His to Defend (NOLA Knights #1) by Rhenna Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

His world. His rules. Her love.

Though his methods may be rough, when it comes to protecting what’s his, Russian vor Sergei Petrovyh’s heart is always in the right place. That’s never been more true than when the gorgeous Evette Labadie asks him for a job. He knows enough to keep his hands off someone as beloved by the locals as Evie, but there’s something about her that calls to him—no matter how badly he burns to make her his.

Don’t think Evie hasn’t noticed the powerful Russian mafia boss who makes her favorite diner a regular stop. How can she not? He’s as hot as his reputation is dangerous. But everyone in her struggling New Orleans neighborhood knows he’s the man to turn to. And right now she needs money to get her son out of trouble.

Her other needs—needs she knows damn well Sergei can more than satisfy—will have to wait.

Evie soon finds herself playing Cinderella to a man who, despite what people believe, is definitely more prince than villain. She can’t help falling deeper in love with each passing day. But when a turf war between Sergei and a rival brings violence to her doorstep, Evie must come to grips with loving a man who will do anything to defend her…or walk away from her best chance at a happily-ever-after of her very own.

Rating: C-

I haven’t read a book by Rhenna Morgan before, so when I saw she was starting a new series, I decided that was as good a place as any to jump in and picked up His to Defend – first in her new NOLA Knights series – for review. The novel starts well, introducing and fleshing out the main characters quickly and smoothly, but the bulk of the story moves at a snail’s pace, and while the sex-scenes are steamy and well-written, the romance goes from zero to sixty so fast I was in danger of whiplash.

Single mother Evie Labadie has been dismissed from her cleaning job, and needs to find another job quickly if she’s going to be able to scrape together the money for her seven-year-old’s school fees. Entering the diner owned and run by her oldest friend (where her son Emerson waits for her after school), Evie notices – not for the first time – the large, charismatic and very handsome man sitting quietly in a booth at the back – and decides this might finally be the time to ask for his help.

Sergei Petrovyh is Russian Bratva and everyone around there knows it. Since moving to New Orleans, he’s been slowly helping the community, ridding the streets of the scum who prey on the locals, intent on earning their loyalty by protecting them when they can’t protect themselves – all with the aim of controlling the majority of the enterprise in the area and wiping out the competition. He’s known to be ruthless but fair, trading in favours and quid pro quo – and hasn’t missed the way Evie, the neighbourhood darling, always looks at him whenever she sees him at the diner. He likes the boldness of her unabashed perusals, the way her gaze challenges him – but has never pursued her, knowing the respect he is working to earn within the community would take a serious hit were he to mess around with her. He’s surprised – and pleased – when Evie approaches him to ask for his help getting a new job, and decides on the spot that helping her is the perfect way to further his plans to ingratiate himself with the community; everybody knows and loves Evie, so helping her helps him, too.

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

American Love Story (Dreamers #3) by Adriana Herrera

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No one should have to choose between love and justice.

Haitian-born professor and activist Patrice Denis is not here for anything that will veer him off the path he’s worked so hard for. One particularly dangerous distraction: Easton Archer, the assistant district attorney who last summer gave Patrice some of the most intense nights of his life, and still makes him all but forget they’re from two completely different worlds.

All-around golden boy Easton forged his own path to success, choosing public service over the comforts of his family’s wealth. With local law enforcement unfairly targeting young men of color, and his career—and conscience—on the line, now is hardly the time to be thirsting after Patrice again. Even if their nights together have turned into so much more.

For the first time, Patrice is tempted to open up and embrace the happiness he’s always denied himself. But as tensions between the community and the sheriff’s office grow by the day, Easton’s personal and professional lives collide. And when the issue at hand hits closer to home than either could imagine, they’ll have to work to forge a path forward… together.

Rating: A-

Adriana Herrera’s Dreamers, a series about a group of four Afro-Latinx friends who live and work in and around New York, seems to get better and better with each book.  American Love Story is the third instalment and I loved it.  It’s complex and romantic while remaining grounded in reality; the two leads are principled men who come from completely different worlds and their HEA is hard work and hard won; the secondary characters are well-rounded and the relationships between them well-written, and I loved the romance, which is intense, sexy, angsty, tender and superbly developed.  On top of all that, the author tackles some difficult topics – institutionalised racism among them – and takes a long, hard look at the immigrant experience in the US, and does it so skilfully that the reader is completely drawn into the world she has created. There are no info-dumps or soapboxes here, just a damn good story that isn’t afraid of telling some unpleasant truths while also telling a tale of love, friendship, shared experience and shared ideals.

