Christmas on Firefly Hill by Garrett Leigh

christmas on firefly hill

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Firefighter Logan Halliwell doesn’t have much time for romance. A relentless work-life-balance and an expensive divorce have sucked the festive cheer from his days. All he wants is to be a good dad. A fun dad. Especially at Christmas.

He doesn’t know how lonely he is until he meets Remy Collins, a gorgeous fire dancer at a sultry summer festival.

Their instant connection blows his mind, but their fleeting encounter is over before Logan can catch his breath. One kiss and they’re strangers again. That wicked brush of lips nothing but a dream.

Long months pass. Then fate brings them together again at the summit of Firefly Hill, and absence has only strengthened the current thrumming between them. The heat. The precious chance of true happiness they both so desperately need.

Only fear stands in their way.

And Logan’s dangerous job.

It takes a tough lesson and a dose of winter magic to learn that loving each other means Christmas all year round.

Rating: B-

Garrett Leigh’s Christmas on Firefly Hill is a fairly short, emotionally charged and low-angst read that, while not heavy on the turkey or the tinsel, still has enough festive cheer to warm the cockles. It’s a bit of a trope-fest, really: there’s an age-gap, a divorced dad struggling to parent young kids, and an insta-connection, with some hurt/comfort thrown in for good measure. I liked the two leads and the quirky feel to the location, and the kids in the story read like real kids with personalities of their own rather than plot-moppets. I enjoyed the story, but can’t say it knocked my socks off.

Firefighter Logan Halliwell is moonlighting as a fire marshall at a summer festival when he first sees Remy Collins, a lithe, vibrant poi/fire dancer who is, quite literally, the most beautiful man he’s ever seen. The intense connetion pulling them towards each other at the end of the dance is like nothing either of them has ever felt – it’s so strong it really leaps off the page – and they share a brief but passionate kiss. Before they can get as far as exchanging names (or numbers) though, Logan is called away. Neither of them expects to see the other again.

Not long after that meeting, Remy suffered a serious accident which broke some bones and left him unable to perform for the rest of the season. He’s unsettled and directionless, just about making ends meet while living out of the back of his clapped-out Transit van, and the cold weather isn’t doing the residual pain in his right hip and leg any favours. He’s pinned his hopes on renting a workshop for the winter where he can pursue his other business, making jewellery and other decorative items, and to this end, he’s just about got the old van up Firefly Hill to meet “Uncle Marr”, the eccentric old gent who owns the building – and to Remy’s surprise and relief, he agrees to rent the space to him on favourable terms and tells him “the boy” – his nephew – will be in to sort out the finances.

To say Logan is surprised to learn the identity of his uncle’s new tenant is an understatement. Not a day has gone by without his thinking about the gorgeous dancer and the single kiss they’d shared – and now, here he is, the man of Logan’s dreams standing right in front of him, a blinding grin on his face.

The connection that flared between them months earlier roars back to life, as strong now as it was then, bringing with it a chance for Logan and Remy to find out how – or if – they might make room for each other in their lives. Their mutual physical attraction is not in question, but they’re very different men with messy, complicated lives and baggage that will have to be dealt with if they’re going to make a go of it.

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

The Gentleman’s Book of Vices (Lucky Lovers of London #1) by Jess Everlee

the gentleman's book of vices

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Is their real-life love story doomed to be a tragedy, or can they rewrite the ending?

London, 1883

Finely dressed and finely drunk, Charlie Price is a man dedicated to his vices. Chief among them is his explicit novel collection, though his impending marriage to a woman he can’t love will force his carefully curated collection into hiding.

Before it does, Charlie is determined to have one last hurrah: meeting his favorite author in person.

Miles Montague is more gifted as a smut writer than a shopkeep and uses his royalties to keep his flagging bookstore afloat. So when a cheerful dandy appears out of the mist with Miles’s highly secret pen name on his pretty lips, Miles assumes the worst. But Charlie Price is no blackmailer; he’s Miles’s biggest fan.

A scribbled signature on a worn book page sets off an affair as scorching as anything Miles has ever written. But Miles is clinging to a troubled past, while Charlie’s future has spun entirely out of his control…

Rating: A-

Set in Victorian London, Jess Everlee’s The Gentleman’s Book of Vices tells the story of a bookshop owner – whose super-secret alter-ego is the writer of some of the finest and most sought-after erotica currently to be found under counters and in back rooms – and the most devoted admirer of said erotica, a young gentleman whose dedication “to his vices” has finally landed him in the sort of financial trouble from which there is only one way to escape. The romance between these two polar opposites – one staid and rigidly controlled, the other vivacious and happy-go-lucky – is very well written, with emotions that leap off the page, two complex, well-crafted protagonists and a strongly written group of secondary characters. Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive début novel – and it would have received a flat-out A grade had it not been for the ending, which is rushed, simplistic, and just doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.

Charlie Price has sampled all the vices London has to offer, but his dissolute life is about to change. His usually indulgent parents have, in the past, helped him out of the financial trouble he’s got himself into, but they’re no longer prepared to do so without his agreeing to “take a respectable job and settle down like a ‘proper, healthy fellow’” and prove he’s changed his ways. An introduction to the Merriweather family – most particularly, their unwed daughter, Alma – swiftly followed, and Charlie now works at Merriweather’s bank and is to be married to Alma in eight weeks time. He’s resigned himself to having to lock away his box of scandalous little treasures – his erotic novels, nude sketches and sculptures of illicit lovemaking – possibly forever, and as a kind of last hurrah, he’s determined to get his favourite author of illicit smut – the incredibly elusive Reginald Cox – to autograph his favourite book. But those who write the kind of filth Cox specialises in must necessarily guard their identities, and Cox has proved very difficult to pin down.

Luck is on Charlie’s side, however, when his close friend, the mysterious Jo, comes up trumps with a name.

While running a bookshop really wouldn’t have been Miles Montague’s choice of career – and quite honestly, he’s not all that good at it – he inherited it from his dead lover and keeps it out of a sense of duty even as the bills mount up and he has to continually add to the business funds from the money he earns from his writring. He’s solitary by nature, which is probably just as well given his secret occupation, and has jealously guarded that secret, which is why he’s so panicked when a young man comes into the shop just after closing time one day, and makes it clear he knows exactly who ‘Reginald Cox’ really is. Immediately suspecting he’s about to be blackmailed, Miles curtly asks the man to name the price he wants for his silence – but Charlie (for of course, it is he!) quickly tries to correct that assumption and to calm him down. All he wants, he says, is for ‘Reginald’ to sign his (very well read) copy of the book, Immorality Plays. Stunned, disbelieving and furious, Miles refuses and tells Charlie to get out – which he does, but not before pulling Miles into a blistering kiss and slipping his card down the front of Miles’ trousers.

