Restored (Enlightenment #5) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Eighteen years ago, Henry Asquith, Duke of Avesbury had to leave his kept lover, Kit Redford, in order to devote himself to raising his young family. Now, a lifetime later, his children are moving on and for the first time in years, Henry is alone.

During a rare visit to London, Henry unexpectedly happens upon an old friend of Kit’s and learns that Kit did not receive the financial pay off he was entitled to when Henry left him. Instead Kit was thrown out of his home and left destitute. Horrified, Henry begs Kit to see him and allow Henry to compensate him. But Kit, who now owns a discreet club for gentlemen of a certain persuasion, neither needs nor wants Henry’s money.

Kit thought he had put his old hurts and grievances about Henry behind him, but when he sees Henry again, he discovers that, not only is the old pain still there, so is the fierce attraction that once burned between them. When, in a moment of fury, Kit demands a scandalous form of penance from Henry, no one is more surprised than Kit when Henry agrees to pay it.

As Kit and Henry spend more time together, they learn more about the men they have become, and about the secret feelings and desires they concealed from one another in the past.

Henry realises he wants to build a future with Kit but can he persuade his wary lover to trust him ever again? And can two men from such different worlds make a new life together?

Rating: A-

Reading Restored was like a balm to the soul.  It’s a beautiful – and beautifully written – story of love, forgiveness and second chances that I practically inhaled and which left me with a warm glow and a book hangover of the best kind.  It’s book five in the author’s Enlightenment series, but it’s not necessary to have read the rest to be able to enjoy Restored, as it’s only loosely linked to them and works perfectly as a standalone. That said, if you haven’t read the other books in the series, they’re wonderful and you should add them to your TBR stat.

The central characters – club-owner Kit Redford and Henry, Duke of Avesbury – have appeared briefly in other books in the series, and readers will recall it being hinted at that Kit’s previous life wasn’t always an easy one.  Eighteen years earlier, Kit had been Henry’s ‘kept man’, set up in his own house and visited by his lover on a twice-weekly schedule, his contract brokered by the madam of The Golden Lily, the select brothel at which he used to work.  The year-long contract has another two months to run, and both Kit – or Christopher, as he was known then – and Henry realise that they have begun to feel a great deal more for each other than is wise.  Kit is a whore and Henry is a duke (and a married duke at that) and knowing that love was never supposed to be part of their agreement, neither man says anything about how he feels.

Henry inherited his title at twenty and takes his responsibilities very seriously.  He’s married to Caroline, with whom he has four children, although after the birth of their youngest, Caroline told Henry she no longer wished him to visit her bed and encouraged him to seek his pleasure elsewhere.  They are best friends and care for each other deeply – and when Caroline gives Henry the devastating news that she is dying, she asks him to take her and the children out of London to the family seat in Wiltshire immediately.  Henry can’t help but think of Kit; he wants a chance to explain and say goodbye, but Caroline is so distraught and has never really asked him for anything, so he agrees to leave town straight away, knowing that his contract with Kit stipulates that his lover will be well taken care of, given the house they’d used for their assignations and a large sum of money.

Henry takes his family to the country and rarely visits London after that, banishing all thoughts of Kit from his mind.  Caroline’s death just a few short months later shatters him, and leaves him with the sole responsibility for his children, who give him a reason to wake each morning, and who keep him going through some dark and difficult times.

Now, nearly two decades later, his children are grown, and Henry realises he has a lonely road ahead as they forge lives of their own.  A rare trip to the capital finds him thinking of Kit for the first time in years  – and when he learns that far from being well taken care of, Kit was left almost destitute when he they parted ways, he’s horrified.  Desperate to make amends, Henry gets a message to Kit that he’d like to see him – but Kit can’t see any point in their meeting again after so many years have passed, and refuses.

