Barrel Proof (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

FBI agents Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker can’t get a moment’s peace. Their hunt for the terrorist Renaud seems to be nearing an end, until a fire allows him to slip through their fingers—and puts Jamie’s life in danger. When Jamie is nearly killed, Aidan learns how many forms loss can take.

Aidan says I love you just moments before learning that Jamie’s been keeping a devastating secret about Aidan’s late husband. How quickly trust and love can go up in flames. When Aidan requests a solo undercover assignment, Jamie hopes Aidan will find a way to forgive him.

But the explosions are far from over. Aidan’s cover lands him in the heart of the terrorist’s conspiracy, and Jamie will have to put his life, his career and his freedom on the line to save the man who has become his entire world. Partners, always is a promise he intends to keep.

Rating: B

Note:  Because this is the final book in a trilogy with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

Barrel Proof, the third and final instalment in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey trilogy of romantic suspense novels, picks up pretty much where Cask Strength left off and plunges us straight into the action.  Like its predecessors, Barrel Proof is a fast-moving, action-packed story with plenty of thrills and spills, an engaging cast of secondary characters, steamy romantic moments and a well thought-out and executed suspense storyline.  I enjoyed it a lot, although I have a couple of niggles over the ending which brought my final grade down a notch.

In the previous book, Jamie Walker and Aidan Talley were at an awkward place in their relationship when they were assigned to an investigation into fraud and match-fixing which took them to Jamie’s home state and to the sport he left behind some eight years earlier. Jamie is ready to commit, but Aidan is skittish, the loss of his beloved husband of ten years making him – perhaps understandably – shy of making the same sort of commitment to someone else and thereby opening himself up to the possibility of another devastating loss.  By the end of the novel, however, Aidan has finally come to his senses and has stopped trying to deny the depth of the feelings for his partner and lover, and is ready to move forward – but everything is blown apart when he discovers that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him for months, a secret concerning his late husband’s association with an international terrorist.  Jamie was sworn to secrecy by their boss (and Aidan’s sister-in-law), Melissa Cruz while he worked behind the scenes to put together the pieces of the puzzle, and has always felt uneasy about keeping his investigations from Aidan.  He wanted to present Aidan with more than a set of theories and ‘what ifs’; now, however, the cat is about to jump out of the bag as Jamie, Aidan and Danny (one of Aidan’s younger brothers, who is involved with Mel) are racing to Cuba after she took off on the trail of her Uncle Roberto whom, she has discovered, has been working with/for Pierre Renaud, the terrorist responsible for the murders of Aiden’s husband and his partner.  During the perilous confrontation that follows when they find Mel facing off with Roberto, Aidan finally learns the truth; that his husband, Gabe, had been working with Renaud (and so had Tom, his partner) and that Jamie has known about it for months.

Aidan is thrown completely by this news.  Having just admitted the truth of his feelings for Jamie, he’s angry and hurt at the fact that his partner has kept something so important from him for so long, and he asks for a solo assignment while he comes to terms with it all.  Jamie isn’t surprised and tries to understand when Aidan tells him that he needs time and space… all he can do now is hope that Aidan will come back to him when he’s ready.

 

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

 

Dirty Deeds (Dirty #1) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No dirty deed goes unnoticed in a seductive game of cat and mouse. But for Alec and Gaige, the wrong move could get them killed.

Alec Drummond didn’t make his billions by playing nice—or by playing much at all. When it comes to pleasure, Alec only has time for whatever’s quick and easy, which is exactly what he gets from his company’s hot new computer genius. But Gaige Owens isn’t some pushover. He pushes back, and it’s giving Alec a rush. The question is, could Gaige be the one who’s leaking trade secrets? Just to be safe, Alec keeps him close at hand . . . night and day.

