TBR Challenge: Mistletoe Marriage by Jessica Hart

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It could happen to you!

A CHRISTMAS WISH…

For Sophie Beckwith, Christmas this year means having to face the ex who dumped her and then married her sister! Only one person can help—her best friend Bram.

A YULETIDE PROPOSAL…

Bram used to be engaged to Sophie’s sister. Now, determined to show “the lovebirds” that they’ve moved on, he’s come up with a plan: he’s proposed—to Sophie!

A MISTLETOE MARRIAGE!

It’s crazy, but it would be only pretend…wouldn’t it? Now their wedding day is here and Sophie’s feelings for Bram have drastically changed. Her deepest wish now is for Bram to say “I do”—for real!

Rating: B

Time constraints meant I needed a quick read for this month’s TBR Challenge, and Jessica Hart’s Mistletoe Marriage (from 2005) proved to be just the thing.  It’s a charming, well-written and absorbing friends-to-lovers story set in the weeks before Christmas featuring a couple of engaging principals and a bit – not too much  – angst. I lapped it up in a couple of sittings one afternoon and came away from it with a happy sigh.

Bram and Sophie have been friends forever and are still besties, even though Sophie now lives and works in London and Bram works his small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors.  Sophie’s parents own a neighbouring farm, and she’s visiting for the weekend – taking the chance to do so knowing her sister Melissa and her new husband, Nick, are away so she won’t run into them.  Sophie and Nick had been engaged before she introduced him to Melissa – and even though she doesn’t resent her sister – or Nick – for falling in love, Sophie hasn’t been able to forget the way she’d felt when she was with Nick or move on. She also finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her conversations with Melissa always end up revolving around her guilt for ‘stealing’ Nick, and usually leave Sophie exhausted from the effort of trying to make her sister feel better.

With Christmas approaching, Sophie’s mother is pressuring Sophie to come home for the festivities and to see Melissa and Nick, whom she hasn’t seen since their wedding.  Sophie never told her parents about Nick, so they have no idea of the truth of the situation, and with it being her father’s seventieth birthday a couple of days before Christmas her mother is really turning the emotional thumbscrews to get Sophie to agree to visit and stay with them. Feeling guilty, tired and miserable, Sophie heads up to Haw Gill Farm to see Bram to pour out her woes. He’s always been easy to talk to, and his steady, dependable presence has never failed to bring her comfort.

During the course of a conversation in which they commiserate about the state of their love-lives (and the lack thereof), Sophie jokingly says she wishes she could marry Bram – and to her shock, he says that it’s not a bad idea.  They know each other better than anyone else, Sophie understands the rhythms of life on a farm and Bram needs help; it might not be a grand passion but they’d have friendship, comfort and companionship and they’d both know where they stand.

Surprised, Sophie finds herself actually considering the idea – before rejecting it, telling Bram he deserves someone “who believes in you and loves you completely for yourself” and that he shouldn’t settle for second best.  Bram can’t disagree with her – but is somewhat taken aback to realise he’s actually disappointed at her refusal.

Not long after this, when Sophie is back in her poky flat in London, she’s on the phone to Melissa, suffering through yet another of her sister’s guilt trips when the conversation turns to Bram and the possibility that he might be seeing an old acquaintance who has recently been dumped by her fiancé – and it’s too much for Sophie.  What with having to try to tiptoe around her sister’s upset and her own strangely conflicting feelings about Bram, she snaps and tells Melissa that she and Bram are getting married.

Oops.

Okay, so this story isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but it’s a fine example of a fake relationship/friends-to-lovers tale.  The characters are swiftly and skilfully drawn, and the author makes it easy to believe in the long-standing friendship between Bram and Sophie; their affection for one another and deep mutual understanding just leaps off the page. The book does have flaws – Nick is such a prick that it’s difficult to understand exactly why Sophie was so much in love with him, and there’s just a teeny bit of the martyr about Sophie in her tendency to give way to Melissa and believe herself to be somehow second-best – but those are really minor concerns.  The big thing for me in any friends-to-lovers story, is the way the author handles the Key Moment –the one where the friends realise they’re seeing each other as if for the first time and that he/she is gorgeous – and Jessica Hart does a great job with that, showing readers several small moments of realisation and growing attraction, as Bram and Sophie start to realise they’re seeing each other in a new light.  It’s a quiet, character-driven story; there’s no drawn-out Big Mis or unnecessary angst – the tangled relationships between Sophie, Melissa, Nick and Bram (a decade earlier, Bram and Melissa had been briefly engaged and Sophie worries he might still be carrying a torch for her sister) create enough tension to propel the story – and thankfully, Bram and Sophie are sufficiently mature and attuned to each other to not allow their niggling doubts to go unaddressed for too long.

