The TBR Challenge usually includes a prompt at some time during the year which gives participants the chance to pick a book that uses their favourite trope. This time around it’s July’s prompt, and Caz and Lynn both went with historicals – one a second chance at love story and the other featuring a marriage-of-convenience.

Familiar Stranger in Clear Springs by Kathryn Albright

“Favorite Trope” month is always a fun TBR Challenge for me – there are a few tropes out there that are like catnip. This time around, I was craving a second-chance-at-love tale, so I pulled Familiar Stranger in Clear Springs, a 2016 Harlequin Historical, out of the stack. This one is a sweet, charming Western with an HEA I was happy to see. Definitely a successful read.

Tom Barrington and Elizabeth Morley first met in La Playa, California, when Tom was stationed nearby for the army. He and Elizabeth flirted and shared an unforgettable kiss. However, just when he thought they may have hope of a future together, his unit was pulled out of La Playa with little notice. Led to believe that a wealthy rival in town ended up marrying Elizabeth, Tom convinced himself that his lifestyle, first as a soldier and now as an agent for Wells Fargo charged with foiling bank robberies, is not conducive to settling down and having a family.

Four years have passed since Tom and Elizabeth first knew each other. Tom has suffered through the loss of his partner and his own self-doubts as a result. Robbers have hit in the area around La Playa, and the bank fears the loss of its upcoming shipment. Tom requests the assignment and gets it. The author does a good job of setting the scene, convincing the reader just how important this job is to Tom as well as showing how his return to the town affects him. Tom can’t help feeling nostalgic even though he is positive that Elizabeth has settled into the life of a wealthy young matron in San Diego.

To his surprise, Tom wanders into the local mercantile and finds Elizabeth still there. Not only does she still tend the store, but she is still unmarried. One chance meeting turns Tom’s assumptions on their head – and sets the stage for what ends up being a rather sweet story.

Tom and Elizabeth don’t just pick up where they left off four years ago. That would have been too easy. Instead, we see that Tom is not the only one who has faced difficulty over the past four years. Elizabeth has been on her own minding the town mercantile, but it’s been a hard life as the town’s fortunes have declined somewhat since the army moved out of the area. In addition, Elizabeth’s overbearing brother seems to miss no opportunity to make her life miserable. He dreams of establishing himself as a wealthy businessman in San Diego, and he primarily seems interested in his sister as a means of advancing his own ambitions.

Elizabeth fell hard for Tom the first time he was in town and now that he’s back, she’s more cautious. After all, the man left town with no explanation, had no communication with her for four years, and has now returned for purposes he won’t share with her. One can hardly blame her for being wary.

If you like second-chance-at-love tales, this one is lovely. While there is definitely angst, this book doesn’t wallow in it the way some books with this plotline do. The emotional side of this story is somewhat understated, but still effective. Tom and Elizabeth were both enjoyable characters and one wants to see them succeed.  And frankly, after meeting Elizabeth’s brother in the story, I wanted to see her well out of his clutches. For me, the story took a little too long to really get moving, but my quibbles with the story were relatively minor.

I found the world of the story fascinating as well. I enjoyed the historical setting, and the secondary characters in the book also caught my attention. I can think of a couple that I hope end up with books of their own. If you like Westerns or you like tales of lovers getting second chances, definitely check this one out.

Grade:      B+                 Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

A Duchess in Name by Amanda Weaver

Favourite trope month this year gave me the excuse to read a book I’ve been meaning to get to ever since it came out in 2016, Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name, book one in her Grantham Girls trilogy.  I’ve read and reviewed both the other books in the series, but somehow missed the first, which happens to centre around an arranged marriage, making it the perfect choice for this month’s prompt.

Victoria Carson was born in America but has lived in England since she was eight years old because, she suspects, her mother was already scheming to turn her into the perfect English lady in preparation for marrying a prestigious title.  Just over a decade later, Hyacinth Carson’s machinations have yet to bear fruit; the Carsons might be fabulously wealthy and have lived in England for many years, but they’re still American upstarts as far as fashionable society is concerned – and it looks as though Victoria’s only suitor is the lecherous Earl of Sturridge, an older man with a fondness for drink who never looks her in the eye, preferring instead to stare at her bosom.

