It’s TBR Challenge time, and yes, Caz and I are in again! This month’s theme involves short romances, so we’ve been urged to pull out novellas, short stories and category romances. My choice this month was pretty easy. When books get buzzed about, I sometimes get curious and buy them – and then procrastinate on my reading.

Such was the case with Mary Ann Rivers’ 2013 novella The Story Guy. Everybody and their dog went into raptures over this story on Twitter and the setup was just quirky enough that it caught my eye. Having read it, I can now say that this story indeed merits all that buzz. There’s a lot of meaty stuff in here that one could discuss, even though one of the plot points bothered me enough that I can’t quite justify giving this novella a DIK review.

As the story begins, we are introduced to Carrie West, a relatively happy thirtysomething librarian. She likes reading the personals for snorts and giggles, and one in particular catches her eye. A man is looking for someone to meet him in the park on Wednesday afternoons, just for kissing. Intrigued, Carrie answers and finds herself meeting a mysterious – and gorgeous – man in the park for kisses. And they are amazing kisses.

We learn that the man in question is attorney Brian Newburgh. And the reason for the weird setup? Well, Brian has some baggage that he’s convinced will make him relationship-ineligible. As one of Carrie’s friends says, he’s a “story guy.” He’s not planning to share that life story with Carrie either, so she(and the reader) are kept in the dark for much of the story.

Oddly enough, this works. The storyline and the sexual tension both move and build up slowly. Sometimes when I read a slow-burning story, my internal monologue is shrieking, “Oh, just tell her the truth already!” Not so here. The emotional journey is well written and worth reading, and instead of being a letdown, the payoff at the end is totally worth it. The story is written in first person from Carrie’s point of view, but even so, I felt like I had a good view of Brian’s emotional journey.

So, what bugged me? Well, without throwing in spoilers, I’ll simply say that Brian’s issues are not only very real, but they do not have easy answers. And yet the author gave the characters a resolution that felt just a little bit too pat. Perhaps it really would end up being the best solution for all concerned, but within the small frame of this story, I couldn’t help feeling that it seemed a tad overly convenient. Grade: B+

– Lynn Spencer

Marguerite Kaye is someone I know can always be relied upon to deliver a well-written, character-driven romance that plays out against an interesting and well-researched historical background. The fact that she can do all that so very well in under three hundred pages never ceases to amaze me; and to that, Rumours that Ruined a Lady, also a 2013 release, adds a storyline with a difference – one that features an element not often found in historical romances, principally, I imagine, due to the fact that its presence renders the possibility of an HEA for the protagonists practically impossible.

The book’s heroine, Lady Caroline Rider, is separated from the cold, abusive husband her father chose for her and refuses to return to him. Her sisters – whose stories are told in the other books in this series about the Armstrong Sisters – are all happily settled and out of the country, her father has disowned her and Caro has nowhere to turn. It’s hard to imagine now, but a woman in her position really would have been viewed as the lowest of the low by the society in which she had previously lived, and her family would have been expected to cut all ties with her if they didn’t want to suffer the same treatment.

All her life, Caroline had been the dutiful daughter, the only one who married the man chosen for her, in spite of the fact that she loved someone else. That someone else was Sebastian Conway, the Earl of Mosteyn and heir to the tyrannical Marquess of Ardhallow who lived on the neighbouring estate. The couple meet when Caro is just sixteen, and the affinity between them is instantaneous. Over the next few years, they become close friends and even though Caro eventually realizes she has fallen in love, she also knows that Sebastian’s family history has rendered him uninterested in marriage, and so has no expectations. But Sebastian’s rakish reputation and Lord Armstrong’s desire for Caroline to make a good marriage eventually come between them, and when Sebastian leaves to travel abroad, she is married off to the eligible Sir Graeme Rider.

The book opens some eleven years after the protagonists’ first meeting when Sebastian, now the Marquess of Ardhallow, unexpectedly discovers Caro passed out from opium at a society party. Even though part of him is still angry about what happened between them the last time they met two years previously and wants to walk away, he can’t just leave her, especially when he realizes she has ingested the drug and that her life is in danger.

He removes her to his country estate to recuperate, and as she recovers, they begin to rediscover the love they’d once shared. At the same time, Sebastian finds out what has brought the bright, vivacious Caroline he knew to this, a broken woman, abandoned by those who should have stood by her with her name being dragged through the mud in the scandal sheets and her reputation in shreds. Their backstory unfolds in flashback, which is a favorite device of mine when done well, which is certainly the case here.

This is a darker story than many of the other historical romances out there, but it’s incredibly well written and the principals are strongly drawn, engaging and fully rounded. Sebastian may have a reputation as a rake, but he is a caring man and devoted to Caro, whom he has obviously loved for years. And she is a strong person, even though she has been beaten down by life, and finally finds the courage she needs in Sebastian’s love for her to finally stand up to her autocratic father and to determine to live her life on her own terms. They have great chemistry, and the intensity of their feelings for one another is palpable and leaps off the page.

Right from the start, it seems that an HEA for this troubled but deserving couple is going to be an impossibility. Caro’s husband refuses to divorce her, and Sebastian must marry and produce an heir in order to do his duty to his title, and the idea that they cannot be together because of the weight of society’s expectations after everything they have been through is truly heart-breaking. Rest-assured that there IS happiness in store for Caro and Sebastian, but it comes rather unconventionally – which perfectly fits this unconventional tale.

Ms Kaye has clearly researched this aspect of her story very well indeed, and explains more in her detailed author’s note, which should definitely be read after finishing it. I was impressed with the fact that she has not waved a magic wand and taken the easy way out of Caro and Sebastian’s dilemma, which adds another note of realism to a book in which she has painted an incredibly vivid, warts-and-all picture of the manners and mores of the society in which its hero and heroine have to live.

Rumours That Ruined a Lady is a wonderful although not always easy read in which the author has pushed at the boundaries of what readers normally expect in an historical romance. In doing so, she has created a compelling, wonderfully romantic story that pulls at the heartstrings and, at times, makes the modern woman want to scream in frustration at what a woman in Caro’s situation had to endure. Even had a divorce been an option, it would have been incredibly difficult and long-winded, and, in addition to disgrace and social ostracism, she would have barred from marrying again, and faced a life in which she was cut off from friends and family and denied legally sanctioned love and companionship.

Sebastian and Caro have a difficult road to travel, but that only serves to make their eventual happiness even more richly deserved. Rumours That Ruined a Lady is a terrific, angsty read and one I’m recommending highly. Grade: A-

– Caz Owens

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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.