If You Love Something by Jayce Ellis

if you love something

This title may be purchased from Amazon

As executive chef at one of the hottest restaurants in DC, DeShawn Franklin has almost everything he’s ever wanted. He’s well-known, his restaurant is Michelin starred and he can write his own ticket anywhere he wants. Until his grandmother calls him home and drops two bombshells:

1) She has cancer and she’s not seeking treatment.

2) She’s willing half her estate to DeShawn’s ex-husband, Malik.

Make that three bombshells. 

3) That whole divorce thing? It didn’t quite go through. DeShawn and Malik are still married.

And when DeShawn’s shady uncle contests Grandma’s will, there’s only one path back to justice: play it like he and Malik have reconciled. They need to act like a married couple just long enough to dispense with the lawsuit.

Once DeShawn is back in Malik’s orbit, it’s not hard to remember why they parted. All the reasons he walked away remain—but so do all the reasons he fell in love in the first place.

Rating: B-

I’ve been meaning to read one of Jayce Ellis’ m/m romances for a while, so I was happy to pick up her latest – If You Love Something – for review. It’s an easy, sexy/sweet, low-angst read – nothing spectacular or outstanding, but the engaging writing and likeable characters kept me reading and were enough for me to be able to offer a recommendation.

Michelin-starred chef DeShawn Franklin is living his dream as Executive Chef at a trendy Washington DC restaurant.  He’s something of a local celebrity and is at the top of his profession, although the fact that as EC, he doesn’t get to cook all that often isn’t something he’d banked on, and nor are the continual requests (read: orders) from management for him to film TV segments and make public appearances.  It is what it is though, and he goes along with it with (mostly) good grace.  But a call from his beloved grandmother telling him she isn’t going to seek treatment for her cancer suddenly turns his world upside down.  He drops everything and rushes to her side – where she informs him that she’s leaving him her house – the home DeShawn grew up in – in her will, and all her liquid assets will go to Malik, DeShawn’s ex-husband.  DeShawn knows his grandmother was very fond of Malik and has stayed in touch with him, but those bequests mean she’s leaving nothing to her son, DeShawn’s uncle Robert – which Robert isn’t going to be pleased about.

As if all this news isn’t enough of a bombshell, there’s one more important thing DeShawn needs to know in order to be prepared for the trouble Robert will inevitably stir up.  Although he and Malik filed for divorce seven years before, there was a problem with the paperwork and the divorce never actually went through.  He and Malik are still married.

After the (not)divorce, Malik Franklin returned home to help run his struggling family restaurant alongside his brother James and sister Sheila.  He’s never told his family about his marriage to DeShawn, mostly because it was over before he came out to them as gay, and coming out was difficult enough, without having to explain his marriage – and why he wasn’t married any longer.  He’s never really got over DeShawn and tells himself that letting him go all those years ago was the right thing to do.  Back then, DeShawn was a talented sous chef with big ambitions and bigger dreams, and when things started to take off for him, Malik realised he could never be the husband DeShawn needed, especially as he wasn’t ready to come out.

“I couldn’t let him give up his future to deal with my present.  He deserved so much more.  And the only way I could give it to him was to let him go”.

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

Crash Site (Fiona Carver #2) by Rachel Grant

crash site

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Fiona Carver has landed a dream assignment: conducting an archaeological inventory of Ruby Island, a privately owned, pristine gem in the Caribbean. Two months in paradise exploring and mapping a lush rainforest, vast caves, and a seventeenth-century star fort and following up on legends of hidden Spanish gold. Add a simmering reunion with wildlife photographer Dean Slater and it’s enough to take Fiona’s breath away. But the sparkle fades when Dean’s arrival is met with sudden, terrifying danger.

Reunited and determined to see the project through, Fiona and Dean find themselves in a swirl of intrigue as they delve into the complex history of the unspoiled refuge, now a tropical haven for billionaires and their secrets. But the work isn’t easy, as someone appears determined to kill the project—by any means necessary.

As betrayal casts tropical storm clouds over Ruby Island and treasured friendships dissolve into distrust, one thing becomes clear: Fiona and Dean are trapped in a dangerous paradise.

Rating: B

The second in Rachel Grant’s Fiona Carver series, Crash Site is the sequel to 2021’s Dangerous Ground, and it picks up around nine months after the events of the first book.  Although the mystery/suspense plot here is self-contained, the central relationship between the two leads was left unresolved at the end of Dangerous Ground, so I’d advise anyone interested in this one to read that first.  And that being the case, there are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Naval Archaeologist Fiona Carver has landed herself a dream job on the gorgeous, privately owned (and fictional) Ruby Island in the Caribbean where, together with two other archaeologists, she has been employed to conduct an archaeological inventory of the island and its seventeenth century fort –which comes complete with legends of hidden Spanish gold.  Fiona has known its wealthy owner Jude Reynolds (the island has been owned by his family for generations) for over a decade, from when they met as fellow students at archaeological field school – although they’re not exactly friends; she went on a date with him back then but he behaved like a complete tosser and she hasn’t seen him since.  But the Ruby Island job was just too good to pass up – especially as Jude’s wealth means there will be no budget worries, and he genuinely cares about the work.  He also seems to be working hard to convince Fiona that he’s not the same selfish, entitled brat he was back then – but Fiona isn’t sure how to feel about that.  Sure, Jude is handsome and rich, he’s interested in her and understands her work… but she’s hung-up on someone else.

Wildlife photographer Dean Slater had been on the remote Alaskan island of Chiksook trying to find out what happened to his missing brother Dylan when he and Fiona found themselves stranded in a hostile environment and forced to rely on each other in order to survive (Dangerous Ground). The adrenaline-fuelled days they spent together engendered a real trust and closeness between them, and fed the flames of the mutual attraction that had sparked between them from their first meeting – although a basic incompatibility in their approach to sex and relationships seemed destined to separate them.  Dean is unwilling to risk experiencing the hurt and devastation he felt on the death of his beloved wife from a brain tumor a decade earlier and made it very clear that he doesn’t do relationships, while Fiona has never been one for NSA sex or short-lived flings. It’s clear by the end of the book that they’re head-over-heels for one another, but Dean is adamant that he’s not about to break his no relationships rule and they part, both of them obviously unhappy and not expecting to see each other again.

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

Crooked Shadows (Whitethorn Agency #2) by M.A. Grant

crooked shadows

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everyone has secrets. Especially those who live in the shadows.