Around a year before this story begins, Haitian born Patrice Denis, a Black economics professor and activist, met Assistant District Attorney Easton Archer, and the insanely hot chemistry between them led to some insanely hot hook-ups.  At the end of his visit to Ithaca (to help his friend Nesto (American Dreamer) set up his business) Patrice went back home and that was that – except now, he’s accepted a tenure-track position at Columbia University, and even though he strenuously denies it when his friends tease him about his having moved to Ithaca because he wants to reconnect with Easton, deep down, Patrice can’t help but admit – to himself – that there is perhaps just a tiny kernel of truth to their teasing.  But anyway, it doesn’t matter. Even though Patrice is completely captivated by Easton all over again the moment he sets eyes on him once more, there’s no possibility of anything long-term happening between them. They’re too different; he a black immigrant who has worked doubly hard for everything he has, Easton from a background of wealth and white privilege; he a long-time activist for racial justice, Easton part of the system which is failing people of colour so badly. No, being with Easton would mean compromises Patrice just isn’t prepared to make.

Easton is still desperately attracted to Patrice, and senses the reverse is true, but he remembers Patrice’s tendency to keep him slightly at a distance and to close himself off when things get too heavy, so Easton doesn’t push.  He makes his interest clear and waits for Patrice to come to him – which Patrice eventually does, and they resume their physical relationship, but this time, they start to spend time together out of bed as well as in it, and to Easton’s delight (and Patrice’s confusion) start to get to know each other properly, talk about some of the issues that have arisen between them and are building a real relationship.  The connection between them is as strong as it ever was, and they take care to communicate with each other, but even so, it’s not easy or simple. Patrice can be very judgmental, and holds everyone –including himself – to an incredibly high standard, not taking time for himself, feeling he doesn’t deserve to be happy while there is still so much of the good fight to be fought.  He’s passionate in his beliefs, and he’s right to be angry about the injustice faced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis – but he’s also exhausting to be around, and his desire for perfection takes a serious toll on his relationship with Easton, who feels like he’s constantly treading on eggshells around him:

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

One Year Home by Marie Force (audiobook) – Narrated by Jason Clarke and Erin Mallon, with Andi Arndt and Joe Arden

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He came home a hero and lost the only woman he’s ever loved…

John
I have no idea how to survive without my beloved Ava. She had no choice but to move on with her life during my six-year deployment and has now married Eric. I hate him for taking her from me. I’d prefer to wallow in my depression and heartbreak, but the whole damned world wants a piece of the SEAL Team leader who helped capture the world’s most-wanted terrorist. I need help handling the relentless requests, and when Ava sends her new sister-in-law to manage the media circus for me, I’m prepared to hate her on principle. Her brother took my Ava. What else do I need to know about her?

Julianne
It takes five seconds to realize Ava’s ex is going to be the most complicated and difficult client I’ve ever had, but the opportunity to represent the most celebrated man in the world could make my career. I’m determined to do the job, even if I dislike John from the moment I meet him. And I like everyone. So much so that my brothers worry about me being exploited by those who would take advantage of my unwavering love for others. But John…. He’s in a class by himself, and his bitterness is a festering wound that I begin to wish I could somehow fix for him. The more time we spend together, the more our mutual disdain morphs into something that feels an awful lot like desire. There’s no way I can want this man, or so I tell myself, and when Eric finds out I’ve developed feelings for the man causing trouble in his new marriage, well….

That’s going to be a hot mess.

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B+

One Year Home is a direct sequel to Five Years Gone – which should be listened to first – and there are spoilers for that book in this review.

