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Posts Tagged ‘5 Stars’

Mad for the Marquess

(Reluctant Hearts, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Victorian, 1863)

Cover Blurb:

James Drake, Marquess of Devlin, had everything—until he was found covered in blood, standing over a dead girl. Now locked away in a madhouse, he has one short year to recover his memories and prove his sanity, or be condemned for life. But the demons inside Devlin’s head are far easier to battle than the evil surrounding him at Ballencrieff Asylum.

Anne Winton hardly expects to find her calling—or love—while working in a lunatic asylum. But despite all warnings, the “Mad Marquess” proves dangerously fascinating to innocent Anne. She vows to save him not only from his adversaries, but from himself.

Initially, Anne is only a pawn in Devlin’s bid to gain his freedom, until he begins to see her not just as a means to an end, but as a beautifully passionate woman. He must choose: compromise the woman he loves, or languish forever in hell.

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AMAZING – that’s the first word that came to mind after I’d finished reading MAD FOR THE MARQUESS.  Ms. Russell drew me into this compelling, dramatic and intensely emotional romance from the very first pages and kept me totally immersed in the story right up to the last page.

Ballencrieff’s walls pressed more firmly in on him. If he didn’t get out soon, they would crush him into oblivion.

James Drake, Marquess of Devlin, and heir to the Malvern duchy, has enjoyed a life of excess – drinking, gambling, taking opium and enjoying the company of beautiful women. He is also a gifted painter who has exhibited his paintings. However, everything changes when he is found next to the body of a young girl, covered in her blood. He has no memories of the past and his mind has become unbalanced. To secure the succession, his ailing father has James committed to Ballencrieff Asylum for a month, hoping that a cure can be found. Drugged, constrained with chains and manacles and confined in a straight-jacket, James struggles with his inner demons and fears that, unless his memories return and he can prove his sanity, he will never leave the asylum. His salvation comes in the unlikely form of an innocent, naïve and drab young woman.

She squeezed her eyes shut. There was no going back. Her fate lay within the walls of this madhouse

Anne Winton, who was orphaned at the age of four, spent 15 years at Ardsmoore Charitable School. At first, her unusual gift for healing made her the subject of malicious gossip and earned her the name The Witch. Slowly she comes to be accepted by most of the other girls but one jealous, spiteful girl fabricates an incident and accuses Anne of witchcraft. The kindly vicar arranges for her to work at Ballencrieff Asylum as a general companion to two lady inmates, but fate, in the form of the ‘Mad Marquess’, steps in to take her life in a direction she never thought possible.

I loved the complexity of James’ character and Ms. Russell conveys his seeming ‘madness’ with such chilling realism. I felt his pain, fear, anger and desperation; experienced his harrowing nightmares and watched him battle his inner demons. James needs a special kind of heroine and Anne is just that… kind, caring and with a quiet inner strength. I like how she uses her healing powers to bring James an inner peace he has never felt before and understands him in a way no one else does.

You believe the answer to my demons lies in my dreams?”
“I do. Perhaps not all the answers, but dreams are a window into greater clarity.”

I love how she believes in him, challenges him and gives him strength and hope.

Anne has always thought of herself as plain but James sees her with an artist’s eye; he sees beyond her drab appearance to the woman beneath.

Despite her drab feathers, this woman was color, all color. He wanted to show her what he saw. To see herself in glorious color.

I enjoyed seeing James becoming a better man as he recovers. He intends to marry Anne as a means of gaining his freedom from the asylum but, ultimately, he is willing to let her go because she deserves to be loved. It is Anne who willingly sacrifices her freedom to set him free.

The romance provides a sharp contrast to the darker elements of the story. It is tender, poignant and sensual but, not without its problems. Neither are willing to confess their love for each other and Anne believes that James still loves his former mistress, Nora. It is James’ painting that finally brings them together and I love the scene where Anne goes to view the portrait James is exhibiting at The Queen’s Charity Exhibition, believing his model to be Nora.  It is such a beautiful, romantic scene which had me all watery eyed.

He smiled his pirate smile, and her breath hitched. “Not Nora. Never Nora. She is not you. She is not my little Owl. My heart.” She dashed at the tears streaming down her cheeks. Soon her nose would be dripping. This would not do.
His heart. He had painted what was in his heart.

As the story unfolds, it is evident that James has a malicious enemy who will do anything to sabotage his bid for freedom and keep him in the asylum permanently, where an unfortunate fatal accident might befall him. I feel that Ms. Russell maintains the suspense well until the dramatic scene where the villain’s identity is finally revealed. I also like how realistically the villain still has the power to hurt a certain someone from beyond the grave.

There are moments of humour which act as a welcome counterpoint to the darker tone of the story and one of my favourites is…

“What you perceived is a weapon—one Dev is all too adept at using—but it will not kill.” He turned away, shaking his head. “Perhaps slay, á la petit mort, but not kill.”
Little death? Her rudimentary French did not help. “I am not used to riddles, sir. I am afraid I do not understand.”
“No. Better you don’t, Miss Winton. Much better you don’t
.”

The secondary characters all add colour, interest and richness to the story including my particular favourites –  Ivo, James’ gentle giant of a keeper, whose most treasured possession is his pet mouse, and asylum inmate, Lady Matilda (Maddie) Tippitt, who tends to have a penchant for lewd displays, but later proves to be a staunch friend to Anne.

Ms. Russell concludes with a charming Epilogue and there is a rather cheeky reference to an earlier scene in the book.

She dusted off her skirts and then turned to her husband. “Lord Devlin, I believe I feel a cold coming on.”
 “Indeed, my dear?” Ellie reached out a hand trying to remove her father’s nose.
“Yes, I have an irresistible urge to sneeze. I am hoping you might provide some sort of relief.” 

If you want to know its relevance, I’m afraid you will have to read the book!