Mistletoe Marriage is a quick, but satisfying read, Bram and Sophie are very likeable principals and their romance is easy to invest in.  It proved to be an excellent way to while away a couple of hours on a cold winter’s afternoon.

TBR Challenge: Tempting Harriet by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harriet, Lady Wingham, widowed after a four-year marriage to an older man, takes her young daughter to London to stay with friends. There she becomes reacquainted with the Duke of Tenby, the man who broke her heart six years earlier when he offered her carte blanche instead of marriage. This time he has honorable intentions toward her, but Harriet misunderstands and impulsively agrees to become his mistress for a short while until she returns home. And so begins an affair disastrous to them both, for their feelings for each other cannot be satisfied by such a casual and clandestine arrangement.

Rating: C+

Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines.  It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.

I’ll admit now that this month’s prompt – to read a book with a lovely or hideous cover – rather stumped me. I read pretty much exclusively on a Kindle these days, so I don’t take a great deal of notice of covers; plus reading a lot of historical romance, I’m used to the half-naked, man-titty covers that are de rigueur in the genre and usually just roll my eyes and move on to the actual words.  I do, however, rather like the minimalistic covers that have been given to these first-time digital re-issues of Mary Balogh’s Signet Regencies.  On its own, I suppose the new cover for Tempting Harriet might be a little dull (and the colour isn’t my favourite), but taken together, they’re quite striking because they’re so simple and uncluttered.  So that’s my excuse for picking this one, and I’m sticking to it!

Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby.  Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she  met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love.  Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.

That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart.  Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife.  His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.

But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again.  Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage.  He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.

The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision.  The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels.  Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs.  Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover.  She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time.  And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.

This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic.  It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard.  Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him.  This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.

I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end.  Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh.  Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are.  And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.

It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself.  It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time.  On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing.  So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully  peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.

TBR Challenge: Against the Dark (The Associates #1) by Carolyn Crane

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s an ex-safecracker forced into one last heist.

Angel Ramirez left the safecracking game five years ago, and she’s worked hard to make amends and build an honest life. But when a beloved aunt is kidnapped, she must reunite with her girl gang to acquire the unique ransom: Walter Borgola’s prized diamonds. It’s a simple job that turns into a nightmare, thanks to a surprisingly clever—and searingly sexy—security guard named Cole Hawkins.

He’s an undercover agent with big plans for his gorgeous thief.

Cole is one of the Association’s most brilliant agents, under deep cover investigating a ruthless killer. He’s also running out of time: hundreds will die if he doesn’t stop the plan Borgola’s set into motion. Catching Angel is the break he needed–he promises not to turn her in if she poses as his lover and uses her unique talents to unlock the sociopath’s dungeon vaults.

But as pretend passions turn real, Cole regrets drawing Angel into his deadly game…and danger is closer than either of them could ever imagine.

Rating: B

I haven’t read anything by Carolyn Crane before, but her romantic suspense novels come highly recommended, so I picked up this first book in her four-book series The Associates for this months’ prompt.  It’s fast-moving and well-written with some nicely steamy scenes – plus the hero is a hot, dangerously sexy maths-nerd who wears glasses.  Um.  Yeah, that right there was enough to get me interested! (Think Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters – I did! ;))  On the downside, the romance is a bit hurried; the events of the story take place over three or four days so there’s not a lot of time to develop a relationship beyond physical attraction and the fact that the hero and heroine have to trust each other if they’re to make it to the end of the book alive.  That said though, Against the Dark was enjoyable and I pretty much blew through it in one sitting; sometimes one craves well-done hokum with fights, chases, things blowing up and crackling sexual tension, and that’s exactly what I got so I was pretty happy by the end.