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

Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

Actor Dylan Frasier is known as one of the biggest playboys in Hollywood, infamous for seducing men and women alike. He’s also half in love with his two best friends. Unfortunately, Jason and Ben are madly in love with each other, leaving Dylan the odd man out. When Ben suggests an extended Christmas vacation at a resort modeled after his favorite 80s TV show, Dylan reluctantly agrees. Sure, his heart breaks a bit every time he sees them together, but it’s a vacation in the Bahamas. How bad can it be?

At first, the resort seems like any other. Dylan plans to work on his tan, get laid, and hunt for Hollywood’s most in-demand director – not necessarily in that order. Then he meets Connor, a tennis instructor still hurting from a bad breakup. Connor knows Dylan’s reputation and refuses to be seduced. Dylan sees Connor as just another conquest, but this tropical island isn’t as mundane as it appears. It has its own kind of magic, and it’s about to make things interesting.

Rating: A-

Back in 2020, I chose Marie Sexton’s Winter Oranges as my read for that year’s December prompt in the TBR Challenge, and really enjoyed it. It’s an unusual and charming story, a gorgeous slow-burn romance with a magical twist, and I was delighted to see that the author was writing a sequel. Often, sequels turn out to be disappointing, but I’m happy to report that Winter Dreams is even better than Winter Oranges. It’s a beautifully developed redemption story (and I’m a sucker for those!) combined with a touch of fantasy and another fabulous and emotionally satisfying slow-burn romance.

While it’s probably not essential to have read Winter Oranges before this, I strongly recommend doing so. For one thing, it’s a great read, and for another, you’ll get more detailed insight into the central relationships and character backgrounds. Please be aware that there are spoilers for that book in this review.

Actor Dylan Fraser has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. Relationships aren’t for him and he’s never made a secret of that – even with the only lover he ever returned to, his best friend Jason Walker. Even though Dylan knew Jason was in love with him and no matter that he knew how cruel it was, Dylan couldn’t bring himself to stay away. But two years later, things are very different. Jason is now blisfully happy with Ben (Winter Oranges is their love story), and although Dylan adores them both – is even a little in love with both of them – and knows Ben is more right for Jason than he ever was, he can’t help feeling like the odd man out, or wondering about what might have been if he’d been capable of fidelity.

When the story opens, Dylan, Jason and Ben are en route to a luxury holiday island resort in the Bahamas called Fantasy Island, like the classic eighties TV show of the same name. It is, according to the brochure, a “place where all your fantasies come true.” Jason snidely suggests Dylan’s fantasy is to fuck his way through all the guests before the month is out; laughingly, Dylan agrees, although he knows that deep down, his fantasy would be to stop being himself and become Jason or Ben for the rest of his life, which would be so much better than being him. He ruthlessly suppresses the knowledge that he’s envious of what they’ve found in each other, and knowing it’s not something he’ll ever have, he figures he might as well not bother trying to find it and continues to live up to his flagrantly promiscuous reputation.

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

His Last Christmas in London by Con Riley

his last christmas in london

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling for his final client won’t make leaving London easy…

Ian ~ A talented, young photographer desperate to stay in London.

Guy ~ An older, fierce food critic, determined to keep him in his city.

Ian shouldn’t be attracted to a scathing food critic like Guy Parsons, not after the last time he fell for someone older, arrogant, and gorgeous. He knows better than to let dramatic good looks sway him since his last heartbreak. Besides, he’s accepted a new job at the far end of the country and won’t be staying in London.

Having one month left doesn’t seem enough now Ian’s fallen in love with the city. Working as Guy’s photographer for December might help him afford to stay for longer, even if he hates Guy’s brand of restaurant reviewing. When Guy turns out to be worlds away from the last man Ian fell for, shared meals soon result in shared secrets and feelings.

More than attraction sparks between them as Christmas approaches. Intimate moments lead to intense passion, but is being well matched in the bedroom enough to stop the clock counting down to Ian leaving London, and Guy, for good?

Rating: A-

Romance novellas are very often hit-and-miss for me. Truth be told, the majority of them ‘miss’, usually because the characters and relationship are underdeveloped, so I generally approach with caution. But every so often, a novella or ‘shorter novel’ comes along that defies my expectations – and I’m pleased to say that Con Riley’s His Last Christmas in London did exactly that. It’s a lovely, poignant and sensual age-gap romance that hit me right in the feels and left me sighing happily when I finished it.

Twenty-four-year-old Ian Fisher has decided it’s time to give up on his dream of making a living as a freelance photographer in London and take a secure short-term job back home in Cornwall. It’s going to be a massive wrench; he loves the city and he loves his two flatmates, Seb and Patrick, but he’s making next to nothing thanks to his arsehole of a former boss – and former lover – who is holding out on giving him a reference after Ian realised the guy had been gaslighting him for ages and passing Ian’s work off as his own, and left both his employ and his bed. His confidence in his abilities has been severely shaken, and without the reference, it’s proving next to impossible for Ian to get any work, so he’s resorted to selling off some of his equipment just so he can afford his rent, even though Seb and Patrick have said they’ll spot him until he starts earning again. But Ian doesn’t want to be a drain on them, and decides it’s time to face facts, suck it up and take the six-month teaching contract he’s been offered while he works out what his next move should be.

Doing a favour for his ex is the last thing Ian wants to do, so when Lito Dixon – who is clearly partying – calls and asks Ian to “go and take some food shots” for a high-profile client, Ian’s first instinct is to say no. But realising Lito is desperate, Ian demands both his reference and three times his usual fee – it’ll keep him afloat for a little while longer – and when Lito begrudingly agrees, Ian takes the job.

Guy Parsons is a well-known restaurant critic whose reviews have often been labelled as “career-ending” and “business crushing”. Still smarting from just having to deal with one utter bastard, Ian is in little mood to deal with another, and arrives at the restaurant predisposed to dislike Parsons on sight. When he arrives, he can’t help noticing how very striking the man is – with his flow of dark hair and warm, dark eyes – and is even thrown by the hostess’ description of him as “lovely”, which Ian decides must be just a front he maintains before going in for the kill. He wastes no time in making his opinion of Guy perfectly clear when he arrives at the table, but the wind is taken out of his sails when Guy calmly (and somewhat mischievously) plays up to the hostess’ assumption that they’re a couple. Confused and surprised at the powerful attraction he’s feeling for the other man, Ian slowly lets go of his preconceptions as Guy proves himself to be funny, charming and insightful – anything but a bastard, in fact – insisting Ian joins him for dinner, giving helpful advice to the new proprietors of the restaurant, and showing genuine concern for Ian and a real appreciation for his talent.

