The Wallflower Wager (Tessa Dare)

I received this book as an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Overall

This is the third book in the Girl Meets Duke series, and one that I was particularly looking forward to having met Lady Penelope Campion in early installments. She was the delightfully sweet animal lover who made sham sandwiches that Emma and Alexandra made their beaus pretend to like. I’m a sucker for any book with a lot of animals, and this definitely did not disappoint.

She lives alone with a chaperone who should probably retire, surrounded by her animals, but her aunt makes it clear that Penelope can only remain in London if she makes an attempt to marry and rejoin society. Otherwise, she will be forced to return to her brother’s estate, a fate she can’t face. Her next door neighbor is ruthless business man Gabriel Duke who bought and restored the town home next door. He knows social climbers will jump at the chance to live next to a member of the ton like Lady Penelope. He agrees to help Penelope re-home her beloved animals and keep her in London.

Their meet cute is probably one of the most adorable you’ll ever read — Penny has adopted a parrot that flies away and ends up in the house next door in the middle night. Dressed in her night clothes, she goes to retrieve the parrot, thinking the house is empty, only to find her new neighbor in little more than towel, fresh from the tub.

I like this book. It’s cute, there are a lot of animals, and we get to see the returning supporting cast. I like Penny and Gabriel and their various adventures in re-homing many of Penny’s animals. Their romance is lovely, and Penny’s backstory is suitably tragic. It’s as well written as you’d expect a Tessa Dare book to be, and I promise you, if you love her writing, you will like this book.

I think the problem I have with this book is not the fault of Tessa Dare, but something a bit more subjective for me. Everything about this book is good — all of the dots line up, things connect, and it’s good. But I will probably never be able to re-read it.

I’ve always read my ARC books a few times to get the best review possible, but for content reasons, I won’t be able to read this one again. I’ll get into that in the spoilers.

Let me repeat that this book is good. I think that I’m just not able to be more objective than that, and I feel really bad. This is probably the reason books should have content warnings, to be honest. I wouldn’t have asked for this book as an ARC if I’d known the content. I still would have read it once because I adore Tessa Dare, but this is a topic I don’t ever read about more than I have to.

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The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes

Note: All of my GB reviews not only talk about the book but the way the book fits into the universe Burrowes built because so many of her characters flit back and forth. So I will be talking a lot about other books and the universe as a whole.

Overall

You know you’ve got an intricately connected universe when even the author doesn’t really know which order things happen in. The Virtuoso takes place before Jack in the universe, but it also takes place during Darius and after Nicholas. I knew that second part, but I had forgotten just how close to the end of Darius this particular book is set. So I reshuffled the list to be a bit more accurate, and will be going back to read Darius & Nicholas next. I’m not mad about this — it’s actually kind of fun to read this universe like it’s a puzzle. When I was reading Jack, a Lady Val showed up at the wedding and I remember thinking — wait, did Val and Ellen already get married?

I read The Virtuoso when it was released, but I wasn’t quite a Grace Burrowes fan yet. I didn’t reread either The Heir or The Soldier and none of the Lonely Lords series that feature Valentine had been released yet so I remember sympathizing with Valentine in this book, but honestly, you really need to be steeped in this character and have read all the previous times he’s shown up because when I finally got to Valentine in this book, I was so much more invested in him. Ellen also makes a brief cameo in an earlier book, David, in which she is close friends with Letty’s vicar brother, Daniel. He is not mentioned in this book, but has obviously quit the area.

Valentine Windham is introduced briefly to us in Douglas with the rest of the Windhams, but we get to know him in David when he becomes a confidante to both David and Letty. He shows up in a few other books, but it’s in David, The Heir, and The Soldier that we get our best look at him prior to this book. He’s a musical genius who depends on his extraordinary ability to play the piano to communicate. At the opening of this book, he is told by David that he might not be able to play the piano anymore due to an injury to his hand.

The opening line is David’s declaration, but it really doesn’t pack the same punch if you haven’t read the earlier books in the Windham series when it’s clear that playing the piano is how Valentine has managed to function given the devastating loss of two of his brothers, one right after another. Feeling trapped in town by this idea he can’t play piano, he decamps to Oxfordshire and an estate he’s won from the Baron of Roxbury, Freddie Markham. He takes with him Darius Lindsey, a hero of a later book and connected to several other characters we’ll read about at some point.