Gaige never thought he’d roll over for a man like Alec again, but who could resist sex this mind-blowing? Then there’s the draw of Alec’s mysterious side: his cutthroat ambition, his covert CIA connections, and the murder in his past. For Gaige, a deeper look proves an irresistible temptation. But when Gaige and Alec are stripped of their defenses by an unseen danger, everything they don’t know could bring them closer together—or tear them apart. Only one thing is certain: Before it’s all over, someone’s going down.

Rating: B-

Dirty Deeds is a fast-paced, action-packed story that begins when billionaire businessman and all-round hardass Alec Drummond catches Gaige Owens breaking into his company’s vault.  It transpires that Gaige has been ’employed’ (or rather, had his arm twisted) by the enigmatic, equally hardass Seth Lang (Guarding Mr. Fine) to deliberately trigger Drummond Enterprises security systems  and thereby force Alec to sit up and take notice of Seth’s requests for a meeting.

Alec’s company is one of the world’s leading food/food-hybrid manufacture/bio-research companies that also dabbles in research into alternate fuel sources – and Seth thinks that someone is setting it up for a fall, most likely terrorists or regimes who want to be able to control people by means of controlling the food supply.  It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, and Seth is reluctant to say any more than he has to.  It’s clear that he and Alec have locked horns before and the testosterone flies liberally as they face-off against each other while a puzzled and not too pleased Gaige looks on.

While all this is happening, Gaige and Alec are sizing each other up in a different way and very much liking what they see.  It’s an odd moment, perhaps, for insta-lust to strike, but strike it does, with a very large ‘clang!!’  Seth wants Gaige to pose as an external security expert at Drummond to see if he can trace who is setting them up – but Alec isn’t happy; he doesn’t want a total stranger poking his nose into his company.  Still, he also needs to find out who’s trying to sabotage him and agrees to Seth’s plan, intending to keep Gaige on a firm leash and keep an eye on him 24/7.

Alec installs Gaige in his Munich home and pretty soon the intense attraction the two men feel for each other is impossible to resist.  Alec is a workaholic, Gaige – a hot nerd with a wry sense of humour – was badly burned by his previous lover, so neither is looking for anything long-term.  They agree to keep it to casual, no-strings-sex, but it’s not long before they find it impossible to remain detached, and start to share confidences.

The insta-lust from practically the first page is a bit much although the author does it well, and keeps it running into the sex scenes, which are frequent and nicely steamy.  I liked how she showed Alec and Gaige gradually lowering their defences, although given the story takes place over about a week, this is perhaps somewhat unbelievable, especially for Alec, who doesn’t trust easily and whose privacy is intensely important to him.

I’m not sure I completely bought into the plot and the characterisation isn’t especially deep, but Dirty Deeds is an enjoyable, undemanding read that kept me entertained for the couple of hours or so it took me to read it.  If hot nerds and hard-ass billionaires wrapped up in industrial espionage and each other are your thing, I imagine you could do worse than pick this one up!

Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

Cask Strength (Agents Irish and Whiskey #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Professionally, the FBI team of Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker is as good as it gets, closing cases faster than any team at the Bureau. Personally, it’s a different story. Aidan’s feelings for Jamie scare the hell out of him: he won’t risk losing another love no matter how heart-tripping the intimacy between them. And loss is a grim reality with the terrorist Renaud still on their trail, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake.

Going undercover on a new case gets them out of town and off the killer’s radar. They’re assigned to investigate an identity theft ring involving a college basketball team in Jamie’s home state, where Jamie’s past makes him perfect for the role of coach. But returning to the court brings more than old memories.

As secrets and shocking betrayals abound, none may be more dangerous than the one Jamie’s been keeping: a secret about the death of Aidan’s husband that could blow his partner’s world apart and destroy forever the fragile bonds of trust and love building between them.

Rating: B+

Note:  Because this is the second book in a series with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the previous book, Single Malt in this review.

