Up in Smoke (Hotshots #4) by Annabeth Albert

up in smoke

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Freewheeling smoke jumper Brandt Wilder thrives on adrenaline. He’s never met a parachute he can’t repair or a dangerous situation he couldn’t wrangle his way out of. He’s popular and fun-loving and not at all looking to settle down or form lasting relationships. It’s a lifestyle that’s served him well…right up until the day he finds a baby on his doorstep.

Shane Travis is used to putting his country music career—and his own happiness—on hold after his sister rolls through his life. Like last spring when she convinced him to try skydiving for his birthday—and she walked away with the hot parachute instructor.

Now he gets to deliver the piece of news that will upend Brandt’s carefree life: he very well might be a dad.

Shane’s niece is safe in Brandt’s strong, capable hands, but too many questions remain unanswered. Co-parenting while they sort it out leads to late-night talks, and soul-bearing confessions lead to a most inconvenient attraction. Still, Shane can’t leave this makeshift family behind—even if it means playing house with the one man he can’t resist.

Rating: B

Up in Smoke is the fourth book in Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series about wildlife firefighters and smoke jumpers based in rural Oregon, but it’s got a slightly different tone (and a very different sort of cover) to the other books in the series.  Smoke jumping does feature in the story, but it’s more of a backdrop to the main storyline – about how the two leads learn to adapt to the unexpected circumstances in which they find themselves – and the slow-burn romance.

Smoke jumper Brandt Wilder occasionally helps out a friend who runs a sky-diving school.  The clients on this particular afternoon are a brother and sister – Shane and Shelby Travis;  it’s Shane’s birthday and the jump is his sister’s present to him.  Shane is quiet and clearly a bit nervous – and also obviously used to fading into the background around more ebullient sister – but something about him captures Brandt’s attention.  Shane supposes he should have known that Shelby’s sudden interest in jumping out of a plane was somehow related to her interest in a hot guy; Brandt really is gorgeous, but Shane deliberately tamps down the frisson of awareness he feels every time Brandt touches him as he readies them for the tandem jump.  Afterwards, with his feet back safely on the ground, Shane has to admit that the jump really had been exhilarating – and that the short time he’d flown with Brandt Wilder is something he’ll never forget.

Almost a year later, the last thing Brandt could ever have imagined is opening his front door to find Shane Travis on his doorstep – with a baby in tow.   He’s completely stunned when Shane tells him the baby is his, the result of the one-night stand he had with Shelby the night before Shane’s birthday.  He explains that Shelby turned up in Portland (where he was auditioning for a TV talent show) with the baby a few days earlier and was gone the next morning, most likely off to Canada with one of her friends. Brandt can’t believe it – but Shelby named him as baby Jewel’s dad in the note she left for Shane and had Brandt’s name put on the birth certificate.

Shane has spent most of his life clearing up Shelby’s messes, but nothing could have prepared him for being left literally holding the baby.  Unable to bear the idea of Jewel being put into care, Shane decides his only option is to take her to her dad, but it’s only once he’s arrived that he remembers that Brandt – who jumps out of planes to fight fires for a living – is as far from ideal fatherhood material as he is himself;  an itinerant musician trying to build a career isn’t going to be considered able to properly care for an infant either.  But he didn’t know what else to do; he’s worried and sleep deprived, he’s driven for hours to get to Painter’s Ridge and is too tired to be able to make any coherent decisions.  But one thing is clear.  No matter what sort of ‘dad material’ he may be, Brandt is the only person Shane can turn to for help.

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

The Hate Project (The Love Study #2) by Kris Ripper

the hate project

This title may be purchased from Amazon

This arrangement is either exactly what they need–or a total disaster

Oscar is a grouch.

That’s a well-established fact among his tight-knit friend group, and they love him anyway.

Jack is an ass.

Jack, who’s always ready with a sly insult, who can’t have a conversation without arguing, and who Oscar may or may not have hooked up with on a strict no-commitment, one-time-only basis. Even if it was extremely hot.

Together, they’re a bickering, combative mess.

When Oscar is fired (answering phones is not for the anxiety-ridden), he somehow ends up working for Jack. Maybe while cleaning out Jack’s grandmother’s house they can stop fighting long enough to turn a one-night stand into a frenemies-with-benefits situation.

The house is an archaeological dig of love and dysfunction, and while Oscar thought he was prepared, he wasn’t. It’s impossible to delve so deeply into someone’s past without coming to understand them at least a little, but Oscar has boundaries for a reason—even if sometimes Jack makes him want to break them all down.