Cristian Slava doesn’t fear much. After he was betrayed by the man he called an uncle, leaving upstate New York for the Carpathian Mountains of his childhood is more a matter of practicality than fear. With him is Atlas Kinkaid, a former marine turned fierce bodyguard…and fierce lover, albeit a hell of a complicated one.

Cristian’s cunning is tested by the politics and intrigue of the vampire families of Romania, and the warm welcome he and Atlas were assured of quickly turns to ash as they race to unravel the mystery of an old friend’s disappearance. Searching for the missing vampire draws them into a web of betrayal and half-truths that reaches further than Cristian ever could have imagined, and they uncover a string of grisly murders that bear a striking similarity to the attack that changed Atlas’s life forever.

Stalked by the past and uncertain of the future, Cristian learns he does have something to fear after all…

Losing the man he loves.

Rating: A-

Crooked Shadows is the second intriguing and exciting instalment in M.A. Grant’s paranormal/urban fantasy Whitethorn Security series, and as it picks up immediately after the first book – Rare Vigilance – ended, I’d strongly advise reading that before jumping into this one or you’ll be a bit lost.

Note: There are spoilers for the previous book in this review.

Rare Vigilance ended with its two protagonists, Cristian Slava and Atlas Kincaid, about to go on the run following an attack by the strigoi – a terrifying creature that even vampires fear – at Cristian’s family home.  Barely escaping with their lives, they need to find whoever is controlling the strigoi, stop them, and in the process, prove that Cristian’s father isn’t responsible for their creation and prevent his overthrow by the ruling Council. They’re both convinced that the Wharrams – Cristian’s mother’s family – are behind the increased strigoi activity and the attack on Decebal Vladislavic’s nest, and they travel to Romania intending to find out more about the creatures and to seek help from Decebal’s allies there.

It’s apparent from the moment they arrive that neither of those things is going to be easy.  Cristian and Atlas have to navigate the complex and dangerous politics of the vampire world at every turn, never knowing who to trust and forever looking over their shoulders for the next betrayal.  The author does a fantastic job here of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of uncertainty and near-paranoia and conveying just how exhausting and knife-edged a situation the two men are facing.  Their first port of call is to meet with Voivode Mehai, a former associate of Decebal’s who, if not precisely a friend, should at least offer Cristian basic courtesy and safe passage through his territory.

But even more bad news awaits them.  Mehai’s son Radu – a friend of Cristian’s – disappeared while investigating a recent spate of attacks and killings in their territory, attacks which result in injuries which could only have been caused by strigoi – and now the Council is about to pay Mehai a visit not to help, but to attempt to assign blame for the current rise in violence to him and his leadership.  With the Council members – including Theo Wharram – due to arrive any day, it’s imperative that Atlas and Cristian leave as soon as possible. The timing of the Council’s visit and Radu’s disappearance can’t be coincidental; if Radu has learned something that could help Mehai prove his innocence to the Council, they’d want him out of the way.  Cristian tells Mehai that he and Atlas will search for Radu, hoping to bring him back in time for whatever information he’s found to be of use.

M.A. Grant really ramps up the action in this book; there’s danger on all sides and Atlas and Cristian are forced to confront some of their deepest fears and to rely on each other as never before.  The relationship they began to develop in Rare Vigilance is still on somewhat shaky ground emotionally – for a number of reasons – and everything they go through in this story really pushes at its boundaries and tests its limits.  This book is more action-focused than the previous one, but it does include some solid relationship development, with a deeper, stronger connection gradually forming between the two men as they face ordeal after ordeal together.

The PoV in this book switches to Cristian (Rare Vigilance was told solely from Atlas’ perspective) which brings him into much sharper focus than before, when he was quite enigmatic for most of the story.  When I reviewed that book, I said that there were hints at a different man behind the cocky exterior, and those words are borne out here as we see a much more thoughtful, gentler side to Cristian.  He’s clearly head-over-heels for Atlas but fears Atlas doesn’t feel as deeply for him, and I loved seeing that vulnerable side of Cristian, and how he tries so hard to be patient and open with Atlas, and encourage a similar openness in him.  He worried that bringing Atlas back to the place he and his unit were attacked was bound to bring back horrific memories that would trigger Atlas’ PTSD, but he will do whatever is necessary to keep Atlas safe – from his nightmares and from whatever creatures are lurking in the woods.

I really enjoyed this instalment in the series, but there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me.  The first part is a little slow in places, and although I absolutely love stories that feature intrigue and political manouevering, I occasionally had trouble keeping track of who was who and how they related to each other.  And then there’s the sudden switch from Cristian’s to Atlas’ PoV at around the 90% mark.  For spoilery reasons I won’t go in to, there was no other way for the author to continue the story, but it was jarring nonetheless.

Crooked Shadows is otherwise a terrific follow-up to Rare Vigilance.  It’s thrilling and sexy, with plenty of high-stakes action as well as some lovely, tender moments between the two leads. Be warned, however, that it ends on a real humdinger of a cliffhanger, one that is sure to complicate our heroes’ lives still further and plunge them into yet more danger in book three.  I’ll definitely be here for that when it’s released in 2022.

A Marvellous Light (The Last Binding #1) by Freya Marske

a marvellous light

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Young baronet Robin Blyth thought he was taking up a minor governmental post. However, he’s actually been appointed parliamentary liaison to a secret magical society. If it weren’t for this administrative error, he’d never have discovered the incredible magic underlying his world.

Cursed by mysterious attackers and plagued by visions, Robin becomes determined to drag answers from his missing predecessor – but he’ll need the help of Edwin Courcey, his hostile magical-society counterpart. Unwillingly thrown together, Robin and Edwin will discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles.

Rating: B+

Freya Marske’s inventive and impressive début, A Marvellous Light, is an enchanting blend of magic, mystery and romance set in England in 1908, in which a newly-appointed civil servant finds himself suddenly part of a mysterious and fantastical world of deadly curses, spells and secrets.   It’s a clever, well-written story featuring two attractive and strongly characterised protagonists, the magical world-building is vivid without being overly complex or subject to info-dumps, and the opposites/antagonists attract romance is nicely developed and steamy.  There are a few places where the pacing flags a bit, and the secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, but those issues didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Sir Robert – Robin – Blyth inherited a baronetcy upon the recent death of his father, but thanks to the profligacy of both his parents, he needs to work for a living in order to support himself and his younger sister Maud.  When the story begins, he’s just arrived at the Home Office to take up the post of Assistant in the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints, a position which opened up after the disappearance of the previous incumbent, Reggie Gatling.  Robin hasn’t got a clue what’s expected of him – he’s never even heard of the Office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints – and assumes his appointment must be a mistake.  On his very first morning, he meets the snappish Edwin Courcey  – liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly – who rudely demands to know where Reggie is.  Robin can’t enlighten him – and is further baffled when the other man starts talking about magic and spells and imbuement and other things that make little to no sense.  Assuming, at first, that this is some sort of joke, Robin is sceptical – until Edwin provides a physical demonstration and it’s impossible for him to disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes.  Magic is real.

