Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress (Wild Lords and Innocent Ladies #1) by Lara Temple

I enjoyed Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress, but it was nothing like I expected based on its long- winded misnomer of a title, and has very little in common with the Disney fairytale – and that’s a good thing!  Instead, in this sophisticated and sexy twist, our ‘Cinders’ lives with a spiteful aunt, and an overbearing, meddlesome father, finding joy and happiness in a love of horses and friends at school.  When first they meet, her “prince” is a mere blip in the fabric her life, but fate (and the delightful machinations of this talented author) bring them together years later. It’s not quite a happy reunion – well, it’s actually the farthest thing from it – but Ms. Temple deftly steers her fated couple to a fairy tale ending anyway.

Helen “Nell” Tilney, returned to her family for the summer, is counting the days until her return to school.  Time spent at home is torturous; her evil aunt delights in tormenting and bullying her at every opportunity, and her seemingly oblivious father only notices her in order to criticize her or when he needs or wants something .  Happiness – and a reprieve from their machinations – comes from spending time with the horses her father raises on their estate or away at school. Nell has spent the morning riding when she’s summoned to show off her favorite horse, Petra, to a potential buyer.

Gabriel, Lord Hunter, who lives on a neighboring estate, is surprised by the slight girl who emerges from the stable, horse in tow.  But he’s frankly astonished by her talent putting the horse through its paces. Fierce and commanding, Nell is a revelation on horseback.  When she finally, reluctantly, hands off Petra to him, he demonstrates his own finesse as a horse rider. Years spent in the saddle as a soldier have taught him to appreciate a horse of Petra’s quality, and he’s relieved by the sense of approval he sees in Nell’s eyes.  Nell is impressed with Gabriel’s skill – and intrigued by her handsome, though clearly weary, neighbor. After spending an amicable afternoon together, they part – curious about each other – but with little expectation of meeting again.

Fate – and a spiteful aunt – have other plans.  That evening, Nell is summoned to dinner with her family and the handsome Lord Hunter. But the Nell that enters the drawing room is nothing like the fierce horsewoman Gabriel met earlier in the day.  Obviously reluctant to join their group, cowed and timid in the face of her aunt’s nastiness and her father’s obliviousness, Nell is a pale imitation of the girl Gabriel so admired earlier in the day.  The evening ends in disaster after Nell, who’s finally had enough, turns on her aunt. Passionate, angry and fierce, Nell delivers a set down that Gabriel can’t help but admire.

Nell departs for school early the next morning, before Gabriel can congratulate her for standing up to her aunt.  But after a night spent reminiscing on Nell’s magnificent self-defense, and with thoughts of advantageously joining his estate to the Tilney’s, he approaches Sir Henry to ask for her hand.  Tilney agrees and promises to inform Nell of the agreement. Lord Hunter departs.

Four years pass wherein Nell spends time away from home working as a schoolmistress – waiting to come of age and take ownership of the horse farm left to her by her beloved mother; by contrast, Gabriel enjoys the life of a notorious libertine and rake.  Privately, Gabriel still mourns the suicide of his younger brother, whose funeral he attended shortly before meeting Nell. With the help of two close friends and former officers, he’s established safe havens for returning war veterans. But Nell knows nothing of Gabriel’s secret benevolence, so when she discovers she’s betrothed to him – via a notice placed in the Morning Post by her father – she arrives in a fury on Gabriel’s doorstep demanding an explanation and a retraction.

Gabriel has no intention of ending their engagement in such a public manner.  After convincing Nell of the same, they agree to travel to the races at Wilton and speak to her father – together – about breaking off the longstanding engagement.  Gabriel enjoys his rakish lifestyle, the pleasure of his mistress, and his solitude. Nell wants nothing more than to take ownership of the horse farm and possibly attract the attentions of a neighbour for whom she’s nurtured a tendre since childhood.  But reader, you (and I) already know it’s too late. Once Gabriel meets this new incarnation of Nell – spirited, headstrong and beautiful – he’s smitten, though he fights hard to resist his attraction to her. Nell, who’s secretly tracked Gabriel’s antics via the gossip pages, is similarly intrigued by her betrothed but determined to pursue a relationship with another man.  Fortunately for us, both the journey and the destination provide ample opportunity for our star crossed lovers to find and fall for each other.

