The Duke of Desire (The Untouchables #4) by Darcy Burke

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Ten years ago Ivy Breckenridge’s life was ruined. She had to reinvent herself, and now, after painstakingly making her own way in the world, she’s nearly forgotten the dreams of home and family she’d once nurtured. Until one man peers into her soul and awakens every one of her hidden desires. But no matter how good he makes her feel, she can’t trust him—alone by choice is better than alone by necessity.

With a notorious reputation for training married women in the art of passion, Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare, is reviled by some and celebrated by others. He doesn’t allow anyone close enough to see past his charming exterior. When Ivy uncovers the man beneath, the seducer is suddenly the seduced. Enraptured by her mind and spirit, he wants more but revealing his darkest secrets is a price he won’t pay.

Rating: B+

The Duke of Desire, the fourth book in Darcy Burke’s series, The Untouchables, is quite possibly my favourite of them all so far. I will admit that when I read the blurb, I was doubtful. After all, the idea that the eponymous duke is a kind of Regency Era sex-therapist who helps couples to liven up their love lives by sleeping with the wives and helping them to learn to find and give pleasure – is certainly most unusual, not to mention unlikely. But bear with me; the ability to suspend your disbelief on that point will pay dividends, because said duke turned out to be one of the most charming, well-balanced and thoroughly adorable heroes I’ve read about in a while.

Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare – known as West to his friends – has such a notorious reputation as a seducer of married women that he has been nicknamed ‘The Duke of Desire’ by lady’s companion, Ivy Breckenridge and her friends Lucy and Aquilla (heroines of the previous two books). West is one of several eligible gentlemen the ladies also designated as ‘Untouchable’, men so far about them in station that they daren’t even look that high, let alone think about doing anything else. However, given that Lucy and Aquilla have recently married two of those men (The Duke of Daring and The Duke of Deception), it seems that perhaps the Untouchables weren’t so far out of reach after all. Although Ivy has absolutely no intention whatsoever of finding out if the Duke of Clare is touchable or not; in fact, she wanted to nickname him ‘The Duke of Depravity’, because the ease with which he embarks upon his numerous affairs disgusts her.

She is therefore not best pleased when, at a house-party she is attending with her employer, the duke takes notice of her and attempts to start up a flirtation. There’s no doubt he’s very handsome and very charming, but Ivy isn’t interested, and certainly not in a man whose attention to a lowly, paid companion can only lead to one thing. And Ivy isn’t interested in that, either. Yet in their few, brief encounters, West reveals himself to be something quite different to the heartless seducer Ivy believes he is. He doesn’t deny the truth of his many affairs, but unlike the other rakes she has encountered, West is not self-centred or jaded – in fact he’s the exact opposite. She has never before met someone who seems so comfortable in his own skin, someone with such a capacity for joy and the desire for others to find their own happiness… and in spite of her misgivings, she begins to wish she could experience some of that joy for herself.

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

The English Duke by Karen Ranney

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For years, Martha York has been fascinated by a man she’s never met—Jordan Hamilton, the new Duke of Roth and protégé to her inventor father. Could the elusive gentleman possibly live up to his brilliant letters? When Martha travels to his estate to carry out her father’s last bequest, she discovers that the answer is a resounding yes, for the duke’s scientific mind belies a deep sensuality…

Jordan was determined to complete his prototype alone, but it’s impossible to resist the alluring young woman who shows up at his door. Working together, they grow ever closer, until a case of mistaken identity leaves him bound to another. A woman’s heart may be more complex than the most intricate invention, but Jordan must find a way to win Martha’s, or lose the only woman who can truly satisfy him…

Rating: B

I hesitate to describe Karen Ranney’s latest offering, The English Duke as being part of a series, because really, it’s a standalone novel that doesn’t feature any characters or continue any plotlines from the author’s last book, The Scottish DukeThe titles are similar, of course (the forthcoming third book is The American Duke) and there are a number of common plot elements;  the hero is a scientist and there’s an evil “other woman” character, for instance. I’m not sure if the similarities are deliberate – a way of providing a link between the books – or just accidental, but whatever the case, I enjoyed this one enough to feel happy recommending it.

