Review: Cherish Hard by Nalini Singh

Review: Cherish Hard by Nalini SinghCherish Hard (Hard Play, #1) by Nalini Singh
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Hard Play #1
Pages: 374
Published by TKA Distribution on November 14th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh kicks off her new Hard Play contemporary romance series with a sizzling story that’ll leave you smiling…

Sailor Bishop has only one goal for his future – to create a successful landscaping business. No distractions allowed. Then he comes face-to-face and lips-to-lips with a woman who blushes like an innocent… and kisses like pure sin.

Ísa Rain craves a man who will cherish her, aches to create a loving family of her own. Trading steamy kisses with a hot gardener in a parking lot? Not the way to true love. Then a deal with the devil (aka her CEO-mother) makes Ísa a corporate VP for the summer. Her main task? Working closely with a certain hot gardener.

And Sailor Bishop has wickedness on his mind.

As Ísa starts to fall for a man who makes her want to throttle and pounce on him at the same time, she knows she has to choose – play it safe and steady, or risk all her dreams and hope Sailor doesn’t destroy her heart.

My Review:

I found myself reading Cherish Hard in the middle of reading yesterday’s book. Not that yesterday’s book wasn’t good and absorbing, but I realized that I was still in the mood for another romance – and Nalini Singh always delivers.

As I got into the book, and we were introduced to the hero’s marvelous family, someone sounded familiar – so I had to check. And OMG it was T-Rex. Sailor’s older brother Gabriel is the absolutely delicious hero of one of my favorite books of the past few years, Rock Hard. So it looks like the Hard Play series is kind of a prequel to the author’s Rock Kiss series.

This is fantastic! Rock Hard was a universal favorite among the Book Pushers. We all wanted more. It looks like we got that more, and with bells on.

But Cherish Hard is not T-Rex’s story. Instead, this is the story of his brother Sailor, and the woman Sailor first meets at 17, and watches in a combination of teenaged lust and adult horror, as her then-boyfriend dumps her, in public, with the nastiest words possible, and she runs out of a party in devastated shock.

Even then, Sailor doesn’t want to let his mystery redhead go. But she gets away before he can break out of the overcrowded room. Which doesn’t stop her from being the fuel for all of his fantasies for six long years.

When they meet again years later, at first neither of them remembers the other. When they finally do, Sailor rushes towards the woman who has fueled his every fantasy, while Isa Rain wants to run far and fast from the man who witnessed her humiliating heartbreak.

But they can’t keep away from each other. Because Sailor has just signed a contract with her-mother-the-dragon to design the landscaping for her company’s new series of organic restaurants. And Isa has just caved into her mother’s blackmail to serve as vice-president of the family crafting business for the summer.

What Isa doesn’t know, but her mother does, is that Isa’s project as VP is to manage the organic restaurant start-up, including Sailor’s contract.

The Dragon Mother believes that one summer of being VP will awaken Isa’s inner dragon and turn her away from her dream of being a teacher. She may also be counting on Isa getting the hot and sexy Sailor out of her system.

The best laid plans of mice, men and dragon mothers often go astray…

Escape Rating A: As much as I squeed about the link between Cherish Hard and Rock Hard, you do not have to read Rock Hard or the Rock Kiss series first. Although they are absolutely marvelous and you might just want to. But the events of Rock Hard occur after Cherish Hard. I’m not quite sure just how long after, and I may treat myself to a re-read to find out, but the stories aren’t really linked. Or at least not yet.

The romance between Isa and Sailor sizzles on every page of Cherish Hard, from Sailor’s reaction to Isa at their first disastrous near-meeting to their second encounter outside her school to their unexpectedly hot relationship the moment they finally do manage to really connect.

At the same time, this is a romance between two people with serious abandonment issues. Issues that they both acknowledge, but have only half worked through, if that. Sailor’s bio-dad left him, his older brother Gabe, and their mother when Sailor was five, after first cleaning out all of the family’s bank accounts, even Gabe and Sailor’s boyhood savings. He’s slime, and Sailor sees the man’s face every time he looks in the mirror.

Sailor has a plan to become a successful businessman, at pretty much any cost, in order to feel like he is not the man his bio-dad was. And he seems to be driven to sacrifice everything to that goal, at least until he falls for Isa.

Isa was abandoned in place. Both her parents are still alive, but neither seems to have any emotional investment in Isa or any of their children, whether separately or together. Isa’s only sources of real support and affection were her grandmother, now deceased, and her best friend. But Isa is determined to give her siblings, her half-sister Catie and her stepbrother Harlow, the grounding and emotional support she never had, no matter what.

She’s 28, and looking for a relationship with a man who will put her first, as no one in her life ever has. Instead, she falls for Sailor, even though she believes he isn’t ready for the kind of commitment she needs, and has admitted that his business comes first, and will for a long time.

They seem to be at an emotional impasse, and the conflict that they have to overcome is to find a way to make it work, because they are both all in whether they are ready to admit that or not.

Watching them find a compromise that gives them both what they really need, and not just what they thought they wanted, is beautiful.

I can’t wait to see how the rest of Sailor’s brothers find their matches, because I already know it’s going to be awesome.

Review: Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

Review: Hate to Want You by Alisha RaiHate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts, #1) by Alisha Rai
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, erotic romance
Series: Forbidden Hearts #1
Pages: 371
Published by Avon on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

One night. No one will know.

That was the deal. Every year, Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler would share one perfect night of illicit pleasure. The forbidden hours let them forget the tragedy that haunted their pasts-and the last names that made them enemies.

Until the night she didn’t show up.

Now Nicholas has an empire to run. He doesn’t have time for distractions and Livvy’s sudden reappearance in town is a major distraction. She’s the one woman he shouldn’t want…so why can’t he forget how right she feels in his bed?

Livvy didn’t come home for Nicholas, but fate seems determined to remind her of his presence–and their past. Although the passion between them might have once run hot and deep, not even love can overcome the scandal that divided their families.

Being together might be against all the rules…but being apart is impossible.

My Review:

If the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet had a love child with the romantic comedy Same Time, Next Year, the result would be Hate to Want You. And while this doesn’t seem like a logical pairing, just like any opposites attract romance, the result is intense – and wonderful.

Hate to Want You, the romance itself, is not an opposites attract romance. Instead, it’s a second chance at love for the Romeo and Juliet of two feuding families. Nicholas Chandler and Livvy Kane grew up together. Then they became teenage lovers.

It all went smash when his mother and her father were killed in an automobile accident, together in a car far from where either of them was supposed to be. In the resultant chaos, his father bilked her mother out of her family’s shares in the very successful chain of grocery stores founded by their grandfathers.

Livvy and Nico were too young to resist the pressures of their families driving them apart. But they also couldn’t stay away from each other. It’s been ten years since that tragedy. They have met in secret, once every year, to feed their craving for each other.

While they have both spent the last ten years living for that one night together, they can’t admit that to each other. But when Livvy comes back to their small hometown to help her mother after an injury, they can’t keep apart.

