Kill Without Shame (ARES Security #2) by Alexandra Ivy

kill-without-shame

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Five brave military heroes have survived the hell of a Taliban prison to return home—and take on civilian missions no one else can. They’re the men of ARES Security. Highly skilled, intimidating, invincible, and one by one, tested again and again…

Lucas St. Clair’s prestigious family had a political future neatly planned out for him—one that didn’t include his high school sweetheart, Mia Ramon. Under their pressure, Lucas gave her up. But since surviving captivity, he’s a changed man—and a crucial member of ARES Security. When he discovers a dead man clutching a picture of Mia that bears a threatening message, his fiercest protective instincts kick in, and he knows he must go to her.

Mia has never forgiven Lucas for breaking her heart, and she’s convinced her feelings for him are in the past. But it’s soon clear that isn’t true for either of them. Now, determined to solve the crime and keep Mia safe, with his ARES buddies backing him up, Lucas will have to reconstruct the murder victim’s last days—and follow a lethal trail that leads right back to the fate of the woman he still loves…

Rating: C-

Kill Without Shame is the second book in Alexandra Ivy’s ARES Security series, and while mention is made of a plot thread concerning one of the team who has been receiving threats which I assume was begun in the previous book, that plotline is not really advanced here so this one can be read as a standalone. That said, I can’t really recommend it, as the whole thing is incredibly unexciting; the romance is seriously underdeveloped and not at all believable given the context, and the suspense is pretty much non-existent – the fact that it took me over four days to read shows how easy it was to put the book aside.

ARES Security is a high-tech, high-end firm set up by five men, brothers-in-arms, who bonded when they were held prisoner by the Taliban during a tour in Afghanistan. The hero of Kill Without Shame is Lucas St. Clair – the son of a senator – who is estranged from his wealthy, but coldly aloof parents, but whose name still opens doors. He is not above using that name and family connections when needed, but mostly, he wants to leave his old life behind him and concentrate on the new one he is building. That becomes difficult, however, when he is informed that an old acquaintance from his school and college days, Tony Hughes, has been shot and killed in the street, and that he was clutching a picture of Mia Ramon – an old flame of Lucas’ – when he died. Worse, the picture had the words “Kill her, or else” scrawled across it. Lucas didn’t know Tony well – they were from completely opposite backgrounds – but Mia is important to him; even though they haven’t seen each other for fifteen years, he still carries a torch for her and can’t bear the thought of her being in danger.

Mia is a successful businesswoman in her hometown of Shreveport, running a landscaping and garden design business that she has built up from her father’s much smaller operation. The last person she wants – or expects – to see in her office is Lucas St. Clair, and their reunion is frosty. Lucas walked out on her with no explanation fifteen years earlier, and she hasn’t seen him since; he broke her heart and she is not about to put herself through it again. She can’t deny that he’s become a devastatingly attractive man, or that she still feels the same pull towards him as before, but she is determined to keep him at arm’s length, no matter what. Mia looked on Tony as a friend and used to employ him from time to time, so she’s naturally upset to hear of his death – but she has no idea of why anyone would want him dead, and even less as to why she would be a target herself.

Lucas naturally wants to investigate Tony’s murder and the threat against Mia – and keep her safe.  It’s not long before their enforced proximity is rekindling the old feelings between them, or long before they’re giving in to them, but even then, Mia is determined to keep things on a casual footing as a means of self-protection.

The stakes are raised, however, when an attempt is made on Mia’s life.  With help from his team, Lucas gradually uncovers a series of misdeeds that dates back decades, implicating people Mia cares about in a morass of embezzlement, blackmail and murder.  Lucas and Mia have to work together to uncover the truth, even as the killer is closing in on them.

From that description, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a fast-moving thriller with a sexy romance on the side, but it’s nothing of the sort.  The pacing is pedestrian and the romance is perfunctory and, frankly, unbelievable; Lucas and Mia haven’t seen each other in FIFTEEN YEARS – and they’re hopping into bed together the day after their reunion.  They split up when Lucas was eighteen – I’m assuming Mia was around the same age – and there is a massive difference between what someone is like at eighteen and what they’re like in their early thirties.  They are – or should be – very different people now, yet there’s no sense of them getting to know each other again.  In fact, there’s no romantic development at all – although I do give the author credit for having Lucas be open about his feelings for Mia and prepared to put himself out there, even when it’s clear to him that she is still not sure about him.  There is a cute secondary romance in the story – between Mia’s assistant, Taylor, and the local detective assigned to the case – which is actually more interesting than the non-romance between Lucas and Mia.

