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise.

But for those of us who do drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, Malcolm Gunnison, the hero of Wildfire – the third in the author’s current Fire series – is another in a long line of those guilty-pleasure heroes we love to hate.  Mal is sent by the Committee  – a covert, international organization that paid no attention to legal or moral implications in its quest to make the world a safer place – to the Caribbean island of Isla Mordita to meet with Archer MacDonald, international arms and drug dealer, and the man behind the development of a new biological agent, RU48 (also known as Pixiedust!) which is unlike any chemical weapon previously developed.  Mal’s cover as an ex-Committee agent now acting as the middle-man for a potential buyer works perfectly to convince Archer that he’s dealing with a man every bit as dangerous as himself.

Mal’s job is to find out everything he can about the weapon, kill Archer and get out – and it’s up to him whether he gets the man’s wife out with him or leaves her there.  A former CIA and State Department agent, Sophie Jordan was in the early stages of her Committee training when she was made part of a team sent to undertake surveillance on Archer and made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying him – only to discover, too late, that the man was a ruthless psychopath.  When Archer discovered she had been a Committee agent, he ordered her murder.  Sophie narrowly escaped death, but the bullet damaged her spine and for the past two years, she has been confined to a wheelchair, a literal prisoner on the island subject to the not so tender mercies of her husband, who takes delight in playing psychological games, and abusing her both emotionally and physically.  But a year ago, she began to regain the use of her legs, and without anyone knowing, has been building her strength and training for the day when she will kill Archer and get the hell outta Dodge.

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

An Unseen Attraction (Sins of the Cities #1) by K.J Charles

an-unseen-attraction

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lodging-house keeper Clem Talleyfer prefers a quiet life. He’s happy with his hobbies, his work—and especially with his lodger Rowley Green, who becomes a friend over their long fireside evenings together. If only neat, precise, irresistible Mr. Green were interested in more than friendship. . . .

Rowley just wants to be left alone—at least until he meets Clem, with his odd, charming ways and his glorious eyes. Two quiet men, lodging in the same house, coming to an understanding . . . it could be perfect. Then the brutally murdered corpse of another lodger is dumped on their doorstep and their peaceful life is shattered.

Now Clem and Rowley find themselves caught up in a mystery, threatened on all sides by violent men, with a deadly London fog closing in on them. If they’re to see their way through, the pair must learn to share their secrets—and their hearts.

Rating: B+

K.J. Charles announced a while back that her new Sins of the Cities series of historical romances would feature stories in the mould of Victorian Sensation Fiction:

“… channelling my love for Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Dickens in his wilder moods, and the other glorious writers of complicated plots with scandals, secrets and shenanigans up the wazoo.”

To say I was excited at the prospect of something like this coming from one of my favourite writers is a gross understatement; I read a steady diet of books by those authors – and others – throughout my twenties and thirties, so I eagerly snapped up An Unseen Attraction, eager to see how Ms. Charles would employ the conventions and stylistic features of that particular genre of fiction in her story.  And she does not disappoint.  It’s all here – swirling Pea-Soupers, sinister figures lurking in the dark, a long-buried family secret, manipulative relatives who are not what they seem…  and an endearingly innocent protagonist and the stalwart love of his life who support each other through life-threatening events and unpleasant revelations.  The main difference, of course, is that those characters are both male, and the author has done a fabulous job in translating the traditional role of the artless heroine who is – unknowingly – under threat from the machinations of an evil relative to a male character who is similarly circumstanced.

That character is Clem Talleyfer, who keeps a quiet, respectable lodging house in Clerkenwell which was, even in mid-Victorian times, an area where multiculturalism flourished.  Clem is English, but was born to a white father and Indian mother, and he feels comfortable there, where –

There were Jews, Italians, Indians, Germans, Arabs and Africans and Chinese and more, all going about their own business like everybody else.

He has kept the lodging house for about eight years, and is good at it because he’s a “people person”; he’s a good listener and a kind, compassionate man with a good heart.  He’s quiet, reserved and methodical; he doesn’t like crowds or noise and finds it difficult sometimes to organise his thoughts, but he takes pride in his work – although he wishes the drunken Reverend Lugtrout, who lives at the house at the behest of Clem’s brother, who owns the place, would take himself somewhere else.

He has never understood his brother’s stipulation about Lugtrout having to live there, but there isn’t much he can do about it as the man has never shown any inclination to leave.  But when he is murdered and left unceremoniously on Clem’s doorstep, things take an abruptly menacing turn, threatening not only Clem’s safety, but that of the man he has come to love, Rowley Green, the taxidermist who rents the shop next door.

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

Blindsided (Men of Steele #3) by Gwen Hernandez

blindsidedThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE’S RUNNING FOR HER LIFE
Framed for espionage, reformed hacker Valerie Sanchez has no choice but to run. Worse, when the proof of her innocence is destroyed, things turn deadly. Can she trust the sexy terrorist hunter who mysteriously turns up to protect her, or is he the real threat?

HE’S HOT ON HER TRAIL
Former Marine sniper Scott Kramer’s job was supposed to be easy. Follow the hot computer geek who stole plans for classified weapons until she meets her buyer, then let law enforcement take over. But when Valerie becomes an assassin’s target, Scott’s gut says she’s innocent. Now, he must risk his life—and his heart—to keep her safe.

