It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Some of Ben Sedgwick’s favorite things:

  • Helping his poor parishioners
  • Baby animals
  • Shamelessly flirting with the handsome Captain Phillip Dacre

After an unconventional upbringing, Ben is perfectly content with the quiet, predictable life of a country vicar, free of strife or turmoil. When he’s asked to look after an absent naval captain’s three wild children, he reluctantly agrees, but instantly falls for the hellions. And when their stern but gloriously handsome father arrives, Ben is tempted in ways that make him doubt everything.

Some of Phillip Dacre’s favorite things:

  • His ship
  • People doing precisely as they’re told
  • Touching the irresistible vicar at every opportunity

Phillip can’t wait to leave England’s shores and be back on his ship, away from the grief that haunts him. But his children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors and he must set things right. The unexpected presence of the cheerful, adorable vicar sets his world on its head and now he can’t seem to live without Ben’s winning smiles or devastating kisses.

In the midst of runaway children, a plot to blackmail Ben’s family, and torturous nights of pleasure, Ben and Phillip must decide if a safe life is worth losing the one thing that makes them come alive.

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B

I enjoyed reading Cat Sebastian’s It Takes Two to Tumble when it was published back in 2017, so naturally, I was pleased to see it make its way into audio with the always reliable Joel Leslie at the helm. It’s the first book in the Seducing the Sedgwicks series about a group of siblings who had a very unconventional upbringing in a household comprising their father – a poet and advocate of free love – his wife and his mistress and various hangers-on. Things were fairly chaotic; the Sedgwick offspring had mostly to fend for themselves and as they grew to adulthood, the eldest, Benedict, shouldered the responsibility for looking out for his brothers. It’s an engaging story in which the parallels with The Sound of Music are impossible to miss (country-vicar-meets-grouchy-sea-captain-with-unruly-children) in spite of the absence of Dame Julie Andrews and ‘Do, Re, Mi’!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Hither, Page (Page & Sommers #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A jaded spy and a shell shocked country doctor team up to solve a murder in postwar England.

James Sommers returned from the war with his nerves in tatters. All he wants is to retreat to the quiet village of his childhood and enjoy the boring, predictable life of a country doctor. The last thing in the world he needs is a handsome stranger who seems to be mixed up with the first violent death the village has seen in years. It certainly doesn’t help that this stranger is the first person James has wanted to touch since before the war.

The war may be over for the rest of the world, but Leo Page is still busy doing the dirty work for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence service. When his boss orders him to cover up a murder, Leo isn’t expecting to be sent to a sleepy village. After a week of helping old ladies wind balls of yarn and flirting with a handsome doctor, Leo is in danger of forgetting what he really is and why he’s there. He’s in danger of feeling things he has no business feeling. A person who burns his identity after every job can’t set down roots.

As he starts to untangle the mess of secrets and lies that lurk behind the lace curtains of even the most peaceful-seeming of villages, Leo realizes that the truths he’s about to uncover will affect his future and those of the man he’s growing to care about.

Rating: B+

Cat Sebastian has become known for her queer historical romances set in the nineteenth century, so Hither, Page is a bit of a departure in that it is set in Post-WW2 England. The sleepy Cotswold village of Wychcomb St. Mary is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else, is in each other’s business, and gossip abounds, but also where people pull together and look out for one another in times of trouble.  Hither, Page is billed as the first in the Page & Sommers series, and is a cosy mystery wherein a country doctor traumatised by war and a world-weary, rootless spy team up to work out who is responsible for a couple of murders.

Leo Page, a spy working for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence services is an orphan who was recruited more than a decade earlier by British Intelligence and has been getting his hands dirty on their behalf ever since. He has no family, no friends to speak of – those just aren’t compatible with the sort of life he leads – but when he’s sent to the village of Wychcomb St. Mary, ostensibly to look into the death of a woman who worked for a former army officer suspected of selling military secrets, he begins to find his priorities shifting, regardless of whether he wants them to or not.

Doctor James Sommers grew up in Wychcomb and returned there after the war, hoping to find refuge from the memories of the devastating memories that continue to haunt him.  His PTSD can hit unexpectedly, but for the most part he’s getting by, tending to the villagers and making a home among them, but the news of the death of one of their own disturbs him more than he cares to admit. After everything he’s seen and done, all he wants is a settled, orderly life, one where he’d take any and every reminder that people were capable of something other than reducing one another to piles of meat.

