A Sinner Without a Saint (The Penningtons #4) by Bliss Bennet

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An honorable artist

Benedict Pennington’s greatest ambition is not to paint a masterpiece, but to make the world’s greatest art accessible to all by establishing England’s first national art museum. Success in persuading a reluctant philanthropist to donate his collection of Old Master paintings brings his dream tantalizingly close to reality. Until Viscount Dulcie, the object of Benedict’s illicit adolescent desire, begins to court the donor’s granddaughter, set on winning the paintings for himself . . .

A hedonistic viscount

Sinclair Milne, Lord Dulcie, far prefers collecting innovative art and dallying with handsome men than burdening himself with a wife. But when rivals imply Dulcie’s refusal to pursue wealthy Miss Adler and her paintings is due to lingering tender feelings for Benedict Pennington, Dulcie vows to prove them wrong. Not only will he woo her away from the holier-than-thou painter, he’ll also placate his matchmaking father in the process.

Sinner and saint – can both win at love?

But when Benedict is dragooned into painting his portrait, Dulcie finds himself once again drawn to the intense artist. Can the sinful viscount entice the wary painter into a casual liaison, one that will put neither their reputations, nor their feelings, at risk? Or will the not-so-saintly artist demand something far more vulnerable–his heart?

Rating: B

I’ve been looking forward to reading A Sinner Without a Saint, the fourth book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington family.  It features the remaining unwed sibling, Benedict, and Viscount Dulcie, a long-standing family friend and former schoolmate of Benedict’s, with whom he appears to have a bit of a love/hate relationship.  The snippets of them together we’ve seen in previous books have mostly consisted of Dulcie exercising his sharp wit and knowing manner in order to needle Benedict into reacting to him; it’s clear there’s a mutual attraction there and equally clear that Benedict isn’t particularly happy about it. This is a frenemies-to-lovers story with depth and originality; in each of the books in the series, Ms. Bennet has chosen interesting backdrops that are more than just window-dressing, and she ties her characters and storylines very closely to them.

The timeline of this book runs concurrently with those of The Penningtons books two and three and some events from those stories are referenced here, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read those, as sufficient explanation is given to enable A Sinner Without a Saint to work as a standalone.

When he was just twelve years old, Benedict Pennington developed a severe case of calf love for the gorgeous Sinclair Milne, Viscount Dulcie, only son and heir to the Earl Milne.  Dulcie is five years Benedict’s senior and for a time at school, Benedict was his fag (fagging was a traditional practice at British boys’ boarding schools wherein younger pupils acted as servants to the most senior boys). When Dulcie failed to return to school after the Easter holidays one year without explanation, Benedict was devastated and felt Dulcie had abandoned him.  Years later, Benedict – a hugely talented artist – went to live on the continent, where he honed his craft and acquired a reputation not only as a fine portraitist, but as a connoisseur, and as such, his opinions are sought regularly by collectors.  He continues to accept commissions, but his passion is the creation of a national collection of art which may be seen by all, and not just those who can afford the entrance fee to exclusive exhibitions.  The prevailing belief among the artistic establishment is that the masses could have no appreciation for the fine arts but Benedict believes that art should be accessible to all and he has managed to persuade Julius Adler, a wealthy businessman and owner of the finest collection of Old Masters in England to donate some of his paintings to the project.

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

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Undue Influence : A Persuasion Retelling by Jenny Holiday

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Second chances only come around once.

Eight years ago, Adam Elliot made the biggest mistake of his life. Now that mistake is coming back to haunt him. His family’s beloved vineyard has gone into foreclosure, and the new owner is the sister of the only man he’s ever loved—the man he dumped under pressure from family and friends who thought the match was beneath him.

When Freddy Wentworth, aka the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen, left town with a broken heart, he vowed never to return. But a recently widowed friend needs his help, so here he is. He’s a rich and famous celebrity chef now, though, so everyone can just eff right off.

But some things are easier said than done. Despite their attempts to resist each other, old love rekindles—and old wounds reopen. If they want to make things work the second time around, they’ll have to learn to set aside their pride—and prejudice.

