Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review - - The Historian

By Elizabeth Kostova
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Release Date: September 1, 2009

Never trust a cook who doesn’t like to eat and never trust a writer who doesn’t like to read.  

As THE ROMANCE DISH is primarily a romance book review site, many of you may recall the blog, SQUAWK RADIO, helmed by no less than romance writing giants Connie Brockway, Christina Dodd, Teresa Medeiros, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, and Elizabeth Bevarly. 

So when Connie Brockway, at the behest of Christina Dodd, suggested ten years ago we readers go out and get THE HISTORIAN, I did as I was told.   She’s a writer who reads.   And because I love both Brockway and Dodd’s writing, I knew I was in for a treat.

A Halloween treat, no less.

THE HISTORIAN begins with an adolescent girl exploring her scholarly father’s library where she finds letters addressed to:  “My dear and unfortunate successor.”  So opens a door into the dark world of Vlad the Impaler, Dracula himself, and, strangely, into the hidden past of the girl's father, which seems inextricably linked to the medieval ruler. 

Told from several points of view and through a variety of mediums—present conversations, old letters and documents, and recollections—THE HISTORIAN spans generations, time periods and countries.  It is a book rife with historical detail so seamlessly blended with fictitious legend, you find yourself reaching for the garlic despite your good sense.   But I admit it isn’t the skilled combination of truth and fiction that kept me at this nearly 650-page novel (though who can resist a good Dracula adventure story in October?).  It is Kostova’s writing that is the true page-turner here.   Lush and thick with gorgeous detail, yet peppered with the perfect amount of creepy thrills… I could not put it down.    I even remember Connie Brockway’s thoughts on Kostova’s talent ten years later:

“I am so taken with this book! It’s not the plot or the story, which is a hunt for the historical Dracula, it’s the writing style that has me staying up at night, allotting myself only 75 pages a shot so that it lasts a long time. Have any of you ever done this?  It’s clean, evocative, with a purity of language that has me frankly jealous.”

If Connie is jealous of Kostova’s style, what are the rest of us to feel?   I tell you what.  We’re to feel the pleasure of Kostova’s writing.   We’re to thirst for it with the zeal of a vampire sensing blood.

Just listen to this description of France as told by the daughter remembering her bookish, adolescent youth:

We took the train to Paris and later a car south into the Cévennes.  In the mornings I worked on two or three essays in my increasingly lucid French, to mail back to school.  I still have one of these; even now, decades later, unfolding it returns to me that feeling of the untranslatable heart of France in May, the smell of grass that was not grass but l’herbe, edibly fresh, as if all French vegetation were fantastically culinary, the ingredients of a salad or something to stir into cheese.

I am in France because I can taste and smell it all through the magic of Kostova’s word combinations.  The book is loaded with such passages—those that make a reader stop, reread, and highlight—so much so I found myself savoring the hours spent pouring over it.  

And here’s yet another taste, from the same bookish character regarding her first experience with mastering a foreign language: 

Never before had I known the sudden quiver of understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, swim into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shed their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light.   Since then I have known this moment of truth with other companions:  German, Russian Latin, Greek, and—for a brief hour—Sanskrit.

If any of you have learned another language, you know the beautiful truth of every single syllable in the above paragraph.

I’m gushing, I know.  The writing is that good.   But I admit it is not the perfect book.   I have some issues near the end, as well as impatience with details that could have been pared back.   Still.   THE HISTORIAN is worth the 650-page effort.

Never trust a writer who doesn’t read.  Never trust Dracula.  Happy Halloween.   And don’t forget your garlic necklace.  

What are some of your favorite creepy reads?  THE HISTORIAN is now mine. 

~J Perry Stone

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review - - Christmas at Evergreen Inn and Hot Toy

Christmas at Evergreen Inn
By Donna Alward
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: October 13, 2015

The Evergreen Inn in Jewell Cove, Maine, with its lavish decorations may look festive and in tune with the Christmas season, but Lainey Price, the owner of the inn is definitely out of tune with all things Christmas. A year ago, she was looking forward to the wedding of her dreams—a Christmas wedding—and a happily ever after with the man she loved, but a week before the wedding, her fiancé told her he had fallen in love with someone else. Lainey spent the week before Christmas cancelling wedding plans. Even though she has moved on with her life, even accepting that it was best Jason broke things off before they married, Christmas has lost its magic for her. Her once favorite holiday is now just a reminder of the bleakest period of her life.

Police officer Todd Ricker is on his way home when he happens across a stranded motorist. With a blizzard headed for Jewell Cove, the wisest course of action seems to be to take the motorist to Evergreen Inn and hope Lainey has room for him. The inn is filled with others seeking shelter from the storm, and by the time Lainey finds a spot for her newest guest, there is literally no room at the inn. When it becomes clear that Todd can’t make it home, Lainey offers him the couch in her cottage, and Todd accepts gratefully.

