TBR Challenge: The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

the-wagered-widowThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE INSISTED ON TREATING HER LIKE A TROLLOP!

… and Rebecca Parrish, a most respectable young widow, found him utterly odious. What right had this supercilious rake, Trevelyan de Villars, to incessantly force his attentions on her? Rebecca far preferred Trevelyan’s charming friend, the noble Sir Peter Ward. Indeed, her dreams of handsome Sir Peter aimed straight for the altar!
What Rebecca soon discovered duly horrified her. For her dear Sir Peter and the contemptible Trevelyan had formailzed a bet – that Trevelyan could seduce the very proper widow within a month’s time.

Still, Trevelyan’s attentions grew ever more passionate. And Rebecca found (to her horror!) that she thrilled to his touch. As her heart strove to resist this irresistible cad, she suddenly saw what he really was: A libertine no more – now at last and forever in love!

Rating: B

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her books have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s books are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the paperback edition (1984) of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear that these are two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.

TBR Challenge: That Despicable Rogue by Virginia Heath

that-despicable-rogue

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A lady’s mission of revenge…

Lady Hannah Steers has three reasons to loathe and despise Ross Jameson. He’s a scandalous libertine, he stole her home, and he was responsible for the death of her brother!

Determined to expose Ross for the rogue he is, Hannah dons a disguise and infiltrates his home as his new housekeeper. Unfortunately, this scoundrel proves himself to be the epitome of temptation and, instead of building a case against him, Hannah finds herself in a position she never expected…falling head over heels in love with him!

Rating: B+

Virginia Heath registered on my radar when her début novel came out in the Spring of 2016, but I didn’t manage to get around to reading it.  I did, however, pick up her next book, Her Enemy at the Altar, and enjoyed it very much – on the strength of that one book, I decided I had a new author to follow by virtue of the fact that Ms. Heath’s writing is accomplished, her characterisation is strong and she has a knack for humour and good dialogue.  I finally got around to reading That Despicable Rogue and was pleased to discover that it’s every bit as well-written as her other books, and that had I not known in advance that it was her first published novel, I would never have discerned that from reading it, as it’s a very confident piece of work.

Seven years before the story begins, and in the wake of an unpleasant scandal, Lady Hannah Steers was banished from London and sent to live with her two aunts in Yorkshire by her brother, the Earl of Runcorn. At the time, he promised he would recall her to London once the gossip had died down, but somehow that never happened, and Hannah has remained in Yorkshire, her life a never-ending stream of monotony so dull that it’s almost debilitating.

Several years later, Hannah learns that her brother is dead.  Having lost his entire fortune and the family home at the gaming tables, he then proceeded to blow his brains out and has left his sister with nothing.  She hears that his opponent was one Ross Jameson, a man whose name appears regularly in the scandal sheets which gleefully report his exploits with women and any number of other unsavoury facts about his debauched existence.  He’s a self-made man, which means he is looked down on by the great and the good, but his immense wealth cannot be ignored and he is admitted – if not welcomed – almost everywhere.  Hannah is sure that a man of his reputation cannot possibly have beaten her brother fairly, and is convinced he must have cheated – but she has no way to prove it.  Until, that is, she learns that, over a year since he won the place, Jameson is going to open up Barchester Hall, meaning that he will need to recruit more staff.  Hannah has remained in touch with the cook, and with her help, secures the position of housekeeper, intending to use her access to all areas of the house to search through Jameson’s papers to see if she can find evidence to support her theory that he cheated her brother.

Ross Jameson has worked incredibly hard to achieve success and to make something of himself.  The son of a criminal, Ross grew up in abject poverty alongside his mother and younger sister, who both suffered at the hands of his father, a gambler and drunkard.  Determined to protect them both, Ross did what needed to be done when he had to, and since establishing himself in business, has taken good care of the ladies in his life, setting them up with a comfortable establishment in the country. He is opening up Barchester Hall now because it’s close to London and he knows his sister will soon want to come to town to enjoy the season.

Ross finds his new housekeeper a bit baffling – she’s the one woman he doesn’t seem able to charm with a smile or a quip – but she’s efficient and he is impressed with the improvements and alterations she suggests.  And there’s something about her that makes him want to break through the barrier of frostiness she is so determined to maintain.

