From London, With Love (London Steampunk #6) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With London finally at peace, there is only one threat remaining to the stability of the monarchy…. The queen is without an heir.

Queen Alexandra is done with marriage, but as always, the Duke of Malloryn has a plan. With Malloryn insisting upon an heir for the realm, Alexandra reluctantly agrees to accept a husband. But who? With Europe’s most eligible bachelors in London to attend her exhibition, she finds herself pining for the only man who has never betrayed her. The only man she wants. And the one man she cannot have.

A queen’s duty is never done.

Alexandra’s feelings for her dearest friend Sir Gideon have always been warm, but a stolen kiss pushed a friendship into dangerous waters. How can she explain that she has never known desire before? How can she stand to be in the same room as Gideon, without betraying her feelings? And how can she marry someone else?

But there’s an assassin on the loose, and while she may currently be at odds with Sir Gideon, he’s the only man who can save both her wounded heart—and the future of the realm. Foreign princes and meddling dukes, bedamned.

Rating: B-

Bec McMaster’s fantastic London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy series reached a breathtakingly exciting close back in February 2019 with Dukes are Forever, wrapping up the overarching plotlines and giving the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn his HEA, leaving the Company of Rogues all happily settled as they continue in their mission to protect their queen and the realm.

But the author wasn’t quite done, and shortly afterwards, gifted her newsletter subscribers with From London, With Love, a long-ish novella (now available to buy) in which the long-suffering Queen Alexandra gets her very own HEA as well.  It’s a story readers had been asking for, and because it’s definitely one for followers of the series, it will make little sense if you haven’t read at least some of the novels that precede it.

When we first met Alexandra in the original London Steampunk books, she was nothing more than her husband’s puppet; the Prince Consort kept her drugged up and docile while he and the ruling Echelon pursued ruthless policies against the non-blue blood denizens of London, keeping the humans, mechs and wervulfen beaten down and using them as fodder for the draining factories that supported blue blood society.  At the end of that series, the Prince Consort was killed, the regime was overthrown, and by the time the Blue Blood Conspiracy series opened three years later, the Queen is recovered and is once more on the throne and ruling with the help of a much more tolerant and even-handled council comprised of her staunch allies (Malloryn, Barrons and Mina, Lynch, Blade etc.).  But as the books in that series showed, the throne is still vulnerable and the political situation, while improving, is still not completely stable.  From London, With Love opens as Malloryn puts a proposal to Alexandra, one she doesn’t care for at all – namely, she needs to marry and produce an heir or name her successor. Should something happen to her before either of those things is done, it could ignite a(nother) civil war.

“I’m tired of war.  I want to take a bloody holiday with my wife without the palace going up in flames.”

Alexandra might not like it, but she sees the wisdom of Malloryn’s words and agrees to seek a husband; at least this time, she will be choosing for herself and marrying on her own terms.   What she doesn’t know is that the wily Malloryn already has someone in mind…

Sir Gideon Scott has been a true friend to Alexandra throughout the worst years and is a trusted advisor and sounding board.  Alexandra is strongly attracted to him and he to her, but he’s a commoner as well as being another human –and Alexandra is sure that the council will oppose her taking a human – and the leader of the Humanist movement, no less – as her husband.

Before Alexandra can take any husband, however, it becomes clear that an assassin has her in their sights, and with the court full of visiting princes and dignitaries from around the world, it falls to Malloryn, Sir Gideon and the CoR to ensure the Queen’s safety and who wants her dead.

The shorter page count means an overall paring down in terms of both plot and romance here.  There are still some vivid action scenes and the stakes are still high, but the romance isn’t quite as convincing as in the other books.  Sir Gideon is a terrific hero; handsome, intelligent and loyal, and Alexandra is a nice mix of confident and vulnerable. I liked them together and Gideon is just what Alexandra needs but I didn’t feel that deep connection between them that exists between the other couples in the series.  They have chemistry for sure, and although I didn’t at first much like Alexandra’s solution to overcoming her fear of physical intimacy, I did like the way Gideon was so careful and respectful of her wishes, and how he wouldn’t let her push herself too far.

The villain of the piece is fairly obvious (despite the presence of the Red Herring designed to throw is off the scent!), but the mystery storyline is entertaining, and affords opportunities for some of the Rogues to become involved in the hunt for the would be assassin.

And speaking of the Rogues, I loved seeing them all again – their wonderful dynamic and camaraderie hasn’t changed – and I especially enjoyed getting to see Malloryn and Adele happily  snarking at each other (and seeing just how well Adele knows her husband).  Malloryn is the same hard-arse he always was but he lets his softer side out a bit more, and I really appreciated the fact that he actually listens to Adele and Gemma when they tell him that he hasn’t always dealt with Alexandra as kindly or as well as he could have done – and then that he has the balls to admit his mistakes and apologise for them.

