Temporary Partner (Valor & Doyle #1) by Nicky James

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Can two rivals work together to solve a case?

When an infant is taken from his carriage in broad daylight, missing persons detective, Quaid Valor, must race against the clock to find the child and bring him safely home to his family. Unfortunately, Quaid’s partner isn’t available, and his team is spread thin. Begrudgingly, Quaid must accept the help from his rival, homicide detective Aslan Doyle, if he wants to get the job done.

Aslan is Quaid’s opposite in every way. He’s bold, outspoken, arrogant, and the office playboy. And much to Quaid’s chagrin, Aslan seems to have set his sights on Quaid as his next conquest.

Quaid doesn’t have time to deal with Aslan’s flirty behavior when he’s trying to solve a case and juggle his cheating ex’s incessant interruptions.

It doesn’t matter how attractive Aslan is or the undeniable chemistry they seem to have. Getting involved with Aslan would be a huge mistake.

But as tension with the case builds, Quaid keeps forgetting he’s supposed to hate this new partner. Maybe Aslan is exactly the kind of distraction he needs.

Temporarily at least.

Right?

Rating: A-

Temporary Partner, the first book in a new series of romantic mysteries from Nicky James, features two rival detectives who team up to solve a missing persons case.  It’s a thoroughly entertaining read and I raced through it in a couple of sittings; it’s fast-paced, tightly-plotted and the sexual tension between the two leads is off-the-charts.

In the short prequel, Department Rivals (available through the author’s newsletter), we were introduced to detectives Quaid Valor of the Missing Persons Unit and Aslan Doyle (yes, his mother was a Narnia fan!) from Homicide.  There’s a long-standing and not at all friendly rivalry between Homicide and the MPU at the Toronto Police Service, and in that story, the higher-ups arrange a team-building exercise in which a detective from one division partners with a detective from the other in order to solve a case-like puzzle.  Of course, the department playboy – Doyle – is partnered with the standoffish, anally-retentive Valor, and while neither is impressed with the other, they’re rather annoyed to find they work surprisingly well together.  It’s not absolutely necessary to read that first, but it’s a quick read and a fun introduction to the characters.

Temporary Partner opens a few months later when Quaid is called in after a five-month-old baby goes missing, snatched from the back-yard of his very well-to-do family home.  Time is of the essence in these cases and Quaid needs to get the ball rolling quickly, but his regular partner is currently on leave dealing with a family situation and all the other detectives in the MPU are on assignment so Quaid’s boss requests help from other departments – which is how come Aslan Doyle ends up working the case. Quaid isn’t best pleased – but it’s Doyle or no-one if he wants to find little Matthieu and return him to his parents safe and sound.

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

Everything for You (Bergman Brothers #5) by Chloe Liese

everything for you

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Gavin
We’ve been teammates for two years, but it feels like a lifetime that Oliver Bergman’s been on my last nerve. A demanding captain and veteran player, I’m feared and friendless, while he’s the beloved rising star, all sunshine smiles and upbeat team spirit. To make matters worse, he’s obscenely attractive. In short: he’s genetically designed to get under my skin.

Avoiding Oliver has been my survival tactic on and off the field. But when Coach drops the bomb that we’re now co-captains, avoiding him becomes impossible, and keeping the truth from him–let alone my distance–is harder than ever.

Oliver

Life was great until soccer legend Gavin Hayes joined the team and proved he’s nothing like the guy I grew up idolizing. Instead, he’s a giant–albeit gorgeous–grump who lives to rain on my parade. I’ve sworn off pranks since entering the public eye, so rather than settle our differences the Bergman way, I’ve had to settle for killing Gavin with kindness. There’s just one problem: killing him with kindness is killing me.

To make matters worse, Coach gives us an ultimatum: put an end to our enmity or say goodbye to being captains. I’m prepared to be miserable while we meet her demands and make nice, but the last thing I expect is to discover an explosive attraction we can’t help but act on, and worse yet, to realize the man hiding beneath Gavin’s gruff exterior is all I’ve ever wanted.

Rating: C

Everything for You – book five in Chloe Liese’s Bergman Brothers series – is the first entry in that series to feature a same sex couple and is also the author’s first m/m romance. As I haven’t read anything by Ms. Liese before, I decided to rectify that by picking it up for review.  It’s an antagonists-to-lovers romance set in the world of professional football – or soccer as it’s termed on The Other Side of The Pond – between a newly established star of the game and a veteran player facing the prospect of retirement, but while age-gap and grumpy/sunshine are among my favourite tropes – and I appreciated the way certain aspects of the storyline are handled, especially with respect to Gavin’s fears over his future – the book as a whole is too problematic for me to be able to offer a recommendation.

At twenty-four, Oliver Bergman is a new star on the soccer scene.   He was over the moon when he learned that his idol and teenage crush, Gavin Hayes, had signed with his team – the L.A. Galaxy – and looked forward to playing alongside him, but his hopes of friendship and  camaraderie were dashed when the guy proved to be a total dick.  Ever since they met, Gavin has been cold, dictatorial and downright unpleasant, but Ollie refuses to be cowed or daunted, meeting every scowl with a smile, every curt word with a friendly retort – just because he knows it winds Gavin up no end.