After all, hating Jack is less of a risk than loving him…

Rating: B

Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project is a warm, quirky and often very funny romance with a difference –  a grumpy/grumpy  pairing – and I enjoyed it a lot.  It’s a well-written mixture of snarky and poignant, and I loved the idiosyncratic and uncompromising voice of PoV character Oscar, whose anxiety and depression are presented in a way that feels very authentic.  But while the book is a romance and there is a strong HFN, the overall balance is a little skewed in favour of Oscar’s navigating through life changes and the idea of being in a relationship, so that Jack – his love interest – feels a little distant and is less easy to know.

We first met the group of friends who term themselves the Marginalised Motherfuckers in last year’s The Love Study. Declan, Mason, Oscar, and Ronnie and Mia (who are a married couple) have known each other since college, but now their number is gradually expanding.  In The Love Study, commitment-phobe Declan met and fell in love with Sydney (the host of a popular You Tube advice show of the same name) so Sydney is now an honourary Motherfucker, as is Jack whom Dec met at work and decided to invite to join them, too.  Jack and Oscar pretty much hated each other on sight and never miss a chance to snipe and snark and bicker, so much so that their friends – not-so-jokingly – tell them to get a room!

Nobody is more surprised than they are when one night – they do.

Oscar has lived with anxiety and depression all his life, but he’s dysfunctionally functional – most of the time.  When he loses his job – even though he hated it – it throws him off an already delicate balance, the thought of having to apply for jobs and potentially interview filling him with dread.  The MFs rally round, throwing him an impromptu lost-your-job party, understanding his need to just be around them rather than interact with them.  Somehow, he and Jack end up leaving the party at the same time and then heading back to Jack’s place; the sex is hot and steamy and, strangely, fun… but things end awkwardly with Jack almost immediately leaping out of bed and hustling Oscar back out to the car.  It’s not that Oscar is interested in anything other than sex anyway, but still… Rude.

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

His Haven (His #3) by Con Riley

his haven

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Once jilted, twice shy…

Keir Brodie is a lawyer with good reason for his trust issues. A year after his groom didn’t show up at their wedding, he’s still heartsore and hurting. Work has been his saviour, but a new project sets alarm bells ringing — his favourite client wants to buy a house for someone Keir thinks is a liar.

Mitch’s nice-guy act doesn’t fool Keir, and he can’t let sparks flying when they’re together distract him. That’s just the flare of opposites attracting, not the lifelong connection he misses. Besides, no amount of passion is worth risking his heart, especially with someone only down for onetime hook-ups.

Their shared project chips away at Keir’s first impressions. As the truth, and Keir, unravel, Mitch pieces him back together in ways Keir couldn’t have predicted. Trusting Mitch with more than his client’s money will take a leap of faith, in himself, and in a man Keir hopes won’t leave him waiting.

Rating: A-

The third book in Con Riley’s His series of contemporary romances, His Haven is a gorgeous, angsty opposites-attract romance between an uptight lawyer and an open-hearted gentle giant of a man, and it’s every bit as good as His Compass, which I adored.

The books in this series work as standalones, but I’d advise reading His Compass before this one, as it will provide a bit more background detail about the relationships between the main characters.

The beginning of His Haven finds lawyer Keir Brodie aboard The Aphrodite, the charter yacht owned by Tom Kershaw and his partner Nick, together with Tom’s younger brother Justin and Justin’s carer, Mitch, a specialist in severe brain injury rehabilitation.  Nick comes from an extremely wealthy family, and Keir sees it as part of his job to protect him from poor decisions and to make sure he isn’t taken advantage of financially, so when Nick and Tom ask Keir if he will work with Mitch to find Justin a house somewhere near Porthperrin harbour, alarm bells start ringing. Property in the area is far from cheap and Justin can’t live independently; Keir suspects Mitch is behind the idea, that he’s sowed seeds of doubt in Tom’s mind about The Haven (the facility Justin and Mitch live in) becoming a bit run down, and is out to get himself a very valuable property without paying a penny.  Keir’s suspicions are only increased by the fact that Mitch has been blatantly flirting with him all day but wears a silver band on his ring finger – and in Keir’s eyes, cheaters are the lowest of the low.  But it’s his job to do what Nick instructs him to do, even if it means spending time with Mitch and constantly shutting down his flirty innuendo.

It’s apparent right away that Keir is tightly wound and the way he jumps to conclusions about Mitch makes him seem like a class A prick.  But it’s also clear that there’s something else behind his suspicions, something that doesn’t really have anything to do with Mitch at all.  Almost a year earlier, Keir’s fiancé jilted him on their wedding day, and since then, he’s thrown himself into his work rather than deal with the emotional fallout.  It’s obviously left him with serious trust issues, but Ms. Riley slowly and skilfully shows us that those issues go a lot further back than his aborted wedding.  He’s wounded, hurting and lost and the author does an amazing job of portraying him as a man close to the edge, the raw emotions that lurk behind his rigidly maintained self-control a tangible presence.

