A Rake’s Guide to Seduction (Reece Family Trilogy #3) by Caroline Linden

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He Must Rely On His Talents In The Bedroom…

Anthony Hamilton cannot help it. The way he looks, the way he lives, his past–it all conspires to make him a man men fear, women desire. His name fills gossip circles in a seemingly endless, lurid drama. But he’s never forgotten the only woman he’s ever truly wanted–yet could never have. . .

To Make Her Fall In Love. . .

Celia Reece knew Anthony well before he forged his scandalous reputation. The young man she remembers spoke kindly to her, made her laugh, and his devilish good looks always quickened her pulse. But Celia’s mother had other designs–designs that didn’t include marriage to Anthony. Now, Celia is widowed, and her mother is intent on finding her a new husband. Refusing to let any obstacle stand in his path this time, Anthony sets out to win Celia’s heart by using the same skills that made him London’s most irresistible rake…

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden’s A Rake’s Guide to Seduction is one of her earliest published titles, having originally appeared in 2008.  It’s now being reissued with a rather fetching new cover (in paperback), and as it’s a book I haven’t yet read, this gave me a good excuse reason to add it to my pile of review books.  This, I quickly discovered, was a very good move, because it’s a lovely, gently moving character-driven romance featuring a young widow who is given second chance at love and the man who has secretly loved her for many years.

Anthony Hamilton, Viscount Langford, was a scandal from the moment he was born.  Almost certainly a cuckoo in the nest, be grew into a wild boy and proceeded to get himself thrown out of three schools, after which, having finished his education at Oxford, he embarked upon a life of debauchery in London, his reputation as a high-stakes gamester and seducer of wealthy widows and bored wives very quickly earning him the blackest of reputations while also rendering him utterly fascinating to the members of the ton.  The fact that he is gorgeous, remarkably discreet and closely guards his privacy only increases his allure.

Anthony – who, owing to his estrangement from his father now chooses to style himself as plain Mr. Hamilton – spent many of his holidays from school at Ainsley Park, the home of his closest friend, David Reece.  David’s younger sister, Celia, remembers Anthony fondly; he’d been like another brother who helped launch her kites and tie her fishing lines.  As he grew older and his reputation grew worse, her mother banned Anthony from visiting, although now Celia is ‘out’, she sees him  from time to time and finds it amusing that he is now so very wicked that young ladies are afraid to do so much as walk past him alone. She has never believed him to be quite as black as he is painted; indeed, her own brothers have not exactly been pattern cards of propriety in the past and she can’t really see why Anthony should be singled out for such gossip and censure.

Celia is young, beautiful, vivacious and, as the sister of a duke, much sought after.  After interrupting her and an over-amorous swain one evening, she and Anthony have the first real conversation they’ve had in a long time and he is suddenly struck by an almost unwelcome realisation – that she’s no longer the little girl he knew and that he’s in love with her and has been for some time.  But it’s hopeless. No brother who truly cares about his sister is going to give her hand in marriage to a man with a reputation like Anthony’s… yet her image is burned into his brain, her lemon scent haunts him and he can’t forget their conversation:

“Anyone who took the trouble to know you would accept you,” Celia insisted ignoring his efforts to turn the subject.

“You’ve gone and ruled out every woman in England.” He leaned over the railing, squiting into the darkness.

“Except myself,” Celia declared and then she stopped.  Good heavens, what had she just said?

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Barrel Proof (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3) by Layla Reyne

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FBI agents Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker can’t get a moment’s peace. Their hunt for the terrorist Renaud seems to be nearing an end, until a fire allows him to slip through their fingers—and puts Jamie’s life in danger. When Jamie is nearly killed, Aidan learns how many forms loss can take.

Aidan says I love you just moments before learning that Jamie’s been keeping a devastating secret about Aidan’s late husband. How quickly trust and love can go up in flames. When Aidan requests a solo undercover assignment, Jamie hopes Aidan will find a way to forgive him.