MY VERDICT: A compelling, intensely emotional and beautiful love story. A MUST READ!


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Reluctant Hearts series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

Mad for the Marquess (Reluctant Hearts Book 1) by Jess Russell

 

**I received a complimentary copy the author in return for an honest review**

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Pursuing Lord Pascal

(Dashing Widows, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

Golden Days… 

Famous for her agricultural innovations, Amy, Lady Mowbray has never had a romantical thought in her life. Well, apart from her short-lived crush on London’s handsomest man, Lord Pascal, when she was a brainless 14-year-old. She even chose her late husband because he owned the best herd of beef cattle in England!

But fate steps in and waltzes this practical widow out of her rustic retreat into the glamour of the London season. When Pascal pursues her, all her adolescent fantasies come true. And those fantasies turn disturbingly adult when grown-up desire enters the equation. Amy plunges headlong into a reckless affair that promises pleasure beyond her wildest dreams – until she discovers that this glittering world hides damaging secrets and painful revelations set to break a country girl’s tender heart.

All that glitters… 

Gervaise Dacre, Lord Pascal needs to marry money to rescue his estate, devastated after a violent storm. He’s never much liked his reputation as London’s handsomest man, but it certainly comes in handy when the time arrives to seek a rich bride. Unfortunately, the current crop of debutantes bores him silly, and he finds himself praying for a sensible woman with a generous dowry.

When he meets Dashing Widow Amy Mowbray, it seems all his prayers have been answered. But his mercenary quest becomes dangerously complicated when he finds himself in thrall to the lovely widow. Soon he’s much more interested in passion than in pounds, shillings and pence. What happens if Amy discovers the sordid truth behind his whirlwind courtship? And if she does, will she see beyond his original, selfish motives to the ardent love that lies unspoken in his sinful heart?

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Anna Campbell continues her delightful Dashing Widows series with three more young, widowed friends – Amy, Lady Mowbray, Sally Cowan, Countess of Norwood and Morwenna Nash – who decide they need a little adventure in their lonely lives and this is Amy’s story.

Ever since she was a girl, Amy had been interested in the scientific farming, publishing her first article on animal husbandry when she was not much more than sixteen.  At the age of eighteen, her prime reason for choosing to marry her neighbour, Sir Wilfred Mowbray, forty years her senior, was the chance to be involved in his farming experiments. Although her husband’s infrequent attentions were not onerous, there was never any passion in her marriage and Amy thought of him as more of a friend and mentor than a husband. Since her husband’s death five years ago, Amy has been content to run the estate and continue writing her articles on new farming methods. She had never considered herself beautiful or been in love, but as a graceless fourteen-year-old, Amy had suffered an adolescent crush on Lord Pascal, considered the handsomest man in London.

When the story opens, Amy is in Leicestershire at the home of her brother, Silas and his wife, Caroline (The Seduction of Lord Stone), for the christening of their fourth child. It is there that a reluctant Amy, her sister-in-law, Morwenna, and Morwenna’s friend, Sally, decide to follow in the footsteps of the original Dashing Widows and head off to London.

“Then I hereby declare the return of the Dashing Widows. Watch out, London. We’re on our way.”

While attending a ball one evening, Amy finds herself face to face with none other than the man of her adolescent fantasies, Lord Pascal. When he shows a definite interest in her, Amy, aware of his reputation, is distrustful and wants to get to know him first before making any rash decisions and therefore insists that he courts her.

A storm has left Gervaise’s estate in ruins and he needs cash urgently for repairs. Hence, he is in London to find a wealthy wife. At a ball one evening, he despairs of ever finding an alternative to the pretty, empty headed heiresses he is forced to dance with; that is until he spots a certain lady across the ballroom.

How could he concentrate on half-baked girls when that luscious banquet of a woman wandered into sight?

He discovers the beguiling lady is widowed Lady Amy Mowbray who is not only wealthy but also intelligent and funny, attributes he finds very appealing. He is determined to pursue her but Amy isn’t about to fall at his feet and, for once in his life, Gervaise will have to work hard if he wants to win this lady’s heart.

Amy and Gervaise are such likeable characters and watching their romance unfold was delightful. I cheered Amy for not having her head turned by his handsome face and obvious charm, and wanting a proper courtship to get to know him better before risking her reputation. For a man who is used to having any woman he wants, this is a new and intriguing experience for Gervaise.

I like how the courtship not only heightens the sexual tension but also acts as a catalyst for a growing sense of trust and intimacy between them; enough to share things they have never shared with anyone else. Gervaise reveals the pain of his bleak and loveless childhood and Amy starts to see the real man beneath the handsome face. Amy reveals intimate details of her marriage and Gervaise realises that Amy has never known desire or passion in her marriage, something he is determined she will experience in his arms.

I love a story where the hero pursues a reluctant heroine, but there were times when I felt sorry for Gervaise. At the age of thirty, he has finally met a woman he really cares for who doesn’t seem to want him. But “faint heart never won fair lady” and he is willing to do anything to please Amy and I especially love the thoughtful but unusual gift he gives her.

Despite her apprehensions, Amy is not immune to Gervaise. She sees how caring and considerate he is and how cherished he makes her feel and I cheered her on when she decides that she wants a taste of the passion she has always been denied. Ms. Campbell always succeeds in writing love scenes that emotional, tender and sensual.

“I want to please you.”
“You do.” He ran his hand down her arm, delighting in her silky skin, and laced his fingers with hers. “You will.”
Her fingers twined around his with a swift trust that made his heart somersault. Pascal leaned in and placed his lips on hers, leashing his ravenous passion.
   She responded with the sweetness so essential to her nature. Under his gentle exploration, she sighed, and the tension gradually seeped from her body. Taking exquisite care, he began to touch her, finding the places that made her tremble.

