The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian

the queer principles of kit webb

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Kit Webb has left his stand-and-deliver days behind him. But dreary days at his coffee shop have begun to make him pine for the heady rush of thievery. When a handsome yet arrogant aristocrat storms into his shop, Kit quickly realizes he may be unable to deny whatever this highborn man desires.

In order to save himself and a beloved friend, Percy, Lord Holland must go against every gentlemanly behavior he holds dear to gain what he needs most: a book that once belonged to his mother, a book his father never lets out of his sight and could be Percy’s savior. More comfortable in silk-filled ballrooms than coffee shops frequented by criminals, his attempts to hire the roughly hewn highwayman, formerly known as Gladhand Jack, proves equal parts frustrating and electrifying.

Kit refuses to participate in the robbery but agrees to teach Percy how to do the deed. Percy knows he has little choice but to submit and as the lessons in thievery begin, he discovers thievery isn’t the only crime he’s desperate to commit with Kit.

But when their careful plan goes dangerously wrong and shocking revelations threaten to tear them apart, can these stolen hearts overcome the impediments in their path?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian takes readers back to Georgian England with her latest novel, The Queer Principles of Kit Webb.  It’s a lively tale laden with wit, sparkling dialogue and insightful social commentary; the two leads are superbly characterised and there’s a vibrant secondary cast, too.  In fact, when I was only a few chapters in, I thought I’d be awarding the book a DIK, but unfortunately, the plot gets rather convoluted in the second half in a way that didn’t seem all that well thought-out, and that knocked the final grade down a notch or two.  But it’s still an entertaining read.

After taking a bullet to the leg, highwayman Gladhand Jack ‘retired’ from the business of highway robbery and now runs a moderately successful coffee house in London.  It’s a comfortable – if unexciting – life, and a year after his retirement, Christopher – Kit – Webb is bored.  He doesn’t really want to go back to his old life of thievery and trying not to get killed, but he can’t deny that he misses the activity and excitement – or that he’s getting more restless and foul-tempered by the day.  Which is why, when something that looked like first-rate trouble – an exquisitely dressed young gentleman complete with powder, patches and an elaborately adorned wig – walks into the coffeehouse,  Kit is instantly intrigued.

Edward Percival Talbot – Percy to his friends – is the only son and heir to the Duke of Clare.  Or rather, he was, until information recently came to light revealing that his father’s marriage to his mother was bigamous.  After living for some years on the Continent, Percy returned to England after his mother’s death to discover that his obnoxious father had married his (Percy’s) childhood friend Marian (seemingly against her wishes), that he has a new baby sister – and that his father married his mother – and now Marian – while he had another wife still living. The first blackmail letter arrived a month earlier, setting out the facts and demanding money, and now Percy and Marian have two months to come up with a plan.  Neither of them wants to pay the blackmailer. Percy knows that paying up will mean spending a lifetime in fear of exposure and is inclined to make the truth known on their own terms; Marian thinks paying the blackmailer will let Clare off the hook for what he’s done and she wants revenge, to bring him as low as humanly possible.

Although Percy is facing social ruin, and his entire life has been based on a lie, he’s firstly concerned for Marian and little Eliza and wants to make sure they’re safe and well taken care of before he focuses too much on his own situation.  To this end, he plans to steal a book from his father – and then use it to force him to pay him and Marian enough money for them to be able to live comfortably. (At this stage, we don’t know what the book’s contents are).  It’s Marian who comes up with the idea of getting Gladhand Jack to do the job for them – but after his first visit to the coffeehouse, Percy isn’t so sure the former highwayman is the right man for the job.

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

Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Anne White

beneath devil's bridge

This title may be purchased from Amazon

True crime podcaster Trinity Scott is chasing breakout success, and her brand-new serial may get her there. Her subject is Clayton Jay Pelley. More than two decades ago, the respected family man and guidance counselor confessed to the brutal murder of teenage student Leena Rai. But why he killed her has always been a mystery.

In a series of exclusive interviews from prison, Clayton discloses to Trinity the truth about what happened that night beneath Devil’s Bridge. It’s not what anyone in the Pacific Northwest town of Twin Falls expects. Clayton says he didn’t do it. Was he lying then? Or now?