The mystery in the book is well done and moves at a good pace, but really, it’s secondary to the characters, a motley crew of quirky, well-rounded individuals who have been affected by the war in some way, from Marston a former patient of James’, who now lives in an old gamekeeper’s cottage and keeps himself to himself to the Misses Pickering and Delacourt, a pair of elderly spinsters who live on the outskirts of the village, to the vicar and his permanently harried wife, and the former evacuee Wendy, who was sent to the village to wait out the war but has never returned home.

Mildred Hoggatt was found dead following a dinner party at Wych Hall, home of Colonel Bertram Armstrong.  She was drugged, and then pushed down a flight of stairs, and while she was a bit of a busybody, there seems to be no real motive for her murder. Leo arrives in time to attend her funeral – and there notices the local doctor, who seems familiar.  Unusually, Leo is working using his own name, but has taken on the persona of an office worker snatching a few days holiday in the area to study the local church architecture.  His easy manner and good humour, together with the fact that many of the locals are just dying to share their theories about Mildred’s death with someone new, mean it doesn’t take him long to ingratiate himself and get people talking.

James recognises Leo – although he’s damn sure that wasn’t his name back then – from a night in France in 1944 when he was suddenly called away to patch up a man dressed as a member of the French Resistance.  James realises immediately that the other man must be some sort of government agent who has come to Wychcomb to look into more than the death of a mere charwoman, but he has absolutely no desire to become involved.  He resents the intrusion of more death and devastation into the quiet life he craves, but when it emerges that Mildred left Wendy a large sum of money, and that it could lead to Wendy being the prime suspect in the murder, he’s compelled to act.  He can’t let an innocent – if rather eccentric – girl be wrongly accused, so he decides to help Page, even though it goes against his inclination and better judgement.

The relationship between the two men is nicely developed and carries equal weight (as the mystery) in the story. There’s an instant spark of attraction between them, but even though it doesn’t take either of them long to discern where the other’s preferences lay – and Leo doesn’t waste any time in flirting with James – this is 1946 and they still have to be careful.  And although James is grateful to still be able to feel the stirrings of attraction, he is reluctant to become involved with a man for whom deception and betrayal are a way of life.

Both James and Leo are well-developed characters and I liked them individually and as a couple.  James is a lovely man – quiet, considerate and compassionate – but he’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not quite right in the head, and wonders if he’ll ever be able to leave his demons behind him.  By contrast, Leo is outgoing and garrulous, but it’s all an act.  He’s spent so long pretending to be whoever he had to be for whatever job he was assigned that he doesn’t know who Leo Page really is.  But for the first time in his life, he’s starting to want to find out – to  find out what it’s like to have friends, to belong somewhere, with someone – and to realise that he’s been missing out on so many of life’s simple pleasures.

I did think that the romance progressed a tad quickly – especially as this is going to be a series – but on the other hand, these are two men who know only too well that life is short and not to be taken for granted, so it works.  Cat Sebastian has done a great job of creating the atmosphere of an English country village worthy of a Christie novel – which sadly makes the (albeit infrequent) Americanisms (“gotten”, “trash” etc.) stick out like sore thumbs – but the writing is excellent and very perceptive. Page and Sommers make a great sleuthing team and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.

A Duke in Disguise (Regency Imposters #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

One reluctant heir

If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller

All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself.

One disaster waiting to happen

Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian returns to Regency London for the second instalment of her Regency Imposters series, A Duke in Disguise, in which an illustrator and a prickly publisher who have been close friends for a decade have to decide if friendship is really enough, or whether it’s worth risking what they have for the possibility of something more.  It’s a well-written story with a very strong sense of time and place featuring two engaging and complex principals; there’s a nod or two to the gothic novels popular at the time as well as some shrewd observations about the political situation, the lack of options open to women and the way the lives of well-born ladies were completely controlled by their menfolk.

