TBR Challenge – My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady by day, Robin Hood by night…

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

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

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

Rating: A-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ruining Miss Wrotham (Baleful Godmother #5) by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

If he helps her, he’ll ruin her…

Eleanor Wrotham has sworn off overbearing men, but she needs a man’s help—and the man who steps forward is as domineering as he is dangerous: the notorious Mordecai Black.

The illegitimate son of an earl, Mordecai is infamous for his skill with women. His affairs are legendary—but few people realize that Mordecai has rules, and one of them is: Never ruin a woman.

But if Mordecai helps Miss Wrotham, she will be ruined.

Rating: A-

This fifth instalment in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series is a charming and beautifully romantic road-trip story that pairs up a most unlikely couple. As she has demonstrated in all the books in this series, Ms. Larkin is a fabulous storyteller with the ability to create memorable, likeable characters and inject new life into well-used tropes by sprinkling in a bit of magic and whimsy while firmly grounding her story in the familiar – to historical romance fans at least – world of early nineteenth century England. Ruining Miss Wrotham is laced with gentle humour, sensuality and tenderness as we watch our heroine discover surprising truths about herself, her wants and her desires, while struggling with her growing feelings for a man she should have no feelings for at all.

Miss Eleanor Wrotham is counting the days until her twenty-third birthday, because then she will be able to choose a magical gift from Baletongue, the malevolent and pitiless faerie godmother who is bound to deliver a supernatural power to the females of her family line as the result of an ages-old curse. Eleanor knows what she will chose; the ability to locate missing people, and with only a few days to go, is impatient for the faerie’s visit so she can use her gift to find her younger sister, Sophia, who eloped with her lover some months earlier and has now gone missing. But when Eleanor receives a months-old note telling her that Sophia is in London – in Seven Dials – she wants to go to her immediately, regardless of the fact that it’s one of the most dangerous areas in the city. She asks her former fiancé – who jilted her once he learned of her sister’s disgrace – for help, but he refuses and as she is storming out of his house, bumps into the last man on earth she would have considered helpful or trustworthy, the deliciously handsome but highly disreputable Mordecai Black, bastard son of the late Earl of Dereham.

It’s apparent from the first page that there is a lot more to Black than meets the eye – and given he’s a hulking six-foot-five, there’s a lot of him to meet! – and that he’s in love with Eleanor and has been for some time. He tries to dissuade her from going to look for her sister by offering to find her himself, but Eleanor will have none of it, and he has no alternative but to allow her to go with him. Ms. Larkin paints a vivid picture of the dank, rubbish-strewn streets of the stews of London, and creates a strong atmosphere of menace as the couple ventures into a part of the city into which only those with no alternative – or no idea of self-preservation – would ever go. They find the place where Sophia was when she sent the note, but learn that she left with a friend some time ago, most likely to travel to Exeter and the home of someone who helps fallen women.

For a young, unmarried lady to travel alone is scandalous and dangerous, but Eleanor doesn’t care and wants to set out for Exeter immediately. Her meagre funds mean she must travel by stagecoach, but Black will not hear of it and insists upon escorting her himself. He also insists on procuring her a disguise in order to protect her reputation, even though Eleanor maintains that the fact of her sister’s elopement has already ruined her good name and she has no reputation left to protect.

Thus begins the journey during which Eleanor starts to uncover the truth about Mordecai Black and learns that he is not nearly as black (pun unintentional!) as he has been painted.  He’s an honourable perceptive and intelligent man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t give a fig for what people think of him.  He’s also gorgeous and charismatic – and Eleanor is unnerved by the visceral pull of attraction she feels towards him.  She is stunned to learn that he once asked her father for her hand in marriage – although not that he had been refused – and is furious that her father never told her of the proposal.  Eleanor can’t imagine what prompted Black to ask – they are not well acquainted, so surely he can’t be in love with her?  – yet she can’t help being flattered that such an attractive man would want her.  Even so, she steels herself against the temptation he represents, and tells herself she doesn’t want him; having been manipulated and controlled by her tyrannical father her entire life, the last thing Eleanor wants now he is dead is to find herself subject to another man’s domination – and Black is nothing if not high-handed and dictatorial.  But he’s also generous and kind, and the longer they spend together, the harder it becomes for Eleanor not fall in love with him, in spite of his tendency to try to order her around.

