Review: Beach House Summer by Sarah Morgan

Review: Beach House Summer by Sarah MorganBeach House Summer by Sarah Morgan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, relationship fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on May 17, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan returns with the ultimate beach read, as one woman forges the most unlikely friendship of all, and embarks on a summer of confronting her past in order to build the future she wants...
When Joanna Whitman's famous ex-husband dies in a car accident, she doesn't know what to feel. Their dysfunctional marriage held more painful secrets than she cares to remember. But when she discovers that the young woman with him in the crash is pregnant, Joanna feels compelled to act, knowing exactly how brutal the media spotlight will be on celebrity chef Cliff Whitman's ex-wife and his mysterious female friend.
Ashley Blake can't believe it when Joanna shows up in her hospital room and suggests they hide away at her beach house on a sleepy stretch of California coast. Joanna should be hating her, not helping her. But alone and pregnant, Ashley can't turn down Joanna's offer. Yet she knows that if Joanna ever found out the real reason Ashley was in that car, their tentative bond would shatter instantly.
Joanna's only goal for the summer is privacy, but her return causes major waves in the local community, especially for the man she left behind years ago. All Ashley wants is space to plan for her and her baby's future, and to avoid causing any trouble for Joanna. But as secrets spill out under the hot summer sun, this unlikely friendship is about to be put to the test.

My Review:

There can be a huge difference between the truth and “the story”. In this era of 24/7 “news” where everyone has an opportunity to voice their opinions using social media as a megaphone, it’s “the story” that keeps people interested and engaged – the truth be, well, not so much damned as ignored in favor of whatever slant gathers the most eyeballs and sells the most advertising.

So when celebrity chef and serial philanderer Cliff Whitman dies in a car crash with a young woman in his car, the media sharks already know where the story is, because “the story” of Cliff’s sexcapades has never been about him. The story has always been about his now ex-wife Joanna.

There’s way more interest in making her a victim yet again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, than there is in finding out the truth about the crash. After all, Cliff was a celebrity, and let’s not forget male and charismatic. People are always willing to believe that whatever a famous man does wrong is somehow the woman’s fault. Even if they’re divorced. Even if she was nowhere near the place or the person at the time.

Even Joanna’s non-reaction is a story, and the vultures (read that as reporters) are more than willing to stake out her house and harass her neighbors to get it.

That there was a young woman in Cliff’s car when he crashed just adds fuel to the fire. After all, everyone knows that Cliff liked them young and younger as he got older. And the girl survived, which makes her fair game as far as the vultures are concerned.

Which is where the story gets interesting. Everyone assumes that the young woman, Ashley Blake, was Cliff’s latest fling. Or that she was about to be. She was certainly his type.

So no one expects Joanna Whitman to sweep into Ashley’s hospital room and rescue her from the schooling piranhas staking out the hospital just waiting for her to be discharged. They’ve already breached her privacy once, so it’s only a matter of time until they can find a patient, a visitor or even a hospital staffer to give one of them the juicy scoop.

Joanna, who has already evaded the swarm of stalkers outside her house, sweeps Ashley away to somewhere no one will look – at least for a little while. They both need a bit of peace, a time to heal, and a chance to figure out what happens next.

But the place Joanna has taken Ashley is her own hometown on the California Coast, to the beach house that sits on the land she once called home.

Joanna thinks she’s helping Ashley. And she is. But Ashley is also helping her. And by returning to her roots, Joanna finally gives herself a chance to take stock of her own life – and to explore the road not taken, the one that everyone, including Joanna herself, expected to take all those years ago.

Escape Rating A: Beach House Summer isn’t so much a romance as it is women’s fiction or relationship fiction. Not that a romance doesn’t eventually occur in the story, but the romance is not the center of the story.

The heart of Beach House Summer is in the relationship between Joanna and Ashley, and then Joanna’s relationships with all the people she left behind in Silver Point, especially her childhood best friend Melanie and Mel’s twin brother Nate – who was, once upon a time, the love of Joanna’s life.

More than anything else, though, the story is about Joanna’s hesitant reaching out to, well, anyone at all.

For the 19 years of her marriage, and the year of her divorce, Joanna has been the media’s punching bag whenever one of Cliff’s affairs was exposed. Which happened often. Extremely often. Even after their divorce, she was still the one who got stalked whenever he was seen with anyone. Because after each and every affair, she went back to him. Over and over and over. The speculation and innuendo, as occurs whenever a famous man is involved with a less famous woman, was vicious. Every single time.

And every single time Joanna’s response was “no comment” if she gave a response at all. She trusts no one because she knows they’ll either stab her in the back with the press or turn away from her in pity or even horror whenever the press comes stalking. Because they inevitably will.

Joanna’s reaction is to make like a turtle and hide all her vulnerable bits. Which is pretty much all of them. But bringing Ashley into her life opens a door that she realizes she doesn’t want to close. Letting one person in lets in others. Going back to her hometown lets her see that there ARE people who love her and people who can be counted on – no matter what her vicious stepmother used to tell her.

As much of the joy of this book is wrapped around Joanna’s relationships with both her new and her old friends, as lovely as it is that she does get back the friendships and the love she left behind, the part of the story that kept me turning pages in fury was the part about the relentless stalking behavior of the media.

Cliff is the one who cheated, Cliff is the one who lied, Cliff is the one who crashed his own car because he thought the speed limit on a cliffside road was a suggestion and not a warning. But Joanna is the one who suffers for it. Every. Single. Time. Even after their divorce. He’s the guilty party but she’s always the one to blame because that’s the story that people want to read.

It reminds me of a story going on right now that seems to be distracting the entire country from pretty much every substantive issue that should be getting more attention. So I wasn’t surprised at all that Joanna did her level best to hide and hope it would all blow over, and I saw so many parallels with the way she was treated and the way that the sharks circle any woman who speaks up about rich and/or famous men. What did surprise me was that when she finally stood up and refused to be a victim any longer, that it actually worked. I wish that was true in real life – at least more of the time.

Wrapping up, I loved Beach House Summer for its story about love and friendship and second chances. But its ripped from the headlines background is what really put it over the top for this reader.

