Wanderlust by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Richard Armitage and Grace Grant


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

A British accent is my weakness…

Good thing I can avoid that kind of temptation in my new job in Paris. And when my company hooks me up with my own personal translator, I should be on the fast track for success. Except, he’s charming, witty, and, oh yeah, he just so happens to be British, which means everything he says melts me.

Don’t mix business with pleasure. I do my best to resist him as he brings the city to life for me. Soon, I can navigate the streets, discuss perfume with my co-workers, and barter at the outdoor market. But I also learn how to tell the sexy man by my side how much I want him to kiss me under the streetlamps.

Except there’s a catch – I can’t have him.

***

One more assignment before I take off on my big adventure…

And it’s a good farewell gig too since my newest client is a fetching American who loves to explore the cafes and cobbled streets while I teach her the language of love. We fall into a fast and flirty friendship, doing our best to resist each other. But you know what they say about best intentions. Soon we’re spending our nights together too, and I don’t want to let her go. The trouble is, my wanderlust is calling to me, and before we know it, I’ll be traveling the globe to fulfill a promise I made long ago.

What could possibly go wrong with falling in love in Paris? Nothing…unless one of you is leaving.

Rating: Narration – A: Content – C

I’ve enjoyed listening to several of Lauren Blakely’s light-hearted, sexy romances; they’re fun, easy listens, made moreso by the fact that they’re read by some of the best narrators in the business. Her latest story, Wanderlust, is set in Paris and boasts a British hero, so I was hoping a British narrator would be cast – and when the author announced it would be Richard Armitage, I, like many, was gobsmacked.  While he’s narrated a number of audiobooks, he has not, other than a few abridged recordings of some Georgette Heyer titles,  narrated a romance, so the fact that he’d signed on to narrate this Audible Original  (which is available in audio only until the end of March) is A Big Deal.

Wanderlust is fairly typical Blakely fare; steamy, flirty and low-angst, it tells the story of an American in Paris – Joy Danvers Lively – who relocates from her home in Texas to take up a one year secondment to the Paris offices of the cosmetics company for which she works.  She’s excited about the challenge facing her, and delighted at the prospect of living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities; she doesn’t speak the language, but she’s trying her best with the aid of a phrase book and has read extensively about what the city has to offer.

Her first morning, she’s in the bakery close to her hotel and mangles the pronunciation of the item she’s asking for when the man in front of her quietly corrects her so she can obtain what she wants.  He apologises – says it’s habit – and Joy is surprised to discover, when he speaks to her in English, that he’s not French, but British.  Outside, they carry on a flirtatious conversation during which they play at guessing each other’s names, ending up with Archie (for Archibald) and Judy.  They’re about to tell each other their real names when Joy’s phone rings and ‘Archie’, deciding he’s de trop, waves goodbye and leaves.

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

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As You Wish (Shatterproof Bond #1) by Isobel Starling (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

One wedding, two best men, one hell of a love story!

Declan Ramsay’s brother Oliver was marrying Annabelle Aiken at a fairytale castle on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland. The bride and groom decided that Annabelle’s gay younger brother would share the best man duties with Declan. Declan had never met the kid who was to be his joint best man. Sam Aiken was abroad, working as an interpreter and finishing his studies. He wouldn’t meet Declan until a few days before the wedding, so the best men communicated and planned their speech by email for more than a year.

But on meeting Sam Aiken, Declan is surprised to realize the kid isn’t a kid at all, but a tall, blond, and athletic young man. Declan is sure he’s straight, so he’s alarmed by the ferocious attraction he feels for Sam. And as the attraction is reciprocated, the events at Dunloch Castle change everything Declan has ever believed about himself.

But, is Samuel Aiken all that he appears to be?

Rating: Narration – A-: Content – C+

As You Wish is the first book in Isobel Starling’s Shatterproof Bond series which – so far – comprises four books (and a prequel) in which the storylines are all inter-related and the romance progresses throughout. I knew before I started listening that this story wasn’t self-contained and that it is to be continued into the next book (Illuminate the Shadows) and beyond, so please be aware of that before you decide to listen to As You Wish.