However, some overheard gossip seems set to destroy their new-found happiness but Amy is mature enough to listen to what Gervaise has to say and consider everything she has learnt about him, before making a decision. Bravo to Ms. Campbell. How refreshing to find a heroine who doesn’t storm out as so many other heroines would have done.

I enjoyed the witty dialogue between Gervaise and Amy:

“I can’t think when you kiss me.”
  He liked the sound of that even better. He smiled smugly. “Then clearly kisses must be allowed.” She cast him a repressive glance.
“Clearly they mustn’t.” He closed his eyes and groaned.
“You’re going to kill me.”
“That would be a pity when you’re so spectacular to look at. Every lady in London will weep at your funeral.”

and the lovely touches of humour too:

 “Who knows?” Morwenna sent Amy a sly glance. “Perhaps you’ll find Lord Pascal more entertaining than a field full of fat Herefords.” 
“He’s definitely prettier than a Hereford,” Sally said.
“Sally, you have no idea how beautiful a fine cow can be,” Amy said with perfect sincerity.
Morwenna threw up her hands. “Amy, you’re utterly hopeless.”

We learn some interesting facts about the other Dashing Widows, Sally and Morwenna, which provide intriguing teasers for their own books. I am also curious to know what mischief Sally’s niece, Meg, is up to.

This novella can be read as a standalone but it would be a pity to miss the other novellas in this series.

MY VERDICT: Another charming novella to add to this delightfully entertaining series which I can definitely recommend.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Dashing Widows series (click on the book covers for more details):

The Seduction of Lord Stone (Dashing Widows, #1) by Anna Campbell Tempting Mr. Townsend (Dashing Widows, #2) by Anna Campbell Tempting Mr. Townsend (Dashing Widows, #2) by Anna Campbell Pursuing Lord Pascal (Dashing Widows, #4) by Anna Campbell Charming Sir Charles (Dashing Widows, #5) by Anna Campbell Catching Captain Nash (Dashing Widows, #6) by Anna Campbell

 

**I received a complimentary copy from the author in return for an honest review**

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The Wicked Cousin

(Rockliffe, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

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I absolutely love Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series and THE WICKED COUSIN is another wonderful addition to the series.  At its heart is a gentle, heart-warming, funny and beautifully written, traditional love story.

Ms. Riley drew me into the story from the first page with a powerful and heart-breaking Prologue. I could feel the eight-year-old Sebastian’s intense feelings of pain, guilt, anger and bewilderment, following the loss of his beloved twin brother, Theo. His family do not realise just how deeply he has been affected, that, for Sebastian, it was like losing the other half of himself. As the only remaining heir, his father takes every precaution to keep Sebastian safe, wrapping him in a cocoon of overprotectiveness for the next thirteen years. Even at university, where Sebastian hoped to enjoy freedom for the first time, he couldn’t escape his father’s control entirely. So, when the opportunity finally arises, I could perfectly understand Sebastian’s desire to ‘kick over the traces’ and enjoy all the things he had been denied.

The Honourable Mr Audley didn’t give a damn about the gossip and rumours or what anyone said.  After thirteen years in the cage he was entitled to enjoy his freedom and do what the hell he liked.
So he did.

In the next few years, he cuts a swathe across Europe and the gossip sheets eagerly report his daredevil exploits and success with the ladies. However, when he receives a curt letter from his eldest sister, Blanche, advising him that his father has suffered an apoplexy, he is ready to return home as his life of excess had started to pall some time ago. Now he is back in England, Sebastian hopes to live down his reputation with some help from his good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player).

Despite everything, Sebastian still loves his father and makes annual trips home hoping that his father’s attitude might change, but it never does. He is also subjected to Blanche’s bitter and cruel words which still have the power to hurt, and his trips home over the years have always been brief ones. When Sebastian finally returns home, I was touched by the scene where his father admits that he had only himself to blame for his son’s actions and I liked that they made tentative steps towards a reconciliation. I also enjoyed seeing Sebastian’s interactions with the other members of his family and couldn’t help feeling satisfaction when he took his subtle revenge on his hateful sister, Blanche.

Cassandra (Cassie) Delahaye, the eldest daughter of Sir Charles Delahaye, has always been the perfect daughter; biddable, gentle and demure. Among the ton, she is considered a lady of ‘impeccable behaviour and perfect propriety’ – just the perfect daughter-in-law for all those matching-making mothers with marriageable sons. However, Cassie seems to attract nothing but mild-mannered, dull suitors whom she is constantly having to reject in a kindly way. Her younger sister, Olivia, has been constantly bombarding Cassie with all the latest gossip regarding ‘Wicked Cousin’ (a very distant relative) Sebastian’s exploits abroad, and is in a flurry of anticipation because of his return to London.  Cassie, however, is not at all impressed:

‘If you ask me, all those duels and love-affairs and ridiculous wagers make him sound like an idiot.

Sebastian and Cassie are such engaging characters and watching them falling in love was just delightful. I enjoyed the animated exchanges between them in their unconventional, first meeting, which only serves to confirm Cassie’s opinion of Sebastian as both arrogant and conceited, but she is not completely unaffected by the experience…

As for the interlude in the library … it had been the most peculiar, alarming and exhilarating half-hour of her life and she still didn’t know what to make of it.

As they meet at various functions, Cassie finds Sebastian dangerously easy to like with his charm, intelligence and humour. She also notices his kindness in dancing with Harry Caversham’s cousin, Henrietta, who is in her third season and so often left on the side-lines with the chaperones…not to mention his smile which makes her nerve-ends tingle. Sebastian realises how much he has come to like Cassie and enjoy her company and, unlike the other men, he sees the real Cassie, a lovely, intelligent and witty young woman. It isn’t long before they are both smitten and there is a very moving scene at Theo’s graveside where Sebastian talks about his feelings for Cassie.

