Craft Brew (Trouble Brewing #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Assistant US attorney Dominic Price is staring down the barrel of his father’s debts. The bull’s-eye on his back makes him a threat to everyone he cares about, so when his lover wants to go public with their relationship, he bolts. Not because he isn’t in love—he can’t stomach the thought of putting Cam in danger.

Kidnap and rescue expert Cameron Byrne is determined to figure out what trouble Nic is running from, but devastating news from home brings him back to Boston and to the cold case that has haunted his family for two decades. Shoving aside his pride, he calls Nic for help.

Together they search for answers, navigating the minefield of Cam’s past. But when they get too close to the truth, Cam must use every skill in his arsenal to save the man he loves… before it’s too late.

Rating: B-

Although I wasn’t wild about Imperial Stout, the first book in Layla Reyne’s new Trouble Brewing series, I wanted to read book two, Craft Brew, because I was intrigued by what was clearly going to be the series’ overarching plotline, and hoped for progression. I got a little of what I wanted, but Ms. Reyne is clearly keeping her powder dry for the final book, Noble Hops, so Craft Brew focuses on a different story and shines a light on a past tragedy and a desperate search for closure.

In Imperial Stout, Assistant US Attorney and former Navy SEAL, Nic Price, discovered that his father – from whom he has been estranged ever since he came out more than twenty-five years earlier – was in hock to some pretty unsavoury characters. Knowing them to be ruthless gangsters who will stop at nothing to get what they want, Nic tried to keep this news to himself out of concern for those around him, especially for his lover, Special Agent Cameron Byrne. Of course, the truth will out, and Cam found out about the threats made against Nic and his father, but Nic fears for Cam’s safety should anyone discover they’re a couple, which is why he stubbornly avoids giving Cam an answer to the latter’s suggestion they move in together.

Nic has just returned from five weeks spent in San Diego covering for an absent colleague and he’s pretty much just set foot inside his front door then where’s a fire in his apartment block – in the apartment right above his – which is quickly proven to be arson. This convinces him more than ever that he can’t afford to move forward with Cam until he’s got to the bottom of things – and in the middle of all this comes really bad news for Cam. His mother has had a heart attack and is in a bad way, and he needs to go home to Boston at once. Cam is understandably cut up and preoccupied as he gets ready to head home, and Nic senses there’s something else lurking behind his concern for his mother, but it’s not the time to tackle it. Cam sets off for Boston accompanied by Jamieson ‘Whiskey’ Walker, his long-time best friend and husband of Cam’s FBI partner, Aidan Talley.

The Byrnes are a close-knit family, and Ms. Reyne sketches the familial relationships well.  Cam is closest to his brother Bobby, with whom he shares a bit of a chequered past, but is not on the best of terms with his youngest brother Keith,  who still blames Cam for the disappearance of their sister, Erin, some twenty years earlier when she was just twelve years old. Cam has been weighed down by guilt he has never been able to assuage over what happened that day, because he was supposed to have met Erin to take her home, but instead, went off with Bobby to “score some real cash.” (We’re not told what that involved.) Cam has tried several times to find out what happened to Erin, but the case is so cold it’s dead and buried, and he’s been unable to make any progress.  But now, his mother begs him to take it up again, and even though the rest of his family are against the idea, Cam can’t possibly turn down what might turn out to be Edye Byrne’s dying wish.  Unbeknownst to him, she’s embarked on an investigation of her own over the years, making notes in the backs of her beloved romance novels; Cam agrees to go through them and then see if he can tie them into something that will give them some more concrete leads.

Craft Brew is a more cohesive read than Imperial Stout, which was short on character and relationship development, with a frenetically paced, somewhat superficial plot that required way too many suspensions of disbelief.  By the time this book opens, Nic and Cam are in a relationship although still keeping it quiet, and we’re learning a little more about what makes each of them tick. The storyline concerning the mystery of Erin’s disappearance – which turns out to be linked to a number of other disappearances of young girls over the past twenty years – held my interest, although I can’t deny that there are still some very creaky plot elements (how was Cam’s mum able to come up with so much information while Cam, a highly trained FBI agent, wasn’t able to?) and unlikely coincidences along the way that stretched my credulity paper thin.

