Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3 (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand)

off duty 3

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life happens when you’re not looking. Unfortunately, so do a lot of other things.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 3 is a collection of short stories. It includes the following:

“If Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge”

Hazard is going to get Evie the perfect toy for her birthday, no matter what. This story takes place before Relative Justice.

“Don’t Tell Your Dad”

Getting Colt settled isn’t exactly a smooth process, but you’ve got to break some eggs (or…something) to make an omelet. This story takes place before Custody Battles.

“Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”

Somers just wants to take a nap on his birthday. This story takes place before Domestic Animals.

“Responsible Adults”

Hazard and Somers chaperone a school dance. This story takes place before Father Complex.

“Under My Roof”

Hazard and Somers just want some alone time. Some adult alone time. This story takes place before Father Complex

“One Day You’ll Thank Me”

Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, redux. This story takes place before Final Orders.

“Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty 3”

Hazard and Somers take Colt to summer camp, and things go sideways. This story takes place after Final Orders.

Rating: A

The Off Duty books in Gregory Ashe’s Hazard and Somerset series comprise sets of short stories that are take place between the full-length books in the series and feature the guys during their downtime. It’s always a refresthing change to be able to spend time with Hazard and Somers when they’re not in life-or-death situatons, and I love that we get to see them in quieter moments of simple domesticity where their love for each other and the degree to which they get each other really shine through. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, they’re always completely and utterly them, which goes to show just how much their creator understands them and cares about them. There’s always humour to be found in an H&S book, but in these shorts, the author lets his talent for comedy have full-rein whether it’s in the wonderful banter we’ve come to know and love, in the titles of the documentaries Hazard is fond of watching, or in the daft situations they often find themselves in.

In this collection… the guys find out just how difficult it can be to find some alone time with a teenager in the house… All John really wants for his birthday is a nap, but actually getting one proves impossible… and Emery Hazard chaperones the school dance like it’s 1899… I loved seeing Somers and Colt teaming up for Hazard’s birthday scavenger hunt, and in the new story in the collection – Off Duty 3 – Hazard and Somers take a very reluctant Colt to summer camp – only to end up stranded and battling a group of drug dealers, ably assisted by Theo and Auggie. (I’m SO excited for the continuation of their story in books 3&4 of the First Quarto serie. ) But, as usual, just when you think our guys are going to be able to take things easy for once… it looks like there’s a new face in town who’s going to complicate matters!

All these stories (bar the last one) were previously made available via the author’s newsletter but I always enjoy dipping in and out of the Off Duty stories once they’re collected together as well.

A must for all Hazard and Somerset fans.

The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

the long game

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share has to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

The Long Game, the sixth intstalment in Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series of hockey romances is one of my most highly anticipated books of 2022 – and I’m delighted to say that not only did it meet all my expectations, it exceeded them. It’s the sequel to Heated Rivalry, the story that introduced us to top- flight players Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozunov who, despite their highly publicised reputation as intense rivals who hate each other’s guts, had in fact been carrying on a years-long affair in secret. By the end of that book, their relationship – which began as hook-ups when they were both in the same place at the same time – has evolved into a deep and abiding love, but they decide to continue to keep things under wraps for the foreseeable future – at least while they’re still playing hockey at the highest level. Coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough, but for two players whose professional rivalry is legendary to reveal that they’re in love with each other is going to need really careful handling when they decide to go public.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid

the long game

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share  has;to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: A

Note: As this book is both a sequel and the finale to a long-running series, there will be spoilers for earlier books in this review.

Rachel Reid’s The Long Game is the final book in her Game Changers series of romances set in the world of professional hockey – and, most importantly, the long and eagerly awaited conclusion of the epic love story between Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov begun in the second book, Heated Rivalry.  If you, like me, are a fan, you’re going to need no encouragement from me to rush to buy this one as soon as it’s available, so I suppose what you really want to know is – does The Long Game deliver everything we’ve been waiting for?  I’m pleased to be able to give an unequivocal “yes” in answer; Rachel Reid has done herself, her readers and these two much loved characters proud with a story that brings Shane and Ilya’s romance to a wonderfully romantic and emotionally satisfying conclusion while not shying away from showing that their journey has been far from easy and their HEA is hard won.

Heated Rivalry charted the progression of the relationship between rival hockey stars Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov, whose on-the-ice animosity translated into an explosive sexual attraction off of it.  Over the course of seven years, their relationship slowly morphed from one based on mutual lust and convenience, hooking up whenever they happened to be in the same place at the same time, to one based on deep affection, understanding and love.  At the end of the book, Shane and Ilya have decided to keep their relationship under wraps for the moment; coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough given the homophobia surrounding professional sports, but for two players whose intense rivalry has become legendary to own up to being in a relationship with each other… well, that’s going to need some really careful handling when they decide to go public.  As a way of trying to show that their animosity isn’t quite as strong as the media paints it, they start a mental health charity in memory of – and named after – Ilya’s mother, who suffered from depression and took her own life when Ilya was just twelve, and together, they run summer hockey camps for kids as one method of fundraising.  This at least means they get to spend a bit of time together each summer away from the media spotlight, even if they can’t be open about what they are to each other quite yet.  Also, Ilya decided to move from the top-flight team he was playing for in Boston to the Ottawa Centaurs, the least successful team in the NHL, to be nearer to Shane’s base in Montreal so they’d be able to spend a little time together during the gruelling hockey season.

By the time The Long Game opens, Shane and Ilya have been together for almost ten years (if you count the ‘hook-up’ years) – and Ilya is finding the hiding and secrecy and the loneliness of long periods apart increasingly hard to manage.  He and Shane are as deeply in love and committed to each other as ever, but with Shane at the top of his game and playing for the best team in the league, Ilya is beginning to fear that perhaps they’re going to have to wait another ten years before they can truly begin making a life together.  After all, they’re only twenty-nine, and realistically could be looking at another decade before retirement.  That’s not to say that Shane likes the situation either, and it’s absolutely clear that he loves Ilya with all his heart, but he’s in a very different place, both professionally and personally, and is able to face the prospect of ten more years of sneaking around more easily than Ilya is.  Except of course, they don’t really talk about it much because during the hockey season they get so little time together that neither of them wants to ‘spoil’ those stolen moments by bringing up the huge elephant in the room.