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn Ross

Review: The Inheritance by JoAnn RossThe Inheritance by JoAnn Ross
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, historical fiction, relationship fiction, women's fiction, World War II
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

With a dramatic WWII love story woven throughout, JoAnn Ross's women’s fiction debut is a generational saga full of sisterly affection and rivalry, perfect for fans of Susan Wiggs, Mary Alice Monroe and Lisa Wingate.
When conflict photographer Jackson Swann dies, he leaves behind a conflict of his own making when his three daughters, each born to a different mother, discover that they’re now responsible for the family’s Oregon vineyard—and for a family they didn’t ask for.
After a successful career as a child TV star, Tess is, for the first time in her life, suffering from a serious identity crisis, and renewed resentment around losing her father all over again.
Charlotte, brought up to be a proper Southern wife, gave up her own career to support her husband's political ambitions. On the worst day of her life, she discovers her beloved father has died, she has two sisters she never knew about, and her husband has fallen in love with another woman.
Natalie, daughter of Jack’s longtime mistress, has always known about her half sisters. And she can’t help feeling that when Tess and Charlotte find out, they’ll resent her for being the daughter their father kept.
As the sisters reluctantly gather at the Maison de Madeleine to deal with their father's final wishes, they become enchanted by the legacy they've inherited, and by their grandmother’s rich stories of life in WWII France and the wounded American soldier who would ultimately influence all their lives.

My Review:

When Pulitzer Prize winning conflict photographer Jackson Swann died, the most important thing that he left to his three daughters was not the award-winning Oregon winery that had been handed down in his family for generations, but each other.

The problem, the one that he left to his lawyer and his winery manager, was to get them to accept. Not just the winery – although certainly that, too – but mostly each other.

Tess Swann, Charlotte Aldredge and Natalie Seurat are all adults, all have – or have at least the shreds of – artistic careers of their own. But they’ve never met. They haven’t necessarily known that the others even existed.

These three women have been gathered together, not so much to celebrate the life of the man who links them, but rather to pick up the pieces of their own.

Tess, after a successful career as a child actress, a spectacular failure as a pop singer, and another successful career as a best-selling novelist, is looking for a third act in a life that has already seen plenty. She comes to the winery to recharge and search for a story idea that will get her past her writer’s block.

Her career sacrificed to her controlling husband’s political ambitions, her supposedly perfect marriage in tatters, Charlotte comes to the winery in search of respite and a place to call home – because her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s over-gilded and over-decorated faux antebellum McMansion certainly wasn’t it.

While Natalie returns to the winery to mourn the father that she knew best of all the sisters, and to make sure that her beloved, 96-year-old grandmother is doing as well as she can in the wake of her only son’s death.

Whether they will find what they are each looking for, or something more, or merely closure, they have one growing season at the winery to figure it all out together – or to tear themselves apart.

Escape Rating B: Like yesterday’s book (and a fair number of books in the chick lit/women’s fiction/relationship fiction genre), this is a story about three women, all of whom, coincidentally or otherwise, are at a crossroads in their lives or that face a crossroads because of the events of the story that bring them together.

In this case, the death of their larger-than-life father, no matter how much (Natalie) or how little (Tess) he participated in their lives. Jack Swann, who never seemed to quite know what to do with any of them when he could, manipulates them all after his death in a way that could have been horrible, but isn’t.

He provided an opportunity for all of them that he couldn’t have managed in life, for them to meet, be obligated to spend time together, get to know the grandmother that only Natalie was allowed to know about, and discover the legacy of the family they share.

The story of The Inheritance is, in a word, charming. Just as Jack Swann himself was, even if he couldn’t ever manage to stick around. The sisters are different enough from each other to stand as individuals, while at the same time sharing just enough characteristics to seem like they might make their initially tenuous connection work.

Their father turns out not to be the glue that ultimately binds them. That position is reserved for their grandmother Madeleine, who tells them the story of how she met and married their grandfather in France fighting for the Resistance in WW2. A story which inspires Tess’s writing, Charlotte’s realization that the life she has is not the one she wants or needs, and Natalie throwing caution to the winds in order to pursue the man she’s loved all her life.

I was charmed by this story, and thought that the way that the lives of the sisters finally mingled was lovely even if it was a bit contrived in the service of the story. There were a couple of bits that niggled at me.

Tess never met her father. That he didn’t raise her was one thing, but they never seem to have met at all in her conscious memory, and we never do find out why. As many family secrets as get revealed – and there are PLENTY – that omission felt like it just…dangled. Even after his marriage to Charlotte’s mother fell apart he was still a real if occasional presence in her life. But not Tess.

Second, there’s the show/tell repetition of Madeleine’s fascinating story about meeting, falling for and marrying her American pilot, Robert Swann. It’s a lovely and romantic story, and it serves as inspiration to all three sisters even though Tess is the one who plans to turn it into a novel. But we read Madeleine’s account as she remembers it and then it is repeated as she tells it to her granddaughters. While it’s normally better to show instead of tell, by the way the story works the telling feels like the better option. But one or the other would have been sufficient.

So I enjoyed reading The Inheritance, but it didn’t quite hit the spot as well as yesterday’s book. That’s possibly because this one reminded me a bit of Rhys Bowen’s World War II books, particularly In Farleigh Field, one of the subplots in Pardonable Lies, part of  the Maisie Dobbs series and a third book I can’t put my finger on and it’s driving me bananas. It could be just because it’s a bit too similar to yesterday’s book and would have been a better read not quite so close.

But if you’re looking for a charming read that touches on a few dark places but doesn’t go too deeply, includes not one but four happy endings, and tells a lovely story of a surprising sisterhood, The Inheritance is a great way to while away some cozy reading hours.