At thirty-four, Gavin is facing the end of an illustrious career, and the prospect of retirement is terrifying.  Living with chronic pain from various injuries sustained over the years, he is struggling to work out how to be – or even who he will be – without the sport that has defined and sustained him for so many years.  Although he knows he can’t continue to hide the truth of his situation from those around him – let alone that he’s still hiding it from himself – he’s in serious denial, and the last thing he needs is his hugely inconvenient attraction to Mr. Sweetness-and-Light himself, the guy who never gets flustered or riled-up, and who, in a massive knee-to-the-balls administered by fate, happens to live in the house right next door.

Neighbours they may be, but friends they most certainly are not, which is exactly how Gavin wants things to stay; the less he has to do with Oliver Bergman the better he can continue to pretend he’s fine and that Ollie is no more to him than an annoying pain in the arse.  Until a very large spanner is thrown into those works by their team coach, who has had enough of the obvious enmity between them and decides to solve the problem by making them joint captains, the implication being that either they bury the hatchet and learn to work together or one of them is canned.  It’s Ollie’s first captaincy and likely Gavin’s last; neither of them is going to risk rocking the boat.

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

Out of the Ashes (Ashes & Dust #3) by Jenn Burke

out of the ashed

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some bonds weren’t meant to be broken.

Vampire PI Evan Fournier has dealt with his fair share of danger and heartache, but nothing prepares him for the pain of a broken bond with his mate—especially when his mate is the one who severed it. Bond or no, he still loves Colin—fiercely. Trust, however, is harder to come by. And when a demon starts terrorizing paranormals in Toronto, trust in one another is exactly what they’ll need.

Former firefighter turned crime-fighting phoenix Colin Zhang knows who Evan was—is—to him, but he doesn’t know if he can give him what he wants. He just needs a little time to figure things out. Unfortunately, bringing down a demon bent on mass murder leaves little time for anything else.

The only way they’ll destroy the demon is by teaming up with an unlikely partner to infiltrate a gang of terrorists. But the only way they’ll save themselves is by finding a path back into each other’s arms—and hearts—once again.

Rating: B

Out of the Ashes is the third and final book in Jenn Burke’s Ashes & Dust series of paranormal romances set in and around Toronto, featuring vampire investigator Evan Fournier, his lover Colin Zhang – a phoenix – and their extended family of werewolves, vampires, witches – and a god.  The author does include information about the previous instalments for readers new to the series, but I’d advise reading the books in order so as to fully understand the character backstories and the emotional impact of past events.

Please note that there are spoilers in this review.

At the end of House on Fire, Colin made the decision to break the bond that had accidentally formed between himself and Evan (in All Fired Up).  It was risky, but he’s come through it okay – mostly; while he’s retained his memories and knows who Evan is, he has no emotional attachment to those memories, and Evan can tell that every time Colin looks at him, he sees a virtual stranger.  Understanding why Colin did what he did makes it no less devastating, and Evan is trying desperately to cling to the hope given him by Colin’s confession of love and exhortation to fight for them in the letter he left before he underwent the spell.  But weeks later, and with no indication that anything is changing,  a heartbroken Evan is struggling to keep his depression at bay, wondering how long he’ll be able to keep alive the hope that Colin will come back to him.

At the same time as Evan is trying to come to terms with the fact that the man he loves may never again love him back, the Westerson-Rojas household is reeling from the murder of Hudson’s brother by a demon, and the disappearance of Hudson’s niece Priya, who fears she will be accused of the crime.  And they’re still no nearer to discovering who is responsible for the spate of attacks on members of the paranormal community over the past few months.

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

The Reluctant Companion (13 Kingdoms #1) by H.L. Day

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sebastian might have the power to summon animals, but winning Jack over? Far more difficult.

As first encounters go, Jack and Sebastian’s isn’t ideal, leaving Jack nursing a grudge he’s not about to let go of in a hurry. Yet, if Jack is to find his missing sister, and Sebastian is to rescue his captured prince, they’ll need to set their differences aside and work as a team.

Jack is stubborn and somewhat volatile. Sebastian is vain and clearly in love with himself. But as the unlikely companions face all manner of dangers together, they grow closer. Rescuing the prince should be easy. Rescuing him from an impenetrable tower guarded by dragon-shifting knights? Okay, that part is harder.

But once the adventure is over, letting Sebastian go might be the hardest thing Jack has ever had to do.

Rating: B+

The first book in a new series by H.L. Day, The Reluctant Companion is a light-hearted fantasy adventure featuring an opposites-attract romance between a snarky farm boy and a handsome charmer who team up – reluctantly, as the title suggests – to undertake a quest, and fall for each other along the way. It’s a lot of fun with plenty of action and adventure, a nicely evoked faux-medieval setting and two engaging leads; it’s a great start to the series and I really enjoyed it.

Jack Straw is twenty-six and has lived pretty much his entire life in his small village on his family farm. But when we meet him, he’s sitting somewhat forlornly in a tavern miles from home wondering whether to continue the search for his missing sister, Annabelle, or if his dwindling resources mean he will have to return home without finding any news of her. His musings are interrupted when a small monkey drops onto the table and starts chittering angrily at him before jumping down and disappearing out the door. It’s only then that Jack notices his purse has also disappeared.

