Her Heart for a Compass by Sarah Ferguson with Marguerite Kaye

her heart for a compass uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London 1865

In an attempt to rebel against a society where women are expected to conform, free-spirited Lady Margaret Montagu Scott flees her confines and an arranged marriage. But Lady Margaret’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, as close friends with Queen Victoria, must face the public scrutiny of their daughter’s impulsive nature, and Margaret is banished from polite society.

Finding strength amongst equally free-spirited companions, including Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, Margaret resolves to follow her heart. On a journey of self-discovery that will take her to Ireland, America, and then back to Britain, Lady Margaret must follow her heart and search for her place, and her own identity, in a changing society.

Rating: B

Her Heart for a Compass is the first (adult) novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and in it, she and her co-writer, historical romance author Marguerite Kaye, explore the life of one of the Duchess’ ancestors, Lady Margaret Montagu Scott, a young woman who defied the strict conventions of Victorian England to live life under her own terms.

I reviewed this one with Evelyn North, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR.

You can read our review at All About Romance.

An Absence of Motive (Raising the Bar Brief #1) by Maggie Wells

an absence of motive uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He was an outsider…and the only man she could trust

Attorney Marlee Masters’ brother was murdered. Proving it means working with Sheriff Ben Kinsella and facing down the nasty whispers in their rural Georgia town. But a stalker’s vowing retribution if the two don’t end the investigation. Ben won’t abandon Marlee in her hour of need, but will she have to place herself in even more peril to catch the killer?

Rating: B-

Maggie Wells is the author of a number of contemporary romances and when I noticed her name attached to a new Harlequin Intrigue romantic suspense series, I decided to give her a try.  An Absence of Motive has an interesting and fairly well developed plot, and I liked the set up, but the romance – once again – seems to have fallen victim to the limited page count because it’s almost non-existent, the couple of kisses the couple share are really shoe-horned in, and the same is true of the book’s only action scene, which is kinda blink-and-you’ll-miss-it right near the end.

Former DEA Agent Ben Kinsella was forced to leave Atlanta after an undercover operation that resulted in the death of a close friend and in his identity becoming known to the drug ring he’d infiltrated. He’s since relocated to the small Georgia town of Pine Bluff and taken up a position as sherrif, nominated for the job by the town’s most influential resident, Henry Masters, whose forebears founded Masters County and the lumber business that employs many of the local residents.  When the book opens, Ben has just been called to the scene of the death of a young man named Cliff Young – a foreman at Timber Masters and a close friend of Henry Masters’ late son, Jeff – out at his family’s cabin on Sawtooth Lake.  Ben is waiting for the ME to arrive when Masters bursts into the cabin, followed by a gorgeous woman whose body language screams her wish to be anywhere else.  Masters introduces her as his daughter Marlee, a newly qualified attorney, and tries to get Ben to give him some of the details of the case – but Ben politely sidesteps his questions, refusing to confirm or deny anything until he has more information.

Marlee Masters has no plans to give in to her father’s overbearing ways and return to Pine Bluff to run – or help him to run – Timber Masters.  That had always been the role earmarked for her brother Jeff, but Jeff’s suicide a few months earlier has left a hole that Masters now expects Marlee to fill.  Which she has no intention of doing – she’s got her sights set on making a career and life for herself in Atlanta.

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

Charles: Learning to Love (Learning to Love #1) by Con Riley

charles learning to love

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Life should be a breeze for a playboy like Charles Heppel. As the third son of an earl, he lives for the moment, partying and playing. Settling down isn’t for him. Not when London is full of beautiful men who he hasn’t one-and-done yet.

To escape his family’s nagging, Charles applies for a temp job that matches his playful skill set. A role in a Cornish classroom could be his until the summer, if Charles meets two conditions: he must move in with the headmaster’s best friend, and teach him to be happy.

Living with Hugo should be awkward. Charles is a free spirit, but Hugo’s a man of faith, with morals. A man who almost took holy orders before disaster changed his direction. Only far from being a chore, Charles finds that making Hugo happy soon becomes his passion.

Together, they share physical and emotional first times. Ones that change Charles, touching his soul. He wants Hugo for longer than they have left, but learning to love with his heart, not just his body, will take a leap of faith from Charles — in himself as well as Hugo.

Rating: A

I’ve often heard/read authors say – ‘this character just took over my brain and demanded their own book’.  I don’t know if that’s what happened to Con Riley when she created Charles Heppel, a major secondary character in His Haven, but whatever the case, he’s one of those characters.  Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer, Charles lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and I was delighted when I learned he would be getting his own book.

Charles: Learning to Love is book one in the Learning to Love series, and it’s a gorgeously romantic, sexy and poignant story about two quite different men learning not just to love, but about themselves, who they truly are and what they truly want.  The writing is superb, the setting is expertly rendered and the characterisation is excellent; I honestly can’t think of anything about this book that I didn’t love or that didn’t work for me.