From London, With Love may not be a personal favourite, but it’s a fun read, with a little bit of everything that has made this series so addictive. The best part of all may have been the very end, when it started to look as though Ms. McMaster was setting up a new series… which she confirms in her author’s note.  The action will shift to the Russian Blood Court and the Scandinavian Wervulfen in her forthcoming London Steampunk: Blood Court series; the bad news is that we’ll have to wait a year or two, but I’ll definitely be here read to gobble it up whenever it appears!

TBR Challenge: The Rake’s Retreat by Nancy Butler

This title may be purchased from Amazon

While sketching in a wooded grove, Lady Jemima Vale encounters a young actress who witnessed a murder in the grove . . . and her rescuer, the notorious libertine Beecham Bryce. When he insists young Lovelace Wellesley take shelter at his nearby home, Lady Jemima offers to act as chaperon, not realizing her maidenly reserve will soon be shattered by her devilish host.

Rating: A-

I generally think of a comfort read as something I’ve already read, but because I try to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I haven’t read, I decided to go for one by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed and want to read more of.  Nancy Butler’s The Rake’s Retreat got my 2021 TBR Challenge off to a great start; it makes excellent use of the trope of the-rake-who-falls-hard-for-a -spinster-ish-heroine, and it contains some of the best verbal sparring I’ve ever come across.  The romance is wonderful; the chemistry between the leads is off the charts and their relationship is superbly written, with lots of insight, tenderness and mutual understanding on display amid the banter and the delicious sexual tension.

The Rake’s Retreat opens when seventeen-year-old travelling player Lovelace Wellesley, leading lady of Wellesley’s Wandering Minstrels, witnesses a murder in the Kentish countryside.  Unfortunately for her, the murderer sees her, and she flees in fear of her life – but in the way of all heroines-in-peril  – she falls and turns her ankle.  Fortunately for her, she is rescued by the local landowner, Beecham Bryce, who is obviously sceptical of her story of murder, but who decides to accompany her to the (supposed) scene of the crime so that, if nothing else, he can convince her that she is in no danger.

Lady Jemima Vale is visiting Kent with her brother Lord Troy, London’s premier playwright, and is spending the afternoon sketching while she waits for him to return to the inn at which they are staying.  Her solitude is interrupted when she is approached by a starkly attractive gentleman who asks if she’s seen anyone in the woods.  Oddly unsettled by the stranger, whose easy grace, aura of danger and sudden, surprisingly engaging smile do odd things to her knees, Jemima replies that she has not seen anyone – and he explains that his young companion claims to have witnessed a murder in the woods just half an hour before.  He looks around for a while and finds nothing – but when Jemima gets to her feet shortly afterwards, he notices the blood-stains on her dress and realises she must have been sitting in the very spot the murder took place.  Lovelace may well be in danger after all, and Jemima is all for going back to the inn and returning her to her family – but the Minstrels have departed, mistakenly believing Lovelace to have been asleep in one of their carts.  Bryce suggests she should stay at his home while he arranges for someone to find her parents, but Jemima is horrified at the suggestion; leave a lovely young woman alone with a notorious rake?  Unthinkable!  Bryce – who has taken quite a shine to the tall, long-limbed brunette who challenges him at every turn and responds to his flirtatious teasing with a haughtily raised brow and a sharp retort – sees his chance, and suggests that Jemima should avail herself of his hospitality as well… to act as chaperone to Lovelace of course.

Over the next few days, Bryce and Jemima find themselves spending a lot of time together, sometimes in easy companionship, sometimes shooting verbal arrows at each other, both of them clearly having the other’s measure, both of them at something of a crossroads in life.  Jemima is firmly on the shelf and approaching her thirtieth birthday; she is starting to take stock of her life – most of which she has spent at her brother’s beck and call – and realising that she’s missed out on having a life of her own.  The artistic and literary salons she hosts in London may have provided intellectual stimulation, but she has neglected her emotional life and longs for something different.  Bryce is a swoonworthy hero; witty, sexy and insightful, he’s a man of intelligence and compassion hiding behind a mask of ennui and innuendo, and has returned to the family home in Kent in order to take care of it while his father – with whom he doesn’t get on –  is on a six-month long visit to warmer climes for his health.  Bryce is a womaniser and a libertine and makes no apologies for it, but he’s also quick to see and understand Jemima’s frustrations and to encourage her to step out from her brother’s shadow.  He sees Jemima for who she truly is, and he falls hard, although he does end up torn between wanting her and wanting what (he thinks) is best for her, which means his behaviour is sometimes a little hurtful as he tries to push her away ‘for her own good.’

