The Mech Who Loved Me (London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy #2) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Ava McLaren is tired of being both a virgin, and a mere laboratory assistant for the Company of Rogues. When a baffling mystery rears its head, it presents her with the opportunity to work a real case… and perhaps get a taste of the passion that eludes her.

Blue bloods are dying from a mysterious disease, which should be impossible. Ava suspects there’s more to the case than meets the eye and wants a chance to prove herself. There’s just one catch—she’s ordered to partner with the sexy mech, Kincaid, who’s a constant thorn in her side. Kincaid thinks the only good blue blood is a dead one. He’s also the very last man she would ever give her heart to… which makes him the perfect candidate for an affair.

The only rule? It ends when the case does.

But when an attempt on her life proves that Ava might be onto something, the only one who can protect her is Kincaid. Suddenly the greatest risk is not to their hearts, but whether they can survive a diabolical plot that threatens to destroy every blue blood in London—including Ava.

Rating: B+

I’ll start this review by saying that while The Mech Who Loved Me could be read as a standalone novel, it probably won’t make much sense to you unless you have read at least some of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk books. In that series, the author introduces and develops her alternative vision of Victorian London in which the city is ruled by the elite blue bloods while other races – humans, mechs and verwulfen – are second class citizens (and in the case of verwulfen, even lower). At the end of the final book, Of Silk and Steam, the corrupt ruling elite – the Echelon – was overthrown by an alliance comprising all the races, including many blue bloods who opposed the harsh rule imposed by the prince-consort. This new series, London Steampunk: The Blue Blood Conspiracy is set three years after those events, in a London where all the races now have freedom and equality, although things are by no means easy. Distrust, suspicion and hatred built up over generations doesn’t just disappear overnight; and now it appears that there is someone out there trying to stir up all those old feelings and open up all those old wounds to set the races at each others’ throats once more.

In book one, Mission Improper, readers were introduced (or re-introduced, as some appeared in minor roles in earlier books) to the characters who make up the newly formed Company of Rogues, a small, hand-picked team who are charged with finding out exactly who is trying to incite unrest among the population of London. Under the direction of the enigmatic Duke of Malloryn, this group of blue bloods, a verwulfen and a human/mech discover the existence of a shadowy organisation called the Rising Sons, a group intent on creating anarchy in order to disrupt the uneasy peace between the races, perhaps even on bringing down the queen. They also learn of the existence of a creature called the dhampir, something stronger, faster and even more powerful than a blue-blood which, given blue bloods are almost indestructible, poses a serious threat to anyone who dares to oppose them.

The Mech Who Loved Me picks up pretty much where Mission Improper left off, and we’re plunged straight into the action with the discovery of a mysterious virus that appears to be killing blue bloods. Ava McLaren, who was previously a crime scene analyst for the Nighthawks (the organisation that polices London) is now a member of the Company of Rogues, and is eager to prove her skills as an investigator rather than being someone who works behind the scenes all the time. She is pleased when Malloryn assigns her to discover the nature and source of the virus, although the fact that the gruff, cynical mech Liam Kincaid is appointed as her bodyguard takes some of the shine off. A human made mech when he lost his hand, Kincaid has never hidden his dislike of blue bloods and he and Ava couldn’t be more different.

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

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: B+

As often happens, I’m doing things the wrong way around, because I’m finally reading this AFTER I’ve read Spectred Isle, which isn’t really a sequel, but which is set in the same world as the Simon Feximal stories. But better late than never.

The Casebook of Simon Feximal is a set of short stories featuring the eponymous “ghost hunter” and the man who becomes his long-term partner, both professionally and personally, Robert Caldwell. K.J. Charles has penned a set of extremely imaginative and, in many cases (I’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again!), downright scary stories that span a period of over twenty years during which Simon is summoned to deal with any number of hauntings, evil manifestations and things do a fair bit more than go “bump” in the night. When the pair first meet, Robert is making his living as a journalist and has employed Simon to exorcise the spirits that are causing the walls to bleed in the house he has just inherited. Simon sees his role as setting the ghosts free by allowing them to tell their stories rather than simply banishing them back to wherever they came from, and in this particular case, the story involves a promiscuous relative who appears to have expired coitus interruptus and who wants to complete his final sexual encounter 😉 Yes, I’m going to make the joke – K.J. Charles really knows how to start a book with a bang!