Cask Strength, the second book in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey series picks up a few months after the events of Single Malt.  At the end of that book, Aidan Talley and Jameson Walker were instrumental in foiling a terrorist plot – and Jamie’s investigations into the car crash that killed both Aidan’s husband and his FBI partner have revealed that both the deceased were somehow connected to the very same terrorist, Pierre Renaud.  He is sworn to secrecy by their boss – who is also Aidan’s sister-in-law – and even though he hates deceiving the man he loves, Jamie agrees to keep what he knows under wraps until he can find out more.

As Cask Strength opens, Aidan and Jamie are in a good place professionally and are celebrating their position at top of the FBI’s clearance board.  Personally, however, things are far from perfect.  They’re lovers;  they enjoy each other’s company and the sex is great, but Jamie wonders how much longer he can keep what he knows from Aidan, and Aidan continues to be reluctant to commit to Jamie for fear of once again losing someone he cares for.  At the end of the previous book they agreed to keep things casual between them – or rather, Aidan decided he didn’t want to embark on a serious relationship and Jamie went along with it, willing to do whatever it took to keep Aidan in his life and in his bed.

But it’s getting harder and harder for Jamie to pretend he doesn’t want more, especially as part of “keeping it casual” for Aidan means he dates other men.  Aidan’s desperation to keep himself emotionally closed off is – perhaps – understandable, but it’s still frustrating to watch as he continually pushes Jamie away, even though deep down, it’s clear that he’s in denial about his true feelings for Jamie – and yet he persists in hurting him anyway.

Jamie’s investigations into Renaud lead him and Aidan to question the two detectives who worked the case of the crash that killed Gabe (Aidan’s late husband) and his FBI partner Tom Crane – and not long after that, those detectives are gunned down in the street.  Judging it best to get Aidan and Jamie out of the spotlight for a while, their boss sends them to North Carolina – Jamie’s home state –  to look into accusations of match fixing, illegal betting and identity theft involving a college basketball team.  Jamie goes undercover as himself – Jameson “Whiskey” Walker, former star college and NBA player who is joining the team as assistant coach, while Aidan poses as his agent, Ian Daley.  Jamie is thus best placed to work out who – if anyone – among the players could be suspect, and Aidan can do the same among the department and administrative staff.

Once again, Ms. Reyne has crafted an intriguing and exciting suspense plot which kept me eagerly turning the pages, and which at the same time throws more light on the personalities of our two protagonists and further develops their relationship.  Jamie is practically floored by lust the first time he sees Aidan in all his red-headed Irish glory as Ian – and green-eyed with jealousy at the flirtatious – albeit fake – relationship Aidan embarks upon with the college’s athletic director in order to get closer to the criminal operation.  But the jealousy isn’t all one-sided; Jamie’s former lover, Derrick Pope, is back on the scene, and makes clear – in no uncertain terms – his interest in picking up where they left off.

Given Aidan’s insistence that there’s no long-term future for them, Jamie starts to question his past decisions and wonder if he did the right thing eight years ago, getting out of professional sports.  His brief stint as assistant coach at CU shows him that he’s got a real aptitude for working with players off the court, and I enjoyed seeing that side of him, briefly unencumbered by terrorist threats or FBI cases, and just wanting to do the best by his team members; it’s a glimpse of what “Whiskey” Walker might have been had he not left the game.

There’s a lot going on in this story, what with the identity theft case, the search for Renaud and the development of the romance, but I never felt as though things were moving too fast for me to take everything in.  The balance between the different plot elements is just about right; there’s plenty of nail-biting action mixed in with moments of tenderness, humour and scorching sex scenes (*cough* pool table *cough*) and Ms. Reyne skilfully drives everything along to a highly suspenseful conclusion that ultimately forces both protagonists – Aidan especially – to confront the truth of their feelings for each other.

