My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

The Historicals prompt in the TBR Challenge is my Busman’s Holiday, but it can nonetheless be quite difficult to choose a book from the many still sitting unread on my Kindle.  In the end, I decided to go for something I was pretty certain would be a winner and picked up Emily Larkin’s My Lady Thief, a standalone title that was first published as The Unmasking of a Lady in 2010, under her Emily May pen-name.  Every book I’ve read by this author has proved to be extremely enjoyable and well-written; she creates attractive, well-rounded characters and puts them in interesting situations and her romances are always well-developed and laced with sexual tension.  My Lady Thief most ably continues that impressive track record.

Miss Arabella Knightley is beautiful, poised, intelligent, self-assured and the granddaughter of an earl – a most eligible parti were it not for the fact that her early years were spent in the London slums owing to the fact that her father was cast off by his father for marrying her mother without permission.  When, after her husband’s death, Arabella’s mother, Thérèse, approached the earl for help, he agreed to take in the daughter but not the mother.  Unwilling to be parted from her child, Thérèse took Arabella to live with a friend of her late husband’s and became the man’s mistress.  After this, she was rumoured to have had a number of protectors, but eventually she and her daughter ended up in the slums. After her death when Arabella was twelve, the old earl took his granddaughter in and made her the heir to his fortune after his sons all died without issue.  So not only is Arabella beautiful, on her twenty-fifth birthday, she will inherit a considerable fortune – but she is not interested in marriage and intends instead to retire to the country and run the girl’s school she has secretly set up.  Good society tolerates her because of her lineage and wealth, but she knows she is not really accepted, and, for the most part, doesn’t care.  She presents a calm, unruffled exterior to the ton, the veiled and not-so-veiled insults she elicits merely glancing off her façade of tough insouciance and affecting her not at all.  Apart from that one time six years earlier when she’d learned that Adam St. Just – handsome, wealthy, charming and one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors – had described her to his set as smelling of the gutters, and the nickname had stuck.  She is still referred to behind hands and fans as “Miss Smell O’Gutters”.

Adam St. Just heartily regrets his actions that day, which had been borne of anger and frustration after his callous father had taken him to task about the fact that he had singled out “the daughter of a French whore” for his attentions.  Adam had neither known nor cared about Miss Arabella Knightley’s origins, having been struck by her beauty and intelligence – but his father’s disdainful interference had sent Adam to the bottle and he’d been well into his cups when he’d made that damaging, crass remark.  In the intervening years, he and Miss Knightley have done their best to avoid contact with each other, although moving in the same circles means that they are often present at the same events.  Adam is therefore surprised –and not especially pleased – to see Arabella sitting with his sister one evening and to note that whatever Miss Knightley is saying to Grace is being well received and seems to have bolstered her spirits, which have been somewhat dampened of late.

Adam is very protective of his sister, and it worries him that she does not appear to be enjoying the season as so many other young ladies are.  When he discovers the cause – that she has been  blackmailed over some letters she wrote to a young man with whom she’d believed herself in love – Adam is furious with the man and the blackmailer, guilty that he had not seen how miserable Grace was and curious as to the identity of the person – identified merely as “Tom” – who has returned the letters and the jewellery with which  Grace had bought the blackmailer’s silence.

Given that readers are privy to Tom’s true identity from the start, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arabella quickly emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who goes one step further from stealing from the rich to feed the poor.  She uses the proceeds from her thefts to finance the school she has set up outside London for girls who might otherwise be forced into prostitution AND chooses as her victims those members of the ton who have been cruel, duplicitous or just downright mean to those weaker than themselves.

Adam becomes determined to discover the identity of the mysterious Tom, and finds himself developing a sneaking respect for the man, who seems only to steal from people who can a) afford it and b) deserve it. It’s only when he starts to look deeper that he begins to suspect Tom’s true identity – and once all is revealed to him, his respect for Tom – Arabella – only increases.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and engaging, and their romance is beautifully written.  The way these two circle around each other warily, alternately flirting and mocking and then retreating when threatened with exposing their vulnerabilities had me glued to the pages and their progression from suspicious enmity to admiration to love is perfectly paced and wonderfully romantic.  I particularly liked the way Adam is gradually shown to be altering his perceptions of Arabella; to start with he admits he is strongly attracted to her, but that there can be no question of his marrying her, but as the story progresses and he comes to know and understand her better, he is entirely captivated by her;  her intelligence, her spirit and her compassion – and sees her for the woman she really is.  As Arabella starts to let Adam know her, she shows him something of what her life was like as a child, and exposes him to a side of London he has never seen or really considered.  What he sees appals him, and he is genuinely motivated to do something positive and practical to help, while also being more impressed than ever by Arabella’s determination and strength of character.

