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

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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

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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.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding (Matches Made in Scandal #4) by Marguerite Kaye

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Kirstin Blair has spent seven years trying to forget brooding Cameron Dunbar. Now self-made man Cameron needs her help to recover his missing niece, and Kirstin must face the truth: seeing him again sparks the same irresistible attraction that first brought them together! She must decide… Resist, or give in to temptation and risk Cameron discovering everything she’s fought so hard to protect…

Rating: B

The novels in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series have all been linked by the presence of the mysterious Procurer, a woman whose business is matching people with seemingly insoluble problems with someone who stands a very good chance of helping them to resolve them – and that person is usually a woman to whom life has not been kind and who deserves a second chance.

In A Scandalous Winter Wedding, readers are finally given more than a glimpse of the Procurer and we learn more of her backstory as she decides to undertake the search for two missing girls herself rather than finding someone else to take it on.  The two girls – a young lady visiting London with her mother,  and her maid – went missing from their hotel one night and have not been seen since, and the Procurer – otherwise, Miss Kirstin Blair – knows that she has the requisite skills and contacts most likely to ensure a happy outcome.  But that’s not the only reason she finds herself compelled to take on this particular case.  She’s been contacted by the girl’s uncle, Mr. Cameron Dunbar, a wealthy merchant from Glasgow – and the man with whom Kirstin spent one gloriously passionate night six years earlier when she was making her way to London after the death of her father, intending to make a new life for herself.  She has never forgotten either the man or their night together, and, in spite of herself, can’t help wanting to know what has become of him since.  After reading his letter, she decides to meet him in person as the Procurer, engineering their meeting in such a way as he won’t be able to see her face properly; and after hearing him out, agrees to help him track down the missing girls, fully intending to follow her usual procedure and find someone else to assist him.  Which, in a way, she does – sending Kirstin Blair to him while leaving her long-time assistant to oversee the Procurer’s business.

Ms. Kaye does a splendid job here of showing just how well suited to each other Kristin and Cameron are; he very clearly admires her intelligence, her perspicacity and her pragmatism and respects her for who she is, while Kristin appreciates similar qualities in Cameron and admires his determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.  They work together seamlessly, each playing to their strengths and recognising each other’s, and there’s no attempt on either part to exclude the other for their own protection.  This is very much a relationship based on mutual understanding and intellectual equality, which is one of the things that makes this second-chance romance work so very well.  Another thing, of course, is the chemistry between the couple that bubbles and sizzles nicely as the author allows the attraction that has never really diminished to build gradually until it becomes impossible for either character to deny it any longer.

The one thing that didn’t really work for me is something that happens towards the end – I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but put simply, Kirstin reacts to something in a way that seemed totally out of character for a woman who has, up until this point, been level-headed and clear-sighted about everything.  She suddenly turns into this over-emotional woman I didn’t recognise – and I understand that it’s partly a knee-jerk reaction to something she had hoped Cameron wouldn’t find out (and her big secret is fairly easy to guess even before its revealed), but it was such a huge character reversal that I felt almost as though I had whiplash!  And the way she attributed motivations to Cameron while knowing perfectly well what sort of man he was felt really off.

Fortunately, Ms. Kaye doesn’t draw out this point for too long, and effects a reconciliation swiftly and with Kirsten’s full acknowledgement of her error, showing her to be exactly the sort of woman I’d believed her out to be – someone with great personal integrity and the ability to weigh up a situation and come to a considered conclusion, as well as someone strong enough to be able to admit when she was wrong.  Cameron is a similarly appealing character – a successful businessman who has become so by dint of his own hard work and who, in spite of his illegitimacy, knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.  He sees Kirstin for exactly who she is and loves her for it, never for one moment wanting to change her or for her to be someone she is not.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding provides a fitting conclusion to what has been a very strong series from one of my favourite authors of historical romance.  Ms. Kaye always writes with intelligence and insight, her research is detailed and she rounds-out her characters so that they feel like real people with real dilemmas and real emotions rather than cardboard cut-outs.  If you’ve been following the Matches Made in Scandal series, you’ll need no urging from me to pick up this final volume, and if you haven’t, each book works as a standalone, so this is as good a place to start as any.  And if you’re just a wee bit tired of all those titled folks waltzing their way around ballrooms, this book will make a refreshing change.

