TBR Challenge: Dissident (Bellator Saga #1) by Cecilia London


This title is available FREE on Amazon

“I will always be with you…”

Rising Democratic star Caroline Gerard hasn’t had an easy year. After losing her husband, she is raising two small children alone while trying to navigate the tricky and sometimes shallow halls on Capitol Hill. A string of nasty speeches has her scrambling to apologize to any number of candidates, including newly elected Republican Jack McIntyre. Falling in love again is the last thing on her mind.

Jack McIntyre might have a reputation as a playboy, but he has his sights set solely on his new colleague. Can he break through Caroline’s grief and capture her heart?

Told mostly in flashback and set against a chilling fascist backdrop, Dissident is a rollercoaster ride of political intrigue, passionate contemporary romance, and undying love.

One of my fellow AAR reviewers, Kristen Donnelly, has raved about Cecilia London’s Bellator Saga – and given that I like a nice, juicy political thriller, I decided pretty much at the beginning of the year that Dissident, the first book in the series would be my recommended read this year.

I’ll start out by saying that the saga is a serial in which one storyline runs through all six books in the series; rather like a TV mini-series, all the books need to be read in order for the reader to experience the entirety of the story, so if you’re planning on having a look at this one, be prepared to be in it for the long haul.  I think each book ends on a cliffhanger (which is clearly stated at Amazon); this one definitely does and I’m sufficiently invested in the story and characters (especially the two principals) to want to read more.

The story opens in the present as we follow a couple – a husband and wife we learn are named Jack and Caroline – as they run through the woods in the attempt to evade the soldiers who are pursuing them.  Both are injured, but Caroline is clearly in a very bad way, and she urges Jack to continue without her, telling him that the information they have risked so much to gather is more important than either of them.  It’s clear that these two are devoted to one another and that it costs Caroline a lot to make the suggestion and even more for Jack to hear it.  Even though we’re just a few pages into the book at this point, it’s quite devastating when Jack wrenches himself away and prepares to do as Caroline asks, saying:

“I will come back for you, Caroline.  Understand?  I promise I will come back.  I’m not giving up.  I will find someone I can trust and I will come back.”

As it’s the first in a series, Dissident is mostly set-up, focusing on the two central characters, the recently widowed Democratic Congresswoman Caroline Gerard and Jack McIntyre, a multi-millionaire Republican with a reputation for being an arsehole.  Having read Kristen’s reviews of two of the later books in the series, it’s clear that the author is going to take us to some dark and uncomfortable places, so it’s important that we get to know and understand these individuals given that they are our windows into the story, and that the relationship that evolves between them is its bedrock.

Over five years earlier, Jack and Caroline got off to a rocky start when she bad-mouthed him to the media, calling him a “millionaire playboy trying to buy his way into Congress.”. Her only defence is that at that time, she was in a very bad place; she had recently lost her husband and had thrown herself into work to compensate, making a number of bad decisions of which spouting off about would-be Congressman McIntyre was one.  Months later, she hopes to apologise to him in person, but he doesn’t want to hear it and brushes her off abruptly, which Caroline thinks she probably deserves.  But later that same night, Jack relents and the two of them strike up a conversation which leads to the development of a very close friendship which is terribly important to them both.

Ms. London writes this growing relationship incredibly well; Jack and Caroline are mature characters (he’s forty-seven, she’s thirty-six) and their life experience shows, lending a real sense of authenticity to their interactions, which are deep, playful, witty and insightful by turns.  Their gradual falling-in-love is superbly and subtly depicted; it’s obvious that Jack is head-over-heels fairly early on but recognises that he shouldn’t rush things, while Caroline is a little more hesitant to become romantically involved.  She’s warm, funny and utterly devoted to her young daughters as well as being the sort of person who fights for the underdog and wants to make a difference.  Jack comes across as an arrogant arse when we – along with Caroline – first meet him, but it’s soon clear that isn’t really who he is, and I loved the way that as their friendship progresses,  Caroline comes to see him for the good man he is beneath the highly polished exterior.  Their romance is beautifully done and nicely steamy (Jack is one hot silver fox!) and the emotional connection they share is very deeply rooted and one which, I suspect, is going to prove a lifeline for both of them as the story progresses.

