The final installment in Stephanie Laurens’ Black Cobra Trilogy is perhaps the most exciting of all.  The Reckless Bride follows the story of Rafe Carstairs, keeper of the original letter that will expose the identity of the Black Cobra.  His return to English soil is fraught with several distractions, not in the very least Lady Esme Congreve and her niece, Loretta Michelmarsh.  At the request of Esme for Rafe to act as their guide, he and Hasaan accompany the ladies back towards England.  A long journey up the rivers of Europe throws Rafe and Loretta closer together, coinciding with Esme’s match-making plans.  Their attraction is almost instant, but neither side is willing to admit to it.  When a murderous plot against Esme is discovered, explaining non-cultist attacks on them throughout Europe, she seeks sanctuary at a convent run by a friend while Loretta continues on with Rafe.  Left to their own devices, they realize they cannot hold back from each other, and finally succumb to their passions.  But, Rafe’s mission is the most dangerous of all, and Loretta is reckless enough to follow him until he sees it through. With the help of almost every single character in other Laurens’ novels, the Duke of Wolverstone gets his villain, and our four brave heroes get their happy endings.

As usual, Laurens delivers a flawless plot, keeping you in suspense until the surprising conclusion and discovery of the Black Cobra.  Add to this page after page of steamy, sexy love scenes between the drop dead gorgeous Rafe and the determined Loretta, and you won’t be able to put this book down.  Believe it or not, I found myself becoming impatient with Rafe and Loretta’s trysts, because I wanted to get back to the Black Cobra plot!  Another great series from Stephanie Laurens!

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“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”

This was the first thought that crossed my mind when I put my Nook to sleep on this book for the last time.  All that angst, all that heartache could have been avoided and the happy ending gotten to so much sooner, if Lady Isabel Townsend and Lord Nicholas St. John didn’t have major trust issues, brought on by unhappy pasts. His problem stems from his role as the Bulan, or the Hunter, assigned by the Crown to track fugitives, spies and missing persons of interest to the British Empire.  His last assignment landed him in prison because he fell in love and trusted the wrong person. Couple that with an unfaithful mother who deserted her family without a backwards glance and you can see where he’s coming from.

Lady Isabel had a father who was known as the Wastreal, a man who gambled and played his way through life and his fortune, leaving his children  (in addition to Isabel there is her brother James, the ten year old heir) and his wife to fend for themselves in the Yorkshire countryside. Isabel is still reeling and trying desperately to raise her brother, keep Townsend Park intact and harbor runaway women at the same time. A tall order for any heroine, surely.  Bring these two damaged souls together and watch the angst and sparks fly. And fly they do.

Lord Nicholas longs to escape the marriage minded mamas of London after being awarded the accolade “Landable Lord” by a popular magazine. When the Duke of Leighton assigns him to a special project, he jumps at the chance to head north.  His arrival in Yorkshire is noted by Lady Isabel, who is aware of his new moniker but is more interested in getting Lord Nicholas, a noted antiquarian, to appraise her statutes than she is in getting him to the altar. Nicholas refrains from telling her the real reason for his visit to her home, and thus ensues a series of misunderstandings so convoluted,  it is a miracle that the two of them actually like each other enough to fall in love.

Sarah MacLean paints a wonderfully colorful portrait of her characters in this novel.  There are way too many stubborn moments for Isabel, and I began to think that Nicholas was a saint to still want her, but conflict does make a happy bedfellow, especially when there is an overabundance of make-up sex. These two, suffice it to say, do a lot of making-up.  You’re just brought to the point where you are wondering how much more Nick can take when Isabel finally asks herself the same question and confesses to her love for him. But is it too late?

As an aside, I just need to mention that the best line of the book (and there were many good ones) and the one that embodies the very essence of the reformed rake, falls to Lord Gabriel St. John, Marquess of Ralston, Nick’s twin brother. While trying to console Nicholas, he says, “You are laboring under the mistaken impression that their  job is to need us. In my experience, it is almost always the other way around.” I love this line. It’s the basis of why I love romance novels. And why I loved this one, too.

