An Unnatural Vice (Sins of the Cities #2) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

In the sordid streets of Victorian London, unwanted desire flares between two bitter enemies brought together by a deadly secret.

Crusading journalist Nathaniel Roy is determined to expose spiritualists who exploit the grief of bereaved and vulnerable people. First on his list is the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus. Nathaniel expects him to be a cheap, heartless fraud. He doesn’t expect to meet a man with a sinful smile and the eyes of a fallen angel—or that a shameless swindler will spark his desires for the first time in years.

Justin feels no remorse for the lies he spins during his séances. His gullible clients simply bore him. Hostile, disbelieving, utterly irresistible Nathaniel is a fascinating challenge. And as their battle of wills and wits heats up, Justin finds he can’t stop thinking about the man who’s determined to ruin him.

But Justin and Nathaniel are linked by more than their fast-growing obsession with one another. They are both caught up in an aristocratic family’s secrets, and Justin holds information that could be lethal. As killers, fanatics, and fog close in, Nathaniel is the only man Justin can trust—and, perhaps, the only man he could love.

Rating: A

The feeling that washed over me when I finished An Unnatural Vice isn’t one I experience all that often, but I suspect we all know what it is; that wonderful sense of awe and sheer elation that settles over you when you’ve just read something incredibly satisfying on every level.  A great story that’s excellently written and researched; characters who are well-drawn and appealing; a book that stimulates intellectually as well as emotionally… An Unnatural Vice has it all and is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

The Sins of the Cities series has been inspired by author K.J. Charles’ love of Victorian Sensation Fiction, stories full of intrigue, murder, blackmail, missing heirs, evil relatives, stolen inheritances… I’m a big fan of the genre, and I absolutely love the way the author has brought its various elements into play in terms of the plot and overall atmosphere. The events in An Unnatural Vice run concurrently with those of book one, An Unseen Attraction, so while this one could be read as a standalone I’d definitely recommend reading the series in order.

Handsome, well-educated and wealthy, Nathaniel Roy trained in the law, but now works as a crusading journalist, dedicated to exposing social injustice and waging campaigns against industrial exploitation.  His editor has asked him to write an article about the mediums who prey on the wealthy, and as part of his research, he arranges to attend a séance held by the so-called Seer of London, Justin Lazarus.  Highly sceptical and determined to expose him as a fraud, Nathaniel is nonetheless fascinated by the man’s skill at what he does while being frustrated at not being able to work out how the hell he is manipulating the various objects in the room without touching them.  Worse still, however, is the unwanted spark of lust that shoots through him when he sets eyes upon the Seer for the first time, a visceral pull of attraction he hasn’t felt in the almost six years since he lost the love of his life; and the way Lazarus seems able to see into the very depths of Nathaniel’s soul is deeply unnerving and intrusive. He hates it at the same time as he is fascinated by the things Lazarus tells him and finds his convictions shaken and his thoughts consumed by the man over the next few days.

As far as Justin Lazarus is concerned, the gullible and credulous who make up the bulk of his clientele get exactly what they deserve and he refuses to feel guilty over giving them what they want – deceit and lies and sympathy – while they watch the people around them steal, whore or starve in the streets.  But a sceptic like Nathaniel Roy represents the sort of challenge Justin can’t pass up; he isn’t surprised when the man requests a second, private, meeting, and he uses it to push all Roy’s buttons, opening up the not-fully healed wounds of his grief while playing on the lust Justin had recognised at their first meeting.  The air is thick with suppressed desire and not-so-suppressed loathing as the two men trade barbs and insults – and even Justin recognises that this time, he’s probably gone too far and made an implacable enemy.

Mutual enmity notwithstanding however, Nathaniel and Justin are destined to be thrown into each other’s orbits once again when Justin receives a visit from two men who are trying to locate the children of a woman named Emmeline Godfrey who, they tell him, had been part of their “flock” until they ran away aged fourteen.  Justin recalls the desperate woman who visited him a year earlier asking about her twins, and the men want him to find them.  Sensing an opportunity, Justin puts on a show without telling them anything and thinks that’s that – until he remembers seeing an advertisement in the newspaper offering a reward for information about the same twins, giving Nathaniel Roy’s name as the person to contact. Always on the lookout for a way to make money, Justin decides to approach Roy with what he knows – but their discussion quickly descends into an erotically charged slanging match in which the mutual lust and hostility that has hung in the air between them since their first meeting boils over into a frenzied sexual encounter.  Despite having been turned inside out by “one of the better fucks of the nineteenth century”, Justin is still keen to focus on what he can get for his information, while Nathaniel just wants him gone, berating himself for having been so damned stupid as to have let things go so far.