After reaching the section where Cam goes to Boston leaving Nic behind, I wondered whether they were going to spend the rest of the book apart, which is never a good recipe for a romantic novel.  Fortunately, one of those coincidences I mentioned means that Nic’s presence is required in Boston and naturally, there’s no way he’s not going to haul ass in order to be with and help the man he can now admit he’s in love with.  But that little niggle Nic had as Cam was leaving?  It turns out that Cam has never told his family he’s bisexual; and it’s obviously not the right time to come out to them now.  Nic is understanding and supportive, and puts no pressure of any kind on Cam, rightly saying that telling them is his decision… but he also makes it clear that while he’s prepared to wait for Cam to come out to them in his own time, he doesn’t want to wait forever.

I like Cam and Nic, I like the secondary cast of familiar characters from the Irish and Whiskey series and the close-knit relationships between them and I enjoyed meeting Cam’s family and finding out a bit more about his past, which was something missing in the previous book.  We also learned more about Nic and the secrets he’s keeping, although it’s clear there is more to come, and Cam has yet to learn some of the things the reader is now privy to – which I’m guessing will happen in the next book.

But the plot contrivances I mentioned above drag the book down as a whole, and I lost count of the number of times Nic told Cam to ‘just breathe’ at times of stress and worry. I also had to wonder at the way the author so often brings up Nic’s former rank as a SEAL captain as a way of impressing people or getting them to do things.  Would it really be that big of a deal given he’s been a civilian for well over a decade?  Small things maybe, but they took me out of the story each time I came across them.

I’m going to give Craft Brew a cautious recommendation with the caveat that if you haven’t read the previous book – or the Agents Irish and Whiskey series – you’re likely to be completely lost.  If you’re already invested in the Trouble Brewing series and characters, then this is an enjoyable, if flawed read that satisfied at least some of this reader’s need for more character growth and development in the central relationship.

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Band Sinister by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet — but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles has made no secret of the fact that her latest book, Band Sinister, is an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, and in it she has great fun playing in the trope-pit of regency romance and turning quite a few of them on their heads.  We’ve got the stranded-injured-sibling trope; the man-of-the-world-falls-for-country-innocent trope; the oops-I-(not so)-accidentally-wrote-you-as-the-villain-in-my-racy-book trope – and those are just the ones I can remember of the top of my head.  I’m sure I’ve missed some.

But trope-tastic as it is, Band Sinister still manages to delight, breathing life into the tried-and-tested by virtue of Ms. Charles’ sharp wit, deft hand and obvious love for the genre.

The storyline is a simple one.  Siblings Guy and Amanda Frisby live a secluded life in the village of Yarlcote, just a few miles from Rookwood Hall, the country estate of Sir Philip Rookwood.  The Frisbys and the Rookwoods are all but mortal enemies, owing to the fact that Sir James Rookwood (elder and now deceased brother of the present holder of the title) ran off with Guy and Amanda’s mother some years earlier, driving their father to drink and an early grave.  He left them completely dependent on their aunt, a dictatorial and unsympathetic woman who supports them for the sake of appearances rather than because she has any love or affection for them.

When the story opens, Guy is reading the manuscript of the gothic novel Amanda has just had published – and is rather appalled to discover that she has modelled her villain – in physical appearance anyway – on Sir Philip Rookwood, and some of the other characters in the book on his friends.  Sir Philip and his set have the most dreadful reputations as degenerates and rumour has it that the ‘Murder’ – as the group is known – is a kind of hellfire club that engages in orgies, satanic rituals and other reprehensible activities.  When Amanda expresses the wish that they might actually visit to find out for themselves, Guy is appalled.  He wants nothing to do with Rookwood, but circumstances conspire against him when Amanda is thrown from her horse while riding on Sir Philip’s land, and badly injured – which means Amanda gets her wish to visit the hall, although under less pleasing circumstances than she would have liked.

When Guy receives the news of Amanda’s situation, he’s doubly panicked – terrified because she’s been hurt and worried for her reputation, which has already got a few dents in it courtesy of their mother’s exploits and a youthful indiscretion.  Guy goes to the hall with the intention of taking her home immediately, but is dissuaded by the doctor attending on her – a friend of Sir Philip’s – who explains that her injury is such that moving her could prove fatal.  Guy accepts the wisdom of that, but he’s not happy, especially as it’s impossible to persuade any woman of suitable consequence to come to the hall to act as chaperone.