This book is a sequel to Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (Gabriel’s story) by the same author, and together they are both fun, lively reads. Each will have you heaving a satisfied sigh when you’re done. There’s nothing like a good story to make for a happy ending.

Normally, when I read a romance novel, I naturally identify with the heroine, if rooting for her to get her man is akin to identification. While reading this novel, however, I found myself fascinated by the workings of the mind of the male protagonist and instead, cheered for him to overcome his childhood demons and get his happy ending. It’s as if Cinderella’s prince was the more important character in that particular story than Cinderella herself; a wonderful twist to be sure.

The first in the London’s Greatest Lovers series by Lorraine Heath introduces Morgan Lyons, the 8th Earl of Westcliffe. Damaged in his youth by the early death of his father, the bitterness of his mother and jealousy toward his younger brothers, both for what they have (a higher rank and money for one) and what they don’t (the lack of noble responsibilities, for the other), Morgan accepts his role in an arranged marriage to the much younger Claire, a childhood friend of his younger brother, Stephen.

On their wedding night, Stephen’s penchant for mischief and Claire’s fear of her older, serious husband results in a three year banishment to the country for her and a separation that Morgan uses to rake his way through London. When circumstances arise and Claire is forced back to town to bring her philandering husband to heel, the two begin where their truncated marriage left off; they come to know each other better and begin to fall in love.

When danger lurks from an unpredictable source and tragedy results, Morgan realizes that Claire’s love can be trusted and he in turn comes to admit his feelings, no longer worried about feeling the vulnerability and insecurity that has followed him his entire life.

Lorraine Heath introduces secondary characters in this novel that provide the basis for understanding Morgan’s rakishness, his unwillingness to fully trust his wife, and his belief that he can never fall in love or trust love in return. His relationships with his brothers, especially the younger Duke of Ainsley (I’m assuming he will have his own sequel one day soon) his mother, his deceased father, his former paramour, Anne, even his beloved dog Cooper who dies and leaves him fully alone, or so he believes, explain why he did not give Claire a second chance after their wedding. These relationships also let us see why he feels he cannot let himself need anyone, including his wife, for whom he has feelings he’s trying so very hard to excuse away. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel in this genre that uses secondary characters to this extent. They should all endeavor to do so.  After all, we are all the sum of our past experiences, shaped and molded by circumstances and people early on. The author brings this out wonderfully in this book, and it’s why I sympathize so strongly with Morgan. He’s simply trying so hard to get past all of it, and when he does, it’s like the sun coming out from behind a thundercloud; almost blinding in its intensity. I cannot wait for the sequel, Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman, the story of Morgan’s brother Stephen, which will be out December 1, 2010. This book makes its debut on November 1, 2010.

There is a reason why all those Regency and Victorian romances sell so well. And there’s a reason why Jane Austen novels have been adapted and re-adapted to TV and movies. And that same reason is why I absolutely loved A Hopeless Romantic, by one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, Harriet Evans.

A Hopeless Romantic is the story of Laura Foster, a 28 year old London woman who lives her life wrapped up in romantic fantasies in her search for The One. After a devastating and humiliating break-up, she’s brought back to earth with a definite thud. In the process, she loses her job, her friends and her self-esteem. And she decides to stop living with her head in a romantic cloud. It’s time to be practical and turn over a new leaf. No more fantasizing about Mr. Right and jumping in with both feet. And first she has to get over Mr. Totally Wrong.

On a holiday with her parents in Norfolk and bored out of her mind, she agrees to visit a nearby estate called Chartley Hall (I kept reading this as Chatterly. I must have Sean Bean on the brain) which is open to the public for tours.  While there, she accidentally meets Nick Needham, who invites her for drinks at a local club. Despite her best intentions, she decides to take him up on the offer. We watch as Laura fights her attraction to Nick, and then just when she’s ready to give in to it and possibly fall again, she finds out something about him that totally pulls her up short. While Laura’s reasons for not pursuing her relationship with Nick are as bewildering to him as they are to me,  I came to understand that it’s not really who Nick is that’s keeping her from giving her heart. It’s really who Laura has become. She can’t trust herself enough to make the right decisions and she can’t trust Nick enough to not get hurt again. She’s afraid to make that leap of faith that used to come so easily to her.