As her listeners increase and ratings skyrocket, Trinity is missing a key player in the story: Rachel Walczak, the retired detective who exposed Pelley’s twisted urges and put him behind bars. She’s not interested in playing Clayton’s game—until Trinity digs deeper and the podcast’s reverb widens. Then Rachel begins to question everything she thinks she knows about the past.

With each of Clayton’s teasing reveals, one thing is clear: he’s not the only one in Twin Falls with a secret.

Rating: A

Beneath Devil’s Bridge is a tense, tightly-plotted and superbly-executed mystery that is very loosely based on a real-life murder that happened in British Columbia some twenty-four years ago.   It’s a compelling, absorbing read that takes a look at the impact of a brutal crime on a small, close-knit community and asks some challenging questions about the lengths to which people will go to protect those they love or about what we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings.  It comprises some difficult subjects, so potential readers should be aware that the murder itself is quite gruesome (although we don’t witness it directly) and the story contains references to bullying, grooming, paedophilia, underage sex and rape.

If it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to kill one?

Fourteen-year-old Leena Rai is an outsider.  Socially awkward and plain, all she really wants is what any teenage girl wants – to belong, to have friends, to be happy.  Sadly, she has none of those things.  She’s bullied relentlessly at school and on a cold November night she is brutally murdered when she’s on her way home from a “secret” bonfire festival in the mountains north of the small town of Twin Falls in the Pacific Northwest.

When her battered body is pulled out of the river a few days later, Detective Rachel Walczak is assigned to the case, along with Sergeant Luke O’Leary, a homicide detective from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who will bring an outside perspective (and the considerable resources of the RCMP) to the investigation.  But as Rachel and Luke start interviewing Leena’s schoolmates, and others who were at the bonfire, they immediately get the sense that something is being carefully hidden from them; the stories they’re hearing are too pat, as though they’ve been co-ordinated… but by whom? And why?  This all becomes moot however, when someone – a teacher and guidance counsellor at Twin Falls Secondary school – confesses to the crime.  The case is closed,  there’s no trial and Clayton Jay Pelley goes to prison.

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

Misdirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #2) by Gregory Ashe

misdirection

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Finding a missing boy will be hard. Dinner with Shaw’s parents might be murder.

When a rising star in the state senate asks Shaw Aldrich and North McKinney to transport her son, Flip, to and from his drug testing appointments, they’re not happy—they don’t do babysitting jobs. Arriving at the boy’s dorm room, though, they discover that the door has been forced and that Flip has disappeared, and rumors of strange men on campus suggest that something seriously bad has happened. The students and staff at the ritzy private school have plenty to tell about Flip, but the deeper North and Shaw dig, the less they understand what might have happened to the boy.

Then one of Flip’s friends is found dead, and it’s clear that she was killed for coming too close to the truth. As North and Shaw search for answers, they meet resistance from every angle: from the school’s staff, from Flip’s friends, from the police, even from Flip’s family. Someone wants the boy to disappear—and is willing to kill to make sure it happens.

The home front has its share of trouble too. North’s ‘uncle’ Ronnie is back at his old games, drawing North and Shaw into a job that seems simple on the surface—find a missing man who might be in trouble—but they suspect that the request hides something sinister. Ronnie’s involvement, and the job itself, puts the detectives on a collision course with Shaw’s parents and a strain on their fledgling relationship.

As the days pass, North and Shaw realize time is running out for Flip and, maybe, for them as well. They have been misled from the very beginning—and they might be too late.

Rating: A

Note: There are spoilers for earlier Borealis Investigations books in this review.

I suppose I should have expected, after the relatively light-hearted comedic zany-ness of Indirection, that Gregory Ashe would immediately turn around and pull the rug out from under my feet… which is exactly what he does in this second book in his Borealis: Without a Compass series.  If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll already know that not only is he the master of the slow-burn romance, he’s also without parallel in his ability to write relationships that rip his readers’ hearts into little shreds and stomp on them before slowly putting them back together and rebuilding said relationships so that they’re even stronger than before.  This process can be tough to read however, and I confess that even my high tolerance for angst and emotional torment was sorely tested in Misdirection.  I mean that in a good way; not many authors can provoke such visceral reactions, and it’s a testament to how much I’ve come to care for these characters that when the home truths that have been hovering just on the edge of our peripheral vision finally hit – it hurt. A lot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  When we rejoin the Borealis Boys, things are going along pretty much as usual – which right now seems to mean North doing all the work and Shaw doing… well, being his usual quirky self – when an unusual job presents itself to them.  A state senator wants them to escort her seventeen-year-old son to and from his mandated drug testing appointments (because he made “a mistake”) – and when the try to explain to her that it’s not really their bag, she yells and then threatens to make sure their PI licences aren’t renewed when the time comes.  Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they take the job.  But their problems really begin when they arrive to collect Flip from his prestigious private school – which is, incidentally, the same one Shaw attended – to find that the door to his room has been kicked in, the room tossed and Flip is nowhere to be found.