Lainey and Todd have known each other forever. They both had a bit of a wild streak in high school, and when they found themselves at the same parties, they eyed each other, sensing the potential but not quite brave enough to act on their instincts. The attraction still simmers, and they enjoy flirtatious exchanges.  But neither of them is prepared for what one kiss can start. Lainey is wary because Jason has the reputation of a player, but Jason knows what he has discovered with Lainey is unlike his previous relationships: “From the moment he’d taken her in his arms, he’d known that this was something different. Something special that he couldn’t take lightly or laugh away in the morning. Something that had never happened to him before, ever. . .”  And he is not about to give up on what they can have together.

I’m a fan of this series and have been since I read The House on Blackberry Hill. Last year’s holiday novella, Christmas at Seashell Cottage, was one of my favorite reads of the season. Although I was not quite as captivated by this one, it is still a delightful story. Alward’s greatest strength is her ability to create characters that feel real, and she does that again with Lainey and Todd. The seriousness with which they treat their work, their banter with one another, and their reactions when they find their emotions more intense than they expected all added dimensionality to their characters. I found them likeable and engaging. Anyone who has ever experienced a great loss during a holiday season—whether the loss is a breakup or a death—knows that afterwards the holiday is tainted by remembered pain associated with it. Lainey’s reaction seemed quite credible to me, as did the way her relationship with Todd developed.

There were other things that I really liked about this story. Lainey is mixed race, and I appreciate that Alward makes Jewell Cove a community with some diversity. I liked the fact that this is a Christmas story not just a story that uses the holiday like a backdrop.  Fans of small-town romance, and fans of Christmas romances that offer a bit of sweetness, a bit of sizzle, and a lot to love will enjoy this one. For those of you who don’t share my series addiction, Christmas at Evergreen Inn can be read as a standalone.

Hot Toy
By Jennifer Crusie
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: October 13, 2015
(reissue of novella originally published
in 2006 anthology Santa Baby)

It’s Christmas Eve, and Trudy Maxwell is in a toy store desperately seeking a military action figure that spews toxic waste, the “Hot Toy” upon which her five-year-old nephew’s belief in Santa and the trustworthiness of adults depends. Predictably, the shelves where the toy was displayed have been wiped clean of any traces of the toy by other desperate parents and aunts. But Trudy refuses to give up. Her nephew, Leroy, needs this toy, and Courtney, his mother (Trudy’s sister) needs for him to have it.  Leroy’s father and Courtney’s husband recently abandoned his wife and child for Leroy’s nanny, and that loss has given the toy, which his father promised him Santa would deliver, a significance far beyond a mere gift from Santa. Trudy will not let them down. She is convinced that someone has secreted one Hot Toy on another shelf, and she ransacks the shelves to find the hidden toy.

While she is engaged in ransacking, she meets Nolan Mitchell, a professor of Chinese literature whom Trudy dated briefly. She had hopes that he was The One, but he dropped her with no explanation after four dates. When Trudy finds one of the Hot Toys at last, albeit last year’s model and minus the toxic waste, Nolan offers to buy it from her at increasingly inflated prices. It turns out that Nolan is a spy, and concealed in the toy Trudy has are—gasp—secret codes. Nolan is after the codes before they fall into the hands of a double agent. Danger threatens as Trudy tries to hold on to the toy and tries to make the right choice about whom to trust. Can all this possibly lead to an HEA, or even a HFN?

If you are tired of sweet Christmas romances with idyllic settings and an abundance of traditional trimmings, you should appreciate Hot Toy, a story in which faith in Santa may be lost, a mother is drunk on grief and gin, and the gingerbread house threatens to collapse. Trudy is a typical Crusie heroine, a wiseass with a big heart who has survived some slaps upside the head from life but who has the stamina to go a few more rounds if necessary. One the action starts, the pace is wicked fast, and the story has the over-the-top feel of a bad movie. Only here that feel is part of the fun, as is the Hot Toy, a MacGuffin. The name is a reference to the Hitchcockian term for a plot device that has no importance for what it is but only as it moves the plot. In Crusie’s hands, the MacGuffin is both an inside joke and a twist on Hitchcock’s definition since Crusie’s MacGuffin is important for what it is and for what it reveals, literally and symbolically.

Superficially a caper, the novella at its center is about believing. More than anything Trudy wants to protect Leroy’s belief in Santa and all that belief represents to him. Almost as much, she wants to cling to her own, almost lost belief in happy endings. Crusie also strikes a blow at the commercialization that has reduced the religious meaning of Christmas to snatches of an over-played song and hand-written words on wrapping paper.

Hot Toy is a great change of pace. It will make you laugh and may make you think. I definitely recommend it.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review - - The Great Christmas Knit-Off

The Great Christmas Knit-Off
By Alexandra Brown
Publisher:  William Morrow
Release Date: October 13, 2015

This book was like treating myself to an entire sticky toffee pudding and not having to share: comforting, sweet, and even after gorging myself, I still wanted more. The tale is a familiar one, if you’re a fan of Bridget Jones or books by the Shopaholic author, Sophie Kinsella. A thirty-something single woman of epic bad luck runs from the flaming shards of her life to the countryside, where she finds herself charmed by the rural bucolic existence of a small town and its citizens and romanced by her own Mr. Darcy-like hero. Chaos and merriment ensues.

