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

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

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

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

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

Rating: A

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Kiss by Sally Malcolm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

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

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

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His new Governess…

Is getting under his skin!

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

Rating:B

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

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

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

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

Bishop’s Endgame (Endgame Trilogy #3) by Katie Reus

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He kidnapped a princess to exact revenge.

Set up for a crime he didn’t commit, Ellis Bishop takes the law into his own hands to exact justice and clear his name. Unfortunately, that means he has to kidnap a crime boss’s daughter—a perfect mafia princess, set to become queen of a dirty empire. What he didn’t count on was falling for his mortal enemy’s daughter.

He wasn’t supposed to fall for her.

Arianna hates the man who kidnapped her, but soon she realizes that things aren’t what they seem. Ellis was framed by her stepfather and is trying to clear his name. If she helps him, it means betraying her family. But how can she turn her back on him when he’s innocent… when her stepfather turns out to be a monster she never really knew at all?

Rating: B-

After the rather disappointing Bishop’s Queen, the middle instalment of Katie Reus’ Endgame Trilogy, I confess I was on the fence as to whether I was going to finish the series.  But in the end, I decided to read Bishop’s Endgame because I was still interested in finding out what happened to the third Bishop sibling Ellis, a former DEA agent who went on the run after he was accused of murdering his partner.  The plot is suspenseful and the two leads are engaging and easy to root for, although the romance does move really quickly – which seems par for the course with a lot of romantic suspense these days – but at least the chemistry between them is evident, even if the ILYs feel rushed.

Bishop’s Endgame opens with Ellis witnessing the murder of his friend and colleague at the hands of Vitaly Rodin, a mid-level crime boss in Miami who has set his sights on making his way up to the higher echelons by taking out his boss and taking over his operation.  When Ellis meets with his DEA boss, he shows him the video he took of the murder  – only for his boss to take the phone and try to have him arrested.  Ellis bolts and manages to get away and into hiding; intent on clearing his name, he falls off the grid while he works out what his next step should be…  and who, if anyone, he can trust.

Arianna Stavish, a third-grade teacher, is Vitaly’s stepdaughter, although she has had very little to do with him since the deaths of her mother and stepbrother Max, who died of a drug overdose some years earlier.  Traumatic events in her past drove her to drink, but now, aged twenty-five, she’s been sober for three years and is committed to staying that way.  She’s in her car, about to drive home from an AA meeting one evening when a gun is pressed to her neck and a deep voice orders her to drive – but she’d rather be shot than endure another assault and tries to run.  Her attacker subdues her with chloroform and the next thing she knows she’s waking up in her own bedroom.

Ellis’ investigations into Vitaly have led him to the conclusion that Arianna may be the key to getting the information he wants in order to bring the man down.  He’s discovered a number of offshore bank accounts in Arianna’s name with millions of dollars in them and wants to use her – and the money – to get Vitaly’s attention.  He’s also discovered Vitaly’s plans to release several new – lethal – designer drugs across Miami, and is determined not to let that happen.

Not surprisingly, Arianna is furious and scared at the situation she’s in; add bewildered to that when the guy who’s kidnapped her starts talking about the Cayman Islands and her accounts worth millions.  But while he might be crazy, she finds herself starting to believe his assertions that he doesn’t want to hurt her –although she draws the line at getting on a plane to the Caymans to withdraw money and close accounts she doesn’t have.  Yet when the man shows her that the accounts do exist and that they are in her name, it’s hard to refute the evidence of her own eyes.

We know who the bad guys are from the start, so the story is really about Ellis’ quest to find enough evidence to bring them to justice. He had believed Arianna was involved in Vitaly’s criminal activities, or at the very least, knew about them and had agreed to his using her name on the bank accounts, but he’s forced to revise his opinions and discard his preconceptions when he does a little more digging and realises something about the set-up is off.  He and Arianna don’t get off to the best of starts, obviously, but I liked her determination not to be cowed by him or the situation in spite of her fears. Fortunately, it’s not long before she starts to realise that Ellis isn’t the violent criminal she’d assumed him to be and that there really is something to the story he’s told her about her step-father – and she agrees to help Ellis to get to the truth.