While North and Shaw attempt to find out what happened to him and are getting the runaround from the staff and students at the school, they’re also working on one of their open cases from Aldrich Acquisitions – an attempted break-in at the Nonavie lab which seems to have been targeted at certain proprietary technology – and North’s dodgy not-Uncle Ronnie shows up again, this time demanding North and Shaw’s help locating a guy who might be in trouble.  They’re immediately suspicious of Ronnie’s motives of course, but given what he’s holding over North’s head, they don’t have much choice but to agree to try to find him, too.

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

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

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An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

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

Unsuspecting Target (Hard Core Justice #5) by Juno Rushdan

unsuspecting target uk

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Can they right past wrongs to fix their future?

Ten years ago, Jagger Carr saved Wendy Haas’s life. Circumstances pulled them apart soon after, but when an assassin targets her at a Manhattan charity gala, Wendy has no choice but to trust Jagger, who’s now deep undercover. Not even their warring feelings can stop desire from reigniting. But the vengeful cartel gunning for them could destroy any hope for a second chance.

Rating: B-

One of my fellow reviewers at All About Romance has favourably reviewed a few of Juno Rushdan’s books, and as I’m also a fan of romantic suspense, I was keen to try something of hers.  I picked up Ms. Rushdan’s latest release Unsuspecting Target for review and enjoyed it; it’s a quick and easy read featuring likeable characters that packs a lot of action into a relatively small page-count.  It’s the final book in her Hard Core Justice; series, but it worked fine as a standalone; I haven’t read any of the earlier books and didn’t feel the lack – the author incorporates the necessary backstory skilfully and without lots of tiresome info-dumps.

The last person Wendy Haas expects to see at a high-profile New York gala to promote youth literacy is her former lover, Jagger Carr – especially as he’s ten years into serving a fifteen year prison sentence for murder.   A decade earlier, she and Jagger had been very much in love and planning a future together, until one fateful night when saving her life had cost Jagger his freedom.  Wendy has worked hard to rebuild her life and has made a successful career in PR; the last thing she needs is Jagger reappearing and ruining it all.

While he was in prison, Jagger became involved with the powerful Los Chacales cartel in order to survive, and after they broke him out three years back, he has risen to become one of the Brethren, the cartel’s unit of elite contract killers. He’s done whatever he’s had to do to survive, but when a hit is put out on Wendy Hass, he knows he’s got to save her at any cost – and that in doing so, he’s going up against the entire cartel and its leader, Emilio Vargas.

The first third of the book is non-stop action, after Jagger ‘interrupts’ one of the Brethren who has cornered Wendy, and the two of them hightail it out of the gala and start to make their way out of the city.  It’s a breathlessly exciting sequence of high-octane chases and last-minute, daring escapes and I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next.

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

The Wedding Night Affair (Ash & Juliana #1) by L.C. Sharp

the wedding night affair

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The year is 1748, and Lady Juliana Uppingham awakens in a pool of blood, with no memory of how her new husband ended up dead beside her. Her distaste for her betrothed was no secret, but even so, Juliana couldn’t possibly have killed him…could she?

Juliana’s only hope is Sir Edmund Ashendon, a dashing baronet with a knack for solving seemingly unsolvable crimes—and a reputation for trouble. A man as comfortable in the rookeries of St. Giles as he is in the royal court, Ash believes Juliana is innocent, though all signs point to her as the killer. He doesn’t expect to develop a soft spot for the spirited widow, one that only grows when escalating threats against Juliana force Ash to shelter her in his home.

When another body is found, it becomes clear that Juliana has been dragged into something much, much bigger than simply her husband’s murder. With a collection of deadly black-tipped feathers as their sole clue and a date at the end of a hangman’s noose looming, they’ll have to find the real killer—before it’s too late.