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

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Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

The Purloined Heart (Tyburn Trilogy #2) by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Poor Maddie Tate. Widowed with two children. An ordinary sort of female, no more memorable than a potted palm. Seven and twenty years of age.

Lucky Angel Jarrow. Temptation incarnate, lazy and spoiled – and why should he not be, when the whole world adores him, save for the notable exception of his wife?

Maddie Tate and Angel Jarrow. In the ordinary course of events, their paths might never cross. But then comes the Burlington House bal masque, when Maddie witnesses something she should not, and flees straight into Angel’s arms.

And he discovers that he does not want to let her go.

Mysterious masqueraders. Misbehaving monarchs. Political perfidy.

While in the background the ton twitters, and a fascinated London follows the Regent’s preparations for his Grand Jubilee.

Rating: B

A few months back I picked up Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz for a prompt in the TBR Challenge, and enjoyed it enough to want to read the other books in the Tyburn Trilogy.  At that point, only the second book – The Purloined Heart – was available, but I was pleased to learn the third was on the way, especially as it would feature two secondary characters from the first book who were clearly destined for one another. Although there are a couple of characters who appear in both books – most notably Kane, Baron Saxe – The Purloined Heart can be read independently of its predecessor, and proved to be an enjoyable mix of mystery and romance.

Maddie Tate is, at twenty-seven, the widowed mother of two young sons, and has gone back to live under her stentorian father’s roof.  Sir Owen Osborne Is dismissive and dictatorial, and Maddie fears he may try to separate her from the boys if she doesn’t dance to his tune.  But that particular dance is palling quickly and she’s chafing under her father’s constant criticisms of her manner, her clothes and, well, everything about her; hence her decision to sneak out to a scandalous masquerade being held at Burlington House one night, where she’s borrowed the costume that was supposed to have been worn by a friend who is unable to attend.  She’s nicely tipsy when a young gentleman dressed as Henry VIII approaches her and starts spouting Shakespeare and fiddling with the arrows in her quiver. (Get your mind out of the gutter!  She’s dressed as Diana the huntress!) Puzzled as to why Henry should have been lurking outside the ladies’ withdrawing room, Maddie follows him as he wends his way along the more private corridors of the house, watching as he enters an out-of-the way room. Hearing raised voices, Maddie peers through the keyhole, and witnesses a man dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh clubbing Henry over the head; he falls to the floor just as the door inconveniently swings open, revealing Maddie behind it.  She runs, only to collide with a gentleman dressed as a Cavalier, and demands he kiss her – to hide from her pursuer of course. One kiss turns into two… three, and into something more than a simple matter of expediency.

Angel Jarrow is used to women throwing themselves at him.  He’s gorgeous, charming, incredibly wealthy and one of the biggest rakes in London.  He’s also locked into a marriage with a woman who despises him and does everything she can to make his life a misery; with divorce so difficult it’s pretty much a non-option, there’s nothing he can do other than avoid her where possible, although naturally, he continues to support her financially.  Ruefully, he admits his being married does have one benefit; it means he’s left alone by the debutantes and match-making mamas of the marriage mart.

Being accosted by a woman is nothing new or unwelcome, but his Diana intrigues him.  He has no idea who she is, and her kisses, while enthusiastic and undoubtedly arousing, are curiously inexperienced; and Angel continues to think about her for the few days it takes him to discover the lady’s identity.  Maddie has no idea who her cavalier was, either – all she knows is that he kissed her so well she almost forgot her own name – and when she comes face-to-face with Angel Jarrow she is, at first horrified.  But it’s impossible for her to remain so, as he proceeds to disarm her with his outrageous suggestion she should apologise for ravishing him, and she finds herself enjoying his ridiculous conversation and his company.

