The Enforcer (Games People Play #2) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Security expert Matthias Clarke hunts down people who don’t want to be found. His latest prey: the sole survivor of a massacre that killed his brother years ago. Kayla Roy claimed she was a victim of the carnage. Then she disappeared. Matthias thinks Kayla may have actually been the killer—and he wants justice.

Kayla Roy never stays in one place too long and never lets a man get too close. But keeping Matthias at arm’s length may be impossible. Dark and enigmatic, Matthias draws Kayla in from the start. She knows nothing about his connection to her dark past, or his thirst for vengeance. She only knows their attraction feels overpowering—and very dangerous.

Matthias’s suspicions about the sensual Kayla clash with his instinct to protect her, especially when he realizes her life is in danger. But Kayla’s not looking for a savior—especially one who seems hell-bent on tempting her down a lethal path.

Rating: B

The Enforcer is the second book in HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series of romantic suspense novels, which feature heroes who supply skills and services that are perhaps not available from typical law-enforcement organisations; finding people who don’t want to be found, obtaining and using sensitive information and providing security and protection to those who are unable – or don’t want – to go through normal channels. As such, they often operate in that shady area outside the law, doing what needs to be done even though they might need to cross lines in order to do it.

In The Fixer, book one in the series, we met the enigmatic Wren, head of a company specialising in intelligence and information gathering, and who, years earlier, was one of a group of young men who looked to be headed in completely the wrong direction until they were ‘rescued’ by a man named Quint who insisted they accomplish something with their lives. In the course of his business, Wren often has occasion to call upon the services provided by Quint Enterprises, the security firm run by the gruff, taciturn Matthias Clarke. The men are friends – as far as men like them can ever be friends – and more importantly, Wren is one of the very few people that Matthias trusts absolutely.

Matthias had a troubled childhood, growing up in a series of foster homes which ranged from okay to terrible. He’s a loner, and his work is his life; he does his job, eats when he’s hungry, has sex when he has the urge – and he’s content with that. But some months earlier, and completely out of the blue, he was contacted by the birth mother who abandoned him, Mary Patterson, who also told him that he’d had a younger half-brother, Nick, who had been murdered seven years earlier and the case has never been solved. While Matthias is fully aware of Mary’s attempt to manipulate him by trying to send him on a guilt-trip, he nonetheless feels some sort of responsibility to the brother he never knew, and agrees to see what he can find out.

Seven years earlier, Kayla Roy was the sole survivor of a brutal multiple murder. She became a prime suspect in the killings in the early stages of the investigation, but in the absence of any real evidence, she was never charged. Still, she disappeared not long afterwards and has spent the last seven years on the run, never putting down roots or staying too long in any one place. Now, however, she is the closest thing to settled she’s been in all that time, in the small, seafront town of Annapolis, where she waits tables at the local café.

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

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

Pretty Face (London Celebrities #2) by Lucy Parker (audiobook) – Narrated by Morag Sims

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The play’s the fling.

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie – and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance – if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad tempered, and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity, and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career; it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

Pretty Face, the follow-up novel to Lucy Parker’s successful and hugely entertaining Act Like It, is a funny, sexy Rom-Com set amid the hustle and bustle of London’s Theatreland that clearly proves that Ms. Parker is no one-hit-wonder. This book is every bit as charmingly well-written as its predecessor, just as full of zinging one-liners, and equally possessed of an attractive and engaging central couple and small, but well-drawn supporting cast. And in the midst of all the humour and delicious sexual tension are moments of true poignancy, too, moments that show the author is as gifted at creating three-dimensional characters with flaws and insecurities and shedding subtle insight onto their emotional lives as she is at writing wonderfully witty banter.

Actress Lily Lamprey was lucky enough to land a job on the popular costume-drama-cum-soap-opera, Knightsbridge, when she was fresh out of drama school, but four years later she is looking to move on and shed the image of man-eating vamp she’s acquired as a result of the part she plays on the show. She knows it has prevented her from getting other roles, but is determined to break out and show that she is capable of more than getting her kit off week after week on TV. And now she has the chance to do just that, as she’s been called to audition for Luc Savage, one of the most widely respected directors in the West End. Savage has a reputation for being cold and dictatorial, but there’s no denying his shows are incredibly successful and that working for him could really kick-start her career… even though Lily doesn’t think she’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of landing the part.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Live Wire (Nashville’s Finest #1) by Caisey Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE’S NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING…

Explosive ordinance disposal specialist Chase Fisk never breaks a sweat defusing even the most complicated of explosives. So when a homicidal maniac threatens to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival, Chase is the man to take him down. But with the reappearance of a woman he thought was long dead, everything he thought he knew is blown away.