Readers of the previous book will recall that Emmeline Godfrey was the name of the woman the now-deceased Earl of Moreton married in secret some years before contracting a later, bigamous marriage.  This means that the male twin is now the rightful earl, but with money and estates at stake, someone is going to great lengths to silence those who could reveal the truth – and now, Justin Lazarus has unwittingly put himself in the firing line.  A solitary man who has built a life in which he answers to and depends on nobody, Justin has no-one to turn to when he finds himself on the run from the men threatening him – no-one, that is, apart from the man who despises him and has sworn to expose him as a fraud – Nathaniel Roy.

On the most basic level, this is an enemies-to-lovers romance, but in the hands of K.J. Charles it is so much more than that.  Nathaniel is a man who is going through life by the numbers and doesn’t quite realise it; frozen by grief, he doesn’t expect ever to feel love or desire again and certainly not for a shifty bastard like Justin Lazarus.  Nathaniel finds it difficult to understand why a man gifted with such perspicacity and insight would choose to make a living by cheating the weak and vulnerable; but when Justin turns to him for help and Nathaniel glimpses the clever, amusing and desperately lonely man lying beneath the tough, prickly exterior, he is unable to deny the truth of his feelings any longer and admits to himself that he is coming to love Justin in spite of everything.  Justin is unapologetic and suspicious at first; born in a workhouse to a mother he never knew, his has been a hard life and he’s done what he had to in order to survive. He’s made something of himself through hard work, quick wits and sheer strength of will and doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone.  He tries to push Nathaniel away and dismisses his assertions that Justin is a better man than he believes himself to be, but Nathaniel’s obvious belief in him gradually starts to break down his emotional barriers.  The chemistry between the pair is off the charts, but amid all their snarling, vitriolic banter, come moments of real tenderness and understanding and watching these two damaged and very different men fall for each other is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. By the end of the book there is no doubt that they are deeply in love and in it for the long haul.

The writing is exquisite and the book is full of incredibly evocative scenes, whether it’s the descriptions of the thick, poisonous pea-souper that envelops London or the excitement of the opening séance, which is a real tour-de-force.  The mystery of the missing Taillefer heir is smoothly and skilfully woven through Justin and Nathaniel’s love story and the ending brilliantly sets up the next book, An Unsuitable Heir, due for release later this year.  But while the mystery is certainly intriguing, the real heart of the book is the complicated, messy but glorious romance between two bitter enemies.  An Unnatural Vice is a must-read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Fair Chance (All’s Fair #3) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

One final game of cat and mouse…

Ex–FBI agent Elliot Mills thought he was done with the most brutal case of his career. The Sculptor, the serial killer he spent years hunting, is finally in jail. But Elliot’s hope dies when he learns the murderer wasn’t acting alone. Now everyone is at risk once again—thanks to a madman determined to finish his partner’s gruesome mission.

I am not reprinting the rest of the book synopsis here as it contains a MASSIVE spoiler which I think would certainly have affected by reaction to the story had I been aware of it – so I’m leaving it up to potential listeners as to whether they want to look it up or not.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

Fair Chance is the third book in Josh Lanyon’s All’s Fair series featuring ex-FBI agent-turned history professor Elliot Mills and his partner, FBI agent Tucker Lance. I confess that I haven’t yet read or listened to either of the first two books, but because the synopsis for this indicated that the plot is related to that of book one (Fair Game), I did a bit of homework in preparation for listening to this in order to familiarise myself with the basic storyline and background, and had no trouble following along.

In Fair Game, Elliot – who was invalided out of the FBI a couple years earlier – became involved with the investigation into the disappearance of a student from Puget Sound University (where he now teaches) at the request of his father, a friend of the missing boy’s family. The disappearance turns out to be the work of a serial killer – Andrew Corian, known as the Sculptor – who, at the beginning of Fair Chance is in prison, awaiting sentence.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

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

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

An earl hiding from his future . . .

