The Earl’s Countess of Convenience (Penniless Brides of Convenience #1) by Marguerite Kaye

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A countess in name only…

…tempted by a night with her husband!

Part of Penniless Brides of Convenience: Eloise Brannagh has witnessed first-hand the damage unruly passion can cause. Yet she craves freedom, so a convenient marriage to the Earl of Fearnoch seems the perfect solution! Except Alexander Sinclair is more handsome, more intriguing, more everything, than Eloise anticipated. Having set her own rules for their marriage, her irresistible husband might just tempt Eloise to break them!

Rating: C

It isn’t always easy to write a review of an average or sub-par book, and it’s even less so when it’s an average or sub-par book by a favourite author, so I’m sorry to say that The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first in Marguerite Kaye’s new four-part Penniless Brides of Convenienceseries is a – fortunately rare – misfire.

In it, we meet Eloise Brannagh, her twin sisters Estelle and Phoebe and their aunt-by-marriage and guardian Kate, Lady Elmswood (in whom I was immediately more interested than the heroine, which wasn’t a good sign), with whom they have lived since the deaths of their parents some five years earlier.

The book opens as Kate has received a letter from her absent husband (the girls’ uncle) in which he suggests that Eloise may wish to consider a friend of his, the Earl of Fearnoch, as a prospective husband. Fearnoch needs to marry quickly in order to secure his title and estates – and with no dowry and no social position to attract suitors, the sisters are not likely to be inundated with suitable offers of marriage, so the possibility of marriage to an earl – albeit a marriage of convenience – is not something to be sneezed at. Eloise agrees to meet the earl and to see if she thinks they will suit; she’s not prepared to sacrifice her life to misery and even though such a match would enable her to support her sisters and attain a degree of independence, she won’t go consent to it if she and the earl don’t get on.

When Alexander Sinclair arrives at the appointed time, Eloise can’t help but wonder why such a gorgeous man would need or want to marry a nobody like her – surely there must be ladies of quality queueing around the block to marry someone so eligible and handsome! Alexander quickly dispels that thought, and the conversation he and Eloise engage in here is refreshingly frank, which I liked; after all these are two complete strangers contemplating a lifetime arrangement for purely practical purposes, so I was pleased that they were both upfront with each other about their plans and motives. Alex explains that the nature of his work – he’s a Victualling Commissioner at the Admiralty – means that he spends a lot of time out of England, and he is adamant that Eloise should realise their relationship will never be anything other than a convenient arrangement for them both. He doesn’t expect or want them to develop feelings for one another, and children are categorically out of the question. Having seen her own parents’ marriage implode because of her mother’s infidelities, her father’s desperate love and their frequent rows, Eloise has absolutely no wish for love or intimacy, so doesn’t see those stipulations as in any way problematic. And because she has no experience of men and her only female role model is a woman living in a loveless, sexless marriage who hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband in the entire six years since they wed, she has no idea what those tummy flutterings at the sight of Alex’s smile might mean.

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

Badlands (Badlands #1) by Morgan Brice (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Medium and clairvoyant Simon Kincaide owns a Myrtle Beach boardwalk shop where he runs ghost tours, holds seances, and offers private psychic readings, making a fresh start after his abilities cost him his lover and his job as a folklore professor.

Jaded cop Vic D’Amato saw something supernatural he couldn’t explain during a shootout several years ago in Pittsburgh and relocated to Myrtle Beach to leave the past behind, still skeptical about the paranormal. But when the search for a serial killer hits a dead end, Vic battles his skepticism to ask Simon for help.

As the body count rises, Simon’s involvement makes him a target and a suspect. But Simon can’t say no, even if it costs him his life and heart.

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C+

Morgan Brice’s Badlands is the first book in a series featuring medium and clairvoyant Sebastian (Simon) Kincaide – a former university professor and expert in mythology and folklore – and Lt. Vic D’Amato, a homicide detective whose one brush with the supernatural a couple of years before the story opens almost cost him his career. It’s a murder mystery with a paranormal twist, but although the premise was intriguing, the execution left a bit to be desired, both in terms of the romance and the mystery.

Sebastian now goes by Simon (which I think is his middle name?) and has done since he moved to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina following his dismissal from his university post some three years earlier. His courses on myths and folklore were popular, but when the crazy fundamentalist father of one of his students – who was also a member of the university board – took issue with the course content and then discovered reports online of Simon’s clairvoyance, his department was forced to dismiss him. Simon now owns a thriving business in the resort of Myrtle Beach – Grand Stand Ghost Tours – and makes his living from holding seances, running tours, and giving talks and classes.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Under Fire (Love Over Duty #1) by Scarlett Cole (audiobook) – Narrated by Amelie Griffin and Alexandre Steele

This title may be downloaded from Audible US, via Amazon

Hot, hard-bodied Sixton Rapp is a former SEAL who’s raring to begin his brand-new civilian life. He and his Navy “brothers” start a security firm that offers the kind of services only a team of military-trained professionals can provide. But nothing prepared Six for his new client: an innocent woman on a mission to improve thousands of lives…unless someone takes hers first.

