A Duke Changes Everything (The Duke’s Den #1) by Christy Carlyle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Nicholas Lyon gambled his way into a fortune and ownership of the most opulent, notorious gentlemen’s club in England. But when Nick’s cruel brother dies, he inherits a title he never wanted. The sooner Nick is rid of the estate that has always haunted him, the sooner he can return to the life he’s built in London. But there’s one obstacle—the exquisite Thomasina Thorne.

When the new heir to the Tremayne dukedom suddenly appears in Mina Thorne’s life, she’s flustered. Not only is he breathtakingly handsome, but he’s also determined to take away her home and position as steward of the Enderley estate. If Mina learns what makes the enigmatic duke tick, perhaps she can change his mind—as long as she doesn’t get too close to him.

With each day Nick spends with Mina, his resolve weakens as their colliding wills lead to explosive desire. Could she be the one woman who can help him finally bury the ghosts of his past?

Rating: C+

A Duke Changes Everything is the first book in Christy Carlyle’s new series set in the early Victorian Era.  It features a reluctant duke who happens to own a successful London gaming club – seriously, nineteenth century London – the historical romance edition – not only has about a million more dukes than could feasibly exist, but it seems the entire city consists of gambling establishments owned by aristocrats.  It’s become such an over-used character type that my eyes are starting to glaze over whenever I read a synopsis in which the words ‘duke’ (or earl) and ‘gambling club’ appear in the same sentence.

Anyway.  This particular duke has absolutely no interest in being one.  Nicholas Lyons is the second son of the Duke of Tremayne, who, from the sound of it, was completely insane.  Believing Nick to have been the product of his wife’s infidelity, the old duke hated his younger son and subjected him to unbelievable cruelty before the duchess was able to get them both away to France.  When she died, Nick was just sixteen and he returned to England penniless, determined to make his own way and wanting nothing whatsoever to do with his family.  After his father died, the title passed to Nick’s older brother, Eustace – and it’s the latter’s recent death that sees Nick now saddled with a dukedom and attendant duties and estates he doesn’t need or want.  His memories of Enderley Castle are far from happy ones, and so naturally, the last thing he wants is to set foot in the place, but he knows he’ll have to if he’s going to carry out his plan of selling everything of value, setting the place to rights and then leasing it out.

Mina Thorne has lived at Enderley her entire life, and seeing the previous duke took no interest in the place, took over her late father’s role as steward.  She’s highly competent and genuinely cares for the land and its inhabitants, although naturally the local gentry shake their heads disapprovingly and insist it isn’t proper for her to hold such a position.

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

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Five Years Gone by Marie Force (audiobook) – Narrated by Andi Arndt and Joe Arden

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The most brazen terrorist attack in history. A country bent on revenge. A love affair cut short. A heart that never truly heals.

I knew on the day of the attack that our lives were changed forever. What I didn’t know then was that I’d never see John again after he deployed. One day he was living with me, sleeping next to me, making plans with me. The next day he was gone.

That was five years ago. The world has moved on from that awful day, but I’m stuck in my own personal hell, waiting for a man who may be dead for all I know. At my sister’s wedding, I meet Eric, the brother of the groom, and my heart comes alive once again.

The world is riveted by the capture of the terrorist mastermind, brought down by US Special Forces in a daring raid. Now I am trapped between hoping I’ll hear from John and fearing what’ll become of my new life with Eric if I do.

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – B

Five Years Gone is the heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting story of a young woman whose life is ripped apart when the man she loves says goodbye one day and then disappears without trace. I tend to be a fan of angsty stories, so this one sounded right up my alley; and for a lot of the time it was – although a few things about the set-up didn’t quite convince, and there were a couple of times early on when I felt the story was stretched rather thin and needed to move on. I’ll say now that there are obvious (and presumably deliberate) parallels to 9/11 and its aftermath in the novel, but Ms. Force doesn’t belabour the point and there is nothing at all in the story which is gratuitous or insensitive.

Ava Lucas is twenty-one when she meets John West, a Naval officer stationed in San Diego where she’s just finished college. They literally bump into each other one night at a bar and hit it off straight away – and for two years, they’re blissfully happy together… until the day that a terrorist attack on an American cruise liner – The Star of the High Seas – kills four thousand people and John is immediately deployed.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding (Matches Made in Scandal #4) by Marguerite Kaye

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Kirstin Blair has spent seven years trying to forget brooding Cameron Dunbar. Now self-made man Cameron needs her help to recover his missing niece, and Kirstin must face the truth: seeing him again sparks the same irresistible attraction that first brought them together! She must decide… Resist, or give in to temptation and risk Cameron discovering everything she’s fought so hard to protect…

Rating: B

The novels in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series have all been linked by the presence of the mysterious Procurer, a woman whose business is matching people with seemingly insoluble problems with someone who stands a very good chance of helping them to resolve them – and that person is usually a woman to whom life has not been kind and who deserves a second chance.