Given the bad blood between their families, Guy is torn between gratitude to his host for allowing Amanda to remain at his home, and determination to remain aloof and retain his animosity.  That, however, soon becomes difficult when Guy comes to realise that Philip and his friends are nowhere near as black as they are painted and have in fact encouraged the gossip about them that has given them all such tarnished reputations.  (Especially Lord Corvin who lives to be talked about!)  The Murder (and once we learn the names of Philip’s friends, it’s easy to work out the reason behind that appellation) is actually a group of free-thinking, like-minded friends who gather to engage in spirited (and to Guy’s tender ears, alarming) debate, enjoy each other’s company and love who they wish without having to continually look over their shoulders.  It’s a real eye-opener for Guy, who at first isn’t sure how to take anything he sees or hears; dinner table discussions are about anything and everything from art and literature to science and the newly emerging theories which seem to disprove the Bible’s account of creation (shocking!) and are stimulating and fascinating – and he can’t help but be drawn in by the liveliness of the discussion and by the conviviality of his surroundings.

He also can’t help being drawn to Philip, whose kindness and generosity are completely unexpected, and whose attractiveness and desire for Guy are equally so.

Philip holds these gatherings for his friends in order to give them all a safe haven from the strict conventions of society.  He met his two closest friends, Lord Corvin and John Raven, when they were all unwanted or forgotten ten-year-olds and the three of them forged lifelong bonds.  Friends – and friends-with-benefits when they want to be – they love each other deeply, and the openness and honesty of their relationship is superbly conveyed, teasingly affectionate and full of the perfect amount of snark.

I really enjoyed all the characters, a disparate group that encompasses a diversity of racial and sexual orientation – a former slave, a bisexual viscount, a Jewish doctor, a married couple in which ‘Mrs.’ is trans FtM, a black composer and his violinist lover – even those we meet only briefly add richness and colour to the story and are beautifully crafted.  Amanda Frisby is wonderfully bright and spirited and I was so glad that she got her own happy ending, too.  Philip is intelligent, charming, kind, and forward-thinking, with a well-developed conscience that owes nothing to society and everything to his own inner compass.  He is turning over much of his land to the production of sugar beet with a view to creating a home-grown sugar industry which will remove the necessity for importing so much sugar produced by slave labour – a laudable ambition but an uphill struggle given that his tenant farmers are resistant to change.  Guy is perhaps a little passive at times, but he’s far from being the “plank” Philip originally believes him to be; he’s quiet and unassuming, but ferocious and passionate in defence of the things that are important to him. My heart broke for him a bit when it became clear how lonely he was and had always been, and I loved watching him gradually break out of his shell and begin to truly live.

The romance between Philip and Guy is sweetly sensual, and witnessing the development of their mutual attraction as they navigate the waters of their new relationship was a complete delight.  And it’s not just about the physical; Guy is seduced as much by the new ideas to which he is exposed and to the new experience of acceptance and being part of a friendship  as he is by Philip’s more sensual approaches, which are heartfelt and honest,  with an explicit focus on consent.  Their romance is also conducted within the parameters of their other important relationships; in Philip’s case, with Corvin and Raven, in Guy’s with Amanda – and the fact that they both understood and accepted those relationships made their HEA that much stronger.

Band Sinister is a wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights.  It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.  It’s not often you get impassioned debate about geology, women’s rights and religion, dirty talk derived from Latin, and information about the ins-and-outs of sugar beet farming in the same book, but Ms. Charles incorporates everything quite naturally and with great aplomb – and I loved it from start to finish.  Brava!

The Wolf at Bay (Big Bad Wolf #2) by Charlie Adhara

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Going home digs up bad memories, so it’s something Bureau of Special Investigations agent Cooper Dayton tries to avoid. When he’s guilted into a visit, Cooper brings along Oliver Park, his hot new werewolf partner, in the hopes the trip will help clarify their status as a couple…or not.

When Park’s keen shifter nose uncovers a body in the yard and Cooper’s father is the prime suspect, Cooper knows they’re on their own. Familial involvement means no sanctioned investigation. They’ll need to go rogue and solve the mystery quietly or risk seeing Cooper’s dad put behind bars.

The case may be cold, but Park and Cooper’s relationship heats up as they work. And yet if Cooper can’t figure out what’s going on between them outside of the bedroom, he’ll lose someone he… Well, he can’t quite put into words how he feels about Park. He knows one thing for sure: he’s not ready to say goodbye, though with the real killer inching ever closer…he may not have a choice.