Former jewel thief and expert safe-cracker Angel Ramirez has been on the straight and narrow for the last five years and now makes her living as an interior designer.  But she’s agreed to come out of retirement to pull a job with her friends and fellow thieves, Macy and White Jenny, that’s very personal to them.  A violent gang has kidnapped Macy’s Aunt Aggie, who practically raised all three of them, and is demanding the set of priceless diamonds belonging to crimelord Walter Borgola – “the biggest pimp-scumbag and God knows what else in L.A.” – as ransom.  Angel’s job is going to be to crack the Fenton Furst safe in Borgola’s bedroom; she’s one of the few people in the world who has the skills and knowledge to do it, so the ladies have got themselves into one of Borgola’s sleazy parties/orgies where they’re posing as working girls while waiting to make their move.

Cole Hawkins is one of The Associates, a shadowy organisation that is frequently used to do the jobs that can‘t be done legally or with official government sanction;  “Officially, no governments knew about them; unofficially, they were central to the international fight against crime.”  Cole has infiltrated Borgola’s operation as one of his security team, and for the past nine months has been gathering evidence and information on the sex trafficking ring Borgola is running out of Myanmar.  Cole has recently uncovered an even more sinister side to the operation;  Borgola is bringing in kids and using them in snuff movies, and there’s a new ‘shipment’ on the way, so Cole is up against it if he’s to track down the ships the kids are on, get them out of harm’s way and nail Borgola.

He knows the evidence he needs is contained within a second Fenton Furst safe which is in a hidden location in Borgola’s mansion.  Whoever cracked the safe containing the diamonds will be able to crack the second one; Cole tracks Angel down and lies in wait for her at her apartment – and pretty much blackmails her into helping him.

From then on in, things move at a cracking pace as Cole and Angel – neither of whom trusts easily – have to work together to find the safe and obtain the information Cole needs.  The romance is, as I said at the outset, perhaps a little rushed, building as it does over just a few days, but the pressure-cooker environment and close proximity in which Cole and Angel are operating, together with the smoking hot chemistry between them helps to make it if not completely believable, then at least perfectly plausible.  The plot is twisty and well-constructed, with plenty of action and edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in the last quarter, when things really do get hairy.

Angel and Cole are complex, damaged and somewhat morally ambiguous.  Angel clearly regrets her criminal past and what she sees as her inner ugliness, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and loyalty make her an engaging heroine.  I also loved the ‘girl-power’ vibe that came off her relationship with Macy and White Jenny; these women obviously know each other intimately, and care about each other deeply, and even though they’ve not pulled a job together in five years, neither of those things has gone away. Cole is an intriguing mix of alpha and beta hero, a man who’s done a lot of things he’s not proud of and is prepared to keep doing bad things if it means he gets to help people who need it.  He’s a maths genius and logistics expert, reducing problems to patterns and equations, the sort of guy who follows the paper-trail and comes up trumps – but he’s no slouch in the badassery or take-charge departments either.

I can’t deny though, that there were a few WTF? moments along the way, such as Cole telling Angel that her abilities as an interior designer somehow meant she could “see things we can’t” (huh?  She can tell a bad guy by the quality of his laminate flooring?) or when Cole’s not-so-inner maths-nerd surfaces during sex scenes; “Women had been equations before this,” or “This woman … made his sigmas and coefficients swirl in a tornado.”  – ouch?

Still, hot nerds are my catnip and I enjoyed Against the Dark for the sexy, escapist fun it was. I’m definitely planning to read the other books in the series.

TBR Challenge: What I Did for a Duke (Pennyroyal Green #5) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For years, he’s been an object of fear, fascination…and fantasy. But of all the wicked rumors that shadow the formidable Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, the ton knows one thing for certain: only fools dare cross him. And when Ian Eversea does just that, Moncrieffe knows the perfect revenge: he’ll seduce Ian’s innocent sister, Genevieve—the only Eversea as yet untouched by scandal. First he’ll capture her heart…and then he’ll break it.