EXCEPT LOSING HER AGAIN.

FBI operative Vivien Montgomery is an enigma to everyone around her. So when a deadly threat lands her in Nashville and paired up with the only man she’s ever loved, she isn’t looking forward to an emotional reunion. She’s only here to get the job done and get out. But when the madman behind the chaos targets her for death, the one man she left behind might be the only person she can count on to save her life…

Rating: C-

Live Wire is the first book in Caisey Quinn’s aNashville’s Finest series, and with a blurb that promised a homicidal maniac threatening to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival,  and a rekindling romance between an explosives expert and his former lover, now an FBI agent, you’d think I was in for an action-packed, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, right?

Wrong.

Because Live Wire is, in fact, a damp squib.  There is very little action, the romance is perfunctory, the characters are barely two-dimensional and the plot is predictable and not particularly suspenseful.

Four years before the book opens, Chase Fisk watched the love of his life get blown to smithereens when a military training exercise went badly wrong.  He still has nightmares about that day, and has never really got over Vivien Brooks, in spite of having spent the first couple of years after her death trying hard to forget her in the beds of numerous other women.  An injury sustained during the blast got him a medical discharge from the army, and Chase now heads up an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit with the Nashville PD.

When a tip off leads Chase and his team to a condemned building on the east side of town they aren’t expecting to find a stash of military grade explosives and maps of the city marked up in a kind of code.  But with the prestigious Country Music Festival just weeks away – which will see a massive influx of tourists into the city – there’s no time to waste in decoding the maps, working out what is planned – and who is planning it.

Given the nature of the discovery, the FBI is called in, and immediately dispatches three highly trained agents to aid the Nashville police.  Among them is Vivien Montgomery, who, four years previously, had been undergoing military training when she’d been informed that she was the target of a Russian mafia boss who had a grudge against her family.  For her own safety, the Bureau faked her death and she was then sent on an undercover assignment to take down said mafia boss, which lasted around two years.  She is naturally wary at the prospect of seeing Chase again, certain he’s going to be furious at her deception rather than pleased to see her – and this is borne out at their first meeting, which is anything but a tender reunion. Fortunately, however, after some initial hostility and sniping, they realise they can’t go on this way and decide they need to address the elephant in the room.

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

The Empire State Series: A Week in New York, Autumn in New York, Summer in Manhattan by Louise Bay (audiobook) – Narrated by Saskia Maarleveld and Sebastian York

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon

Anna Kirby is sick of dating. She’s tired of heartbreak. Despite being smart, sexy, and funny, she’s a magnet for men who don’t deserve her. A week’s vacation in New York is the ultimate distraction from her most recent break-up, as well as a great place to meet a stranger and have some summer fun. But to protect her still-bruised heart, fun comes with rules. There will be no sharing stories, no swapping numbers, and no real names. Just one night of uncomplicated fun. Super-successful serial seducer Ethan Scott has some rules of his own. He doesn’t date, he doesn’t stay the night, and he doesn’t make any promises. It should be a match made in heaven. But rules are made to be broken.

Rating: Narration – A-/B+; Content – B

Having recently listened to Louise Bay’s King of Wall Street, which I picked up on the strength of the review by one of my fellow AudioGals, I was keen on trying more of the author’s work. The Empire State Series caught my eye because of the narrator pairing; I’ve listened to and enjoyed Saskia Maarleveld in a few historical romances, but I’ve never listened to her in a contemporary; and Sebastian York… yeah, well, he could probably make the phone book sound sexy, so I was sold.

