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.

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.

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.

Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Palace of Rogues #1) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A mistress. A mountain of debt. A mysterious wreck of a building.

Delilah Swanpoole, Countess of Derring, learns the hard way that her husband, “Dear Dull Derring,” is a lot more interesting—and perfidious—dead than alive. It’s a devil of an inheritance, but in the grand ruins of the one building Derring left her, are the seeds of her liberation. And she vows never again to place herself at the mercy of a man.

But battle-hardened Captain Tristan Hardy is nothing if not merciless. When the charismatic naval hero tracks a notorious smuggler to a London boarding house known as the Rogue’s Palace, seducing the beautiful, blue-blooded proprietress to get his man seems like a small sacrifice.

They both believe love is a myth. But a desire beyond reason threatens to destroy the armor around their hearts. Now a shattering decision looms: Will Tristan betray his own code of honor…or choose a love that might be the truest thing he’s ever known?

Rating: B+

Confession time: I still haven’t managed to read all of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series.  I’ve read four or five of the books, and the rest are on my TBR Pile of Doom; I think the series started before I got into romance reading in a big way, and I just haven’t found the time to catch up yet (and this isn’t the only author/series/book that applies to!)

Fortunately for me, though, I get to be in on the ground floor of the author’s latest series, The Palace of Rogues, which opens with Lady Derring Takes a Lover, the story of a young widow who takes a most unusual step in order to support herself after her husband dies and leaves her swimming in debt.  It’s clever, well-written and sharply observed; the author makes a number of very pertinent comments about women’s lack of agency and the expectations placed on them by society during the period at which the book is set, but she does it in a wonderfully subtle way that is never heavy-handed or preachy, which makes her heroine simultaneously refreshingly different and of her time.

Delilah, Countess of Derring, was married off to the much older Earl when she was barely out of the schoolroom.  Her marriage wasn’t happy but wasn’t terrible; her husband wasn’t cruel or abusive, he was just… mostly disinterested.  When he dies and the creditors start circling, Delilah doesn’t know what to do; she only knows she has no intention of dwindling into a ‘poor relation’,  passed from house to house, always a little out of place, a little in the way.

She visits her husband’s solicitor in order to find out if there really is no money for her – and while she’s there, her meeting is interrupted by a striking blonde woman, also in mourning… who turns out to have been the late Earl’s mistress, Angelique Breedlove.

The first sign that Delilah is going to be something of a remarkable heroine is that she actually feels some sort of kinship with the Other Woman and doesn’t freak out at the knowledge of her existence.  In fact, later in the day, they find themselves in the same dingy pub near the docks, and end up sharing a drink… and then agreeing to pool their remaining resources and go into business together.  The only thing Derring left his wife was a building in the East End near the docks, and Delilah has the idea of turning it into a boarding house – The Grand Palace on the Thames – but more than that, she wants to make it somewhere their (hopefully many) guests will feel truly at home, and where she can foster a sense of togetherness and family.

Captain Tristan Hardy is Captain of the King’s Blockade, and has the reputation of having almost single-handedly shut down every smuggling ring operating on and around British shores – except one, and it’s pissing him off royally. He’s currently on the trail of some most unusual and staggeringly expensive cigars he knows are being smuggled into England by the ruthless Blue Rock gang, but has so far been unable to stop their transportation from the coast to London.  His one lead is that the late Earl of Derring used to smoke them exclusively – and Tristan now decides he needs to find the man’s widow to find out what she knows.

This works as the springboard for the romance between Delilah and Tristan, but as a mystery it isn’t particularly compelling.  It’s competently done, but there’s no real sense of urgency about it; Tristan is described as the “King’s attack-dog” a man who will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of answers, yet his investigation into the cigars seems somewhat laissez-faire.

The romance, however, works a great deal better.  Delilah and Tristan are well-matched and their tentative steps towards each other are really well done; she’s never experienced desire or sexual pleasure but is no blushing virgin either, and doesn’t leave Tristan in doubt about her interest in him.  She’s a terrific heroine, one who gives the impression of being naïve and wholesome – people don’t expect her to be funny or to take a stand on things (a mistake even Angelique makes about her) – but really, she’s clever and witty, as well as being incredibly kind, and genuinely wanting to make people feel comfortable and happy.  Tristan is a hard-nosed individual with a job to do; fiercely self-contained, he doesn’t let people know him easily but he simply can’t help being drawn to Delilah, and right from their first, inauspicious meeting, the chemistry between them sizzles.  Like Delilah, he has a dry sense of humour and fun that is unexpected, and the moments he allows that snarky, devilishly teasing side of him out are among the best things about the book.  Their romance is a slow-burn, full of longing glances and slightly risqué flirtatious comments, and it’s simply delicious.

The other relationship in the book – that between Delilah and Angelique – is unusual and superbly done; I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything quite like it before.  Not just because it’s the wife and the mistress, but because it’s two equally strong female characters, albeit from different social strata, with strengths and weaknesses that play off each other and who are bonded through their relationships with – and impoverishment by – the same man.  It’s one of the best, most satisfying female friendships I’ve ever read in a romance novel – but the downside is that they’re so well set-up, and the focus is so firmly on them for the first part of the book that I felt Tristan was rather underdeveloped by comparison.  And following on from that, while Ms. Long does a great job setting up her motley crew of secondary characters and boarding house guests, (Tristan’s relationship with his Lieutenant provided some wonderful insight into his character) I felt some things could have been omitted without diminishing the overall story and that time and page-count could have been spent with Delilah and Tristan.