The sexual chemistry between the two men is intense, but the author does a great job of creating emotional closeness and intensity between them, too, so there’s never any doubt in the reader’s mind that these two need and care very deeply for each other.  There’s a well-drawn secondary cast (I hope we’ll see more of Nic and Cam, Jamie’s best friend) and I once again enjoyed the glimpses of the strong familial ties between Aidan and his younger brother Danny, who, it seems, is now dating Mel Cruz, Aidan’s boss and sister-in-law.   The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, as Jamie and Aidan wrap things up at CU and are set to head home when Aidan’s brother Danny appears with potentially devastating news, setting the stage for what I imagine are going to be some pretty explosive developments in the final book, Barrel Proof.

Cask Strength is a riveting read, and one I’d strongly recommend to fans of romantic suspense. One word of caution; it doesn’t really work as a standalone, so I’d advise reading Single Malt first.

Royally Matched (Royally #2) by Emma Chase (audiobook) – Narrated by Andi Arndt and Shane East

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Some men are born responsible, some men have responsibility thrust upon them. Henry John Edgar Thomas Pembrook, Prince of Wessco, just got the motherlode of all responsibility dumped in his regal lap.

He’s not handling it well.

Hoping to help her grandson to rise to the occasion, Queen Lenora agrees to give him “space”—but while the Queen’s away, the Prince will play. After a chance meeting with an American television producer, Henry finally makes a decision all on his own:

Welcome to Matched: Royal Edition.

A reality TV dating game show featuring twenty of the world’s most beautiful blue bloods gathered in the same castle. Only one will win the diamond tiara, only one will capture the handsome prince’s heart.

While Henry revels in the sexy, raunchy antics of the contestants as they fight, literally, for his affection, it’s the quiet, bespectacled girl in the corner—with the voice of an angel and a body that would tempt a saint—who catches his eye.

The more Henry gets to know Sarah Mirabelle Zinnia Von Titebottum, the more enamored he becomes of her simple beauty, her strength, her kind spirit… and her naughty sense of humor.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day—and irresponsible royals aren’t reformed overnight.

As he endeavors to right his wrongs, old words take on whole new meanings for the dashing Prince. Words like, Duty, Honor and most of all—Love.

Rating: Narration – A (Shane East)/B (Andi Arndt) Content – C+

I’ll admit to some trepidation when I picked up Royally Matched. There seems to be a current fad for fake-British royals in romances, in which authors seem to think it’s okay to mangle British history and geography just so they can employ the trappings of the monarchy in their stories. For her Royally series, author Emma Chase appears to have carved up the UK to create the kingdom of Wessco (which sounds like a supermarket chain). I gather it has ties to England and Scotland that go back to medieval times – so where is it? A rock in the North Sea? A bit of Scotland that has somehow become independent, referendum notwithstanding? I’m sorry, I know this is a rom-com and most people probably don’t care, but I live here (the UK, not a rock in the North Sea) and things like this BUG me!

Anyway. In the previous book, the Crown Prince, Nicholas, stepped aside from the succession in order to marry the woman he loved, leaving his younger brother Harry Henry as heir to their grandmother, the formidable Queen Lenora. Henry has always been the “other” one, the rebel who likes to party long and hard, the one who doesn’t care about tradition and rules – and the one most likely to fuck up. But now, he’s faced with the prospect of becoming king one day, and he’s not adjusting at all well.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Turn Me Loose (Alpha Ops #6) by Anne Calhoun

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When she was on the verge of adulthood, Riva Henneman committed a crime and got caught red-handed. Luckily, she was busted by a HOT young cop…who also had a big heart. A one-time SEAL candidate, Officer Ian Hawthorn knew how it felt to have your dreams derailed. So he gave Riva a choice: face prison time or work for him as a confidential informant. But even a get-out-of-jail-free card comes with a cost. . .

Years later, Ian still remembers beautiful, innocent Riva–and the smoldering attraction they shared but both tried to ignore. Will they have a second chance, now that they’re back in each other’s lives? Riva’s work with inner-city children has led to a surprise run-in with Ian, who has his own agenda–one that could put them both in grave danger. Is their desire worth the risk this time?