As Sybil is emerging from her depression after being jilted at the altar by her Star-Wars fanatic fiancé who subsequently runs off with her twin sister, she learns she may have done the cock up of all cock ups at work and lose her job, so she does what any of us would do: runs to her best friend’s house to have a good cry and get some perspective. Upon arrival in Tindledale, she learns that Cheryl is away on business for the weekend, but she has no interest in going back home so she can freak out all weekend, alone. Instead she makes the best of things and goes to the local B&B, where she is immediately befriended by the owner, Lawrence, but it’s not long before she’s charmed by all the town’s inhabitants, Ruby, the vintage dress shop owner and burlesque dancer; Hettie, the sweet octogenarian who own the haberdashery (exactly the sort of place Sybil dreams of managing someday); Kitty, who runs a pastry shop; and as there is nearly every romantic British novel, a Mr. Darcy, who is the town doctor.

With Lawrence’s help, she gets on her feet and immediately finds a project, helping Hettie save her haberdashery from her villainous nephew who wants to scoop up the land at no cost to build condos and put Hettie in an old folks’ home.  Soon she has convinced Hettie they can pull this off, and with the help of nearly everyone who has a pair of knitting needles, they embark on making (and selling) 75 Christmas sweaters in time for when the Japanese tourists come for their yearly pilgrimage to spend Christmas in an authentic English setting. Soon the haberdashery is thriving in the way Hettie has desperately needed and that Sybil has envisioned. Despite that things seem to continue to go awry and you wonder if Sybil or Hettie will get the happy endings they deserve, a happy ending is procured as plump and sweet as the Christmas pudding (that is part of the knitting project in the back of the book).

I am a sucker for English-themed cozy books with wacky characters; and this book was clearly written with me in mind. I adored it. The only thing I could find to critique about it is that I wanted to read more—but I believe this may be the first in a series and I will get the opportunity to be delighted by the wacky characters of Tindledale. I have half a mind to try the project in the back of the book, or at the very least, find myself a Christmas sweater to wear for this year’s festivities. If you love quirky, cozy British set novels ala Sophie Kinsella, full of cheesy hilarity and romantic staples and Christmas in its traditional peculiar glory, put this on your TBR pile for your Christmas reading list. 


Hellie Sinclair (a.k.a. Fran) was one of the founding members of the Romance Writer's Revenge, where she frequently got to satisfy her love of good books and her need to expound by writing reviews. Hellie loves to craft on projects she rarely finishes, watch British dramas as a sort of Olympic marathon event, and do most anything that fits the description "indolent and pleasurable." Fortunately reading falls into that category.  Connect with Hellie on Facebook

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review - - The Last Chance Christmas Ball

The Last Chance Christmas Ball
An Anthology by Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley,
Joanna Bourne, Patricia Rice, Nicola Cornick, 
Cara Elliott, Anne Gracie, and Susan King
Publisher: Kensington
Release Date: September 29, 2015


Preparations are underway for the Dowager Countess of Holbourne's 50th annual Christmas Ball and love is in the air, even if the couples in Lady Holly's (as the dowager is known to her friends) sights are not yet aware. The war with Napoleon is over, life in England is beginning to return to normal, and hope is the prevailing theme of Lady Holly's Last Chance Christmas Ball. People are not meant to spend their lives alone and if they can't find love on their own then Lady Holly is more than happy to help them along with invitations to her ball.

In these poignant, heartwarming stories by the historical romance authors collectively known as the Word Wenches, love blooms both above stairs and below. While each of the stories brings a unique perspective, the central theme is threaded consistently throughout. All were enjoyable though these four touched my heart the most.

CHRISTMAS LARKS by Patricia Rice

Seriously wounded on his way home, a prodigal son discovers his safe haven is no longer his but now belongs to the church and is slated to become an orphanage. His childhood friend and two small "mice" teach him that his home is not made of wood and stone but of the love surrounding him.


Returning from war broken in both body and spirit, Lady Holly's grandson seeks refuge in a tower on his family's estate, refusing to allow admittance to any save his batman. Through grueling weeks of recovery and rehabilitation, he remains resolute in his isolation in a misguided attempt to shield others from his pain, including the woman he has loved since they were children; a woman with only one more chance to break through his barriers before she yields to his wishes and moves on with someone else.

FIRES'S ASHES by Cara Elliott

In a companion story to Putney's, Cara Elliott brings us the story of Lady Holly's older grandson. Ten years earlier, a young Edward had loved and lost Lily to another. When she arrives, widowed, for his grandmother's Christmas Ball, he's given another chance to claim the woman he still loves but this time he may be the one forced to turn to another.


When her father dies and his estate passes to a distant cousin in the Caribbean, Alice Fenton is faced with the prospect of leaving everything - and everyone - she holds dear but she has one last evening of carefree joy to anticipate before leaving for her job at a girls seminary. When a carriage accident brings a gentleman and his sister - also bound for Lady Holly's Ball - to her door, love blooms amidst mistletoe kisses and new possibilities abound but Alice's generosity to another may be the death knell to her own chance for happiness.

