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

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

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

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

Rating: C+

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

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

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

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

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

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”

Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.

There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.

Rating: B-

I’ll admit right out of the gate that one of the reasons I picked up The Witchfinder’s Sister for review is because the real-life events that play out in the novel took place in the area in which I now live – North East Essex and South Suffolk.  Matthew Hopkins is a well-known historical figure in the UK; the self-styled Witchfinder General – a title he was never officially granted – lived in the small Essex town of Manningtree, but his influence was felt across all of East Anglia.  Between 1644 and 1647, Hopkins and his associates were responsible for the executions for witchcraft of over three hundred women.

In spite of his notoriety, very little is known about Hopkins’ personal life, but author Beth Underdown has painted an intriguing and menacing picture of the man and the events he set in train as seen through the eyes of his (fictional) sister, Alice, who, we learn at the beginning, has been imprisoned – we don’t know why or by whom – and who is using her time to record the full history of my brother, what he has done. 

In 1645, Alice returns to Manningtree following the tragic death of her husband in an accident.  She is apprehensive; her Mother (who is actually her stepmother, her father’s second wife) has recently died, and Alice is not sure if she will be welcomed back at home.  She is closest in age to her younger brother Matthew – the only child of her father’s second marriage – and they were close as children, but he did not approve of her marriage to the son of a family servant and they have not been on good terms ever since.  Yet Alice has nowhere else to go, and is relieved, on reaching the Thorn Inn – now owned by Matthew – that he is willing to let her stay with him.

It’s not long before she starts to hear odd rumours about her brother and to realise that he’s a very different man from the one she’d left when she got married and went to London.  In the intervening years, it seems that Matthew has become a man of some influence in the area, but Alice soon begins to hear some very disturbing things about his involvement in the accusations of witchcraft levelled at several local women.  At first, she is reluctant to believe it, but when she discovers that he is making lists of women suspected and accused, collecting evidence and convening trials, Alice reluctantly has to accept that her brother is a dangerous and unpredictable man.

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

The Vicar’s Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

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Cassie, the youngest of six daughters in the Wilton family, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There’s only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn.

Evan Glenside, a soft-spoken, East London clerk, has just been named his great-uncle’s heir and, though he is eager to learn all that will be required of him, he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position.

A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. But then Evan begins to court Lenora, thinking she is the author of the letters.

As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar’s daughter be able to reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

Rating: C

The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.

It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.

When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.

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

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

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

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

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only a Mistress Will Do (House of Pleasure #3) by Jenna Jaxon

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The man of her dreams . . . belongs to another woman.

Destitute and without friends, Violet Carlton is forced to seek employment at the House of Pleasure in London. She steels herself for her first customer and is shocked when the man rescues her instead of ravishing her. A grateful Violet cannot help but admire the handsome Viscount Trevor. But she must curb her desire for the dashing nobleman she can never have because he is already betrothed to another . . .

Tristan had gone to the House of Pleasure for a last bit of fun before he became a faithful married man. But when he recognizes the woman in his bed, he becomes determined to save her instead. Now, his heart wars with his head as he falls for the vulnerable courtesan. Unable to break his betrothal without a scandal, Tris resolves to find Violet proper employment or a husband of her own. Still, his arms ache for Violet, urging him to abandon propriety and sacrifice everything to be with the woman he loves. . .

Rating: D+

It can be tempting, when you read hundreds of books a year, to confine yourself to picking up titles by authors whose work you know you are going to enjoy. But when it comes to reviewing, I make a point of sampling books by some of the newer names in historical romance, and sometimes I’m lucky and I find a new author to add to my ‘’must read’ list. Sadly, however, it’s been my experience that the ‘finds’ are in the minority.

Jenna Jaxon’s Only a Mistress Will Do is most definitely NOT a find; in fact I now wish I’d lost it before I even started. Its overly contrived plot relies heavily on coincidence and consists of one cliché after another; no sooner have our hero and heroine emerged unscathed from one melodramatic development than they are thrust into another. The protagonists are barely two-dimensional, their behaviour is inconsistent and frequently contradictory, and the big reveal before the halfway point is no surprise whatsoever. And worst of all, this is a ‘romance’ in which readers are repeatedly told the hero and heroine love each other but are never shown the relationship progressing. By a quarter of the way through the novel, we’re meant to believe they’re desperately in love, but there is no chemistry and no romantic development; honestly, had I not been reading the book for review, I’d have abandoned it well before the halfway point.

Violet Carlton has been left destitute following the recent death of her grandmother and has reached the point where the only thing of value she has left to sell is herself. Remembering the name of a brothel once mentioned by her deceased brother (who was killed more than a year earlier in a duel) Violet makes her way there and asks the madam to employ her. A lovely, well-bred virgin will fetch a high price, so the woman is quite happy to accommodate Violet, and five days later, she is sent her first client, the man who has bought and paid for her virtue.

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

The Perfect Stranger (All the Missing Girls #2) by Megan Miranda

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Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own?

Rating: B

Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is billed as being a sequel to her highly successful All The Missing Girls – although as far as I can tell, there are no common characters or plot threads, unless one counts the fact that one of the characters in The Perfect Stranger is a “missing girl”! So if, like me, you haven’t read the earlier book, you won’t have any problems getting into this one, as it’s a standalone, and is a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing read that asks some interesting questions. How well we can ever know another person? How honest and accurate are our self-perceptions? Just how far would you go for a friend who’d done a lot for you?

Leah Stevens worked as a journalist in Boston until a story blew up in her face. She had been investigating the deaths – seemingly suicides – of four young college students which she was convinced were murders, but when she refused to reveal a key source, she was slapped with a restraining order and the paper threatened with a lawsuit. Betrayed – it was her boyfriend who tipped off their editor – with no job and nowhere to go, Leah is relieved when she runs into Emmy Grey, someone she’d lived with shortly after leaving college some eight years ago.

Over several drinks at Emmy’s place, Leah gathers that her friend has just come out of a bad relationship and is keen to get out of Boston, too, so they stick a pin in a map and settle on Western Pennsylvania as the place they can both make a fresh start. Leah gets a job as a school teacher (and I have to say, the author’s comments about various aspects of the profession struck a real chord with me!) while Emmy drifts about, cleaning houses, working at a local motel… and because their schedules are so different, with Emmy often coming home as Leah is going out, they rarely see each other. Even so, Leah gets the impression that all is not well with her friend; she’s tense and on edge and it’s like she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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