The Judas Kiss (Tyburn Trilogy #3) by Maggie MacKeever


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England, 1820. The trial of Queen Caroline is underway. Prinny, George IV now, is determined to divorce his detested wife.

The Whigs hope that the Queen will win her case. The Tories pray that she will not. More than a few Londoners wish that the politicians, taking their monarch with them, would jump off the nearest pier.

London is about to become even more exciting. In the midst of all this uproar, Clea Fairchild returns home.

At fifteen, Clea had been reading Ovid’s ART OF LOVE. And scheming how to, once she acquired bosoms, introduce herself into rakehelly Baron Saxe’s bed. Clea is one-and-twenty now, a widow whose husband died under mysterious circumstances she is determined to resolve.

Kane is almost twice that age.

Reprobate though he may be, Lord Saxe is not sufficiently depraved to act on the unseemly attraction he feels for his friend Ned’s little sister, whom he is convinced means to drive him mad.

Clea wonders, is Kane trying to drive her mad? In the years since they last met, he has grown more dissolute, more jaded, and even more damnably attractive.

He has also grown skittish, and is avoiding her as if she carries the plague.

Clea isn’t one to sit quietly in a corner. She has a mystery to solve. Villains to elude. Schoolgirl fantasies to explore.

Providing her husband’s murderer doesn’t dispose of her first.

Rating: B

When I read Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz a few months back, I found myself rooting for a romance (in a future book) between the hero’s sister and his oldest friend, who had crazy chemistry in spite of the fact that she was a precocious fifteen-year-old and he was in his thirties.  I hasten to add that nothing ikky or untoward happened in that book; it was clear that Lady Clea had a crush on Kane, Lord Saxe, but he treated her like his best friend’s annoying little sister, and their banter was free of sexual references or innuendo – but still, it was apparent there was something there.

The Judas Kiss is set some six years after The Tyburn Waltz, and in it we’re treated to another complex and engaging mystery while at the same time, Clea and Kane are finally able to admit to what they’ve both known and wanted for a long time.

When we met her in the first book in the trilogy, it was clear that Clea was going to grow into an extraordinary young woman.  Highly intelligent, quick witted and insatiably curious, she had a Latin quote at her fingertips for every occasion and could hold her own with the best of them in any verbal exchange.  The one person who could fluster her was her brother’s good friend, Lord Saxe, whom she’s known forever, and on whom she had a massive crush. Rakishly handsome and devilishly charming, he’s fodder for her romantic dreams and yearnings, even though she recognises that such a notorious rake is not for her.

A year or so after the events in that novel, Clea accompanied her brother Ned, the Earl of Dorset, to Vienna, where it seemed all of Europe was gathered while monarchs and heads of state negotiated peace in the wake of Napoléon’s defeat.  There, Clea met and fell head-over-heels in love with a young officer, Harry Marsden;  they married when she was  eighteen but had only a year together before tragedy struck; and now, at twenty-one, Clea returns to England a widow, determined to make herself a new life following her young husband’s suicide.  Her journey has, however not been without incident, as she and her companion were set upon by highwaymen twice on the road – the second time on the outskirts of London, when Clea coolly despatched one of them by putting a bullet in his shoulder.  The robbers fled after that.

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

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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.

The Purloined Heart (Tyburn Trilogy #2) by Maggie MacKeever

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Poor Maddie Tate. Widowed with two children. An ordinary sort of female, no more memorable than a potted palm. Seven and twenty years of age.

Lucky Angel Jarrow. Temptation incarnate, lazy and spoiled – and why should he not be, when the whole world adores him, save for the notable exception of his wife?

Maddie Tate and Angel Jarrow. In the ordinary course of events, their paths might never cross. But then comes the Burlington House bal masque, when Maddie witnesses something she should not, and flees straight into Angel’s arms.

And he discovers that he does not want to let her go.

Mysterious masqueraders. Misbehaving monarchs. Political perfidy.

While in the background the ton twitters, and a fascinated London follows the Regent’s preparations for his Grand Jubilee.

Rating: B

A few months back I picked up Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz for a prompt in the TBR Challenge, and enjoyed it enough to want to read the other books in the Tyburn Trilogy.  At that point, only the second book – The Purloined Heart – was available, but I was pleased to learn the third was on the way, especially as it would feature two secondary characters from the first book who were clearly destined for one another. Although there are a couple of characters who appear in both books – most notably Kane, Baron Saxe – The Purloined Heart can be read independently of its predecessor, and proved to be an enjoyable mix of mystery and romance.