But the explosions are far from over. Aidan’s cover lands him in the heart of the terrorist’s conspiracy, and Jamie will have to put his life, his career and his freedom on the line to save the man who has become his entire world. Partners, always is a promise he intends to keep.

Rating: B

Note:  Because this is the final book in a trilogy with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

Barrel Proof, the third and final instalment in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey trilogy of romantic suspense novels, picks up pretty much where Cask Strength left off and plunges us straight into the action.  Like its predecessors, Barrel Proof is a fast-moving, action-packed story with plenty of thrills and spills, an engaging cast of secondary characters, steamy romantic moments and a well thought-out and executed suspense storyline.  I enjoyed it a lot, although I have a couple of niggles over the ending which brought my final grade down a notch.

In the previous book, Jamie Walker and Aidan Talley were at an awkward place in their relationship when they were assigned to an investigation into fraud and match-fixing which took them to Jamie’s home state and to the sport he left behind some eight years earlier. Jamie is ready to commit, but Aidan is skittish, the loss of his beloved husband of ten years making him – perhaps understandably – shy of making the same sort of commitment to someone else and thereby opening himself up to the possibility of another devastating loss.  By the end of the novel, however, Aidan has finally come to his senses and has stopped trying to deny the depth of the feelings for his partner and lover, and is ready to move forward – but everything is blown apart when he discovers that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him for months, a secret concerning his late husband’s association with an international terrorist.  Jamie was sworn to secrecy by their boss (and Aidan’s sister-in-law), Melissa Cruz while he worked behind the scenes to put together the pieces of the puzzle, and has always felt uneasy about keeping his investigations from Aidan.  He wanted to present Aidan with more than a set of theories and ‘what ifs’; now, however, the cat is about to jump out of the bag as Jamie, Aidan and Danny (one of Aidan’s younger brothers, who is involved with Mel) are racing to Cuba after she took off on the trail of her Uncle Roberto whom, she has discovered, has been working with/for Pierre Renaud, the terrorist responsible for the murders of Aiden’s husband and his partner.  During the perilous confrontation that follows when they find Mel facing off with Roberto, Aidan finally learns the truth; that his husband, Gabe, had been working with Renaud (and so had Tom, his partner) and that Jamie has known about it for months.

Aidan is thrown completely by this news.  Having just admitted the truth of his feelings for Jamie, he’s angry and hurt at the fact that his partner has kept something so important from him for so long, and he asks for a solo assignment while he comes to terms with it all.  Jamie isn’t surprised and tries to understand when Aidan tells him that he needs time and space… all he can do now is hope that Aidan will come back to him when he’s ready.

 

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

 

Dirty Deeds (Dirty #1) by HelenKay Dimon

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No dirty deed goes unnoticed in a seductive game of cat and mouse. But for Alec and Gaige, the wrong move could get them killed.

Alec Drummond didn’t make his billions by playing nice—or by playing much at all. When it comes to pleasure, Alec only has time for whatever’s quick and easy, which is exactly what he gets from his company’s hot new computer genius. But Gaige Owens isn’t some pushover. He pushes back, and it’s giving Alec a rush. The question is, could Gaige be the one who’s leaking trade secrets? Just to be safe, Alec keeps him close at hand . . . night and day.

Gaige never thought he’d roll over for a man like Alec again, but who could resist sex this mind-blowing? Then there’s the draw of Alec’s mysterious side: his cutthroat ambition, his covert CIA connections, and the murder in his past. For Gaige, a deeper look proves an irresistible temptation. But when Gaige and Alec are stripped of their defenses by an unseen danger, everything they don’t know could bring them closer together—or tear them apart. Only one thing is certain: Before it’s all over, someone’s going down.

Rating: B-

Dirty Deeds is a fast-paced, action-packed story that begins when billionaire businessman and all-round hardass Alec Drummond catches Gaige Owens breaking into his company’s vault.  It transpires that Gaige has been ’employed’ (or rather, had his arm twisted) by the enigmatic, equally hardass Seth Lang (Guarding Mr. Fine) to deliberately trigger Drummond Enterprises security systems  and thereby force Alec to sit up and take notice of Seth’s requests for a meeting.