By contrast, Mitch is pretty much an open book.  He’s kind and patient and understanding and he’s one of life’s givers; he’s devoted to Justin and to making his life the best it can be, and he regularly goes above and beyond at The Haven, helping to care for all the residents and being an important part of the community there.  He’s a skilled professional, too – he senses straight away that Keir is carrying a huge burden and genuinely wants to help; there’s a lovely scene early on where he helps Keir through a panic attack which shows exactly the sort of person he is – he notices everything and acts accordingly and that moment is something of a turning point in his relationship with Keir.

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

How to Catch a Duke (Rogues to Riches #6) by Grace Burrowes

how to catch a duke uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

‘I have come to ask you to kill me, my lord.’

Miss Abigail Abbott desperately needs to disappear-permanently-and the only person she trusts to help her do that is Lord Stephen Wentworth, heir to the Duke of Walden. Stephen is brilliant, charming, and-when he needs to be-absolutely ruthless. So ruthless that he proposes marriage instead of “murder” to keep Abigail safe.

Stephen was smitten the instant his sister introduced him to Abigail, a woman with the dignity and determination of a duchess and the courage of a lioness. When she accepts his courtship of convenience, he also discovers she kisses like his most intimate wish come true. For Abigail, their arrangement is a sham to escape her dangerous enemies. For Stephen, it’s his one chance to share a lifetime with the lady of his dreams-if only he can convince her his love is real.

Rating: B-

How to Catch a Duke is the sixth and final book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series about the members of the Wentworth family.  The first book – My One and Only Duke – saw a ducal title conferred upon Quinton Wentworth, a wealthy banker from extremely humble origins who grew up doing whatever jobs he could find in order to provide for his younger siblings, and subsequent books have followed the various family members as they’ve each found their HEAs.  The hero of How to Catch a Duke is Stephen, Quinn’s younger brother and heir whom we first met as a brilliant, mercurial teen whose insight and often biting wit was shadowed by melancholy, and whose frustrations over his disability – his abusive father smashed Stephen’s knee when he was a child and he needs a cane (sometimes two) to walk – came through strongly.  Ten years later, Stephen is still brilliant and mercurial; he’s also charming, loyal, generous and quite ruthless when he wants to be and hasn’t let his physical limitations stop him from shagging his way across the continent or from ‘dallying’ extensively in England with a variety of willing partners.

When this book opens, Stephen receives a visit from Miss Abigail Abbott, the enquiry agent who recently did some work for his sister Constance (The Truth About Dukes).  In a dramatic opening, Abigail tells Stephen that she has “come to ask you to murder me, my lord.”  – which is, of course, not what she means at all; what she wants is to disappear while she attempts to find out why someone – a marquess no less – is out to do her harm.  Abigail is cagey, but Stephen – being Stephen – quickly works out who it is and promptly offers to kill him instead.

The next morning over breakfast, Abigail explains that Lord Stapleton believes her to be in possession of some letters he wants returned – which she is unable to do as she no longer has them.  She refuses to answer Stephen’s questions as to the identity of the writer and recipient of the letters, simply saying that the marquess is not entitled to them and is clearly prepared to go to any lengths to get them.  Stephen recognises that Abigail – whom he already admires for her spirit and no-nonsense attitude (and lusts after for her other attributes) – is genuinely scared, and suggests that instead of faking her death, they should pretend to be engaged and that she should go to stay under Quinn’s protection at Walden House while they work out how to retrieve the letters or get Stapleton to stop hounding her – and preferably both.

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

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?

Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?

Rating: B+

This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.

At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.

After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.
You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

To Love and to Loathe (Regency Vows #2) by Martha Waters

to love and to loathe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The only thing they can agree on is that the winner takes all

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, are as infamous for their bickering as for their flirtation.

Shortly before a fortnight-long house party at Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when he appears at her home with an unexpected proposition.

After finding his latest mistress unimpressed with his bedroom skills, Jeremy suggests that they embark on a brief affair. He trusts Diana to critique him honestly, and she’ll use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana has bet Jeremy that he will marry within the year, and she intends to use his proposal to her advantage.

But in this battle, should the real wager be who will lose their heart to the other first?

Rating: B+

To Love and To Loathe is the follow-up to Martha Waters’ 2020 début historical romance, To Have and To Hoax.  AAR’s reviewer was less than impressed with it, citing problems with the premise and immaturity of the leads, and overall, reviews were mixed. With so many other books to review on my plate, I didn’t get around to reading it, so I can’t offer an opinion.  But I wanted to give the author a try, so I picked up this second book in The Regency Vows series, because I am a sucker for that whole Beatrice and Benedick sparring-couple-who-are-desperately-in-love-but-would-deny-it-to-the-death thing.  And I’m glad I did, because To Love and To Loathe is funny, clever and sexy, featuring complex, well-rounded characters and incorporating pertinent observations about the nature of privilege and the unfairness of the patriarchal norms and laws that deprived women of autonomy.

