Georgie, All Along by Kate Clayborn

georgie all along

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Longtime personal assistant Georgie Mulcahy has made a career out of putting others before herself. When an unexpected upheaval sends her away from her hectic job in L.A. and back to her hometown, Georgie must confront an uncomfortable truth: her own wants and needs have always been a disconcertingly blank page.

But then Georgie comes across a forgotten artifact—a “friendfic” diary she wrote as a teenager, filled with possibilities she once imagined. To an overwhelmed Georgie, the diary’s simple, small-scale ideas are a lifeline—a guidebook for getting started on a new path.

Georgie’s plans hit a snag when she comes face to face with an unexpected roommate—Levi Fanning, onetime town troublemaker and current town hermit. But this quiet, grouchy man is more than just his reputation, and he offers to help Georgie with her quest. As the two make their way through her wishlist, Georgie begins to realize that what she truly wants might not be in the pages of her diary after all, but right by her side—if only they can both find a way to let go of the pasts that hold them back.

Rating: B+

I don’t read much m/f romance these days, but I’m always up for one of Kate Clayborn’s because they’re so thoughtful and tender and honest. She writes complex, well-drawn characters who are dealing with relatable, real-life problems, and while not ‘flashy’ or full of drama, her books nonetheless pack a real emotional punch. Her newest release, Georgie, All Along seems to be a retread of the ‘protagonist returns to small home-town and finds love and a new direction in life’ trope – and, to an extent, it is – but in Ms. Clayborn’s capable hands the story transcends the trope and becomes something simultaneously deeper and refreshingly different.

Georgie Mulcahy always had a reputation for being a bit flaky and unreliable in her hometown of Darentville, Virginia. She didn’t amount to much at school and never had any real ambitions beyond it; but her ability to live completely in the ‘now’, to adapt and to think on her feet proved to be exactly suited to working as a PA to high-powered (and high-maintenance) intensely creative – and often intensely chaotic – people in the entertainment industry. For the past three years, she’s worked for Nadia, a well-known screenwriter and director, but when Nadia decides – spontaneously – to retire, Georgie is left at a loose end, coming face to face with the fact that she’s never really had a plan for what to do with her life. With Nadia’s suggestion that she can take the time to do “all the things you want to do”, Georgie decides to head back home for a little while, spend some time with her best friend and her family while she works out what she wants to do next.

Arrived in Darentville, Georgie stops at what she remembers as the general store but which she is surprised to find is now somewhat more upmarket than it used to be. In fact, the whole town seems to have undergone a transformation, the slightly shabby place she remembers giving way to new housing and shops and the signs of a flourishing tourism trade. It’s this ‘renewal’ that has drawn her best friend, Bel, back there, to a new life in a new home with her husband and their soon-to-be family (Bel is eight months pregnant). Georgie decides to buy them a couple of strawberry milkshakes – hopefully they’re as good as she remembers – only to be realise she’s left her purse in her car. Embarrassed – she’s only been back in town less than a hour and already she’s living up to people’s memories and expectations of her as a total flake – she’s checking her pockets just in case, when a guy wearing scruffy work clothes and an irritated expression, steps in to pay for the shakes so he can buy his own stuff and be on his way. The guy is pretty dismissive when she says she’ll pay him back; that, and the knowing looks on the face of the other customer – one of her former teachers – only bolsters Georgie’s determination that when she leaves town this time, she’s going to have figured herself out and worked out what she really wants.

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

Shelf Life (Hearts & Crafts #2) by Kelly Jensen

shelf life

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Good things come to those who bake.

Grayson used to love baking, but the recipe for running his parents’ café changes every day. His dad, overwhelmed by grief, is no help. They can’t even talk about Gray’s mom, let alone the failing business. Of less help is the crush Gray has on Sporty—a trainer from the local gym. Gray barely has time for his friends, let alone scratching the itch Sporty inspires.

Aaron suspects he’s not Gray’s type, meaning Gray probably isn’t into fitness, board games, or redheads. Still, that doesn’t stop Aaron visiting the café twice a week. The day Gray finally speaks to him personally could have been the start of something—if Gray hadn’t immediately suffered a heart attack.

The prescription for Gray’s recovery includes exercise, but when Aaron steps in to help, Gray is dubious. He’s never been fond of working out. The more he gets to know Aaron, though, the more they seem to have in common, especially when it comes to games. Aaron has been quietly designing his own, and when Gray shows interest, they embark on a quest to complete it together: a hero’s journey complicated by family, the demands of their careers, their fledgling relationship, and learning to be honest about what they want out of life.

Rating: B-

I really enjoyed Kelly Jensen’s Sundays With Oliver, book one in her Hearts and Crafts series. Like her This Time Forever series, Hearts and Crafts features older characters (well, in their forties) finding love, and she does it very well, creating characters and situations that feel very realistic, especially given she’s writing about people who have put down roots, who have commitments and the baggage that comes with having been around the block a few times. We met Grayson – Gray – Clery in Oliver’s book; he’s Oliver’s best friend, and he runs a small family bakery/coffee/sandwich shop that enabled him to help Oliver out when he was getting his own baking/consumables business going.

Gray moved back to Stroudsburg after the death of his mother two years earlier, to help his dad with the business, but his dad was – and is – so weighed down by his loss that he’s basically ’checked out’ and Gray has been doing everything. His real love is bread and baking, but having to deal with all the admin on top of the day-to-day business of preparing food and serving customers in a really busy shop has stretched him very thin and he has absolutely no time for himself. He’s stressed up to the eyeballs and hasn’t been feeling good for a while, but he’s ignored it, too busy to listen to what his body is telling him, until it forces him to, and he has a heart attack in the middle of the morning rush.

Aaron Asher is a personal trainer and fitness instructor at the local gym he co-owns with his sister and her wife. He’s a regular customer at Clery’s and has had a crush on Gray for quite a while, but Gray is always so busy, Aaron hasn’t managed to have an actual conversation beyond his sandwich order. He’s buying his lunch when he notices Gray doesn’t look so good; when Gray doubles over, Aaron manages to prevent him from crashing to the floor and then yells for someone to call 911.

