TBR Challenge – Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

briarley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

During a chance summer shower, an English country parson takes refuge in a country house. The house seems deserted, yet the table is laid with a sumptuous banquet such as the parson has not seen since before war rationing.

Unnerved by the uncanny house, he flees, but stops to pluck a single perfect rose from the garden for his daughter – only for the master of the house to appear, breathing fire with rage. Literally.

At first, the parson can’t stand this dragon-man. But slowly, he begins to feel the injustice of the curse that holds the dragon captive. What can break this vengeful curse?

Grade: B+

I’m not a big fan of fairytale retellings, so I struggled a to come up with something for this month’s Challenge prompt and was almost at the point of just picking up a random book instead.  But then I remembered Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley – an m/m version of  Beauty and the Beast – that I’d come across at the end of last year after enjoying Honeytrap. Problem solved!

This version of the story is set in the English countryside during World War II, and the exquisite writing and the author’s gift for language and tone sucked me in from the very first page:

There once was a country parson with a game leg from the Somme, who lived in a honey-colored parsonage with his daughter, the most beautiful girl in the world.

Others might have quibbled that Rose was not the most beautiful girl in the world, or even the prettiest girl in the village of Lesser Innsley. But to the parson she was all loveliness, all the more so because his wife died when their Rose was still very young, and so Rose was all he had left to love in this world.

Rose is home on leave from her work as a nurse, and when the parson (as he is usually called) has to go to a meeting in town regarding the evacuation of London’s children, she reminds him to bring her back a rose, something he’s done habitually whenever he returned from a trip away from home.  As he’s cycling back, he somehow takes a wrong turn, and with his bad leg aching and the weather worsening, he decides to take refuge in a grand, seemingly abandoned house, hoping perhaps to use the phone to get a message to Rose that he’s been delayed.  His knocks go unanswered, so he tries pushing the door… and is surprised when it opens.  Inside, he finds a dining room with a crackling fire and a sumptuous feast laid out – one that must have put an incredible strain on the owner’s ration books! – but an eerie chill, despite the fire, will not leave him and he makes his way outside intending to continue his journey home.  The house is surrounded by plentiful rose bushes and, remembering his promise to take one home, he cuts one using his penknife, and is about to leave when a booming voice yells “Thief!”  from somewhere overhead – and a creature with wings and a large, scaly snout drops from the sky, gathers him in its arms and flies up into the air and onto the roof of the mansion.

The terrified parson tries to apologise to the dragon-man for stealing his rose, but the dragon will not hear his apology and says he will let him go – if he will send his daughter to take his place.

The author preserves the basic elements of the tale, but from here on in, she makes a number of significant changes while still very much preserving the spirit of the original.  The parson’s refusal to bring his daughter to the house flips the story on its head, and his response to the dragon’s somewhat petulant reaction to his refusal:

“If the Luftwaffe gets you, it will be the only good work they ever did,”

Sets the tone for the gently adversarial relationship that develops between them.

And it’s clear this is going to be a very different sort of retelling when, in response to learning of the dragon’s dilemma, the parson suggests he should get a dog:

“The curse says you must learn to love and be loved, does it not? Those are the only conditions?” The dragon nodded, his head still buried in his hands. The parson broke a piece off a roll and buttered it. “Then I suggest you get a puppy,” he said.

At first glance it seems dismissive, but he then goes on to explain how he’s seen shell-shocked soldiers make huge progress when put in charge of a dog’s welfare – showing he’s already got a good read on the situation and is genuinely trying to find a practical solution to undoing the curse.

Briarley is fairly short (novella-length), but where so many shorter romances fall into the insta-love trap, this doesn’t and actually feels like a slow-burn as the parson and the dragon (as they’re usually called) start spending time together while the parson muses on the nature of love and its many forms and the dragon starts to let down his guard and become… more human.

The characters are well drawn – the dragon haughty, impulsive and entitled, the parson insightful with a nice sense of irony –  and the author does an excellent job of showing their antagonistic relationship developing into a true friendship, and then taking a more romantic turn.  The parson’s deep affection for the dragon permeates the pages as the story progresses, as does his understanding and compassion for the thoughtless young man he’d once been.

The setting of rural wartime England is superbly and subtly evoked; the location in the enchanted house spares the characters most of the real hardships endured by so many, but the war is never far away; it’s in the talk of rationing, of children being evacuated from the cities, of young people being called up to fight and watching the raids by the Lutfwaffe and the aerial dogfights between them and the RAF.

My only complaint – which is kind of a big one for a book labelled a romance – is that the love story is under-developed and could have used a few more pages/chapters to be more fully fleshed-out.  The deep affection and the friendship between the parson and the dragon are strongly present and thoroughly convincing, but not so much the romantic love, which is disappointing.  But even so, Briarley is funny and thought-provoking, the dialogue is clever, the writing is superb and the whole thing is utterly charming.  In spite of the low-key romance, it’s still well worth reading and if you’re a fan of fairytale retellings, it should be on your radar.

TBR Challenge: Dangerous Ground (Dangerous Ground #1) by Josh Lanyon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Special Agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt have been partners and best friends for three years, but everything changed the night Taylor admitted the truth about his feelings for Will.

Taylor agreed to a camping trip in the High Sierras — despite the fact that he hates camping — because Will wants a chance to save their partnership. But the trip is a disaster from the first, and things rapidly go from bad to worse when they find a crashed plane and a couple of million dollars in stolen money.

With a trio of murderous robbers trailing them, Will and Taylor are on dangerous ground, fighting for their partnership…and their lives.

Rating: B

I thought, when I saw April’s prompt – “freebie” – that it’d be easy to find a book to read for it, but when it came to it and I was searching my Kindle, I realised that my choices were limited by my memory; I couldn’t recall which books I’d picked up for free and which I’d paid for!  Fortunately, I remembered that I’d received a couple of free books when I signed up for Josh Lanyon’s mailing list a while back, so that solved my problem.

The Dangerous Ground series is a set of six novellas (the first was published in 2008, the last was published this year) featuring agents for the Department of Diplomatic Security, Taylor MacAllister and Will Brandt.  They’re fast-moving stories – kind of like a TV episode in book form – and each instalment contains a complete mystery/investigation, but the relationship between the leads develops throughout. I knew this going in, so the abrupt ending of book one, Dangerous Ground wasn’t an issue as I knew there was more to come, and in fact, I enjoyed it so much I jumped straight into book two, Old Poison (and then bought the rest of the series.)

Taylor and Will have been partners and best friends for almost four years.  They’re very different in some ways – Will is the more settled and considered of the two, where Taylor is more impulsive – but they work well together and share a similar jaded worldview and sarcastic sense of humor.  But six weeks before Dangerous Ground opens, things between them went horribly wrong; Taylor was shot during an operation and Will is alternately furious – with Taylor for (as he thinks) carelessly looking for trouble – and beating himself up with guilt, believing it’s his fault Taylor was off his game.  The night before the shooting, Will and Taylor had gone out for a few drinks, which had ended with Taylor getting smashed and then telling Will how he felt about him. But Will turned him down.  It’s not that he’s blind to the fact that Taylor is gorgeous or that he isn’t attracted to him… but he doesn’t think the commitment-shy Taylor is a good bet for a relationship and doesn’t want to ruin what they already have.