Rating: B+

Charlie Adhara’s début novel, The Wolf at the Door, was a hugely entertaining combination of paranormal romance and romantic suspense. Set in a world in which werewolves exist and have recently made themselves known to world governments, readers were introduced to the BSI (Bureau of Special Investigation) which is the division of the FBI specifically tasked with investigating werewolf-related crimes. Special Agent Cooper Dayton was seriously wounded in a werewolf attack around a year before the book opened, and once recovered, was offered the opportunity to join the BSI, where he has been partnered with Oliver Park, a handsome, somewhat enigmatic werewolf and former college professor.  Given the way Cooper was injured, and the way his former partner had drummed the necessity for suspicion into him, it wasn’t surprising he wasn’t pleased at being part of what, according to his ex-partner, was a PR exercise designed to pander to the werewolf population; but as the book progressed, it became clear to Cooper – and to the reader – that not everything he’d been told was the truth, and that Park was charming, intuitive, droll and trustworthy – absolutely nothing like Cooper had expected.

By the end of the book, Cooper and Park have moved beyond the professional and become lovers, their physical intimacy evolving naturally out of the strong working relationship they develop during the story.  By the time The Wolf at Bay opens, they’ve been together for four months, although of course, it’s not something they can be open about if they want to remain as work-partners.  They spend a lot of time together, enjoy each other’s company (and the sex) but Cooper isn’t willing to think beyond that, or about what they’re really doing – things firmly on the long list of things he and Park Don’t Talk About.

Following a shake-down that doesn’t go according to plan, Cooper and Park are on their way back to DC when a call from Cooper’s dad, former Sheriff Ed Dayton, sees them making a detour to Jagger Valley in Maryland in order to attend the engagement party being held for Cooper’s brother Dean – which Cooper had completely forgotten about.  Cooper’s relationship with his father is an uneasy one, and he rarely visits his childhood home; he’s always felt the Sheriff never thought he was good enough, and Cooper has never told his father or his brother how dangerous his job really is and lets them believe he’s a glorified pen-pusher, which gives rise to some disparaging comments and not so subtle ribbing from his dad.  He’s not out to them either, and on top of all that, there’s an uncomfortable tension between him and Park he’s aware is mostly his fault because he’s deliberately holding back from him.  On impulse, Cooper asks Park to go to Jagger Valley with him, hoping that perhaps some time away from the professional arena will allow them to just be a couple and maybe to figure out exactly what they are to each other; and Park, being Park, says he’d be honoured to meet Cooper’s family.

The first part of the book does get a little bogged down in Cooper’s insecurities, his reluctance to admit to himself how he really feels about Park and his inability to actually talk to him about their… whatever is going on between them.  Fears of rejection, of being hurt and thirty years of emotional repression  all conspire to keep holding him back, and while he does want to talk to Park about where they stand, he simultaneously keeps finding ways to put it off.  And when a decades old dead body is found buried in the back garden of the Dayton family home, Cooper grabs the opportunity to put it off yet again with both hands.

Once this discovery is made, the pace picks up, and the revelations concerning the dead man – who lived in the house next door but was believed to have upped and left twenty-five years earlier – come thick and fast and Cooper learns some things about his family history that shock and unnerve him.  Even though he’s not there in any official capacity – and is warned off becoming involved – when his father falls under suspicion, Cooper is even more determined to discover the truth about the man’s death.

The mystery plot is extremely well done, but the thing that has really stuck with me about this book is the astonishing amount of character and relationship development Ms. Adhara packs into it, and how skilfully she juggles her different plotlines.  Through Cooper’s investigations into the murder, readers learn more about his past, his familial relationships and how they have informed his character; and even though he and Park are on shaky ground for part of the book, the discoveries they make about each other only serve to strengthen the bond developing between them.  It’s apparent right away that their relationship is about more than ‘just sex’ for both of them; they hang out together, they watch movies, talk about books and enjoy being together, but Cooper is terribly insecure and fearful that eventually Park will just stop showing up at his place, and those anxieties communicate themselves to his lover and send mixed signals.

