Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.

When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairy tale, where all the rules of magic – and love – are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life – changing truths – and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

This original and entertaining fantasy romance was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I was delighted when I learned I’d be able to experience it again in audio format performed by a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions; it’s always nice to know something you’re looking forward to is unlikely to be a huge disappointment! Salt Magic, Skin Magic is set in a Victorian era in which magic is known about and practiced, and author Lee Welch does a terrific job, right from the opening lines, of pulling the listener into the tale, creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that immediately grabs the attention.

Soren Dezombrey, Viscount Thornby, was happily kicking up his heels living a life of luxury and dissolution in London until his father, the Marquess of Dalton, burst into his home one morning and forced him to return to Raskelf Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire. That happened eighteen months earlier, and Thornby has been unable to leave ever since. He’s not physically restrained in any way, but something stops him each time he gets near the estate boundary; he feels panicky, he’s assailed by all sorts of doubts and fears, his mind keeps telling him there’s something else he should be doing (like the Victorian equivalent of “have I left the iron on?”) – he literally CAN’T leave.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

 

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.

Trust With a Chaser (Rainbow Cove #1) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Marc Bachmann and Iggy Toma

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

One hot cop. One bar owner out for redemption. One smoking-hot summer fling destined to leave scorch marks…

Mason Hanks has returned to Rainbow Cove, Oregon with one goal in mind: turn the struggling coastal community into a thriving LGBTQ tourism destination. Step one is transforming an old bar and grill into a gay-friendly eatery. Step two? Don’t piss off Nash Flint, the very hot, very stern chief of police who’s not so sure he’s on board with Mason’s big plans.

Nash Flint just wants to keep his community safe and enjoy the occasional burger in peace. He’s not big on change nor is he a fan of Mason’s troublemaking family, especially his rowdy older brothers. But Mason slowly wins him over with fantastic cooking and the sort of friendship Nash has been starving for.

When their unlikely friendship takes a turn for the sexy, both men try to steer clear of trouble. Nash believes he’s too set in his ways for Mason, and Mason worries that his family’s reputation will ruin any future with Nash.

Burning up the sheets in secret is a surefire way to crash and burn, and discovery forces a heart-wrenching decision – is love worth the risk of losing everything?

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

Having really enjoyed Annabeth Albert’s recently concluded Out of Uniform series, I’ve been seeking out her backlist titles in audio (my preferred way of playing catch-up!), and decided to try Trust with a Chaser, the story of a guy who returns to his home town to set up a business, and his under-the-radar romance with the Mr. Grumpy-Pants local police chief. The fact that Iggy Toma – who has quickly become a firm favourite – is one of the narrators certainly factored into my decision, although I haven’t listened to Marc Bachmann before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on that score. I did have a few niggles about his performance in the end, but it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of what proved to be a tender, sexy romance with a May/December (or maybe June/October!) vibe.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Rend (Riven #2) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After a whirlwind romance, a man with a painful past learns to trust the musician who makes him believe in happy endings.

Matt Argento knows what it feels like to be alone. After a childhood of abandonment, he never imagined someone might love him – much less someone like Rhys Nyland, who has the voice of an angel, the looks of a god, and the worship of his fans.

Matt and Rhys come from different worlds, but when they meet, their chemistry is incendiary. Their romance is unexpected, intense, and forever – at least, that’s what their vows promise. Suddenly, Matt finds himself living a life he never thought possible: safe and secure in the arms of a man who feels like home. But when Rhys leaves to go on tour for his new album, Matt finds himself haunted by the ghosts of his past.

When Rhys returns, he finds Matt twisted by doubt. But Rhys loves Matt fiercely, and he’ll go to hell and back to triumph over Matt’s fears. After secrets are revealed and desires are confessed, Rhys and Matt must learn to trust each other if they’re going to make it. That means they have to fall in love all over again – and this time, it really will be forever.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Rend isn’t an easy book to read or listen to, but it’s one that well repays the time spent with it. It’s the tale of a marriage on the edge of collapse and a troubled young man who is dealing with some very real, very deep emotional issues – and I came away from it having experienced laughter and tears, moments of joy, moments of pain and everything in between. When an author can do that simply through the arrangement of words on a printed page… it’s powerful stuff. And when you then take those words and give them to a narrator of the calibre of Greg Boudreaux – who I knew would nail, absolutely and perfectly, every single emotion behind them – there was never a doubt that I was going to be reduced to a pile of emotional rubble by the end.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

Bad Influence (Bad Bachelors #3) by Stefanie London

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Annie Maxwell had her whole life figured out…until her fiancé left her when his career took off. If that wasn’t bad enough, every society blog posted pictures of him escorting a woman wearing her wedding ring. To help the women of New York avoid men like her ex, she created the Bad Bachelors app. But try as she might, Annie just can’t forget him…

Outside his stellar career, CEO Joe Preston has made a lot of mistakes. None was worse than leaving the love of his life when she needed him most. Now, he’s ready for a second chance. He may still be one heck of a bad influence, but when Annie’s safety is threatened by a hacker, Joe is the only one who can save her—and he’ll do whatever it takes to win her back. But will their hard-won bond survive the revelation that Annie is the one pulling the strings behind Bad Bachelors?

Rating: B

Bad Influence is the third and final book in the trilogy of stories involving the controversial website/app called Bad Bachelors, a means for women to honestly rate the men they date.  It’s a sexy, second-chance romance between the site’s creator, Annie Maxwell, and Joseph Preston, the man she loved and had planned a future with until circumstances forced them apart three years earlier.  I haven’t read the other two books, but there’s enough background detail here for the newbie to be able to read this instalment without feeling lost.

On the eve of their leaving the US and moving to Singapore, where Joseph had accepted a highly prestigious banking job, Annie learned her mother had breast cancer.  Instead of talking to Joseph about it, she shut him out of the decision-making process and decided she needed to stay at home to support her family and be with her mum.  It’s a decision that anyone would make in a similar situation and Joseph understood that – he was close to Annie’s family, too – but what hurt him so badly was that Annie made her choice without even consulting him.

Annie barely kept herself together after Joseph left, but it wasn’t until a year later – when she saw a photo of him with a glamorous woman on his arm in a gossip magazine that proclaimed the couple’s engagement – that Annie decided to channel her anger and hurt into something that might help other women to avoid similar heartbreak.  So Bad Bachelors was born.

Speculation is rife as to who is behind the site, and Annie has become used to the volume of mail she receives – both thanking her for creating it and calling her every kind of hateful bitch under the sun.  Some threats are worse than others, but Annie has not, so far, reported them to anyone, not wishing to compromise her anonymity.  Now though, one particular angry commenter has taken things a step further; when Annie receives a photo in the mail that was clearly taken by her own laptop camera, she realises that someone is actively stalking her, and that whoever it is has somehow managed to hack into her computer.  Which makes her wonder – what other aspects of her life has this person gained access to? And what are they planning to do?  Blackmail?  Worse?

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