Ruining Miss Wrotham is a carefully crafted, multi-layered novel in which the sub-plots are skilfully woven into the main storyline to create a cohesive, well-paced whole that grabbed my attention from the first page and didn’t let me go until the end.  The romance is a delectable slow-burn, with Black determined to allow Eleanor time to realise that they are kindred spirits while the undeniable sparks of sexual awareness sizzle in the air between them.  Their over-dinner conversations are delightful, their enforced proximity engendering trust and shared confidences, and his nightly marriage proposals are incredibly sweet – there were times I wanted to give Eleanor a good shake and tell her just to accept him already!  But her reasons for refusing are understandable, especially as at this period in time, women were little more than possessions and her experiences with her father would naturally make her wary.

Historical romances are full of heroines who are repeatedly told not to put themselves in danger and then go ahead and do just that because they don’t want to be told what to do.  Fortunately, Emily Larkin doesn’t fall into that trap; Eleanor doesn’t like it when Black is high-handed, but she understands that his intention is to protect her, and rather than having them constantly at odds, the author has them learning to make compromises in order to keep each other safe.  It’s not easy for either of them to adapt in this way and they make mistakes, but their willingness to try speaks volumes about the depth of their feelings for each other.

While all this is going on, Eleanor finally gets her visit from Baletongue – but things don’t go as planned, which leads to something of a rift between her and Black.  Fortunately for them both, the Earl of Cosgrove (Unmasking Miss Appleby) and Icarus and Letty Reid (Trusting Miss Trentham) are on hand to provide assistance, but while I liked seeing them again, their sudden and fortuitous appearance smacks a bit of the deus ex machina, and strikes a bit of bum note.

That, however, is the only major criticism I can level at the story, which is otherwise captivating and thoroughly enjoyable.  The way that Eleanor sometimes sees Black’s concern for her safety as attempts to control her can be a little irritating, but as I’ve said above, it works within the context of her character, and I liked her in spite of it.  Mordecai Black, however, is sure to win you over immediately; a swoon-worthy rogue with a heart of gold, his absolute devotion to Eleanor will melt even the hardest heart.

Ruining Miss Wrotham is part of a series that can be read without reference to the other books, although an understanding of the basic premise – that the heroines have a faerie godmother who is nothing like the one in Cinderella! – is probably a good idea if you’re not going to start at the beginning.  That said, the first book, Unmasking Miss Appleby was one of my favourite books of 2016 (and a DIK), so it’s well worth checking out.  Whatever you decide, Emily Larkin is a gifted author of historical romance and one fans of the genre shouldn’t miss.

 

Claiming Mister Kemp (Baleful Godmother #4) by Emily Larkin

claiming-mr-kemp

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lucas Kemp’s twin sister died last year. He’s put aside his mourning clothes, but not his heartache. If Lucas ever needed a friend, it’s now—and who should walk in his door but Lieutenant Thomas Matlock…

Lucas and Tom are more than just best friends; they’ve been in love with each other for years. In love with each other—and pretending not to know it.

But this time, Tom’s not going to ignore the attraction between them. This time, he’s going to push the issue.

He’s going to teach Lucas how to laugh again—and he’s going to take Lucas as his lover…

Rating: B

Claiming Mister Kemp is a long-ish novella that is the fourth story in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series.  While characters from the previous books make brief appearances, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this as a standalone – although the other three books are excellent and well worth reading.

