Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + GiveawayYou Say It First (Happily Inc, #1) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Happily Inc #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 22nd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool's Gold romances invites you to visit Happily Inc., a wedding destination founded on a fairy tale
Sculptor Nick Mitchell grew up in a family of artists and learned from his volatile father that passion only leads to pain. As he waits on a new commission, he takes a day job as a humble carpenter at a theme wedding venue. The job has its perks—mainly the venue's captivating owner, Pallas Saunders. Although he won't let love consume him, for ecstasy with an expiration date, he's all in.
Pallas adores Weddings in a Box. But if she can't turn the floundering business around, she'll have no choice but cave to her domineering mother and trade taffeta for trust funds working at the family's bank. Then when a desperate bride begs Pallas for something completely out of the box, her irresistible new hire inspires her. Nick knows she doesn't belong behind a desk, and she knows in her heart that he's right—where she really belongs is in his arms.

My Review:

If I were being mean, I’d say this story is set in a little town that was supported by a very big lie. But I had an absolutely marvelous time in Happily Inc., so instead I’ll say that the town was boosted by an absolutely fantastic public relations ploy.

Pallas Saunders is the proud and still surprised owner of Weddings in a Box, a little company that does theme weddings in the wedding destination town of Happily. As in “Happily Ever After”. Except that Pallas doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to look for her own happy ever after. So it has to come looking for her, in the handsome and downright hunky person of Nick Mitchell.

Pallas needs someone who can restore the huge, gorgeous wooden panels that she inherited as part of the business. Nick, an artist in wood sculpture, needs something to keep himself busy while he waits to see if he gets the overseas job that he assumes is already all his. Assumes in the sense that “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

The panels are beautiful beyond belief, Nick can’t resist the idea of restoring them to their full glory. He doesn’t care that the job pays minimum wage, because he doesn’t need the money. He just needs the work. And working for pretty, quirky Pallas is just the thing he needs to keep him busy while he waits.

Even though, or perhaps especially because, Pallas drafts him to be a palanquin bearer for a Roman-themed wedding the minute she sees him. She’s short one chair-carrier, and Nick looks like he’s up for the job.

That he looks absolutely delicious in a toga is just a fringe benefit. For Pallas, at least. Nick is left praying that his brothers never see a picture of him in this get-up. Or any of the many embarrassing outfits that Pallas talks him into when she needs an extra courtier, or cowboy, for a wedding.

Both Pallas and Nick are wary of relationships. Nick has seen the damage they can do when they go wrong, and just how far the emotional shrapnel can travel. Pallas doesn’t believe that love just happens, her entire life has been a lesson that love only comes when it’s earned. And Pallas’ mother has made sure that she always falls short of the goal – whatever it might be.

Pallas finds herself on the horns of multiple dilemmas. Her overbearing mother wants her to sell the business and come work at the family-owned bank with her. Pallas needs the business to make enough money to support her, it and her employees, and she’s failing. Nick needs a place to wait for his next big thing, and Weddings in a Box looks like it.

But the more they become involved, with the business, with the weddings, and with each other, the more deeply emotionally involved they become – and the harder it is to let go.

Just as soon as they both figure out what they really need to let go of.

Escape Rating A-: I fell in love with Happily and with nearly all the people in it – Pallas’ mother Libby definitely excepted.

Happily is a really cute place. Although this series is a bit of a spinoff from the author’s Fool’s Gold series (which I have not read), the place it really reminds me of is Icicle Falls by Sheila Roberts. Both are small towns which have used some really interesting PR tricks to make themselves into tourist destinations. Also both have residents that are oodles of fun to get to know.

Although Nick has some work to do, You Say it First is mostly Pallas’ story, and that feels right. She’s the person with the most on the line and with the biggest decisions to make about her future.

Pallas inherited Weddings in a Box from her friend and mentor, the previous owner. She loves the business, but, and it’s a very big but for Pallas, she doesn’t have the confidence needed to let it out of the box and grow. And that lack of confidence can be laid squarely at her mother’s door, as Libby belittles Pallas to the point of abuse at every possible turn. And even manufactures additional turns so she can heap more abuse on Pallas. It’s uncomfortable to read, as it should be. It takes Pallas a long time and more than a little bit of help from her friends to realize that the crap Libby’s dishing out isn’t really about Pallas – it’s really all about Libby. That revelation begins to unwind those ties that strangle.

A big part of the fun of this story belongs to Pallas’ circle of friends. Pallas may own Weddings in a Box, but it’s all of her friends in town who supply the business and its owner with moral support and very real business assistance. Everyone is ready to stretch their wings, so when an emergency wedding with very unusual requirements needs to be put together at short notice, everyone pulls together and pulls Weddings in a Box out of its safe little box and launches it into the stratosphere.

Along the way, Pallas learns to stand on her own two feet, to stand up to her abusive mother, and most importantly, to learn that love isn’t earned, it’s given. Whether Nick will figure out that same lesson in time is an open question until the very wonderful end.