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

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble (Winner Bakes All #2) by Alexis Hall

paris daillencourt is about to crumble

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble is the second book in Alexis Hall’s Winner Bakes All series, which pays homage to and pokes affectionate fun at The Great British Bake-Off as some of the contestants on its fictional counterpart, Bake Expectations, fall in love throughout the weeks of the competition. The first thing anyone contemplating reading it should know is that despite the bright, cartoon cover, this book is NOT a romantic comedy.  Rather, it’s the story of a young man living with chronic, undiagnosed, and untreated anxiety who slowly falls apart and then starts to put the pieces back together, with a romantic subplot and a very tentative HFN.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to do something I don’t normally do in the body of a review, and quote from the book blurb to set the scene:

Paris Daillencourt is a recipe for disaster. Despite his passion for baking, his cat, and his classics degree, constant self-doubt and second-guessing have left him a curdled, directionless mess. So when his roommate enters him in Bake Expectations, the nation’s favourite baking show, Paris is sure he’ll be the first one sent home.

But not only does he win week one’s challenge—he meets fellow contestant Tariq Hassan. Sure, he’s the competition, but he’s also cute and kind, with more confidence than Paris could ever hope to have. Still, neither his growing romance with Tariq nor his own impressive bakes can keep Paris’s fear of failure from spoiling his happiness.

Paris is, for the most part, a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to see that he really wants to be a good person but that his fears and anxiety make him somewhat self-centred and cause him to hurt the people he cares about. His belief that he’s unloveable and ‘too much’ isn’t surprising, considering his parents seem to have dumped him at school when he was thirteen and just left him to get on with it, and he doesn’t seem to have any real grasp of why he feels and acts as he does, which results in his constantly making poor decisions and sabotaging himself. Now twenty-one, he’s studying for a degree in Classics at UCL (University College London) and doesn’t have any close family or friends he can turn to or who are in a position to really notice just how much he’s struggling with, well, everything.

Tariq Hassan is a sparkly, fabulous, unapologetically gay Muslim who knows who he is and what he wants. He’s sweet and kind and funny, with the kind of flair and self-confidence Paris utterly lacks; he’s also devout and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, which pretty much wrecks his and Paris’ first date when Paris bluntly says he doesn’t know why a guy would want to be with him (Paris, that is) if sex isn’t on the table. Naturally, Tariq doesn’t think much of that and the evening ends on a sour note, but Paris manages to apologise (eventually) and gets Tariq to give him a second chance.

Thankfully, Paris does eventually get the help he needs (although I’m not convinced he would have done so but for circumstances which make it pretty much impossible for him NOT to) and I began to enjoy him as a character. With all the fear and self-doubt receding, we get to see the real Paris underneath it all, a slightly awkward yet charming young man with a good sense of humour and a genuine desire to get better and do the work he needs to do on himself to get there. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t happen until over three-quarters of the way through the book, and there came a point around the halfway point where I started to wish the author had included Tariq’s PoV simply to break up the full-on, full-throttle Paris-in-panic-mode spiralling. I really wish we’d been able to spend a bit more time with the healthier version of him.

Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble is a difficult book to review because it is, at times, a difficult book to read. Not only is being in Paris’ head all the time kind of exhausting – following his thought processes is like being on a train hurtling towards catastrophe in a disaster movie – but reading all the tangential inner monologues, superfluous dialogue and unfinished sentences is literally difficult and hard to follow. Coming at the book primarily as a romance reader and reviewing it for a romance book site, I have to say that the love story plays second-fiddle to Paris, his issues and his eventual personal growth. I did enjoy Paris and Tariq as a couple in the beginning and near the end; Tariq is good for Paris and helps him to see the ways in which his behaviour is not only self-destructive but hurtful to those around him, and I liked that he has some of his own moments of self-revelation towards the end, too.

Maybe it’s on me, but I was surprised when I realised Paris and Tariq were both so young. I don’t know why, but I’d expected them to be older than twenty-one and twenty, and I suspect their ages – together with everything they’re going through – internet trolls, TV fame, Paris’ mental health crisis – are part of the reason I didn’t quite buy that they would make it long-term.  (It’s difficult to believe that the no-premarital-sex thing isn’t going to be a problem down the line as well.)  The book ends on a tentative HFN, which feels right considering where Paris and Tariq are at that point, but when I finish a romance novel, I want to feel the characters are going to be together for the foreseeable future, not that they’ll have split up within a year or so.

I’m a big fan of Alexis Hall’s writing, which is always clever, sharply observed and sparklingly witty. The very Britishness of his humour absolutely resonates with me, and, as was the case with the previous book (Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake) the parts of the story that are set during the competition are a lot of fun. He writes about anxiety and depression in a sensitive and relatable way, and I appreciated the exploration of what it means to be privileged yet unhappy or devout and queer, of how it must feel to receive a diagnosis and then start on the long and often uphill road to recovery.

In the end, I enjoyed Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble and would certainly recommend it provided you’re prepared to adjust your expectations as regards the romance. I’ve read reviews from people who also live with anxiety issues who have said they found the mental health rep very good and Paris’ experiences very relatable, but also that they found reading triggering in some instances, so please take that into account if you’re thinking about picking this one up.

Five Night Stand (Snowed Inn) by H.L Day

five night stand

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The advantage of a one-night stand is being able to walk away. Except, Nathan can’t.

Workaholic Nathan Nicholls hasn’t had the easiest time of late. Still reeling from his publisher’s rejection of his latest book, he seeks refuge in a remote hotel. When he’s propositioned by the sinfully sexy CJ, a man who knows exactly what he wants and isn’t afraid to go for it, why shouldn’t Nathan throw caution to the winds for once and have a bit of fun? After all, he’s leaving the next day.

When an avalanche puts paid to Nathan’s quick exit, he finds himself stuck there for Christmas. Stuck with CJ. What should be awkward, quickly becomes something else. The snow might be cold, but the time they spend together is far from it, and Nathan finds his heart warming. If only their passion and laughter didn’t have a shelf life, doomed to come to an end once the road is cleared.

Nathan Nicholls doesn’t do one-night-stands. But maybe, just maybe, if he makes a Christmas wish, this could be something more.