The trouble is, that things are changing anyway and there’s nothing either of them can do about it.  Six weeks after Taylor was shot, and shortly before he’s due to return to work, Will suggests they go on a camping trip into the High Sierras… and although he hates camping, Taylor agrees.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for Will and he, too, thinks that perhaps they need some time to sort out where they stand with each other.

The book starts a few days into the trip when Will and Taylor stumble across the wreckage of a small plane they realise was used in the infamous Black Wolf Casino heist a few months earlier.  The only body on board is that of the pilot – who was shot in the head – and there’s no sign of the other passengers.  What they do find, however, is the loot – over two million dollars, which they decide to stash in a bear box while they make their way down the mountain to alert the authorities.  But with that much money at stake, it’s not long before Will and Taylor find out they’re not the only ones on a trip into the mountains.  Only the armed men and woman who find them are clearly not there on vacation.

The author packs a surprising amount of plot into a relatively short page count, and keeps both the plot and romantic elements of the story moving smoothly in tandem.  I liked the way the backstory – the shooting, Taylor’s drunk declaration – was drip fed throughout the early chapters, the tension between them is palpable, and there’s no denying the pair have great chemistry.  There’s a really strong sense of place in the story, too, wonderfully evocative descriptions of the scenery, the warmth of the sun, the chill in the air and the sounds of nature.  On the downside, the characterisation is perhaps a little thin, as we don’t know a great deal about Will and Taylor, but as I said, this is the first of six, so there’s room for development on that front.

Dangerous Ground is fast-paced and entertaining, the leads are engaging and the author achieves a good balance between the suspense plot and the romance, with some high stakes action and steamy love scenes along the way.  It’s a quick read, but has enough depth to have made me care about the characters and want to know more about them.  I definitely intend to read the rest of the series.

Quickie Reviews #5

I always mean to do these more regularly but… you know, life. Anyway, like many people right now, I’ve got a bit of extra time on my hands, so I’ve pulled together short reviews of a bunch of books and audiobooks I’ve read and listened to over the past few months but haven’t written full-length reviews for. If you’re looking for a read or listen to keep you company over the next few weeks, maybe you’ll find some inspiration here.


Two Man Station by Lisa Henry

Gio Valeri is a big-city police officer who’s been transferred to the small outback town of Richmond with his professional reputation in tatters. His transfer is a punishment, and Gio just wants to keep his head down and survive the next two years. No more mistakes. No more complications.

Except Gio isn’t counting on Jason Quinn.

Jason Quinn, officer in charge of Richmond Station, is a single dad struggling with balancing the demands of shift work with the challenges of raising his son. The last thing he needs is a new senior constable with a history of destroying other people’s careers. But, like it or not, Jason has to work with Gio.

In a remote two-man station hours away from the next town, Gio and Jason have to learn to trust and rely on each another. Close quarters and a growing attraction mean that the lines between professional and personal are blurring. And even in Richmond, being a copper can be dangerous enough without risking their hearts as well.

Rating: B

With two cops as leads, I’d thought this might be more of a mystery/suspense story, but it isn’t; rather it’s a fish-out-of-water tale as a disgraced big city cop relocates to a small rural community and discovers that policing there is very different to the sort of thing he’s used to. Lisa Henry evokes the small town/back of beyond atmosphere really well – although this town isn’t at all small really; Jason and Gio’s “beat” covers a massive area, but it doesn’t boast all that many inhabitants.

Amid the series of vignettes as to the various disputes the pair are called upon to work through is the relationship that gradually grows between them. They get off to a rocky start because of what Jason has heard about Gio’s reason for relocating (that he was an informant who got another officer dismissed from his job), but as they work together and get to know each other, Jason starts to wonder if that’s the whole story. (Of course, it isn’t).

Jason is a widower with a ten-year-old son, and is only just realising that he really needs to make proper childcare arrangements. Before, his two neighbours – a young couple with kids of their own – would always pick up the slack and were happy to help out when Jason had to answer a call at night or worked long shifts – but now they’ve moved away, he’s struggling to reconcile the demands of the job with his job as a father.

The slower pacing works and I enjoyed the book overall, although I would have liked a stronger romance. There’s a definite attraction between Jason (who is bi) and Gio, but a few pages before the end, Jason tells Gio he’s still in love with his dead wife (and he’s still wearing his wedding ring), which was unexpected and seemed a really odd move; and although they’re still together six months down the line (shown in the epilogue) it felt to me as though there was more to be said about their relationship. There are no ILYs – which is fine when I feel that the characters are committed to each other – and I don’t necessarily need the mushy stuff, but their emotional connection wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for by the end.

Even so, I’m giving this four stars because I really did like the story and the characters. I’m going to pick up the next book soon.


Leaning into the Fall by Lane Hayes

Narrated by Nick J. Russo

Nick Jorgensen is a quirky genius. He’s made a fortune in the competitive high-tech field with his quick mind and attention to detail. He believes in hard work and trusting his gut. And he believes in karma. It’s the only thing that makes sense. People are difficult, but numbers never lie. In the disastrous wake of a broken engagement to an investor’s daughter, Nick is more certain than ever he isn’t relationship material.

Wes Conrad owns a thriving winery in Napa Valley. The relaxed atmosphere is a welcome departure from his former career as a high-rolling businessman. Wes’s laid-back nature is laced with a fierceness that appeals to Nick. In spite of his best intention to steer clear of complications, Nick can’t fight his growing attraction to the sexy older man who seems to understand him. Even the broken parts he doesn’t get himself.

However, when Wes’s past collides with Nick’s present, both men will have to have to decide if they’re ready to lean into the ultimate fall.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – B

Nick is a tech genius who doesn’t do well in social situations and frequently comes across as an arsehole; Wes is more than a decade older and considerably more chilled than Nick, but seems to just ‘get’ him – even the parts of himself Nick doesn’t fully understand. I liked the way their relationship developed; laid-back Wes is a great foil for Nick, who is sometimes driven to the point of obsession and oblivious to everything around him. There’s plenty of hot sex, but there’s an emotional connection, too -Nick has never clicked with anyone the way he has with Wes, and realises that for the first time ever, he’s developing feelings for someone that go beyond work or friendship.

The conflict comes fairly late in the book and although it seems a little contrived, it does actually fit with Nick’s character – he gets worked up and anxious easily and does tend to blurt the first thing that comes into his head, and the ‘black moment’ works because of it.

Nick J. Russo narrates and does a great job!


Setting the Hook by Andrew Grey

Narrated by Greg Tremblay

William Westmoreland escapes his unfulfilling Rhode Island existence by traveling to Florida twice a year and chartering Mike Jansen’s fishing boat to take him out on the Gulf. The crystal-blue water and tropical scenery isn’t the only view William enjoys, but he’s never made his move. A vacation romance just isn’t on his horizon.

Mike started his Apalachicola charter fishing service as a way to care for his daughter and mother, putting their safety and security ahead of the needs of his own heart. Denying his attraction becomes harder with each of William’s visits.