I loved my trip to Happily, and am looking forward to going back, in Second Chance Girl. I can’t wait to see what happens next – and who it happens to!

~~~~~~ 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!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: The Innkeeper’s Sister by Linda Goodnight + Giveaway

Review: The Innkeeper’s Sister by Linda Goodnight + GiveawayThe Innkeeper's Sister (Honey Ridge #3) by Linda Goodnight
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: women's fiction
Series: Honey Ridge #3
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 25th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to Honey Ridge, Tennessee, where Southern hospitality and sweet peach tea beckon, and where long-buried secrets lead to some startling realizations
Grayson Blake always has a purpose and never a moment to lose. He's come home to Honey Ridge to convert a historic gristmill into a restaurant, but his plans crumble like Tennessee clay when the excavation of a skeleton unearths a Civil War mystery and leads him back to a beautiful and familiar stranger.
Once a ballet dancer, now co-owner of the Peach Orchard Inn, Valery Carter harbors pain as deep as the secrets buried beneath the mill. A bright facade can't erase her regrets any more than a glass of bourbon can restore what she's lost. But spending time with Grayson offers Valery a chance to let go of her past and imagine a happier future. And with the discovery of hidden messages in aged sheet music, both their hearts begin to open. Bound by attraction, and compelled to resolve an old crime that links the inn and the mill, Grayson and Valery encounter a song of hurt, truth, and hope.

My Review:

The Innkeeper’s Sister is a lovely and emotionally fraught story that is told in parallel in two very distinct timelines – and in both stories the heroine is the sister of the owner of the Peach Orchard Inn. Although in the earlier, post-Civil War timeline, the Peach Orchard Inn was still the Peach Orchard Farm. But both Valery Carter in the early 21st century and Patience Portland in the late 19th are sisters to the women who own Peach Orchard, and who have already found a second chance at happiness after a first brush with tragedy.

In the 21st Valery Carter seems to be a good-time girl who can’t be counted on to handle any responsibilities that are handed to her. It’s a picture that is both right and wrong, but if Valery continues on her current self-destructive path, is going to end with that perspective being all right all the time. Until she drowns.

Into her life and her sister’s inn walks Grayson Blake, a one-time resident of Honey Ridge who now develops run-down historic properties into attention-getting five-star restaurants with the help of his brother Devlin. The old gristmill across from the Peach Orchard Inn is one such property, and the Blake Brothers have big plans for it.

Plans that are temporarily delayed when a poke at the rotting basement flooring turns up a human skeleton. The project goes on hold while the wheels grind through the process of determining, if not whose bones they were, at least when those bones were laid down and hidden under the floorboards.

Valery and especially her sister Julia are petrified that the bones might belong to Julia’s missing son Mikey, now lost for nine long, heartbreaking years. And that possibility sends Valery into a tailspin of guilt, grief and remorse.

But the time Grayson is forced to spend at Honey Ridge also unearths the crush that Grayson and Valery unknowingly had on each other back when they were teens. They’re not teens any more, and the mutual admiration and respect they felt then has blossomed into much, much more. Even though Grayson thinks that he’s much too staid and boring for a flirty party-girl like Valery.

And Valery is equally certain that the secrets in her past as well as the problems in her present make her unworthy of the love of a good man like Grayson.

But just as Valery has to reveal her secret burdens in order to reach for healing and happiness, so the secrets buried under the old mill have to come to light, so that the ghosts of that past can finally be laid to rest.

Escape Rating B: This is the third book in the Honey Ridge series, after The Memory House and The Rain Sparrow. I have not read the previous books, but based on their descriptions, they both follow the same pattern – that there is a romance in the present and a mystery to be solved in the past. The past mystery arises because of artifacts that are discovered at the Inn that involve the present day participants in something fascinating that they just can’t let go of.

And both those stories, particularly The Rain Sparrow that features a novelist and a librarian, sound lovely. I haven’t read either of them yet but I’m looking forward to it. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to read the series in order – I’m obviously not – but the previous stories, particularly their historical bits, sounded fascinating and I was a bit sorry to have missed them. At least so far.

The two stories in The Innkeeper’s Sister are different in substance, but both have some very serious and angsty issues to deal with. The story in the past is explicitly NOT a romance, but the story in the present is certainly centered around one.

Valery has a ton of issues to resolve, starting with but far from limited to her alcoholism. If she doesn’t get to the heart of her problems, she really isn’t a good match for Grayson, and they both know it. And for Valery to get to the heart of issues, first she has to let them out into the light of day, something that is incredibly difficult for her, for reasons that are made clear within the story. She has a lot of work to do, and it takes her a long and difficult time to figure out how to get to it.

While it is normally a plus when an author is able to misdirect readers away from the heart of a mystery, I will say that it worked a bit too well in Valery’s case. The depth of her guilt over the abduction of her nephew Mike was so searing and so overpowering that I spent a lot of reading time convinced that Mikey had been in her care at the time and had been lost through her neglect. This was not the case, but the way she processed her grief and layered her guilt on top of it made the real reason for this part of her angst feel a bit anticlimactic for this reader.

The story in the past was beautiful and fascinating. Benjamin Portland’s journey to find his long-lost brother, and what he discovered about himself, his family, and the differences between hope and reality for former slaves after the end of the Civil War, was an eye-opener for him and and excellent way of making the past come alive for the reader. I’m looking forward to this element very much in the other books.

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

I’m giving away a copy of The Innkeeper’s Sister to one lucky US/Canadian commenter

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Serenity Harbor by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySerenity Harbor (Haven Point, #6) by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, small town romance
Series: Haven Point #6
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on June 27th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the town of Haven Point, love can be just a wish — and one magical kiss — away…
Computer-tech millionaire Bowie Callahan is about the last person that schoolteacher Katrina Bailey wants to work for. As far as she can see, he’s arrogant, entitled and not up to the task of caring for his young half brother, Milo. But Kat is, especially if it brings her closer to her goal of adopting an orphaned little girl. And as her kindness and patience work wonders with Milo, she realises there’s more to sexy, wary Bo.
Bo never imagined he’d be tasked with caring for a sibling he didn’t know existed. Then again, he never pictured himself impulsively kissing vibrant, compassionate Katrina in the moonlight. Now he’s ready to make her dream of family come true…and hoping there’s room in it for him, too…

My Review:

I really enjoyed my first trip to Haven Point with Riverbend Road. I liked it so much that I went back again to experience Snowfall on Haven Point. So when this one popped up at Serenity Harbor, it seemed like a great time to go back!

I haven’t managed to go back and read the first four books in the series, but I’ll probably get around to it sooner or later – this is a nice place with terrific people. It also feels like it’s right next door to Robyn Carr’s Thunder Point, even if the geography doesn’t work out. But you don’t have to read them all to get right into the action of this one.