Rating: B

The Wedding Night Affair is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in Georgian England entitled Ash & Juliana for its two protagonists – Sir Edmund Ashendon, a well-to-do young lawyer and Lady Juliana, daughter and sole heir to the Earl of Hawksworth.  This opening instalment has a similar premise to the first books in at least three other historical mystery series I can think of – Lady Julia (Deanna Raybourn), John Pickett (Sheri Cobb South) and Lady Darby (Anna Lee Huber) – in that the heroine is accused of murdering her (thoroughly unpleasant) husband, but that’s really the only similarity, and The Wedding Night Affair very quickly establishes its own distinctive world and authorial voice.

The story opens in a memorably shocking way as new bride Lady Juliana awakens the morning after her wedding to Lord Godfrey Uppingham.  Every part of her body aches and she’s covered in bruises; her wedding night was one of pain and terror as her husband used her roughly and repeatedly in a way she had not been at all prepared for.  (The assaults are not detailed on the page but are referred to in sufficient detail as to leave no doubt about what took place the night before.)  When Juliana moves the covers so she can get out of bed, she at first thinks the smear of blood on her thighs is only to be expected – until she realises it’s more than a smear. She’s lying in a pool of blood, her husband lying flat on his back next to her with his own knife sticking out of his chest.  The same knife he’d used to slice through her clothes the night before.

Juliana’s screams naturally bring servants running, followed by her in-laws, who immediately berate her for alerting the servants by making so much noise and then accuse her of murdering their son.  Still in shock, the only thing Juliana can do is cling to the knowledge that she didn’t kill her husband while his parents send her back to her family home in disgrace.

Henry Fielding (yes THE Henry Fielding) is the magistrate in charge of Bow Street at this time, and having learned of the murder, asks lawyer Sir Edmund Ashendon to go to question the lady and bring her back to Bow Street where she can be safely housed until a date is set for her trial.  Already intrigued by the case, Ash agrees and makes his way to the Hawksworth town house, where he is able to speak with Lady Juliana and get her side of the story.  As he listens to her and realises how terribly she has been treated by everyone around her, he can’t help feeling sympathy – and listening to her account of her wedding night, suggests she may have been acting in self-defence.  But Juliana insists she didn’t commit the murder – and Ash is starting to believe her.

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

Nothing But Good by Kess McKinley

nothing but good

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Special Agent Jefferson Haines puts the ‘order’ in law and order. Meal kits. Gray suits. Consistent reps at the gym. But all his routines are thrown into chaos when he’s called in to catch a serial killer whose M.O. is the stuff of urban legend: the Smiley Face Killer.

Dripping paint. Wicked slashes for eyes. The taunting curl of a smiling mouth. After years evading capture, the serial killer is back again. As Jefferson races to stop the next attack, the investigation leads to the one man he thought he’d never see again, Fred ‘Finny’ Ashley.

Finny has his own theories about the killer. And they’re pretty good. Maybe too good. Now, with his career on the line, Jefferson has to figure out if his one-time best friend is the culprit or the next victim.

Rating: B

Given its polished writing and confident authorial voice, I’d have been hard pressed to guess that Nothing But Good is Kess McKinley’s first published book.  It’s a very promising début; a strongly written, well-paced mystery/procedural with a touch of romance set in Boston that revolves around the search for a serial killer who has been operating – and eluding capture – for years.

Special Agent Jefferson Haines and his partner, Special Agent Caroline Pelley, are called in when the body of a young man is pulled out of the water in Boston Harbour.  In the normal way of things, the investigation into the homicide would be handled by the Boston Police Department, but this murder is marked as anything but normal by the presence of the signature painted on the wall behind the corpse; a crude black circle of paint several feet in diameter filled in with jagged yellow swaths of paint. Inside that, two thick black slashes for eyes and a single curled line for the mouth.  It’s a well-known calling-card and has been for the last ten years; the Smiley Face Killer is at work again.  Whoever this person is, they’ve become something of an urban legend, said to hunt down young men and lure them to their deaths in bodies of water.