Rating: B

It’s that time of year when our TBR piles see an influx of Christmas-themed romances, and while I’m usually not ready to start getting festive until well into December, I do usually pick up a few of them for review each year, and I’m kicking off 2022’s batch with a short but sexy/sweet story from H.L. Day. Five Night Stand is part of the multi-author Snowed Inn series set at a holiday lodge in Colorado that is cut off when an avalanche closes the surrounding roads for a few days rendering its guests unable to leave. The books all feature different couples and can be read in any order, so you can dip in and out as the fancy takes you.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, author Nathan Nicholls is anxiously awaiting a meeting at his publisher’s. He’s written three pretty successful books and hopes the meeting is to offer him a new contract, or at the very least an offer to publish his latest one, but alas for him, it’s not. He’s told they’re going to pass on it – or at least, that they don’t want to publish the book in its present state because the characters are flat and and underdeveloped. If he makes some substantial changes, then maybe they can revisit it, but for now… it’s thanks but no thanks.

Frustrated and dispirited, Nathan decides to bite the bullet and make the necessary revisions. He sweated blood for eight months over that book, locking himself away and having no life while he made sure to meet his deadline, so he’s loath to chuck it out completely. He’s due to fly to Colorado to spend Christmas with his dad and stepmum and, hoping that maybe a change of scenery might help his creative juices start to flow, he decides to fly out a bit earlier and stay at a hotel for a few days before heading to his dad’s place.

Unfortunately, the different scenery, while beautiful, isn’t having the desired effect, and Nathan’s laptop screen has remained annoyingly blank. On his last day at The Retreat, he suddenly feels the need to be somewhere other than his cabin, somewhere there are other people, even if he doesn’t really feel like talking to anyone. Mooching around the hotel building, he peeks into the room where a speed dating event is going on and almost regrets not signing up for it – the guys look like they’re having fun, which is something Nathan hasn’t had a lot of recently. But he’s leaving the next day and flying home a few days later, so there wasn’t really any point… although when he locks eyes with the gorgeous guy with the generous smile and the camera slung around his neck, he thinks maybe he made the wrong decision.

Realising he’s just standing in the doorway like an idiot, Nathan quickly makes his way to the bar and is surprised when camera-guy shows up not long afterwards and brings him over another beer. He’s a fellow Brit and introduces himself as CJ – and he doesn’t waste any time in inviting Nathan back to his cabin. Nathan is startled. He’s never been one for casual sex and almost says so, but then thinks – why not? It’s not like they’ll ever see each other again, and maybe one night being something “other than a writer who had apparently forgotten how to write” is exactly what he needs.

The sex is fantastic and CJ is surprisingly intuitive, immediately sensing Nathan’s tendency to overthink and helping him to overcome his inhibitions with effortless ease. He asks Nathan not to leave without saying goodbye in the morning – but when it comes to it, all Nathan’s habitual awkwardness comes roaring back and he leaves quietly, returning to his own cabin – right next door – to shower and pack before heading to reception to check out.

But… he can’t. An avalanche hit late the previous night and the roads are impassable. It looks like he’ll be seeing CJ again after all.

Five Night Stand is a fun, steamy and surprisingly fresh take on a couple of well-worn tropes, and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a quick and very engaging read featuring two likeable, three dimensional characters with chemistry that leaps off the page, and although Nathan’s is the sole PoV, the author does such a wonderful job of presenting CJ through his eyes, I didn’t once feel I was missing anything by not having CJ’s take on things. They’re your classic grumpy/sunshine pairing; Nathan is a bit of an introvert who works hard and doesn’t play very much, while CJ is charming, fun and larger-than-life, open to opportunity and ready to grab the next one with both hands. Spending the days together – as well as the nights – enables them to go to know each other, talking about their jobs and their hopes and dreams, and the affection between them is palpable. Nathan tells CJ about the problems with his book and CJ shares his love of wildlife photography and his dream of one day having a shot accepted by National Geographic. CJ’s love of life, his positivity and his ebullience are infectious, and I loved the way he encourages Nathan to come out of his shell and start to live a little; watching Nathan doing just that, opening up and finding real happiness for the first time in a long while is really satisfying. It’s not all one-sided though. CJ has never really had anyone in his life who understands his love for what he does and supports him in it – his family sees his photography as a hobby, and past boyfriends have been annoyed because he travels a lot – but Nathan gets it. He knows what it’s like to feel passionately about something and is genuinely interested and impressed with CJ’s talent.

One of the things I often criticise shorter romance novels and novellas for is that the relationship development can feel rushed – but that isn’t the case here. Nathan and CJ form an entirely believable connection during their short time together, and I have to give the author kudos for the little nod back to Nathan’s assertion early on, that the characters in his book can’t be expected to change all that much in just five days – when he realises that he has, in fact, fallen in love in just that timeframe.

Five Night Stand is the perfect way to brighten up a grey, wintry afternoon; a tender, funny and spicy love story that’s nicely romantic without being sappy. Recommended.

Sass (Style #3) by Jay Hogan

sass

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For two years I’ve kept Leon Steadman at a safe distance, ever since the night he turned me down flatter than a pancake with a side order of syrupy disapproval. His loss. The world is full of sexy men. One and done is simply good math and efficient use of my time. Or it would be if I hadn’t been lusting after the irritating, judgemental, gorgeous, mountain of a man, ever since.

The less I see of Leon, the better. Bad enough that his tattoo business sits next to Flare, the fashion store I manage, and that he’s friendly with my boss. But now he’s apartment-sitting above the shop, as well. Every time I turn around, Leon is there. In my store. In my space. Messing with my head. Being all nice and charming and acting like maybe he’s not the biggest jerk to walk the earth, after all.

Well, I don’t want or need Leon’s apologies, but maybe if I can have him, just once, it might put an end to this ridiculous hunger that sparks every time I lay eyes on him.

Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that.

Rating: B+

Jay Hogan concludes her Style series with Sass, a warm, snarky and sexy age-gap/opposites-attract romance between the fabulous Kip Grantham, the sassy, fierce and super-capable manager of Rhys Hellier’s high-fashion store, Flare, and Leon Steadman, the gorgeous hunk who owns the tattoo parlour next door. There was a definite spark between them the minute they stepped on the page in the first book, and although it was tempered by a distinct air of frostiness on Kip’s part, it was an intensely combustible kind of spark that would have led to some serious sheet-burning had the pair of them actually made it as far as a bed. As it turns out however, they’ve never acted on their mutual attraction, spending the two years of their acquaintance barely on civil, one-word-acknowledgement terms.