Henry knows he should let things lie; he learns that Kit is the proprietor of a highly successful and discreet club for gentlemen who prefer the company of other men, and that whatever happened in the past, he’s doing well now.  But Henry’s conscience won’t let him forget it.  He pays a call on Kit at his home, half expecting to be turned away – and is both relieved and a little shocked when Kit appears, still as beautiful as ever but with a new wariness and hardness about him, as though he’s holding himself back behind a mask of suspicion and barely suppressed anger.

Kit is astonished at the fury and resentment that rush through him at the sight of his former lover; he thought he’d put all that behind him long ago.  Even worse, however, he discovers that the attraction he’d also thought long dead and buried is still alive and kicking.  As he and Henry circle each other, prodding and testing each other’s truths and vulnerabilities, both men start to see a glimmer of possibility, a hope that perhaps there are some things that can be restored to the way they should have been all along.

Restored is a gorgeous second-chance romance which brilliantly charts the journey Henry and Kit take to find their way back to each other both physically and emotionally.  Old resentments and hurts are faced openly, engendering a new honesty between them and encouraging Henry especially to think seriously about the transactional dynamics and inherent inequality of their earlier relationship, and to realise that no matter how good he and Kit were together, no matter how he really felt about Kit, Kit was never in a position to make any choices for himself.  Adding that new clarity to the realisation he’s come to over the years that the desire he’d previously believed a weakness is actually a part of his nature he’s no longer willing to deny, Henry longs for the chance to convince Kit that they can have something different, something real where they can come together as equals with nothing between them but honesty and love.

There’s a well-written sub-plot featuring Henry’s younger son, and I really enjoyed the insight into Henry’s family life as a father, with its attendant ups and downs.  His relationship with the rebellious and often resentful Freddy is really well observed, and I liked the glimpses of the happiness shared by his daughter and her husband.  Henry’s eldest son George doesn’t appear on the page until near the end, but he has an important part to play in the story (and oh, my heart broke for him and his dad both!) and if Ms. Chambers decides to write a story for him one day, then I certainly won’t object!

Henry and Kit are fully-rounded, complex characters whose flaws make them that much more human and relatable; and there are some colourful secondary characters I’d definitely be interested in reading about in future. Restored is simply lovely, a poignant, emotional and immensely satisfying tale of two people finding one another again and choosing to make a life together on their own terms.  Happy sigh.

Master Wolf (Capital Wolves Duet #2) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

HE MUST MASTER THE WOLF WITHIN…

Edinburgh, 1820. Thirty years after leaving Scotland, Drew Nicol is forced to return when the skeleton of a monster is found. The skeleton is evidence of werewolves—evidence that Marguerite de Carcassonne, the leader of Drew’s pack, is determined to suppress.

Marguerite insists that Drew accompany her to Edinburgh. There they will try to acquire the skeleton while searching for wolf-hunters—wolf hunters who may be holding one of their pack prisoner.

But Drew has reason to be wary about returning to Edinburgh—Lindsay Somerville now lives there.

Lindsay who taught Drew about desire and obsession.

Lindsay who Drew has never been able to forgive for turning him.

Lindsay who vowed to stay away from Drew twelve years ago… and who has since taken drastic steps to sever the bond between them.

Marguerite’s plan will throw Drew and Lindsay together again—and into a deadly confrontation with Lindsay’s enemy, Duncan MacCormaic. They will be tested to their limits and forced to confront both their past mistakes and their true feelings.

But it may be too late for them to repair the damage of the past. The consequences of Lindsay’s choices are catching up with him, and he’s just about out of time…

Rating: A-

Master Wolf is the eagerly awaited second instalment of Joanna Chambers’ Capital Wolves duet and concludes the story begun in Gentleman Wolf, which introduced readers to the beautiful, elegant, devil-may-care Lindsay Sommerville and Drew Nichol, the rather dour architect with whom he falls head-over-heels in love. This book is a direct sequel to the first and does not stand alone – and there are spoilers in this review.