William and Mike’s latest fishing excursion starts with a beautiful day, but a hurricane’s erratic course changes everything, stranding William. As the wind and rain rage outside, the passion the two men have been trying to resist for years crashes over them. In the storm’s wake, it leaves both men yearning to prolong what they have found. But real life pulls William back to his obligations. Can they find a way to reduce the distance between them and discover a place where their souls can meet? The journey will require rough sailing, but the bright future at the end might be worth the choppy seas.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B

Sweet character-driven romance between a workaholic businessman, groomed by his parents to take over the family engineering firm, and the owner of the boat he charters a couple of times a year to go fishing.

A bad storm following William’s latest fishing trip leaves him stranded in Florida for a few days; Mike invites him to stay with him (he lives with his mother and ten-year-old daughter) and the nacent attraction they’ve both been feeling for years now becomes impossible to ignore or resist.

They’re from very different worlds, but no matter how strong the emotions growing between them, Mike’s life is in Florida and William’s is in Rhode Island. Yet the months apart after William’s last visit only prove to both of them that there’s something between them worth exploring, and both men have to decide how much they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to be together.

It’s nto going to win any prizes for originality, but Setting the Hook is an enjoyable story featuring likeable characters, and of course, Greg Tremblay’s narration was flawless.


Red Dirt Heart by N.R. Walker

Charlie Sutton runs Sutton Station the only way he knows how; the way his father did before him. Determined to keep his head down and his heart in check, Charlie swears the red dirt that surrounds him – isolates him – runs through his veins.

American agronomy student Travis Craig arrives at Sutton Station to see how farmers make a living from one of the harshest environments on earth. But it’s not the barren, brutal and totally beautiful landscapes that capture him so completely.

It’s the man with the red dirt heart.

Rating: B

Lovely and just what I needed right now.

Charlie Sutton is just twenty-five but is now the owner of the 2.58 million acre Sutton Station in the Northern Territory, Australia. He loves what he does, even though he knows he’s likely to spend his life alone; he’s gay and closeted, his late father having insisted that “no fairy” was ever going to be able to run Sutton Station and that it needed a “real man”. Yes, his father was an arsehole, but those words struck so deep that Charlie – although he’s doing a terrific job – can’t seem to see beyond them.

Enter Travis Craig, an agronomy student from Texas who has come to Sutton to see how things are done as part of an exchange programme. Travis is handsome, confident and, as quickly becomes clear to Charlie and his staff, knows his way around horses and cattle; he settles in quickly, becoming part of the team and establishing friendships with the others, but Charlie tells himself he must keep his distance.

There’s not a lot of angst in this one (a bit of very plausible drama in the second half worked well to ramp up the tension) and it’s mostly the story of Charlie learning to let go of his father’s bigotry and be his own man, and finally allowing himself to believe it’s possible for him to live his life with a loving partner by his side.

There are some great secondary characters (I loved Ma, who rules the kitchen with a rod of iron… or spatula, whatever) and the author’s descriptions of the Outback setting, the “red dirt”, the night skies, the sunsets are fabulous.

If you’re looking for a simple, well-written story that will transport you somewhere else for a few hours, this could be just what you’re after.


The Prince and his Bedeviled Bodyguard by Charlie Cochet

Prince Owin

Being a fierce predator – not at all adorable, despite my graceful stature – the last thing I needed was a bodyguard. Especially a wolf shifter, whose presence alone was an insult to my princely principles. 

As prince of the Ocelot Shifters, I prided myself on my infallible feline instincts, uncompromising dignity, and flawless fashion sense. If having a canine follow me around at all times wasn’t bad enough, I now faced the most important moment of my entire life. 

The time had come to prove I was worthy of my crown. If only I could find a way to get rid of the pesky bodyguard…

Grimmwolf

When the king of All Shifters asked me to guard Prince Owin, I admit I had no idea what to expect. Cat shifters tend to be a little intense, not to mention kinda cranky. Owin was no exception, though he seemed crankier than most. 

Being his bodyguard was proving to be one of the greatest challenges of my life, but not nearly as great as convincing him there was something special between us. 

When Owin was tasked with a perilous quest to prove his worth, I was determined to keep him safe, even if the same couldn’t be said of my heart.

Rating: Narration: A; Content B-

I wanted something short and sweet and this definitely fit the bill. The prince of the ocelot shifters has to team up with his bodyguard, a wolf shifter, to fulfil a quest set him by the king of all shifters… of course, they spar like cat and dog (!) and shenanigans ensure.

It’s not deep and the worldbuilding is minimal, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, especially in audio where Greg Boudreaux demonstrates once again that he’s a master of comic timing (and just about everything else when it comes to narration!)

Quick, fun and sexy – just what I was looking for, and I’ll probably pick up more audios in the series as they become available.


Sergeant Delicious by Annabeth Albert

Soon to be ex-marine Xavier has a bright future as a firefighter. But stationed far from home, he’s lonely and homesick for more than just his favorite foods. Thinking ahead to his homecoming, he responds to an ad seeking a date for a special gourmet dinner, but he doesn’t anticipate an immediate connection with the intriguing foodie who placed the ad.

Food writer Damien is looking for his big break, and reviewing an uber-exclusive secret restaurant may be exactly what he needs if he can score a date to go with him. He doesn’t expect to enjoy corresponding with Xavier quite so much, nor is he prepared for his powerful surge of lust for the hot marine.

However, Damien’s had more than his share of bad luck when it comes to romance, but Xavier is determined to win Damien over. Course-by-course, they fall deeper into like. When they finally give into their passion, sparks fly. But is it a flash in the pan or the recipe for lasting love?

Rating: B-

A sweet and sexy short story previously published in a charity anthology, Sergeant Delicious begins with soon-to-be demobbed Xavier answering an ad from “fun foodie guy” (a food writer) who wants someone to go with him to an upmarket dinner on Valentine’s day. The first part of this short story/novella shows the pair getting to know each other a bit via email, which makes the attraction they experience when they meet more believable. Both men are likeable and down-to-earth, and one of the things I really appreciate about novellas when they’re done well, is that the shorter page count doesn’t leave room for silly misunderstandings and other distracting plot points; and this is one of those that’s done well. The author doesn’t allow Damien’s hang-ups to get in the way (in fact, making good use of them! *wink*) and devotes all her page time to building the relationship between the leads.

A quick, fun (and did I mention sexy?) read.


Bitter Pill by Jordan Castillo Price

Narrated by Gomez Pugh

There’s a new drug on the streets called Kick. The side effects are so brutal, most folks only try it once…unless they’re psychic. Then they do it until it kills them.

Psychic medium Victor Bayne is well acquainted with pharmaceuticals, from the Auracel that blocks his ghosts to the Seconal that offers him a blissful nights’ sleep. But he’s managed to steer clear of street drugs…so far.

Jacob Marks has a medicine cabinet filled with every over-the-counter remedy known to man, but none of them are doing much for his mood—and his long, fruitless days of combing through records at The Clinic are taking a heavy toll.
But their lackluster investigation does have one silver lining: a front row seat at The Clinic when the first Kick overdose comes in. And as scary as the drug might be, if it truly does augment psychic ability, the appeal is not lost on Vic.