While something like seventy-five percent of the book takes place five years in the past and concentrates on the growing romance between Jack and Caroline, there are a few  present day chapters scattered strategically throughout Dissident showing us what happens after Jack leaves Caroline in the woods.  (The fact that he leaves her is one of the reasons this character-building story is essential; we need to know the strength of Jack’s feelings for Caroline in order to realise just how important the information he is carrying must be if he is prepared to leave her to an unknown fate to keep it safe.)  It’s clear that all is not well in America; the information I’ve gleaned has come mostly from reading reviews, so I won’t spoil it here, save to say that mentions of secession and martial law and the accusations of treason levelled at Caroline definitely tell us we’re not in Kansas any more.

There are a few writing hiccups and the odd place where the pace flags a bit, but for the most part, this is a strongly-written and well-conceived tale of political intrigue that sucked me in from the start and kept me eagerly turning the pages.  Jack and Caroline are engaging characters, their romance is believable and passionate, and the author has started the ball rolling on what promises to be an epic story.

I’m definitely in it for the long haul.

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The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding by Amanda McCabe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A country Christmas at Barton Park

Plain, sensible Rose Parker is a self-proclaimed wallflower, but she’s always dreamt of dancing with Captain Harry St George…

Once, Harry wouldn’t even have noticed Rose. But now, after a hard war, Harry’s knows he’s a different man. Shy, sweet Rose intrigues him more than any gregarious young lady – but he must marry a rich bride to save his mortgaged estates – and Rose is no heiress. Now, more than ever, Harry needs the magic of a mistletoe kiss…

Rating: C

The Wallflower’s Mistletoe Wedding is a pleasant, light-hearted story set in an English country home at Christmastime in which two lonely people find love amid the hustle and bustle of a family house party. It’s an easy read to which the word ‘nice’ can be frequently applied; the hero and heroine are nice people, their hostess is nice, the hostesses children are nice, the book as a whole is nice… I think you can see where I’m going with this. It’s one of those books that has nothing wrong with it, but which isn’t going to set the world alight, either.

In the prologue – which is set three years before the rest of the story – Miss Rose Parker, her mother and younger sister, Lily, are attending a summer party at Barton Park the large estate owned by their cousins, the Bancroft family. The recent death of Mr. Parker has left them with large debts which meant they had to leave their home in order to repay them. They live quietly in a small cottage, but the Bancrofts continue to invite them to Barton Park from time to time, and it’s at this particular gathering that Rose first meets Captain Harry St. George, the handsome but somewhat retiring owner of the neighbouring estate, Hilltop Grange. Harry and Rose talk briefly, dance together and recognise that they have made some sort of connection; and Rose, normally a very pragmatic young woman, starts to dream, just this once, of a different life and a home of her own. Sadly, however, her girlish musings soon come to an end when she overhears that the Captain is to marry the lovely and sophisticated Miss Helen Layton.

Moving forward three years, we find Rose living with her overbearing Aunt Sylvia as her paid companion. Rose’s sister, Lily, married the man she loves – the local curate – and now has two small children, and their mother continues to live in her tiny cottage; the money Rose earns in her position is enough to make sure she can live reasonably comfortably. Sylvia is cantankerous and exacting, so Rose can’t deny the relief she feels when she receives a letter from her cousin Jane inviting her to Barton Park for Christmas, ostensibly to help with the children and give them some music tuition.

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

Frail by Susannah Ives

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?

Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?

Rating: B-

I’ve read a few books by Susanna Ives over the past couple of years and have come to the conclusion that she is at her best when she’s doing something a little different to the norm in historical romance. Her début novel, Rakes and Radishes turned the reformed rake trope on its head, and Wicked My Love was an entertaining enemies-to-lovers story featuring a gregarious hero and an awkward, maths genius heroine.  In fact, the least successful of the books of hers I’ve read was one in which she pursued a more conventional storyline (How to Impress a Marquess), so when I read the synopsis for Frail, I was pleased to see that Ms. Ives has opted once again to follow a less well-trod path by centering the story around a romance between a hero with PTSD who likes to garden, and a socialite heroine brought low by her father’s criminal activities.