Later that day, Robin has left the office and is still trying to make sense of everything he’s learned when he is accosted by a man – who appears to have no face –  who loops a glowing piece of yarn around Robin’s wrist that makes him unable to do anything other than follow where he’s led.  Two more men wearing “fog masks” await them – men who tell Robin that his predecessor hid something very important in his office and that Robin is going to help them find it.  Robin is determined to do no such thing – but then something is burned into his arm – a pattern of runes that causes excruciating pain which, he later learns, is a curse.

Robin and Edwin don’t get off to the best of starts, but after Robin arrives at work the next morning to find his office has been wrecked, he fills Edwin in on his encounter the previous night and they decide the only option is for them to work together to see if they can find out what Reggie had hidden and if Edwin can find a way to lift the curse.  Realising he needs more information than is available to him in London, Edwin invites Robin to accompany him to his family home in Cambridgeshire, where they can make use of the extensive library to research the curse, attempt to work out what happened to Reggie and discover the location of the item the fog-masked men are after.

Robin and Edwin are well-rounded and engaging characters who are like chalk and cheese, in appearance, temperament and magical ability. Robin is completely non-magical; he’s charming, spontaneous and open-hearted with a good sense of humour and an innate generosity, where Edwin is thoughtful and meticulous, somewhat closed-off and cautious. He’s a brilliant scholar with a massive amount of magical knowledge – but not much magical ability, something which causes his family members to look down on him and treat him with disdain.  His older brother is a powerful magician who bullied Edwin mercilessly when they were children and continues to do so at every opportunity, and his sister is a social butterfly who, like their parents, turns a blind eye to the way Edwin is treated and often joins in.  Robin has no family now apart from Maud; he was never close to his parents, who put on a public face of philanthropy and compassion while really caring only for themselves and who remembered Robin or his sister only when they wanted to use them to show everyone around them what wonderful parents they were.

Robin and Edwin gradually begin to develop a mutual respect and admiration; from this, a genuine friendship grows and is the basis for their romance, which is a nicely-done slow-burn.  They have terrific chemistry and I thoroughly appreciated that the author takes the time to draw out the sexual tension and give things time to breathe before they embark on a physical relationship.  There are still issues to be settled between them however; Edwin has become so used to having to lock down  his true self and hide his most vulnerable side as a form of self-preservation that he finds it difficult to trust and give of himself to Robin, no matter how much he wants to.

I liked the way magic works in the book; we’re told that magicians in England use “cradling” – a system of hand movements based on Cat’s Cradle – to cast spells, and I loved the magical house and the idea of people being magically connected to certain places.

On the downside, the pacing is a little uneven in places, the dénouement is a bit drawn out and slightly repetitive, and the secondary characters are slightly one-note – although I did enjoy Miss Morrisey and her sister (two Anglo-Indian ladies), and hope that perhaps we’ll see a bit more of Lord Hawthorn.  I would like to have learned more about the Magical Assembly and the history of magic in England – although as this is a series, perhaps those details will become clear in future instalments.

In the end, though, A Marvellous Light is a highly entertaining and very readable début novel featuring two endearing leads and plenty of gentle humour, magical shenanigans, mystery and romance.  I’m more than happy to recommend it, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.

House on Fire (Ashes & Dust #2) by Jenn Burke

house on fire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s done fighting his attraction to the sexy vampire…

To say former firefighter Colin Zhang is struggling to accept his new life would be a vast understatement. He’s bound to a vampire he didn’t choose, living in a house filled with creatures better left to the imagination—there’s a lot to resent. As much as he tries, he doesn’t resent Evan—far from it. But he needs to know that what he feels is real and that requires breaking their bond. No matter the cost.

Vampire private investigator Evan Fournier is more than willing to explore his connection with Colin, but the crisis at hand keeps getting in the way. Their bond makes it dangerous for them to be apart, so he’s forced to put the other man at risk while he investigates the latest in a series of murders. If he doesn’t find the killer soon, the paranormal community will seek retribution on all humans, not just the guilty ones.
As the tensions escalate, Evan and Colin find solace in each other and their growing attraction. But if their bond is broken, attraction—even love—might not be enough to keep them safe.

Rating: B-

Note: There are spoilers for previous books in this review.

Jenn Burke’s Ashes & Dust  – a sequel/spin off to the Not Dead Yet series – got off to a strong start earlier this year with All Fired Up, which finds Wes, Hudson and Evan running a successful PI business in Toronto five years after the end of Graveyard Shift.  This series puts “Baby Vamp” Evan Fournier into the spotlight as the PoV character, and All Fired Up introduced a new love interest for him in the form of Colin Zhang – a firefighter who was believed to have died in the 1990s but who had actually been kidnapped and held captive by a witch who forced him to suck the magic from other supernatural beings.   I’d strongly suggest anyone thinking about reading this one should start at the very beginning with Not Dead Yet, as there are a lot of recurring characters in these stories and you’ll understand the relationship dynamics more easily.

It’s been five months since the events of All Fired Up, and Evan is no closer to discovering the identity of whoever was behind the operation at the Rising Sun Retreat.  During those months, Colin and Evan have begun adjusting to their mistakenly-formed bond, although Evan recognises it’s a lot easier on him than on Colin, who has to spend most of his days just hanging out in the Caballero Investigations offices instead of getting out and making a new life for himself (if Colin and Evan get too far apart physically, the bond causes them excruciating pain).  Evan recognises that his feelings for Colin probably go deeper than Colin’s for him, but is determined to give Colin the space he needs to work things through and not to push him into anything he’s not ready for.  When Colin asks if it might be possible to break the bond, Evan is dead set against it; for one thing it could be very dangerous, for another – he believes Colin won’t want to be with him without it.

The lives of everyone in the Westerson-Rojas household has been further complicated by the addition of Hudson’s brother Lance, whom Hudson has brought to live with them.  Lance has no idea about the paranormal world, so they all have to work hard to keep him in the dark, even though Hudson knows he really should tell him the truth.  But when videos showing shifters actually shifting headlined with messages such as “this is not special effects” and “they are all around us” begin circulating, it’s clear that Evan and the gang have far more to worry about than someone letting something slip in front of Lance.