Because the very first hit never killed anyone.

Where did Kick come from? Why is it so addictive? And why is everyone at The Clinic acting so darn shady? That’s what Vic intends to find out. And if he’s lucky, he can also expose a shadowy figure from Camp Hell.

Unfortunately, the demons of his pill addiction might prove just as deadly as his long-buried history. He thought he’d managed to ditch that pernicious habit. But what if it was only lurking in the shadows, waiting for the best time to rear its ugly head?

Rating: Narration: A; Content A-

Gah, I love this series so much, and it seems to get better and better! So much going on here besides the actual plot, about the investigation into a deadly psyactive drug (Kick) that is killing psychics. I’m loving Vic’s character growth, especially over the last few books as he’s finally realising what it’s like to work with people who respect him and is really gaining in confidence as a result. He still can’t quite believe it, and is still as endearingly self-deprecatingly shambolic as ever, but we – and Jacob of course – see it and appreciate it. And I like that we get to see Jacob’s more vulnerable side; he’s one of those people who, by virtue of his good looks, imposing physique, intelligence and charisma has come up against little in his life that he hasn’t been able to deal with, but that’s changing, and although he’s still very much the Jacob we all know and love, that extra dimension to him is great to see.

Vic and Jacob’s relationship continues to grow and their love for each other to deepen; they get to work with Zig and Carolyn again, and we get some closure for one of the characters who’s been around since book one; Jackie, the ghost who spasmodically haunted Vic’s old appartment. Her story is a tragic one, and the author does an amazing job in the scenes where Vic and Jacob find out the truth of what happened to her and then help her to move on – they’re incredibly poignant and Gomez Pugh is simply brilliant in them and captures every single drop of emotion.

On the subject of Mr. Pugh – his portrayal of Vic is so absolutely perfect that it’s easy to forget sometimes just how good he is at the rest of it. He can produce an amazing variety of character voices for what is, after eleven books, a large secondary cast, many of whom have appeared in several books throughout the series, and his inventiveness (and consistency) is remarkable.

And – whoa, that ending! When’s the next book out?!

Mr. Right Now by Annabeth Albert


This title may be purchased from Amazon

He’s Mr. Right Now, but for how long?

When Russ suffers a Thanksgiving disaster, his gorgeous neighbor Esteban is there to save the day. And after an innocent mix-up leads to the former Hollywood hottie playing the role of Russ’s date, Russ thinks scoring Esteban as his fake boyfriend is a huge win. The newly discharged marine is healing inside and out and could use some holiday cheer.

For his part, Esteban is intrigued by his big, bad neighbor. He likes how his matchmaking cat brings out an unexpected caring side of Russ. Desire flares as the reasons to continue their ruse pile up for both men.

And pretending feels so good. From chocolaty kisses to late night cuddles, their burgeoning friendship is getting cozier and cozier. But as the end date for their little deception looms, all the real feelings they’ve tried to ignore come tumbling in. Each must decide whether they have what it takes to ring in the New Year as a couple.

Rating: B

Mr. Right Now is a sweet, sexy novella featuring neighbours – a former marine and actor-turned-event planner – that takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m not the biggest fan of novellas as I often find them rushed and lacking in characterisation and relationship development, but fortunately, that isn’t the case here, and Annabeth Albert has penned a charming and convincing romance that will certainly warm anyone’s cockles!

Russ has been thrown in at the deep end in the worst possible way. He and his boyfriend were supposed to be preparing Thanksgiving dinner together for Russ’ immediate family, but said boyfriend dumped him the night before leaving Russ – who isn’t very experienced in the kitchen – holding the turkey.

As it were.

A disastrous attempt at sautéing some onions for the stuffing sees him going outside to throw the charred remains of both vegetable and pan into the trash, when his neighbour Esteban stops to ask him what’s wrong and then offers to help. Surprised but very grateful, Russ accepts, and over the next few hours, finds himself enjoying the cooking lessons and demonstrations from the gorgeous, charming and confident Esteban, and enjoying the man’s conversation and company just as much.

With everything prepared, Esteban is getting ready to leave Russ to it when the doorbell rings earlier than expected – which leads to Russ’ family assuming that Esteban must be the boyfriend he’s told them about. After an awkward moment of unspoken communication, the pair decides to play along for the time being – and agrees to announce their break up a few days later.

The trouble is that things keep happening that cause the break up to be put off.  A charity fundraiser, a shopping trip, and a work party, along with evenings spent together and shared meals… and suddenly the fake-relationship that was supposed to last for just a few days has stretched into weeks – and maybe ending it isn’t what either man really wants or needs.

Annabeth Albert packs a lot into the shorter format without anything feeling skimped or rushed.  The chemistry between Russ and Esteban positively crackles right from the start, but even though they’re attracted to each other they have reasons for being cautious about starting anything new – Esteban was badly burned by an ex who left him to go back to his ex and Russ is on the rebound – but it’s clear they’re falling pretty hard for one another and I loved that they’re so open and communicative about what they’re looking for and how they feel.  There’s a nice slow-burn going on, and when the relationship turns physical, it feels like a natural extension of the non-physical one they’ve already established.

There’s some backstory tucked in there for Russ, a military vet who was invalided out and has been struggling to adapt to civilian life.  Kind, considerate and maybe just a teeny bit shy, he’s a total sweetie, and when he decides to convince Esteban to become his actual boyfriend, well, let’s just say Esteban doesn’t have a chance 😉

Mr. Right Now is one of those rare novellas that feels fully-rounded and complete.  There’s no manufactured drama, no overblown angst and no question that Russ and Esteban are perfect for each other.  If you’re looking for a quick, emotionally satisfying festive read with a nice side of steam that will leave you with a smile on your face, you need look no further.

To Ruin a Gentleman (Scarlet Chronicles #1) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The true story of the Scarlet Pimpernel…
Angelette, the recently widowed Comtesse d’Avignon, only invited Viscount Daventry to her country house party as a favor to her sister. When the handsome British lord arrives—two days late—he’s full of unnerving tales of unrest and violence in Paris. Angelette assumes it’s all exaggeration…until her chateau is attacked and her life threatened. Daventry rescues her, and the two are forced to run for their lives. But when danger closes in, will the viscount stand at her side or save himself?

Is not the one you’ve been told. 
Hugh Daventry visits France frequently to import wine for the family business. On his way out of the country, he stops at the comtesse’s house party out of obligation. But after meeting the raven-haired beauty, he tries to persuade her to leave France with him. When the peasants attack, he realizes he’s already too late, and now he must protect Angelette, whose sharp tongue is far from angelic. Too soon the couple is caught up in the rising revolution, dodging bloodthirsty mobs, hiding from soldiers, and embroiled in the attack of the Bastille. Hugh wants nothing but to leave tumultuous France for the calm of England. He knows Angelette is intelligent and resourceful—a survivor. But can Hugh survive without her?