Rating: B+

Although Turn Me Loose is billed as the sixth book in Anne Calhoun’s Alpha Ops series, the author includes enough relevant information about previous situations and characters to make it work as a standalone, although I will admit to having re-read AAR’s review of Under the Surface in order to remind myself of a couple of things. This book turns the spotlight on Lieutenant Ian Hawthorn of the Lancaster PD, an ambitious officer with his eye on a captain’s stripes – stripes he hopes to earn by finally bringing down a large drug cartel and convicting the cops who are taking bribes and turning a blind eye to its operations. Turn Me Loose isn’t overly action-packed – there aren’t many car chases and shoot-out set-pieces – but I didn’t mind that because the story the author is telling is more character driven and that focus works well. The lack of action doesn’t mean there’s a lack of suspense, however – that comes from the protagonists’ proximity to the bad guy and the ever-present sense of danger the author creates as a result; and ultimately, I was absorbed in the story from beginning to end.

When she was just eighteen, Riva Henneman was arrested when she attempted to sell drugs to an undercover cop. Given the choice of prison or working as a confidential informant for Ian Hawthorn, Riva chose the latter, and helped him to bring a major dealer to trial. They haven’t seen each other since they parted seven years ago, and in the intervening years, Riva has turned her life around and now runs a scheme to help disadvantaged kids in the Lancaster area. She owns a small farm and a restaurant – Oasis – and is part of the growing farm-to-table movement which is dedicated to harvesting and cooking the freshest seasonal produce. She can’t believe her eyes one night when Ian Hawthorn walks in and asks for a table, his mere presence churning up feelings she’d thought dead and buried seven years ago.

Ian is equally surprised and unsettled to see Riva there, unable to believe the strength of the pull he still feels towards her after seven years. She is obviously not pleased to see him and at the end of the evening, asks him not to return, but fate has other ideas. When one of her young trainees is arrested for assisting his drug-dealing brother, Riva steps in to help secure his release by offering Ian some information she omitted to tell him when she was working for him – namely that back when he’d busted her for dealing, she had been working for her father, Rory Henneman, and that he is the man behind the pipeline of drugs flooding into Lancaster.

Ian is stunned by the news, but willing to listen further.  Riva tells him that she’s no longer the gullible eighteen-year-old who so craved her father’s approbation that she would do anything to earn it, and explains that she knows where she can lay her hands on all the evidence Ian will need to convict him.

Even after seven years, Ian still feels guilty about all the potentially dangerous situations he sent Riva into in the past, and is not prepared to let her enter the lion’s den alone.  He insists on accompanying her home to Chicago, where Riva plans to re-ingratiate herself with her father and gain his confidence with a view to becoming part of his operation in order to get the information she needs.

On meeting Rory Henneman, however, Ian decides upon an alternative strategy.  Henneman is a sociopath, an egocentric, conscienceless and intelligent man who thrives on adulation and on playing mind-games with those around him, and Ian immediately senses that the way in is for him to act the part of willing acolyte.  But it’s risky – Riva knows what her father is capable of and isn’t happy – but Ian is prepared to do anything to keep her safe, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.

The past Ian and Riva share is littered with hurt and misunderstandings, made even more complicated by the almost overwhelming attraction they felt for each other but never acted upon.   When they meet again, that attraction slams into them both full force, but they’re older, wiser and more cautious; having a relationship with Riva could seriously derail Ian’s career plans and Riva finds it hard to let go of her bitterness and mistrust over the way Ian used her.  Gradually, they both start to see that they are different people now and allow themselves to open up to each other;  it’s a slow-burn but they have terrific chemistry and their willingness to communicate and be honest with one another is refreshing.  I always enjoy romances where the characters act like adults and are mature enough to realise the importance of actually talking to each other instead of retreating behind emotional walls.