The mystery plot is reasonably well put-together, but there’s only one possible villain, which takes away any element of suspense pretty early on, and the storyline is fairly predictable.  The characterisation overall is paper thin and I never connected with either of the principals;  and not only is the main romantic relationship a disappointment, there is no real sense of the emotional bond we’re told exists between Lucas and the other ARES team members.

All in all, Kill Without Shame – which makes absolutely no sense as a title! – is a lacklustre book that proved a big disappointment.  I’m not invested enough in any of the characters to want to pick up another book in the series, and quite honestly, not suitably impressed with any facet of this one – writing, plotting or characterisation – to be inclined to read this author again.

A Bachelor Establishment by Jodi Taylor/Isabella Barclay (audiobook) – Narrated by Anna Bentinck

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Elinor Bascombe, widowed and tied to an impoverished estate, has learned to ask little of life. With no hope of leaving, the years have passed her by. Lord Ryde, exiled abroad after a scandal, has returned to strip his estate and make a new start in America. A chance encounter changes their plans, plunging Elinor and Lord Ryde into adventure and not a little peril until, finally, they are forced to confront the mystery of what happened on that night, all those years ago.

Are they both so entangled in the riddles of the past that they are about to miss this one last opportunity for future happiness?

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B

A Bachelor Establishment was published in 2015, but harks back to the Traditional Regency, with its strong observational humour and echoes of a comedy of manners. The attributed author is Isabella Barclay, which is actually the name of one of the characters created by Jodi Taylor in her St. Mary’s Chronicles, a series of novels based around a group of historians who travel through time to investigate major historical events. I’m not sure which book(s) Isabella Barclay appears in – but I rather like the idea of Ms. Taylor turning her into the author of historical romances.

Mrs Elinor Bascome, a widow in her forties, lives on the impoverished estate that by rights belongs to her late husband’s brother, George. But following the terrible events of one fateful night years ago, George fled his brother’s house and hasn’t been heard of since. So Elinor continues to live in reduced circumstances, secure in the knowledge that while she might not have much money, she is at least no longer subject to her husband’s physical abuse and her life is her own. Always a neck-and-neck rider, she’s galloping across the neighbouring land belonging to the absent Lord Ryde when she almost mows down an unknown man, who ends up – unharmed – in a ditch. Naturally, harsh words are exchanged – and Elinor then realises that the man, who is not much older than herself, must be Lord Ryde, returned from exile abroad.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

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Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

King of Wall Street by Louise Bay (audiobook) – Narrated by Andi Arndt and Sebastian York

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This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

The king of Wall Street is brought to his knees by an ambitious bombshell.

I keep my two worlds separate. At work, I’m King of Wall Street. The heaviest hitters in Manhattan come to me to make money. They do whatever I say because I’m always right. I’m shrewd. Exacting. Some say ruthless. At home, I’m a single dad trying to keep his 14-year-old daughter a kid for as long as possible. If my daughter does what I say, somewhere there’s a snowball surviving in hell. And nothing I say is ever right.

When Harper Jayne starts as a junior researcher at my firm, the barriers between my worlds begin to dissolve. She’s the most infuriating woman I’ve ever worked with. I don’t like the way she bends over the photocopier – it makes my mouth water. I hate the way she’s so eager to do a good job – it makes my dick twitch. And I can’t stand the way she wears her hair up exposing her long neck. It makes me want to strip her naked, bend her over my desk, and trail my tongue all over her body. If my two worlds are going to collide, Harper Jayne will have to learn that I don’t just rule the boardroom. I’m in charge of the bedroom, too.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

I picked up this audiobook for two reasons.One – Sebastian York is one of the narrators and I could listen to him read the phone book; and two – one of my fellow AudioGals pointed out that the story is a little different to the current crop of sexy, business/co-worker contemporary romances out there, which made it sound like it was worth a listen.

And it was.  The storyline is fairly familiar to start with. Max King is the owner of a highly successful New York consulting firm, and Harper Jayne has wanted nothing more than to work for him since she was at business school.  She’s twenty-five and has recently landed that dream job as a junior researcher at the firm, but to her dismay Max – who is seriously gorgeous  – is a complete arsehole.  He pretty much ignores her and ripped her most recent report to pieces – and hasn’t even bothered to read her revised version.

