Hide and Seek (Criminal Profiler #1) by Mary Burton

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She’s hunting. He’s watching.

Special Agent Macy Crow is a survivor. After a vicious hit-and-run nearly kills her, she gets right back to work, and now she’s gunning for a spot on the FBI’s elite profiling team. As an audition, she offers to investigate the recently discovered bones of Tobi Turner, a high school girl who disappeared fifteen years ago.

While investigating with local sheriff Mike Nevada, a former colleague and onetime lover, Macy discovers a link between Tobi’s case and several others that occurred around the same time as her disappearance. As Macy interviews victims and examines old cases, she uncovers a sinister picture of a stalker who graduated to sexual assault—and then murder.

Macy and Nevada race to put this monster behind bars before he can come out of hiding. But the murderer’s had years to hone his skills, and soon Macy herself becomes a target. She’s no stranger to pain and terror, but will Macy’s first profiling case be her last?

Rating: B

Hide and Seek is the first book in the new Criminal Profiler series from popular romantic suspense author Mary Burton. This story features FBI agent Macy Crow, who was first introduced in the author’s last book, Cut and Run, where Macy was the victim of a serious hit and run accident she barely survived – but it’s not necessary to have read it in order to enjoy and understand this one.

When Hide and Seek opens, Macy has been working a desk job since being cleared to return to work some months after being discharged from hospital, and is keen to get back to work in the field.  She’s applied to join the small but legendary team that tackles violent crime and is given a case file to review as part of her interview, that of a teenaged girl named Tobi Turner who went missing around fifteen years earlier.  The previous week, the girl’s skeletal remains were found during a renovation project on an old barn in Deep Run in the Shenandoah Valley, and the local sheriff – a former FBI agent named Mike Nevada (with whom Macy had a brief fling before the accident) – requested the bureau’s assistance after DNA evidence suggested a link between Tobi’s death and the activities of an unknown serial rapist who’d been active around the same time.

The team leader isn’t offering any guarantees, but gives Macy an assignment – five days in Deep Run to find out everything she can about the case followed by a debrief in Quantico the following week – after which he’ll make a final decision about her application.  It’s what Macy had hoped for – she’s good at her job and she’s ready to get back in the game; now she just needs to prove it.

Mike Nevada hadn’t intended to run for sheriff in his old home town, but after receiving an anonymous tip off about the fact that the incumbent had failed to submit a number of rape kits for testing, and a meeting with the man that left Nevada furious and frustrated, he’d immediately declared his intention to run for the post – and surprising even himself, had won.  One of the first things he did after taking over as sheriff was to have those rape kits tested – and of the eight kits, three of them contain DNA that is a match to that found on the backpack belonging to Tobi Turner. But that DNA isn’t on file anywhere.

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

The Austen Playbook (London Celebrities #4) by Lucy Parker

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Freddy Carlton knows she should be focusing on her lines for The Austen Playbook, a live-action TV event where viewers choose the outcome of each scene, but her concentration’s been blown. The palatial estate housing the endeavor is now run by the rude (brilliant) critic who’s consistently slammed her performances of late. James “Griff” Ford-Griffin has a penchant for sarcasm, a majestic nose and all the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.

She can’t take her eyes off him.

Griff can hardly focus with a contagious joy fairy flitting about near him, especially when Freddy looks at him like that. His only concern right now should be on shutting down his younger brother’s well-intentioned (disastrous) schemes—or at the very least on the production (not this one) that might save his family home from the banks.

Instead all he can think of is soft skin and vibrant curls.

As he’s reluctantly dragged into her quest to rediscover her passion for the stage and Freddy is drawn into his research on a legendary theater star, the adage about appearances being deceiving proves abundantly true. It’s the unlikely start of something enormous…but a single revelation about the past could derail it all.