Readers of His Haven will already know that Charles has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his older brother George – heir to their father’s earldom – and that he goes home to the family estate, as infrequently as possible.  When this book opens, Charles is trying to sneak out without George knowing; he’s got a job interview and isn’t in the mood to listen to George criticising (again) his choice of profession (Charles works with pre-schoolers, helping them learn through play) and his lack of success in finding or holding down a permanent position.  Alas for Charles, he can’t get away that easily. George catches him and isn’t pleased; he wanted Charles to stay to help him out with the various projects he’s got going on, but Charles knows he’ll only screw up, and that would make things between them even worse.

Glynn Harber is a small, independent school close to The Haven in Cornwall and although the job is another temporary position, Charles likes the place immediately. Unfortunately, the interview doesn’t go well leaving Charles once again feeling like a total failure who is just Not Good Enough.

Heartsick and defeated, Charles decides to go for a walk, taking shelter in the chapel in the woods when it starts to rain.  The quiet soothes him a bit, and he sits behind the curtain of the ‘confessional’, allowing himself a few moments of honesty to feel his disappointment. Then he hears someone sit down on the other side of the curtain, and assuming it’s Keir (his best friend) come to pick him up, decides to have a bit of fun and starts to confess his sins, in a typically self-deprecating way:

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

Footsteps of the Past (Second Chances #2) by Felice Stevens

footsteps of the past

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was like in the movies: their eyes met from across the room and they fell in love.
Nine years later, Chess and André are the envy of all their friends.
But this is real life….and things are never what they seem.

Still waters run deep—the better to hide Chess’s ugly past. He’s worked hard to bury the troubled teen he once was and is living a life he never imagined possible. André’s love is a gift that makes him believe in second chances, and Chess is grateful for it every day. The only thing he wants is what André finds impossible to give: his time. Six months apart might be the breaking point, even for Chess.

One horrible night changed André’s life forever. Formerly a party boy of the Hamptons social scene, André buries himself in work for years until he meets Chess and learns to enjoy the simple things. He’s tired of being away from home all the time and ready to step down from his role as CEO of the family business, no matter how they try and pull him back in. But old habits die hard…and so do memories.

Photos from the past and present surface, shocking Chess and André out of their carefully constructed dream life. They are forced to face the unthinkable: the love they thought would last a lifetime may be on the brink of falling apart. Secrets are exposed, opening a Pandora’s box both men hoped would stay locked forever. Now Chess and André face the hardest question: do you ever really know the person you’re living with?

Rating: B-

The first book in Felice Stevens’ new Second Chances series of contemporary romances – The Listintroduced readers to Elliot, Spencer, Wolf and Chess, four men in their mid-thirties who have been best friends since their college days.  Footsteps of the Past is book two, and although it’s probably not essential to have read The List before it, that book sets up the group dynamic and establishes their very different personalities as well as containing a sweet, sexy romance.  Of the four friends, only one of them – Chess Braxton  – is in a relationship when we first meet them all; Elliot is a hopeless romantic, Spencer is a self-confessed and unrepentant manwhore, and Wolf is taciturn and very reserved (these two take delight in needling one another and strike sparks off each other like nobody’s business).  Elliot got his HEA in The List; Footsteps of the Past is an angsty, relationship-in-trouble story featuring Chess – a university professor – and his long-term partner, André Webster, the CEO of an international, multi-million dollar corporation.

Their friends have long looked upon Chess and André as the perfect couple – #relationshipgoals.  They’ve been together for almost nine years and are as much in love now as ever, but over the past couple of years, things have begun to become a bit strained due to the fact that André has taken on all the responsibilities involved in the running of Webster Properties since his father’s death and is spending more and more time away from home.  When Footsteps opens, André has been away for six months, but while he misses Chess terribly, it’s hard for him to step back from the job, especially as his mother is depending on him so much and he knows how many employees are relying on him, too.  But he’s reached the point where he knows something’s got to give and, determined that that something is not going to be his relationship with Chess, André tells his mother that as the bulk of what he’s been working on is done, he needs a break and he’s returning home to New York.  To say she’s not pleased is an understatement.

Meanwhile, André’s prolonged absence has been difficult for Chess, not only because he’s missed him but also because it’s allowed all sorts of long-buried doubts and insecurities to creep back in to his psyche.  And when, just before André is due to return home, Chess is tagged in a post on Instagram (which subsequently disappears) showing photos of André kissing another man… well, those insecurities are only intensified.  Chess wavers between his deep down certainty that André would never cheat on him and wondering whether life with a mere university professor has become dull for a sophisticated, wealthy businessman like André… and even worse are those niggling whispers at the back of his mind telling Chess that if André were ever to know the truth of his past, he’d leave without a second thought.