Jefferson and Caroline begin their investigation by looking at the other murders now believed to be the work of the same killer and start to build a profile, realising that all the bodies have been discovered in and around the upper Charles River Basin and Boston Harbour and that the SFK must be very familiar with that part of the city.   After hours spent scrutinising security footage, Jefferson realises that the killer must be holding his victims somewhere before killing them – or after – and then transporting the bodies by boat, and if that is the case whoever it is must be a pretty experienced sailor.  For Jefferson, watching hours of video and pouring over maps is no substitute for actually walking the crime scenes to get a better understanding of where everything played out, so the next step is for him and Caroline to liaise with the various local government agencies including the DUP – Boston Department of Urban Planning – and the DPM, the Massachusetts Department of Parks Management – and arrange for ongoing cooperation with the investigation.

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

All Fired Up (Ashes & Dust #1) by Jenn Burke

all fired up burke

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Paranormals are dying. All over the city, with no explanation and only one thing in common: their magic is missing.

Vampire and private investigator Evan Fournier isn’t supposed to be taking on paranormal cases, but when the murderer hits close to home, he agrees to look into it. The last thing he expects is to become a target himself—and then to become irrevocably bonded to the man who just tried to kill him.

With his memory gone and his soul bonded to a stranger, former firefighter Colin Zhang wants to be anywhere else. He doesn’t have a damn clue why he just tried to kill Evan, and he didn’t even know about magic until just now. The sooner he can get back to his real life, the better.

But every time either of them tries to leave, pure agony stops them short. Forced to work with Evan or suffer the consequences, Colin must excavate the secrets buried in his missing memories while battling two rising threats: the conspiracy behind the murder, and his mutual attraction to the bond mate he never wanted.

Rating: B+

Note: There are spoilers for the Not Dead Yet series in this review.

I really enjoyed Jenn Burke’s Not Dead Yet series of paranormal romances and was delighted when I learned she was planning a follow-up series which would focus on ‘baby vamp’ Evan Fournier.  Evan was a troubled young man living with depression (and not doing so well) when we first met him and circumstances led to his becoming  the one of the members of the found family formed by Wes and Hudson over the course of the trilogy.  All Fired Up – book one in the Ashes & Dust series – opens around five years later and finds Evan – older, wiser and more confident in himself – in a much better place, having worked hard to get his life on track and learned to ask for and accept help when he needs it.

Evan works as a private investigator for Caballero Investigations, the firm set up by Wes and Hudson in Give Up the Ghost.  Although all the employees are paranormals, the firm takes ‘regular’ cases as well as ones involving the supernatural, but when Wes and Hudson have to travel to London at short notice due to a family emergency, Hud makes it very clear to Evan that under no circumstances is he to take on any paranormal investigations while they’re gone.  Not because he doesn’t trust Evan or to handle them, but because those are the cases that tend to go sideways quickly – and Hud is a bit (!) of a control freak and very protective of those he cares about.

But when Dr. Anika Kozlow – a witch and Evan’s doctor and therapist – comes to see him, clearly very upset, and talking about a patient who recently died under suspicious circumstances, Evan knows he won’t be able to sit this one out.  Called to visit a patient who had recently returned from a retreat for paranormals, Dr. Kozlow was shocked to see a literal shell of the woman she’d known.

“When I saw her, she wasn’t there.  I mean, her body was.  She was sitting in the recliner, breathing, he eyes open, but they were… empty.”

A diagnostic spell confirmed Anika’s suspicions:

“When I said she was empty, I wasn’t exaggerating.  Her magic – her soul – was gone.”

And she’s since discovered that several of the patients she referred to the retreat have died in the same way.

Evan decides to check himself into the Rising Sun Retreat to see what he can find out.  Everything seems above board at first; the location is great, the staff are kind and he falls in with a group of friendly fellow patients who show him the ropes.  But there’s one staff member who makes him feel uneasy, a man known only as Red – because of the red tips in his hair (which, incidentally, are nowhere to be seen on the front cover!) – a member of staff so quiet, controlled and emotionless that he’s almost robotic.  He’s pretty creepy and Evan is suspicious – but before he can find out much more, he comes dangerously close to becoming the soul-sucker’s next victim.

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

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (Winner Bakes All #1) by Alexis Hall

rosaline palmer takes the cake

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As an expert baker, Rosaline Palmer is a big believer in always following the recipe. She’s lived her life by that rule – well, except for when she dropped out of college to raise her daughter, Amelie. Now, with a paycheck as useful as greaseproof paper and a house crumbling faster than biscuits in tea, she’s teetering on the edge of financial disaster. But where there’s a whisk there’s a way . . . and Rosaline has just landed a spot on the nation’s most beloved baking show.