Rating: A

The Austen Playbook, the fourth in Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series, is one of the most eagerly anticipated new releases of 2019 – and I’m here to tell you your patience will most definitely be rewarded when it comes out.  It’s got all Ms. Parker’s trademarks; the two principals are wonderfully appealing, the secondary cast is well-drawn, the dialogue is snappy – and most importantly, it’s got the depth, emotional resonance and soul-deep connection between the leads she’s so good at creating (and which I felt was missing in the previous book).

Frederica – Freddy – Carlton is the youngest member of an acting dynasty whose members have been treading the boards in the West End for the last four hundred years.  She’s been acting since she was a child, and although she made her name performing in a string of popular comedies and musicals, she’s now turned her hand to more serious pieces at the urging of her manager – who also happens to be her father Rupert, whose acting career came to an end following an accident years earlier.  But Freddy’s heart isn’t really in the meaty, dramatic roles she’s being urged to undertake. Her real love is for lighter theatre – musicals, rom-coms, physical comedy – and she knows that’s where her real talent lies, in performing pieces that leave the audiences feeling better at the end of the evening than they did at the beginning.  Yet although she recognises that Rupert is living vicariously through her, she can’t bring herself to disappoint him by refusing to go along with his plans for her. He’s pushing her to audition for the leading role in The Velvet Room, the masterpiece that catapulted her grandmother Henrietta into the history books as both actress and playwright – and in Freddy’s opinion, another piece of weepy philosophical introspection that just isn’t her cup of tea.

The fact that Freddy isn’t suited to the heavier roles hasn’t escaped the extremely perceptive – and extremely annoying – theatre critic, James Ford-Griffin, Grumpiest TV presenter in the UK. And the witty wanker behind the scathing theatre reviews in the Westminster Post.  She’s having a drink with friends after a rather disastrous performance when she overhears him talking to someone in the next booth in the pub, uncomfortably aware that his cutting remarks are right on the nose:

“For some reason, she’s pursuing a determined line in high-brow dramas, when she’d clearly rather be stamping about in puddles in Singin’ in the Rain.”

It’s completely unnerving that this man, whom she doesn’t know, has seen through her façade, and more unnerving still is the way her stomach suddenly feels like it’s full of butterflies when she ends up standing next to him at the bar.  Sure, he’s good-looking, but sadly, behind those compelling dark eyes, that platinum blond hair and majestic nose lurks a frosty demeanour and all the personality of an iceberg.

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

Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5) by Melinda Leigh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When a retired sheriff’s deputy is shot to death in his home, his troubled teenage stepson, Evan, becomes the prime suspect. Even more incriminating, the boy disappeared from the scene of the crime.

Desperate to find her son, Evan’s mother begs PI Lance Kruger for help. She knows her son is innocent. Kruger and defense attorney Morgan Dane want to believe that too, but the evidence against the boy is damning. Just as the trail goes cold, another deputy vanishes. His shocking connection to Evan’s stepfather throws the investigation into chaos as Lance and Morgan fear the worst…that Evan is the killer’s new target.

With so many secrets to unravel, will Lance and Morgan find him before it’s too late?

Rating: B

This fifth book in Melinda Leigh’s series about defence attorney Morgan Dane, her partner – PI Lance Kruger – and his boss and their mutual friend Lincoln Sharp, focuses on a tautly written mystery plot involving a murder and a missing teen while also taking an insightful look at the challenges of parenting young children and finding a practicable work-life balance.

When Secrets Never Die opens, we meet sixteen-year-old Evan Meade as he’s returning home – later than he should be – from an evening out with a friend.  He’s surprised to see there are no lights on inside the house; his mother, a nurse, is still at work and his stepfather, Paul, a retired sheriff’s deputy, always leaves a light on for her – but the place is in total darkness.  Cautiously – and still feeling guilty for being out late and having ignored Paul’s concerned texts earlier – Evan is making his way through the house when he hears a loud pop he thinks must be a gunshot.  He stands in the doorway of the den, frozen in terror at the sight of Paul lying on the floor, covered in blood, as a large man carrying a gun stands over him and shoots him again, this time between the eyes, execution style.  As Evan watches, horrified, he sees the man is wearing a gold badge clipped to his belt and he’s wearing gloves – is he a cop?  After that final shot, the killer’s eyes fix on Evan – who turns and starts running for his life.