Kip was attracted to Leon the moment he came through the door of Flare, a week after Kip started working there. He was the hottest thing Kip has ever seen and provided more than enough fuel for his fantasies right up until around a month later when they met at a party, and Leon rejected his invitation to do more than just chat. Kip has never made a secret of the fact that he’s not into relationships; he enjoys men, he enjoys sex and isn’t about to feel bad or apologise for it to anyone. He knows when a guy is interested in him, and Leon was definitely interested – so his rebuff was a bit of a surprise; and not only did Leon turn Kip down, he did it in a really shitty, condescending way that more than implied a disapproval of Kip’s lifestyle. Kip was – quite rightly – furious and put Leon firmly in his place before storming off.

Kip couldn’t possibly know how hard it was for Leon to say no that night. Leon had recently decided it’s time to give up what his sister-in-law calls his “whoring ways” and he’s planning to settle down. He wants the whole package, the white picket fence, kids, a dog… it’s time to focus on finding someone he can make a life with and when he meets Kip, it’s the first big test of his resolve. He’s utterly smitten with the vivacious, beautiful younger man and previously, would not have thought twice about taking him up on his offer – but even on such short acquaintance, Leon recognises the potential danger to his heart Kip represents, and sticks to his guns. He just does it in a really unpleasant way.

That was two years earlier, and Kip and Leon have maintained an uneasy détente ever since. Leon has tried repeatedly to apologise for being such a dick, but Kip isn’t interested, despite the fact that Leon is the only man who has ever taken up real estate in his brain.

When Sass opens, Rhys and his partner Beck are about to leave for New York – for work, and then for a short break – leaving Kip in charge of Flare. While they’re away, the space above Leon’s shop (which he rents from Rhys) is going to be converted into a proper studio for Rhys, and Leon, who has been camping there while his house purchase is completed, is going to have to go to stay with his parents for a few weeks. He gets on well with his family, but still isn’t looking forward to it; but when Alec and Hunter (Strut) hear about it, they offer Leon the use of their apartment (above Flare), as they, too, are going to be away for a few weeks.

Kip is… well, ‘ugh’ might best describe his reaction to that news. It’s bad enough that he has to see Leon and deflect his attempts at conversation every now and then, but having him living upstairs and walking through the shop to get there… he’s not wild about the idea.

The chemistry between Kip and Leon is electric from the start, and Jay Hogan does a terrific job with building their slow-burn romance, which starts out with small, thoughtful gestures on Leon’s part, such as bringing Kip coffee or his favourite pastries when he knows he hasn’t been able to find time to eat, and builds into a friendship in which the two men come to feel comfortable enough around each other to talk about things they’ve never really spoken about with anyone else and most importantly, about the things that have lain between them for the last couple of years. Both have suffered trauma and loss; seven years before, Leon’s twin sister was killed in a car accident and he’s struggled, ever since, to really come to terms with it, while Kip has been estranged from his family for a decade because they disapprove of his lifestyle and for reasons the author reveals gradually as the story progresses.

I’ve said this before, but one of the things you can rely on in a Jay Hogan romance is that the characters speak and act like adults, they support each other and, for the most part, they communicate. There are no silly misunderstandings or contrived drama; the conflict in the romance arises organically and as a result of who these characters are, and while Sass is, perhaps, a less angsty read than the other books in the series, it’s far from lightweight and the author nonetheless tackles some difficult issues with her customary sensitivity and understanding.

Both leads are likeable, but this is Kip’s show. Vibrant, funny and blisteringly snarky, he made an impact the moment he stepped onto the page in Flare, and his force-of-nature personality has made him a series favourite. The author does a good job of showing why Kip eschews relationships, his deeply rooted fear of abandonment telling him it’s easier to just avoid setting himself up for it. And despite being a spitfire and having a natural talent for organisation and innovation, deep down, he’s insecure about taking the formal managerial role that Rhys is urging him towards. He’s doing the job already while Rhys focuses on his designing, but while on the one hand he knows he’s damn good at what he does, on the other, he doesn’t quite believe he can handle it, worrying secretly that being “mouthy as shit with a dangerous dose of charm” is no compensation for his lack of education or qualifications. Watching Leon gently bolster him and boost his confidence is lovely; he’s wonderfully supportive, helping Kip to think problems through and to find and own his belief in himself, but that support doesn’t only go one way. Kip stands beside Leon, too, helping him to better understand his family’s concern for him and untangle a complicated and sensitive family situation.

I have to make mention here of the character of Drew, the young trans man we first met in Flare; now nineteen, he’s really growing into himself and shows signs of becoming a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with Kip is superbly written; their snarky back-and-forth provides some of the book’s funniest moments, and their obvious affinity and genuine care for one another is lovely to see.

Sass is a terrific character-driven romance and a great series finale, and although it didn’t quite hit DIK level for me (I would have liked a bit more grit overall), I really enjoyed it and am more than happy to give it a strong recommendation.

Subway Slayings (Memento Mori #2) by C.S. Poe

subway slayings

This title may be purhased from Amazon

Detective Everett Larkin of New York City’s Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave since catching the serial killer responsible for what the media has dubbed the “Death Mask Murders.” But Larkin hasn’t forgotten that another memento—another death—is waiting to be found.

Summer brings the grisly discovery of human remains in the subway system, but the clues point to one of Larkin’s already-open cases, so he resumes active duty. And when a postmortem photograph, akin to those taken during the Victorian Era, is located at the scene, Larkin requests aid from the most qualified man he knows: Detective Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artists Unit.

An unsolved case that suffered from tunnel vision, as well as the deconstruction of death portraits, leads Larkin and Doyle down a rabbit hole more complex than the tunnels beneath Manhattan. And if this investigation isn’t enough, both are struggling with how to address the growing intimacy between them. Because sometimes, love is more grave than murder.

Rating: A+

Clever, insightful, romantic and utterly compelling, Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s Momento Mori series, was one of my favourite books of 2021. I’ve been on tenterhooks awaiting the release of the sequel, desperately hoping that lightning would strike in the same place twice – and I’m happy to say that it did, because Subway Slayings is every bit as good as – if not even better than – its predecessor. If you like the sound of the combination of brilliant, tautly-plotted mystery and delicious slow-burn romance, this is the series for you – but while the mysteries in each book are solved, there’s an overarching plotline developing and the relationship is ongoing, so make sure to start at the beginning!

Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave to recuperate from the broken arm sustained in an attack by the ‘Death Mask Killer’ at the end of Madison Square Murders. While he was in hospital waiting for surgery, he received a packet containing an old subway token and a note, its message spelled out in cut and pasted letters (like those old blackmail notes you see in the movies!) I HAVE A BETTER MEMENTO FOR YOU. COME FIND ME.”