But there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that they’re perfect for one another.  The author shows over and over again, through their words and actions, through the sparkling dialogue and verbal sparring, that they’re a match in wit and intellect, and that they belong together.

The mystery is interesting, although it’s fairly easy to guess where it’s going, but it’s nicely done all the same; and Lovelace makes for an engaging secondary character who, while she starts off being rather self-obsessed and a bit whiny, exhibits substantial character growth throughout the story.  There’s another character who provides considerable insight into Bryce’s character, showing him to be a deeply caring, loving person (and who has an important part to play in the story) but I can’t reveal more without spoilers.

When AAR reviewed this title back in 1999, it was awarded DIK status, and I’d say it’s worn pretty well and still deserves that grade (A-).  It’s not a straight A because I wasn’t wild about the way Jemima so easily distrusted Bryce towards the end, and some behaviour that veered a bit too close to TSTL territory – but those are minor irritants when set against all the things this book does so incredibly well, which is pretty much everything else.

The Rake’s Retreat is a fabulous, witty and charming romance that has definitely stood the test of time. I highly recommend it.

TBR Challenge: Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

After witnessing a mob hit, surgeon Jack Francisco is put into protective custody to keep him safe until he can testify.

A hitman known only as D is blackmailed into killing Jack, but when he tracks him down, his weary conscience won’t allow him to murder an innocent man.

Finding in each other an unlikely ally, Jack and D are soon on the run from shadowy enemies. Forced to work together to survive, the two men forge a bond that ripens into unexpected passion. Jack sees the wounded soul beneath D’s cold, detached exterior, and D finds in Jack the person who can help him reclaim the man he once was.

As the day of Jack’s testimony approaches, he and D find themselves not only fighting for their lives… but also fighting for their future. A future together.

Rating: B

Jane Seville’s Zero to the Bone (2009) combines a complex and intriguing plot that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie with an intense, angsty romance between a hitman and his would-be victim.  It’s a gripping read for around the first three-quarters of the book but after that it starts to meander a bit and while I enjoyed it, it’s a bit overlong and could probably have done with a bit of judicious editorial pruning to tighten up some areas of the plotting and writing.

Maxillofacial surgeon Jack Francisco’s life is turned upside down and inside out after he witnesses a mob hit and agrees to give evidence at trial.  He has to leave his Baltimore home and the job that’s been his life’s work behind when he’s taken into protective custody and relocated thousands of miles away in Nevada while he waits for the trial to begin.

The hitman known only as D is one of the best in the business, but is known to have some odd quirks when it comes to which tickets he picks up.  Rapists, child molesters and murderers are fair game, but he won’t touch cheating spouses, kids who want to dispose of elderly relatives to get their hands on their money – or witnesses.  His handler knows this and isn’t surprised when D passes on the contract from the Dominguez brothers to take out a witness – but they aren’t going to take no for an answer.  They blackmail D into picking up the ticket on Jack Francisco, which is why Jack enters the supposedly secure apartment where the Marshals have squirrelled him away, to find a man sitting calmly in an armchair with a gun in his lap.

D knows that if he can get to Jack, then so can anyone else, and although it’s one of the worst ideas he’s ever had, he decides to get Jack out of there and that he’ll protect the man himself until the trial.  He knows he’ll have a price on his head within seconds of the news getting out, but he’s the only one who can protect Jack from the scumbags who are after him… and he also suspects that there’s something more going on than someone being pissed at him for refusing a ticket.  After all, there are plenty of others out there who would have taken the job without a qualm, so why did the Dominguez brothers go to the trouble of blackmailing him?

The author does a great job of building the suspense as Jack and D go on the run, gradually peeling away the different layers of the plot as it becomes clear that D’s suspicions are correct and someone is targeting him through Jack – and that there is a lot more going on than it at first seemed.  The story is intricate and fast-paced, and there are a number of vivid, edge-of-the-seat action scenes and near misses that really ratchet up the tension and keep the reader on their toes.  As we move from one heart-pounding scene to another, Jack and D are starting to get a bit of handle on one another, well, insofar as Jack is able to find out anything from the very tight-lipped and closed-off D other than that he’s… well, tight-lipped, closed-off and deeply damaged.