No matter how much it hurts each time they have to separate. And no matter how ballistic the explosion from both of their families if anyone finds out they are seeing each other.

But ten years is a long time, and the threats that cowed a couple of teenagers have a whole lot less of an affect against 30-year-old adults – even ones as scarred and messed up as Nico and Livvy.

Now that they can’t put half a continent between them, they run into each other at every turn. The more they see of each other, the more often they meet in secret, the more difficult it is to pretend that they ever got over each other, and that neither of them can move on until they deal with the past. Not just their past together, but everything in the past that has driven them and their families apart.

As Livvy’s grandfather used to say, it’s only over if you quit. Ten years ago, they quit. They were young and scared and hurting. In the midst of multiple traumas, it was hard to see a way through that let them stay together, no matter how much both of them wanted that outcome.

But when they quit each other, they also quit themselves. Now it’s time to fight. Not just with each other, but also for each other. Once and for all. For forever.

Escape Rating A: My friends at The Book Pushers highly recommended this book, and now I know why. Hate to Want You was stay up until 3:30 in the morning unputdownable.

The story is a very hot and sexy romance. Unlike tomorrow’s lovely but squeaky-clean book, Hate to Want You pulls none of its punches (or its spankings) inside or outside the bedroom. The hotel room. The woods. Anyplace and everyplace that Nico and Livvy think they are sneaking away to.

But the poignance of the story is in its backstory. Because that long ago scandal and the shitstorm that followed didn’t just break up a pair of teenage lovers, it broke apart two families that had been through everything together and built a business empire on the strength of the bond between them.

All of that is gone, and it’s left heartbreak in its wake. Livvy lost Nico, and that was tragedy enough. But she also lost the rest of his family, who up until that moment had been part of her own. Her own family fragmented, and Livvy feels alone and isolated.

Nico feels like a windup toy. He’s been forced to suppress his emotions in all of those intervening years. Not just what he felt for Livvy, but pretty much everything he felt at all. It took every ounce of his energy and concentration to play the peacemaker between his father and his grandfather – who now hold equal shares in the company while he has none.

Livvy’s return breaks him out of his box, forces him to confront not just the mess of his hollow life, but everything that he has been holding down. And it hurts.

Part of what makes this story so good is that this is not a case of poor little rich boy, where daddy threatened to take away his inheritance if he didn’t toe the family line all those years ago. Instead, daddy was, and still is, an asshole. The threat that Nico knuckled under to all those years ago was much more sinister. If Nico hadn’t given up Livvy, daddy dearest would have disinherited Nico’s little sister, who was only 13 at the time. Evangeline is now in her 20s, and more than ready to get out from under daddy’s neglectful but still oppressive thumb.

It takes Nico a while to realize that he is finally free to act – if he’s ready to step out of his box and take a risk. It takes even longer for Livvy to trust him this time, as it should.

And when she does, it’s absolutely glorious.

One final comment. As satisfying as the romance is, I really want to see daddy dearest get what’s coming to him. Hopefully that will occur in one of the upcoming books in the series, Wrong to Need You and Hurts to Love You. He needs to suffer, and I want to see it.

Review: Christmastime Cowboy by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Christmastime Cowboy by Maisey Yates + GiveawayChristmastime Cowboy (Copper Ridge, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Copper Ridge #10
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on October 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It's Christmas in Copper Ridge, and love is waiting to be unwrapped…

Falling for a bad boy once is forgivable. Twice would just be foolish. When Sabrina Leighton first offered her teenage innocence to gorgeous, tattooed Liam Donnelly, he humiliated her, then left town. The hurt still lingers. But so does that crazy spark. And if they have to work together to set up her family winery's new tasting room by Christmas, why not work him out of her system with a sizzling affair?

Thirteen years ago, Liam's boss at the winery offered him a bribe—leave his teenage daughter alone and get a full ride at college. Convinced he wasn't good enough for Sabrina, Liam took it. Now he's back, as wealthy as sin and with a heart as cold as the Oregon snow. Or so he keeps telling himself. Because the girl he vowed to stay away from has become the only woman he needs, and this Christmas could be just the beginning of a lifetime together…

My Review:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, particularly in Copper Ridge, Oregon.

Falling for a bad boy once is not merely forgivable, but probably a rite of passage to adulthood. We all do it at least once, and usually learn that the wild ride isn’t worth the inevitable fall. Falling for one twice is a pattern. Falling for the same bad boy twice is usually well beyond foolish.

But not for Sabrina Leighton. In this second-chance-at-love romance, there are a whole ton of, let’s call them mitigating circumstances.

The first time she fell for Liam Donnelly, she was all of 17 and he was 20. There was a certain amount of young and stupid involved on both of their parts. And the fact is that while the emotions may have been very, very real, nothing actually happened outside of those emotions.

Thirteen years ago, the one real thing that they had was friendship – a friendship that Liam broke, along with Sabrina’s heart, when he left. Not without a word, but with a whole lot of words that have continued to haunt Sabrina all these years.

And most of those words weren’t even true. But the scars they left still hurt.

Now that Liam is back in Copper Ridge, as part of the Donnelly brothers return to town in the wake of their grandfather’s death (see Slow Burn Cowboy, Down Home Cowboy and Wild Ride Cowboy for the full story) Liam and Sabrina keep running into each other, whether Sabrina wants to or not. (You don’t have to read the entire Copper Ridge series for the Donnellys’ piece of it to make sense, but it probably helps to read this quartet)

Copper Ridge is a very small town.

That Sabrina and Liam have unfinished business is pretty obvious to pretty much everyone, even if not everyone knows all the gory details. So whether Sabrina’s boss (and ex-sister-in-law) Lindy sets Sabrina up to deal with her unfinished business, or whether that’s just a happy side-effect, Sabrina is stuck. It’s part of her job to work with Liam on setting up a tasting room in town that will feature wines from her winery and cheeses from his ranch – as well as trap a whole bunch of tourist dollars and funnel customers back to both their businesses.

It’s a great business idea – even though at least initially it feels like a really lousy personal one.

But the chemistry that Liam denied all those years ago, and that Sabrina wasn’t quite mature enough to understand, hasn’t abated one little bit in the intervening years. The only way that they can manage to work together is not to get past what happened in the past, but to go through it.

To hash out all the stored resentments, explore all that bottled chemistry, and attempt to get each other out of their systems.

Like that’s ever going to happen.

Escape Rating B: Christmastime Cowboy feels like the cherry on top of the Donnelly Brothers subseries of the Copper Ridge ice cream sundae.

Also a real “cherry”, as Sabrina has never managed to find a man who even gets close to turning her crank after Liam ran off all those years ago.

I love the way that this author does angsty heroines, but Sabrina’s angst didn’t quite have the deep, tolling bell ring of angst of the heroines of Down Home Cowboy and Wild Ride Cowboy. Not that Sabrina hasn’t been hurt, but her wounds seem a bit more self-inflicted that either Alison’s or Clara’s.

