TBR Challenge: Tommy Cabot Was Here (The Cabots #0.5) by Cat Sebastian

tommy cabot was here

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Massachusetts, 1959: Some people might accuse mathematician Everett Sloane of being stuffy, but really he just prefers things a certain way: predictable, quiet, and far away from Tommy Cabot—his former best friend, chaos incarnate, and the man who broke his heart.

The youngest son of a prominent political family, Tommy threw away his future by coming out to his powerful brothers. When he runs into Everett, who fifteen years ago walked away from Tommy without an explanation or a backward glance, his old friend’s chilliness is just another reminder of what a thoroughgoing mess Tommy has made of his life.

When Everett realizes that his polite formality is hurting Tommy, he needs to decide whether he can unbend enough to let Tommy get close but without letting himself get hurt the way he was all those years ago.

Rating: B

For the first prompt of 2023 – Starting Over – I chose Cat Sebastian’s Tommy Cabot Was Here, a short and sweet second-chance romance set in 1959 about two men who were best friends (and more) at boarding school, went their separate ways after college and who unexpectedly find each other again fifteen years later.

On “Visting Sunday” – a month after the start of the new school year – Everett Sloane is surprised to see a familiar face among the crowds of parents at Greenfields, the prestigious boarding school where he was once a pupil and to which he has returned as a teacher. The face belongs to Tommy Cabot, the youngest son of an influential political family, with whom Everett shared his first kiss, his first sexual experiences and who was his first love – until after graduating college, Tommy told Everett he would be getting married, to exactly the ‘right’ sort of wealthy young woman his family have been expecting him to marry. Heartbroken, Everett left for England right after the wedding, and the two haven’t seen each other since.

Catching a glimpse of the boy at Tommy’s side, Everett realises this must be his son, Daniel, but when he really looks at Tommy, he looks nothing like the polished, successful politician he had imagined Tommy would be by this time; instead he’s a bit frayed around the edges, his clothes slightly dishevelled, his hair overlong, his shave not quite close enough – and he’s holding himself stiffly and somewhat defensively. Before Everett can beat a hasty retreat, however, Tommy notices him and greets him warmly – and with an unexpected hug; after a few excruciating minutes Everett, confused and upset, makes an excuse and walks away.

Tommy is surprised to see Everett at Greenfields, but not surprised to see how little he’s changed over the years, still neat as a pin and just a bit starchy… it hurts to remember how much Tommy had loved coaxing him out of that stuffiness, getting a smile or a laugh out of him, and hurts even more to think how clueless he’d been as to the nature of his feelings for Everett back then, how stupid he’d been not to realise how deeply that cluelessness had hurt the man who had been his best friend. And who could, perhaps, have been so much more.

For all it’s only ninety-one pages long (the rest of the Kindle edition I read is taken up with a preview of  Peter Cabot Gets Lost), Tommy Cabot Was Here doesn’t lack depth or emotion. The author rounds out the characters very well indeed, so we get a real sense of their quite different personalities; Tommy the people pleaser, Everett, reserved and quieter, but far more aware of his feelings than the outgoing Tommy was when they were younger, and she creates a strong emotional connection between them so that their rekindled romance is entirely believable. There’s a real sense of longing between them in the early stages of the story, with both of them feeling conflicted about seeing each other again and fearing that maybe it’s too late to be anything more than nodding acquaintances. But the pull they feel towards one another is strong enough to give them the courage to work through past hurts and losses to find a way forward together.

I’ve read a lot of novellas I wish had been longer, but I can’t say that’s the case here. In fact, I think that had this been novel-length, I might have found it too drawn out and criticised it for not containing enough plot! That said, I do think some things are a bit too glossed over (such as Tommy’s decision to come out to his family – it’s 1959, wasn’t he worried someone might report him to the police for being “bent”? – and seek a divorce given he knew he’d be cut off ) and the cameo by Tommy’s nephew Peter (presumably to set up the next book) feels a bit contrived. Despite that, however, I found Tommy Cabot Was Here to be a rather lovely, warm and moving story about finding hope, love and second chances and I’m glad I read it.