Theo Mallory, second son of the Earl of Streswick, returned from fighting in the Crimea a very different man to the sociable, charming one who left.  He knows he is a disappointment to his father, who is anxious and awkward around him, clearly not knowing what to do or say, and Theo can’t blame him; sometimes he doesn’t know what to do or say either.  His return from the war angry, frustrated,  unable to sleep, suffering hallucinations and nightmares that he tried to quiet by indulging in drink, drugs, women and violence was difficult for all of them, his family’s belief that they could somehow find a doctor who could ‘cure’ him irritating him as much as it made him feel guilty that their hopes were dashed time after time.  Things were going from bad to worse, the earl starting to wonder if an asylum was the safest place for his unpredictable son, when Theo retreated to a property in Snowdonia, North Wales, where he has lived quietly for the past five years, pursuing his love of gardening and regaining his equilibrium and his sense of self.  He still suffers bad memories and bad dreams, but he has learned to cope and feels he has at last found his place in life.

Returning to London after five years away is difficult for him, but he is led to do so in order to meet with an officer from Scotland Yard to whom he has given evidence of a fraud being perpetrated on a number of former soldiers with whom Theo had served by a London banker named John Gillingham. At the urging of his father and stepmother, Theo attends a ball with them – and comes face to face with Gillingham’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Helena, who teases him a little and then, most unconventionally, asks him to dance with her. Already off-balance in the hot, crowded ballroom, Theo’s control slips further during their dance as he finds it impossible to contain his anger at this “vain, ignorant and selfish girl”, whose beautiful gowns have been paid for with money swindled from former soldiers and hard-working people.  He accuses her of being cruel and uncaring and stalks away, leaving Helena wondering what on earth she has done to deserve such treatment, and feeling vaguely sorry that such a handsome young man should be so clearly unbalanced.

A day or so later, however, Helena’s life is shattered when her father commits suicide, leaving her alone and with nothing.  She comes to understand the truth; that her father had committed a massive fraud and took his own life when threatened with exposure – and that he has escaped the consequences while leaving her to face scandal and public vitriol.  Helena has no close relatives; her ‘friends’ no longer want to know her and her only means of supporting herself it to sell everything she can.  Months pass, she is running out of things to sell and will shortly have to leave her home, and still she has no inkling of what to do or where to go – when she remembers her cousin Emily in Wales, who happens to be a neighbour of Theo Mallory’s.  She writes to Emily more or less begging her to take her in, and is relieved to receive a letter filled with kind words and compassion, inviting her to make her home with Emily and her daughter.

Helena is not well-received by the majority of the local villagers, many of whom either lost money, or know someone who lost money in her father’s scam.  Emily, who is liked and respected by all, proves to be her staunch champion, as does Theo, who surprises Helena by showing himself to be relaxed, confident and comfortable in both himself and his surroundings – in short, a completely different man to the one she’d met in London.

Helena, having at first believed that the best thing she could do for the woman who has shown her such kindness and generosity would be to leave the village, gradually finds herself settling into the rhythm of daily life there, and doing what she can to prove herself worthy of Emily’s faith in her.  As she spends more time with Theo, she finds herself drawn to his quiet strength and truly, deeply moved by the beautiful gardens and outside spaces he has created, places she is able to find the sort of peace and tranquillity she craves.  Theo starts to let Helena know him, telling her something of his wartime experience and of his subsequent illness and the effect it has had on his family.  These are two people struggling to come to terms with traumatic experiences who come understand something of the other’s pain and to enjoy each other’s company.  A strong mutual attraction develops between them, but as Theo realises he is falling in love, he has to ask himself if Helena – who has no idea of his part in her father’s downfall – could possibly love the man ultimately responsible for it.  He is torn between a desire to tell the truth and his desire for Helena, and in his desperation, makes some poor decisions that could ultimately cost him dear.

Theo and Helena are both strongly characterised and Ms. Ives does a splendid job in conveying the perilous nature of Helena’s situation following her father’s death.  Her disconnectedness and fears for her future are palpable, as are her disorientation and confusion when she arrives in Wales.  I also appreciated that she doesn’t fall into the trap of having Theo suddenly and miraculously cured by the love of the right woman.  It’s true that he finds a degree of comfort in Helena’s presence and finds himself going to those dark places in his mind less frequently, but it’s clear that the mental scars he bears are not going to heal easily or completely.

Frail is not a fluffy, easy read; the emotions are messy, complicated and often strung taut as a bow-string, and the author doesn’t sugar coat some of the descriptions of Theo’s hallucinations.  But ultimately, it’s one of those books where the execution doesn’t quite live up to the intriguing premise.  The first part of the book is stronger than the second, and the pacing in the middle is a little stodgy as things get bogged down in the preparations for an event that it is hoped will smooth Helena’s path to acceptance by the locals – which then seems to happen rather easily.  There is a rather needless subplot concerning Emily’s pregnant maid-of-all-work, some of the language in the love scenes is a bit clumsy, and the disclosure of Theo’s involvement in Gillingham’s downfall takes place so late in the book that the entire final section feels rushed and the ending abrupt.

