Transactional Dynamics (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #3) by Gregory Ashe

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Emery Hazard is ready for Valentine’s Day. He’s made reservations months in advance, he’s ordered flowers, and he’s got a boyfriend he wants to treat right—even if John-Henry Somerset occasionally lets the dishes sit in the sink a little too long. They even have an extra reason to celebrate this year: Somers has received a special commendation for his police work.

Everything begins to go wrong, though, when Hazard’s ex-boyfriend shows up on their doorstep. Billy claims he just needs help getting away from an abusive partner, but Somers believes Billy has other motives, including designs on Hazard.

When men who have been hired to track Billy show up in Wahredua, Hazard agrees to help his ex elude them. But as Hazard prepares to sneak Billy out of town, a woman is murdered behind the local gay bar, and Somers’s investigation leads him towards Hazard’s ex.

As Hazard and Somers find themselves working together to find the killer, they both must confront a hard truth: everything comes at a cost—career success, healthy relationships, and even justice. The only question is if they’re willing to pay the price.

Rating: A

Transactional Dynamics, book three in the Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords series, is possibly my favourite book of this series and by this author; and that’s saying something considering I haven’t given anything of his I’ve read so far less than a B+ (and most have been DIKs).  As in the two previous books, there are standalone mysteries to be solved while the author keeps the overarching plotline around the serial killer dubbed the Keeper of Bees ticking over in the background.  Taking centre stage however is the complex and often frustrating relationship between the two leads, which Mr. Ashe continues to explore with his customary skill and insight.

Note: This book does not stand alone; there are plotlines continuing from previous books and the relationship between Hazard and Somerset really needs to be experienced from the beginning.  There are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

In Police Brutality, private investigator Emery Hazard and his boyfriend Detective John-Henry Somerset went through a rough patch, clashing professionally as well as personally as Hazard, still struggling with the PTSD and depression left over from the events of the previous summer, and with the guilt he feels over the murder of a young gay couple months before, had started to withdraw from Somers (again), leaving Somers feeling shut out and worried, both for the man he loves and their relationship.  Having worked through those problems, and with Hazard agreeing to try to be more open and communicative, things have been going well… but over the past few weeks, irritations and annoyances have begun to creep in, as Somers has started slipping back into some of his old ways of avoidance and drinking too much.  I think any couple – especially one with young children – will recognise this particular dynamic; Somers works a fairly rigid schedule and is also often called out unexpectedly; Hazard works for himself and can be more flexible with his hours; Somers wants to kick back and relax when he gets home from work; Hazard wants him to pull his weight around the house and with childcare… it’s a difficult balance to achieve and maintain, and both men’s resentment is building as they try to avoid a major row about who does the dishes and the laundry while continuing to care for their daughter and do demanding and stressful jobs.

But sadly – Hazard and Somers being, well, them – things are about to get much worse.  Completely out of the blue one evening, Hazard’s ex, Billy Rolker appears on their doorstep begging for help.  Not surprisingly, Hazard wants nothing to do with him and storms out, but avoiding Billy isn’t so easy when he turns up at Hazard’s office.  He tells Hazard he’s running from a guy who is physically abusive and who has sent a couple of goons to find him and beat him up, and then presents a tox screen report from the previous night that shows he had Rohypnol in his system.  His guess is the goons put the drug in his drink while he was at the Pretty Pretty, but he didn’t pass out and managed to get an Uber to the hospital.  Hazard tells Billy he should go to the police, but he just wants help to get away and promises that if Hazard will help him, he’ll disappear forever.

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

The Last Kiss by Sally Malcolm

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A tender and triumphant story of forbidden love in the aftermath of war

When Captain Ashleigh Arthur Dalton went to war in 1914, he never expected to fall in love. Yet over three long years at the front, his dashing batman, Private West, became his reason for fighting—and his reason for living.

But Ash’s war ends in catastrophe. Gravely wounded, he’s evacuated home to his family’s country house in Highcliffe. Bereft of West, angry and alone, Ash struggles to re-join the genteel world he no longer understands.

For Harry West, an ostler from London’s East End, it was love at first sight when he met kind and complex Captain Dalton. Harry doubts their friendship can survive in the class-bound world back home, but he knows he’ll never forget his captain.

When the guns finally fall silent, Harry finds himself adrift in London. Unemployed and desperate, he swallows his pride and travels to Highcliffe in search of work and the man he loves. Under the nose of Ash’s overbearing father, the men’s intense wartime friendship deepens into a passionate, forbidden love affair.