Lucas Kemp and Thomas Matlock have been friends ever since their first term at Eton, even though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.  Lucas comes from a wealthy background and a warm, loving family, whereas Tom, the youngest son of an earl, was born to parents who really couldn’t be all that bothered about him, and his fondest childhood memories are of the holidays he spent at Whiteoaks, where he and Lucas made a foursome with Lucas’ cousin, Letty Trentham (Trusting Miss Trentham) and his twin sister, Julia.  The four children were close, although as twins, Lucas and Julia shared a unique bond.  They remained close as they grew into adulthood, but eventually their lives took them in different directions, with Tom going into the army, Letty and Julia entering society and Lucas inheriting an estate of his own.  But some sixteen months before this book opens, tragedy struck, and Julia was killed when she fell from her horse.  Everyone was devastated at her death, but for Lucas, it’s even worse than that.  He feels as though he has lost something of himself, and although his mourning period has ended, he continues to miss his sister intensely.  He puts on a good show for those around him, fooling those who don’t know him well, or don’t care to look beyond the surface, but inside, he’s a mess, having resorted for a time to taking too much laudanum to try to dull the pain and when that avenue was denied him (his valet found his stash and threw it away) took to drinking too much and too often.

Tom, now a member of General Wellesley’s staff, has returned to London with the general in order to speak at a military enquiry into Wellesley’s actions after the battle of Vimeiro.  A recent brush with death has given him a new appreciation for living and made him determined not to waste another minute of his life in denial of the feelings he has always held for his best friend.

It’s Lucas’ birthday, and Tom knows it will be a difficult day for him, seeing as it should have been Julia’s birthday, too.  He goes to Lucas’ lodgings intent on offering comfort and support, only to find his friend drunk and alone in the dark.  His heart breaking for Lucas all over again, Tom decides to seize the chance to show Lucas that he is not alone, and that his – Tom’s – feelings for him go beyond friendship. When Lucas, his inhibitions and defences lowered, doesn’t refuse Tom’s advances, they share a brief moment of sexual intimacy.

Afterwards, Lucas is utterly horrified and disgusted at what happened, and tries – unsuccessfully – to avoid Tom the next day.  But Tom won’t allow him to ignore what happened between them, and pushes Lucas to acknowledge the truth of his own feelings as well as the strength of the attraction between them.  As his anger with Tom lessens, Lucas finds it harder and harder to resist the pull of that attraction and allows his long suppressed feelings for his friend to come to the fore – although once their moment of shared passion is over, he is once again overwhelmed by his thoughts and his fear of discovery and being labelled a sodomite.

Given that homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment (or even death) at this time, Lucas’ fears are well-grounded.  But this is much more than a story about a man’s reluctance to explore his sexuality; it’s also about a terribly lonely man who is so mired in grief and loss that he is in danger of losing himself, too.  Lucas has known for a long time that he’s not attracted to women and refused to admit the possibility that he was attracted to men; and the moment at which Tom realises that while he’s been away in the army, surrounded by people, having sexual relationships (with both sexes), Lucas quite literally had no-one is like a punch to the gut.

While I sometimes felt that Tom was perhaps a little too pushy, he’s redeemed by the fact that he is so patient with Lucas, allowing him to dictate the pace of their sexual relationship and to do as much or as little as he wants.  He’s funny and warm and charming, and there’s absolutely no doubt as to the fact that he loves Lucas dearly and would do anything for him.  But things come to a head when Lucas’ fears overcome him once more and he pushes Tom away for what could be the last time.

The events in this story run concurrently with those of Trusting Miss Trentham and one of the things I really liked was that we get to see the other side of some of the conversations both Tom and Lucas had with Letty Trentham in that book.  But if you haven’t read it, don’t worry – as I said at the outset, this stands on its own.

Claiming Mister Kemp is a heartfelt, compelling love story featuring two well-developed and likeable central characters. The sex scenes are sensual and well-written, conveying a real sense of the depth of the love and affection between the two men, and the emotional connection between the pair is palpable.  At somewhere around 170 pages, it’s a quick and satisfying read and one I’m recommending without hesitation.

Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother #3) by Emily Larkin

trusting-miss-trentham

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s more than just an heiress…

Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.

Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing—to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret—including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

Rating: B+

Trusting Miss Trentham is the third book in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series of historical romances with a paranormal twist.  Owing to the good deed done by one of their ancestresses, each of the heroines is entitled to receive a gift from their Faerie Godmother – whom they call Baletongue – on their twenty-first or twenty-fifth birthday (depending on their line of descent).  These stories are primarily romances, however, so if you’re looking for a high-concept paranormal, you won’t find it here.  The love stories are at the centre of these books, and Ms. Larkin writes those with a great deal of insight and assurance, imbuing her tales with a strong sense of period and peopling them with interesting and engaging characters who behave and think in a manner that is appropriate for the time.

Miss Letitia Trentham is one of the wealthiest women in England and has, by the age of twenty-seven, turned down around two-hundred proposals of marriage.  Having chosen the gift of being able to detect lies, she has rebuffed just about every fortune hunter in the country  – who are the only men to have offered for her. She knows she is not pretty or possessed of the other sorts of qualities likely to attract men; she doesn’t simper or defer, plus she’s intelligent and not afraid to show it, which isn’t a much admired quality on the marriage mart.  She has just turned down yet another hopeful when she is approached by a tall, gaunt man with a military bearing and an undeniable air of exhaustion who has heard of her uncanny ability to be able to tell truth from lies – and who asks for her help.

Icarus Reid, formerly a major in His Majesty’s army, resigned his commission after the battle of Vimeiro and, although not completely recovered from a serious illness, has travelled back to England.  He explains to Letty that he is searching for a traitor; he, a Portuguese officer and three scouts were betrayed before the battle and captured, and Reid is the only one of them who survived.  He desperately wants to discover the identity of that traitor and then take steps to have him brought to justice, and he asks Letty if she will accompany him to meet with his two main suspects and use her talent for detecting lies to help him uncover the truth.

Letty senses that Reid is a potentially dangerous man and is naturally wary; but after hearing his story and extracting a promise that he will not kill whichever of the men turns out to have been responsible, she agrees to accompany him to meet with the suspects, even though one of them is a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Information gleaned gives Reid three more names to investigate, but none of those men are in London.  Exhilarated at the newfound feeling of freedom she has experienced as a result of the subterfuges needed to ensure she was able to meet Reid in secret, Letty offers to accompany him to Basingstoke to find the first of the men on the list.  Reid is reluctant to accept  because of the damage that could be done to her reputation; his behaviour in insisting she enter a prison and spend time in the company of unsavoury men was less than honourable and he is not feeling particularly proud of himself as a result.  But Letty has a plan – and even though he knows he should not allow her to become any more involved, Reid’s desire to root out the traitor is stronger than his gentlemanly instincts.

The tone of Trusting Miss Trentham is rather more sombre than the previous two books, but that is quite fitting considering that the hero is an extremely troubled man who continues to be plagued by nightmares and memories of the terrible things he endured during his military service.  As Letty and Reid travel to Basingstoke and then further, she begins to have suspicions as to what is distressing him so deeply, but Reid steadfastly refuses to tell the truth about what happened to him at Vimeiro or to let her get close to him.  Yet her quiet, steadfast care of him every night when he wakes, sick and disorientated from his tortured dreams starts to break down his resistance and he slowly begins to reassess her, to value her intelligence, her kindness and her determination and discovers – against his better judgement – that he can’t bear the idea of being without her.

Ms. Larkin does a fantastic job in conveying the depth of Reid’s anger and despair, and the way in which Letty’s calming presence in his life and their growing intimacy gradually start to remind him of what it’s like to be alive.  I can’t remember the last time I read – or if I ever have read – a hero of a romance novel quite like him; so worn out and tormented by memories – and I should say here that Ms. Larkin makes no bones about what happened to him in Portugal.  Her descriptions are not graphic but they are disturbing nonetheless.