Even with those provisos, I’d say that Frail might suit readers looking for a slightly darker, more emotionally fraught story than is usually found in historical romance.  I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if you’re on the look-out for something a little different to the norm, it’s worth your consideration in spite of its flaws.

TBR Challenge – My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady by day, Robin Hood by night…

Arabella Knightley is an earl’s granddaughter, but it’s common knowledge that she spent her early years in London’s gutters. What the ton doesn’t know is that while Arabella acts the perfect young lady by day, at night she plays Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Adam St Just is one of Society’s most sought after bachelors. He’s also the man responsible for Arabella Knightley’s nickname: Miss Smell o’ Gutters—a mistake he regrets, but can never erase.

Bored by polite society, Adam sets out to unmask the elusive thief … but he’s not prepared for what he discovers.

Rating: A-

The Historicals prompt in the TBR Challenge is my Busman’s Holiday, but it can nonetheless be quite difficult to choose a book from the many still sitting unread on my Kindle. In the end, I decided to go for something I was pretty certain would be a winner and picked up Emily Larkin’s My Lady Thief, a standalone title that was first published as The Unmasking of a Lady in 2010, under her Emily May pen-name. Every book I’ve read by this author has proved to be extremely enjoyable and well-written; she creates attractive, well-rounded characters and puts them in interesting situations and her romances are always well-developed and laced with sexual tension. My Lady Thief most ably continues that impressive track record.

Miss Arabella Knightley is beautiful, poised, intelligent, self-assured and the granddaughter of an earl – a most eligible parti were it not for the fact that her early years were spent in the London slums owing to the fact that her father, the second son of an earl, was cast off by his father for marrying her mother without permission. When, after her husband’s death, Arabella’s mother, Thérèse, approached the earl for help, he agreed to take in the daughter but not the mother. Unwilling to be parted from her child, Thérèse took Arabella to live with a friend of her late husband’s and became the man’s mistress. After this, she was rumoured to have had a number of protectors, but eventually she and her daughter ended up in the slums. After her death when Arabella was twelve, the old earl took his granddaughter in and made her the heir to his fortune after his sons all died without issue. So not only is Arabella beautiful, on her twenty-fifth birthday, she will inherit a considerable fortune – but she is not interested in marriage and intends instead to retire to the country and run the girl’s school she has secretly set up. Good society tolerates her because of her lineage and wealth, but she knows she is not really accepted, and, for the most part, doesn’t care. She presents a calm, unruffled exterior to the ton, the veiled and not-so-veiled insults she elicits merely glancing off her façade of tough insouciance and affecting her not at all. Apart from that one time six years earlier when she’d learned that Adam St. Just – handsome, wealthy, charming and one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors – had described her to his set as smelling of the gutters, and the nickname had stuck. She is still referred to behind hands and fans as “Miss Smell O’Gutters”.

Adam St. Just heartily regrets his actions that day, which had been borne of anger and frustration after his callous father had taken him to task about the fact that he had singled out “the daughter of a French whore” for his attentions. Adam had neither known nor cared about Miss Arabella Knightley’s origins, having been struck by her beauty and intelligence – but his father’s disdainful interference had sent Adam to the bottle and he’d been well into his cups when he’d made that damaging, crass remark. In the intervening years, he and Miss Knightley have done their best to avoid contact with each other, although moving in the same circles means that they are often present at the same events. Adam is therefore surprised –and not especially pleased – to see Arabella sitting with his sister one evening and to note that whatever Miss Knightley is saying to Grace is being well received and seems to have bolstered her spirits, which have been somewhat dampened of late.

Adam is very protective of his sister, and it worries him that she does not appear to be enjoying the season as so many other young ladies are. When he discovers the cause – that she has been blackmailed over some letters she wrote to a young man with whom she’d believed herself in love – Adam is furious with the man and the blackmailer, guilty that he had not seen how miserable Grace was and curious as to the identity of the person – identified merely as “Tom” – who has returned the letters and the jewellery with which Grace had bought the blackmailer’s silence.