*ahem*

While these are all short stories, there are some plotlines that run through more than one story, like the machinations of the horrible Dr. Berry, the Machiavellian Mr. Parker and the mysterious Fat Man. I also loved the nods to the literary creations of other authors of mystery and suspense, especially Karswell, from M.R. James’ Casting the Runes (which, as Night of the Demon, is one of my favourite old horror movies!).

The ending is incredibly poignant and brought tears to my eyes – and by sheer coincidence, I happen to be staying something like twenty miles from Ypres, where the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele on 30 and 31 July 1917 is taking place as I write. In one of life’s odd coincidences, I had no idea that Robert’s final letter would be from Passchendaele in 1917 and it added an extra note of sadness as I closed the book.

This is a great collection of stories that can be dipped into (although I’d advise reading in order) – but I defy anyone to be able to stop reading once they’ve started. The relationship between Simon and Robert begins quickly but over the years they develop a beautiful, intense connection which is largely unspoken – but their bond is so strong that it really doesn’t need words.

If you’re a fan of paranormal romances, I don’t see how you can go wrong with this one.

A Momentary Marriage by Candace Camp

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James de Vere has always insisted on being perfectly pragmatic and rational in all things. It seemed the only way to deal with his overdramatic, greedy family. When he falls ill and no doctor in London can diagnose him, he returns home to Grace Hill in search of a physician who can–or to set his affairs in order.

Arriving at the doctor’s home, he’s surprised to encounter the doctor’s daughter Laura, a young woman he last saw when he was warning her off an attachment with his cousin Graeme. Alas, the doctor is recently deceased and Laura is closing up the estate, which must be sold off, leaving her penniless. At this, James has an inspiration: why not marry the damsel in distress? If his last hope for a cure is gone, at least he’ll have some companionship in his final days, and she’ll inherit his fortune instead of his grasping relatives, leaving her a wealthy widow with plenty of prospects.

Laura is far from swept off her feet, but she’s as pragmatic as James, so she accepts his unusual proposal. But as the two of them brave the onslaught of shocked and suspicious family members, they find themselves growing closer.

Rating: B+

A Momentary Marriage is the sequel to Candace Camp’s A Perfect Gentleman, which is where we were introduced to Sir James de Vere and Miss Laura Hinsdale as secondary characters with no love lost between them.  The prospect of a marriage of convenience between these two antagonists was an enticing one, and the idea of the coolly collected James being brought low by a strange illness lent an added piquancy to its appeal.  Like its predecessor, the novel has a mystery woven through the principal romantic storyline, and while I can’t deny I’m reaching the stage when I’m starting to get just a bit tired of the tacked-on mystery that seems to have become almost de rigueur in historical romances, this one is integral to the story and doesn’t overshadow the development of the central relationship.

James, his cousin Graeme (hero of A Perfect Gentleman) and Laura have known each other since childhood, and, as teenagers, Laura and Graeme fell in love.  But Graeme was the heir to an impoverished earldom and needed to marry an heiress; Laura was the daughter of a country doctor, and a match between them was impossible.  It was James who, eleven years before, had gone to Laura and told her that she needed to let Graeme go so he could move on and do what needed to be done; and Laura, while heart-broken and not particularly well-disposed towards James, knew what he said was true and broke things off with the man she loved.