While Grey is recovering from what he terms “All The FussTM, his friends rally round to help with the café and keep things going until Gray is well enough to return to it. He’s surpised to discover Aaron among their number; they don’t know each other at all really, although he can’t deny he’s noticed Aaron’s trim body, bright red hair and freckles whenever he’s come in for lunch, and likes what he sees. One afternoon just after closing, Gray finds Aaron still there clearing up, and surprises himself by inviting Aaron up to his apartment for a cup of coffee. Well, tea, as he’s supposed to be off the caffeine. As they chat, a little awkwardly at first, Gray starts to tell him about all the ‘rules’ he was given after leaving hospital, about the exercise he should be doing and about what he should and shouldn’t eat. This sort of thing is totally in Aaron’s wheelhouse, and he suggests that he could create an appropriate fitness program for Gray, one that will help him to build up his strength and stamina most efficiently while also being something to help him stay healthy in the long term. Gray is obviously a bit wary, but in the end agrees to give it a go.

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

All the Way Happy by Kit Coltrane

all the way happy

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Their differences made them enemies.

One summer tied them together forever.

From the moment Jack Gardner first laid eyes on Theodore Beaumont, he hated everything about him. Emanating wealth and icy perfection, Theo was everything Jack was not. Their time together at the elite Gwynns Academy changed them both, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter the summer after graduation that the tension between them became palpable–unbearable.

Seventeen years later, Jack’s and Theo’s worlds collide as they drop their sons off at Gwynns. Theo wants the kind of authentic life that requires confronting past lies–specifically the steamy summer affair he and Jack kept buried like a secret beneath the floorboards of their marriages.

Jack is…less than convinced.

Existing in the present and simultaneously in their shared past, in the richness of their memories and the way they once clung together, Jack and Theo struggle to reconcile the worlds they have built apart with their longing to be together–and the fear of being hurt all over again.

Rating: C+

Kit Coltrane’s All the Way Happy is an enemies-to-lovers story that spans twenty years. I liked the premise – two men who are meant to be together but whose paths diverged for various reasons finding each other again – but I came away from it thinking that what I’d read wasn’t really a romance, despite the eventual HEA.

The story begins when the two protagonists, Theo Beaumont and Jack Gardner, meet on their first day at Gwynns Academy, the prestigious Baltimore school they’re both attending, and take an instant dislike to each other. Theo comes from money and has been brought up to believe he’s better than everyone else and entitled to whatever he wants; Jack has a scholarship place and is, of course, someone Theo feels bound to look down on. When Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t give a shit who Theo is or where he comes from, Theo is furious – but afraid as well. It’s the first time he’s ever been spoken to like that, and the first time someone has seen past the polished veneer of money and expensive clothes.

Nineteen years later, Jack and Theo, now fathers themselves, meet again when they take their sons to Gwynns and help them get settled in, unprepared for the discovery that Jasper (Beaumont) and Will (Gardner) are to be roommates. They don’t do much other than acknowledge each other’s presence and that’s that – or not, because seeing each other again brings back a shedload of memories and feelings both of them have worked hard to forget. But a few weeks later, Jack sends Theo a rambly text asking if they can meet for coffee – because their sons are roommates – to exchange emergency details and be prepared for possibly awkward social situations in the future. Theo doesn’t reply – can’t reply – not straight away, but he can’t forget it either. Eventually he sends a terse, two word response agreeing to meet.

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

Masters in This Hall by K.J. Charles

masters in this hall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

John Garland was in love: now he’s in disgrace. He’s jobless, alone, and determined to avenge himself on the thief who ruined his life. All he wants for Christmas is Barnaby Littimer in gaol.

Barnaby has secured a job running the extravagant traditional Christmas at a rich man’s country house. John intends to thwart whatever he’s up to.

But amid the festivity, the halls are decked with unexpected dangers. And John will need to decide if he can trust Barnaby one more time…

Rating: B+

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

The Christmas festivities at Codlin Hall will culminate in the wedding of Abel’s daughter, Ivy (yes, she really is called Ivy Garland!) to the Earl of Dombey, so a large party is gathered there, many of whom look down on Abel because he made his millions in trade, and are only too pleased to accept his lavish hospitality while sneering about him behind his back. John’s unexpected arrival on Christmas Eve doesn’t go down too well with Ivy, who is worried about appearances and who John knows doesn’t want him –

“reminding everyone that the soon-to-be Countess of Dombey was not just the daughter of industry, but the cousin of incompetence and penury.”

But even though she tries to insist there’s no room at the inn (!), help comes from an unexpected quarter in the shape of Ivy’s nice-but-dim fiancé, who is only too happy to welcome John to join in the celebrations. In turn, John is only too happy at the thought of putting a spoke in Barnaby’s wheel – and at the look on Barbaby’s face when he first sees John amid the assembled guests. Angry and resentful – not least because he’s still very attracted to the man and can’t forget the happy hours they’d spent together – John refuses to listen to Barnaby’s explanations or to his warnings when he tells John he should leave. Maybe Barnaby looks scared and maybe John’s first instinct is to offer to help him, regardless of what he’s done – but John squashes those feelings under his determation not to be made a fool of again.

As always, K.J. Charles fills her story with lots of fascinating historical detail, sharp social observations and, as it’s Christmas, doesn’t stint on the Dickensian references or the puns. Abel Garland doesn’t go in for Victorian sentiimentality, far perferring to hark back to the medieval and pagan ritual that is the real backbone of so many of our Christmas traditions today, so there’s much to learn about wassail, mummers, carols and the Lord of Misrule as well as some sharp commentary about the social pecking order and the abuse of privilege.

The animosity between John and Barnaby isn’t allowed to go on for too long, fortunately, and after that, they join forces to expose a thief and some very shady dealings while also coming up with a way to keep themselves well out of it, with help from the devious brain of a mostly unnamed but very recognisable character – he of the beautiful baritone voice and the dangerously sardonic eyebrow – known to detectives across England simply as “That Bastard” (and to KJC afficionados as Jerry Crozier.) I always enjoy seeing favourite characrters from the points of view of those who don’t really know them, and the author certainly doesn’t disppoint here; John and Barbaby are suitably wary of this Lilywhite Boy and his reputation, and Jerry is wonderfully grumpy – and terrifying – at being forced out of retirement to deal with “Captain Algy”.