On the estate he finds Ellen FitzEngle, a widow with whom he shared an encounter with when he was doing David a favor. She’s briefly mentioned a few times in subsequent books, but this is the first time we get her name from Valentine. Ellen is the widow of the late Baron Roxbury, and Valentine finds her situation to be strange — why did her husband not provide better for her? Why is she tucked away in a tiny cottage?

Ellen offers some guidance and company while Valentine works to restore the estate, and they fall in love but she’s got secrets that might explain why someone is trying to destroy the house he’s rebuilding.

I adore this book. It really shows off the complicated and intricate universe Grace Burrowes has built, and you can always tell the books she’s already written from the deeply rich characters that return. Darius shows up just enough here to make one interested in his story (which I’m not looking forward to because it’s my least favorite trope in the history of romance), but Devlin also drops in as does Westhaven, Nick Haddonfield, and the Belmonts. Ironically, we see and hear more from Axel Belmont’s son, Dayton and Philip, than we did in either of the Belmont brothers’ books. Jack shows up as the magistrate, so we get to see him rebounding after the events in Axel. It’s got a great supporting cast.

The mystery is really fun too — the who is never in doubt, but the why remains a mystery throughout and it’s quite tragic. You might feel like Ellen is a martyr at points, but she’s a woman who is entirely alone in a world that does not treat women well. Her fear is palpable and completely understandable. I really love both of these leads and am completely invested in their own personal journeys as well their romance.

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Jack by Grace Burrowes

Overall

I had only read this book once and didn’t really remember the storyline all that well. After finishing Axel, where we met both Madeline and Jack, I have to say I wasn’t really looking forward to reading their book. Neither of them made an impression on me as a character I wanted to know more about.

Sir John Fanning (Jack) has taken over as magistrate, something Axel hinted about being a good idea in his book. He spent a lot of time in India (twenty years, putting him in his late thirties) and has returned with an Indian butler who was the brother of his wife, a half-Indian woman who died before Jack returned. His demanding mother is coming for a long visit and Jack wants to organize his household, so the Belmonts suggest Madeline Hennessy join him as his mother’s companion. Madeline reluctantly goes. At the same time, Jack is investigating a series a petty thefts that is plaguing the local area.

So for the most part, I ended up really liking this book and these characters. My chief complaint about Jack is that the most interesting part of his story happens in Axel, and that’s one of my big pet peeves. He tell Madeline that he abused opium, but he doesn’t really get into it. I really don’t appreciate when a main character’s back story is in another book.

But would that have bothered me if I hadn’t read Axel? Probably not. I think there’s enough in Jack to make it work and other readers won’t notice it. Jack’s story was somewhat important to the end of Axel, and as Jack was written much later, I’m almost positive Grace Burrowes did not initially plan to have him be a hero. So maybe that explains it.

Madeline is an incredibly empathetic character as her story is unraveled throughout the book. I forgot how much I liked her. She’s very strong but also ridiculously stubborn and proud. The trope of the housekeeper falling in love with the man of the house is probably one of my least favorite in romance fiction because it literally never happens the opposite way (I can think of maybe two or three off the top of my head) and as both Jack and Maddie point out — women are uniquely vulnerable in this time period and it is so easy to render them powerless.

But I appreciate that Jack did recognize this fact and made it clear that Maddie was to direct everything between. He asked permission every five minutes and always gave Maddie an out. Informed consent is pretty sexy.

I liked this book a lot. There are few things that bothered me just a little that stop this from being a full-fledged five star, but there’s a lot to like in this book and I’m glad I reread it.

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The Soldier by Grace Burrowes

Overall

There’s something about this book that has never worked for me. This is the third time I’ve read it from beginning to finish since it came out, and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I like her other books.

Devlin St. Just has just been created the first Earl of Rosecroft, taking over the estate of the villain from the The Heir, Anna’s brother whom Devlin killed in order to save her. He travels to the estate in Yorkshire where it has been neglected where he finds that the brother, once the earl of Helmsley, left behind an illegitimate daughter who is nominally in the care of a cousin, Emmaline Farnum. Emmie grew up as an illegitimate child left in the care of her aunt who was Helmsley’s mistress and Bronwyn’s mother. Devlin takes Bronwyn (Winnie) under his care and brings Emmie to stay at the estate to serve as her governess.