It’s a novella-length listen, coming in at just over four hours, and opens with two very different young men bumping – literally – into each other at Heathrow Airport as they each rush to catch a plane. Uptight control freak Declan Ramsey isn’t pleased when a scruffy back-packer almost canons into him, and is even less impressed when he finds the same man in the seat next to his on the flight to Edinburgh. He’s flying home to attend his younger brother’s wedding; Oliver Ramsey is marrying Annabelle Aiken, daughter of Declan’s boss, an incredibly wealthy property developer, at a fairytale castle on the banks of Loch Lomond, and Declan and Annabelle’s brother, Sam, are sharing best man duties. Because Sam has been living abroad for the past couple of years – he works as an interpreter and translator for his father’s company – Declan and Sam have been corresponding by email during that time, working out various details and planning their joint speech, and very quickly fell into an easy online friendship. Truth be told, Declan is a bit of a grouch; at thirty-two he’s never had a serious relationship and all the dates he’s gone on lately have been disasters – but the emails from Annabelle’s young, geeky brother have never failed to cheer him up, and he’s looking forward to finally meeting the kid.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Laws of Attraction (Librarians in Love #3) by Sarah Title


This title may be purchased from Amazon

It’s taken law librarian Becky Schrader a long time to stop comparing herself to her family of overachievers and hone in on what she really wants—a normal life, white picket fence and all, Mr. Dream Guy included. But before she gets ahead of herself, her girlfriends convince her she needs to let down her hair for once, meet a hot guy and let the moment take over . . .

After graduating from an Ivy League law school and practicing in New York for a few years, the plan for Foster Deacon was to return home to Denver and join the family firm, marry the right woman, shoulder his responsibilities. Except Foster’s always been a bit of a rebel, and he’s decided to suit up with his family’s rival firm. What better way to celebrate than to spend a night with a gorgeous blonde who leaves before he could say, “Good morning . . .”

Becky feels she did the right thing, leaving her lover’s bed and not her number. After all, she needs to focus on her job at Glassmeyer & Polak—until the new hire walks through the door . . . with a bad case of happily ever after.

Rating: B

Laws of Attraction, the third entry in Sarah Title’s Librarians in Love series, is a delightfully frothy concoction of a romantic comedy that often had me smiling and, once or twice, laughing out loud.  Mild-mannered legal librarian Becky Schrader is fed up with falling for the wrong guy; she supposes it’s her own fault for constantly looking for Mr. Dream-Guy-picket-fence-and-a-dog, and her best friend is trying to convince her to let her hair down once in a while and have some fun with Mr. let-me-keep-you-up-all-night-screaming-my-name instead.  Becky isn’t averse to the odd bout of anonymous hot monkey sex, but deep down she really does want a normal life, the picket fence and the great guy.

On a night out with her friend Dakota, Becky is about to leave to make her way home when a new arrival catches her eye and changes her mind.  Dressed casually in a flannel shirt and jeans and sporting sexy face-scruff … forget the hot monkey, she’s picked herself out a hot lumberjack for the night.  There’s an instant zing of heat between her and the guy she hears addressed as ‘Deke’, and before long, they’re on the way back to his place. The sex is every bit as toe-curlingly hot as she could have wanted, and Becky sneaks out of Mr. Lumberjack’s surprisingly chic apartment the next morning with head held high – mission accomplished – fully expecting never to see him again.

Becky obviously hasn’t read enough romance novels, because naturally, her scruffy, sexy lumberjack walks into the offices of the law firm where she works a couple of days later. Clean-shaven, designer-suited (and still sexy) he turns out to be none other than hotshot lawyer Foster Deacon, who has left his high-flying job in New York and returned home to Denver in order to prosecute a big intellectual property case.  While Foster is pleased to see Becky and has hopes of picking up where they left off, Becky is little short of horrified.  Foster is cute, funny and great in bed, but he’s a legal genius – and she’s sworn off lawyers and she’s doubly sworn off geniuses (genii?).  Plus she’s not looking for another relationship; he was supposed to be a one-night-stand, not a potential Mr. Picket-Fence.