As Gabriel and Nell spend time together, their chemistry is palpable.  Gabriel, knowledgeable about the physical aspect of loving, struggles to deal with the emotional intimacy Nell sparks deep within.  He suffered under the abuse of his father, and even after finally freeing his brother and mother, can’t help but feel he’s failed them after his brother commits suicide.  He blames himself for his brother’s death (I won’t say why here, but it is heartbreaking and understandable). Despair and a feeling of unworthiness plague him in all his relationships, and in particular, keep him closed off from Nell’s kind spirit and instinctive desire to help.  He hides his vulnerability behind a suave veneer – but Nell sees glimpses of it and can’t resist attempting to draw Gabriel out. Nell, physically naive, but emotionally strong, offers a compelling contrast to her betrothed. She’s learned to believe in herself and her own power and strength, and wants Gabriel to lean on her.  Naïve about physical passion and intimacy, Nell is bewildered by her attraction to Gabriel – who isn’t the man she’s yearned for since girlhood. Gabriel is similarly flustered by the emotional closeness he feels to Nell… together, they make a terrific pair, complimenting each other in every way, and Ms. Temple deftly plots their transition from strangers to foes to friends… and finally lovers.  I enjoyed every bit of their evolving relationship, though my major complaint about this novel is the author’s heavy handed hints at Gabriel’s prowess in bed. We get it. He’s good in the sack. Enough.

Looking for a mature, sexy and modern twist on the classic knight in shining armor fairytale?  Well look no further – romantic, passionate, and sexy Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress is the one you’ve been waiting for.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife presents a unique reviewing challenge.  A brilliant murder mystery, it’s difficult to review without spoiling its manysecrets.  And because much of the terrible pleasure of this novel lies in the painstakingly slow revelation of these secrets, I can only very generally touch on the events at its heart.  But The English Wife is also a bittersweet love story – actually, two – and one of these (the relationship between married couple Bayard and Annabelle Duyvil) transcends simple categorization.  Told in chapters that alternate between Before (the murder) and After, and detailing/juggling the lives of its principal and pivotal secondary characters, The English Wifesucks you in and never lets go until the killer – and the truth – are revealed.  Ms. Willig kept this reader guessing and reassessing chapter after chapter… and as a mystery/ thriller, the novel is a success.  Suspenseful, clever and surprising, The English Wife kept me on tenterhooks from start to finish.

Unfortunately, it’s less successful as an historical romance; Ms. Willig’s attempt to end the novel with a happily ever feels oddly inappropriate and distracting, and ultimately, detracts from the overall effect of the story.

Genevieve (“Jane”) Van Duyvil is attending a costumed Twelfth Night ball at the home of her brother Bayard and his beautiful wife Annabelle.  Since the couple’s whirlwind romance in London, they have largely kept to themselves, opting not to live close to the family matriarch in New York City, and reside instead with their three year old twins at Illyria, their rural estate on the banks of the Hudson River.  Rumors about the marriage are rampant – that Annabelle is cuckolding Bay with a live-in architect; that they’re unhappy together; that Bay enjoys a much too cozy relationship with his married cousin Anne; that Annabelle is an imposter – so despite the remote location, the party has drawn the curious crème de la crème of New York Knickerbocker society.  Ever an observer, Jane finds herself watching and listening as guests cattily amuses themselves discussing and denigrating their (absent) hosts. Jane is dismissive of the rumors about Bay and Annabelle – she’s seen first hand how devoted the pair are to each other, but she remains quietly on the sidelines, ignored and dismissed by society and her family.