At the age of eighteen, the Honourable Diana Bourne is well aware that most men are fools, but a man doesn’t need to be clever to be possessed of a hefty fortune, which is exactly what she’s looking for.  Since the death of their parents, she and her brother have lived with relatives who have seen her as nothing but a burden and who resent the expense her presence incurs.  So Diana is determined to snare a wealthy husband so she will never have to worry about something as vulgar as money ever again.

The one tiny glitch in her plan is her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham, who while just as much of a fool as every other man, is nonetheless a massively enticing fool who has only to walk into a room to turn the head of every woman in it – and set Diana’s heart beating just a bit faster than she would like.  But no matter how handsome and charming Jeremy is (or how strongly she’s attracted to him), he’s irresponsible,  overly fond of drink and women, and – most importantly – almost broke, so he won’t suit Diana’s purposes at all.

A few years later, Diana is a wealthy widow and Jeremy is still cutting a swathe through the beds of the bored wives and widows of the ton.  Their inability to agree on anything is widely known throughout society, as is the fact they’re engaged in a game of one-upmanship involving a constant barrage of well-aimed barbs and cleverly chosen put-downs.  On one particular evening when Willingham again scoffs at the idea of matrimony, Diana impulsively wagers him that he’ll be married within the year – or she’ll pay him the sum of one hundred pounds.  Of course, Willingham accepts – and only afterwards does Diana realise it was perhaps not the wisest thing she’s ever done, because honestly, she can’t see him marrying in the next twelve months, either.

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

A Flighty Fake Boyfriend (Men of St. Nacho’s #2) by Z.A. Maxfield

a flighty fake boyfriend

This title may be purchased from Amazon

All Ryan Winslow needs is a fake date for his ex’s wedding. What happens when a fake date turns into real, but impossible, love?

Ryan Winslow has everything he needs to attend his billionaire aristocrat ex’s wedding. He’s got an out and proud A-list celebrity date, reservations at an exclusive resort in Santa Barbara, and two weeks to enjoy a vacation—his first in six years.

The drive down gives him a chance to visit old friends in tiny St. Nacho’s, but that’s where things start to go wrong. His workaholic, driven lifestyle takes its toll, and his date calls to say he can’t make it. How will he ever find a substitute date for a formal wedding in time?

Epic Alsop waits tables, but that’s not all he does. He pays special attention to people, and responds to their needs accordingly. When he meets an overworked, underfed Ryan, he offers him a healing smoothie and a little extra care. When Ryan’s date for a wedding cancels, Epic offers to be his fake boyfriend.

What Epic doesn’t expect is Ryan’s kindness, or the amazing resort vacation he offers. He doesn’t expect Ryan’s patience, his wit, or his passion.

But they live in different countries, and Ryan’s job leaves no room for a social life. The hunger and weariness that drew Epic to Ryan in the first place is only a symptom of the reason they can’t be together.

Can fake lovers who fall in genuine love find a way to make their relationship work? Or are they destined to be alone forever?

Rating: B+

Don’t be fooled by the cute cover model and the word “flighty” in the title; Z.A. Maxfield’s A Flighty Fake Boyfriend IS a fun fake relationship story, but it has surprising depth, two strongly characterised leads and packs quite the emotional punch in places, too.  Age-gap and fake relationship are two of my favourite tropes so I was looking forward to reading this, and I’m pleased to report I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.

Workaholic Ryan Winslow has stopped off in St. Nacho’s to visit a couple of friends on his way to Santa Barbara, where he’s due to attend his ex’s wedding.  He’s not sure if the invitation was a genuine gesture, a way to gloat or just a mistake, but Ryan accepts because he doesn’t want Luis to think his marriage bothers him, and has arranged for a friend – who happens to be a gorgeous, out-and-proud A-list movie star – to go as his date.  At the last minute, however, his friend  has to cancel, which leaves Ryan with a problem – does he not go and give Luis the satisfaction of thinking he’s sulking, or does he go stag?

We met the sunny-natured Epic in the previous book (A Much Younger Man). He waits tables at the bistro – appropriately named “Bistro” – in St. Nachos, and has the quirky habit of pinning on whatever nametag is uppermost in the box that day – but his name really is Epic.  He’s cute and funny and smart with the sort of self-possession Ryan knows he never had at his age (Epic is twenty-three to Ryan’s thirty-six). When Ryan finds himself suddenly without a date for the wedding, he impulsively asks Epic to accompany him instead.  Epic might not be a famous movie star, but he’s attractive, articulate and compelling – and Ryan is drawn to him like iron filings to magnetic north.