 

Okay, so being a little wary of jumping into a new relationship is understandable, but the romantic conflict in the story pretty much stems from Becky’s stance that she doesn’t want to date a lawyer, and the way she keeps avoiding Foster for basically no reason just makes her seem a bit silly and immature. There are a couple of work-related emails that piss her off for no discernible reason and after that she decides he’s an arrogant pig – which makes no sense and is obviously just an attempt to inject some tension into a story that has quite a bit going on and doesn’t really need it.

Fortunately, however, by this time, Ms. Title had set up both characters as decent, likeable individuals and thrown in plenty of humour and some interesting situations and secondary characters, so that although Becky’s attitude bugged me, I was sufficiently engaged by the story and the deftness and confidence of the writing that I was content to set those concerns aside and watch everything unfold.

While the developing romance between Becky and Foster is the focus of the book, there’s a secondary plotline featuring Foster’s sixteen year-old, tearaway sister, who has been in trouble with the law and is doing her community service sentence by helping out at the animal shelter run by Becky’s friend, Dakota.  Part of Foster’s reason for coming back to Denver was to spend more time with Madison and maybe help keep her out of trouble, but she’s having a difficult time, especially as their parents have no idea how to approach her or talk to her.  Or each other, really.  Foster’s relationship with her is nicely done; he’s a caring big brother, and she obviously adores him, but neither of them are close to their workaholic father and self-absorbed mother.

Foster’s family issues, however, seem almost insignificant next to Becky’s.  Her parents and her two sisters are scientists – real scientists, that is, who don’t view library science as proper science – one sister has just won a prestigious award, the other is on the International Space Station… it’s easy to understand Becky’s reluctance to become involved with a genius of any description!  It also accounts for her desire for a normal life with a nice house, a dog, and a nongenius lumberjack. For her family, a nice Sunday night meal is a misnomer – why waste time cooking when they can eat something out of a box and get back to work? Birthdays?  Um… when are they?  Christmas?  A nuisance because all the labs are shut, but at least it means they can catch up on their professional reading.   They’re a bit over the top maybe, but I liked the way these tunnel-visioned individuals contrasted with Becky who is warm, witty and surprisingly well-adjusted.

Ultimately, however, Ms. Title doesn’t get too hung-up on the hang-ups and oh – I should mention the cute rescue dog for the dog-lovers out there; I’m more of a cat person, but I know there are many readers for whom a hot guy and a ball-of-fluff-mutt are a winning combination.

Laws of Attraction is a fast-paced, funny and light-hearted read featuring a likeable, well-matched central couple, witty dialogue and a nice bit of steam on the side.  I haven’t read the other books in the series, so it works perfectly well as a standalone; and while it’s not something that’s going to stick with me, it was a lot of fun and might be just the thing if you’re looking for a pick-me-up on a grey Autumn afternoon.

Moonlight Over Manhattan (From Manhattan With Love #6) by Sarah Morgan

moonlight over manhattan2
This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’ll risk everything for her own Christmas miracle…

Determined to conquer a lifetime of shyness, Harriet Knight challenges herself to do one thing a day in December that scares her, including celebrating Christmas without her family. But when dog-walker Harriet meets her newest client, exuberant spaniel Madi, she adds an extra challenge to her list – dealing with Madi’s temporary dog-sitter, gruff doctor Ethan Black, and their very unexpected chemistry.

Ethan thought he was used to chaos, until he met Madi – how can one tiny dog cause such mayhem? To Ethan, the solution is simple – he will pay Harriet to share his New York apartment and provide 24-hour care. But there’s nothing simple about how Harriet makes him feel.

Ethan’s kisses make Harriet shine brighter than the stars over moonlit Manhattan. But when his dog-sitting duties are over, and Harriet returns to her own home, will she dare to take the biggest challenge of all – letting Ethan know he has her heart for life, not just for Christmas?