That being said, I’m kind of glad I had read Riverbend Road, because the wedding that all of the Baileys are back in town for is the one that is set up in Riverbend Road, the wedding between Wyn Bailey and her former boss, Haven Point Police Chief Cade Emmett. The story in Serenity Harbor is not really dependent on the previous book, but it is nice to see Wyn get all of her happy.

Serenity Harbor is Wyn’s sister Kat’s story. Katrina Bailey is back in town for her sister’s wedding. She’s spent the past year in Colombia, teaching English and helping out at a local orphanage, where she’s fallen hard for Gabi, a special needs child who has become her daughter in everything but blood. And paperwork. Endless, endless, EXPENSIVE amounts of paperwork.

And Wyn seems to be the only member of her family who really, really gets that Kat will do anything to take care of 4-year-old Gabi, even if that means moving to Colombia permanently. Kat’s overbearing mother is just certain that if the right man comes along, Kat will forget all about little Gabi.

Because that’s the way Kat used to be. She ended up in Colombia because she was following the wrong man. That’s what Kat used to do, fall for whoever was handy, without thinking. But since she found herself in Colombia, alone and broke with Gabi depending on her, Kat has been determined to become a different, better and more responsible person.

And that’s where Bowie Callahan steps into the picture, along with his little brother Milo. Milo, like Gabi, is a special needs child. But where Gabi has Down Syndrome, Milo is somewhere on the autism spectrum, and Bowie, chief technical wizard at Caine Technology, has no idea how to cope.

But then again, until about a month ago, Bowie had no idea he had a little brother. It was only upon the death of their mother that Bowie learned that she had had another child long after he cut ties – ties that he desperately needed to cut for his own survival.

That’s where Kat steps in. Literally. She’s an elementary education teacher who specializes in kids with special needs, so when she sees Milo about to have a meltdown at the grocery store, she steps in and deflects him until he calms down.

Bowie offers Kat an absolutely outrageous salary to become Milo’s live-in nanny, baby-sitter, caretaker and teacher while she’s in town for her sister’s wedding. Kat, partially against her better judgment and partially to get away from her overbearing mother, takes the job, reasoning that the outrageous salary will help fund her quest to adopt Gabi.

What she doesn’t count on is falling in love with both of the Callahans. By the time she’s ready to go back to Colombia, she breaks both Milo’s and Bowie’s hearts, and very much vice versa. But Gabi needs Kat. And Kat needs to stand on her own two feet, for the first time in her life.

No matter what it costs.

Escape Rating B: The ending of this one seriously got me in the feels. So much so that it raised the grade from the Cs to the Bs in one single pang of my heart.

I also really liked Bowie and his relationship with Milo. He loves his little brother and manages not to resent all the changes that Milo has made in his life. He’s frustrated a whole lot of the time, and with good reason, but he never resents Milo himself. But his life is completely out of control, and he has no idea how to get it back on track. Not that he hasn’t tried, but Milo defeats anyone who doesn’t know how to care for him. There’s a specialist on the way, but she’s tied up for another three weeks, and Bowie has a gap he can’t fill. He’s tried. He loves Milo, but love is not enough.

Bowie is a computer programmer, and a damn good one. Also very successful at it. But I recognized his habit of losing all track of time when he’s “in the zone” because it’s a very familiar pattern to anyone who has a programmer in their life. When they’re coding, they are just gone. So I smiled every time Bowie did this, because it was so familiar.

I liked Kat as a person. She was a great heroine for this story, and the author did an excellent job of introducing the challenges and the joys of parenting a special needs child through Kat’s and Bowie’s relationships with Milo and Gabi. This story did a great job of making me feel for this situation, in spite of my not usually enjoying stories that center around difficulties with child-raising.

But, and it turned out to be a very big but, I had a difficult time understanding why Kat refused to let Bowie in. I didn’t feel as if I got enough of Kat’s past trauma to really buy into her belief that what she felt for Bowie, and what he felt for her, was just another one of her bad decisions about men, which don’t seem all that bad in retrospect. They seemed like typical high school, college and early 20s experiments.

I understood why she wanted to stand on her own two feet in regards to Gabi’s adoption, but she walled everyone out to the point of not discussing her her hopes, or her quite reasonable concerns about the process, with anyone who might help her think things through or even provide a sounding board. Every time she dithered about it, the story sagged a bit. At least for this reader.

But that ending made me tear up. Happy tears, but an intense reaction for a book that I struggled with a bit in the middle. I’ll be back to Haven Point this winter with Sugar Pine Trail. I want to see how they’re all doing! And the heroine is a librarian, which makes this one doubly irresistible!

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

I am giving away a copy of Serenity Harbor to one lucky U.S. commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Under Pressure by Lori Foster

Review: Under Pressure by Lori FosterUnder Pressure (Body Armor, #1) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He can protect anything except his heart

Leese Phelps’s road hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s brought him to the perfect job — working for the elite Body Armor security agency. And what his newest assignment lacks in size, she makes up for in fire and backbone. But being drawn to Catalina Nicholson is a dangerous complication, especially since it could be the very man who hired Leese who’s threatening her.
What Catalina knows could get her killed. But who’d believe the sordid truth about her powerful stepfather? Beyond Leese’s ripped body and brooding gaze is a man of impeccable honour. He’s the last person she expects to trust — and the first who’s ever made her feel safe. And he’s the only one who can help her expose a deadly secret, if they can just stay alive long enough...

My Review:

As Lori Foster so often does, her new Body Armor series is a spinoff from her previous series, Ultimate. The character who ties the two series together is Leese Phelps, who began Ultimate as somewhat of a jerk of a side character, but ended the series as a solidly good guy who realized that while he might be a good MMA fighter, he was never going to be a champion.

We get enough of his background in Under Pressure that it isn’t necessary to read Ultimate to see where he’s coming from – but the series is a lot of fun if you like sports romance at all.

As Under Pressure begins, Leese is now the number one bodyguard at Sahara Silver’s Body Armor agency. Sahara, as the new owner of Body Armor, recruited Leese from the MMA because she has a plan. She plans to transform the image of bodyguards from suited thugs carrying ill-concealed guns to something charming, appealing, deadly and ripped. With the addition of Leese and his friend Justice, she’s off to an excellent start.

The body that Leese has been assigned to guard is that of Catalina Nicholson. The contract is a bit mysterious, as her wealthy stepfather has paid Body Armor upfront to protect Cat from anyone and everyone, including himself, who might come after her. Whatever is going on here, it is obviously way more than meets the eye.

And so is Cat. Leese finds her attempting to sneak into the bus terminal, dragging a busted suitcase in the snow, facing down the thug who clearly plans to grab her and rape her, just for starters. When Leese sends the bastard scurrying back to his lair, Cat decides to give Leese limited trust. She has to trust somebody – she’s been on the run for six weeks, and is worn down to her last frazzle.