On the nineteenth of May, exactly fifty-nine days later (because of course, Larkin would know that) and one day before he’s due to resume active duty, Larkin is called to the Fifty-Seventh Street subway station after a decomposing body is found, stuffed in a blue IKEA tote bag, in a utility closet on the platform. He’s not sure why he’s been called when this is clearly a recent homicide, but his questions are answered when the CSU detective passes him an evidence bag containing a photograph of a teenaged girl, slumped awkwardly on one of the oak benches scattered throughout the subway system. The girl appears to be asleep – or drunk or stoned – and the photo itself looks like something that would have been developed thirty or forty years ago. The real kicker, though, is what’s scrawled across the back: “Deliver me to Detective Larkin.”

After escaping the oppressive heat and awful smells down in the tunnels, but not so easily escaping the many and relentless associations – of both his own past and of the many unsolved murders his HSAM won’t let him forget – Larkin calls in expert help in the form of Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artist Unit, who confirms Larkin’s suspicions about the age of the photo but also realises something else. The girl on the bench isn’t asleep. She’s dead. And later that evening, Larkin makes an important connection with one of the cold cases that haunts him almost more than any other, the murder, on the nineteenth of May 1997, of eighteen-year-old Marco Garcia who was pushed in front of a train… at the Fifty-Seventh Street station.

“Today is the twenty-third anniversary of Marco’s death. Once is chance. Twice is coincidence.” Larkin looked up and finished with “Three time’s a pattern.”

The mystery element of Subway Slayings is clever, meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, but it’s disturbing, too, because as Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, their discoveries lead them to more victims, all of them from one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and to a truly despicable network of people who are only too willing to exploit them. (Please note – there is nothing graphic on page, but crimes against children and young people are central to the plot.)

At the same time as the author is building her intricate mystery, she’s also presenting us with some of the most amazing  character and relationship development I think I’ve ever read. We’ve already seen how Larkin’s HSAM (hyper superior autobiographical memory) affects him in every aspect of his life; how he can become hyper focused, how difficult it is for him to remember small, day-to-day details that cause no problem for most of us, how hard he finds social interaction, how his condition makes him an embarrassment to some (his parents and soon-to-be-ex husband) or a fascinating curiosity (his doctor) – while not one of them either cares or wants to know what it’s really like to live with a brain that can never forget or switch off. How in the eighteen years since the traumatic brain injury that caused it, nobody has ever asked if he’s okay. Nobody – until now. Until Ira Doyle.

“… in eighteen years, I’ve never been happy having HSAM. Until now. Because I don’t ever want to forget how you make me feel.”

Their romantic relationship is the slowest – and sweetest – of slow burns, but it’s absolutely perfect for who these people are and where they are in their lives. They don’t do more than kiss on the page, but their chemistry is such that it feels as steamy as a full-on sex scene, and their strong emotional connection is intense and totally believable. If ever a couple deserved the label ‘soulmates’, it’s this one. Right from the start, Doyle has recognised in Larkin something to be cherished and cared for, and the way he does both those things, his patience and simple, undemanding acceptance of Larkin and everything he is, is an utter joy to read. Doyle is one of those people whose presesnce and smile can light up a room; he’s warm and charming and funny – and very, very good at what he does, with an innate ability to put people at their ease and encourage confidences in a way Larkin can never do. There were hints in the previous book, though, that there’s a lot of grief and pain lying behind that equanimous exterior, and in this one, this finally clicks into place for Larkin, and he realises that this man he’s coming to care for a very great deal – maybe even to love – is still sometihng of a mystery to him.

For being such a decorated officer, Larkin really was a piss-poor detective when it came to understanding the one man, potentially the only man, who’d come to matter.

There is an incredibly insightful passage – too long to quote here in full – in which Larkin thinks about the way contemporary society views death, especially the death of children (Doyle lost his daughter, Abigail, some years earlier – we still don’t know what happened), how people just don’t ask, or don’t listen to those who are grieving, because they can’t handle it – and realises just how deeply Doyle’s hurt must run, that his constant activity and congenial, sunshiny demeanour are covering up a broken heart.

When they’d all turned their backs, because a child’s wake was too much to see, a father’s cries too difficult to hear, there’d been no one left to listen.

The funeral pall had been draped.

The mourning veil lowered.

And Ira Doyle had become… a mystery.

My heart broke a little, then, too. In fact, it broke a little several times while I was reading this book; I was completely and utterly floored by the degree of emotional intelligence and pinpoint insight that leaps from its pages in a way that is absolutely consistent with its characters and their situation. This isn’t authorial pontificating or info-dumping, it’s focused and woven into the very fabric of who these men are – broken, but doing the best they can in a world that doesn’t really understand them – or want to.

For all the darkness of the mystery and the exploration of grief and loss, Subway Slayings is certainly not without its lighter moments. Doyle’s gentle sense of humour, Larkin’s deadpan snark and their good-natured banter are much in evidence, and their quiet moments together – some of Larkin’s thoughts about Doyle are achingly beautiful – really are food for the heart and soul.

The Memento Mori series is shaping up to become one of my favourite series ever. The plots are clever and complex with lots of moving parts that C.S. Poe skilfully corrals into something gripping and cohesive, the two leads are damaged and intensely loveable and their evolving relationship is a thing of beauty.

Subway Slayings left me with the best kind of book hangover and goes straight on to the keeper shelf – it will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my Best of 2022 list. Book three, Broadway Butchery, is set for release in Spring 2023; I’ll be counting the days.

A Fault Against the Dead (The First Quarto #4) by Gregory Ashe

a fault against the dead

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Drugs. Sex. Murder. And, if they can squeeze it in, graduation.

When Auggie Lopez returns to Wahredua for his senior year of college, he’s excited about the future: he’s growing his brand as an influencer, he’s almost done with school, and he’s building a life with his boyfriend, Theo. Then Auggie gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s ex—and Cart tells Auggie he’s being framed for murder.

As Auggie and Theo begin to look into the death of a local parole officer, they realize something isn’t right. A gang of armed men almost catches them while they’re searching the victim’s home, a threatening message spray-painted on the victim’s home suggests a personal vendetta, and everyone wants to know about a missing cache of money. The trail leads Auggie and Theo into the dangerous world of the Ozark Volunteers—the local white supremacists who control the region’s drug trade.

After Theo and Auggie are attacked at home, they learn that the stakes might be much, much higher: someone is determined to put a stop to their investigation, no matter what it takes. And the killer, Theo and Auggie suspect, is hiding behind a badge.