While she wants to continue to believe all the salacious gossip printed about Ross and is determined to prove him the worst kind of villain, Hannah can’t ignore the evidence of kindness and good-nature with which she is presented every day, or the inconvenient stirrings of attraction she is beginning to feel for him.  She stubbornly tries to maintain her belief in his underhandedness, but knows she’s fighting a losing battle.  Ross is an honourable, kind-hearted man who is fiercely protective of those he cares for – and Hannah is falling a little (or a lot) more in love every day.

The set-up is a fairly familiar one, but Ms. Heath puts a fresh spin on this well-used trope by her pleasantly different portrayal of Ross as a charming, funny, level-headed, all-round decent bloke rather than the sort of darkly brooding, ruthless bastard that is a much more frequent character-type found in this sort of story.  Not to say he isn’t ruthless in his business dealings – he’d have to be to have made a fortune considering where he started out – but he’s clearly a very different man to the one Hannah had expected, given everything she’d read about him in the scandal sheets.  In addition to the romance, there’s a nicely developed secondary plotline in which Ross suspects that Hannah might be a spy working for the East India Company, one of his main business rivals; and a look at the effects and intrusiveness of gossip – something not limited to the 21st century – as we discover why Ross is so steadfast in his determination never to respond to the accusations that are regularly thrown at him in the press.

The central characters are both very well-rounded, with Ross definitely being the star of the show.  He’s pulled himself out of the gutter through sheer determination and hard work, but hasn’t become overly hard or cynical; and although Hannah is a little harder to like because she insists on hanging on to her poor opinions of Ross for longer than she probably should, it does make sense in the context of the story and her character.

There are plenty of sparks between Ross and Hannah, and I really liked the way his gently teasing manner – he nicknames her “Prim” – and his willingness to listen to her and take her ideas seriously are shown to be instrumental in the progress of the friendship that develops between them. The romance grows out of that friendship as they begin to understand more about each other and there’s a real sense of warmth and affection to all aspects of their relationship.  In fact, the only thing I can really find to criticise in the book is the false note which is struck towards the end, when Hannah takes a highly improbable course of action following Ross’s discovery of her true identity.

But all in all, That Despicable Rogue is a thoroughly enjoyable read and one I’d definitely recommend to others.  In my Best of 2016 post at All About Romance, I mentioned that I’d discovered some very good new authors during the course of the year; K.C Bateman and Cat Sebastian were two, and Virginia Heath is another. Harlequin Historical has some of the best writers of historical romance around on its roster and Ms. Heath is definitely one of their strongest recent finds.

A Match Made in Mistletoe by Anna Campbell

a-match-made-in-mistletoe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A mistletoe wish…
All her life, Serena Talbot has been in love with the handsome boy next door, Sir Paul Garside. She always eagerly looks forward to Paul’s visit to her family over the Festive Season, even if he usually brings along his dark, sardonic friend Lord Hallam. This year, Serena is determined that Paul’s kiss under the mistletoe will lead to a proposal. Even if she has to enlist every ounce of Christmas magic she can get her hands on to make that happen.

But the mistletoe gets it wrong!
When Serena slips a sprig of mistletoe from the village kissing bough under her pillow, it’s not Paul who turns up in her dreams as the man she’s going to marry, but brooding, intense, annoying Giles Farraday, Marquess of Hallam. Still more annoying, once everyone arrives for the annual Christmas house party, she can’t stop watching Giles, and thinking about Giles. And kissing Giles, whether there’s mistletoe about or not. Now Paul wants to marry her, and Giles wants to seduce her–and Serena has a bone to pick with the old wives who came up with all this superstitious nonsense in the first place.

A Christmas of confusion lies ahead! Will mistletoe magic lead the way to a happy ending?

Rating: B

Fans of Anna Campbell’s have been treated to a regular diet of new stories from her over the last year or so in the form of a series of novellas (Dashing Widows) and a couple of standalones.  Her writing is extremely assured, warm and intelligent; and she has the knack of creating the most delicious romantic tension between her couples, something I always look for and appreciate.  She has produced a novella for Christmas the last couple of years, and having enjoyed those, I eagerly picked up this year’s A Match Made in Mistletoe, the story of a young woman who comes to realise that the man of her dreams might not actually be the man for her.

