Hard Pursuit (Delta Force Brotherhood #3) by Sheryl Nantus (audiobook) – Narrated by Rock Engle

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Trey Pierce has spent years helping the Brotherhood, using his computer skills to dig out secrets and help deliver justice. But there’s one mission he’s yet to finish – finding out who killed his best friend. A chance meeting with Ally Sheldon gives him a new lead, one that comes with some baggage.

Executive Ally Sheldon has to find her wayward brother if she wants to save her company. Pretending like nothing is wrong is getting to her. But when the sexy Trey is assigned to her to help her case, focusing on what’s most important is difficult.

Never in his life has Trey been more attracted to a woman, but she’s hiding something. And that something may just destroy them.

Rating: Narration: B-; Content: C+

Hard Pursuit is book three in the Delta Force Brotherhood series of romantic suspense novels by new-to-me author Sheryl Nantus, and although I haven’t read or listened to the other books, I was perfectly able to follow the story here, so it worked fine as a standalone. However, the series title, the cover, the book blurb, the ex-special forces hero – all of that led me to expect a romantic suspense novel complete with heart-pounding, fast moving action scenes and an intense romance developing under pressure… but that isn’t what I got. Rather, Hard Pursuit is the story of a young woman finally learning to step out of the shadows and start to live for herself, and a man driven by revenge learning to let it go and move on with his life. Neither of those are bad things – it’s just not what I was expecting – and the romantic chemistry between them is lukewarm at best.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Bishop’s Queen (Endgame Trilogy #2) by Katie Reus

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He doesn’t believe in fairy-tale endings…

They used to call Evan Bishop the golden boy. He had it all and was about to close the business deal of a lifetime, then marry the woman of his dreams. But everything goes to hell when a faceless enemy wants to destroy his family’s empire and see him dead. Except the bomb meant to kill him fails. He wakes up from a coma to find his face scarred and his brother missing and wanted for murder. Now that he’s damaged, he hides away from the world—including the woman he loves. He refuses to be a burden to her, so even though it destroys him, he sets her free.

She’s about to prove him wrong…

Isla MacDonald isn’t walking away from Evan just because he’s decided to shut her out of his life. He blames himself for the bombing that got her father killed and nearly killed him—but he’s wrong. After all attempts to see him fail, with a broken heart she tries to resume her life and take over her father’s firm. Though it’s not her dream, she wants to honor his legacy. But when someone tries to kill her—twice—she needs a bodyguard. To her surprise Evan steps up and insists on protecting her, putting on a show as the caring fiancé. But he won’t let her back into his life or into his heart. To have any chance at a future together, they’ll have to resurrect the past and stay alive long enough to expose the man determined to see them both dead.

Rating: C

Bishop’s Queen is the second book in Katie Reus’ Endgame Trilogy of romantic suspense novels featuring the Bishop siblings, Evie, Evan and Ellis.  Book one, Bishop’s Knight, was a fast-paced, well put-together and sexy story that I called a “quick, satisfying read” in my review; Bishop’s Queen, however, suffers – badly – from what I call ‘middle-book-itis’, and merely treads water between the beginning and end, Bishop’s Endgame).

Please note that there are spoilers for Bishop’s Knight in this review.

The first book in the trilogy set up the series premise.  The wealthy, well-connected Bishop family has been hit with a double whammy of bad news.  Ellis –a DEA agent – has been accused of murdering his partner and has gone on the run and off the grid, and a recent explosion at Bishop Enterprises has left Evan critically injured and killed a number of employees – including his fiancée’s father.  Isla MacDonald is grieving her father and is also distraught because Evan refuses to see her and then breaks their engagement, allowing her to believe it’s because he’s badly scarred and thinks she’ll be repulsed by him.

When Bishop’s Queen opens a few months later, Isla is still hurting over Evan’s rejection, but is getting on with her life.  Her father’s death means she is now running his business, and she’s doing it well – but it’s not really what she wants to do with her life.  She’d never intended to work for her father for ever, although now he’s gone, she feels she needs to at the very least, complete the deals he was working on before his death before she hands over the reins to the very capable team she has working for her, and steps back from the day-to-day running of the company.