A Week in New York opens with Londoners Anna and Leah, at a bar in New York on a night out. Anna has recently come out of a bad relationship and Leah has travelled with her fiancé on a business trip and both are determined on a week of hanging out, retail therapy and soaking up some culture. Anna is approached by an unutterably gorgeous man who makes his interest in spending the night with her very clear – and Anna thinks “why not?” – and decides to go for it. One night stands aren’t her normal style, but the guy is hotter than hell and, she’s sure, knows his way around a woman’s body. She insists on a few rules though; no real names (which he refuses to go with – after all, he doesn’t want the woman he’s in bed with screaming any other name than his own!), no personal details, no exchanging numbers or email addresses; just one night of steamy sex. Other than the names thing, the guy – Ethan – is perfectly happy with all of those things, although he scoffs at Anna’s choice of name – Florence – and insists on giving her a better one, deciding upon – Anna. She can’t deny that’s a bit weird – that he should somehow have hit upon her real name, but doesn’t dwell on it. There are better things to do, after all.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Pretty Face (London Celebrities #2) by Lucy Parker

pretty-face

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The play’s the fling

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie—and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance — if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad-tempered and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately, their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career, it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

Rating: A

Lucy Parker’s début novel, Act Like It was – it seems – an instant hit, one of those books you suddenly see all over your Goodreads feed because all your friends are reading it. I’m confidently predicting the same for her follow up, Pretty Face, because it’s every bit as vibrant, funny, sexy and poignant as the first book – quite possibly even more so, on all counts. I finished the last page with a smile on my face and feeling uplifted – and wondering if I had the time to go back and read it all over again, which doesn’t happen very often, I can tell you.

Like its predecessor, Pretty Face is set amid the chaotic world of London’s West End, shedding light on all the behind the scenes activity that has to happen in order to mount a theatre production, and taking a good look at the impact of celebrity culture and media intrusion on the lives of those who work in that particular field.

Luc Savage is an extremely successful and respected director. He has the reputation of being something of a martinet – a stickler for discipline and professionalism and a hard task master, although not unfair or mean. The theatre is in his blood; his father is an actor, his mother an opera singer and over the past few years he has invested heavily – both in terms of money and time and effort – in renovating the Queen Anne Theatre, which has been owned and run by his family for generations, but which fell into disrepair some twenty-five years earlier. It’s a massive task for him both professionally and personally, but it’s nearing fruition and he has chosen to open with a production of 1553 a play by a multi-award winning young playwright and in which the three principal characters are Queen Mary I, Elizabeth Tudor and Lady Jane Grey. Having had to recast the role of Mary due to the fact that his long-time girlfriend, actress Margot Roy, recently left him to get married to an Italian opera singer, Luc now faces the prospect of having to re-cast Elizabeth, too, because the actress originally chosen has broken her leg. One of the young actresses on the list of potential replacements is Lily Lamprey, twenty-six, blonde, beautiful and the star of the hit historical drama-cum-soap opera, Knightsbridge, in which she plays the part of Gloria, a scheming man-stealer that viewers love to hate.

Luc knows that casting a popular TV star could be good publicity and increase ticket sales, but no way is he interested in bringing on board some Marilyn Monroe look-alike with a porn-star voice who probably needs direction to tie her own shoes. But his casting director – whom he trusts – thinks Lily has potential and eventually Luc is persuaded to give her an audition. And when he does, he’s surprised to discover that Lily definitely does have a certain something –

Under the soap-opera shit, an actor

– even though her voice is going to need work.

Lily landed the gig on Knightsbridge when she was fresh out of drama school, and now wishes she hadn’t been so quick to sign up for four years and wants to move on to something else.  Her public persona has very much been shaped by the character she plays, and she is frequently depicted as being a blonde bimbo who will shag anything in trousers.  It’s unkind and it’s upsetting, and she tries to ignore it – but there’s no doubt that it’s an image that’s going to be hard to shake, and has almost certainly counted against her when looking for other work.  So to audition for Luc Savage is an amazing opportunity to change direction and make her name for something other than getting her kit off on a regular basis.

When Luc and Lily meet, their first impressions of each other are not good.  Yet there’s something about Lily that slowly disarms Luc and before long he’s well and truly smitten; and when Lily starts to get to know the funny, charming man behind the persona, she is equally so. But with almost their every move under the microscope of the gossip columns – especially London Celebrity, whose editor has a grudge against Luc – there is no possibility of there being anything more between them than a working relationship.  It’s a business in which image sticks and first impressions count, and Lily can’t afford to acquire a reputation for getting jobs via the casting couch – not like her mother, a well-known torch-singer who has never made a secret of using any means necessary in order to advance her career.

To say I loved this book is an understatement – I adored it.  The romance is beautifully written and developed and the chemistry between Luc and Lily is explosive – their first kiss is one of the sexiest, most romantic I think I’ve ever read, and Ms. Parker has upped the heat level a little compared with Act Like It, writing a couple of sex scenes which are imbued with a gorgeous, tender sensuality that sends shivers up and down the spine.