But everything about Genevieve is unexpected: the passion simmering beneath her cool control, the sharp wit tempered by gentleness…And though Genevieve has heard the whispers about the duke’s dark past, and knows she trifles with him at her peril, one incendiary kiss tempts her deeper into a world of extraordinary sensuality. Until Genevieve is faced with a fateful choice…is there anything she won’t do for a duke?

Rating: A-

Incredible as it may seem (and it still does – to me!) the Pennyroyal Green series is one that I haven’t yet completed.  I’ve read the last three or four books but not the earlier ones, so I decided to pick up one of them for September’s TBR prompt to read an historical romance.  The novel is fifth in the series and was originally published in 2011 – and I’m rather partial to the formidable but misunderstood hero trope, which is what decided me on this particular instalment.

Alexander Moncreiffe, Duke of Falconbridge, is not a man to be crossed.  A certain aloofness combined with a reputation for ruthlessness and the rumours he killed his wife for her money makes him an object of fear and fascination among the ton, although of course, his immense wealth and title mean that he is welcomed everywhere.  Sardonic, charismatic and darkly attractive, women want him and men want to be him; and recognising the futility of attempting to change society’s opinion, Alex does nothing to dispel the rumours and actually, rather enjoys the reputation conferred upon him and is only too willing to play up to it on occasion.

When he finds Ian Eversea in bed with his fiancée, he is (naturally) furious, but instead of challenging Ian to a duel he decides to make him sweat and keep him wondering as to when he will exact his revenge or what form it will take.  He decides that poetic justice will best suit his purposes and gets himself invited to the house party being held by the Eversea family at their country estate in Pennyroyal Green; there he intends to seduce and then abandon Ian’s younger sister, Genevieve.

Genevieve has been in love with Harry Osborne for years, and is sure that at any moment he will declare his love and propose.  He’s handsome, funny and charming (if a little oblivious at times) and they have a lot in common, such as their love of Italian art.  So she is devastated when, during a tête-á- tête, he confesses his plan to propose to their mutual friend, Millcent and, heartbroken, attempts to hide herself away as much as possible.  When the formidable – and fascinating – Duke of Falconbridge singles her out for his attentions and seeks her company, Genevieve tries to avoid him – but is intrigued in spite of herself.  Soon, she discovers a man rather different to the one she’d expected; he’s authoritative and very ‘ducal’ of course, but Genevieve sees through the highly polished veneer to discover a man capable of charm, humour and considerable perspicacity, at the same time as the duke encourages her to discover and admit to certain truths about herself.

This is one of those books where not very much happens – no kidnappings, pirates, spies, missing heirs or murders – but in which the pages just fly by and the reader becomes completely and utterly invested in the central characters, their interactions and their gradually developing romance.  Neither Genevieve nor Alex is exactly what they seem, which becomes a point of commonality between them; Alex’s reputation as a cold, sometimes cruel man is not undeserved, but he’s also clever, intuitive and witty, while Genevieve is widely believed to be sensible, quiet and shy whereas she’s nothing of the sort. Her demeanour is the result of careful consideration rather than natural reticence, and she is often impatient with the mistaken impression society has of her.  I loved the way Ms. Long used flowers to point up the impressions held by others of Genevieve and her sister; Olivia is routinely sent bouquets of vibrant, colourful flowers by her numerous admirers, while Genevieve, when she gets flowers at all, gets daisies and narcissi and pale, insipid arrangements, until one morning a huge display of roses that is – magnificently intimidating and almost indecently sensual – arrives for her.  Of course, it’s from Alex, and it’s a wonderful way of showing that he really sees Genevieve for the remarkable woman she truly is.  In spite of his plan to debauch and ruin her (which is soon abandoned in an unexpected and fitting way), we see that he is coming to genuinely care for and understand her while she is doing the same thing as regards him.