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.

There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.

Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.

I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.

Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.

As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.

Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack #2) by Joanna Chambers (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Goldhill

a gathering storm

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother. In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree.

Until Fate steps in to lend a hand. Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal. A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

It’s taken a while for Joanna Chambers’ 2017 historical romance, A Gathering Storm, to make it into audio, but I remember enjoying the story back when I read it, so, despite the fact that the narrator is new-to-me, I decided to give the audiobook version a listen. The book is part of the multi-author Porthkennack series, all set in and around the Cornish seaside town of the same name, but it’s a standalone, so it’s not necessary to have read any of the other books in order to enjoy it.

The story begins on the night of a terrible electrical storm, when Sir Edward Fitzwilliam (known as ‘Ward’) is aboard ship, crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to Anglesey. The storm is at its height when Ward experiences something very strange – he hears the voice of his twin brother George calling out to him and assuring him that all will be well. Realising later that this must have been the exact moment of George’s death and believing he’d received a communication from ‘beyond the veil’. Ward dedicates himself to recreating the conditions that allowed it to happen, in spite of the disapproval and dismissal of the wider scientific community of which he is – or had been – a respected member.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge – Plain Jane by M.C. Beaton

plain jane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s up to the servants of No. 67 Clarges Street to hatch a scheme… and arrange a match!

‘Oh, to be as beautiful as Euphemia!’ sighs plain Jane Hart when she joins her sister at No.67 for the Season, as then Lord Tregarthan might notice her… as she has noticed him and forever lost her heart.

And while it is Euphemia’s fate to flit her way through balls and into the arms of a marquis, Jane’s is to stay at home… until the Downstairs staff transform the plain Miss into the Season’s sensation and send her waltzing into a daring liaison with the man of her dreams

Rating: C+

It was a very sobering thought to realise that most of the books I own that could be considered “vintage” – and thus contendenters for my read for that prompt for the July TBR Challenge – were written and published well within my lifetime. I ended up going with Plain Jane, book two in The House for the Season series by M.C. Beaton, written under her pen-name of Marion Chesney and originally published in 1986.

Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.

67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.

Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.

Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.

The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out that the book’s age shows in the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.

In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.

A Daring Pursuit (Ruthless Rivals #2) by Kate Bateman

a daring pursuit

This title may be purchased from Amazon

TWO ENEMIES
Carys Davies is doing everything in her power to avoid marriage. Staying single is the only way to hide the secret that could ruin her—and her family—if it was revealed. For the past two seasons she’s scandalized the ton with her outrageous outfits and brazen ways in a futile bid to deter potential suitors. Outwardly confident and carefree, inside she’s disillusioned with both men and love. There’s only one person who’s never bought her act—the only man who makes her heart race: Tristan Montgomery, one of her family’s greatest rivals.

ONE SCANDALOUS BARGAIN
Wickedly proper architect Tristan needs a respectable woman to wed, but he’s never stopped wanting bold, red-headed Carys. When she mockingly challenges him to show her what she’s missing by not getting married, Tristan shocks them both by accepting her indecent proposal: one week of clandestine meetings, after which they’ll go their separate ways. But kissing each other is almost as much fun as arguing, and their affair burns hotter than either of them expects. When they find themselves embroiled in a treasonous plot, can they trust each other with their hearts, their secrets…and their lives?

Rating: C+

Kate Bateman returns to the world of the feuding Davies and Montgomery families for this second book in her Ruthless Rivals series. The protagonists this time around are Carys Davies and Tristan Montgomery, sister and brother respectively of the hero and heroine from A Reckless Match – but while the leads are attractive and the writing is strong, the humour and witty banter I so enjoy from this author is missing and there simply isn’t enough story to carry a full-length novel, especially as the rivalry between the families has been rendered moot by the marriage of Maddie and Gryff in the previous book.