As with the previous book, the story is told entirely from Cooper’s point of view, but once again the author does wonderful job of showing the truth of Park’s feelings through his words, actions and expressions.  Cooper might not be able to read the signs properly, but the reader can, and it’s crystal clear that Park is very much in love, but is trying to give Cooper whatever he needs while he figures things out.  Unfortunately, Cooper reads his willingness to give him space as aloofness; but thankfully, he does eventually come to realise that his unwillingness to let himself be vulnerable is what is most likely to drive Park away, and after a particularly steamy sexual encounter decides it’s time to man up and be honest with the man he loves.

The mystery is wrapped up neatly by the end and Cooper and Park have at last admitted how they feel about one another, but a plot-thread left hanging for book three suggests that not everything in the garden of love will continue to be rosy.  Although The Wolf at Bay gets a little bogged down in the first part, it’s still an excellent read and one I’m recommending very strongly.  I’m thoroughly enjoying this series, and can’t wait to read book three next Spring.

The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder #1) by Josh Lanyon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Special Agent Jason West is seconded from the FBI Art Crime Team to temporarily partner with disgraced, legendary “manhunter” Sam Kennedy when it appears that Kennedy’s most famous case, the capture and conviction of a serial killer known as The Huntsman, may actually have been a disastrous failure.

For The Huntsman is still out there… and the killing has begun again.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

Note: I have no idea what’s with that cover. Fingers crossed the author/publisher can find a more appealing one someday.

The first book in the author’s The Art of Murder series, The Mermaid Murders pairs up hard-boiled Senior Special Agent Sam Kennedy of the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit with one of the bureau’s rising stars, Jason West, who has been seconded from the Art Crimes Team and instructed to assist Kennedy with his latest case, ostensibly because Jason is familiar with the area in which the crime has been committed.  It’s not that simple however;  Sam Kennedy might be something of a legend in the bureau, but his often abrasive manner and single-minded focus hasn’t earned him many friends over the years, and following a very public disagreement with a state governor, he’s  in the dog-house and the higher-ups want someone keeping tabs on him.  So this new partnership is far from a match made in heaven; Kennedy doesn’t want a partner – especially one he doesn’t know or know if he can trust, and makes it clear from the off that he knows Jason has been assigned to babysit him.  But Jason isn’t easily cowed; he’s just as pissed that he’s been sent to ‘handle’ Kennedy and insists right back that he’s part of the investigation and isn’t going to be pushed aside.

“I’ve been asked to try and make sure you don’t step in it again, sure, but I’m not here to hold your cape, Batman.”

More than a decade earlier, Sam was responsible for the apprehension of a serial killer who preyed on teenaged girls in Kingsfield, a small town in Worcester County, New England.  At the time, it was a regular holiday destination for Jason’s family and he had actually been close friends with the first victim, Honey Corrigan.  But now, more than a decade later, it seems the killer has struck again; another girl dead, a small, carved mermaid charm found by the body.  Is this the work of a copycat?  Or did Sam get the wrong man all those years ago?  Given that he’s currently under a cloud, his superiors are twitchy in case the killer is still out there and the wrong man is in prison – but Sam knows that’s not the case.  The right guy is behind bars, but there’s no evidence to support the theory of a copycat or disciple either, which leaves the investigation… where?

The Mermaid Murders boasts an intriguing mystery with plenty of twists and turns, and the author  captures the somewhat insular and suspicious attitude of the local population very well, which lends the story a slight air of menace.  It also introduces a couple of compelling protagonists in Sam Kennedy and Jason West; Sam is large, imposing, taciturn and doesn’t suffer fools. He takes his job seriously, has an enviable record of solving cases and, in spite of the current snafu, is clearly very well respected.  Because the story is told entirely in Jason’s PoV, we never get into Sam’s head which means he remains somewhat frustratingly enigmatic, but it’s clear there’s a lot going on beneath that immovable exterior.  Jason is a dozen years younger (Sam’s mid-forties), he’s smart, he’s intuitive and loves his job in Art Crimes:

“It’s just that…people keep killing other people. That’s the worst of humanity. Art is the other side of the coin. It represents the best of humanity. And what I’m here for is to try and protect that…legacy.”