Morgan and Lance have had a particularly difficult and exhausting few days.  Morgan’s three daughters  – all aged six and under – have been ill which has meant disturbed nights for both of them (something I’m sure all parents will be able to identify with!) and they’re both running on empty when Lance gets a call in the early hours from Tina, Evan’s mother, who tells him she returned from work to find her husband shot dead and her son missing.  Lance, an ex-cop turned PI, also coaches a hockey team of at-risk youths, which is how he knows both mother and son.  He and Morgan think it’s a bit strange that Tina has called them before dialling 911, but they nonetheless head over to the house, arriving at the scene before the County Sheriff and his team, which gives them a chance to look over the house for evidence before they’re told to butt out.

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

Bad Influence (Bad Bachelors #3) by Stefanie London

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Annie Maxwell had her whole life figured out…until her fiancé left her when his career took off. If that wasn’t bad enough, every society blog posted pictures of him escorting a woman wearing her wedding ring. To help the women of New York avoid men like her ex, she created the Bad Bachelors app. But try as she might, Annie just can’t forget him…

Outside his stellar career, CEO Joe Preston has made a lot of mistakes. None was worse than leaving the love of his life when she needed him most. Now, he’s ready for a second chance. He may still be one heck of a bad influence, but when Annie’s safety is threatened by a hacker, Joe is the only one who can save her—and he’ll do whatever it takes to win her back. But will their hard-won bond survive the revelation that Annie is the one pulling the strings behind Bad Bachelors?

Rating: B

Bad Influence is the third and final book in the trilogy of stories involving the controversial website/app called Bad Bachelors, a means for women to honestly rate the men they date.  It’s a sexy, second-chance romance between the site’s creator, Annie Maxwell, and Joseph Preston, the man she loved and had planned a future with until circumstances forced them apart three years earlier.  I haven’t read the other two books, but there’s enough background detail here for the newbie to be able to read this instalment without feeling lost.

On the eve of their leaving the US and moving to Singapore, where Joseph had accepted a highly prestigious banking job, Annie learned her mother had breast cancer.  Instead of talking to Joseph about it, she shut him out of the decision-making process and decided she needed to stay at home to support her family and be with her mum.  It’s a decision that anyone would make in a similar situation and Joseph understood that – he was close to Annie’s family, too – but what hurt him so badly was that Annie made her choice without even consulting him.

Annie barely kept herself together after Joseph left, but it wasn’t until a year later – when she saw a photo of him with a glamorous woman on his arm in a gossip magazine that proclaimed the couple’s engagement – that Annie decided to channel her anger and hurt into something that might help other women to avoid similar heartbreak.  So Bad Bachelors was born.

Speculation is rife as to who is behind the site, and Annie has become used to the volume of mail she receives – both thanking her for creating it and calling her every kind of hateful bitch under the sun.  Some threats are worse than others, but Annie has not, so far, reported them to anyone, not wishing to compromise her anonymity.  Now though, one particular angry commenter has taken things a step further; when Annie receives a photo in the mail that was clearly taken by her own laptop camera, she realises that someone is actively stalking her, and that whoever it is has somehow managed to hack into her computer.  Which makes her wonder – what other aspects of her life has this person gained access to? And what are they planning to do?  Blackmail?  Worse?

Ms. London does a really good job of conveying Annie’s fear and sense of isolation when she realises she’s being stalked.  If she files an official report, her identity will be revealed, and she doesn’t want to worry her friends or family by involving them if it all turns out to be a stupid hoax.  There is literally only one person she can turn to for help – and he’s the last man on Earth she wants to ask.