I think honestly the book collapses under its own weight. Devlin is suffering from what we would call PTSD today, but obviously not as well understood in Regency Britain. This is probably the best part of the book and one of my favorite things about Grace Burrowes’ writing is that she lets her heroes be emotional and vulnerable with each other. Toxic masculinity doesn’t play a role in her books.

But the problem is probably Emmaline. There’s a lot to like about Emmie. She’s incredibly generous and empathetic. She’s known real tragedy and pain in her life which allows her to be the person that Devlin desperately needs at this point in his life. She’s unselfish almost to her own destruction.

But there’s a piece of her story that simply fails for me and I’ll have to get it into specifically in the spoiler section. Suffice to say, she keeps a secret from Devlin that the author also keeps from the reader and I hate it. Because it requires Emmie to lie to Devlin, but in a few spots, Burrowes even lies to me as a reader. I mean, the secret is almost obvious which is why it’s ridiculous that the reader isn’t brought in earlier.

The supporting cast is pretty good—Douglas and Valentine play large roles here in Devlin’s recovery. I don’t entirely buy the depth and strength of Douglas and Devlin’s friendship but I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t bother me. Winnie is also very sweet, and thus far, Burrowes has avoided a lot of tropes of cute children in romance novels. The Windhams show up briefly, but not for long. The local vicar, Hadrian, will return in a later Lonely Lords book and shows up well.

Ultimately, this book fails for me because I can’t ever quite sympathize fully with Emmie. While the romance is well-developed, I am increasingly frustrated by Emmie and her ridiculous secret. The book is well-written and others will probably like it fine.

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The Heir by Grace Burrowes

Overall

The Heir was my first Grace Burrowes book and it remains one of my favorites, I think, because I’ve always been able to closely identify with the hero, Gayle Windham, better known as Westhaven. He carries the weight of his entire family on his shoulders and feels the obligations and duty of being the eldest child, the one that has to deal with eccentricities of his parents and play mediator in his family. It’s literally my life.

Reading it its proper place in the universe deepens my appreciation for the supporting cast, as I hoped it would, and now reading over a set of scenes in the middle of the book when Westhaven recuperates from an illness at the estate of Douglas and Gwen Allen (Douglas), I can remember being kind of bored and a little frustrated. Those scenes are filled with backstory and callbacks. I wondered why these people I hadn’t met before would care so much about Westhaven but after having read Douglas, it’s easier to understand that they’re showing up more for Gwen because of how the duke treated her then.

The Heir tells the story of Westhaven maybe a year or so after the events of Douglas. In that book, Westhaven agreed to propose to Gwen in order to wrest control of the ducal finances from his father. Here, we see him bearing up under that pressure and doing what he can to protect himself and his last living legitimate brother from the machinations of their father, Percy Windham, Duke of Moreland, who appears to stop at nothing in his quest to marry off Westhaven and secure the next generation. Westhaven has a new housekeeper who is not only taking care of his house but making it a home. Anna Seaton is a housekeeper with secrets and a soft heart, as well as generous well of empathy and clearly a deep desire to find a home where she can finally be safe.

The housekeeper and her employer is a familiar and well-worn romantic trope that I like less and less every time I read it. Maybe because I’m more well-versed on the power dynamics that makes that kind of relationship not great in real life. But I can make it work in my head as long as there’s a sense of equality between the two leads as people. Anna might work for Westhaven, but she’s not particularly cowed by his title or his family’s place in society.

This is my favorite of the Windham novels, and my favorite Burrowes book overall. There are a few minor issues that bug me more every time I read it, but nothing that really stops me from enjoying the book. I like the comfort and security that Westhaven and Anna share when they’re at his townhouse or anywhere else alone together.

I think this book benefits a great deal from following those that set up this story. Having met Victor in Douglas and understood a measure of the grief that befell the Windhams with his death and the death of Bart, the original heir, it does become easier to empathize with them, even the duke to a certain extent. Valentine played a large supporting role in David, and it was nice to see him back here again, still struggling with the loss of his brothers and the expectations of his family.

