There’s something comforting about picking up a romance knowing that it contains a favorite plot trope. When I’m feeling generally frazzled and irritated at the world, I like to pick up a book with a plot that I know signals “comfort read” to me. So, for this month’s TBR Challenge, Lynn went with a “second chance at love” story while Caz opted for a governess romance (and it’s a gothic!). What are your favorite plot tropes?

A Game With One Winner by Lynn Raye Harris

I always love the favorite tropes prompt because it invites me to dive into my category romance stash. This time around, I went for a second chance at love story. A Game With One Winner is a 2013 release by Lynn Raye Harris. Since it’s Harlequin Presents, this iteration of the story gets the glitz, glamour and drama treatment – which mostly works, except when it veers headlong into one of my least favorite tropes of all time.
Caroline Sullivan-Wells and Roman Kazarov had a smoking hot romance four years prior to the action in this book. Things went well until Caroline inexplicably broke off the relationship and abruptly married another man. Roman, who had come from a working-class Russian family, lost his visa and his job. He returned to Russia never fully knowing what had happened.
Four years later, Roman’s hard work and business acumen have paid off, earning him a career as a successful businessman. His current target is the chain of department stores owned by Caroline’s family. The recently widowed Caroline is convinced that Roman’s play for Sullivan’s is some form of revenge for her rejection.
Since this is Harlequin Presents, the initial meeting between Caroline and Roman shouldn’t be too surprising. They’re so hostile I expected them to arch their back and hiss at each other and yet, there’s also plenty of tension and sexual awareness packed into the scene. Caroline notes that Roman is “still incredibly handsome…with dark hair and the kind of chiseled features that made artists itch to pick up their palette knives and brushes.” Roman, for his part, is so taken by Caroline that he pretty much drops his girlfriend of the moment right on the spot. In Harlequin Presents land, readers will know that the battle is joined and these two are fated to  be together.
There is so much drama. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. After all, Caroline dumped Roman for no well-defined reason. Then poor Roman pretty much lost everything by dating the boss’s daughter and having it not work out. And I’m not even getting into the boatload of secrets these two, especially Caroline, are keeping. However, if you like your romances full of tension and melodrama, this one will be a fun read for you.
As one would expect from Harlequin Presents, Roman is overbearing and Caroline is passionately drawn to him even though she obviously has some issues to work out before they can have any kind of successful relationship. Throughout the story, Caroline is trying to save the stores which are her family’s heritage and Roman is obviously out for a takeover. Watching the two go from working at cross purposes to actually having real conversations and working as a team served as an effective plot throughout the story because the progress of their business relationship fairly closely tracked the progress of their romance. I found the combination pretty hot, I must admit.
So, why isn’t this a DIK? Well, one of the big plot points in this book revolves around the revelation(not a spoiler – it comes early in the book and readers who are paying attention will guess it even earlier) that Caroline was pregnant with Roman’s child when she broke up with him. And I am SO not a secret baby fan. The secret baby in this book is handled better than most, meaning there was a plausible reason for Caroline not to tell Roman about the baby  at least at first. In addition, the child comes into the story at various points and is likable. However, the secret baby drama just didn’t catch me at the same level as all the other battles of wills going on in this book.
A Game With One Winner is a fun afternoon read. While I couldn’t handle a steady diet, I do have a certain fondness for the occasional Harlequin Presents and this one works far more than it doesn’t.

Grade:     B                      Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

Grade: C+                          Sensuality: Kisses

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo

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