When Amelia Andrassey received the news of her husband's death, she fainted, but the strong arms of Count Anton Varga were there to catch her. From that first meeting, an intense connection passed between them. In the days that followed, Anton became a loyal friend to Amelia, but then he abruptly disappeared from her life for two months. During that time, Amelia completed a concert tour, playing her beloved piano for adoring audiences all over Europe. At her final performance of the tour, the man who has haunted her dreams finally returns, wanting to rekindle their friendship and perhaps pursue something more.
After having lived a rather misbegotten life, Anton Varga finally had an epiphany and went away to do some soul-searching. He returns a better man, intending to make the beautiful and talented Amelia his. The only problem is that he harbors a dark secret. Several years ago, he was bitten by a wolf and now every month on the full moon, he too turns into one. There are also unsavory wolves who harbor ill will toward Anton and may pose a threat to both him and his newfound love. As Anton gently leads Amelia toward his secret by giving her clues will she be able to figure it out, and if she does, will she still see him as the man she has come to love or will she only see the beast?
The Count's Lair was another pleasant, uncomplicated read from Stephanie Burkhart's Budapest Moon series. It got off to a rather slow start, but the pace picked up about halfway through. Ms. Burkhart has a very gentle, easy writing style that doesn't really challenge me as a reader, but that can be a welcome change of pace when I'm in the mood for something lighter. Having now read four of Ms. Burkhart's books, I can say that I've noticed a trend toward them not having a great deal of conflict. The problems that do exist are overcome fairly easily, but at least The Count's Lair did have a couple of true antagonists stalking the hero and heroine. In fact, I think this may be the first time in the series that an actual physical altercation took place. I also believe it was the first time that there was a more extended scene while the hero was in his wolf form. Still, his lycanthropy isn't quite as front and center as it is in most paranormal romances. Rather than having the elaborate world-building of most paranormal stories, this book and the series in general have more of the feel of historical novels in which a few characters transform into wolves once a month, but for the most part, maintain a fairly normal human existence.
After reading the first book of the series, The Hungarian, I found myself rather intrigued by Anton and felt that he and Amelia had the potential for greatness. I did very much like them. It would be hard not to since they were both such nice people. Perhaps I simply set my expectations too high, but I couldn't help feeling that there was a little something missing, and I think that missing ingredient was the conflict. Anton seemed like this terribly tortured soul who lost his mother at a young age and whose father and brother treated him quite shabbily. He also had pursued another man's wives and had just begun to feel remorse over that. Amelia only recently discovered she had been cheated on by a husband she adored right before he was tragically killed in an accident. These events could easily have led to some deep emotional turmoil for both of them. In fact, considering that Anton went away for a couple of months to do some soul-searching, I think they did cause quite a bit of upset, but by the time the story opens most of that is over with. Anton and Amelia both have some minor issues. He fears that she might leave him, and she fears that he might cheat on her, but for the most part, it's kind of in the background and not a major part of the story. The author is good though at slowly building the love connection between her characters. I liked that Anton held back his passionate nature until Amelia had figured out that he was a werewolf. The sexual tension simmers just beneath the surface until they finally give into their feelings for one another.
What I liked most about Anton was that he's not the least bit intimidated by Amelia's talent and independence like her first husband was. To the contrary he is quite proud of her musical abilities and loves to hear her play the piano. It was very sad that Anton didn't have much of a family life growing up, but I enjoyed watching him discover a sense of family with his servants and Amelia. While this book isn't marketed as a Christmas story, a large part of the narrative takes place around the holiday season. Anton had never celebrated Christmas before, so it was fun to have Amelia introducing him to some of the joys of the season. As for Amelia, I was happy to see that she was smart enough to figure out what Anton was from the clues he gave her. Most of all, I loved how accepting she was of him right from the start. She knew of his past pursuit of Matthias's wives but chose to believe the best of him when he said he'd changed and put that behind him, and she never wavered in her love for him even when she realized he was a wolf.
Since Amelia and Kate, the heroine of The Hungarian, are best friends, Kate and Matthias play prominent secondary roles. Although Matthias is still understandably wary of Anton, the two men finally put their feud to rest to become allies against a common enemy. Also, Anton finds not only the family he craved but the support he desperately needs during the full moon from his new servants, Georg, Esme and Tomas when he rescues them from another unsavory wolf. They become not only his loyal servants but his staunchest allies.
Overall, The Count's Lair was an agreeable read populated with likable and relatable characters. I think my only small complaint would be that author's wording could use a little more variety. She has a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases, and in my opinion more diversity would add greater interest to both the narrative and dialog. In general, it wasn't too bad, and the only phrase that really gave me pause was "stepped into his/her personal space." Even though it was only used in the narrative prose, it had an anachronistic feel to it that was jarring, and I also felt that it wasn't a very romantic way to express two people moving closer to one another. On the upside, I really enjoyed Ms. Burkhart's exploration of werewolves and the church, whether it was possible for them to go to church and why they had a history of being perceived as evil due to certain things happening to them in holy places. The Count's Lair is the second book in the Budapest Moon series. I'll be looking forward to the next novel due for release at the end of this year (2012) that will continue with the next generation of Vargas with Anton and Amelia's daughter, Sophia's story.
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