While the story loses a bit of depth in comparison with the others because of that, one of the good parts of Christmastime Cowboy is the way that Sabrina finally manages to figure that out for herself, with only a couple of glancing blows from the clue-by-four administered by Liam.

Not that he doesn’t have plenty of his own baggage to deal with. But his baggage was dropped on him by his dysfunctional parents. Not that he hasn’t added plenty of extra pieces along the way all by himself. But he needs multiple hits from that clue-by-four, not just administered by Sabrina, but also by his brother Alex, before he finally figures out what’s been staring him in the face all along.

So the story, as it has often been in this series, is one where the hero is just certain that he hasn’t got a heart, or if it’s still in there it’s three sizes too small and that he’s just not worthy of giving it to anyone else. Ever.

The heroine, on that other hand, figures out how to dump enough of her own baggage to start a real life for herself, one that she’d much prefer to have with the hero, but that she knows she can manage to make on her own once her stomped on heart finally heals.

As formulas go, this one is always a winner.

Christmastime Cowboy is the final book in the Copper Ridge series. But the romance is just moving a bit down the road to neighboring Gold Valley in Smooth-Talking Cowboy. No one needs to smooth-talk this reader to jump back to this author’s next series. All of this author’s next series!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Christmastime Cowboy to one lucky US/CAN commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review: Lilac Lane by Sherryl Woods

Review: Lilac Lane by Sherryl WoodsLilac Lane (Chesapeake Shores #14) by Sherryl Woods
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance, women's fiction
Series: Chesapeake Shores #14
Pages: 352
Published by Mira Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

No one writes about friends, family and home better than Sherryl Woods. Told with warmth and humor, Lilac Lane is a brand-new story in her beloved Chesapeake Shores series, one readers all over the world have waited two years to read!

At the heart of Lilac Lane is Keira Malone, who raised her three children alone after her first marriage broke apart, and who, after years of guarding her heart, finally finds love again. But that love is short-lived when her fiancé suffers a fatal heart attack. Grieving and unsure of what’s next, Keira agrees to move from Dublin to Chesapeake Shores, Maryland, to spend time with her daughter, Moira, and her new granddaughter, Kate, as well as to help her son-in-law, Luke, with his Irish pub, O’Briens

Not wanting to live underfoot, she rents a charming cottage on Lilac Lane, replete with views of the ocean and her neighbor’s thriving garden—not to mention views of the neighbor himself. The neighbor is none other than Bryan Laramie, the brusque and moody chef at the pub, with whom Keira is constantly butting heads. But things get real when Bryan’s long-lost daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was a baby, shows up out of the blue. As Bryan and Keira each delve into their pasts, reopening wounds, the rest of the town is gearing up for the Fall Festival Irish Stew cook-off, and making no bones about whose side they’re on. It’s Kitchen Wars meets This is Your Life—a recipe for disaster…or a new take on love?

You won’t want to miss this epic return to Chesapeake Shores, a place we’re betting you’ll want to stay forever.

My Review:

Chesapeake Shores sounds like an absolutely magical little town, at least if you don’t mind a whole town full of nosy and interfering neighbors. Not that the collective O’Brien clan doesn’t mean terribly well, and not that they don’t seem to generally do well in their meddling, but Keira Malone is used to being the boss of her own life, thankyouverymuch.

Which doesn’t mean that her life doesn’t get a much needed makeover when she arrives from Dublin to visit her father, her daughter, and her new grandbaby. The ostensible reason for her visit is to help take care of her new (and only) grandchild, and to “consult” for her son-in-law about the authentic “Irishness” of the traditional Irish pub he’s opened in Chesapeake Shores.

Keira has spent her entire adult life working in and managing Irish pubs in Ireland, so she certainly has the right experience for the job. But it’s a made-up job. Her daughter and her father, both now living in Chesapeake Shores, fear that Keira will turn in on herself after the death of her fiance.

After all, that’s exactly what Keira did after the breakup of her marriage. She turned inward and pretty much stayed inward – and exhausted, raising three children on her own with zero help from her drunken ex-husband. And just when she finally let herself open up – boom, another disaster.

So the family, not just Keira’s daughter Moira and Keira’s father Dillon, but the entire O’Brien clan that they have both married into, plots and schemes to get Keira to Chesapeake Shores. And once she’s there, and they all observe the sparks that fly between Keira and the pub’s resident chef Bryan Laramie, they all keep right on scheming, with an eye towards matchmaking between the chef and the “consultant” who seems to question his every move. Or at least he feels that way.

Bryan is just as alone as Keira, and the whole town seems to be more than willing to conspire to get these two together – from manipulating Keira into renting the cottage next door to Bryan’s house to cooking up a cooking contest to finish off the local Fall Festival – a cooking contest that pits Keira’s authentic Irish Stew recipe against Bryan’s hand-me-down version.

The winner of their contest will take all, not just the prize, but also the other’s heart. If they can both figure out what it really, truly means to “win”.

Escape Rating B+: Lilac Lane is a sweet and savory mix of contemporary romance, women’s fiction and small town magic.

Not magic as in Harry Potter, but just the magic that seems to permeate so many small town romances. Chesapeake Shores is just a lovely little town where good things happen to good people – and where there don’t seem to be any bad people – if maybe a few misguided ones – who do not appear in this story. Chesapeake Shores is just a great place to live.

Keira Malone and Bryan Laramie are an interesting and slightly different protagonists for a romance. Both are a bit older – while it’s not specified precisely, both have adult children and seem to be on either side of 50 – with Keira a few years older than Bryan.

They are both people who have been seriously wounded by life and love, and in ways that are similar underneath some rather startling surface similarities. Keira left her husband because he was an alcoholic, Bryan’s wife left him because he was ambitious, self-absorbed and absent. But Keira kept in touch with her ex – not directly, but enough that he could have visited his children anytime he wished – if he wished. Bryan’s wife, on the other hand, just disappeared with their daughter. She vanished. He’s spent years, and countless thousands of dollars, trying to locate them both. It’s not that he wants the marriage back – and who would, but he wants to regain contact with the daughter he still loves.

Neither of them is good at letting people in. Keira because her two attempts at romance have ended in disaster, and Bryan because he’s never bothered to divorce his missing ex.

Both of them need resolution in their lives – and there’s something about the way that they spark each other that makes them both reach for it.

The romance is of the squeaky-clean variety (the hero and heroine have only a few kisses between them when he proposes) but it works for this story and setting. Both Keira and Bryan are tentative about love, and that hesitation is expressed wee in their non-courtship, two-steps-forward-one-step-back relationship.

Although, speaking of two-steps-forward-one-step-back relationships, Keira’s relationship with her daughter Moira, and Moira’s relationship with her husband in specific and with the universe in general feels just a bit “off”. As a reader, I couldn’t figure out why Moira acted the way she did, and in real life I’d feel more than a bit sorry for her husband and her mentor.