In the middle of all this, Colin decides he wants to contact his former fiancée, Cynthia, thinking that he owes her an explanation about what happened to him all those years ago, and that maybe it will give both of them some closure.  Cynthia drops a bombshell of her own, telling Colin that when he ‘died’, she was a few weeks pregnant and that they have a son, CJ, who has always known that Colin is his real dad.  The news hits Colin like a punch to the gut – his anger and grief at everything he’s lost are very well portrayed – but he and Cynthia both agree that it’s for the best that they don’t tell CJ the truth.

To talk about the other plotlines in the book would be heading into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that there’s more hurt and heartbreak on the horizon for our heroes when there’s a horrific murder close to home and Evan finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – his loyalty to Hudson, and his love for Colin.

I enjoy spending time with these characters and was pleased to re-visit them, but House on Fire is obviously a ‘middle book’ with a lot of set-up and few answers.  The novel feels disjointed and episodic; we move swiftly from one event to the next, but none of them are given much more than a cursory explanation before we move on to the next one.  And the romance between Evan and Colin still feels a bit superficial; it’s been five months since they met and accidentally forged their bond, but I’m not seeing much more than a surface physical attraction there, and as we’re never in Colin’s head I get no sense of how he’s dealing with everything he’s been through – losing thirty-four years of his life, forming a magical bond with a complete stranger, and then having his first same-sex relationship – or even if he IS dealing with it. He and Evan share a bed and have sex, but it seems that any relationship progression (and I’m not actually convinced there’s been any as I don’t feel any real emotional connection between them) has taken place off the page.  In my review of the previous book, I said that Colin wasn’t particularly well-fleshed out as a character, but as it was the first book, there was room for that to happen – but I can’t say that it does.  Colin gets a lot of on-page time (because he has to be where Evan is) but because we never get his perspective and he doesn’t have much dialogue it’s hard to understand his character and equally hard to understand exactly why Evan is falling for him.  There’s no doubt that Colin trusts Evan implicitly – even though he doesn’t appear to understand him at all at one crucial point in the story – but I don’t get the same ‘meant-to-be’ vibe from them that was there between Wes and Hudson from the start.

I can’t deny being a bit disappointed in House on Fire, although it’s got good bones – I just wish there had been some more meat on them.  I enjoyed catching up with everyone, the plotlines are all intriguing and the author delivers some real emotional gut-punches while continuing to show Evan’s growing confidence in himself and his abilities, both as a PI and as a worthy second-in-command to the King of All the Vampires.  But be warned; the major plotlines are unresolved and there’s a cliffhanger ending, so you might want to wait to read this until you can dive straight into the final book, Out of the Ashes next year.  I’m giving House on Fire a qualified recommendation because I’m invested in this group of characters and I enjoyed the book in spite of its flaws.

Never Fall for Your Fiancée (Merriwell Sisters #1) by Virginia Heath

never fall for your fiancee

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The trouble with lies is they have a tendency to catch a man out.

The last thing Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, wants is a wife. But since the only way to keep his mother’s matchmaking ways at bay is the promise of impending nuptials, Hugh takes the most logical action: he invents a fake fiancée.

It’s the perfect plan – until Hugh learns that his mother is on a ship bound for England to meet his ‘beloved’. He needs a solution fast, and when he collides with a mysterious beauty, he might just have found the answer to his prayers.

Minerva Merriwell is desperate for money to support her sisters, and although she knows that posing as the Earl’s fiancée might seem nonsensical, it’s just too good an offer to refuse.

As the Merriwells descend upon Hugh’s estate, the household is thrown into turmoil as everyone tries to keep their tangled stories straight. And with Hugh and Minerva’s romantic ruse turning into the real thing, is true love just one complication too many?

Rating: B-

Virginia Heath has been one of my favourite authors of historical romance since I read her second book (Her Enemy at the Altar) for Mills & Boon/Harlequin back in 2016. Her stories are generally light-hearted and a lot of fun although not without a more serious side, her characters are well-rounded and engaging, her prose is crisp and the humour never feels forced.   Never Fall for Your Fiancée, the first book in her new Merriwell Sisters trilogy, is her first book for St. Martin’s Press, and it bears all the hallmarks of her style – a gorgeous hero, an intelligent and snarky heroine who won’t put up with any crap, sparking dialogue and genuinely witty banter – although it’s a tad overlong and the chemistry between the two principals isn’t quite as compelling as I know she’s capable of delivering.  The plot isn’t going to win any prizes for originality, but Ms. Heath makes good use of the fake-relationship trope and her bright and breezy writing style carries the day.

Hugh Standish, Earl of Fareham, is in a bit of a bind.  His mother, who lives in Boston with her second husband, is on her way to England for a visit expressly to meet Hugh’s fiancée Minerva, the young woman to whom he’s been engaged for the past two years.  The problem?  Minerva is entirely a product of Hugh’s imagination, invented in order to head off his mother’s constant reminders that he should get married and her offer (which Hugh saw more as a threat) to come home to help him find a bride.  Hugh adores his mother, but he is absolutely convinced that a man should only enter into a marriage when he had every intention of honouring his vows, and being sure he isn’t capable of either love or fidelity, he has decided to eschew matrimony.  But his mother’s arrival is imminent, and the idea of telling her the truth weighs heavily.  He never, ever wanted to hurt her and, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries hard not to be too often), he also wants to avoid admitting to her that he’s far too much like his late father to consider settling down.

Minerva Merriwell has been the family caretaker since their mother died when Minerva was nine, and has been solely responsible for her younger sisters Diana and Vee (short for Venus) since their good-for-nothing father abandoned them when she was nineteen.  Now twenty-four, Minerva ekes out a living as an engraver but it’s a hand-to-mouth existence and her worries are never-ending.  Today’s is that one of the people she’s produced work for is four weeks late with payment; she’s confronted him outside his house to request – politely – that he pay her right away and things are deteriorating when a gentleman steps in and offers his assistance.  The bluster displayed by Minerva’s ‘employer’ can’t hold up in the face of the stranger’s aristocratic hauteur; the debt is settled and the gentleman offers to escort her home.

Hugh can’t believe his good fortune.  Not only does this young woman share the name of his fake fiancée, she’s entirely captivating – beautiful, witty and self-assured – and on the spot, he decides the answer to his problem is right in front of him.  He’ll pay Minerva to act as his fiancée, and then engineer some sort of falling-out that will end their ‘engagement’.  But he’s surprised when Minerva expresses reservations.  It’s clear she needs the money he’s offering, but she’s not happy about the idea of practicing such a deception; the Merriwells may be on the cusp of destitution, but they had morals.