I think it’s fair to say that Ilya Rozanov has probably become the series’ stand-out, most-beloved character, and while Heated Rivalry felt like it was (mostly) ‘Shane’s book’, The Long Game definitely feels like Ilya’s.  He’s larger-than-life, always ready with a snarky comeback and doesn’t much care what others think of him – he’s got a reputation as a bit of an arsehole, although those closest to him know he’s a truly good person underneath it all, that behind the smart mouth and sardonic attitude lies a man with a heart of gold who feels things very deeply.  He’s still the Ilya we know and love, but in this book, we get to see a much softer, more vulnerable side of him that we’ve only briefly glimpsed before, and it tugs at the heartstrings to watch him face up to the fact that he’s not doing so well, realising just how much he’s put into keeping the relationship going and wondering just how much he has left to give. Shane, too, is trying to do his best to balance the personal and the professional, but his fear of losing everything he’s worked so hard for blinds him to the toll the secrets and lies are taking on the man he loves.  In the end, both men will have to face some hard truths and make some serious adjustments if they’re going to make it in the long run.

If you’ve been following the series, then you’ll already know that the timeline of The Long Game overlaps somewhat with that of Role Model, so we get to see Ilya’s reaction to Troy’s arrival and a little of their developing friendship from Ilya’s PoV (and yes, The Plane Incident, too).  I also liked the way Ms. Reid contrasts the two teams – the Montreal Voyagers may be the best team in the league, but when it comes to management styles and interpersonal skills, they’re crap – dictatorial and overbearing –  while at Ottowa, the opposite is true; their manager is a decent guy who treats his players like human beings and fosters a sense of team spirit and camaraderie that, while it may not bring the big wins, nonetheless makes for a much more positive environment.

I don’t want to say much more and risk spoiling the book, so I’ll end by saying that the author does a wonderful job here with relationship and character development while also making sure that Shane and Ilya remain very much ‘them’ – Ilya, cocky yet endearing, Shane adorably modest and just a bit of a stickler – and in presenting the challenges they’re facing in a realistic way.  The Long Game is full of genuine poignancy and emotion – from the deepest love and affection to heartache, and everything in between – charming moments of domesticity, scorching sex scenes, and the humour, good-natured competitiveness and snarky banter we’ve all come to love.  It delivers everything I wanted for Shane and Ilya and more, and is an early contender for my Best of 2022 list.  Thanks, Rachel, for giving these boys the fantastic send-off they so richly deserve.

Father Complex (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #4) by Gregory Ashe

father complex

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Having a father can be hard. Being a good one might be even harder.

The call-out for the double homicide, when it comes, is a strange one: two men gunned down in a motel room, no witnesses, no real clues. Even stranger, the men were enemies, and no one seems to know why they were in that motel room together. And stranger still, people won’t stop calling John-Henry Somerset, telling him he needs to find some answers—preferably nice, easy ones—fast.

Hazard and Somers set out to learn what happened, but they quickly find themselves mired in shifting factions: the ultraconservative political machine of the Ozark Volunteers; a liberal activist group protesting the local gun show; a reclusive fundamentalist church; even a hint of Mexican drug cartels. The further they press their investigation, the clearer it becomes that the killer—or killers—wants something, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.

As Hazard and Somers struggle to find the truth, they face trouble at home as well. Their foster-son, Colt, has received a letter from his estranged father, the same man who attacked Colt and Somers in their home. Worse, Colt seems open to more communication, which leaves Hazard grappling with his fears for Colt and his helplessness against a world that seems to be conspiring to take his foster-son away.

But when a pair of gunmen come after Hazard at home, two things are crystal clear: he’s going to get to the bottom of these murders, and he’ll do anything to keep his family together.

Rating: A

Note:  This book is part of a long-running series which really needs to be read in order; there are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

With Father Complex, we’re heading into the home straight of this third Hazard and Somerset series, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand.  The guys have been through a significant number of major life changes since we first met them; the original series saw them uneasily reconnecting after more than a decade, starting to work through the various issues between them and – eventually – falling in love.  In A Union of Swords, they’re adjusting to life as a couple with all its ups and downs,  learning how to be in a relationship and then getting married; and in Arrows in the Hand they return from their honeymoon to find themselves becoming ‘insta-parents’ to a troubled teen and working – not always successfully – to redefine and remake their family unit.  There are never any easy answers – these are complex, flawed, very human characters with individual baggage that often has a very real impact on their relationship and family dynamics, from Somers’ need to be liked and his desire to prove himself to his father (regardless of the fact that Glennworth Somerset is an arsehole), to Hazard’s PTSD and the anger issues that have been surfacing more and more frequently in his relationship with their foster son Colt, many of them arising as the result of his complicated relationship with his own – now deceased – father.

But through it all, there’s never been any doubt that these two love each other deeply; they get each other like nobody else ever has (or will) and best of all, they Put In The Work; it’s not easy and often it’s not pretty (they really do know how to push each other’s buttons) but every victory is all the sweeter for being hard won, and one of the many highlights of the series is the way Hazard and Somers are continuing to change and grow while remaining recognisably the same guys we met in Pretty Pretty Boys.

The mystery in Father Complex kicks off when Somers receives the news of a double homicide at a run-down motel, two men shot and killed, no witnesses and no real clues.  After the events of the previous book, Somers is taking on board the fact that his role as Chief of Police means trusting his team to do what they’re supposed to and that he can’t become personally involved in every investigation, so when Dulac asks him to come to the motel to take a look around, Somers initially refuses.  However, learning that one of the victims was engaged to Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and one of the leaders of the ultra-right wing Ozark Volunteers (and a perennial thorn in his and Hazard’s sides) – and that the other was a liberal activist and son of a family deeply involved in local politics starts the alarm bells ringing.  Sure enough, it’s not long before his father is on the phone demanding he ‘handle’ it, and fast.