The thing is, however, is that Max is completely smitten with Harper and for a man who has spent most of his adult life keeping his work life and his personal life completely separate, that’s a massive problem.  But even though he can’t deny the strength of his attraction to her, as long as he keeps his distance, he’ll be able to ignore it until it goes away.  And given that his days are devoted to work, and he spends most of the rest of his time at the Connecticut home he now shares with his daughter, Amanda, keeping his distance shouldn’t be too difficult.  Until, that is, he bumps into Harper at the gym in the basement of the building where he has his New York apartment, and realises she’s his downstairs neighbour.

This is a romance – we know where it’s going.  But what adds extra layers of interest to the storyline and depth to the characters is Max’s life away from the office, as the loving father of a fourteen year-old daughter and his relationship with his sisters; and Harper’s daddy issues, which, she can’t see until quite late in the book, have more or less dictated many of her life-decisions in spite of her desire not to have anything to do with him.  Harper’s difficult relationship with her estranged father causes a few of the speed-bumps on the way to true love, but fortunately, the misunderstandings aren’t dragged out for too long, and Max shows himself repeatedly to be a really good guy.  Harper is perhaps a bit quick to jump to conclusions towards the end, but it’s understandable given her background.

This is a relatively short audiobook – under eight hours – but they flew by courtesy of an engaging story and equally engaging narration from Sebastian York – to whom I’ve listened a few times, now – and Andi Arndt, who I’ve not listened to before, but whom my colleages at AG generally rate highly.  Both narrators do a great job, narrating alternate chapters from Harper’s and then Max’s PoV.  Over the past year, Mr. York seems to have become THE go-to narrator for contemporary romance, and it’s easy to hear why.  He’s fantastic at portraying those confident, intelligent, sexy heroes who know what they want, especially once they’ve set eyes on the heroine 😉  His female voices are good, too – a softening of tone and a very slight lift in pitch works well, and he does a good job in differentiating between Max’s sisters and daughter, and Harper and her friend, Grace.  Andi Arndt is his perfect narrator match; I don’t listen to a lot of books performed by two narrators, and I can imagine there’s nothing worse than one being really good and the other not –but that’s not an issue here on any level.  Ms. Arndt performs the male characters in the story with a drop in pitch and adds a slightly gruff note to her tone, which makes Max sound every bit as sexy as he does when performed by Mr. York.  Both narrators are equally good when things get steamy, performing with confidence and conviction, although I freely admit there’s something a bit knee-weakening about Sebastian York’s sexy growl 😉

All in all, King of Wall Street is an enjoyable listen with an engaging story, likeable characters, plenty of steam, and excellent narration.  I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more audiobooks narrated by Andi Arndt and Sebastian York, who are a great team.

Sweetest Regret (novella) by Meredith Duran

sweetest-regret

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

At a house party in the countryside, the joyful spirit of the Christmas season threatens to sweep Georgiana Trent under the mistletoe—and back into the arms of the dashing rogue who broke her heart two years ago. Little does she know that Lucas Godwin has no intention of leaving until he has reclaimed her as his own.

This novella was originally published in 2015 as part of the anthology What Happens Under the Mistletoe.

Rating: B-

An engaging, readable novella, Sweetest Regret tells the story of lovers reunited at Christmas.  Georgina Trent, daughter of the influential diplomat, Sir Philip Trent, is used to acting as her father’s hostess, but is annoyed when he announces he has to travel to Constantinople immediately, leaving her with a half-dozen house-guests to deal with until Boxing Day.  To make things worse, he tells her that one of the guests has stolen an important letter, he wants Georgina to find it and he has summoned Lucas Goodwin, one of his most able subordinates, to help her.

Georgina is infuriated.  Not only is her father leaving her in the lurch, he is throwing her into the orbit of the man who broke her heart two years ago.  While living in Munich with her father, Georgina met Lucas who was not only handsome and charming, but someone she could talk to and whom she felt was genuinely interested in her opinions.  They spent a fair amount of time together until one day, she discovered that he had up and left for a posting in Paris without so much as a goodbye.  Devastated, Georgina concluded she had been silly for thinking that a man like Lucas would be interested in an unassuming, ordinary-looking woman such as she, and picked up the threads of her old life.