Dashing out into the street, Jack is in time to see the monkey making its way along the street at roof-level and follows, his eyes fixed on the animal until he bumps into a large, shirtless man whose good looks (and very tight trousers) are so utterly mesmerising that it’s a second or two before Jack notices the monkey sitting on his shoulder. Angry now, Jack demands the return of his money – only for the monkey to vanish in a shower of golden sparks. It figures. Not only is this guy gorgeous – and thoroughly aware of it – he’s been blessed with magic, too.

Sebastian – Bast to his friends – is rather delighted by the sharp-tongued and furious young man in front of him – being berated is such a refreshing change from being fawned over! He listens to Jack’s torrent of insults with good humour and then proposes a compromise. He needs the money to use as a stake in a gaming tournament the next day, and when he wins, he’ll be able to pay Jack way more money than was in the purse. Jack begrudgingly agrees, and the next day sees them heading off towards the town of Clearwater and the tournament – on what will turn out to be the first of many adventures.

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

Dipped in Sunshine (Surfing the Waves #2) by Fearne Hill

dipped in sunshine

This title may be purchased from Amazon

“You think you can do the jiggy with my baby brother, without wooing him for approximately three years first? Hah! I hope you weren’t too attached to your toenails.”

Fifty is a simple man. He doesn’t know much, but he knows this: to stay well clear of Otto Eggebraaten. The nineteen-year-old is cute, blond, and trouble. His overprotective big brother, Eggy, hounds Otto’s every move.

Outwardly, Fifty’s life is good. He surfs, teaches other folks to surf, drinks beer, and hangs with his friends. But with his thirtieth birthday on the horizon, he’s hoarding a secret he’s too ashamed to confide in anyone, even his best friend, Eggy. When Otto accidentally discovers it, Fifty finds his ordered, and lonely existence unravelling in a way he never expected.

Rating: B+

Fearne Hill’s Dipped in Sunshine is a fun, sexy/sweet age-gap romance with a lot of humour and an endearing grumpy/sunshine pairing.  It picks up right after the previous book – Brushed with Love – ended, and although it’s not essential to read that book before this, I’d recommend it because a) it’s a great read and b) it introduces the main players in this story and readers will benefit from knowing a bit about them in advance.

Ragnar Eggebraaten – Eggy – and his boyfriend Clem have relocated to the Spanish island of Fuerteventura where Eggy and his best friend Fifty have set up a surfing business.  Right at the end of Brushed With Love, Eggy meets his youngest brother, nineteen-year-old Otto, at the airport, believing him to have come for a short visit.  When Dipped in Sunshine begins Otto is quick to disabuse Eggy of that notion and tells him he’s not there for a holiday, he’s there for good and intends to fulfil his ambition of going to nursing school. Fifty and Clem look on somewhat dumbfounded as the six-foot-five, muscle-bound Eggy is pretty much put in his place by the slight, stroppy elf with the shock of blond hair – who clearly shares his brother’s stubbornness and self-confidence, if not his imposing physique.  Otto is determined that he’s going to take charge of his own life from now on and wants to fully embrace his identity as an out, gay man, something which just wasn’t possible in his small home-town – or something he could do living with the homophobic father who threw Eggy out when he was a teenager.  Owing to his health issues (he has epilepsy and also had heart surgery when he was a baby), his large – in both senses of the word  (the other Eggebraaten brothers are all six-foot plus Vikings) – and overprotective family have kept him wrapped up in cotton wool all his life and he’s had enough of that, too.  He’s aware of his limits and all the dos and don’ts relating to his condition and he wants to spread his wings and have some fun.

Fifty – so called because his real name is Christian Grey – and Eggy have been friends ever since he picked up a cold, hungry and homeless seventeen-year-old Norwegian boy at a motorway service station one night.  They’ve spent the intervening years surfing and doing seasonal work back in England, but opening the surf school in Fuerteventura has been their dream for years – and now, they’re living it. Well, mostly.  Fifty is over his very inconvenient crush on Eggy, and seeing his old friend so happy with Clem makes him long for something similar, someone to build a life with – or at least, someone to go on dates and have fun with.  But it’s just not happening for him; crippling anxiety relating to ‘performance’ issues and dating expectations have dogged him for a while now, so here he is, almost thirty, still single and likely to remain so.  He’s miserable and he’s lonely – in his own words, “Fifty Shades of fucked-up.”

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

Book Boyfriend by Kris Ripper

book boyfriend

This title may be purchased from Amazon

There are three things you need to know about Preston “PK” Harrington the third:

  1. He’s a writer, toiling in obscurity as an editorial assistant at a New York City publishing house.
  2. He is not a cliché. No, really.
  3. He’s been secretly in love with his best friend, Art, since they once drunkenly kissed in college.

When Art moves in with PK following a bad breakup, PK hopes this will be the moment when Art finally sees him as more than a friend. But Art seems to laugh off the very idea of them in a relationship, so PK returns to his writing roots—in fiction, he can say all the things he can’t say out loud.

In his book, PK can be the perfect boyfriend.

Before long, it seems like the whole world has a crush on the fictionalized version of him, including Art, who has no idea that the hot new book everyone’s talking about is PK’s story. But when his brilliant plan to win Art over backfires, PK might lose not just his fantasy book boyfriend, but his best friend.

Rating: C

After reading the blurb for Kris Ripper’s Book Boyfriend, I was looking forward to reading a slow-burn friends-to-lovers romance about a somewhat hapless writer who has been in love with his best friend forever, who ends up pouring out his feelings on paper because he’s too scared to say them out loud. Well, that last part is largely true – but the romance and the love interest character are basically relegated to the background while the PoV character stumbles his way through life and into becoming a best-selling author through lots of inner monologues which, while they can be very funny, are also chaotic and rambling.