Alec’s company is one of the world’s leading food/food-hybrid manufacture/bio-research companies that also dabbles in research into alternate fuel sources – and Seth thinks that someone is setting it up for a fall, most likely terrorists or regimes who want to be able to control people by means of controlling the food supply.  It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, and Seth is reluctant to say any more than he has to.  It’s clear that he and Alec have locked horns before and the testosterone flies liberally as they face-off against each other while a puzzled and not too pleased Gaige looks on.

While all this is happening, Gaige and Alec are sizing each other up in a different way and very much liking what they see.  It’s an odd moment, perhaps, for insta-lust to strike, but strike it does, with a very large ‘clang!!’  Seth wants Gaige to pose as an external security expert at Drummond to see if he can trace who is setting them up – but Alec isn’t happy; he doesn’t want a total stranger poking his nose into his company.  Still, he also needs to find out who’s trying to sabotage him and agrees to Seth’s plan, intending to keep Gaige on a firm leash and keep an eye on him 24/7.

Alec installs Gaige in his Munich home and pretty soon the intense attraction the two men feel for each other is impossible to resist.  Alec is a workaholic, Gaige – a hot nerd with a wry sense of humour – was badly burned by his previous lover, so neither is looking for anything long-term.  They agree to keep it to casual, no-strings-sex, but it’s not long before they find it impossible to remain detached, and start to share confidences.

The insta-lust from practically the first page is a bit much although the author does it well, and keeps it running into the sex scenes, which are frequent and nicely steamy.  I liked how she showed Alec and Gaige gradually lowering their defences, although given the story takes place over about a week, this is perhaps somewhat unbelievable, especially for Alec, who doesn’t trust easily and whose privacy is intensely important to him.

I’m not sure I completely bought into the plot and the characterisation isn’t especially deep, but Dirty Deeds is an enjoyable, undemanding read that kept me entertained for the couple of hours or so it took me to read it.  If hot nerds and hard-ass billionaires wrapped up in industrial espionage and each other are your thing, I imagine you could do worse than pick this one up!

Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

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I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

The Spinster and the Rake by Anne Stuart

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The Spinster: As a maiden aunt, Gillian Redfern lives as an unpaid servant to her demanding family. Little wonder she finds the attentions of a rake distracting, and even less wonder that her usual good sense begins to unravel when Lord Marlow takes her in his arms.

The Rake: Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlow, is a man of great charm and little moral character, a gambler, a womanizer, and handsome as sin to boot. He has no qualms about placing a wager on the virtue of one small, shy spinster.

But Lord Marlow is about to discover that Miss Redfern is more siren than spinster. She amuses him, arouses him, and, much to his dismay, makes him a better man. Gillian will discover, in turn, that Lord Marlow possesses the power to turn her into a very wicked woman. The rake and the spinster are poised to find a love that neither could have imagined.

If only someone weren’t out to destroy them both . . .

Rating: B

First published in 1982, The Spinster and the Rake is one of Anne Stuart’s earliest Regencies, and has, sadly, been out of print for a number of years.  I’ve been keen to read it ever since I became aware of its existence – I mean who doesn’t love a good rake-meets-spinster story? – and had despaired of ever finding it, but luckily it surfaced last year in a newly revised digital edition.  (I can’t say what the revisions are as I haven’t read the original, but I am guessing Ms. Stuart has added a pinch or two of extra spice 😉 )

This is one of those books that is exactly what it says on the tin, and very nicely done it is, too.  Our rake, Ronan Patrick Blakely, Lord Marlowe (who is the Marquess of Herrington so I’m not sure where the Marlowe comes from) is nearing forty, has been away from England since he was packed off by his family following a scandal twenty years earlier and, having unexpectedly inherited a title, has returned to England with the intention of remaining there.  His bearing, looks and manner of speech reminded me very much of Georgette Heyer’s Lord Damerel (who is my favourite hero of hers, and one of my all-time favourite romance heroes) and I defy anyone not to swoon at the author’s description of him:

“From the top of Marlowe’s curly head, black locks liberally streaked with grey, past the cynical dark eyes surrounded by tiny lines of dissipation, and just possibly laughter, the sallow complexion of one who has spent a great many years in sunnier climes, the strong nose and cynical, alarmingly attractive mouth, he was truly, wickedly appealing.”