Anthologies are my favorite type of holiday reading during this busy time of year and this one is populated with engaging stories from some of my favorite historical romance authors. Second chances, revenge, intrigue, redemption and a touch of whimsy mark the eight hopeful and heartwarming stories in The Last Chance Christmas Ball.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Broadway, Baby!

Taken from Top of the Rock observation deck.

I recently returned from four days in New York City with my best friend. Though we've been friends for almost 30 years, this is the first time we've taken a non-business-related trip together. I'm a hot-water shower hog. She assured me her snores would rattle the windows. She's an introvert. I talk to everyone. She could walk for miles. I have a bad knee. She hates having her picture taken. My camera rarely leaves my side. Would our friendship survive the trip? You betcha!

Grand Central Station

Deciding we wanted to be in the middle of the action for my friend's first trip to the Big Apple we booked a room at the DoubleTree Suites in Times Square. If you don't mind walking from your hotel into a sea of people it's a great location for it's proximity to ABC and NBC studios, Broadway theaters, Grand Central Station, Rockefeller Center, and Junior's. (more on Junior's later)

I've always enjoyed seeing places through the eyes of another generation but there's a lot to be said for traveling with someone your own age. Being teens in the 1960's, it wasn't difficult to agree on two of the plays we wanted to see: Jersey Boys and Beautiful.

Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons are part of the soundtrack of my teens and Jersey Boys is their story. I've been aching to see this show since 2007 and am happy to report that it was all I had hoped it would be...and more. We scored seats two rows from the stage for an amazing, up-close-and-personal view. Of course, I knew all the words to all the songs but I managed to restrain myself from singing out loud (mostly). Sitting still, however, was beyond my abilities. I don't think my feet or head stopped moving the entire time!

Beautiful is the Carole King story. King's Tapestry album was a key component of my college soundtrack so, of course, I knew many of the songs in this show as well. What I didn't realize about the show until we saw it is that it not only tells King's story but that of other singers and songwriters of the time who worked with and around her. Again, as with Jersey Boys, it was like taking a step back in time to those carefree days of high school and college and the music that framed the tapestry of my own life. While I already knew a lot about the artists showcased in both musicals (Tiger Beat was my first magazine subscription), I learned new and interesting things about both during the shows. If you visit New York or the traveling company of either show comes to a theater near you, I highly recommend seeing both of them.

The beautiful NYC Library
You know how I mentioned up above that I like to talk to people? As we were waiting for Beautiful to begin, I started chatting with the woman who was seated beside me. Turns out she's from a town in Michigan that's 14 miles from where I grew up. Also, during the 90's, she taught at one of the grade schools I attended in my small hometown. Then she introduced me to the couple traveling with her and her husband. They were closer to my age, grew up in a farming community on the other side of my hometown and we discovered we share many mutual friends. What are the odds that I would travel from North Carolina to New York City and meet someone from the small Michigan town (population 1800) where I grew up? Amazing, the things you discover when you say hello to a stranger!

Best beef brisket ever!
Restaurants were, of course, another priority of our trip. My friend laughed when I told her a barbecue place was high on my list of "must visit" restaurants. After all, we live in the south where barbecue is king. Let's just say she was a wee bit skeptical about putting NYC and good barbecue in the same sentence but once she tasted the mouth-watering moist brisket at Hill Country Barbecue Market she was singing a different tune! Full disclosure: I was skeptical too when my friend, Stacey Agdern introduced me to Hill Country during the RWA conference in NYC last July but I'm now a believer. I've eaten some really good barbecue over the years but Hill Country's is the best I've ever tasted. The. Best.

Cheese lovers' paradise

If you watch The Chew you've probably already heard of Mario Batali's Eataly.

Did I mention the cheese?

Eataly is like Disney for foodies. It's not just restaurants. It's not just fresh markets. It's an experience.

Fresh produce of every color and kind.

Walking through Eataly is like taking a stroll through an Italian village on market day. The cheese market alone would have kept me happy for days.

The only Caprese salad I've had that was better was in Italy.

There are a number of specialty restaurants - sit down and take out - scattered throughout. We chose La Pizza & La Pasta for their gluten free options and it was fabulous. Other Eataly restaurants include Il Pesce (a raw bar plus Italian seafood in antipasto and main dishes), LeVerdure (soups, bruschetta, and warm or cold dishes spotlighting seasonal Italian veggies), Birreria (a rooftop restaurant and brewery serving hearty meals featuring housemade sausages, meat and cheese plates, etc.), and Pranzo (a specialty lunch restaurant that educates diners about regional Italian cuisine).

Pasta people! Love it! 

Rounding out the restaurants are La Piazza (a stand-up food and drink bar featuring tastings of meats and cheeses and a raw bar), and Manzo (a formal restaurant). Then there are the cafes where you can buy your food to go: Focacceria with its traditional Italian breads made daily, the Gelateria (who doesn't love freshly made gelato?), Nutella (served in crepes, gelato, pastries), Panini (hot or cold made to order), Pasticceria (fresh pastries and cakes), Rosticceria (rotisserie chicken, meat with sides, and sandwiches made to order). And, of course, Eataly Vino, where you can choose Italian and local wines to take home. See what I mean about Eataly being an experience? It's not to be missed!