Verity Plum and her younger brother Nate are joint proprietors of Plum & Company, Printers and Booksellers, which was left to them by their father.  Verity is the brains of the outfit in the sense that she takes care of all the practicalities (and then some), while Nathan, who is just twenty, indulges his radical sentiments by writing increasingly seditious polemics which she fears will land him in prison in the not too distant future.  Verity and Nate’s good friend, John Ashby – a moderately successful illustrator and engraver – has lodged with them on and off over the past decade, and although he and Verity are completely smitten with each other and have been for years, neither of them is willing to risk crossing the line into a romantic and physical relationship.  Verity doesn’t believe she’s cut out for romance in any case; her most recent love affair (with Portia Allenby, who appeared in the previous book, Unmasked by the Marquess) didn’t end particularly well, and she’s not one for dealing with complex emotions.  Verity guards her independence and sense of self very jealously, and she’s stretched thin as it is, what with the pieces of herself she gives over to worrying about Nate, and the business, and her friendship with Ash; and if she’s scared of anything, she’s scared of losing herself completely to all the other demands life makes of her.

Verity is desperately trying to prevent Nate landing himself in serious trouble, and with Ash’s help she manages to persuade him to leave England and travel to America to set up in business there.  She hates doing it, but recognises it’s the only way to keep his neck out of the noose.  Both Verity and Ash feel his loss, but aren’t sure how to comfort each other without crossing their very carefully preserved line, something which is become more and more difficult with each passing day.

The ‘we can’t become lovers because we’ll risk our friendship’ plotline is one that’s often used to create an obstacle in friends-to-lovers stories (and doesn’t always work for me) but Ms. Sebastian makes it work here, showing just how well Verity and Ash know each other and how deeply they care in small but important ways (I loved that Ash always had a spare hairpin or three in his pocket) and imbues their relationship with such visceral longing that it leaps off the page.  That said though, Verity’s determination to keep things between her and Ash strictly platonic just seemed to evaporate without much of an explanation.

Ash is a gorgeous beta hero who hides his insecurities behind a veneer of impassivity but who feels deeply.  His life has been difficult and filled with loss; he longs for stability and connection, and those longings are the main reasons he is so reluctant to pursue anything other than friendship with Verity, even though he knows she’s as attracted to him as he is to her.  After a childhood being passed from pillar to post, fostered by one family only to be passed on after suffering an epileptic seizure, he eventually went to a charity school where one of his schoolmasters recognised his artistic talent and arranged for him to be apprenticed to an engraver.  It’s in that capacity that he first makes the acquaintance of Lady Caroline Talbot, who wishes to engage him to illustrate a book of the plants and flowers in her herbarium.  Right from his first visit, Ash is struck by a strange sense of familiarity and ‘wrongness’ at the same time… he can’t know that his visits to Arundel House will change his life.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler, given the book’s title, for me to talk about what that change is (and it’s in the synopsis) – although Ash isn’t so much a duke in disguise as he is one who has no idea of his true identity!  The discovery of his origins is naturally a shock and his instinct is to deny that he is likely the Duke of Arundel’s heir; not only has he not been brought up to it, Verity will want nothing more to do with him should he really be a member of the aristocracy she so despises.  But it seems he cannot escape his birthright – and moreover, he can’t abandon Lady Caroline – who is his aunt – to the not-so-tender mercies of her violent, abusive brother, whose murderous intentions were the reasons she sent Ash away into hiding when he was a little boy.

I enjoyed the book overall, even though I had a few niggles with the way things played out.  I liked Ash and Verity and the strong connection the author has created between them, and I liked the historical and political background to the story and the cheeky nods to gothic romances – but I wasn’t completely convinced by the way the couple reached their HEA. We’re repeatedly told and shown that Verity absolutely hates the aristocracy and everything it stands for and that she intends never to marry – and yet she’s very easily persuaded to become Ash’s duchess.  I also didn’t much care for Ash’s lie by omission; when he accepts he really is the heir to a dukedom, he decides not to tell Verity for a month (and to finally embark on the sexual relationship they both want) and as if that wasn’t enough, when he’s forced to own the truth, he just ups and leaves Verity without really talking to her about anything, instead just assuming that she won’t want to be with him once he’s a duke and that she won’t consider marrying him regardless of his social status.  For two people who’ve been friends for a decade and know each other pretty much inside out, and considering Ash’s abandonment issues, that refusal to communicate didn’t make a lot of sense.

The writing is excellent and the principals are refreshingly different; Verity is bisexual (and makes no secret of it), pragmatic and somewhat grouchy, while Ash is more even-tempered and is an utter sweetie (and a virgin to boot).  I’ve knocked off a couple of grade points for the inconsistencies I’ve noted, but I nonetheless enjoyed A Duke in Disguise, which is one of the better historical romances I’ve read over the past year or so.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Rating: B+

This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing.  It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.