Julie Anne Long’s writing is superb; deft, witty, warm and perceptive, she has a knack for dialogue and vivid description, and for creating multifaceted, flawed and yet thoroughly engaging characters.  (Although I really wish someone had corrected all the errors with titles – a duke is never addressed as “Lord” anybody). Alex is a formidable man but he’s also a very lonely one who is tired of playing society’s games and wants some peace in his life.  Genevieve is misunderstood and undervalued, a young woman who doesn’t yet really know who she is, but who learns, through her association with Alex, how to be the passionate, vibrant, pleasure-loving woman she really is.  They really do bring out the best in each other, and I loved the fact that Alex wanted so badly for Genevieve to become her best self; even if he couldn’t have her for himself, he wanted her to have that and to be properly appreciated.

What I Did for a Duke is a captivating character-driven story that has no need for flashy plotlines and over-wrought drama to propel it forward.  What begins as a May/December romance between an underestimated young woman and a world-weary rake slowly morphs into something more complex and nuanced, a story about two people able to see past the distorted lens with which they are each generally viewed to the real person inside – and to love that person unreservedly.  When AAR reviewed the book on its release, it was awarded it DIK status, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur.

TBR Challenge: The Tyburn Waltz by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Julie expects she will end up dangling on Tyburn gallows,hanged as a thief.

Ned expects he will die on the battlefields of the Peninsula, hanged as a spy.

But then Julie takes on the trappings of a lady, and Ned unexpectedly becomes an earl, both players in a deadly game that will take them from the heights of London society to the depths of the Regency underworld — a game in which not only necks are risked, but hearts as well.

Rating: B

Finding a book in a series to read for this month’s prompt proved a bit harder than I’d anticipated.  Oh, I’ve got plenty of series books, but I realised that most were in series I’d either completed or not started yet, so my option was pretty much limited to picking up the first in a series.  I was going back and forth on my Kindle trying to work out what I fancied reading and actually started one or two other books before finally settling on Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz.  Ms. MacKeever has a fairly large backlist of traditional regencies, but this book – the first in her Tyburn Trilogy (which has yet to be completed) – dates from 2010 and is a little bit sexier and somewhat darker than her trads.

When she’s just fourteen – as near as she can guess, anyway – street urchin Jules is caught stealing some silver teaspoons, imprisoned in Newgate and will most likely hang for the crime.  But she’s offered a deal; release in exchange for working for the infamous Cap’n Jack – the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent lord of London’s criminal underworld.  It’s Hobson’s Choice; Jules agrees, and for the next four years, she lives comfortably, and is given lessons in refinement and deportment so that she can move easily among the upper classes.

Ned Fairchild, Earl of Dorset, is a rather reluctant earl, having come into the title upon the unexpected death of his cousin.  Until then, he’d been an Exploring Officer (a spy of sorts) in Wellington’s army in Spain, a dangerous life, but one he’d relished.  Back in England, he and his closest friend, Kane, Lord Saxe, are still working for the government – but mostly Ned is bored by the round of balls, parties, visits to clubs and his mistress that seem to comprise his life and longs for something more.

He returns home late one night to find his fifteen-year-old sister, Lady Clea, out of bed and waiting for him, proudly showing him what looks to be a young woman wrapped in a curtain and tied to a chair in his library.  Clea explains that she – with the help of his batman, Bates – caught a housebreaker; Ned sends her to bed, intending to find out what he can about the young woman’s intentions, but she’s too quick for him, and knocks him over the head with an ornamental statue before absconding out of the window – with the statue, and without the curtain.

Shortly after this, Jules is manoeuvred into a situation as companion to Lady Georgiana Ashcroft.  As Miss Julie Wynne, she accompanies her mistress to a number of society events, where she’s instructed to steal various items from the hosts. She has no idea to what end, just knows that she’s got to follow Cap’n Jack’s orders quickly and without drawing attention to herself.  She’s engaged in stealing a glove from the bedroom of the wife of the French Ambassador when she’s confronted by the Earl of Dorset who idly wonders if she’s lost something.  She tries to bluff her way out of it, but quickly realises its futile; he’s recognised her and he’s clearly not going to let her get away this time.  She’s worried he’s going to report her to the authorities and is surprised when he doesn’t, instead asking her to meet him again so they can talk further.  Ned quickly realises there’s more going on that meets the eye, and assigns Bates to keep an eye on Julie, to protect her from whomever has her under his control.

