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(Brandon Brothers #2)

Genre: Historical Romance

Blurb (Goodreads):

Meet Adam Brandon … acutely intelligent and master-swordsman but gradually realising that he isn’t yet ready for the future he had previously planned.

Victim of a cruel deception, Camilla Edgerton-Foxe has a jaundiced view of the male sex and a tongue as sharp as her wits … but she also possesses an extraordinary talent.

A peculiar encounter offers Adam the kind of employment for which he is uniquely suited and which will exercise his mind as well as his muscles. The fly in the ointment is that Miss Edgerton-Foxe comes with it … as does Rainham, viscount and master of disguise, with a frequently misplaced sense of humour.
From Paris, via London, to the mists and mysteries of Romney Marsh, these three are sent on the trail of something darker and infinitely more dangerous than the kegs of brandy that come ashore at the dark of the moon. 

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Under a Dark Moon, the second in Stella Riley’s Brandon Brothers trilogy, is set in and around the atmospheric and starkly beautiful plains of Romney Marsh in Kent. As well as the smuggling of tax free luxury goods, something else far more sinister is going on, and there is a conspiracy of silence with the locals involved closing ranks. Very few people know who the leader of the smuggling ring is, but as the benefits are financially lucrative, no one involved is willing to jeopardise their ‘livelihood’ by speculating or questioning. This stretch of the Kent coast is the shortest distance between France and England making Romney Marsh with its swamplands and heavy mists perfect for the activity. The local churches mentioned in the story really exist and were visited in the course of the author’s extensive and immaculate research. While innocent and unobtrusive by day, they take on sinister undertones by night, and play their part in the concealment of the illegal smuggled goods once landed. The taverns and pubs mentioned throughout the story, are also kosher. For instance, The City of London Tavern, Dymchurch, is actually a sixteenth century tavern still operating today. 

Ms.Riley lives fairly close by and I love how she often uses this beautiful, intriguing and mysterious part of the country in some of her books. I’ve actually been so caught up in previous stories, such as The Player, that I’ve visited the area she’s described to experience it for myself. So well does she weave her magic that her fictional characters become living, breathing, people and some, especially Adrian, the MC of the above mentioned story, has taken up residence in my heart as one of my ‘book boyfriends’. This is research and writing at its best and I’m never disappointed as every single book and character she writes about is different to the last. I appreciate accurate historical detail, and when an author goes to this much trouble to achieve authenticity for her readers, it’s never lost on me. 

Adam Brandon is a silver-gilt haired, dashing, fearless, sword carrying dreamboat, and not only is he extremely easy on the eye, but a thoroughly decent man to boot. He’s no pushover, either, as his soon-to-be-boss, Goddard discovers; he even goes so far as to earmark Adam as a worthy counterpart for his feisty niece, Camilla, who is also an operative in M Division. I can remember every single one of this author’s extensive list of male characters from all of her books in three dimensional clarity, so memorable are they. Adam is a worthy addition to the list and I loved everything about him from his silver-gilt hair to his air of quiet authority, and no nonsense approach to life.

Adam has been honing his exceptional skill with the sword amongst the very best in Paris, with the ultimate goal of setting up his own Fencing academy aiming to pass on his skills in serious sword play, as well as the gentleman’s sport of fencing. However, he’s still young and with enough adrenaline pumping through his blood that he’s happy to put his ambitions on hold when he is offered an exciting proposition from an unexpected source. Goddard (aka the Earl of Alveston), the leader of a little known government unit known as M Division, has been quietly investigating and observing Adam for some considerable time. As well as receiving confirmation of Adam’s integrity from an old friend, he has also seen for himself that, whilst Adam is a formidable swordsman, he is not an indiscriminate killer, and has all the qualities Goddard is looking for as an addition to his small multi-talented team. 

Adam’s first task after completing his training in the field – which encompasses such nefarious tasks as lock picking – is to escort Camilla to her family’s country estate, Dragon Hall, in west Kent. The fact that this task also coincides with his first assignment is by the by because initially Camilla makes it almost impossible for the two of them to co-exist happily, even as she guesses they are to be on the same team. They lock horns from their first meeting when she tries unsuccessfully to get the better of him. Having almost married a man she believed herself to be in love with a year previously, only to discover by accident, in a humiliatingly overheard gossipy conversation, that he was not the man she thought him to be, Camilla has lost trust in all men and sworn off them for good. So unfortunately for Adam, being the first attractive young man she has encountered in the past year, he was always going to have a rough time. 