Serena Talbot has been in love with Paul Garside for as long as she can remember, and is eagerly looking forward to the day when he will realise he feels the same way and ask her to be his wife. Like his friend Giles Farraday, the Marquess of Hallam, Paul is a regular visitor to the Talbot’s home; in fact, he and Giles spent most of their school holidays there, especially after Giles was orphaned at the age of eight.  Now in their twenties, the two young men have been on the town for a number of years, and there’s no question that they are a pair of very eligible bachelors.  Paul’s golden good-looks and his easy going manner make him a firm favourite with the ladies, although Serena is rather surprised to learn that it’s the darkly brooding Giles who is the most sought after. (Although to those of us who inhabit Romancelandia, this comes as no surprise!) As a child he was dark, swarthy and gangly and Serena has never quite been able to divorce the image of the boy from the man.

But that doesn’t matter. Paul – and Giles – are expected to arrive for the Christmas holiday, along with numerous family members and other friends, and Serena is convinced that this is finally going to be THE Christmas, the one where Paul declares himself and makes her dreams come true.  And it certainly seems that is going to be the case.  Paul makes his intentions perfectly clear – but strangely, it’s not his touch or his voice that is making her stomach flutter and her heart beat faster, but those of his saturnine friend.  How can that be possible?  How can Serena be in love with one man while another man’s kisses fire her blood and cause her to lose her wits?

The novella makes use of a couple of tropes I always enjoy; the besotted hero and long-time-friends-who-fall-in-love. Giles has loved Serena for years, but knowing of her preference for Paul, never thought he stood a chance with her and so cultivated an air of detachment, simply as a matter of self-preservation.  While he always looks forward to Christmases with the Talbot family – which are  full of love, fun and laughter – this year he anticipates heartbreak, as Paul has finally decided he’s ready to settle down and propose to Serena.  My favourite part of the friends-falling-in-love trope is that moment when they start to see each other through new eyes; and Serena’s dawning realisation – that she finally sees Giles and, moreover, likes what she sees and what she has come to know of the man he is inside – is superbly realised.

The idea that Giles would offer to teach Serena about kissing so that she will know what to do with Paul is a rather flimsy plot device, but Ms. Campbell has written Giles’ longing for Serena and the heat of the sexual tension between the couple so well that it’s easy to forgive the contrivance and just enjoy those sensually romantic moments.  But that’s not to say there’s nothing of substance in the story; there’s the real sense that we’re watching Serena mature before our eyes as she starts to see the difference between a girlish infatuation and real love and desire – and there’s a degree of angst in the sudden strain that their rivalry places on the relationship between Giles and Paul.  I also very much appreciated that Serena has a loving and very sensible mother – something that is quite rare in romances, as parents are often estranged, eccentric or otherwise no good at being there for their offspring.

Serena and Giles are attractive, well-rounded characters and their interactions are a delight to read.  While Serena may be naïve to begin with, she’s refreshingly honest with herself about her changing feelings, and Giles is a gorgeous hero; one whose life has been blighted by loss and who has learned to keep his feelings hidden – even as he longs to be known and loved.

Because the principals have known each other for years, their romance is believable and doesn’t feel rushed – plus Ms Campbell delays the seemingly obligatory sex scene until the epilogue, so it doesn’t feel unnaturally shoe-horned into the main story.  I’m not a big fan of novellas as a rule, but A Match Made is Mistletoe is one I’d definitely recommend if you have an hour or so to spare during the festive season.

TBR Challenge: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

imprudent-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Is she an innocent or not? Prudence Mallow, weary of the poor relation role, discovers her calling in writing novels. Modest, sincere novels, not the scandalous fare of Lord Dammler’s Cantos from Abroad. Drawn by the rakish marquis into the hotbed of London society, Prudence finds herself in way over her head—and heart.

Rating: B+

The Historical prompt for the TBR Challenge is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly, but even so, I still enjoy going through my books to find something I haven’t read yet.  This time round, I settled on a traditional Regency from 1978, Joan Smith’s Imprudent Lady. Many authors have had books likened to those of Georgette Heyer, and while that is a comparison that’s always going to draw my eye, I’ve been disappointed on many an occasion.  Not so here.  Imprudent Lady is an utterly delightful rake-meets-bluestocking story full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, beautifully observed wit and deftly drawn characters that has at its centre a warm, charming romance between a rakish, Byronic poet and an authoress with a talent for writing sharply observed characters and situations.