In A Scandalous Winter Wedding, readers are finally given more than a glimpse of the Procurer and we learn more of her backstory as she decides to undertake the search for two missing girls herself rather than finding someone else to take it on.  The two girls – a young lady visiting London with her mother,  and her maid – went missing from their hotel one night and have not been seen since, and the Procurer – otherwise, Miss Kirstin Blair – knows that she has the requisite skills and contacts most likely to ensure a happy outcome.  But that’s not the only reason she finds herself compelled to take on this particular case.  She’s been contacted by the girl’s uncle, Mr. Cameron Dunbar, a wealthy merchant from Glasgow – and the man with whom Kirstin spent one gloriously passionate night six years earlier when she was making her way to London after the death of her father, intending to make a new life for herself.  She has never forgotten either the man or their night together, and, in spite of herself, can’t help wanting to know what has become of him since.  After reading his letter, she decides to meet him in person as the Procurer, engineering their meeting in such a way as he won’t be able to see her face properly; and after hearing him out, agrees to help him track down the missing girls, fully intending to follow her usual procedure and find someone else to assist him.  Which, in a way, she does – sending Kirstin Blair to him while leaving her long-time assistant to oversee the Procurer’s business.

Ms. Kaye does a splendid job here of showing just how well suited to each other Kristin and Cameron are; he very clearly admires her intelligence, her perspicacity and her pragmatism and respects her for who she is, while Kristin appreciates similar qualities in Cameron and admires his determination to do the right thing no matter the personal cost.  They work together seamlessly, each playing to their strengths and recognising each other’s, and there’s no attempt on either part to exclude the other for their own protection.  This is very much a relationship based on mutual understanding and intellectual equality, which is one of the things that makes this second-chance romance work so very well.  Another thing, of course, is the chemistry between the couple that bubbles and sizzles nicely as the author allows the attraction that has never really diminished to build gradually until it becomes impossible for either character to deny it any longer.

The one thing that didn’t really work for me is something that happens towards the end – I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but put simply, Kirstin reacts to something in a way that seemed totally out of character for a woman who has, up until this point, been level-headed and clear-sighted about everything.  She suddenly turns into this over-emotional woman I didn’t recognise – and I understand that it’s partly a knee-jerk reaction to something she had hoped Cameron wouldn’t find out (and her big secret is fairly easy to guess even before its revealed), but it was such a huge character reversal that I felt almost as though I had whiplash!  And the way she attributed motivations to Cameron while knowing perfectly well what sort of man he was felt really off.

Fortunately, Ms. Kaye doesn’t draw out this point for too long, and effects a reconciliation swiftly and with Kirsten’s full acknowledgement of her error, showing her to be exactly the sort of woman I’d believed her out to be – someone with great personal integrity and the ability to weigh up a situation and come to a considered conclusion, as well as someone strong enough to be able to admit when she was wrong.  Cameron is a similarly appealing character – a successful businessman who has become so by dint of his own hard work and who, in spite of his illegitimacy, knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.  He sees Kirstin for exactly who she is and loves her for it, never for one moment wanting to change her or for her to be someone she is not.

A Scandalous Winter Wedding provides a fitting conclusion to what has been a very strong series from one of my favourite authors of historical romance.  Ms. Kaye always writes with intelligence and insight, her research is detailed and she rounds-out her characters so that they feel like real people with real dilemmas and real emotions rather than cardboard cut-outs.  If you’ve been following the Matches Made in Scandal series, you’ll need no urging from me to pick up this final volume, and if you haven’t, each book works as a standalone, so this is as good a place to start as any.  And if you’re just a wee bit tired of all those titled folks waltzing their way around ballrooms, this book will make a refreshing change.

Pretty Pretty Boys (Hazard & Somerset #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

After Emery Hazard loses his job as a detective in Saint Louis, he heads back to his hometown–and to the local police force there. Home, though, brings no happy memories, and the ghosts of old pain are very much alive in Wahredua. Hazard’s new partner, John-Henry Somerset, had been one of the worst tormentors, and Hazard still wonders what Somerset’s role was in the death of Jeff Langham, Hazard’s first boyfriend.

When a severely burned body is discovered, Hazard finds himself drawn deeper into the case than he expects. Determining the identity of the dead man proves impossible, and solving the murder grows more and more unlikely. But as the city’s only gay police officer, Hazard is placed at the center of a growing battle between powerful political forces. To his surprise, Hazard finds an unlikely ally in his partner, the former bully. And as they spend more time together, something starts to happen between them, something that Hazard can’t–and doesn’t want–to explain.