Master Wolf opens just days after the shocking events at the end of Gentleman Wolf which saw Lindsay, in a moment of sheer desperation, biting a mortally wounded Drew in order to save his life. When he learns what happened, Drew is furious, filled with rage and betrayal at what was done to him without his permission, even though he knows he’d likely have died had Lindsay not acted as he did. He’s devastated and wants nothing to do with the man who, just hours earlier, had called him his mate and with whom Drew had finally begun to allow himself a small measure of acceptance of the needs and desires of which he’d before been so ashamed.

Now, Lindsay is getting ready to leave Edinburgh for the Low Countries, leaving Drew in Edinburgh with Francis Neville, one of Lindsay’s oldest and closest friends, to help him to adjust to his new reality and learn to accept his wolf. Normally, this obligation would fall to a wolf’s maker, but Drew refuses to see or speak to Lindsay and their parting – a parting which, if Drew has anything to say about it, will be forever – is painful and awkward. Lindsay is clearly grief-stricken and Drew is surprised at being able to feel such visceral pain – but he puts that aside, believing it to be due to the unwanted bond Lindsay created when he made him and bids the other man a cold, curt goodbye.

The story then moves forward by thirty-two years, to 1820 and to London, where Drew has become a successful businessman. He has never fully come to terms with his wolf, shifting only when absolutely necessary and determined never to give in to the pull towards Lindsay the bond still exerts. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that the pair has seen each other only rarely in the intervening time, and that although their mutual attraction burns as brightly as ever, Drew hasn’t forgiven Lindsay for what he forced upon him and is determined he never will. Now, twelve years after their last meeting, Drew has noticed a subtle change in the nature of the bond he’s always felt tugging at him, a gradual lessening of it, which makes him believe that perhaps at last he is getting a measure of control over his wolf and – finally – gaining freedom from Lindsay’s mastery over him. It’s what he has wanted for the last thirty years – so why does the prospect of losing that connection make him want to howl in misery?

Drew’s return to Edinburgh for the first time in more than thirty years is occasioned when Marguerite de Carcassonne, the leader of his pack, tells him she needs his help in acquiring the misshapen remains that have been recently discovered in the Nor’loch by St. Cuthbert’s Church.  (The remains are, of course, those of their adversary from the previous book.) There are several parties interested in purchasing the bones, and Marguerite wants to get to them first so as to prevent anyone from investigating further and discovering the existence of werewolves.  After their arrival in the city, it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more at stake than the recovery of a decades old skeleton.

Drew isn’t sure what to expect at his first sight of Lindsay in twelve years.  The tone of his recent letter to Marguerite was odd, to say the least, but even so, Drew isn’t prepared for Lindsay’s drastically altered appearance. He’s obviously very ill, his always slender body now little more than skin and bone, his still beautiful face etched with pain and exhaustion, and he leans heavily on the cane he’d before only carried as a fashion item.  He explains that he’s tired of running from Duncan MacCormaic, his maker and the man who had kept him prisoner for forty years and subjected him to utter degradation and humiliation, and that he has at last found a way to sever the bond between a wolf and his maker and free himself from Duncan’s hold – an incredibly dangerous way that will also finally enable him to give Drew the one thing he knows Drew wants above anything else.  His freedom.

This book will break your heart and make you want to break things at the same time.  Gentleman Wolf told the story of Drew and Lindsay’s romance from Lindsay’s point of view, and this continuation is told from Drew’s – and he’s not always the easiest character to sympathise with.  He views the wolf-bond as one of master and servant, knows that a wolf’s master can control him utterly, and is so completely focused on his fear of Lindsay’s having such power over him and of the depth and strength of the yearning he attributes to the bond, that he has absolutely no idea that what he’s feeling is love and the all-too-human desire to be with the love of his life.  He also fails to see that Lindsay is just as trapped by their bond as he is, and that he is trying to show the depth of his love regardless of the cost to himself.

The anger, despair and longing felt by these two simply leap off the page and the scenes between them are both heartfelt and heart-breaking, full of intense sorrow and deep denial; and witnessing Drew finally learning to accept his wolf while we watch Lindsay becoming weaker and weaker is poignant and utterly gut-wrenching.