Winning the prize money would give her daughter the life she deserves, but more than collapsing trifles stand between Rosaline and sweet, sweet victory. Suave, well-educated, and parent-approved Alain Pope knows all the right moves to sweep her off her feet, but it’s shy electrician Harry Dobson who makes Rosaline question her long-held beliefs – about herself, her family, and her desires.

Rosaline fears falling for Harry is a recipe for disaster. Yet as the competition – and the ovens – heat up, Rosaline starts to realize the best quality bakes come from the heart . . .

Rating – B+

The first thing I’m going to say about this book – which I enjoyed very much – is that while it’s as clever, wonderfully observed and laugh-out-loud funny as Alexis Hall’s other books, and there is an HEA at the end, the focus is more on Rosaline and her journey towards acceptance and coming into her own than it is on the romance.

I reviewed this one with my good friend and fellow All About Romance reviewer Em Wittmann; we’re both big Alexis Hall fans and you can read our review here: Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake.

 

A Reluctant Boy Toy (Men of St. Nacho’s #3) by Z.A. Maxfield

a reluctant boy toy
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A physically scarred veteran. An emotionally scarred young actor. Can they let go of the past and find a future together?

Stone Wilder is happiest with his emotional support dog and the hybrid wolfdogs he rescues. They don’t react to his scars or call him queer because sex doesn’t interest him all that much. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t believe the rumors that paint gorgeous Sebastian Keye as an unprofessional “it boy.” To Stone, Sebastian is simply a nice kid who shares his interest in dogs.

Sebastian is drawn to Stone’s warmth and caring nature. With the help of his stalwart PA Molly, Sebastian and Stone begin a quiet friendship. But a video from Sebastian’s past suddenly goes viral, causing old hurts and humiliations to destroy his emotional stability and nearly cost him his life.

After Sebastian’s world falls apart, Stone wants to support him. But Stone has his own tortured past, and they can’t move forward unless he makes things right.

Will growing close to Sebastian lead Stone to a new understanding of who he is and what he wants?

Rating: C

I enjoyed the first two books in Z.A  Maxfield’s Men of St. Nacho’s series, so I was happy to pick up the third, A Reluctant Boy Toy for review.  I admit the title did give me pause for thought, but I like the author’s work so I pushed ahead, and for the first two-thirds or so of the book, thought I’d made a good decision.  But then it went completely off the rails, took a diversion into where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? town and crashed headlong into a rushed and unsatisfying ending.

But let’s start with the good stuff.  Thirty-nine-year-old military veteran Stone Wilder is an animal handler who is currently working with two wolf-hybrids on a location shoot for a popular teen-drama series.  He doesn’t normally do this sort of thing, but he’s stepped in to help out his sister Ariel, who is expecting her first baby any day.  He’s wrapped for the day and is about to take the hybrids back to the RV that is their temporary home when the assistant director tells Stone he’s going to have to move his rig – including all the training equipment and kennels  – from his spot, because their recently-arrived star, Sebastian Keye, demands  that nobody be within a half a mile radius of him; he needs “complete privacy” unless he’s on set.  The AD clearly doesn’t like Keye and thinks he’s a spoiled brat, and Stone isn’t best pleased either, but he can’t really do anything other than agree to the move.

Just as he’s finishing the conversation however, he gets his first sight of Sebastian Keye and starts to think that maybe his demand for privacy is more a need for self-preservation.  He’s an incredibly beautiful man and Stone can’t help but wonder if Keye – who makes his living in one of the most cutthroat businesses in the world – has learned the hard way that beauty such as his is a magnet for predators.   And if so, Stone really can’t fault his desire for distance.

Sebastian – Bast – is twenty-five and has spent almost his entire life in front of the camera, thanks to his pushy, manipulative mother who used him as a meal ticket.  He’s worked steadily, transitioning from child star to adult actor and making a solid name for himself – but a few years back, his reputation took a nose dive after some unpleasant accusations were levelled against him, and while they were proved untrue, mud sticks and he still has a name for being difficult to work with.  Bast has tried to move on and insists he doesn’t care what people say about him… but it’s clear he’s never really been able to completely get past what happened.