One of the other things that impressed me about the book was the way in which the author deals with the fact that Ian is a cancer survivor, capturing his bitterness at what the disease took from him and his frustrations at the way his body was betraying him when he was sick.  Even though he’s been clear for almost ten years, he hates people knowing about it because he doesn’t want to be seen as anything special.  He doesn’t want pity, he doesn’t want a free pass because he’s been ill – he just wants to be Ian, and while I am lucky enough not to have personal experience to draw from, these feelings seemed very realistic to me.

Turn Me Loose kept me hooked from start to finish, and I raced through it in just a couple of sittings.  Ian and Riva are well-rounded, flawed, but likeable characters whose issues serve to create an interesting conflict between them without turning the story into an over-the-top angst fest; their sexual chemistry is scorching and the love scenes are both tender and steamy.  Ms. Calhoun does a great job with the suspense elements, too, gradually increasing the sense of peril and raising the stakes as our heroes become more closely enmeshed with Henneman.  The writing flows smoothly and the story is well-paced, with the judicious use of flashbacks to give readers an insight into Ian and Riva’s complicated history.

Turn Me Loose is recommended for fans of romantic suspense who like a strong emphasis on the romance and a couple of protagonists who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.  I’ll definitely be seeking out this author’s backlist.

Black Tie Optional (Wild Wedding #1) by Ann Marie Walker

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Everything about Coleman Grant III oozes power and sex. And not the perfunctory kind either, but the sheet clawing, heart stopping, gasping for air after you’ve screamed so loud you can’t breathe kind. From his dark wavy hair that stands in an artfully rumpled mess, to the blue eyes that sear your skin, to his full, sensual lips – on the surface he’s pure perfection.

Too bad he’s an asshole. An arrogant, uptight corporate raider hell bent on destroying the environment one species at a time.

Everything about Olivia Ramsey screams hippie humanitarian. From her blond hair tied in a sloppy bun, to her faded jeans with the Bonnaroo patch sewn on the thigh, to her combat boots still splattered with mud from the previous day’s site visit.

So it makes perfect sense that they would get married. In Vegas. Stone-cold sober.

Cole needs a wife. Olivia needs to save an endangered species. But what starts as a marriage of convenience soon turns into a battle of wills and sexual tension. Love is a game, and Olivia and Cole are ready to win.

Rating: B-

It’s no secret that the Marriage of Convenience is my favourite trope when it comes to historical romance. But it’s a plotline that is less easy to pull off in a contemporary, so I was keen to read Black Tie Optional – the first in Ann Marie Walker’s Wild Wedding series – to see whether it could be made to work in a non-historical setting. The answer is yes, for the most part, but it seemed to me that some of the things I so love about the trope – the couple getting to know each other and eventually falling in love – were rushed and/or glossed over, and I came away from the book wondering where the actual romance was. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable read, because it is; the central couple has chemistry so hot it could strip paint, their verbal exchanges are often quite funny and the wedding scene is hilarious – but when they’re not having sex, they’re thinking about how much they want to have sex and remembering how great it was the last time they had sex… and I can’t help wishing there had been less of that and more time spent on the development of an actual relationship.

The story is your classic enemies-to-lovers one, as environmental activist Olivia Ramsey butts heads (and other body parts) with tall, dark, handsome sex-god Coleman Grant III, the gorgeous arsehole whose multi-billion dollar company is about to develop land inhabited by the northern long-eared bat, an animal recently recognised as a threatened species. For eighty-three days, she’s confronted him on his morning coffee run, and for eighty-three days, he’s blown her off. It’s infuriating, she moans to her best friend Cassie – who teases Olivia about the fact that all she ever seems to talk about is Cole and suggests she’s got a thing for him. Olivia is adamant that she hates his oh, so handsome guts – because, yeah, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

For some reason, this eighty-third day is different. Cole notices how fabulous Olivia’s arse looks in her scruffy jeans and his head is suddenly filled with lots of salacious images while his small head perks up hopefully. It’s ridiculous – he doesn’t even like the woman – but then liking has little to do with wanting to get down to the horizontal mambo with someone.