After a few days, Jason is surprised to discover that even though he doesn’t much like Sam Kennedy, he’s strongly attracted to him.  He has no idea about Kennedy’s sexual preferences but even if he did, Jason doesn’t make a habit of going to bed with people he doesn’t like, so it’s academic and utterly ridiculous. Until it isn’t.  When Sam makes a move, Jason is surprised by the intensity of his reactions to the man and can’t resist, no matter that he knows it’s a bad idea. As this story is setting up a series, the relationship between the pair is basically confined to a couple of explosive sexual encounters, but the author also subtly conveys the changing nature of Jason’s feelings towards Sam, and shows that while Sam is outwardly all about the job and compartmentalising his life, he’s capable of affection and tenderness, even though it’s brief and not overt.  When the book ends, Sam and Jason have agreed to keep in touch, and maybe go on an actual date… but whether they manage that remains to be seen.

Kale Williams is a new-to-me narrator, and I enjoyed his performance overall, although it took me a while to get used to his characterisation of Sam.  It’s not that it’s bad; actually it’s quite a good interpretation of the character, because he’s blunt and very rarely expresses emotion, so the somewhat monotonous (as in a same pitch, not boring!) delivery works.  It’s more that Mr. Williams adopts a kind of whisper/speech delivery for his dialogue in order to sustain the lower pitch (I’m guessing); as I said above, it’s not horrible, it just took me a chapter or two to get used to.  Otherwise it’s a very strong performance – the pacing is spot on and the character differentiation is good so there’s never any confusion as to who is speaking, and he does a good job with the action/set pieces, injecting the right degree of anticipation or fear or whatever else is required into his voice.  I’ll certainly be listening to more books in the series.

Unmasked by the Marquess (Regency Imposters #1) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one you love…

Robert Selby is determined to see his sister make an advantageous match. But he has two problems: the Selbys have no connections or money and Robert is really a housemaid named Charity Church. She’s enjoyed every minute of her masquerade over the past six years, but she knows her pretense is nearing an end. Charity needs to see her beloved friend married well and then Robert Selby will disappear…forever.

May not be who you think…

Alistair, Marquess of Pembroke, has spent years repairing the estate ruined by his wastrel father, and nothing is more important than protecting his fortune and name. He shouldn’t be so beguiled by the charming young man who shows up on his doorstep asking for favors. And he certainly shouldn’t be thinking of all the disreputable things he’d like to do to the impertinent scamp.

But is who you need…

When Charity’s true nature is revealed, Alistair knows he can’t marry a scandalous woman in breeches, and Charity isn’t about to lace herself into a corset and play a respectable miss. Can these stubborn souls learn to sacrifice what they’ve always wanted for a love that is more than they could have imagined?

Rating: B-

Unmasked by the Marquess, the first in Cat Sebastian’s new Regency Imposters series, marks something of a departure for her in that, unlike her previous books, it isn’t a male/male romance. The two protagonists are a man and a woman – but the fact that this isn’t a standard m/f romance quickly becomes apparent when we learn that our heroine – a former housemaid named Charity Church – has actually been living as a man for the past six years and feels far more ‘right’ in herself dressing, acting and living as a man than she ever did as a woman.

(I’m using ‘she’ and ‘her’ in this review, even though Charity is non-binary; the author uses those pronouns throughout the book for reasons she explains in her author’s note, so I’m going to follow her lead).

Robert Selby and his sister Louisa have come to London with the object of securing an advantageous match for Louisa. Unfortunately however, coming from rural Northumberland makes an entrée into the right circles in London rather difficult as they know no one who can introduce them. Remembering his father’s old friend, the late Marquess of Pembroke, Robert hits upon the idea of asking the current marquess for help; if a man of his standing is seen to take notice of Louisa, then surely other men will follow and a proposal will ensue.

Alistair de Lacey has spent the years since the death of his profligate father working hard to rebuild the family finances and to claw back the respectability the late marquess threw away in favour of a life filled with excess and dissolution. When a charming and rather attractive young man named Robert Selby is ushered into his library, Alastair expects to be tapped for money, so is surprised when Selby tells him that the late marquess stood godfather to his (Robert’s) sister, and asks for Alistair’s assistance in launching her into society. But Alistair – who has just received (and turned down) a similar request from his late father’s mistress on behalf of her eldest daughter (Alistair’s half-sister) – isn’t inclined to help and sends the young man on his way.

Charity – the author has her think of herself as Charity in the chapters from her PoV, while Alistair thinks of her as Robert and later, Robin – is disappointed and isn’t sure how to proceed. The next day, however, an unexpected encounter with Pembroke and his younger brother, Lord Gilbert, engenders a remarkably quick volte-face on Pembroke’s part and soon, Charity – as Robert – and Louisa become part of Pembroke’s small circle.