Chesapeake Shores does seem like an absolutely marvelous place. The large O’Brien clan is deeply interwoven into the fabric of the town, which seems to have been created by one of them as a tourist destination – and it has flourished.

O’Briens seem to be everywhere. Keira’s father has remarried into the family, as has her daughter. The other women of the O’Brien family both meddle in Keira’s life with abandon and become the circle of sisterhood that she never had – and dearly appreciates now.

Lilac Lane is the 14th book in the Chesapeake Shores series. I’ve not read the earlier books, but was able to get into the story easily. Enough of the family’s previous connections and romances were explained in a way that meant I didn’t feel left out. It probably helped that Keira herself comes in as an outsider, so things have to be explained a bit to her – and we get the benefit of that.

But I certainly enjoyed Lilac Lane more than enough that I’ll be happy to visit Chesapeake Shores again soon!

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Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + Giveaway

Review: The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth + GiveawayThe Sweet Life by Sharon Struth
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Sweet Life #1
Pages: 216
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Italy, the best attractions are always off the beaten path . . .

Mamie Weber doesn't know why she survived that terrible car accident five years ago. Physically, she has only a slight reminder-but emotionally, the pain is still fresh. Deep down she knows her husband would have wanted her to embrace life again. Now she has an opportunity to do just that, spending two weeks in Tuscany reviewing a tour company for her employer's popular travel guide series. The warmth of the sun, the centuries-old art, a villa on the Umbrian border-it could be just the adventure she needs.

But with adventure comes the unexpected . . . like discovering that her entire tour group is made up of aging ex-hippies reminiscing about their Woodstock days. Or finding herself drawn to the guide, Julian, who is secretly haunted by a tragedy of his own, and seems to disapprove any time she tries something remotely risky-like an impromptu scooter ride with a local man.

As they explore the hilltop towns of Tuscany, Mamie knows that when this blissful excursion is over, she'll have to return to reality. But when you let yourself wander, life can take some interesting detours . . .

Praise for Sharon Struth

"Struth has a gift for layering stories within stories while keeping them all connected." --Library Journal

"Struth is an author to watch!" --Laura Drake, author of RITA-award winner The Sweet Spot

"Sharon Struth writes a good story about love and loss. She knows her characters and has a path she wants them to take." --Eye on Romance

"The plot is refreshing and will definitely keep the reader turning page after page." -Fresh Fiction

My Review:

The Sweet Life is a lovely, sweet story about love, and loss, and letting go. And discovering that the life that’s left after the grief has lost its sharpness can still be very, very sweet – if you’re willing to reach out and grab that sweetness with both hands and seize both it and the day.

Mamie Weber lost both her husband and her daughter in a devastating car accident five years ago. And she’s let her grief consume her every single day since. But five years is a long time to pull up the drawbridge and retreat into the castle. She’s finally come to realize that her “safety” is also a trap – and a prison of her own making.

A colleague steps in and offers her a way out – just a bit. All that she needs to do is get on an airplane and fly to Italy for a two week vacation as part of a tour group to which she does not belong. But a tour that her employer will pay for if she writes her friend’s “Covert Critic” travel book about the tour.

No one knows who the Covert Critic really is. And Mamie is contractually obligated not to reveal that, for just this one tour, she’s it.

The problem is that the tour is for a group of Woodstock “survivors”. Her friend Felix really was one of the thousands who went to Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, but at 39, Mamie is more than a generation younger. The “Woodstock Wanderers” don’t care. They are all more than happy to adopt her as a temporary replacement for the daughter or niece that none of them see enough of at this point in their busy lives.

But the tour guide, Julian Gregory, has some serious problems with Mamie’s intrusion into the tour. For one thing, it’s against the rules. Very much against the rules. And Julian needs to follow those rules. Not just because he needs the job, but because following the rules is what’s keeping him going – more or less. Being strict about the rules is the way that Julian is pretty much not dealing with the griefs and regrets that have piled up in his own life.

As Mamie tests her own limits, she also tests Julian’s resolve to stay on the straight and narrow at any cost. He starts out thinking that limits make life safer, only to eventually come to the same realization that Mamie has – that limits are just plain limiting.

It’s only when they both step outside, far outside, their comfort zones that they are able to finally reach for happiness – and each other.

Escape Rating B: If Eat, Pray, Love and If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium had a love child, it would probably be this book. The Sweet Life has that element of searching for one’s bliss mixed in with the whirlwind tour aspects (but not quite as much of a whirlwind) as that long-ago comedy movie.

Come to think of it, the Woodstock Wanderers are probably the right age to have seen that movie on dates – it’s the right time and the right kind of movie. And the guy does get the girl in the end, in spite of all the rules against it – as well as his own original intentions.

The travel portions of The Sweet Life are a love letter to the Italian countryside. If you finish this book and don’t want to sign up immediately for a tour of Tuscany, you’re probably not paying attention. It all sounds absolutely yummy, and now I have a yen to travel somewhere I hadn’t been thinking that seriously about. A good book will do that.

But the story is about Mamie and Julian both getting over all the things that are holding them back, and discovering that a grief shared is a grief halved – because they both have plenty. Their relationship has a lot of fits and starts, as they both, for very different reasons, try to resist the attraction they feel, and resist the need to tell each other their whole truth even longer.

A bit too long, of course, as that’s what’s sets up the final conflict of the romance.

While the two-steps-forward one-step-back of their relationship goes on a bit longer than it might, and they both do a bit too much wallowing to make the book a page-turner, this is still a very sweet story that provides a lovely and deserved happy ever after for its likeable protagonists.

And leaves the reader desperately seeking good pasta.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Review: Completely by Ruthie Knox

Review: Completely by Ruthie KnoxCompletely (New York #3) by Ruthie Knox
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: New York #3
Pages: 262
Published by Loveswept on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Everest. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere. Maybe even New York, where Ruthie Knox takes her charming rom-com style to new heights.   Beneath her whole “classic English beauty” appearance is an indomitable spirit that has turned Rosemary Chamberlain into something of a celebrity mountain climber. But after an Everest excursion takes a deadly turn, Rosemary is rescued by her quick-thinking guide, New York native Kal Beckett. Rosemary’s brush with death brings out a primal need to celebrate life—and inspires a night of steamy sex with the rather gorgeous man who saved her.   The son of a famous female climber with a scandalous past, Kal Beckett is still trying to find himself. In the Zen state of mind where Kal spends most of his time, anything can happen—like making love to a fascinating stranger and setting off across the world with her the next morning. But as their lives collide in the whirlwind of passion that is New York City, the real adventure is clearly just beginning. . . .   Ruthie Knox’s irresistible New York novels can be read together or separately: TRULY | MADLY | COMPLETELY   “Knox writes such sultry, detailed romance. The sexual tension and the sex itself are very hot. . . . Highly recommend this story.”Smexy Books, on Truly   “An amazing journey of self-discovery with a sexy love story thrown in for good measure!”Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews, on Truly   “What Knox does so well is create these wonderful, emotionally wounded, real characters for us to relate to and root for and love.”RT Book Reviews, on Madly   “A highly entertaining, compelling, and sexy story that I really didn’t want to put down.”Harlequin Junkie, on Madly

My Review:

One of the things about series romances is that there’s a tendency, or more likely a downright desire, to make sure that everyone within the series’ orbit has found their own HEA by the end of the series. Even if it’s not with the person they began with. After all, just because a story features a second chance at love doesn’t mean that second chance has to occur with the same person the first one did.