Rating: A

It’s Auggie’s final year and Theo’s last year as a grad student at Wroxall College in this final instalment in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series. But of course, there’s no way it’s going to be an easy year for our favourite trouble-magnets. Not only are they once again up to their necks in a complicated and extremely dangerous murder investigation, but their romantic relationship is still undergoing teething problems and is confronted with what is possibly its toughest challenge yet – and no, I’m not talking about the scale of Auggie’s Doritos habit.

As A Fault Against the Dead is book four in a series, it won’t make much sense if you aren’t familiar with what’s gone before; the mysteries in each book are self-contained, but the central relationship is ongoing and there are a number of recurring characters and references to previous situations, so it’s best to go back to the beginning and start with They Told Me I Was Everything. Gregory Ashe’s incredible ability to tell a story, the tight, complex plots and damaged but intensely loveable main characters will make it worth your while.

The mystery plot here kicks off when Auggie unexpectedly gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s late husband’s partner on the job and Theo’s former fuckbuddy, who tells Auggie he’s been arrested for the murder of a local parole officer. Their visit to Cart in jail is awkward to say the least, but boils down to the fact that someone has framed Cart for murder – and he needs Theo and Auggie to find out who and why.

As if that wasn’t enough, their old nemesis, Detective Albert Lender, doesn’t waste any time in catching up with them after they’ve been to see Cart. To their surprise, he actually seems to want them to investigate further – although of course, it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that there’s something in it for him, namely, a large sum of cash which has gone missing. He wants Theo and Auggie to find it.

The devious mind of Gregory Ashe has come up with a real doozy here as Theo and Auggie are plunged into the murky world of the local drug trade while the complicated web of lies, blackmail and murder becomes even more tangled and the threats to life and limb pile up. Not only is Lender breathing down their necks, they’ve got to contend with angry, violent drug dealers, a dodgy sherrif and someone who seems to have more clout and more at stake than even Lender does – who is trying to force them to stop their investigation

All that would be more than enough for any couple to handle, but Theo and Auggie are still dealing with some intensely personal issues that mean they’re really not singing from the same hymn sheet as far as their relationship is concerned. They’ve both been through such a lot in their relatively young lives, and Theo’s largely untreated trauma, specifically, is continuing to throw up barriers between them. The conflict here is signalled early on when Auggie makes an offhand comment about where they’ll be this time next year, and Theo subtly freezes. In the previous book (The Fairest Show) the conflict was mainly about the way Theo’s desperate need to keep Auggie safe was causing him to disregard Auggie’s feelings and wishes, and how Theo needed to recognise that Auggie is an adult and to start treating him as one. Theo seems to have been working on that, but the other – much bigger – issue that has always been lurking in the background, and which led to some of the poor life choices Theo has made (his drinking, his addiction to pain medication among others) finally blows up in their faces – namely his belief that, at thirty-two, he’s washed up. (In fact, he’s believed that all the way through the series.) He’s been struggling financially since his husband Ian died, he’s burdened with terrible guilt over the accident that killed Ian and left their daughter, Lana, disabled – he’s carrying guilt over the death, years before, of his brother Luke from an overdose, he’s estranged from his very conservative family because he’s gay… and then into his life comes Auggie, beautiful, charming, funny, clever (young) Auggie, so full of life and the one bright thing in Theo’s life, and all Theo has ever really done is get Auggie hurt and drag him down. (As Theo sees it.) I’m indebted to a poster over at the author’s Facebook group for their insight into Theo’s responses to trauma – of which he’s suffered great deal in a fairly short time – which helped me to a clearer understanding than I had of why Theo thinks and acts as he does, why he is so convinced he’s doing the right thing by trying to wrap Auggie up in cotton wool, or continually avoiding any discussion of their future together. He’s lost (or been rejected by) everyone he’s ever loved, and contemplating a future or happiness (or a happy future) is incredibly difficult for him because hurt and pain has been the default for so very long.

Auggie is coming at the relationship from completely the opposite direction. His own upbringing is driving him to want stability and commitment – although he doesn’t quite realise how those two situations are linked yet. The youngest of three brothers, all with different dads, and with a mother who is so self-centred that she doesn’t really care about any of them, he’s really been brought up by his oldest brother, Fer, who is Theo’s age, and who, despite his constant stream of funny and inventive insults, clearly adores Auggie and would do anything for him. The age gap and parental role, however, mean that Fer is just as guilty, in his own way, as Theo is of shielding Auggie, and that he, also like Theo, has tried to keep certain things and realities from Auggie in order to protect him. The instability of Auggie’s home life (which we saw some of in The Fairest Show) and dysfuctionality of his family is clearly driving his need to make plans, when Theo’s life is – and can only be – about the now. With two such diametrically opposed positions, it’s really hard to see how they are ever going to be able to reconcile them, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the gulf between them grows, as Auggie’s frustration with his boyfriend’s attitude starts turning into resentment and Theo’s walls get thicker and higher.

Gregory Ashe is a master of writing characters you can easily fall in love with while at the same time wanting to defenestrate them, and also of being able to combine a complex plot composed of lots of moving parts with some really profound character and relationship development. He reveals so much about who these men are and where they’re coming from, often in just a short speech or moment of description, and despite the heavy subject matter, there’s still room for humour and good-natured banter, a bit of steam and moments of amazing tenderness and understanding.

A lot of that humour comes from Auggie’s interactions with Fer – who is one of those characters who has taken on a life of his own and become a firm reader favourite (many of us are really hoping Mr. Ashe can find a story for him!) – and I loved seeing a clean Chuy (the middle brother) and Auggie having a genuine, affectionate and adult conversation. It was bittersweet, though, to see the brother Chuy could have been (to both Fer and Auggie), and their big scene together is key to giving Auggie some real insight into Theo’s mindset as an addict and how that might be affecting his attitude towards the future.

Although we’re saying goodbye to Theo and Auggie – for now (they’ll be back in the planned Asheverse crossover, tentativelty titled Iron on Iron) – we leave them in a much better place, with a better understanding of each other, and an incredibly sweet demonstration on Theo’s part of his commitment to Auggie and to doing the work he needs to do on himself so that they can move forward together. Having seen them five years on in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series, he’s certainly made progress. (And speaking of H&S, Somers’ cameos in this book show we’re almost caught up with Pretty Pretty Boys in the Wahredua timeline.)

A Fault Against the Dead brings The First Quarto series to a satisfying close by way of a tense, nail-biting climax which will have readers on the edge of their seats (or reading through their fingers!) and then follows it up with a beautifully understated and hopeful HEA. Theo and Auggie have become two of my favourite Asheverse characters, so while I’m sorry to see them metaphorically riding off into the sunset into a much quieter life, I’m delighted they’ve been given the happy ending they deserve.