My friend says the hot chocolate is pretty awesome too!

Speaking of experiences, if you like cheesecake, Junior's is one place in NYC that you will not want to miss. I've eaten there many times - thanks to the Times Square restaurant's convenient location across the street from the RWA hotel - and have never been disappointed. A casual, family-friendly restaurant with seating inside and out, Junior's is great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or my favorite post-theater/post-RITA ceremony meal: steak fries and cheesecake. Hey! Don't knock it 'til you've tried it! :) We ate there twice during our recent stay (try the fresh mozzarella omelet - it's fabulous) and popped in a third time to pick up cheesecake to go for a late night, post-theater snack in our hotel room. They have multiple locations so wherever you stay, there's bound to be a Junior's in the vicinity.

Central Park bronze sculpture of Duke Ellington

While New York is a thoroughly modern city in what it offers, it's also a city that appreciates its history. The best way to see both the modern and historic sights of Manhattan, Brooklyn and other areas - in my experience - is to take a double-decker, hop on, hop off, bus tour. There are closed buses but for the best views I prefer the ones with an open-air upper deck. We took the Uptown and Downtown tours and had outstanding tour guides - both native New Yorkers - for each. Although I'd taken the tours on a previous visit, I still learned something new this time around...and took some great photos!

Yes, that is Lance Bass!

Another tip for a trip to NYC - or any city, really - is to expect the unexpected. You never know when an opportunity will drop into your lap. Thursday morning, we were standing outside Rockefeller Center buying tickets to go to the Top of the Rock observation deck when a representative from the Meredith Vieira Show approached us with free tickets to that day's taping. We decided to take a detour from our planned schedule and go. The show isn't shown in my market so I'm not sure if we made it onto TV but we had a good time. While waiting to be taken into the studio I started chatting with two women (from Florida and Georgia) sitting next to us. The woman from Georgia was in the audience for Oprah Winfrey's first "Favorite Things" episode. She told me that, yes, it was just as fabulous as you would imagine!

Proof that I really was up there!

We did make it to the Top of the Rock after the Meredith taping. The views from the observation deck are spectacular, especially on a clear day, but be prepared if - like me - you have a fear of heights. The (open air) rooftop deck is 70 floors above the ground. I get jittery just typing that!

I've managed to conquer my fear twice now and even took a video this trip that required me to walk around (so proud) though I'm sure my hand was shaking. ;-)

So what did I learn on this trip? I learned that traveling with a friend can be a fun and adventurous experience. I learned that even though this was my fourth trip to NYC, I have so much more to see there. I learned that there is no such thing as too much cheesecake. I learned that while I've enjoyed the theater for most of my life, there's nothing quite as exciting as theater on Broadway. I learned that sometimes you find the best food in the most unexpected places (barbecue in NYC) and I learned that I could visit Eataly every day of my stay and never get bored.

For more photos of my trip, check out the NYC October 2015 photo album on my Facebook page.

Have you taken a girlfriend trip? Where did you go? Did you enjoy it? Did you learn something new?

Have you been to New York City? What was your favorite part of the trip?

Are you planning any trips for 2016? Where are you going? Where would you like to go?

What foods set your taste buds to dancing?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sneak Peek & Giveaway - - Anna Bradley's A Wicked Way to Win an Earl

Photo by Brian McLernon

It's my pleasure to share with you the first chapter from Anna Bradley's upcoming debut novel, A Wicked Way to Win an Earl. Bradley is a terrific new voice in historical romance. I hope all of you will enjoy her writing as much I did! 

Anna Bradley has been an avid reader, writer and book fondler since childhood, when she pilfered her first romance novel and stole away to her bedroom to devour it. Her insatiable love of the written word eventually resulted in her master’s degree in English Literature.
Before she became a writer, Anna worked with a rare books library featuring works by British women writers from the 1600s through the Regency period. There she indulged in her love of stories, fondled rare, leather-bound volumes to her heart’s content and dreamed of becoming a writer. That library is now part of the Center for the Study of Early English Women Writers in Alton, New Hampshire.
Anna writes steamy historical romance (think garters, fops and riding crops) and squeezes in a career as a writing and literature professor on the side. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, OR, where people are delightfully weird and love to read.

Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: November 3, 2015

Chapter One
Kent, 1814

The spring mud seeped through the thin soles of her leather walking boots and began to creep into her stockings. This was no ordinary mud. Before long it would be tickling her garters.
“Blast it,” Delia muttered halfheartedly. She’d known it was a mistake to come here. A mudslide would certainly prove her right, wouldn’t it? There was a sort of grim satisfaction in being right, though at the moment she’d settle for being dry. And clean. And home, instead of stranded on a deserted road in Kent, with the sky turning dark over her head, at grave risk of being buried in a freak mudslide.
At the very least she should have listened to her sister Lily and stayed with the carriage, but no, she’d insisted on finding help, and now here she was in an awful predicament—
Delia stopped suddenly, one foot in a puddle. Was that . . . yes! She crossed her fingers and sent a quick prayer up to heaven the noise she’d just heard was not a bear or some other wild animal.
Were there bears in Kent?
Delia strained to hear, and waited. No, it wasn’t a bear. That is, unless the bears in this part of England were prone to high-pitched giggling. She pulled at her foot with some force to dislodge it from the puddle. The sound was coming from farther up the road, around the other side of a bend.
She staggered forward as quickly as her sopping skirts would allow. It was odd to hear giggling on a lonely road at dusk, but she was in no position to be choosy. All she wished for in the world was one single person who could help her find a conveyance. One human being. Was that too much to ask? Anyone would do. Anyone at all.
She trudged around the bend, dragging her hems.
Oh, dear. One did need to be careful what one wished for.
She squinted into the dusk, trying to make sense of the two shapes leaning against a tree. It was a woman, and she was . . . the squint turned into wide-eyed shock. Delia froze, as if the mud at her feet had become quicksand and she was sunk up to her neck in it.
It was a woman, indeed, and she wasn’t alone. She was engaged. With a man. A very large man. He was at least a head taller than his companion. If the woman hadn’t been giggling, Delia would have missed her entirely, hidden as she was by a pair of impossibly wide shoulders. The man had discarded his coat, which hung carelessly over a wet tree branch. Without it, his white shirt was just visible in the dusk, and under it what appeared to Delia to be miles of muscled arm and long, sinewy back.
Well, he wouldn’t need his coat, would he? Not for what he was doing. It would only get in the way.
For instance, it might prove difficult for him to trap the woman against the tree. His arms were stretched on either side of her and his palms rested on the trunk beside her head. Delia swallowed. If he wasn’t right on top of her like that, his lips might not be able to reach her throat and neck so easily. And his hands . . .
Delia held her breath as one of the man’s hands dropped away from the tree and slipped inside the gaping neckline of the woman’s dress to caress her breast.
A hot flush began deep in the pit of Delia’s belly. She looked behind her, then back at the scene in front of her, her eyes darting wildly. Was it too late to turn back the way she’d come? She’d decided in favor of the mudslide and the bears, after all. But her feet refused to move. She was rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away from this man with his muscular back and his bold, seeking hand.
“Alec! Stop that!” The woman let out a little squeal and slapped playfully at the man’s hand.
Oh, thank God. Delia breathed a silent sigh of relief. This reckless young woman was coming to her senses at last. Any moment now she’d push the man away.
Any moment now.
But then the man gave a low chuckle and murmured something in the woman’s ear. Delia watched, appalled, as the woman giggled again and snaked her arms around the man’s lean hips to pull him tighter against her. Once he was there, the woman sighed. And oh, it was such a sigh! Delia had never heard one like it before, and it made her ears burn with embarrassment.
And he was . . . oh no! One large hand slipped down to fumble at the fall of his breeches while the other caught a handful of the woman’s skirts and began to raise them up, up, and higher still . . .
Delia clapped her hand over her mouth but some noise must have escaped, some cry of distress or outrage, because suddenly the man’s back stiffened. The woman peered over his shoulder, saw Delia, and with a quick, practiced tug, she freed her skirts from the man’s grip, batted them down, jerked her neckline up, and disappeared around the side of the tree. Within seconds it was as if she’d never been there at all.
Delia blinked. Well, that was over quickly, wasn’t it? Now that it was, she had two choices. She could ask the man for help, or she could flee back to Lily and the safety of the carriage and pretend she’d never been here, either.
Then again . . . she’d never seen a real debauchery before. Since there was no longer any danger of this one coming to its final embarrassing conclusion, Delia found she was curious.
What would he do now?
She watched, rapt, but for a long time he didn’t do anything. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t speak. He just stood there, inhaling deeply, the muscles of his back rippling with each breath. In. Out. In. Out. He tipped his head back and for several minutes he concentrated on the tree branches swaying above him.
She was just about to conclude this was the dullest debauchery ever when he let out a frustrated groan, grabbed his coat from the branch, and turned to face her.
“Who the devil are you?”
Delia’s mouth dropped open and she stumbled backward a few steps, her curiosity evaporating. His tone was inexcusably rude, and he was even bigger and more intimidating from the front, but the real trouble here was that . . .
He was naked.
Well, not naked really, but more naked than any man she’d ever seen in the flesh, and he had a great deal of flesh. His loose white shirt was open at the neck, revealing a generous expanse of his muscular
 chest. Delia stared, her face flaming even as her eyes moved helplessly over the bounty of bare male flesh.