She makes me want the things that are meant to go with it; things I’ve never wanted before.  Love, I suppose – though I know damn all about it. All I do know is that I’ve got this all-encompassing sense that she’s mine but nobody knows it, not even her. How stupid is that?’

There is drama in the form of Sebastian’s venomous, former mistress, who has become obsessed with the idea that he still wants her, and a scandalous accusation made against Sebastian. I love how Cassie believes in Sebastian in spite of what the rumours say and is a veritable Valkyrie in her defence of him. I also like how Sebastian is open and honest with Cassie and there are no secrets or misunderstandings between them.

Families are often portrayed as dysfunctional in historic romances and it was refreshing to see such a loving family like the Delahayes. I really like Cassie’s father because he appreciates his daughter’s worth and wants her to marry the man of her choice. He also understands that Sebastian had valid reasons for his wild behaviour and is ready to believe that he can put his past behind him. He is also astute enough to realise the significance of Sebastian being the first man that Cassie has ever sent to him to ask for leave to court her.

One of the joys of reading this series is seeing the characters from the previous books. The wonderful camaraderie and easy rapport between the Rockliffe circle of family and friends always produces some delightful scenes, memorable moments, and witty banter. Among my favourite moments are:

  • Adrian, usually the epitome of sartorial elegance, having to meet his wife’s grandfather for the first time, looking as though he’d been rolling in a ditch.
  • Adrian’s wife, Caroline, giving her odious mother-in-law a well-deserved set-down.
  • The normally sophisticated Rockliffe with his baby daughter dozing contentedly in the crook of his arm.

I am also intrigued by the situation between Nicholas Wynstanton (Rockliffe’s younger brother) and Madeline Delacroix ( Aristide’s sister) and I hope their story is next.

I like how Ms. Riley gives the reader snippets of information which, on the surface, seem unimportant but only later in the story does their relevance become significant.

MY VERDICT: Another beautifully written story from Stella Riley. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe) (Volume 4) by Stella Riley

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Someone to Love

(Westcott, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had…

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.

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SOMEONE TO LOVE, the first book in Mary Balogh’s new eight book Westcott series, is a charming, character-driven romance, written with her usual warmth, humour and emotion.

Anna is such an engaging heroine. I love the quiet, inner strength she demonstrates when first meeting her family and the calm, dignified way in which handles herself despite the hostile reactions. My heart ached for Anna because her dearest wish has always been to discover her rightful family and become a part of it, only to find that they hate her.

It’s understandable that she decides to stay and explore her new life as Lady Anastasia Wescott but I also admire her determination not to lose a sense of who she really is.

I must remain, I have decided, and learn who Lady Anastasia Wescott is and what her life would be if she had not been turned into Anna Snow at the age of four and left there at the orphanage. I must decide how much of her I can become without losing Anna Snow in the process. It may be conceited of me, but I am rather fond of Anna Snow.
(from a letter to Miss Ford, the matron of the orphanage.)

I like how she stands up for herself, refusing to let the ladies of the family manage her life or shape her into a perfectly polished lady.

I love her kindness and generosity which is evident in the way she provides employment to some of the orphans and her determination to share her fortune with her half-siblings.

Avery is certainly not your typical hero. Instead of tall, dark, handsome and muscular, he is short, slim and graceful (I pictured him with a Fred Astaire like physic) with beautiful angelic looks. His gold-handled quizzing glass at the ready, he appears the epitome of a bored, languid, haughty aristocrat.

…the Duke of Netherby rarely made the effort to do what was inessential or what was not conducive to his personal comfort.

However, he exudes an unexplainable aura of power and danger, commanding attention whenever he enters a room and the story of how he acquired such incredible self-possession adds an intriguing layer to Avery’s character.

I love how Ms. Balogh builds their relationship, gradually moving from attraction to friendship to a genuine loving relationship…one I believed in. When Avery first sees Anna, she’s quite unappealing in her drab clothes and severe hairstyle, but there is something about her that intrigues him. Most people are intimidated when they first meet him but Anna stands her ground and Avery admires her quiet dignity. He frequently utters the most absurd things but Anna is the only one who has ever had the audacity to call him absurd. At first, Anna doesn’t know what to think of Avery; she is both attracted and repelled by him, but the more time they spend together, she realises that there is more to Avery than he allows the world to see. Watching these two finding common ground, falling in love and marrying was such a joy. Ms. Balogh enhanced my pleasure with witty dialogue and a sensual, emotional and tender love scene.

The scenes when they visit and spend time with Anna’s grandparents after their marriage reveal so much about Avery. He is more at home in the country and I loved seeing a relaxed Avery who treats Anna’s grandparents with such warmth and respect.

I like how Ms. Balogh realistically highlights the difficulties facing the couple as they adjust to married life, after the glow of the honeymoon period has worn off. Both Avery and Anna want to recapture the wonder of those three weeks but Avery realises that he has to reveal his real self to Anna despite his fears and insecurities.

You will not remain on the surface of my life, will you, Anna Archer? You will not be content to bring me comfort and delight, though there has not been much of either, has there, since we returned to London. Is it because this question has needed asking and answering? Is it because you will not be content until you have seen to the very core of me? And perhaps because I will not be content until I have allowed you there?”

This scene is moving and beautifully written and seeing Avery so vulnerable really touched my heart. Both discover that they have always been searching for the same thing – someone to love – and have found that someone in each other.

“My duchess.”
“My love.”
Dreamy blue eyes gazed down into hers for a moment. “My love?”
“My love,” she repeated. “Of course. Did you not know? Oh, Avery, did you not know?”

♥♥♥

“You can be and may be and already are, Anna. My someone to love. My everything.”

As this is the first book in the series, there are a lot of family members introduced in quick succession and it was a difficult to keep a track of who is who (see note 1). The good thing is that many of these wonderful secondary characters will get their own books and therefore I’m not complaining.