Stone hadn’t expected to have much to do with Sebastian Keye, so he’s surprised when the man shyly asks if he can introduce himself to the two hybrids and is obviously very impressed and a little in awe of them.  They get talking and it’s clear very quickly that Keye is nothing like the brattish diva the AD had described to Stone; he’s quiet and considered and very interested in the animals and the sanctuary in Colorado where they normally live, eagerly taking Stone up on the offer to visit as soon as his schedule permits.  Even more surprising is Sebastian’s invitation to have dinner with him; in Stone’s experience, the talent doesn’t mingle with lowly animal handlers, and beautiful people tend to avoid people like him, “as if my scars were contagious.”  But before he can think about it too hard, Stone accepts, and they arrange to meet the following evening for takeout at Stone’s RV.

This first part of the story is absolutely captivating as these two completely different, damaged individuals get to know each other and come to recognise something of a kindred spirit in the other.  Sebastian is attracted to Stone right from the start.  He’s always been into older men, and Stone’s kindness, his gentle humour and the unconditional love he shows to his animals strike a chord deep within him.  Stone doesn’t recognise Bast’s attraction at first though; sexual attraction – and sex – have not happened very often for him and he thinks maybe there’s something wrong with him. When he didn’t join in when his army buddies lusted over women, they thought maybe Stone was gay – but he never looked at guys either.  He’s had one lover in his life – his ex-wife Serena, whom he loved wholeheartedly until his stubborn refusal to seek help for his PTSD tore their marriage and family apart.

It’s clear however, that what he’s starting to feel for Bast is something other than friendship, even if he doesn’t immediately recognise it for what it is.  The attraction builds slowly and I enjoyed the warmth and honestly of their burgeoning relationship, the gradual lowering of the walls and barriers they’ve erected to keep themselves safe.

Their evolving relationship is thrown into chaos however when something from Sebastian’s past comes back to haunt him in a truly devastating way.  In order for him to heal – from both physical (he breaks both arms in an accident) and mental injuries – Stone suggests that he takes him back to the sanctuary in Colorado which should keep him away from prying eyes.  It’s after this happens, just after the halfway point that the wheels start to fall off the wagon.

It’s hard to say much without spoilers, but after the slow burn and gradual build-up of the first half, the second is rushed, and all the interesting storylines the author sets up just don’t pay off.  We never learn the true extent of what happened to Bast as a young actor to blight his career, and the plotline is not fully resolved. Stone finally realises he needs to reconnect with his ex-wife and kids in order to apologise for what he put them through – and while he does meet with them and has a long talk with Serena nothing is resolved there, either.  And while the book blurb promises a happy ever after, what we’re left with is an HFN – and a fairly flimsy one at that.

I also expected Stone’s realisation that he’s probably demisexual to have been handled more deftly than it is.  He and Bast don’t even discuss it; Stone tells his brother he’s been looking it up (the sexual spectrum) online and that he thinks he’s demi and maybe bi.  The one thing that worked for me about it was Stone being able at last to realise that he isn’t “some weird, cold dude who couldn’t be bothered with sex.”

Finally, the where-the-hell-did-that-come-from? thing I mentioned at the beginning.

WARNING: SPOILER

With two broken arms, Bast is unable to do most normal, everyday things – like eating and dressing – for himself, and Stone is only too happy to help him.  But Bast is uncomfortable because Stone doesn’t realise what it means to him; he likes Stone feeding him and doing things for him for reasons he thinks Stone will be angry about:

“It’s foreplay for me, okay… I feel weird getting turned on by something you’re doing out of ignorance and kindness. It’s creepy. That’s why you’d be mad.”

And then the penny drops for Stone:

Sebastian liked older men. Check.

Sebastian thought of feeding as foreplay. Check.

Sebastian got a boner when I bathed him. Check.

Sebastian wanted a Daddy. Check, check, check.

My main problem with this is – how does someone like Stone who, by his own admission, has never had much interest in sex and has had just one sexual partner, even know what a Daddy is in that context?!

Bast thinks that because he was “raised by a wonderful, loving and kind father”, he naturally wants “a partner like Stone, who reminded me of all my father’s best qualities…”

And all I could think was –  Recipe For Disaster.

I was really engaged by the characters and the set-up, and had the second part of the book continued in the same vein as the first, I’d be giving A Reluctant Boy-Toy a much higher grade.  But while the story had great potential, there are too many plot-threads left unresolved and the romance takes such an odd turn before rushing to a really abrupt conclusion that I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.