Be still my beating heart 😉

The spinster of the title is Miss Gillian Redfern, youngest of four siblings and the only one to remain unmarried.  At nearly thirty, Gillian –

… had long since decided, with a great deal of persuasion from the aforementioned siblings, to immolate herself on the altar of duty, having a great deal of family reeling and a dislike of being useless.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Pursuit of Pleasure (Dartmouth Brides #1) by Elizabeth Essex

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SHE DOES SAY SHE’LL NEVER MARRY…

Miss Elizabeth Paxton is a new sort of heiress—educated, opinionated and entirely independent. The last thing she wants is a husband mucking about her life. Even if he is the only man she’s ever loved.

BUT SHE HAS ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A WIDOW.

When dashing Captain Jameson Marlowe returns to Dartmouth, he proposes to give Lizzie exactly what she wants—a marriage without the man. After one night of searing passion, his sworn duty will take him far off to sea…or so she thinks until secrets and lies set a collision course with the smugglers along the south coast, and Lizzie is caught in the dark tide of treason. Can she salvage her pride and learn to trust in true love before it’s too late?

Rating: C-

Having read and enjoyed some of Elizabeth Essex’s more recent books, I thought I’d try one of her earlier titles and picked up The Pursuit of Pleasure which is her début novel. Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited this newly republished version (I haven’t read the original, so I can’t say what the changes are), but still, the book suffers from a number of flaws – principally related to the characterisation of the heroine and the development of the romance – that have prevented me from rating it more highly.

Elizabeth Paxton and Jameson Marlowe were childhood sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, ever since Jamie ran off to join the navy when he was just fourteen and broke Lizzie’s heart in the process. Now, a decade later, he’s back in Dartmouth charged with a very secret mission and with a very clear design as to how to accomplish it. But when he sets eyes on Lizzie again and overhears her telling a friend that while she doesn’t want to get married, she’d rather like to be a widow because of the freedom it would afford her, Jamie realises that his schemes could offer up a hitherto unforeseen benefit. He offers Lizzie exactly what she wants, telling her that he will shortly be leaving England for the Antipodes, where he will be stationed for eight years and where the chances he will meet an early death are highly likely. If they marry, Lizzie will have her independence and also the income from the house and lands he has recently purchased – property he doesn’t want to bequeath to his smarmy cousin. Lizzie is a little suspicious at first; all the gain is on her side and she can’t see what Jamie will be getting out of the agreement, but he manages to persuade her and they are married a couple of days later.

Neither of them is really prepared for the passion that sparks between them on their wedding night, and both of them realise that perhaps letting go is going to be harder than they at first thought. But Jamie is committed and leaves on schedule, asking Lizzie to do one thing for him, which is not to live at the house, Glass Cottage, because it is in a state of disrepair and isn’t really fit to be lived in. Lizzie doesn’t understand this, as she has already fallen in love with the place and has designs to put things to rights, but as this is likely the last thing Jamie will ever ask of her, she agrees… until events conspire to change her mind and suspicions begin to take root.

I can’t really say much more about the plot without giving spoilers, although as this is a romance novel, I think it’s fairly obvious that Jamie hasn’t told Lizzie the truth about his plans to sail to the other side of the world. But overall, I’m afraid I liked the IDEA of the story more than the story itself, because in order for it to work, Jamie – who really does care for Lizzie, and can be rather a charming chap – has to treat her really badly and allow her to go through some pretty horrible experiences so that he can carry out his mission to bring down the dangerous smuggling ring that is operating from somewhere near Glass Cottage. I could understand that, as a member of the military, he was operating under orders, but it didn’t make him an easy character to like. Mind you, Lizzie isn’t especially likeable, either, being the sort of heroine who is so set on being independent and doing things Her Way, that she makes poor decisions and doesn’t listen to good advice. Instead of coming off as practical and determined, she frequently seems childish and petulant, and as though she’s doing things because other people don’t want her to rather than because they’re the right thing to do.