Before taking the job in Singapore, Joseph had planned to use his expertise in IT to set up a company specialising in online security.  But he allowed himself to be persuaded by his cold, exacting father that the move abroad would be the best thing for his career – and he stayed in Singapore for three years before realising it was the wrong move for him.  He’s returned to New York, where he’s the youngest ever CIO at another major bank, and has decided it’s time for him to start pursuing his own ambitions and life-goals rather than to continue the attempt to win his father’s approbation.

He and Annie might have a lot of baggage between them, but there’s no way he’s going to turn down a request for help, not knowing how much it must be costing her pride to ask.  Annie tries to tell Joseph as little as possible about the stalker and certainly isn’t willing to own up to the reasons behind it – until another message makes it clear they’re not messing around and that they’ve hacked into Bad Bachelors and uncovered some very damaging information.

The time Annie and Joseph spend together of course enables them to thrash out their issues and for them both to finally admit that they each bear an equal weight of blame for their break-up.  They are still strongly attracted to each other and have never really fallen out of love, but Annie can’t help being incredibly wary; she knows Joseph is a decent guy, but the weight of his family’s disapproval of their relationship (Annie’s mum used to be the wealthy Prestons’ domestic help) and the long shadow cast by his father only added to the pressures on their relationship – and she isn’t prepared to go back there.  But Joseph has changed.  The years away have given him more confidence in himself and his abilities, and have shown him what he really wants from life.  And what he really wants is Annie.

Ratings sites and apps are nothing new or unusual, and the anonymity offered by the internet gives those determined to be unpleasant a place to hide every day (you’ve only got to look at Twitter to see that!)  I appreciated the author’s exploration of the online world we now inhabit, and the way she shows clearly how something that was originally intended to be helpful has grown beyond its creator’s original vision and become something that is probably hurting as many people as it has helped.

If you’ve been following the series, Bad Influence rounds things off nicely.  Joseph and Annie are well-drawn, complex characters, they have great chemistry and I was (mostly) rooting for them to get back together. I say mostly, because my opinion of Annie in the early stages was coloured by the fact that I found her view that the break-up was all Joseph’s fault to be immature – especially as it was herdecision not to go abroad with him. As the book progressed, however, and I saw her character growth as she began to let go of her anger and to own up to her part in what happened, I started to come around and to think that perhaps she did deserve Joseph after all. That said, the reasons for their separation are really flimsy, so I had to do a bit of hand-waving away in order to accept it and get to the meat of the story.  Also on the negative side, the identity of the stalker is just … an odd choice, and the reveal is contrived and anti-climactic.

Otherwise, though, Bad Influence is an enjoyable contemporary romance that combines a look at some very relevant issues with a sensual love story and a hard-won HEA.  It earns a recommendation.

Lady Notorious (Royal Rewards #4) by Theresa Romain

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Who knew love would be her secret weapon?

Cassandra Benton has always survived by her wits and wiles, even working for Bow Street alongside her twin brother. When injury takes him out of commission, Cass must support the family by taking on an intriguing new case: George, Lord Northbrook, believes someone is plotting to kill his father, the Duke of Ardmore. Decades before, the duke was one of ten who formed a wager that would grant a fortune to the last survivor. But someone can’t wait for nature to take its course—and George hopes a seasoned investigator like Cass can find out who.

Cass relishes the chance to spy on the ton, shrewdly disguised as handsome Lord Northbrook’s notorious “cousin.” What she doesn’t expect is her irresistible attraction to her dashing employer, and days of investigation soon turn to passionate nights. But with a killer closing in and her charade as a lady of the ton in danger of collapsing at any moment, Cass has no choice but to put her life—and her heart—in the hands of the last man she ought to trust . . .

Rating: B-

Lady Notorious is the fourth in Theresa Romain’s Royal Rewards series, although we’ve moved on from the initial premise of the first two books which concerned the hunt for several chests full of gold sovereigns which were stolen from the Royal Mint. Lady Notorious picks up a plot-thread from the previous book, Lady Rogue, and re-introduces readers to the Benton twins, Charles – a Bow Street Runner – and his twin sister, Cassandra, who is a sort of ‘unofficial’ Runner, openly working alongside him.