MY VERDICT: This is a fabulous start to the new series. Highly recommended.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

Note 1 – The published version of the book has a family tree at the front.

 

Westcott series to date (click on the book covers for more details):

Someone to Love (Westcott, #1) by Mary Balogh Someone to Hold (Westcott, #2) by Mary Balogh Someone to Wed (Westcott #3) by Mary Balogh

 

 

**I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review. **

 

 

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A Woman Entangled

 (Blackshear Family, #3)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

An ambitious beauty seeking a spot among the elite is thwarted by a most disruptive gentleman in Cecilia Grant’s witty, elegant, and exquisitely sensual novel.

Kate Westbrook has dreams far bigger than romance. Love won’t get her into London’s most consequential parties, nor prevent her sisters from being snubbed and looked down upon—all because their besotted father unadvisedly married an actress. But a noble husband for Kate would deliver a future most suited to the granddaughter of an earl. Armed with ingenuity, breath-taking beauty, and the help of an idle aunt with connections, Kate is poised to make her dreams come true. Unfortunately, a familiar face—albeit a maddeningly handsome one—appears bent on upsetting her scheme.

Implored by Kate’s worried father to fend off the rogues eager to exploit his daughter’s charms, Nick Blackshear has set aside the torch he’s carried for Kate in order to do right by his friend. Anyway, she made quite clear that his feelings were not returned—though policing her won’t abate Nick’s desire. Reckless passion leads to love’s awakening, but time is running out. Kate must see for herself that the charms of high society are nothing compared to the infinite sweet pleasures demanded by the heart.

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This is the final book in Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear Family series and it has everything that made the other books in this series so outstanding – a unique writing style, a thought-provoking storyline and seriously flawed and interesting characters

Like Ms. Grant’s heroines in the previous books, Kate is difficult to like at first. She gives the appearance of being a superficial, selfish social climber who is willing to use her beauty to ensnare a wealthy, titled gentleman into marrying her.  However, it soon becomes clear that her motives are far from selfish because she cares deeply for her family and will do anything she possibly can to achieve the social acceptance they deserve.

Her father, Charles Westbrook, caused a scandal when he married an actress and, although she was a woman of character and intelligence from a proud theatrical family, Charles’ family disowned both him and his family and have had no further contact since. Kate has worked hard to capture the attention of her father’s family with the hope of not only healing the rift between them but also of making an advantageous marriage which would provide opportunities for her sisters to have a better life. I like how Ms. Grant shows glimpses of a very different Kate in her protective concern for her sister, Rose, and the kindness she shows her friend, Louisa. I particularly loved how she decided not to make a certain choice because she knew it would have been hurtful to Louisa.

Like Kate, Nick is also hoping to restore his family’s respectability. A respected barrister, Nick had ambitions of one day becoming an MP, that is until his brother, Will, brought the family name into disrepute by not only marrying a courtesan, but fighting a duel over her as well (A Gentleman Undone). Nick has tried to repair the damage by publicly cutting off all contact with his brother, but many of the solicitors have stopped sending him clients because of the stain on the Blackshear family name. Nick sees his chance of having enough money to purchase the land needed to qualify him for a seat in Parliament slipping away. Then his close friend and mentor, Charles Westbrook, recommends Nick to Lord Barclay, who is looking for someone to tutor him in the art of public speaking, before he takes his seat in the House of Lords. The honorarium from Lord Barclay will hopefully provide the necessary funds Nick needs. Nick has been a good family friend to the Westbrooks and had once harboured hopes of marrying Kate, but she had made it very plain that she had set her sights on someone of higher social standing than a mere barrister

I love Ms. Grant’s flawed heroes and heroines because they always seem more human. They make misjudgements and mistakes as I’m sure we all do, and it those very fragilities that make them interesting and their journey to finding what they really want in life more emotionally satisfying.

Having believed that the only way to attain what she wants is through an advantageous marriage, Kate comes to realise that the very same things can be attained through friendship without sacrificing her own happiness.

Nick has always felt guilty about cutting himself off from his brother, whom he still loves, whilst still keeping the familial connection with his sister, Martha, who herself had been guilty of scandalous impropriety (A Lady Awakened). The only difference being that Martha and her husband had been discreet and avoided steeping the family name in scandal as Will had done.  Nick has always regarded himself as a man of integrity, but his actions force him to question that integrity and the choices he has made, not only regarding his brother, but also his failure to tell Lord Barclay about his family scandal for fear of jeopardising his political aspirations.  I like how Nick reaches out to his brother and there are definite signs of a reconciliation and his honesty in telling Lord Barclay the truth regardless of the consequences.

The romance is intelligently written and I enjoyed watching it unfold. They have remained friends and Nick has tried to put all thoughts of marrying Kate out of his head, aware that someone with such social aspirations would never make a suitable barrister’s wife, but it’s obvious that he is still in love with Kate. It’s only when her father asks Nick to keep an eye on Kate at the social events she is attending, and they are constantly thrown together, does Kate realise that she loves Nick and it may be too late. She has to learn to think with her heart rather than her head and decide where her happiness lies. I like how she comes to the realisation that life married to a titled gentleman would be exceedingly dull but, married to Nick, she could play an active role in his life in so many ways.

The secondary characters all add depth to the story. I especially liked Kate’s sister, Viola, a bluestocking with definite opinions on women’s rights and some of their conversations made me smile; Louisa who is a true friend to Kate and genuinely has her interests at heart, and the liberal-minded Lord Barclay. I also enjoyed seeing the other members of the Blackshear family who play an important role in the decisions Nick must make.

I love how the Epilogue offers of a positive glimpse of the future for both Nick’s and Kate’s immediate families.

Wedding breakfasts usually were, of course, and indeed this one celebrated the commencement of their married life. However, it also sketched a tentative outline of how their two families would fit together. And how Nick’s own might come to be whole once again.