Dr. Louisa North knows time is against her as she tries to create a “miracle” medical treatment for a disease with no known cure, until she creates a sample so powerful that the wrong people want to use it as a chemical weapon. At first, Six is unwilling to accept Louisa as his client. But soon he realizes that the danger is real and that there’s much more to this plain-Jane scientist…including a burning passion between them that neither of them can resist.

And now that an enemy is on Louisa’s trail, Six will do whatever it takes to protect her – or die trying.

Rating: Narration – C/B-: Content – C

Scarlett Cole’s Under Fire is the first in her Love Over Duty trilogy of romantic suspense novels featuring three friends – all former military – who throw in their lots together to form a high-end private security company. The author and both narrators are new-to-me (although I think I may have heard Alexandre Steele before under a different name), so this was one of those times I took a chance because I liked the sound of the synopsis, which promised a nerdy scientist heroine teaming up with a hot former SEAL in order to prevent one of her experiments falling into the wrong hands and being developed as a chemical weapon.

Well… that is a fairly accurate outline of the plot, but what should have been an exciting, high-stakes tale full of action and danger turned out to be a bit of a yawn-fest.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Strip Me by Margay Leah Justice (audiobook) – Narrated by Sebastian York and Kale Williams

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sam Richmond is a workaholic in danger of becoming the very man he despises – his father. Stressed and sick with worry, he’s desperate to shake off the shackles that bind him to his current path and embark on a life lived only for himself.

His friends are determined to pull him out of his funk and decide to drag him to a strip club that caters to both men and women. Sam is shocked when he develops an attraction to the show’s male headliner: Rico McIntyre. The two men end up in a backroom for a private lap dance that ends up being a game changer for them.

Because despite the fact they both identify themselves as heterosexual, they decide to explore their strange attraction for one another – if only for one night. But one night quickly becomes another and then another, until a misunderstanding tears the two apart. Both men attempt to forget about the other, only for life to unexpectedly reunite them.

Can Sam and Rico embark on a relationship and come to terms with their new understandings of themselves and who they love? Or are they doomed from the start?

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – C-

I’m far more likely to take a chance on a new or new-to-me author in audio than I am in print, especially if their book is performed by someone I enjoy listening to. So, when Margay Leah Justice’s Strip Me came up for review with two very familiar names attached, I decided to give it a try. Kale Williams is an experienced narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions and Sebastian York is… well, Sebastian York! If nothing else, the narration should be good, right? And it is.

But the story? There are a couple of good ideas here, but overall, it’s a bit of a mess, the characterisation is fairly superficial, and the writing is distinctly amateurish in places. Gay-For-You stories are tricky to do well at the best of times and I’ve read and listened to far better examples of the trope than this one.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

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It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

Driven to Distraction (Road to Love #1) by Lori Foster (audiobook) – Narrated by John Lane

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When desire gets this hot, you’d better buckle up…

Mary Daniels doesn’t let anything get in the way of her job acquiring rare artifacts for her wealthy boss. But this particular obstacle – huge, hard-muscled, unashamedly masculine – is impossible to ignore. Stuck in a cramped car with Brodie Crews for hours en route to their new assignment, Mary feels her carefully crafted persona – and her trademark self-control – is slipping, and she won’t allow it.

Brodie can’t imagine what secret in Mary’s past has left her so buttoned-up, though he’d dearly love to find out. Maybe then she’d trust him enough to explore their explosive chemistry. But he needs this job, so he’ll play by her rules and bide his time…until an enemy determined to outwit them strikes and he needs to get close – in every way – to protect her. Otherwise they could lose much more than a precious collectible. They could lose it all.

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – C+

Lori Foster’s Driven to Distraction is the first book in her Road to Love series which features the two Crews brothers – Brodie and Jack – who run a high-end transport and courier service. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill affair overall; we’ve got a buttoned-up heroine meeting a laid-back, super-hot hero who is determined to unbutton her, but the plot is sparse, the pacing drags in the middle and there are just too many tired clichés in evidence for this to be a truly riveting listen.

Mary Daniels has an unusual job working for Therman Ritter, a wealthy collector who sends her all over the country to pick up the various unique, valuable – and sometimes not completely legal – items he buys at auction. These trips are frequently last minute and can sometimes take Mary into some dodgy locations, so she is usually accompanied by a driver. As the story begins, she’s making her way to the office of the Mustang Courier Transport Service, which is the new firm her boss has decided to use to ferry Mary to wherever she needs to go.

When she arrives, the first thing she sees is a gorgeous, half-naked man working under the hood of a car while he’s ogled and (to Mary’s disgust) fondled by the young woman who’s practically draped herself over him. (Was she was looking for his torque-wrench?!) Mary isn’t impressed; the man is too casual and arrogant and flirtatious – and nowhere near as charming as he thinks he is… but of course, he turns out to be the guy her boss wants to be her driver.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Navy SEAL to the Rescue (Aegis Security #1) Tawny Weber

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Rescued by the alpha SEAL

Injured in the line of duty, navy SEAL Travis “Hawk” Hawkins retreats to paradise. But R & R takes a turn when he runs smack into a beautiful blonde who just witnessed a murder. Travis offers to help, only to find himself equally taunted and titillated by irresistible Lila Adrian.