A break in the action allows the author to develop the relationship between the two leads, who are as different as chalk and cheese.  Jack is the light to D’s dark; he’s a highly respected surgeon and thoroughly decent man with a generally optimistic disposition, while D is a man tormented by the tragic past that has driven him to become what he is.  Weighed down by grief and guilt, he’s spent so much time suppressing his emotions and natural reactions that when we first meet him, he’s starting to wonder if he’s actually a human being any more.  But something about Jack gradually starts to make its way under his skin, and D doesn’t at first know how to handle that.  He’s drawn to Jack and wants to trust him – but for a man who’s lived by his wits and trusted only one other person (the mysterious X, who is something of a guardian angel at times) for the past decade, trust isn’t given easily.  Jack is equally smitten and wants to know the man behind the emotional walls D has constructed, and slowly, the two men forge an incredibly strong bond that develops into a deep and passionate love that is absolutely unshakeable.  The relationship is very well done and contains some beautifully written moments of vulnerability and intimacy; and while the sex scenes are not all that explicit, their mutual attraction, longing and need for each other is visceral and really leaps off the page.

[Note: there’s no mention of prep or lube in the first sex scene (ouch!) and no mention – or use – of condoms at all.]

I got just over half way through the book confidently expecting to give it a fairly high rating – maybe even a DIK – but as I headed into the final quarter, it started to run out of steam and the excitement and tension that had made it such a compelling read were dissipating.  I’m not sure why that was;  there was plenty of plot still to go, but it felt overly dragged out and in the end, went on for too long.  Reading the epilogue, I got the feeling Zero at the Bone was supposed to have been the first in a series (checking the author’s website later, I found this to be the case), but no sequel has so far appeared 😦

Other weaknesses I noted were the lack of background and depth of characterisation of Jack.  We’re told early on that he was married to a woman, and later that he’s had a few relationships with men since; he’s very comfortable with his sexuality, but his marriage and divorce are not explained at all and I couldn’t help wondering why, if he knew he was gay, he married a woman in the first place.  (It’s never suggested he might be bisexual.)  There’s also a real lack of character description;  we don’t even know that Jack is dark-haired until really late in the book, for instance, and I found it very hard to picture him or D.

I really liked the author’s writing style, and she has a real talent for describing locations and action sequences so vividly that the reader is right there with the characters. However,  I wasn’t wild about her decision to write out D’s dialogue in a way to reflect some kind of accent – we’re never told where he comes from, but it’s “ya” for “you” and “fer” for “for” and “caint” for “can’t”.  It’s not as intrusive as some written-out dialects I’ve come across, but it was distracting nonetheless.  Also, some of the internal monologuing could have used a trim; there’s a tendency for a character to have a long-winded conversation with himself in the middle of an action scene or when he has to make a split-second decision, and it disrupts the flow.

Fortunately however, the balance between action, suspense and angsty romance is just about right, the good outweighs the not-so-good, and I enjoyed Zero to the Bone in spite of my reservations.

NOTE:  It has come to my attention that since I purchased this book, the rights have reverted to the author, who has revised and republished it.  One of the things she has changed is the way D’s accent is conveyed; I haven’t got the newer version so I can’t comment on how successful (or otherwise) it is; I just wanted to point out the change.

TBR Challenge: The Love Knot (Ramsey Saga #1) by Elisabeth Fairchild

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Enlisting the help of fastidious fop, Miles Fletcher, to teach her ballroom arts, tomboy Aurora Ramsay must marry wealthy Lord Walsh or lose everything. But Fletcher’s tangled intentions would turn the tricks of enticement to bind Miss Ramsay’s heart in a more worthy love knot.

Rating: B

Sometimes I look at a TBR Challenge prompt, and the perfect book comes to mind, sometimes I look at it and … it doesn’t.  “Dress for Success” was one of those times.  I was all set to give up and just read a random book from the TBR when I found I had Elisabeth Fairchild’s The Love Knot on my Kindle.  I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, and when I read the synopsis – an elegant gentleman agrees to help a gauche young woman learn to attract the object of her affections – I realised I’d found this month’s read.

It’s a fairly simple story that uses a familiar trope, but what bumps it up into the recommendation bracket is the way the central relationship is developed and the strong characterisation of the two leads.  It opens with a prologue set the night before the hero, Miles Fletcher, is due to leave London to stay with his friend Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall in Norfolk to observe the annual sheep shearing (Miles is an art dealer and knows little about farming; he’s interested and wants to learn for when he inherits his uncle’s property).  He’s settled for a quiet night at his club when he’s summoned to attend his uncle Lester who has just won a fortune at the gaming table.  Lester isn’t in good health and doesn’t expect to live for much longer, and before Miles leaves for Norfolk, Lester makes a cryptic request – to make sure a certain young lady doesn’t find that she’s been ‘fleeced’.

The subject of that request appears unexpectedly as Miles and his sister Grace approach Holkham in their carriage.  Stopping briefly to observe a group of ladies at archery practice, Miles is immediately struck by the skill and poise of a tall, red-haired young woman whose confidence calls to him as much as her looks do.  Aurora Ramsey is breathtaking, and Miles is smitten – he had not expected to find such beauty in fulfilling his promise to his uncle.