If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life.  Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth.  Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will,  and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.

Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street.  The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can.  Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip.  Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.

The large man hanging around the back door appears completely impervious to Hartley’s sarcasm, and instead of leaving, asks if he’s drunk and all but carries him into the kitchen.  When Hartley’s guest explains he’s looking for a painting, Hartley realises immediately what sort of painting it is, but also has to admit that he has no idea what happened to Easterbrook’s ‘art collection’, as those particular items had disappeared by the time he inherited the house. But he’s determined to find out, and for the first time in months feels as though he has a purpose, even if it’s to obtain revenge against a dead man.

Sam and Hartley arrange to meet again to discuss the search and compare notes – or so each tells himself, not wishing to acknowledge that his interest is more centred on the other man than on anything to do with the missing naughty pictures.

Ms. Sebastian skilfully imbues the romance between this mismatched pair with a great deal of sensuality and tenderness.  Neither has had much – if any – experience of gentleness or affection when it comes to relationships; neither has experienced romantic love and Hartley, especially, has walled himself off emotionally, partly as a way of dealing with the things he’s done, and now because he’s wary of ‘infecting’ anyone he cares for with the stigma he carries.  But the connection between him and Sam is strong and impossible to resist; and because of Hartley’s reluctance to be touched, their sexual relationship develops in a way that is outside Sam’s experience, but which he discovers he likes very much.  Because of his size and his past as a boxer, Sam’s previous lovers have assumed him to be violent and wanted him to be rough with them,  but with Hartley, Sam realises he can take the time to give and accept the sort of warmth and caring he’s never been asked for and didn’t realise he needed. Hartley needs someone who can let him move at a pace he’s comfortable with, and Sam is only too happy to allow him to explore his desires and to at last experience the pleasures – both in and out of bed – to be had when two people care for one another.

Unsurprisingly, Hartley’s backstory is a difficult one to read about, and although Ms. Sebastian doesn’t go into gratuitous detail, what she does tell us is sufficient to paint a picture (pun unintentional) of what he went through and to explain why he is so tightly controlled and on edge.  He’s also desperately lonely and has, for the past few years, disliked being touched, which of course makes even casual sexual encounters unsatisfying at best and impossible at worst.  There’s a weight of sadness about him as he contemplates a life alone which permeates the early part of the novel and provides a pertinent contrast to what we’re shown of Sam’s life – content, surrounded by people who love him, and yet also facing a life without long-term companionship because it’s so difficult to find that special person in a world which says he can’t love as he wants to.

I’m pleased to say that the major criticism I expressed about the last couple of books of Ms. Sebastian’s I read – that there were so many different plotlines going on that none of them felt adequately developed – is not an issue here.   The author keeps the romance between Hartley and Sam very much front and centre, and the other issues she touches upon – the racism Sam experiences on a daily basis, the crippling weight of Hartley’s shame, the inflexibility of society and the injustices practiced on the poor by the rich – are subtly and skilfully incorporated into the storyline.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is a touching, sexy, and gently humorous read, and I’m thoroughly intrigued by the set up for book three glimpsed at the end.  The secondary characters are well-realised and I especially loved Hartley’s adopted ‘family’ – including a three-legged dog, a former prostitute and a young woman whose family disowned her when she became pregnant out of wedlock – whose interactions with him show clearly that Hartley is far from the aloof, cold man he believes he has become.  Watching him regain his sense of self and rediscover his capacity for love and affection was truly lovely, and I closed the book with a smile of my face, confident that he and Sam were in it for the long haul.

Unmasked by the Marquess (Regency Imposters #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one you love…

Robert Selby is determined to see his sister make an advantageous match. But he has two problems: the Selbys have no connections or money and Robert is really a housemaid named Charity Church. She’s enjoyed every minute of her masquerade over the past six years, but she knows her pretense is nearing an end. Charity needs to see her beloved friend married well and then Robert Selby will disappear…forever.

May not be who you think…

Alistair, Marquess of Pembroke, has spent years repairing the estate ruined by his wastrel father, and nothing is more important than protecting his fortune and name. He shouldn’t be so beguiled by the charming young man who shows up on his doorstep asking for favors. And he certainly shouldn’t be thinking of all the disreputable things he’d like to do to the impertinent scamp.