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

TBR Challenge: The Murder Between Us (A Noah & Cole Thriller #1) by Tal Bauer

the murder between us

This title may be purchased from Amazon

It was just one night.
It was just one mistake.

FBI Agent Noah Downing had questions about his sexuality that a single night in Vegas should have answered. But dawn finds him on a plane back to Iowa, back on the trail of a vicious serial killer who disappeared six years ago and has suddenly resurfaced. There’s nothing like a murder investigation to escape an existential crisis.

FBI profiler Cole Kennedy is still reeling after finding a heart-stopping connection with a seemingly perfect man, only for him to vanish. When he’s sent to Iowa to profile the killer terrorizing America’s heartland, he finds more questions than answers – both about the murderer and about Noah, the last man he ever expected to see again.

A twisted secret stretches between Cole and Noah, tangled with questions they both have about each other. But now, thrown together, they’ll have to unravel the killer’s profile and follow his trail… back to the very beginning, to where everyone’s questions are answered once and for all.

Rating: B+

With a prompt like “Secrets and Lies”, my mind immediately flew to romantic suspense and a book I’ve wanted to read for a while but, as usual, haven’t managed to squeeze in yet.  Tal Bauer’s The Murder Between Us boasts a couple of well-drawn and engaging protagonists, an intriguing plot and provides the sort of balance between romance and plot I’ve been missing in so many of the m/f romantic suspense titles I’ve read recently.

Special Agent Noah Downing has been struggling with his sexual identity for many years.  He thinks he’s gay but has never felt able to explore that side of himself and has instead filled his life with work and, since his divorce, looking after his teenaged daughter Katie, who has recently come to live with him.  When the book opens, he’s decided it’s finally time to give himself permission to be himself, even if it’s just for one night;  he ventures to the bar of the hotel he’s staying in with a view to… well, he doesn’t really know what, and is about to leave when his eye is caught by an attractive blond man who makes his way over and offers to buy him a drink.  He introduces himself as Cole, they start chatting and Noah is surprised at how comfortable he feels and how much he enjoys Cole’s company.  There’s a lot of chemistry and a definite sense of connection between them right from the start, and after the best evening out Noah has had in a long time – maybe ever –  they spend a wonderful, passionate night together that answers all Noah’s questions about his sexuality.

They arrange to have dinner together the next night, but not long after Noah gets back to his room in the morning, he’s called back home to Des Moines and he leaves straight away – without stopping to call Cole and tell him why he can’t make their dinner date.

The reason for Noah’s abrupt departure is the brutal murder of the Sherrif of Boone County and his daughter by the same person believed responsible for the deaths of a number of bright, accomplished young female college and university students several years before.  Noah led the task force charged with apprehending the Coed Killer, but whoever it was took care to leave no clues and no forensics –  then disappeared without a trace and was never caught.  But it appears that after a gap of six years, the Coed Killer is back – and this time, not only is he targeting young female college students, he’s killing their fathers too.  Noah makes his way to the home of Bart Olsen and his daughter Jessie, where it appears Jessie was strangled and then her father was killed as he tried to intervene.  As if the murder of a fellow LEO isn’t bad enough, the Olsens aren’t the only victims of the newly returned serial killer.  Three months earlier, another young woman was strangled in her home, and although at the time, it was believed her obsessive boyfriend was responsible, Noah now believes her to have been another victim of the Coed Killer.  He knows the pressure to catch them is going to be intense – his boss instructs him to get a task force up and running and Noah asks him to request a profiler form the BAU – “the best profiler they’ve got.”

Dr. Cole Kennedy is still smarting over Noah’s non-appearance the day after their fantastic night together, and is starting to think that maybe the intensity of the desire he’d seen in Noah’s eyes had been more for the experience Cole offered him than for Cole himself.  It’s been quite some time since a guy has got so under his skin so quickly and he’d really wanted the chance to explore their connection further – even if it had been just dinner and no more.  But Noah made his feelings quite clear by blowing him off so rudely, and Cole has to forget him.  Which only makes the irony of his being headed to join a task force in Noah’s home state that much richer.

Well, yes, we all knew where this was going, but the ‘oh, shit’ moment is nicely done.

Both men have to work to hide their shock when Cole walks into the conference room where Noah’s team is assembled.  Noah is obviously scared of being outed and does everything he can to keep Cole at a distance, and while Cole realises why Noah is being so stand-offish,  he’s also angry at the way Noah treated him, and wants answers – and I can’t say that I blamed him.

Fortunately however, this stalemate doesn’t last for too long, and the men manage to find the opportunity to talk about what happened.  Noah doesn’t have a great reason for not calling Cole the day he left, but they talk it out, and decide they’d like to try to see more of each other while Cole is in town, but they’ll take it slow and maybe Cole can help Noah through coming out if that’s what he wants to do.