Shortly after this, London is abuzz with news of the sudden disappearance of one Fanny Arbuthnot, an intimate of the Regent’s estranged and detested wife.  She hasn’t been seen since the night of the masquerade, and neither, it seems has the celebrated actress Verity Vaughan. When it comes to light that both ladies attended the masque, and that at least one of them was dressed as Diana, Angel and his friend Lord Saxe – both of whom work for the government – realise that Maddie actually witnessed a murder and that whoever is responsible is almost certainly looking for her, and for a packet of documents they believe to be in her possession.

Neither Saxe nor Angel wants to see Maddie come to any harm, but for Angel, it’s more than that.  He’s drawn to Maddie’s sweetness and charmed by her honesty and innocence – and for the first time finds himself besieged by scruples he never thought he had.  He’s an appealingly self-aware hero who knows his faults and isn’t above using them to his advantage on occasion, and Maddie isn’t your run-of-the-mill heroine; she’s not stunningly beautiful, she’s not a bluestocking and she’s not TSTL – she’s actually quite ‘normal’, which makes her all the more likeable. She’s totally smitten with Angel; he’s incredibly handsome, yes, but more than that he’s clever and funny and kind… and she rather wishes that he would throw those newly acquired scruples to the winds.

The mystery element of The Purloined Heart is complex and well-executed; intrigues and sub-plots abound, many of them connected to actual historical events or people of the time.  Napoléon has been defeated, the peace treaties are at a delicate stage, the political situation in England is precarious in many ways, the Regent is hated, he and his wife are engaged in a very public marital breakdown (well, the marriage never really got off the ground)… we so often read about stories set in ballrooms and country house-parties that could be set almost any-when and anywhere, which definitely isn’t the case with this book.  The downside, however is that the sheer volume of information the author has included about this statesman’s political ambitions or that one’s underhand machinations is almost overwhelming and at times, interrupts the flow of the story.  And something I found rather odd was the fact that while the author has created a truly menacing villain in the person of the mysterious pharaoh (also known as ‘The Falconer’), we never find out who he actually IS beyond a brief physical description and his aliases.  I felt that something was missing.

Angel and Maddie are immensely likeable characters, and the chemistry between them is terrific, although I can’t deny that I’d have liked them to have spent a little more time together on the page.  (And for anyone wondering, there IS an HEA.) The writing is spry and intelligent and there’s a strongly-drawn secondary cast, all of whom add flavour to the overall mix, and there’s plenty of humour along the way, too, much of it provided by Tony, Maddie’s faux-suitor, and the lumbering dog Angel rescues and gives to her boys.

I enjoyed the book and, in spite of the reservations I’ve expressed, would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different to so many of the other historicals on offer at the moment.  Book three, The Judas Kiss will be released shortly, and I’m looking forward to reading Saxe and Clea’s story

TBR Challenge: Against the Dark (The Associates #1) by Carolyn Crane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s an ex-safecracker forced into one last heist.

Angel Ramirez left the safecracking game five years ago, and she’s worked hard to make amends and build an honest life. But when a beloved aunt is kidnapped, she must reunite with her girl gang to acquire the unique ransom: Walter Borgola’s prized diamonds. It’s a simple job that turns into a nightmare, thanks to a surprisingly clever—and searingly sexy—security guard named Cole Hawkins.

He’s an undercover agent with big plans for his gorgeous thief.

Cole is one of the Association’s most brilliant agents, under deep cover investigating a ruthless killer. He’s also running out of time: hundreds will die if he doesn’t stop the plan Borgola’s set into motion. Catching Angel is the break he needed–he promises not to turn her in if she poses as his lover and uses her unique talents to unlock the sociopath’s dungeon vaults.

But as pretend passions turn real, Cole regrets drawing Angel into his deadly game…and danger is closer than either of them could ever imagine.