The Ramsey name is dogged by scandal, from the eldest brother’s gambling addiction to another’s drunkenness to another’s womanising, and Aurora- the only Ramsey female –  has been doing her best to run the family estate pretty much single-handedly.  But with the means to do so ever dwindling, it’s time for her to find a wealthy husband whose money will give her the chance to save the home and land she loves so much – and she’s settled on Lord Walsh, a young, handsome and wealthy peer who is also present at the house party.  The problem is that Aurora has absolutely no idea how to go about attracting a man, and no social graces to speak of.  She can ride and hunt and talk about sheep shearing and land management, but she can’t dance or play or paint or flirt… she has never learned any of the so-called accomplishments expected of society ladies.

This Pygmalion-esque story proceeds as one would expect; Miles offers to help Aurora to learn the sorts of things she’ll need to be able to catch a husband – what clothes to wear, how to flirt, how to converse appropriately and all the things society dictates a well-born young woman should know.  Naturally, during the course of these lessons Aurora finds it increasingly difficult to remember that she’s learning how to attract Lord Walsh.  Miles Fletcher may not be the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but he’s certainly the kindest, most honourable one – not to mention the best dressed!  – and for the first time in her life she understands what genuine attraction and desire feel like… if only she wasn’t feeling them for the wrong man!

Miles is a terrific beta hero.  He’s considerate and empathetic and just wants Aurora to be happy.  He does know something she doesn’t for most of the book – that her brother Jack lost the Ramsey estate to Miles’ uncle Lester and that Miles stands to inherit it when his uncle dies – but he doesn’t lie to her about it; or rather he doesn’t withhold the information because he deliberately sets out to deceive, he does it because he wants her to be able to make her own choices.  He’s smitten with Aurora from the first, and their subsequent interactions – in which their differences are plain to see, but in a way that shows how right they are for each other – only reinforce his initial impression that she’s the woman for him.  But if she decides she wants Lord Walsh, then Miles is determined to help her get what she wants, even if it breaks his heart in the process.

There were a couple of times I felt Aurora was being overly stubborn, but I liked her for the most part.  She’s in a really awkward situation; her brothers (with one exception) are wastrels and care for nothing except their own pleasure, so she’s been the one to manage their estate and through no fault of her own stands to lose the land she loves and the only home she’s ever known.  I mostly forgave her sometimes blinkered view of things because of that – upper class women of her time had so few options – and once her deep seated insecurities were revealed, I warmed to her.

I really enjoyed the setting of this story.  Sure, it’s at a Regency house-party, but instead of an emphasis on grand balls or musical evenings, there are outdoor scenes of the estate at work, which was a refreshing change of focus.

The chemistry between Miles and Aurora sparks from the outset, and even though the author doesn’t go beyond kisses on the page, the sexual tension is always present in the air between them, and in certain scenes (such as the one in the attic where they’re looking at a portrait) it’s so thick as to be almost palpable.  The dénouement is perhaps a little rushed, but overall, I enjoyed The Love Knot and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good Traditional Regency, or who simply wants to read an historical romance in which the characters aren’t twenty-first century people in period costume.

Thief of Dreams (Court of Dreams #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Twenty brides. One prince. Who will survive when the competition turns deadly?

When Prince Keir of the Court of Dreams sends out a summons in search of a bride, the Wraith King sees a chance to steal the powerful Dragon’s Heart. He sends his best thief, Zemira Az Ghul, to penetrate the court as one of the potential brides.

All Zemira wants is freedom from the chains that bind her to the king, and if she finds the relic she’ll have it. But the Court of Dreams is more dangerous than she ever expected, and Zemira must soon choose between her freedom—and her heart.

Rating: B-

Thief of Dreams, book one in Bec McMasters Court of Dreams series originally appeared in the Of Thrones and Crowns anthology in 2019 and was republished separately earlier this year.  It’s novella length and sets up the storyline that will (I suspect) run throughout what I believe is going to be a trilogy, so while Thief of Dreams does contain a complete story, it also ends with something of a cliffhanger,  and serves as an introduction to the overarching plot.  The author sets up the main romantic pairing – and if the chemistry hinted at here is continued, then I can’t wait for the rest! – and while I was a bit disappointed things didn’t progress very far on that front, I was also pleased that the author wisely decided there wasn’t time for bedroom scenes or an HEA in the 126 pages that comprise this instalment.

As was the case with the author’s recent Promise of Darkness, I found the first person, present tense narration off-putting.   I understand why first person is necessary in a story like this – it seems to be the preferred style for YA and many contemporary romances – I just don’t care for it, and it took me a while to get used to it.  Actually, it took me longer than it should have done to read 126 pages, and that was partly because of my dislike of this narrative style (and partly because I was listening to an amazing audiobook and didn’t want to stop!)