Martha York’s father was a scientist and inventor of some renown. Upon his death, he left his large fortune to his two daughters, and bequeathed his prototypes and notes on his latest project to his protégé and long-time collaborator, Jordan Hamilton, the Duke of Roth. York and the duke had corresponded for years, since before Jordan, a former naval officer, inherited his title, so Martha was both upset and annoyed when the duke failed to respond to her father’s request that Jordan visit before he died. The one communication Martha has received tersely informed her that the duke did not want her father’s bequest, and she can’t understand it.  Over the years, she was privy to the correspondence between Jordan and her father, and feels she came to know and understand him a little through his words. She knows he was as invested in their current project – to develop a working torpedo-ship – as her father was. Why then, is he so emphatic about refusing her father’s dying wish?

She decides that if the duke won’t come to her, then she will go to him and arranges to travel to his estate, Sedgebrook, accompanied by her younger half-sister, Josephine, and their grandmother.  Martha intends to deliver the numerous boxes and files her father left, stay at the village inn overnight and travel back the next day, but when her grandmother is taken ill, there is no alternative but for the ladies to accept the duke’s (somewhat begrudging) offer of hospitality.

Jordan Hamilton was never meant to be a duke.  A second son, he made his career in the Navy and then at the War Office (in the department that was eventually to become the Intelligence Division) and inherited his title following the death of his older brother – discovering only then that both brother and father had dipped deep and left him with a large estate but not the means to pay for its upkeep.  Not long after that, he had a serious riding accident which crushed his leg; the doctors said he’d never walk again, but he has proven them wrong through sheer bloody-mindedness, although he has to use a cane and still suffers a lot of pain.  He’s not gregarious – as his brother was – much preferring his own company and “tinkering” with his various scientific projects which, of which, at the moment, the development of the torpedo-ship is the most important.

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

Claiming His Desert Princess (Hot Arabian Nights #4) by Marguerite Kaye

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Stolen nights with the secret princess…

Bound to marry for duty, Princess Tahira finds her only freedom in forbidden escapes to the desert. Then one night she encounters a stranger under the stars—adventurer Christopher Fordyce. He’s wildly attractive and thrillingly dangerous…an illicit fantasy she can’t resist!

Even unaware of Tahira’s royal blood, Christopher knows his shameful past makes any future with her impossible. But in the sultry desert heat, desires are uncovered and secrets unveiled, and soon Christopher will risk everything to claim his desert princess!

Rating: B-

Claiming His Desert Princess is the final book in Marguerite Kaye’s Hot Arabian Nights quartet of historical romances set in Arabia in the early 1800s. Contemporary romances abound with gorgeous sheikh heroes, but they’re not so often found in historicals, and neither are there that many regency romances set outside England, so the series had a dual appeal for me, and I’ve enjoyed all the books to varying degrees (my favourite is still the first, The Widow and the Sheikh). In this story, however, it’s the heroine rather than the hero who is of royal blood. Christopher Fordyce, who has appeared briefly in the earlier books, is clearly on a mission of some kind, the nature of which has not so far been made entirely clear. Having conceived the idea of him as a kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia (as personified by Peter O’Toole), I’ve been looking forward to his story and finally discovering exactly what he was up to. All is indeed revealed in this book, but I can’t deny that some pacing issues, a rushed ending and a sense of “oh – was that it?” ultimately left me feeling a little disappointed.