Miss Prudence Mallow and her mother have been left in reduced circumstances and have gone to live with Mrs. Mallow’s brother, Mr Clarence Elmtree, an amateur artist with a hugely inflated idea of the extent of his skill.  In order to earn a little money, Prudence does some work as a copyist for publisher, Mr. John Murray, and in the course of her work starts penning stories of her own.  Murray is impressed with her writing style and her strong observational skill and humour, and undertakes to publish The Composition, even though it is not in the current vogue for exciting romantic adventures à la Walter Scott.

The book sells steadily, and Prudence is soon at work on a second novel, and then a third.  Her work is well-regarded and she finds herself coming into contact with some of her favourite authors, such as Fanny Burney, but does not make much of an impression on them.

The literary world and English society is set abuzz is the return to England of Lord Dammler, whose Cantos from Abroad, thinly disguised tales – full of over-blown action, adventure and romance – of his three years travelling the world have become an instant success.  The handsome, aristocratic Dammler is society’s golden-boy, although he quickly finds that being constantly in the spotlight and the subject of endless sycophancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Along with the rest of society, Prudence has been enthralled by Dammler’s tales of derring-do, and is bowled over by his dark good looks.  Enthused by a brief meeting, she is moved to send Dammler an autographed copy of The Composition – and is hurt when she discovers he passed it on to his aunt without reading it. In a fit of pique, she dismisses Dammler’s writing as “nothing but a totally incredible novel in rhyme.”

Learning of this, Dammler takes up Prudence’s novel and is surprised to find it engaging and witty. When the two meet again, he is immediately intrigued by Prudence’s no-nonsense manner and the fact that she doesn’t simper and flirt like every other woman he meets.  Because her clothes are drab and she sports the sort of lace cap usually worn by older ladies, he at first takes her to be older than her twenty-four years and fails to mind his tongue, talking quite freely to Prudence about matters that are considered too “warm” for the ears of a younger lady.  But Prudence doesn’t really mind; in fact, Dammler’s discourse, while it might shock her at times, is eye-opening for her in many ways, and they strike up a friendship based on professional affinity – they’re both writers, they have the same publisher – and he begins to introduce her to people of influence and to advance her career.

The romance between this unlikely couple is very well done, with the bulk of the story focusing on Dammler’s gradual transition from rakehell to a man deeply in love.

He admired and respected Miss Mallow’s books and brains initially, then he began to like her dry wit, her understatement, her way of not pretending to be impressed with his past (and present) affairs, which he coloured bright, to shock her.

When she wore her new bonnets, he thought she was rather sweet looking, in an old-fashioned way.  They talked and laughed together for hours.  If anyone had told him they were well suited, he would have been shocked.

Dammler is all one could want in a romantic hero – handsome, clever, confident, but self-aware enough not to take himself too seriously.  Yet for most of the book, he has no idea that what he is feeling for Prudence IS love, although the reader sees the progression from professional interest to friendship to love through some of the wittiest banter I’ve read in a long time. And while Prudence is aware of the nature of her feelings, she believes the fact that Dammler talks so openly to her means that he sees her as another male friend, or – just as bad – a sister.

“I didn’t go out at all last night.  Stayed home and got the second act written in rough.”

This was the second time he had mentioned in a seemingly casual fashion the innocent nature of his nights, and Prudence decided to chide him about it.  “I wasn’t hellraking last night, either, but I hadn’t meant to brag to you about it.”

“Oh, what a heartless wench she is!  You complained loud enough when I was out carousing. Won’t you say a kind word on my improvement?”

“I did not complain!  Don’t cast me in the role of guardian of your morals.”

“Well, I hoped to please you by improving.  No one else ever was kind enough to worry about me, or care whether I ran to perdition.”

“What a plumper!  Your mama cried for two hours when you got drunk.”

“But she’s been dead for ten years.  I started drinking young.  And my father has been dead for fifteen years.  Just a poor orphan waif, really.  Couldn’t you pat my head and bless me, or must I lie on the floor and hold my breath to excite any interest?”

“Indeed it is not necessary to choke yourself.  Good boy,” she reached out and patted his head, and felt sorry for him in spite of his shameless bid for pity.