But is who you need…

When Charity’s true nature is revealed, Alistair knows he can’t marry a scandalous woman in breeches, and Charity isn’t about to lace herself into a corset and play a respectable miss. Can these stubborn souls learn to sacrifice what they’ve always wanted for a love that is more than they could have imagined?

Rating: B-

Unmasked by the Marquess, the first in Cat Sebastian’s new Regency Imposters series, marks something of a departure for her in that, unlike her previous books, it isn’t a male/male romance. The two protagonists are a man and a woman – but the fact that this isn’t a standard m/f romance quickly becomes apparent when we learn that our heroine – a former housemaid named Charity Church – has actually been living as a man for the past six years and feels far more ‘right’ in herself dressing, acting and living as a man than she ever did as a woman.

(I’m using ‘she’ and ‘her’ in this review, even though Charity is non-binary; the author uses those pronouns throughout the book for reasons she explains in her author’s note, so I’m going to follow her lead).

Robert Selby and his sister Louisa have come to London with the object of securing an advantageous match for Louisa. Unfortunately however, coming from rural Northumberland makes an entrée into the right circles in London rather difficult as they know no one who can introduce them. Remembering his father’s old friend, the late Marquess of Pembroke, Robert hits upon the idea of asking the current marquess for help; if a man of his standing is seen to take notice of Louisa, then surely other men will follow and a proposal will ensue.

Alistair de Lacey has spent the years since the death of his profligate father working hard to rebuild the family finances and to claw back the respectability the late marquess threw away in favour of a life filled with excess and dissolution. When a charming and rather attractive young man named Robert Selby is ushered into his library, Alastair expects to be tapped for money, so is surprised when Selby tells him that the late marquess stood godfather to his (Robert’s) sister, and asks for Alistair’s assistance in launching her into society. But Alistair – who has just received (and turned down) a similar request from his late father’s mistress on behalf of her eldest daughter (Alistair’s half-sister) – isn’t inclined to help and sends the young man on his way.

Charity – the author has her think of herself as Charity in the chapters from her PoV, while Alistair thinks of her as Robert and later, Robin – is disappointed and isn’t sure how to proceed. The next day, however, an unexpected encounter with Pembroke and his younger brother, Lord Gilbert, engenders a remarkably quick volte-face on Pembroke’s part and soon, Charity – as Robert – and Louisa become part of Pembroke’s small circle.

After this, things move very quickly – rather too quickly in fact, because in no time at all, Alistair and Robert are the best of friends, and while we’re told this friendship develops over a couple of weeks, on the page there’s a big jump from their not knowing each other at all to being extremely comfortable with one another. Given that Alistair has been established as overly cautious and very proper, the way he so easily befriends Robert feels somewhat out of character. The way they seem to just ‘click’ is nicely conveyed, but it’s still quite a leap from there to bosom-buddies, and I couldn’t really buy it in context.

Alistair is well aware that he can feel sexual desire for both men and women – although this being the nineteenth century, he hasn’t acted on his attraction to men – so it’s not the fact he’s attracted to Robert that gives him pause. It’s the way Robert has so quickly worked his way under his skin, the way his presence in a room can light it up and the way Alistair feels so much more alive when Robert is with him. So it comes as a huge disappointment when, on the morning after their first kiss, Alistair learns that Robert lied to him about Louisa’s being the old marquess’ goddaughter. He lashes out angrily, even going to far as to accuse Robert of intending to blackmail him over their kiss – and the only thing Robert can think of to allay Alistair’s fears on that score is to confess that he’s not Robert, but Charity.

Of course Alistair is even more furious at this deception – but after a few miserable days and weeks alone, decides that having Robert – as Charity, Robert or whoever she wants to be – is preferable to not having her in his life at all. He doesn’t care what’s under her clothes; it’s the person inside he’s interested in, but the trouble really begins when he asks Charity to marry him. Charity insists Alistair hasn’t thought it through; how can a marquess – especially one as concerned with reputation and propriety as he is – possibly marry a former housemaid? And not only a former housemaid, but a former housemaid who doesn’t intend on living the rest of her life as a woman and will be damned if she’s going to give up the freedoms she’s enjoyed for the past six years?