Somers brings Hazard in to help with the investigation, and they’ve really got their work cut out trying to figure out why two men with such strongly opposed views were even in the same room to begin with, and then following a winding trail down some dangerous paths and into confrontations with participants at the local gun show, the members of a fundamentalist church/cult and the Ozark Volunteers (Gregory Ashe is a master at writing seriously fucked-up and creepy characters who really make your skin crawl!),  as connections slowly begin to emerge and weave themselves together into an ever expanding web of lies and deceit – with Naomi somehow in the middle of it. It’s an incredibly complex but incredibly well-executed plot as the significance of each seemingly unconnected and confusing clue is revealed and the full picture slowly comes into view.  Watching Hazard and Somers work together so intuitively and seamlessly is always a delight, and I thoroughly appreciate the way they can do that even when they’re at odds off the job.

Tensions are running high at home, especially after Colt receives a letter from his deadbeat dad that pushes Hazard’s curiosity and protective instincts through the roof, and the pair are butting heads even more than usual. I’m sure anyone who has parented a teen will recognise many of the arguments and thought-processes at work here, and it’s tough to watch these two people who so badly want to love and be loved continually hurt each other.  Colt’s a teenager doing what teenagers do, but also, he’s a kid who has never been able to rely on anyone but himself, and who is, deep down, terrified that eventually Hazard will leave him, just as every other adult in his life has done – so he keeps on challenging him and pushing boundaries, which is his mixed-up way of checking that Hazard cares enough about him to keep loving him regardless.  And Hazard, well, sometimes he behaves every bit as badly as Colt does, rising to the bait every time even as he tells himself to be the adult, doing or saying exactly the wrong thing even though he knows it – and doing it anyway.  Unfortunately, this tendency is spilling over into his relationship with Somers, too – especially professionally, where he screws up the investigation or endangers them on several occasions because he can’t keep his mouth shut or his temper under control.  (I really hope he’s going to get some help with his anger issues soon!  If he carries on like this he’s heading for a meltdown of epic proportions.)

After the heartache of watching Somers floundering so badly in the previous book, I was delighted to see him finally starting to get to grips with his new role and moving towards finding a proper work/life balance in this one.  I don’t envy his role as referee in the ongoing Emery-Colt battles, but he’s on much more of an even keel here and is on hand to provide support and a badly needed voice of reason.

The cast of regulars is augmented by North and Shaw, who show up as the unlikeliest cavalry ever – and who inject some quite ridiculous (but needed) light-heartedness into the story.  All is clearly not well with Dulac and Darnell, despite their outward show of having patched things up, and I’m still worried about Nico, who seems to be swinging from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.  With only one more book in the series to go, it might be a bit much to hope there’s room for those issues to be resolved alongside what (from the preview chapter I read) looks set to be an explosive finale… but if anyone can do it, Gregory Ashe can.

Father Complex is another gripping and unputdownable read from a writer at the top of his game, a tough, complex mystery with a rollercoaster ride of breathless emotion on the side.

Domestic Animals (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #3) by Gregory Ashe

domestic animals

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a man hires Emery Hazard to track down a teenager who, he claims, robbed him, Hazard isn’t convinced. The story has holes in it, and the client seems eager—too eager—to keep the authorities from getting involved. But Hazard is willing to play along; he suspects something much darker is going on, and he wants to know what it is.

Then his husband, John-Henry Somerset, connects the boy in question to an ongoing suspicious death investigation, and both men realize they’ve stumbled upon something much more complicated. There are too many loose threads: missing money, stolen jewelry, a husband back from the dead, and a string of violent assaults on men paying for sex. And there are too many people with their own agendas.

After Hazard’s client turns up dead, though, the pressure is on. The killer isn’t done yet, and the closer Hazard and Somers come to unearthing the connection between the victims, the greater the danger. They find themselves in a race to uncover the truth before another victim is claimed—and, if Somers is really lucky, in time for him to plan the perfect Valentine’s Day.

Rating: A

Gregory Ashe does love to put his characters – and his readers – through the emotional wringer in his books, and while Custody Battles, the previous instalment in the Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand series, really twisted the knife, this latest episode in the messy – and often dangerous – lives of our favourite crime-fighting husbands, is a close second when it comes to the “ouch” factor. In Domestic Animals, Hazard and Somers are struggling – both individually and as a couple. and professionally and personally.  Hazard’s PI business is doing quite well, but Somers is finding it hard to make the leap from being a friend and colleague, from being one of the guys to being the boss, and suddenly becoming parents to an at-risk teen has rocked the boat of their personal lives so that neither of them is really able to give as much attention to their relationship as they should – something I think ANY parent can identify with; kids are wonderful but they can be exhausting and demanding as hell, too.

The mystery plot kicks off when someone arrives at Hazard’s office wanting to employ him to find a teenager he says stole from him.  Hazard is immediately suspicious (when isn’t he?!); it’s pretty clear to him that he’s being fed a load of bull and his suspicions are confirmed by the man’s obvious reluctance to involve the authorities.  He’s sure there’s something  iffy going on and determines to get to the bottom of it, so he takes the case, prepared to bide his time and do a little more digging on the side.

Meanwhile, Somers becomes involved in the investigation into the suspicious death of a woman found at the bottom of the stairs in her house.  Dulac and his new partner Palomo caught the case, but something doesn’t feel right to Dulac, and he calls Somers for help. Even though Somers knows that, as Chief of Police, it’s not his job to take cases any more, he decides to swing by and see what the problem is.  It quickly becomes clear that Dulac had good reason for his suspicion; something doesn’t add up, but Somers isn’t sure what – and, missing the sort of hands-on investigating he used to do (part of the job he liked and was actually good at) – and as a method of avoidance, he decides to stick with the case.