James de Vere is handsome, wealthy, charming and enigmatic; he’s witty and insightful, but reveals little of himself and is the sort of man who buries his emotions deep and needs to maintain control.  He has no great love for his immediate family and bears ties of affection to nobody except his cousin and his mastiff, Demosthenes – Dem – who is his constant companion.  But for some months now, he has been suffering from a mystery illness which is gradually getting worse, and none of the doctors he has seen can identify it or decide upon a treatment.  The diagnoses run from a bad heart to brain fever to tumors, but the one thing the medical men do agree on is that James hasn’t long left to live.

He is preparing to leave London to spend the time left to him at his estate in the country when Graeme persuades him to seek advice from Doctor Hinsdale.  James isn’t hopeful, but promises to do as his cousin asks, even though he’s tired and in pain and could do without making the detour to Canterbury.  Unfortunately, however, he arrives to discover that the doctor died two weeks earlier and that Laura has been left in straitened circumstances.  Knowing her to be a sensible, practical sort of woman, he makes a surprising suggestion that he believes will benefit them both.

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

Night of the Highland Dragon (Highland Dragon #3) by Isabel Cooper (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the Scottish Highlands, legend is as powerful as the sword-and nowhere is that more true than in the remote village of Loch Aranoch. Its mysterious ruler, Judith MacAlasdair, is fiercely protective of her land-and her secrets. If anyone were to find out what she really was, she and her entire clan would be hunted down as monsters.

William Arundell is on the trail of a killer. Special agent for an arcane branch of the English government, his latest assignment has led him to a remote Highland castle and the undeniably magnetic lady who rules there. Yet as lies begin to unravel and a dark threat gathers, William finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Highlands . . . and the woman he can neither trust nor deny. He prays she isn’t the murderer; he never dreamed she’d be a dragon.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C

Even though I was very disappointed in the previous book in this series of historical paranormals (The Highland Dragon’s Lady), I remembered reading the print version of Night of the Highland Dragon a couple of years back, and thought I’d give it another go-round in audio. The final member of the MacAlasdair family of shape-shifters is Lady Judith, who resides at the castle of Loch Arach and takes good care of all those who depend on her and the castle for their livelihoods. Into this Highland idyll comes William Arundell, an investigator for a secret branch of the government who starts asking uncomfortable questions about Judith and her family in the course of his investigations into a gruesome murder. The two are suspicious but drawn to each other, although sadly, the romance is fairly lacklustre and the story as a whole is somewhat dull and lacking in direction. There’s also a severe lack of background information about William’s work and of scene-setting in general. The story is set in a late Victorian era in which magic and witchcraft exist, and listeners are just asked to accept that without any further explanation of how, why, where and who – which this listener found somewhat frustrating.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Dangerous Deceit (Thief Takers #3) by Alissa Johnson

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Miss Jane Ballenger unexpectedly inherits her brother’s worldly goods—the furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac on which he frittered away their entire family fortune—the only thing to do is catalog the lot of it and sell it off piece by piece. How else will she continue to support Twillins Cottage, the one place she feels safe? Born with a peculiar hearing problem, Jane has long kept to her isolated home in the woods, content with the company of a few close friends, and far removed from those who would brand her an idiot and consign her to life in an asylum. So when the devilishly charming private investigator, Sir Gabriel Arkwright, turns up on her doorstep to claim her new belongings in the name of the crown, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her refuge, her loved-ones, and her well-guarded secret. Even if it means employing a bit of deception.

There are few things in life Sir Gabriel Arkwright enjoys more than a good mystery, especially when it’s a woman. Ever ready to take on an interesting puzzle, he’s determined to learn why the enigmatic Miss Ballenger has hidden herself away from the world. Before he can hope to ferret out the truth, however, Jane unearths national secrets hidden amongst her brother’s possessions. Now Gabriel must decide what’s more important, keeping state secrets out of the hands of a double agent, or protecting the woman who is quickly becoming more to him than just another mystery to solve…

Rating: A-

I am at a loss to understand why Alissa Johnson doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention afforded to the ‘big-name’ authors of historical romance. Every book of hers I’ve read has been superbly written, featuring well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, a well-constructed plot, subtle humour and a beautifully developed romance – yet for some reason, she’s very underrated. This third book in her Thief Takers series is another intelligently crafted character-driven romance, this time featuring a devilishly charming private investigator and a most unusual heroine who are forced to go on the run in order to protect some sensitive government information.