The plot in Lady Rogue was kick-started when the Duke of Ardmore was set to sell a forged painting as part payment of gambling debts owed to a notorious London crime lord.  As Lady Notorious opens, we learn the duke is still deeply in debt – thanks to his addiction to the gaming tables – and his heir George, Lord Northbrook, is able to do little more than watch as his father continues to reduce the once affluent dukedom to a pile of debt.  Debt that will be George’s when he eventually inherits the title.

George is prompted to hire the Bentons – brother and sister – after he discovers the existence of something called a tontine, a kind of wager, placed decades earlier by ten gentleman including his father.  Part investment scheme and part wager, the funds (and interest) are left untouched until all but one of the group is dead – and the last man standing receives the full amount of the fortune.  The tontine has existed for almost forty years at this point, and while a couple of its members died some years ago, George becomes concerned for his father’s safety when he learns that three of the other ‘investors’ have died under mysterious circumstances within the last year.

As he lives under his father’s roof, George is well placed to protect the duke, so he arranges for Cass and Charles to be taken into the household of his godfather, Lord Deverell, another member of the tontine.  When the book opens, Cass is part way through another late-night vigil when the house is plunged into uproar.  Lady Deverell starts screaming and once the rest of the household is roused, Charles is discovered to have broken his leg (most likely falling out of the lady’s bedroom window!), and Lord Deverell is found sprawled on the sofa in his study, passed out from drink and with a serious knife wound to his leg.

It seems the threat to the lives of the remaining members of the tontine is very real, and George is determined to get to the bottom of it.  With Charles out of action, the bulk of the investigation is going to fall to Cass – which is par for the course really, as she normally does all the work anyway – but installing her as a servant in one household or other is clearly not going to help much.  So George suggests instead that she pose as a distant relative; a notorious cousin newly arrived from the Continent who will be best placed to hear all the gossip, the secrets women don’t talk about in front of men which might have some relevance to the case. And if that cousin is fashionable and a bit fast, all the better, as she’s bound to be at the centre of a swirl of gossip herself.

This set-up will, of course, allow George and Cass to spend time together and explore the attraction that’s been simmering between them from the start, and their interactions and witty exchanges are some of the highlights of the book. The plot concerning the possible threat to the members of the tontine is fairly thinly stretched, but my biggest issue with the novel as a whole was the concept of Cass as an unofficial investigator/thief-taker. I give a big thumbs-up to Ms. Romain for writing about non-aristocratic characters, but Cass being openly accepted in her role by everyone she works with, including the magistrate, was difficult to swallow  given that the story is set in 1819 and even a lower-class female would have had limited options.  (And of course, Cass isn’t really lower-class; her grandmother was a gentleman’s daughter who married beneath her, this making it just about acceptable for her to eventually find her HEA with a duke’s heir.)  I liked her intelligence and resourcefulness and the exploration of the difficulties of her relationship with Charles is really well done, but I had to ignore the implausibility of her ‘profession’ for most of the book, which did put a bit of a damper on things.

On the positive side, however, is George, who is a simply lovely hero.   He’s charming, possessed of a dry sense of humour and doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he’s also a kind, conscientious man who wants to take care of those he loves but doesn’t quite know how. He lived the dissipated life of many a ducal heir until his mother’s near death from a laudanum overdose pulled him up short, and even though he soon came to the realisation that nothing he could do was going to make any difference to either of his parents’ addictions, he still feels guilty about that.  He attempts to fill his time experimenting with his collection of camera obscurae and trying to fix images using sunlight and chemicals – an unusual hobby to be sure, and one that turned out to have no bearing on the mystery plot, which made me wonder why the author chose to include it.