This fake relationship story proceeds as you’d expect – but I liked the way things play out, with Epic gradually coaxing Ryan to unwind as their attraction grows and a deep connection forms between them over fancy dinners, moonlight walks and sight-seeing trips.  Epic turns out to be extremely perceptive and wise beyond his years; he’s brilliant, caring, funny and upbeat, and fiercely protective of Ryan, who at this point in time, badly needs looking after, someone to remind him to eat, quit smoking and to stop working once in a while.  He’s also more than a bit bossy in the bedroom once things get that far 😉

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

Undercover (Vino and Veritas #4) by Eliot Grayson

undercover grayson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Gabe wants Alec between the sheets…too bad Alec’s undercover already…

Rich kid. Party boy. Gabe is tired of the labels. He’s a smart guy, but ever since he got kicked out of grad school, people are only interested in his no-limit credit card and his pierced ears…and other places.

Tall, dark and scowling Alec hates Vermont, with its artisanal-freaking-everything and its irritating people. To be fair, most people irritate Alec, including the FBI director who sent him here to investigate a smuggling scheme involving yoga mats. 

When one of the cutest twinks Alec’s ever seen takes an interest, Alec knows there’s an ulterior motive. No one with multi-colored hair, piercings, and an ass like that would want boring, serious Alec. The kid must be up to no good. Either way, Alec can’t blow his cover. If only he could keep his hands off of Gabe long enough to find out what he’s up to…

Can they ignore their explosive chemistry long enough to foil a smuggling ring? Or will their budding relationship sink faster than a yacht full of contraband?

Rating: C+

Undercover is new-to-me author Eliot Grayson’s entry in the Vino and Veritas series set in small town Vermont.  It’s light-hearted, and readable, and it’s got a bit of a romantic suspense vibe going on, but in the end it didn’t quite seem sure what sort of story it wanted to be.  The suspense angle is way too underdeveloped, and the issues one of the characters is dealing with felt too serious for the overall cutesy tone; plus – spoiler alert – if you’re someone for whom deception is a deal-breaker, then you should probably steer clear of this one.

Grumpy FBI Agent Alec Kaminsky has been sent to investigate a drug smuggling ring operating out of a couple of yoga studios in Burlington, Vermont, a small-scale heroin operation his boss believes is getting the drugs across Lake Champlain hidden in yoga mats.

… who the hell could take drug smugglers who used yoga mats for their product seriously?

Alec asks himself.  (And so did I.)

Bored, pissed off and thoroughly disgruntled, Alec spends a bit of time most days hanging out in the bookstore at Vino and Veritas, where he peruses – and scoffs at – books in the true crime section.

Former PhD student Gabe Middleton has noticed Hot Scruffy Leather Jacket Dude leafing through the books in the true crime section and is crushing on him from afar.  But even though Gabe has never had any difficulty getting laid, actually approaching someone and talking to them is a different matter and he can’t quite work up the courage to go and talk to the guy. Instead, Gabe buys him some of the books he’s seen him looking through, and asks the clerk to give them to him the next time he comes in.

When Alec next visits the bookshop and is given the bag of books, he’s confused – and then suspicious.  Why is someone giving him books about El Chapo and Pablo Escobar?  Has Alec been made? Is someone trying to be funny?  Is someone trying to bait him?   Alec has noticed the cute guy with the purple hair and multiple ear piercings checking him out; he’s hot – even though he’s not Alec’s type.  Not at all.  (Yeah, right.) But whoever he is, Alec decides he’s exactly the sort of guy who’d sell heroin out of a yoga studio.   And that maybe he should stick close – to see what he can find out about the drug ring of course, not because he wants to get into his pants.

Not only does Alec jump to ridiculous conclusions without much foundation, he abandons them just as quickly; he has little evidence to suggest Gabe is a drug smuggler, and when he decides Gabe can’t possibly be involved, he has just as little to go on.  I was pleased that he did work out very quickly that Gabe shouldn’t be a suspect, but that was based on… Gabe’s being cute? I don’t know.

But… it just so happens that Gabe’s father owns a yacht-manufacturing business, Middleton Marine – which is top of the list of companies whose vessels and facilities might be being used by the smuggling ring.  Alec has no alternative but to investigate and yes, getting close to Gabe would be a good way of getting access to information and the premises. The trouble is, Alec really does like Gabe and the idea of using him isn’t one he relishes at all, but he’s undercover and has a job to do.  (Which does beg the question as to what Alec and Gabe actually find to talk about during their dates, seeing as how Gabe doesn’t actually seem to DO anything with his days and Alec can’t talk about what he does with his.)