PK Harrington (who works as an assistant editor at an unnamed publishing house) is called to the lobby of his apartment building one evening to find his best friend and former roomie Art standing there, bedraggled (it’s raining) and looking very upset. Art has just broken up with their boyfriend – about which PK is secretly delighted, thinking that maybe, finally, this is his chance with Art, who he’s been in love with ever since they shared a drunken kiss one time when they were at college. PK offers Art his spare room for as long as they need it (which he hopes will be forever), and before long, Art has properly moved back in.

PK is thrilled, obviously, but still terrified about telling Art he loves them, so instead, PK starts writing down a few ideas about how Art makes him feel – and soon those ideas have grown into an entire book based loosely around how he and Art met, the things they’ve done together and PK’s undying love for them. PK shows the manuscript to a friend at work, she loves it, takes it to her boss, who also loves it, and suddenly, he has a book deal. But he daren’t tell Art, because he’s sure Art will recognise that the book is basically about them and how PK feels about them, and starts to see it as the sort of grand romantic gesture Art professes to love and that happen in romance novels all the time – right?

Even though the book I read wasn’t the book I was expecting to read, I liked a lot about it. It’s funny and quirky, and very meta in the way it looks at how publishing works and the sorts of problems authors face. (And I totally agree on the author’s stance on the Grand Gesture!) I liked PK for the most part; he’s self-absorbed and clueless and basically needs to grow up (he’s, like, twenty-six but he reads, like, you know, much younger) but he’s endearing, and his stream of consciousness monologuing can be oddly relatable. On the other hand, it can be quite distracting; some of his inner ramblings are SO tangential and jumbled up that I found myself skimming them to get back to the point – and the story.

Art, as I’ve said, is really a secondary character, and we never get to know much about them other than their taste in nail-polish and books. Even though they move in with PK at the beginning of the book, the two of them have very little time together on the page, and they have zero chemistry; I had no idea why PK was so desperately in love with Art, and no idea of their feelings towards PK. There IS an HFN here, but it’s last-minute and unsatisfying.

I liked Wade, a childhood frenemy of PK’s – he’s snarky and really doesn’t give a shit; although I liked him less in the last third of the book when he lectures PK about what he’s done wrong, not only when he’s at a real low, but in a way that comes across as a bit preachy. And Art doesn’t exactly cover themself in glory, either, sometimes disparaing or belittling PK, and, at one point, ghosting him for weeks.

Being in PK’s head is both fun and exhausting, but I was please that, towards the end, he tries hard to understand what went wrong and works to put it right, learning to really listen and to talk meaningfully. Book Boyfriend isn’t a bad book by any means – but if you’re looking for a romance filled with chemistry and longing, you won’t find those things here, and that’s ultimately why I can’t quite give it a recommendation.

The Long Game (Game Changers #6) by Rachel Reid

the long game

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To the world they are rivals, but to each other they are everything.

Ten years.

That’s how long Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov have been seeing each other. How long they’ve been keeping their relationship a secret. From friends, from family…from the league. If Shane wants to stay at the top of his game, what he and Ilya share  has;to remain secret. He loves Ilya, but what if going public ruins everything?

Ilya is sick of secrets. Shane has gotten so good at hiding his feelings, sometimes Ilya questions if they even exist. The closeness, the intimacy, even the risk that would come with being open about their relationship…Ilya wants it all.

It’s time for them to decide what’s most important—hockey or love.

It’s time to make a call.

Rating: A

Note: As this book is both a sequel and the finale to a long-running series, there will be spoilers for earlier books in this review.

Rachel Reid’s The Long Game is the final book in her Game Changers series of romances set in the world of professional hockey – and, most importantly, the long and eagerly awaited conclusion of the epic love story between Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov begun in the second book, Heated Rivalry.  If you, like me, are a fan, you’re going to need no encouragement from me to rush to buy this one as soon as it’s available, so I suppose what you really want to know is – does The Long Game deliver everything we’ve been waiting for?  I’m pleased to be able to give an unequivocal “yes” in answer; Rachel Reid has done herself, her readers and these two much loved characters proud with a story that brings Shane and Ilya’s romance to a wonderfully romantic and emotionally satisfying conclusion while not shying away from showing that their journey has been far from easy and their HEA is hard won.

Heated Rivalry charted the progression of the relationship between rival hockey stars Shane Hollander and Ilya Rozanov, whose on-the-ice animosity translated into an explosive sexual attraction off of it.  Over the course of seven years, their relationship slowly morphed from one based on mutual lust and convenience, hooking up whenever they happened to be in the same place at the same time, to one based on deep affection, understanding and love.  At the end of the book, Shane and Ilya have decided to keep their relationship under wraps for the moment; coming out as queer is going to be difficult enough given the homophobia surrounding professional sports, but for two players whose intense rivalry has become legendary to own up to being in a relationship with each other… well, that’s going to need some really careful handling when they decide to go public.  As a way of trying to show that their animosity isn’t quite as strong as the media paints it, they start a mental health charity in memory of – and named after – Ilya’s mother, who suffered from depression and took her own life when Ilya was just twelve, and together, they run summer hockey camps for kids as one method of fundraising.  This at least means they get to spend a bit of time together each summer away from the media spotlight, even if they can’t be open about what they are to each other quite yet.  Also, Ilya decided to move from the top-flight team he was playing for in Boston to the Ottawa Centaurs, the least successful team in the NHL, to be nearer to Shane’s base in Montreal so they’d be able to spend a little time together during the gruelling hockey season.