Once I got back to Thief of Dreams, however, I found it bears all the hallmarks of a Bec McMaster read; a kick-ass heroine, a dangerous, sexy hero and extensive worldbuilding done in a way that flows naturally and never feels like an info-dump; there was (I think) one point at which I felt I was reading a list rather than information that unfolded naturally.  BUT – while the author generally disseminates the information subtly, there’s a LOT of it to absorb here concerning the various fae courts and magic systems, and it all feels a bit rushed and superficial.

Zemira Az Guhl wants nothing more than freedom from the chains that bind her to her father, the Wraith King Beyond the Shadowfangs.  For almost all her life, she has been the kingdom’s most successful thief, able to pluck the last coin from a miser’s purse while he’s watching it, forced to do her father’s bidding in hope of his eventually returning the half of her soul he stole from her at birth.  At last, the opportunity she has waited for is offered her – the king will grant her the rest of her soul if she will steal the Dragon’s Heart from the legendary Court of Dreams.  Zemira is aghast.  Nobody knows where the Court of Dreams resides; its prince tore it from the mortal world long ago and even if its location was known, it’s impossible to enter the court without Prince Keir or his guards knowing, even for her.  But the Prince has sent out a Summons – an invitation to every fae princess in the land – and this is Zemira’s way in.  She must take the place of one of the more obscure of the potential brides, avoid the Prince’s notice as much as possible, locate the heart and steal it.  It’s not exactly going to be a walk in the park.

Of course nothing goes to plan.  Zemira’s plan to avoid Keir’s notice backfires – she’s the one ‘princess’ not falling over herself to win him, so naturally, she’s the one who intrigues him the most.  The other princesses – a bunch of ‘mean girls’ if ever I saw one – start getting picked off, one-by-one by unknown creatures, and a final and hurtful betrayal puts Zemira’s quest at risk and turns her fate in a different direction.

I enjoyed the story, the murder-mystery aspect to the plot is resolved here and there is clearly more to come – but book two isn’t out until 2021, so I hope I’ll remember to look for it! There’s a definite spark of attraction between Zemira and Keir and their flirtations are swoony, but I felt there was something missing in the characterisation, and the first person PoV didn’t allow me to connect with Keir at all.

If I were grading Thief of Dreams purely on its own, I’d probably give it a C+/C.  The writing is solid and the ideas are good, but overall, it feels rushed, the hero is peripheral and the romance doesn’t really get off the ground.  As the introduction to a new series however, I’m upping that to a B- because there’s a lot of potential I’m hoping will play out as the series progresses.  To be honest though, I sort of wish I’d waited to read this until I could jump into book two straight afterwards.

TBR Challenge: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Major Lagallan suggests to Miss Caroline Hetton that she should marry his young brother, she can hardly believe her good fortune, and at first sight Vivyan Lagallan seems to be the perfect bridegroom; young, charming and exceedingly handsome. Yet upon closer acquaintance, Caroline is disturbed by his wild, restless spirit and discovers that he has a taste for excitement that eventually endangers not only his life, but hers, too.

Rating: C+

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the engaging, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

At Your Service (In Service #1) by Sandra Antonelli

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A butler. A spy. A toilet brush. A romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of grittiness and humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day.

After three years in the employ of a former British army officer turned Risk Assessment Specialist, widowed butler Mae Valentine is familiar with Major Kitt’s taste for scrambled eggs, bourbon, and brawling. Kitt knows of Mae’s fondness for order, her beloved dead husband, and the millions the man left her in trust. Their easy bond is tested the day Mae kills the man sent to murder her and the trust fund vanishes.

Soon, a volcano, a hand roasting in an oven, and a fish named Shirley accentuate sinister machinations that involve Mae and the missing money. To keep her safe from women in ugly shoes, homicidal bankers, and Mafia henchmen, Kitt risks exposing his true profession, which doesn’t trouble him as much as being in love with a woman who’s still in love with a dead man. If he can’t protect Mae, he’ll lose the best butler—and scrambled eggs—a spy ever loved.

Rating: A-

This romantic suspense novel featuring a retired army Major and his female butler was like a breath of fresh air.  The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.

Mae Valentine and Major Kitt have an interesting relationship.  Mae is a widow of some sixteen years, and is still in love with her dead husband, albeit not in a ‘mopey’ way.  She’s practical, self-sufficient and highly competent; she’s worked for Kitt for about three years, but while she’s his employee, he’s her tenant (she owns two adjoining houses, one of which he rents from her), which is an interesting way to address the employer/employee dynamic.  Kitt is retired from the army and now works as a Risk Assessment Specialist that often takes him to dangerous parts of the world.  It’s clear from fairly early on that that’s not the whole story, but Mae doesn’t ask, Kitt doesn’t tell, and they’re both content with that.