The romance storyline occurs primarily in the first half of the book, because the two protagonists are separated for most of the second. I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories, but it seems to me that Ms. Essex has used their previous association as a kind of “shorthand”, because the relationship is never really developed. Jamie and Lizzie see each other again and both suffer a bad case of insta-lust, but other than the physical, it’s difficult to see what attracts them to one another. Jamie likes Lizzie’s spirit and respects her desire for independence (good for him on that one) and Lizzie feels that Jamie is the one person who really knows and understands her – but these are things we’re told and asked to accept, rather than things we can experience along with the characters.

The smuggling plotline which drives the second half of The Pursuit of Pleasure is intriguing, although the identity of the villains is pretty obvious from the start, and there are a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story on several occasions. The storyline has a lot of potential, but falls down in the execution, and that, combined with the not-too-likeable characters and weak romance make this a book I can’t really recommend.

The Secret of the India Orchid by Nancy Campbell Allen

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Anthony Blake is in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot. But his plans to court her are put on hold when he is forced to resume his role as an undercover spy for the Crown. A secret document listing the names of the entire network of British spies-including his own-has been stolen. To protect Sophia, Anthony cuts off all ties to her and exchanges his life as an honorable earl for the façade of a flirtatious playboy.

Heartbroken and confused, Sophia travels to India, hoping to find healing in one of the most exotic regions of the British Empire. But the exotic land isn’t as restful as she had hoped. Instead, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery of a missing sea captain, a possible murder, and a plot that could involve the prince of India. And when Anthony appears at the British Residency, asking questions and keeping his distance from her, she is stunned.

She still loves him, and, in her heart, she knows he loves her too. But how can she rebuild her relationship with him if he won’t confide in her? Does she dare offer her heart to him a second time, or will their love be lost under the India sun?

Rating: D+

Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Secret of the India Orchid appealed to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, much as I enjoy historical romances set in Europe, I’m always happy to see ones sent in more far-flung locations; and secondly, the premise of a dashing spy forced to conceal his true nature and purpose beneath the façade of a wastrel in order to protect his nearest and dearest is a trope that I enjoy when done well. Sadly, however, neither of those elements is particularly well-executed, and, together with weak characterisation and poor plotting, made for a plodding, insipid read overall.

Anthony Blake, Earl of Wilshire has been in love with his best friend’s sister, Sophia Elliot, for some time and is about to ask for permission to court her when his former boss and spymaster, Lord Braxton tells him that he must undertake one, last mission. Anthony, who was relieved to get out of the spying game a couple of years earlier upon assuming his title, is not best pleased at being drafted back into service, but when Braxton tells him of the theft of the Janus Document – which contains sensitive information about British agents, their families, their habits and every aspect of their lives, any of which could potentially be used as leverage against them – Anthony reluctantly agrees to retrieve it.

Two years later, still heartbroken over Anthony’s sudden departure and wanting to get away from her memories of him in England, Sophia lands in India, intending to spend some time there under the sponsorship of Lady Pilkington. She is, however, destined not to be able to use distance to lessen her attachment to Anthony because he’s recently arrived in Bombay on the next leg of his tour of carefree fun and frolic (as she thinks), and in reality still on the trail of the Janus Document. All Braxton could tell him about the theft was that he believed it had been perpetrated by someone who worked for him, Harold Miller. Anthony has received word that Miller’s uncle, a sea captain, is a guest of the Pilkington’s, hence his presence in Bombay. He believes the nephew may have passed the document to Captain Miller and intends to meet with him and interrogate him, but before he can do so, the captain is murdered and the contents of Lord Pilkington’s safe mysteriously disappear.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.