Those niggles aside, Lady Derring Takes a Lover was a really entertaining read. Delilah is an engaging heroine and I enjoyed her relationship with the pragmatic Angelique very much; and while Tristan is perhaps a little underdeveloped, he’s still a hero worthy of All the Swoons. The set up for the next book has me very intrigued and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Welcome back to the world of historical romance, Ms. Long.  You have been sorely missed.

Dare to Love a Duke (London Underground #3) by Eva Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Zara Hampton Brown

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For a dashing duke and the proprietress of a secret, sensual club, passion could lead to love. Thomas Powell, the new Duke of Northfield, knows he should be proper and principled, like his father. No more duelling, or carousing, or frequenting masked balls. But he’s not ready to give up his freedom just yet. Lucia – known as Amina – manages the Orchid Club, a secret society where fantasies become reality. Yet no member of the club has ever intrigued her…until him, the masked stranger whose heated looks sear her skin. After months of suppressed longing, do they dare to give in to temptation?

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

Dare to Love a Duke is the third book in Eva Leigh’s The London Underground series, in which the three heroines are not as respectable as the debutantes, governesses and worthy widows that litter the pages of historical romance. Eva Leigh presents a trio of spirited, independent women who know how to play men at their own game and who have made lives for themselves on their own terms – and pairs them with men who fully appreciate them for what and who they are.

Following the recent death of his father, Thomas Powell, the new Duke of Northfield decides it’s time to leave his misspent youth behind him. The late duke was one of the most conservative members of society, and while Tom doesn’t aspire to emulate him, he has no wish to continue to inspire the sort of gossip that will embarrass his mother and sister or tarnish the family name. In any case, his dissolute lifestyle has begun to pall somewhat and he’s ready for a change – but his one regret is that his decision will mean no more visits to the Orchid Club, the clandestine sex club that allows all who attend to indulge their secret sexual desires and fantasies in complete anonymity. Tom has attended the club’s weekly gatherings for the past year – his fascination with the place far more to do with the sense of freedom his anonymity brings and with the club’s beautiful hostess, the mysterious Amina, than with any of the many offers of sexual gratification that come his way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Military Wife (Heart of a Hero #1) by Laura Trentham

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Harper Lee Wilcox has been marking time in her hometown of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina since her husband, Noah Wilcox’s death, nearly five years earlier. With her son Ben turning five and living at home with her mother, Harper fights a growing restlessness, worried that moving on means leaving the memory of her husband behind.

Her best friend, Allison Teague, is dealing with struggles of her own. Her husband, a former SEAL that served with Noah, was injured while deployed and has come home physically healed but fighting PTSD. With three children underfoot and unable to help her husband, Allison is at her wit’s end.

In an effort to reenergize her own life, Harper sees an opportunity to help not only Allison but a network of other military wives eager to support her idea of starting a string of coffee houses close to military bases around the country.

In her pursuit of her dream, Harper crosses paths with Bennett Caldwell, Noah’s best friend and SEAL brother. A man who has a promise to keep, entangling their lives in ways neither of them can foresee. As her business grows so does an unexpected relationship with Bennett. Can Harper let go of her grief and build a future with Bennett even as the man they both loved haunts their pasts?

Rating: B

Laura Trentham’s The Military Wife is a poignant, gently moving story that explores the various facets of military life as faced by the families of servicemen and women, who have to deal with challenges just as complex and difficult as their enlisted loved ones. It’s an entertaining and informative story in which the author examines serious issues such as depression and PTSD, and looks as well at the difficulty of putting down roots, holding down jobs and maintaining continuity when your partner could be transferred to another location at any time.

Harper Lee Wilcox lost her husband Noah when he was killed while on active service overseas five years earlier.  Her son Ben was conceived just before that last deployment so he has never known his father, and although Harper sometimes worries about his lack of a father figure, he’s a bright, happy, well-adjusted little boy who is the light of her life.  After Noah’s death, Harper and Ben moved in with Harper’s mother, who suggests that maybe it’s time for Harper to break out of the rather dull routine her life has become, doing books and taxes for a handful of local businesses and living really for Ben rather than for herself.  Harper graduated from university with degrees in business and marketing, and right now she’s not using either of them; but with Ben now in school full-time, perhaps it is time for her to move forward in terms of her career and her personal life.

Harper is concerned about one of her dearest friends, Allison Teague, whose normally chatty, exuberant nature has seemed to dim of late, so Harper decides to pay her a short visit to see if there’s anything she can do to help. When she arrives, she finds the normally well put-together, upbeat Allison is a complete mess.  She’s lost weight and carries an air of exhaustion around with her; her husband Darren is withdrawn, and short-tempered and hasn’t been the same since he returned from his last mission.  Both women suspect he may be depressed or suffering from PTSD, but whenever Allison tries to broach the subject of getting help, he shuts her down.

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