In Five Years Gone, Marie Force told the story of Ava Lucas, who was left heartbroken and bewildered when her boyfriend of two years, naval officer John West, was deployed and never returned. Unable to find out what had happened to him, Ava decided that she’d wait for five years and if the situation remained unchanged at the end of it, she’d move back to New York and move on with her life. Even though it was a difficult road, strewn with guilt, anger and heartbreak, she fell in love again and became engaged to be married. But then the world learned the truth about John and his team of Navy SEALs; following the terrorist attack on a cruise ship that killed four thousand people, they had been deployed in order to hunt down those behind the atrocity. Having taken out America’s most wanted man, lost part of his leg and survived a serious infection that almost killed him, John is alive and still very much in love with Ava, so learning she’s engaged to be married to another man is a huge blow. And learning that John is still alive is a massive shock for Ava, too, but by the end of the book, she and Eric are married, and she’s agreed to remain in touch with John, who is, needless to say, not in a good place as he struggles to cope with the loss of Ava as well as the deaths of two close friends and learning to deal with his physical limitations.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Arctic Heat (Frozen Hearts #3) by Annabeth Albert

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Owen Han has a fresh lease on life—he’s kicked cancer’s ass and is roaring through his bucket list. The former investment banker hopes to find his next challenge in Alaska, volunteering alongside park rangers and fulfilling his childhood dreams of snowy winters and rustic life. Of course, those dreams did tend to feature big strapping mountain men in vivid detail…

Ranger Quilleran Ramsey would like to be anywhere other than dealing with newbie volunteers. And really, the only thing he needs less than a green volunteer “partner” is the flirty attentions of a buff city boy who doesn’t look ready to last a week, let alone an Alaskan winter. They’re all wrong for each other, even if Quill’s traitorous body enjoys the flirting more than it should.

As the weeks pass, the two snowbound men give in to temptation. But can their seasonal romance last until spring? For them to have a future together, each will have to trust the other…while hoping that the harsh elements and omnipresent dangers don’t destroy what happiness they’ve found in the moment.

Rating: B

Arctic Heat is the third and final book in Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts trilogy of romances set in and around the spectacular landscapes of Alaska, and in it, we meet winter state park volunteer, Owen Han, an energetic, outgoing guy who has recently survived testicular cancer, and the reserved and closeted ranger, Quilleran Ramsey, who is just about as different from Owen as it’s possible to be.  It’s a relationship that probably shouldn’t work – yet somehow it does, although of course for two such different men, the road to forever isn’t going to be an easy one.

Having, as the synopsis puts it “kicked cancer’s ass”, Owen Han has put his career as an investment banker on hold and is taking time out to work his way through his bucket list.  Next up is something he’s been dreaming of doing for a long time – since childhood – spending the winter in Alaska as a state park volunteer assisting the rangers and other park employees.  He’s waiting with the other volunteers for their training to begin, trying hard not to stare at the ranger porn, the uniformed rangers who “make drag green and khaki downright sexy with their broad shoulders, and generous muscles and rugged jawlines.”  One particular ranger catches his eye though, a frisson of anticipation Owen had feared might be gone for good running through him at the sight of the man’s tall, well-built frame, handsome face and steely blue eyes.  He thinks the guy might be stealing glances at him, too and makes a beeline for the seat next to him just as the presentations are about to begin.

Quill Ramsey immediately pegs the chatty newbie as the high maintenance type who’ll never be able to handle the hard, often gruelling work of winter park management.  Even though he has the – surprisingly muscular – build that means he might be able to keep up, Owen Han is, thankfully, not going to be his responsibility; Quill appreciates a positive attitude but has never understood why some people feel the need to fill a perfectly good silence with questions and small talk. But Owen is dangerously distracting – smart, funny and possessed of killer dimples – and there’s no room in Quill’s life for anything besides his job.

Later that night after dinner, Owen and Quill are on the way back to the hotel when Owen takes the opportunity to kiss a very willing but still guarded Quill.  The kiss is like nothing Quill has ever experienced – hot, sweet and almost overwhelming – but he firmly rebuffs Owen’s further advances.  Owen is disappointed but doesn’t make a thing out of it; he’s already worked out that Quill is repressed and deeply closeted and they go their separate ways.  But of course, that’s not going to be the end of it.  The next day, when Quill learns his assigned volunteer is unable to make it and that Owen is to be spending the winter with him instead, he’s not best pleased.  However, he’s too professional to insist on a change, and tells himself it’ll be fine.  He’ll focus on his job, make sure Owen knows what needs to be done and keep his distance; there’s no need for them to spend much (if any) time together and there will certainly not be anything… extra going on.

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

Never Have I Ever by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Jason Clarke and Amanda Ronconi

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Never Have I Ever been so infuriated by a man I wanted to kiss.

They say opposites attract, but I beg to differ. Combust is more like it. Because every single time I talk to Zach Nolan, I see red.

The too-good-looking, too-smart, too-effortlessly-charming single dad who works down the hall from me has turned getting under my skin into a sport. Call it the battle of wits between the wedding planner and the divorce attorney.