However, he can’t afford to spend too much time lusting after a crazed environmentalist; he has a bigger problem to wrestle with, namely the clause in his late parents’ will that stipulates if he’s not married by the time he’s thirty, Grant Industries – which he has worked hard to transform from the successful investment firm his parents left him into a global leader in the emerging technologies market – and all its assets will automatically be transferred into the hands of his formidable grandmother. With his birthday just days away, he can sense her circling for the kill, but hopes that the lawyers will find a way to circumvent the stipulation. They don’t, however – news Cole receives after a spectacular night of unbridled passion in a Las Vegas hotel room… with none other than the woman of his dreams? nightmares?, Olivia Ramsey, who is in Vegas attending the same pre-wedding party as he is.

Anyway. Cole is backed into the proverbial corner and has just four days in which to find a wife.  Olivia is trying to sneak out of his suite and embark upon her walk of shame, but he stops her in her tracks when he asks her to marry him, explaining his reasons for asking and offering to back her conservation project in return.  They’ll get married, divorce after three months, the bats get a home and voilà!  Win-win for both of them.

That’s the set up for the marriage of convenience, and it works fine.  What doesn’t work so well is the fact that the pair of them then proceed to pretty much ignore the need to make their hasty marriage look convincing.  In spite of Cole’s warnings that his grandmother is an incredibly shrewd, ruthless woman, Olivia expects the fact they’re actually married will be enough to stop her being able to gain control of Grant Industries.  Even their closest friends, who are in on the secret, are amazed that Cole and Olivia haven’t sat down to invent a backstory and decide how they’re going to act once they get back to Chicago.

The section of the story in which Olivia takes Cole home to meet her parents allows her to see a more relaxed version of him and discover he’s even more irresistible when he’s not so buttoned up, while Cole comes to understand more about Olivia’s passion for her work, and to see a less prickly, more affectionate side of her.  Her parents are terrific; her mother a committed environmentalist (so Cole can see where Olivia gets it from), her father a vet, and it’s obvious they adore each other.  Cole finally starts to think that perhaps what they have is something he wants for himself.  He has never really known what it is to be part of a family; born into money, he didn’t see much of his parents when he was younger, and was brought up by nannies and servants.  The author touches briefly on how much Cole is hurt that they put that clause in their will, but doesn’t dwell on it overmuch.

The premise is right up my alley and Cole and Olivia have smoking chemistry, but the romance is under-developed and we go from intense lust to love with almost no steps in between.  The pair  spends most of their time together thinking about sex – how great it was last time, how it can never happen again and… oh, bugger, we’re in bed again but this is absolutely, positively the last time.  Until the next one.  And the one after that.  They never talk about how they are going to handle Cole’s grandmother, his high-profile lifestyle, public appearances, or about how – or even IF – they are going to tell Olivia’s parents the truth.

The central characters are amiable enough, although neither of them is particularly memorable and some of their actions – most notably Olivia’s insistence on getting plastered on the plane and then at the party – are immature and made me actively dislike them.  Cole’s obvious affection for his half-sister is a point in his favour, although this – like the grandmother side plot – is another thread that is introduced and then suddenly dropped.

Black Tie Optional is a quick, sexy read that isn’t without charm or humour, but which ultimately lacks that certain something that would have made it an out-and-out winner.  There aren’t enough of those ‘moments’ that show us two people falling for each other; the moment they discover a shared interest or opinion, the moment they see the other person with fresh eyes, or those funny little episodes that show them growing closer together.  The characterisation is pretty superficial and we never really get to know exactly why Cole and Olivia fall in love as opposed to lust.  I did enjoy it, but not enough to be able to get past its various weaknesses or give it a wholehearted recommendation.