Review: The Summer of No Attachments by Lori Foster

Review: The Summer of No Attachments by Lori FosterThe Summer of No Attachments by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Summer Friends #2
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Summer flings with no strings mean nobody gets hurt.At least, that was the plan…
After putting the brakes on her dead-end relationship, local veterinarian Ivey Anders is ready to soak up this summer on her own terms. The way she sees it, no dating means no disappointment. Why complicate life with anything long-term? But when she meets Corbin Meyer—and his troubled young son, Justin—Ivey’s no-strings strategy threatens to unravel before she can put it into practice.
Trust doesn’t come easy for Ivey’s best friend, Hope Mage, a veterinary-clinic assistant who’s affected by an incident that’s colored every relationship she’s had. Though Hope’s happy for Ivey, she can’t quite open her own heart to the possibility of love. Not just yet… Maybe not ever. Soon, however, she’s faced with a dilemma—Corbin’s older brother, Lang. He’s charming, he’s kind…and he may just be the reason Hope needs to finally tear down her walls.
And as the sweet summer months unspool, the two friends discover love won’t give up on them so easily.
"Brimming with heart, heat and humor."—Jill ShalvisNew York Times bestselling author, on Worth the Wait

My Review:

The irony of The Summer of No Attachments is that the first thing that Ivey does after declaring that she isn’t going to get attached to anyone this summer is that she immediately gets attached to someone.

However, as Ivey is a veterinarian, that she finds herself instantly attached to a slightly skittish rescue dog named Daisy – along with all of the puppies that Daisy gave birth to practically in Ivey’s lap – is not all that big a surprise.

But Daisy and her puppies are all adorable, so we all do fall right along with her. That Daisy is the first Jack-A-Bee dog I’ve heard of or read about made her extra cute. (A Jack-A-Bee is the result of mating a Jack Russell Terrier with a Beagle and the whole idea just oozes cuteness.)

Ivey’s romance with Daisy would have been an adorable story, but that’s not what we’re here for. And honestly, that’s not what Ivey is there for, either. Okay, it is part of what she’s there for, but not ALL of it.

As the story opens, Ivey finds Daisy and Daisy has her puppies at the end of what has already been a very long day for Ivey and her best friend and veterinary assistant Hope Mage. When Ivey finally makes it home, her boyfriend of two years is lounging on her couch bitching about her being home late.

It’s the latest in a string of disappointments in that relationship, and it’s the last. Ivey kicks Geoff to the curb and vows to have a summer of hookups with no need to fall into another relationship.

Haven’t we all made those kinds of vows?

Ivey’s promise to herself turns out to be about as successful as you might expect. The meet cute in this story isn’t between Corbin Meyer and Ivey Anders, although they certainly do meet. But the real cute in that meeting is the one between Corbin’s son Justin and Daisy and her pups.

There’s something about Justin, scared, shy and uncertain, that reaches out to Daisy – and surprisingly vice-versa for the boy and the dog. That the dad and the vet can’t resist seeing the two fall in love and help each other heal makes this a lovely story with a lot of heart.

And doggie kisses!

Escape Rating A: I just plain fell in love with these characters, this place and this story, to the point where I was up until 4 am because I couldn’t resist reading just a little longer – all the way to the very heartwarming conclusion with its happy ever afters all around. HEAs for everyone turned out to be just what I needed.

The primary story is in not just the romance between Corbin and Ivey, but in the way that they both fall in love with Justin and build a family together out of some pretty shaky circumstances.

As the story begins, Corbin and Justin are still walking on eggshells around each other. Justin’s mother dumped him on Corbin, after telling Corbin that the child she never bothered to inform him existed was his and it was time for him to take over childcare full-time while she ran off. As the truths about Justin’s circumstances are slowly revealed – not just to the reader but to Corbin – the scope of the tragedy-in-the-making becomes both clearer and wider.

So Corbin is adjusting to having a pre-teen son he never knew about. He hasn’t really got the time or the energy for a relationship and Ivey is more than a bit gun-shy about diving into a relationship with anyone at all. (Not that her ex was evil or anything, but she feels like she just climbed out of a rut and is worried about climbing into another one.)

But they do it anyway, in spite of themselves, two steps forward and one step back, while Corbin’s family rallies around and life goes on.

The secondary characters were icing on a very tasty cake, especially the romance between Corbin’s brother Lang and Ivey’s bestie Hope. That could have been a whole romance all of its own, and it would have been a great one even by itself, but the story was even better in the contrast between the kind of second chance that Corbin, Ivey and Justin are reaching for and the much more difficult one that Hope needs to let herself have after trauma and betrayal.

The depth of the friendship between Ivey and Hope was beautiful, and added something special to the whole story. A story that was just plain special all the way around.

Goodreads says that this book is the second book in The Summer Friends series that begin with The Somerset Girls, which I have but have not read. Although now that I’ve visited Sunset, Kentucky, I’m sure I’ll find my way back!

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan

Review: To Catch a Dream by Audrey CarlanTo Catch a Dream by Audrey Carlan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Wish #2
Pages: 320
Published by Hqn on March 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of the worldwide phenomenon Calendar Girl series brings readers a poignant and honest look at life’s most complicated relationships.
When their mother passed away, Evie Ross and her sister were each given a stack of letters, one to be opened every year on their birthday; letters their free-spirited mother hoped would inspire and guide them through adulthood. But although Evie has made a successful career, her desire for the stability and security she never had from her parents has meant she’s never experienced the best life has to offer. But the discovery of more letters hidden in a safe-deposit box points to secrets her mother held close, and possibly a new way for Evie to think about her family, her heart and her dreams.
“Audrey Carlan has created a gem of a story about sisterhood, love, second chances, and the kind of wanderlust that won’t be silenced, reminding us that sometimes the most important journey is the one we take home.” —Lexi Ryan, New York Times bestselling author

My Review:

There are two stories in To Catch a Dream. One is a story of sisterhood, and that part of the story is also about finding the place that your heart can call home – even if it’s not a place at all. And that part of the story really worked – at least for this reader.

The second part of the story is the romance. It’s a story about finally making the dreams of love and romance you had when you were experiencing your first crush come not just true, but seemingly just about perfect. And I have to say that this part of the story did not work nearly as well, at least not for this reader.

The relationship between Evie, her younger sister Suda Kaye and their mother Catori is a story about roots and wings and baggage. And I include Catori in the present tense because that relationship is still very much a part of both Evie and Suda Kaye’s present even though Catori has been dead for over a decade by the time To Catch a Dream begins.

When Catori died, Evie was 20, Suda Kaye was 18 and their mother had NEVER been their primary caregiver. That role was reserved for Catori’s father Tahsuda, the grandfather that the girls called Toko who was the defining figure in their lives.