Rating: B

In 2017, Shana Galen published Traitor in Her Arms, part of the Scarlet Chronicles, a series of historical romantic adventures set during the turbulent years of the French Revolution.  Now she’s following up with another book in the series – a novella – which precedes Traitor, but which can be read independently and which is linked to the earlier novel by the setting and the cameo appearance of Sir Percival Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself.  Or is he?  Because according to the synopsis, To Ruin a Gentleman tells the true story of the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The story opens as nineteen-year-old Thomas Daventry arrives at his family home burning with questions for his father.  Like many young men of his ilk, Thomas finds life in the country rather dull and spends most of his time in London living it up with his friends. He doesn’t really consider that his parents were young once, and thinks they’ve lived a fairly boring life – and still do – until a he meets Sir Andrew Ffoulkes at a dinner party and a comment made by that gentleman sends Thomas racing home in order to do as suggested and ask his father about the real Scarlet Pimpernel.  Ms. Galen then proceeds to tell the story of how Thomas’ father, Hugh, Viscount Daventry, met his wife when they were caught up in the events of that fateful July in 1789. (And no, I’m not saying any more about the ‘real’ Pimpernel!)

Angelette, the widowed Comtesse d’Avignon, has invited Hugh Daventry to attend a house party being held at her estate near Versailles at the behest of her sister, the Marquise de Beauvais, who hopes that Hugh will consider importing the de Beauvais family wines to England.  But the viscount has the bad manners not to arrive when he is supposed to, and Angelette is somewhat put out when he finally makes his appearance – two days late – when she is about to dine.  When he apologises for his tardiness, explaining that he had difficulty getting out of Paris due to the increasing unrest there, Angelette is rather dismissive, blithely suggesting that the King and his ministers will no doubt find a solution to the problem to the riots and get rid of the mobs in the streets.  Hugh is faintly appalled by her reaction, even angry when she refuses to accept that she and entire aristocracy is in danger.

Hugh suggests she should accompany him to Calais and thence to England and to her family there (Angelette is half English), but she refuses; she has spent much of her life in France and has lands and responsibilities there and views it as her home.  She decides that, for all his good looks and potent masculinity, Hugh Daventry is annoying and she’ll be glad when he departs.

Hugh’s feelings about Angelette run along fairly similar lines.  The lady is undoubtedly alluring, but her stubbornness is not only irritating, it could well get her killed – but if she won’t listen to reason, there’s little he can do to help her.

Sadly, however, Hugh’s warnings of the unrest in the city spreading are quickly shown not to have been unfounded when, in the middle of a ball, Angelette’s home is attacked and invaded by an angry mob intent on destruction and murder.  His quick thinking gets the two of them away in one piece, and while he wants to head for Calais, Angelette insists on making for Versailles to report the events to the king and ask for his help.  As a gentleman, Hugh isn’t about to abandon Angelette and allow her to journey on alone – but Angelette is captured by a group of peasants intent on taking her to Paris for trial and execution, and Hugh must think and act quickly if he’s to have any chance of saving her.

To Ruin a Gentleman is an interesting and engaging romantic adventure featuring a couple of attractive protagonists and Shana Galen has clearly done her homework when it comes to the events of the times.  Her descriptions of key events – the invasion of the ball, the fall of the Bastille, for example – are described succinctly and vividly in such a way as to put the reader right in the middle of the action.  She also skilfully incorporates the attitude prevalent among so much of the French aristocracy of the time into Angelette’s character, yet does it without making her unsympathetic; rather it’s her naïveté in believing that because she treats her dependants well they will remain loyal to her, and her belief that the King will be able to avert the impending disaster that blinds her to the realities of what is going on around her.  Hugh is an attractive, sexy hero, one who is adaptable, clever and protective without being suffocating.  Their romance is, perhaps, a little rushed – which is almost par for the course with novellas – but because of the heightened danger and uncertainty of their situation, it works, as both Hugh and Angelette are forced to admit the strength of their attraction and what it means to them, knowing that each day – each hour –might be their last.

My main quibble with the story is with the ending. It’s hard to say much about it without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it’s a little contrived – brilliant ideas run thick and fast, everyone agrees enthusiastically and is keen to get started and… well, it’s all too pat.  I understand the need to satisfactorily explain why the true story of the Pimpernel differs from Baroness Orczy’s well-known tale, and Ms. Galen’s is certainly a plausible way to go about it.  It was just a little too ‘let’s do the show right here!’ for my taste.

Aside from that, though, To Ruin a Gentleman, is a fast-paced, entertaining and sexy read that should do the trick if you’re in the market for a bit of adventure served up with your romance.

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies by Theresa Romain and Shana Galen

This title may be downloaded from Amazon

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.

But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.

Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.

Rating: C+

Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies?  In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced.  Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas.  In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.

 


The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart by Theresa Romain

Grade: C+             Sensuality Rating: Subtle

When the man she loved had to marry another woman in order to save his family finances and estate, Marianne Redfern left the small Lincolnshire village where she’d lived all her life and fled rather than face the pity of those around her. Arrived in London with nowhere to go, she was lucky enough to stumble across Mrs. Brodie’s Academy and decided her chances of being leered at or molested were less in an establishment run by a woman than anywhere else, so took a chance and asked if there was employment available.  Now, eight years later, Marianne has risen to the position of cook, a post she’s held for the last two years, and which she enjoys immensely.  Her composure is shaken, however by the sudden and completely unexpected appearance at the kitchen door of none other than Jack Grahame, the man who’d broken her heart years earlier.

Jack had truly loved Marianne, but when his father betrothed him to heiress Helena Wilcox, he knew he could not let down all the people dependent on him by turning his back on them and pursuing his self-interest.  He’s spent the two years since his wife’s death continuing to improve his estate and the lot of his tenants, and now he has decided it’s time to live for himself rather than for other people.  He hopes to obtain Marianne’s forgiveness for his actions eight years earlier, and then to persuade her that they deserve a second chance.  But with all they’ve done and become in the intervening years, will love be enough to see them though now?

The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart is a poignant, subtle story about love and trust and forgiveness, and Ms. Romain writes with her customary warmth and insight.  Marianne and Jack are both decent, mature individuals who never stopped loving each other, but who have to find out who they are now and who still have issues that they need to resolve before they can move forward together.  The descriptions of the foodstuffs and recipes Marianne uses may make your mouth water, so make sure you’ve got something yummy to hand just in case you get hungry!


Counterfeit Scandal by Shana Galen

Grade: C            Sensuality Rating: Warm

Shana Galen’s story also features lovers separated for eight years, this time a pair who had worked for the Foreign Office during the Napoleonic Wars.  Bridget O’Brien, the daughter of a famous forger, continued her father’s work for the Foreign Office as a counterfeiter, which is where she met and fell in love with spy, Caleb Harris.  The pair planned to marry, but Caleb disappeared suddenly and all Bridget could find out was that he’d been sent abroad and had died there.  Pregnant and desperate, Bridget married Robert Lavery in order to give her child a name, but her husband’s tendency to make poor investments landed them in debtor’s prison, and Bridget had to put her son, James, in an orphanage.  (Readers of Ms. Galen’s Survivors series will no doubt recognise the St. Dismas Home for Wayward Boys as the orphanage featured in book two, No Earls Allowed.)  Bridget now works at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy (surely Mrs. Brodie is an homage to Muriel Spark’s famous creation?) where she teaches art – and forgery – and has finally saved enough money to be able to rent rooms of her own so that she can locate her son and bring him to live with her. (The boy is eight, so I have to say that I wondered what she planned to do with him all day while she was at work, but – moving on.)