Evan, meanwhile, has turned into something of a recluse, believing himself to have been responsible for the death of Isla’s father – who was also a good friend – and trying hard to forget Isla and move on. He didn’t push her away out of vanity; it was misplaced guilt that prompted him to act as he did, and although he still loves Isla deeply, he’s trying to convince himself he did the right thing… even as he knows he made a colossal mistake.

 

When Isla is mugged, Evan’s protective instincts kick in, even though he has no right to feel that way any more.  But when there’s an obvious attempt on her life, he can’t stay away- Isla needs to be protected while the police and her security team work to find out who wants her dead, and Evan is the only person he trusts to keep her safe.

Bishop’s Queen is one of those romantic suspense novels where the suspense works a lot better than the romance.  Isla and Evan are likeable and I appreciated that they were able to approach their situation and discuss things in a mature way that showed the strength of their connection (Isla’s couple of slightly TSTL moments notwithstanding), but to be honest, their second-chance romance felt pretty flat. Evan did a hurtful, dumb thing by pushing Isla away and letting her think it was because he didn’t want her to see his scars, and Isla is right to be upset and wary of letting herself be hurt again, but there’s no real in-depth exploration of the reasons for their break-up or focus on the rebuilding of their relationship.  The threat to Isla’s safety becomes the novel’s driving force and the emotional aspect of the romance is neglected.

The suspense plot, however, is what kept me involved in the story.  We learn that although the person who actually planted the bomb that destroyed the Bishop Enterprises offices is in prison, his strings were being pulled by someone else, someone who is obsessed with Isla and who is becoming more and more unhinged as he sees her rekindling her relationship with Evan.  The author lobs in a couple of convincing red herrings here, so I wasn’t sure of the identity of the villain until the reveal (which is never a bad thing), although I was surprised that this plotline is wrapped up at the end; I’d thought the search for the person behind the bombing was going to be the overarching plot of the series, but it seems as though Ellis’ story is unrelated to the events of this and the previous book.

Ultimately, I’m awarding Bishop’s Queen an average grade because while I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, and I was more invested in the suspense plot than the romance.  The novels work as standalones, so it’s perfectly possible to read books one and three without reading this one, unless you’re desperate to find out the identity of the bomber, of course, or don’t mind your romantic suspense skewed towards the suspense.

Crashing Upwards by S.C. Wynne (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Harper Jones is a professional bike courier, and in his business if you don’t ride fast, you don’t make money. His apartment has mice, he’s barely able to scrape up the rent, but at least he’s living life on his terms and doesn’t depend on anyone.

Sam Foster is the gay son of a wealthy conservative senator. He’s noticed Harper before when he’s dropped off packages at his dad’s company, but he’s never had the nerve to speak to his secret crush.

When Sam accidentally hits Harper with his car, Harper’s bike is destroyed and he’s injured seriously enough that he won’t be delivering packages for a while. Sam decides Harper needs rescuing, and he moves in with Harper to take care of him.

Unfortunately, Sam’s politician dad is convinced Harper’s a con-artist and he’ll do whatever it takes to get him away from his son.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C-

Crashing Upwards is a fairly low-drama romance by a new-to-me author, and I picked up the audio to review partly because some of my online friends enjoyed the book, partly because it’s a LAMBDA award winner, and partly because Kale Williams is narrating. I suspect that the award-winner status raised my expectations somewhat, because while the story is engaging enough, it doesn’t really have anything new to offer, and the characters, while likeable, are nothing I haven’t read or listened to before.

That said, the way the two protagonists meet IS unusual. I can’t call it a meet-cute, not when Sam Foster hits Harper Jones with his car, knocks him off his bike and lands him in hospital. Harper regains consciousness to find an unfamiliar man sitting by his hospital bed, apologising and telling him that he’ll take care of him and that his father will pay for a new bike and whatever else he needs. As Harper gradually starts to get a clearer picture of what’s happened, he understands that the man – who introduces himself as Sam Foster – is apologising for hitting him with his car and telling him not to worry about the medical bills or, indeed, about anything because he’ll deal with it all. Harper, who has supported himself since he was sixteen and now earns his living as a bike messenger, can’t NOT worry – about the bills, about his job, about making the rent – so being told he shouldn’t isn’t exactly helping.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Convenient Fiction (Parish Orphans of Devon #3) by Mimi Matthews (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