Well, of course Minerva does agree and she – with Diana and Vee, who are as unhappy about the scheme as Minerva is  – travel to Hugh’s Hampshire estate to await the arrival of his mother and to learn their roles while they wait.  Unfortunately, however, Hugh’s mother and step-father arrive much earlier than expected – well before Minerva has acquired enough ‘polish’ – which necessitates some more impromptu, highly creative falsehoods on Hugh’s part.  The story moves fairly briskly, the central characters are likeable and the humour is dry and nicely observed, but around the middle, it gets a bit bogged down and some of the contortions Hugh has to make in order to perpetuate his lies get a bit overly convoluted, and I sometimes felt as though I was in the middle of a French farce.  Perhaps that was the intention, but although I’ve said that the humour in Ms. Heath’s books isn’t forced, it comes close a few times here.

Minerva is a great heroine, a young woman forced to become a parent when she wasn’t much more than a child herself and who puts her own wants and needs last every time. She’s intelligent, witty, generous and determined, but she’s grown so used to being her sisters’ sole support that she has sort of lost sight of the fact that they’re young women now, and should be taking responsibility for themselves.  I liked Hugh a lot, with some caveats.  He’s charming, funny, perceptive and caring, but he goes out of his way to act the indolent wastrel (not that we ever see that on the page) when he is in fact a conscientious landowner and employer, and an all-round decent man.  It doesn’t take Minerva long to work out that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye, but what she can’t work out is why he’s so set on letting everyone around him believe he’s shallow, selfish and lazy.  (And quite honestly, neither could I.) BUT – and here are the caveats.  Firstly, he is convinced he’s bad husband material because the Standish Blood Runs In His Veins; his grandfather was a rotten bastard, his father was unfaithful to his mother, and Hugh isn’t going to visit heartbreak upon any woman – like his cheating sire and grandfather before him, he isn’t capable of love or commitment.  This is stated so very often that I felt I was being hit over the head with it;  I lost track of how many times the “bad blood” or the “Standish way” or the philandering grandfather and father were mentioned.  A grown man of thirty-two is responsible for his own behaviour, and Hugh was perfectly capable of steering his own course.  And then there’s the deception.  As Minerva says – “What sort of man invents a fiancée because he finds responsibility too daunting and is frightened of his own mother?” And that says it all, really.

There’s a small but well-drawn supporting cast.  Hugh’s mother is a delightful woman who obviously thinks the world of him and just wants him to be happy, Payne, the butler is a nineteenth century Jeeves –an expert in the pithy bon mot –  and I liked Hugh’s friend Giles, who I’m assuming will be the hero of a future book in the series.  I liked the middle sister, Diana, who is lively and forthright (and there are definite sparks between her and Giles) although Vee is… well, a bit of a wet blanket, honestly.  She’s still convinced their dead-beat dad is going to come back and won’t hear a word against him, and she presents a number of problems for Hugh’s scheme.

That said, Never Fall for Your Fiancée is fluff of the highest quality, and if you’re looking for a well-written, funny historical rom-com with some shrewd observation on the side, it might be just what you’re looking for.  But I can’t recommend it unreservedly, because much as I liked Hugh, I didn’t buy the reasons for his ‘I am not worthy’ act and all the miscommunication and misinterpretation became a bit wearing.  I like the fake-relationship trope, and I like Ms. Heath’s writing, but this one didn’t quite tick all the boxes for me.

Unwritten Rules by KD Casey

unwritten rules

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Zach Glasser has put up with a lot for the sport he loves. Endless days on the road, playing half-decent baseball in front of half-full stadiums and endless nights alone, pretending this is the life he’s always wanted.

The thing is, it could have been everything he ever wanted—if only he’d had the guts to tell his family, tell the club, that he was in love with his teammate Eugenio Morales. Well, ex-teammate now. When Zach wouldn’t—couldn’t—come out, Eugenio made the devastating choice to move on, demanding a trade away from Oakland. Away from Zach.

Three years and countless regrets later, Zach still can’t get Eugenio out of his head. Or his heart. And when they both get selected to play in the league’s All-Star Classic, those feelings and that chemistry come roaring back.

Zach wants a second chance. Eugenio wants a relationship he doesn’t have to hide. Maybe it’s finally time they both get what they want.

Rating: C-

I’m not a sports fan, but I do like a good sports romance, and having read the synopsis of début author KD Casey’s Unwritten Rules, I had high hopes of finding one within its pages.  But while the book gets off to a good start, I’m afraid those hopes were dashed before I got to the halfway point.  It doesn’t tread any new ground in terms of the storyline (closeted pro player worried about the effect coming out could have on his career) – and that’s fine; tropes are tropes, and it’s ultimately all about what the author makes of them.  But while KD Casey can clearly write and really knows her stuff when it comes to baseball, the book has a number of fairly big flaws that make it impossible for me to offer a recommendation.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of Zach Glasser, a catcher with the Oakland Elephants.  He’s Jewish (although not particularly observant from what I could gather), he has hearing loss in one ear, and in the first part of the story, he’s been playing in the major leagues for four years. He’s also gay and deeply closeted, he’s never had a relationship and is so terrified of anyone guessing about his sexuality that he seems  to spend his life constantly assessing and regulating his behaviour to make sure he doesn’t give himself away.  He knows he can’t possibly have a career in professional sport as an openly gay man and has told himself he’ll be able to have a life after he retires.  But that’s quite a few years away yet.

Then Zach meets Eugenio Morales, a young up-and-coming catcher at spring training, and although they’re vying for the same place on the team, Zach is asked to take the other man under his wing.  Eugenio is a fast learner; he’s also handsome and outgoing and Zach, who has never really allowed himself to get close to anyone, finds it hard to resist his overtures of friendship.  It takes Zach quite a long time to see those overtures for what they really are, however; but once he clues in, he and Eugenio (who is bi) embark upon a very secret, very passionate affair.

It’s in the book blurb, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the relationship crashes and burns. Eugenio can no longer deal with the secrecy – and Zach’s near-paranoia – and Zach, despite promises he’s made, is no closer to coming out than when they first got together.