Especially when that option has been rendered moot by an earlier book in the series, where one half of the former couple finds their HEA with somebody else.

In the case of both Friday’s book, A Snow Country Christmas, and today’s book, Completely, the last unmatched person standing is the ex of the hero of one of the earlier stories. In both cases, of course, not an evilex (™) but just the other half of a relationship that wasn’t meant to be.

About Last Night by Ruthie KnoxWe originally met Rosemary Chamberlain all the way back in About Last Night, which is one of my favorite contemporary romances of all time, and if you haven’t read it you really should. Not because you need to have read it for the New York Trilogy in general or Madly and Completely in specific to make sense, but because About Last Night is just plain awesomesauce and wonderful and every time I have to refer to it for something I get sucked right back into it again and again and again.

But way back then, Rosemary was still married to Winston (the hero of Madly) and still living in England, being, as she puts it, “wallpaper”. Rosemary felt like she sacrificed all her own dreams to become the perfect wife and perfect mother. The new post-divorce Rosemary is obviously no longer the perfect wife, which is a good thing, but her daughter Beatrice is very unhappy and overdramatic and just a general pain about Rosemary no longer being the perfect mum.

Instead, Rosemary is climbing mountains. We meet her again as she’s ascending Everest. Not figuratively, but literally. She’s part of an all-woman team that is planning to ascend the tallest mountain on each continent, starting with Everest. And then she’s going to write a book about the experience.

That’s the plan until it all, equally literally, goes smash. A deadly avalanche ends the ascent to the summit, as the Base Camps below Rosemary’s party are all in various stages of wiped out. The mountain is closed. And Rosemary finds herself alone, evacuated by helicopter to the tiny town of Lukla, home of the most dangerous airport in the world and the nearest airport to Everest.

She’s numb. She’s spent. Her adrenaline has crashed to sea level and she’s not processing the sudden end to her plans or her overwhelming grief at all the lives lost. And into the middle of her complete mental shutdown steps Kal Beckett. Kal is the son of two famous climbers, half-Sherpa, and one of the “ice doctors” on her run up the mountain. He’s also the only person who sees that Rosemary’s British stiff upper lip has finally failed her, and that she needs food and rest and human companionship to help her through the darkness that surrounds her.

What he’s not admitting to himself is that he is just as lost in the dark as she is, and that he needs those things equally badly. He brings her food, and companionship, and a desperate need to remind himself that he’s alive – a need which Rosemary turns out to be intensely enthusiastic to meet.

Their lovemaking should have been a one-night stand. Or one day and one night, considering how sleep deprived they both were. But it isn’t. Rosemary isn’t ready to pick up all of the obligations that await her. She wants to go to New York and see her daughter. Kal needs to go home to New York, but all his money and equipment have been stolen while he and Rosemary slept the sleep of the “grateful not to be dead”.

They team up. Rosemary spots Kal the plane fare home. They help each other stay grounded, and make it through the rough spots left by experiencing something terrible and profound that no one else could possibly understand.

And along the way they figure out that no matter how temporary their relationship should have been – it’s anything but. Even though it makes no sense at all. Love and sense obviously have nothing to do with each other. At least not for them.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve loved everything that Ruthie Knox has written, and Completely is no exception.

The story in Completely, while it focuses on Rosemary and Kal, is also a very nice wrap up for the entire New York Trilogy. And it adds a nice little fillip to About Last Night as well, as Completely ends with the wedding of the couple from About Last Night. It was great to see Cath and Nev again, and to know that they’ve firmly cemented their HEA.

And even though this is Rosemary’s story, it also ties in nicely with Madly. Not just because Rosemary is Winston’s ex, either.

Rosemary can’t face going back to the climbing group. Not out of fear, or any of the other reasons that might stop someone from returning to something so incredibly dangerous. Instead, it’s because she’s finally letting herself acknowledge that while climbing mountains may have been a dream of her younger self that she gave up to become that perfect wife and mum, she has changed and the dreams she dreamed at 20 are not the same dreams that move her now.

She still wants to write, but the stories that she wants to write are women’s stories. Not women’s fiction, or fiction of any kind. What moves her now are women’s voices, and the true stories that have been left untold because they happened to women. All the ways that the world is different from the perspective of a female body and all the stories that have been suppressed because the teller is a woman and not a man.

And she wants to start with Kal’s mother Yangchen Beckett, the only woman to summit Mount Everest seven times. A woman who was only able to summit Mount Everest at all after she divorced and possibly murdered her violent, abusive ex-husband.

It’s a story that even Kal doesn’t know – and isn’t quite he’s ready to find out. But Yangchen is ready to tell it, and ready to manipulate her son and this surprising woman that he has come to love in order to both get her story out into the world and to finally help her son find the elusive happiness that he deserves – but can’t make himself reach for.

Most of Ruthie Knox’s stories feel very real, featuring people who seem like they could live next door or across the street. And the tensions that keep her romantic couples apart before they figure out how to be together also feels real. Life happens. Stuff happens. People don’t always deal well with the stuff that happens to them. And they screw up the best things in their lives trying not to deal with their own shit.

So even though Rosemary and Kal meet in a situation that is far from ordinary, the issues and problems between them still feel real, as does the love they have unexpectedly found with each other. And it’s marvelous.

I don’t know where Ruthie Knox is going next, or what terrific new stories she’s planning to tell. But I know that I plan to be there whenever she tells them.

Review: A Snow Country Christmas by Linda Lael Miller

Review: A Snow Country Christmas by Linda Lael MillerA Snow Country Christmas (The Carsons of Mustang Creek, #4) by Linda Lael Miller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance, western romance
Series: Carsons of Mustang Creek #4
Pages: 256
Published by Harlequin Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

It's a Christmas affair to remember as a Hollywood mogul discovers his inner cowboy—and the woman of his dreams—amid the rugged beauty of Wyoming.

Raine McCall would take snow-covered mountains over a star-studded premiere any day. But when hotshot movie executive Mick Branson arranges dinner on Christmas Eve to discuss a work opportunity, she's intrigued—by the offer and the man. She's a no-makeup, no-frills single mom, who's happy with her quiet life. Sharing chili cheeseburgers and sizzling kisses with Mick is sure heating up her holiday, but country girl and power player don't mix…

It's not just work that's brought Mick back to Mustang Creek. Since he first visited to oversee a documentary, free-spirited graphic designer Raine has been in his head. Her approach to life is as unconventional as her quirky holiday ornaments. Their attraction is undeniable—and so are their differences. Putting down roots in the Wild West wasn't in the script. But there are some Christmas gifts you can't walk away from, even when they turn your whole world upside down…

My Review:

A Snow Country Christmas is a candy cane of a Christmas romance, sweet with just the right touch of shivery, bracing coolness to make a delicious holiday treat.

