Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5) by Melinda Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?

Rating: B

This fifth book in Melinda Leigh’s series about defence attorney Morgan Dane, her partner – PI Lance Kruger – and his boss and their mutual friend Lincoln Sharp, focuses on a tautly written mystery plot involving a murder and a missing teen while also taking an insightful look at the challenges of parenting young children and finding a practicable work-life balance.

When Secrets Never Die opens, we meet sixteen-year-old Evan Meade as he’s returning home – later than he should be – from an evening out with a friend.  He’s surprised to see there are no lights on inside the house; his mother, a nurse, is still at work and his stepfather, Paul, a retired sheriff’s deputy, always leaves a light on for her – but the place is in total darkness.  Cautiously – and still feeling guilty for being out late and having ignored Paul’s concerned texts earlier – Evan is making his way through the house when he hears a loud pop he thinks must be a gunshot.  He stands in the doorway of the den, frozen in terror at the sight of Paul lying on the floor, covered in blood, as a large man carrying a gun stands over him and shoots him again, this time between the eyes, execution style.  As Evan watches, horrified, he sees the man is wearing a gold badge clipped to his belt and he’s wearing gloves – is he a cop?  After that final shot, the killer’s eyes fix on Evan – who turns and starts running for his life.

Morgan and Lance have had a particularly difficult and exhausting few days.  Morgan’s three daughters  – all aged six and under – have been ill which has meant disturbed nights for both of them (something I’m sure all parents will be able to identify with!) and they’re both running on empty when Lance gets a call in the early hours from Tina, Evan’s mother, who tells him she returned from work to find her husband shot dead and her son missing.  Lance, an ex-cop turned PI, also coaches a hockey team of at-risk youths, which is how he knows both mother and son.  He and Morgan think it’s a bit strange that Tina has called them before dialling 911, but they nonetheless head over to the house, arriving at the scene before the County Sheriff and his team, which gives them a chance to look over the house for evidence before they’re told to butt out.

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

At Your Service (In Service #1) by Sandra Antonelli

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A butler. A spy. A toilet brush. A romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of grittiness and humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day.

After three years in the employ of a former British army officer turned Risk Assessment Specialist, widowed butler Mae Valentine is familiar with Major Kitt’s taste for scrambled eggs, bourbon, and brawling. Kitt knows of Mae’s fondness for order, her beloved dead husband, and the millions the man left her in trust. Their easy bond is tested the day Mae kills the man sent to murder her and the trust fund vanishes.

Soon, a volcano, a hand roasting in an oven, and a fish named Shirley accentuate sinister machinations that involve Mae and the missing money. To keep her safe from women in ugly shoes, homicidal bankers, and Mafia henchmen, Kitt risks exposing his true profession, which doesn’t trouble him as much as being in love with a woman who’s still in love with a dead man. If he can’t protect Mae, he’ll lose the best butler—and scrambled eggs—a spy ever loved.

Rating: A-

This romantic suspense novel featuring a retired army Major and his female butler was like a breath of fresh air.  The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.

Mae Valentine and Major Kitt have an interesting relationship.  Mae is a widow of some sixteen years, and is still in love with her dead husband, albeit not in a ‘mopey’ way.  She’s practical, self-sufficient and highly competent; she’s worked for Kitt for about three years, but while she’s his employee, he’s her tenant (she owns two adjoining houses, one of which he rents from her), which is an interesting way to address the employer/employee dynamic.  Kitt is retired from the army and now works as a Risk Assessment Specialist that often takes him to dangerous parts of the world.  It’s clear from fairly early on that that’s not the whole story, but Mae doesn’t ask, Kitt doesn’t tell, and they’re both content with that.

Things change, however, when Mae is receives the news that her late husband had some kind of trust fund of which she is the beneficiary, and she stands to inherit a large sum of money.  Mae knew nothing about it, and doesn’t want or need the money, but she’s in the process of signing the necessary papers anyway.  The representative of the bank she’s been dealing with actually asked her out for dinner – but he doesn’t show up at the restaurant and Mae ends up being walked home by Kitt, who’d been there as well.  On the way back, Mae is attacked, her bag is stolen and Kitt beats the living crap out of the one of her assailants he catches hold of; and later, they arrive back at her flat to discover that it’s been ransacked.  Clearly, whoever stole her bag was after her keys rather than her money and credit cards.