While the main focus of the novel is Drew’s journey towards acceptance – of his wolf and of Lindsay’s place in his life – other plot-threads are tied up as well, most notably that of Lindsay’s master, Duncan MacCormaic, which comes to a tragic and unexpected conclusion.  Ms. Chambers’ writing is focused and polished, and her descriptions of nineteenth century Edinburgh and the other locations to which she takes readers are vivid and evocative.  Above all, the love story which takes centre stage is truly epic, with high stakes and a happy ending that is hard fought and hard won.  Master Wolf is a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to the Capital Wolves duet.

Gentleman Wolf (Capital Wolves #1) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An elegant werewolf in Edinburgh…

1788. When Lindsay Somerville, the most elegant werewolf in Paris, learns that the man who held him in abject captivity for decades is on his way to France, intent on recapturing him, he knows he must leave the Continent for his own safety. Lindsay cannot take the risk of being recaptured—he may have been free for a century but he can still feel the ghost of his old chains under his fine clothes.

… on a mission…

While he’s in Edinburgh, Lindsay has been tasked with acquiring the “Naismith Papers”, the writings of a long-dead witchfinder. It should be a straightforward mission—all Lindsay has to do is charm an elderly book collector, Hector Cruikshank. But Cruikshank may not be all he seems, and there are others who want the papers.

… meets his match

As if that were not enough, while tracking down the Naismith Papers, Lindsay meets stubborn architect Drew Nicol. Although the attraction between them is intense, Nicol seems frustratingly determined to resist Lindsay’s advances. Somehow though, Lindsay can’t seem to accept Nicol’s rejection. Is he just moonstruck, or is Nicol bonded to him in ways he doesn’t yet understand?

Rating: B+

After a few recent forays into contemporary romance, Joanna Chambers returns to historicals and to the city of Edinburgh for her latest novel, Gentleman Wolf, the first in her Capital Wolves Duet.  As the title suggests, this is a story with a touch of the paranormal, although the paranormal elements are fairly low-key, so if you’re looking for a full-blown shifter story, it might not be the book for you.  I should also point out that there is no HEA – or even HFN – in this book, but the second part of the duet (Master Wolf) is due to be published in early 2020, so there’s not too long to wait for the conclusion to the story.

When readers first meet Lindsay Somerville, he’s an abject slave; imprisoned, debased and badly used by a master he has no power to disobey and unable to end his suffering by seeking his own death. A former soldier in the Covenanter army, Lindsay was captured and brought before Duncan MacCormaic who, in a cruel act of frustration and warped revenge, turned Lindsay into a two-natured creature, a man with a powerful beast inside him that the moon could draw out.  Chained and forced to wear a silver collar that prevents his inner wolf from ever finding its way out, Lindsay knows that nothing awaits him but further pain and degradation – until something he’d never dared hope for happens and he’s rescued by a couple he can immediately identify as wolves from their scent.  They take Lindsay to Europe, and although time and distance lessen the unwanted bond between him and his ‘maker’, MacCormaic continues to make attempts to recapture him.

Over a century later finds Lindsay living contentedly in Paris with his rescuers, Francis Neville and his dear friend Marguerite.  It’s been a decade since Duncan last tried to find him, but Marguerite has news that chills Lindsay to the bone; Duncan is on his way to Paris and is expected to arrive in a matter of weeks.  To make sure Lindsay is well away by then, she asks him to undertake some business for her in Edinburgh, namely to meet with collector Hector Cruickshank and negotiate the purchase of a series of documents known as the Naismith Papers, a set of notes and papers pertaining to a number of witch trials that had taken place throughout Scotland some two hundred years earlier.

So Lindsay returns to Edinburgh, surprised to find the place still feels and smells like home after an absence of more than a hundred years, but also keen to complete his task and return to Paris once it’s safe for him to do so.  He arrives at the appointed time for his meeting with Cruickshank only to find another gentleman also waiting – and is completely unprepared for the coup de foudre that strikes him at sight of that other man, who introduces himself as Drew Nicol, the architect who has designed a house for Cruickshank in the rapidly growing New Town area of Edinburgh.