John and Barnaby themselves are very likeable characters, clever, witty and self-deprecating but quietly competent, and their past history is  laid out in some very brief flashbacks that set up their romance nicely. There’s a real sense of longing as they both think back wistfully on what could have been, and then a real blossoming of hope when they realise they might have a second chance. They’re sweet and lovely together and their HFN is just right.

Masters in This Hall is the perfect Christmas novella for those of us who prefer our seasonal tales to have a bit of zing and bite. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s devoid of religion and sentimentality, and it’s just the ticket for a cold winter’s afternoon. Enjoy

A surprise Christmas present, K.J. Charles’ Masters in This Hall is a lively tale of mummery and mayhem, of family strife, adultery, blackmail and attempted defenestration – in short, just your regular round of seasonal festivities 😉

Mr. John Garland worked for nine years as a detective at a presigious London hotel, until he was dismissed some months before this story begins, accused of incompetence following the theft of twelve thousand pounds-worth of jewels belonging to the Marquess of Leeford while he was a guest at the hotel. The theft is believed to have been carried out by the mysteious “Captain Algy” – although it’s said to have borne the hallmarks of the infamous – although now retired – Lilywhite Boys, and there is some speculation that perhaps they’ve returned to their lives of crime.

On Christmas Eve 1899, John travels to Codlin Hall in Chesham, the home of his Uncle Abel, a wealthy industrialist. He’s unsure of his welcome, but is there to do Abel a good turn while at the same time revenging himself on the man he blames for his downfall. When John learned that Barbaby Littimer, a theatre designer by trade, has somehow managed to get himself engaged to organise Abel Garland’s Christmas festivities, he knew he had to act. He’s convinced Barnaby had deliberately set out to… er… distract him from his duties at the time of the hotel theft, and believes he must have been in on it. John is determined to foil whatever nefarious plot is underway to rob his uncle.

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

TBR Challenge: The Best Gift by Eli Easton

the best gift

This title may be purchased from Amazon

With help from a Christmas miracle, two bruised hearts find joy again.

Greg Cabot is the third generation to run Cabot’s Christmas Wonderland and tree farm in rural Vermont. But this year will be his last. Since the death of his son, Sam, in Afghanistan, Greg no longer has the heart to run a business based on holiday cheer. When he picks up a hitchhiking soldier on a snowy night, he finds the help he needs to get his farm through the holidays—and maybe much more.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks doesn’t have much to be thankful for this holiday season. Badly wounded in Afghanistan, he’s spent most of the past year in recovery and was discharged after ten years of service. When fate lands him at Cabot’s tree farm, he feels like he’s fallen into a snow globe reality. Friendly people, gorgeous trees, lots of Christmas kitsch… and Greg Cabot.

Greg believes he’s too heartbroken for romance, but those we love never truly leave us. A little nudge from heaven may help build a bridge for these two men trying to heal. If only they are willing to take that first step.

Rating: B+

Eli Easton is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for a while but hadn’t yet read – until this year when I read three of her books and was, on the whole, fairly impressed. That made my choice for this month’s festive prompt fairly easy after I found a copy of her 2021 Christmas novella, The Best Gift waiting for me on my Kindle!

The author packs some real emotional heft into the 150-odd pages of this heartwarming age-gap romance between bereaved father and a military veteran. It will bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat and will leave you sighing happily at the end.

It’s ten months since Greg Cabot’s nineteen-year-old son Sam was killed in Afghanistan, and Greg is still mired in grief. Bright, breezy, happy-go-lucky Sam was everything to Greg, and the plan was that he’d serve for two years and then come back to run the business with his dad, and eventually take it over and pass it to his own kids. Now, though, that future is gone and Greg is just going through the motions. Without Sam’s light, love and enthusiasm, he just doesn’t have the heart for selling comfort and joy any more, and has decided that this will be his final year of opening Cabot’s for business. He doesn’t know what to do with his life now Sam is gone, and plans to put the land up for sale in January.

Sergeant Robbie Sparks was badly injured in an explosion in Afghanistan and has spent the last ten months in hospital and rehab recovering and learning how to walk again. He’s worked hard to get as far as he has, but, frustratingly, there are pieces of his memory missing he’s never going to get back.

Greg is driving into town in heavy snow when he notices a man limping along the side of the road – a man in uniform with a military green duffel slung over his shoulder. Greg pulls over and offers the man – Robbie – a ride and a bed for the night; it’s what Sam would want, even though Greg would rather be on his own.

The next morning, Robbie gets up and gets his gear together preparing to head out. Greg has thoughtfully left him some breakfast, and as Robbie is clearing up, he watches Greg outside, hauling trees to the baler, arrying them to customer’s cars… it’s hard work, and there’s a big queue of people waiting, so Robbie goes outside and offers a hand, as recompense for Greg’s hospitality. When the rush has died down, Robbie sees the “help wanted” ad in the window of the store, and asks if he can stay on until Christmas. Greg is only too pleased to have him stay on.

The Best Gift is a quiet, but deeply emotional story about two wounded souls falling in love and helping each other to find the direction and meaning in life they’re both lacking. The slow burn romance between Greg and Robbie is superbly done; they both feel a definite spark of attraction at their first meeting, which is kind of a revelation for each of them because grief and trauma have meant that neither man has felt much of anything for quite some time, but the author doesn’t rush it, and takes time to create a genuine connection and understanding between them as they work alongside each other and share meals and spend time together at the end of the day. The setting of the Christmas tree farm adds a lovely festive feel to the story, and in the scenes where Greg shows Robbie around the fields and talks about all the trees and the planting and his grandfather’s vision, you can feel his deep love of the place and how much of a wrench it will be to let it go. But then he begins to see the place afresh through Robbie’s eyes, to re-open his eyes to just how special it is, and to find that all the memories wrapped up in it are no longer quite as painful as they once were. There’s a little twist near the end that eagle-eyed readers will already have guessed, and of course, Greg and Robbie get their own Christmas miracle as they realise they’ve found the best gift of all in each other.

Heartbreaking and uplifting, The Best Gift is a beautiful story about second chances and moving on, about family and traditions, and about hope and love and new beginnings featuring characters who are fully fleshed-out and feel very real. If you’re looking for an emotional story that eschews the sickly sweetness that is found in so many Christmas romances, I heartily recommend this one.

Down in Flames (Hot in Chicago Rookies #2) by Kate Meader

down in flames
This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was supposed to be a random hookup.