MY VERDICT: Ms. Grant’s books are ones you don’t simply read; they are ones you savour like the finest wine. This is a series that shouldn’t be missed and I am now waiting patiently for Cecilia Grant to publish more books!

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Blackshear Family series (click on the book covers for more details):

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong (Blackshear Family, #0.5) by Cecilia Grant A Lady Awakened (Blackshear Family, #1) by Cecilia Grant A Gentleman Undone (Blackshear Family, #2) by Cecilia Grant A Woman Entangled (Blackshear Family, #3) by Cecilia Grant

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The Wicked Cousin

(Rockliffe, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

The Prologue to THE WICKED COUSIN, the fourth book in Stella Riley’s magnificent Georgian Rockliffe series is, without doubt, one the most poignant I have ever read. I defy any reader not to be deeply moved or fail to be intrigued by the opening, captivating sentences and, as the story unfolds and we learn more about the life of her charismatic character (who is more sinned against than sinning), not to fall hook, line and sinker in love with Sebastian Audley.

On a scorching August day in 1757 when he was eight years old, Sebastian Audley’s life changed. And though he didn’t know it, that change was to last for the next thirteen years…….. 

It was the day that a distraught child lost not only his twin, but his beloved brother; the other half of himself. No one understood his grief. The boys were two halves of a whole, knowing each other’s thoughts in the intuitive way that only twins can. In Sebastian’s emotionally underdeveloped child’s mind, he believed that he was failing Theo at a time when he needed him the most. Locked in his room, he could only cry out his despair and feel his brother’s pain…. and then…. the dreaded silence… when he knew that part of him was gone forever. It was also the time that Sebastian’s charmed, carefree life ended; the time when he began blaming himself for being alive when Theo was dead; a conviction reinforced by the diatribe hurled at him by his eldest sister, who had irrationally never cared for the younger of her twin brothers. Theo’s early and tragic death shaped the way the adults in his life treated him, albeit believing they were keeping him safe, but worse still, ultimately because of their actions, the way he himself behaved for the best part of seven years after finally escaping from his cotton wool straight jacket. They were actions that his autocratic but grief-stricken father was to come to bitterly regret.

Sebastian’s first acts of defiance came when he was finally allowed to leave to study at Cambridge, refusing to be ‘chaperoned ‘ by the local vicar’s son or to study the subject chosen for him by his father. Instead, he diligently and quietly applied himself to studying law which he saw as a way of eventually becoming independent of his father’s claustrophobic control. Although he obtained an honours degree in law, he never had to take up a profession because an unexpected bequest from a Great-Aunt made him independently secure. During his time at university, he did not indulge in the fun and frolicking other undergraduates enjoyed, but did re-discover a love and quite remarkable talent for the intricacies of chess, which he had once enjoyed playing with his twin. This talent would serve him well later in life.

As sole heir to his father, Viscount Wingham, Sebastian had to be kept safe at all costs and, by the time he reached his majority, he was more than ready to escape the suffocating over protectiveness of his family. After his years of sobriety, he was eager to face the world head on, firstly by setting London alight with his outrageous exploits and then disappearing to the continent to further kick over the traces of his years of solemnity. All the girls he had never kissed or bedded became a part of his life, his adrenalin seeking exploits becoming legendary, and salaciously reported in the gossip rags. Whatever the rumour mill insisted he had done – no matter how ridiculous, or even whether it was fact or fiction – was avidly reported and devoured by the ton. His notorious reputation, coupled with his lauded and extraordinary good looks, bluer than blue eyes; glorious hair of a rich burgundy/garnet colour and impressive physique set him apart from his peers.

After seven years of self-imposed exile, wandering from place to place and with a desperate need to escape from the determined pursuit of a spurned lover turned stalker, Sebastian’s nomad life had become intolerable. In the latter couple of years on the continent he had already toned down his behaviour and with little else to do, his beloved chess became his only real enjoyment in life. With time and practice he honed his skills with remarkable results. Later in the story we learn just how remarkable – in fact, such a talent never really did sit well with his rakehell reputation which was more a few years of madness than a character trait; his outrageous behaviour born out of a need to be free. Reluctant to come back into the controlling orbit of his father, he nevertheless has a strong sense of familial duty, and one of the many things I liked about Sebastian is that he is a loveable and honourable young man who knew that one day he would return for good to his responsibilities.

In all the years apart, he has never stopped loving his father and, without fail, he annually made the long and arduous journey home for a short stay, mainly driven away again by the cruel jibes of his eldest sister, Blanche, whose dislike of him has not abated. He tries to hide the hurt she intentionally causes with a couldn’t-care-less attitude, but this only compounds her dislike of him. Is it any wonder he never wishes to remain long in his ancestral home when she is the unmarried matriarch residing over it? Ironically, it is a letter from Blanche informing him that his father has suffered an apoplexy that gives him a reason to return home for good.

After a long and arduous journey, he arrives home to find his father well on the road to recovery and, after spending some private time together, they finally make their peace. Maybe it was his brush with death that finally opened the viscount’s eyes to his mistakes regarding Sebastian. Whatever the reason, he admits to his son that he should have treated him differently and acknowledges that he clipped his wings. However, Sebastian is still not entirely convinced of his father’s ability to let him run his own life. I found the viscount’s pride in his son rather touching, whether despite of, or maybe because of his reported escapades, I’m not sure.