I liked the fact that the book focuses on the relationship before the suspense plot comes into play, as it really helps the reader to get a handle on Noah’s character in particular. His yearning to be able to live as his true self is palpable, but the reasons hemming him in aren’t easily dealt with, from his concern that he could lose custody of his daughter to worry about how his colleagues would treat him if they knew he was gay.  He’s a bag of nerves and a bit highly-strung at times (!), but thankfully Cole is there to ground him; he knows who he is and is secure in himself both personally and professionally, he’s kind and perceptive and it’s clear from the start that he really cares about Noah and wants him to be happy.  If I have a criticism about the romance it’s that it’s a bit reliant on insta-love in the way these two fall head-over-heels for each other so quickly, but somehow the author makes it work.

The suspense plot is tense and well-paced, with plenty of twists and turns and a bit of gruesome detail here and there (no worse than you’ll find in most novels of this type, though).  As with the romance, I had a niggle or two – at one point I did have to wonder if Cole really was “the best profiler” the FBI had because he missed something I thought was obvious (and I’m rubbish at working out whodunit!) – but even so, I was completely hooked by the story as a whole and couldn’t put the book down, so I’m inclined to be forgiving 😉

The Murder Between Us delivered pretty much everything I want in a romantic suspense novel; an  interesting mystery, strongly characterised protagonists and a romance with plenty of sparks and sexual chemistry.  Yes, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me, but overall, it was a compelling read, and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel, The Grave Between Us, as soon as I can.

Bennet: Pride Before the Fall (Love, Austen #3) by Anyta Sunday

Bennet Pride Before the Fall

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“I want someone to want me for who I am. No changing my appearance or philosophies or principles. I need a partner to be proud of me—in public and beyond—and proud of themselves.”

“Think you’ll find it?”

~ ~ ~

Bennet had always dreamed of love. Of finding his Mr. Right.

Hell, he’d even settle for Mr. Righteous.

Who he won’t fall for, not ever? Mr. Downright Pride-less.

It’s Pride and Prejudice, complete with scumbaggery, anguished declaration of desire, meddling villagers, Karaoke, Scrabble, and Pride.

Rating: C-

Anyta Sunday is a popular author of m/m romances, but I haven’t read anything of hers so far, and I decided to dip my toe into the water with Bennet, Pride Before the Fall, book three in her Love, Austen series.  As you’ll probably glean from those titles, the series comprises queer re-workings/re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s novels (so they all stand alone) and this one is based on Pride and Prejudice.  It hits all the beats of the original, but it lacks depth and feels very episodic as it jumps from one plot point to another, seemingly trying to cram them all in while not developing characters or relationships – or, in fact, doing anything new other than making the two protagonists men who are a bit older than those in Austen’s beloved classic.

Bennet Keene is forty-five and works as a freelance editor of gay romance novels.  He’s out and proud, flirts for fun and likes no-strings sex occasionally, but ultimately, he’s searching for deep, meaningful love. Sadly, that hasn’t happened so far, and living in the small village of Cubworthy as he does, it doesn’t seem likely to.  His much younger brother Lyon lives with him, but their relationship is a bit strained; Lyon is fifteen and Bennet has been absent from his life since Lyon was a toddler, returning to Cobworthy only after the recent deaths of their parents.  Bennet wants to take care of Lyon, who, full of teenaged hormones and resentment, doesn’t think he needs looking after.

Bennet’s friend Charlie runs the local pub, and Bennet heads there one evening with the intention of having a chat with Caroline Bingley, the self-appointed Queen Bee of the village, who is every bit as snobbish and bitchy as the original Caroline. Bennet is planning to organise a Pride event in the village this year and plans to tap Caroline for some funding – but before he can approach her, he bumps into someone he’s seen only once before – while out riding that morning, in fact – an attractive man of around his own age whose dark eyes and commanding presence make Bennet feel slightly lightheaded.  He realises this must be the owner of the nearby Silverfield estate, Darcy Tilney – and Bennet immediately susses out that while the other man clearly liked what he saw when giving Bennet the once-over, he didn’t like that he liked it.  And a man who denies or takes no pride in who he is isn’t the man for Bennet.

It’s Karaoke Night, and when Bennet is talked into getting up on stage, Charlie’s dad invites Darcy to get up there with him (because Darcy’s son is bisexual… so that means he must want to sing with Bennet?  I’m not sure if that’s dumb or insulting.  Both, probably).  Of course, the very staid Darcy brusquely refuses to do so.  Honestly, I didn’t blame him; I’d probably have turned down a request  to get up and make an arse of myself in front of a crowd of people I didn’t know! It’s a very different thing from refusing to dance with someone because they’re not handsome enough to tempt you!

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

Profiling a Killer (Behavioral Analysis Unit #1) by Nichole Severn

profiling a killer uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He knows killers. But can he protect her from one?