One of the biggest draws, though, is the dialogue, which zings and sparkles with humour and wit in a way that left me slack-jawed with admiration – after I’d finished laughing, that is.  Honestly, if I’d highlighted every brilliant one-liner, my Kindle copy would have one or more notes on almost every page; I’ve rarely read a book where the humour is so unforced and consistently funny, and that’s not easy to do.  I also can’t deny that the book’s overall ‘Britishness’ made a really refreshing change.  I read many, many books set in 19th Century England, and not infrequently find myself complaining about the number of words and expressions used that are not naturally English (i.e, Ye Olde Americanisms).  But here, Ms. Parker – a New Zealander – is absolutely spot-on with British idioms and speech patterns and it’s both noticeable and noticeably different.

Luc and Lily are an extremely likeable pair who strike sparks off each other from the get go and are clearly perfect for each other.  They click on every level, and I really loved the way in which their growing feelings for each other just … creep up on them. There’s no lightning strike or knocking sideways in the best dramatic tradition – it’s just a moment of gentle recognition:

And her pathetic, perverse, masochistic little heart went oh – it’s you.

Lily is beautiful and talented, but she has trust issues relating to the fact that she is the result of an affair between her career-minded mother and a married man, neither of whom have ever had a great deal of time for her.  And everything she knows about Luc tells her he’s a workaholic who never prioritises his personal life, so she is just waiting for him to put work first and her second, even though it’s clear to the reader from his every word and action regarding her that he’s head-over-heels and in it for the long haul.

As for Luc, well he’s my first book-boyfriend of 2017.  I mean, honestly, this?

Luc Savage looked like Gregory Peck, circa some dapper time between Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird.  There was more bulk in the shoulders, silver in the hair and darkness in the soul; otherwise the resemblance was uncanny.

*swoon*.

But beneath the good looks is a genuine, caring man; a perfect mix of warm, funny, and irresistibly attractive, he’s a tough, determined professional but also someone who will move mountains for those he cares about.

Pretty Face is a terrific read and one I’m recommending wholeheartedly. Along with the funny, the romantic and the sexy, the author also makes some great points about sexism and celebrity culture, and writes moments of true poignancy that will have you reaching for the Kleenex.  Act Like It put Lucy Parker on my auto-read list;  Pretty Face has put her damn near the top of it, and I’m eager for more.

May the Best Man Win (The Best Men #1) by Mira Lyn Kelly (audiobook) – narrated by Seraphine Valentine and Tad Branson

may-the-best-man-win-2

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Jase Foster is as loyal and committed as a friend can get – when it comes to the guys, that is. But with women he keeps it casual and experiences what one would call a “high turnover rate”.

Emily Klein is beautiful and confident…and has mile-long legs that have been strutting in and out of Jase’s life since adolescence, leaving a wake of destruction. As they get paired up time after time as the best man and maid of honor in the upcoming nuptials of all of their best friends, Emily and Jase find their mutual resentment simmering just beneath the surface…right alongside their mutual attraction. Committed to maintaining order for their friends’ sakes, they keep their personal loathing for each other under wraps…at least so long as they have an audience. But once they’re alone…

Rating: Narration – B-/C; Content – B

May the Best Man Win is the first book in Mira Lyn Kelly’s four-book series, The Best Men, in which a group of friends are at that time in their lives when many of their peers are making trips down the aisle, and are regularly asked to be part of those wedding celebrations as groomsmen. This book comprises a charming, sexy and funny (fr)enemies-to-lovers story that focuses on Jase Foster and Emily Klein who have known each other since high school, but who really don’t get along. Back then, Jase “like” liked Emily, and Emily “like” liked Jase, but his best friend, Eddie, asked her out before Jase could get around to it, and like the good guy he was – and still is – Jase backed off.

Since then, they’ve seen each other occasionally, mostly because their circles of friends have some overlap, and they have ended up being paired up in a few wedding parties, because as two of the tallest people in any given room – he’s six-feet-five, she’s five-feet-eleven in stockinged feet – they don’t risk dwarfing their partner. But they hate it. And each other. There’s a lot of history and baggage between them dating back to their high school days, as both of them blame the other for a significant incident in their pasts; and when they meet, they can barely be civil, although they do put on a show of amity for friends, family and wedding guests. But Jase can’t deny that he likes yanking Emily’s chain, and takes delight in getting a rise out of her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.