English antiquarian and surveyor, Christopher Fordyce, has travelled to Arabia in order to return a valuable ancient artefact to its rightful owner – or at least to the owner’s descendants. He has been in the country for over six months, travelling around trying to trace the origin of a turquoise amulet which was left to him upon the death of his father, and finally believes he has located the key to his quest in the form of the newly opened mines in the kingdom of Nessarah. He visits at night in order to see what progress has been made on the excavations, and is discovered there by a young woman named Tahira who explains she is deeply interested in the history of Nessarah and has begun to make a study of it and the various artefacts she finds. There is an undeniable spark of attraction between them from the very first, and they immediately bond over their shared interest in history and in uncovering the mysteries of the past. Tahira is able to supply Christopher with some interesting snippets of information regarding the mine and its workings and at each meeting, they reveal a little more of themselves to each other which, for Tahira, provides an incredible taste of freedom from the life to which she has been born. For she is keeping one, very important detail from Christopher, which is that she is the eldest sister of Prince Ghutrif, who is the de factor ruler of Nessarah.

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

The Secret of My Seduction (Scandals #4.5) by Caroline Linden

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The final chapter in the Scandals series…

Rule #1: Be discreet

No one suspects Bathsheba Crawford of being the anonymous author of a wickedly scandalous series of naughty novels. But she is.

Rule #2: Do not fall in love

When she approaches her publisher, rakish Liam MacGregor, with an indecent proposal, he’s shocked. But he accepts.

Rules were made to be broken…

The requirements for their affair are simple: complete secrecy and no romantic attachment. But the more they see each other… the more pleasure they find in each other’s arms…the harder it becomes to remember the rules…

Rating: B

One of the things linking together the books in Caroline Linden’s recent Scandals series was Fifty Ways to Sin, the series of erotic pamphlets featuring the amorous adventures of the anonymous Lady Constance, a woman whose uninhibited pursuit of sexual pleasure captured the imagination of thousands of readers throughout England. The final book in the series, Six Degrees of Scandal, revealed the identity of the author, and saw the publication of the final instalments in the promised fifty stories, giving Lady Constance her own happy ending in the arms of a mystery lover and closing the book on the series.

But did it?

Bathsheba Crawford who, together with her brother, Daniel, had been responsible for printing the original pamphlets, was reluctant to say goodbye to their illicit enterprise. Not only had the money made from publishing Fifty Ways made them secure financially, she had, on occasion, edited the stories for publication, and had enjoyed being part of something that celebrated a woman’s sexuality and her search for love. So she decided to try her hand at writing something similar, and, when The Secret of My Seduction opens, has been writing a series of successful stories entitled Tales of Lady X for a number of months, now. Her brother knows nothing of this, however; Bathsheba’s publisher is Liam MacGregor – the owner and editor of the London Intelligencer, a popular news and gossip sheet – who appeared briefly in the final stages of Six Degrees when his presses helped meet the demand for the final issues of Fifty Ways to Sin.

But Bathsheba has a problem. While she has plenty of ideas for her stories, her writing is becoming stale, and she is becoming bored with writing the same thing over and over. She’s not a virgin, but her few sexual experiences were not exactly exciting and she has never experienced the sort of passion described by Lady Constance, which makes it difficult to write about in a believable way. So she comes up with the idea of asking Liam to make love to her in order to further her knowledge. After all, she tells him in her typically no-nonsense way, it will be to both their benefits – it will make her writing better and hopefully increase sales – and, she says, if the rumours about him and his prowess with the ladies are true, then she should certainly gain some useful experience in his bed.

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

For Deader or Worse (John Pickett Mysteries #6) by Sheri Cobb South

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After a modest wedding ceremony, Bow Street Runner John Pickett and his bride Julia, the former Lady Fieldhurst, set out for a wedding trip to Somersetshire, where Pickett must face his greatest challenge yet: meeting his in-laws.

Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon are shocked at their daughter’s hasty remarriage–and appalled by her choice of a second husband. Pickett, for his part, is surprised to learn that Julia once had an elder sister: Claudia, Lady Buckleigh, disappeared thirteen years earlier, leaving no trace beyond a blood-soaked shawl. When Sir Thaddeus confides that his wife is convinced Claudia’s spirit now haunts her childhood home, Pickett sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Julia’s family. He agrees to investigate and, hopefully, lay the Runyon “ghost,” whoever–or whatever–it is.