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is mad. At least, that’s what he and most of the village believes. A brilliant scientist, he hides himself away in his family’s crumbling estate, unwilling to venture into the outside world. When an annoyingly handsome man arrives at Penkellis, claiming to be Lawrence’s new secretary, his carefully planned world is turned upside down.

A swindler haunted by his past . . .

Georgie Turner has made his life pretending to be anyone but himself. A swindler and con man, he can slip into an identity faster than he can change clothes. But when his long-dead conscience resurrects and a dangerous associate is out for blood, Georgie escapes to the wilds of Cornwall. Pretending to be a secretary should be easy, but he doesn’t expect that the only madness he finds is the one he has for the gorgeous earl.

Can they find forever in the wreckage of their lives?

Challenging each other at every turn, the two men soon give into the desire that threatens to overwhelm them. But with one man convinced he is at the very brink of madness and the other hiding his real identity, only true love can make this an affair to remember.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s wonderful début historical romance, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, in which former thief-turned-valet-turned-private investigator, Jack Turner, was called upon to investigate a nasty case of blackmail and found love along the way in the unlikely form of Oliver Rivington, younger son of an earl  – was one of my favourite books of 2016.  Historical romance as it should be done, the book has a sharp eye for period detail and some degree of social comment as well as strong characterisation and, of course, a beautifully written romance between two characters that hold the readers’ attention and, in this case, gained my affection, too.

Naturally, I’ve eagerly been looking forward to Ms. Sebastian’s next novel and hoping for more of the same – and I’m pleased to report that she doesn’t disappoint.  While The Lawrence Browne Affair doesn’t quite top the appeal of the previous book, it’s nonetheless a superbly written story which addresses some difficult themes while showing, at its heart, that everyone needs love, acceptance and understanding, even though it’s sometimes difficult to believe one is deserving of it.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, is plagued by a family history of madness.  He lives alone in his dilapidated castle in the wilds of Cornwall, where he devotes his life and entire focus to scientific pursuits, and, at the moment, is working on a method of conveying messages through a complicated system of wires; what we might today call a primitive method of telegraphy.  His experiments have resulted in explosions, fires and other mayhem, and as a result of that, and the rumours that he is unhinged, the locals give him a wide berth.  Lawrence also thinks that the fact that he is attracted to men is yet more proof of his affliction and he fully expects that the madness that claimed his father and brother will eventually do for him, too.  He has given up on ever living a normal life; he doesn’t bother about his appearance, hardly remembers to eat and doesn’t care about his home or estate – and the only person with whom he has any regular interaction or something approaching friendship is the local vicar, the Reverend Halliday.  He genuinely cares for Lawrence, and when he hears rumours that Lawrence’s family may be taking steps to have him legally declared incompetent and locked up, he writes to his old school friend, Oliver Rivington, to ask him to find the earl a secretary, someone who can vouch for him if his sanity is ever called into question – and because Lawrence badly needs a secretary.

The vicar’s request arrives at an opportune time for Georgie Turner, thief, swindler and con-artist extraordinare who is also Jack Turner’s younger brother.  His latest scam has gone badly awry, with the result that the local crime lord is out for revenge – so when Jack asks him to go to Cornwall to see what he can find out about the Mad Earl, Georgie is only too pleased to get out of London.  He’s not really qualified to be a secretary, but he needs to get away from town to think things through and besides, Radnor might prove an easy mark.  Once a con-man, always a con-man…

Arrived at the crumbling Penkellis Castle, Georgie is utterly horrified at the state of both the earl and his home, unable to believe that a gentleman would want to live in such a mess and be so careless of his wardrobe and personal hygene.  Nonetheless, he sets to work straight away, starting to organise Lawrence’s letters and papers even though the earl, who is resistant to any kind of change, tries to get him to leave by behaving aggressively and unpleasantly.  But Georgie has quickly realised that while Lawrence is different, surly and quite brilliant, he is not insane; and also discovers that he actually enjoys his secretarial duties and is very good at them.  Once Lawrence accepts Georgie’s presence, the pair strikes up a comfortable working relationship that soon grows into a genuine friendship.  There’s also a strong undercurrent of mutual attraction, but Lawrence believes his madness means he cannot have a relationship with anyone, and in any case, he refuses to allow himself to be attracted to a man.  Georgie realises that Lawrence struggles to accept change and the reader will recognise that what Lawrence sees as episodes of madness are in fact, intense panic attacks whenever he is confronted with the prospect of something that doesn’t fit into his established patterns.  Cleverly, Georgie begins to make small, subtle changes to Lawrence’s daily life in order to make things easier for him, but he never attempts to change the man himself.  Sure, he needs a shave, haircut, new clothes, servants and a stable, ordered environment, but most of all, he needs to recognise that he is not mad and to see that he is entitled to love and be loved.