Rating: B-

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of books by Jenny Holiday (her m/m romance, Infamous is a firm favourite of mine) and as Persuasion is one of my top two Jane Austen novels (regularly trading places with Emma at the top of the list), the combination of the author and a favourite plotline was one bound to catch my eye.  In something of an embarrassment of riches, this is the second m/m re-telling of Persuasion to appear in the last few weeks (the other is Sally Malcolm’s Perfect Day).

In Ms. Holiday’s take on the story, we’re introduced to Adam Elliot, whose mother and sister have pretty much run the family business (the Kellynch vineyard) and finances into the ground and are about to decamp to stay with a friend in the Hamptons.  All the business of the foreclosure and removal has fallen to Adam, who is happy to remain in Bishop’s Glen, where he’s lived all his life, in spite of the continual urging of his oldest – and pretty much only – friend Rusty, that he should leave town and make something of his life.

Rusty stands in for the Lady Russell character as the bringer to bear of the Undue Influence of the title. Garage owner by day, Drag Queen by night, Rusty has been the only person in Adam’s life who seemed to give a damn about him – and is also the person who talked Adam into making what he now regards as the biggest mistake of his life eight years earlier.

That mistake was, of course, parting from the love of his life, Freddy Wentworth.  Widely termed the bad-boy of Bishop’s Glen (especially after the infamous town-square dick-sucking incident), Adam and Freddy met when they were both working as parking valets at a local hotel.

Adam came limping up to the valet stand and kept on going right into Freddy’s heart.

Ms. Holiday makes good use of flashbacks to tell the story of Adam and Freddy’s romance (through Freddy’s PoV), a device I enjoy when it’s done well, which is the case here.  We don’t get the story of Anne and Wentworth’s romance in the original novel, so I appreciated the fleshing out of the backstory in this way.

Back in the present, Freddy is stunned to learn that the property his sister and brother-in-law have recently purchased in what his best friend calls “the armpit of the Finger Lakes” is the one that formerly belonged to the Elliot family – and in spite of himself, he can’t help wondering what became of Adam.  In the intervening years, Freddy has made good and them some; he and his friend, Ben Captain, have opened a popular and successful restaurant in New York, and have also become a pair of TV chefs, with Freddy being the grouchy Gordon Ramsay type while Ben is the sweetly encouraging one.

Undue Influence follows the storyline of Persuasion fairly faithfully, so we’ve got the McGuires (Lulu and Henry) for the Musgroves, Ben Captain for James Benwick, who, in the original was engaged to Wentworth’s sister (who died), but who, here, has recently lost his wife, and William Ellison for William Elliot, in the original, the distant cousin who takes an interest in Anne but is later revealed to be a rather unsavoury chap.  Some events are, of necessity, omitted or truncated, but even allowing for a degree of dramatic license, I felt that many of the events occurring in the present timeline were rushed or included for the sake of it – just because they were in the original – and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed out.

The youthful romance between Adam and Freddy is sweetly adorable and they have great chemistry; Freddy is clearly deeply smitten and takes every opportunity he can to spend time with Adam, even going so far as to walk home with him, even though he lives miles in the opposite direction, and he shows a side of himself to Adam that he never shows anyone else.  Present-day Freddy tries hard to keep telling himself he hates Adam for throwing him over eight years earlier, but it doesn’t take very long for him to admit to himself that’s BS and that he wants a second chance.

The book’s biggest problem, however, is with the reason for Adam and Freddy’s split, which just isn’t strong enough to explain away the eight year separation of two people who so clearly loved each other and, equally clearly, have never really stopped.  This is always going to be the biggest stumbling block in any modern retelling of this story, because the reasons Anne Elliot gave up her Frederick Wentworth aren’t ones that would work dramatically nowadays.  She was young and from a well-to-do, snobbish family and Wentworth was, at the time, a mere midshipman with neither wealth nor prospects. A young woman in the early nineteenth century was subject to the wishes of her family and Anne was persuaded, by familial and monetary considerations, to reject the man she loved.  In the twenty-first century, those reasons are not believable ones, and unfortunately, Ms. Holiday hasn’t been able to come up with something else which satisfactorily accounts for Adam and Freddy’s separation.