To me, Camilla initially comes over as an embittered and uncompromising young woman which, of course, is understandable given her experience with her ex fiancé. However, I must admit to jumping very much to Adam’s defence – such is Stella Riley’s ability to make me love her male characters. Soon, however, Camilla’s indomitable spirit melted my animosity towards her and, as the two spend more time together as working colleagues, I could see that this intelligent, feisty young woman was the perfect partner for the gorgeous Adam, in more ways than one. Plus, of course, she soon begins to really see Adam without her prejudices getting in the way, so I can forgive her initial rancour at his habit of “issuing orders and expecting everyone – including her – to jump”…even if he did adopt this attitude because of her obvious (at the time) aversion to him. Adam himself first begins to see the softer side of Camilla after she arrives at her home and is greeted by the staff who quite obviously love her; her smile dazzling him “in its warmth” and…”although he knew it wasn’t for him, Adam found himself smiling stupidly back”… this was the moment Adam began to lose his heart even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time.

After getting off to such a bad start, Adam sets out to deliberately charm Camilla although he also manages to keep wrong footing her with his mischievous repartee. Still, bit by bit, he begins to break down her defences – who wouldn’t be charmed by Adam? The two, together with Rainham, a fabulous secondary character who could easily have had his own book, and Harry Finch, Adam’s valet/right-hand man, are soon working together as a team. Another plus is that we get to see some characters from previous books, not least Sebastian Audley (The Wicked Cousin), one of the author’s most memorable and much loved characters. By now Sebastian has inherited the title of Viscount Wingham from his recently deceased father, and with his wife, Cassandra, and their baby son, live at Audley Court, Rye. We see quite a lot of him as he aids Adam, Camilla, and Rainham in their undercover investigations. I love that the author does this; I’m never content to say goodbye to her characters so when they become involved as secondary characters in later stories, I’m happy to be back in her magical Georgian world with them.

With the initial mutual dislike soon dissipating, we don’t have long to wait before Adam and Camilla – both equally intelligent – recognise each other’s professional acumen and skills, which in turn leads to respect, liking, trust, and a delicious slow burn romance. Adam is one of those rare breeds, a one woman man, and when he finds her (as he has) he’s chivalrous to a point which completely fits the picture of him I have in my imagination. There is no gratuitous sex on the page but the sexual tension between them positively simmers as the story progresses and, in my opinion, is far sexier than pages of descriptive text. Plus, Adam’s occasional, but perfectly timed risqué comments to Camilla, are both amusing and sexy in themselves and add another layer to the overall romantic feel of the story. Camilla’s female staff also fall under Adam’s charismatic spell, and I love how he’s unaware of it, a fact which only makes him all the more endearing. 

Alex Wyndham is Stella Riley’s chosen narrator and has, to date, recorded almost all of her backlist (with more of her stunning R&C series in the pipeline I believe), and all of her more recently published work. He expertly portrays her well drawn characters; feisty, out of the ordinary, no nonsense women, and her men…oh her men…long hair, frock coats, and swords, bringing them to life in such a way that they are truly memorable. 

Alex Wyndham’s smooth, cultured voice is perfectly suited to this genre, but having said that, he is also, very convincingly, able to subtly alter his own voice and, taking it down a notch or two, communicates the rougher, gravelly tones of the working class man. In Under a Dark Moon he has a fair few of these men to portray – of all ages. On occasions some of these men are involved in multi-character conversations or arguments with the more cultured Rainham, Sebastian and Adam. In one such scene, he impressively juggles five or more different male characters whilst keeping them all distinctly recognisable using only tone and local dialect; I would have known some of these characters even without the dialogue tags. Not only is this quite a feat in itself, but at the same time he also successfully implies the background menace prevalent to the whole conversation/interrogation. This, coupled with the author’s ever present wit and humour is delivered smoothly as he effortlessly switches between characters with his usual panache, in the process, proving what a versatile and talented actor can add to an already outstanding story.

Under a Dark Moon (Brandon Brothers #2) is a stunning historical romance with the added bonus of a plausible and clever mystery which has been brought to life by Alex Wyndham. Once more, author and narrator have raised the bar to bring us something out of the ordinary, plus of course, more fabulous characters for us to love. With only Leo Brandon’s story to add to this trio of books, I’m wondering where Stella Riley’s clever mind will take her next, because, having very skilfully linked both  her Roundheads and Cavaliers and Rockliffe series to the Brandon Brothers, I’m looking forward to what she has up her sleeve in the future. 

Highly Recommended.

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