Rating: B

New-to-me author Gwen Hernandez has crafted a tightly plotted page-turner in Blindsided, the third book in her Men of Steele series.  The heroes are all ex-military men who now work for Kurt Steele’s  security firm, and even though this is the third in the series and some characters from the other books are referenced or make brief appearances, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Valerie Sanchez is the daughter of an infamous ‘black hat’ hacker (i.e, someone who hacks into computer systems with criminal intent) but although she worked alongside her Papá when younger, she now works for Aggressor International – a government funded organisation that hunts down terrorists – as one of their team of ‘white hat’ hackers, people employed to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security holes in the computer systems of their clients.  She’s an unashamed geek who loves her job and her current assignment is to hack into the servers of Westgate Defence Systems to find and report on any weaknesses in their online security.  With her partner, Jay Suresh, she has finally managed to find a way in, but before she can file her report, she discovers something odd; all the companies she has been employed to hack over the past few months suffered security breaches following her investigations.  Believing that this must mean the clients have not undertaken the security measures outlined in her various reports, she makes her concerns known to her boss, Duncan Hollowell.

Former marine sniper Scott Kramer, a member of the Steele Security team, has gone undercover as a new employee at Aggressor in order to undertake surveillance on a staff member suspected of stealing information from the company.  The few times he’s spoken to Valerie Sanchez, she’s seemed flustered and tongue-tied; she might be a bit geeky but his gut is telling him that this woman isn’t guilty of anything.  So he’s astonished when Hollowell tells him she’s downloaded several files relating to classified weapons systems and tells him to keep her under surveillance until the FBI team arrives to arrest her.

Valerie soon realises she’s been set up, but before she can make a run for it, the FBI is banging on her door.  She’s being escorted to a car when shots ring out – one of the agents is hit and someone screams at Valerie to run.  Watching all this, Scott heads after her, but does nothing to stop her getting away.

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

Pretty Face (London Celebrities #2) by Lucy Parker

pretty-face

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The play’s the fling

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie—and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance — if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad-tempered and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately, their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career, it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

Rating: A

Lucy Parker’s début novel, Act Like It was – it seems – an instant hit, one of those books you suddenly see all over your Goodreads feed because all your friends are reading it. I’m confidently predicting the same for her follow up, Pretty Face, because it’s every bit as vibrant, funny, sexy and poignant as the first book – quite possibly even more so, on all counts. I finished the last page with a smile on my face and feeling uplifted – and wondering if I had the time to go back and read it all over again, which doesn’t happen very often, I can tell you.

Like its predecessor, Pretty Face is set amid the chaotic world of London’s West End, shedding light on all the behind the scenes activity that has to happen in order to mount a theatre production, and taking a good look at the impact of celebrity culture and media intrusion on the lives of those who work in that particular field.

Luc Savage is an extremely successful and respected director. He has the reputation of being something of a martinet – a stickler for discipline and professionalism and a hard task master, although not unfair or mean. The theatre is in his blood; his father is an actor, his mother an opera singer and over the past few years he has invested heavily – both in terms of money and time and effort – in renovating the Queen Anne Theatre, which has been owned and run by his family for generations, but which fell into disrepair some twenty-five years earlier. It’s a massive task for him both professionally and personally, but it’s nearing fruition and he has chosen to open with a production of 1553 a play by a multi-award winning young playwright and in which the three principal characters are Queen Mary I, Elizabeth Tudor and Lady Jane Grey. Having had to recast the role of Mary due to the fact that his long-time girlfriend, actress Margot Roy, recently left him to get married to an Italian opera singer, Luc now faces the prospect of having to re-cast Elizabeth, too, because the actress originally chosen has broken her leg. One of the young actresses on the list of potential replacements is Lily Lamprey, twenty-six, blonde, beautiful and the star of the hit historical drama-cum-soap opera, Knightsbridge, in which she plays the part of Gloria, a scheming man-stealer that viewers love to hate.

Luc knows that casting a popular TV star could be good publicity and increase ticket sales, but no way is he interested in bringing on board some Marilyn Monroe look-alike with a porn-star voice who probably needs direction to tie her own shoes. But his casting director – whom he trusts – thinks Lily has potential and eventually Luc is persuaded to give her an audition. And when he does, he’s surprised to discover that Lily definitely does have a certain something –

Under the soap-opera shit, an actor

– even though her voice is going to need work.

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

TBR Challenge: The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

the-wagered-widowThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE INSISTED ON TREATING HER LIKE A TROLLOP!

… and Rebecca Parrish, a most respectable young widow, found him utterly odious. What right had this supercilious rake, Trevelyan de Villars, to incessantly force his attentions on her? Rebecca far preferred Trevelyan’s charming friend, the noble Sir Peter Ward. Indeed, her dreams of handsome Sir Peter aimed straight for the altar!
What Rebecca soon discovered duly horrified her. For her dear Sir Peter and the contemptible Trevelyan had formailzed a bet – that Trevelyan could seduce the very proper widow within a month’s time.

Still, Trevelyan’s attentions grew ever more passionate. And Rebecca found (to her horror!) that she thrilled to his touch. As her heart strove to resist this irresistible cad, she suddenly saw what he really was: A libertine no more – now at last and forever in love!

Rating: B

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her books have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s books are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the paperback edition (1984) of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear that these are two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.