Rating: B

It’s no secret that I don’t read a great deal of contemporary romance, but I know that many have enjoyed the other books in Sarah Morgan’s From Manhattan With Love series, so when the latest instalment –Moonlight Over Manhattan – came up for review, I thought I’d give it a try.  On the whole, reading it was a successful venture; I enjoyed the author’s upbeat, gently humorous style and both central characters; and while there’s nothing new here, this would certainly be a good option for anyone looking for a comforting and engaging seasonal read.

Harriet Knight (twin sister of Fliss from Holiday in the Hamptons) is fed up with being treated like she’s a little on the fragiie side by her twin and older brother.  She recognises that their intentions have always been good, but realises now that their protectiveness has resulted in her never really having to tackle anything difficult, whether professionally – where Fliss handles the admin and the awkward clients of the dog-walking company they run together – or personally, so she’s never really had to step outside her comfort zone.  This protectiveness originates from their childhood, which was a miserable one owing to the continual tension that existed between their parents, their never-ending rows and their father’s frequent verbal abuse, which terrified Harriet. The fact that she had a stammer just made things worse – and recognising her particular vulnerability, Fliss and Daniel always tried to divert their father’s attention and protect her from the worst of his vitriol.

With Fliss now settled in the Hamptons with her husband, Harriet feels somewhat adrift, and is determined to forge a new path for herself and take charge of her life.  To this end, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is designated as Challenge Harriet month, one month during which she will do things she doesn’t normally do or finds difficult – one day, one thing at a time.

One of those challenges is to go on dates.  It’s not that Harriet is desperate for a man – although having someone in her life might be nice if it’s the right someone – it’s that she doesn’t find dating easy, and doing things she doesn’t find easy is what Challenge Harriet is all about.  Unfortunately, however, by date number three, she’s pretty much had enough, and rather than tell the guy – whose online profile was very clearly misleading – that she thinks they should just go home, she instead makes her exit via the bathroom window, and twists her ankle when she lands outside.  Painfully, she makes her way to the ER to make sure it’s not broken, and is seen by the sinfully gorgeous attending physician, Dr. Ethan Black (in spite of the difference in colouring – Ethan is dark haired and blue-eyed –  my mind at this point immediately flew to George Clooney in the early days of ER… *sigh*) who tells her her ankle is badly sprained and to keep off of it for a while.

Ethan Black went into the family business, as it were – his father and grandfather are both doctors – but whereas those two gentlemen went into general practice in their home town – where they know everybody – Ethan decided he didn’t want that and has made a career as a trauma physician.  A brief marriage with an equally career-oriented woman didn’t work and since his divorce, Ethan is realising that while switching off his deeper emotions is a necessity in order for him to be able to do his job, switching them on again isn’t so easy, and that if he’s not careful, he’ll forget how to do it completely.  But then, he’s not too worried about that; he’s not cut out for romantic relationships anyway.

Or so he thinks.  When his sister asks him to dog-sit while she leaves town to deal with a family emergency, he isn’t wild about the idea, but it’s one of the few things Karen has ever asked him for and he can’t turn her down.  Fortunately, Karen’s dog-walker (guess who?) will be around to take Madi out, so she’ll be fine while Ethan’s at work.  Except… Madi isn’t.  On the first day, Ethan returns home to find his apartment looking like it’s been turned over, and in the middle of it is a young woman he doesn’t immediately recognise.  Ethan prides himself on his even-temperedness and his ability to remain calm in a crisis, but this is too much and he explodes – and Harriet, furious that he could be so unconcerned for the dog, dishes it right back.  Thankfully, Ethan’s natural calm reasserts itself and he realises how unjust he’s been; apologies are made, things are set to rights and hopefully Madi will be more settled from now on.

But that is proved to be a pipe dream when one of Ethan’s neighbours tells him that the dog howled all day and the day before while he was at work.  Ethan doesn’t want to be asked to move out, so he asks Harriet if, instead of just taking Madi for walks, she will actually move in and dog-sit until Karen comes back.  Harriet is unsure at first.  Dog-sitting isn’t something she normally does, but in the spirit of Challenge Harriet she decides to make an exception.  Madi is distressed at the loss of her family and familiar surroundings, and if there’s one thing that Harriet could never do, it’s abandon an animal in trouble.