There are, of course, a couple of hiccups along the way in the form of some unsuitable suitors, one of whom is a particularly odious misogynist.  The final section, which takes place in Bath, lacks some of the earlier sparkle, but by that time, I was so firmly rooting for Dammler and Prudence to resolve their differences that I didn’t really mind.

Imprudent Lady is the perfect pick-me-up read; quick, funny and clever, with a nicely done romance and some great secondary characters, not least of which is Prudence’s uncle Clarence, the truly awful artist.  Somehow, Joan Smith keeps this running joke fresh, as Clarence expounds – frequently – upon various aspects of his art:

“I think Lawrence could pick up a trick of two from me, but he is quite spoilt with attention…  I blushed for him, poor fellow, to see everyone praising such likenesses.  He had a wart on Lady Cassel’s nose.  You’d think anyone who calls himself an artist would have panted it out.  But his sensitivity is entirely lacking.  He can only paint a pretty picture if he has as pretty subject.”

If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted, tender romance full of sharply observed witty banter, add Imprudent Lady to your TBR.  You won’t regret it.

TBR Challenge: Incriminating Evidence (Evidence #4) by Rachel Grant

incriminating-evidence

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When archaeologist Isabel Dawson stumbles upon an unconscious man deep in the Alaskan wilderness, her survival skills are put to the test. She tends his wounds and drags him to shelter, only to discover she’s saved the life of Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant—the man who may have covered up her brother’s murder to save his senatorial campaign.

With no memory of the assault that landed him five miles deep in the forest, Alec doesn’t know what to believe when he wakes in the clutches of the beautiful redhead who blames him for her brother’s death, but he quickly realizes he needs her help to uncover the truth about his lost hours.

Isabel never imagined she’d find herself allied with Alec, and he’s the last man she ever expected to find attractive. But the former Army Ranger-turned-politician proves seductively charming, and he’s determined to win much more than her vote. When their quest for answers puts Isabel in the crosshairs, Alec must risk everything—his company, his campaign, and his life—to protect her.

Rating: B+

This is the fourth book in Rachel Grant’s Evidence series, but fortunately, this is a series in which all the stories are self-contained, so it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the other books. There are some characters who have obviously appeared before and it’s clear that certain plot details were planted in previous books, but the author has given enough information here for a newbie like me to be able to dive right in and enjoy.
Incriminating Evidence is a fast-moving, well-paced story with plenty of intrigue, nail-biting moments of peril and action running alongside a sexy and nicely developed romance between an unlikely couple – an introverted archaeologist and a wealthy businessman running for political office.

Isabel Dawson is an archaeologist whose current gig is searching for ancient settlements that could be threatened by the upcoming timber harvest in Alaska. She’s a bit of a loner, so her job of hiking through the remote wilderness suits her and she enjoys it – although right now, she isn’t completely focused on her task. Around a year earlier, her brother Vincent, a soldier, was killed, supposedly on a training mission at Raptor, a private security firm that trains military personnel in combat techniques designed specifically to be employed in the war against terror. Isabel is convinced Vin’s death wasn’t an accident, but her attempts to instigate an investigation have met with dead ends, principally due, she believes, to the fact that Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant ordered a cover-up. She has emails from her brother that indicate he believed he had been kidnapped, tortured and experimented upon, and Isabel is determined to find out the truth by finding the location Vin described. But her plans are disrupted when she literally stumbles across a badly injured man in the woods. She has to make a quick decision. She is miles from her car and from the Raptor Compound, but there is an old settler’s cabin a mile away. If she leaves the man to go for help, there’s the chance that whoever worked him over will come back to finish him off, or that he’ll die of exposure, so she patches him up as best she can, fashions a make-do stretcher, lashes him to it and drags him all the way to the cabin. It’s only once there that she realises that the man whose life she has just saved is none other than Alec Ravissant.

When Alec eventually comes round, Isabel begins to regret her decision to save him; not only is he violent towards her, he’s rude and ungrateful, having her arrested on suspicion of kidnapping him once his security team locates them the next morning. Alec has no memory of what happened to him; he remembers driving and then swerving to avoid something in the road – then nothing until he comes to when Isabel is dragging him to the hut. He quickly realises that even though Isabel Dawson has been a thorn in his and Raptor’s side for some time, she may in fact be the only person he can trust, as there is clearly something untoward going on at the Raptor Compound, and everyone is suspect.