Lady Notorious is a difficult book to rate because I have such mixed feelings about it.  I liked the central characters (especially George!) and their interactions, but ultimately, didn’t feel there was a strong connection between them – and I found it difficult to get past the idea of the heroine as an investigator at this period in time. The writing is excellent as always and the familial relationships – George’s with his parents and Cass’ with Charles – are well done, but the mystery is lacklustre and while I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t completely invested either.  I’m going with a cautious recommendation – the good things about the book are good, but its weaknesses mean I can’t give it a whole-hearted endorsement.

 

Noble Hops (Trouble Brewing #3) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Everything Dominic Price has worked hard to uphold is about to come crashing down on everything he holds dear.

So much for the quiet life. Just as assistant US attorney and brewery owner Dominic Price is settling into a comfy new chapter with his partner, FBI agent Cameron Byrne, the sudden death of Nic’s father puts their happily-ever-after in jeopardy. Nic immediately suspects foul play, his prime suspect a notorious gangster his father was indebted to—only now the loan shark is out for blood.

Cam has been longing for Nic to finally let him in on this very personal case. But when Nic’s belief that he’s the sole Price heir is upended, the line between personal and professional starts to blur, leaving Cam unsure of where he stands.

Nic is depending on Cam’s kidnap and rescue expertise to save his recently discovered family member before it’s too late. But with a dangerous threat closing in, the ghosts from Nic’s past cast long shadows. Any relationship could crack under the pressure, but for Nic, finding his family might mean losing the love of his life.

Rating: B-

Although I haven’t given as high grades to the books in Layla Reyne’s Trouble Brewing series as I did to some of those in her earlier Agents Irish and Whiskey one, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the novels in spite of their weaknesses. This is primarily because I like the two principals – FBI agent Cameron Byrne and Assistant US Attorney Nic Price – and the sense of family and connections the author has created between them and the recurring secondary characters, most of whom appeared in the earlier series. These are quick, easy reads that are rather like TV shows or action movies in book form; the heroes are impossibly handsome, the ex-SEAL-turned-Lawyer gets to kick ass physically as well as in the courtroom, and the computer experts can hack pretty much everything in the world without breaking a sweat, or turn up all sorts of information in the five minutes it takes most laptops to simply boot up!

So. Taking a degree of suspension of disbelief as read, Noble Hops brings to a close the overarching plotline of the series, in which Nic discovered that his father Curtis Price, a wealthy businessman, was heavily in debt to Duncan Vaughn, a dangerous criminal and slippery character with a finger in many, many pies, that nobody has – as yet – been able to pin anything on. Vaughn tried threatening Nic and his business – the small craft brewery he co-owns with a former SEAL buddy – as a way to force Curtis to pay off his loans, and then to force Nic to pay them – and the fear of putting those he loves in harm’s way led Nic to try to conceal what was happening from Cam and those he’s closest to. Fortunately, by the end of book one, Nic was brought to see that he didn’t have to deal with the situation alone, and now, he and Cam are openly living together and obviously in it for the long haul. That’s not to say Nic isn’t still carrying around a large crate of worry and guilt over events in his past, but he’s at last adjusting to the fact that he has a family now – maybe not a family by blood, but one forged of strong bonds of friendship and loyalty – people who love him and he can trust to have his back.

The book opens as Nic and Cam are attending a ceremony honouring a former colleague of Nic’s when a phone call comes in that changes everything.  Curtis Price is dead, and now it’s time to step up the investigation into Duncan Vaughn and start putting the squeeze on him.  Cam is worried at the stoic way Nic takes the news – he might have been estranged from Price but the man was his father – but he offers the emotional support Nic needs in order to focus on setting  the endgame into play.  Nic and the FBI team that includes Cam and his boss, Aidan Talley, have been gradually amassing evidence of Vaughn’s felonious activities and are finally in a position to make a move and bring him down.  They have also ascertained the identities of Vaughn’s moles on the inside, one of them a young FBI agent, the other a much more senior staff member whose complicity they’ve long suspected but have not, so far, been able to prove.  Everything is in place. Nic is to take his evidence to the Grand Jury in order to obtain the necessary indictments, while Cam and his team will bring Vaughn in – but the discovery of a long-buried family secret and the reappearance in his life of Nic’s first love threaten both the operation and Cam’s peace of mind.