Maddie Tate is, at twenty-seven, the widowed mother of two young sons, and has gone back to live under her stentorian father’s roof.  Sir Owen Osborne Is dismissive and dictatorial, and Maddie fears he may try to separate her from the boys if she doesn’t dance to his tune.  But that particular dance is palling quickly and she’s chafing under her father’s constant criticisms of her manner, her clothes and, well, everything about her; hence her decision to sneak out to a scandalous masquerade being held at Burlington House one night, where she’s borrowed the costume that was supposed to have been worn by a friend who is unable to attend.  She’s nicely tipsy when a young gentleman dressed as Henry VIII approaches her and starts spouting Shakespeare and fiddling with the arrows in her quiver. (Get your mind out of the gutter!  She’s dressed as Diana the huntress!) Puzzled as to why Henry should have been lurking outside the ladies’ withdrawing room, Maddie follows him as he wends his way along the more private corridors of the house, watching as he enters an out-of-the way room. Hearing raised voices, Maddie peers through the keyhole, and witnesses a man dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh clubbing Henry over the head; he falls to the floor just as the door inconveniently swings open, revealing Maddie behind it.  She runs, only to collide with a gentleman dressed as a Cavalier, and demands he kiss her – to hide from her pursuer of course. One kiss turns into two… three, and into something more than a simple matter of expediency.

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

The Duke of Lies (The Untouchables #9) by Darcy Burke (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Verity Beaumont has suffered domineering men most of her life; first with her father and then with her husband. Free from both men, she has finally found peace even meeting a kind and hard-working gentleman who just might be the perfect father her young son so desperately needs. But as she dares look to the future, her carefully ordered world is shattered when her dead husband returns.

After six years away, Rufus Beaumont, Duke of Blackburn, returns to claim his place and protect his family. Only, the life he finds is not the life he left, and he must convince his wife that their marriage is worth fighting for; that he’s not the man he was.

When the truth about what happened to him leaks out, he must prove that not everything about him, especially his love for her, is a lie.

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – B

I’ve read and/or listened to a number of the books in Darcy Burke’s The Untouchables series and generally enjoyed them, but what attracted me specifically to The Duke of Lies was the fact that the premise is reminiscent of one of my favourite films, The Return of Martin Guerre. Set in medieval France, a man returns to his village – and his wife – after a long absence and is welcomed and accepted by all… until doubts begin to creep in as to whether he really is who he says he is. (The film was remade in the 1990s as Sommersby, and the setting shifted to the American Civil War).

In The Duke of Lies, the returning character is Rufus Beaumont, Duke of Blackburn, who has been absent for six-and-a-half years after disappearing without explanation during a visit to London. His wife, Verity, is not exactly heart-broken at her husband’s continued absence; he was a thoroughly unpleasant, boorish man who routinely ill-treated her and humiliated her, and she was actually relieved at the news of his sudden disappearance. At the beginning of the book, she is visiting an old retainer, the former steward of Beaumont Tower (Blackburn’s seat in the north of England), with her young son, Beau, whom she hadn’t known she was expecting until after she learned her husband had vanished without a trace. She has become concerned of late with the behaviour of the current steward – a man who was appointed by her interfering father – and has decided it’s time to do something about it and plans to dismiss him. Feeling lighter now that she’s made the decision, she returns home only to have her peace and happiness shattered by a completely unexpected – and unwelcome – arrival. Rufus.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Beauty and the Brooding Lord by Sarah Mallory

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ruined by a rake…

Rescued by the reclusive Baron!

Following the death of his fiancée, Lord Quinn has sworn off all matters of the heart. But when he happens upon an innocent lady being assaulted his sense of honour insists he step in and rescue her…even if that means marriage to protect Serena’s reputation! However, his new wife remains distant—a stranger to his bed. Can Quinn help Serena fight her demons and finally defeat his own?

Rating: B+

I’ve been bemoaning the fact for months that 2018 has been a pretty poor year for historical romance.   Thankfully, however, some authors are bucking that trend and many of those write for Mills & Boon (Harlequin) Historical.  Authors such as Louise Allen, Marguerite Kaye, Virginia Heath and Janice Preston have provided some excellent reads lately, and to that list, I’m adding Sarah Mallory, whose latest release, Beauty and the Brooding Lord is a rather lovely compromised-into-marriage tale in which a society beauty and a brusque, somewhat anti-social lord have to work at a relationship formed under difficult circumstances.