Why? Because their father Adam Ross was a career Army officer, someone high up in hush-hush operations, and someone who lived where he served – wherever in the world that might be. Catori knew that going in, but the reality turned out to be more than she could handle as a young mother with postpartum depression and a baby.

Catori was a free spirit, born with wanderlust, and her home was never going to be a fixed place. So she left her daughters on the reservation with her own father and took off. Not that both Catori and Adam didn’t come back to their daughters as often as they could, but it made for a far from conventional upbringing for the girls.

When Catori succumbed to cancer, the girls were just barely old enough to take care of themselves. But she left them each a pile of letters, one to be opened on each of their birthdays, year after year, until the piles ran out. She left them each a piece of her spirit even if she couldn’t be with them.

And as soon as she opened her letter, Suda Kaye began making plans to follow the wanderlust in her own heart, leaving Evie heartbroken all over again, wondering why she was never enough for anyone she loved.

Suda Kaye returned to Colorado in the first book in the The Wish series, What the Heart Wants, which I haven’t read but didn’t feel like I missed anything important for this story by not having read that one.

As this story opens, Suda Kaye has found her heart has led her home, and she has found her happy ever after, but she and Evie still have a ton of baggage to get over, and a metric buttload of resentment, hurt and anger that they are both trying desperately to ignore.

And in the middle of that still seeping emotional wound, Suda Kaye just HAS to manipulate and maneuver her sister into the path of the childhood crush that she never got over. While it may be that folks who have found their own romantic HEAs are particularly bound and determined to make sure that every single person in their orbit finds theirs, the course of true love does not run smooth when there are too many people sticking their oars in the water.

Escape Rating C+: As I said, there were two parts to this story, as is fitting for something that straddles the line between women’s fiction and romance. The women’s fiction part of this story worked really, really well for me. As much as Suda Kaye would drive me crazy, and frequently does her sister Evie, their relationship felt solid and loving and grounded even when they were arguing. All of their stuff felt very real – including Suda Kaye’s well-intentioned but MUCH too frequent interference in her sister’s life.

And I especially loved the relationship that they both had with their grandfather. That was beautifully done.

But, and you knew there was a but coming, I had serious issues with the relationship between Evie and Milo, the relationship that eventually becomes the romance in the story.

I say eventually because in the first half of the book, Milo comes on so strong, and is so overbearingly heavy-handed in all of his dealings with Evie that I had to wonder whether that part of the book was going to turn out to be a cautionary tale about letting a man take over your life rather than a romance.

Although Milo and Evie have known each other since they were 12 and 8 respectively, when Milo saved Evie from a bunch of bullies, they have not had an ongoing friendship. So when the meet again as adults, the way that Milo declares that Evie is “his woman” and overrides her expressed wishes because he knows what’s best for her, it was honestly cringeworthy. He comes across as an obsessed stalker, and their every interaction for the entire first half of the book felt possessive and overbearing – not the start of a romance.

That he also wants to merge their businesses as well as their personal lives made things extra-squicky for a significant part of the story, because he kept ignoring and overriding Evie’s expressed opinions, concerns and needs. Even if he turned out to be right, the way that their romance began did not read like a relationship of equals.

I will say that Milo redeems himself in the second half of the story, but the impression left by the first half lingers uncomfortably.

So skim the first half of the romance, read this one for the sisterhood and the family relationships and the awesome and surprising cliffie at the end that sets up the next story in the series, On the Sweet Side.

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan MalleryThe Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 400
Published by HQN Books on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Step into the vineyard with Susan Mallery’s most irresistible novel yet, as one woman searches for the perfect blend of love, family and wine.
Mackenzie Dienes seems to have it all—a beautiful home, close friends and a successful career as an elite winemaker with the family winery. There’s just one problem—it’s not her family, it’s her husband’s. In fact, everything in her life is tied to him—his mother is the closest thing to a mom that she’s ever had, their home is on the family compound, his sister is her best friend. So when she and her husband admit their marriage is over, her pain goes beyond heartbreak. She’s on the brink of losing everything. Her job, her home, her friends and, worst of all, her family.
Staying is an option. She can continue to work at the winery, be friends with her mother-in-law, hug her nieces and nephews—but as an employee, nothing more. Or she can surrender every piece of her heart in order to build a legacy of her own. If she can dare to let go of the life she thought she wanted, she might discover something even more beautiful waiting for her beneath a painted moon.

Welcome to the Excerpt tour for The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery. She writes lovely and wonderful books that sweep me up, take me away, and put me right into the heart of relationships that manage to be both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing The Vineyard at Painted Moon in the weeks ahead, so here’s a teaser to whet all of our reading appetites!

Excerpt from The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery (continued from Friday’s Excerpt at Jathan & Heather)

The song ended and Rhys led her back to Giorgio, who was chatting with several guests. As Barbara walked over to the bar to get a glass of wine, her youngest joined her.

 “Barbara,” Catherine said pleasantly. “Wonderful party.” 

Barbara did her best not to bristle. At the beginning of high school, Catherine had insisted on changing her name to Four, of all things. As in the fourth child. Barbara had refused to accommodate her, so Catherine had started calling her by her first name, to be annoying.

 Barbara simply didn’t understand where things had gone wrong. She’d been loving but fair, had limited TV and made all her children eat plenty of greens. Sometimes parenting was such a crapshoot. 

She motioned to her daughter’s dress. “One of your own creations?” 

Catherine spun in a circle. “It is. Don’t you love it?”

 “With all my heart.”

 Catherine grinned. “Sarcasm? Really?”

 “What did you want me to say?”

 Catherine’s good humor never faded. “What you said is perfect.” 

As her daughter drifted away, Barbara moved closer to Giorgio. He put his arm around her waist, the pressure against her back both comforting and familiar. She nodded as he talked, not really listening to the conversation. Whatever he was saying would be charming. He was like that—well-spoken, always dressed correctly for the occasion. He had an enviable way with people and a natural charm she’d never possessed. She supposed that was what she’d first noticed—how easy he made everything when he was around. 

This night, she thought with contentment. It was exactly right. Her children and grandchildren were around her. Giorgio was here. The vines were healthy and strong and come September there would be another harvest.