She Needed a Husband…. It’s been three years since Laura Hayes’ father died, leaving her and her invalid brother to subsist on the income from the family’s failing perfume business. But time is swiftly running out. What she needs is a husband, and fast. A noble gentleman who can rescue them all from penury. When a mysterious stranger arrives in the village, he seems a perfect candidate. But Alex Archer is no hero. In fact, he just might be the opposite. He Wanted a Fortune…. Alex has no tolerance for sentiment. He’s returned to England for one reason only: to find a wealthy wife. A country-bred heiress in Surrey seems the perfect target. But somewhere between the village railway station and the manor house his mercenary plan begins to unravel. And it’s all the fault of Laura Hayes – a lady as unsuitable as she is enchanting. From the beaches of Margate to the lavender fields of Provence, a grudging friendship slowly blossoms into something more. But when scandal threatens, can a man who has spent his entire life playing the villain finally become a hero? Or will the lure of easy riches once again outweigh the demands of his heart?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

A Convenient Fiction is book three in Mimi Matthews’ Parish Orphans of Devon series, and the first of the set I’ve listened to (I read the first book, A Matrimonial Advertisement), and I confess I picked it up for review principally because Alex Wyndham is the narrator (the earlier books in the series were narrated by someone I don’t care to listen to). The author has a reputation as someone who pays attention to historical detail and accuracy in her novels, and her characters speak and behave in a way that is very period-appropriate – which isn’t something I can say about a lot of the historical romances published recently. Her writing is smooth and engaging and she has the knack for creating nicely simmering romantic chemistry between her protagonists – but if you’re someone who likes a bit of on-page action between the sheets in your romances, then you won’t find that here, as Ms. Matthews closes the bedroom door very firmly once the characters make it that far!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Countess for a Week by Sarah Mallory

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A pretend marriage to the Earl

Sharing everything—except a bed…

To uncover a ruthless killer, Arabella Roffey masquerades as the Countess of Westray—never expecting her ‘husband’ suddenly to appear! He could expose her, but instead he agrees to continue her ruse for a week. Randolph is brooding, handsome, and Bella likes him more than she should. Pretending to be his wife, she shares everything with him—except a bed—but the temptation to do so is becoming all too real…

Rating: C+

Sarah Mallory’s His Countess for a Week is a mix of mystery and romance featuring an appealing hero who, when the book opens, has just returned to England after having been pardoned of the crime for which he was transported to Australia six years earlier. Randolph Kirkster, the new Earl of Westray (who originally appeared in the author’s Pursued for the Viscount’s Vengeance),has endured much and has emerged as a better man for it, one who is determined to make up for the idleness of his youth and to fulfil his responsibilities to those dependent upon him.   Sadly, however, his heroine is far less interesting and engaging, which made it difficult to become invested in the romance.

After arriving in Portsmouth, Randolph (mostly shortened to Ran, which I really didn’t like), decides to visit one of his smaller estates, Beaumont Hall in Devon, before making his way to his principal seat in Oxfordshire.  Accompanied by his manservant, Joseph Miller – really his best friend  – whom Ran credits with saving his life on more than one occasion – Ran arrives at Beaumont and is surprised when the housekeeper informs him that his countess – who has been in residence for the past two weeks – is out for the evening and is staying the night at neighbouring Meon House.

Curious to discover both the identity of the lady masquerading as his wife and her reasons for doing so, Ran makes his way to Meon House, and is immediately conveyed to his ‘wife’ – who promptly faints at the sight of him.

When she’d hatched her scheme to find the person responsible for the death of her husband George, Arabella Roffey had believed the Earl of Westray to be far, far away and that there was no chance of her deception being exposed.  When told her husband had arrived, for a brief second, Arabella had expected to see her beloved George, not an austerely handsome stranger – but knowing the game is up, she does not attempt to excuse her behaviour or deceive him as to her purpose and explains she has reason to suspect that something happened to her husband on his most recent visit to Meon House.  Realising she was unlikely to learn anything as plain Mrs. Roffey, she decided the best way to gain entrée to the circles George was moving in was to pretend to hold a title – and this evening was her first opportunity to meet some of the people in attendance at the house at the time of George’s last visit.

