After a year like 2020, I was honestly glad to see “comfort read” as the prompt for this month’s TBR Challenge. I needed one of those. As with many readers, most of my comfort reads are books I’ve read over and over, but both of us managed to find some new-to-us books in the TBR that warmed up our January reading. And best of all, two DIK reviews!  Who are your favorite comfort reads?

His Christmas Countess by Louise Allen

I’ll admit that I was a little stumped on what to pull out for a comfort read this month. By definition(at least for me), the comfort reads in my bookcase tend to be books I’ve read and reread several times over. However, when I posted my TBR Challenge pick for last month, a mutual romance reader on Twitter piped up to recommend The Christmas Countess as a great comfort read. And, as it turns out, she was entirely right.

The main action of the book starts on Christmas Day, as Grant Rivers, Earl of Allundale, takes shelter from the weather only to discover that someone else has had the same idea. Kate Harding has not only gone into the shepherd’s hut to get out of the cold, though. She is in labor. While he had to give up his medical training to take over his aristocratic duties, Grant still remembers enough to help Kate through the delivery of her daughter. In order to protect her from the life of an unwed mother, he offers to marry her right on the spot.

If you like romances featuring couples that are already married, this one will be perfect for you. Grant and Kate marry at the beginning of the story, Grant takes her home and then he disappears to London until the following spring. Despite the title, the bulk of the book is set after Grant’s return.

Both characters in this book have dealt with their share of trauma. Kate’s greedy brother essentially got her into her predicament by purposely setting her up with a rake for reasons of his own. Kate’s marriage provides her a measure of security, but she still fears her brother’s schemes as well as what might happen should Grant learn the truth of her background.  And as we see Kate come to care more and more for her husband, the author does a wonderful job of showing how this increases her anxieties and builds tension between the couple.

For his own part, Grant’s first unhappy marriage ended tragically. At the beginning of the story, he values Kate as a kind person and one who seems like she would be a good mother to his son. However, after his return to London, his own attraction to Kate surprises him into realizing that he has not entirely left his past behind. He also has secrets, and we see how much these keep him from being able to build a solid future with Kate.

So much of this book deals with Grant and Kate finding the courage to be fully honest with each other, and the author writes this conflict so well. As each lets the other into their lives just a little bit more, we as readers can see Kate and Grant building a deeper emotional relationship. The physical attraction is there from early on, but it progresses throughout the book along with the couple’s emotional development.

Many romances I read, particularly the shorter ones from Harlequin, tend to take place over a fairly compressed time period. This book stretches out over the course of an entire year, from Christmas 1819 until Christmas 1820. Given the character development and relationship arc in this novel, that timeline felt perfect. The pacing in this book was very good, and I found it a happy comfort read indeed.

Grade:        A-           Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

The Rake’s Retreat by Nancy Butler

I generally think of a comfort read as something I’ve already read, but because I try to choose my TBR Challenge reads from books I haven’t read, I decided to go for one by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed and want to read more of.  Nancy Butler’s The Rake’s Retreat got my 2021 TBR Challenge off to a great start; it makes excellent use of the trope of the-rake-who-falls-hard-for-a -spinster-ish-heroine, and it contains some of the best verbal sparring I’ve ever come across.  The romance is wonderful; the chemistry between the leads is off the charts and their relationship is superbly written, with lots of insight, tenderness and mutual understanding on display amid the banter and the delicious sexual tension.

The Rake’s Retreat opens when seventeen-year-old travelling player Lovelace Wellesley, leading lady of Wellesley’s Wandering Minstrels, witnesses a murder in the Kentish countryside.  Unfortunately for her, the murderer sees her, and she flees in fear of her life – but in the way of all heroines-in-peril  – she falls and turns her ankle.  Fortunately for her, she is rescued by the local landowner, Beecham Bryce, who is obviously sceptical of her story of murder, but who decides to accompany her to the (supposed) scene of the crime so that, if nothing else, he can convince her that she is in no danger.

Lady Jemima Vale is visiting Kent with her brother Lord Troy, London’s premier playwright, and is spending the afternoon sketching while she waits for him to return to the inn at which they are staying.  Her solitude is interrupted when she is approached by a starkly attractive gentleman who asks if she’s seen anyone in the woods.  Oddly unsettled by the stranger, whose easy grace, aura of danger and sudden, surprisingly engaging smile do odd things to her knees, Jemima replies that she has not seen anyone – and he explains that his young companion claims to have witnessed a murder in the woods just half an hour before.  He looks around for a while and finds nothing – but when Jemima gets to her feet shortly afterwards, he notices the blood-stains on her dress and realises she must have been sitting in the very spot the murder took place.  Lovelace may well be in danger after all, and Jemima is all for going back to the inn and returning her to her family – but the Minstrels have departed, mistakenly believing Lovelace to have been asleep in one of their carts.  Bryce suggests she should stay at his home while he arranges for someone to find her parents, but Jemima is horrified at the suggestion; leave a lovely young woman alone with a notorious rake?  Unthinkable!  Bryce – who has taken quite a shine to the tall, long-limbed brunette who challenges him at every turn and responds to his flirtatious teasing with a haughtily raised brow and a sharp retort – sees his chance, and suggests that Jemima should avail herself of his hospitality as well… to act as chaperone to Lovelace of course.

Over the next few days, Bryce and Jemima find themselves spending a lot of time together, sometimes in easy companionship, sometimes shooting verbal arrows at each other, both of them clearly having the other’s measure, both of them at something of a crossroads in life.  Jemima is firmly on the shelf and approaching her thirtieth birthday; she is starting to take stock of her life – most of which she has spent at her brother’s beck and call – and realising that she’s missed out on having a life of her own.  The artistic and literary salons she hosts in London may have provided intellectual stimulation, but she has neglected her emotional life and longs for something different.  Bryce is a swoon worthy hero; witty, sexy and insightful, he’s a man of intelligence and compassion hiding behind a mask of ennui and innuendo, and has returned to the family home in Kent in order to take care of it while his father – with whom he doesn’t get on –  is on a six-month long visit to warmer climes for his health.  Bryce is a womaniser and a libertine and makes no apologies for it, but he’s also quick to see and understand Jemima’s frustrations and to encourage her to step out from her brother’s shadow.  He sees Jemima for who she truly is, and he falls hard, although he does end up torn between wanting her and wanting what (he thinks) is best for her, which means his behaviour is sometimes a little hurtful as he tries to push her away ‘for her own good.’

But there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that they’re perfect for one another.  The author shows over and over again, through their words and actions, through the sparkling dialogue and verbal sparring, that they’re a match in wit and intellect, and that they belong together.

The mystery is interesting, although it’s fairly easy to guess where it’s going, but it’s nicely done all the same; and Lovelace makes for an engaging secondary character who, while she starts off being rather self-obsessed and a bit whiny, exhibits substantial character growth throughout the story.  There’s another character who provides considerable insight into Bryce’s character, showing him to be a deeply caring, loving person (and who has an important part to play in the story) but I can’t reveal more without spoilers.

When AAR reviewed this title back in 1999, it was awarded DIK status, and I’d say it’s worn pretty well and still deserves that grade (A-).  It’s not a straight A because I wasn’t wild about the way Jemima so easily distrusted Bryce towards the end, and some behaviour that veered a bit too close to TSTL territory – but those are minor irritants when set against all the things this book does so incredibly well, which is pretty much everything else.

The Rake’s Retreat is a fabulous, witty and charming romance that has definitely stood the test of time. I highly recommend it.

Grade:       A-            Sensuality:     Subtle

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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