He pinned her down with penetrating dark eyes that sported lashes long enough to satisfy even the vainest of women, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Miss?” he barked. “I asked you a question.”
Yes—he had, hadn’t he? Yes, of course—who the devil was she? “Delia Somerset?” She cringed when it emerged as a question.
A glint of lazy humor flashed in the black eyes. “Well, are you or aren’t you? You don’t seem to be sure.”
Delia didn’t trust that glint. Her married friends sometimes whispered about men like him. Men who became crazed with lust and were swept away by their animal passions. All manner of wicked behavior followed.
This one looked more savage than most.
“Let’s assume you are indeed Miss Somerset,” he drawled, when she still didn’t speak. “Now that I know who the devil you are, may I suggest you tell me what the devil you’re doing here?”
Why, of all the offensive, bullying . . . all at once Delia’s embarrassment faded under a wave of indignation. Even an intriguingly bare chest didn’t excuse profanity.
“And may I suggest, sir,” she snapped, “that you don your coat?”
One dark eyebrow shot up in acknowledgment of this show of temper. “Forgive me, Miss Somerset.” He put on his waistcoat and began buttoning it with an air of complete unconcern, as if he spent every day half-naked on a public road. He shrugged into his coat. “I didn’t mean to offend your delicate sensibilities.”
Delia stared at him. “It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? My sensibilities were offended, sir, when you unfastened your breeches.”
She’d meant to give him a firm set-down, but instead of looking ashamed or embarrassed as a proper gentleman would in such disgraceful circumstances, this awful man actually laughed.
“I fastened them again before I turned around,” he pointed out, as if this were a perfectly reasonable argument.
Delia pressed her lips together. “I see that. Are you expecting applause? A standing ovation, perhaps?”
“No, just pointing out you should be grateful for it, as it was damned difficult to do under the circumstances.”
Delia sniffed. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
The man studied her face for a moment, noted her baffled expression, and all at once he seemed to grow bored with her. “Of course you don’t. Now that we’ve discussed my clothing in more detail than I do with my valet, you will answer my question.”
Delia huffed out a breath. “My sister and I have come from Surrey to attend a house party at the home of the Earl of Carlisle. We’re friends with the earl’s sisters.”
No reaction. Delia stopped and waited, but not even a flicker of recognition crossed his face. For pity’s sake. He must know who Lord Carlisle was?
“The coach we were traveling in broke an axle about a mile down the road.” She pointed in the direction from which she’d just come. “My sister and the coachman—”
“You should have stayed with the coach. What possessed you to go scampering around the countryside like a curious little rabbit?”
Annoyed by his condescending tone, Delia decided to overlook the fact she’d been thinking the same thing only minutes ago. “Believe me, sir, I’ve come to regret that decision most bitterly. But I thought it best in this case because—”
“Why didn’t you just send the coachman to the inn for a carriage?” he interrupted again, looking at her as though she were simple.
“I couldn’t, because when the axle broke—”
“The Prickly Thistle is in the opposite direction,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken. “Didn’t you ask for directions?”
“Would you kindly stop interrupting me?” Delia nearly shouted the words.
There was a pause, then, “Why should I? You interrupted me.”
For a moment she wasn’t sure what he meant, but then she felt her cheeks go hot and she knew they’d turned scarlet. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your”—she gestured with her hands—“your fornication, but that’s no reason to—”
“Fornication?” He found this very funny indeed. “Did you just call it fornication?”
“Well, yes. What of it?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s just very, ah, biblical of you.”
Delia crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest. There was no way she was going to ask. He was mad indeed if he believed she would. If she asked, he might just tell her, and she didn’t want to know the answer.
“Well, what do you call it?”
He smirked. “Something far more descriptive, but I’d rather not repeat it now. Tell me. Precisely how much of my fornication did you witness?”
“Far more than one generally expects to see on a public road,” Delia snapped. “In short, a shocking amount.”
“I see. That would explain why you stood there for so long, gaping. The shock.”
Delia glowered at him. “I didn’t have much choice, did I? I heard a noise and so I followed it, and there you were, right in plain sight.” Pressing against each other, sighing, kissing, caressing . . .
“You heard a noise. What kind of noise was it?” he asked, as if he were humoring her.
“At first I thought it was a wild animal,” she said, then added in an undertone, “and I wasn’t entirely wrong.”
His eyes narrowed. “I beg your pardon, Miss Somerset?”
Delia bit her lip to keep from laughing. “I said, can’t we move this along? My sister is waiting for me to return with a conveyance. She’s been ill, and I would rather not leave her in the cold any longer than necessary.”
He waved his hand imperiously, as if he were the lord of the manor and she a lowly servant. “Very well. Go on.”
She took a deep breath and recited the facts quickly, before he could interrupt again. “The axle broke, the coachman suffered an injury, they’re stranded on the road, and night is coming on. I need to find the inn, procure a conveyance, and fetch them both at once.”
“The coachman is injured?” Now she had his full attention. “How badly injured?”
“Badly enough. He fell from the box when the axle broke and twisted his ankle. It’s either sprained or broken. That’s why he couldn’t come for help. He did describe where I could find the Prickly Thistle Inn, but I must have missed a turn, for I didn’t see it.”
“The turn is difficult to spot from the road.” He thought for a moment and came to some kind of decision. “Come.” He turned and started back down the road, splashing casually through the mud puddles, clearly expecting her to follow without question, as if she were a dog or a sheep or some other kind of dense livestock.