Nothing appears to have been stolen though, and Mae can’t help wondering if the attack and (not)break-in are somehow related to the trust, especially when the newspapers report the mysterious death of the same bank executive who’d stood her up.  And when someone else claiming to be from the bank tries to kill her, there’s no doubt any more that it’s something to do with the money.  Desperate to get Mae out of harm’s way, Kitt tells her to take a holiday, thinking she’ll go to a posh spa or something similar.  He’d not banked on her running off to Sicily – where her husband was from – in order to try to follow the money and get to the bottom of what’s going on.

The story is well-put together and gripping, but the characters are what really drew me in.  Kitt is obviously a James Bond type (and I have to say that the author’s description of him as being attractive in an ugly-handsome way brings Daniel Craig perfectly to mind!) with his love for strong drink, fast (Mae calls them “girly”) cars and married women, yet it’s clear from the start that his relationship with Mae is important to him.  No matter where he goes, what state he’s in when he returns (he always seems to be bruised or battered) and whichever woman has been in his bed the night before, when he’s home, he’s always got a superb breakfast waiting – Mae’s scrambled eggs are his idea of perfection, it seems – and the pithy conversation of his expert butler to enjoy.

The story moves quickly and there’s a fair bit of violence, a bit more than I come across in most romantic suspense stories; there’s cross upon cross upon double-cross as they – and we – are left wondering who they can really trust. Mae’s suspicions as to Kitt’s real job begin to solidify, and they find themselves thrown into one dangerous situation after another.

Also dangerous is the fact that the close proximity into which Mae and Kitt are thrust is starting to stir up thoughts and feelings that both of them have been repressing for some time. Her attraction to Kitt comes as something of a surprise to Mae, while he is forced to acknowledge – to himself at least – that he’s had feelings for her for a while but has buried them in favour of her scrambled eggs (or at least in favour of not losing her as a butler and friend).  The chemistry between them zings from the start and their deepening attraction is really well done.

I had a minor niggle about the sometimes dizzying speed with which Mae and Kitt lurch from one life-threatening situation to another without really thinking things through, but that didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book.  They’re attractive, three-dimensional characters and I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed, which felt completely right given their ages and life experience.  One other thing I appreciated greatly was the “Britishness” of the book (and yes, I know the author is Australian!).  There are no Americanisms and no unidiomatic language; the London locations are really well described, but more than that, the speech patterns, the dryness of the humour and the classically understated manner Mae and Kitt so often display towards one another felt spot on.  At Your Service is a smart, sexy read peppered with sophisticated, dry humour and lots of in-jokes about spies for the geeks among us 😉  I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series and to checking out Sandra Antonelli’s backlist.

TBR Challenge: Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.

Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .

Rating: C+

That synopsis is really misleading, IMO.

The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is “favourite trope”, and I fancied a good, old-fashioned gothic with bit of a master/governess romance thrown in.  I chose one I bought a while back by an author I haven’t read before, Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden;  originally published in 1960, it’s recently been digitally reissued, as have several of the author’s other books.

London is abuzz with gossip about Lord Blane Mallow, who ran away from his Kentish home aged sixteen and hasn’t been seen or heard of in the twenty years since.  Following the death of his father, newspaper articles and pamphlets have been circulated requesting information about the missing heir – and when none was forthcoming, steps were taken to start the process by which he could be declared legally dead and the inheritance – including Mallow Hall – pass to the next heir.  But just when all hope of Blane being found had been given up, he arrived in England, accompanied by his wife and five-year-old son, Titus, and his court case to prove his identity has become something of a cause célèbre.

Among those closely following the court’s progress is Sarah Mildmay, a gently-born but impoverished young lady who has lived with her aunt since the death of her father, an inveterate gambler.  She is secretly engaged to Ambrose, Blane’s cousin, who stands to inherit should the man be declared an imposter.

When the legalities are complete and the court is satisfied that Blane is who he says he is, it’s a huge blow to Sarah and Ambrose’s hopes, as without the Mallow inheritance, they cannot afford to marry.  Sarah is furious but Ambrose refuses to give up, suggesting an audacious plan.  The most recent newspaper article suggests that Blane’s son will need of a governess now the family is going to settle at Mallow Hall – and Ambrose suggests that Sarah should present herself as a potential candidate.  That way, she will be able to snoop about and find the proof of the impostor’s guilt in order to overturn the court’s verdict.