There is a lot of plot and backstory stuffed into the book, and I have to admit that sometimes it felt like overkill. Charity’s reasons for becoming Robert Selby are good ones, but it’s complicated, and becomes moreso when an important fact of which Alistair – and the reader – has been ignorant, is suddenly thrown into the mix near the end of the book. The strongest part of the story is actually Alistair’s progress from curmudgeonly stick-in-the mud to a man who is much more forgiving of the foibles of others and comes to realise the importance of love and the difference between living and merely existing. He’s become aloof and inflexible, but once he becomes involved with Robert, the real Alistair, the man who is decent, kind and funny, begins to emerge, and Ms. Sebastian does a very good job of having him recognise just how far from his true self he had strayed. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Alistair and Gilbert, which is well done and feels very ‘brotherly’. It’s clear that the two care for each other very much, but have lost some of that feeling in recent years because Alistair’s need to be all that is respectable and proper has caused him to lose sight of what’s really important in life. I liked Charity and her determination to hold on to her independence; I liked her gumption and the way she forces Alistair to see that the rules that govern his life don’t work for everybody.

There are some good, meaty points being made about what it’s like not to fit into established roles, about how few options were available to women and the way society treated those who didn’t wish to conform – which is why I was disappointed when the conflict in the romance boiled down to a very old chestnut, and one I’m not particularly fond of – the ‘I will not let you sacrifice yourself by marrying me because I am not suitable’ one, which always feels as though one person is telling the other that they’re stupid and don’t know their own mind. It’s not that Charity is wrong to point the problems out to Alistair – they’re undoubtedly bigger problems than face many a cross-class couple in historical romance – it’s that she’s prepared to ride roughshod over his feelings rather than try to hash out a solution that will work for both of them that I didn’t like. I also found it more than a little jarring that a man who was trying so hard to be as unlike his father as possible didn’t think twice about the fact that he would be doing to his own (future) children exactly what his father had done in making his children a topic of gossip and scandal in a society that, sadly, did visit the sins of the father upon subsequent generations.

Even with those reservations, I liked – although I didn’t love – Unmasked by the Marquess and am going to give it a cautious recommendation. The writing is sharp and witty, and I liked the principals and secondary characters. But while the relationship between Alistair and Charity has plenty of sexual tension and their verbal exchanges are entertaining, the romance is somewhat lacking in the early stages and I never got rid of that feeling that I’d missed something amid all the busy-ness of the rest of the plot.

The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

It Takes Two to Tumble (Seducing the Sedgwicks #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some of Ben Sedgwick’s favorite things:

Helping his poor parishioners
Baby animals
Shamelessly flirting with the handsome Captain Phillip Dacre

After an unconventional upbringing, Ben is perfectly content with the quiet, predictable life of a country vicar, free of strife or turmoil. When he’s asked to look after an absent naval captain’s three wild children, he reluctantly agrees, but instantly falls for the hellions. And when their stern but gloriously handsome father arrives, Ben is tempted in ways that make him doubt everything.

Some of Phillip Dacre’s favorite things:

His ship
People doing precisely as they’re told
Touching the irresistible vicar at every opportunity

Phillip can’t wait to leave England’s shores and be back on his ship, away from the grief that haunts him. But his children have driven off a succession of governesses and tutors and he must set things right. The unexpected presence of the cheerful, adorable vicar sets his world on its head and now he can’t seem to live without Ben’s winning smiles or devastating kisses.

In the midst of runaway children, a plot to blackmail Ben’s family, and torturous nights of pleasure, Ben and Phillip must decide if a safe life is worth losing the one thing that makes them come alive.

Rating: B+

It Takes Two to Tumble is the first book in a new series from Cat Sebastian entitled Seducing the Sedgwicks, which features a group of siblings who had a most unconventional, bohemian upbringing in a household comprising their father, his wife, his mistress and various itinerant hangers-on.  This first instalment features the eldest son, Benedict, the vicar of the parish of St. Aelred’s in Cumberland, a deeply compassionate, kind, sensitive man who yearns for the ‘normal’ life he never had while growing up.  The arrival at nearby Barton Hall of gruff, authoritarian naval captain Philip Dacre sees Benedict  gradually coming to the realisation that perhaps he needs to re-define exactly what ‘normal’ means to him, in this touching, beautifully written, character-driven romance from the pen of Cat Sebastian.