I enjoyed Undue Influence and I liked Adam and Freddy, but the weakness of the pivotal plot point was impossible to ignore.  I’m not sure if my knowledge (and love for) Persuasion is a positive or negative thing; if I’d come to this as an m/m contemporary romance without familiarity with the source material, might I have enjoyed it more?  I’m not sure, because that plot point is still weak – perhaps even weaker if one doesn’t know the reasons given in the original story – and in any case, I can’t “unread” the other novel, so it’s a moot point.

I’m giving this one a cautious recommendation overall; it has a lot going for it in terms of the writing, the romance and the central characters, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s let down by the big flaw in the premise.

The Protector (Games People Play #4) by HelenKay Dimon (audiobook) – Narrated by Jeremy York

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Salvation, Pennsylvania. The commune located in the small town was advertised as a modern Utopia: a place to live, share, and learn with other like-minded young people. Cate Pendleton’s sister was one of them. Now she’s dead – and Cate won’t rest until she finds out who killed her. Stonewalled at every turn, she approaches a DC Fixer for help and ends up with Damon Knox, a mysterious man with a secretive past. But Cate soon discovers that she not only needs Damon, she wants him, which isn’t good – for the attraction brewing between them will only lead to complications that can turn into danger….

Damon has tried to erase the hellish memories and the evil that happened in Salvation ever since he left a long time ago. Still, he can’t turn his back on Cate. As Damon works with Cate to uncover her sister’s killer, he finds himself drawn to her more and more. But how will she feel about him when she learns about his connection to the place?

Joining forces to uncover the truth, they must stay one step ahead of a cunning killer who’s bent on not being exposed.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B-

The Protector is the fourth full-length novel in HelenKay Dimon’s series of romantic suspense tales, Games People Play. The other three aren’t available in audio (yet?) but fortunately, while there are some characters who recur in each book, each story is self-contained, so there’s no need to be familiar with the earlier instalments in order to be able to follow this one. It might help to have a rough idea of the premise – the hero of each story is a member of a mysterious group that operates under the radar (and sometimes outside the law) in order to fix the seemingly unfixable – but the author includes enough basic information about the enigmatic Wren and his organisation for the newbie to be able to work it out easily enough. Jeremy York is another of those narrators I’ve been aware of for some time but haven’t yet listened to, so as I’ve read some of the earlier books, this seemed like a good opportunity to give him a try.

Cate Pendleton has been trying for years to find the truth about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death at a place known as Salvation, a commune in South Pennsylvania that advertises itself as the ideal place to live, work, share and learn among other like-minded people. But Cate suspects it to be something more sinister, and past events involving the place would seem to bear that out. Around fourteen years earlier, an FBI investigation into Salvation ended in violence, and Cate is convinced the place is more akin to a cult than a harmless Utopian community. Having come to dead end after dead end, Cate has only one place left to turn for help in her search for the truth about her sister, and reaches out to Wren in the hope that he’ll be able to help her to get the answers she’s looking for.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Matrimonial Advertisement (Parish Orphans of Devon #1) by Mimi Matthews

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She Wanted Sanctuary…

Helena Reynolds will do anything to escape her life in London, even if that means traveling to a remote cliffside estate on the North Devon coast and marrying a complete stranger. But Greyfriar’s Abbey isn’t the sort of refuge she imagined. And ex-army captain Justin Thornhill–though he may be tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome–is anything but a romantic hero.

He Needed Redemption…

Justin has spent the last two decades making his fortune, settling scores, and suffering a prolonged period of torture in an Indian prison. Now, he needs someone to smooth the way for him with the villagers. Someone to manage his household–and warm his bed on occasion. What he needs, in short, is a wife and a matrimonial advertisement seems the perfect way to acquire one.

Their marriage was meant to be a business arrangement and nothing more. A dispassionate union free from the entanglements of love and affection. But when Helena’s past threatens, will Justin’s burgeoning feelings for his new bride compel him to come to her rescue? Or will dark secrets of his own force him to let her go?