Sebastian decides to go to London to attempt to repair some of the damage to his reputation and convince society that he is a reformed character. There, he seeks the help of Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player), the pair having met and become firm friends whilst both were exiled on the continent. Adrian proposes a plan in the form of a private wager which sets out to protect and ease Sebastian back into society in a civilised manner. With this secret wager in place he is protected from further ridiculous challenges by silly young bucks. Sebastian’s first tentative steps are fraught with pitfalls, including the fact that he has been given the nickname, The Wicked Cousin, courtesy of Olivia Delahaye, the rather silly younger sister of Cassandra (Cassie) whom we met in previous books as a secondary character. Cassandra’s father, a close friend of the Duke of Rockliffe, plays quite a big part in this story and I admired his quiet, reasonable character and wise council, especially regarding Sebastian. The familial relationship between the Delahaye’s and Audley’s is tentative but nevertheless one in which Olivia is more than happy to bask

Sebastian’s initial, accidental meeting with Cassie is less than auspicious and only serves to reinforce her pre-conceived opinion of him as an arrogant, feckless, philanderer whom she could never like. However, after several more formal encounters, Cassie reluctantly begins to see why he is so popular and intriguing to the men and women of society; he’s witty and amusing but in a kindly, non-mocking way with no apparent artifice and seems genuinely interested in her as a person. Then he seals her approval with some simple but honest gestures and, whether she realises it or not, she is already half way in love with him – and who could blame her? So was I! She is flustered by her own reaction, never in her wildest dreams imagining that her feelings could ever be returned; in her experience, she’s only ever attracts dull dogs – whose mothers like her for goodness sake!

But they ARE returned. For his part, Sebastian is utterly smitten. He sees the beautiful, captivating and interesting girl that other foolish suitors have failed to appreciate and releases the butterfly from her chrysalis, transforming a previously – on the surface at least – sweet but unexceptional girl into the attractive and desirable young woman he has seen almost from the beginning.  Charles and Serena Delahaye do not recognise their daughter as she turns from gentle doe to protective tigress in defence of her man….in the words of her father – ‘You, Mr. Audley, have turned my lovely girl into a damned Valkyrie.” I just loved that statement! From the moment the two admit that they are meant to be together, Cassie refuses to believe anything derogatory about Sebastian and, when his spurned lover tries to make trouble on more than one occasion, Cassie fights tooth and nail for him.

Cassie’s parents have always appreciated her worth, never pressuring her into settling for second best. So, when Sebastian requests permission of her father to pay his addresses to Cassie – with her approval – the astute Charles Delahaye is more than happy with her choice, especially given that his daughter has never sent a young man to him before and must therefore be ‘in love’ at last. Despite Sebastian’s reputation, Sir Charles has always known there are valid reasons behind his behaviour and has some sympathy for the young man.

THE WICKED COUSIN is very much a character driven, beautifully crafted love story, with interesting and loveable characters. Their love story plays out in the most wonderfully romantic way. I particularly like the author’s unique way of taking apparently ordinary women and showing us that we all have hidden depths and just need the right man to see them as Sebastian does with Cassie. I adored both these characters; Cassie with her sweetness, determination and loyalty and Sebastian with his kindness, protectiveness and generosity of spirit. Cassie sees beyond Sebastian’s carefree attitude to the still damaged, grieving little boy inside. It’s particularly warming to see Sebastian’s unconditional love bringing Cassie to the peak of her beauty. I thought Stella Riley rather clever in her pairing of these two – so different and yet so right for each other. Sebastian’s rather naughty sense of humour and Cassie’s whole-hearted acceptance of it is amusing and a little risqué, but not too much, because, true to her style, Ms. Riley allows us just enough to wet our appetite and no more!

The unforgettable Duke of Rockliffe (The Mésalliance) again leads the group of friends that Stella Riley has grown and cultivated since the beginning of the series. They are once more in action as they close ranks to protect one of their own. Amusingly, at one point in the story, they take the normally calm and collected Rock away to entertain him, mainly at the request of their wives, to give his wife Adeline some respite from his fussing as she awaits the arrival of their first child. And when at last the child arrives – my heart just melted! Just imagining the perfectly controlled, formidable Rock as a doting papa! Stella Riley is one of only a few authors who can reduce me to mush, and she always succeeds in one way or another:

Mr. Audley handed his card to the Duke of Rockliffe’s butler and after a short wait, was shown into the drawing room where his Grace was walking back and forth by the windows holding a small bundle wrapped in a lacy white shawl while the duchess was engaged in pouring tea.

I was also thrilled to see the return of Adrian Deveraux, arguably my favourite character in this series. His story is told in The Player which is, in my opinion, one of the best and most intriguingly complex stories in the genre. I loved seeing a little more of how his story and marriage to Caroline, his countess, has progressed.

This series is REALLY addictive and I’m particularly fond of a saga where we see the return of family and friends in high profile. These people have all become so special to us as readers THAT we feel invested in their lives. Ms. Riley has done this to great effect making these men and now their women too, feel like old friends.  My imagination has been stirred further by the prospect of another book in the series. I have come to know Ms. Riley’s little foibles; she tells us the story in its entirety – so no worries there, as each story stands on its own – but she always gives us a clue as to whose book might come next. I hope it’s Rock’s younger brother, Nicholas Wynstanton, the only unmarried member of his select group, and hopefully his courtship of Madeleine Delacroix, Aristide’s prickly sister. And while we’re on the subject Ms. Riley – please don’t forget Aristide.

As with any Stella Riley novel, her research is so impeccable that we can be sure she has it right whether it is the intricacies of chess or the cut and thrust of a tense and exciting fencing match. In addition, her blending of fact and fiction is so seamlessly done that the lines invisible.

If you haven’t already read any of Stella Riley’s work, then I recommend that you do. She is consistently a 5-star writer in my opinion and each story she writes is special in its own right.  I would advise starting at the beginning of the series, mainly to gain a perspective and understanding of how she has developed her intriguing group of friends and relatives, and to see how their loves and lives interweave, but more importantly how they all support one another. However, it isn’t necessary, as each story is unique and different to the previous books in the series.