The discovery of a second mutilated corpse, though, reveals clues that the two murders are linked, and as Hazard gets closer to answers, he uncovers a conspiracy of murder and betrayal that goes deeper–and closer to home–than he could ever expect.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – A-

Pretty Pretty Boys is the first book in Gregory Ashe’s six-book series about Missouri-based detectives Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset. I really enjoyed the story, which boasts a well-crafted, intricate mystery and combines it with the difficult, angsty relationship between the two men, who have known each other since boyhood and whose shared history is a complicated one. I’ll say right now though, that while there are romantic elements to the book, they’re low-key and mostly confined to some really delicious sexual tension between the leads, so if an HEA or HFN in every book is a must, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. We’re talking slow burn, with an emphasis on the slooooooooow – although reviews of later books lead me to believe that the guys get there eventually. Each instalment in the series takes place across a fairly short time-span, and the whole series only spans a few months, so it makes sense that the romantic side of things would take a few books to get going. Even though the wait is frustrating…

Anyway. For reasons listeners are not (yet) privy to, Detective Emery Hazard has been forced to quit his post in St. Louis. He’s offered the choice between being demoted to a desk job or keeping his shield and going somewhere else – and chooses the latter option, deciding to return to his home town of Wahredua – which he remembers as a dismal backwater – intent on finally discovering what drove his first boyfriend to commit suicide some fifteen years earlier. The place doesn’t hold many happy memories for him. The only openly gay kid in a small, insular town, he was tormented at school by a group of three boys, and he still bears the scars – both physical and emotional – of that bullying, so returning to Wahredua brings back all those memories and more. He knows one of his three persecutors is dead, and he soon discovers another is a wreck of a man… which leaves him wondering what happened to the third, the town’s golden-boy; the drop-dead gorgeous, charming and popular John-Henry Somerset.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Love Around the Corner (New Milton #1.5) by Sally Malcolm

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Real life enemies, online lovers. Two lonely men, destined for each other–if only they knew it.

Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans. Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— encounter last Christmas.

Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature. Leo’s still reeling from a bad breakup and struggling to make friends in New Milton, so seeks comfort instead in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.

But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…

Rating: A

The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films.  Set around Christmas time, it tells the story of two co-workers who don’t get on and bicker all the time in spite of the attraction that sparks between them – and which they ignore. He thinks she’s stuck-up, she thinks he’s crass and in any case, they’re both completely in love with their respective pen-pals… who are, of course, each other.  (The film was remade in the 1990s as You’ve Got Mail, but it’s not a patch on the original, IMO.)  Sally Malcolm gives the story another update in Love Around the Corner, set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton which was also the setting for her earlier novel, Perfect Day and which she will revisit in her upcoming release, Between the Lines.

In this version of the story, Alfie Carter – who owns the local garage – has been corresponding for around a year with someone he met online in a group dedicated to the works of Jane Austen.  He and LLB hit it off right away and text each other several times a day, enjoying discussions about anything and everything, bonding over their love of books and of discussing them in depth.  On the day we meet Alfie, he’s excited and nervous because that evening, he and LLB have arranged to meet face-to-face for the first time.  He’s never had a long-term relationship before, but he’s ready for one; the connection he feels with LLB is like nothing he’s ever experienced with anyone, and Alfie is absolutely ready to take things to the next level.

Leo Novak moved to New Milton after the long-term relationship he’d been in crashed and burned, and owns a small bookstore there.  He and Alfie met at the previous year’s Christmas party at the Callaghan’s and didn’t hit it off at all, their encounter resulting in an exchange of insults which saw Leo assume Alfie to be dumb and Alfie take Leo for an unmitigated snob.  They’ve avoided each other ever since and nothing they’ve seen of one another in the interim has served to change either of those initial impressions.  Leo is a bit of a loner; he knows he’s prickly – “but when you grew up too smart, too sensitive and too gay for the tastes of most people, you learned to defend yourself.”  Like Alfie, he’s looking for love and companionship, and he thinks he may have found it with Camaro89, the guy he met online a year earlier and has been corresponding with ever since.  He’s nervous about their first real-life meeting – what if Camaro89 is disappointed with what he sees?  Or vice-versa? – but he knows that they have to meet if their relationship is to progress, which is something he wants very much indeed.

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

Unspeakable (Deadly Secrets #4) by Elisabeth Naughton

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All his siblings have moved on from their troubling pasts, but Rusty McClane can’t leave his behind. Not even when his freedom is in jeopardy.

Legal investigator Harper Blake can sense a bad boy. She’s drawn to them—like she is to her mysterious and brooding new client. The police believe that Rusty is involved with the case of a missing underage girl. Harper’s job is to find evidence to defend him. But is her sexy suspect a predator…or something else?