At a crossroads, my life a hot mess, I swiped right on the guy with the washboard abs and the tree-trunk thighs. His handle was Holt (yeah, really) but as soon as he opened the door, I recognized him: Hudson Grey, the hottest prospect in pro-hockey and apparently, secretly playing for my team. Not mind-blowing enough? He needed someone to punch his V-card, and I was only too happy to volunteer as tribute . . .

Then he ghosted me when it got to be too much.

A year later, my life is back on track and I’m a candidate firefighter at legendary Engine 6. While I might be new to the Chicago Fire Department, I’m a veteran in the game of steamy hookups. My No. 1 rule? No newbies. Except now Hudson has been traded to my hometown team, the Chicago Rebels, and he’s out, proud, and ready to date. And he wants my help introducing him to the local gay scene.

My messy past means I’m the worst guy to be mentoring the shy, sexy jock. But neither can I stand by and watch while others touch the man who already feels like mine.

I might have been his first, but I’m about to learn that the new guy has even more to teach me about hunger, hope, and falling hard . . .

Rating: C

Kate Meader has garnered quite a few good grades for her contemporary romances at AAR, but I’m afraid that I found her latest book, Down in Flames, just about average. The romance between a newly-out hockey star and a probationary firefighter with a chequered past is well-written, but there’s nothing new here and the characters are pretty bland. It’s also one of those m/m books where you could switch out either of the protagonists for a female character with very little trouble and it would make no real difference to the story.

The two leads – Jude Torres and Hudson Grey – meet in the short prequel – White Hot Hookup – when a very nervous and not-yet-out Hudson decides it’s time to get rid of his V-card and swipes right to set it up. The gorgeous, inked, built guy who knocks on his door is something out of Hudson’s fantasies; the sex is fantastic and everything he’d dreamed of, but Jude is a one-and-done kinda guy, and one amazing night is all he’s offering. Over the next couple of weeks however, they start messaging each other on the app, just to chat, and despite Jude’s aversion to repeats, they arrange to hook-up again. Before they can get that far though, a chance meeting sends Hudson into a panic (he’s with a teammate and worries about being outed); the planned hook-up never happens and Hudson doesn’t respond to any of Jude’s messages – he’s deleted his profile from the app. A couple of weeks later, Jude sees a post on Instagram in which Hudson announces he’s gay. It’s bittersweet, but Jude is glad he’s felt able to come out at last.

Jude and Hudson don’t see each other for almost a year. In the intervening time, Jude has continued getting his life back on track following a few years when he went completely off the rails, and Hudson has transferred from his old team in Atlanta to the Chicago Rebels. Their meeting here is certainly an unusual one; Jude and some of his colleagues from Engine 6 – where he’s a probationary firefighter – are doing the annual Polar Plunge for charity, and he sees someone in the water who looks like he’s in trouble. He’s making his way over but is beaten to it by someone else – Hudson Grey. Together, they get the other man back to the shore, but before they can do little more than acknowledge each other, Hudson leaves.

The guy Jude and Hudson hauled out of the freezing water – is the PR guy for the Rebels, and it’s his idea that they should get Jude in for a photo op with Hudson after Hudson is chosen by the NHL for a big campaign that focuses on new players. Hudson decides to go to see Jude at the station to apologise for blanking and running out on him, but their meeting doesn’t go well and both jump to unwarranted conclusions – Jude decides Hudson is ashamed of him and won’t want people to know they already ‘know’ each other (or how) and Hudson thinks Jude is judging him for his inexperience – and honestly, I was ready to close the book right there. Fortunately though, the misunderstandings are not allowed to drag on; Jude and Hudson clear the air, and Hudson surprises Jude by asking if he’d be able to give him some recommendations for places he can meet people – guys who might be interested in more than just hooking up. Jude is stunned by the request and then conflicted; the thought of Hudson with someone else is deeply disturbing, but he doesn’t do relationships – he’s “here for a good time, not a long time” – and even if he did, he’s absolutely not the guy for someone like Hudson Grey.

Somehow though, he can’t stop thinking about Hudson or wanting to spend time with him, and a friendship – laden with undertones of longing and attraction – develops between them and they start hanging out together. I liked this phase of the story and their relationship is nicely built, although I didn’t like Jude’s determination to ‘protect’ Hudson from men who (in his opinion) aren’t right for him. He’s a six-foot-something muscle-bound hockey player, not a diminutive damsel in distress!

There’s minimal conflict in the story, and what there is arises mostly as a result of Jude’s lack of self-esteem. A few years before, he was a wild party-boy – drink, drugs, lots and lots of sex – and his many bad choices led to his almost destroying some of his strongest friendships. He’s turned things around now, thanks to the helping hand offered by another good friend, Sam; he loves his job and is doing well, but he can’t help believing that all the shit he pulled back then means he’s nowhere near good enough for someone like Hudson, a clean-cut, clean-living guy with a pristine reputation to uphold.

Hudson has some anxiety issues – a panic attack is what initially caused him to ghost Jude all those months ago – which he mostly deals with himself (through breathing exercises) because he’s terrified that if he seeks medical help, he’ll be benched. He’s determined to do better though – by Jude and by himself – and I liked seeing him growing in confidence and coming into his own over the course of the story.

Of course, Jude’s past comes back to bite him in the arse towards the end of the book, but it happens so late that there’s never any sense that the HEA might be hanging in the balance. The way it plays out is very realistic, especially in these days of fast moving social media and viral videos, but in terms of the romance, it’s just a case of waiting for Jude to come to his senses and realise that he’s not the fuck-up he was a few years ago and that he really does deserve to be happy and loved.

Down in Flames is one of those books that’s neither good nor bad – it just… is. The characters are nice but basically unmemorable; Jude’s backstory plays a fairly large role in the story, but Hudson is quite bland – he’s gorgeous, he plays hockey, he has anxiety issues – and that’s basically all there is to know about him. The sex scenes are well written, but I skipped most of them after the first couple because they don’t have much to add to the story.