The romance between Ned and Julie is a fairly slow-burn, and the author does a great job of building the attraction that thrums between them from their very first meeting. They’re both extremely likeable; Ned is a terrific hero – handsome, clever and compassionate, he’s impressed by Julie’s tenacity and gumption as much as he’s attracted to her and is determined to keep her safe at all costs. Julie has an old head on her young shoulders – not surprising, considering she grew up on the streets – she’s quick-witted and independent, although she’s sensible enough to recognise when she needs help and to ask for it.  Their interactions are lively and entertaining, they have great chemistry and their relationship moves at a good pace, while they’re also trying to work out exactly who Cap’n Jack is and what he’s up to.  The mystery element of the novel is intriguing and unfolds gradually, with the reader finding clues and information at the same time as the characters, which certainly helps to build the suspense.

The story is set against the backdrop of the state visit which doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot, although it does provide a number of events at which our heroes can interact, and allows the injection of a little light comedy in the forms of Lady Georgiana and Ned’s cousin, the dowager Countess, who are sworn rivals and always trying to score points off each other.  There are some other intriguing secondary characters as well; Ned’s friend Kane is a notorious rake, his sister, Clea is clever, vivacious and has a Latin quote handy for every occasion, and the coolly collected and lovely French spy, Sabine worked with Ned and Kane during the recent war.

After all those positives however, comes the negative; the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the rest of it.  The reveal about Cap’n Jack is weak and anti-climactic, and although everything is neatly wrapped up – and it’s not all rainbows and happy bunnies – the book seems to have run out of steam, and the author throws in a couple of plot points (like the one about Ned’s cousin pushing him to get married) which add little (if anything) to the story as a whole.

The Tyburn Waltz is, on the whole, a well-executed, funny and sensual romantic adventure story, and even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to read the other books in the trilogy.

TBR Challenge: Keeper of the Swans by Nancy Butler

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Facing an arranged political marriage, Diana Exeley flees her betrothal party for a deserted boathouse. When her intended and his mistress appear, she hides in a rowboat—and is carried off by the Thames. Rescued by the mysterious recluse who inhabits an overgrown island, Diana feigns amnesia. Playing for time, she prays she can avoid a loveless marriage … and follow her own heart.

Rating: B

I read the wonderful Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler for a reading challenge prompt a few years back, and at the time, lamented that none of the author’s books were available digitally.  So I was delighted last year to discover that the situation is gradually being remedied; a handful of her historical romances are now available in e-formats, and I hope that eventually, all of her books will become available again, because they deserve to find a new audience.  Keeper of the Swans dates from 1998, and while it’s not my favourite of Ms. Butler’s books, it’s a charming, beautifully written story with an unusual setting and hero that, while fairly short, still packs quite the emotional punch.

Diana Exeley is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at their home near the banks of the Thames, and as the book opens has absented herself from the gathering formed to celebrate her betrothal to the handsome Sir Beverill Hunnycut, nephew and sole heir to Baroness Hamish, a peeress in her own right and the wealthiest landowner along that stretch of the river.  Diana is questioning her decision to marry a man she barely knows when she hears voices behind her and, in order to avoid discovery, hops into a nearby boat to hide.  She is dismayed to realise that the voices she’s hearing are those of her fiancé and his mistress, and annoyed to hear him describe her in very unflattering terms.  Then and there she decides that she will break things off that very evening, regardless of the scandal likely to ensue.  She continues to hide until the couple has returned to the house, fully intending to follow them and make her announcement – when she realises that the rope that had secured the boat to the dock has somehow become untied and she is drifting away from the bank.  Diana is accustomed to rowing along the river and isn’t too worried, but when she discovers she has only one oar, and that the current is much stronger than she is used to, she becomes increasingly alarmed and tries desperately to stay afloat, but she is hit on the head by an overhanging branch and knocked out of the boat.  Barely conscious, she remembers little more than a struggle and someone laughing softly before she passes out.