Trouble is, when we’re forced into closer quarters, planning an engagement party for our best friends, I start to see his other sides.

And I fear I’m falling for the enemy.

***

I’m not out to make friends. My goals are simple – fight till the end for my clients, and my family.

The last thing I need is a vibrant, outgoing, snarky, and surprisingly big-hearted wedding planner to spend my precious free time with…except, watching Piper bond with my daughter just might break down the cinder block walls I’ve built around my heart these last few years.

Second chances don’t come around for guys like me…or do they?

Rating: Narration: A-; Content: B-

Never Have I Ever is the latest Audible Original story from the powerhouse of contemporary romance, Lauren Blakely. It’s a charming, funny and sexy enemies-to-lovers tale that follows the development of the romance between a vivacious, successful wedding planner and a widowed hot-shot divorce lawyer. The principals are likeable, the story is low on drama but still packs an emotional punch here and there, and the narration is excellent, so fans of the author and audio rom-coms alike are sure to be delighted with this latest offering.

Around ten years before the story proper begins, fledgling wedding planner Piper Radcliffe is basking in the glow of a job well done – a wedding well planned – only to have that glow stomped on during the reception by Zach Nolan, who predicts the marriage won’t last. Piper and Zach don’t know each other all that well, even though they have a number of mutual friends and have known each other vaguely since college, and Piper is naturally pissed off by his message of doom and gloom. For the next decade or so, they avoid each other or behave coolly whenever they meet (which is as infrequently as they can manage) until they end up taking office space in the same building.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Invitation to the Blues (Small Change #2) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Eight months ago Jude Lucen fled his partner, his career, and a hospital in Boston after a suicide attempt. Now back in Philadelphia, he feels like a complete failure. Piano has always been his passion and his only escape. Without it, he has nothing. Well, nothing except a pathetic crush on the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Faron Locklear came to Philly looking for a fresh start and has thrown himself into tattooing at Small Change. He’s only met Jude a few times, but something about the red-haired man with the haunted eyes calls to him. Faron is blown away by Jude’s talent. What he isn’t expecting is the electricity he feels the first time they kiss – and the way Jude’s needs in bed speak directly to his own deepest desires.

Jude and Faron fall fast and hard, but Jude has spent a lifetime learning that he can’t be what the people he loves need. So when the opportunity arises to renew his career in Boston, he thinks he has to choose: music, or Faron? Only by taking a huge risk – and finally believing he’s worthy of love just as he is – can he have the chance for both.

Rating: Narration: A+; Content: B+

I suppose it was a given that a book written by Roan Parrish and narrated by Greg Boudreaux was going to hit me squarely in the feels; the author’s beautiful, lyrical writing combined with the narrator’s ability to zero in on and convey every single bit of emotion in that writing is a match made in audiobook heaven. Invitation to the Blues is a gentle and moving love story featuring a musician living with depression and the artist whose love and understanding makes a huge difference in his life. It’s the second book in the author’s Small Change series, but although characters from the first book appear in this one, Invitation to the Blues works perfectly well as a standalone.

Following a suicide attempt, Jude Lucens simply up and left his manipulative boyfriend and his life as a successful musician in Boston to return to his home town in Philadelphia, feeling like a complete failure and unsure what happens next. He’s moved into his brother’s apartment (Chris has moved in with his girlfriend, Ginger – their story can be found in the previous book, Small Change) and has taken a job for which he’s extremely ill-suited at the coffee shop Chris owns. Knowing things aren’t going well, Jude needs to find other work, but the question is what? Music and playing the piano are his life and all he really knows how to do, so he decides to see if he can find work as a piano teacher.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Forever Right Now by Emma Scott (audiobook) – Narrated by Caitlin Kelly and Greg Tremblay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Darlene Montgomery has been to hell and back…more than once. After a stint in jail for drug possession, she is finally clean and ready to start over. Yet another failed relationship is just the motivation she needs to move from New York to San Francisco with the hopes of resurrecting her dance career and discovering that she is more than the sum of her rap sheet. As Darlene struggles in her new city, the last thing she wants is to become entangled with her handsome – but cranky – neighbor and his adorable little girl….