As was the case with Barrel Proof (book three in the Irish and Whiskey series), the focus in Noble Hopsis more on the suspense element of the plot than on the romance, but I didn’t mind that.  Nic and Cam have been firmly established as a loving, committed couple; I liked that their personal connection makes them so compatible professionally, and the way that Cam keeps Nic grounded when things look like they might go to shit.   I did find Cam’s insecurity about his place in Nic’s life a little unnecessary, but Ms. Reyne doesn’t drag anything out, and watching them pull together in spite of the unfolding chaos around them was sufficient to convince me they have a successful future ahead of them.

But as with the other books in the series, I found some things about the writing that were a bit cheesy and kept taking me out of the story.  Ms. Reyne knows how to construct a fairly tight plot and create likeable characters, but some of her dialogue and sentiment is repetitive and a bit creaky.  In Craft Brew, Cam kept telling Nic to ‘just breathe’ when he got stressed, and here we get several reminders of how they each need to be ‘Nic/Cam the SEAL/FBI agent’ rather than ‘Nic/Cam the boyfriend’ or ‘Nic the federal prosecutor rather than Nic the brother’. There are several instances where Nic’s internal monologuing about his guilt over his perceived failure to protect his family years earlier crosses the line into the melodramatic, which just felt wrong for a forty-something ex-SEAL Captain and terror of the San Francisco courthouse.

Still, all ends well, Nic, Cam and the crew come out on top and there’s a hint at a possible couple and new direction for a future book or series.  Trouble Brewing hasn’t been as big a hit with me as I’d hoped, but Noble Hops rounds out the series nicely, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Layla Reyne’s next venture.

Appetites and Vices (The Truitts #1) by Felicia Grossman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s her ticket into high society…

Banking heiress Ursula Nunes has lived her life on the fringes of Philadelphia’s upper class. Her Jewish heritage means she’s never quite been welcomed by society’s elite…and her quick temper has never helped, either.

A faux engagement to the scion of the mid-Atlantic’s most storied family might work to repair her rumpled reputation and gain her entrée to the life she thinks she wants…if she can ignore the way her “betrothed” makes her feel warm all over and stay focused on her goal.

She’s his ticket out…

Former libertine John Thaddeus “Jay” Truitt is hardly the man to teach innocent women about propriety. Luckily, high society has little to do with being proper and everything to do with identifying your foe’s temptation—an art form Jay mastered long ago. A broken engagement will give him the perfect excuse to run off to Europe and a life of indulgence.

But when the game turns too personal, all bets are off…

Rating: B-

Felicia Grossman’s début historical romance, Appetites & Vices makes use of a setting I’ve not come across before in historical romance – 1840s Delaware – and boasts a couple of interesting, though flawed, central characters who enter into a faux engagement in an attempt to better the social standing of the heroine so she can marry the man of her choice.  There are some things about the plot that didn’t quite work and some odd writing tics that took me out of the story on occasion, but overall it’s a solid outing and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Ms. Grossman’s work.

Ursula Nunes is twenty-one, beautiful, clever and wealthy.  By rights, she should have society at her feet, and she would, but for two things.  One, she says what she thinks and has no social skills whatsoever.  And two – she’s Jewish, which, in Delaware in 1841 puts her pretty much beyond the pale.  She and her dearest friend Hugo Middleton have decided that it would be preferable to marry each other than to marry strangers, but the Middletons are one of the oldest families in society and with Hugo’s father intent on securing personal advancement, won’t countenance Hugo’s marriage to a Jew, no matter how rich she is.