As always, the mystery is satisfyingly complex with lots of twists and turns, red herrings and suspects, as the author skilfully pulls together the two seemingly disparate plot threads after Somers connects the teen Hazard’s client is looking for with the murdered woman – and they suddenly find Colt right in the middle of it all. I can almost never see exactly how he’s going to connect cases that start out seeming completely independent of each other or work out quite how things are going to go – reason #5648739 why I love Gregory Ashe books!

Hazard and Somerset go through a lot – they always do – but somehow Mr. Ashe always finds a different angle each time so that we never feel as though we’re re-treading a path we’ve been down before.  He sets out certain themes and threads that will run throughout the series and then proceeds to follow and develop them in each book, but it never gets repetitive.  In Domestic Animals, he takes a look at burnout and how it can so easily creep up on someone like Somers, a man who, on the surface, has everything – good-looks, charm, a good (though stressful) job, and a husband and family he loves.  But he’s in a bad place right now, the pressures of his job – of having his father demanding special treatment for his mates, of some of his officers being openly disrespectful (and homophobic), the consequences of still not taking that final step from friend to boss, trying to get Hazard to step back from police investigations – and the pressures at home of trying to keep World War Three from breaking out between Hazard and Colt …  it’s all weighing him down and has become more than he can handle pretty much without his realising it. The quiet, aching misery Somers tries to bury while trying to pretend everything’s fine and just going through the motions is utterly excruciating to watch – it’s frighteningly easy to relate to and so well written – and I was on the edge of my seat as he comes dangerously close to resorting to his old coping mechanisms.  And because Hazard’s in a constant lather over Colt – and almost always on the verge of meltdown – he fails to see just how much his husband is struggling.  Or rather, he sees some of it, but doesn’t realise the full extent of it, and doesn’t usually react in a helpful way.  Mr. Ashe’s insight into what makes these two guys tick is, as ever, unfailing, and watching Somers slowly unravelling and unable to ask for help packed quite the emotional punch and was really hard to read.

Hazard is dealing with a lot, too; his relationship with Colt is a veritable rollercoaster at times, and he’s struggling not to view what’s going on with his foster son through the lens of his own adolescence and father/son relationship (or lack thereof), and they’re constantly at each others’ throats.  The storyline about the breakdown of Colt’s friendship with his bestie, Ash, adds an interesting extra  layer and deepens Colt’s characterisation as he’s dealing with the heartache of what might be first love and a first break-up.

Nico and Dulac are both having personal problems, although Nico seems a bit more on top of his than Dulac, who is spiralling downwards after a big fight with his boyfriend.  I thought Somers should have benched him sooner than he did, though – but then, that scenario is a perfect example of why it’s not possible to be both friend and boss.

But amid all the fights and all the stress and angst, there’s still room for  Mr. Ashe’s trademark humour and quickfire banter;  Hazard’s instructions to Theo and Auggie about coming round to help fit some carpet and description of them as “probationary friends” made me giggle (and makes me eager for the rest of the First Quarto books) – for some truly tender moments between Hazard and Somers, where the depth and strength of their love for each other leaps off the page, and for moments of quiet understanding and sympathy between Hazard and Colt, Somers and Colt and the three of them together.  The pay-offs for all the angst and anger and rows can be a long time coming, but they’re so very worth the wait,

Domestic Animals is a tough but enthralling read in which Gregory Ashe proves yet again that he’s writing some of the most compelling, multi-layered characters and stories in the genre.  Hazard and Somerset are their own worst enemies at times, but after fourteen books (and several shorts), I’m as captivated by them as ever and don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading about them.  Highly recommended.

My 2021 in Books & Audio (the Late Late Edition!)

Ibest of 2021’m waaaaay behind on writing this;  I usually do it in early January, but this year seems to have got away from me so far, so I’m doing it in early February instead!  Better late than never, as they say…

What was I listening to and reading in 2021?  My Goodreads stats show I managed 272 books overall (just over my Reading Challenge target of 260**) which was split almost equally between print and audio – 50.5% ebook, 49.5% audio – and almost two-thirds of my reading/listening last year was ARCs/ALCs.  I suspect the greater part of the other third –that wasn’t advance copies – were audiobooks as I tend to listen to more older titles than I read.

** My actual total is probably closer to 300; I listen to several books per month in my work as an audiobook proofer, but I don’t list those at Goodreads)

Of that total there are 62 5 star books, 171 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 34 3 star books, 3 2 star books and one 1 star book.

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 62 5 star ratings, around 35 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total.

The books that made my Best of 2021 list at All About Romance:

Once again, books by Gregory Ashe topped my list of DIKs, (getting 7 in total) although there were other authors who earned top grades for more than one book that were in the running to make the final list: 

Jay Hogan:

C.S. Poe

K.J. Charles

I’ve come to accept that the vast majority of historical romance just doesn’t work for me any more; the vast majority of it is wallpapery to the extreme and is written with a 21st century mindset that just doesn’t suit me at best, and annoys the hell out of me at worst.  That said, my Book of the Year WAS an historical romance – Sally Malcolm’s King’s Man, which was exceptional in every way, a real breath of fresh air in a genre that has largely stagnated.

Audio

Once again, if ever I was struggling to read or simply find time to read, audiobooks came to my rescue!  I listened to some really good audiobooks in 2021 and discovered more new authors and narrators to look out for – although my Best Audiobooks of 2021 were almost all by familiar names.  In each case I stuck to titles to which I gave at least ONE A grade – usually for the narration, and nothing lower than a B+.

 

My “discovery of the year” in audiobooks was narrator Darcy Stark; I chose Eden Winters’ Diversion series as one of my Best Belated Reads of 2021 (books read but not published in 2021); not only are the stories a terrific blend of clever plotting and character-driven storylines, Mr. Stark’s narration is absolutely outstanding.  Listen up authors of m/m romance – he should be on your radar next time you’re looking for a narrator!  Also on the Best Belated list – David R. Slayton’s White Trash Warlock and The Coincidence by Felice Stevens.