Lindsay is utterly smitten with the handsome but somewhat dour Mr. Nicol and decides to amuse himself a little by attempting to draw the man out.  At this stage, even he doesn’t quite understand what amounts to a near compulsion to find ways to spend time in Drew’s company, and his initial attempts to do so come off as just a bit selfish, as Drew is clearly uncomfortable with Lindsay’s amorous overtures.  I admit I was reminded a little of the pairing of the hardworking, closeted lawyer David Lauriston with the worldly, pleasure-seeking aristocrat Murdo Balfour employed to such good effect in Ms. Chambers’ earlier Enlightenment trilogy, although here, the PoV character is the hedonistic Lindsay rather than the quieter and obviously unhappy Drew.

Just as Lindsay is strongly drawn to Drew, so the reverse is true, no matter how torn Drew is over his attraction to a man, let alone one so obviously not of his world and who has already made clear his intention to leave the city in a few short weeks.  The author develops their relationship beautifully as Drew hesitantly allows himself to acknowledge his wants and needs and to act on them, imbuing their interactions with a palpable longing and sensuality that considerably heightens the poignancy of the book’s ending.

The secondary cast isn’t large, but Francis, Marguerite and Wynne, Lindsay’s devoted manservant, are all well-defined and have important roles to play within the story; and as always, the author’s descriptions of the Edinburgh of the time bring the place so wonderfully to life in all its ugliness and splendour that it’s like another character in the book.

An air of foreboding permeates the entire novel and only increases when Lindsay finally meets the shifty Cruickshank, who is clearly up to no good. The pacing is fairly leisurely on the whole, but it never drags as we build towards a shocking climax that leaves Drew and Lindsay at odds despite the nature of the bond that’s already developed between them.

Gentleman Wolf is a highly entertaining and engrossing read and one I can recommend wholeheartedly.  The writing is beautifully atmospheric, the characterisation is excellent, the story is most intriguing and the ending is equal parts frustrating and heart-breaking. I’m really looking forward to learning how everything plays out in Master Wolf when it’s released in January.

Enlightened (Enlightenment #3) by Joanna Chambers (audiobook) – Narrated by Hamish McKinlay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Lauriston has been recuperating at Lord Murdo Balfour’s Laverock estate for the last five months. At Laverock, he has regained his health and confidence and has found – with Murdo – more happiness and contentment than he has never known before.

David is all too aware that some day soon he will have to leave Laverock – and Murdo – and return to his legal practice in Edinburgh, just as Murdo will have to return to his life in London. But when David’s mentor, Patrick Chalmers, asks David to return to Edinburgh to visit him on his deathbed, it seems that day has come sooner than either David or Murdo would have wished.

Chalmers begs David to undertake one last piece of business for him: to secure the future of Chalmers’s daughter Elizabeth. But to carry out his old mentor’s wishes, David must travel to London, with Murdo.

No sooner have the two men arrived in the capital than they encounter Murdo’s ruthlessly manipulative father, who reveals a shocking secret that rocks David to his foundations. What’s more, when David discovers Elizabeth is facing far greater danger than even her father feared, he is determined to help her, no matter the cost to his own safety.

As the stakes rise, it is Murdo who must choose what he is prepared to sacrifice to keep David at his side, and ask whether there is any possibility of lasting happiness for men like them.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – A

Enlightened completes Joanna Chambers’ trilogy of historical romances set mostly in Edinburgh in the 1820s. Because there are overarching plotlines, it really is necessary to listen to all three books in order so as to enjoy the complete story; and because of that, there will be spoilers for books one (Provoked) and two (Beguiled) in this review.