We all know where this is going and that things are going to crash and burn spectacularly at some point, so there are no real surprises in store here – unless you count Gabe crossing the line into TSTL territory near the end.

On a positive note, I really liked Gabe. He’s a sweet guy, he’s warm and lively and bubbly with a great sense of humour but a poor sense of self-worth; his family treats him like crap, his last boyfriend did a number on him and wrecked his self-confidence, and the guys he’s been with since have only wanted sex or money.  And though Alec is able to see that, and wants to show Gabe that he’s worth so much more – and readers know that Alec is really conflicted and genuinely cares about Gabe – it still didn’t sit right with me.  Gabe is finally starting to believe that there’s someone interested in him who doesn’t see him as a meal ticket or an easy lay – but instead, he’s being used in another way.  Deception in a romance isn’t an automatic no-no for me; it depends on circumstances, and the undercover agent having to play a role to do their job is common in romantic suspense.  But it didn’t work for me here.

Despite those criticisms, I zipped through the book in a couple of sittings and I enjoyed the author’s writing style, the humour and the chemistry between the leads.  Ultimately however, that wasn’t enough to compensate for the book’s flaws, and I can’t really give Undercover a recommendation.

The Quiet House (Black & Blue #2) by Lily Morton

The Quiet House

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Levi Black has mostly recovered from the events of a year ago. The only lingering effects are that he’s much more well known in York than he’d like to be, and he’s a lot more cautious about walking around his house naked. However, those events brought him the capricious and fascinating Blue, so he’s not complaining. On the contrary, he’s happy, in love, and looking forward to Blue finally moving in with him. And if sometimes he wonders what Blue sees in a boring cartoonist, he keeps that to himself.

Blue Billings is finally ready to throw off the memories of his past and move in with the person who means the most in the world to him. His psychic abilities have grown in the last year to his mentor Tom’s consternation, but Blue is determined to look on the bright side. He’s also focused on ignoring all the warning signs that he’s received lately.

However, even deeply buried secrets have a way of rising to the surface. And when a surprise from Blue’s past turns up and draws them away to a lonely house on the Yorkshire moors, Levi and Blue must fight for their survival once again.

Rating: B

Lily Morton’s The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings introduced readers to the eponymous quirky and snarky York-based ghost-tour guide, and Levi Black, a cartoonist from London who, after the death of his mother and a bad break-up, moves to York after inheriting a house near the Minster from a distant relative.  It’s a fun mix of romance and ghost story, with likeable characters, some lovely moments of poignancy and lots of the author’s trademark witty banter, and I – like many of Ms. Morton’s fans – have been eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.  The Quiet House is that book, and once again the author has penned an intriguing story and peopled it with some great characters – some we’ve met before, some who are new – and shown she’s more than able to bring the spooky when called for.

The Quiet House takes place around a year after Blue and Levi were nearly killed ridding Levi’s house of a particularly dangerous and malevolent ghost.  The intervening year has seen a number of changes in their lives – good changes – with Blue working to understand and control his abilities and he and Levi becoming closer and finding their way forward as a couple.  Blue still leads his ghost tour once a week, and when the story begins, Blue notices an old man dressed all in black standing quietly at the back of his tour group. He’s far too solid-looking to be a spirit, and Blue believes he’s just a late arrival – and a stingy one at that, when he disappears without paying the fee.  Not until a day or so later does he learn what he’s seen, when his friend, employer and mentor in all things psychic, crotchety bookshop-owner Tom Pattison, explains that what he saw was a spirit – or more correctly a “crow” – a warning that trouble is on the way.

And it arrives when Levi opens the door one evening to a stranger asking to see Blue – a stranger who looks oddly familiar.  With good reason.  The man is Declan Shaw.  Blue’s absentee father.

Blue has never even met his dad seeing as how he legged it before Blue was born; he recognises him from an old photo his mother kept with her at all times.  Declan’s sudden appearance evokes mixed emotions in Blue – anger for sure, but curiosity, too; maybe Declan can fill in some of the blanks for Blue, tell him some of the things about his mother he longs to know.  But Declan shows no sign of wanting to build anything with his son; he’s there to offer Blue a lucrative job at the home of his eccentric employer, Viscount Ingram, whose massive country house on the Yorkshire Moors is reputed to be the most haunted house in England.  Ingram wants to open the house to the public as a hotel of the macabre – and he needs a psychic to tell him about the spirits he can see, to interact with them and tell him their stories.