So far, for 2022, I’ve got a few “most highly anticipated” new books in my sights. Rachel Reid’s The Long Game (the long-awaited sequel to Heated Rivalry),  Husband Material by Alexis Hall – I’m really looking forward to spending time with Luc and Oliver again!; C.S. Poe’s The Doctor (it’s been a long wait since that cliffie at the end of The Gangster), the final two books in Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand and, I very much hope, the final two books in the First Quarto series – seeing the Theo & Auggie cameos in Arrows is making me want to read about them again.  I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The MovieTown Murders will be out this year (I mentioned it in my round up last year but it’s been pushed back; last I heard it’ll be out this Spring.)  Jay Hogan, Annabeth Albert and Hailey Turner are all beginning new series this year, as well, so there’s lots to look forward to.  

With any luck, I’ve got another good year of reading and listening ahead – I hope you have a good one, too!

Custody Battles (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #2) by Gregory Ashe

custody battles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some parents would die for their children. Others will do a whole lot worse.

Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, are settling into their new normal—at home, with the latest addition to their family, and at work, as Somers adapts to his new role and Hazard manages his expanding agency. The only thing Hazard is worried about is getting through dinner with his in-laws.

When his father-in-law requests that Hazard and Somers join him for a weekend deer hunting, it sounds simple enough: spend a night camping, give their foster son a chance to spend time with his friend, and—possibly—prevent a parental kidnapping. But nothing is ever as simple as it sounds. At deer camp, Hazard and Somers find themselves drawn into a toxic family feud between parents battling for custody.

After the husband is shot and killed deep in the forest, detectives from the Sheriff’s Department are convinced that the killer is a local extremist—a member of the neo-Nazi Ozark Volunteers. Hazard and Somers, though, aren’t so sure, and as they probe deeper into the killing, they find that many people had a reason to want the victim dead, and the killing itself might not be what it seems.

Then a drive-by shooting almost claims the lives of Hazard, Somers, and the victim’s wife. The killer’s work isn’t done, and Hazard and Somers must race to find the truth before the killer strikes again.

Rating: A

Note: This is the thirteenth full-length novel in the Hazard and Somerset series, so new readers are advised not to start here.  There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.

I think, if I had to write a one-word review of Gregory Ashe’s Custody Battles, it would be OUCH.  I spent most of the time reading it with my insides tied up in knots, and even when they were able to  unknot a little, I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.

Things are already fraught when the book begins, as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to host dinner for friends and family – the family including Somers’ parents, neither of whom is shy about making known their disappointment in him.  Adding to Somers’ already heightened tension is the fact that Cole – the teen he and Hazard are now fostering (see Relative Justice) – absolutely hates him, for no reason that Somers can fathom.  Somers has been friendly and reasonable, but no matter what he says or does, Colt is completely hostile – and while Somers recognises that Colt has had a crappy time of it and that he’s a vulnerable kid, he can’t help feeling bewildered, hurt and, sometimes, resentful.  The quiet evenings watching TV and eating takeout with his husband he’d been looking forward to have gone out the window, and Somers can’t help but feel – at times – as though he’s being pushed aside.  He knows it’s ridiculous to feel that way – he’s a grown man and can be adult about the situation, but… those feelings are there nonetheless.

Things go from bad to worse later that evening, when Colt’s deadbeat dad Danny Ballantyne shows up and confronts Somers, threatening to petition to get get custody of Cole back unless Somers pays him to go away.  Somers knows – he knows – it’s dumb to think he’ll go and stay away – but on top of everything else – Colt’s hatred, his parents’ condescending disapproval, his feeling that things are slowly spinning out of control – Somers decides that here’s something he can do for Colt and for Hazard (he knows losing Colt would devastate him) and decides to handle it himself so as not to worry them.  He agrees to find the money to pay Ballantyne off, even though they really don’t have it – and not to tell Hazard what’s going on.

Okay, so at this point, I was mentally screaming – ‘Somers, you idiot, you know better than to keep this from Hazard!’ – but before that disaster is allowed to unfold, another looms in the form of Somers’ dad’s ‘invitation’ (insistence) that Hazard and Somers accompany him on an overnight hunting trip.  Neither is keen and both are suspicious; Somerset Sr. eventually tells them he’s heard rumours of a potential parental kidnapping and that he thinks Somers just being around will be enough to prevent it.  Reluctantly, Hazard and Somers agree to go, and when they arrive the next day, they find themselves in the middle of the most awful group of people imaginable, (quite honestly, I would have been quite happy had they ALL been bumped off!), which includes the couple they’d heard about, who are engaged in a very acrimonious divorce and fighting for custody of their completely obnoxious son.

When the husband is killed somewhere out in the forest, suspicion immediately falls on the Boone’s neighbour Dunkie Newcomb, a member of the right-wing extremist Ozark Volunteers, with whom the Boones have had frequent disputes about property boundaries, but Hazard and Somers aren’t convinced, and start to dig a little deeper.  The fact that the victim was a lying, violent, bullying piece of shit means there’s no shortage of people who would have liked to have seen the back of him, and the sudden appearance at Hazard’s office of Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and someone with strong connections to the Volunteers – complicates matters still further.  She insists Newcomb has a cast-iron alibi, but that she can’t reveal it for fear of endangering others.  Hazard knows Naomi is clever and devious, and even though he’s extremely suspicious, he agrees to take the job she’s offering – to prove Newcomb innocent of the murder.