Special Agent Nicholas James knows serial killers. After all, he was practically raised by one and later became a Behavioural Analysis Unit Specialist to put them behind bars. But Dr Aubrey Flood’s sister’s murder is his highest stakes case yet. His professional history with the beautiful medical examiner is legendary. So is their attraction. But the clock is ticking if Nicholas is to stop Aubrey doesn’t become another victim.

Rating: C-

Nicole Severn’s Profiling a Killer is the first book in a new, multi-authored Romantic Suspense series featuring the characters who make up a BAU – Behavioural Analysis Unit – of the FBI based in Seattle.  It started well, but it wasn’t long before it became mired in cliché and dumb behaviour that made me question – repeatedly – the supposed intelligence of the characters.  The author attempts to give the two leads some interesting backstory, but the way this has affected them is told rather than shown (some of it so often it was like being hit over the head with it) and the identity of the killer was easy to work out.  Which all adds up to another not-great romantic suspense read.

Three years before this story begins, Nicholas James, Seattle BAU’s top profiler, helped to put away the serial killer known as the “X Marks the Spot Killer” because he would carve an X into the cheek of his victims and then leave clues as to the location of the body.  Cracking the case cemented Nicholas’ stellar reputation, but was devastating for him personally, as the murderer turned out to be someone he knew well and had grown up looking to as a father figure after his own father left when Nicholas was ten.  That discovery changed him, making him reluctant to trust and unable to take anyone at face value.

When Profiling a Killer opens, Nicholas has been called in to investigate the death of a young woman named Kara Flood, whose murder bears all the hallmarks of the X Marks the Spot killer. The victim was the sister of Dr. Aubrey Flood, the medical examiner who worked with Nicholas three years before and whose painstaking work on the autopsies of the killer’s final three victims finally brought to light the evidence needed to convict him.  Given the circumstances of her sister’s death, Aubrey specially requested Nicholas work the investigation;  and although she knows she can’t be officially involved, she needs to see that her sister gets justice and help that happen if she can.

It’s clear that there is a copycat out there – could the choice of victim somehow point to Aubrey being their real target?  Given her involvement with the previous investigation it seems likely – and Nicholas is determined to do everything he can to keep her safe while also tracking down the killer.

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

You Are Cordially Invited (Auckland Med. #5) by Jay Hogan

you are cordially invited

This title may be purchased from Amazon

There’s a wedding in the air at Auckland Med, but Reuben wonders if they’ll survive the stress long enough to say, ‘I do’. Cam is directing the entire operation with his combat eyeliner in place, whilst the wedding party is doing its best to ignore him. The pressure is mounting and the cracks are beginning to show.

There’s a bachelor party to survive.
The paparazzi to outrun.
A wedding outfit to confirm.
A rugby game to win.
A jerk of a father to cope with.
A stunning opportunity to consider.
A relationship to untangle.
And a shocking event that could derail everything.

With the universe conspiring against them, Reuben and Cam will have to summon every scrap of belief they have in each other to make it to their vows.

Rating: B-

Book five in the Auckland Med series (I’m not sure it’s the last one?), You Are Cordially Invited is ‘The One With the Wedding’ – although it’s much more than a fluffy wedding short –  in which everyone’s favourite, fabulous, feisty Charge Nurse, Cam Wano, ties the knot with the love of his life, Reuben Taylor of the All Blacks.  There’s a wedding, yes, but there’s a lot more going on as well, as Cam and Reuben are faced with some momentous decisions just weeks away from their walk down the aisle – and Cam has to face some of his worst fears and personal demons.

Around three years since Reuben and Cam first met in Crossing the Touchline, they’ve settled into coupledom and family life pretty well.  Reuben has adopted his brother’s autistic son, Cory, and he and Cam are doing a great job providing a stable, nurturing environment for him.  And of course, they love him to bits. But with Reuben being one of the highest-profile sportsmen in the country, the level of media intrusion into their lives is a continual worry;  they both knew, going into their relationship, that it would be an issue, but there are still plenty of people out there who are prepared to hate on Reuben’s choice of such an obviously out and proud partner, and neither of them want Cory being dragged into the unwanted spotlight with them.  With just a couple of weeks to go before the Big Day and following a riotous and raunchy bachelor party, Cam and Reuben are nursing epic hangovers when Cam gets a call from his mum – and is strangely uncommunicative about it.  Reuben knows something is up, but he also knows his man and doesn’t push. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to leave it alone completely, and instead of heading off to training, he turns up at Margaret Wano’s house just in time to meet Cam going in.

The call Cam received was to tell him that his nineteen-year-old cousin Stella is pregnant.  Stella plans to put the baby up for adoption, but wanted to explore the options of an adoption within the family first – and that Cam and Reuben are her first choice of potential parents, if they’re interested.  It’s a bit of a bombshell; they do want more children, but had decided to defer enlarging their family  until after Reuben retires from professional sport so that they can share the child-rearing duties – and obviously, there’s Cory to take into account, too.  It’s a golden opportunity, but it’s not the right time… is it?