Adventurous of spirit and all too aware of possessing the same liking for taking risks as her late father, Sarah agrees with alacrity and duly presents herself at the Mallows’ London residence.  But she almost falls at the first hurdle when the sallow-faced, overdressed Lady Mallow, displeased with Sarah’s effrontery in just presenting herself without introduction, tells her to leave.  Sarah is on her way out, when a distressed little boy – obviously Titus – literally throws himself at her, clings to her skirts and refuses to let got.  She’s able to soothe the boy and calm him down – at which point the master of the house makes his appearance, and seeing Sarah’s effect on the boy, reverses his wife’s decision and offers her employment.

Blane is brooding, darkly handsome and enigmatic (of course!), his pronouncements are frequently dry and sarcastic, and it quickly becomes clear to Sarah that the Mallow’s marriage is not as it should be. She discovers that the connecting door between the master’s and mistress’ rooms is locked – from his side – and not only that, Lady Mallow’s desperation to gain her husband’s attention (and her temper when she doesn’t get it) are painfully obvious.  Titus is a nervous little boy who is the apple of his grandmother’s eye – and the spitting image of his father at the same age, as proven by one of the family portraits – Lady Malvina (Blane’s mother) is well-meaning, but indiscreet and appears to care more about the fact that having her son home means she is able to get back some of the jewellery that had to be sold and is able to accumulate more; as the story progresses, we begin to see that she has her doubts as to the truth of Blane’s identity, but that her focus was on securing her own position and in gaining access to her grandson.

The story follows a fairly predictable pattern.  There’s an unstable, jealous wife, a mysterious arrival who isn’t what they seem, a dead body in the lake, blackmail, kidnapping – and through it all a heroine whose adventurous spirit, sharp mind and wit is reluctantly drawn to similar qualities in the darkly sardonic hero. Like most of these older gothic romances, he’s pretty much a secondary figure in the story, and he doesn’t share all that many scenes with Sarah until near the end, so readers are given very little to go on as regards the evolution of his feelings for Sarah.  The signs are there, but they’re few and far between, so the end-of-book declaration comes very much out of the blue.  It’s true that he does have to be somewhat removed to keep Sarah – and the reader – guessing as to whether he really is or isn’t Blane Mallow, but still, it makes for an unsatisfying romance.  As we’re in Sarah’s head for most of the book, her feelings are easier to read, although most of the time, she appears to be angry at Blane’s blatant imposition and lies rather than attracted to him. There are hints of her discomfort around him, but otherwise there’s little to go on.

Lady of Mallow held my attention for the time it took me to read it, mostly because I wanted to find out the truth about Blane and I did enjoy the cat-and-mouse game he and Sarah were engaged in; it was obvious he was on to her from the beginning and she knew he was trying to trip her up.  The reveal was rather anticlimactic though, involving one character reciting the events to another and being overheard by Blane and Sarah, and the ending is really abrupt.

The blurb describes Lady of Mallow as a “classic of the genre”, but I’m inclined to disagree.  For a real classic gothic, you can’t beat Daphne du Maurier or Victoria Holt.

 

A Chip and a Chair (Seven of Spades #5) by Cordelia Kingsbridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s time to lay all the cards on the table.

Detective Levi Abrams and PI Dominic Russo are reunited and more committed to each other than ever, but they can’t truly move forward with their lives until the serial killer who’s been tormenting them is behind bars. When a secret burial site is discovered in the desert with the remains of the Seven of Spades’s earliest victims, that goal finally seems within reach.

But just as the net is tightening, the neo-Nazi militia Utopia launches their master plan with a devastating act of terror that changes the landscape of Las Vegas forever. As Levi and Dominic scramble to prevent the city’s destruction, they’re opposed by treacherous forces that propel them toward catastrophe. In the end, Levi’s fate may rest in the hands of the very killer he’s been hunting.

The race to save Sin City is on, and these players are going for broke. No matter how hopeless things seem, as long as they’re together and they’ve got a chip to play and a chair to sit in, they’re still in the game.

Rating: A

Cordelia Kingsbridge’s Seven of Spades series earned a place on my Best of 2018 list, and the penultimate book, One-Eyed Royals, was actually my pick for best book of the year.  I’ve shouted from the rooftops about this series for the last six months and to say I’ve been eager to get my hands on this final instalment is one hell of an understatement!  A Chip and a Chair is, I’m delighted to say, a supremely fitting end to what has been an incredible series – a tightly-plotted, utterly gripping story full of high-stakes action, emotional highs and lows, and boasting a wonderfully developed, sexy romance between a couple of complex, well-defined and compelling characters.