Given that readers are privy to Tom’s true identity from the start, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arabella quickly emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who goes one step further from stealing from the rich to feed the poor. She uses the proceeds from her thefts to finance the school she has set up outside London for girls who might otherwise be forced into prostitution AND chooses as her victims those members of the ton who have been cruel, duplicitous or just downright mean to those weaker than themselves.

Adam becomes determined to discover the identity of the mysterious Tom, and finds himself developing a sneaking respect for the man, who seems only to steal from people who can a) afford it and b) deserve it. It’s only when he starts to look deeper that he begins to suspect Tom’s true identity – and once all is revealed to him, his respect for Tom – Arabella – only increases.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and engaging, and their romance is beautifully written. The way these two circle around each other warily, alternately flirting and mocking and then retreating when threatened with exposing their vulnerabilities had me glued to the pages and their progression from suspicious enmity to admiration to love is perfectly paced and wonderfully romantic. I particularly liked the way Adam is gradually shown to be altering his perceptions of Arabella; to start with he admits he is strongly attracted to her, but that there can be no question of his marrying her, but as the story progresses and he comes to know and understand her better, he is entirely captivated by her; her intelligence, her spirit and her compassion – and sees her for the woman she really is. As Arabella starts to let Adam know her, she shows him something of what her life was like as a child, and exposes him to a side of London he has never seen or really considered. What he sees appals him, and he is genuinely motivated to do something positive and practical to help, while also being more impressed than ever by Arabella’s determination and strength of character.

The chemistry between Adam and Arabella is sizzling, although I have to say that the first sex scene (which comes quite late on) is a little off-key and that, together with a very poor decision Arabella makes near the end, accounts for this book not getting a straight A grade. Otherwise, My Lady Thief is a terrific read that features two fully-rounded and sympathetic central characters, a strong secondary cast and an intriguing storyline. If you’ve never read this author before, this would be a great place to start; and if you’re familiar with her work, it most certainly won’t disappoint.

The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Rating: B+

I’ll start this review by saying that while The Mech Who Loved Me could be read as a standalone novel, it probably won’t make much sense to you unless you have read at least some of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk books. In that series, the author introduces and develops her alternative vision of Victorian London in which the city is ruled by the elite blue bloods while other races – humans, mechs and verwulfen – are second class citizens (and in the case of verwulfen, even lower). At the end of the final book, Of Silk and Steam, the corrupt ruling elite – the Echelon – was overthrown by an alliance comprising all the races, including many blue bloods who opposed the harsh rule imposed by the prince-consort. This new series, London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy is set three years after those events, in a London where all the races now have freedom and equality, although things are by no means easy. Distrust, suspicion and hatred built up over generations doesn’t just disappear overnight; and now it appears that there is someone out there trying to stir up all those old feelings and open up all those old wounds to set the races at each others’ throats once more.

In book one, Mission Improper, readers were introduced (or re-introduced, as some appeared in minor roles in earlier books) to the characters who make up the newly formed Company of Rogues, a small, hand-picked team who are charged with finding out exactly who is trying to incite unrest among the population of London. Under the direction of the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn, this group of blue bloods, a verwulfen and a human/mech discover the existence of a shadowy organisation called the Rising Sons, a group intent on creating anarchy in order to disrupt the uneasy peace between the races, perhaps even on bringing down the queen. They also learn of the existence of a creature called the dhampir, something stronger, faster and even more powerful than a blue-blood which, given blue bloods are almost indestructible, poses a serious threat to anyone who dares to oppose them.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up pretty much where Mission Improper left off, and we’re plunged straight into the action with the discovery of a mysterious virus that appears to be killing blue bloods. Ava McLaren, who was previously a crime scene analyst for the Nighthawks (the organisation that polices London) is now a member of the Company of Rogues, and is eager to prove her skills as an investigator rather than being someone who works behind the scenes all the time. She is pleased when Malloryn assigns her to discover the nature and source of the virus, although the fact that the gruff, cynical mech Liam Kincaid is appointed as her bodyguard takes some of the shine off. A human made mech when he lost his hand, Kincaid has never hidden his dislike of blue bloods and he and Ava couldn’t be more different. He’s big, terse, rough round the edges and makes no secret of his womanising ways whereas Ava is dainty, almost ethereally lovely and prone to letting her words get away from her – and is a virgin to boot. She’s fiercely intelligent, logical and tired of being seen as weaker than the others in the team and someone who must be protected at all costs. I loved that she’s the sort of heroine who doesn’t have mad-fighting-skillz and who puts her intellect and her emotional strength to good use instead. She really shines as she works her way through clues and puzzles to uncover the truth, all the while she and Kincaid are plunged into one dangerous situation after another – and the attraction that has long simmered between them reaches boiling point.