But breaching the barriers of class and sexuality is dangerous and enemies lurk in Highcliffe’s rose-scented shadows.

After giving their all for their country, Harry and Ash face a terrible choice—defy family, society and the law to love as their hearts demand, or say goodbye forever…

Rating: B+

Sally Malcolm’s latest novel is something of a departure for anyone familiar with her excellent New Milton series. The Last Kiss is an historical romance set in England immediately after World War One, and it features two characters for whom the class divide is as insurmountable an obstacle to their love for each other as is their sexuality.  Ms. Malcolm is one of my favourite writers; her ability to delve deep into the thoughts and emotions of her characters is something that always impresses me, and here, she combines that with a sharply observed, unvarnished look at the problems faced by the men who were lucky enough to return from a war that forever changed them – to a world in which they no longer fit.

Captain Ashleigh Dalton and his batman Private Harry West met in 1914, and became close friends in spite of their difference in rank and backgrounds. Ash is the son of a baronet and worked in a bank and Harry was an ostler in Bethnal Green, but war is a great leveller; they’ve lived side-by-side and have been through hell together, and as time has worn on, their friendship – and deep mutual affection – is just about the only thing that has made life bearable for both of them.  The story begins in the early hours of a morning in October 1917 when Ash and his men are waiting for the final command to go over the top.  Ms. Malcom brilliantly evokes the overall feelings of trepidation and despair felt in the trenches and also does a fantastic job of showing readers the strength of the bond that exists between Ash and Harry – not with words, because they can’t possibly say any of the things they feel, but rather through the actions that communicate their obvious care for one another. When Ash is severely wounded, Harry’s world almost comes to a stop, and fearing the man he loves is dead, his first thought is to invite a German bullet to end it all. But seeing the men look to him for guidance and reassurance, he can’t do it.  Clinging to hope, Harry somehow finds the courage to carry on, and one month later, receives the news that Ash is alive, and is being sent home to England.

The fact that Ash lost part of one leg and is suffering from “nerve damage” (which we’d call PTSD today) are not the only things that have made it impossible for him to pick up the reins of his old life.  He misses Harry desperately, and he’s full of anger and frustration at the way that those around him – most notably his parents and others of their generation – seem to want to brush the war under the carpet and go on as though nothing has changed, and he can’t bear it.

“What was it for, if everything goes on the same?”

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

Cross Her Heart (Bree Taggert #1) by Melinda Leigh

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For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide… Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.

Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children. But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.

Rating: B+

Bestselling author Melinda Leigh introduces readers to Detective Bree Taggert in Cross Her Heart, the first book in her new series of romantic suspense novels.  It’s an excellent start, a solid, intriguing and well-paced mystery that introduces and starts fleshing out the central characters and the relationships between them at the same time as it presents a mystery that is very personal for Bree, whose tragic past is brought abruptly back to her in the worst possible way.

The book opens on a harrowing scene taking place at eight-year-old Bree’s home in Grey’s Hollow in upstate New York.  She is desperate to protect her younger siblings – Erin and baby Adam – from their violent, abusive father, as he rages at and beats their mother. Bree has managed to call the police and to keep herself and her brother and sister safe, although when the police arrive, it’s too late for their mother – and their father then turns the gun he used to shoot her on himself.

While Adam and Erin were taken in and brought up by their grandmother, Bree, who was something of a handful, was brought up by a stern cousin in Philadelphia. Looking back, Bree can see that their childhood separation has had a negative effect on their adult relationship; they’re not close, and although Erin continues to live in Grey’s Hollow, Bree has rarely been able to get past her issues to visit there, so Erin and her two kids visit Philly once a year instead.  When we meet Bree again, she- now a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD – and her soon-to-retire partner, Dana Romano,  have just chased down a suspect when Bree picks up a panicked message from Erin saying she’s in trouble, but when she calls back, only gets voicemail.  Worried because Erin is the head down, go to work, raise her kids sort who’s never in trouble, and still unable to contact her, Bree heads to Grey ‘s Hollow – and her fears for Erin only ratchet up when she arrives at her sister’s house to see two sheriff’s department vehicles parked outside.  Something is very, very wrong.

Erin has been killed, and the chief deputy explains that their main suspect is her estranged husband, Justin, who is currently missing.  Erin’s body was found by Justin’s friend, Matt Flynn, a former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler, who was at the house to collect Justin to take him to his Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  Drugs were the cause of Justin and Erin’s split; he became addicted to pain meds following a car accident, and she didn’t want him around her kids while he was using.  But they were still seeing each other and intended to work things out, and Justin has been trying, with Matt’s help and support, to get clean.