Jane’s quiet observations are interrupted when Anne asks if she knows where Bay and Annabelle have disappeared to.  The dancing is about to begin, the pair are nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Van Duyvil has sent Anne to retrieve them.  After a brief conversation, Jane accompanies Anne outside to see if Bay might be overseeing the set-up in the garden for entertainments after the dancing. Frozen and cold, Jane is just about to turn back when Anne shouts out in panic.  Turning, Jane thinks she glimpses Annabelle floating in the river… but in the blink of an eye she’s gone; turning towards Anne, Jane spots Bay on the ground with a knife in his chest. Dropping quickly to her knees next to him, she realizes he’s still alive and shouts for Anne to get help.  But moments after he appears to gasp out a name – George – he dies in her arms.

From here on out, The English Wife unfolds in alternating chapters that detail, via Jane’s point of view, the newspapers rapacious appetite for the scandalous story – Was it murder?  Where is Annabelle? Did Bay kill her?

Did she kill him? – and the evolution of the relationship between Bay and Annabelle before his murder and her disappearance.  Ms. Willig painstakingly parcels out surprise after surprise in chapters detailing their complex relationship, and after the murder, as Jane tries to uncover the truth about what happened to her brother.  Convinced Bay loved Annabelle and couldn’t have killed her, Jane forms an unlikely partnership with a reporter who inveigles himself into the Van Duyvil home. But as Jane discovers secrets about Bay and Annabelle – and reporter James Burke – she begins to doubt everything she thought she knew.

Reader, I can’t really tell you much about Annabelle and Bay before or after their marriage (#sorrynotsorry) – because doing so will spoil too much of the story.  Deeply in love – but scarred in different ways and burdened with secrets – Annabelle and Bay turn to each other for salvation. But salvation, though lovely (it is!  I loved them!), is temporary. And for Annabelle, the cost is steep and devastating. My heart ached as Ms. Willig slowly and inextricably revealed the secrets between this pair. The Twelfth Night ball represents a new, bittersweet beginning for them both but… well, I’ve already said too much.  Suffice it to say, the relationship between Bay and Annabelle evolves differently than I hoped, but was profoundly moving nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Jane Duyvil tries to find her brother’s killer.  Oppressed and repressed by her overbearing hurtful mother, Jane has always been a wallflower, accepting crumbs of attention from her family and society.  Bay was similarly disinterested in her – preferring to give his time and affections (and more?) to their wild, disobedient cousin Anne; nevertheless, Jane believed Bay loved Annabelle and couldn’t have killed her.  Determined to ferret out the truth, she strikes a deal with James Burke. She’ll share what she knows of the murder if he will help her uncover what really happened that night. I liked their ‘detective’ partnership, and the sense of purpose and identity it gives Jane.  She finally sets herself apart from her mother and begins to live life on her own terms searching for her brother’s killer… but I wish Ms. Willig had devoted more time to Jane after her brother’s murder. I still don’t feel like I know her all that well.

As the novel slowly gathers momentum, we discover no one – and nothing – are quite as they appeared at the start.  Ms. Willig does a terrific job blurring the line between ‘good’ guy and ‘bad’ guy, and deftly balances complex and conflicting truths in the lives of Jane, Bay and Annabelle.  I still can’t decide who I like and disliked in this story, and I’m hopelessly conflicted about Bay. As I read, I kept thinking of the phrase: O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!

I loved and loathed The English Wife in equal measure.  As usual, Ms. Willig’s writing is magnificent.  She perfectly captures the period, setting, her primary and secondary characters – I can easily see it all in my minds eye – and the whodunit at its core is engrossing.  I even felt the coldness of its bleak, wintry setting as I shivered through the pages. But it’s also a bittersweet and heartbreaking love story and I ached reading it. Darkly moving, tinged with melancholy, The English Wife is not quite what you expect, but it stays with you long after its last page.

