Guest Review: Second Time Around by Nancy Herkness

Guest Review: Second Time Around by Nancy HerknessSecond Time Around (Second Glances, #1) by Nancy Herkness
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Second Glances #1
Pages: 332
Published by Montlake Romance on July 24, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

A former love makes a lasting impression in a warm and sexy romance from Nancy Herkness.

Kyra Dixon, a blue-collar girl from the boondocks, is dedicated to her job at a community center that matches underprivileged kids with rescue dogs. When she runs into Will Chase—Connecticut blue blood, billionaire CEO, and her old college crush—she’s surprised that he asks a favor from her: to be his date for his uptight family’s dreaded annual garden party. If his parents don’t approve, all the better.

Kyra’s not about to say no. It’ll give her a chance to be oh-so-close to her unrequited love. What begins as a little fling turns so mad hot, so fast, that Kyra finds herself falling all over again for a fantasy that won’t come true. How can it? She doesn’t belong in Will’s world. She doesn’t want to. But Will does want to belong in hers.

All he has to do now is prove it. Will is prepared to give up whatever is necessary to get what his heart most desires.

Guest Review by Amy:

Kyra is a Responsible Woman. Growing up, she couldn’t wait to get away from home to go to college, no matter what her family wanted. But after her father died, and her mother ran up credit card bills in Kyra’s name (and then died), Kyra never finished; she’s working two gigs, scratching away at that pyramid of debt. She doesn’t have time for any shenanigans from any man. Nope.  But she stops in for a wrap at one of her favorite chain restaurants, and…there he sits. Will.

It’s the guy who she drooled over in college, but never dated, of course.  And, of course, he owns the restaurant; he just happened to be on an inspection run of his locations. There’s some catching-up, good-to-see-you chitchat, and then he comes around to her night job at a ritzy bar, to ask her out, to a big family gathering his mother puts on every year. Oh, and yeah, the upper-crust parents won’t approve of this working-class girl, but he’s got a point to make.

Escape Rating: A: If, reading what I just wrote, you got the impression that Will is just using Kyra to make the point to his parents that they can’t just foist women on him – including his ex! – then you’ve read it right. That’s the impression I got, too, and I was a tiny bit sour on the character from the get-go as a result. But it emerges over time that Will’s had a problem with his parents for basically his whole life. His mother, in particular, is a stellar manipulator, and he’s finally busting out of the family mold. He was supposed to be a lawyer in the family firm, but he went out on his own, found funding, and started a chain of restaurants, with great success. This upsets Daddy and infuriates Mummy, but he just has to do things his way, and live his own life.

When Will and Kyra get to the Spring Fling (in his helicopter, natch!), Will has a bit of an epiphany. While he was dating the debutantes in college, and getting hurt over and over, Kyra was always right there. And he liked that (duh!), so maybe this more than just…well, whatever. You see where this is going, I’m sure. He falls for her (again), can’t live without her, and so it goes, a pretty-predictable rich-man/poor-woman story.

What makes this book stand out as more than just ordinary, for this reader, was the lovely complexity of the subplots that swirl around these two. Will’s ex-girlfriend is still around, and still pining for him, even though she doesn’t understand him at all, being one of those floofy debutantes that he has grown beyond. There’s the whole family drama with Will’s mother and father (and sister, who is an attorney in the family firm, and tense about it). There’s Kyra’s day job at an after-school care, where they also match families with rescue dogs, and her relationship with some of the kids and dogs there. There is a fair bit going on here, for what I thought was going to be a shallow, easy summer read. Easy, yes. Shallow, not so much. The convergence of all these threads gives us the key to better understanding for our protagonists.

Our leads, of course, have history that they’re both unwilling at first to talk about, mostly because of embarrassment, and their internal dialogues around those things give us a solid feel for what’s going on in their heads. There isn’t a whole lot of reason these two shouldn’t be together, and we know it well before they do, but they figure it out fairly shortly, and we’re given a sweet ending that sees the whole cast in a better, happier situation going forward. Exeunt omnes, complete with helicopters and yachts and fancy sandwiches and designer dog chow and smiles from kids.

What started out on a mildly sour note for me, turned into a sweet, well-crafted story I could sink my teeth into and enjoy. I hope you enjoy it, too.

 

 

Review: Echo Moon by Laura Spinella + Giveaway

Review: Echo Moon by Laura Spinella + GiveawayEcho Moon by Laura Spinella
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, romantic suspense
Series: Ghost Gifts #3
Pages: 428
Published by Montlake Romance on May 22, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

My Review:

Echo Moon is a haunting story about the way that the past can quite literally haunt the present. Or at least Peter St. John’s present. And fair warning, I’m going to use the word “haunting” a lot in this review, because it’s the only one that really fits.