Since being seduced and immediately dumped by the man she’d believed herself in love with, Carys Davies has been doing everything she can think of to avoid marriage. To keep potential suitors at bay, as well as a way to distract attention from her still unmarried state, she’s spent the past couple of seasons shocking the ton with her outspokenness and scandalous outfits. She’s under no illusions about the potential consequences of her mistake; she can’t risk a husband discovering, on their wedding night, that she’s not a virgin, so it’s easiest to eschew the institution altogether – and anyway, her single sexual experience was so utterly underwhelming, she can’t imagine why she would ever want to do it again. To add insult to injury, the gentlman responsible (who is clearly no gentleman) is now blackmailing her, threatening to expose her ruin if she doesn’t meet his frequent demands for money.

Carys refuses to allow herself to be cowed however, and continues to take delight in needling and scandalising the darkly gorgeous but rather staid Tristan Montgomery, who has been her nemesis since they were younger. The attraction that smoulders between them whenever they’re in the same room is both delicious and incredibly annoying – but despite the fact that they can’t go near one another without wanting to rip each other’s clothes off, Carys’ determination never to marry and Tristan’s to find himself a sensible, respectable wife who will support him in his career choices puts paid to thoughts that there could ever be anything more between them.

Tristan finds Carys intensely infuriating and intensely desirable in equal measure, and when he inadvertantly discovers the secret she’s been keeping he’s hurt and then furious. On learning that Carys’ seducer had neglected to show her “a good time”, he offers her the chance to find out what all the fuss is about when it comes to sex. After all, they can still be enemies… they’ll just be enemies with benefits.

While the chemistry between Carys and Tristan is terrific and the sex scenes are nicely steamy, the emotional aspect of the romance is sadly underwritten. Tristan uncovers Carys’ secret – and learns about the blackmail – fairly early on, so I’d hoped to see the development of a deep emotional connection between them alongside the sexual exploration, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, it feels as though all that has already happened by the time we meet them, and all that’s left is for them to actually admit to each other – and themselves – that they’re in love. The denial makes little sense given that Tristan is looking to get married anyway – he and Carys are dynamite in bed and they obviously share similar tastes and a sense of humour – and the family feud is over and done with thanks to Maddie and Gryff. There’s literally nothing standing in their way and the denial as a point of conflict is weak and unconvincing.

Tristan and Carys are likeable and clearly made for each other. I often dislike so-called ‘unconventional’ heroines, but Carys is, fortunately, not one of those TSTL curl-tossers; rather she’s a bright and intelligent young woman trying to make the best of a bad lot and trying to keep her family safe in doing so. She hasn’t told her brothers what happened to her for fear they’ll do something stupid, like challenge her seducer to a duel and either be killed or forced to flee the country, and I liked her for her clear-sightedness on that score. Tristan is more your stock-in-trade dark, broodingly sexy hero; he’s charming and clearly cares deeply for Carys, but struggles to be more than two-dimensional.

In the end, despite the engaging characters and their great chemistry, A Daring Pursuit is just a bit… dull. There’s a crazy plot involving traitorous gold and an escaped bear (yes, really!) introduced just after the three-quarters mark, but it’s so silly and so last minute that it doesn’t really help matters. Kate Bateman is capable of writing detailed and well-thought out plots that really anchor a story in a time and place, but this comes across as just a ridiculous turn of events to get us to the end of the book.

I may check out the next in the series – which I am guessing will be about Carys’ brother Morgan and Tristan’s cousin Harriet, whose dynamic seems very different to the other couples in the series so far – but unfortunately, I have to put A Daring Pursuit in the ‘not quite recommendable’ column.

TBR Challenge: Mr. Warren’s Profession by Sebastian Nothwell

mr. warren's profession

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lindsey Althorp, the only son of a wealthy baronet, has never worked a day in his life. Aubrey Warren was born in a workhouse and hasn’t stopped working since.