Of course, it’s easy to see where this is going.  Harriet is one of life’s natural ‘nesters’, her childhood experiences having made her determined to create warmth and tranquillity wherever she goes.  She’s most definitely smitten with Ethan, but makes it very clear that the things she’s doing – cooking, making the place more homely – are things she’s doing for herself, and not in any attempt to impress or romance him. Ethan can’t deny, however, that he is impressed, or that he’s strongly attracted to Harriet. But given they both want different things from life, anything long-term between them is off the table. Isn’t it?

Ethan and Harriet are likeable, nicely-drawn characters, but although I applauded Harriet for her determination to challenge herself, at times, I found her a little naïve. On the whole though, I enjoyed watching her grow in confidence as she worked out what she wanted and what she deserved from life.  Ethan initially comes across as rather cold and aloof, but deep down, he’s a caring, compassionate man whose defence mechanisms are in danger of pushing aside that part of him for good.  Like Harriet, Ethan realises that he needs to challenge himself to do something different – in his case, by allowing himself to open up to another person and to believe that he does have what it takes to be someone’s ‘forever family’.

With its sweetly sensual romance, cute doggy pals and entertaining secondary characters – someone give Ethan’s colleague and friend, Susan, her own late-night chat show stat! – Moonlight Over Manhattan is a satisfying, undemanding story that delivers on both the romance and the Christmassy schmaltz, and is just the thing to curl up with on a cold, grey winter’s afternoon.

Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

Black Tie Optional (Wild Wedding #1) by Ann Marie Walker

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Everything about Coleman Grant III oozes power and sex. And not the perfunctory kind either, but the sheet clawing, heart stopping, gasping for air after you’ve screamed so loud you can’t breathe kind. From his dark wavy hair that stands in an artfully rumpled mess, to the blue eyes that sear your skin, to his full, sensual lips – on the surface he’s pure perfection.

Too bad he’s an asshole. An arrogant, uptight corporate raider hell bent on destroying the environment one species at a time.

Everything about Olivia Ramsey screams hippie humanitarian. From her blond hair tied in a sloppy bun, to her faded jeans with the Bonnaroo patch sewn on the thigh, to her combat boots still splattered with mud from the previous day’s site visit.

So it makes perfect sense that they would get married. In Vegas. Stone-cold sober.

Cole needs a wife. Olivia needs to save an endangered species. But what starts as a marriage of convenience soon turns into a battle of wills and sexual tension. Love is a game, and Olivia and Cole are ready to win.

Rating: B-

It’s no secret that the Marriage of Convenience is my favourite trope when it comes to historical romance. But it’s a plotline that is less easy to pull off in a contemporary, so I was keen to read Black Tie Optional – the first in Ann Marie Walker’s Wild Wedding series – to see whether it could be made to work in a non-historical setting. The answer is yes, for the most part, but it seemed to me that some of the things I so love about the trope – the couple getting to know each other and eventually falling in love – were rushed and/or glossed over, and I came away from the book wondering where the actual romance was. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable read, because it is; the central couple has chemistry so hot it could strip paint, their verbal exchanges are often quite funny and the wedding scene is hilarious – but when they’re not having sex, they’re thinking about how much they want to have sex and remembering how great it was the last time they had sex… and I can’t help wishing there had been less of that and more time spent on the development of an actual relationship.

The story is your classic enemies-to-lovers one, as environmental activist Olivia Ramsey butts heads (and other body parts) with tall, dark, handsome sex-god Coleman Grant III, the gorgeous arsehole whose multi-billion dollar company is about to develop land inhabited by the northern long-eared bat, an animal recently recognised as a threatened species. For eighty-three days, she’s confronted him on his morning coffee run, and for eighty-three days, he’s blown her off. It’s infuriating, she moans to her best friend Cassie – who teases Olivia about the fact that all she ever seems to talk about is Cole and suggests she’s got a thing for him. Olivia is adamant that she hates his oh, so handsome guts – because, yeah, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

For some reason, this eighty-third day is different. Cole notices how fabulous Olivia’s arse looks in her scruffy jeans and his head is suddenly filled with lots of salacious images while his small head perks up hopefully. It’s ridiculous – he doesn’t even like the woman – but then liking has little to do with wanting to get down to the horizontal mambo with someone.