She manages to find herself a rather dingy room in a lodging house, and as she is leaving, she is astonished to pass a very familiar face going in the opposite direction, who is introduced to her as ‘Mr. Smith’.  Of course, this is Caleb Harris, back from the dead… or at least back from the continent, although he’s got to remain ‘dead’ until such time as he can leave England, owing to the fact that he has a price on his head as the result of his wartime activities.

But Bridget has other things on her mind, namely retrieving her son, but this is going to be much harder than she’d bargained for.  The orphanage burned down three years earlier, and nobody seems to know what happened to it or its inmates.  There’s only one man she can turn to; Caleb is stunned to discover that he’s a father but agrees to help on the condition that the boy never finds out who he is.  Caleb is a wanted man and anyone close to him could be a target; and in any case, soon he’ll have disappeared again, this time for good.

Counterfeit Scandal combines a tale of lovers reunited with an adventure story as Bridget and Caleb search for their son.  It’s an enjoyable read, and Bridget is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, but I had issues with the way James so easily accepts her as his mother, even though he hasn’t seen her for a number of years.  I found Caleb to be a less well-defined character than Bridget and the ending feels rushed.


Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Extraordinary Young Ladies boasts a couple of pleasant reads that can easily be used to while away a grey autumn afternoon, but ultimately, neither is particularly memorable, and this isn’t a compilation to which I’m likely to return.


 

Once Upon a Christmas Eve (Maiden Lane #12.6) by Elizabeth Hoyt

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Adam Rutledge, Viscount d’Arque, really rather loathes Christmas. The banal cheerfulness. The asinine party games. And, worst of all, the obligatory trip to the countryside. His grandmother, however, loves the holiday—and Adam loves his grandmother, so he’ll brave the fiercest snowstorm to please her. But when their carriage wheel snaps, they’re forced to seek shelter at the home of the most maddening, infuriating, and utterly beguiling woman he’s ever met.

Sarah St. John really rather loathes rakes. The self-satisfied smirks. The sly predatory gazes. Oh, and the constant witty banter rife with double meaning. But in the spirit of the season, she’ll welcome this admittedly handsome viscount into her home. But as the snowstorm rages, the Yule log crackles, and the tension rises, Sarah and Adam find themselves locked in a fiery, passionate kiss. If love is the true meaning of Christmas, it’s the one gift this mismatched pair can’t wait to unwrap.

Rating: C

Much as I’m a fan of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series, I’m not a great fan of novellas and after having read and been somewhat ‘meh’ about Once Upon a Maiden Lane, I was going to give this a miss. But the fan in me said “you might as well – you’ve read all the others” (books in the series, that is), so I did read it… and I should have stuck to my guns, because Once Upon a Christmas Eve is rather a disappointment.

Very few authors, IMO, really know how to get it right when it comes to novellas (Courtney Milan is always the one that comes to mind who DOES get it right) and most of those I read tend to be rushed and lacking in depth; plus the current vogue for getting in at least one sex scene regardless of page count means there is even less time spent developing a relationship. And that’s the case here.

What makes it worse, however, is that the hero, Adam Rutledge, Viscount d’Arque, popped up as one of those secondary characters who took on a life of his own in an earlier book in the series, and many fans (including me) had hoped Ms. Hoyt was planning to make him a hero in one of the later books in the series. Sadly, that didn’t pan out – and instead we’ve got this woefully underdeveloped tale of a hardened rake who falls in love in the blink of an eye with a young woman who intrigues him because she hates rakes and doesn’t want anything to do with him.

Sarah St. John had a bad experience some years earlier when she was almost ravished by a handsome charmer who, when they were caught in a compromising position, blamed her and said she led him on. Mortified, Sarah has shunned society ever since, and absolutely detests rakes. When Viscount d’Arque shows up on the doorstep of the St. John’s country home asking for help because his carriage has been damaged, the family extends their hospitality to both d’Arque and his grandmother, with whom he had been travelling. Sarah is not at all pleased at the prospect of having a handsome, charming, flirtatious rake in the house, and determines to keep her distance. D’Arque is – of course – intrigued by pretty much the only woman he’s ever met who has resisted him and decides he might as well spend the next few days trading barbs with Sarah … except it’s he who ends up feeling discombobulated as he realises that the lovely spitfire has somehow got under his skin.

There’s no question that Ms. Hoyt knows how to write a sexy hero, and d’Arque certainly delivers on the sexy; he’s suave and smooth and completely contained – until he’s around Sarah and the cracks in his façade begin to show. He obviously cares for his grandmother a great deal, and his relationship with her is very well written and gives added depth and insight to his character. But Sarah’s ‘disgrace’ is too obviously just a convenient plot device and a reason for her to dislike d’Arque on sight. A well-bred young woman’s reputation was incredibly important, it’s true, but there’s not enough here about what Sarah went through to make her attitude believable.

I suppose my biggest beef is to do with wasted potential. Ms. Hoyt is, of course, entitled to write her books the way she wants to, and obviously, the Maiden Lane series took a direction which ended up precluding her from writing d’Arque a full-length novel. But my first thought after I finished reading was “what a waste of a great character”.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed the snippets from The Frog Prince that prefaced each chapter; those were a nice little tongue-in-cheek nod to the more complex ‘legends’ that feature in the earlier books.

Once Upon a Christmas Eve can be read as a standalone as it doesn’t require any knowledge of what has gone before. Prepare to enjoy the banter as d’Arque and Sarah cross swords and the sparks fly but overall this story suffers badly from what I call “novella-itis” (it’s rushed and underdeveloped) – and if you’re a fan of the series and have been waiting for a story about d’Arque, you might be just a tad disappointed.

(Note: The Kindle edition ends at around the 75% mark; the remaining space is taken up by previews of other Maiden Lane titles.)

The Negotiator (Games People Play #2.5) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Lauren Gallagher’s life changed almost three years ago. After her husband disappeared at sea, she was left with a failing pleasure boat company and more than a few secrets. Now, after years spent rebuilding the business and paying off the pile of debts, she finally feels in control. But when she finds her husband, actually dead, on the floor, she becomes the leading suspect in his murder investigation.

Garrett McGrath wants Lauren in his bed, not his heart. He doesn’t do emotions, but every time he sees her, holding himself back gets harder and harder. When Lauren comes under suspicion for killing her previously presumed-dead husband, he knows he has to help her, any way he can.

But as the danger becomes more intense and Garret and Lauren grow closer than either planned, they’re in danger of losing everything…including their hearts.

Rating: C+

In HelenKay Dimon’s Games People Play series, the heroes are all men who bonded in their youth when they were taken under the wing of someone named Quint, who saved them from the downward spirals they were in, helped all of them learn to utilise their unique skill-sets and set them on the straight and narrow.