Things change, however, when Mae is receives the news that her late husband had some kind of trust fund of which she is the beneficiary, and she stands to inherit a large sum of money.  Mae knew nothing about it, and doesn’t want or need the money, but she’s in the process of signing the necessary papers anyway.  The representative of the bank she’s been dealing with actually asked her out for dinner – but he doesn’t show up at the restaurant and Mae ends up being walked home by Kitt, who’d been there as well.  On the way back, Mae is attacked, her bag is stolen and Kitt beats the living crap out of the one of her assailants he catches hold of; and later, they arrive back at her flat to discover that it’s been ransacked.  Clearly, whoever stole her bag was after her keys rather than her money and credit cards.

Nothing appears to have been stolen though, and Mae can’t help wondering if the attack and (not)break-in are somehow related to the trust, especially when the newspapers report the mysterious death of the same bank executive who’d stood her up.  And when someone else claiming to be from the bank tries to kill her, there’s no doubt any more that it’s something to do with the money.  Desperate to get Mae out of harm’s way, Kitt tells her to take a holiday, thinking she’ll go to a posh spa or something similar.  He’d not banked on her running off to Sicily – where her husband was from – in order to try to follow the money and get to the bottom of what’s going on.

The story is well-put together and gripping, but the characters are what really drew me in.  Kitt is obviously a James Bond type (and I have to say that the author’s description of him as being attractive in an ugly-handsome way brings Daniel Craig perfectly to mind!) with his love for strong drink, fast (Mae calls them “girly”) cars and married women, yet it’s clear from the start that his relationship with Mae is important to him.  No matter where he goes, what state he’s in when he returns (he always seems to be bruised or battered) and whichever woman has been in his bed the night before, when he’s home, he’s always got a superb breakfast waiting – Mae’s scrambled eggs are his idea of perfection, it seems – and the pithy conversation of his expert butler to enjoy.

The story moves quickly and there’s a fair bit of violence, a bit more than I come across in most romantic suspense stories; there’s cross upon cross upon double-cross as they – and we – are left wondering who they can really trust. Mae’s suspicions as to Kitt’s real job begin to solidify, and they find themselves thrown into one dangerous situation after another.

Also dangerous is the fact that the close proximity into which Mae and Kitt are thrust is starting to stir up thoughts and feelings that both of them have been repressing for some time. Her attraction to Kitt comes as something of a surprise to Mae, while he is forced to acknowledge – to himself at least – that he’s had feelings for her for a while but has buried them in favour of her scrambled eggs (or at least in favour of not losing her as a butler and friend).  The chemistry between them zings from the start and their deepening attraction is really well done.

I had a minor niggle about the sometimes dizzying speed with which Mae and Kitt lurch from one life-threatening situation to another without really thinking things through, but that didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book.  They’re attractive, three-dimensional characters and I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed, which felt completely right given their ages and life experience.  One other thing I appreciated greatly was the “Britishness” of the book (and yes, I know the author is Australian!).  There are no Americanisms and no unidiomatic language; the London locations are really well described, but more than that, the speech patterns, the dryness of the humour and the classically understated manner Mae and Kitt so often display towards one another felt spot on.  At Your Service is a smart, sexy read peppered with sophisticated, dry humour and lots of in-jokes about spies for the geeks among us 😉  I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series and to checking out Sandra Antonelli’s backlist.

TBR Challenge: The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. His cockiness and noble bearing make him perfect for the role, but Camilla is surprised to find herself wishing the deception would last forever.

Rating: C

The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982)  says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas.  As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book.  The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.

Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate.  He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang.  This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors.  After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen.  Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers.  Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.

Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery.  It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa).  It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself.  But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.

By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid.  Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea.  Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield.  Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere.  Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.

After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house.  Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.

I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more.  Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.

There are things to like about the story.  The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.

Rend (Riven #2) by Roan Parrish

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Matt Argento knows what it feels like to be alone. After a childhood of abandonment, he never imagined someone might love him—much less someone like Rhys Nyland, who has the voice of an angel, the looks of a god, and the worship of his fans.

Matt and Rhys come from different worlds, but when they meet, their chemistry is incendiary. Their romance is unexpected, intense, and forever—at least, that’s what their vows promise. Suddenly, Matt finds himself living a life he never thought possible: safe and secure in the arms of a man who feels like home. But when Rhys leaves to go on tour for his new album, Matt finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past.

When Rhys returns, he finds Matt twisted by doubt. But Rhys loves Matt fiercely, and he’ll go to hell and back to triumph over Matt’s fears. After secrets are revealed and desires are confessed, Rhys and Matt must learn to trust each other if they’re going to make it. That means they have to fall in love all over again—and this time, it really will be forever.