Pete has a gift, or a curse depending on one’s perspective, of being able to speak to the dead. He receives messages, and his receipt is beyond his control. As this story opens, Pete himself is running out the edges of his control.

While his mother Aubrey receives what they call “ghost gifts” from the past, Pete remembers his entire previous life – or at least his previous life up to the point where he murdered the woman he loved.

He can’t escape his visions of that past, and he can’t manage to escape his love for the beautiful, talented and ultimately doomed Esme Moon. Esme was a singer and medium in World War I era New York City, and Pete vividly remembers both loving her and killing her.

When his mother inherits a New Jersey beach shack from his grandmother, who worked the traveling carnivals in her own youth, Pete’s past and his present collide. In the uncertainty of whether he’s losing control or losing his mind, Pete finally lets himself explore the history that he has refused to acknowledge, no matter where it leads.

They say the truth will set you free. Pete needs the truth to make him whole – in one century or another.

Escape Rating B+: Although this is not strictly a time-travel story, the atmosphere in Echo Moon reminds me an awful lot of that classic, lyrical work of time travel, Time and Again by Jack Finney. It’s not the time period, but both stories have that strong bittersweet sense of the past haunting and looming over the present. Richard Matheson’s equally classic Bid Time Return (filmed as Somewhere in Time) also has that same bittersweet romantic feel.

But more than the time travel, Echo Moon reminds me of Robin D. Owens’ Ghost Seer series, which begins (naturally enough) with Ghost Seer. Clare Cermak’s gifts are very similar to Pete St. John’s, without the overwhelming sense of guilt that haunts Pete. After all, while Clare can lay the ghosts of her assigned era to rest, she isn’t responsible for turning them into ghosts in the first place.

Echo Moon is the third book in the Ghost Gifts series, although those first two books (Ghost Gifts and Foretold) feature Pete’s mother Aubrey and not Pete himself. Not having read those first two books, it took me a while to get into this one. It’s not that the action doesn’t pick up easily, or that what happens to Pete is truly reliant on what happened to his mother – or at least not exactly and certainly not at the beginning.

But not having already been immersed in the family’s history, the events here didn’t have quite the resonance they otherwise might have. We know that Pete is running from himself, but the reasons why aren’t as deep as they eventually become once the reader becomes invested in Pete’s story and especially Pete’s trauma.

Having PTSD because of events one experienced in a previous life is not the way that textbook definitions of PTSD usually go – and that makes it all the more difficult to treat or resolve.

In the end, the story does suck even the newbie reader into its web of romance, intrigue and mysticism. Once that happens, the story moves fast, as neither Pete nor the reader are ever quite sure whether the past is merely influencing the present or actively impinging on it or whether Pete has just finally lost it altogether.

When he finds it, and himself, it makes for a lovely ending.

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

I am giving away a signed copy of Echo Moon to one lucky US/Canadian commenter on this tour!

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Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine Bybee

Review: Fool Me Once by Catherine BybeeFool Me Once by Catherine Bybee
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: First Wives #1
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on September 19th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

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

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Making it Right by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway

Review: Making it Right by Catherine Bybee + GiveawayMaking It Right by Catherine Bybee
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Most Likely To #3
Pages: 348
Published by Montlake Romance on May 9th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final book in bestselling author Catherine Bybee’s Most Likely To trilogy, River Bend’s rebel follows in her father’s footsteps to become sheriff. But it might be time to forge her own path…
Some kids inherit a family business; Jo Ward inherited a badge. Once voted Most Likely to End Up in Jail, the town wild child has become sheriff—hell-bent on uncovering the truth about her father’s mysterious death. Life is quiet in rustic River Bend, but Jo longs for something beyond her small hometown and the painful memories it holds. All that keeps her sane is the support of her best friends, Melanie and Zoe.
But when Jo signs up for an expert law enforcement training seminar, she meets Gill Clausen, whose haunting eyes and dangerously sexy vibe just may challenge her single-minded focus. Commitment-phobic Jo can’t deny her attraction to the arrogant federal agent, and when odd things start happening around River Bend and danger surrounds her, she realizes she’ll need his help to discover who’s out to remove her from River Bend…permanently.
As Jo and Gill work together, it’s clear they make a great team. But can Jo loosen her grip on the past enough to let love in and reach for the future?

My Review:

Ten years before the beginning of Doing it Over, the first book in this absolutely marvelous series, Mel, Zoe and Jo, who truly are BFFs forever, vow that no matter where life takes them, they will meet up in River Bend for their tenth high school reunion. The ten-year reunion is a very big deal, not just for River Bend High School but also for the entire small town. And so are those cheesy predictions that end up in every senior’s yearbook.

