Barrel Proof (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3) by Layla Reyne

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FBI agents Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker can’t get a moment’s peace. Their hunt for the terrorist Renaud seems to be nearing an end, until a fire allows him to slip through their fingers—and puts Jamie’s life in danger. When Jamie is nearly killed, Aidan learns how many forms loss can take.

Aidan says I love you just moments before learning that Jamie’s been keeping a devastating secret about Aidan’s late husband. How quickly trust and love can go up in flames. When Aidan requests a solo undercover assignment, Jamie hopes Aidan will find a way to forgive him.

But the explosions are far from over. Aidan’s cover lands him in the heart of the terrorist’s conspiracy, and Jamie will have to put his life, his career and his freedom on the line to save the man who has become his entire world. Partners, always is a promise he intends to keep.

Rating: B

Note:  Because this is the final book in a trilogy with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

Barrel Proof, the third and final instalment in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey trilogy of romantic suspense novels, picks up pretty much where Cask Strength left off and plunges us straight into the action.  Like its predecessors, Barrel Proof is a fast-moving, action-packed story with plenty of thrills and spills, an engaging cast of secondary characters, steamy romantic moments and a well thought-out and executed suspense storyline.  I enjoyed it a lot, although I have a couple of niggles over the ending which brought my final grade down a notch.

In the previous book, Jamie Walker and Aidan Talley were at an awkward place in their relationship when they were assigned to an investigation into fraud and match-fixing which took them to Jamie’s home state and to the sport he left behind some eight years earlier. Jamie is ready to commit, but Aidan is skittish, the loss of his beloved husband of ten years making him – perhaps understandably – shy of making the same sort of commitment to someone else and thereby opening himself up to the possibility of another devastating loss.  By the end of the novel, however, Aidan has finally come to his senses and has stopped trying to deny the depth of the feelings for his partner and lover, and is ready to move forward – but everything is blown apart when he discovers that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him for months, a secret concerning his late husband’s association with an international terrorist.  Jamie was sworn to secrecy by their boss (and Aidan’s sister-in-law), Melissa Cruz while he worked behind the scenes to put together the pieces of the puzzle, and has always felt uneasy about keeping his investigations from Aidan.  He wanted to present Aidan with more than a set of theories and ‘what ifs’; now, however, the cat is about to jump out of the bag as Jamie, Aidan and Danny (one of Aidan’s younger brothers, who is involved with Mel) are racing to Cuba after she took off on the trail of her Uncle Roberto whom, she has discovered, has been working with/for Pierre Renaud, the terrorist responsible for the murders of Aiden’s husband and his partner.  During the perilous confrontation that follows when they find Mel facing off with Roberto, Aidan finally learns the truth; that his husband, Gabe, had been working with Renaud (and so had Tom, his partner) and that Jamie has known about it for months.

Aidan is thrown completely by this news.  Having just admitted the truth of his feelings for Jamie, he’s angry and hurt at the fact that his partner has kept something so important from him for so long, and he asks for a solo assignment while he comes to terms with it all.  Jamie isn’t surprised and tries to understand when Aidan tells him that he needs time and space… all he can do now is hope that Aidan will come back to him when he’s ready.

 

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

 

Dirty Deeds (Dirty #1) by HelenKay Dimon

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No dirty deed goes unnoticed in a seductive game of cat and mouse. But for Alec and Gaige, the wrong move could get them killed.

Alec Drummond didn’t make his billions by playing nice—or by playing much at all. When it comes to pleasure, Alec only has time for whatever’s quick and easy, which is exactly what he gets from his company’s hot new computer genius. But Gaige Owens isn’t some pushover. He pushes back, and it’s giving Alec a rush. The question is, could Gaige be the one who’s leaking trade secrets? Just to be safe, Alec keeps him close at hand . . . night and day.

Gaige never thought he’d roll over for a man like Alec again, but who could resist sex this mind-blowing? Then there’s the draw of Alec’s mysterious side: his cutthroat ambition, his covert CIA connections, and the murder in his past. For Gaige, a deeper look proves an irresistible temptation. But when Gaige and Alec are stripped of their defenses by an unseen danger, everything they don’t know could bring them closer together—or tear them apart. Only one thing is certain: Before it’s all over, someone’s going down.