As is always the case when reviewing suspense novels, I’m not going to say too much about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but there are spoilers for the earlier books in the series in this review.

For the better part of a year, Las Vegas has been the ‘home base’ for a particularly devious serial killer dubbed the Seven of Spades, because each of their victims has had a seven of spades playing card left on their body.  Right from the start, the killer cultivated a relationship – of sorts – with homicide detective Levi Abrams; he’s the one they contact, the one they’ve sometimes fed information to and the one they’ve gone to great lengths to protect.  As the books have progressed, the SoS’s partiality for Levi has led to increased suspicion among his colleagues and a growing sense of isolation from them; a man with anger management issues who struggles to keep himself under a tight rein at the best of times, Levi has been slowly unravelling and getting closer and closer to the edge of his control.

The love and support of his partner, PI Dominic Russo, has kept Levi grounded for the most part, although the couple hit a rocky patch at the end of book three, Cash Plays, after Dominic, a compulsive gambler, relapsed, his lies and manipulation driving a wedge between them.  Their break-up left both of them struggling through some of the blackest times of their lives alone, but by the end of One-Eyed Royals, they were back together, filled with a new determination to work things out between them – and at the beginning of A Chip and a Chair, they’re moving into a new apartment.  It’s been a month since the game-changing events at the end of One-Eyed Royals, and the Seven of Spades has been quiet since then – but Levi knows it’s only a matter of time before they strike again.

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

Defending Morgan (Mountain Mercenaries #3) by Susan Stoker

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Dispatched to the Dominican Republic to rescue a kidnapped child, former Navy SEAL Archer “Arrow” Kane makes a startling discovery: another hostage—Morgan Byrd, a very beautiful and very well-known missing person who disappeared off the streets of Atlanta a year ago. She’s brave, resilient, and unbroken. All Arrow wants to know is why she ended up in a shack in Santo Domingo. All he feels is the desire to protect.

Morgan is done being the victim and is determined to find out who hates her so much that they want her gone—but not dead. Until then, she has Arrow, an alpha stranger who’s offering a warm and safe place to hide. But as the passion between them flares, so does the fear that whoever took Morgan will do anything to get her back. For Arrow, protecting this woman with a mysterious enemy is the most dangerous mission of his life. And it’s worth every beat of his heart.

Rating: D+

Susan Stoker is a popular and prolific author of romantic suspense novels and has written several long-running series in the genre.  I recently listened to an audiobook of one of her titles, and wasn’t wowed by it; I’d failed to realise it was the last book (of nine) in a series, but I wasn’t lost so much as I’d clearly missed out on some important details regarding the central couple, whose relationship had been building since book one.  So I thought I’d give the author another try, and picked up Defending Morgan when it came up for review.  I knew it was part of a series – it’s book three of Mountain Mercenaries – but the series factor wasn’t the cause of the problems I had with it.  I was able to follow the story and action, but it’s slow, there isn’t enough plot to fill a full-length novel, the characters are bland, the romance is limp and much of the dialogue is wordy, repetitive, and unrealistic.

The story opens in media res as a three man team comprised of Archer Kane (aka Arrow – geddit?), Black and Ball (yes, these guys might not be in the military any more, but they still have to have nicknames) effects the rescue of a little girl called Nina, who was kidnapped and removed from the US by her father.  The men get a surprise when they discover Nina isn’t alone; a young woman Arrow recognises as Morgan Byrd – who has been missing for around a year – is with her.  There’s no time to ask questions; the men get Morgan and Nina away, but decide it’ll be safer for them to split up and make their way to the safe house in two groups – Black and Ball will take Nina and Morgan will travel with Arrow.

After just a few pages, we’re told that Arrow feels some sort of deep connection to Morgan –

She was different from all the other women he’d saved over the years. It was as if he could sense her determination. He was proud of her… He also felt more protective towards this woman than anyone else he’d rescued.

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

A Dangerous Collaboration (Veronica Speedwell #4) by Deanna Raybourn

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lured by the promise of a rare and elusive butterfly, the intrepid Veronica Speedwell is persuaded by Lord Templeton-Vane, the brother of her colleague Stoker, to pose as his fiancée at a house party on a Cornish isle owned by his oldest friend, Malcolm Romilly.

But Veronica soon learns that one question hangs over the party: What happened to Rosamund? Three years ago, Malcolm Romilly’s bride vanished on their wedding day, and no trace of her has ever been found. Now those who were closest to her have gathered, each a possible suspect in her disappearance.