Letty is a wonderful character and again, is quite unlike many other historical romance heroines I’ve read.  She’s incredibly wealthy and, she thinks, rather plain, and has given up on the idea of finding a man who wants her for herself and not her money and decided to dedicate her life and considerable fortune to charitable works.  I liked her persistence, her kindness and her practical nature; and her concern for propriety rings very true for a woman of her time.  But she hasn’t realised quite how hemmed in she has been by it until she resorts to deception in order to meet Reid to go to the Marshalsea.  For the sake of respectability, she and Reid travel as man and wife, and Letty discovers a real sense of freedom at not being surrounded by servants or people toadying to her, so much so, that the thought of returning to her former life is somewhat depressing.

The relationship that develops between the couple progresses slowly and is quietly understated, which is feels exactly right given the tenor of the story.  Letty’s initial infatuation develops into something far deeper as she begins to see past the man burdened by misdirected guilt and self-hatred to the man Reid could and should be, the good-natured, easy-going and confident man with whom she is falling more in love every day.

Reid berates himself for not treating Letty more kindly, but he is driven by his purpose to the exclusion of pretty much all else, and he certainly doesn’t want to fall in love.  Letty’s care of him is extremely touching, clearly showing the truth of her feelings for him; she wants him to be well and happy, and unfortunately, in her pursuit of his happiness makes a major error one night which threatens to shatter what is already a fragile relationship.

Fortunately however, both Reid and Letty are mature enough to be able to talk it through and to move on in a positive way. In fact, apart from Reid’s refusal to talk about Vimeiro, all their conversations are characterised by honesty and good sense, clearly showing their mutual respect, and liking, even when they are both annoyed with one another. I also liked the way that Ms. Larkin effects Reid’s recovery; there’s no overnight cure, or, as Letty admits to herself, any guarantee that he will ever be completely healed, but there is the real sense that he has achieved closure and is ready to move on with his life. And if Letty’s love and unconditional support give Reid something worth living for, in return, he provides her with the love and happiness she’d never thought to have.

Trusting Miss Trentham goes to some dark places, but is no less enjoyable for that.  It doesn’t have quite the same sparkle as the first book – Unmasking Miss Appleby – but it’s certainly well-written, the characterisation of the two principals is excellent and the story is compelling.  There is a strongly written set of secondary characters as well, two of whom – Letty’s cousin, Lucas Kemp, and Lieutenant Tom Matlock, who served with Reid – are going to get their own story in the next book, Claiming Mister Kemp. Until then, however, Trusting Miss Trentham is another very strong entry in this entertaining and unusual series, and while it can be read as a standalone, I’d recommend starting at the beginning – simply because the earlier books are too good to miss.

Resisting Miss Merryweather (Baleful Godmother #2) by Emily Larkin

resisting-miss-merryweather

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She sees things no one else does…

Sir Barnaby Ware made a mistake two and a half years ago. A massive mistake. The sort of mistake that can never be atoned for.

He knows himself to be irredeemable, but the captivating and unconventional Miss Merryweather is determined to prove him wrong…

The daughter of a dancing master and a noblewoman, Miss Merryweather had an unusual upbringing. She sees things no one else sees—and she says things no one else says.

Sir Barnaby knows he’s the villain in this piece, but Miss Merryweather thinks he’s the hero—and she is damnably hard to resist…

Rating: B

I thoroughly enjoyed Unmasking Miss Appleby, the first book in Emily Larkin’s new Baleful Godmother series, and was curious about the secondary character of Sir Barnaby Ware, whom we learned had previously been the best friend of that book’s hero, Marcus, the Earl of Cosgrove. A couple of years earlier, Barnaby betrayed his friend in the worst way possible, by committing adultery with Marcus’ beautiful but manipulative wife. The two men had previously been like brothers, and it seemed that their friendship was irrevocably broken.