The blurb for Down in Flames trumpets “a brand new MM standalone” but according to Goodreads, it’s book two in the Hot in Chicago Rookies series, so I’m guessing “standalone” here means it’s the only queer romance in the set. In addition, the series is a kind of crossover between the Chicago Rebels (hockey) series and the Hot in Chicago (firefighters) series; there are LOTS of cameos from characters who I’m guessing got their HEAs in those books; they mostly just pop in and out and don’t carry any of the main storylines, but it does mean there are loads of names thrown around and I sometimes struggled to remember who they all were and how they related to each other and the two leads.

I can’t recommend it, but if you fancy a steamy, low-angst story about a firefighter with a shady past and a shy hockey player, Down in Flames might work better for you than it did for me.

Cloud Ten (Nailed It! #1) by Fearne Hill

cloud ten

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Frankie Carter lives and breathes PA work.
Becoming indispensable to a top exec is all he’s ever wanted, even if he is repeatedly overlooked in favour of other less well-qualified applicants.

The problem? 94% of executive PAs are women.

But resourcefulness comes with the territory. As does a pinstriped skirt, killer heels, and enough chutzpah to blag the interviews… conveniently passing as a woman instead of a gay man. Egged on by his friends, Frankie lands himself his dream job working for Lysander St. Cloud, a senior exec on the board of the family firm.

On the outside, his boss has it all. Or does he? Before long, Frankie discovers Lysander’s looks, money, and status mask a shyness and humiliating past he’d like to forget.

Lysander is straight, and he believes Frankie is a woman. A close bond develops between them. A bond increasingly in danger of slipping from professional into something else. Frankie needs to come clean before he hurts not only Lysander but himself. Will he choose his career, his friendship, or his heart? Or is he brave enough to fight for them all?

Rating: B+

Fearne Hill and I got off to a bit of a rocky start – the first book of hers I read didn’t work well for me – but her most recent output has proved that that one was the anomaly in the pack, because I’ve enjoyed everything of hers I’ve read since. Her latest novel, Cloud Ten – book one in her new Nailed It! series – Is funny, clever and sharply observed, and, despite a couple of niggles, also sits firmly on the positive side of the equation.

PA extraordinarire Frankie Carter is Good. With a capital G. But it’s proving more difficult than he’d anticipated to land himself the kind of job consummate with his impressive qualifications and extremely strong skill-set. When Frankie sees the ad for an experienced PA at Cloud Ten Construction, a well-established, family-owned business with a strong commitment to sustainability, diversity and equal opportunities, it sounds like his dream job. The idea of whipping a brand new exec into shape while focusing on developing and promoting the company’s new environmental plan is hugely appealing – but a brief glance at Cloud Ten’s website reveals that, yeah, all the executive PAs are women. So much for equal opportunities. Frankie’s brother Tristan quietly suggests that maybe Frankie should pretend to be a woman; he’s a knockout in drag and even slobs around the house wearing their sister Maddie’s stuff occasionally. They both reckon he could pull it off – and he won’t be lying about anything on the application if he ticks the “prefer not to say” box on the gender question, will he? Frankie isn’t too sure at first – but with his siblings and friends all telling him he should go for it… he applies.

And a few weeks later exec PA Ms. Frankie Carter reports for duty at the Canary Wharf offices of Cloud Ten Construction.

Lysander St. Cloud has recently returned to England after living in the US for the fifteen years, pretty much strong-armed into taking a seat on the board of the family firm that was founded by his grandfather. Cloud Ten’s CEO – his no-nonsense, straight-talking half-sister Daphne – wants Lysander to head up the company’s newly expanded green agenda – Lead the scene and keep it green – but Lysander is so far out of his comfort zone as to be on another planet. He has no business experience and finds much of the detail goes over his head – although he does agree with what Daphne is aiming to do. He just doesn’t think he’s the right person to “spearhead” it, especially as the thought of being in the media spotlight again makes him feel ill.

It takes Frankie no time at all to realise that his new boss is completely out of his depth – and to take him under his wing. It’s clear that Lysander has issues with anxiety and self-confidence – which is not surprising considering he’s been thrust into a role he has no experience for – and that he struggles to process information that is just thrown at him in massive chunks. Frankie quickly sets about finding ways to present it that are more manageable, provides an excellent sounding-board for ideas and, in short, very soon becomes indespensible.

The job is absolutely everything Frankie had hoped it would be – he loves working with Lysander and is fully on-board with the company’s ethos and the changes they’re trying to make, but although he always intended to confess to his lie as soon as he’d proved himself to be an asset to the company, that idea has become complicated in a way he hadn’t forseen. He and Lysander have become close over the months they’ve been working together, and lately, it’s started to feel as though their friendship could be on the cusp of becoming something else – but Lysander is straight and thinks he’s attracted to a woman, and Frankie is miserable at the idea that he could actually hurt Lysander and destroy their friendship by owning up.

When I read the synopsis for Cloud Ten, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in regards to the romance – that whole ‘straight man thinks he’s falling for a woman’ could go horribly wrong, and I admit, I had my doubts. But Fearne Hill is a talented author and I trusted her to make it work – and she does, avoiding the obvious pitfalls and making the most of the opportunity for some very pertinent and insightful observations about sexism in the workplace and the fluidity of gender and sexuality in a way that feels organic to the story and character development.

I realise that lying is a big no-no for some readers, but I really would urge you to set that aside if you can because it’s never treated as unimportant and Frankie is always very conscious of what he’s done. But we’re also very aware of why he’s done it, and I have to say that seeing the gender bias in the workplace working in the opposite direction is a refreshing take – and for balance, there’s a terrific moment in the second half where Daphne gives him a well-deserved bollocking and talks about what it’s like to face constant discrimination. Plus, the deception doesn’t go on for too long; as soon as Frankie realises that Lysander is attracted to him as a woman – and that he’s already in way too deep and headed for a broken heart himself – Frankie fesses up. Lysander’s shock and sense of betrayal are palpable and Frankie is devastated, but even though he offers to resign, Daphne – not pleased by the deception but nonetheless impressed by Frankie’s “chutzpah” – insists he stay on.

It’s awkward, to say the least, but things get easier as they both begin to understand that nothing has really changed about the way they interact or feel about each other. For all his hurt and confusion, Lysander is just as attracted to Frankie now as he was to Frankie before – and he’s not sure what that means. And while Lysander is trying to work that out, Frankie is also realising that perhaps his gender identity isn’t as binary as he’s always believed.