The story is told in two timelines – “three years earlier”, charting the development of Zach and Eugenio’s relationship from their first meeting, and then the “present day” sections which show them getting their second chance after a long separation.  I liked the structure, which means we get to see both first and second-chance romances unfold on the page and it generally works well, although the second-chance romance doesn’t feel as well fleshed-out as the first.  And that leads me to one of my major issues with the novel as a whole, which is that the romance is pretty lacklustre.  I never really connected with the characters or felt the connection between them because there just isn’t enough of who they are outside of baseball; we spend all of the book in Zach’s head, but I couldn’t tell you much about him, and Eugenio’s characterisation is even sketchier. As a result I never understood what attracted them to each other – other than a mutual interest in baseball.  Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and practically all the time they spend together in the first timeline is spent with Zach terrified about someone finding out about then; his fear of discovery permeates the entire story and I found it exhausting at times.  I’m not belittling the very real prejudice still faced by gay athletes in professional sport, but in most sports romances, there’s room for some lightness and the joy of making that important connection, of really being seen – but this is just unrelenting fear and gloom and Zach getting in his own way.  (I didn’t blame Eugenio one bit for getting out.) And there’s no let-up in the second timeline, which revolves around Zach’s fears of what will happen when he comes out.  A lot of the time, Eugenio feels like an afterthought and I came away from the book feeling as though what I’d read wasn’t a romance so much as it was a story about one man’s journey to self-acceptance.  The ending is abrupt and something of an anti-climax, and I’m not sure I ever got used to the third person present tense narrative, which seemed like a really odd choice.

But the biggest problem I had with the book is that it’s very baseball-heavy – and I know nothing whatsoever about baseball.  Okay, it’s a sports romance, so there’s going to be some actual sport in it, but this isn’t like Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series or Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s Him books, where the hockey is present in such a way that even a sports-hater like me can enjoy the story without needing to know too much about hockey.  In Unwritten Rules, there is hardly a page without some reference to baseball on it, and while the author does a wonderful job of putting the reader there in the stadium dirt with the players, the rest of the time I was completely lost amid technical terminology and talk of triple-and-double-As, stats, opt-outs, trades and various playing techniques.  This meant I had no idea what was at stake for these characters and as a result, couldn’t understand their motivations and decisions.  At best it was incomprehensible and at worst it was boring, and I skimmed entire pages of baseball-talk because I had no hope of working out what it meant or why it was important/relevant.  I felt like I was reading the book from a distance through a sheet of thick glass. Of course, this is a highly personal thing – if you understand the sport, you may well get more out of the book than I did, although that doesn’t negate the other problems I’ve outlined.

What makes it all the more disappointing is that KD Casey is obviously a talented writer, but she gets so bogged down in the minutiae of baseball that the characterisation and romance are sorely neglected.  As a result, Unwritten Rules is a book that will probably only appeal to a very small, niche audience – and I’m afraid that audience doesn’t include me.

The Woman at the Front by Lecia Cornwall

the woman at the front

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Eleanor Atherton graduates from medical school near the top of her class in 1917, she dreams of going overseas to help the wounded, but her ambition is thwarted at every turn. Eleanor’s parents insist she must give up medicine, marry a respectable man, and assume her proper place. While women might serve as ambulance drivers or nurses at the front, they cannot be physicians—that work is too dangerous and frightening.

Nevertheless, Eleanor is determined to make more of a contribution than sitting at home knitting for the troops. When an unexpected twist of fate sends Eleanor to the battlefields of France as the private doctor of a British peer, she seizes the opportunity for what it is—the chance to finally prove herself.

But there’s a war on, and a casualty clearing station close to the front lines is an unforgiving place. Facing skeptical commanders who question her skills, scores of wounded men needing care, underhanded efforts by her family to bring her back home, and a blossoming romance, Eleanor must decide if she’s brave enough to break the rules, face her darkest fears, and take the chance to win the career—and the love—she’s always wanted.

Rating: B

I associate Lecia Cornwall’s name with historical romances, although I confess I haven’t read any of her work in that genre.  The blurb for her latest book, The Woman at the Front, caught my eye because of its First World War setting; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Northern France (pre-Covid) researching family history so it’s a period I’m particularly interested in – and the premise of a young female doctor wanting to make a useful contribution to the war effort but being thwarted at every turn promised an interesting read.

Eleanor Atherton, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, has always longed to follow in her father’s footsteps.  In 1917, she graduated from medical school in Edinburgh near the top of her class (and thus ahead of almost 130 of her male colleagues) and has been looking forward to using her hard-earned skills in a meaningful way – but she’s derided and looked down upon for her choices at every turn.  Even her father doesn’t support her ambitions and has relegated her to menial tasks, such as doing paperwork or cleaning his surgery, while her mother constantly bemoans the fact that Eleanor will never be able to find a husband because no man wants a wife with an advanced education who refuses to stick to her ‘proper’ place in the order of things.

But Eleanor – who worked harder than anyone else so she’d be taken seriously, who put up with the constant bullying of the male students – refuses to be diverted from her chosen path.  When we meet her, it’s January of 1918 and she’s in a meeting with Sir William Foxleigh at the War Office, asking to be allowed to offer her services to the army hospitals in France.   Unfortunately, Sir William’s response is just the same as she’s received from just about every other man when informed she’s a doctor – distaste, disbelief and an instruction to “go home, sit down, and take up something more useful, such as knitting.”  With the war raging into its fourth year, she knows doctors are desperately needed and tries to make her case, but Foxleigh dismisses her and suggests that she should instead find a position at one of the hospitals in England that care for women and children – or if she’s set on going to France, that she should become a nurse or a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) as those are “much more ladylike pursuits.” Furious and frustrated, Eleanor responds:

“I am not a nurse, Sir William, or a volunteer.  I am a doctor.”

Back at home a couple of weeks later, however, an unexpected opportunity presents itself when the Countess of Kirkswell informs Eleanor that her son Louis – a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and now the heir to the earldom following his older brother’s recent death – has been injured and is currently being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station near Arras – and then asks Eleanor to travel to France to act as Louis’ doctor and to bring him home.

Even though she knows her parents will disapprove, Eleanor jumps at the chance to do something useful, and is soon on her way to France.  Even amidst the destruction and carnage all around, and the obvious need for people with her skills and medical training, she is still viewed with disdain and suspicion by most of the medical staff – even the nurses – and instructed that she is to attend no patients other than Louis on threat of being sent back to England.  Eleanor tries to stick to this rule, but it’s hard for her to just stand by when there are people who need the help she can give – and with ever increasing numbers of wounded flooding into the CCS, it’s not long before she decides that some rules need to be broken and grabs the opportunity to finally prove herself, in spite of the inflexibility of the commanding officer and the matron.  And she does it in spectacular fashion, working as quickly, skilfully and indefatigably as any of the other doctors.