At the beginning of the book, Ava is contemplating her spinsterhood and is somewhat depressed at the idea that she’s unlikely to ever experience passion, when a friend points out that she doesn’t have to have an actual relationship with a man for that. Ava is rather traditional, and hadn’t really given that possibility much thought… or she hadn’t until she met Kincaid and developed the sort of awareness of him that makes her breath hitch and her insides flutter. And Kincaid isn’t blind; Ava is attractive and he knows she’s interested in him, but the other Rogues have already warned him off on pain of many not nice things and besides, he doesn’t seduce virgins. It’s only when the virgin in question asks to be seduced that things get complicated and what was intended to be an affair of finite duration gains the potential to be something much more. The author does a great job of developing this ‘opposites attract’ romance, showing how what starts as a working relationship spills over into the personal as the pair begins to appreciate, trust and open up to one another. The chemistry between Ava and Kincaid is terrific, the sex scenes are hot and earthy and Kincaid proves to be a truly swoon-worthy hero, his ability to really see Ava for the brilliant woman she is helping her to stand up for herself and conquer her insecurities.

I also love the wider dimension Bec McMaster brings to her stories; her steam-powered world is already well-established, the politics and intrigue of this alternative London are intriguing and well thought-out, and I’m already loving the way she is developing the overarching plot, revealing a little more in each book while also making sure that each one is a satisfying story and romance in itself. My one complaint about this story is to do with the rather too convenient resolution to the situation that threatens Kincaid and Ava’s HEA – I can’t see what else the author could have done in order to resolve the issue, but even so, I wasn’t wild about it.

But that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of The Mech Who Loved Me, which is richly detailed and strongly written, featuring complex, well-developed characters, a well-paced, action-packed plot and a steamy romance, all of which kept me thoroughly engrossed and invested in the outcome. Believably dangerous villains help to keep the stakes high for our heroes; well-developed secondary and recurring characters add colour and depth (I’m already very intrigued by Malloryn and eagerly anticipating his story) and the next book in the series really can’t appear soon enough.

TBR Challenge: Lady Cat by Joan Overfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For years Lord Stephen Rockholme had been a rake of the first order, devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, if not to the women who so willingly provided it. The decision to rejoin his old regiment and depart for the peninsula meant only that he faced one last evening of intimate delight, He found himself bewitched by the emerald eyes of the woman who called herself Cat…

Five years later, Stephen returns to England a changed man with only one desire – to find the elusive Cat, whose memory haunted and sustained him through the horrors of war. But the reunion he craved is soon overshadowed by the suspicion that Cat harbors and unimaginable secret. Now Stephen must discover if Lady Cat is the answer to his prayers – and the woman of his dreams…

Rating: B+

I always look forward to the ‘Kickin’ it Old School’ prompt in the TBR Challenge, because there is such wealth of material for me to choose from.  That can be a curse as well as a blessing when it comes to selecting just one book from my TBR, but this time around, it wasn’t too difficult as my eye was drawn to this particular book a few months back when AAR featured it as a DIKlassic review.  I’m always interested to see how older titles bear up over time and this one has a premise I rather like, so it was an easy choice.

That premise is one that is also featured in one of my favourite historical romances, Lorraine Heath’s Waking up with the Duke; that of a man who needs an heir but is incapable of doing the deed necessary to create one and asks his wife to sleep with someone else in order to become pregnant.  In that book, the storyline follows the central couple as they progress from the extreme awkwardness of having agreed to have sex with someone they wouldn’t normally have chosen (and in the case of the woman, she’s got to deal with the guilt of committing adultery, too) to their eventual falling in love during the period they spend together in order to pursue the babymaking activities. Lady Cat, however, takes things in a different direction by focusing more on dealing with the fallout a few years down the road.