Much to Levi’s dismay, Blue is intrigued and seriously considering the proposition.  He’s worried that Declan will hurt Blue, but when Tom reveals the house in question has a terrible reputation and that it’s haunted by some very violent sprits, it seems that there is a great deal more to worry about than Blue’s relationship with his father.  Tom and Levi know Blue is going to need all the help he can get, and together, the three of them make their way to the grand estate, where right from the off, Blue and Tom are affected by the overwhelming sense of evil that permeates the place.

And of course things go from bad to worse once they arrive.  It turns out Blue and Tom aren’t the only psychics to have been invited to unlock the secrets of this particular haunted house, and that over the past year or so, Ingram has extended the same invitation to many psychic guests  – and now it seems the spirits are seriously pissed off and that something truly powerful and evil has been awakened.  And not only that, but Blue’s worst nightmare seems to be coming true. Something is targeting Levi.

Lily Morton is known for writing funny, sexy contemporary romances with plenty of snark and plenty of steam, but in this series, she shows she’s able to turn her hand to something different.  The steam and humour are still present (albeit a little toned down), but the paranormal element of the story is the main focus, and she creates a real sense of menace and disquiet that slowly pervades the book, becoming stronger and stronger until we reach the novel’s dramatic climax.

I was delighted to see Tom get a bigger role in this story; he’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and a real soft spot for Blue, and I love his deadpan sense of humour.  The other secondary characters –  an eccentric viscount, a TV psychic and a couple of nasty blasts from Blue’s past – are vividly drawn, and I hope Jem, the cameraman who would rather be photographing penguins than poltergeists, will make that trip to York and meet up with Blue’s friend Will again.

The romance in this book is more low-key than before, but even though Blue and Levi have been together for a year, they have some lovely, tender moments together, and I was really pleased to see how far Blue has come since the last book, when he was skittish and insecure, used to keeping himself apart and waiting for rejection.  He’s the same whimsical, smart-mouthed so-and-so he always was, but there’s a sense of stability and equanimity in him that weren’t there before.  And Levi – sweet, caring, loveable Levi – is his anchor, the person who keeps him grounded and tethered to reality.  Their devotion to one another shines through, even in moments of insecurity and doubt.

The Quiet House is an entertaining read that boasts a winning combination of snarky psychic, lonely viscount, ghostly monks, satanic rituals and the grumpiest mentor ever.  It’s a nicely balanced mix of funny, sexy and spooky, and I enjoyed my return to the world of Black & Blue.

King’s Man (Outlawed #1) by Sally Malcolm


This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when the love of your life becomes your enemy?

Had there been no war, Sam Hutchinson and Nate Tanner would have lived their lives together as intimate friends, and secret lovers. But when the revolution convulsed America, it threw them down on opposite sides of the conflict…

Five years later, Sam is a Loyalist refugee in London, penniless, bitter, and scrambling to survive amid the city’s shadowy underworld. It’s a far cry from his respectable life as a Rhode Island lawyer, and the last person he wants to witness his ruin is Nate Tanner— the man he once loved, the man who betrayed him.

The man he can’t forgive.

Now an agent of the Continental Congress, Nate is in London on the trail of a traitor threatening America’s hard-won freedom. But the secret mission of his heart is quite different. Nate longs to find Sam Hutchinson—the man he still loves, the man he lost to the war.

The man he can’t forget.

When their lives unexpectedly collide, Sam and Nate are thrown together on a dangerous mission. And despite everything that still divides them, old passions begin to stir…

Can they seize this second chance at love, or is their tangled past too painful to forgive?

Rating: A

In King’s Man – the first full length book in her new Outlawed series – Sally Malcolm has pulled off a feat that, in these days of clichéd, been-there-read-that historical romance is little short of a minor miracle.  This book is that rare gem in an overcrowded genre and something that every fan of historicals has been waiting for, something refreshingly original in terms of story and setting that  combines a gorgeous, deeply emotional love story that will tug at the heartstrings with an exciting, high-stakes plot that will have you on the edge of your seat.

In 1774, lawyer Samuel Hutchinson met Nathaniel Tanner when the latter was sent from his home in Boston to clerk for James Reed, a respected lawyer in the small Rhode Island town of Rosemont.  Over the ensuing months, the two men became friends and eventually fell in love, forming a soul-deep connection they expected to last for their lifetimes.  (This story is told in the prequel novella, Rebel; it’s not essential to have read it before starting King’s Man, but I’d strongly recommend it – it’s a gorgeous romance and cements Nate and Sam’s backstory).  But four years later, and with the effects of the revolution continuing to reverberate throughout America, the two men find themselves more often than not disagreeing over ideology, with Nate supporting the war against the British and Sam opposing it, hating the way it’s dividing American from American and allowing the rule of law to flounder in the face of those who would deny him and those like him their liberty and freedom of thought.  Neither man can see a way to bridge the gap between them, and even though it feels like they’re ripping away a part of themselves, they agree it’s best they don’t see each other any more;  and when, two months later, Sam is dragged, bound, from his home by an angry mob of (so-called) patriots and taken away to God-knows-where, a devastated Nate knows his life has changed forever.