The adoption storyline is just one of the things that hit Cam and Reuben in the run-up to their wedding – like they haven’t got enough on their plate already, what with taking care of last-minute wedding details, fending off the increased media attention, and Reuben’s toxic and obnoxious father spouting off his homophobic opinions to anyone who will listen.

A shocking development later in the book (which I’m not going to spoil) just puts the couple under even greater pressure… and I couldn’t help feeling as though I’d stepped into a soap opera.  Cam and Reuben are hit with one potentially life-changing problem after another – and it felt like overkill.

I enjoyed seeing the Auckland Med gang again; their friendships are really well written and the author has created a wonderfully strong sense of camaraderie between them so that you know, without a doubt, they’ll always have each other’s backs.  Cam is still a standout as a character – snarky, bossy and with a huge-heart – and his chemistry with Reuben is as strong as ever.  They’re a great couple, and the thing I liked best about this book is the way Jay Hogan continues to develop their relationship.  There aren’t all that many “established couple” novels in contemporary romance, which traditionally end at the HEA, so catching up with Cam and Reuben and finding them still working at it was good to see.  I liked the way the author explores an issue that could have become a serious fault-line for them – Cam’s need to control every situation as a way of protecting those he cares for.  It’s well-intentioned, and a product of Cam’s need to create a safe space around himself, but when it comes to Reuben, wanting to enable him to focus on his professional life without sweating the smaller stuff means Cam has denied him the opportunity to make choices and have some say in the way they run their lives.  And despite his promises not to keep things back or make decisions on his own, Cam has fallen back into his old ways – and has to learn that sharing burdens and asking for help are signs of strength rather than weakness.

That’s what lies at the heart of this story, the ways a couple finds to compromise and balance their relationship, and how difficult it can be when that couple involves two such strong individuals.  Unfortunately however, while the extraneous drama provides some really good opportunities to illustrate that point, it also gets in the way, and it stretched my credulity just a bit too far.

There were things about this book I liked very much – the adoption storyline is really interesting, for instance – but it just didn’t hang together cohesively, and I can’t rate it as highly as I’ve rated Jay Hogan’s other books.  I like a bit of drama and I like angsty stories, but here, I wish the author had reined it all in a bit.  Sometimes less really is more.

You Are Cordially Invited may not have worked for me quite as well as I’d hoped, but I’m still a big Jay Hogan fan and will certainly be picking up whatever she publishes next.

Out of Character (True Colours #2) by Annabeth Albert

out of character

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jasper Quigley is tired of being everyone’s favorite sidekick. He wants to become the hero of his own life, but that’s not going to happen if he agrees to help out his former best friend turned king of the jocks, Milo Lionetti. High school was miserable enough, thanks, and Jasper has no interest in dredging up painful memories of his old secret crush.

But Milo’s got nowhere else to go. His life is spiraling out of control and he’s looking to turn things back around. Step one? Replace the rare Odyssey cards he lost in an idiotic bet. Step two? Tell his ex-best-friend exactly how he feels—how he’s always felt.

Jasper may be reluctant to reopen old wounds, but he never could resist Milo. There’s a catch, though: if Milo wants his help, he’s going to have to pitch in to make the upcoming children’s hospital charity ball the best ever. But as the two don cosplay for the kids and hunt for rare cards, nostalgia for their lost friendship may turn into something even more lasting…

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert’s  Out of Character, the follow up to last year’s Conventionally Yours, features two guys who were firm friends until high-school, when expectations and peer pressure ended their friendship.  It’s a cute, (former) friends-to-lovers romance featuring two likeable characters who have a lot to learn – and re-learn – about each other as they reconnect through a quest to track down some rare Odyssey game cards.

We met Jasper Quigley in the previous book, in which he was due to accompany his friends and fellow gamers Alden and Conrad to Odyssey Con West, a massive fan convention in Las Vegas.  Unfortunately, Jasper had to pull out at the last minute because his younger sister April – who suffers from a rare immune system disorder – became seriously ill and he had to return home.  Several months later finds Jasper, who is in his final year of college, still working at a local game shop, making regular appearances on the Gamer Grandpa vlog, and also spending time volunteering in the children’s ward at the local hospital, where he and a group of friends cosplay various Odyssey characters and play games with some of the kids there.   When the book opens though, he’s down a prince for the next visit – Prince Neptune to be specific – one of the most popular (if not the most popular) characters in the game and with the kids, and he’s running out of time to come up with a suitable replacement.

Fortunately, however, Jasper’s prince does, indeed, come.  Unfortunately, it’s in the form of someone he’d hoped never to have to have much to do with again, his former best friend, Milo Lionetti.  Milo’s Italianate good looks make him a perfect prince – on paper at least, because his long ago behaviour towards Jasper wasn’t at all princely.