I loved all of this – I even enjoyed the parts about the construction business and how they could go about reducing their carbon footprint (Ms. Hill has really done her homework here!) – and the characterisation is terrific all-round. Frankie is a big-hearted force of nature, energetic, sassy and full of ideas, where Lysander is quiet and reserved; it’s clear early on that something must have happened to force him back to the UK and into the family business he’s so clearly not cut out for, and I liked that he’s not one of those boardroom alphas that populate so many contemporary romances. He blossoms with Frankie’s help and support, and I really liked that shift in the power dynamic.

Their slow-burn romance is lovely, their chemistry crackles and the deep and genuine understanding that develops between them is wonderful, but as soon as Lysander accepts his attraction to Frankie, it’s suddenly full speed ahead!, especially when it comes to the physical side of the relationship. I’d have expected a bit more sexual exploration, but their first time together is strangely cut short (it’s not fade to black but we only get half the story!) and then, what seems to be only a few days later, they’re fucking in the office – which is something of a pet peeve, especially as it’s during the day and they’re not exactly quiet! – and Lysander is suddenly completely confident and behaving like having sex with a man is something he’s been doing for ages.

The supporting cast is very well-written and rounded-out, too, and I’m especially intrigued by Frankie’s much quieter brother Tristan – who is hearing impaired and has mobility issues – and his sister Maddie’s boyfriend Darren, who, at first, seems to have no idea of acceptable boundaries, but then shows himself to be rather insightful and a lot more than the twenty-year-old Jack-the-Lad he seems to be. I hope we get to see more of them in future stories.

My qualms about some aspects of the romance aside, Cloud Ten is an excellent read and one I’m more than happy to recommend. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

My qualms about some aspects of the romance aside, Cloud Ten is an excellent read and one I’m more than happy to recommend. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Christmas on Firefly Hill by Garrett Leigh

christmas on firefly hill

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Firefighter Logan Halliwell doesn’t have much time for romance. A relentless work-life-balance and an expensive divorce have sucked the festive cheer from his days. All he wants is to be a good dad. A fun dad. Especially at Christmas.

He doesn’t know how lonely he is until he meets Remy Collins, a gorgeous fire dancer at a sultry summer festival.

Their instant connection blows his mind, but their fleeting encounter is over before Logan can catch his breath. One kiss and they’re strangers again. That wicked brush of lips nothing but a dream.

Long months pass. Then fate brings them together again at the summit of Firefly Hill, and absence has only strengthened the current thrumming between them. The heat. The precious chance of true happiness they both so desperately need.

Only fear stands in their way.

And Logan’s dangerous job.

It takes a tough lesson and a dose of winter magic to learn that loving each other means Christmas all year round.

Rating: B-

Garrett Leigh’s Christmas on Firefly Hill is a fairly short, emotionally charged and low-angst read that, while not heavy on the turkey or the tinsel, still has enough festive cheer to warm the cockles. It’s a bit of a trope-fest, really: there’s an age-gap, a divorced dad struggling to parent young kids, and an insta-connection, with some hurt/comfort thrown in for good measure. I liked the two leads and the quirky feel to the location, and the kids in the story read like real kids with personalities of their own rather than plot-moppets. I enjoyed the story, but can’t say it knocked my socks off.

Firefighter Logan Halliwell is moonlighting as a fire marshall at a summer festival when he first sees Remy Collins, a lithe, vibrant poi/fire dancer who is, quite literally, the most beautiful man he’s ever seen. The intense connetion pulling them towards each other at the end of the dance is like nothing either of them has ever felt – it’s so strong it really leaps off the page – and they share a brief but passionate kiss. Before they can get as far as exchanging names (or numbers) though, Logan is called away. Neither of them expects to see the other again.

Not long after that meeting, Remy suffered a serious accident which broke some bones and left him unable to perform for the rest of the season. He’s unsettled and directionless, just about making ends meet while living out of the back of his clapped-out Transit van, and the cold weather isn’t doing the residual pain in his right hip and leg any favours. He’s pinned his hopes on renting a workshop for the winter where he can pursue his other business, making jewellery and other decorative items, and to this end, he’s just about got the old van up Firefly Hill to meet “Uncle Marr”, the eccentric old gent who owns the building – and to Remy’s surprise and relief, he agrees to rent the space to him on favourable terms and tells him “the boy” – his nephew – will be in to sort out the finances.

To say Logan is surprised to learn the identity of his uncle’s new tenant is an understatement. Not a day has gone by without his thinking about the gorgeous dancer and the single kiss they’d shared – and now, here he is, the man of Logan’s dreams standing right in front of him, a blinding grin on his face.

The connection that flared between them months earlier roars back to life, as strong now as it was then, bringing with it a chance for Logan and Remy to find out how – or if – they might make room for each other in their lives. Their mutual physical attraction is not in question, but they’re very different men with messy, complicated lives and baggage that will have to be dealt with if they’re going to make a go of it.

Logan is struggling to balance his job as a firefighter in the city with his family responsibilities. He and his ex-wife Bec share custody of their seven-year-old twin boys, Billy and Sam, and while Logan is a great dad and loves his kids to bits, mostly he’s knackered and feels like he’s an inadequate parent, not doing enough or not doing it right. Remy is outgoing and free-spirited, although his accident knocked his confidence a bit and he’s feeling more vulnerable than he would like. He’s prickly and fiercely independent and has learned the hard way – his dad died when he was twelve and his mum doesn’t give a shit – that the only person he can really depend on is himself. Nobody has ever got under his skin the way Logan has, but Remy doesn’t want or need to be rescued. He has to find a way to learn to accept help, and Logan has to work out how to temper his strong protective instinct and understand Remy’s need to look after himself.

The romance is bursting at the seams with heartfelt emotion, and the thing I liked best about it is the way these two look for ways to help and support each other in many different ways, from Remy fixing stuff around Logan’s place (a leaky tap or wonky gate) to Logan casually offering a hot meal and the warmth of home and family that Remy has never really had. I liked the fact that they’re not into playing games or manufacturing drama; Logan isn’t great at using his words, and that sometimes feeds into Remy’s insecurities, but their communication improves as they get to know and understand each other and to work out what they want from whatever is happening between them.

For a book with “Christmas” in the title, Christmas on Firefly Hill isn’t overtly Christmassy, but I didn’t mind that. The message that comes through in the story is that warmth and family and love are the important things and trees and decorations are just shiny extras that, while they might be nice, are not as important.