Diana comes to in an unfamiliar room, a shadowy figure, and the most beautiful voice she’s ever heard.  The man explains how he rescued her from the river and suggests she might be a little concussed; and Diana sees the chance to buy herself some time.  Feeling only a little bit guilty, she tells her rescuer that she can’t remember her name or how she came to be in the river – and of course, she can’t go home until she actually remembers where home is.

Romulus (Rom) Perrin was born in Italy and lived with his father, who worked for a nobleman as keeper of his waterfowl, until he was nine, when they moved to England.  Rom was given a good education and, after his father’s death, joined the army and saw action on the continent during the Napoleonic wars, but returned a different man, his spirit broken, his mind damaged, burdened by survivor’s guilt and overturned by grief.  A lifeline was offered him when Lady Hamish offered him a position caring for the swans and other water birds who have bred for centuries on her estate; and for ten months, Rom has lived quietly on an island in the river, taking care of the swans and other waterfowl and wildlife, and protecting them from poachers.  Labelled mad by most of the locals, who give him a wide berth, he is content to keep himself to himself, his few friends Lady Hamish and some of the gypsies who camp regularly in the area.  Solitude and concern for the animals in his care are gradually restoring his sense of self and helping his disordered mind to heal.

Rom resents the loss of his solitude and recognises the need to get the beautiful young woman (who calls herself Allegra) back to her nearest and dearest.  Not only is he fully cognisant of the damage her reputation could sustain if it’s ever discovered she has spent time alone with an outcast madman, he’s in danger of liking her and becoming attached… and that will never do.

But as she recovers, ‘Allegra’ very quickly worms her way beneath Rom’s skin and into his heart, in much the same way that Diana tumbles into infatuation and love with her Tall River God.  But what hope of a future can there be for an emotionally scarred gamekeeper and a society heiress? And even more importantly, can Rom forgive himself sufficiently to believe he’s worthy of love and affection?

Well, it’s a romance, so we know the answers, but it’s a delightful journey all the same.  Diana discovers a true enjoyment of Rom’s simple way of life and becomes as dedicated to the protection of the wildlife on the island as he is, while Rom finds himself – at first reluctantly – enjoying Diana’s company and telling her about the blame he bears for the loss of so many of his friends and comrades during the war.  Their romance does move quite quickly, but it feels plausible nonetheless, their solitude and isolation contributing to the development of trust and a strong emotional bond, and the strength of the chemistry between them helps to reinforce their connection. Diana has never been happier and Rom is equally smitten by his beautiful, dark-haired water-witch, even though he tries to make it seem as though she is burdensome; he’s one of those grouchy-types who is all teddy-bear-adorable beneath the grumpy exterior, and their exchanges are funny, and laced with tender affection and a nicely bubbling sense of longing and mutual attraction.

The last quarter of the book ups the ante when it comes to the drama, with some heart-breaking moments and interesting revelations in store for our heroes.  The big reveal about Rom wasn’t completely unexpected, although I’ll admit it’s just a little bit too perfect; and I was surprised at the sudden rehabilitation of Diana’s former fiancé, who quickly goes from villain to, well, not hero, but decent guy. Other than those hiccups however, Keeper of the Swans is an enchanting story of love and redemption, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an uplifting, sigh-worthy read.

TBR Challenge: Waking Up Married by Mira Lynn Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Her first thought: “Who are you?”

It’s the morning after her cousin’s bachelorette party in Vegas and Megan Scott wakes up with the mother of all hangovers. Even worse, she’s in a stranger’s penthouse having woken up with something else as well – a funny, arrogant, sexy…husband!

Up until now, finding even a boyfriend had seemed impossible – been there, got the broken heart, sworn off men for good. Then a few martinis with Carter…no, Connor Reed and she’s gone from first meet to marriage in one night!

Megan wants a lawyer. But Connor’s shocking bombshell?

“I don’t want a divorce.”

Rating: C+

Scrolling through my Kindle to find a contemporary romance to read for this month’s prompt, I stumbled upon Mira Lyn Kelly’s Waking Up Married, one of the titles in Harlequin’s short-lived Kiss line (which is published as Mills & Boon Modern Tempted in the UK).  I’ve read a couple of the author’s more recent titles and enjoyed them – funny, sexy and sweet, they’re written with a secure but deft hand and boast attractive principals and a strong supporting cast.  I went into this one hoping for more of the same and found it, for the most part, but the story as a whole is rather let down by the hero who spends most of the novel trying to persuade the heroine into doing something she isn’t sure she wants to do.