Without the benefit of books like David and Douglas, and even Andrew (to set up his appearance here), this book’s supporting cast suffers because that depth and nuance are missing for me. I felt that when I read the book the first time in 2010. If you read this book on its own, it’s still fine. The romance and plot are interesting and the cast are fine.

But so much is opened up when reading it in order that I can’t recommend reading it without the bare minimum of reading Douglas first. That wasn’t an option when The Heir was originally published, but it is now.

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Matthew by Grace Burrowes

Overall

I was very much looking forward to how Theresa Jennings’ story would play out once it became clear in Thomas just how ruptured her relationship with her brother was, particularly after Thomas ended with a little note that Theresa had a daughter, Priscilla, clearly born out of wedlock.

Children in romance novels often fall into two categories for me: they’re either useful to the narrative and necessary, or there just to be cute and push the couple together. (Governess romances are exempt from them since the entire premise predicates that there must be children). In my opinion, there are far too many books that fall into the latter category and I worried for a bit that Matthew would.

We met Matthew Belmont in Thomas, though he may or may not have been mentioned/shown up in Douglas. He’s a squire that serves as a magistrate near Linden, where Theresa Jennings has come to visit her brother after his wedding and a long estrangement. He has three nearly grown boys away at school whom he loves and misses a great deal. Theresa is very keen on repairing her relationship with Thomas so that he might look out for Priscilla and offer her more advantages as a baron’s niece rather than just her bastard daughter.

Matthew and Theresa bond almost immediately, and to his credit, Matthew never sees a reason Theresa can’t just stay in Linden with him as his wife or how Thomas could be such an unmitigated asshole to his only sister. Also, someone wants Matthew dead.

I really liked this book, but I have a few quibbles. I worried that Matthew was just too good and too understanding. He has a bit of a sad history that informs his kind and fair treatment of Theresa, but he’s just…taken in a lot of disappointment in his lifetime and I can’t decide if I want him to be more angry about it because I would be or if I think he’s just too nice.

Or maybe he became inured to his own injustices and seeing Theresa and learning her history helps him to come to some peace about what happened to him. I’m not sure, honestly, where I fall on this.

The supporting cast is good, if at sometimes overdone. I’m not really a fan of some of the cutaways to Oxford, Axel Belmont, and Matthew’s sons. Burrowes has a habit of splitting sex scenes to do that and it always breaks the momentum for me. Beckman and Nick are back, giving us a bit more history for them. We also meet Alice Portmaine, whose family we’ll end up getting to know a great deal in the Windham stories and later entries in the Lonely Lords.

This is a good book with a sweet romance, but at times, the character wavers a bit. I was mostly happy with the resolution of Theresa’s relationship with her brother, particularly since I mentioned in Thomas that was something I wanted to see happen.

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Project Duchess by Sabrina Jeffries

Overall

I always feel bad when I try to think of my favorite books by Sabrina Jeffries, and I literally can’t remember the title of any of them. Nor do any of her books really sit with me for long after I finish them. I actually really like Jeffries’ books, and she’s always been on pre-order status with me, but looking over her backlist, there’s really nothing that pops out of me.

That being said, I never regret buying her books and Project Duchess is no exception. It suffers a little from the heavy lifting any first book in a series does — it has to not only tell the current story but create the universe. Some books avoid this by simply not introducing all of the characters or elements right away, but as this series is about a family, it would be odd if we didn’t meet the majority of the family.

It’s a relatively rote, by-the-numbers romance. Two leads with trust issues and difficult memories of their childhood. A titled lord who is charmed by the heroine who is more hoyden than lady and doesn’t simper over him. Rambunctious siblings. There’s a murder mystery that looks as though it’s going to stretch across at least two or three of the books.

Fletcher Pryde, Duke of Greycourt, and more commonly known as Grey is the eldest son of a woman who managed to marry three times, all to men who either were dukes at the time or inherited a title. Her last husband was ambassador to Prussia, causing Grey to be separated from his family at the age of ten since his paternal uncle had guardianship over him because, you know, the patriarchy. He grows up, resenting his mother and stepfather for giving him up and there’s a rift in the family.