There’s not a lot of conflict here, and what there is is dealt with in a mature way; just two guys figuring out how to make a life together who sometimes mis-step but work it out eventually. The two boys are extremely well written with very different and believable personalities, and while Bec can come across as a bit cold and self-centred at times, she’s likeable at others and obviously loves her boys.

I do have some niggles though. I’m not a fan of insta-love/lust, and I sometimes found the language used to describe the emotions rather overblown. Plus, I really didn’t like Remy’s choice of nickname for Logan – “Papa”. It’s not daddy/boy kink, he uses the name in regular conversation and it made me cringe every time.

In the end, Christmas on Firefly Hill falls into that middle-ground category of ‘didn’t love it, didn’t hate it’ books, ones I enjoyed but will probably have forgotten about in a week or so. Still, if you’re in the market for something to bring the warm fuzzies on a cold winter’s afternoon, it might just fit the bill.

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

It’s only later, once Miles’ panic has receded, that he has a chance to think clearly and realises that the charming Mr. Price had been telling the truth – and that he’s given Miles plenty of information he could use against him if Miles wished to. Realising he over-reacted, Miles signs the book, and the next day, heads off to Charlie’s house carrying both the book (wrapped, of course) and a good bottle of wine by way of apology.

There’s an intense spark of lust between the pair from the get-go, and the very next day – after an amusing scene in which Miles is mistaken for a sommelier and ends up offering suggestions as to which wine and cake Charlie and Alma should have at their wedding (although in Victorian England, there would only have been one sort of wedding cake on offer – the traditional heavy fruit cake that’s still the norm today) – Charlie takes Miles upstairs to see his ‘collection’. One thing leads to another, but they’re disturbed by footsteps in the hallway before they can have sex on the floor – and Miles is spooked. He doesn’t do this, he isn’t this reckless – with very good reason – but there’s something about Charlie that is completely irresistible, and he doesn’t say no when Charlie says he’ll come to Miles’ place on Friday evening.

Miles and Charlie fall hard and fast for each other and very soon are engaged in a passionate affair. They’re open and honest from the start and don’t even try to hide the fact that there’s more to what’s happening between them than sex, so that what starts out as a mostly light-hearted sunshiny-rake-brings-love-and-life-back-to-grumpy-introvert-with-tragic-past romance quickly develops into a story that really tugs at the heartstrings. The conflict in the romance is both realistic and heartbreaking; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books I’ve read recently where I actually felt the relationship was in serious jepoardy in the final chapters (even though I knew there would be an HEA), and Ms. Everlee does a really good job of articulating the very real difficulties that Charlie and Alma – and Miles – are facing.

I have to applaud the author for the way she writes Alma, who is never demonised. Instead, she’s a clever and charming young woman who is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as Charlie is and, as a woman, has even fewer options open to her. She and Charlie obviously care a great deal for each other, and he wants to give her a good home and perhaps even children (if he can manage it), but like many well-to-do men of the time, doesn’t intend to give up his ‘other’ life. And the thing is, I couldn’t actually dislike Charlie for that; he genuinely likes Alma and wants her to be happy and secure, but also needs to to carve out a little time to be true to himself as well – and the sad thing is that he knows that ‘a little’ is all he’s ever going to be able to have. He wants to continue to see Miles after he’s married, but Miles refuses, not only because he doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of betrayal, but also because he knows that eventually Charlie will have less and less time for him and that such gradual dwindling will hurt much more than a clean break. He also clearly sees how this marriage will slowly kill Charlie, draining away his liveliness and humour and everything that makes him him – and can’t bear the thought of watching that happen.

Miles and Charlie are flawed, complicated individuals who come vividly to life, especially Charlie, who really is a ray of sunshine, so engaging and loveable that it’s easy to understand why people are so drawn to him. Their romance is beautifully written, with plenty of humour, affection and tenderness, and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching.

There’s a great cast of secondary characters, too, with a lovely found family element and sense of community in the group of friends at The Curious Fox, the molly house Charlie frequents.

As I said at the beginning, this would have been an A grade review if it weren’t for the book’s ending, which is just a little too pat. And while the author does a pretty good job of evoking a strong sense of time and place, there are a few things that jar, like the use of a street name without “Street” or “Road” (which is a dead giveaway that the author is American – we would say “Holywell Street” and not just “Holywell” for example), the way Charlie’s butler speaks to him and a few turns of phrase that feel too modern.

Still, The Gentleman’s Book of Vices is an extremely accomplished and throughly engrossing début novel and one I definitely recommend to anyone looking for a new voice in queer historical romance. I gather this is the first book in a series, and am looking forward to reading more from this talented author.

Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

Actor Dylan Frasier is known as one of the biggest playboys in Hollywood, infamous for seducing men and women alike. He’s also half in love with his two best friends. Unfortunately, Jason and Ben are madly in love with each other, leaving Dylan the odd man out. When Ben suggests an extended Christmas vacation at a resort modeled after his favorite 80s TV show, Dylan reluctantly agrees. Sure, his heart breaks a bit every time he sees them together, but it’s a vacation in the Bahamas. How bad can it be?

At first, the resort seems like any other. Dylan plans to work on his tan, get laid, and hunt for Hollywood’s most in-demand director – not necessarily in that order. Then he meets Connor, a tennis instructor still hurting from a bad breakup. Connor knows Dylan’s reputation and refuses to be seduced. Dylan sees Connor as just another conquest, but this tropical island isn’t as mundane as it appears. It has its own kind of magic, and it’s about to make things interesting.

Rating: A-

Back in 2020, I chose Marie Sexton’s Winter Oranges as my read for that year’s December prompt in the TBR Challenge, and really enjoyed it. It’s an unusual and charming story, a gorgeous slow-burn romance with a magical twist, and I was delighted to see that the author was writing a sequel. Often, sequels turn out to be disappointing, but I’m happy to report that Winter Dreams is even better than Winter Oranges. It’s a beautifully developed redemption story (and I’m a sucker for those!) combined with a touch of fantasy and another fabulous and emotionally satisfying slow-burn romance.

While it’s probably not essential to have read Winter Oranges before this, I strongly recommend doing so. For one thing, it’s a great read, and for another, you’ll get more detailed insight into the central relationships and character backgrounds. Please be aware that there are spoilers for that book in this review.