Five years later, Sam is one of thousands of American refugees eking out an existence in London.  Bitter and angry, heartsick and homesick, he lives in a fencing ken in the stews of St. Giles, where he makes his living valuing stolen goods and as “a larcenist for hire”, the best lockpicker in London.  It’s in this capacity that he’s instructed to present himself the following evening to someone who has a job for him – a job which will send Sam north to the home of Lord Marlborough in order to steal sensitive documents.  But he won’t be travelling alone.

Nate is now an agent in the Department of Foreign Affairs and has been in London for three months, having accompanied Colonel BenjaminTalmach there on his mission to root out Tory (those who opposed the war) traitors.  In the guise of a lowly lawyer, Nate works for an American merchant named Paul Farris and is gathering the evidence needed to prove the man is involved in a plot to destabilise the Continental Congress (the Congress of the Confederation, which governed America from 1781 to 1789). When Nate attends a meeting between Farris and Lord Marlborough (a nasty piece of work if ever there was one) at which Marlborough boasts of having a list of names of allies in America who could stir up an armed revolt that would help “bring the Continental Congress to its knees”- Nate realises this is it; this is the information he’s been seeking in order to bring Farris down.  But Talmach – whose hatred of Tories is legendary, wants more than just Farris; he wants Marlborough’s entire list of traitors and is sending Nate to Marlborough Castle to keep an eye on the man Talmach has employed to steal it.

Nate’s decision to accompany Talmach to London wasn’t just for his job; his main reason for going was that he hoped he might be able to find Sam – but even so, Sam is the last person Nate expects to see when he arrives at Talmach’s lodgings to discuss the theft of Marborough’s list.  The sight of his former lover – so bitter and resentful, and in such reduced circumstances – is a real punch to the gut, and Nate can feel hostility emanating from the other man in waves.  But he refuses to be put off by Sam’s coldness and is unable to stop hoping that having found him again they might at least be able to rebuild their friendship even if they can never be what they once were to each other.

Days spent in close proximity during their journey lead to some agonising soul-searching and bitter recriminations as Sam and Nate finally confront the truths of their past. Seeing Nate again stirs up so many conflicting emotions for Sam; the gut-wrenching pain of the way things ended between them, self-loathing at the joy he feels at still wanting Nate in spite of what happened, a melancholic yearning for the way things were – the author vividly evokes all that and more as Sam slowly allows himself to remember why he’d fallen in love with Nate in the first place and then to reach a place where forgiveness is possible.  Nate is utterly heartbroken when he learns the full extent of what Sam’s convictions cost him – his freedom, his home and his identity as an American – and now bitterly regrets not standing beside him when it counted. As their journey progresses, he comes to a greater understanding of Sam’s position, but knowing they can never recapture the idyll of their early days together and believing there’s no future for them makes this reunion and rapprochement bittersweet.  Neither man can deny that the intensity of the attachment between them has never waned, and while their soul-deep bond may have been fractured and its strength greatly tested, it’s still there, and growing stronger by the hour.  The slow rekindling of Sam and Nate’s feelings for one another is beautifully done, full of raw but heartfelt emotion and likely to bring a lump to the throat on more than one occasion.

Sally Malcolm creates longing and sexual tension so intense it leaps off the page, and the way she’s seamlessly woven together this emotionally powerful love story with a tense and exciting plot and a wonderfully (and obviously very well researched) rich historical background is nothing short of masterful.  Her writing is marvellous and she has imbued her story with a sense of time and place so strong that the reader feel s transported to the narrow, muddy streets of eighteenth century London, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city and able to hear the cries of the hawkers and breathe in the intrigue of the coffee houses.  In her author’s note, Ms. Malcolm explains her motivations for writing a story that explored the experience of American Loyalists, and I’m so pleased she did, because I had no prior knowledge of this particular part of history and found it absolutely fascinating.  I was also forcibly struck at how relevant so many of the issues confronting Sam and Nate still are; it’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sam’s warnings against demagogues and mob rule, the deep divisions created between compatriots, and recent events on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps some of the highest praise I can offer is to say that if you enjoy the way KJ Charles so skilfully weaves together romance, history and politics, then chances are you’ll enjoy this book, too.

Heart-breaking, uplifting and utterly captivating, King’s Man is a compelling read and easily one of the finest historical romances I’ve read over the past few years. I’m happy to recommend it without reserve or hesitation.