But as much as Cat wants to trust Leese, she has some serious trust issues, and with good reason. The very first person on the list of people she is running from is that same stepfather who paid for her bodyguards. Unfortunately for Cat, Leese, and the entire crew at Body Armor, he is far from the most dangerous on that list.

And Cat is too scared, and a bit too selfless to give up that list of names. Because she is just sure that in a contest of reputations, she will always come out the loser. And that her best chance of saving everyone else is always going to be to give herself up to what she sees as her inevitable fate. She just doesn’t want to take anyone else with her.

Especially not after she makes the classic mistake of falling for her bodyguard. And Leese makes the equally irresponsible mistake of falling for not just the body he’s guarding, but also for the woman inside it.

Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings review. There were a lot of things about Under Pressure that I liked, and one that turned me completely off. Unfortunately, the part that turned me off looks like a repeating pattern from Ultimate, and not one of the good ones.

As the first book in the series, there is a lot of set up in this story. While the gang from Ultimate does appear near the end, this is all about the new gang at Body Armor, and we, as well as Cat, get introduced to Sahara and the team she is building. Sahara has some big plans for her new agency, and readers will also end up hoping that Sahara gets resolution on her own issues, particularly the issues surrounding her missing and presumed dead brother. But hopefully that’s another book.

The story in Under Pressure is one of the classic tropes – the bodyguard and his protectee falling for each other in the intense atmosphere of danger and ongoing death threats. In the case of Leese and Cat, it does seem like insta-lust that morphs into love rather quickly. From the descriptions, the insta-lust is very easy to understand, but the story doesn’t quite sell the development of the emotional relationship, at least not to this reader.

But it’s Cat’s need for protection, and the reasons behind it, that drive the suspense part of this plot. Cat overheard her wealthy stepfather, an even wealthier and more influential U.S. Senator, and their two bodyguards plan to cover up a murder. In particular, the murder of a young woman who said “no” to the Senator’s more depraved tastes. Cat can’t sort out just how deeply her stepfather is involved in this shitshow, so she runs. And keeps running. They really are after her.

Cat’s understandable fear is that no one will believe her. The Senator is rich, influential and beloved. He has perfected a sterling reputation as a kindly, twinkly grandfather, albeit one who hides a sack of slime underneath his expensive suits. On that other hand, her stepfather has given their inner circle the impression that Cat is flighty and unstable, just because she’d rather be a teacher than live the life of a pampered society princess.

And of course the Senator has bought off more than a few police departments and probably government agencies. The murder cover up that she heard is far from the first. And she knows that hers is next.

So Cat’s unwillingness to trust is at least somewhat understandable. She knows that the rich can buy off anyone they want, she’s seen it happen. And she knows that the Senator’s reputation is above reproach. No one will WANT to believe what she heard.

But of course her lack of trust in Leese and Sahara puts more people in danger than her trust ever would. This becomes another story where the heroine looks foolish for not letting other people help her, even if she needs to give up some of her agency to get that done. However, this wasn’t the part that really made me grit my teeth.

Cat is in plenty of trouble. They really are out to get her, and they really will kill her if they catch her. Even more, they really will kill anyone and everyone around her to get to her, and she is the kind of person who will see those deaths as being all her fault. But there’s an added element here. One of the killers is the Senator’s bodyguard, who in addition to being a cold-blooded murderer, also has an extremely unhealthy interest in imprisoning Cat and breaking her to his will. The addition of the crazed sexual-stalker murdering arsehole felt over-the-top. It is not necessary for their to be a sick sexual component for a woman to be in extreme danger. And it’s an added element that I’m just plain tired of as well as completely creeped out by.

I hope that the creepy-stalker-sexual-predator thing is not a big part of the story in the next book in this series, Hard Justice. I really liked Justice’s character in Under Pressure, and I’m looking forward to him being the hero of the next story.

Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + Giveaway

Review: On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins + GiveawayOn Second Thought by Kristan Higgins
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 480
Published by HQN Books on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Following in the footsteps of her critically acclaimed novel
If You Only Knew
, multi-bestselling author Kristan Higgins returns with a pitch-perfect look at the affection—and the acrimony—that binds sisters together 
Ainsley O'Leary is so ready to get married—she's even found the engagement ring her boyfriend has stashed away. What she doesn't anticipate is for Eric to blindside her with a tactless breakup he chronicles in a blog…which (of course) goes viral. Devastated and humiliated, Ainsley turns to her half sister, Kate, who's already struggling after the sudden loss of her new husband. 
Kate has always been so poised, so self-assured, but Nathan's death shatters everything she thought she knew—including her husband—and sometimes the people who step up aren't the ones you expect. With seven years and a murky blended-family dynamic between them, Ainsley and Kate have never been overly close, but their shared sorrow dovetails their faltering worlds into one. 
Despite the lifetime of history between them, the sisters must learn to put their differences aside and open their hearts to the inevitable imperfection of family—and the possibility of one day finding love again.

My Review:

This is a lovely story about second chances. Not just second chances at love, but also second chances at family, friendship and career fulfillment. And especially a second chance at being sisters.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of Kate and Ainsley, half-sisters who have a lifetime of almost-but-not-quite closeness between them. And a really weird family dynamic. Their father, a Major League Baseball umpire, left Kate’s mother to marry Ainsley’s mother. Three years later, with the love of his life dead and a very young daughter to raise, their father begged his first wife to take him back. And she did, but she never completely lost her resentment of the whole situation. It’s hard to blame her.

But that left Kate and Ainsley in a bit of a bind, sister-wise. Kate was ten years older than Ainsley, and Ainsley was so obviously Daddy’s favorite, that they weren’t close growing up. Mutual tragedy brings them together, and they discover in each other the sister and best friend they never had, but always wanted.

Kate’s husband dies after four months of pretty blissful marriage. Unfortunately for Ainsley, Nathan’s death sends her long-term boyfriend Eric into a complete spin into assholishness, not that he was a prince to begin with. Eric doesn’t just break up with Ainsley, he does it publicly, on the blog he posts at her magazine, and in the worst terms imaginable. While Eric was never as good as Ainsley thought he was, his behavior dives to a whole new level of low.

Ainsley arrives on Kate’s doorstep with her adorable dog and her worldly goods, which aren’t all that much. Kate, still in the seemingly endless depths of her grief, is grateful to have the upbeat and perky Ainsley move into her echoing house. Ainsley is equally happy to have a place to stay while she regroups and recovers. Ollie is always happy. Period.

They help each other. And they find each other. And eventually, when the time is mostly right, they find a way to move past their respective grief. But even though they both finally move on, what they don’t do is move past each other.

Escape Rating B+: I read this in a single evening. I fell into the story and didn’t fall out until I turned the last page. Kate and Ainsley are women that I would love to know in real life, and I was happy to spend an evening with them.