Rating: B+

I haven’t (yet) read Riven, the book that preceded Rend, but I gather than Rhys Nyland was introduced there as a secondary character who was very much in love and happily married.  Rend turns the lens in the opposite direction, focusing on Rhys and his husband Matt, telling the story of how they met and giving readers a glimpse into their lives for the eighteen months since then up until the time when Rhys – a musician, singer and songwriter – goes on tour… and Matt slowly begins to fall apart.

The author pulled me in immediately with the prologue, in which Matt, who is clearly a troubled young man, has gone into a bar hoping to get picked up for the night – to avoid sleeping on the lumpy sofa in the crowded apartment he shares as much as for the sex.  When a large, blond and really handsome guy plonks down next to him, Matt is completely on board with the idea of going home with him – but that’s not what happens.  Instead, the man – who introduces himself as Rhys – takes Matt to a diner and orders a mountain of food which they tuck into while they talk.  At the end of the night, both men have established a surprisingly intense connection and they exchange a passionate kiss, but that’s it – and it’s how things go between them for the next few weeks. They date, they kiss, but nothing more – and Matt starts to worry that perhaps Rhys just isn’t into him that way.  Finally, he gathers up his courage and texts Rhys to ask him if he wants to have sex with him – needless to say, the answer sends Matt rushing back to Rhys’ arms and bed.  After a passionate night, Matt sneaks out – only to have Rhys text him afterwards with one of the most beautiful fictional love letters I’ve ever read. From then on, they’re inseparable.

Then we skip ahead eighteen months to find Matt and Rhys happily married and living in Sleepy Hollow, New York.  Matt is working for a charity that helps young people coming out of the foster system – in which he himself grew up – he’s been growing more and more confident in his role there and he’s deeply in love with his husband… even though he still can’t quite believe that his happiness can possibly last.  Life has taught him not to expect it to.  But right now, the only cloud on the horizon is the fact that Rhys is about to go on tour to promote his first solo album, and although Matt’s rational mind knows Rhys is coming back, his animal brain is telling him the opposite.  Everyone he’s ever loved has left him eventually, and he can’t shake the fear building in him that Rhys is going to do the same.

Matt tries desperately to keep those fears from Rhys, not wishing to spoil what should be a time filled with success and happiness, but the longer Rhys is away, the harder Matt finds it to cope. Plagued by nightmares and dark thoughts that persist in telling him Rhys deserves someone better, Matt can’t sleep, he can’t eat and finds himself returning over and over to the only home he’d ever known, the one he lived in when his mother left him and the last one he’d known before he was shunted into the foster system.  Terrified that Rhys will reject him if he knows the truth about his past, Matt’s reticence to talk and vagueness about how he is and what’s going on communicates itself to Rhys in their phone conversations, leading to the creation of an emotional distance between them that’s never been there before.  Matt is locked in a downward spiral of fear, guilt and desperation – when the tour finishes and Rhys comes home.  But has he come home in time to save their marriage?

Rend is a gut-wrenching read, no question, heart-breaking and deeply emotional but it’s also uplifting, and quite, quite beautiful.  As we witness Matt’s physical and emotional breakdown, we are also given some rather lovely insight into their relationship after that initial meeting in the prologue, which works well as a way to break up the scenes of Matt’s gradual descent into darkness.  Rhys and Matt are total opposites in many ways, both physically – Rhys is a blond Viking where Matt is small and dark – and personality-wise; Rhys is like a blast of sunlight, optimistic, open-hearted and completely and utterly in love with Matt, and I loved that he wouldn’t let Matt give in to his fears and was willing to make it clear over and over that Matt was his and that neither of them were going anywhere. And Matt… well, Matt is sweet, quiet and oh, so broken.  Always looking over his shoulder waiting for life to pull the rug out from under his feet, he learned early on never to ask for anything for himself, and wants only to make Rhys happy.

The author doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing how profoundly Matt’s past has affected him, and he goes to some dark places as his fears begin to overwhelm him; his struggles are portrayed so vividly that it’s easy to understand why he feels and acts as he does.  The characterisation of both leads is excellent – they’re brilliantly drawn and the intensity of their love and longing for one another really does leap off the page. The one niggle I had was that sometimes the relationship seemed a little… unhealthy, with Matt being so dependent on Rhys for his happiness and, well, pretty much everything.

Rend is that rare romance – one that shows what happens after the HEA and that even the most meant-to-be-together of couples has to work at making a go of it. It’s a superbly crafted portrait of a marriage in trouble that encompasses incredible highs and incredible lows, but there’s no question that Matt and Rhys thoroughly deserve their hard-won happy ending.