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

TBR Challenge: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

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When Major Lagallan suggests to Miss Caroline Hetton that she should marry his young brother, she can hardly believe her good fortune, and at first sight Vivyan Lagallan seems to be the perfect bridegroom; young, charming and exceedingly handsome. Yet upon closer acquaintance, Caroline is disturbed by his wild, restless spirit and discovers that he has a taste for excitement that eventually endangers not only his life, but hers, too.

Rating: C+

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the engaging, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

Murder at Pirate’s Cove (Secrets & Scrabble #1) by Josh Lanyon

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Ellery Page, aspiring screenwriter, Scrabble champion and guy-with-worst-luck-in-the-world-when-it-comes-to-dating, is ready to make a change. So when he learns he’s inherited both a failing bookstore and a falling-down mansion in the quaint seaside village of Pirate’s Cove on Buck Island, Rhode Island, it’s full steam ahead!

Sure enough, the village is charming, its residents amusingly eccentric, and widowed police chief Jack Carson is decidedly yummy (though probably as straight as he is stern). However, the bookstore is failing, the mansion is falling down, and there’s that little drawback of finding rival bookseller–and head of the unwelcoming-committee–Trevor Maples dead during the annual Buccaneer Days celebration.

Still, it could be worse. And once Police Chief Carson learns Trevor was killed with the cutlass hanging over the door of Ellery’s bookstore, it is.

Rating: B

Murder at Pirate’s Cove is the first book in a new series of cozy mysteries by Josh Lanyon – a kind of Adrien English meets Jessica Fletcher if you will! All the ingredients of the genre are there – a small village community, eccentric characters, dastardly doings and an intrepid hero; in this case one who ends up at the wrong end of a murder investigation!

Screenwriter Ellery Page left New York and his cheating boyfriend for the small Rhode Island resort town of Pirate’s Cove when he inherited a bequest from his great-great-great aunt Eudora. That bequest consisted of the town’s mystery bookshop, Crow’s Nest, and a rambling (and ramshackle) late-Victorian era house just outside town, and Ellery, feeling the need to make a change, has thrown himself into running the shop and renovating the house. He likes Pirate’s Cove, although he’s still something of an outsider, and is determined to make a go of things there… although three months in, he’s not sure how much longer he’ll be able to afford to stay if business doesn’t start to pick up soon.

Walking back to the shop from the pub late one evening, Ellery is surprised to see the lights are on – and even more surprised to find a dead body – dressed in a pirate costume – lying on the floor. Trevor Maples – a local property developer who was pressuring Ellery to sell Crow’s Nest – was a nasty piece of work, and the fact that he and Ellery were overheard in an altercation on the day Maples died means things don’t look too good for our hero. When the chief of police, Jack Carson (a former LAPD Homicide detective) makes it clear that Ellery is currently the number one suspect, Ellery decides that if the police aren’t looking for the real killer, then he’ll have to find something to persuade them to look elsewhere – and maybe even prove his own innocence. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that someone is actively trying to frame Ellery for the murders – but who, and why?

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

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Big Bad Wolf #4) by Charlie Adhara

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Agent Cooper Dayton and his partner, Oliver Park, are going undercover—at a retreat for couples who need counseling. They do say the best cover story is one that’s close to the truth…

Agent Cooper Dayton is almost relieved to get a phone call from his former boss at the Bureau of Special Investigations. It means a temporary reprieve from tensions created by house hunting with Oliver Park, his partner both in work and in life. Living together in a forever home is exactly what Cooper wants. He’s just not keen on working out the details.

With a former alpha werewolf missing, Cooper and Park are loaned to the BSI to conduct the search at a secluded mountain retreat. The agents will travel to the resort undercover…as a couple in need of counseling.

The resort is picturesque, the grounds are stunning and the staff members are all suspicious as hell.

With a long list of suspects and danger lurking around every cabin, Cooper should be focusing on the case. But he’s always been anxious about the power dynamics in his relationship with Park, and participating in the couples’ activities at the retreat brings it all to the surface. A storm is brewing, though, and Cooper and Park must rush to solve the case before the weather turns. Or before any more guests—or the agents themselves—end up dead.

Rating: A

To say I was excited when I learned that Charlie Adhara was going to be continuing her Big Bad Wolf series is something of an understatement.  I’ve never really been into books about shifters, but after reading Em’s DIK review of book one, The Wolf at the Door, I decided to try it and was immediately hooked on the adventures of BSI (Bureau of Special Investigations) agent Cooper Dayton and his werewolf work-partner (and later, romantic partner), Oliver Park.  Each book in the series contains a standalone mystery, but the central relationship develops throughout, so it really is advisable to read all the books and read them in order so as to gain a proper understanding of how Cooper and Park have arrived at the point at which we meet them again at the beginning of Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.

[Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.]

At the end of Thrown to the Wolves, Cooper, frustrated by the utter uselessness of the BSI when it came to dealing with wolves as victims and seeing the bureau’s ignorance and lack of respect for wolves and their history, quit the organisation and joined a new department set up by the Trust (the group that oversees all wolves), dedicated to investigating crime – whether by humans or their own kind – against wolves.  He and Park have continued their working partnership there, and their personal relationship continues to thrive; they’re in love, they’ve been living together for months, and now they’re looking to buy a home together – but while Park has eagerly jumped in to the business of house-hunting, Cooper is holding back, the prospect of leaving the apartment he’s lived in for years putting him on edge. He knows his old, one bedroom place is too small for them, and that although he’s welcomed Park into his space, it’s still his space and nothing in it is Park’s.  Wanting to do something nice for Park, Cooper agrees to look for somewhere together, but he can’t work up the same enthusiasm for the search – and definitely not for the expensive ‘mini mansions’ Park favours.

Cooper is thinking he really needs to have an honest conversation with Park about the situation but is saved from doing it right away by a phone call from his former boss Elena Santiago – whom he hasn’t spoken to since leaving the BSI – who asks for their help in finding a missing wolf. A wolf who, as it turns out, Park had dealings with in his time as the Shepherd, when he fought and banished him for mistreating his pack members and attacking other packs.

After this, Thomas Kreuger found work as a groundskeeper at a remote a mountain retreat in North Carolina, living under the radar until a couple of weeks earlier, when he reached out to a pack member and told her that something at the retreat was badly wrong, but didn’t elaborate.  A week after that, he suddenly turned in his notice and just disappeared.  He hasn’t been officially reported missing, but his former mate is concerned about him. Santiago wants Cooper and Park to look into Kreuger’s disappearance unofficially – and as Maudit Falls is a relationship retreat for wolves, they already have the perfect cover story.  Fresh mountain air, brisk swims in the lake, couples counselling… it’ll be a nice little vacation for them.  Cooper isn’t particularly impressed.

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

The Tempting of the Governess (Cinderella Spinsters #2) by Julia Justiss

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His new Governess…

Is getting under his skin!

Infuriating, impertinent…just some of the words Colonel Hugh Glendenning could use to describe Miss Olivia Overton! She’s insisting he spend time with his orphaned wards – which has forced him to admit he’s been keeping the world at arms’ length since losing his wife and baby son. That’s not all that’s disturbing him. It’s the new temptation Olivia’s sparking in Hugh to live again – with her!

Rating:B

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for master/governess romances – probably a result of my long-time love for Jane Eyre – so the synopsis of Julia Justiss’ The Temptation of the Governess caught my eye. It proved to be a charming, character-driven romance featuring two likeable characters forced by circumstances to make big changes in their lives.

The first Cinderella Spinsters book, The Awakening of Miss Henley, introduced the three heroines of the series, young ladies who had decided never to marry and instead to set up house together and pursue charitable endeavours and the political causes close to their hearts.  This story opens as Miss Olivia Overton’s plans for her life are turned upside down when she learns that the inheritance she had planned to use to support herself has been lost in a series of unsuccessful speculations made by those who were supposed to have been looking out for her best interests.  Unwilling to live as a dependent relative upon her cousin, Olivia instead decides she can follow only one of two paths in order to earn a living; she can become a lady’s companion or – her preferred option – a governess.

Widower Colonel Hugh Glendenning returned from India eighteen months earlier, following the death of his elder brother, to find the family estate of Somers Abbey in Yorkshire had been run almost into the ground.  He has spent his every waking moment ever since working hard to repair the damage, and at last is starting to see the fruits of his labours.  Money is still tight and the Abbey boasts only a skeleton staff, but Hugh believes that the next few months should see things easing up a bit.  When a couple of travellers arrive at the Abbey with two young girls in tow and explain that the girls, Elizabeth (eight) and Sophie (six) are his wards, the daughters of his recently deceased cousin, Hugh is taken aback.  He had agreed to stand as guardian, yes, but had thought he would be responsible at a distance, expecting them to remain at their home on St. Kitts in the Caribbean while he managed their affairs from England.  There’s nothing to be done but to ask his female relatives if one of them is able to take the girls, and in the meantime he must find a governess for them.

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