I will say that the first chapter is very, very rough going. It is obvious from the first paragraph that Kate’s husband Nathan is about to die, because Kate is narrating their last evening together from the perspective of someone who knows what is about to happen. It was impossible not to feel for her. Kate’s profound grief made me keep looking over at my own snoring husband to make sure he was all right. But a big part of me wished that the story could have started after his death. Reading the “but I didn’t know” bits over and over was both sad and wearying. Also wearing.

if you only knew by kristan higginsAlthough there is a romantic element to this story, the romances don’t feel like point of the story, except as they symbolize both women finally able to move on. Which appropriately takes a while. The point of the story is the way that they reach towards each other in a way that will remind readers of the author’s previous book, If You Only Knew.

Kate feels both profound grief and a certain amount of anger. When Nathan died, they had known each other for less than a year, and had only been married for four months. As much as she misses him, she also misses the person she used to be before they met. She had been happy on her own, and if she hadn’t met Nathan she would have continued to be so. The difference that one year has made in her life is beyond heartbreaking.

Ainsley’s situation is a bit different. She met Eric in college, and they’ve been together for 11 years. Literally one-third of her life. She not only loves Eric, she loves his family, and she’s been dreaming of marrying him for almost a decade. He’s always been a bit of a selfish arsehole, but when he breaks up with her via his blog, he pulls out all the stops. Readers will want to shoot him. In the kneecaps, so he suffers longer.

In many ways, Ainsley has a lot more self-examination and reinventing to do, because she’s never been just her. She’s always been part of an “us”, and now that is blasted to smithereens. When she gets her own back, it is epic and awesome.

Both women do eventually find romance, and in the most unlikely places. And the way that they do, particularly the way they both approach that second chance, makes a marvelous conclusion to this story.

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

I am giving away a copy of On Second Thought to one lucky U.S. commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Honor Bound by B.J. Daniels + Giveaway

Review: Honor Bound by B.J. Daniels + GiveawayHonor Bound (The Montana Hamiltons, #6) by B.J. Daniels
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Montana Hamiltons #6
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on October 18th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Protecting her life will mean betraying her trust 

Ainsley Hamilton has always been the responsible one of the family. As the oldest daughter of presidential candidate Buckmaster Hamilton, she's also a potential target. For months she's sensed someone following her. When an expedition to scout locations for a commercial takes a terrifying turn, she's rescued by a natural-born cowboy who tempts the good girl to finally let loose. 
Sawyer Nash knows just how reckless it is to fall for someone he's gone undercover to protect. Yet masquerading as an extra on set, he starts to see beneath Ainsley's controlled facade. And with the election—and a killer—drawing closer, Sawyer stands to lose not just his job and his life but the woman for whom he'd gladly risk both.

My Review:

wild horses by bj danielsHonor Bound is the sixth book in the author’s Montana Hamiltons series. As someone who has not read the rest of the series and got totally lost in this book, I highly recommend that if you think this book sounds interesting, or if someone recommends it to you, and you haven’t read the rest of the series, start at the beginning with Wild Horses, or don’t start at all.

All the loose plot threads from all of the previous books get wrapped up in a bow in this one, and some of those plot threads are absolute doozies. For faithful readers of the series, this book serves as the perfect ending for all of what came before, but for readers just starting, like me, it comes off as too many subplots and too much stuff going on to be packed into one book.

I felt like the long arm of coincidence (or as we call it around here, co-in-key-dink) got much, much too long. Too many crazy things happen all at once, and it pulls at the willing suspension of disbelief. Of course, for those following the series, all of those converging subplots are cathartic, as everything gets wrapped up and tied off.

Considering that I read this as we were gearing up for the final presidential debate this season, having the book start out with a Republican being elected President by a landslide was more than a bit bizarre on a number of levels. However, Buckmaster Hamilton is a way different brand of Republican than the current candidate.

The series overall has followed his candidacy, as well as providing an HEA for each of his six daughters in turn. Honor Bound is oldest daughter Ainsley’s chance for her HEA. FBI Agent Sawyer Nash arrives at the remote Montana valley where Ainsley is scouting locations for an advertising campaign to investigate her reports of a stalker. Unfortunately for both Ainsley and Sawyer, her stalker ramps up his interference after seeing the relationship between Ainsley and Sawyer heat up.

There are multiple coincidences, or so it feels, in Ainsley’s situation. One of Sawyer’s ex-lovers is also undercover at the location shoot, but Kitzie is investigating a ring of jewel thieves who seem to be operating within the production company. Kitzie is jealous of Sawyer’s interest in Ainsley, and steps way, way, way outside the lines of professionalism in an attempt to sabotage their developing relationship. And in spite of every terrible thing that Kitzie does, in the end she is still one of the “good guys”, for select definitions of both “good” and more obviously “guys”.

The overarching plot that has driven this series, as a counterpoint to Buck Hamilton’s election campaign, is the story of his wife Sarah. As the series began, Sarah, who had been missing and presumed dead for 22 years, returns with no memory of the intervening years. No one seems to trust her and her motives – with good reason.

Sarah led a double-life. Not only did she marry Buck Hamilton and have six children with him, but she was also a notorious terrorist code-named “Red”, at least in college and possibly later. “Red” may have been the true leader of The Prophecy, a terrorist group with ambitions to take out as much of the U.S. government as possible. Sarah doesn’t remember it all. But her ex-lover, and the current leader of the group, Joe Landon, is stalking Sarah and threatening her family if she doesn’t cooperate. And there’s a very, very shady doctor in the background who claims to be the person who removed Sarah’s memories, and who also claims to be able to put them back.

That’s a whole lot of plot for one book. Without the previous background, the separate and unrelated stalkings of Sarah and Ainsley strain credulity. Not having read the previous books put this reader at an extreme disadvantage.

But for those who have been through the whole saga, this feels like just the wrap up they’ve been looking for.

Escape Rating C: In the end, I came to the conclusion that this just wasn’t my cup of tea, which explains why I haven’t read the rest of the series.

It felt like too many long-shot coincidences, and too many subplots and too many perspectives for a single book. Knowing that this is the end of a series makes those things make sense, but it doesn’t work for someone who is not in on all the action.

When it comes to the central love story in Honor Bound, Ainsley and Sawyer’s relationship comes off as a very serious case of insta-love. Not that that doesn’t happen in real life, but they needed a bit more time together for this reader to buy into their romance.

And I’ll admit to a personal pet peeve about 34-year-old virgins. It just didn’t seem realistic, and it made it difficult for me to identify with Ainsley. It made her feel like a throwback to the old days of formula romances, when the heroines were always virgins and the heroes were always experienced. And dominant. As I said, that is very much a personal pet peeve, and your mileage may vary.

To recap from the very beginning of this review – if you are a faithful follower of the series, you will probably want to run and not walk to get to this concluding story. If you are a newbie, this is not the place to start.