Matters take a grisly turn when Sir Thaddeus’s groom is discovered with his throat slit. The timing could hardly be worse, for the whole village is aflutter with the news that Lord Buckleigh has brought home a new bride, just when Major James Pennington, the vicar’s son who was Claudia’s childhood sweetheart, has returned on leave from war in the Peninsula. The major was apparently the last person to see Claudia alive, and Pickett is convinced he knows more about her disappearance than he’s telling. Suddenly it seems the distant past is not so distant, after all. It may not even be past . . .

Rating: C+

For Deader or Worse is the sixth full-length novel in Sheri Cobb South’s series of historical mysteries featuring the young Bow Street Runner, John Pickett who was first introduced in In Milady’s Chamber. In that book, the newly appointed runner encountered Lady Julia Fieldhurst, a beautiful young viscountess who was accused of murdering her older, abusive husband. John was immediately smitten with his prime suspect, which naturally led to a conflict of interests as he raced against time to prove her innocence in the face of the mounting evidence against her.

Through the ensuing books, readers have watched the couple become closer, even though the huge gap in their social stations would seem to make any relationship other than casual acquaintance impossible – until finally, the previous book – Too Hot to Handel – saw them thrust into a situation that meant they could no longer deny their feelings for each other. At the beginning of For Deader or Worse, John and Julia are married and on their way into Somerset, where John faces the prospect of meeting his in-laws, Sir Thaddeus and Lady Runyon.

As well as the development of the relationship between John and his lady, each book is also a self-contained mystery, so they can be read as standalones, although readers will undoubtedly gain more of an understanding of the ongoing romantic relationship if they have read the others. And in fact, this is undoubtedly the most interesting thing in the book, because the mystery is weak and easily solved by the end of the first chapter or so. Oh, there is a bit of a twist before the end, but it’s not exactly surprising or particularly suspenseful, and the ending is so rushed that it’s almost of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety.

On arrival at Runyon Hall, John is dismayed to realise that while Julia had written ahead to inform her parents of her visit, she had made no mention of her remarriage, believing it best to tell them in person. This only adds to John’s apprehension, and he doesn’t make a particularly good impression on first meeting. Both Julia’s parents are aghast that she has married so far beneath her and her father even offers John money to disappear – but the couple is stronger than that, and Julia makes it clear that she married John for love and that what is done is staying done.

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

Live Wire (Nashville’s Finest #1) by Caisey Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE’S NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING…

Explosive ordinance disposal specialist Chase Fisk never breaks a sweat defusing even the most complicated of explosives. So when a homicidal maniac threatens to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival, Chase is the man to take him down. But with the reappearance of a woman he thought was long dead, everything he thought he knew is blown away.

EXCEPT LOSING HER AGAIN.

FBI operative Vivien Montgomery is an enigma to everyone around her. So when a deadly threat lands her in Nashville and paired up with the only man she’s ever loved, she isn’t looking forward to an emotional reunion. She’s only here to get the job done and get out. But when the madman behind the chaos targets her for death, the one man she left behind might be the only person she can count on to save her life…

Rating: C-

Live Wire is the first book in Caisey Quinn’s aNashville’s Finest series, and with a blurb that promised a homicidal maniac threatening to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival,  and a rekindling romance between an explosives expert and his former lover, now an FBI agent, you’d think I was in for an action-packed, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, right?

Wrong.

Because Live Wire is, in fact, a damp squib.  There is very little action, the romance is perfunctory, the characters are barely two-dimensional and the plot is predictable and not particularly suspenseful.