Years later, the ‘Quint Five’ are all well-placed and powerful individuals who are often called upon by government departments and law enforcement to undertake missions and cases that they can’t touch.  In book one, The Fixer, we met Wren – an enigmatic man whose speciality is making problems go away – and his second-in-command, former Black Ops, professional negotiator, Garrett McGrath.

In The Enforcer (book two) Garrett was sent along to ride shotgun on the mission undertaken by Matthias Clarke, another of the five, whose private security firm is often used by Wren in the course of his business.  Garrett immediately captured my attention; his gregarious, wise-cracking ways were such a contrast to the gruff, taciturn Matthias (I do love a smart-mouthed charmer!) and so many tough-guy heroes are dark, brooding and almost miserable that it was a refreshing change to come across one who knew how to lighten up.   I’ve been looking forward to his book, but I confess that I’d hoped for a full-length novel rather than a novella.  I’m not the greatest fan of novellas anyway (few authors really know how to get them right) and Garrett is such a great character that he deserved more page time.

The Negotiator picks up a few months after the events of The Enforcer, which took place in the small, seafront town in Annapolis where Matthias was searching for a woman named Kayla Roy who was suspected of murder.   One of the secondary characters in the book was Kayla’s friend, Lauren Gallagher, who runs a pleasure boat and fishing tour business; and for the past few months, a rather smitten Garrett has travelled regularly to Annapolis to spend time with Lauren, who adamantly refuses to go on a date with him.  She tries to tell him it’s because she’s older than he is (by five years) or because she was a mess and … he could do better.  But Garrett is a shrewd man and knows there’s more to it than that – and he has his theories as to what that ‘more’ is.  Still, the one thing Lauren hasn’t said is that she’s not interested, so he continues to hope that she will eventually open up and let him in.

Lauren’s husband, Carl, died in a boating accident three years earlier, after he ran off with a younger woman and left their business on the verge of bankruptcy, but Lauren has never really believed he’s dead.  She had to keep her suspicions to herself so that she could fight her way through all the legal red-tape that would enable her to take control of her tour company and home, and she has worked tirelessly to rebuild her business and put it back into the black.  So when Carl shows up at her door one day, she’s not completely surprised – but she IS furious at the fact that he expects to just waltz back into her life as if nothing has happened.  Lauren’s usual self-contained detachment deserts her, and for the first time in her life, she finds herself asking someone for help.

When Garrett receives Lauren’s message, he’s about to board a plane to San Francisco where he’s due to make a pre-Christmas visit to see his aunt and cousin.  Garrett’s parents died on Christmas Eve when he was nineteen, so he doesn’t celebrate, preferring to spend Christmas holed up alone somewhere, but Lauren needs him and he doesn’t hesitate; with apologies to his family, he makes his way to Annapolis, where he finds a clearly shaken Lauren even more reserved and evasive than he is used to.

But her problems have only just begun.  Returning from a trip to collect take-out, Lauren and Garrett return to her cottage to find a once-and-for-all, very dead Carl lying on her kitchen floor… and Lauren at the top of the list of suspects.

What we’ve got here is basically a whodunnit with a fairly short list of suspects; the girlfriend, the brother (who is carrying a torch for Lauren) and the shady business partner.  It’s not difficult to guess where to point the finger, and although the author does try to throw readers off the scent, it doesn’t really work.  I enjoyed meeting Garrett again and the snarky back-and-forth between him and Matthias that was so great in the previous book was just as good here, but I can’t help feeling that Garrett was wasted in this story; for a book in a romantic suspense series, there is little suspense and not much action of the sort I’ve come to expect from the genre.  The romance fares a little better, however, the fact that Lauren and Garrett have known each other for a while and have been seeing each other in a friendly, non-dating way for months helping to make their progression to a sexual relationship more believable.  There is a clear mutual respect and understanding that indicates they have a strong basis for a relationship, but still, I’d have liked to see those non-dates and watch their relationship unfold over time.  I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting that Garrett and Lauren’s romance must have begun in the previous book, but I checked and it doesn’t; there are suggestions that maybe Garrett is attracted to Lauren, but that’s about it.

Can I recommend The Negotiator?  I think readers who are following the series will probably enjoy it, but I can’t honestly say it’s a good place for a newcomer to start or is a particularly strong example of a romantic suspense story.  The pacing is fairly pedestrian and the mystery isn’t very mysterious or suspenseful.  I read it for Garrett – sarcastic, charming, sinfully handsome Garrett – who is every bit as attractive here as he was in the last book. I just wish he’d been showcased in a more interesting story.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane (Maiden Lane #12.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Miss Mary Whitsun is far too intelligent to fall for the rakish charms of a handsome aristocrat. But when the gentleman in question approaches her in a bookshop, mistaking her for his fiancée, Lady Johanna Albright, the flirtatious encounter only raises more questions. Could Mary, a servant raised in a St Giles orphanage, actually be Lady Joanna’s long-lost twin sister? If so, Mary has been betrothed since birth—to the rakishly handsome artistocrat himself.

Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, is far too intrigued by Mary to let her go so easily. He’s drawn to her sharp mind, indomitable spirit, and the fiery way in which she dismisses him—ladies simply don’t dismiss Lord Blackwell. But as Mary makes her first hesitant steps into society, she can’t help but wonder if she truly has a place in Henry’s world—or in his heart.

Rating: C+

While Duke of Desire is the final full-length book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s long-running and incredibly popular Maiden Lane series, that wasn’t quite The End, as the author is treating us to a novella or two to round the series off and, in Once Upon a Maiden Lane, brings us back to where it all began – the streets and slums of the St. Giles area of London.

Some of the reviews I’ve read of Duke of Desire made mention of the fact that the book didn’t really feel like the end of a series; most of the time, such books feature cameos from characters from the previous books, filling pages with happy families as everyone catches up with each other. That doesn’t happen in Duke of Desire, and I, for one, was glad of it, because it would have been much too implausible and would have detracted from the main story. Instead, Ms. Hoyt kept her powder dry and has presented us with Once Upon a Maiden Lane – a novella featuring Mary Whitsun, who appeared regularly in the earlier books as one of the older orphan girls raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children run by the Makepeace family. (This will be followed in December by Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which will feature a very long-awaited story for Viscount D’Arque).