However, he can’t afford to spend too much time lusting after a crazed environmentalist; he has a bigger problem to wrestle with, namely the clause in his late parents’ will that stipulates if he’s not married by the time he’s thirty, Grant Industries – which he has worked hard to transform from the successful investment firm his parents left him into a global leader in the emerging technologies market – and all its assets will automatically be transferred into the hands of his formidable grandmother. With his birthday just days away, he can sense her circling for the kill, but hopes that the lawyers will find a way to circumvent the stipulation. They don’t, however – news Cole receives after a spectacular night of unbridled passion in a Las Vegas hotel room… with none other than the woman of his dreams? nightmares?, Olivia Ramsey, who is in Vegas attending the same pre-wedding party as he is.

Anyway. Cole is backed into the proverbial corner and has just four days in which to find a wife.  Olivia is trying to sneak out of his suite and embark upon her walk of shame, but he stops her in her tracks when he asks her to marry him, explaining his reasons for asking and offering to back her conservation project in return.  They’ll get married, divorce after three months, the bats get a home and voilà!  Win-win for both of them.

That’s the set up for the marriage of convenience, and it works fine.  What doesn’t work so well is the fact that the pair of them then proceed to pretty much ignore the need to make their hasty marriage look convincing.  In spite of Cole’s warnings that his grandmother is an incredibly shrewd, ruthless woman, Olivia expects the fact they’re actually married will be enough to stop her being able to gain control of Grant Industries.  Even their closest friends, who are in on the secret, are amazed that Cole and Olivia haven’t sat down to invent a backstory and decide how they’re going to act once they get back to Chicago.

The section of the story in which Olivia takes Cole home to meet her parents allows her to see a more relaxed version of him and discover he’s even more irresistible when he’s not so buttoned up, while Cole comes to understand more about Olivia’s passion for her work, and to see a less prickly, more affectionate side of her.  Her parents are terrific; her mother a committed environmentalist (so Cole can see where Olivia gets it from), her father a vet, and it’s obvious they adore each other.  Cole finally starts to think that perhaps what they have is something he wants for himself.  He has never really known what it is to be part of a family; born into money, he didn’t see much of his parents when he was younger, and was brought up by nannies and servants.  The author touches briefly on how much Cole is hurt that they put that clause in their will, but doesn’t dwell on it overmuch.

The premise is right up my alley and Cole and Olivia have smoking chemistry, but the romance is under-developed and we go from intense lust to love with almost no steps in between.  The pair  spends most of their time together thinking about sex – how great it was last time, how it can never happen again and… oh, bugger, we’re in bed again but this is absolutely, positively the last time.  Until the next one.  And the one after that.  They never talk about how they are going to handle Cole’s grandmother, his high-profile lifestyle, public appearances, or about how – or even IF – they are going to tell Olivia’s parents the truth.

The central characters are amiable enough, although neither of them is particularly memorable and some of their actions – most notably Olivia’s insistence on getting plastered on the plane and then at the party – are immature and made me actively dislike them.  Cole’s obvious affection for his half-sister is a point in his favour, although this – like the grandmother side plot – is another thread that is introduced and then suddenly dropped.

Black Tie Optional is a quick, sexy read that isn’t without charm or humour, but which ultimately lacks that certain something that would have made it an out-and-out winner.  There aren’t enough of those ‘moments’ that show us two people falling for each other; the moment they discover a shared interest or opinion, the moment they see the other person with fresh eyes, or those funny little episodes that show them growing closer together.  The characterisation is pretty superficial and we never really get to know exactly why Cole and Olivia fall in love as opposed to lust.  I did enjoy it, but not enough to be able to get past its various weaknesses or give it a wholehearted recommendation.

 

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.