A Dangerous Deceit begins when Miss Jane Ballenger opens her front door on the extremely attractive face and person of Sir Gabriel Arkwright, one of the famous Thief Takers, a trio of former police officers who became instant celebrities when they solved a high-profile case of theft and rescued a duchess some ten or eleven years earlier. The most senior officer – Owen Renderwell – received a viscountcy and his colleagues, Arkwright and Samuel Brass were knighted; and the three of them went into business together as private investigators. Renderwell’s and Sir Samuel’s stories are told in the two previous books (A Talent for Trickery and A Gift for Guile), but all three work perfectly well as standalones – although I’d definitely recommend reading them, as they’re every bit as well-written and enjoyable as this one.

Sir Gabriel explains that he has been engaged by the Foreign Office to come to Jane’s remote cottage in order to retrieve some important information that is hidden among the personal effects belonging to her late brother, Edgar. Edgar spent the past fifteen years living the high life in St. Petersburg, frittering away his sister’s fortune as well as his own, leaving Jane with next to nothing. Now she is faced with the prospect of selling off his possessions so that she can keep a roof over her head and continue to support herself and the Harmons, the couple who have lived with her and looked after her since she was ten years old.

Jane is flustered – her tiny cottage is crammed to the rafters with trunks and boxes and God knows what else – but isn’t about to let someone waltz off with what is likely her only source of funds without some sort of security and insists that Sir Gabriel sign a contract promising the return of the goods once he has found what he is looking for.

Gabriel is not pleased at the delay, knowing that the information he is seeking poses a great danger to Jane and her household.  But he plays along and agrees to Jane’s terms, arranging for his team of handpicked men to make a start on the search as soon as they have finalised their agreement.  When, however, a group of men headed by Foreign Office agent Oscar Kray arrives instead of the team he had requested, Gabriel realises something is wrong, and quickly and quietly gets Jane and the Harmons away from the cottage and into the village.  It soon becomes clear that isn’t going to be far enough away and that Kray will stop at nothing to get hold of the paperwork he believes Gabriel has already found and appropriated.

From then on in, the story becomes a road-trip/adventure yarn whereby Gabriel and Jane have to evade the clutches of Kray and his team and get the sensitive paperwork sent back by Edgar into the right hands.  The couple has to get out of some tight spots and there’s never a dull moment, but there’s time for romance and getting to know each other, too – and it’s here that Ms. Johnson’s gifts for storytelling and characterisation really come into their own.  While Gabriel and Jane fall in love over a very short time – just a few days – they are so well-developed as characters, and their affinity for each other is so strong that it feels as though they – and we – have known each other for far longer, so there is never the sense that things between them are progressing too quickly.

Gabriel is gorgeous – handsome, charming and protective, he’s the perfect hero. Almost. Because he’s also devious and manipulative, and he lies to Jane repeatedly throughout the course of the story.  The earlier books in the series have shown Gabriel to be incredibly good at reading people and thus working out exactly how to approach them to get the desired result.   Jane, however presents more of a challenge than anyone he’s ever met; she’s rude, she doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour, she’s easily distracted, she’s fiercely independent …  and it’s difficult to get a read on her,  which makes Gabriel’s job that bit trickier.  He hates lying to Jane and hates himself for doing it, but ultimately, everything he says and does is because he wants to keep her safe.  He’s also extremely kind, sensitive and understanding, seeing what Jane terms her ‘affliction’ as a set of quirks, for the first time affording her the chance to find out what it might be like to have the one thing she has always believed to be beyond her reach – a normal life.