To her surprise, not only does the earl not immediately expose her as an imposter, he offers to help her in her quest for the truth – help she accepts rather begrudgingly.  Arabella returns to Beaumont Hall with Ran, and during the next week, tells him more about her husband and her suspicions that he did not die of natural causes.  She believes he was a victim of Lady Meon and her set, who lure young men to her remote house, likely drug them and fleece them when they’re not in their right minds.  It’s obvious to the reader – and to Ran – that Arabella is in deep denial where George is concerned, and that she has no idea of his true nature, but at this point in the story, Ran recognises the futility of attempting to enlighten her.

While Arabella’s persistence in believing the best of George – who clearly doesn’t deserve her regard – does become irritating quickly, the author does a good job of showing why the character thinks as she does and how she is holding on to her belief as something of a defence mechanism.  What I found less easy to excuse was Arabella’s treatment of Ran; her constant reminders to herself of his past as a convict may have been her way of denying her attraction to him, but she spends a lot of time avoiding Ran or deliberately pushing him away, which seemed rather ungrateful considering his offers to help and his understanding of her situation.

Ran is a marvellous hero who oozes vitality and confidence, a far cry from the feckless, unstable young man we met in the earlier book. Kind, honourable and compassionate, he’s comfortable in his own skin and knows who he is; he’s put his wild youth behind him but takes responsibility for his actions and is genuinely determined to live a better life.  But as I said at the beginning, I found Arabella a lot less appealing, and it’s hard to root for a couple when you believe one half of it doesn’t deserve the other.

The identity of the villain(s) of the piece is signalled fairly early on, but they’re such lip-smacking, cape-twirling baddies that I found myself eagerly awaiting their comeuppance and caught up in Ran and Arabella’s search for proof.

His Countess for a Week boasts a gorgeous hero and a decent suspense plot, but I didn’t warm to the heroine for well over half of the book, which is kind of a death knell for any romance.  I’m a fan of the author’s and will continue to read her books, but I can’t, in all honesty, quite recommend this one.

Contracted as His Countess by Louise Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From a recluse secluded in a castle…

…to his Countess!

Cloistered away in a castle since birth, Madelyn Aylmer must now fulfil her eccentric father’s dying request: wed nobleman Jack Ransome! She has what Jack needs – land – and so he accepts their marriage of convenience, and vows to introduce this sheltered innocent into Society. But what Madelyn hadn’t expected was the way her body reacts to Jack, especially to his promise of a union filled with unbridled passion!

Rating: C-

Louise Allen is an author whose work I’ve enjoyed many times in the past, and I always look forward to a new release from her.  Contracted as His Countess is a standalone historical romance that puts a slightly different spin on a familiar trope, and the very different backgrounds of the two protagonists make for some interesting situations and conflicts.  But somewhere around the half-way point, the story loses focus and never really regains it; the romance is not well developed and even thought the eleventh-hour black moment is actually set up earlier in the book, it nonetheless feels flimsy and awkward.

Madelyn Aylmer is the daughter of a rather eccentric gentleman whose fascination with the gothic period went far beyond that of many of the other nineteenth century gothic revivalists.  He lived as a medieval nobleman in his own castle, complete with moat, drawbridge and portcullis, dressed in medieval attire, eschewed modern conveniences and even wanted his servants to dress the part. He brought up his only daughter with medieval values and sensibilities; indeed Madelyn has had very little interaction with the outside world and is, indeed, much like the ivory-tower bound princess in a fairy tale.  Now her father is dead, and she is duty-bound to fulfil his last request, which is to marry a man with bloodlines that can be traced back to before the Conquest, a man of impeccable breeding.

That gentleman is Jack Ransome, Earl of Dersington, who is commonly known in society as Jack Lackland because his is an empty title.  In fact, he styles himself plain Mister Ransome,  seeing no point in calling himself an earl because without lands, retainers or wealth, he has no power and therefore, no function as an aristocrat.  His profligate father and elder brother left nothing, and he supports himself by working as an enquiry agent.  He arrives at Castle Beaupierre in response to the invitation from Miss Aylmer, and is surprised at his reaction to the statuesque young woman dressed in clothes of a bygone age who greets him.  Madelyn Aylmer is not pretty by the standards of the day, but she’s most certainly and unconventionally attractive in her poise and serenity.  Plain by modern standards, yet somehow lovely and utterly remote.