A Hopeless Romantic is filled with wonderful secondary characters. Laura’s relationship with her grandmother is especially poignant and her interaction with her roommate Yorkie, her friend Jo and Nick’s best friend Charles, help us see different sides of Laura that may not otherwise be evident. I’ve noticed that Ms. Evans has a knack for using her secondary characters in this way.  They are by no means superfluous to the story, but are as important to it as the main characters.

Harriet Evans has written a wonderful  love story that basically combines the best of contemporary romance with a touch of what makes historical romances so alluring.   The hero truly loves the heroine, and best of all, he’s a …. well, I won’t give the rest away.

The reason why we love our historical romances? True love prevails;  the heroine gets the hero in the end of course, and he’s usually titled, wealthy and extremely good looking.  And the reason why I love this present day romance so much? For the same reason and one more; if I were 25 years younger, single, living on the other side of the Atlantic, and looking for love, after reading this I could almost believe it could happen to me. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Before delving into Dark Road to Darjeeling, I didn’t have a favorite Lady Julia Grey novel.  I loved each of them for their own story, and their own plots.  That was until the fourth novel in the series came along.  Now I have a favorite.

When we last left Brisbane and Julia, they were just beginning their new life together.  In Dark Road to Darjeeling, we catch up with the Brisbane’s nine months into their marriage and subsequent trip to the Mediterranean.  They have traveled the world, seeing exotic places, eating exotic foods, and being newlyweds.  And then Julia’s siblings, Portia and Plum, join them in Cairo with a request to accompany them to India to assist Jane, Portia’s former flame, as she prepares for the birth of her child.  Jane’s husband has died, and she is alone with his family while awaiting the birth.  Portia, still in love with her dear Jane, rushes to her aid, bringing along Plum at her father’s insistence.  Portia harbors suspicion that everything is not as it seems with Jane in India, and asks the assistance of Julia and Brisbane.  She feels Jane’s husband was murdered, and intends to find out the truth before the killer turns his eyes on Jane and her baby.  Never one to resist an investigation, Julia eagerly accepts, and Brisbane reluctantly agrees.

They are welcomed eagerly at the Peacocks, a tea plantation in the Himalayan mountains, by Jane, and her husband’s family, Miss Cavendish, the spinster aunt, and Freddie Cavendish, cousin.  Everyone is a suspect to Julia, and she begins her investigation while Brisbane remains in Calcutta on business.  Being curious and forthright, Julia uses her charm and good breeding to seek the answers she needs to solve her puzzle, making friends and a few enemies unwittingly.   Everyone has a motive, or so it seems to Julia.  With the arrival of Brisbane, and his reluctance to allow her to assist him in finding the murderer, we see the side of their marriage that at times made me furious with the both of them, shouting “grow up” at my poor paperback book.  A few conversations with a child, and one man-eating tiger later, and we have one of the most shocking conclusions I have read in quite some time.  I never saw it coming, and I’m so glad!

A whirlwind of characters, old and new, and the lush descriptions of the Valley of Eden transport you to a time when the English ruled India and fabulously round characters take you on a journey through jealousy, murder, death, and finally peace.   Brisbane is dark and moody with a hint of danger, and Julia is curious and prone to get herself into trouble.  The plot is so full of twists that when at the end, you are not quite sure how you managed to get there, and can’t quite believe the outcome.  Raybourn is truly a proficient at storytelling, for my pillow was soaked with tears at the end.  I sat staring at my book for a full minute, just letting the shocking facts sink in for a moment.

I always tell everyone Deanna Raybourn is an excellent teller of mysteries, but this one exceeded my expectations to the extreme.   Simply breathtaking!