Small side note: I’m probably in the minority, but I’m not a fan of the new covers for the series; the type is incredibly hard to read against the dark background, and is practically invisible in thumbnails. )

Petty Crimes by Eden Winters

petty crimes

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Why can’t life give him a break?

Five years ago, Jerry Wilkerson was running with a biker gang, making mistake after mistake, till he ended up in the hospital with a gunshot wound, facing criminal charges for drug distribution. On top of everything, he’d fallen in love with the narcotics agent who took them all down. Or rather, with Cyrus Cooper, the man that agent pretended to be.

Making a deal with the Southeastern Narcotics Bureau kept Jerry out of jail, sending him undercover as Brody Jenson, a petty criminal able to get into places other agents can’t. He’s satisfied with his life—or would be if he wasn’t still longing for someone who never existed.

Then a man steps out of his dreams and into his life, who’s everything Jerry ever wanted.

Except for the part where Jerry might have to arrest him.

Rating: B+

Way back in February (it feels like a very LONG time ago!) in AAR’s blog post about Best Belated Reads of 2021, one of my choices was Eden Winters’ nine-book Diversion series, which coupled an extremely well-crafted opposites-attract romance with some superbly-well conceived and written mystery/suspense plots. I listened to the series, and if you do audiobooks and enjoy romantic suspense, I highly recommend it (you can get the whole series in 3 box sets at time of writing – bargain!). It’s become an all-time favourite, so I was delighted when the author announced she was writing another book set in that world, this time, putting a secondary character from the series into the spotlight. Petty Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining read with a clever plot, an engaging central character and a steamy romance; and although it can be read as a standalone, you’ll enjoy the relationship dynamics more if you’ve read at least some of the Diversion books.

A few years earlier, Bo Schollenberger – now the boss at the Southern Narcotics Bureau’s Division of Diversion and Control (the government agency responsible for rooting out criminality in the pharmaceutical industry) – went undercover with a dangerous biker gang in an operation that almost cost him his life. One member of the gang was Jerry Wilkerson, a nineteen-year-old kid who kind of drifted into hanging around with them and developed a massive crush on Bo’s alter-ego, Cyrus Cooper. In the climax of that story, Jerry helped save Bo and Lucky’s lives and got shot in the process; waking in hospital, he was offered the chance to get his life back on track by tesitfying against the gang members and then working for the SNB. Five years later he’s mostly working undercover as lowlife Brody Jenson, a petty criminal whose skillset lay in crawling into the city’s underbelly, lifting the rocks to find the worms beneath and who has turned being underestimated into an art form. He’s good at his job, but he’s also struggling a bit; living a double life is tiring and lonely, and he even finds himself starting to confuse Brody with Jerry at times.

After wrapping his current case, Jerry – as Brody – heads to his local bar, just to be seen around. Nursing a solitary drink, Jerry spies a few familiar faces – and one new and very interesting one, a tall, dark, gorgeous leather-clad biker he certainly wouldn’t mind getting up close and personal with. He keeps a surreptitious eye on the guy – no hardship – for a while, watches him score from a local dealer and then leave. Oh, well.

Bo and his husband Lucky (Jerry’s immediate boss) bring Jerry in on a new case involving an opoid medication being prescribed regularly and without due diligence by a number of doctors who are clearly in the pay of the pharmaceutcal company manufacturing it. ‘Brody’ is set up with an appointment with one of those doctors where he’s to plead severe knee pain owing to an injury and walk away with some evidence in the form of a prescription. Sure enough, he’s given one for a new, highly addictive painkiller without so much as an examination, but when he exits the pharmacy after getting the scrip filled, he notices a black Harley Davidson across the street, identical to one he’d spotted at the scene of an op just a day or so earlier, its rider’s face concealed behind a smoked face shield.

Jerry decides it’s time to find out who’s been tailing him, so he heads back to the bar and sure enough, the hot biker is there, shooting pool. A few heated glances later, Jerry and the mystery man are in the alley out back, and Jerry’s getting the best blow job of his life. When it’s over, the guy gives him a kiss and disappears – until a few days later when he plops himself down next to Jerry at the bar, introduces himself as Nico di Silva, and asks Jerry to arrange a private meeting with Bo and Lucky.

It turns out that Nico is – independently – investigating Monumental Pharmaceuticals following the death of his best friend, a former employee, who is widely believed to have died of an overdose, but whom Nico is convinced was murdered. He offers information on Monumental’s operation in return for an ‘in’ on the SNB’s investigation – and although Bo and Lucky are sceptical, they agree, and Jerry is assigned to work with him.

I loved being back in the world of the SNB. The suspense plotline is interesting and complex without being confusing and there’s plenty of action, humour and steam along the way. I really liked Jerry, who is a flawed but likeable central character; he’s tough and full of attitude and snark but there’s an attractive vulnerability to him, a longing for love and affection even as he doesn’t really believe he’s worthy of it. He’s had a tough life, growing up dirt poor with a father in prison and a mother who was never around because she was working to support them, but he’s worked hard to turn his life around and mostly likes where he’s at. He’s like Lucky in some ways – his skill and intelligence, his smart mouth and his ability to get the job done – but he’s not a Lucky-clone, which I appreciated. Their relationship is one of the best things in the book; it’s more than mentor and mentee, although Lucky would rather die than admit to actually liking Jerry!

Nico is a man layered in secrets. A former Army Ranger who worked for both Homeland Security and the Justice Department, his lone quest for vigilante justice doesn’t quite ring true with the SNB guys, but there’s no doubting his abilities or the accuracy of his information. The story is told entirely from Jerry’s PoV, which works to preserve the element of mystery that surrounds Nico and his actions during the initial stages of the novel, as we wonder, along with Jerry, about his true motives. It’s well done, but it also makes Nico somewhat remote so it’s difficult to buy that he’d fall for Jerry so fast. By contrast, Jerry’s feelings are really well articulated; his longing for connection and someone he can just be himself with, the insecurities that tell him he’s not worth sticking around for, and how fast he’s falling. The sparks fly thick and fast, the chemistry sizzles and their sexual encounters are hot enough to peel paint, but there is a relationship developing here, one between two men who enjoy each other’s company and come to realise that they have more in common than they could have imagined. By the end of the book, it’s clear they’re each exactly what the other needs.

Petty Crimes is a fabulous addition to the Diversion world, a skilfully blended mixture of exciting mystery and sexy romance wrapped up in a blanket of snarky humour, together with a chance for fans to re-visit some much loved characters. I really enjoyed it and heard, while I was reading, the excellent news that the author is working on a sequel. I can’t wait!