The plot moves at a fast pace as Ellis and Arianna – with the help of Evie, Evan and master hacker Lizzie, who originally appeared in the Red Stone Security series – work together to clear Ellis’ name.  At the same time Ellis and Arianna are fighting the steadily growing attraction between them, knowing they’re facing an uncertain future.  There’s a bit of insta-love going on, but the author allows the plot to take priority while keeping the attraction building and bubbling, so that by the time they do give in to it, the physical intimacy feels right and not as though it has been shoe-horned in for the sake of it.

Bishop’s Endgame is probably my favourite book of the trilogy, and it’s possible to read it without reference to the other two books, as the storyline is completely separate and self-contained.  It’s a quick, fast-paced read with a high-stakes plot and engaging characters and I enjoyed it, in spite of my reservations.

Police Brutality (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #2) by Gregory Ashe

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For the first time in a long while, Emery Hazard’s life is good. His new business as a private detective is taking off. Things are good at home. He loves his boyfriend, John-Henry Somerset; he loves their daughter. He might even love the new friends they’ve found. There’s only one problem: Somers has been talking about marriage.

When a former colleague, Walter Hoffmeister, comes to Hazard and hires him to look into a series of anonymous death threats, Hazard eagerly jumps on the distraction. Hoffmeister might be a jerk, but he’s a paying jerk, and Hazard isn’t convinced the threats are serious.

Until, that is, Hoffmeister is almost gunned down on Hazard’s doorstep. As Hazard investigates more deeply, he learns that more than one person in Wahredua has a reason to wish Hoffmeister dead. His search takes him to the Ozark Volunteers, reincarnated as the Bright Lights movement, but it also leads him into a sanctuary of radical Christianity. Meanwhile, an antifa activist has arrived in town, calling for Hoffmeister’s death and threatening total war with the Bright Lights.

As Hazard continues to look for answers, he becomes a target too—and not just because he’s helping Hoffmeister. The Keeper of Bees is still at large, and the killer hasn’t lost interest in Emery Hazard. Not yet. Not, Hazard begins to suspect, until the Keeper has taken everything Hazard holds dear.

Rating: A-

I chose The Rational Faculty – the fabulous and compelling first book in Gregory Ashe’s second series of novels featuring detectives Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset – as my favourite book of 2019.  I’ve become addicted to the author’s brand of gritty, complex mystery combined with angsty, equally complex romance, and have been eagerly awaiting the next instalment in the Union of Swords series. The events of Police Brutality take place a couple of months after those of the previous book, and as it opens, we find Hazard and Somers a little more settled than they were and enjoying a night in with friends.

In general, things are going well. Hazard and Somers are deeply in love and firmly committed to one another, and they seem to have got past at least some of the bumps that threatened to derail things between them when Hazard became unofficially involved in a case Somers was working, which resulted in a lot of complications for Somers and put a strain on their relationship.  Now, Hazard is getting to grips with opening his own PI firm and Somers is getting used to his new partner – but as is always the case with these two, nothing is plain sailing. Hazard is still struggling to deal with his depression and the PTSD that followed the attack on him and Somers some months earlier, and this, together with the guilt he feels over the recent, gruesome murders of the sheriff’s son and his husband, and his growing suspicion that the killer is – for some as yet unknown reason – targeting him and those around him, is weighing heavily on his mind.  And this being Emery Hazard, ‘weighing heavily’ means ‘obssessing and over-thinking’.

While Somers is assigned to work the case of a trio of young female college students who have been the victims of sexual assault, Hazard is surprised to receive a visit from a former colleague, Walter Hoffmeister, who wants to hire him to find out who is behind the weird and unpleasant things that have been happening to him lately.  Shit in the mail, someone messing around in his house and car, someone following him – and finally a threatening note; his boss, police chief Cravens, isn’t taking any of this seriously, and Hoffmeister is clearly pissed off and pretty freaked out.  Privately, Hazard isn’t sure he believes the threats are serious either – Hoffmeister is brusque, loud-mouthed and obnoxious, and has recently been suspended from duty pending an investigation into an accusation of assault and battery on a suspect, so it’s not surprising he has enemies – but a job is a job, and Hazard agrees to take it on and see what he can find out.

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