More than a year has passed since the events of the last book, and Barnaby is on his way to Marcus’ Devonshire estate, having accepted an invitation from his former friend and his new wife, who have recently become parents for the first time. Barnaby is understandably anxious; the last time he and Marcus met, things between them were barely civil, and he keeps telling himself this visit is not a good idea and that he should turn back. He is about to do that when he sees a young woman walking ahead of him; and when he stops to talk to her, discovers she is a friend of Marcus’ wife, also staying at Woodhuish Abbey. She asks Barnaby to escort her back there, and, as a gentleman, he can’t refuse, so now there is no question of retreat.

Anne Merryweather is Charlotte’s – now the Countess of Cosgrove – cousin, and like Charlotte, will be gifted with the magical ability of her choice upon her twenty-fifth birthday, which is only a few days away. But even without that, she has an uncanny facility for reading people and seeing beyond what someone says to the truth that lies behind their words. She knows what happened between Marcus and Barnaby, and knows that Barnaby is still eaten up with guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But the lovely, open-hearted Miss Merryweather – Merry to her friends – is determined to prove him wrong.

While the romance develops over just a few days, the author creates a genuinely strong connection between Barnaby and Merry, who is able to see past his guilt and self-loathing to the kind, compassionate man that he truly is. He has been resisting his attraction to her because of his belief that he’s not worthy of her, but when they are both trapped underground following a trip to explore some local caves, Barnaby steps up to the plate to become the man that Merry needs him to be.

Resisting Miss Merryweather is a lovely story of forgiveness and redemption, showing that’s it’s just as important to be able to forgive oneself as it is to obtain the forgiveness of others. While this is a novella, it doesn’t lack depth; the shame and despair Barnaby feels over his past actions is palpable, and the growing attraction between him and Merry is nicely done. The relationship between Barnaby and Marcus is very-well written, too – their interactions are infused with warmth despite the issues lying between them, and I liked the emphasis placed on going forward rather than looking back, the idea of Barnaby becoming an even better friend in the days to come.

The book can be read as a standalone, but works best as a companion piece to Unmasking Miss Appleby.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

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Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin

unmasking-miss-appleby

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s not who she seems…

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…

Rating: A-

It’s no secret that my least favourite trope is the one in which the heroine passes herself off as a man. I find it too difficult to believe that nobody would notice she wasn’t one, even within the idealised setting of a romantic novel. That’s not to say that some authors haven’t managed to pull it off with a reasonable degree of success; most recently, Eva Leigh made a good job of it in Forever Your Earl, by having the heroine be as aware as the reader of the difficulty of a woman pretending to be a man and making others believe it and went on to use the premise to make some insightful social comment.

In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Emily Larkin goes one step further than disguising her heroine by the use of theatrical costume and make-up; she has her heroine able to actually transform herself into a man by virtue of a magical power bestowed upon her.

Okay, okay – I completely recognise the incongruity of saying I find it hard to believe in a woman simply dressing as a man, but I’ll go along with a woman who can turn into one. But it’s a very clever idea, because once that fantastical premise is accepted, Ms. Larkin is able to create the sort of easy friendship between her protagonists that would not have been at all possible between a man and a woman, and can allow her heroine to see and hear things and to go to places a female of the time would never have been allowed to see, hear or visit. Even with that said, though, had the story not been well-thought out and well-written I would probably not have been able to accept the magical element so readily, but as it stands, the plot is well-developed, the romance is delicious, and it all adds up to a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Charlotte Appleby was orphaned at twelve and taken in by relatives who proceeded to use her as an unpaid tutor and governess for their children and then as a general dogsbody. She is resigned to a future of drudgery because there is no other course open to her; the prospect of working as a governess or companion does not appeal, and the jobs which do, and which will provide a good income are those open only to men. She has no money and nowhere else to go, and at her age and with no dowry, marriage is extremely unlikely. But on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday all that changes when she returns to her room to discover a strange woman sitting there. The woman explains that she’s a Faerie and that, owing to a good deed performed by one of Charlotte’s ancestors for one of the Fey (as detailed in The Fey Quartet of prequel novellas), Charlotte is offered the choice of a number of different, fantastical gifts. She could have the ability to fly, to foretell the future or read minds, for instance – but after thinking it through quickly she opts for the ability to transform her appearance at will, assured that such metamorphosis applies only to her exterior and that she will remain herself inside.