It is also the perfect coda to the Carsons of Mustang Creek series. And even to the Brides of Bliss County series that it spun off from. It feels like all the story lines have been tied up with a big red Christmas-y bow, wrapped around this lovely story like a present.

The romance is of the “opposites attract” variety. Except it kind of isn’t. Raine McCall and Mick Branson are both certain that they have next to nothing in common. And on the surface they may both be right, but in the ways that it counts, they are totally and blissfully wrong.

Raine has been in the background of the entire Carsons of Mustang Creek series, and with good reason. She’s Slater (the hero of Once a Rancher) Carson’s ex. Not his ex-wife, just his ex. But also the very much present mother of his daughter Daisy, now approaching adolescence at breakneck speed. Raine knew that she and Slater, while they had a great time, didn’t suit for the long haul, so when she became pregnant and he made the expected offer of marriage, she turned him down.

They are, however, still very good friends and great co-parents for Daisy. It’s impossible not to believe that things worked out better this way for everyone, especially Daisy.

But Raine’s reaction to that expected proposal does sum up her life philosophy in a lot of ways. Raine is unconventional. Not just because she’s an artist, but because she’s found a place for herself and a way of living that work for her, and she’s learned not to pay attention to anyone who thinks she’s wrong for not doing any of the expected things.

Mick Branson does the expected things, and pretty much always has. Raine calls him “Mr. Boardroom” because he’s a high-powered wheeler-dealer in Hollywood and plenty of other places. Mick is also the man who finds the funding for Slater’s award-winning documentary films.

But somewhere along the way, his work with Slater as well as the many visits it’s required to Mustang Creek, have given Mick a new perspective – or put him in touch with a part of himself that he left behind. He’s fallen hard for Wyoming in general, and Mustang Creek in particular. He’s come to realize that at 40 or thereabouts, he’s tired of spending his life on the road or in the air, and wants to put down some roots and have a real life.

And he’s fallen even harder for Raine McCall, a woman whose life and roots are in Mustang Creek and who intends to keep them there – no matter how great a temptation Mick might provide. And as they explore the chemistry that has been simmering between them since their first meeting, they discover that under the surface, they have way more in common than anyone ever imagined.

And that it’s not just a mutual love of her famous grandfather’s novels.

Escape Rating A: I don’t give full A grades to many novellas. Even when I love them, there’s something about the novella format that usually leaves me itching for just a bit more. That’s not true with A Snow Country Christmas.

Because we’ve met these people before, and the setting is already established, the length here is just right. It also mirrors the length of time the story covers, over one long Christmas holiday, and it also seems to parallel the timing and course of Raine’s grandfather’s unfinished last novel.

That unfinished novel provides a touch of nostalgia as well as a way for the old man that Raine loved to give his haunting approval of her choice. And it gives Mick a vehicle in which he can explore his own suppressed creative side. The way that the unfinished story of the greenhorn and the unconventional woman of the West parallels Mick and Raine’s own romance was a marvelous touch.

For series fans, A Snow Country Christmas is the perfect ending to a delightful series. But, while I think this novella is complete in itself, it just doesn’t feel like the right place for beginners to start the series. For the best time in Mustang Creek, start back with The Marriage Pact, the first of the Brides of Bliss County series, to meet everyone and get to know this marvelous bunch of people.

I’ll miss these folks. But the romance between independent, unconventional Raine and thoughtful, considerate and willing-to-adapt Mick was the icing on what has been a really delicious cake.

Reviewer’s Note: The page count for this book on both Goodreads and Amazon is pretty far off. At 1700 kindle locations, A Snow Country Christmas is definitely a novella, and probably around 150 pages in length. A nice, quick read. With that number of kindle locations, the 384 pages listed on Goodreads is impossible without a ridiculous amount of white space. The 256 pages listed on Amazon probably refers to the large print edition. If you’re looking for a nice long read in this setting, go back to either The Marriage Pact or Once a Rancher, the first books in The Brides of Bliss County and The Carsons of Mustang Creek.

Review: Second Chance Girl by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

Review: Second Chance Girl by Susan Mallery + GiveawaySecond Chance Girl (Happily Inc, #2) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Happily Inc #2
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


A touching modern fairy tale that won't let go of your heart, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool's Gold romances!

Mathias Mitchell's easy smile hides a world of hurt. After the worst kind of family betrayal, he moves to Happily Inc., California—the wedding destination town supplies a steady stream of bridesmaids, perfect for his "no promises, no pain" lifestyle. Yet he can't stop watching for his beautiful, elusive neighbor on the animal preserve behind their homes.

Gamekeeper Carol Lund knows she's not special enough to attract an alpha male like Mathias, so his offer to help her adopt a herd for her lonely giraffe is surprising—and his determined seduction, even more so. But just as she finally welcomes him into her bed, his careless actions crush her heart. Will she give him a second chance to prove she'll always come first in his heart?

My Review:

Welcome back to Happily Inc., the adorable little town saved by a massive PR stunt. While the legend of the brides and the wagon train is pretty much pure bunk, it turned this small town on the edge of the California desert into a destination wedding extravaganza. Happily Inc loves its brides, and they love it right back.

The terrific first book in the series, You Say It First, focused on one of the creators of those destination weddings, Pallas Saunders and her Weddings In A Box, now very much out of the box, business. But now that we’re into the second book of the series, it looks like the series as a whole is focused on the artistically talented Mitchell brothers finding their happy ever afters, in spite of the way that their parents seriously screwed them all up.

Carol Lund is the gamekeeper at the local wildlife rescue operation. While Carol’s need to find a herd for her giraffe Millie provides much of the driving force in this story, the entire operation that Carol, her dad and her uncle have created is a marvelous thing. Her dad and uncle began with a cutting edge recycling and waste management company, added a fantastic wildlife refuge and are continuing to expand their world-renowned business into profitable projects that help their community and the surrounding area.

Carol, and Millie, and the zebras, gazelles and other animals, are just part of the package, but a great one. But Millie is lonely. Male giraffes may be solitary, but female giraffes live in herds, and Millie doesn’t have one. However, creating a herd of giraffes is not exactly cheap. It’s not just purchasing the animals, but also transporting them, dealing with the host of regulations, and then feeding and caring for them.

Carol needs half of a million dollars. That’s a lot of giraffe feed. Or it’s a lot of weeks (months, years) of collecting from little tins all over town.

And that’s where Matthias Mitchell comes in. He’s her neighbor. He’s also one of the very talented Mitchell brothers. And he’s utterly gorgeous and Carol, like many of the single women in Happily Inc., has more than a bit of a crush on him. But Matthias doesn’t do relationships. He’s rather infamous for doing one of the bridesmaids from pretty much every out-of-town wedding party. Easy sex, no commitments.