Serena Russington (whose half-brother, Charles, was the hero of The Ton’s Most Notorious Rake) is in her second Season and has yet to choose a husband.  She’s beautiful and has a considerable dowry so has no shortage of suitors… the trouble is that they’re all rather dull and she can’t face the prospect of spending a lifetime with a man who bores her and has no interest in her beyond her money and value as a potential brood-mare.  Having seen Charles fall in love and settle down, she has the (rather ill-conceived) idea that perhaps a rake – who will reform, of course – will make her a good husband, and to that end, arranges to attend an event at Vauxhall Gardens with the handsome Sir Timothy Forsbrook.  Unfortunately, however, she fails to take into account that his intentions may not be honourable, and instead of a trip to Vauxhall, finds herself being borne off to Gretna and to a hasty marriage.  It’s a long journey though, and when they stop for the night at an inn, Forsbrook is intent on sealing the deal by rape if necessary – but Serena’s screams are heard by another traveller who bursts into the room, sees immediately what’s going on, knocks Forsbrook out and takes Serena away.

This traveller is Lord Rufus Quinn, whom Serena had met briefly at a ball earlier that week and with whom she’d had a brief exchange during which she’d thought him rude and boorish.  But Serena is too shaken up and scared to think of anything but the terrible events that have overtaken her;  and as there is no suitable female to remain with Serena until such time as her family can collect her, Quinn takes her to his home – which is close by – where he entrusts her to the care of his housekeeper.  But while he has ensured Serena’s physical safety, keeping her reputation intact could prove problematic.  Quinn sends for her brother and sister-in-law – who doesn’t stop haranguing Serena about her thoughtlessness and ruined reputation – and they take her back to London, hoping that other scandals will prove juicier than any she has created, but word soon gets out that Serena was away overnight and it’s not long before the gossip starts.  Forsbrook is putting it about that Serena persuaded him to an elopement, and it doesn’t help that her mother – her father’s second wife – infamously ran away with her Italian lover, and society is quick to paint Serena with the same brush.  There’s only one thing to be done – Serena must be married off and removed from London until things die down and she can be made respectable again.

Through all this, nobody but Quinn notices how entirely subdued Serena has become.  Their one previous encounter showed her to be a lively, spirited young woman, but since the night he rescued her from Forsbrook, she’s been a pale shadow, self-effacing and drab – and he’s surprised to discover how much he wants to see the vivacious side of Serena again.  After a couple of weeks in the country, hearing from friends how much worse things are getting for her, Quinn heads to London to see for himself – and ends up offering for her.

Sarah Mallory does an excellent job in this novel of developing the relationship between Quinn and Serena and of getting across just how badly her near-rape has affected her.  The plotline of the heiress being abducted and compromised into marriage is a common one, but often, the villain is foiled before he can force himself upon the heroine; here, however, even though Ms. Mallory doesn’t show the violence brought to bear on her, the danger to Serena feels real, as do its after effects.   She loses herself for a while, attempting to fade into the background and to turn herself into the sort of quiet, biddable wife her sister-in-law insists men want.  She knows she behaved irresponsibly and now doubts her every instinct as a result, allowing her sister-in-law’s harsh criticisms to inform her decisions and mistrusting her new husband’s words and gestures of affection.

Quinn might have a reputation for being the rudest man in London, but when it comes to Serena he’s nothing but kind and thoughtful.  The majority of the book is dedicated to building the relationship and the trust between Quinn and Serena and it’s beautifully done.  Quinn’s kindness and attentiveness gradually coax Serena out of the protective shell she’s drawn around herself, and their affinity for one another and the emotional connection between them is palpable.  Sadly, however, the final few chapters of the book suddenly shift the focus away from the romance to a somewhat convoluted revenge plot which gives rise to a Big Mis on Serena’s part.  It’s a big tonal shift and if felt rather out of place, coming as it did at the end of what had been a gently moving, character-driven romance; I knocked off half a star/grade point as a result.

Even so, I’d definitely recommend Beauty and the Brooding Lord to historical romance lovers for its engaging and well-rounded principal characters and superbly developed romance.

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!

His Rags to Riches Contessa (Matches Made in Scandal #3) by Marguerite Kaye


This title may be purchased from Amazon

From the streets of London…

…to Venetian high society!