I can’t say much more without spoilers, but the plot is ingenious and very well constructed. Alec and Isabel are great characters who strike sparks off each other from the get-go, and I enjoyed the way the author gradually develops the trust between them. Isabel is a bit skittish; the death of her parents when she was a child, and then of the brother who more or less raised her has made her wary of getting attached to people and places, so she moves around a lot and never puts down roots. Alec comes from old money and was groomed to enter politics practically from the cradle, but veered off the path his family had mapped out for him by spending twelve years in the military. Now, however, he’s ready to face the challenge of the political arena, having discovered that his desire to serve his country and its people has not ended with his departure from the Rangers. As well as being a total hottie, he’s a great guy; quick to own up to the fact that he could have done more to investigate Vincent’s death, and to realise that his feelings for Isabel go way beyond the intense sexual attraction that pulses between them. I liked that there is a real sense of equality between them in spite of their different backgrounds. Isabel is smart, sassy and more than capable of looking after herself in tricky situations; Alec knows that and respects her for it, and while he wants to protect her, he recognises her abilities and her need to be involved with the search for evidence regarding her brother’s death. Ultimately, their romance is believable; the chemistry between them sizzles and the sex scenes are nice and steamy.

I enjoyed the book very much, but I do have one or two niggles about the story overall. Isabel is ready on several occasions to believe the worst of Alec and to run from him, either refusing to believe his explanations or refusing to allow him to make one; and it got a bit old after the first time or two. It also seems that Alec rebuilds his political campaign very easily given all the problems that arise as a result of his relationship with Isabel. I’m not an expert by any means, and certainly not on US politics, but this does seem to have been somewhat hand-waved away.

All in all however, Rachel Grant has crafted a compelling story that revolves around a series of strange attacks and incidents, and an unusual and very cleverly thought-out secret weapon that is scarily plausible. The background detail relating to the military/special-ops aspect of the story is interesting and well-done, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are very evocative, putting the reader right there. Incriminating Evidence was my first experience of Ms. Grant’s writing but it definitely won’t be my last.

A Gentleman Never Tells (Essex Sisters #4.5) by Eloisa James

a gentleman never tells
This title is available to purchase from Amazon.

Eighteen months ago, Lizzie Troutt’s husband died in his mistress’s bed, leaving her determined to never marry again . . . and unfortunately virginal.

Eighteen years ago (give or take a few) the Honorable Oliver Berwick blackened his own soul, leaving him hardened and resolutely single.

When the chance for redemption in the form of a country house party invitation comes his way, Oliver is determined to prove himself a gentleman.

Until he breaks all the codes of gentlemanly behaviour . . . once again.

Rating:B

This charming novella is loosely related to Eloisa James’ Essex Sisters series by virtue of the fact that the heroine’s sister is friends with Josie, Countess of Mayne. The central romance develops quickly – over the space of a couple of days – but it’s well done, with plenty of humour and crackling chemistry between the two leads which enables the reader to buy into this whirlwind courtship without the need for the suspension of too much disbelief.

Lizzie, Lady Troutt has been a widow for just over eighteen months. Not unusually for the time, her father chose her husband for her and chose badly; Adrian Troutt only wanted Lizzie’s money so that he could continue to live with his long-term mistress. Poor Lizzie had no idea of that until her wedding day, when her new husband unceremoniously dumped her at his mother’s home, told Lizzie to look after her and waved goodbye. Hurt and disillusioned, Lizzie ran back to her father – who sent her right back and basically told her to get on with it.

Adrian’s unorthodox living arrangements were widely known, which naturally made Lizzie into a figure of fun or pity, and his death ‘on the job’ only served to increase her notoriety. In the year and a half since his death, all Lizzie has wanted to do is to fade into the background, stay at home and read her beloved books.

Her older, happily married sister Cat, Lady Windingham, is worried about her, though. Lizzie used to be vibrant and quick-witted but has become entirely self-effacing and reclusive; she seems to be holding herself responsible for her late husband’s faults, and Cat wants to shake her out of her gloom. She extracts a promise from Lizzie to attend the house-party she and her husband are holding and hopes to find a way to bring Lizzie out of her shell.