But something about Carol, and Millie, draws him in. And not just because they are neighbors who run into each other regularly. Or because watching Carol and Millie walk together around the preserve is the highlight of his day.

Matthias wants to help Carol. He’s also having a damn hard time admitting to himself that he just wants Carol. But everything he does to help Millie pulls the two of them together that much closer. And the deeper in he gets, the more he wants, and the less he’s able to resist.

Even though he’s sure that he’s much too damaged to be good relationship material for anyone. Especially someone he actually cares about.

And he might be right.

Escape Rating B: I liked Carol and Matthias a lot, and I also enjoyed the secondary relationship between Carol’s sister Violet and the quite surprising Duke of Somerbrooke. I actually enjoyed the development of Violet’s relationship more. It begins with a meet-cute, only to discover that they met even cuter once long ago. And after Ulrich screws up, he gives very good grovel. Their story was just plain fun from beginning to end.

The thing about Carol and Matthias’ relationship is that Matthias is really screwed up. Not that Carol doesn’t have plenty of her own issues, because of course she does or we wouldn’t get some of the lovely delicious tension in the story.

But Matthias’ father Ceallach Mitchell is the ogre that looms over the entire story. I want to say that he’s evil, but unfortunately he’s just human. And a complete and utter bastard. Also a violent abuser who only stopped when the oldest of his sons got big enough to stand between him and the rest.

Ceallach has attempted to ruin all of his sons’ lives in the desperate attempt to keep any of them from outshining his legendary artistic self. And he’s aided and abetted by his doormat of a wife, the boys’ mother, who has never defended her sons from her husband’s abusive fists or his destructive words.

That she still doesn’t understand why they can’t get along is icing on a very ugly cake. Especially when the whole family comes to Happily Inc for a family wedding, and Ceallach does his best to ruin everything his sons have touched, including the fund raiser for Millie that Matthias has arranged.

From the moment Ceallach shows up, he sucks all the air out of every room. That it sounds like is named for the “Winter Hag” of Celtic folklore is weirdly appropriate, because he overshadows every scene with a deep and abiding chill.

His sons have turned out alright in spite of him, so I hope we see less of him in any future books in the series. He’s done more than enough damage already. And I do hope there are future books in this series, because Happily Inc is a lovely place and the people we’ve met (with the exception of the Mitchell parents) are marvelous and great fun. I want to see everyone get their HEA.

It looks like Matthias’ “twin” brother Ronan might be next. I certainly hope so, because he really needs it.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Susan and Harlequin are giving away a $100 Amazon or Barnes and Noble Gift Card to one extremely lucky participant on this tour!

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Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From Weekday Brides to First Wives, a dazzling series about four women and their alliance of newfound friendship, unexpected love, and second chances.

Cynical divorce attorney Lori Cumberland lives by one motto: Love is grand, but divorce is a hundred grand. With one failed marriage under her own personal belt, Lori had fallen hard and early—and it isn’t something she plans on repeating. She’s content focusing on the temporary marriages of her rich and famous clients. When she joins some of her recent divorcées on a celebratory cruise, her only vow is fun, sun, and new friends. But Lori finds herself tempted by a jury of one.

For Reed Barlow, falling into the world of private investigation was easy. He knows the law and knows how to avoid breaking it—all while doing his job. His rule to live by? No emotion, no involvement…until Lori. His charming smile and cocky attitude distracts Lori and lowers her guard, which is exactly what Reed desires.

But what appears as a one-time-only flirtation may be a plot orchestrated by Reed. As he’s taking his investigation to a dangerous level, it’s Lori who could end up in jeopardy. Reed has only one shot for Lori to grant him a second chance. But if he comes clean with her, he blows his cover. And that just might cost him the opportunity for an alliance of family…and of love.

My Review:

As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” I still hear those words in Jimmy Doohan’s inimitable Scottish brogue, as the first time I ever heard this adage was in Star Trek: The Original Series in the episode “Friday’s Child”.

Although Fool Me Once is the first book in a spinoff series from Weekday Brides, you don’t have to read any of the first series to jump into the second. There are enough explanations about Alliance to get new readers right into the thick of things. But the Weekday Brides are awesome, so if you like Fool Me Once, you’ll love them, too.

The women featured in Fool Me Once and the First Wives Club are all Alliance veterans. Shannon, Avery and Trina were all contract brides, married to rich and/or powerful men in name only, for a year or so, in return for huge payouts at the end, when the inevitable divorce occurred. As intended. As contracted for by both parties.

Except it only works some of the time. Lori, the heroine of this story, is the legal brains behind Alliance. She writes those iron-clad pre-nups and sees all her clients from initial interviews to after-care when the divorce is final and the gossip inevitably hits the fan.

It doesn’t always work. About a quarter of the Alliance-arranged contracts have turned into real marriages. Considering that the divorce rate for non-arranged marriages is 50%, these are not bad odds. But Shannon, Avery and Trina are special cases.

Shannon made the mistake of falling in love with her ex. Two years later she still hasn’t gotten over it. Avery just got her divorce, and is ready to party. Trina’s situation is the one that ends in tragedy, and that sets this story in motion. Trina’s husband-in-name-only committed suicide while they were still married. As if that wasn’t enough, his mother died a few days later, leaving her entire fortune, not to her family, but to Trina. Who is overwhelmed with guilt and constantly in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi – and her father-in-law.

Lori may not believe in love and marriage after years as a divorce lawyer, but she does believe in taking care of her friends. And all of these women are her friends as well as her clients. Trina needs a getaway. And she needs company to help her get out of her funk, as well as to shield her from the press. It seems like a brilliant idea to get away for a week on a high-class cruise in the Mediterranean – but that just puts them in the midst of a whole new set of problems.

And that’s where Reed Barlow comes in. He seems like one of the solutions – not for any of the former Alliance brides, but for Lori herself. He looks like the perfect end to her very long dry spell, and the chemistry they ignite feels more than just physical. That he lives close enough to Lori’s home base in LA to make a continuation of their shipboard romance possible seems perfect. And so does Reed. Maybe just a little too perfect.

Because Reed isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. At least until he re-discovers his inner hero and changes sides. Too late to save their relationship, and possibly even too late to save Alliance and its secrets.

Or is it?

Escape Rating A-: Fool Me Once is a marvelous cross between romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and I loved every minute of it. As I have all of Catherine Bybee’s books that I have read so far. The number of kindle locations in Fool Me Once made me think that the book was a bit longer than the 350 pages it claims to be, and I didn’t care.

The women’s fiction angle comes in because so much of the backbone of the story is the relationship between the four women. They call themselves the First Wives Club because they’ve all been divorced, including Lori. But instead of the usual version, where the first wives got thrown over for the newer, younger model, these women ended up mostly where they thought they would, with a few kinks in the road. Instead, went into the arrangement intending to trade their contracted sugar-daddy husbands for newer, probably younger models who are their own choices.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice, men, and women often go astray. But the relationship that forms between these sisters-of-choice is forever. Readers who like Shannon, Avery, Trina and Lori will fall right in with them. They are all strong women with their own distinct personalities, but they are all different. It’s easy to identify with one or all of them, and that’s what makes the book.