 

Lady Rogue (Royal Rewards #3) by Theresa Romain

I’m a fairly new fan of Theresa Romain; I’ve only read a few of her earlier novels – but I liked them quite a bit. I decided to pick up Lady Rogue on a whim – I read the first book in the Royal Rewards series, Fortune Favors the Wicked, shortly after its release and enjoyed every bit of it, so when I saw she had another book in the series coming out, I decided to pick it up. Now, dear reader, if you know me at all, you know I abhor reading a series out of order. But I was: out of town, craving a great historical romance, and Ms. Romain is reliably good… so, here we are. And fortunately, the book works just fine on its own. Once again the author shines her spotlight on two principals struggling under the weight of their pasts. To her credit, Ms. Romain’s lead characters are nothing like the cookie cutter lords and ladies that clutter much of historical romance. Instead she writes about flawed and imperfect men and women trying – and sometimes failing – to find meaning in their lives. Her characters are dynamic, sympathetic figures you want to know more about. In that respect, Lady Rogue is a success. I wholeheartedly believed in the transformative power of love between her principal characters; unfortunately, the disjointed plot (plots) of the story leave something to be desired. Art forgery, theft, murder, blackmail, sexual abuse… Lady Rogue is an awkward mash-up of mystery and romance, and the author doesn’t quite pull it all off.

Lady Isabel Morrow tries to live her life above reproach. After the death of her husband, she quietly mourned his passing – silently dignified in her grief. Privately, she questioned everything about her life: her repressive childhood, her marriage to a virtual stranger, and what it might mean to finally be free to live life on her own terms. But as Lady Rogue begins, she’s further from finding those answers than she’s ever been. The surprise discovery that her dead husband Andrew, an art dealer, was also commissioning and selling art forgeries – stashing them in a secret room in the house, has left her struggling to reconcile the man she thought she knew with the stranger he was.

Shortly after discovering Andrew’s hidden cache of real and forged paintings (whose subject matter stirs up disquieting suspicions she desperately tries to quell), she learns the Duke of Ardmore plans to sell one of them to settle a gambling debt with a notorious and dangerous London crime-lord. Fearful of the scandal that might ensue should the new owner discover the painting is a copy – and what that might mean to the marriage prospects of Andrew’s young ward Lucy – Isabel decides to secretly switch the paintings. She reaches out to Callum Jenks, the police officer who investigated her husband’s death – and with whom she engaged in a passionate one-night affair (we’ll revisit this in a moment), for help. Despite her entreaties and explanations, he refuses.

Callum Jenks has found success as a Bow Street Runner, but the one man he wants – needs – to put away, Sir Frederick Chapple, is about to be released for lack of evidence. Callum knows Sir Frederick was the mastermind behind the theft at the Royal Mint (detailed in the first two books of the Royal Rewards series) – and is therefore ultimately responsible for the murder of his beloved brother Harry, a guard – but he can’t prove it. After an odd morning wherein he received a summons from Lady Isabel Morrow, and her even more surprising revelations and request for help (to break into the Duke of Ardmore’s house, steal a fake Botticelli and replace it with the original), he arrives at Newgate to Sir Frederick’s smug confidence in his own imminent release. Angry, disillusioned and questioning his life and purpose, he decides to help Lady Isabel after all.

Callum stirs up feelings Isabel never knew she could experience. Being with him again – working alongside him – reminds her of their passionate interlude, and how much she admires and likes him. He’s protective and careful with her, but he also looks at her as someone to be desired and admired – something Andrew never did. For his part, Callum was attracted to Isabel from the moment they first met. Memories of their one-night together plague him whenever they’re together and he can’t seem to stop wanting her… but the circumstances of their initial meeting, Isabel’s position in society and Callum’s work keep him from believing they can ever have a future together.

The slow burn affection and affair between Callum and Isabel is a highlight of the story. But perhaps you, like me, were surprised to discover they had already engaged in a one-night stand? Ms. Romain introduces this twist right from the outset (as if it’s no big deal although it’s completely uncharacteristic of her oh-so-proper heroine) – so it’s clear from the beginning that Callum and Isabel have history. It feels oddly out of sequence with the story as it unfolds – and since they both continue to lust after one another once they partner up to steal the painting, I kept asking myself what was really keeping them from being lovers.