Rating: B

I haven’t read anything by Carolyn Crane before, but her romantic suspense novels come highly recommended, so I picked up this first book in her four-book series The Associates for this months’ prompt.  It’s fast-moving and well-written with some nicely steamy scenes – plus the hero is a hot, dangerously sexy maths-nerd who wears glasses.  Um.  Yeah, that right there was enough to get me interested! (Think Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters – I did! ;))  On the downside, the romance is a bit hurried; the events of the story take place over three or four days so there’s not a lot of time to develop a relationship beyond physical attraction and the fact that the hero and heroine have to trust each other if they’re to make it to the end of the book alive.  That said though, Against the Dark was enjoyable and I pretty much blew through it in one sitting; sometimes one craves well-done hokum with fights, chases, things blowing up and crackling sexual tension, and that’s exactly what I got so I was pretty happy by the end.

Former jewel thief and expert safe-cracker Angel Ramirez has been on the straight and narrow for the last five years and now makes her living as an interior designer.  But she’s agreed to come out of retirement to pull a job with her friends and fellow thieves, Macy and White Jenny, that’s very personal to them.  A violent gang has kidnapped Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who practically raised all three of them, and is demanding the set of priceless diamonds belonging to crimelord Walter Borgola – “the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A.” – as ransom.  Angel’s job is going to be to crack the Fenton Furst safe in Borgola’s bedroom; she’s one of the few people in the world who has the skills and knowledge to do it, so the ladies have got themselves into one of Borgola’s sleazy parties/orgies where they’re posing as working girls while waiting to make their move.

Cole Hawkins is one of The Associates, a shadowy organisation that is frequently used to do the jobs that can‘t be done legally or with official government sanction;  “Officially, no governments knew about them; unofficially, they were central to the international fight against crime.”  Cole has infiltrated Borgola’s operation as one of his security team, and for the past nine months has been gathering evidence and information on the sex trafficking ring Borgola is running out of Myanmar.  Cole has recently uncovered an even more sinister side to the operation;  Borgola is bringing in kids and using them in snuff movies, and there’s a new ‘shipment’ on the way, so Cole is up against it if he’s to track down the ships the kids are on, get them out of harm’s way and nail Borgola.

He knows the evidence he needs is contained within a second Fenton Furst safe which is in a hidden location in Borgola’s mansion.  Whoever cracked the safe containing the diamonds will be able to crack the second one; Cole tracks Angel down and lies in wait for her at her apartment – and pretty much blackmails her into helping him.

From then on in, things move at a cracking pace as Cole and Angel – neither of whom trusts easily – have to work together to find the safe and obtain the information Cole needs.  The romance is, as I said at the outset, perhaps a little rushed, building as it does over just a few days, but the pressure-cooker environment and close proximity in which Cole and Angel are operating, together with the smoking hot chemistry between them helps to make it if not completely believable, then at least perfectly plausible.  The plot is twisty and well-constructed, with plenty of action and edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the last quarter, when things really do get hairy.

Angel and Cole are complex, damaged and somewhat morally ambiguous.  Angel clearly regrets her criminal past and what she sees as her inner ugliness, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and loyalty make her an engaging heroine.  I also loved the ‘girl-power’ vibe that came off her relationship with Macy and White Jenny; these women obviously know each other intimately, and care about each other deeply, and even though they’ve not pulled a job together in five years, neither of those things has gone away. Cole is an intriguing mix of alpha and beta hero, a man who’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of and is prepared to keep doing bad things if it means he gets to help people who need it.  He’s a maths genius and logistics expert, reducing problems to patterns and equations, the sort of guy who follows the paper-trail and comes up trumps – but he’s no slouch in the badassery or take-charge departments either.

I can’t deny though, that there were a few WTF? moments along the way, such as Cole telling Angel that her abilities as an interior designer somehow meant she could “see things we can’t” (huh?  She can tell a bad guy by the quality of his laminate flooring?) or when Cole’s not-so-inner maths-nerd surfaces during sex scenes; “Women had been equations before this,” or “This woman … made his sigmas and coefficients swirl in a tornado.”  – ouch?

Still, hot nerds are my catnip and I enjoyed Against the Dark for the sexy, escapist fun it was. I’m definitely planning to read the other books in the series.