From the poison garden kept by Malcolm’s sister to the high towers of the family castle, the island’s atmosphere is full of shadows, and danger lurks around every corner.

Determined to discover Rosamund’s fate, Veronica and Stoker match wits with a murderer who has already struck once and will not hesitate to kill again…

Rating: B+

Like many a fan of Deanna Raybourn’s series of Victorian-set historical mysteries starring the intrepid lady lepidopterist, Veronica Speedwell, I’m as much drawn to the complicated relationship established between Veronica and her delicious partner-in-crime, Revelstoke Templeton-Vane (Stoker), as I am to the mysteries the pair is called upon to solve in each book.  We’ve watched the couple circle around each other in what has sometimes been a most frustrating push-forward-pull-back dance; the sexual tension between them is incendiary, even though they’ve shared little more than one drug-induced kiss throughout three books, and the author has done a terrific job of developing a relationship between them that is based on far more than their obvious mutual lust.  But there comes a time when even a relationship built on incredibly strong foundations of admiration, respect and trust is no longer enough, not between two people who are so very clearly soul-mates in every sense of the term.  And Veronica and Stoker appear to have reached that point, their good-natured, teasing banter and ease in one another’s company having largely disappeared in this book and been replaced by awkwardness and – sometimes – verbal sparring that has crossed the line from affectionate to keenly barbed.

A Dangerous Collaboration, book four in the series, opens just hours after the previous book concluded.  Right at the end of A Treacherous Curse, it seemed that Veronica and Stoker were on the verge of declarations, but they were interrupted – and within hours, Veronica is packing for an expedition to Madeira. Stoker is – not surprisingly – angry and hurt at Veronica’s sudden decision, but after making an offhand suggestion he shouldn’t bother writing if it’s too much of a bore, and Stoker’s impassive response that he’s quite used to managing alone – she leaves.

Veronica is away for six months, during which time she hears nothing from Stoker – for which she knows she has only herself to blame – but instead of being energised by her expedition, she’s listless and unable to concentrate on her specimen hunting and the articles she’s supposed to be writing.  She wanted time apart from Stoker to try to sort out her tangled feelings and emotions;  she’s always taken pride in not needing anyone, on being her own woman and on not wanting to conform to the ideal of Victorian womanhood and get married and have children.  So she’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has, finally, come face to face with the prospect of commitment to one man – and it scares her.

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

Disavowed (Hostage Rescue Team #4) by Kaylea Cross (audiobook) – Narrated by Jeffrey Kafer

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The government trained her to kill….

Briar Jones has lived most of her life in the shadows, carrying out secret ops to eliminate some of the United States’ most dangerous enemies. She’s devoted her life to serving her country so when a faceless enemy targets her and kills someone close to her, she’ll stop at nothing to bring them down. With her life in danger and critical intel leaked during an off-the-books op, she has no choice but to go on the run with a disturbingly sexy man she barely knows. While in hiding they learn that the agency responsible for turning her into a lethal weapon is now out to destroy her. What they don’t know is why, or who has set her up. As they unravel the mystery, Briar must trust this near stranger in order to stay alive and expose whoever is behind the plot. She never expected to lose her heart in the process.

Now it’s coming after her….

Matt DeLuca has survived devastating loss and risen to become commander of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team. When a top-secret mission goes awry and he’s tasked with protecting Briar, the last thing he anticipates is falling in love with the beautiful and deadly assassin. But now intelligence officers are dying and Briar’s name is at the top of the hit list. With her life at stake they race to end the threat and clear her name, battling the shadowy killers sent to silence her forever.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B

I’m not familiar with Kaylea Cross’ work, but she’s written around forty romantic suspense novels (as far as I can tell from Amazon!) and as some are available in audio – and a friend on Goodreads recommended her stuff – I decided to pick one up and give it a go; and on the whole, I was pleased with the result. Disavowed is the fourth book in the Hostage Rescue Team series, but although there are recurring characters from other books (and other series) featured, they’re very much in supporting roles, so this works perfectly well as a standalone.

Special Agent Matteo DeLuca is the commander of the elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team, and it’s evident right away that he’s liked and greatly respected by his colleagues. He and his seven-man assault team are in the middle of an operation to take down Hassan Ramadi, a terrorist responsible for training militants in the use of chemical weapons and planning attacks on American soil, when Matt receives the news that the operation has been compromised. When the team is given the go-ahead to access the remote mountain cabin where their target is holed-up, it’s to discover Ramadi dead from a single gunshot to the head.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.