Ms. Johnson says in her author’s note that she set herself quite the challenge when she decided to write a heroine with CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder).   Of course, in the late Victorian era, when this book is set, the condition was unknown, and people who had it were dismissed as being, at best, hard of hearing, or at worst, imbecilic, deviant or even insane.  Jane is none of those things of course – but the treatment she received at the hands of her family, and mistakes she has made as a result of misunderstandings have made her very wary of mixing with people and fearful of being mocked and shunned.  One website I visited in an attempt to find out more said that people with this condition “can’t process what they hear in the same way other people do because their ears and brain don’t fully coordinate. Something interferes with the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, especially speech.” – and the author does an absolutely terrific job of showing how this affects Jane, right from the opening lines:

“Hit a miss dress a tome?”

Jane Ballenger carefully considered these six words and the gentleman on her doorstep who had just delivered them.

He didn’t look like a madman.

“Is she at home?  She should be expecting me.”

At home… A tome

Miss dress.  Mistress

Mistress at home.

Is your mistress at home?

The condition is not limited to these sorts of mix-ups; sometimes, for example, it affects Jane’s ability to remember information, or to pick out one person’s words from a noisy background. Ms. Johnson portrays the disorder subtly and sensitively, showing clearly that Jane is so much more than her ‘affliction’; that she’s an intelligent, insightful and compassionate human being with some ‘quirks’ (Gabriel’s term) that don’t define her and shouldn’t be allowed to limit her.

Gabriel’s unconditional acceptance of Jane is what turns him into the best type of romantic hero.  His own backstory and the intrinsic self-loathing that accompanies his lies and manipulations add depth and colour to his personality, but his perceptiveness and understanding when it comes to Jane and his willingness to compromise for her sake are what make him that little bit special and elevate him from your run-of-the-mill dashing hero into one who is admirable and entirely loveable.

A Dangerous Deceit is a book to be savoured, even though I was unable to resist devouring it in a couple of sittings!  The romance is sweet and tender – but not without its heated moments – and the adventure plot is solidly developed and skilfully incorporated into the romantic storyline without overshadowing it. Characters from the earlier books make cameo appearances, and I especially appreciated another glimpse of the strong and highly entertaining friendship that exists between Gabriel, Samuel and Renderwell.  Fans of character-driven historical romance shouldn’t miss it, and I really hope to read more from Ms. Johnson in the not too distant future.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Convenient Felstone Marriage by Jenni Fletcher

the convenient felstone marriageThis title may be purchased from Amazon

“I have a proposal for you…”

The last place respectable governess Ianthe Holt ever expected to be proposed to was in a train carriage…by a stranger…who had just accused her of trying to trap another man into marriage!

Shipping magnate Robert Felstone may be dashing, but he’s also insufferable, impertinent–and Ianthe’s only possible savior from her uncertain fate. She’s hesitant to play the perfect Felstone wife, but Robert soon shows Ianthe there’s more to him than meets the eye, and more to marriage than vows…

Rating: C+

The Convenient Felstone Marriage is Jenni Fletcher’s second historical romance for Harlequin, and is set in and around the port of Whitby in Yorkshire in the mid-Victorian era. It’s a nice change to read an historical romance set outside London, and the fact that the plot centres on a marriage of convenience drew me like catnip – but while I liked the premise, the story falls short in the execution. The pacing flags in the middle, the ending is over-dramatic and the heroine, whom I’d liked to start with, began to get on my nerves in the latter part of the book, her motivations and thought-processes becoming an overly convenient – and rather flimsy – way of dragging things out and attempting to inject some tension into the story.

Miss Ianthe Holt is furious with her younger brother, Percy, for attempting to engineer a match between her and Sir Charles Lester, a man some thirty years her senior. When the train carrying them to Yorkshire on a visit to their aunt makes a short stop, Percy takes the opportunity to jump down to walk along the platform, leaving his sister fuming – and embarrassed when she realises that the man who had been asleep in the corner of their compartment must have heard every word of their argument. Ianthe’s wrath spills over and she accuses the man of deliberately eavesdropping; he retorts sharply and accuses her of being a scheming harpy, willing to marry an older man for his money and then hoping for a fast widowhood.