Megan Scott is in Vegas with a group of (very bitchy) girlfriends, and they’re out partying before being bridesmaids at the wedding of one of their number the next day.  Megan has decided that she doesn’t want or need a man – she has never fallen in love with one and doesn’t think she is capable of it – instead, she intends to fulfil her desire for motherhood by a visit to the local sperm bank.

Connor Reed is surprised – in a good way – when the gorgeous woman he’d noticed earlier as he’d walked by her table approaches him and asks him if he’ll walk her out of the bar.  Her friends have been egging her on all night, and she won’t hear the end of it if she leaves the bar alone.  It’s an odd request, but he agrees, and he and Megan end up spending the next few hours together, during which they really do ‘click’; Megan tells Connor a bit about her seeming inability to fall in love, which she puts down to the fact that her mother has been married seven times (and had boyfriends in between) and having no desire to follow the path of falling in love and being repeatedly left.  As the night progresses,  Connor becomes more and more convinced that Megan wants the same things from life that he does.  Of course, they take in more than a few more drinks along the way, which is how Megan ends up with her head stuck down the great white telephone the next morning with the hangover from hell – and discovers she’s now Mrs. Reed.

In the spirit of ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’, she tells her new husband they made a horrendous mistake and that they should start divorce proceedings immediately – and is stunned when Connor tells her he wants their marriage to stand.  Megan can’t believe what she’s hearing, but Connor persuades her to hear him out over breakfast.  From what Megan told him the previous night, it seems she wants the same things from a relationship that he does:

“All the vital components that make a relationship successful, without any of the emotional messiness to drag it down. It’s about respect, caring and commitment. Shared goals and compatible priorities. It’s about treating a marriage like a partnership instead of some romantic fantasy. It’s about two people liking each other.”

– and he’s one hundred percent there for that sort of marriage.

Even though Megan has decided she’s probably never going to find ‘the one’, a marriage like the one Connor is suggesting sounds terribly calculating, and she’s not sure it’s what she wants for the rest of her life.  But she agrees to a three month trial – although with no sex allowed – and moves into Connor’s house.

One of the things I liked straight away about Waking Up Married is that the ‘Oh no – we got drunk, got married and must get a divorce as quickly as possible’ trope doesn’t quite pan out that way, because while Megan and Connor did get married while drunk, Connor knew exactly what they were doing when they walked down the aisle.  The trouble is though, that I wasn’t wild about the idea that he was aware of what they were doing while Megan wasn’t; she can’t even remember saying her vows, or much of what Connor told her the previous night.  And while Connor is devastatingly handsome and extremely charming, he’s also incredibly manipulative; for the majority of the book, he’s doing his damnedest to convince Megan that what he wants is what she wants, too, which he does by being Mr. Reasonable and Mr. Unflappable, even when Megan tries everything she can think of to rile him or get him to give up – which seemed a bit mean considering she had actually agreed to give him and their marriage a chance to work out. Neither of them covers themselves in glory here, but fortunately, this stalemate isn’t allowed to continue and things start to look up – until Connor turns into an idiot not far from the end and only manages to turn things around in the last page or two.

Waking Up Married was enjoyable-  but ultimately forgettable – fluff.  I liked both protagonists, and the way Connor was so clueless as to the real state of his feelings about Megan was oddly sweet; he’s a nice blend of alpha and beta hero, a man who wants to protect and support his woman while also applauding her desire for independence.  On the downside, her being independent means less aggro for him and none of those nasty romantic luuurve cooties, so it’s not an entirely altruistic trait.  Ms. Kelly opts to give both characters a backstory that explains their reluctance to pursue love, but it’s very sketchy and could perhaps have been a little more developed; and I also have to admit that I wasn’t always comfortable with Connor’s more manipulative side.

I can’t recommend Waking Up Married without reservations, but if you enjoy rom-coms and are looking for an afternoon quickie (!), it might hit the spot.