By the time The Long Game opens, Shane and Ilya have been together for almost ten years (if you count the ‘hook-up’ years) – and Ilya is finding the hiding and secrecy and the loneliness of long periods apart increasingly hard to manage.  He and Shane are as deeply in love and committed to each other as ever, but with Shane at the top of his game and playing for the best team in the league, Ilya is beginning to fear that perhaps they’re going to have to wait another ten years before they can truly begin making a life together.  After all, they’re only twenty-nine, and realistically could be looking at another decade before retirement.  That’s not to say that Shane likes the situation either, and it’s absolutely clear that he loves Ilya with all his heart, but he’s in a very different place, both professionally and personally, and is able to face the prospect of ten more years of sneaking around more easily than Ilya is.  Except of course, they don’t really talk about it much because during the hockey season they get so little time together that neither of them wants to ‘spoil’ those stolen moments by bringing up the huge elephant in the room.

I think it’s fair to say that Ilya Rozanov has probably become the series’ stand-out, most-beloved character, and while Heated Rivalry felt like it was (mostly) ‘Shane’s book’, The Long Game definitely feels like Ilya’s.  He’s larger-than-life, always ready with a snarky comeback and doesn’t much care what others think of him – he’s got a reputation as a bit of an arsehole, although those closest to him know he’s a truly good person underneath it all, that behind the smart mouth and sardonic attitude lies a man with a heart of gold who feels things very deeply.  He’s still the Ilya we know and love, but in this book, we get to see a much softer, more vulnerable side of him that we’ve only briefly glimpsed before, and it tugs at the heartstrings to watch him face up to the fact that he’s not doing so well, realising just how much he’s put into keeping the relationship going and wondering just how much he has left to give. Shane, too, is trying to do his best to balance the personal and the professional, but his fear of losing everything he’s worked so hard for blinds him to the toll the secrets and lies are taking on the man he loves.  In the end, both men will have to face some hard truths and make some serious adjustments if they’re going to make it in the long run.

If you’ve been following the series, then you’ll already know that the timeline of The Long Game overlaps somewhat with that of Role Model, so we get to see Ilya’s reaction to Troy’s arrival and a little of their developing friendship from Ilya’s PoV (and yes, The Plane Incident, too).  I also liked the way Ms. Reid contrasts the two teams – the Montreal Voyagers may be the best team in the league, but when it comes to management styles and interpersonal skills, they’re crap – dictatorial and overbearing –  while at Ottowa, the opposite is true; their manager is a decent guy who treats his players like human beings and fosters a sense of team spirit and camaraderie that, while it may not bring the big wins, nonetheless makes for a much more positive environment.

I don’t want to say much more and risk spoiling the book, so I’ll end by saying that the author does a wonderful job here with relationship and character development while also making sure that Shane and Ilya remain very much ‘them’ – Ilya, cocky yet endearing, Shane adorably modest and just a bit of a stickler – and in presenting the challenges they’re facing in a realistic way.  The Long Game is full of genuine poignancy and emotion – from the deepest love and affection to heartache, and everything in between – charming moments of domesticity, scorching sex scenes, and the humour, good-natured competitiveness and snarky banter we’ve all come to love.  It delivers everything I wanted for Shane and Ilya and more, and is an early contender for my Best of 2022 list.  Thanks, Rachel, for giving these boys the fantastic send-off they so richly deserve.

Flare (Style #1) by Jay Hogan

Flare

This title may be purchased from Amazon

My own fashion label. The shiny new sign above the door means everything. My dream. My life. Worth every gruelling hour I’ve spent making it happen. Nothing can stop me now. Not the fear. Not the nightmares. Not my sad excuse for a love life. And certainly not Beckett Northcott, the sexy English professor who wouldn’t know a fitted shirt if it slapped him in the face and who has flannel down to an art form.

I don’t date for a very good reason, and yet Beck makes me want to break every damn one of my rules. But with my debut at Fashion Week looming, my business in trouble, and Beckett Northcott peeling open my terrified heart to a future I’ve never imagined, the threads of my carefully woven life are unravelling at the seams.

I could walk away. Or I could take a chance that Beck and I might just have what it takes to fashion a new life, together. A fresh design from a new cloth.

Rating: A-

Jay Hogan marks the beginning of her new Style series with Flare, a story set in the world of high fashion  featuring talented up-and-coming designer Rhys Hellier and Beckett Northcott, an English professor who wouldn’t recognise haute couture if it asked him out for a drink and then got up and danced on the bar.  It’s an odd-couple pairing but it works brilliantly, the author’s trademark mixture of warmth, humour and heartfelt emotion combining to create an immensely satisfying romance between two people with a lot of baggage to unpack.

Rhys is thirty-four and has worked hard to make a name for himself on the New Zealand fashion scene.  After learning his craft working for a prestigious label, he’s going it alone with his own boutique – Flare – and label of the same name.  Running a business, designing, establishing himself and getting ready for the upcoming Fashion Week leaves little room in his life for anything else, but he loves what he does and is absolutely committed to making Flare a success.