There are a couple of intriguing secondary plotlines in the book running alongside the romance, but this is essentially the story of two people who have to make a major re-evaluation of their self-perception if they are going to be able to accept love and make a future together.  Georgie has spent most of his twenty-five years cheating and swindling, having done whatever it took to get out of the poverty into which he was born and determined never to go back there.  He’s always compartmentalised his life and likes it that way, but the sudden and unwelcome intrusion of a conscience casts all that to the winds, and he’s left wondering exactly who he is – and whether he will ever be able to go back to his old life.  Or if he even wants to.

The relationship between them is beautifully drawn, and Ms. Sebastian does a terrific job showing their growing understanding of each other.   Lawrence realises that Georgie is trapped by his view of himself as nothing but a worthless thief; Georgie wants to free Lawrence from the restrictions and judgements he has imposed upon himself due to his supposed madness.  Each helps the other to begin to see himself in a different light, and it’s wonderful to watch that happening at the same time as the attraction and affection between them deepens into love.  It’s perhaps true that Lawrence’s turn-around from believing his attraction to men is part of his madness to embarking upon a physical relationship with Georgie happens a little quickly, but that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a very well-developed romance.

The Lawrence Browne Affair is only Cat Sebastian’s second published novel, yet her writing is so accomplished and assured that it’s almost difficult to believe that to be the case.  If you enjoy historical romances with a strong sense of period, fully-rounded, complex characters, a sensual love story and a nice dash of humour, then this book – and its predecessor – is highly recommended.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

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This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

A scoundrel who lives in the shadows.

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep, and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice.

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life – one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is matched only by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men meant only for each other.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

The Soldier’s Scoundrel is one of those rare début novels that is so accomplished in terms of the writing, characterisation and storytelling that it’s difficult to believe it’s someone’s first book. Cat Sebastian has penned a story which combines a wonderfully written and very… well, romantic romance with a dash of mystery and topped it off with a healthy dollop of relevant and cleverly interwoven social comment and a well-researched historical background.

A former thief, con-artist and gentleman’s gentleman now turned investigator, Jack Turner takes as his clients those people who, because of their gender or social station have no other way of securing justice – women and the poor. He is expecting his latest client when a gorgeous but angry man bursts into his office demanding to know why his sister, Lady Montford, has just paid Jack the large sum of two hundred pounds. Jack has no love for the aristocracy, and bridles immediately, recognising the man as Captain Oliver Rivington, younger son of the Earl of Rutland.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel by Cat Sebastian

the-soldiers-scoundrel

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A scoundrel who lives in the shadows

Jack Turner grew up in the darkness of London’s slums, born into a life of crime and willing to do anything to keep his belly full and his siblings safe. Now he uses the tricks and schemes of the underworld to help those who need the kind of assistance only a scoundrel can provide. His distrust of the nobility runs deep and his services do not extend to the gorgeous high-born soldier who personifies everything Jack will never be.

A soldier untarnished by vice

After the chaos of war, Oliver Rivington craves the safe predictability of a gentleman’s life-one that doesn’t include sparring with a ne’er-do-well who flouts the law at every turn. But Jack tempts Oliver like no other man has before. Soon his yearning for the unapologetic criminal is only matched by Jack’s pleasure in watching his genteel polish crumble every time they’re together.

Two men only meant for each other.

Rating: A-

Cat Sebastian’s début historical romance is a thoroughly enjoyable, extremely accomplished piece of work that sees a prickly former-thief-turned-investigator working with the son of an earl to establish the identity of a blackmailer and falling in love along the way. This is no light-hearted romp, however; during the course of the story, the author explores the realities of the class differences lying between the two men and takes a look at the inequalities inherent in a justice system which really only operated in favour of the wealthy and influential.

Former valet, former thief and former perpetrator of various other illegal activities, Jack Turner now runs his own business working as an investigator and righter of wrongs for those in society – the poor and women – who have little or no recourse to justice via normal means. His life on the wrong side of the law and then as a servant has only served to reinforce his own opinions about the ‘nobs’, the gentlemen of the nobility who largely regard themselves as untouchable and if his work gives him the opportunity to even the score a little, then he regards it as a job well done.