Four years before the book opens, Chase Fisk watched the love of his life get blown to smithereens when a military training exercise went badly wrong.  He still has nightmares about that day, and has never really got over Vivien Brooks, in spite of having spent the first couple of years after her death trying hard to forget her in the beds of numerous other women.  An injury sustained during the blast got him a medical discharge from the army, and Chase now heads up an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit with the Nashville PD.

When a tip off leads Chase and his team to a condemned building on the east side of town they aren’t expecting to find a stash of military grade explosives and maps of the city marked up in a kind of code.  But with the prestigious Country Music Festival just weeks away – which will see a massive influx of tourists into the city – there’s no time to waste in decoding the maps, working out what is planned – and who is planning it.

Given the nature of the discovery, the FBI is called in, and immediately dispatches three highly trained agents to aid the Nashville police.  Among them is Vivien Montgomery, who, four years previously, had been undergoing military training when she’d been informed that she was the target of a Russian mafia boss who had a grudge against her family.  For her own safety, the Bureau faked her death and she was then sent on an undercover assignment to take down said mafia boss, which lasted around two years.  She is naturally wary at the prospect of seeing Chase again, certain he’s going to be furious at her deception rather than pleased to see her – and this is borne out at their first meeting, which is anything but a tender reunion. Fortunately, however, after some initial hostility and sniping, they realise they can’t go on this way and decide they need to address the elephant in the room.

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

TBR Challenge: My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway

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Connie Brockway’s novel of unexpected love begins with a series of letters between a world-weary adventurer and the beautiful suffragette whose passion calls him home.

“Dear Mr. Thorne, For the next five years, I will profitably manage this estate. I will deliver to you an allowance and I will prove that women are just as capable as men.” Lillian Bede is shocked when she is tapped to run the affairs of an exquisite country manor. But she accepts the challenge, taking the opportunity to put her politics into practice. There’s only one snag: Lily’s ward, the infuriating, incorrigible globe-trotter Avery Thorne.

“My Dear Miss Bede, Forgive me if I fail to shudder. Pray, do whatever you bloody well want, can, or must.” Avery’s inheritance is on hiatus after his uncle dies—and his childhood home is in the hands of some domineering usurper. But when he finally returns, Avery finds that his antagonist is not at all what he expected. In fact, Lily Bede is stunning, exotic, provocative—and impossible to resist.

Rating: B+

March’s prompt for the TBR challenge is “comfort read”, which is defined as a book that uses a favourite trope or setting, or is by a favourite author.  I’ve chosen something from my TBR that everyone seems to have read except me – Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, which combines two of my favourite things, an enemies-to-lovers romance and a story in which letters play an important part (I do love an epistolary novel!).  It’s a gloriously romantic, character-driven story set at the end of the 19th century, in which our hero – a famous explorer – and heroine – an advocate of women’s suffrage – butt heads over the home they both love, sniping and pushing each other’s buttons as the attraction between them deepens.

Avery Thorne finds himself all but disinherited upon the death of his uncle Horatio, who, believing Avery to be a weakling and in need of discipline and humility, has granted stewardship of his home and lands to the illegitimate daughter of his late wife’s sister, nineteen-year-old Lilian Bede.  Miss Bede is to take possession of the property for a period of five years, and at the end of that time, if the farm and land are profitable, the house will belong to her fully.  Avery is furious, but he can do nothing, and opts to leave England rather than watch someone else take possession of the only home he has ever known.

Lily Bede is astonished to find herself the recipient of a house, and does worry that if she accepts the bequest, she will be doing the legitimate heir – whom she has never met – a bad turn.  But she doesn’t really have an alternative; with her parents both dead, she is living pretty much hand-to-mouth, and the prospect of having a real home – even one that might end up being temporary – is too much to resist.  And besides, the alternative, receiving a small income instead, but one she will lose unless she publicly denounces the Women’s Suffrage movement… well, that just isn’t going to happen.  Taking the house is, as far as Lily is concerned, the lesser of two evils.