Although I enjoyed the suspense plot involving Andrew and the forged artworks and the underlying sense of dread attached to the paintings left in his secret room, the resolution of both storylines feels forced and unsatisfying. Isabel and Callum plot and plan to make the switch at the Duke of Ardmore’s home (and I loved every scene they shared on the page) – but I struggled to accept Isabel as a thief plotting her next adventure, or to believe Callum would encourage or want a partner in crime. The story takes another twist following their late night caper and frankly, it felt like Ms. Romain was gilding the lily. The switch – as a means to reunite Callum and Isabel and introduce the spectre of Andrew’s death and its implications – is enough in and of itself. Meanwhile, Isabel visits acquaintances with Lucy and tries to match-make on her behalf. I kept wondering why Lucy even appears in the story – she pops up between chapters and Isabel’s visits with Callum, but then the author finally reveals the truth behind the hidden paintings whilst simultaneously introducing and resolving Lucy’s purpose in the novel…and reader? It’s awful and terrible and totally out of sync with the rest of this story.

Lady Rogue is most successful when it focuses on its principal characters. Their struggle – to live authentic lives that have meaning and purpose, and to follow their hearts’ desire despite the societal confines of the time – is poignant and deeply affecting. The mystery subplot, while interesting, is messy and overly complicated. There are sort of bad guys, bad guys and really bad guys… and honestly, that Andrew was a lying, thieving crook, was enough. I didn’t need the other tangents the story took, and ultimately they detracted from my pleasure in the romance.

The Henchmen of Zenda by K. J. Charles

Every time I start a K.J. Charles book I’m convinced it can’t possibly be as good as the one that preceded it, but happily, every time Ms. Charles proves me wrong. Told from an alternate point of view and substantially queerer (Ms. Charles’ words), The Henchmen of Zenda is loosely based on the classic The Prisoner of Zenda, and the author packs A LOT into its short page count. There are villains double crosses, kidnappings, sword fights, a princess, intrigues and doppelgangers, and a sexy May-December love affair. The story is complex and features a large cast of memorable secondary characters – and it demands all of your attention as you read it. But it’s worth your time and focus, friends. The Henchmen of Zenda is the wonderful, swashbuckling story you hoped for when you glimpsed that lovely cover, and I loved every single thing about it.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced former soldier who’s lived a full life long before he’s hired by Michael Elphberg, Duke of Strelsau, half-brother to the soon-to-be King of Ruritania. Inured to the whims of men in powerful positions, he isn’t surprised when Michael invites (blackmails) him into joining the small group of henchmen he’s assembled to overthrow his half-brother and assume the throne. Smart, unrepentant about who and what he is (queer; a fearsome fighter available to the highest bidder), Jasper assumes the job will be fairly straightforward: kill the heir and install Michael on the throne. Only nothing is as it seems in Ruritania – including Michael’s plans. Jasper finds himself doubting everything and everyone involved in the scheme, and so do we.

Fortunately, Jasper, our jaded and sardonic narrator, understands things aren’t quite as they appear from the outset. Via his PoV we uncover the machinations and motivations behind Michael’s attempt to overthrow his brother – and we get to know the not-so merry and downright nasty (with few exceptions) group of co-conspirators with whom Jasper spends his days. Each of the henchmen is included because of a specific set of skills. In Jasper’s case, he’s famed for his bravery and talent with a blade; he quickly ascertains the special sinister skills of his fellow henchmen – until he meets (and falls for) Rupert of Hentzau. Handsome, confident, stylish and charming, it isn’t immediately clear why Michael includes him. But Jasper suspects he’s a spy – and despite his attraction to the henchman, he’s reluctant to trust him.

Suffice it to say, Jasper is smart to be cautious. No one and nothing are quite as they appear, and the story is full of twists and turns, double crosses and treachery. The Henchmen of Zenda is one of those stories that precludes a reviewer from sharing too much of the plot without spoiling it for the reader, but fortunately much of the pleasure in the book lies in Ms. Charles’s wonderful primary and secondary characters. Their motivations – and relationships with each other – enhance this clever story, and discussing them won’t spoil the novel.