So Jack isn’t best pleased when Mr Oliver Rivington – second son of the Earl of Rutland – bursts into his office one day, demands to know why his sister recently paid Jack a large sum of money, and refuses to leave until he gets an answer. Realising he can’t get rid of the man without causing a scene, Jack allots Rivington a seat in a dark corner while he interviews his latest client, a young, married lady who is being blackmailed over a series of letters exchanged with a former beau.

A serious leg wound after a decade in the army has led the former Captain Rivington to sell his commission and he has returned home eager to embark upon a life of quiet predictability, free from the chaos and frequent lawlessless of the army. His experiences with the sort of riot and mayhem wreaked by a victorious force following a battle have made him determined to uphold the law and respect due process, so the idea that Jack Turner could have employed less than legal means in order to help Charlotte sits badly with him, no matter that whatever Jack actually did has kept her drunken, abusive husband away overseas for the last two years.

Both men are rather surprised to recognise the sudden sexual attraction that crackles between them, and both ruthlessly tamp it down. Jack doesn’t want anything to do with aristrocrats, no matter how pretty they are, and Oliver is most certainly not going to become embroiled with a criminal. Realising that Jack is probably going to resort to law-breaking in order to help Mrs. Wraxhall, Oliver is determined to find a way of getting the lady’s letters back without using illegal means to do so, and begins making inquiries of his own.

When it seems that a journey to Mrs. Wraxhall’s former home in Yorkshire will be needed to dig up more information on the lady’s past, Jack very reluctantly agrees to accept Oliver’s help. After all, a prettily behaved, good-looking gentleman like him will be able to open doors that are closed to Jack, and Oliver will probably be able to charm people into revealing confidences that Jack’s gruffness would be unlikely to encourage. And while his intense fascination with Rivington irritates him, the attraction is obviously mutual and also impossible to ignore, so Jack decides that he might as well indulge himself while he can. It’s not something he does very often; he doesn’t do emotional entanglements and the only people in his life he trusts are his brother and sister, but he’s certainly not averse to taking Oliver to bed.

Oliver is similarly captivated by Jack – a man he is coming to know as having his own code of honour that he lives by, no matter how strongly he might deny it. Oliver recognises that Jack’s gruffness is his way of keeping people at arms’ length and he very much wants to break through that barrier and show Jack that he’s worth caring about.

Cat Sebastian has crafted a very well-balanced tale in which the relationship between the protagonists takes centre stage, while also offering an intriguing sub-plot about the blackmail investigation. As I said at the outset, she takes a look at the inequality in a justice system that permitted the upper classes to – sometimes literally – get away with murder while it would hang a starving man for stealing a crust. And worse, a system that would turn a blind eye to a woman trapped in an abusive marriage or a woman being threatened in the vilest terms. But there is no heavy-handed sermonising or info-dumping; her observations are seamlessly incorporated into the plot, adding richness and colour to an already readable and entertaining story.

But there’s no question that Jack and Oliver’s romance is at the heart of this book, and it’s by turns funny, tender, sexy, and wonderfully romantic. The two men complement each other in terms of their personalities and outlook; Jack is all rough edges, where Oliver is polished politeness and charm; Jack is outspoken where Oliver is more considered – and they make a terrific couple. I particularly liked their playfulness with each other, and the sense that, in spite of the class difference, they are equals in the relationship. I’ve not read m/m romance very widely, but in some I’ve read there is one experienced character and one who is less so or perhaps somewhat uncomfortable with his sexuality. It’s refreshing to see that isn’t the case here, and I really liked how, despite his blushes, Oliver is shown to be every bit as comfortable with himself and his preferences as Jack – and, when called for, just as naughty 😉 Even though they hide things from each other to start with, once they get to know and accept one another, there’s a lovely honesty to their relationship, a true caring that goes deeper than lust or attraction, and Ms. Sebastian has done a superb job in conveying that depth through their words and actions.

The Soldier’s Scoundrel captivated me from start to finish and is most definitely going on to my keeper shelf. The central romance is wonderfully portrayed, the characterisation is excellent and I loved Oliver and Jack to bits. I can’t wait for more from Ms. Sebastian and am eagerly awaiting her next book – about Jack’s flamboyant brother, Georgie – next year.