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.

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.