When Lindsey wins a textile mill in a game of cards, he falls at first sight for the assistant clerk, Aubrey. Lindsey is certain that Aubrey is the Achilles to his Patroclus, the David to his Jonathan. Yet Aubrey, unaccustomed to affection, refuses to be a kept man-though he isn’t immune to Lindsey’s considerable charm.

Buoyed by Lindsey’s optimism and fuelled by Aubrey’s industry, the two men strive to overcome the class gulf between them. But a horrific accident reveals a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart forever.

Rating: B+

For the Tales of Old prompt, I went for the obvious and picked up an historical romance I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is set at the end of the nineteenth century and is as much about the difficulties of two people from very different ends of the social spectrum being together as it is about the problems inherent in a relationship between two men at that time.  It’s well written – despite a few Americanisms – and obviously well-researched, the wealth of background detail carefully integrated into the story in order to create a wonderfully strong sense of time and place.

Aubrey Warren works as a clerk at a textile mill in Manchester.  He’s very good at his job, extremely diligent and hard-working – and used to doing the work of two since the other office clerk is lazy and only has the job because of his family connections.  But Aubrey is at least content – and doesn’t expect happiness.  He’s come from nothing – he was brought up in the workhouse – to a responsible position that provides him with income enough to live decently, if not well, and has dreams of one day becoming an engineer. His quiet and unassuming life is suddenly blown apart by the appearance of Lindsey Althorp, the son of a baronet, who has won the mill in a card game, and who actually takes an interest in the place, much to Aubrey’s surprise.

Lindsey had no idea of becoming involved in the business of the mill, but that changes the moment he lays eyes on the beautiful, dark-eyed clerk sitting at a desk in the office and is immediately smitten.  It’s a defining moment for Lindsey;  for the first time in his life, he feels a true and strong desire for another person, and like a bolt from the blue, it crystallises the truth – that he is, and always has been, attracted to men.  He’s well aware that’s something that must be hidden, but in the first flush of infatuation, in his overwhelming desire to see and spend time with Aubrey, Lindsey behaves less than discreetly – requesting several tours of the factory and anything else he can think of that will put him into Aubrey’s company.

While Aubrey is every bit as attracted to Lindsey as Lindsey is to him, he tries hard to distance himself, and it’s easy to understand why. He knows full well that Lindsey’s marked attention to him could have serious repercussions and knows how easy it would be for him to lose even the little he has should anyone suspect where his interest lies.  The precariousness of his situation as someone of lower social standing, without family or other support system is well articulated and well-contrasted with Lindsey’s; a relationship with another man would be risky for both of them, but Lindsey has the ‘safety net’ of family, wealth and title that Aubrey does not.  But Lindsey’s warmth, enthusiasm and sheer joy in their connection are hard to resist; it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to feel just about anything – and before long, Aubrey can’t find it in him to deny himself the happiness he longs for.

While Aubrey and Lindsey get together somewhat quickly, there’s still plenty of relationship development going on and there’s no denying the strength of the love and affection they find in each other.  They’re from completely different worlds, but Lindsey is so wonderfully supportive of Aubrey and wants the world for him; and Aubrey, once he allows himself to love Lindsey, does so with his whole heart.  As I said at the beginning, the historical context here is well-done, with full acknowledgement of the risks of pursuing a homosexual relationship at this time, and the class difference between the two principals just makes things even more difficult. Men of equal status spending time together in public would not have been looked at askance, but a baronet’s son and a lowly clerk?  Very suspicious indeed.

So there are, of course, a lot of obstacles in the way of their HEA, from interfering and well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) friends, to a jealous and ill-intentioned colleague to a villainous blackmail plot.  There’s loss and heartbreak, but the author pulls everything together with great skill to reach a very satisfying conclusion in which Aubrey and Lindsey get their well-deserved HEA (and the villain gets his equally deserved comeuppance!)