Lady Catheryn Brockton married her older husband three years earlier after having been governess to his two daughters, Elizabeth and Lydia.  She is strongly attached to Edward and adores the girls to the extent that she would do anything to keep them safe, which is why, when her husband asks her to sleep with another man in order to provide him with an heir, she agrees to the plan in spite of her misgivings.  If Edward dies without a male heir, his estate will pass to his slimy toad of a cousin, Jeremey Sedgewood, who is not only in debt up to his eyeballs, but is also a “brutal, drunken swine” who has already tried to force his attentions on Cat and has his eye on Edward’s eldest daughter.  In order to keep her family safe, Cat agrees to do as Edward asks, and seek out his second cousin, Stephen, Lord Rockholme at an upcoming house party.  Stephen is widely known to be an unrepentant rake and Cat should have no trouble seducing him; and as they have never met, he won’t know her true identity as she will attend the gathering under an assumed name.

Things go to plan; Stephen has recently rejoined his regiment and will be leaving for France in the morning, so is very much open to the prospect of a last-minute dalliance with a lovely widow.  The couple shares a night of intense passion and then they go their separate ways.

Fortunately for Edward and Cat, their scheme is successful and Cat gives birth to a healthy son, named for his (legal) father.  Five years pass. Edward dies not long after his son is born, and his will names Cat as executrix to the estate and co-guardian of the children, along with Stephen and the odious Jeremey, who proceeds to be a complete pain in the arse whenever he can, dropping by unannounced and behaving offensively towards Cat and the girls.  Returned to England after Waterloo, Stephen, whose experiences over the past five years have changed and matured him, intends to track down the woman who had gifted him with such pleasure, whose memory he had held close and whose image had sustained him through some of the worst times of his life.  He attempts to find her by writing to Edward’s widow, but is rebuffed, so instead he travels to Larks Hall to ask for information in person – and is dumbfounded to discover that the woman who has inhabited his dreams for the past five years is none other than Lady Brockton.  Stephen is furious at the deception, especially as he inadvertently cuckolded a man he liked and respected, and further incensed when he realises he’d been used as a stud and that Cat has intentionally kept his son from him.

Cat’s reasons are sound of course; any hint that Eddie is not the son of her late husband will mean the odious Jeremey will have cause to challenge the terms of Lord Brockton’s will and possibly overturn it.  In the heat of his anger, Stephen is determined to hurt Cat as she has hurt him, and insists that she provide him with the heir she has denied him.  He can never acknowledge Eddie as his son, so he and Cat will marry so that she can bear Stephen an heir who can inherit his lands and title.  Cat fully recognises that Stephen is entitled to be angry, but even so, is not prepared for his insistence that they marry and then part once she has given him a son.  She has little alternative but to agree, but has a condition of her own, which is that they pretend, for the sake of Lydia and Elizabeth, that they are marrying for love.

Lady Cat is an emotionally charged, angsty story in which the author skilfully guides her characters through the messy, complicated emotions that follow Stephen’s discovery of the truth.  Tensions between him and Cat run high and that includes tension of the sexual variety; their marriage might begin under less than auspicious circumstances, but there’s no denying the passion that sparks between them in the bedroom.  They are complex, likeable characters, and I was pleased with the way the author developed the story without veering into Big Mis territory, so that instead of a couple at loggerheads for an entire book, we get two sensible, mature characters who talk things through and arrive at decisions together.  Cat is a beautiful, spirited and intelligent woman who cares deeply for her son and step-daughters, sometimes to the extent that she puts them before all other considerations and ignores her own needs and wants, which does cause a little conflict between her and her husband.  And Stephen is terrific hero; it’s true that he lashes out when he’s hurt, but he quickly recognises that he is being unjust and is able to see those feelings aside in order to try to build something real with Cat, and be a good father to his son and step-daughters.

Lady Cat was originally published in 1998, and has definitely stood the test of time.  I’d encourage fans of character-driven historicals to give it a try.

Beguiled (Enlightenment #2) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Two years after his last encounter with cynical nobleman Lord Murdo Balfour, David Lauriston accidentally meets him again in the heart of Edinburgh.

King George IV is about to make his first visit to Edinburgh and Murdo has been sent North by his politician father to represent his aristocratic family at the celebrations.

David and Murdo’s last parting was painful — and on Murdo’s part, bitter — but Murdo’s feelings seem to have mellowed in the intervening years. So much so, that he suggests to David that they enjoy each other’s company during Murdo’s stay in the capital.

Despite his initial reservations, David cannot put Murdo’s proposal from his mind, and soon find himself at Murdo’s door—and in his arms.

But other figures from David’s past are converging on the city, and as the pomp and ceremony of the King’s visit unfolds around them, David is drawn into a chain of events that will threaten everything: his career, his wellbeing, and the fragile bond that, despite David’s best intentions, is growing between him and Murdo.