Rating: B-

Author Mimi Matthews has been on my radar ever since the release of her début novel, The Lost Letter in 2017, but this is the first time I’ve read one of her books.  The Matrimonial Advertisement is the first in her Parish Orphans of Devon series, and as the title suggests, the story is a variation on the mail-order-bride theme.  I enjoyed the author’s prose style; Ms. Matthews writes with elegance and precision, and she has created two sympathetic, engaging central characters, but the second half of the novel lacks any real sense of drama or romantic conflict – and what there is, is manufactured.  Ultimately, the great first half isn’t enough to compensate for the weakness of the second, and the story feels unbalanced as a result.

Former army captain Justin Thornhill has recently acquired the imposing and remote Greyfriars Abbey in the area of North Devon where he grew up.  He fought in India where he was caught up in the Siege of Cawnpore, captured and tortured; and now he wants to live the quiet life of a country squire. But he’s having trouble staffing the abbey owing to the rumours that continue to dog him about the part he may have played in the death of the estate’s previous owner, an uncaring reprobate who drank hard, played hard and thought any female within his orbit was fair game.  After the departure of the latest housekeeper, Justin’s steward suggests he needs a wife and that perhaps he should place a matrimonial advertisement – and so he finds himself faced with the prospect of ‘interviewing’ possible brides.

Justin is clear about the sort of wife he wants:

“I have no interest in courtship… nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum.  A woman I can bed on occasion.”

– and Helena Reynolds most definitely doesn’t fit his idea of a capable, sensible wife.

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

Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake (Beauchamp Heirs #1) by Janice Preston

lady olivia and the infamous rake

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‘He’s completely unsuitable… he’s a rake.’

After being plucked from peril by resolute bachelor Lord Hugo Alastair, Lady Olivia Beauchamp is secretly outraged that he doesn’t even try to steal a kiss! He’s a notorious rake amongst the ton and as a result, utterly forbidden to an innocent debutante like her. But their attraction is magnetic. Will she risk her reputation for a passionate encounter?

Rating: B

Janice Preston’s Beauchamp Betrothals series delivered happy endings for the three Beauchamp siblings – the Duke of Cheriton and his brother and sister.  Lady Olivia and the Infamous Rake kicks off a spin-off series that focuses on the younger generation of Beauchamps, the Beauchamp Heirs; and while it’s not absolutely necessary to have read any of the earlier books, it probably helps to have an idea of who is who, because some of the events featured in them – most notably the marriages of Lord Vernon and Lady Cecily – are referred to in this book, even though they take place off the page.

Eighteen-year-old Lady Olivia is the only daughter of Leo, Duke of Cheriton, and his first wife.  She is enjoying her first Season, and as the daughter of a wealthy and influential peer she has the world at her feet and an adoring coterie of young bucks in tow wherever she goes.  To the outward observer, it seems she has everything, but Olivia is struggling to find her place within her family and to adapt to her father’s recent remarriage.  She’s happy for him and likes her stepmother, but she’s been plagued by feelings of inadequacy all her life, her mother’s  obvious disinterest in her children making Olivia wonder, deep down, if there’s something about her that is unlovable.  Over the years, the love of her close-knit family – especially her aunt Cecily (Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray) who has been a mother to her – has gone a long way towards suppressing those doubts but Olivia can’t quite rid herself of them, especially given the changes going on around her.

Olivia is getting just a bit tired of all the very proper balls and parties she attends and inveigles her brother Alex into taking her to Vauxhall Gardens one evening.  Masked and heavily cloaked, she is anticipating an evening of fun and excitement – and before long, she, Alex and his friend , Neville Wolfe, are invited to join a supper party, formed mostly of an older (and faster) set than the ladies and gentlemen she usually associates with.  Neville points out that these people aren’t really fit company for Olivia, but Alex is intent on spending time with a lovely, seductive widow who has caught his eye, and accepts the invitation.

Among the party is the disreputable and devilishly handsome Lord Hugo Alastair, a gentleman Olivia knows by sight but to whom she has never been introduced.  She knows he’s exactly the sort of man her Aunt Cecily would warn her about, but she can’t help the frisson of attraction she feels whenever he looks her way.  When Alex disappears with his widow, the party starts to break up and Olivia – who is by now rather tipsy – is goaded into playing piquet with Lord Clevedon.  When she loses, she panics, and offers her late mother’s ruby necklace as security for her debt, promising to meet with Clevedon at the end of the week to redeem it.