Can the wounded warrior protect Lila and take down a deadly crime ring?

Rating: C+

Navy SEAL to the Rescue is the first book in a new series from Harlequin ‘regular’ Tawny Weber, marking her move from the now defunct Blaze line to Harlequin Romantic Suspense.  It’s a fairly predictable story that makes use of classic character-types and tropes, and yet I enjoyed it (for the most part) for what it was, a quick, sexy and undemanding read  – although the final section of the story goes in a direction I wasn’t keen on and the HEA is rather rushed.

Lila Adrian is determined to make her own way in life, out from under the shadow of her exacting father and perfect brother, who have always been dismissive of her opinions and ambitions.  To this end, she’s started her own business called At Your Service, of which she’s brains, brawn and chief headhunter, finding specialist staff who are the perfect fit for all sorts for wealthy clients.  She’s in Costa Rica in order to make an offer of employment to a chef whose food so impressed a rich, honeymooning couple that they want him to work for them exclusively, and is about to enter the disappointingly run-down restaurant at which he now works when she is temporarily side-tracked by the sight of the most gorgeous man she’s ever seen emerging from the ocean.

Travis Hawkins is in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca for some R&R following the knee-injury that ended his Navy career.  He’s completely adrift and has absolutely no idea who he is outside of his job and no plans for what he’s going to do with the rest of his life.  He definitely likes the look of the petite, curvy blonde eyeing him up, but he’s not in Puerto Viejo to hook up with random women – he has life and shit to sort out.

 

Lila’s life is turned upside down when, after returning to the restaurant later that evening to negotiate with Chef Rodriguez, she witnesses his murder.  Panicked, she gets the hell out of there and literally runs into the hot guy from the beach – and even though he clearly doesn’t believe her story, he nonetheless stays with her while she calls the police and then accompanies her back to the scene of the crime to meet up with them.  But when Travis and Lila get there, there’s no body and no blood; in fact no sign that anything untoward has happened at all. And to add insult to injury, when the local police arrive, it’s clear they don’t believe Lila either which, with no body or evidence to support her claims, is not too surprising.  But their unwillingness to even look into the matter sets alarm bells ringing – and Lila realises now why Travis had not been too keen on the idea of calling the police in the first place.

Not wanting to get involved with Lila’s problems, Travis sees her back to her hotel and departs, fully intending not to have anything more to do with her.  But early the next morning something wakes him from a deep sleep and there’s no question in his mind that something’s happened to Lila (I have no idea how he knows it’s Lila in trouble – ESP? Spidey Sense? Crystal Ball?) so naturally, he swings into full protective mode and mounts Operation Rescue Lila.

After a successful getaway, they return to Travis’ apartment to find it’s been trashed.  Having lost all her documentation and money when she was kidnapped, Lila isn’t going to be able to leave the country anytime soon, and Travis decides he’ll do his best to keep her safe until she’s able to replace the necessary documents and travel home.  But it’s clear that whoever killed Rodriguez wants the witness to his murder out of the way – and will stop at nothing to make that happen.

Both Lila and Travis are pretty stock-in-trade characters.  Lila is perhaps a bit more rounded-out than Travis is, but they’re fairly likeable and have good chemistry.  The romance develops fairly quickly and the mental drooling got to be a bit intrusive at times, but the author does develop a connection between the couple and there’s a good dollop of humour and verbal sparrng along the way.

For all its predictability and sometimes excessive mental lusting, Navy SEAL to the Rescue was an entertaining read and one I quite enjoyed up until near the end when Lila – even though she knows full well it’s a bad idea – goes full out TSTL and gets herself into a(nother) situation from which she needs rescuing.  The author has set up her character as one that struggles with authority as a result of her life with an overbearing father, so that when Travis gives what she sees as orders he rubs her completely the wrong way and she resents it.  It seemed to me as though Ms. Weber was trying to excuse Lila’s actions by showing that she was aware she was being irrational, but to have her be completely honest with herself about her issues, how they affect the way she interprets Travis’ protectiveness, and of all the reasons why what she’s about to do is totally dumb when she then goes and does the dumb thing anyway, feels like the biggest of cop-outs.

The ending is rushed – the author crams in information about the set-up for the rest of the series (Travis is going to work for the high-end security company being set up by her brother – who turns out to be a former colleague) – and also has to address Lila’s fears over her ability to stand up for herself against strong men, which I don’t think she does successfully.  Travis makes lots of promises to “respect your independence and value your choices”,  but I wasn’t confident Lila would ever be able to throw off the mindset that told her she needed to push back at the first sign of anything she saw as a threat to that independence  – whether it was or not – and that made their HEA feel a bit wobbly.  While I can’t say Navy SEAL to the Rescue was an unqualified success, I can’t say it was a bad read either – just one I don’t plan to revisit.