Sawyer Haas is weeks away from finishing law school, but exhaustion, dwindling finances, and the pressure to provide for himself and his daughter, Olivia, are wearing him down. A federal clerkship – a job he desperately needs – awaits him after graduation, but only if he passes the bar exam. Sawyer doesn’t have the time or patience for the capricious – if beautiful – dancer who moves into the apartment above his. But Darlene’s easy laugh and cheerful spirit seep into the cracks of his hardened heart, and slowly break down the walls he’s resurrected to keep from being betrayed ever again.

When the parents of Olivia’s absentee mother come to fight for custody, Sawyer could lose everything. To have any chance at happiness, he must trust Darlene, the woman who has somehow found her way past his brittle barbs, and Darlene must decide how much of her own bruised heart she is willing to give to Sawyer and Olivia, especially when the ghosts of her troubled past refuse to stay buried.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B

Sawyer Haas is a law student in his early twenties who works hard and plays hard.  In the middle of a party at the place he shares with a few other guys, he is literally left holding the baby when a woman he hooked-up with a few months earlier turns up on his doorstep, presents him with a warm bundle she says is his daughter and then leaves.  Sawyer may be young, and bringing up a child alone was certainly not something he’d ever envisaged doing, but it’s pretty much love at first sight, and after a few days with Olivia, he realises he can’t do anything else.  He makes huge changes to his life; he moves out of the shared house and devotes his life to his studies and his daughter.  For ten months, he juggles those two things, focused on his goal of having his name added to Olivia’s birth certificate so that she’s legally his, something he can petition for after she’s been with him for a year and there’s no sign of her mother coming back for her (which is his deepest fear).  He’s a devoted father and Olivia is well and happy when Darlene comes into their lives like a breath of fresh air.

Darlene Montgomery has moved to San Francisco from New York intent on making a fresh start.  Three years earlier, she had overdosed, and later, served three months in prison for drug possession.  She’s cleaned up her act, but has found it hard to shake off the past in a place where everyone she knows is aware of what happened and always looks at her as though they’re expecting her to go off the rails again.  Darlene wants to get out from under the weight of those negative expectations, to put the past behind her and doesn’t want any reminders of the woman she was then to impinge on the new life she wants to create for herself.

Darlene and Sawyer don’t hit it off at first.  She’s open and friendly, but Sawyer is reserved and tightly wound as well as naturally cautious about strangers around Olivia.  But living in the same building it’s impossible to avoid one another completely, and gradually they get to know one another and start falling for each other.  For Sawyer, Darlene is everything light and carefree he’s missing in his life of responsibility, and Darlene is completely smitten with the caring, passionate man she occasionally glimpses behind Sawyer’s stoic, but exhausted exterior.  The chemistry between the pair is electric, and the author builds the romantic tension between them extremely well; their first kisses are hot and sweet and intense, and we’re left in no doubt that these two very different people care deeply for one another.

Both characters are likeable but flawed, and while it’s easy to see the Black Moment coming a mile off, it’s also easy to understand why Darlene is so eager to keep the details of her past screw-ups from Sawyer.  The trouble is, she’s so focused on her fresh start that she fails to take into account the importance of owning her mistakes and remembering them so as to learn from them and not make them again.  And Sawyer, whose eidetic memory is undoubtedly an asset given the pressures he’s under, is someone who sees things very much in black and white; he’s brilliant, but he struggles to see the grey areas, to account for human frailty when it comes to the law – and that inability could threaten not only his career, but the life he’s making with Olivia… and the one he’d hoped to make for the both of them with Darlene.

I didn’t expect to get quite so sucked in to this story, but the characters, plot and narration were so appealing that I found myself listening at every opportunity.  Greg Tremblay is an incredibly talented narrator and one I listen to frequently, but Caitlin Kelly is new-to-me, so I admit to a little trepidation before I started listening.  I needn’t have worried however, because she delivers a really strong performance that more than holds its own.  Both narrators differentiate clearly between the various characters and both are able to voice characters of the opposite sex convincingly and consistently throughout.  Their vocal acting is superb and they don’t hold back when it comes to the heightened emotion of some of the later chapters; I was on the verge of tears when it seemed Sawyer’s world was about to come tumbling down and could feel Darlene’s heart breaking when she thought she’d lost everything she ever wanted.

Forever Right Now is an emotionally charged story that tugs at the heartstrings in the best way.  The relationships – especially Sawyer’s with Olivia – are really well written, and the romance is just the right amount of sexy and sweet.  The superb narration is a real bonus; if you’re into audio, that’s definitely the way to go for this one.