The author does an absolutely incredible job with the setting in this book.  The sights and smells, the mud, the despair, the exhaustion, the everyday heroics of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances (the bravery of the stretcher-bearers who have to venture onto the battlefields in order to retrieve the wounded while still under fire, for instance), the knowledge that no matter how many men are treated, there will be more tomorrow and the next day and the next… it’s all superbly captured and conveyed on the page and I was thoroughly immersed in the time and place.

The book is less successful as a romance, however.  Ms. Cornwall sets up a number of potential love interests for Eleanor – Louis Chastaine (the countess’ son), Scottish stretcher-bearer Fraser MacLeod and doctor, David Blair – but although it’s fairly obvious who she’s going to end up with, the romance is pretty insta-love-y.  I get that the circumstances (“there’s a war on”) don’t allow for a lot of on-page togetherness (and it makes perfect sense that way),  so while  The Woman at the Front does include a romance and an HEA, those are very much secondary to Eleanor’s struggle to make her way in the hostile, male-dominated environment of medicine in a world being torn apart by war, so I’d class the book as historical fiction with romantic elements, rather than as an historical romance.

On the negative side, the pacing is uneven and the story drags in places, and I found it hard to believe in the intense dislike displayed towards Eleanor by her family.  It turns out that her father only allowed her to go to medical school as a way of shaming her twin brother Edward, who had no interest in medicine.  Atherton expected Eleanor to fail and that failure would teach her some humility – and when she didn’t, he thought her medical training would mean she’d make a suitable doctor’s wife.  As for her brother, well he’s a self-centred prick, but I still didn’t see why he so disliked her.

And finally, a word of warning. The way Eleanor is treated by so many around her, the prejudice she encounters, the way she’s dismissed, belittled, talked-down-to – even by other women – is rage-inducing.  I have no doubt the attitudes presented are realistic, but I had to actually put the book down a time or two in order to calm down!

Despite that, however – and if you’re okay with the romance taking a back seat on occasion – The Woman at the Front is a fascinating read and one I’m recommending to anyone looking for a story featuring an engaging protagonist and a well-researched, well-realised setting.

The Lights on Knockbridge Lane (Garnet Run #3) by Roan Parrish

the lights on knockbridge laneThis title may be purchased from Amazon

Raising a family was always Adam Mills’ dream, although solo parenting and moving back to tiny Garnet Run certainly were not. After a messy breakup, Adam is doing his best to give his young daughter the life she deserves—including accepting help from their new, reclusive neighbor to fulfill her Christmas wish.

Though the little house may not have “the most lights ever,” the Mills home begins to brighten as handsome Wes Mobray spends more time there and slowly sheds his protective layers. But when the eye-catching house ends up in the news, Wes has to make a choice: hide from the darkness of his unusual past or embrace the light of a future—and a family—with Adam.

Rating: B-

The Lights on Knockbridge Lane is a cute, fluffy (well, mostly) Christmas-themed story that is the very first male/male romance to appear in one of Harlequin’s main category lines.  It’s the third in Roan Parrish’s Garnet Run series, and although characters from the earlier books do appear, they’re cameos and it’s not essential to have read those titles in order to enjoy this one.

Recently divorced Adam Mills moved back to Garnet Run with his eight-year-old daughter, Gus, after his husband decided he didn’t want to be a dad any more.  Life as a single father has meant big changes for Adam; from a career as a photographer he’s gone to working in the local hardware store (owned by Best Laid Plans‘ Charlie Matheson) in order to provide for Gus and he’s determined to do whatever it takes to provide stability and make her happy.  She’s adjusting to life without her “Papa” quite well, and is a bright, inquisitive child… albeit sometimes too inquisitive for her own good.

In the four months since he returned to Garnet Run, Adam has only seen his reclusive neighbour Westley Mobray out after sunset.  Everyone who lives on Knockbridge Lane has an opinion about him;  he’s variously a vampire, a witch, a devil-worshipper, a mesmerist, a gorgon or just a plain old freak, and even though he lives just opposite, Adam has never spoken to him, never waved hello or otherwise interacted.  Which is why he’s surprised to see the man standing on his doorstep with Gus at his side – and even moreso when Mobray – Wes – tells Adam that Gus broke into his house through the basement window.

Embarrassed, Adam apologises, Wes leaves and Gus proceeds to explain that Wes has the best basement with four lizards and a huge hairy spider which he showed her and put right in her face!  Adam is horrified (he’s terrified of spiders) while Gus’ face is lit with joy and enthusiasm as she tells Adam how interesting it all was – but Adam is stuck on the ‘shoved a tarantula in his daughter’s face’ thing and marches across the street to confront Wes, shoving aside his realisation that his reclusive neighbour is rather attractive.

After this less than promising beginning, the two men – and Gus – start spending time together regularly and get to know each other.  Adam and Wes have strong chemistry and the attraction between them sparks early on, but Adam is understandably cautious about bringing someone else into his and Gus’ lives who might not stick around, and Wes struggles with an anxiety disorder that stems back to his teenaged years and has caused him to eschew social interaction.  There’s a real sense of how hard it is for him to push himself beyond his comfort zone, but he does it for Adam and Gus and it’s lovely to see his growing ease with them.

The story takes place in the run up to Christmas, which is where the “Lights” come in. Adam asks an upset Gus what one thing would make this the most fun Christmas for her – and she says she wants “our house to have the most Christmas lights of any house in the world.”

No biggie, then.

The Lights on Knockbridge Lane does exactly what it’s supposed to do, provide lots of warm fuzzies and a good helping of holiday cheer.  That’s not to say it’s superficial, because it isn’t. The characters are satisfyingly complex and are struggling to deal with emotional baggage, which, for Adam, is trying to process the breakdown of his marriage and his feelings of guilt over what may have led to it as well as his guilt over the way the divorce has affected Gus, while Wes seems to be hiding from his issues rather than attempting to deal with them in any sustainable way.  Both men have to learn to face their fears and overcome them if they’re to move forward with their lives and with each other – but of course, there are a few hiccups along the way.

Adam and Wes are both likeable, memorable characters.  Adam is sweet and optimistic and I liked that he’s so openly emotional; he feels things deeply and is often moved to tears by his emotions, which is something he’s struggled with over the years, especially when he was  bullied and belittled for it when he was younger. Wes is more outwardly stoic, but that hides a very dry sense of humour and an innate kindness; he’s harder to read and shows his affection for Adam in unusual ways, such as reorganising his pantry alphabetically. Gus is a cute mix of eight-year-old confidence and insecurity, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s a plot-moppet – albeit a well-written and loveable one – who often comes across as older than her years, and needs some firmer boundaries set by her dad!