There’s a strongly characterised secondary cast and lots of fascinating historical detail, ranging from the Cleveland Street Scandal and the Post Office boys, to advances in engineering, the work of the mill and incipient worker’s rights, in such a way that it never feels didactic or info-dump-y. However, there were a few things that stretched my credulity a bit –  for example, Lindsey’s father and sister realising he was an ‘invert’ before he did and his father’s plan to ‘protect’ him from that knowledge by not sending him off to Eton, and his sister’s habit of employing handsome, similarly inclined footmen so Lindsey could, er, sow his wild oats discreetly!  Then there’s the ease and frequency with which the characters travel between London and Manchester by train, seemingly just to spend the day there (Google tells me it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours now, but it must have been more than that back then?) and not only that, but surely Aubrey couldn’t have afforded to travel between Manchester and London and Wiltshire (where Lindsey owns a house) so often.

In the end, however, those are fairly minor concerns, more ‘things I noticed’ than ‘things that spoiled the book for me’.  Mr. Warren’s Profession is an enjoyable historical romance filled with interesting period detail, and Aubrey and Lindsey are a likeable couple who are easy to root for.  I really enjoyed their growth as characters and as a couple, together with the story’s focus on their deepening emotional connection and how they surmount the obstacles on their path to happiness.  If you’ve enjoyed books by KJ Charles and Joanna Chambers, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

The Missing Page (Page & Sommers #2) by Cat Sebastian

the missing page

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When James learns that an uncle he hasn’t heard from in ages has left him something in his will, he figures that the least he can do is head down to Cornwall for a weekend to honor the old man’s parting wishes. He finds the family home filled with half-remembered guests and unwanted memories, but more troubling is that his uncle has tasked his heirs with uncovering the truth behind a woman’s disappearance twenty years earlier.

Leo doesn’t like any of it. He’s just returned from one of his less pleasant missions and maybe he’s slightly paranoid about James’s safety, but he’s of the opinion that rich people aren’t to be trusted where wills are concerned. So he does what any sensible spy would do and infiltrates the house party.

Together they unravel a mystery that exposes long-standing family secrets and threatens to involve James more than either of them would like.

Rating: B

The Missing Page is the second book to feature country doctor James Sommers and spy Leo Page, whom we first met in Hither, Page, a cosy mystery  (sort of – true cosies aren’t supposed to include sex or swearing and there’s a little bit of both here!) set in a sleepy English village a few years after the end of World War II.  That book came out in 2019, so we’ve had a bit of a wait for this sequel, but it was worth it; The Missing Page is a charming, clever and none-too serious riff on the classic Country House Mystery in which we learn more about James’ past when he visits the childhood home to which he hasn’t returned in twenty years.

By the time the book begins, Leo has been ‘lodging’ in James’ house in Wychcomb St. Mary for over a year, and they’ve settled into a kind of domesticity neither had ever thought to have, although Leo’s job as a government agent takes him away fairly often.  James is eagerly awaiting Leo’s return from his most recent mission – but shortly before he’s due back, James receives a letter advising him of the death of his uncle, Rupert Bellamy, and asking him to be present at the reading of the will at the family home in Cornwall.   James spent many summers at Blackthorn as a child following the death of his parents, but was whisked away following a family tragedy in 1927 and was never invited back.

James is greeted by his cousin Martha, who had kept house for their uncle for as long as James can remember, and finds Rupert’s surviving daughter, James’ cousin Camilla, her husband Sir Anthony – a Harley Street doctor – and their daughter Lilah, whom he’s surprised to recognise as a famous actress, already gathered together, as well as a woman he doesn’t know at all, who is introduced as Madame Fournier.  The bequests are surprisingly small, until the very end, when the family solicitor reads the final appendix stating that the bulk of the estate will go to whoever can discover what really happened to Rupert’s other daughter Rose on 1st August 1927.  Rose is widely believed to have drowned that day, although there were lots of other rumours in circulation – she took her own life, she ran off with the chauffeur or the vicar, she was murdered  – among them, but Rose’s body was never found and nothing conclusive was ever discovered.