Rating: B+

Beguiled is the middle book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy of novels set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, and I’ll say right off the bat that this is a series in which the books really do need to be read in order.  The romance between the studious advocate, David Lauriston, and the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour develops across all three books, plus there is an overarching secondary plotline running through them  – so there will be spoilers for book one, Provoked, in this review.

Provoked ended with Murdo and David parting and not really expecting to see each other again.  They move in very different circles, and while there’s no question that their brief ‘fling’ had affected them both deeply – in David’s case perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit – both of them believed that a longer term relationship between them was impossible.  In the two years since they last met, David has continued to build his advocacy practice and has gained himself a reputation for diligence and efficacy that means that he is kept busy by a steady stream of work.

David is more confident and more self-assured than he was when we first met him.  He hasn’t forgotten Murdo, and realises now that he has learned something from their brief time together, which I suppose can be best expressed as “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.  Still, he is mostly content, although very concerned over the failing health of his mentor, Mr. Chalmers, whose daughter, Elizabeth, has recently married and moved away.  In Provoked, it was clear that both father and daughter had hopes of David, but while he was very fond of Elizabeth and was also struggling to really and thoroughly accept his sexuality, David felt that taking a wife would be hypocritical and wasn’t prepared to do as other men in his situation did (and as Murdo had declared was his intention) and marry a woman while continuing to take male lovers.

Beguiled opens with Edinburgh in uproar preparing for the visit of King George IV to the city.  While not a popular monarch (on either side of the border!) the genius of Sir Walter Scott has somehow managed to, at least temporarily, build bridges and heal breaches, meaning that the visit is generally looked upon with enthusiasm.  David is instructed to attend the King’s visit to the university and must therefore purchase a set of new clothes for the occasion –and is stunned when he arrives at the tailor’s shop to discover Lord Murdo Balfour attending a fitting also.

Over a drink later on, the men talk and express their regrets over the way things ended between them before, and as they prepare to part for the evening, Murdo makes it clear that he would like to see David again during the month or so that he will be in Edinburgh.  David can’t give him an answer – on the one hand, he is as irresistibly drawn to Murdo as he ever was, but on the other, he is reluctant to get involved again knowing that he will eventually have to say goodbye once more.

Because the story is told entirely from David’s PoV, we never get into Murdo’s head, but the author does a terrific job of showing us both what David sees and, more importantly, what he doesn’t see.  He sees that Murdo is slightly mellower than the last time they met; that he is less guarded and less prone to cynicism when he is with David than he was before.  What David doesn’t see – and what is abundantly clear to the reader – is how deep Murdo’s feelings for David really go.  Beneath the layers of aristocratic hauteur beats the heart of a romantic, and one who is more than half-way in love.  Murdo notices changes in David, too; he is “more amenable”, Murdo tells him, more open to allowing himself to feel pleasure without guilt, and David can’t argue:

“… I don’t think I’m precisely wrong either.  Not any more.  Not since… you.”

While Murdo and David continue to spend time together when they can, and become both emotionally and physically closer, David is also troubled by the situation of Elizabeth Chalmers, who is miserable in her marriage to a husband who is physically abusive.  Her father (who knows he is dying) has asked David to do whatever he can to look after her, and now that David has seen her with her husband, and seen how all the life and joy has been sucked out of her together with the bruises that are evidence of her husband’s mistreatment of her, David is more concerned than ever.

Ms. Chambers weaves her different plotlines together with great skill and also imbues the stories in this series with a very strong sense of place and time by means of subtle injections of social comment on the inequalities suffered by women and the poor.  The political situation in England and Scotland at this time was very volatile; George IV was not popular and two years earlier (as described in Provoked) an uprising by radical, disaffected Scottish weavers had been brutally put down and lead to several executions and transportations.  The author also highlights the situation endured by so many women who were, like Elizabeth, the helpless spouse of a controlling, brutal husband; under law, a wife was her husband’s property and nobody had the right to interfere in anything that went on between them.

Beguiled is a strong second instalment in this three-part story, but it does end on a cliffhanger, so you might want to make sure you have time to read the next book, Enlightened, straight afterwards.  All three titles have recently been re-published by the author following the demise of the original publisher (Samhain) and are certainly worth snapping up if you like character-driven romances with a strong emphasis on the history as well a sensual and well-developed central relationship.