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

B.J. and Harlequin are giving away a $25 Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Snowfall on Haven Point by RaeAnne Thayne + Giveaway

Review: Snowfall on Haven Point by RaeAnne Thayne + GiveawaySnowfall on Haven Point by RaeAnne Thayne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Haven Point #5
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on September 27th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


There's no place like Haven Point for the holidays, where the snow conspires to bring two wary hearts together for a Christmas to remember 

It's been two rough years since Andrea Montgomery lost her husband, and all she wants is for her children to enjoy their first Christmas in Haven Point. But then Andie's friend asks a favor—to keep an eye on her brother, Sheriff Marshall Bailey, who's recovering from a hit and run. Andie will do anything for Wyn, even park her own misgivings to check on her grouchy, wounded bear of a brother. 
Marshall hates feeling defenseless and resents the protective impulses that Andie brings out in him. But when a blizzard forces them together for the holidays, something in Marshall begins to thaw. Andie's gentle nature is a salve, and her kids' excitement for the holidays makes him forget why he never wanted a family. If only he and Andie can admit what they really want—each other—their Christmas wishes might come true after all.

My Review:

riverbend road by raeanne thayneHaven Point just feels like a lovely little place, and this is a lovely little story.

For those of us who have read Riverbend Road, the romance in Snowfall on Haven Point is foreshadowed a bit. But only a bit. It’s not necessary to read the rest of the Haven Point series to enjoy Snowfall on Haven Point. But I have liked my visits to this little town so much that I’m planning to catch up with I get the chance.

As the snow is falling in little Haven Point, Idaho, most of the Bailey family is away from home. Wyn Bailey, the heroine of Riverbend Road, is in Boise finishing up her master’s degree in social work. Charlene Bailey is away on her honeymoon with her new husband Mike – who just happens to be the brother of her late husband. It’s an interesting family.

All of his family seems to be temporarily out of town when Sheriff Marshall Bailey is struck by a hit and run driver, shattering his leg and putting him on 3-weeks medical leave from his all-consuming job. When he gets home he can barely get from his couch to his bathroom on his crutches – but he claims he doesn’t need any help.

His sister Wyn, even long distance, knows him much better than that. She sends their neighbor Andie over to make sure her wounded bear of a brother has at least enough food to keep body and soul together until he can get around a bit better.

Marshall was the witness to one of the worst nights of Andie’s life, when her stalker tracked her down in Haven Point to beat her and hold a gun to her head – in front of her children. Andie is a young widow, and her late husband’s police partner raped and terrorized her until she ran away. When he found her, Marshall helped take him down.

But Marshall makes Andie nervous. Not just because he’s big and grouchy, but because he knows way too much about her and saw her at the lowest point of her life. But in that clusterfuck, Wyn Bailey took a bullet for Andie, so when Wyn calls and maneuvers Andie into checking on Marshall, Andie feels obligated to bite the bullet and do what Wyn asks.

It doesn’t remain an obligation for long.

Hobbling around painfully with a cast and crutches, Marshall has a terrible time admitting that he needs the help. Actually, he has a terrible time admitting that he needs any help any time whatsoever, so being helpless is particularly galling, even though it is temporary.

He has a hot case on his hands – his own. The hit and run accident that took him down was no accident. Someone was gunning for him. But investigating the incident is hard to do from home with no police help. And he’s suspicious that it was an inside job. A couple of his deputies are all too happy to see him out of commission, and there’s a thief in his office that he is closing in on.

But while he’s laid up, he needs help. It’s not just that he needs Andie to bring meals, although he does. But he discovers that while she’s around, along with her two adorable kids, he’s starting to think that there might be more to life than just endless hours of policing.

It’s too bad for Marshall that Andie has decided that after losing one cop husband in the line of duty, she’s not willing to risk her heart falling for another. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and their hearts are firmly set on each other.

Escape Rating B+: There’s a lot going on in this sweet romance. Andie is determined to put her own past behind her, at least up to a point. Now that her stalker is behind bars, she is determined to live her life without fear. And although she misses her late husband, it’s been two years and a lot has happened. She’s learned to stand on her own two feet and run her own life. She misses him, but the grief is no longer sharp. She’s ready to move on.

It’s ironic in this story that just as Andie is ready to put the past mostly behind her, Marshall’s past has come back to bite him in the ass. He struggles throughout the story to deal with a mistake he made almost 15 years ago, and doesn’t know how to put right. Back then, he was young, dumb and on his way to a deployment in Iraq. Now he’s older and hopefully a bit wiser. And he has a second chance.

Andie and Marshall’s relationship has a lot of push/pull, come-here/go-away to it. As it should. Marshall is a pain in the ass at the beginning. He hates being helpless, and he keeps shooting the messenger. And serious pain makes all of us a bit grouchy.

While he needs her help, and learns to grudgingly accept it, the change is the way that he slowly comes to realize that Andie is everything he wants. Not just desire, but that he cares deeply for her and her kids and misses all of them when he pushes them away. He’s ready to make a family and have something to live for besides his work, even if he’s the last person to realize it.

Andie thinks she’s let go of her past, only to finally realize that it is still holding her back. And the crisis that resolves the hit and run case comes all too close to home, but makes both of them finally reach for the future.

As I said at the beginning, this is a lovely little story set in a lovely little town. I’m looking forward to going back.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Snowfall on Haven Point to one lucky US commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Last Chance Rebel by Maisey Yates + Giveaway

Review: Last Chance Rebel by Maisey Yates + GiveawayLast Chance Rebel (Copper Ridge, #6) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Copper Ridge #6
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The prodigal son of Copper Ridge, Oregon, has finally come home 
The man who ruined Rebecca Bear's life just strolled back into it with one heck of an offer. Years ago, Gage West's recklessness left Rebecca scarred inside and out. Now he wants to make amends by gifting her the building that houses her souvenir store. Rebecca won't take Gage's charity, but she's willing to make a deal with the sexy, reclusive cowboy. Yet keeping her enemy close is growing dangerously appealing… 
He's the wild West brother, the bad seed of Copper Ridge. That's why Gage needs the absolution Rebecca offers. He just didn't expect to need her. After years of regretting his past, he knows where his future lies—with this strong, irresistible woman who could make a black sheep come home to stay…

My Review:

This is a challenging book. I mean that in the sense that it grabs the reader by the throat at the beginning, and doesn’t let go until the very end.

This also isn’t an easy story in a whole lot of ways. Our heroine begins the story brittle and scarred. Our hero has been her “monster in the closet” for well over a decade. He inflicted those scars. It’s over the course of the story that Rebecca discovers that, while Gage was most definitely the cause of her physical scars, the way that she has waved those scars as a flag, or used them as a whip and a chair to keep other people from getting too close, is pretty much all on her.