Rating: B-

Dirty Deeds is a fast-paced, action-packed story that begins when billionaire businessman and all-round hardass Alec Drummond catches Gaige Owens breaking into his company’s vault.  It transpires that Gaige has been ’employed’ (or rather, had his arm twisted) by the enigmatic, equally hardass Seth Lang (Guarding Mr. Fine) to deliberately trigger Drummond Enterprises security systems  and thereby force Alec to sit up and take notice of Seth’s requests for a meeting.

Alec’s company is one of the world’s leading food/food-hybrid manufacture/bio-research companies that also dabbles in research into alternate fuel sources – and Seth thinks that someone is setting it up for a fall, most likely terrorists or regimes who want to be able to control people by means of controlling the food supply.  It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, and Seth is reluctant to say any more than he has to.  It’s clear that he and Alec have locked horns before and the testosterone flies liberally as they face-off against each other while a puzzled and not too pleased Gaige looks on.

While all this is happening, Gaige and Alec are sizing each other up in a different way and very much liking what they see.  It’s an odd moment, perhaps, for insta-lust to strike, but strike it does, with a very large ‘clang!!’  Seth wants Gaige to pose as an external security expert at Drummond to see if he can trace who is setting them up – but Alec isn’t happy; he doesn’t want a total stranger poking his nose into his company.  Still, he also needs to find out who’s trying to sabotage him and agrees to Seth’s plan, intending to keep Gaige on a firm leash and keep an eye on him 24/7.

Alec installs Gaige in his Munich home and pretty soon the intense attraction the two men feel for each other is impossible to resist.  Alec is a workaholic, Gaige – a hot nerd with a wry sense of humour – was badly burned by his previous lover, so neither is looking for anything long-term.  They agree to keep it to casual, no-strings-sex, but it’s not long before they find it impossible to remain detached, and start to share confidences.

The insta-lust from practically the first page is a bit much although the author does it well, and keeps it running into the sex scenes, which are frequent and nicely steamy.  I liked how she showed Alec and Gaige gradually lowering their defences, although given the story takes place over about a week, this is perhaps somewhat unbelievable, especially for Alec, who doesn’t trust easily and whose privacy is intensely important to him.

I’m not sure I completely bought into the plot and the characterisation isn’t especially deep, but Dirty Deeds is an enjoyable, undemanding read that kept me entertained for the couple of hours or so it took me to read it.  If hot nerds and hard-ass billionaires wrapped up in industrial espionage and each other are your thing, I imagine you could do worse than pick this one up!

Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

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I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

The Spinster and the Rake by Anne Stuart

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The Spinster: As a maiden aunt, Gillian Redfern lives as an unpaid servant to her demanding family. Little wonder she finds the attentions of a rake distracting, and even less wonder that her usual good sense begins to unravel when Lord Marlow takes her in his arms.

The Rake: Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlow, is a man of great charm and little moral character, a gambler, a womanizer, and handsome as sin to boot. He has no qualms about placing a wager on the virtue of one small, shy spinster.

But Lord Marlow is about to discover that Miss Redfern is more siren than spinster. She amuses him, arouses him, and, much to his dismay, makes him a better man. Gillian will discover, in turn, that Lord Marlow possesses the power to turn her into a very wicked woman. The rake and the spinster are poised to find a love that neither could have imagined.

If only someone weren’t out to destroy them both . . .

Rating: B

First published in 1982, The Spinster and the Rake is one of Anne Stuart’s earliest Regencies, and has, sadly, been out of print for a number of years.  I’ve been keen to read it ever since I became aware of its existence – I mean who doesn’t love a good rake-meets-spinster story? – and had despaired of ever finding it, but luckily it surfaced last year in a newly revised digital edition.  (I can’t say what the revisions are as I haven’t read the original, but I am guessing Ms. Stuart has added a pinch or two of extra spice 😉 )

This is one of those books that is exactly what it says on the tin, and very nicely done it is, too.  Our rake, Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlowe (who is the Marquess of Herrington so I’m not sure where the Marlowe comes from) is nearing forty, has been away from England since he was packed off by his family following a scandal twenty years earlier and, having unexpectedly inherited a title, has returned to England with the intention of remaining there.  His bearing, looks and manner of speech reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer’s Lord Damerel (who is my favourite hero of hers, and one of my all-time favourite romance heroes) and I defy anyone not to swoon at the author’s description of him:

“From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with grey, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes, the strong nose and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wickedly appealing.”

Be still my beating heart 😉

The spinster of the title is Miss Gillian Redfern, youngest of four siblings and the only one to remain unmarried.  At nearly thirty, Gillian –

… had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family reeling and a dislike of being useless.