Lucas is every bit as annoyed to have been summoned to Harlboro Hall as Georgina is to have him there.  Their reunion doesn’t get off to the best of starts, but as they search for the missing letter, they discover that the pull of attraction between them has never really gone away, and eventually find out exactly what led to their parting two years earlier.

This novella is well-written and the fact that there is a pre-existing relationship between the two principals means that the love story doesn’t feel rushed.  Ms. Duran does a very good job in showing the level of hurt and sadness that lies between them, and in describing Georgina’s life as being secondary to her father’s career and her deep-seated frustrations at the way he has treated her over the years. And Lucas gets an equally well fleshed-out backstory; he is the son of a scandalous match between the son of an earl and the coachman’s daughter, so he has had to work doubly hard to prove himself and get to where he is in his profession.   Both are likeable, attractive characters that are easy to root for, and I liked the way Lucas is prepared to put everything on the line for the woman he loves.

Other reviewers have pointed out the huge howler in the story;  we’re told that a couple of characters have gone out looking for a Christmas tree at 5.45am, which means they’d be stumbling about in darkness for a couple of hours, as it’s never light here until much before 8am in the latter part of December.  There are a few others, too, one being that Sir Philip is referred to as “Sir Trent” – which is a big no-no; a knight or baronet is always “Sir firstname”.   Another is the name of Georgina’s home – Harboro Hall – just doesn’t look like an English place name.  Harborough would be more likely.

Those errors apart, Sweetest Regret is an enjoyable seasonal novella and while not the author’s best work is well worth a look if you’ve got an hour to spare.

Simply Perfect (Simply #4) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

simply-perfect

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Tall, dark, and exquisitely sensual, he is the epitome of male perfection. Not that Claudia Martin is looking for a lover. Or a husband. As owner and headmistress of Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath, she long ago resigned herself to a life without love. Until Joseph, Marquess of Attingsborough, arrives unannounced and tempts her to toss away a lifetime of propriety for an affair that can only lead to ruin.

Joseph has his own reasons for seeking Claudia out. Instantly, irresistibly attracted to the dedicated teacher, he embarks on a plan of seduction that leaves them both yearning for more. But as heir to a prestigious dukedom, Joseph is expected to carry on his family’s legacy. And Claudia knows she has no place in his world.

Now that world is about to be rocked by scandal. An arranged marriage, a secret that will shock the town, and a man from Claudia’s past conspire to drive the lovers apart. But Joseph is determined to make Claudia his at any cost. Even if that means defying convention and breaking every rule for a love that is everything he has ever wanted – a love that is perfection itself.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-

Simply Perfect closes out Mary Balogh’s Simply Quartet of books, each of which takes as its heroine a school teacher from Miss Martin’s School for Girls in Bath. Our heroine here is the formidable Miss Martin herself, a confirmed spinster in her mid-thirties who has worked hard to achieve success and who loves what she does. But the course she has mapped out for herself is challenged when Joseph Fawcitt, the Marquess of Attingsborough arrives at the school, introducing himself as a friend of Susanna, Viscountess Whitleaf (Simply Magic), and offering to escort Claudia and two of her older pupils to London, where the younger ladies are to meet with prospective employers.

The marquess is about Claudia’s own age and is as handsome as he is charming, asking sensible questions and making complimentary comments about the school and its facilities. But Claudia is unimpressed. Her own experiences with the aristocracy have taught her that its members are haughty and uncaring, with no thought for anything but their own consequence and desires, and she absolutely wants to refuse the marquess’ offer and have nothing to do with him. But he has come at Susanna’s request, and Claudia does not want to be rude to her friend so she accepts Attingsborough’s escort.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Lady Who Drew Me In (Soul Survivors #3) by Thomasine Rappold

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Daisy Lansing’s ability to transfer images from people’s thoughts onto paper was a novelty she used to trot out to amuse her friends. But when her “entranced drawing” begins to cause serious trouble for her guardians, she is banished to the country and forced to marry a man twice her age. After the joyless wedding, Daisy is determined to bury forever the strange skill that upended her life. However, she soon finds herself a widow and in dire financial straits. Suddenly, her curse may be her one chance at true independence.

Jackson Gallway’s reputation as a rogue has far surpassed his success as a lawyer. In the wake of yet another scandal, he decides to head west. But before he can escape Misty Lake, Jax makes a promise to find an elusive killer. When he encounters a lovely young artist with an unusual talent that could help him in his search, what he finds is something neither of them can escape . . .