Jasper and Milo grew up together and were practically inseparable, but that changed when they went to high school and Milo got picked for the soccer team.  Wanting a place at the cool kids’ table – and not wanting to be singled out for his choice of a nerdy gay boy as his best friend – Milo turned his back on Jasper and watched from the sidelines, saying nothing as the Jock crowd dished out insults to Jasper and anyone else who dared to be smart, nerdy or anything other than a vapid clone.  Jasper made new friends and moved on, although he hasn’t forgotten what Milo did, or forgiven him for it.  So Milo is the last person Jasper expects to be coming to him for help.

A few nights earlier, Milo had a bit too much to drink and ended up losing four of his older brother Bruno’s Odyssey cards, four cards which happen to be incredibly rare and worth thousands of dollars.  Bruno is in the military and is currently stationed overseas; Milo can’t bear to have to own up to yet another screw up – he’s already caused his mother and brother enough worry over the last few years – and wants to replace the cards before Bruno’s next leave, which is a matter of weeks away.   Jasper doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy for him and at first, he wonders if he’s being pranked, but he soon realises that Milo is serious, and that his distress is real.  So he offers Milo a deal.  In return for Jasper’s help in tracking down the cards, Milo has to be Prince Neptune on their next cosplay session at the hospital.  With absolutely no other option open to him, Milo agrees.

That’s the set up for what opens out into a charming and heart-warming story of two young men whose lives went in different directions finding their way back to each other.  After the cosplay session, Jasper starts looking for the cards Milo needs, and the two of them end up searching various sites and online markets, solving puzzles, doing a treasure hunt and going to an Odyssey tournament together.  To his surprise, Milo starts to enjoy the cosplaying and the visits to the hospital as well, and all the time he and Jasper spend together give them the opportunity to talk about what happened to their friendship and to get to know  each other as the people they are now.

Jasper is an absolute sweetheart; intelligent, up-beat and generous of spirit, he loves helping people and is always on hand to crack a joke or offer support.  But he chafes a bit at being the ‘sidekick’ – the dependable one who isn’t ‘the best’ at anything, and longs to be someone’s hero.  Milo has had a tough few years; he went off the rails a bit after his father died and now sees himself as a screw-up who can do nothing right and is going nowhere.  But although Jasper is initially suspicious of Milo’s motives, he quickly realises that Milo wants to change and do better, and I loved how his support and belief in Milo spur him on and help him to see that he’s capable of more than he’d believed.   Milo grows an awful lot throughout the novel, and his redemption as a character and as a friend is very well done.  I liked the neat bit of role-reversal here, too, with Jasper being the confident, outgoing one and Milo the quiet, artistic one who has, despite being a member of the ‘in-crowd’ been more alone than Jasper ever has.

The chemistry that hums between them is palpable, and their romance is sweet and full of genuine affection as Jasper helps Milo navigate his way through the newness of a relationship (with a lovely, subtle emphasis on consent) and there’s a real sense of give and take as they talk and listen and work through their issues together – and Jasper becomes Milo’s hero and Milo embraces his true self and learns to forgive himself.

As I said in my review of the previous book, I know nothing about gaming and it’s not something that has ever really interested me, but Annabeth Albert writes about it here with such affection and authority that she made me care about it because the characters care about it so much.

Milo and Jasper are well-rounded characters, and Milo, in particular, undergoes a tremendous amount of well-written and organic personal growth throughout the story.  Out of Character is a low-angst, feel-good romance about second chances, being brave and being true to yourself and others, and I’m happy to recommend it.

Home to Texas (Brides of Rough Creek Texas #2) by Kaki Warner

home to texas

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lieutenant KD Whitcomb had mapped out her career from West Point to the Pentagon. But when an injury under questionable circumstances forces her to leave the army, her dreams fall dead at her feet. Feeling lost and needing to rediscover the tough woman beneath the uniform, she heads back to the family ranch in Rough Creek. Only two things get her through the nightmares and sleepless nights: the support of her family and the CID officer investigating the incident in Afghanistan. He infuriates her. Makes her laugh. Gives her hope.

Richard Murdock is struggling, too. There’s something fishy about this last case…and the threats coming from Afghanistan aimed at both him and KD. He’s ready to leave the army and make a new start. But how will he protect KD? And what should he do about the growing attraction between them? He’s been burned before. But there’s something about KD’s vulnerability and strength that calls to him, and he’ll do whatever it takes to protect her and give her a chance to build new dreams…including helping her start a PTSD equine therapy program at the Texas ranch.

If they can overcome the threats against them and heal old wounds, this second chance might be better than they ever dreamed.