Jasper is a terrific anti-hero. Clever, confident, and a brilliant fighter, he’s done every villainous thing you can think of and he’s unapologetically gay. When Michael blackmails him into joining his plot to kill the king, he’s frustrated but fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. His fellow henchmen are a largely unlikeable lot – but Jasper keeps them – and Michael – at arm’s length. He has a deliciously wry sense of humor, and it’s a nice to surprise to discover how reliable he is as a narrator of this tale of treachery and betrayal. Truly, Jasper’s PoV – and his relationships with his fellow henchmen, Michael, and Michael’s mistress – perfectly suits the story and is a highlight.

And then, just when Jasper begins to believe he understands Michael and his schemes, Rupert appears.

Rupert is gorgeous, suave and an accomplished flirt. He loves men and women – and when he meets Jasper, he can’t resist flirting with his taciturn companion. Jasper is supremely dry and Rupert is delightfully sly. I loved the interplay between the two men and the obvious contrasts between them, and the novel is never better than when they are together mock fighting/flirting. Rupert has his own agenda, but he guards it carefully… even as he and Jasper dance around their attraction. Rupert delights in teasing, but Jasper, once caught, is anything but submissive; he quickly turns the table on his young lover. Once the pair become intimate, Jasper’s experience and maturity adds a compelling intensity to their dynamic together – and watching them both come undone by their attraction to each other is supremely satisfying. Eventually, the pair are forced to confide in each other – but once they plot how to move forward, it’s refreshing how Ms. Charles treats them as equals. They each have a role but neither is the “protector” or the “savior.” They’re equals who respect – and like – one another enough to trust the other.

In addition to Jasper and Rupert, Ms. Charles populates the novel with a terrific and memorable group of secondary characters. Really, the story could be told by any one of them and be equally compelling. Michael is a mess – obsessed with overthrowing his brother, he’s the major villain of this story. But his henchmen, particularly his poisoner, are also nasty pieces of work. His half-brother, a drunken and spoiled despoiler of innocents is equally awful, and really, amongst this lot, there aren’t many characters you want to root for. Well, there is one – but to confess it would be to spoil the resolution of this mess. Michael’s mistress is another standout, and I loved how Ms. Charles uses her to illustrate Jasper’s tender side. He’s a loyal and loving friend – and reader, he’s one of her best characters to date.

While Think of England is still my favorite K.J. Charles book, The Henchmen of Zenda isn’t far off the top spot. Clever, complicated and supremely entertaining, it’s easily one of my favorite books of 2018. With an anti-hero you can’t help but root for, and a happy for now ending perfectly suited to the story and its principal pair, this queer twist on The Prisoner of Zenda transcends the original.

Best of 2017…so far

Truth.  I read a lot of romance novels and I’m not an organized person – or a disciplined list keeper.  Sigh.  So I’m grateful to Goodreads for forcing me to shelve books when I’m ready to review them so that I can easily locate titles months later.

Obviously, my favorite shelf is ‘Best books of 2017.’  It’s a highly edited selection with only my most favorites making the cut.  For organizational purposes, I maintain other, more narrowly specific shelves – Contemporary, Historical, Queer – but ‘Best’ is the mother of them all.  Anyway.  You’d think it would be easy to remember favorite books and I mostly do…but when you read a book in January and try to assemble the list in November, shelves are your friends.  After peeking at my list earlier today, I was reminded of some terrific novels.  And I was grateful (again) that I took the time to categorize them.

I’m not quite ready for a big reveal here on the site (yet) but I do have a couple of early thoughts.  Much like 2016, my favorite came late in the year & was a DELIGHTFUL surprise.  Last year I boldly (if I do say so myself) picked a queer, shifter book (Wolfsong, by TJ Klune) over the much loved The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, for my #1 pick.  This year my favorite novel is actually an audio book.  I loved the novel, but the narration is simply the cherry on top to this mucho marveloso story & it’s getting all the props.

Keep an eye out for my list – and maybe a few more I couldn’t resist including.  If you’re curious what I liked in 2016, you can check my picks out here:  The Best of 2016: Emily’s List