Rating: C+

The Lady Who Drew Me In is the third book in Thomasine Rappold’s Soul Survivor series, which mixes historical romance and mystery with a little dash of the paranormal.  I haven’t read the previous two novels, but I gather from reading the synopses, that the heroines, like Daisy Lansing – the heroine of this one – had some supernatural ability; Maddy in book one has magical healing powers and Gia in book two has prophetic visions. Here, Daisy, a talented artist, has the ability to translate people’s thoughts into drawings and pictures.

I was intrigued by the publisher’s blurb, which promises a tale featuring the newly widowed and independently minded Daisy, a dashing young lawyer and the hunt for a murderer.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was looking forward to a suspenseful story – something akin to a modern romantic suspense novel, but set in 1880s America.  Sadly, it didn’t meet those expectations and I came away from it feeling disappointed.

Daisy Lansing’s invalid, controlling husband has recently died and she is finally free to pursue her own interests.  The problem is that he has tied up the money he’s left her in such a way as to mean that her income is very small, and she is unable to gain access to the full amount until she remarries.  That is something Daisy does not want – her experience of marriage with an older, peevish husband was not a good one – but without it, she won’t be able to found the children’s home which has been her dream for years.

Lawyer Jackson Gallway has travelled to the small town of Misty Lake in order to ask for Daisy’s help on a case he is working on.  He has also taken the opportunity to get out of the city in the wake of the scandal that erupted over his affair with a married woman – the wife of a business associate – although even that gossip has spread far and wide, and Daisy is well aware of Jackson’s reputation as a rake and all-round scoundrel.  Yet when she learns that he is trying to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murder –  a murder to which the victim’s son was the only witness – her attention is captured by the plight of the boy, and she agrees to help.

Daisy is able to use her gift for drawing what people are thinking to good effect, getting a clear sketch of the man the boy saw on the night of the murder.  And it’s not the face of the man currently imprisoned.  Jackson, keen to get back to town, insists they head back even though a storm is brewing; of course, he and Daisy are caught in it and end up having to take shelter for the night.  Nothing happens between them – even though they are strongly attracted to each other – but when word gets out that they spent the night together, there is nothing for it if Daisy is going to be able to further her plans for the home, or even hold up her head in Misty Lake again; Jackson will have to marry her.

Jackson certainly hasn’t planned either on marrying or spending his life in a backwater like Misty Lake and Daisy wants her independence, so the pair reaches an agreement.  With their marriage, Daisy will come into her money and be able to set up her children’s home; Jackson has his eye on a job in St. Louis.  Once Jackson’s case is over, he can leave Misty Lake and the two of them will live separate lives – on the condition that before he leaves, he gets Daisy pregnant.

The couple settles into a routine of sorts, and Jackson even finds himself starting to enjoy the quieter life offered by Misty Lake, but it’s clear to him that all Daisy wants is a stud and that as soon as she has conceived, she will want him gone.  And Daisy, who is falling for her handsome husband, is convinced he can’t wait to get back to the city, so is putting up barriers in an attempt to protect herself from heartbreak.  Both characters have emotional baggage that is clouding their judgement, but this is pretty much classic Big Mis territory; all of it could have been straightened out by a simple conversation.  But while Daisy and Jackson are battling their respective demons – he that he’s not good enough and she because of her survivor’s guilt at having survived the fire which killed her parents – they also have to contend with the very real threat posed by the killer for whom Jackson has been searching.

The overall problem with the book is that it’s just a little bit dull.  The writing is decent, but nothing out of the ordinary, and while Daisy is fairly well fleshed-out as a character, Jackson is a bit of a stereotype.  There’s no real romantic chemistry between the couple, and even though they enjoy spending time together in and out of bed, I didn’t feel an emotional connection between them.  The mystery surrounding Jackson’s search for the killer is somewhat perfunctory and the identity of the villain isn’t set up very well, so that aspect of the story is rather disappointing, too.  But on the plus side, the author does a good job of showing Jackson and Daisy coming to know and understand each other better; and the scene towards the end in which they are both forced to confront some unpleasant home truths is insightful.  These things save the book from a lower rating, but the romance itself is lukewarm.

The Lady Who Drew Me In is one of those novels that proved too easy to put down.  It’s by no means a terrible book, and the premise is an unusual and attractive one; but I’m afraid that neither the romance nor the mystery were strong enough to really draw ME in.