During the five years of Avery’s absence, he and Lily exchange a series of letters, that are full of biting sarcasm (without being nasty), humorous banter and, sometimes, emotional honesty.  Avery has gained a reputation as an adventurer and explorer, and has also made himself a lot of money by writing up the stories of his exploits which are serialised in a popular newspaper.  Yet he still carries with him his ideal of home and is still determined to claim Mill House when he returns to England.

In that time, Lily has had some success in turning a profit, but she’s not in the clear yet. She’s economised considerably, reducing the staff to a bare minimum and doing a lot of the work herself; it’s her only chance to have a house and home of her own, as she doesn’t ever want to get married, so she’s worked hard and is determined to keep the house that has become her home.

Even though she and Avery have been corresponding for nearly five years by the time he returns home, Lily is in no way prepared for the way he affects her from their first meeting.  Having been led – by descriptions of those who knew him before, and from his portrait – to expect a rather scrawny and unprepossessing individual, she is stunned to come face to face with the most handsome man she’s ever seen, one who radiates confidence and masculinity to such an extent he nearly takes her breath away.

Avery is just as surprised to discover that instead of the dried up spinster he’d expected, Lily is an exotic, feminine beauty, albeit one that strides around the place in tweed bloomers.  Of course they’re both smitten – but we knew that from reading their letters and especially from Avery’s reaction to the one Lily sent him after the death of a close friend.

Their romance is beautifully written and developed as both of them try to get the upper hand in order to prove they have a right to the house while coming to appreciate each other’s sterling qualities.  Avery is a truly swoonworthy hero without being stereotypical; he’s handsome, competent and confident, but he’s more of a beta than an alpha.  He’s not vastly experienced with women, he loves his home and wants to marry and have a large family.  He’s protective without being suffocating, and I loved the way he treats Lily as an equal and lets her do things for herself whereas many men of the time would have attempted to step in and do things for her.  The way he – and the reader – is shown the extent of Lily’s care of the estate and the prejudice she has encountered on account of her gender and her illegitimacy, is masterfully done, with one moment in particular almost reducing me to a quivering wreck.  His insistence on being a gentleman is very sweet – especially as his view of what is gentlemanly tends to be somewhat fluid – but the subtle message, that the mark of a true gentleman lies in the truth and honour of his actions rather than in his manners and the adherence to convention is expertly and effectively conveyed.

Lily, too, is a great character, and I liked her very much even though there were times I wanted to shake some sense into her near the end of the book. For most of it though, she’s terrific – witty, clever, sarcastic and perfectly able to hold her own against Avery’s barbs; it’s much more difficult for her to conceal how strongly attracted to him she is than it is to find the words to get under his skin.  My main criticism of Lily is that while her reasons for not wanting to marry are sound and very well explained (her mother’s husband took away her children after she left him and she never saw them again – it’s a heartbreaking story), she has chained herself to a dead woman’s grievances and made a crusade of her mother’s pain to such an extent that she has blinded herself to the truth of what’s standing in front of her – a man who loves and respects her deeply and will never hurt her.

There is a small but very well-drawn cast of secondary characters, most intriguing of whom is Horatio’s unmarried sister, Francesca, a fading beauty who fills her life with frivolity and, it’s implied, men, but who is characterised by an underlying sadness.  Bernard, Avery’s twelve-year-old cousin is a delight; a boy becoming a man, intent on protecting his womenfolk while he also suffers from the severe asthma which affected Avery as a child (and continues to do so in certain circumstances). The relationship that evolves between the pair is just lovely.

My main criticism of the book as a whole is that the ending is very abrupt, and, given all the angst that has gone before it, the tiniest bit anticlimactic. There is an epilogue set around a decade afterwards, but I needed a little more closure on the original story rather than a glimpse into the future.

But even so, My Dearest Enemy is a gem of a book, and I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s witty and clever, with some moments of true poignancy near the end which had me quite choked up – plus Avery is one of the most wonderfully romantic heroes I’ve ever read.