The romantic suspense angle has its moments of extreme danger, but also plenty of intrigue and mystery. It’s clear at the beginning that Reed enters into the story with an agenda that is funded by someone else, someone who does not have the best interests of any of the women in mind. Although Reed changes sides (he has to or this wouldn’t be a romance) the person who set him in motion is not happy or satisfied, and will probably come back to haunt Shannon in particular and Alliance in general.

But the real mystery and danger in this story comes not from Lori and Reed, but from Trina’s case. Trina’s entanglement with her late husband’s family has caused a lot of resentment, and someone is willing to go through Lori to get to Trina, putting both of them in danger. The threat is very real and nearly catastrophic. At the same time, Trina’s unexpected inheritance provides her with a way forward that no one expected at the beginning. The ongoing story of her new adventures looks like a lot of fun.

When a hero screws up as much as Reed does (and sister does he ever) I usually need for the hero to do a really, really good grovel for the heroine to justify taking him back. While I’m not sure Reed groveled quite enough, he did save her brother’s life. That makes up for a lot of grovel. This HEA is earned!

At some point in this series, there might be a real “fool me twice” possibility. Shannon is, after all, in love with her ex. I can’t help but wonder whether her eventual HEA will be with him, or whether she’ll manage to finally wash that man right out of her hair. And I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Sugar Pine Trail by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySugar Pine Trail (Haven Point, #7) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance
Series: Haven Point #7
Pages: 384
Published by Harlequin Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

An unlikely attraction brings comfort, joy and unforgettable romance this holiday season!

Librarian Julia Winston is ready to ditch the quiet existence she's been living. She's made a list of new things to experience, but falling for Jamie Caine, her sexy military pilot neighbor, isn't one of them. Julia's looking to conquer life, not become the heartbreaker's latest conquest. But when two young brothers wind up in Julia's care for the holidays, she'll take any help she can get—even Jamie's.

Happy to step in, Jamie reveals a side of himself that's much harder to resist. Not only is he fantastic with kids, he provides the strength Julia needs to tackle her list. She knows their temporary family can't last beyond the holidays, but the closer she gets to Jamie, the more she wonders if things could be this merry and bright forever…

My Review:

It may only be September, but welcome to the first holiday book review of the year!

And we’re back in cozy Haven Point in this follow up to Serenity Harbor and my personal favorite in the series, Riverbend Road.

Sugar Pine Trail even ties up a bit of the story in Riverbend Road, right along with the series’ ongoing efforts to get all the Caine brothers of Caine Tech matched up with the women they’ve been waiting their whole lives for – even if they haven’t known it.

The hero this time around is Jamie Caine, the pilot. Jamie spends his days flying his brothers and the other executives of Caine Tech wherever and whenever they need to go. And his nights with a seemingly endless succession of beautiful but ultimately forgettable women who go in knowing that all they’ll get is a few good rides.

Jamie is a flirt and a charmer, and not in the least shy of using those charms to get whatever, or whoever he wants. While he’s not quite a player – he’s the closest thing that tiny Haven Point has ever seen.

Julia Winston, on that other hand, is the town librarian. And she seems to have bought into the stereotype just a bit too much, even though she’s only in her early 30s. Renting Jamie the upstairs apartment in her huge Victorian house is way outside her comfort zone – if only because Julia, along with more than a few women in town – has an unrequited crush on Jamie.

But Julia has also discovered within herself a desire to finally take charge of her own life, and to stop letting her fears hold her back from all the experiences that she once upon a time believed she wanted. Including an orgasm not brought about entirely by her own efforts.

Jamie’s not the only new male to enter her life. In an act of concern and charity, Julia follows home two little boys who seem to be living in the library – and who don’t seem to have an adult around. Once she discovers their true situation and brings social worker Wyn Emmett (the heroine of Riverbend Road) into the case, she learns that the only way that these two brothers can stay together for Christmas is if someone steps up and can foster them together while officials hunt for their missing.

To everyone’s surprise, including her own, Julia volunteers to step so far out of her comfort zone that there’s no looking back. She fosters them herself, knowing nothing about fostering and even less about take care of children.

Lucky for her, her new upstairs tenant comes to her rescue when she finds herself way, way over her head. Jamie not only takes the two boys under his wing, but manages to even charm her supercilious cats into purring under his hand.

And finds himself, in turn, charmed by the woman that Julia reveals as she opens her heart to the boys and lets her hair down, both metaphorically and physically with him. Once the starch is worn out of Julia, he discovers that the sweet, lovely and slightly flustered woman she is underneath is someone he can’t resist.

No matter how much he tells himself that he should.

Escape Rating B: I like Haven Point a lot. It’s a great place to visit, filled with lovely people that it is a joy to get to know.

On the one hand, the problem that pulls the lives of Julia and the two boys together is one that every library faces in some way, in both large and small places. At the end of the evening, it is not uncommon to discover one or two (or more) children who are too young to be left on their own but who don’t seem to have a responsible adult picking them up. Leaving them feels unsafe, but when it happens night after night, the staff who feel forced to stay overtime end up both worried and resentful. While calling the police seems heartless, it is often the only way to deal with the problem so that everyone, including the library staff, feel safe and protected.

Julia’s solution to this dilemma is unique, but the problem happens more often than people think, although usually not in such dire circumstances. As much as I applauded her in the book, at the same time, that she fostered the children herself made her feel like “not one of us” as did her continual harping on how she both fit and embraced the stereotype of librarian. As a group, we pretty much deride the stereotype whenever and wherever possible. It’s almost a game we play of complaining just how terrible and just plain wrong the old stereotype is.

Of course, readers who are not themselves librarians will not be bothered by this aspect. But I did want to shake her and drag her to a big library conference to see for herself.

The fears that held Julia back in so many ways, while they had nothing to do with being a librarian, felt all too real. She had created a shell around herself, for reasons that often made sense at the time. But her desire to break out of that shell and find out who she really wanted to be was well portrayed.

As a character, I liked Jamie and loved the way that he stepped in, stepped up and helped Julia figure out her sudden immersion in parenting. Not that he had any more experience as a parent, but he did have experience both as a sibling in a large family and in wrangling his nieces and nephews. As the only child of two only children, Julia’s life just hadn’t included much of those kinds of interactions. She needed his help, and as difficult as it was for her, accepting that help was necessary for her to grow up and to break out of that shell.

However, I’m not sure I really bought their romance. The relationship that Julia forged with the boys, and her heartbreak at the end, was sweet and crazy and just right. But I didn’t quite feel the chemistry between Julia and Jamie.

But I still had a great time visiting Haven Point for the holidays, and will be happy to make a return trip sometime soon. Maybe in the spring, when I won’t have to read about SNOW!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Sugar Pine Trail to one lucky continental US winner

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