Actor Dylan Fraser has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. Relationships aren’t for him and he’s never made a secret of that – even with the only lover he ever returned to, his best friend Jason Walker. Even though Dylan knew Jason was in love with him and no matter that he knew how cruel it was, Dylan couldn’t bring himself to stay away. But two years later, things are very different. Jason is now blisfully happy with Ben (Winter Oranges is their love story), and although Dylan adores them both – is even a little in love with both of them – and knows Ben is more right for Jason than he ever was, he can’t help feeling like the odd man out, or wondering about what might have been if he’d been capable of fidelity.

When the story opens, Dylan, Jason and Ben are en route to a luxury holiday island resort in the Bahamas called Fantasy Island, like the classic eighties TV show of the same name. It is, according to the brochure, a “place where all your fantasies come true.” Jason snidely suggests Dylan’s fantasy is to fuck his way through all the guests before the month is out; laughingly, Dylan agrees, although he knows that deep down, his fantasy would be to stop being himself and become Jason or Ben for the rest of his life, which would be so much better than being him. He ruthlessly suppresses the knowledge that he’s envious of what they’ve found in each other, and knowing it’s not something he’ll ever have, he figures he might as well not bother trying to find it and continues to live up to his flagrantly promiscuous reputation.

Within hours of arriving, Dylan has made a start on his ‘fuck everyone on the island’ quest, but after only a few days of having all the sex he wants, he starts to feel bored and on edge. He decides it’s time to get started on the other reason he came to the island – to track down a big-name movie director who winters there and charm – or fuck, whatever is needed – his way into his latest movie.

After a workout at the gym, Dylan heads to the nearby café for lunch and his interest is snagged by a guy sitting alone at another table. Dylan wanders over to ask him if he can buy him a drink, but the guy throws Dylan off his stride when he asks if his uncle has put Dylan up to trying to pick him up. Dylan has no idea who this uncle is and says so; the guy – Connor – relaxes a bit and lets Dylan buy that drink. As they’re chatting and Connor makes it clear that he’s not going to have sex with him, Dylan realises that he actually wants to spend time with the other man, even if it is just for the thrill of the chase. Connor suggests a game of tennis later that afternoon – still adamant that he’s not going to be seduced – and Dylan becomes even more determined to ‘woo’ Connor into bed.

The tennis match is followed by dinner, which leads to more conversation and to Connor opening up to Dylan about his recent break-up with a guy he thought he loved, but who turned out to be using him to get ahead. After dinner, Dylan gets to walk Connor back to his bungalow – but that’s where the night ends, after a chaste kiss to the forehead. More not-dates – tennis and dinner, sightseeing and dinner – follow, and Dylan realises he’s started not to care that sex isn’t on the table; he’s enjoying being with Connor and enjoying everything about him – he’s fun to be with, he’s sexy and intriguing – and Dylan is not at all interested in being with anyone else. Startled, he realises he could actually be falling for Connor – he wakes up every morning wanting to see him and hates saying goodnigh every evening – but he’s terrified, too. He’s not cut out for monogamy – he knows what he is and how he operates, and is sure it’s only a matter of time before he screws it all up.

The slow-burn romance is beautifully done here; the growing connection between Dylan and Connor is superbly written, and although Dylan’s is the sole PoV, his perspective is so rich and perceptive that I never once felt there was anything lacking. Connor is a great foil for him, level-headed where Dylan is impulsive, quieter and introspective where Dylan is outgoing – and they’re good for one another, Dylan encouraging Connor to come out of his shell a little, and Connor helping Dylan to see himself a little differently.

Dylan wasn’t a particularly likeable character in Winter Oranges, selfishly hurting Jason over and over, so the author set herself quite the challenge to redeem him and make him the hero of his own story. She rises to that challenge admirably, however, slowly peeling away layer after layer of Dylan’s character to reveal the real man beneath the party-boy exterior he uses to deter anyone from getting close, and the unacknowledged and untreated trauma in his past that has informed so much of the man he has become. That man is incredibly complex – so very self-aware yet stuck in a never-ending spiral of self-loathing and unable to see a way out – and Ms. Sexton does a fantastic job of showing us that he’s far more than the smooth seducer of reputation, and that beneath it all, he’s in a pretty bad place. No spoilers, but it’s made clear that Dylan’s road to breaking the cycle he’s fallen into is not going to be easy, and that it’s an ongoing process – which felt very realistic.

The fantasy element in Winter Dreams is perhaps less prominent than in its predecessor, but it packs quite the emotional punch. Ben has correctly defined the premise of the old TV show as “be careful what you wish for”, with the characters’ fantasies taking them down paths they hadn’t considered and then having to stay the course to get their just reward. It seems this Fantasy Island is doing the same thing as, in dreams, Dylan and Connor are shown possible futures, ways their lives could turn out depending on the choices they make. I absolutely loved this device; it’s clever and impactful but doesn’t overwhelm the story or have the feel of some kind of deus ex machina; the romance develops organically and is very much character-driven.

While all this is going on, the author also takes time to bring some closure to the relationship between Dylan and Jason – or rather, to one particular phase of their relationship and move it into the next one. Despite his avowed rejection of romantic love, there’s no question that Dylan was in love with Jason and that he just refused to see it. Now, he’s filled with regrets, and even though he is happy that Jason has found love with Ben, he’s a bit jealous, too, and there’s a sense that Jason is not especially happy in their friendship. I was so pleased to see that friendship being repaired and becoming stronger and deeper; as Dylan finds love with Connor, he’s able to see his love for Jason and Ben for what it truly is, a real and true friendship that will last forever. And on a side note, I loved Dylan choosing Ben to help him at the end; for all his faults, one of Dylan’s better qualities is his desire to make other people feel good about themselves, and he knew that showing his trust in Ben would would make a huge difference to his (Ben’s) self-esteem.

Winter Dreams exceeded my expectations all round. All the relationships in the story are beautifully written and the central romance is passionate and full of chemistry with a deeply satisfying emotional connection at its core. Looking at my ‘read’ shelf on Goodreads, I see this is only the second book by Marie Sexton I’ve read – something I clearly need to rectify! In the meantime however, this one goes on to my keeper shelf, and is very highly recommended.