Victoria is relieved when she discovers her parents have other plans for her, and when she is introduced to the Earl of Dunnley, she can’t help being more than relieved, for the earl is young, handsome and, in spite of the awkwardness of their initial meeting, Victoria is unable to ignore the heady rush of attraction that washes over her.  Before the end of the earl’s visit, they are engaged to be married and have arranged to meet again the next day.

Andrew Hargrave, Earl of Dunnley and future Duke of Waring, got out of England and away from his parents’ toxic marriage as soon as he could after leaving Cambridge and now spends most of his time in Italy on a dig funded by the Royal Archaeological Society.  Of Waring’s four children, the only one he actually sired was his eldest – now deceased – son, and Andrew was never in doubt as to his father’s preference for his brother.  Even though he’s now the duke’s heir, Andrew remains as far removed from his unpleasant father and flighty mother (who currently lives in the south of France with her lover) as possible, but is forced to return to England when he receives an urgent summons.

When he arrives, it’s to discover that the ‘emergency’ is that the family is ruined, and that his father insists that Andrew do his duty by them and find an heiress to marry.  Furious, Andrew is on the verge of telling his father to go to the devil when the duke points out that their desperately straitened circumstances will be hard on Andrew’s sisters – and then Andrew realises he’s trapped.  There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Louisa and Emma, and while he can make his own way in the world, the girls cannot.  No money meant no school… no Season… no dowries to help them in marriage.  They would be penniless, and the world was cruel to poor women.  To make matters even worse, the duke tells his son he had essentially staked his hand and fortune on the turn of a card, and that Andrew is to wed the daughter of the wealthy American to whom he lost.

Still outraged, Andrew calls upon the Carsons the next day, in company with the duke, and is astonished to discover that the young woman he is to wed is nothing at all like he’d expected.  Her mother is obviously an unabashed social climber, but Victoria Carson is lovely, graceful, elegant and poised, and Andrew is shocked at the intensity of his reaction to her.  The fact that he desires her doesn’t make his situation any easier and in fact might well make things worse.  Andrew doesn’t want a wife, title or hypocritical English respectability; he wants to run back to his life in Italy and his work, and he almost resents Victoria for being exactly the sort of young woman a future duke should marry, his attraction to her an unlooked for complication.

Over the next few days and meetings, both Andrew and Victoria begin to realise that perhaps being married to one another night not be such a chore after all – but just as Andrew is adjusting to the idea of remaining in England, he discovers that Carson had schemed to completely ruin his father by tangling him in a fraudulent investment scheme in order to force Andrew into marrying his daughter.  Furious, and believing Victoria to have been cognisant of the plan, Andrew returns to Italy the day after the wedding, leaving Victoria at his ramshackle estate of Briarwood Manor in Hampshire.

Alone and bewildered, Victoria allows herself a day to wallow in her grief at her husband’s desertion and then sets about putting Briarwood to rights.  I loved watching her establish herself as the mistress of the house while gaining in confidence, strength and independence – she grows into her own away from her interfering parents, and is determined to make a life for herself in the only home she feels has ever been hers.

A Duchess in Name is a well-developed marriage-in-trouble story and while I had a few niggles, there’s much to enjoy if you’re a fan of the trope and like the angst dialled up.  Victoria is a terrific heroine, but Andrew is harder to like and his habit of running back to Italy whenever the going gets tough doesn’t paint him of the best of lights.  He does, however, find the courage to admit that he may have been wrong and to realise that he must stop running if he’s to stand any chance of not repeating his parents’ mistakes.  But Victoria is determined not to let Andrew upset her new-found independence and fall for him all over again only to have him disappear once more – he’s got his work cut out if he’s to convince her that he truly wants to make a life with her.

The novel is well-written (apart from the usual smattering of Americanisms – sigh) and the author really knows how to ratchet up the tension without going over the top and how to create vibrant sexual chemistry between her two leads.  Both principals are well-developed complex individuals; Victoria, beautiful, strong and forgiving and Andrew, flawed but ultimately likeable.  Yes, he screws up – and given his background, his attitudes and thoughts are somewhat understandable – but he recognises his mistakes and then tries hard to put things right. [One thing I should point out, because I know there will be some for whom this is a dealbreaker, is that Andrew retains his mistress after his marriage, although it’s clear that their relationship is more of a friendship than anything romantic and that their sexual liaison is pretty much over. ]

A Duchess in Name delivered exactly the sort of romantic, angsty and sexy story I’d hoped for and is a must-read for fans of this particular trope.

Grade: B+                Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble/iBooks/Kobo

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.