To catch his father’s murderer, broodingly arrogant Conte Luca del Pietro requires help from a most unlikely source—Becky Wickes, London’s finest card-sharp. Against the decadence of Carnival, Becky’s innocence and warmth captivates Luca, but as their chemistry burns hotter the stakes in their perilous game are getting higher. For Luca is no longer playing only for justice—but also to win Becky’s heart…

Rating: B

His Rags to Riches Contessa is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series, and tells the story of an actress and card sharp who is hired to help a Venetian nobleman obtain revenge against the man who killed his father.  The four novels in the set are linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer; a woman whose clients come to her “with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions”, solutions she provides while at the same time helping young women to whom life has dealt a poor hand make themselves a better future.  Becky Wickes is one such; abandoned by the man she loved – and whom she believed loved her – to face a future as a fugitive from the law and a possible death sentence should she be apprehended – Becky has gone to ground and holed up in a dingy room in the rookery of St. Giles.  It’s here that the Procurer finds her and offers her the chance to change her life.

Becky travels to Venice, to the luxurious Palazzo Pietro, where she will meet the Procurer’s client – the Conte del Pietro – and receive all the details of her assignment.  She is surprised to discover that the Conte – Luca – is half-English on his mother’s side and that he spent many years in the Royal Navy before his father’s death necessitated his return home, and even more so when she finally learns the reason for her journey.  Luca explains that his father and his father’s best friend, Don Massimo Sarti, had together been respected government officials who had acted to preserve as many of the city’s treasures as they could before Venice surrendered to Napoléon some twenty years earlier.  The plan was to hide as many items of value as possible – especially those pertaining to the city’s heritage – and to return them once the Republic of Venice was restored, but things didn’t quite work out that way.  Venice was used as a pawn over the years and only now, after Napoléon’s defeat, is the situation stable enough to consider restoring all the artefacts that the men had spirited away.  In his final communication to his son, Luca’s father explained that he had visited the hiding place in order to make an inventory only to discover the place was empty.  It seems Don Massimo has stolen everything he and Luca’s father had vowed to preserve in order to fund his gambling habit – and when threatened with exposure had his former friend killed.

Luca wants revenge against Don Massimo, and believes he can obtain it with Becky’s help.  Gambling is illegal in Venice at all times other than during Carnevale, which lasts from February to Lent, when the rules are relaxed and a number of ridotti (private gaming hells) open up for deep play.  Becky is to play the part of Regina di Denari, the Queen of Coins, a mysterious, masked woman who is a force to be reckoned with at the card table, and Luca plans for her to win back everything Don Massimo stole from his father and the city, which will ruin him completely.

Against the backdrop of the hedonistic Carnevale – where everyone is masked and no-one is what they seem – Luca and Becky find themselves fighting the attraction that’s been growing between them since the day they met.  They both know the other is a distraction they can’t afford – and besides, a girl from the London slums who grew up making her living as a street performer is a completely ineligible match for a wealthy man of Luca’s status, who is expected to make the sort of practical society marriage made by every Venetian nobleman.  Even so, somehow these two are perfect for each other as Becky’s down-to-earth manner and attitude complement Luca’s similarly pragmatic outlook; yet it emerges that there may be more separating them than a question of class. When Becky holds up a mirror to Luca’s driving need for vengeance, he is forced to consider the nature of obsession… and faced with some impossible choices.

Marguerite Kaye’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of Venice, and its customs and traditions are extremely well done; so much so in fact, that I was surprised to learn from her author’s notes that she has never been there!  She expertly conjures up mental images of the changing colours of the wintry sky and the waters of the Grand Canal, giving the reader an armchair tour of the palazzos and bustling marketplaces of the city in just such a way as to whet the appetite without interrupting the flow of the story.

The relationship between Becky and Luca builds over several weeks, although their attraction is instantaneous;  they share an almost-kiss on something like Becky’s second day at the palazzo, which felt way too soon, especially after Becky’s determination that she’d had enough of men after the way her lying bastard ex (my words, not the authors!) treated her.   After this, though, things slow down, and the author instead makes the most of their growing attraction and allows it to simmer through lingering looks, touches and forbidden kisses until neither Luca nor Becky can deny or resist its compulsion.

His Rags to Riches Contessa is a romantic and entertaining story featuring two strongly drawn and appealing principal characters.  The revenge plot, while perfectly in keeping with the setting, was ultimately a little weak, though, as there was no real doubt about the outcome; far more interesting was the dilemma Luca faced when forced to confront the harsh reality of the consequences of his actions.  Still, this is a strong addition to the Matches Made in Scandal series, and is an historical romance I’m happy to recommend.