The chemistry between Adam and Arabella is sizzling, although I have to say that the first sex scene (which comes quite late on) is a little off-key and that, together with a very poor decision Arabella makes near the end, accounts for this book not getting a straight A grade.  Otherwise, My Lady Thief is a terrific read that features two fully-rounded and sympathetic central characters, a strong secondary cast and an intriguing storyline.  If you’ve never read this author before, this would be a great place to start; and if you’re familiar with her work, it most certainly won’t disappoint.

Grade: A-     Sensuality: Warm

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~ Caz Owens


Hidden Honor by Anne Stuart

For this month’s TBR challenge, I found myself with an embarrassment of riches in the TBR pile.  My stack of books is much more varied than it used to be, but it still leans heavily toward historical, category romance and romantic suspense.  Rather than dither over it, I just pulled out a historical romance at random and we were off to the races.  The book in question? Hidden Honor, a 2004 release from the unforgettable Anne Stuart.

And unforgettable it certainly was. Love or hate them, Stuart’s books tend to be rather distinctive. The normally super alpha hero was a touch toned down here but we still had darkness and drama in spades.  This book wasn’t my favorite from the author, but it’s still a pretty good read.

The heroine, Elizabeth of Bredon, basically runs her father’s household but said father and her loutish brothers don’t exactly appreciate her efforts. Now in her late teens, she’s been deemed useless and consigned to a convent. She is a redhead, taller than most men, and has already been jilted by one suitor, so her family did not see any viable marriage prospects on the horizon. A group of friars are passing through the area taking King John’s notoriously debauched son to do penance, and Elizabeth will be travelling with this party.

Elizabeth, for her part, is a rather interesting heroine in some ways. In others’ reviews of this book, I’ve seen her described as TSTL and she does have those moments. However, she also has areas of great competency. I read her more as a very young heroine who has been thrust into a world she doesn’t entirely understand.

I hesitate to call her sheltered because that would imply that someone in her family actually cared what happened to her. It’s probably more apt to describe her as isolated. She has seen little of the world beyond the household of her many times widowed father and on her journey to the convent, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself confronted with all manner of alien situations, not the least of which involves dealing with a traveling party of men and all the various hazards of medieval travel.

On the one hand, as the main lady of her father’s household, Elizabeth knows a lot about first aid, midwifery and herbal medicine. When the group encounters situations such as a lady in labor and in distress, Elizabeth shines. When the group gets attacked by brigands or Elizabeth has to figure out who the bad guys are, she’s not quite so much the superstar. In other words, she’s human and flawed. And she obviously has some growing up to do. This lady has a load of what we today would call self-image issues and she’s working that out at least as much as anything else in this book.

Speaking of figuring out who the bad guys are, Elizabeth has been told from the beginning that the king’s illegitimate son William is bad news. Throughout the book, he is referred to as “Prince William”, which I found offputting because while illegitimate children of royalty have sometimes been given titles, I would not expect to see one acknowledged as a prince. However, leaving that issue aside, Elizabeth does initially take the warnings about William to heart. This becomes increasingly difficult because not only is William very attractive – and obviously attracted to Elizabeth – but he’s quite the tortured man. His time in the Crusades has clearly affected him, and throughout the book he is the sort of man one would find impossible to ignore.  Without throwing in a spoiler, let’s just say that not all is as it initially seems here.  The author makes some important revelations early in the story, but still, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

The story unfolds from there, with the party travelling toward the convent and meeting with various dangers along the way. Elizabeth isn’t as dumb as some think her and she starts to notice something in William that isn’t the dangerous evil she expected. He makes her nervous, but there’s also a protective side. And even though she can’t quite put it all together, there’s quite a bit going on beneath the surface with the travelling party as well. The revelations of character in this novel are at least as interesting as the trip itself.

My one huge quibble with this book wasn’t so much the heroine. Taking her youth and inexperience into account, I could deal with Elizabeth for the most part and at times, I rather liked her because I could see growth in her. What drove me nuts was the manner in which the author demarcated good and evil with broad brush strokes.

The ultimate bad guy in this book is evil with a capital E, and there is no bad act beneath him. By the end, I felt like the author was wracking her brain  to find every occasion possible for him to torment innocents, kick puppies and just be nasty. There’s some craftiness but not a lot of subtlety to his characterization. There are some folks out there who really are just plain bad, but a cartoonish caricature of evil just doesn’t do it for me, and that’s ultimately what we get here.

Sneering cartoon villain aside, Hidden Honor isn’t half bad as a road romance. Road romances definitely go on my list of “Plots That Hook Me Most,” so I didn’t regret reading this novel in the least.

Grade: B-                                                    Sensuality level: Warm

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Lynn Spencer