One afternoon, Rhys returns from a coffee run to discover that his assistant Kip has caught a teenaged boy attempting to steal some jewellery from the shop.  The police officer called in tells Rhys the boy’s uncle – whom he lives with – is on the way, and also that she believes the lad – Jack – when he says he’s never done anything like this before.  While they wait for Jack’s uncle to arrive, Rhys suggests that, as this is a first offence, perhaps it would be better to have Jack make amends by working in the shop for a few hours a week after school than charge him with theft and put him into the system.  Rhys has just put the idea to Jack when his uncle arrives – and Rhys is rendered temporarily speechless.  Beckett Northcott is absolutely not the sort of guy Rhys usually goes for, but something about this big, broad-shouldered man with the scruffy beard, nondescript, ill-fitting clothes and the beautiful eyes  completely captivates him – and It’s been a long, long time since Rhys has felt such a strong pull of attraction to anyone.

Beck, an English professor at the local university, has recently become guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew following his sister’s imprisonment for stealing thousands of pounds from her employer.   Jack is understandably a mess of emotions, full of anger and resentment towards his mother for caring so little about him that she’d do something so stupid, angry at himself for still loving her, and he’s acting out, the attempt at shoplifting just one way of trying to work through his feelings.  Beck sees all this and recognises it – he’s just as furious at his sister’s selfishness as Jack is – but is trying to do the best for Jack in difficult circumstances.  He agrees to the idea of Jack working at Flare after school, and can’t deny that the chance to see the store’s gorgeous owner again won’t exactly be a hardship.

Rhys and Beck are likeable, well-rounded characters who are complex, flawed and very real.  Rhys is a survivor of sexual assault (see note below), who has refused to let it hold him back; he’s tough, resilient and determined to succeed, but has never really processed what happened to him, instead locking it away and acquiring a variety of coping mechanisms that enable him to compartmentalise and control his life – but which can’t keep the bad memories at bay all the time.  One of those mechanisms has been a no-relationship rule; casual sex and one night stands are things he can control, and the one time he did try something more, it blew up in his face, his partner eventually becoming fed up with Rhys’ unpredictability and unwilling to give him the time and space he needed to feel comfortable with different ways of sexual interaction.

Rhys has vowed never to get involved with anyone again, but something about Beck tempts him to break all his self-imposed rules.  Beck’s quiet strength, his gentleness and understanding make Rhys feel safe in ways he’s never experienced before – but is letting him in worth the risk of heartache when Beck decides Rhys has too much baggage and just isn’t worth the trouble?  That Rhys and ‘normal’ aren’t words that belong in the same sentence?

In Flare, Jay Hogan has created a wonderful, sexy, slow-burn romance with chemistry so strong it leaps off the page, as, after a couple of false starts, Rhys acknowledges that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life letting his past trauma interfere with his chance to be loved, and decides to take a leap of faith and go for it with Beck.  It’s not plain sailing – and Rhys’ blow hot/blow cold attitude is somewhat frustrating – but Beck, the big marshmallow with a love of flannel and romantic poetry, is there for him all the way, ready to catch him if he falls and to provide a safe space for him to begin to face and deal with his issues.  As is always the case in books by this author, the romance is beautifully written and developed, full of humour, insight and poignancy, and it’s clear that she’s taken great care to treat Rhys’ situation with sensitivity and respect.

The vibrant supporting characters add depth and richness to the story; I suspect sassy Kip and Rhys’ long-time friend, photographer Hunter, will feature in their own stories later in the series, and I really hope we’ll see more of Jack and his friend Drew, a young trans man for whom Rhys provides the safe and non-judgmental space he doesn’t have at home.

There’s an interesting secondary plotline running through the story that begins when Rhys discovers that someone has stolen one of his most successful designs and is now producing cheap copies.  I liked the insight into the workings of the fashion industry this provides and it certainly amps up the tension and intrigue in the story – but there’s an event near the end that felt like overkill; Rhys and Beck have a lot to overcome (Beck has his demons, too) and their emotional journey provides plenty of tension and drama on its own, which made this particular event feel a little redundant.

That’s my only criticism however, and it didn’t in any way detract from my overall enjoyment.  Flare is another terrific story from the pen of this talented author; a compelling tale of love and healing featuring well-developed characters , a close-knit family of blood and of the heart, and plenty of sass, humour and feels.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.

Note:  The prologue describes the lead up to a sexual assault, which, while not graphic, is distressing to read;  the assault is referred to throughout the novel. There are also instances of homophobic and transphobic language.

Night & Day by Rachel Ember

night & day

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jonathan is overwhelmed by his wife leaving abruptly—though, to be honest, he’d known it was over for years—by the new responsibilities he’s just been handed at his law firm, and by the baby daughter he adopted three months ago, Isabel. The baby his now-vanished wife had been begging for. Isabel’s infant care program closes at 5 p.m., but Jonathan needs help day and night.

When Ty answers his advertisement for a night nanny, Jonathan looks past the tattoos and piercings at the way Ty expertly soothes the baby and hires him on the spot. The only problem in the weeks that follow is how much Jonathan begins to look forward to Ty’s arrival every night, and not just because he’s ready to hand over the baby and get some sleep. There’s something that fascinates him about the kid who steps out of the darkness late each night with a crooked smile.