If Rusty is guilty of anything, it’s of stirring something primitive in Harper. The closer they get, the harder it is to believe the worst of him.

But in an underworld filled with sex trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, Harper will need to be cautious about whom she trusts. Because Rusty isn’t the only one with secrets.

Rating: B-

Unspeakable is book four in Elisabeth Naughton’s Deadly Secrets series featuring the adoptive McClane siblings, and although I haven’t read the other books, it works pretty well as a standalone.  There are, of course, some recurring characters and past events referred to, but the author gives enough information about them to satisfy the newbie without getting bogged down in too much extraneous detail.  I did, however, read a few reviews of the other books after I’d read this one, and discovered that Unspeakable’s hero – Russell (Rusty) McClane – was a bit of an arsehole in the others, so I did miss out on that whole bad-boy-redeemed thing.  On the plus side, however, not knowing much about him meant that the first chapters of the book, where the author paints him as something of a questionable character, kept me guessing for a while – even though it was obvious he was the hero the minute the heroine started lusting after him.

Rusty has always thought of himself as the black sheep of the family, the really awful things he’d done in the past making feel as though he doesn’t belong among this group of honest, good-hearted people who love him.  He can normally handle family parties, but this particular day he just wants to be somewhere else, to avoid the questions about the bandages on his hands and the lies he’ll have to tell in response, hating himself for the deception and cringing at the obvious pride his parents take in him.  In the middle of the party, however, things look set to come crashing down around his ears when two detectives show up at the McClane house intent on asking Rusty some questions about a young girl last seen at the local strip club where she’d worked – and where she’d been seen in Rusty’s company.

Ex-cop-turned-investigator Harper Blake knows a bad boy when she sees one, and Russell McClane most definitely pings her evil receptors.  Her boss, lawyer Andrew Renwick, is an old friend of the McClane family, and he’s been asked to do a little digging around on Rusty’s behalf, to see what the police might be using to build a case against him in case Rusty is charged and Renwick has to mount a defence.  Renwick tells Harper that at least eight girls working at strip joints in the area have disappeared over the past few weeks and months, and that McClane is known to have visited the same places, enquiring about their youngest employees.  Harper can’t put her finger on it, but she knows immediately that something is off about McClane.  Is he just some sicko bastard who preys on teenaged girls, or is something else going on?  Either way, she’s determined to find out.

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

Beginner’s Luck (Chance of a Lifetime #1) by Kate Clayborn (audiobook) – Narrated by Will Damron and Carly Robins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Kit Averin is anything but a gambler. A scientist with a quiet, steady job at a university, Kit’s focus has always been maintaining the acceptable status quo. Being a sudden millionaire doesn’t change that, with one exception: the fixer-upper she plans to buy, her first and only real home. It’s more than enough to keep her busy, until an unsettlingly handsome, charming, and determined corporate recruiter shows up in her lab – and manages to work his way into her heart….

Ben Tucker is surprised to find that the scientist he wants for Beaumont Materials is a young woman – and a beautiful, sharp-witted one at that. Talking her into a big-money position with his firm is harder than he expects, but he’s willing to put in the time, especially when sticking around for the summer gives him a chance to reconnect with his dad. But the longer he stays, the more questions he has about his own future – and who might be in it.

What begins as a chilly rebuff soon heats up into an attraction neither Kit nor Ben can deny – and finding themselves lucky in love might just be priceless…

Rating: Narration – B+: Content – B+

Kate Clayborn’s Chance of a Lifetime series is a trilogy about three friends who, on impulse, buy a lottery ticket and end up winning the jackpot. The books published so far – Beginner’s Luck and Luck of the Draw (the final book, Best of Luck, will be released in November) – have been highly recommended, and that, together with the combined appeal of two experienced narrators who have both received praise at AudioGals decided me on giving this one a try. I’m glad I did; Beginner’s Luck is an enjoyable, sexy romance between complex, well-defined characters who grow as individuals throughout the story; there’s a small but fully-rounded secondary cast and the various relationships – friendship and familial – are skilfully drawn.

Ekaterina – Kit – Averin is pretty happy with her life. She has a job she enjoys at the local university, good friends she loves… and although she wishes she was able to see a bit more of her older brother Alex, a globe-trotting photographer, life is good. After the lottery win, she decides to use some of her money to obtain something she’s always desperately wanted, but never really had – a home. Her mother left when Kit was a baby and her father was – is – addicted to alcohol and gambling, so her childhood wasn’t particularly stable. Alex, who is her half-brother, was only five at the time her mother left, but he took on the responsibility of caring for Kit and pretty much raised her. Now, Kit craves stability and wants to make herself a home; she falls in love with an old house in need of a lot of TLC and refurbishment and buys it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.