As is implied by the title, this story has a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Mary is a young woman now, and resides in the household of Lord and Lady Caire (Wicked Intentions) where she is employed as a nursemaid to the Caires’ two young children.  On her afternoon off, she is browsing in a bookshop when she is approached by an extremely handsome young man – clearly an aristocrat – and addressed as Lady Joanna.  Mary, who is distrustful of handsomeness and even more distrustful of it when it comes in an aristocratic package, makes clear to the gentleman, who introduces himself as Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, that she does not find his joke at all funny; but when his friend, John Seymour, also points out Mary’s strong resemblance to Lady Joanna Albright, she becomes very suspicious.  It seems that the very same year she was left at the orphanage, the twin daughters of the Earl of Angrove were abducted, and while one of them, Lady Joanna, was subsequently returned to her family, the elder twin, Lady Cecilia, was not.  Blackwell, who was betrothed to Cecilia as a boy, is expected to marry Joanna instead but isn’t keen.  She’s like a sister to him, and besides, she’s in love with someone else.  Enchanted by Mary’s loveliness and her spirited response to him, Blackwell is determined to prove that she is Lady Cecilia – and then to make her his wife as originally intended.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane is more or less your basic Cinderella story, although this being Elizabeth Hoyt, it’s not quite that simple.  It seems that someone isn’t wild about Lady Cecilia’s return and doesn’t waste any time in trying to harm Mary; and while the ladies of the Albright family – her mother, sister and grandmother – welcome Mary with open arms, the Earl is less than friendly towards his long-lost daughter…

The romance between Mary and Blackwell is nicely done, if a little rushed, and, as one would expect of such an accomplished storyteller, the writing is deft, humorous, poignant and laced with the sort of earthy sensuality that is Ms. Hoyt’s trademark.  I did, however scratch my head at the inclusion of the excerpts from The Curious Mermaid, the ‘legend’ which graces the opening of each chapter, which is basically The Little Mermaid subverted; and honestly, I didn’t quite see why it was there other than to preserve continuity with the rest of the books in the series.

Those hoping for the big Maiden Lane reunion that didn’t happen in Duke of Desire will find it here, although Ms. Hoyt very wisely doesn’t include speaking parts for everyone!  I had to smile at the name bestowed upon Val’s (the Duke of Montgomery) three-year-old daughter, which is every bit as flamboyant as one would expect given who her father is; and it was nice to check in with some of the characters we haven’t seen or heard of for a while.

Once Upon a Maiden Lane is a charming little story that makes a nice coda to the series, but ultimately, it suffers from novella-itis – an underdeveloped story and characters.  I was grateful for the chance to go back to where it all began, but ultimately, this is one for the fans.

Tequila Sunrise (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3.5) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Former FBI agent Melissa “Mel” Cruz spent years skirting the line between life and death, knowing the next assignment might be her last. Back from overseas and eager to enjoy life outside the Bureau, she’s ready to give Danny Talley a Christmas Eve he’ll never forget.

A proven asset in high-stakes missions, Danny’s known for having the skill and brains to get the job done. When the Talley flagship is hijacked during the company holiday party, he’ll do anything to save his family, his love and everything they’ve all worked so hard to build. But their enemies have a secondary protocol—leave no survivors—and that plan is already in play.

Navigating through a tangled web of lies and betrayal, Mel and Danny race against the clock to retake the ship before their future goes up in flames. As the seconds tick down, they’re forced to face their greatest fear—losing each other.

Rating: B-

Tequila Sunrise is the final book in Layla Reyne’s fabulous Agents Irish and Whiskey series, and takes place a few months after the events of Barrel Proof. It’s also a neat bridge between this series and her next romantic suspense project which is going to feature Nic Price and Cam Byrne, who both appeared as important secondary characters in the earlier novels, and who both have key roles to play in this story. Tequila Sunrise is a quick, action-packed read in which Melissa Cruz, our favourite, kick-ass, ball-busting (ex)FBI agent, gets to shine in all her Ramboesque glory. Or maybe I should call her Jane McClane… *wink*

Not long after recovering from near fatal injuries inflicted by an explosion at the end of Barrel Proof, Special Agent in Charge Melissa Cruz of the San Francisco FBI decided to make a career change, and is now dividing her time between private investigative work (as a bounty-hunter of sorts) and head of security for Talley Enterprises, the shipping company run by her lover, Daniel Talley. Danny is the younger brother of Aidan (Irish) and has a reputation as a bit of a lothario; he and Mel began a relationship which ran in the background of the trilogy and by the end of the final book, they are well-and-truly an item.

The story opens on Christmas Eve as Mel is coming home from a job, wanting nothing more than to get back to Danny and for them to spend some time together. When she is held up the airport, and then finds out that Aidan, who is also on his way back to San Francisco, has been delayed, her instincts tell her something isn’t right.

The Talley family is hosting a massive holiday party that evening, to celebrate Christmas, John Talley’s upcoming retirement and the commissioning of Talley Enterprises’ newest ship, the Ellen, named after the Talley matriarch, Aidan and Danny’s mother. All the Talley ships are named for the Talley women and this, the final ship built by John Talley before he hands the company over to Danny, is the finest ship in their fleet and the envy of their competitors. With a large gathering of employees, family, investors and media on board, it’s an extremely high-profile event – and when Danny learns of the simultaneous delays that have affected both Mel and Aidan, he can’t help but be concerned.

Danny can’t wait to see Mel again; they’ve spent almost as much time apart as they have spent it together during the course of their relationship and both of them are eager to do something about that.  At Danny’s side and just as eager to be reunited with the love of his life is Aidan’s fiancé, former FBI agent Jameson Walker, who has been eagerly embraced by the large Talley clan and whom Danny already thinks of as a brother.

Mel and Aidan are finally able to make their separate ways to the party, but before they can get on board, the Ellen is hi-jacked by a team of mercenaries.  With the ship locked down and the family and guests held hostage, it’s up to Jamie and Danny to save the day, or at least buy everyone some time while a rescue can be effected.  Danny may be a civilian, but he knows how to think on his feet and he’s proved his mettle by helping Aidan and Jamie in the past. Mel is on the outside, but she sure as hell isn’t going to sit and wait while the man she loves is in danger; with an arsenal worthy of Rambo and a sense of irony to rival Bruce Willis in a dirty vest, Mel sneaks aboard to lend much more than a hand in taking down the bad guys.

It’s true that the plot owes more than a little to Die Hard, but I love that movie, so I didn’t care.  The action does, perhaps move a little too quickly at times, but Ms. Reyne also allows for slower moments of introspection, especially in the short flashbacks to Danny’s childhood with his brothers, Mel’s with Gabe and to various stages in Danny’s  relationship with Mel.  The little insights to his early family life are really poignant, and when it comes to Mel and Danny, I liked reading about these two people with demanding, high-powered jobs realising that they want more from life and deciding to do whatever it takes to make it work between them.  I also appreciated that Mel, at forty-five, is an older heroine with a great sense of self, and no qualms about the fact that the love of her life is thirteen years her junior. Go, Mel!

On the downside, however, there is a slightly frenetic feel to the whole thing, and while I did enjoy the flashbacks, I can’t deny that they give the novella a slightly disjointed feel overall.  And as happened in the novels, Jamie’s Mad Hacking Skillz are something of a deus ex machina at times; it’s likely I wouldn’t have understood what he was doing had Ms. Reyne elaborated, but even so, there’s a sense that they’re something of a get out of jail free card when there’s no other way out of a given situation.

I enjoyed meeting all the characters again, and seeing how things are working out for them a few months on.  There’s a schmaltzy family Christmas scene at the end that somehow made me want to go ‘aww’ rather than lapse into a sugar-induced coma, and the glimpses we’re given of Cam and Nic’s seemingly combative relationship has well and truly whetted my appetite for the stories to come.  Tequila Sunrise is a high-stakes, fast-paced and nicely steamy read that provides a great coda to the Agents Irish and Whiskey series.