After this, things move very quickly – rather too quickly in fact, because in no time at all, Alistair and Robert are the best of friends, and while we’re told this friendship develops over a couple of weeks, on the page there’s a big jump from their not knowing each other at all to being extremely comfortable with one another. Given that Alistair has been established as overly cautious and very proper, the way he so easily befriends Robert feels somewhat out of character. The way they seem to just ‘click’ is nicely conveyed, but it’s still quite a leap from there to bosom-buddies, and I couldn’t really buy it in context.

Alistair is well aware that he can feel sexual desire for both men and women – although this being the nineteenth century, he hasn’t acted on his attraction to men – so it’s not the fact he’s attracted to Robert that gives him pause. It’s the way Robert has so quickly worked his way under his skin, the way his presence in a room can light it up and the way Alistair feels so much more alive when Robert is with him. So it comes as a huge disappointment when, on the morning after their first kiss, Alistair learns that Robert lied to him about Louisa’s being the old marquess’ goddaughter. He lashes out angrily, even going to far as to accuse Robert of intending to blackmail him over their kiss – and the only thing Robert can think of to allay Alistair’s fears on that score is to confess that he’s not Robert, but Charity.

Of course Alistair is even more furious at this deception – but after a few miserable days and weeks alone, decides that having Robert – as Charity, Robert or whoever she wants to be – is preferable to not having her in his life at all. He doesn’t care what’s under her clothes; it’s the person inside he’s interested in, but the trouble really begins when he asks Charity to marry him. Charity insists Alistair hasn’t thought it through; how can a marquess – especially one as concerned with reputation and propriety as he is – possibly marry a former housemaid? And not only a former housemaid, but a former housemaid who doesn’t intend on living the rest of her life as a woman and will be damned if she’s going to give up the freedoms she’s enjoyed for the past six years?

There is a lot of plot and backstory stuffed into the book, and I have to admit that sometimes it felt like overkill. Charity’s reasons for becoming Robert Selby are good ones, but it’s complicated, and becomes moreso when an important fact of which Alistair – and the reader – has been ignorant, is suddenly thrown into the mix near the end of the book. The strongest part of the story is actually Alistair’s progress from curmudgeonly stick-in-the mud to a man who is much more forgiving of the foibles of others and comes to realise the importance of love and the difference between living and merely existing. He’s become aloof and inflexible, but once he becomes involved with Robert, the real Alistair, the man who is decent, kind and funny, begins to emerge, and Ms. Sebastian does a very good job of having him recognise just how far from his true self he had strayed. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Alistair and Gilbert, which is well done and feels very ‘brotherly’. It’s clear that the two care for each other very much, but have lost some of that feeling in recent years because Alistair’s need to be all that is respectable and proper has caused him to lose sight of what’s really important in life. I liked Charity and her determination to hold on to her independence; I liked her gumption and the way she forces Alistair to see that the rules that govern his life don’t work for everybody.

There are some good, meaty points being made about what it’s like not to fit into established roles, about how few options were available to women and the way society treated those who didn’t wish to conform – which is why I was disappointed when the conflict in the romance boiled down to a very old chestnut, and one I’m not particularly fond of – the ‘I will not let you sacrifice yourself by marrying me because I am not suitable’ one, which always feels as though one person is telling the other that they’re stupid and don’t know their own mind. It’s not that Charity is wrong to point the problems out to Alistair – they’re undoubtedly bigger problems than face many a cross-class couple in historical romance – it’s that she’s prepared to ride roughshod over his feelings rather than try to hash out a solution that will work for both of them that I didn’t like. I also found it more than a little jarring that a man who was trying so hard to be as unlike his father as possible didn’t think twice about the fact that he would be doing to his own (future) children exactly what his father had done in making his children a topic of gossip and scandal in a society that, sadly, did visit the sins of the father upon subsequent generations.

Even with those reservations, I liked – although I didn’t love – Unmasked by the Marquess and am going to give it a cautious recommendation. The writing is sharp and witty, and I liked the principals and secondary characters. But while the relationship between Alistair and Charity has plenty of sexual tension and their verbal exchanges are entertaining, the romance is somewhat lacking in the early stages and I never got rid of that feeling that I’d missed something amid all the busy-ness of the rest of the plot.