 She spotted Avery, her oldest grandchild, talking to her father, Stephanie’s ex. Kyle was too smooth by far, Barbara reminded herself. Their marriage had been a disaster from the beginning, but Stephanie had been pregnant, so there had been no way to avoid the entanglement or the subsequent divorce. 

At least Avery and Carson hadn’t been scarred by the breakup. Barbara couldn’t believe Avery was already sixteen. She was going to have to remind Stephanie to keep a close eye on her daughter when it came to boys and dating. If she didn’t, there was going to be a second generation with an unplanned pregnancy, and no one wanted that.

 She often told people that children and vineyards meant constant worry. Just when you were ready to relax, a new season started with new challenges. 

Stephanie walked over to her. “Mom, it’s about time for the toast, if you’re ready.” 

“I am.”

 Barbara excused herself to follow her daughter toward the DJ and the small platform by the dance floor. She took the microphone the young man offered and stared out at the crowd. Stephanie called for quiet and it took only a few seconds for the party to go silent.

 “Thank you so much for joining me and my family at our tenth annual Summer Solstice Party,” Barbara said, pausing for applause, then holding up her glass of chardonnay. 

“To my children—may the next year be one of happiness for each of you. To my grandchildren—know that you are loved by all of us.” She turned and found her daughter-in-law, then smiled at her. “To my special daughter of the heart—the day you came into our lives was a magnificent blessing.” 

There was more applause. 

Barbara looked at Giorgio and smiled. They’d discussed whether or not she should mention him, and he’d asked her not to. After all, he was just the boyfriend and he’d said tonight was about family—yet another reason she loved him. The man understood her and wasn’t that amazing.

Author Info:

#1 NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery writes heartwarming, humorous novels about the relationships that define our lives-family, friendship, romance. She’s known for putting nuanced characters in emotional situations that surprise readers to laughter. Beloved by millions, her books have been translated into 28 languages.Susan lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, and a small poodle with delusions of grandeur. Visit her at SusanMallery.com.

Website | Facebook | TwitterInstagram

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Review: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Review: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living


Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

My Review:

There’s an old saying that the only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions. And that’s where this story begins, with best friend Ellen Fox and Unity Leandre both stuck in very long ruts. Very, very long.

The problem with ruts is that they can be surprisingly comfortable down there at the bottom. There’s nothing challenging a person out of their comfort zone. Ruts are easy and change is hard – and frequently painful.

Ellen had sex once, 17 years ago, found herself pregnant and unenthused about the process that got her there and settled into life as a single mother with a tiny bit of help and a whole lot of grief and attitude from her disapproving parents. Now she’s in her mid-30s, her son is at the end of his junior year in high school, and the kid is unwilling to apply to the colleges he really wants to go to because he’s afraid of leaving his poor mother all by herself because she doesn’t have a life outside of her teaching job, her two best friends, and him.

The worst part is that he’s not wrong.

Unity is even more stuck than her bestie. Her young husband died serving his country, but Unity seems to have thrown herself at least partway in that grave with him. She lives in his childhood home, sleeps in his childhood room, and has kept all of his things right where he – and his late parents – left them. She’s either living with his ghost or waiting to die. Or both. All of her friends except Ellen live in the age-restricted community where she does a lot of her home handyman work, and it’s a good thing the place is age-restricted or she’d have moved right in. If she could bring herself to move, that is.

Even Unity’s grief group has had enough of the way that Unity seems to feed her grief instead of letting it heal.

So they challenge each other to step out of their oh-so-comfortable ruts. To stretch their horizons and find out who they still have plenty of time to be before it’s too late. Before the dimensions of their ruts close off at the ends into graves.

Because they are both still young and have way too much life ahead of them to spend it waiting for the end. They’ll just have to make that hard climb over the sides of those ruts.

Escape Rating A-: Ellen and Unity may need to step out of their comfort zones, but in picking up this book I stepped right into mine. This was just the kind of friendship story that this author does so well, and reading it was a terrific pick-me-up for these troubled times.

What was great was that I felt for the situations of both of these women, in spite of both of their experiences being so far outside my own. Sometimes I wanted to beat them both with a clue-by-four, but in the way one does with long-term friends. As in I may think you’re way off base and I’ll tell you that in private while in public I’ll defend you from all comers.

Ellen and Unity have that kind of friendship and it’s an enviable one. It’s also easy to empathize with the way that they are both just trying to get through this thing called life and doing the best they can at it, even if from the outside it’s clear that they’re not really doing all that well at all. They are sabotaging themselves in ways that are easy to recognize and understand.

I also loved that they were able to finally figure out that many of their issues were sourced in the same place – Ellen’s rule-bound, disapproving parents – and that they both started figuring out ways to remove themselves from those naysaying voices.

One of the highlights of the story was Unity’s friendship with the larger-than-life Dagmar, and the contrast between Dagmar’s 70-something joie de vivre and eagerness to live each day to the absolute fullest, while Unity seems to be counting down the days, weeks, months and years until she can move into the senior village. Dagmar is clearly refusing to go gentle into that good night, in stark contrast to Unity who seems to have already went even though she’s still alive.

I loved the way that they each managed to work their way out of their respective ruts. It also felt very real that they had to be separate for a few weeks in order to make that happen. They were clearly enabling each other to stay stuck, whether intentionally or not.

But as much as I enjoyed this story, and I very much did, there’s a niggle that kept it from being an A. I think I’d have enjoyed the whole thing more if the solution to both women’s issues hadn’t been a romance. Or if it hadn’t felt like the romance and the healing were tied in a bit too strongly together. These women both needed to heal themselves first, and that’s not quite how it felt, particularly in Unity’s case. That Unity was healed enough at the end for an actual HEA doesn’t feel right, although Ellen certainly earned hers.

Still, this was a lovely read and I’m very glad I read it. I just picked up the ARC for Susan Mallery’s next standalone book, The Vineyard at Painted Moon, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In the meantime, if you’re thinking about picking up The Friendship List, I posted an excerpt from the first chapter last week as part of a tour. You can still follow the tour entries to get a taste of this delicious story.