Taking care of Isabel is Ty’s dream job. After all, he’s got a soft spot for babies, and raised his sisters himself. Or, mostly raised. His youngest sister isn’t as grown up as she thinks she is.

If Ty’s having some seriously sinful thoughts about Isabel’s handsome, melancholy father—well. He can keep himself under control for the half-hour their paths cross in the morning and evening. He’s not going to mess up the best job he’s ever had, and the first respite in years from the grind of balancing a minimum-wage job and inflexible bosses with taking care of his family.

Then, Isabel’s daycare temporarily closes unexpectedly. A desperate Jonathan asks Ty if he can work more hours, and Ty says he can, if he can crash in the guest room, too.

Rating: C+

I’ve eagerly been snapping up the books in Rachel Ember’s Wild Ones series, so when I saw she had a new standalone novel coming out, I was eager to read it.  Night & Day is an opposites attract romance between a recently separated lawyer and the guy he employs as the nanny for his infant daughter; I enjoyed it and liked the central characters, but there were a number of inconsistencies and flaws that left me with the overall feeling that the book wasn’t quite as well thought-out or polished as the others I’ve read by this author.

Tyler Burns is twenty-eight and has been more like a parent than a brother to his three younger sisters ever since he was a kid himself.  Their parents are never around – and when they are, they’re throwing parties and spending his earnings on beer instead of groceries – and Ty has shouldered the responsibility for Danielle, Emma and Sam, forgoing college so that he could be around for them while they were growing up and working as many jobs as he could in order to keep a roof over all their heads.  When the story begins, he’s waiting tables but needs another source of income, so he applies for a job as a nanny to a baby girl.  He might not have any qualifications, but he’s got plenty of relevant experience.

Jonathan Evans is a busy lawyer whose wife Natalie has literally just up and left him a mere couple of months after they brought home their adopted daughter, and he’s in desperate need of help.  Baby Isabel isn’t sleeping at night, and Jonathan is so exhausted he can barely function at work;  she has a daycare place, but he needs someone who can care for her overnight and decides to employ a nanny.  He ends up with four candidates, three of them looking very professional and assured, but only the guy in the worn jeans and battered docs gives him any real confidence that Isabel will be in safe, caring hands.

I liked the slow burn feel of the romance as Jonathan and Ty get to know each other over shared breakfasts, then shared evening meals, chatting and just hanging out, but one of the main issues I had with the book as a whole is that it seems that Jonathan – who is bisexual and has always known it – is checking Ty out on something like day four of his being at the house, which means it’s little more than a fortnight after Natalie left.  Even though it’s very clear that his marriage had been in trouble for quite a while, to have him lusting after the nanny just a couple of weeks after his wife left feels … off, and is even more so in the light of what we’re told later about Jonathan rarely feeling genuine interest in – or sexual attraction to – another person.

With all that said, however, there are things to enjoy here.  Ty is a total sweetheart – kind, loving,  compassionate and smart, he’s one of life’s caretakers who will do anything for those he loves, and he obviously cares very deeply for his sisters and wants the best for them, so much so that he’s sacrificed having a life of his own in order to provide them with a stable upbringing.  His sisters are all strongly characterised and I was really pleased when they’re shown to be aware of everything Ty has done for them and then find a way to – in a small way – repay him.  Jonathan is quite closed off and awkward when we first meet him, a man just going through the motions and existing rather than living his life, and Ms. Ember does a really good job of showing him coming to that realisation and then starting to rediscover himself, to find love and embrace fatherhood.

I liked the leads, I liked their romance, I liked the way Ty so easily fits in to Jonathan and Isabel’s lives, I liked the world the author builds around them, and  was confident of being able to offer the book at least a qualified recommendation – and then the ending happened.

(Highlight to read spoiler)

It turns out that Natalie hasn’t gone very far at all and is in fact living just a few houses up the street.  She comes to see Jonathan and apologises for disappearing, saying she does want to be a part of Isabel’s life after all – and Jonathan agrees without batting an eyelid, no questions asked (him) or explanations offered (her).  Ty is angry and suspicious – as was I – at this; she walked out on her husband and child once, what’s to say she isn’t going to do it again?  The author makes it clear Natalie has some issues (perhaps depression?) she needs help with, but she hasn’t got it yet, and I was honestly furious with Jonathan for so meekly agreeing to let her back into his and Isabel’s life without a qualm.

I so disliked the way this played out that it thoroughly soured the ending and cast a pall over the entire book – hence the middling grade.

I can’t deny that I’d also have liked to see Ty’s parents get their comeuppance, but it’s difficult to see what that could have been within the context of the story.

In the end, Night & Day was a mixed bag.  I wanted  to like it more than I did, and the parts of it I liked, I liked a lot – but the things I didn’t like were impossible to ignore when coming up with a final grade.  While this one didn’t quite hit the spot for me, Rachel Ember is a talented author and I’ll definitely be picking up whatever she publishes next.

Note: I believe this story was originally made available as a serial via the author’s newsletter.

To Marry and to Meddle (Regency Vows #3) by Martha Waters

to marry and to meddle

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Marriage isn’t always smooth sailing

Lady Emily Turner should really be married by now, but with a dowry of her father’s debts, her only suitor is the odious owner of her father’s favourite gambling house.