Beatrice Wolfe is the poor cousin of Grey’s youngest brother, the new Duke of Armitage, Sheridan. Sheridan suspects that his father and the previous duke were murdered and suspects Bea’s brother, Joshua, of the deed. Joshua returned from the war, injured and more worse for the wear. He enlists Grey’s help in getting to the bottom of it. Grey and Bea are thrown together because his mother is trying to distract herself by preparing her daughter, Gwyn, for her debut and wants to launch Bea at the same time.

It’s a solid book, and I’m not mad at any of it. The plot escalates well. There are misunderstandings and stolen kisses. The characters are interesting, but they feel like a hundred other characters I’ve read in a romance novel, as does the plot. You won’t regret spending a few hours with the book, but you probably won’t remember it in a week either.

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Thomas by Grace Burrowes

Overall

The more I reread this universe in chronological, the more respect I have for Grace Burrowes and her ability to create characters that may or may not play a larger role in their own books later. We leave the Lonely Lord series behind for a while for a series that Grace Burrowes entitled the Jaded Gentlemen.

In Thomas, we pick up the story of David’s man of business, Thomas Jennings, who apparently became Baron Sutcliffe when David wasn’t looking. Thomas leaves David’s service and takes up the mantle of baron at some point after David and Letty marry, then purchases the estate that Andrew, Lord Greymoor, was thinking of selling to Douglas, Lord Amery.

We’ve also already met Loris Tanner, the heroine, in Douglas, as the daughter of Linden’s steward who ran off without a word two years previous, worried of being accused of forcing himself on a woman. In his absence, Loris has been trying to unofficially carry on her father’s duties, preserving her father’s place in hopes he might return. In Douglas, he advised Andrew of Loris’s situation, and she became the steward in truth.

Thomas purchases the estate, comes to Linden and meets Loris. They fall in love even as she worries over her father’s continued absence, her lack of security in the world, and her problems exerting her authority over the stables. Thomas relies on Loris to get the estate back into order and offers to show her how to get along better as a lady so that she might have a few more options if her father never returns and a future owner turns her away.

There’s also someone making trouble on the Linden estate, so there’s a small mystery that doesn’t drive the plot, merely gives our leads something to do while Thomas tries to convince Loris to take a chance on him. The supporting cast is also a good one and, like Douglas, does a lot to set Grace Burrowes up for at least six or seven more books.

David, Lord Fairly, returns for his fifth straight appearance as the hero’s confidante and friend. I remember reading Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie & McBride series and being supremely annoyed every time a Mackenzie brother showed because they never felt like they narratively served the plot. They were there because the author loved them, not because the characters did.

That’s a big difference in Burrowes’ regency universe where what holds these characters together is not merely their family connections but their genuine affection. David grew up without a large family, so it makes sense when he frets about his sisters, Felicity and Astrid, and their husbands, Gareth and Andrew, or Douglas and Thomas. When Letty suggests David visit Thomas to see how he’s going on at Linden, it feels earned and right.

We also meet the Haddonfield brothers, Nick and Beckman, who will also head their own books in the Lonely Lords series. Nick refers later to his sisters, most of whom will be heroines in subsequent series. Nick gets more to do here than Beckman, but I find myself liking both brothers and looking forward to reading their books soon. We’re also introduced to Matthew Belmont whose brother shows up in The Virtuoso.

Sometimes you can see that Burrowes is playing around with the extra characters in her books, just to see if something might tug enough to inspire her to write their story. The extraneous scenes might annoy me (and if I recall correctly, they eventually do) but here, early on, the characters feel useful and interesting. I want to read more about Matthew, Nick, and Beckman, based on their presence here.

This is honestly the best book in the universe thus far, with the best characterization and plot development as well as my favorite romance.

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David: Lord of Honor by Grace Burrowes

Overall

After three books of David Worthington weaving in and out of the lives of our heroes and heroines, it’s time for his story though, to be honest, we don’t really learn anything more about him than we’ve already learned in Gareth, Andrew, and Douglas. He grew up with modest means with an aunt, not with his mother. He was the legitimate heir to his father’s title and estate, but kept mum to protect his father’s second marriage and the daughters of that union, Felicity and Astrid. We also already knew he’d had medical training and had been married before.