And while she is the one who carried all of the physical pain, Gage left with plenty of scars of his own. It’s just that all of his are on the inside. And even more self-inflicted, in more ways than one.

The beginning of this story happened long ago. Way back when Rebecca was a pre-teen and Gage was the town’s self-indulgent golden boy. He was also 18, making him young, dumb and too full of himself and testosterone. There’s a reason that teenage boys and cars are so frequently a dangerous mix.

Gage was playing “chicken” with his equally young and dumb friends, and crashed into an oncoming car. The car containing Rebecca and her mother. Gage and Rebecca’s mother both walked away with a few scratches, but Rebecca was carried out torn and twisted. Her needs and her rehabilitation drove her mother away. If her brother, barely 21, hadn’t stepped up, she’d have ended up in the foster care system or worse.

Gage’s father made it all go away. He paid off the family, and no charges were ever pressed. Gage ran away, and stayed away, for 17 years. Long enough for Rebecca and his siblings to grow up, and for his father to get old. He only comes back to fix his father’s surprisingly empty finances when the old man has a stroke.

So he decides to fix everything broken he left in Copper Ridge, starting with Rebecca. There’s an immediate problem with his plan – Rebecca doesn’t see herself as broken at all, and wants absolutely nothing to do with the man who she believes ruined her life.

And Gage refuses to take into account that the most broken person of all in this mess is Gage himself. His plan is to ride in, fix everything, and leave, never letting anyone else get close to him. He’s certain that’s what he deserves.

But Rebecca challenges him at every turn. She doesn’t want his money, she doesn’t need his help. She’s made a success of her life, owning her own store and her own house, having taken her determination to get beyond her injuries and make her own life.

But Gage continues to push, and Rebecca keeps pushing back. It is a very, very short distance between hate and love, especially when the person you’ve hated is just a monster in the closet, and the real flesh and blood person is so much more.

A relationship that should never have been helps Rebecca see into her broken places. Not the physical ones, but the emotional wounds she carries inside. And bringing those wounds into the light makes her whole, whether Gage is willing to go there with her, or not.

Escape Rating A-: There’s a grit to this story, and the character of Rebecca, that reminds me a whole lot of the utterly awesome, and incredibly hot After Hours by Cara McKenna. I’m not totally sure why, but it does. So if you like the one, you’ll probably like the other.

Rebecca’s character is what makes this story so good. We see inside her, and it’s not a pretty place. There’s nothing horrible, but she’s become much, much too good at keeping people at a distance. She’s afraid to let anyone close out of the fear that they might leave just the way her mother did. So she’s walling herself off from an emotional life. While there certainly is some truth that in a society that judges women on their appearance her scars might put some men off, she also keeps herself from developing close female friendships. She doesn’t let anyone in. And people who know her history let her have her way. She uses their pity at the same time she rejects it.

When Gage bursts into her life, she is forced to rethink many of her assumptions. Not just the ones about him, but the ones she has made about herself and everyone else. She finally figures out that her hatred of him, and her anger at her mother’s abandonment, aren’t hurting either of them. They are just holding her back. That she learns to let go, for her own sake and not for theirs, is the lesson of the book.

However, Gage holds himself back during the entire story. We don’t see the real him, or his real emotional state (which is a mess) until very, very late in the story. So he never becomes as strong a hero as she is a heroine. In some ways, he’s the rock that she dashes herself upon until she finally cracks open and lets all the bad stuff out. She needs that, but it it leaves his character and motivations a bit lacking.

There’s one final thought I want to leave you with. Something that Rebecca says near the end of the book has a great deal of resonance, not just for this story, but for life in general.

“Don’t hide it. And don’t pretend it isn’t there. That’s how we make monsters… By hiding ordinary things in the closet and letting them feed off the darkness.”

Rebecca lets the light in, no matter how much it hurts. That’s a big part of what makes her awesome.

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

Harlequin is giving away a $25 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: Always a Cowboy by Linda Lael Miller + Giveaway

Review: Always a Cowboy by Linda Lael Miller + GiveawayAlways a Cowboy (The Carsons of Mustang Creek, #2) by Linda Lael Miller
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Carsons of Mustang Creek #2
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He's the middle of the three Carson brothers and is as stubborn as they come—and he won't thank a beautiful stranger for getting in his way!
Drake Carson is the quintessential cowboy. In charge of the family ranch, he knows the realities of this life, its pleasures and heartbreaks. Lately, managing the wild stallions on his property is wearing him down. When an interfering so-called expert arrives and starts offering her opinion, Drake is wary, but he can't deny the longing—and the challenge—she stirs in him.
Luce Hale is researching how wild horses interact with ranch animals—and with ranchers. The Carson matriarch invites her to stay with the family, which guarantees frequent encounters with Drake, her ruggedly handsome and decidedly unwelcoming son. Luce and Drake are at odds from the very beginning, especially when it comes to the rogue stallion who's stealing the ranch mares. But when Drake believes Luce is in danger, that changes everything—for both of them.

My Review:

once a ranchr by linda lael millerAlways a Cowboy is a lovely, quiet little story. There’s no big crisis, and thankfully no huge misunderstandammit. Just a sweet story about two people who find each other and fall in love, even though that isn’t what either of them is looking for.

In this followup to Once a Rancher, the story focuses on the second of the Carson sons. While oldest son Slater used to be a rancher and is now a documentary filmmaker, middle son Drake has always been a cowboy. Unlike his brothers, who both love the family ranch but want to do something different with their lives, running the ranch is the life that Drake has always wanted.

Even if it doesn’t leave him much time for a life of his own. Or much opportunity to find someone to spend that life with.

His mother has a plan to fix that problem.

You’d think that a handsome cowboy with a share of a successful ranch would have no problem finding a woman on his own, but Drake is too busy to go looking, and is not interested in casual, even if he had the time.

Luce Hale is anything but casual. She’s driven to make a career for herself, even if she has to drive Drake Carson crazy to do it. Because Luce is planning to write her Master’s thesis in ecology on the management of wild horse herds on working ranches, and Drake has, or is being had by, a herd that is roaming his family ranch, and seducing away some of his best (and most expensive) mares.

Luce plans to shadow Drake as much as he’ll let her, to find out how he manages and sometimes doesn’t manage, to deal with the horses.

Both Luce and Drake are being managed, just a bit, by their mothers. The older women have been best friends all their lives, and are just certain that if their two reluctant children have a chance to get together, they’ll discover that they were right for each other all along.

Providing that they don’t drive each other crazy first. And that the steady teasing by every single member of the Carson family doesn’t drive them apart.

Escape Rating B: This is a sweet romance. There is not a lot of external tension, and no craziness that artificially keeps these two apart. That’s marvelous.

The initial conflict between Drake and Luce seems realistic. He has a working ranch to manage. The wild stallion keeps breaking down fences and stealing prize mares. The stallion may be a beautiful horse who is only doing what comes naturally, but he’s costing Drake a lot of money. Drake wants to have the horse herd relocated as soon as possible. Luce wants a long chance to observe them first. And she wants a long chance to observe Drake, who is used to being alone and pretty much undisturbed. Luce is nothing but a disturbance.