Rating: B

Home to Texas was my first experience with Kaki Warner, and although it’s is book two in a series (Brides of Rough Creek, Texas), it works perfectly fine as a standalone.  There are other characters in the story who have clearly appeared in other books by this author, but they’re very much secondary to the main plotline, so I didn’t feel as though I’d missed out on anything that had gone before.  I’m not a great reader of m/f contemporary romance, but the synopsis of this one appealed to me, and I enjoyed the book a lot; the characters are appealing, the settings are well described and the humour and banter between the two leads feels very natural and unforced (which isn’t always the case!)  It’s a solid romance as well; two people who meet under very inauspicious circumstances are drawn to each other, and together, find purpose and a fresh start on a sprawling Texas ranch.

When the book begins, Lieutenant KD Whitcomb is just coming to in a hospital bed, groggy, sometimes in pain, sometimes nauseous, but somehow comforted by the steady beeps of the machines surrounding her.  She knows she’s in hospital but doesn’t know how long she’s been there, and the memories as to how she got there are disturbing to say the least.  Unusually however, there is someone at her side when she wakes this time, a tall, dark-haired man with tired blue eyes she doesn’t know but is sure has been there before.  He tells her he’s a Warrant Officer from the army criminal investigations division (CID) and that he’s there to ask her a few questions about the incident that landed her in a hospital bed if she’s up to answering them.  But she isn’t and he is asked to return another day – and KD knows she’ll have to be ready with her answers then.

The story then skips back a few days to when KD and her superior officer, Captain Natalea Mouton were approached by Samira, one of their Afghani interpreters, to ask them if they could help a local woman retrieve her eight-year-old son from Asaf Farid, the captain of the local unit of the Afghan National Police, who has taken the boy from her intending to use him for sex.  Nataleah points out that the army has a policy of non-interference when it comes to cultural issues (no matter how abhorrent they are), but agrees to go to speak with Farid to see if he will return the boy.  When they arrive at Farid’s concrete hut, Nataleah sends KD into the back room to look for the boy while she speaks with Farid – and then all hell breaks loose.  While trying to help the bruised, battered and terrified boy out of the window, KD hears gunshots – and is then confronted by Farid, who shoots her in the leg and is advancing on her to finish her off.  Before he can do so, she shoots back – then blacks out.

The first part of the story is tense and exciting as Warrant Officer Richard Murdock, who has been assigned to investigate the killings of Mouton and Farid, realises that the army is looking to avoid the scandal of two of its officers being shot by someone trained and weaponised by the US military by using KD as a scapegoat, casting doubt on the legality of her actions and basically hanging her out to dry. But no way is Richard going along with that; even though his own career is on the line if he doesn’t reach the conclusion he’s been instructed to reach, he’s determined to find a way to present the facts of the case without ending both their military careers.

Once she’s back Stateside, Richard offers to help KD prepare for the hearing she’s been summoned to, and to find her a good JAG lawyer, and as they spend a few days together, the attraction they’d both felt as KD started to recover develops into something deeper and full of mutual understanding and respect.  I really liked the way their romance progresses, both of them being wary of jumping into something new at a time of such uncertainty, but also unable to deny their growing feelings for one another.

It’s not a spoiler (it’s in the blurb) to say that they both end up leaving the army, and then the action moves to the Whitcomb family cattle ranch in Texas, KD having invited Richard to visit while he gives some thought to what he’s going to do next.  Their relationship develops at a believable pace and I appreciated the lack of misunderstandings and miscommunication to create drama and tension; there’s enough of that in the plotline concerning the threats made against KD and Richard by the drug-lord and Taliban sympathiser Khalil Farid, who has vowed revenge for the death of his son.

I enjoyed the book and the romance is undoubtedly well done – KD and Richard are well-matched, they communicate well and are wonderfully supportive of each other – but the pacing flags in places (mostly the second half/around the middle), and the climax to the plot falls rather flat when, despite all the detailed planning as to how to handle Farid and his men, the author pulls one of the oldest tricks in the book which made it all look completely pointless.  After the skilful way Kaki Warner explores KD’s (and Richard’s) treatment by the military, KD’s complicated relationship with her family, and the equally accomplished way she develops the romance, that felt really clunky and amateurish by comparison.

The characterisation is excellent across the board; the secondary characters are well-rounded and the familial relationships and family dynamics are very well written.  KD and Richard are likeable and easy to root for, both wounded in different ways – she from her physical injuries and subsequent anxiety issues, he as the result of a family tragedy and an early marriage that went badly wrong – and both have some healing to do as they move into the next stage of their lives.

Home to Texas is an enjoyable combination of contemporary romance and suspense, and although there are places in the second part of the story where things slowed down a bit too much, the book held my interest and kept me turning the pages.  Richard and KD have terrific chemistry and the depth of the emotions that lie between them are palpable whenever they’re on the page together.  Despite the pacing issues I’ve mentioned, I’m happy to recommend Home to Texas, especially if you’re looking for a contemporary romance with a slightly different spin to it.