At the end of Beguiled, we left young advocate David Lauriston and his lover, Lord Murdo Balfour, travelling north to Murdo’s Perthshire estate following an accident in which David’s leg had been badly broken. Enlightened opens some five months later, with David very much on the mend and enjoying his time at Laverock, where he has been acting as Murdo’s man of business. He is also very much enjoying his life with Murdo, one filled with affection, closeness (and great sex!), something he had never thought to experience. David dreads the end of their idyll, and the thought of parting from Murdo – probably for ever – is devastating, but the time is approaching when he must return to Edinburgh and his growing legal practice. David’s anxiety about the future is compounded by the still-nagging suspicion that Murdo is keeping something from him. He has never been able to forget Murdo’s long-ago declared intention to marry and continue to take male lovers (as so many men of their persuasion do) and he absolutely refuses to share or be relegated to the role of ‘dirty secret’.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers (audiobook) – Narrated by Hamish McKinlay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.
David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Rating: Narration – A- Content: B+

Joanna Chamber’s Enlightenment trilogy was originally published in print in 2013/14, and as the books are among my favourite historical romances, I was delighted when I learned they would be coming to audio with a carefully selected – Scottish – narrator. Set in Edinburgh in the 1820s, the three books in the series chart the relationship between hard-working advocate David Lauriston and Lord Murdo Balfour, two men of very different social standing and outlook. Their romance (which develops across the series, so it’s necessary to read all three books in order to reach the HEA) is set against a very strongly written historical backdrop in which the atmosphere of political unrest and uncertainty prevalent at the time is splendidly evoked. Scotland chafes under English rule, the new monarch, George IV, is deeply unpopular, and right from the start, the listener is left in no doubt that these are very troubled times.

David Lauriston is the son of a tenant farmer who, by dint of his own hard work and talent, has put himself through university, qualified as an advocate (the Scottish equivalent of an English barrister) and is now slowly building a practice in Edinburgh. One of his most recent cases was to represent a group of weavers accused of treason – in spite of the fact that their conviction was a foregone conclusion – and the book opens on the day two of the group are sent to the gallows. David has travelled to Stirling to witness the execution as a mark of respect to the two men, and finds himself almost caught up in an altercation when the crowd turns ugly.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Beguiled (Enlightenment #2) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gathering Storm (Porthkennack series) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from 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: A-

Joanna Chambers’ A Gathering Storm is the sole historical entry in the Porthkennack series of queer romances written by five different award-winning, best-selling British LGBTQ+ romance authors. All the books – the others are by Charlie Cochrane, J.L. Merrow, Alex Beecroft and Garrett Leigh – can be read in any order and are standalone titles; the link is the setting of Porthkennack, a charming Cornish seaside town with a long and sometimes sinister history.

The story opens as Sir Edward Fitzwilliam Is travelling from Dublin to Anglesey on the night of a fierce, electrical storm.  The storm is at its height when Edward – Ward – experiences a strange phenomenon; he hears his twin brother, George, assuring him that all will be well at what Ward later realises must have been the moment of his brother’s death.  From that moment on, Ward becomes consumed by the idea of recreating the conditions that allowed the communication and devotes himself to the task, even though the wider scientific community – of which he had been a respected member – disapproves of his efforts to contact the departed and denounces him.

Following his disastrous public defence of  a sham medium in opposition to some of his highly respected colleagues, Ward retreats to the small seaside town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, where he purchases a plot of land close to a place known locally as ‘the Hole’, an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretches from cliff-top to seabed.  Stories of the supernatural cling to the place, but Ward’s interest is of a more scientific nature; he believes that the conditions experienced in that location during a storm will help him in his quest to recreate those he experienced on the night his brother communicated with him ‘from beyond the veil’.

But in order to prove that communication with the spirit world is possible, Ward also needs subjects willing to take part in his experiments, preferably people who have recently suffered a bereavement.  He asks his solicitor if he can help him find such people, but even though Ward offers to pay well, the locals are naturally sceptical; and once rumours begin circulating about his using mesmerism and electric shocks (he doesn’t) not even the promise of payment can induce anyone to sign up.