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey Yates

Review: The Hero of Hope Springs by Maisey YatesThe Hero of Hope Springs (Gold Valley, #10) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, western romance
Series: Gold Valley #10
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Will Gold Valley’s most honorable cowboy finally claim the woman he’s always wanted?
For as long as brooding cowboy Ryder Daniels has known Sammy Marshall, she has been his sunshine. Her free spirit and bright smile saved him after the devastating loss of his parents and gave him the strength to care for his orphaned family. Only Ryder knows how vulnerable Sammy is, so he’s kept his attraction for his best friend under wraps for years. But what Sammy’s asking for now might be a step too far…
Something has been missing from Sammy’s life, and she thinks she knows what it is. Deciding she wants a baby is easy; realizing she wants her best friend to be the father is…complicated. Especially when a new heat between them sparks to life! When Sammy discovers she’s pregnant, Ryder makes it clear he wants it all. But having suffered the fallout of her parents’ disastrous relationship, Sammy is wary of letting Ryder too close. This cowboy will have to prove he’s proposing out of more than just honor…

My Review:

There’s a big part of me that wants to call this a “friends to lovers” romance. And that’s kind of true. As the story opens – actually, as the entire Gold Valley series opens, Ryder Daniels and Sammy Marshall have been friends, but never lovers. Not for the 17 years that they’ve known each other. And not that Ryder, at least, hasn’t had thoughts in that direction.

Thoughts that he has ruthlessly if not completely suppressed, every time they’ve, well, come up.

That’s something Ryder has had lots of practice with. By that I mean suppressing any thoughts he doesn’t think he can afford to let fester inside his skull – and that he can’t let out of his mouth, either.

But Sammy and Ryder are more than just friends. They’re best friends. They are deep inside each other’s lives, and occupy a whole lot of space inside each other’s hearts. So it feels more like this is a story about two people finally acknowledging a relationship that’s been there all along.

There are, however, a few problems with changing what they are to each other. As it turns out, more than a few. Lots and bunches.

The biggest one being that any attempt to change what they are to each other has the strong possibility of wrecking everything that they are to each other. A risk that neither of them is willing to take.

Until there’s no choice at all.

Escape Rating B-: This is a mixed feelings review in multiple directions. So let’s get right to it.

One of the reasons that I love this author is that she creates tension in romantic situations that feels REAL. The problems between Ryder and Sammy, and there are lots of them, feel organic to their lives and aren’t silly misunderstandammits that could be resolved with a single conversation.

The problem for the reader, or at least this reader, is that a huge chunk of their mutual problem, as much as they are definitely a case of opposites attracting, is that for entirely different reasons both of these people live a lot of their lives inside their own heads.

Ryder’s stuck inside his head because his parents died when he was 18 and about to go off to college on a football scholarship. He had big plans far away from the family ranch. But Ryder was the oldest of several children, and the only way for them all to stay together and keep the ranch was for Ryder to give up his dreams and become a surrogate father to his siblings and his cousins who also lived with them.

So Ryder’s always had LOTS of thoughts about what might have been, what he wished was, and just getting through being a parent when he wasn’t quite done with being a child himself.

Sammy lives inside her own head because it was the only place she could be free. She learned to distance herself emotionally when she couldn’t do it physically while her angry and violent father was taking out all of his disappointments on Sammy – with his fists. While her mother looked on. She left her parents and moved into a tiny camper on the grounds of Ryder’s ranch when she was 16 and he was 18, because he made her feel safe.

He still does.

While the reasons that both Ryder and Sammy live inside their own heads a lot – and with a lot of internal angst – feels like an entirely real response to the situations in their lives. It makes for hard reading. Because they also have their heads inside their own asses a lot, unable to get out of their own ways.

So this is a story where it reads like there’s more internal dialog than external dialog – or action. And that’s right for these characters but drove this reader a bit bananas. Your reading mileage may definitely vary.

As I said, I finished this book with mixed feelings. While there was more internal angst than worked for me in a romance, the reason for that angst felt real and true to life. I liked these characters and wanted them to achieve their HEA, but admit to being kind of surprised that they actually managed to do it! But I do enjoy the Gold Valley series so I’m looking forward to seeing Ryder and Sammy again as secondary characters in later books. Especially as it looks like some of Ryder’s siblings are up next!

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Spotlight + Excerpt: The Friendship List by Susan MalleryThe Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Chick Lit, contemporary romance, women's fiction
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

[ ] Dance till dawn

[ ] Go skydiving

[ ] Wear a bikini in public

[ ] Start living


Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.

Welcome to the Excerpt tour for The Friendship List by Susan Mallery. Susan always manages to write stories that sweep me up and take me away, and I’m sure that The Friendship List will be no exception. I’m so sure, in fact, that I’ll be reviewing this book next week! I’m definitely looking forward to reading this, and I hope you will be too!

Excerpt from The Friendship List by Susan Mallery (continued from yesterday’s Excerpt at Moonlight Rendezvous)

When Unity had driven away, Ellen returned to the kitchen where she quickly loaded the dishwasher, then packed her lunch. Cooper had left before six. He was doing some end-of-school-year fitness challenge. Something about running and Ellen wasn’t sure what. To be honest, when he went on about his workouts, it was really hard not to tune him out. Especially when she had things like tuition to worry about.

“Not anymore today,” she said out loud. She would worry again in the morning. Unity was right—Cooper was going to keep changing his mind. Their road trip to look at colleges was only a few weeks away. After that they would narrow the list and he would start to apply. Only then would she know the final number and have to figure out how to pay for it.

Until then she had plenty to keep her busy. She was giving pop quizzes in both fourth and sixth periods and she wanted to update her year-end tests for her two algebra classes. She needed to buy groceries and put gas in the car and go by the library to get all her summer reading on the reserve list.

As she finished her morning routine and drove to the high school where she taught, Ellen thought about Cooper and the college issue. While she was afraid she couldn’t afford the tuition, she had to admit it was a great problem to have. Seventeen years ago, she’d been a terrified teenager, about to be a single mom, with nothing between her and living on the streets except incredibly disappointed and angry parents who had been determined to make her see the error of her ways.

Through hard work and determination, she’d managed to pull herself together—raise Cooper, go to college, get a good job, buy a duplex and save money for her kid’s education. Yay her.

But it sure would have been a lot easier if she’d simply married someone with money.

*

“How is it possible to get a C- in Spanish?” Coach Keith Kinne asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. “Half the population in town speaks Spanish. Hell, your sister’s husband is Hispanic.” He glared at the strapping football player standing in front of him. “Luka, you’re an idiot.”