Robert Felstone is travelling home to Whitby following a stinging rejection by the young woman to whom he has just proposed. Robert is the bastard son of a lord with a penchant for seducing his housemaids, but due to his own hard work and aptitude for business, has made something of himself and is now a wealthy and successful shipping magnate. He owns one large shipbuilding firm and is looking to buy out one of his oldest competitors – but all he has achieved wasn’t enough for the society beauty to whom he’d proposed and she laughed in his face, making it clear that he had aspirations above his station. He is still smarting from her rejection when he overhears the argument in his train carriage, and deciding discretion is the better part of valour, pretends to remain asleep rather than acknowledge he’s overheard everything. But the young woman’s challenge and attitude strike a raw nerve, and he can’t help blurting out exactly what he thinks of her. Fortunately, however, he soon realises how disgraceful it is of him to make such an assumption and apologises, at the same time realising that perhaps he has just been presented with an answer to one of his problems. In order to expand his business by purchasing the shipyard belonging to the old-fashioned Mr. Harper, Robert needs to be respectably married as the old man won’t consider selling to anyone other than a family man. The young woman in front of him is faced with the prospect of being forced into marriage, but if she were to agree to marry Robert instead… it’s a solution to both their present difficulties.

Ianthe is incredulous at being proposed to just moments after being berated and turns Robert down flat.  She will simply refuse Sir Charles when he asks for her hand – but when it becomes clear that that gentleman is not going to take no for an answer,  she is so scared that she decides to accept Robert, believing marriage to another man will prompt Sir Charles to leave her alone.

This is not, perhaps, the best basis for a marriage, but that’s often the case with this particular trope.  Ms. Fletcher does a good job of showing how frightened Ianthe is, and of making a point about how little control women had over their lives at this time; and Ianthe’s reaction – accepting Robert because she’s panicked and later, her reluctance to venture outside – makes sense.

Robert knows there is something Ianthe is not telling him when she accepts him, but he doesn’t push her to talk about it; theirs is going to be a business transaction and in any case, all he wants is to present his very respectable wife to Harper to seal the deal on the shipyard.  Or is it?  He can’t deny that he finds Ianthe attractive and likes her occasional show of spirit – although he also senses that there’s a different woman hiding behind the poorly dressed, somewhat prim façade she normally presents to the world.

And he’s right – she is hiding something besides the fact that Sir Charles frightened the life out of her.  Back when she worked as a governess, Ianthe believed herself in love with the son of the household and was persuaded to elope with him.  They were intercepted before anything irreversible happened between them, but the young man’s family basically blamed Ianthe for leading their son astray and called her all sorts of vicious names.  Ever since then, she has tried her best to fade into the background, deliberately adopting a severe hairstyle and dressing in dowdy, unflattering clothes.  She has also become preoccupied with being respectable – and that preoccupation turns into an obsession as soon as she marries Robert, because she knows he wants an irreproachably respectable wife in order to close the shipyard deal.  She didn’t tell him about the abortive elopement to start with because she was scared of being forced to marry Sir Charles, and after she and Robert are married, she doesn’t tell him for fear he will realise how far she is from the respectable wife he needs and set her aside.  Her continual harping upon respectability gets very irritating very quickly and turns into the worst kind of Big Misunderstanding because of her tunnel vision.

Robert is an engaging hero and I particularly liked the fact that he’s a member of the local lifeboat crew. The scenes late on in the book in which the crew is called out are very well done and provide some of the most interesting material in the story – but their impact is lessened by the inclusion of cliché after cliché in the final couple of chapters leading to a very rushed ending.

Ms. Fletcher’s style is engaging and very readable, and I liked parts of The Convenient Felstone Marriage enough to want to try more of her work; but I had completely lost patience with the heroine well before the end and can’t really recommend this particular example of it.