When Leo – exhausted after a very long journey – returns to Wychcomb St. Mary to find James gone, he pays a visit to their friends, former spies Cora and Edith, hoping that perhaps he’ll find James there.  When the ladies tell him where James has gone and why, Leo becomes concerned, especially at learning James had been present on the day that Rose Bellamy is thought to have died, worried at what memories being back there might stir up. Leo wastes no time in following James to Cornwall, determined to do whatever he can to help.

Cat Sebastian has crafted an intriguing story full of difficult family dynamics and long-held secrets, and she sustains the mystery right up until the last moment;  I certainly didn’t work out the truth until just before the reveal.  There’s a strongly defined set of secondary characters, from Martha the drab poor-relation, to Sir Anthony, the know-it-all who clearly looks down on James, and the mysterious Madame Fournier – and James and Leo themselves continue to be easy to enjoy and root for.  James is a genuinely good man, quiet and easy-going, happy with his quiet country life after the horrors of war and with Leo, while Leo operates more in shades of grey than in black and white and has been struggling more and more to reconcile the life he has with the life he wants.  Leo still finds it difficult to credit that a man as good as James could actually want to be with someone with such a murky past as his, but the obvious care and affection they have for each other permeates every page, and I loved watching them working together on the investigation, their different approaches and outlooks complementing each other.  The author cleverly explores James’ past through his interactions with his family members, and I particularly enjoyed Leo’s typical cynicism and the way he’s so protective of James.   As far as their relationship goes, they’re at that awkward stage where both of them want more but aren’t sure what the other is willing or able to give, but thankfully, there are no silly misunderstandings and they both realise that although they still have issues to work on, they want to work through them together.

The Missing Page is one of those books that’s easy to sink into and feels almost like a warm hug, but I do have a few niggles.  It’s generally on the slow side and doesn’t have the same kind of forward momentum as Hither, Page and while I did like the mystery, it’s not very high-stakes, especially not for our heroes.  As with the last book, the author has done a very good job with the English setting, but the odd Americanism still creeps in (“muffler” instead of “scarf” for example). Finally, I was confused as to the timeline; Hither Page takes place in 1946 and the date for this is given as 1948, but then I read James thinking of Leo: “They had only met a little over two months ago”.  To be fair, I did have an ARC, so I’m hoping this will have been corrected/clarified in the finished version, but it did make me scratch my head.

All in all, however, The Missing Page is an easy, enjoyable read featuring two engaging leads, and I’m pleased to recommend it to anyone who likes their mystery with a side of romance.  I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Mr. Page and Dr. Sommers.

Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson with Marguerite Kaye

her heart for a compass uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London 1865

In an attempt to rebel against a society where women are expected to conform, free-spirited Lady Margaret Montagu Scott flees her confines and an arranged marriage. But Lady Margaret’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, as close friends with Queen Victoria, must face the public scrutiny of their daughter’s impulsive nature, and Margaret is banished from polite society.

Finding strength amongst equally free-spirited companions, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, Margaret resolves to follow her heart. On a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain, Lady Margaret must follow her heart and search for her place, and her own identity, in a changing society.

Rating: B

Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.

I reviewed this one with Evelyn North, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR.

You can read our review at All About Romance.

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

At their next outing, Henry swears Melissa to secrecy and tells her that he’s been tasked with keeping an eye on a possible French spy (bear in mind this is official business, and they’ve known each other three days). Melissa tells Henry about her suspicions that the despicable Harlby is planning to contract a fake marriage with an – as yet unknown – heiress.  She has already alerted her friends to this, and between them, they plan to go to as many social events as possible in to track down Harlby’s target and warn her; if she and Henry arrange to attend events together as well, not only will they be able to help foil Harlby’s dastardly plan, but they will also be able to watch Henry’s quarry, too.  It’s the perfect solution to both problems.