Luka hung his head. “Yes, Coach.”

“Don’t ‘yes, Coach’ me. You knew this was happening—you’ve known for weeks. And did you ask for help? Did you tell me?”

“No, Coach.”

Keith thought about strangling the kid but he wasn’t sure he could physically wrap his hands around the teen’s thick neck. He swore silently, knowing they were where they were and now he had to fix things—like he always did with his students.

“You know the rules,” he pointed out. “To play on any varsity team you have to get a C+ or better in every class. Did you think the rules didn’t apply to you?”

Luka, nearly six-five and two hundred and fifty pounds, slumped even more. “I thought I was doing okay.”

“Really? So you’d been getting better grades on your tests?”

“Not exactly.” He raised his head, his expression miserable. “I thought I could pull up my grade at the last minute.”

“How did that plan work out?”

No bueno.”

Keith glared at him. “You think this is funny?”

“No, Coach.”

Keith shook his head. “You know there’s not a Spanish summer school class. That means we’re going to have to find an alternative.”

Despite his dark skin, Luka went pale. “Coach, don’t send me away.”

“No one gets sent away.” Sometimes athletes went to other districts that had a different summer curriculum. They stayed with families and focused on their studies.

“I need to stay with my family. My mom understands me.”

“It would be better for all of us if she understood Spanish.” Keith glared at the kid. “I’ll arrange for an online class. You’ll get a tutor. You will report to me twice a week, bringing me updates until you pass the class.” He sharpened his gaze. “With an A.”

Luka took a step back. “Coach, no! An A? I can’t.”

“Not with that attitude.”

“But, Coach.”

“You knew the rules and you broke them. You could have come to me for help early on. You know I’m always here for any of my students, but did you think about that or did you decide you were fine on your own?”

“I decided I was fine on my own,” Luka mumbled.

“Exactly. And deciding on your own is not how teams work. You go it alone and you fail.”

Tears filled Luka’s eyes. “Yes, Coach.”

Author Info:

#1 NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery writes heartwarming, humorous novels about the relationships that define our lives-family, friendship, romance. She’s known for putting nuanced characters in emotional situations that surprise readers to laughter. Beloved by millions, her books have been translated into 28 languages.Susan lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, and a small poodle with delusions of grandeur. Visit her at SusanMallery.com.

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Review: The Lady Traveler’s Guide to Deception with an Unlikely Earl by Victoria Alexander

Review: The Lady Traveler’s Guide to  Deception with an Unlikely Earl by Victoria AlexanderThe Lady Travelers Guide to Deception with an Unlikely Earl (The Lady Travelers Society, #3) by Victoria Alexander
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Lady Travelers Society #3
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on November 20, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set sail for love in this sparkling new adventure in #1 New York Times bestselling author Victoria Alexander’s Lady Travelers Society series.

Harry Armstrong has spent years in Egypt, recovering relics and disregarding rules. Now he’s back in England with a new title and a new purpose: penning his exploits. But his efforts are overshadowed by London’s favorite writer about Egypt—a woman they call The Queen of the Desert, of all things. Worse, her stories—serialized in newspapers and reprinted in books—are complete rubbish.

Miss Sidney Honeywell didn’t set out to deceive anyone. It’s not her fault readers assumed her Tales of a Lady Adventurer in Egypt were real! Admitting her inadvertent deception now would destroy her reputation and her livelihood. But when the Earl of Brenton challenges her to travel to Egypt to prove her expertise, accompanied by his dashing, arrogant nephew, what choice does she have but to pack her bags?

With the matchmaking founders of the Lady Travelers Society in tow, Harry is determined to expose Sidney’s secret. But the truth might not be as great a revelation as discovering that love can strike even the most stubborn of hearts.

My Review:

I kept expecting Amelia Peabody Emerson to walk through the lobby of Shepheard’s Hotel at any moment. Not that this is her story, but she and her entourage would have fit right into the adventures of Harry Armstrong, Sidney Honeywell and the gaggle of elderly ladies who are alternately chaperoning and matchmaking the couple – when they’re not aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise or two.

And there’s no dead body – not quite. Not even the one that Sidney and Harry expect to find.

But this is definitely a romp from beginning to end. It’s lighthearted, occasionally light-fingered, and frothy fun.

Sidney has been supplementing her meager income by writing. She has fictionalized the Egyptian adventures of her late grandmother in Cadwallender’s magazine, and the series has been a huge success.

But Sidney knew she was writing fiction, admittedly fiction with an underpinning of fact as well as a scholar’s knowledge of Egypt and her antiquities. However, her readers seem to believe that her stories are absolutely factual from beginning to end.

And the meddling founders of the Lady Travelers Society, not having gotten their members in enough trouble in the previous outings of the series (The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels & Other Gentlemen and The Lady Travelers Guide to Larceny with a Dashing Stranger) can’t seem to resist getting themselves a bit too involved when the Earl of Brenton takes offense at Sidney’s stories.

He claims they are complete bunk, and that Sidney, who writes as Mrs. Gordon, is deceiving her audience unconscionably. What he’s not admitting is that he is incensed that Sidney’s fluff pieces are celebrated while he can’t seem to find a publisher for his earnestly written, utterly factual – and deadly dull – accounts of his own travels in Egypt.

So they’re off on a jaunt to Egypt, paid for by the magazine, so that Sidney can prove her expertise, or Harry can prove she’s a fraud and get a guaranteed publishing contract. With the founding “Lady Travelers” along as chaperones and comic relief, managing to finally take the trip that they’ve always dreamed of.

Sidney claims to be Mrs. Gordon, Harry claims to be his own nephew, and the reporter sent by the magazine hovers over everything, hoping to get a story that will make his career, one way or another.

Then Harry’s somewhat disreputable past catches up with Sidney’s new-found spirit of adventure, and they find themselves in the midst of a classic farce of a treasure hunt.

With so much fun to be had, sun, sand, adventure and the trip of a lifetime, how could they not fall in love? With Egypt, and especially with each other?

Escape Rating B+: This is absolutely wonderful, marvelously tasty, complete and utter fluff. It’s delicious.

