mastersmistress As a reader with a large TBR pile, I have more than a few books that have ended up in my house even though I have no clue how they got there. The Master’s Mistress, a 2010 release from Carole Mortimer, is a case in point. Since she won a Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement award at this year’s RWA conference, Mortimer was definitely on my radar. I’ve read her books in the past, but probably not since college.

I didn’t realize that I had any of Mortimer’s more recent books, but I found a signed copy of this one in one of my RWA boxes. Serendipity! Perhaps. As it turns out, The Master’s Mistress is far from the craziest Harlequin Presents I’ve ever read, but sadly, it’s also far from being the most memorable.

The story centers on the remote Sullivan House in Cornwall. Hired to catalog the library, history professor Elizabeth Brown has remained on at the house even after the owner’s sudden death. One night she is startled by the unexpected arrival of the home’s newest owner, Rogan Sullivan, the estranged son of Elizabeth’s employer. Things get off to a rollicking start as Elizabeth attacks Rogan, thinking him to be an intruder. After much smoldering sexual tension and a great many exclamation points, the truth comes out.

Elizabeth stays on to continue her work. Despite her intentions to the contrary, she cannot help being fascinated by Rogan. He has obviously made his fortune during his time in America, though he remains secretive about the nature of his job. Elizabeth is wealthy in her own right, but has her reasons for keeping this to herself.

With regard to the relationship between these two, they definitely have chemistry and as one would expect from Presents, exchanges are often heated and dramatic between these two. Sometimes it works to show the pent-up attraction between them. However, sometimes they just look ridiculous as they bicker over little things such as stopping for lunch on their way back from town.

The characters in this novel are a tad different from the usual Presents, and I appreciated that. Elizabeth sports short,spiky hair instead of the usual flowing locks. She also seems more independent than many of the heroines I’ve encountered in this line, and I liked that she had a fondness for vampire romances. Rogan doesn’t fit the usual billionaire mold either. He spent time in the military and used his military benefits to obtain university degrees before starting his own business.

On the whole, I found myself flying through this book and there’s certainly an addictive quality about the writing, overuse of exclamation points aside. However, even though I enjoyed the book in the moment, it also has a forgettable quality to it. I had to reread large chunks of the book to write this column because even a few days after finishing the book, I had trouble recalling bits of the story. Overall, I’d give it a C+/

– Lynn Spencer
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kissingastranger August’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a book that was an impulse buy – The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!

I decided the easiest way to find one of these would be to look through the freebies and cheapies on my Kindle, (I don’t tend to buy expensive books on impulse!) and the first one I came across that sounded promising was Margaret Evans Porter’s Kissing a Stranger, a book originally published in 1998 and the first in a series of books in which the protagonists come from the Isle of Man – which isn’t a setting or background often used in historicals (or any genre, come to think of it!)

The Earl of Ballacrane and his family live in a tumbledown castle on the island in a style not too much different from the local farmers and crofters. The earl hopes that as soon as he receives the revenues due to him from the export of the wool from the mill he owns, he will be able to get the family out of their current straits, but even so, their financial situation is not robust. So he pins his hopes on his youngest daughter, the strikingly beautiful Lavinia, making a profitable marriage.

Lavinia is well aware of the need to marry well so that her brother can go to university and her sister, who is delicate, can travel to a warmer climate for the sake of her health. The earl takes Lavinia to London where, while out shopping one day, she almost literally stumbles into the arms of a handsome, fair-haired stranger who flirts outrageously with her. She is shocked and beats a hasty retreat, with no idea who he is or any expectation of seeing him again.

Lord Garrick Armitage has lived most of his life in Italy and returns to England only sporadically. His unconventional upbringing means that he is not looked upon kindly by the ton, but crying off from a betrothal was the last straw and now he is persona non grata. Although his brother is the Duke of Halford, Garrick has to support himself which he does principally by gambling. This is because he is actually only the duke’s half-brother, a fact known only to Garrick, his brother and his natural father. The old duke acknowledged and therefore legitimized Garrick, but refused to provide for him.

Lavinia and her father have been in London only a few days when the earl is imprisoned for debt. Now, more than ever, Lavinia feels the burden of having to marry well; she must find the money to secure her father’s release and to help the rest of her family. When Garrick Armitage introduces her to his sister, Lady Frances, it seems that Lavinia may just be able to fulfil her purpose in coming to London after all. Though he was instantly smitten with her upon their first meeting, Garrick can’t but be disappointed by Lavinia’s avowed intent to catch a rich husband, showing her to be as mercenary as any other ton beauty.

Frances has the perfect candidate in mind – the wealthy Lord Newbold – and invites him to her house-party in hopes of promoting the match. Garrick is also present, and the attraction that has been gently bubbling between him and Lavinia grows stronger and deeper as they spend time together getting to know each other. Garrick asks Lavinia to marry him and she agrees to run away to Gretna with him – but not before she asks him for money to pay the taxes on the earl’s wool imports. Even though she loves Garrick dearly, Lavinia can’t bring herself to tell him the real reason she needs the money – to secure her father’s release from the King’s Bench Prison. The couple gets as far as a local inn and spends the night together before the terrible weather makes it impossible for them to continue their journey. They are forced to return home, and when back in London, Garrick finds out the truth behind Lavinia’s request for money. Naturally, he is furious and hurt, initially believing her to have agreed to marry him only for the money, leaving Lavinia heartbroken and now – thanks to the underhand machinations of her father’s unscrupulous solicitor – with no option but to accept Lord Newbold’s offer.

I found the book to be a reasonably engaging read, although there are a number of things about it that bothered me and ultimately prevent me from rating it more highly. Lavinia’s failure to tell Garrick the truth about her family situation goes on for too long, and their separation in the last part of the book is frustrating. I didn’t understand why Garrick was so determined to be acknowledged by his natural father when it would have opened one helluva can of worms for him and his family, and the revelations about the solicitor’s parentage are pointless as they are not necessary to the overall storyline. These last two subplots had real potential, but are severely underdeveloped, so it seems as though the author threw them in just for the hell of it and then forgot about them.

The characterisation is also a little wobbly, especially when it comes to Lavinia. One minute, she’s a country-bred innocent, completely without guile, and the next is a young woman who lies to the man she loves and who agrees to a deception which will enable her to obtain some valuable jewellery she then plans to sell. Oh, her motives are good, but her dishonesty seems completely out of character.

On a more positive note however, the story is rich in historical background detail and the author has clearly done her research into the politics and government of the Isle of Man at this period. She has also incorporated a lot of interesting information – about different card games, horse racing and wagering, and about the penal system for debtors. The writing flows well (although I noticed a number of errors and typos in the digital edition) and the story is well told. Kissing a Stranger is certainly not a bad read, but could have been a much better one had there been a little weeding out of extraneous plot elements – or a further development of those subplots I mentioned – and had the misunderstanding between the protagonists not been allowed to go on for so long. C

– Caz Owens