Henry and Melissa are insightful, intelligent and witty, and their relationship is refreshingly honest; their discussions are lively and interesting, and they both learn from each other as together, they thwart Harlby’s dastardly plan – only to end up in hot water themselves.  In fact, I liked a lot about this story – but I had a real problem with the speed at which Harry and Melissa’s friendship develops.  They talk and behave like people who have known each other for years rather than people who have spent just a few hours together, and for Henry to involve Melissa in his spy-hunting seemed highly irresponsible.  (Not to say unprofessional.)

But as any Nora Ephron fan knows, men and women can never really be friends, and of course the sex thing gets in the way for this Regency Harry and Sally as well.  Henry and Melissa start to realise that they’re attracted to each other and worry about what might happen to their friendship if the other finds out how they feel.  The author seeds the gradual transition from friendship to attraction to love throughout the story and creates palpable chemistry between the couple so that the progression feels organic.  I liked that they were determined to respect each other’s boundaries, but both are hung up on the fact that they believe the other isn’t interested in anything more than friendship, leading to a bit of late-book conflict which, thankfully, isn’t allowed to drag on for too long.

Had the progression of the friendship in A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship been more credible, I’d have been giving the book a higher grade and a stronger recommendation.  If you can get past that however, you’ll find much to enjoy – likeable characters who (mostly) communicate well and who speak and act like adults, subtle social commentary and a well-written romance.

Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

mine till midnight

Their lives defy convention . . .

When an unexpected inheritance elevates her family to the ranks of the aristocracy, Amelia Hathaway discovers that tending to her younger sisters and wayward brother was easy compared to navigating the intricacies of the ton. Even more challenging: the attraction she feels for the tall, dark and dangerously handsome Cam Rohan.

Their desire consumes them both . . .

Wealthy beyond most men’s dreams, Cam has tired of society’s petty restrictions and longs to return to his ‘uncivilized’ Gypsy roots. When the delectable Amelia appeals to him for help, he intends to offer only friendship – but intentions are no match for the desire that blindsides them both. Can a man who spurns tradition be tempted into that most time-honoured arrangement: marriage? Life in London society is about to get a whole lot hotter . . .

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C+

Mine Till Midnight is book one in Lisa Kleypas’s series about the Hathaway family; it was published in 2007 and an audio recording – with Rosalyn Landor at the microphone – was released in 2009. That version was never available worldwide however; only one or two of the series was actually available in the UK before now (the same is true of the earlier and perennially popular (pun intended!) Wallflower series.) Last year, I noticed first two or three titles in the Hathaways series appearing at Audible UK and immediately assumed that they were reissues of the 2009 recordings – but they’re not; they’re brand new recordings.

The five Hathaway siblings were not born to wealth and privilege. Instead, they were thrust into the upper echelons of society when Leo – the only male sibling – inherited a viscountcy from a distant relative, although unfortunately, the title comes with only a modest fortune. Leo has been in a downward spiral for the last year or so, since the death of the young woman he planned to marry, which is how come we first meet our heroine Amelia – the oldest of the four female Hathaways – as she is planning to drag Leo out of Jenner’s (the club owned by Sebastian St. Vincent). She’s accompanied by her adoptive brother Merripen – a Rom (here’s one change from the original – “Gypsy” has been changed to “Rom”) – and they pull up outside the club in time to witness an altercation between some obviously drunk patrons who are vying for the attentions of a prostitute. Before things can get nasty, the fight is broken up by another man – a younger one with dark hair, gleaming hazel eyes and the face of an angel who, for all he is dressed like a gentleman, obviously isn’t one. He’s Cam Rohan (also a Rom), the club’s manager – and just looking at him is enough to take Amelia’s breath away. But she quickly squashes the ripples of nerves and heat that run through her to focus on her reason for being there, irritated when Rohan waves off her concern for her brother as nothing to do with him. It’s only when Merripen speaks to him in their own language that he at last agrees to allow them inside to search for Leo, and on learning that Leo has left the club for a nearby brothel, and of Amelia’s intention to seek him out there, Cam arranges transportation and accompanies them to retrieve the errant viscount.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.