MY VERDICT: THE WICKED COUSIN is just wonderful, with a fabulous cast of characters, good and bad as is usual with this author. She always injects some wit and humour into her novels and the scene where Sebastian ties up his ex-mistress and cuts her hair was particularly entertaining! Stella Riley never disappoints and I always look forward with eager anticipation to a new releaseHIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers for more details)

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance (Rockliffe) (Volume 2) by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley

 

**I received a complimentary copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review**

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To Steal a Heart

(Secrets and Spies, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1815)

Cover Blurb:

Forced to do the bidding of a corrupt government minister, Marianne de Bonnard agrees to plant incriminating evidence in the offices of France’s most notorious spymaster. Under cover of night, the tightrope-walking thief puts her skills to good use—until her aerial stunt is foiled when her target appears in the window and, with consummate poise, helps Marianne off the wire and into his lair. The tremors that run through her body are not just from fear; there’s an unwanted frisson of desire there, too. But is it because of her elegant, wickedly handsome host . . . or his proposition?

Nicolas Valette has had plans for his graceful trespasser since he witnessed her unique skills at the Cirque Olympique. Sinuous as a cat, Marianne is perfect for his next mission, but she refuses his generous offer for fear of disobeying her family’s tormenter. When their mutual enemy auctions off her virginity to the highest bidder, Nicolas leaps at the chance to purchase her cooperation. Keeping her will be like trying to tame a wild animal, but what’s life without a little risk? Besides, Nicolas and Marianne both want the same thing: revenge—and, perhaps, something else that’s equally delicious.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I loved this impressive 2016 debut novel from K. C. Bateman. Set in France just before the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, it combines a well-written, action-packed story, intriguing characters and a sensual romance.

Following the death of his younger brother, Nicolas carries a deep sense of guilt for having survived when his brother didn’t, and his life no longer has any real meaning. The danger, intrigue and excitement inherent in the world of spying and his desire for revenge against Napoleon, whom he holds responsible for his brother’s death, are what keep him going, earning him a reputation for being bold, arrogant and uncompromising. Handsome, virile and seductive, there are any number of beautiful women only too eager to share his bed, but he has long ago built an impenetrable wall around his heart and his emotions are never engaged.

He always enjoyed their company, but he’d never wanted more from them than a few nights’ entertainment. He had absolutely no difficulty keeping his emotions separate from his physical needs.

Ever since her parents’ death in a fire, Marianne has worked at the Cirque Olympique as a tight-rope walker and knife thrower and as a spy for her corrupt and loathsome cousin and guardian, Jean-Jacques Duval.  She is resourceful, intelligent and stubborn but has an Achilles heel – her younger sister, Sophie. Having suffered Duval’s perverted attentions, she is willing do anything to protect Sophie from him.

She felt him (Nicolas) smile against her skin. “Whore for her?”
   A wave of shame rolled over her as she forced herself to admit the unpalatable truth. To save Sophie? Yes. She’d suffer any indignity. She closed her eyes in despair. “Yes.”

Ms. Bateman blends the romance and suspense perfectly and I love the back-and-forth verbal sparring between Nicolas and Marianne and one of the most memorable early scenes is where Nicolas buys Marianne and Sophie in a brothel auction arranged by Duval and then has to pretend to relieve Marianne of her virginity.

He sat up slowly so as not to startle her and held his hands up in surrender. “I’m at your mercy, mademoiselle. Please say you’re going to have your wicked way with me.”
   She scowled, unimpressed with his attempt at humor.
   He sighed. “I suppose we’ll have to go with the backup plan then.”

The backup plan turns out to be hilariously reminiscent of the famous Meg Ryan scene in “When Harry Met Sally”!

I enjoyed the interplay of danger and sexual tension and seeing how their relationship changes and how they grow and evolve both as individuals and as a couple.

At first, Nicolas sees Marianne as merely an integral part of the mission and would willingly sacrifice her in his search for revenge. However, during the gruelling course of training for the mission, she is a constant distraction with her rebellious nature and sheer determination and gradually the dynamic between the two of them changes.

Something had changed between them, some indefinable twist to the dynamic that was both unnerving and exciting. He liked her. Respected her. Wanted her. They were no longer master and apprentice; instead of opponents, they were suddenly a team.

After his brother’s death, Nicolas didn’t really care whether he lived or died but now he finds himself beginning to care about life again all because of Marianne who has slowly broken down his defences and stolen his heart.

Marianne is an intriguing combination of strength and vulnerability. I love how she isn’t afraid to stand up to Nicolas and refuses to give in when the going gets tough.  She has to rely on her own skills, resourcefulness and inner strength.  Emotionally, Duval’s abuse left her feeling tainted and believing that she would never be able to respond to any man again, so her response to Nicolas is unexpected.

She’d thought herself immune, irrevocably tainted by Duval’s abuse. It was highly disconcerting to discover she might have been wrong. One look from Valette, and her blood heated to a slow boil.

I was frustrated by the decision Nicolas makes towards the end of the book, but I admired the way Ms. Bateman kept him true to  character. I think it was the only way he could put the past behind him. Besides, Marianne is a woman quite able to take care of herself.

Duval is a suitably odious and slimy toad while I was definitely intrigued my Raven, the mysterious smuggler. I shall look forward with interest to A RAVEN’S HEART, in which he is paired with Nicolas’ younger sister, Heloise.

Ms. Bateman has obviously undertaken a lot of research to create a real sense of the period and I particularly like how she uses a little artistic license to incorporate Louis-Charles (the “Lost Dauphin”) into the plot.

I was disappointed there was no Epilogue, which made the ending seem rather abrupt. I’m therefore hoping that I may see more of Nicolas and Marianne in the next book.

MY VERDICT: An very impressive debut novel which I can definitely recommend.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Secrets and Spies (click on the book covers for more details):

To Steal a Heart (Secrets and Spies, #1) by K.C. Bateman A Raven's Heart (Secrets & Spies, #2) by K.C. Bateman A Counterfeit Heart (Secrets & Spies, #3) by K.C. Bateman

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