Lord Julian Belfry is the second son of a marquess, but has managed to scandalise polite society with his acting career and the fact that he owns a less than salubrious theatre.

Crossing paths at a house party, they discover that a marriage of convenience might benefit them both: Emily can use her society connections to add some respectability to Julian’s theatre, while also managing to escape the dubious world of her father.

With differing ideas on the roles each will play in their marriage, and an on-the-run actress, a murderous kitten, and some meddlesome friends adding to the complications, Emily and Julian will have to confront the fact that their marriage of convenience might be leading to some rather inconvenient feelings.

Rating: B+

This third instalment in Martha Waters’ Regency Vows series is, I think, my favourite so far.  It’s a charming marriage-of-convenience romance between two characters we’ve already met – the rakishly charming and somewhat scandalous Lord Julian Belfry and the very proper Lady Emily Turner.  It’s a delightful read; the prose flows effortlessly, the characterisation is excellent and the romance is superbly developed;and I especially enjoyed watching the transformation of Lady Emily from a rather reticent young woman into one who knows her own mind and isn’t afraid to express it.

Lord Julian Belfry, the second son of the Marquess of Eastvale, purchased a run-down theatre in a fit of youthful impetuousness and has since restored the building and the company, even going so far as to appear on stage himself when the mood takes him.  Needless to say, such behaviour is highly shocking in the eyes of the ton, but Julian rather likes that his scandalous reputation prevents matchmaking mamas from throwing their eligible daughters at him.  In the book’s prologue, which takes place several years before the story proper, his father, fearing that Julian’s less than pristine reputation will affect his sister’s chances on the marriage mart, orders Julian to sell the place – he’s had his fun, he’s made a tidy profit on his investment, and now it’s time to find an more respectable occupation.  Even though a small voice deep inside can’t disagree with the Marquess’ comments about the fact that the Belfry has earned itself a rather sordid name over the past few years, or fail to recognise that his father has been remarkably indulgent with him, Julian nonetheless resents being given an ultimatum – sell the theatre, or be cut off from his family – and he refuses to sell.

Lady Emily Turner is in her sixth season, but unfortunately, her beautiful face and impressive lineage is not enough to compensate for the fact that her dowry is non-existent and her father is rumoured to have racked up massive gambling debts.  She leads a stifling existence; her mother has, for years, drummed into her that her behaviour must be beyond reproach, and she knows that her parents are relying on her to prevent the family’s plunging into ruin.  But after six years, she has only one real suitor, the somewhat odious Mr. Cartham, the man to whom she believes her father is indebted.

Emily and Julian met a few months before this story begins, when Emily’s friend and Diana (To Love and to Loathe) took her to a performance at the Belfry. In the months following, an odd friendship has grown between them and Julian has danced with her at balls and escorted her to the odd musicale, but recently, his behaviour has changed somewhat, leading Emily to believe a marriage proposal may be imminent. She’s correct. During Lord Willingham’s house party, Julian asks for Emily’s hand, telling her honestly that he isn’t in love with her, but that a match could be advantageous for both of them. He’s on a mission to clean up the Belfry’s reputation and turn it into somewhere gentlemen might take their wives rather than their mistresses, and wants Emily to use her society connections to promote the theatre to a more respectable clientele. In return, Emily will gain independence from her parents and won’t have to worry about Cartham’s attentions any more – in short, she’ll be free to live a life of her own choosing.

To Marry and to Meddle is smart, fun and sexy, but somehow feels ‘quieter’ than the other two books in the series. I don’t mean that in a negative way, far from it; rather that the barbed banter and games of one-upmanship that characterises those books is absent here, so the focus is more firmly on Julian and Emily learning how to be together, as Emily – with Julian’s help and support – is working out who she wants to be now she’s out from under the restrictions placed upon her by her parents, and Emily is helping Julian to work through the deep-seated anger and resentment he holds towards his father.

The chemistry between the pair is terrific and their romance is very nicely done. Friendship proves a solid basis for marriage; Emily and Julian clearly like each other a lot and they possess a good degree of insight into what makes the other tick. Before they marry, they both agree never to lie to one another – and they don’t, which leaves no room for a Big Mis. (Yay!) Instead, the conflict in the story comes mostly from Julian’s insistence that Emily be the irreproachable society wife she’s been brought up to be, while Emily wants to take an interest in the threatre and to tread a different path to the one previously laid out for her. Julian has become so focused on turning the Belfry into a respectable venue that he fails to see he’s trying to push Emily into a role she doesn’t really want, and that he’s also trying to be someone he’s not – and he stubbornly refuses to admit why.

Emily and Julian are sunny, endearing characters, and I liked them as individuals and a couple. Julian is a sexy hero with a dry sense of humour, who, despite his rakish reputation, is a good, kind man, and Emily is delightfully witty, unaffected and pragmatic.

Among the secondary cast are the couples from the previous books, together with Julian’s brother and sister, who are lovely, and his father, who, I was pleased to note, is not at all the sort of stock-in-trade tyrannical authoritarian who so often appears in romances where a father/son conflict is part of the story. That said, however, Eastvale being essentially decent does make it a bit harder to believe in the reasons behind his and Julian’s estrangement. That’s the only major quibble I have with the book; otherwise, To Marry and to Meddle is a thoroughly entertaining read and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone looking for a lively, character-driven historical romance.