It’s not that she needs to be rescued, it’s that she makes him question and think and take stock of his life. And she drives him crazy.

The other conflict is equally realistic. Drake is tied to the ranch and that is not going to change. This isn’t a question of stubborn or lack of understanding, this just is what it is. To keep the ranch in the family, one of them has to run it, and those responsibilities were divided long ago. Drake likes the life he has, he just wants someone to share it with.

Luce is still in the middle of her education. After her Master’s, she planning to go on to get a Ph.D in ecology, and then teach at a university. Those are things that she can’t do, at least not as planned, from little Mustang Creek Wyoming. For them to be together, she’s the one who will have to compromise. But can she find a way to make this work that she won’t come to regret and resent down the road?

In the middle of this sweet love story, there’s a lot about running the ranch and about the care and management of wild horses. While I don’t think it is necessary to read Once a Rancher to enjoy Always a Cowboy, if you like the family dynamic in this story, the first book is a treat. And if the parts of the story about wild horse management really get you, there’s another recent book that came at this issue from a slightly different angle, Saddle Up by Victoria Vane. It is also excellent. And it drove me crazy until I tracked it down.

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

I’m giving away a copy of Always a Cowboy to one lucky US winner:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Fire Brand by Diana Palmer + Giveaway

Review: Fire Brand by Diana Palmer + GiveawayFire Brand by Susan Kyle, Diana Palmer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He'll risk his whole heart to save her from the past 
Gaby Cane was always a bit afraid of her attraction to Bowie McCayde. Even when she was fifteen and Bowie's family took her in, she had sensed his simmering resentment. Now ten years later, she's an aspiring journalist who can hold her own with any man professionally, the dark shadows of years gone by far behind her. Then Bowie strides back into her life—only this time, he needs her, and the pull of loyalty to his family is too strong to ignore.  
When Bowie asked Gaby to help save his family's Arizona ranch, he never expected the girl he once knew to return transformed into a stunning, successful woman. As they work together, Bowie is shocked to find that her innocence and beauty stir a hunger he can't deny. But the rogue rancher can sense something holding her back, and he's determined to uncover the terrible secret Gaby is fighting to keep hidden…

My Review:

I think we need a genre term for books that were contemporary when they were originally published, but are not set in a defined historical era, and are republished without updating. Because Fire Brand definitely fits into that class.

Fire Brand was originally published in 1989, and presumably wasn’t written much before that date. While there are no references to specific events that would make things obvious, for example, the name of the then-current U.S. president, there are plenty of clues that tip the reader that this is no longer the world we know.

There are some obvious things. No one has a cell phone. Personal computers exist, but are relatively few and far between. No laptops.

But there are some real dead giveaways. The first one that got me was the way that Vietnam was referred to. In 1989, it was still a relatively young man’s war. Our hero is a Vietnam vet in his mid-30s. The U.S. pulled out in 1973, so this was just barely possible.

One of the more subtle cues is the ubiquity of people smoking, and the lack of reaction to it. Anti-smoking bans didn’t really get off the ground until the late 1980s, and the wide open spaces of the formerly Wild West were some of the last places to implement widespread smoking bans in the U.S.

The suspense element of the story comes from an attempt by a big agricultural firm to buy a lot of land in the somewhat depressed town of Lassiter. The opposition to the initiative comes from a very fledgling environmental movement. Environmental protection wasn’t nearly as well developed a science, nor was it as entrenched in the public consciousness, as it is today.

And the story is broken by a local, small-town, weekly newspaper that seems to still be thriving on classified advertising revenue. The late 1980s were probably the last Golden Age of newspapers in the U.S. The heroine’s world of newspaper reporting, newspaper publishing, and easily switching jobs from one paper to another has vanished.

So the background is a bit dated. What about the story?

The romance is fairly self-contained, so the external factors don’t matter as much. Gaby Cane was taken in by the wealthy McCayde family when she was a 15-year-old runaway. She is obviously hiding a secret, but 9 years later no one seems to be looking for that secret even though it changed her whole life.

Bowie McCayde has always resented Gaby’s intrusion into his family’s life. She instantly became the daughter his parents never had, and he was pushed a bit further out into the emotional cold. But he was already an adult when Gaby intruded into their lives, and a good chunk of that coldness had been frozen long before her arrival.

Fire Brand turns out to be two love stories. One is between Gaby and Bowie, and the other belongs to Bowie’s widowed mother Aggie and the man she brings home from her Caribbean cruise. A man whose motives Bowie questions. Bowie wants Gaby’s help in keeping his mother and her mystery man apart while he digs into the man’s background. What he makes is a mess.

Gaby and Bowie hesitantly draw closer, as Bowie finds more and more wedges to stick into his mother’s affairs. Or rather, affair. Of course he’s all wrong about his mother’s suitor, and all too frequently off-base when it comes to his relationship with Gaby.

He has to nearly destroy everything to figure out just how precious true love is, and how easy it is to break it.

Escape Rating B-: I enjoyed this, in spite of the dated background. This is a time that I remember, so it was easy to slide back into this groove.

However, there were other ways that this story was a throwback that made it bit more difficult to swallow. It reminded me of some of the Harlequins that I read back in the day, when I saw reading romance as a guilty and secretive pleasure rather than something to be up front about reading.

Back in the day, all heroines were always virgins, no matter how many plot twists the author had to go through to make that plausible. It provided a way for the experienced hero to seduce our secretly passionate virgin into her first sexual encounter. It also allows the hero to make possessiveness and his loss of control during her loss of innocence seem romantic, no matter what the circumstances.

I’m also not sure that the trauma that created Gaby’s hiding of her sexuality was rendered realistically. Or it went a bit far. As a reader, I can accept that her trauma kept her from wanting to experience sex, but she seemed less knowledgeable about the way things work than feels possible for the era. The late 1980s were not the Victorian era.

However, while Gaby was sometimes naive, she was a genuinely likable person. She just needs to grow up a bit. On that other hand, Bowie is frequently a bit of an arsehole, and tends to treat both Gaby and his mother like they can’t possibly manage without his guidance. He’s very traditionally alpha, and is a hero of the type where love is supposed to redeem previous bad behavior.

The underlying story about the big development was interesting, as was the way that Gaby did good investigative journalism to figure out what was really going on. She looks for the facts of the case, and tries to keep her bias out of it. A tenet of journalistic ethics that seems to have gone by the wayside in the decades since this story was written.

All in all, a mixed bag of story. A good one for escaping back into the not-so-distant past.

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

Harlequin is giving away a $25 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour:

Embed code: a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.