I couldn’t quite work out how a guy who kept a tarantula as a pet and let it roam around the house (*shudder*!!) and a guy who was terrified of them were ever going to be able to share a home.  I’m with Adam on that one; spiders freak me out, so No Spiders would an absolute house rule!  And I’m not sure I bought into all the science; Wes is working to create a viable sustainable alternative to electric light – an admirable ambition – but I couldn’t help but wonder how feasible it all was.

Those quibbles aside however, The Lights on Knockbridge Lane is a charming, low-angst Christmas-themed read about love, family and fresh-starts.  It’s definitely one to curl up with – with a cup of cocoa – on a cold winter’s evening.

Sailor Proof (Shore Leave #1) by Annabeth Albert

sailor proof
This title may be purchased from Amazon

The sexy Navy chief and his best friend’s adorkable little brother…

It’s petty, but Naval Chief Derrick Fox wishes he could exact a little revenge on his ex by showing off a rebound fling. His submarine is due to return to its Bremerton, Washington, home base soon and Derrick knows all too well there won’t be anyone waiting with a big, showy welcome.

Enter one ill-advised plan…

Arthur Euler is the guy you go to in a pinch—he’s excellent at out-of-the-box solutions. It’s what the genius music-slash-computer nerd is known for. So when he finds out Derrick needs a favor, he’s happy to help. He can muster the sort of welcome a Naval Chief deserves, no problem at all.

Except it is a problem. A very big problem.

When Arthur’s homecoming welcome is a little too convincing, when a video of their gangplank smooch goes enormously viral, they’re caught between a dock and a hard place. Neither of them ever expected a temporary fake relationship to look—or feel—so real. And Arthur certainly never considered he’d be fighting for a very much not-fake forever with a military man

Rating: B

Annabeth Albert kicks off her new Shore Leave series of military-themed contemporary romances with Sailor Proof, a cute, sexy, low-angst, veritable trope-fest of a love story.  We’ve got best friend’s little brother, only one bed, first times and a fake relationship, all thoroughly mixed and cooked to perfection to produce the equivalent of a soufflé in book form!

When a ship comes home to port, it’s tradition for the crew to vie for the privilege of being the first to disembark and greet their loved ones.  Naval Chief Derrick Fox has seen more than one marriage proposal come as a result of the First Kiss, and usually, he’s happy for whoever wins that honour. This time however, he’s more than a little bit pissed off that one of the junior officers has won the raffle and is taking great delight in taunting Derrick about the fact that he will be disembarking first and getting to plant one on his new squeeze – who happens to be Derrick’s cheating ex.  Derrick’s best friend Calder suggests that what Derrick needs is a hottie in the crowd he can make a beeline for and kiss the hell out of in full view of his ex – but unlike Calder, whose large, loving family is bound to be waiting for him, Derrick doesn’t have anyone.  He’s not opposed to the idea in principle, but being deployed on the sub for another two weeks isn’t exactly conducive to meeting said hottie and fixing a dockside smooching session.

But logistics expert Calder isn’t about to let a problem go unsolved.  His brother Arthur owes him a favour and he’d be up for being the kissee – but Derrick doesn’t see how kissing Calder’s red-haired, spindly, “too nerdy for band camp” little brother is going to make anyone jealous.

Arthur Euler is the only member of his family who isn’t involved with public service in some way.  He’s a super talented musician and award-winning composer who makes his living writing scores for video games, and has always felt somewhat out of step with everyone around him, who seem to think that music is just a phase and that he’ll settle to a real job one day soon. He loves his family dearly, but is tired of never quite being enough in their eyes, of feeling like he’s a disappointment, no matter his achievements.  Seeing the toll taken on his mother and their family by his father’s deployments, Arthur has a strict rule against dating anyone in the military – but he really does owe Calder and has no problem with his plan to help Derrick out. After all, Derrick is all but part of the family; he’s Calder’s best friend and they’ve all known each other for years, so it’s no biggie.

Except… when Derrick and Arthur – who haven’t seen each other for a good few years – finally meet up again, sparks fly.  Derrick realises Calder was right when he said his little brother wasn’t so little any more and Arthur, who even as a teen knew better than to develop a crush on a military man, can’t believe he’d forgotten how gorgeous Derrick is. Their kiss is electric, leaving them both slightly befuddled – but before either of them can bring the charade to an end, Arthur’s mother Jane arrives on the scene and, delighted to see Derrick and Arthur together, immediately invites Derrick to join them for a family dinner.  Reluctantly, Derrick accepts – Jane was like a mother to him when he was growing up and he doesn’t want to disappoint her – and is trying to come up with a way to make a quiet exit when she invites him to join them for their regular week-long family get-together; Arthur will be going so it makes sense for his boyfriend to come along, too, right?   Put on the spot, Arthur and Derrick find themselves agreeing to be fake-boyfriends for the duration, but the more time they spend together and get to know each other, they more they realise that they don’t want to be ‘fake’ boyfriends any more.  But Derrick knows Arthur’s stance on dating guys in the military – is there any way they can be together without his career coming between them?

Sailor Proof is an easy, light-hearted read featuring likeable characters, a strong secondary cast and a cute, sexy romance that is mostly drama-free.  If you’re in the mood for well-written fluff that isn’t going to put you into a sugar coma, then this is your book; the tropes are well integrated and the characters have enough depth that the low-level conflicts that do arise make sense in context. I loved the way Derrick and Arthur decide to make the best of an awkward situation, and do it with so much humour, affection and mutual respect.  I really liked their ease with one another and how they so quickly begin to look out for each other, how Arthur is comfortable enough to open up to Derrick about his family’s competitiveness and how it makes him feel, and how he begins to remind Derrick it’s not all about work and that he needs to get out and ‘people’ now and again.

These two balance each other out really well and Ms. Albert does a great job building a genuine emotional connection alongside the physical attraction that hums between them from the start.  Their romance does develop quickly, but she makes it work.

The military angle really only comes into play in a big way towards the end of the book, but the ups and downs, the waiting and the uncertainty experienced by so many military families is expertly captured, and it adds a subtle element of realism to the story.

I likened this book to a soufflé at the beginning of this review, and while that’s a delicious thing, it can also be a fairly insubstantial one – and that’s my main criticism of this story.  And it’s not really a criticism as such, it’s more of one of those things about which YMMV – this is well-written fluff of the highest order, but I generally prefer something with a bit more heft to it.

That isn’t going to stop me from recommending Sailor Proof however, because it’s a charming and extremely well-crafted character-driven story told with a great deal of warmth and humour, and I had a lot of fun reading it.