Oliver Berwick still feels guilty over some youthful indiscretions that caused hurt to a couple of young women in society. When the opportunity to offer both ladies an apology presents itself, he grabs it, accompanying his fifteen year-old niece (and ward) to Lady Windingham’s houseparty. Cat makes Oliver very welcome, but Lizzie is quiet and aloof, making a reluctant appearance at the dinner table that first evening and skipping breakfast the next day, simply to avoid meeting him again. Oliver is funny, charming and far too handsome for Lizzie’s peace of mind; and besides, she doesn’t want a man. Widowhood comes with certain benefits, one of which is not having to be subject to the dictates of any man ever again, even a gorgeous, amusing and surprisingly straightforward one.

Both Lizzie and Oliver are such well-rounded, engaging characters, that it’s not hard to get to know them quickly and to feel that they’re part of a longer story. It’s easy to understand what has driven Lizzie to want to hide herself away and to sympathise with her insecurities; and it’s clear that Oliver has grown up to be a conscientious, caring man. He is sweetly smitten with Lizzie from the start and determined to coax her out of herself and show her that not all men are selfish bastards. Lizzie is wary and at first wants nothing more than to hide away; but – and here I thoroughly applaud the author – Lizzie starts to realise ON HER OWN that she is doing herself down by dressing in drab clothes and living vicariously through the books she loves. I loved watching her succumbing to the warmth of Oliver’s personality and his gentle teasing, but I also loved that she was finally standing up for herself and discovering the women she was supposed to be.

In spite of the short page count, Ms. James manages to create a genuine connection between her central couple and to add in some swiftly but ably drawn secondary characters, too. A Gentleman Never Tells is a fun, quick read that can be enjoyed by fans as well as those new to the author’s work.

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Tycoon (Knickerbocker Club #0.5) by Joanna Shupe

tycoon

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Standing on the platform at Grand Central Station, Ted Harper is surprised by a fiery kiss from an undeniably gorgeous damsel in distress. He’s certain she’s a swindler who’s only after his money, but he’s never met a woman so passionate and sure of herself. Disarmed, he invites her to spend the journey to St. Louis in his private car—perhaps against his better judgment.

Clara Dawson has long known how to take care of herself, but the savvy shop girl is at a loss when she witnesses—and becomes entangled in—a terrible crime. Desperation propels her into a stranger’s arms at the train station, but she hadn’t expected Ted to offer her the protection she so badly needs—nor did she expect their chemistry to develop more steam than the engine of the train. He’s everything she never thought she could have, and she’s everything he didn’t know he wanted. But as her secrets begin to unfurl, their fledgling romance could be in danger of derailing before they arrive at the next station.

Having read and enjoyed Magnate, which is the first full-length novel in Ms Shupe’s new Knickerbocker Club series, I decided to backtrack and pick up this prequel novella. In Magnate, we met banking Tycoon Ted Harper and his vibrant, voluble wife, Clara, a former New York shopgirl; at first glance, perhaps a rather mismatched couple. In Tycoon, we discover how they met and fell in love when Clara, on the run after witnessing a murder, accosts Ted at Grand Central station and insists on boarding the train with him in order to evade her pursuers. This makes for a nicely dramatic opening, and Ms Shupe keeps the thriller element bubbling along nicely while also allowing Ted and Clara to spend time getting to know each other.

At just thirty-two, Ted is a multi-millionaire, so is rather used to young women throwing themselves at him. He is initially suspicious of Clara, and especially so when she insists she has no idea who he is, but he eventually accepts her explanation and comes to appreciate the breath of fresh air she brings to his busy life. The story is well-put together and Ted and Clara are engaging characters, but I didn’t like the way that Clara insisted on concealing the truth and evading Ted’s direct questions about the reasons for her running from New York. It’s true that Ted doesn’t tell her his true identity either, and that perhaps, had he done so, Clara would have realised that he really would have been able to protect her from the bad guys. And even after the truth is out between them, yet another misunderstanding is thrown in to create a bit more tension between them before the HEA. Even with those reservations though, Tycoon is one of the better novellas I’ve read recently and while the page count doesn’t allow for the same sort of scene-setting that is so impressive in Magnate, it’s a good introduction to the series and is definitely worth a look when you’re in the mood for a quick but satisfying read.

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