On a visit to a local tavern in hopes of drumming up some interest, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward at the neighbouring Roscarrock estate.  Nick is half Romany and, while it’s never publicly acknowledged, is the illegitimate grandson of his employer, old Godfrey Roscarrock.  Nick’s gypsy mother is widely believed to have been clairvoyant, and when Ward learns of this, he is convinced that Nick is the very man to assist him with his experiments – but Nick isn’t interested, or at least, he isn’t interested in what Ward is trying to do, although he is fascinated by the man himself.

But circumstances have a way of changing unexpectedly, and not long after their initial meeting, Nick is manoeuvred into striking a bargain with Ward and agreeing to help with his experiments until the end of the summer.  Over the ensuing weeks, the men fall into an unlikely friendship at the same time as the undercurrent of attraction that has been evident since their first meeting continues to bubble and simmer until it reaches a fever pitch they can no longer ignore or resist.

The romance between these two polar opposites – one fair, wealthy and privileged and the other a dark, reserved outsider – is incredibly well done and really quite beautiful. The sexual tension and the strength of the emotional connection the men share just leap off the page, and I really appreciated the way Ms. Chambers is able to put their romantic relationship on an equal footing in spite of their difference in social standing.  Ward has never been in love, but is sexually experienced while Nick had a lover, but the opportunities to thoroughly explore the physical side of that relationship were few.  But while Ward is rather deliciously naughty, the one thing he doesn’t have experience of is kissing – and the scene in which Nick shows Ward just how gloriously intimate a kiss can be is wonderfully tender and passionate.

They are very well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, both of them fervent about their beliefs and both stubborn to a fault.  Ward was born into an aristocratic family and, while not an uncaring person, doesn’t realise the degree to which his privileged position distances him from other, ‘ordinary’ people. Nick, on the other hand, is neither fish nor fowl; his position as a land steward raises him above the farmers and working men of the village, yet even though he is the grandson of the one of the most powerful men in the area, Nick’s illegitimacy and his Romish blood mean that he is not gentry either.  Ms. Chambers does a terrific job in exploring these differences, showing Ward and Nick recognising the need to make adjustments to their way of thinking and acting if they are to make a future together. Nick’s situation as being ‘between classes’ makes him particularly easy to empathise with; he feels he doesn’t really belong anywhere, and that sense of isolation is often compounded by his own, somewhat introverted nature.  Ward, on the other hand, comes across as a bit of a snob at first, although it soon becomes clear that his sometimes dismissive attitude is as much to do with his absorption in his work and an inability to read social cues as it is to do with his upbringing.

There is a small, but strongly characterised secondary cast, and the uneasy relationship between Godfrey Roscarrock and Nick is particularly well done. Nick resents the older man; even though he has given him a good position, Nick sometimes wonders if he wouldn’t have been better off if he’d been left as he was, a gypsy bastard left to run with his mother’s folk – yet it’s obvious that Roscarrock has some degree of affection for his unacknowledged grandson, and sees in him a man like himself, a man whose love of the land is deeply entrenched.

I should probably point out here that in spite of Ward’s obsession with communicating with the dead, this book is primarily an historical romance and the paranormal aspect of the story is a background detail.  It’s an important, very well researched and quite fascinating background detail, but that’s nonetheless what it is, so anyone coming to the book expecting a strong paranormal element may be disappointed.

A Gathering Storm is a wonderful love story, and at the same time, a subtly nuanced exploration of the nature of obsession and grief.  I’ve gone back and forth over a final grade for the book because while I enjoyed it very much, the final chapter is somewhat rushed, and there are a couple of pacing issues in the middle.  Ultimately, however, neither of those things would deter me from re-reading it, which means it belongs on my keeper shelf.

Unnatural (An Enlightenment Story) by Joanna Chambers

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

Captain Iain Sinclair. Perfect son, perfect soldier, hero of Waterloo. A man living a lie. The only person who really knows him is his childhood friend, scientist James Hart. But they’ve been estranged since Iain brutally destroyed their friendship following a passionate encounter.