John Thaddeus Truitt V – Jay – comes from a family that is even more prestigious than the Middletons, but that doesn’t mean life is any easier for him.  The only son of a disapproving father who always believes the worst of him, Jay is well aware he’s a disappointment all round and wants nothing more than to take himself off to Europe and never come back.  When he witnesses Ursula and Hugo in intense, whispered conversation and then overhears Ursula muttering to herself about ways she could ingratiate herself with the Middletons , he finds himself fighting back laughter at the incongruity of the idea of a woman as strong and vibrant as Ursula paired with a man so clearly  unsuited to her as Hugo.  But then inspiration strikes – and he has the solution to both their problems.  In spite of his blackened reputation, the Truitt name still counts for something, and if he and Ursula pretend to be engaged to one another, her association with him means she’ll be able to move in the exclusive social circles to which she is currently denied entrance.  And when she jilts him publicly,

“A good faux broken heart will be enough for my parents to stop trying to make me into something I’m not.”

That’s the set-up for the story, and the author does a really good job of exploring the prejudice Ursula encounters because of her birth and the difficulties she faces because she has so little patience with the superficiality of high society.  She wants so badly to belong, but she doesn’t fit in anywhere, not in Hugo’s world, certainly not in Jay’s… and not even in that of her own (Jewish)  family.

Jay is a very troubled young man who feels that nothing he ever does will be good enough and is so weighed down by guilt that all he wants to do is to escape into the drug-induced haze that is the only thing he’s found that will enable him to forget and lay down those burdens.  The truth of Jay’s addiction isn’t sugar-coated; although the author doesn’t come out and directly say Jay is an opium addict – instead hinting at it – until some way into the book, his cravings are clearly and convincingly described.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, not least of which is the humour and snappy banter between the two principals, and the way the author shows the understanding that develops between them; I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Jay uses the game of poker to try to teach Ursula how to read people and situations. Their chemistry isn’t the strongest I’ve ever read, but it simmers nicely, and the love scenes are well written.  BUT.  I don’t know a lot about American society of the time, but I’m guessing the rules that governed male/female interaction were pretty similar to those in England, so I was surprised at how often Ursula and Jay were able to sneak off to have sex – in her house with family members (her father!) and servants around (there’s an explanation of sorts given towards the end, but that seemed like a convenient afterthought), and please, can we stop it with the virgin heroines who can give championship blow jobs at the first attempt and deep-throat the hero like a professional?  I get that Ursula is curious and uninhibited, but I just don’t buy into that whole she-knows-how-to-do-it-just-by-instinct thing.

I also found some of the plans and situations rather convoluted – there were a few places where I had to stop and go back to re-read – and there’s quite a lot of woeful introspection on the part of both protagonists that got to be a bit much. The middle of the book is repetitive, and the way the secrets held by various characters are foreshadowed is quite heavy-handed.  There are also some grammatical constructions that really bugged me and kept pulling me out of the story.  I won’t go into huge detail, as I know not everyone is a grammar-nerd like me, but one thing I will mention is the use of contractions with names.  Instead of ‘Lydia would’ or ‘Rachel did’, we get ‘Lydia’d’ or ‘Rachel’d’.  Now, sure, they’re both fine on occasion, but in some places, sentences and phrases are so littered with them that they become unnatural and clumsy.  If read aloud, they’d sound pretty odd.  Some of the dialogue felt ‘off’ for the time period, and for some reason, Jay decides to shorten Ursula’s name and calls her ‘Urs’, which is a really ugly diminutive, and sounded far too close to ‘arse’ whenever I heard it in my head.  If you don’t like your protagonist’s name, then use a different one!

Speaking of Ursula (I refuse to call her ‘Urs’!), I confess that for all her spark and originality, I found her difficult to connect with, and sometimes felt her behaviour to be quite immature (and she cries a lot).  On the other hand, I did like Jay and warmed to him more easily; he’s damaged, witty, dangerously charming and possessed of the kind of emotional intelligence that Ursula lacks.

Even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m giving Appetites & Vices a recommendation, albeit a cautious one.  The story at its heart – a woman who wants to belong and a man who wants to be seen for who he really is – is a good one, Jay and Ursula are well-matched, and both character and romantic development are well-done.