Charlotte proceeds to turn herself into Mr. Christopher Albin and secures employment with Marcus Langford, the Earl of Cosgrove, whose secretary was badly injured when they were set upon in the street just days earlier. Cosgrove is a widower whose beautiful wife is known to have cuckolded him, and who continues to be the subject of gossip by those who suspect him of having mistreated her, and perhaps even of murdering her.  In the months since her death, he has been the subject of an anonymous hate campaign; the windows of his London home are repeatedly smashed, piles of excrement are deposited on his doorstep, and now it seems as though someone is out to do him bodily harm, as the attack on him and his secretary was not simply the work of opportunist footpads.

Cosgrove is also an active member of parliament who takes his responsibilities very seriously and who is an avid and vocal supporter of the abolitionist movement.  Thus, the field of suspects as to who could be behind the attacks upon him is fairly large – is it political opponents or his late wife’s brother, who has never scrupled to make clear his intense dislike?  Or could it be his dissolute cousin and heir, a young man who lives well beyond his means and expects Marcus to fund his gambling, drinking and whoring habits?

The relationship that develops between the earl and his young secretary is rather delightful.  Marcus takes Albin under his wing in an older brother-ish kind of way, and their burgeoning friendship allows Charlotte an insight into the male mind in a way she could never have gained as a woman.   Marcus talks to Albin frankly about sex, takes him to a brothel (not as a patron, I hasten to add!), says what he thinks, swears and generally behaves as he would with any male acquaintance, which is all very liberating for Charlotte.  And she gets to see how the other half lives, to experience the freedom and confidence afforded simply by virtue of possessing a penis.

The problem, of course, is that that particular appendage starts to sit up and take notice whenever her handsome employer is around, and Charlotte is terrified that he’ll notice and throw her out on her ear.  She’s never before experienced feelings of arousal or desire and isn’t sure what to do – all she knows is that she has to find a way to conquer them. Remembering an offhand remark Cosgrove made about a man’s need to sometimes scratch an itch, she embarks upon a bold course of action in an attempt to get him out of her system so that she can continue to work alongside him.   I don’t want to give too much away, but the romance works beautifully, and Ms. Larkin does a terrific job of showing (not just telling) Marcus gradually falling for Charlotte (in her true form) through a series of meetings that begin as one thing and end as another.  Marcus is a gorgeous, sexy hero who positively shines throughout the story as a man of action, intelligence and principle, and Charlotte plays her dual role admirably; an excellent foil, friend and sounding board as Albin, and the woman with whom Marcus seeks comfort, tenderness and pleasure as herself.

The two main plotlines – the romance and the search for who is seeking to destroy Marcus – are very well integrated, with no sudden shifts in tone or strained contrivances.  And while the fantasy element to the story is fairly low key, the author doesn’t just forget it once she’s embedded Charlotte as Albin; the ability to transform her appearance plays an important part in the search for Cosgrove’s enemies.  The one thing I’d take issue with is how easily Cosgrove accepts Albin’s ability to turn into various animals, but given everything that’s happened up to that point and how much stress he’s under, I guess he can be allowed a metaphorical shrug and to accept the help that his secretary’s strange gift allows.

Emily Larkin (who has also written as Emily May and Emily Gee) writes with a great deal of elegance and perception, and has crafted an unusual and charming story to kick off her new Baleful Godmother series.  If you’re looking for a high-concept fantasy romance, then pass on by, because this isn’t it.  But if you’re after an emotionally satisfying, quirky and sensual romance, then I’d say this is definitely worth your time.  I’m certainly going to be looking out for the next book in the series, and Unmasking Miss Appleby is now securely tucked onto my keeper shelf.