Iain is poised to leave the King’s service to become an undercover agent in India. Before he leaves his old life behind, he’s determined to reconcile with James. An invitation to a country house party from James’s sister provides the perfect opportunity to pin the man down.

James has loved Iain all his life, but his years of accepting crumbs from Iain’s table are over. Forgiving Iain is one thing—restoring their friendship is quite another.

In the face of James’s determined resistance, Iain is forced to confront his reasons for mending the wounds between them. And accept the possibility that James holds the key to his heart’s desire—if only he has the courage to reach for it.

Rating: B-

Unnatural spans a period of about fifteen years, and charts the development of the relationship between Captain Iain Sinclair and James Hart. The cover announces it as “An Enlightenment Story”, meaning that it takes place within the same fictional universe as Ms Chambers’ excellent Enlightenment trilogy; and fans of those books will no doubt be pleased to learn that Murdo Balfour and David Lauriston make cameo appearances in the story owing to Murdo’s friendship with Iain.

Iain and James meet when aged thirteen and nine years respectively, at Wylde Manor, the Hart family home. James has already developed a case of hero-worship over the older boy, and is delighted when Iain shows an interest in the insects that James has been observing at the lake, and listening to him when he explains that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a naturalist when he grows up.

Having witnessed this promising beginning, we skip forward to 1824, when it becomes clear that something has gone disastrously wrong between James and Iain. Having found the army in peacetime not to his taste, Iain has just resigned his commission and accepted a post with the East India Company – one that could prove dangerous given that he will be undercover and acting as an agent for the British government. He will be leaving in a matter of weeks, and realises there is something he needs to do before he goes. He has received his annual invitation to Holmewell, the home of James’ sister and her husband, and although it has been some years since he has accepted, this year is different. He can’t leave England without at least trying to repair his friendship with James and this could be his only opportunity.

Much of the story is told in flashback, a narrative device I enjoy when done well as is the case here. We are witness to various key events in the lives of James and Iain and shown how two such firm friends have reached a point at which they are so dreadfully estranged. It’s true that perhaps the reason is somewhat clichéd – Iain doesn’t want to risk their friendship by turning it into a romantic relationship – but it is also understandable, especially given the historical setting and Iain’s background as the son of an authoritarian father who has never shown him the slightest bit of familial pride or fatherly affection. James’ friendship is, to Iain, the one pure thing in his life, and he feels guilty enough about the fact that he is living a lie and hiding his sexual preferences without (as he thinks) destroying the one relationship in his life that really means something to him.

The problem is, that by NOT taking things in a different direction, Iain has lost James anyway – and now he has one last chance to attempt to put things right between them. They haven’t set eyes on each other for two years – and it’s obvious that James isn’t going to make it easy for him.

James is a beautiful soul, a loving, open-hearted young man who, in spite of the mores of the time, refuses to see his attraction to other men as “unnatural”, and who wears his heart on his sleeve much of the time. This could, of course, have been very dangerous, and is one of the major areas of conflict between him and Iain, who is the exact opposite. A decorated soldier, a hero of Waterloo and an accomplished flirt, Iain is a real “man’s man”, one whom nobody would ever suspect of preferring his own sex. He is attracted to James, but continually denies his feelings for him; and finally, James reaches a point at which he has had enough. He loves Iain but can’t live in limbo any longer; James knows he deserves someone who loves him wholly and unconditionally, and if Iain can’t be that person, then James needs to get over him and move on.

Unnatural is a gently-paced, character-driven story in which the relationship between the protagonists evolves slowly but satisfyingly. The sex scenes are romantic and sensual rather than raunchy, and the reader is clearly shown that these are two people who care deeply for each other. I enjoyed reading the book, although there are a couple of points where Iain’s guilt over his sexuality and his continual refrain of “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” gets annoyingly repetitive. The bulk of the conflict in the story comes as a result of Iain’s hang-ups and there isn’t much dramatic tension in it apart from that. But even with those caveats, I’d recommend Unnatural to anyone looking for a well-constructed and sweetly romantic m/m historical.

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