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

The Pursuit of Pleasure (Dartmouth Brides #1) by Elizabeth Essex

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SHE DOES SAY SHE’LL NEVER MARRY…

Miss Elizabeth Paxton is a new sort of heiress—educated, opinionated and entirely independent. The last thing she wants is a husband mucking about her life. Even if he is the only man she’s ever loved.

BUT SHE HAS ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WIDOW.

When dashing Captain Jameson Marlowe returns to Dartmouth, he proposes to give Lizzie exactly what she wants—a marriage without the man. After one night of searing passion, his sworn duty will take him far off to sea…or so she thinks until secrets and lies set a collision course with the smugglers along the south coast, and Lizzie is caught in the dark tide of treason. Can she salvage her pride and learn to trust in true love before it’s too late?

Rating: C-

Having read and enjoyed some of Elizabeth Essex’s more recent books, I thought I’d try one of her earlier titles and picked up The Pursuit of Pleasure which is her début novel. Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited this newly republished version (I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say what the changes are), but still, the book suffers from a number of flaws – principally related to the characterisation of the heroine and the development of the romance – that have prevented me from rating it more highly.

Elizabeth Paxton and Jameson Marlowe were childhood sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, ever since Jamie ran off to join the navy when he was just fourteen and broke Lizzie’s heart in the process. Now, a decade later, he’s back in Dartmouth charged with a very secret mission and with a very clear design as to how to accomplish it. But when he sets eyes on Lizzie again and overhears her telling a friend that while she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather like to be a widow because of the freedom it would afford her, Jamie realises that his schemes could offer up a hitherto unforeseen benefit. He offers Lizzie exactly what she wants, telling her that he will shortly be leaving England for the Antipodes, where he will be stationed for eight years and where the chances he will meet an early death are highly likely. If they marry, Lizzie will have her independence and also the income from the house and lands he has recently purchased – property he doesn’t want to bequeath to his smarmy cousin. Lizzie is a little suspicious at first; all the gain is on her side and she can’t see what Jamie will be getting out of the agreement, but he manages to persuade her and they are married a couple of days later.

Neither of them is really prepared for the passion that sparks between them on their wedding night, and both of them realise that perhaps letting go is going to be harder than they at first thought. But Jamie is committed and leaves on schedule, asking Lizzie to do one thing for him, which is not to live at the house, Glass Cottage, because it is in a state of disrepair and isn’t really fit to be lived in. Lizzie doesn’t understand this, as she has already fallen in love with the place and has designs to put things to rights, but as this is likely the last thing Jamie will ever ask of her, she agrees… until events conspire to change her mind and suspicions begin to take root.

I can’t really say much more about the plot without giving spoilers, although as this is a romance novel, I think it’s fairly obvious that Jamie hasn’t told Lizzie the truth about his plans to sail to the other side of the world. But overall, I’m afraid I liked the IDEA of the story more than the story itself, because in order for it to work, Jamie – who really does care for Lizzie, and can be rather a charming chap – has to treat her really badly and allow her to go through some pretty horrible experiences so that he can carry out his mission to bring down the dangerous smuggling ring that is operating from somewhere near Glass Cottage. I could understand that, as a member of the military, he was operating under orders, but it didn’t make him an easy character to like. Mind you, Lizzie isn’t especially likeable, either, being the sort of heroine who is so set on being independent and doing things Her Way, that she makes poor decisions and doesn’t listen to good advice. Instead of coming off as practical and determined, she frequently seems childish and petulant, and as though she’s doing things because other people don’t want her to rather than because they’re the right thing to do.

The romance storyline occurs primarily in the first half of the book, because the two protagonists are separated for most of the second. I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, but it seems to me that Ms. Essex has used their previous association as a kind of “shorthand”, because the relationship is never really developed. Jamie and Lizzie see each other again and both suffer a bad case of insta-lust, but other than the physical, it’s difficult to see what attracts them to one another. Jamie likes Lizzie’s spirit and respects her desire for independence (good for him on that one) and Lizzie feels that Jamie is the one person who really knows and understands her – but these are things we’re told and asked to accept, rather than things we can experience along with the characters.

The smuggling plotline which drives the second half of The Pursuit of Pleasure is intriguing, although the identity of the villains is pretty obvious from the start, and there are a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story on several occasions. The storyline has a lot of potential, but falls down in the execution, and that, combined with the not-too-likeable characters and weak romance make this a book I can’t really recommend.

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Rating: A

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Rating: B

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645 in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country as the King heads south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.