In David, we learn his marriage was unhappy (nearly all first marriages in a romance novel are) and that he loved his daughter, who died shortly after birth. He took over the brothel that Felicity inherited in Gareth and has been running it since. His man of business, Thomas Jennings, tells him that his brother-in-law’s former mistress, Letty Banks, seems to be unwell, and encourages David to check in on her. He discovers that, despite money left to her by Herbert Allen, she’s living in a nearly impoverished state. He asks her to come work at the brothel as a madam.

I quite like Letty, but I’m not entirely sure about David. He carries himself as someone who respects women but he’s one of those guys who just carries around his male privilege without being aware with it. Letty has to call him out on being a dick several times and I’m not sure that David ever really gets it. But he’s not perfect, and there’s something to be said for that.

There’s the usual cast of supporting characters, including a lot of Douglas from the previous book. One of my pet peeves in reading series that, occasionally, an author shoves in previous characters without much narrative purpose (see: Jennifer Ashley & the Mackenzie series) but Burrowes does a really good job of showing us the friendship between these characters. David has built a family that he relies on heavily and having read Douglas, I buy the deep affection he and Douglas have for one another.

There’s also a lot of the Windhams here — Valentine plays a large supporting role that I’m not entirely sure is earned. He and Letty appear to be friendly (to the point Valentine seems a bit in love with her) but a lot of it happens off page so it makes some of the confidences Letty and David share with Val later seem a bit unrealistic. We’re also introduced to Daniel, Letty’s brother, and to Ellen FitzEngle, who will be appearing later. I’d quite forgotten that Val’s book had a back story that began here, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to revisit Little Weldon in The Virtuoso.

It’s a good book but I think it suffers just a bit from being overstuffed with extra characters and little plot. David and Letty only have one obstacle — she refuses to marry him and honestly, we’re kept out of her reasoning for far too long. But it’s not a bad read.

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Douglas: Lord of Heartache by Grace Burrowes

Overall

When I read this book back in 2014, I was relieved because finally, here was the backstory heavily alluded to in The Heir. The Heir is one of my favorite Burrowes books, and I’m really excited to get to it in this reread because I’m finally reading everything in chronological order which means the Douglas and Gwen scenes as well as Westhaven’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, is going to be that much more rich and nuanced.

Getting that out of the way, I can’t decide if I like this book. It’s a really good read right up until the end where things get…weird. We met Gwen and Douglas in the previous entry, Andrew. Gwen is the unmarried cousin of Andrew and Gareth Alexander who was apparently able to hide her illegitimate daughter, Rose, from the rest of her family for four years. Douglas is the survivor of the Allen family in Andrew, middle son sandwiched between shitty Herbert and crazy murderer Henry. Douglas is trying to get himself back together after the events of that book and asks Gwen for assistance with an estate purchase since she has made her own estate relatively profitable.

Douglas is a beta hero—with the exception of one scene that I’m not really all that fond of at the end—who doesn’t really take over the story or push Gwen (even when maybe he should). He’s also in the midst of a low-grade depression, thinking that he doesn’t deserve Gwen or really anything nice. Normally this kind of wallowing drives me nuts, but it’s been maybe a year or so since he learned that his youngest brother murdered their elder brother and father, and the elder brother was a giant asshole who stole from his wife’s widow’s portion and beggared the family. He doesn’t feel that awesome about his DNA and it’s hard to blame him.

Gwen is a bit more difficult to pin down — in the previous book as well as for a lot of this book, the men in her family (Andrew, Gareth and their brother-in-law and future hero, David) assume that her reticence to bring Rose or herself into the world means she must have been raped. No one asks her because it’s just not the thing to do at this point. Even Douglas assumes this. I think it’s important to remind myself that Gwen literally never says this to any of them at any point because it helps me kind of understand some of the things that happen later. She never tells any of them outright exactly what happened or tells them it was rape.

For the most part, my feelings about this book is that it's a lot like the last two books — it has a relatively sweet and believable romance, but the other part of the plot is less great. I mean, it’s serviceable and does what it needs to do. In many ways, this book is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Not only are we preparing for David to get his own book (after appearing in all three books thus far), but it also introduces Loris Tanner, who will come back as a heroine in another series entirely, and introduces the Windham family with whom we will spend about eight or nine books with. Considering everything this book does for the universe, it’s actually pretty good.

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