“This is going to be good.”

Six words always said just before a three day weekend, diving into a huge chunk of chocolate cake or reading a Teresa Medeiros novel. Those who know me well can only imagine how enthusiastically those words left my lips as my Kindle downloaded her latest historical romance, The Devil Wears Plaid. Who needs chocolate when there’s a kilted Highlander nearby?

And what a kilt it is. Our hero makes his first appearance riding a black horse down the aisle of an abbey. Tall in the saddle, arrogant in demeanor, green-eyed Jamie Sinclair crashes the wedding of his sworn enemy – the aged laird of the Hepburns. Vowing revenge upon the man he claims took what was rightfully his, Jamie declares he’s come for something other than jewels and points a pistol directly at the bride’s heart.

Emmaline Marlowe should be terrified and she will be, eventually. But for just one instant, all she feels is a vague sense of relief. As the first of four girls born to a self-indulgent, impoverished baronet, she is forced to stand at the altar and pledge herself to a wizened, rotting old Earl a head shorter than she. That was the unfortunate plan until this magnificent stranger made his dramatic appearance just as she was gathering enough courage to speak her vows.

In one of the most vividly descriptive and exciting scenes I’ve read in a long time, Jamie literally sweeps the startled bride off her feet and absconds with her into the wilds of the Highlands. And so begins a life-changing adventure for both.

A universal truth – Ms. Medeiros does not disappoint. A skillful, even combination of romance and intrigue, the plot is liberally sprinkled with humor and lively descriptions. The supporting characters are granted wonderful dialogue and situations, in particular the charming Ian Hepburn, Jamie’s old friend turned reluctant nemesis. The much anticipated, happily ever ending is almost too neat and tidy, but Ms. Medeiros surprises with Emma’s final revenge on the old laird. It’s a dark moment and unexpected enough to make you wince first and then cheer.

Make room on your bookshelves, people. This one tops a Monday off.

After watching the first nine episodes of the exploits of Maj. Richard Sharpe (based on the Bernard Cornwell novels) and starring Sean Bean, I’ve become partial to green jackets and the dashing Riflemen who wore them and served in the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War against Napoleon, oh, about 200 years ago or so.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sgt. Will Atkins, also of the 95th Rifles, and also wearing a green jacket, was the lead protagonist in this delightful novel by Susanna Fraser. The HUZZAH! could be heard from here to Brooklyn.

The Sergeant’s Lady is the story of Anna Wright-Gordon Arrington, a woman following the drum and her husband in the battles against Napoleon. Only her husband, a Lieutenant in King’s Army, turns out to be not quite an Officer and a Gentleman. When he’s murdered by Spanish townspeople who take offense at his treatment of a relative, Anna is relieved to be in widow’s weeds. She asks to return to Lisbon and then home to Scotland by the next convoy. That convoy is escorted by Sgt. Atkins, a career enlisted man who finds he is attracted to a woman he can never have due to their different stations in life.  A life-threatening situation causes the two of them to set out on their own, and Anna and Will discover a mutual common ground, quite literally, and fall in love, but must part for propriety’s sake upon returning to the regiment. When Anna needs to leave the encampment post haste, she only has time to write Will a hasty note and then is gone from his life, seemingly forever.

The second part of the book follows the two on similar yet separate roads. The question remains, will those roads converge, and can they overcome the roadblocks of English society long enough to find happiness with each other?

Susanna Fraser writes an intriguing love story encompassing aspects of English societal rules as well as Army life during this period. We get an idea of just what it must be like to “follow the drum” and then return to England while the battles still rage on “over the hills and far away” (sorry, couldn’t help but throw that in).  To be honest, I also could not help but envision Sean Bean as Atkins, and instead of a Midlands accent, broad Yorkshire kept bursting forth from the good Sergeant’s mouth. Oh, well. In any event, I enjoyed Anna and Will’s story immensely, with or without Mr. Bean looking over my shoulder.