Jack is even more surprised when she tells him the reason for her invitation.  Over the years, her father had searched out and acquired every scrap of the lost Dersington lands, and these will of course be returned to Jack upon their marriage.  He is stunned – and then angry at the idea that this young woman thinks she can buy him… but also feels an unexpected hope at the prospect of regaining his family’s property, and after thinking it over – and admitting to himself that his unaccountable attraction to Madelyn will at least make the act of begetting heirs a pleasant one – he agrees to the match.  But with the condition that Madelyn must live in the present and not the past, and that she will learn how to conduct herself appropriately in nineteenth century society.

The marriage of convenience for money is a common enough trope, but Madelyn’s unusual upbringing and Jack’s rejection of his title – and the widespread disapproval of his peers that incurrs – opened up the potential for some different sorts of conflicts to those usually found in this type of story, and I eagerly raced through the first few chapters.  Jack finds Madelyn someone to help her to learn all the rules that govern society and its interactions, from learning how to act as hostess to what clothes to wear.  Madelyn is determined to do her best to fit in, Jack’s intentions are good in providing her with someone to guide her, and so are those of her mentor, but those good intentions basically translate to Madelyn finding herself wearing unflattering clothes in colours that do not suit her and feeling as though she is being forced to give up her individuality.  I sympathised with her; she wanted to be a credit to Jack but was being pushed in directions that made her anything but, and I was pleased when she took a stand and decided to find a compromise that would work for her and for Jack.  I was very much on her side in this – until she did something silly as a way of demonstrating her ability to make sound judgments about how to behave, which was not only dumb but out of character.

The biggest problem with the book though, is the romance. Or rather, the lack thereof.  Ms. Allen is capable of creating terrific sexual tension between her heroes and heroines and is very skilled at developing a believable romance in the relatively short page count of a category romance.  Here, however… well, let’s just say she must’ve been having an off day (or several), because there’s no chemistry between Jack and Madelyn, and other than a few references to the fact that Jack is surprised he’s attracted to her because she’s not his type (and we’re reminded rather too often that she’s not conventionally attractive), and that Madelyn finds Jack very handsome, there’s very little in the way of attraction, and the kisses and single (rather tame) love scene are damp squibs rather than fireworks.

So I’m marking Contracted as His Countess down as one of those books that had a lot of potential that was ultimately not realised.  It’s a shame when an author whose work you normally enjoy lets you down, but it happens; and although I can’t recommend this, I hope to enjoy more of Ms. Allen’s books in the future.

Well Met (Well Met #1) by Jen DeLuca (audiobook) – Narrated by Brittany Pressley

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?

The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?

This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C+

There was quite a bit of pre-publication buzz about Jen Deluca’s Well Met, and positive reviews together with the fact that I’ve enjoyed Brittany Pressley’s work in the past suggested it would be an audiobook I’d enjoy, so I requested a copy for review. The final verdict? Mixed feelings. The narration is excellent, but the story and characters felt somewhat underdeveloped. I also missed the dual PoV that’s common in so many contemporary romances. There’s a reason we don’t get the hero’s perspective, but the lack of it does make him seem rather two-dimensional, which, for a hero-centric reader/listener like me, wasn’t ideal.

After losing her job and breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Emily has temporarily relocated to the small Maryland town of Willow Creek to be with her older sister, who is recuperating from a car accident. She figures it’s as good a place as any to lick her wounds and figure out where she goes from here. Emily has also assumed the role of ‘Adult in Charge’ when it comes to her niece, Caitlin, and when the story opens has driven her to the local high school on a Saturday morning so that Caitlin can sign up to take part in the town’s annual Renaissance Faire. Cait is very excited about joining the faire for the first time – but Emily isn’t so enthusiastic when she’s informed that because her niece is only fourteen, she won’t be able to ‘do Faire’ unless she’s accompanied by an adult. Gah! But what can Emily do? Cait is so excited and would be SO disappointed not to be able to take part so Emily agrees… although her first glimpse of the gorgeous Mitch – “Tall, blond, muscled, with a great head of hair and a tight T-shirt. Gaston crossed with Captain America with a generic yet mesmerising handsomeness” is what really tips the balance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.