Oh, what a tangled web…

As I said at the beginning, this is one of those books that will tie you up in knots.  As well as another clever, gripping and suspenseful mystery (including some seriously edge-of-your-seat moments!) Custody Battles takes a long, hard look at parenthood in all its various forms, both good and (very, very) bad – a look which includes Somers’ own parents, whose approval he still craves even though he knows it shouldn’t matter.  Although Hazard and Somers always get equal billing in these novels, this one is most definitely a’ Somers book’, focusing on his struggle to adapt to his new roles as Chief of Police and as parent of a difficult teenager – and it’s not going at all well.  He’s aware of his deep-seated need to be liked, but hasn’t yet realised he can’t continue to be everyone’s friend at work, and Colt’s open hostility is wearing him down even further and causing massive amounts of tension between him and Hazard, especially when they clash over discipline issues.  Wanting to find a way to get Colt to like him, Somers always steps in and tries to smooth things over when he thinks Hazard is being too hard on the boy, without recognising he’s doing precisely what his parents did whenever he screwed up; making excuses for his behaviour and trivialising whatever it was he did, telling him it wasn’t his fault and generally making it seem as though he could do no wrong.  It takes him a while to realise this, of course – although he – and we – are very clearly shown what’s at the end of that particular path through the character of Junior, a deeply, deeply unpleasant and damaged young man thanks to exactly that sort of behaviour on the part of his parents.

Custody Battles is absolutely brilliant in its focus and level of insight, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch, but it’s a tough read with several moments of uncompromising, brutal honesty along the way.  That Hazard and Somers love each other deeply is never in question, but knowing each other so very well means they each know exactly how to twist the knife – and when they do, it’s not pretty.  Yet for all the difficult discussions and arguments, there’s still plenty of humour to be had, as well as some lovely tender moments between our heroes – and that ending.  Gah!

The secondary characters are all superbly crafted; we’ve met many of them before, and of all of them, it’s Nico who really shines. (The way he deals with Naomi is priceless).   I’ve never been in the ‘I hate Nico’ camp (I know some H&S fans dislike him), and I’m really enjoying watching him grow as a character and into someone Hazard has come to call a friend (not that he’d ever admit as much!)

Custody Battles isn’t always an easy read, but it’s utterly compelling and completely un-put-down-able nonetheless.  The characterisation and relationship development are superb, the mystery is well-crafted and Hazard and Somers are as captivating now as they ever were – possibly moreso.  They love and they fight and they screw up, but they’re never any less than human as they navigate their way through work, life, marriage, and parenthood, making it up as they go along – just as we all have to, most of the time.

Fans of Hazard and Somers won’t be disappointed in this latest Arrows in the Hand book (although they might gnash their teeth and shout a bit!), and Gregory Ashe proves that thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number and chalks up yet another DIK.

Relative Justice (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #1) by Gregory Ashe

relative justice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible son. An impossible murder.

The honeymoon is definitely over.

When Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, arrive home from their honeymoon, they’re shocked (understatement of the year) to find a boy waiting for them on their doorstep. Colt, fifteen and eager to pick a fight, claims to be Hazard’s son. It’s almost a relief, then, for Hazard and Somers to be called out to assist the Dore County Sheriff’s Department with what seems to be an impossible murder: a man has been found stabbed to death in a stretch of woods, and the only set of footprints in the soft ground belong to the victim.

The more Hazard and Somers learn about the dead man, the more confusing the case becomes. While searching his home, they discover a secure room from which several high-end computers have been stolen. A woman makes a daring theft as the house is being secured and escapes with valuable documents. The dead man’s neighbor, who found the body, is obviously lying about how she discovered him. And something very strange is going on with the victim’s sons, who are isolated at school and seem to have found their few friends through the youth group at a local church–and in a close relationship with the hip, young, attractive pastor.

An attempt on Colt’s life leaves Hazard’s (possible) son in the hospital. When Hazard and Somers learn that the attack came after Colt tried to investigate the murder on his own, they realize he is now in the killer’s crosshairs, and Hazard and Somers must race to uncover the truth. The results from the paternity test aren’t back yet, but father or not, Emery Hazard isn’t going to let anyone harm a child.

Rating: A

Relative Justice is book one in Gregory Ashe’s latest series to feature Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand, and even though it’s the start of a new series, it’s most definitely NOT the place to start if you’ve never picked up a H&S book before.  Going back to start at Pretty Pretty Boys – eleven books and quite-a-few novellas ago – may seem like a daunting prospect, but I promise it’s well worth it, and by doing that you’ll gain a much greater understanding of the characters and their relationship, which has been through many, many ups and downs – and I suspect there are likely more to come!

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

After surviving both major relationship issues AND being the target of a deranged killer, by the end of The Keeper of Bees (the final book in the previous series) Hazard and Somers finally made it down the aisle.  But nothing is ever simple where these two are concerned, and they return from their honeymoon to find a dark-haired teenaged boy waiting on the doorstep who promptly announces to them that he’s Hazard’s son.

Jet-lagged and tired after a long journey, Hazard… doesn’t handle the news well and has a minor meltdown, insisting that whoever this kid is there is absolutely NO WAY he can be his father and the boy must be running some sort of scam, while Somers tries to be the voice of reason and to calm things down before they get any worse. He insists they can’t just leave the kid on the street and says he should stay the night at least, so they can all get some sleep and then work out what to do in the morning.  Hazard is still fuming, and stomps out – but only as far as neighbours Noah and Rebeca’s place where he starts to calm down and to think rationally about what to do next.

When he’s made some calls – and learned that unless the boy – Colt – can stay with them for the time being, he’ll have to go to a group home or a residential facility – Hazard decides he can stay put for a short while, at least until the results of the paternity test he’s taken come back, and he takes Colt to enrol at the High School.  In the meantime, Somers – now Chief of Police Somerset – has been approached by Sheriff Engels for help investigating a rather baffling murder, and is specifically asked to involve Hazard as well.

When they arrive at the scene, it quickly becomes apparent to both of them why Engels has requested their help – a man has been stabbed to death in a forest some distance out of town, but there is no sign that another person was involved, even though the wounds couldn’t have been self-inflicted.  It’s an impossible murder, but – as usual with a Gregory Ashe mystery – there is no shortage of suspects once the investigation gets going, from the skeevy girlfriend who claims the victim left her everything in his will, including the custody of his two boys, to the neighbour with whom he was involved in a dispute about land boundaries, to the new pastor who gives off a really dodgy vibe.  Add in the audacious theft of an important piece of evidence while police are actually  on the scene and the two douchebag detectives from the sheriff’s department who are only too keen to stir up trouble for our heroes, and the stage is set for another complex, clever mystery that doesn’t pull its punches when it gets down to the nitty and the very gritty.