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

Cut and Run (Cut and Run #1) by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux (audiobook) – Narrated by Sawyer Allerde

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A series of murders in New York City has stymied the police and FBI alike, and they suspect the culprit is a single killer sending an indecipherable message. But when the two federal agents assigned to the investigation are taken out, the FBI takes a more personal interest in the case.

Special Agent Ty Grady is pulled out of undercover work after his case blows up in his face. He’s cocky, abrasive, and indisputably the best at what he does. But when he’s paired with Special Agent Zane Garrett, it’s hate at first sight. Garrett is the perfect image of an agent: serious, sober, and focused, which makes their partnership a classic cliché: total opposites, good cop – bad cop, the odd couple. They both know immediately that their partnership will pose more of an obstacle than the lack of evidence left by the murderer.

Practically before their special assignment starts, the murderer strikes again – this time at them. Now on the run, trying to track down a man who has focused on killing his pursuers, Grady and Garrett will have to figure out how to work together before they become two more notches in the murderer’s knife.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B-

I’m on a bit of an m/m romantic suspense kick at the moment, so this first book in the Cut and Run series seemed like a good fit. There are nine books in all – the first four co-written by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux, and the last five by Abigail Roux solo when Ms. Urban decided to stop writing. Cut and Run was originally published in 2008 (with the audio following in 2010) and I suspect it was a bit of a trailblazer in the genre – it certainly seems that way from reading reviews and seeing how many people loved the series and the central characters.

The whole series is available in audio with several different narrators; here it’s Sawyer Allerde (the others are Sean Crisden and J.F. Harding) who I’ve listened to once before, and he does a decent job overall, in spite of some pacing issues and pretty poor female voices (luckily, there aren’t too many women in the book so it’s not too great a problem.)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Lady in Need of an Heir by Louise Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She needs an heir … But not a husband!

Gabrielle Frost knows that marrying any man would mean handing over control of her beloved family vineyard in Portugal to her new husband. She won’t take that risk. But she needs an heir! So when Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, arrives to escort her to London, Gabrielle wonders… What if this former soldier, with his courage, strength and dangerous air, could be the one to father her child?

Rating: B+

A Lady in Need of an Heir sees author Louise Allen skilfully gender-flipping the frequently used trope of a man needing to marry in order to produce an heir.  In this story, a successful, independent businesswoman, whose family has been making wine and port in the Douro Valley for generations, is unwilling to cede control of her family legacy to a husband and has to find an alternative means to preserve it.

Nathaniel Graystone,  Earl of Leybourne, has finally bowed to the pressure (read: constant nagging) of his godmother to travel to Portugal in order to persuade her niece to return to England, make a good marriage and settle down.  Gabrielle Frost is a single lady of aristocratic lineage with no immediate family and should certainly not be living on her own and running a business – it’s just not done.  Gray – a former soldier who knows the area well from his time spent with the English army during the Penisular War – quickly realises that the task his godmother has set isn’t going to be as easy as he had initially thought, because Miss Frost is clearly clever, determined and knows her own mind.  It’s obvious that she has a very firm grasp of her business and very strong attachment to the Quinta do Falcão, which has been in her family for generations.

Gaby knows full well that her aunt is aiming to wed her to her foppish cousin George, which, Gray has to admit, would be a terrible match. Still, he is dead set against her remaining in Portugal on her own, no matter that he can see how capable and strong-minded she is. But over the next few days, as he begins to fully appreciate what the business means to Gaby and to see how skilfully she runs it, he starts to change his opinions somewhat.

Gaby loves the work she does and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments.  Unfortunately however, the death of her younger brother during the recent war has left her with no one to pass Frost’s on to when the time comes; she has no close relatives and the idea of one day selling the business to a stranger is not one she relishes.  Equally, the idea of marrying in order to produce an heir is abhorrent and would mean losing all control over the business; the law states that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.”  And she is certainly not going to risk putting Frost’s into the hands of a man who could sell it off on a whim or run it into the ground.

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