Delia hesitated. She was in no more danger alone with him here than she’d be a mile down the road, and she didn’t have much choice, but the idea of putting herself under this man’s sole protection seemed, well, unwise.
When she didn’t immediately follow, he jerked around. He must have read her thoughts on her face because his arrogant gaze moved deliberately from the top of her bedraggled bonnet down over her muddy traveling dress, and came to rest at last on her ruined boots. “Believe me, Miss Somerset, you are perfectly safe with me.”
Delia gasped in outrage. He was insulting her? She didn’t need him to remind her she looked a perfect fright. “Such a gallant thing to say.” She had to struggle to keep her temper. “But perhaps you’re not accustomed to the company of ladies who are fully dressed.”
He shrugged, then turned again and started back down the road, leaving her no choice but to stagger behind him. “Let’s just say I prefer the company of ladies who are fully undressed.”
Delia supposed he meant to shock her, but she was beyond shock at this point, and hardly turned a hair at this scandalous comment. She followed behind him, scrambling to keep pace with his long-legged stride. “I see. Well, that explains why you felt compelled to undress your friend on a public road. How terrible it must be, to be so at the mercy of your animal passions.”
She was glaring at the back of his head when she noticed he’d begun shoving a hand through his thick dark hair. The crisp waves curled and caught a bit against his long fingers. Did that mean he was nettled, then? Oh, she hoped so. She’d be immensely gratified to have annoyed him.
She had just begun to enjoy that idea when he whipped around to face her. She was so surprised she crashed right into him. Strong hands reached out to steady her, but when she was upright again, he didn’t release her. Instead he pulled her just a bit closer—not so close his body touched hers, but more than close enough to completely unnerve her.
“I was carried away by my animal passions,” he murmured in a low, seductive voice. His velvety dark eyes caught and held hers. “I’m an impatient man, you see, Miss Somerset. Especially when it comes to”—he dropped his voice to a whisper—“fornication.
For one moment Delia was mesmerized, staring at him as if he were a snake charmer and she were rising from her basket after languishing there for decades. But then she noticed a hint of a smirk on his lips and jerked free from his grasp.
Goodness gracious. Her face heated yet again. “Perhaps it would be better if we didn’t speak.”
Another careless shrug. “If you choose.”
Awful, teasing man.
They walked along the road for a while, the only sound now the soft, wet thud of boots against mud. After a half mile or so he turned off the road and pulled back some overgrown bushes. “The inn is on the other side.” He gestured for her to walk in front of him.
As soon as Delia passed through the thick brush, she could see the path, and there at the end was the Prickly Thistle Inn. She’d walked right by it earlier without noticing, as it was impossible to see the squat stone building from the road. She glanced resentfully at her silent companion. She had cause to regret her inattention now, didn’t she?
Delia breathed an immediate sigh of relief when they entered the inn. It was almost dark outside and growing colder, but there was a massive stone fireplace at one end of the main room that threw out considerable light and heat. A grizzled little man was running a damp cloth over the scarred wooden surface of the bar. “A pint fer ye, me lord?” he called, when he caught sight of Delia and her companion hovering in the doorway.
“Not this time, thank you, George,” Delia’s companion replied, but he wasn’t looking at the gray-haired man. He was looking at her, a smug grin lifting the corners of his wide mouth.
Delia stared back at him, aghast. Oh, no, no, no! But even as her brain worked frantically to deny it, she began to remember certain little details. His lack of reaction when she mentioned the earl’s name. His concern over the injured coachman, a coachman who had been sent by the Earl of Carlisle to convey them to Kent. The fine quality and fit of his clothes—that is, when they were fastened.
And who else but an arrogant earl would dare . . .
Delia wanted to stamp her foot with ire. It couldn’t be! Her mind struggled to think of anything that would prove her dreadful suspicion wrong.
Yes! The woman. The one he’d been groping. The giggler. She’d called this man Alec. That wasn’t right, because Charlotte and Ellie’s brother was named . . .
Delia closed her eyes in despair. Charlotte and Ellie’s brother was named Alexander. Alexander Sutherland.
The fornicator. The debaucher. The lifter of women’s skirts and the unbuttoner of breeches.
He was Lord Carlisle.


What debut authors have you discovered this year?

The banter between Alec and Delia is so much fun. Do you enjoy a heroine who gives as good as she gets? 

One person who leaves a comment on today's post will receive a Kindle copy of A Wicked Way to Win an Earl. (available Nov. 3)

Stop by Wednesday, November 4th when Anna Bradley will join me for a Q&A!

England, 1811. Delia Somerset despises the privileged ton, but her young sister, Lily, is desperate to escape their family’s scandalous past and join high society. Unwilling to upset her sister, Delia reluctantly agrees to attend a party at the Sutherland estate—and avoid the gossip at all costs.

Alec Sutherland is known as a hot-headed scoundrel, but nothing gets a rise out of him as much as the news that his brother desires Delia’s hand in marriage. She is, after all, the daughter of the London belle who soiled their family name. He’s determined to ruin her reputation as well, in the most delicious way possible. It’s only a matter of time before he can woo her with his irresistible advances.

As Delia devilishly plays along in Alec’s game, determined to prove the joke is on him, they inch ever closer to repeating history. And in this game of seductive glances, scandalous whispers, and old debts, the outcome might be much more than either of them anticipated…