It would also make a great Shakespearean comedy. Sidney is deceiving Harry. Harry is deceiving Sidney. The reporter is deceiving everyone. Except that everyone seems to know that everyone is deceiving everyone else and no one is willing to admit it.

And that just adds to the sense of fun and adventure.

It’s also a lot of fun the way that Sidney’s real-life adventures in Egypt seem so much like her fictional adventures. Her friends think she’s been kidnapped by white slavers, when the truth is that an Egyptian princess is a fan of her work, so she gets to spend a night in the harem with the princess and her family.

She steals a priceless Egyptian antiquity from a nefarious smuggler, only to discover that it’s the key to a much greater treasure and a much bigger adventure.

She begins by revisiting the scenes of her grandmother’s greatest adventures – only to have a great adventure of her own. And to clear up her grandmother’s unfinished business.

Her contest with Harry brings out Sidney’s inner adventurer at every turn, and allows her to become the woman she was meant to be. Not because he sweeps her off her feet – although he eventually does – but because he treats her as an equal combatant in their rivalry.

That she also helps him solve the mystery that has been dogging him for two long and lonely years makes them earn their happy ever after – while providing just desserts for the true villain of the piece.

This series is simply loads of fun, and every trip with the Lady Travelers Society is always a lovely adventure. I’m looking forward to their next adventure in The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After when it comes out in June. It’s sure to be another marvelous lark!

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Review: Untamed Cowboy by Maisey Yates

Review: Untamed Cowboy by Maisey YatesUntamed Cowboy (Gold Valley, #2) by Maisey Yates
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Gold Valley #2
Pages: 473
Published by HQN Books on June 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Gold Valley, Oregon, love might be hiding in plain sight…

Some things are too perfect to mess with. Bennett Dodge’s relationship with Kaylee Capshaw is one of them. They work together at their veterinary clinic and have been best friends for years. When Bennett’s world is rocked by the appearance of a son he didn’t know he had, he needs Kaylee more than ever. And he doesn’t want anything else to change. But then Kaylee kisses him, and nothing will ever be the same…

Kaylee’s done her best to keep her feelings for the man she’s loved since high school hidden away, but one unguarded moment changes everything, and now there’s no more denying the chemistry that burns between them. But the explosion of desire changes all the rules, and what’s left could destroy their bond—or bring them to a love that’s deeper than she ever imagined…

My Review:

Untamed Cowboy combines a trope I really love with a trope I usually hate into a romance that just turned out to be the right book at the right time.

Bennett and Kaylee have been friends forever. Or at least since they were both 13, from the minute that Kaylee moved to Gold Valley. Even more miraculously, they stayed friends, through high school, college, veterinary school and into their current veterinary practice.

They’ve gone from friends to business partners, always being there for each other no matter what.

But Kaylee has a secret that she has kept from Bennett for the entire time they’ve known each other. She loves him. She really, really does. Not just as friends, not just as besties, not just as the person who gave her stability and family when she had none, but as the only man she’s ever loved. Or probably ever will.

She’s just spent a year in torment, watching as Bennett got engaged to Olivia Logan, and then watching it all fall apart in the previous book in the series, Smooth-Talking Cowboy. But Olivia is now pregnant and marrying someone else, and Bennett doesn’t seem to broken up about it.

Because he’s not. His heart isn’t remotely broken – it’s not even dented a bit. He’s just upset that his life plans have been thrown out of whack.

And that’s where the other trope comes in. Because Bennett also has a secret. Back in high school, his girlfriend got pregnant. He intended to give up his dream of vet school, marry her and settle down (and just plain settle) at his family’s ranch. But she told him she lost the baby, and he lived his dreams.

But she didn’t. Lose the baby, that is. That baby arrives on his doorstep, now a scared and scarred 15-year-old boy who has no place left to go. His ex is a drug addict and her parental rights have been terminated. Bennett Dodge is all that his son Dallas has left.

And Bennett is all in for that. The problem on that front is convincing Dallas that he has finally found not just one but a whole set of adults who won’t let him down. Not just Bennett, but also his brothers and sister. And especially Kaylee, who knows more about what Dallas is going through than she ever let on.

I don’t normally like the “secret baby” trope but it works this time, probably because Dallas’ mother is far out of the picture, and Bennett’s secret, as far as he knew, was that he’d almost become a father at 16 but fate intervened. Only to have it intervene again, and for Bennett to finally realize that life can’t be planned, and it can’t be controlled.

It can only be lived.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, this feels like a story where, like the quote says, “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”

Bennett and Kaylee, in their completely different ways, are both fairly firmly fixed on planning their lives, because both of them have seen what happens when people lose control, and just how much damage that loss of control leaves in its wake.

Bennett lost his mother when he was a little boy. She died unexpectedly of complications after the birth of his baby sister. As an unacknowledged and unintended consequence he’s spent his whole life trying to do two things, fix everything and everyone he can, and keep control over his own life so that he isn’t hurt by anyone again.

His almost-marriage to Olivia Taylor was part of that careful planning. The introduction of his son into his life is the opposite, it’s the result of one of the few times he lost control. But as much as he regrets that lack of control, he can’t regret Dallas, only the years that he lost with his son due to his ex-girlfriend’s lies.

Bennett has done his best to keep his relationship with Kaylee firmly under control in the friend-zone, because she is the one person he trusts and cares for outside of his own family. But Kaylee is an adult child of alcoholics, a syndrome which breeds its own needs for control.

Bennett is the one person who strips away her control. She can’t help what she feels. She can only control his knowledge of her feelings, because she fears that she doesn’t deserve anything more than his friendship, and that reaching for more will cost her the only stable relationship in her life.

They are both emotional messes, and in ways that both pull them apart and keep them together. They need each other, but are both afraid of committing too much and getting hurt and being betrayed again. While neither Bennett’s mother’s death nor Kaylee’s parents alcoholism are under their control, that doesn’t mitigate the enduring consequences inflicted on their child-selves and how they deal (or don’t) deal with those consequences as adults.

Dallas upsets all the balances. Bennett’s feelings for his son are out of his control, and those feelings make him realize that his control has left him half-living his own life. The difficulties that Bennett and Kaylee have in reaching for each other feel real and heartfelt and I loved the way that they earned their happy ever after.