Benedict Sedgwick is content with his lot.  He is very well-liked by his parishioners, he has a secure living, and he is looking forward to marrying Alice Crawford, a young woman he has known since his youth and whom he regards as his best friend.  For many years, the Crawfords:

… were his second family, had been from the time Ben realized that his own family was decidedly inadequate, and what was worse, not normal.  The Crawfords had been fantastically normal: there was a sensible number of parents (two), a reasonable number of children (one) and, best of all, the desired number of those artistic hangers-on who seemed to colonize his father’s home (zero).

Alice and her parents were thus Ben’s refuge from the chaos and unpredictability of his own home when he was growing up. He cares greatly for them all, although while he loves Alice, he isn’t IN love with her… yet many couples marry without love, and his and Alice’s friendship is, surely, a strong basis for a lasting marriage.  He firmly suppresses that little niggle at the back of his brain that tells him he is drawn to men rather than women; not that he’s ashamed of his preferences, it’s just he’s never really allowed his desires to take shape beyond that nebulous admission of a truth he has learned to supress in order to pursue his goal of living an unexceptional, ordinary life.

Philip Dacre, a captain in the Royal Navy, has spent the majority of his life at sea and has carved himself a successful career.  But his childhood memories are tainted by his struggles with a learning difficulty and the feelings of inadequacy that rarely bother him aboard ship resurface at the prospect of returning home – something he has managed to avoid as often as possible.

He is also still grieving the death, just over a year before, of a fellow officer he very obviously loved; and while he misses his late wife, Caroline (who died a couple of years earlier while Philip was at sea), it’s clear that theirs was a marriage of mutual convenience.  This is the first time Philip has been home since her death, and he’s completely adrift; he has seen his children only rarely since they were born (his eldest son is thirteen, the twins are nine) and he has no idea how to interact with them. All he really knows of them is from the reports he has received from his sister telling him that they are uncontrollable, unruly hellions who terrorise the neighbourhood and have run off countless governesses.

Both Ben and Philip have risen beyond their difficult childhoods, but have been shaped by them nonetheless, Ben learning early on that the only person he could depend upon was himself, and Philip that the best way to avoid disappointing those around him was to avoid them altogether.  He’s the dark to Ben’s light, his taciturn, brooding presence a strong contrast to Ben’s sunnier open-heartedness, and I enjoyed watching Philip gradually – and sometimes rather begrudgingly – fall under the other man’s spell.  Both are strongly written, three dimensional characters, but Ben is the star of the show and I loved him to bits. This is a man whose faith really is love and for whom  doing actual good – visiting the sick, helping those in need and shepherding stray sheep – is every bit as important as sermonising from his pulpit.  It is probably something of a stretch to believe that a man of the cloth at this point in time could accept his sexuality without a crisis of conscience, but I’m choosing to believe that there were open-minded, enlightened men like Ben in existence – and given his upbringing, perhaps it’s understandable that he would be more progressive than not.

As is obvious from the references to ‘favourite things’ in the book blurb, there’s a bit of a Sound of Music vibe going on here, what with the stern sea captain, the warm-hearted vicar and a bunch of unruly and rather neglected children who need to be loved.  I smiled at that little homage, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface – possibly a little too much at times.  My biggest reservation is to do with the speed at which the romance develops; Ben and Philip go from dislike to attraction to acting on that attraction before the half-way point of the book, and the pivotal point (Philip makes an offhand comment to Ben regarding his affections for ‘his’ lieutenant while inebriated) seems rather unsubtle, although there’s no question that the build-up – all those longing, heated glances, and accidental and not-so-accidental touches – is done very well indeed.  The chemistry between the couple and their sheer likeability go a long way towards downplaying that particular problem, but I can’t deny that the author has tried to cram too much into her story by including several under-developed sub-plots and overly contrived solutions to them.  Phililp’s children, for instance, are quickly rehabilitated, and the problem of Ben’s engagement to Alice is very easily and conveniently dealt with.

The ending is a little too pat as well, but in spite of all those things, I enjoyed the book a lot.  The writing is warm, intelligent and engaging, and the two protagonists are so compelling and – ultimately – charming, that it’s impossible not to be captivated by them and their story. It Takes Two to Tumblehas a number of flaws, but I found myself so drawn in by the writing and characterisation that it was easy for me to see past them and enjoy the book regardless.  It may not quite reach the standards of The Soldier’s Scoundrel or The Ruin of a Rake, but it’s a lovely read and still a head and shoulders above so many of the other historical romances currently on offer.