And while Hazard and Somers are trying to untangle all the threads surrounding the murder, Hazard is slowly getting to grips with what it really means to be a father.  He makes a lot of mistakes and sometimes he’s really harsh, yet in the midst of it all, there’s no question that he’s trying hard to do the right thing. And Somers is simply awesome in supportive husband mode.  As to whether Colt is who he says he is… well, I’m not telling, because really, in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The theme of family – of what makes one and what you do as part of one – is the important thing, and the author completely nails the complicated dynamics that abound in the family Hazard and Somers are choosing to make. The characterisation of Colt is spot on – a perfect angry, surly teen who pretends not to care but who really cares so much and desperately wants to impress his chosen role model.

There’s a lot going on in this story, yet it never feels rushed or under-developed; the pacing is just right and the author balances his various story threads with supreme skill and confidence.  As well as the mystery and the Colt storyline, there are some fabulous cameos from Hazard’s mother, who is a terrific grandmother and helper, and Theo Stratford, now Dr. Stratford (so clearly, he finished that thesis!) and a teacher at the High School – and I can’t forget Shaw who, while he doesn’t actually appear, nonetheless caused several snorts of laughter in absentia (Somers using the idea of inviting him for a visit as a threat when Hazard is being mean is priceless!)  I was also pleased to see Nico again – yes, really! – he’s grown up a lot and clearly wants to be a good friend to Hazard.  I like the idea of his working for Hazard’s agency and think he’ll be good at his new job, but there are also hints that not all is well with him, and I really want him to be okay.

But as is always the case with Mr. Ashe’s books, what sets Relative Justice apart from the crowd is the fantastic characterisation and superb combination of relationship development, humour, laser sharp insight into what makes these people tick, and the way all the emotions – the angst, the frustration, the pain, the love – are perfectly realised on the page.  Hazard and Somers have come such a long way since we first met them, and now, are more solid than ever, despite the challenges they experience in this book (and the realisation of what being fathers of two is going to do to their sex life!).  The way they work together professionally has always been a delight to watch, and here, we get to see them each bring their own particular strengths to the situation at home, Somers’ people skills and his deep understanding of everything Hazard, and Hazard’s formidable intelligence and unshakeable loyalty to those he loves.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again;  I am in awe of Gregory Ashe’s ability to consistently craft books of such high quality (and at such a rate.)  I don’t know how he does it, I’m just incredibly glad – and very grateful – that he does.  Relative Justice is an incredibly strong start to what promises to be another fantastic series featuring two of my all-time favourite characters.  I can’t do anything other than offer the strongest of recommendations.

Note:  Themes of child abuse and neglect feature prominently (although there’s nothing graphic) in this story.

Role Model (Game Changers #5) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

role model

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The hits just keep coming for Troy Barrett. Traded to the worst team in the league would be bad enough, but coming on the heels of a messy breakup and a recent scandal…Troy just wants to play hockey and be left alone. He doesn’t want to be in the news anymore, and he definitely doesn’t want to “work on his online presence” with the team’s peppy social media manager.

Harris Drover can tell standoffish Troy isn’t happy about the trade – anyone could tell, frankly, as he doesn’t exactly hide it well – but Harris doesn’t give up on people easily. Even when he’s developing a crush he’s sure is one-sided. And when he sees Troy’s smile finally crack through his grumpy exterior, well…that’s a man Harris couldn’t turn his back on if he wanted to.

Suddenly, Troy’s move to the new team feels like an opportunity – for Troy to embrace his true self, and for both men to surrender to their growing attraction. But indulging in each other behind closed doors is one thing, and for Troy, being in a public relationship with Harris will mean facing off with his fears, once and for all.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

I loved Rachel Reid’s Role Model (book five in her Game Changers series) when I read it a few months back, and I loved it just as much in audio. It’s a lovely grumpy/sunshine romance combined with a wonderfully well-written redemption story that takes a really hard, unflattering look at the misogyny and homophobia that continue to exist in some professional sports – and potential listeners should be aware that the book includes a storyline surrounding sexual assault (none of it is on the page) in which victims are not believed and their experiences are trivialised.

Troy Barrett has suddenly gone from playing for the best hockey team in the NHL – the Toronto Guardians – to the worst – the Ottawa Centaurs – after a trade following a very public argument on the ice with his former best friend, Dallas Kent. After being dumped by his equally closeted actor boyfriend, Troy’s day went from bad to worse when he learned Kent had been accused of raping a woman at a party, but that instead of suspending him pending investigation by the team and the league, they were instead closing ranks around Kent and dismissing the allegations as pure fabrication. Knowing Kent to be completely capable of sexual assault, Troy absolutely believes the accusations and is angry at himself for not doing something to stop him. (Although what he could actually have done is anybody’s guess.) Hurt, furious and disgusted, Troy loses it during practice and openly calls Kent a rapist; the fight was caught on camera and the video very quickly went viral.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Battle Royal (Royal Insiders #1) by Lucy Parker

battle-royal-1

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ready…

Four years ago, Sylvie Fairchild charmed the world as a contestant on the hit baking show, Operation Cake. Her ingenious, creations captivated viewers and intrigued all but one of the judges, Dominic De Vere. When Sylvie’s unicorn cake went spectacularly sideways, Dominic was quick to vote her off the show. Since then, Sylvie has used her fame to fulfill her dream of opening a bakery. The toast of Instagram, Sugar Fair has captured the attention of the Operation Cake producers…and a princess.

Set…

Dominic is His Majesty the King’s favorite baker and a veritable British institution. He’s brilliant, talented, hard-working. And an icy, starchy grouch. Learning that Sylvie will be joining him on the Operation Cake judging panel is enough to make the famously dour baker even more grim. Her fantastical baking is only slightly more troublesome than the fact that he can’t stop thinking about her pink-streaked hair and irrepressible dimple.

Match…

When Dominic and Sylvie learn they will be fighting for the once in a lifetime opportunity to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding of Princess Rose, the flour begins to fly as they fight to come out on top.

The bride adores Sylvie’s quirky style. The palace wants Dominic’s classic perfection.

In this royal battle, can there be room for two?

Rating: A

Lucy Parker has another winner on her hands with Battle Royal, the first book in her new Royal Insiders series and also her first novel published under the Avon Imprint.   I’ve enjoyed all her books so far and have loved quite a few of them; they’re stylish and engaging and wonderfully romantic, featuring three-dimensional protagonists with chemistry that leaps off the page, strongly developed relationships, well-depicted settings and the sort of clever wit and humour that I adore.

Battle Royal is, I’m pleased to report, very much in the same vein. It’s a beautifully written grumpy/sunshine, enemies-to-lovers romance between rival bakers, packed with the vibrancy, fun, witty repartee and sexual tension that characterises her work, but there’s also a kind of gravitas here that sets it apart from her previous novels.  I don’t mean that the book is heavy or gloomy – far from it – just that some of its underlying themes are weighty, and the bittersweet overtones they lend to the story add layers of complexity to the characters and the plot that take the novel to another level and make it feel like so much more than a contemporary romance or romantic comedy.

Four years earlier, Sylvie Fairchild was a contestant on Operation Cake and was doing fairly well.  Her bright and breezy personality caught the attention of the viewing public and her tasty, imaginative bakes were getting good marks – despite the view of stern judge – and London’s premier baker – Dominic De Vere that her creations were mostly style over substance. She had reached the semi-final stage of the competition when disaster struck, and an unplanned cake explosion landed a ton of glitter in Dominic’s hair and catapulted a cake-smeared unicorn hoof into his forehead.  Needless, to say, that was Sylvie’s last appearance on the show.

Since then however, she’s set up the Sugar Fair bakery/patisserie – which just happens to be on the same street and directly opposite to De Vere’s  – and now, she’s been invited back to Operation Cake, but this time as one of the judges.

Favoured by the royal family and something of a British institution, Dominic De Vere is hugely talented, brilliant and dedicated, but where Sylvie’s work is all heart and her colourful decorative style reflects her sunshiny, open personality, Dominic’s coolly aloof perfectionism favours classical, minimalist elegance and neutral tones.  As bakers – and individuals – their approaches and outlooks couldn’t be more different, something the producers of Operation Cake are clearly hoping will play well on television.  An extra layer to Sylvie and Dominic’s rivalry is added when a royal wedding is announced – and they’re both determined to secure the contract to supply the wedding cake.

I loved so much about this book.  It’s perhaps a little slow to start, but once it gets going it became impossible to put down as the complex, multi-layered story the author is telling begins to unfold.  At the centre of it all is the opposites-attract romance between Sylvie and Dominic, which is simply gorgeous.  Their chemistry and mutual attraction crackle with sexual tension from the get-go, but the way their relationship develops is an exquisite slow-burn, fuelled by longing looks, flirtatious banter and glancing touches.  (Oh, the touches  – *sigh*) Dominic is, at first glance, your classic stuffed-shirt hero, emotionally distant, icy-cool and brutally honest, but as we get to know him, we discover a genuinely caring man beneath the world-weary exterior, one who longs for connection but fears rejection.  Sylvie is outgoing and vivacious and seems to be a complete contrast to Dominic, but it turns out they have more in common than either would have thought. Both have been profoundly affected by events in their pasts which continue to inform their choices, meaning they hold themselves apart – from people, from emotions… even from life.   The depth of the affection that underpins their interactions as they learn about and support each other in slowly coming to terms with their pasts is both genuine and heartfelt.

One of the things I most liked about the relationship is that although Sylvie and Dominic are business rivals, there’s never any pettiness or sense that one is prepared to sabotage the other’s chances.  It’s clear that while they may not see eye to eye aesthetically, they respect each other’s skills and capabilities, so that their (initially) begrudging co-operation on their research (for the wedding cake tender) never seems unlikely or out of character.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but Lucy Parker pulls her various story threads together extremely well and balances everything out both credibly and satisfactorily, never forgetting to keep Sylvie and Dominic’s romance at the forefront of the action.  As well as the TV show and the rivalry over the wedding cake, there’s a storyline involving Dominic’s younger sister Pet who’s decided to work for him in hopes of developing a relationship with the brother she barely knows; there’s a sleaze-bag café owner who keeps stealing Sylvie’s ideas, and a charmingly poignant love story from the past that emerges as Sylvie and Dominic search for inspiration for the royal cake.  I was pleased that the author chose to create a kind of AU royal family which bears little to no resemblance to the present incumbents, and the portions of the story that look at the toll taken by the weight of duty and living constantly in the media spotlight on even the strongest, most loving of relationships are thought-provoking.  There’s also a lovely exploration of the concept of family – both biological and found – and how shared DNA is meaningless without affection, and a superbly developed secondary cast who all have important roles to play.  Bubbly, loving Pet is delightful, Sylvie’s assistant Mabel – a woman of few words – is a terrifyingly no-nonsense hoot, and  I really hope there’s a book coming for Sylvie’s long-term best friend and business partner, Jay.   My only quibble overall is that there’s one overly dramatic plot-point near the end I could have done without (especially in such an already jam-packed story!)

That niggle apart, this book is an utter delight and one I’m happy to recommend without reservation.  Sylvie and Dominic are perfect for one another and their romance is laden with affection, tenderness, and sexual tension as yummy as the patisserie. Touching and emotional yet whimsical and optimistic,  Battle Royal captivated me from start to finish, and I’m sure fans of the author’s and of contemporary romance in general will love it.