Mel was voted “Most Likely to Succeed”, but in Doing it Over we discover that she did anything but. She returns to River Bend to pick up her pieces. Zoe, in her turn, was voted “Most Likely to Stay in River Bend”, so she, too, did anything but. In Staying for Good Zoe returns to River Bend on what she believes will be a temporary hiatus from her career as a jet-setting celebrity chef.

Now it’s Jo’s turn. Jo was voted “Most Likely to End up in Jail”, and she actually fulfilled that prophecy. Well sort of. Jo is on the opposite side of the bars than her high school classmates predicted. Jo is the Sheriff of River Bend, following in her father’s unexpectedly echoing footsteps.

And after nearly ten years as Sheriff, the job has turned into a straitjacket.

Jo pursued the job because she always believed that her dad’s supposedly accidental death was really homicide. And she thought that the best place to discover his killer was from inside his life.

But she didn’t think she’d still be there ten years later, with all her questions still unanswered. In the intervening years, she’s discovered a knack for law enforcement, but she’s less and less willing to live every minute of her life at the town’s beck and call and under the heavy thumb of its expectations.

She’d like some off-time, dammit. She’d like a life. And she’d really, really like to get laid.

Jo would also like to get further than she has so far with her off-the-books investigation into her father’s death. And for that she needs more skills and more contacts. Her quest takes her to the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, not to become an FBI agent herself, but to attend a week-long special training session that the FBI regularly holds for local law enforcement officers from all over the country.

She expects to learn a lot. She doesn’t expect to feel small and embarrassed every minute, because River Bend is a tiny town, she only has one full-time deputy, and certain kinds of crime are still blissfully absent.

She doesn’t expect that her pre-training one-night stand with a hot badass will turn into anything more. At least not until the same guy shows up at her training class as one of the FBI instructors. She’s both embarrassed and turned on, and just a bit sorry that Agent McHottie lives in DC while she’s in Oregon.

Until she finally remembers that he’s stationed not at Quantico, but at the field office in Eugene Oregon, only two hours from River Bend.

Jo and Gill (that’s Agent McHottie’s real name) actually do have a chance to make something of their almost-relationship. But there’s someone in River Bend out to get Jo. Or just the sheriff. Or perhaps there was a lot more going on with Jo’s dad’s murder than anyone counted on.

Or all of the above.

Escape Rating A: I’ve really enjoyed this series (a LOT) but I think that Making it Right is my favorite. And while you don’t have to read the first two books to get what is happening in this one, the whole series really is a lot of fun. If you enjoy small-town romances, and if you like stories about women’s long-lasting friendships, the entire series is a winner.

As much as I liked both Mel and Zoe, I think that part of the reason that I liked this one the best is that Jo felt like the easiest one for me to identify with. I fell into her thoughts and feelings about being a woman in a man’s job, needing to be taken seriously, always knowing that one misstep was all it would take to knock her off the pedestal, and feeling strangled by everyone else’s expectations.

Along with that big slice of regret she can’t manage to swallow, that her dad would have loved to have seen her turn her life around, but that it came too late for them to reconcile.

There are, as there often are in this series, three threads to this story. One is that Jo needs to find some of that elusive work-life balance. The town is eating her alive – not by doing anything wrong, but by dumping everything on Jo’s shoulders. She’s near a breaking point, and something is going to have to give, because Jo just can’t keep giving.

Jo is also stuck, or in a stuck-place, investigating her dad’s murder. She’s right that the whole thing is too pat, something stinks. She’s also equally right that someone doesn’t want her poking into that ten-year-old incident, because that sixth sense we all have that says someone in watching her is on overdrive. She just doesn’t know exactly who or exactly why, and neither do we.

The solution to this particular thread isn’t anything that the reader or Jo expects, which is awesome. Once everything is all laid out, it is obvious where the clues were, but we all miss them as they happen, and that makes the suspense part of this story even more suspenseful.

And of course there’s the romance. Which is perfect. Read Making it Right for yourself and you’ll see just how right Gill and Jo are for each other. Because they definitely are.

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

Giveaway: (1) $100 Amazon Gift Card and (4) prints of winner’s choice from the Most Likely series.
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Review: Staying for Good by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway

Review: Staying for Good by Catherine Bybee + GiveawayStaying For Good by Catherine Bybee
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Most Likely To #2
Pages: 320
Published by Montlake Romance on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Zoe Brown may have been voted Most Likely to Never Leave River Bend, but the paper-thin walls and suffocating air of her family’s double-wide trailer were not what she wanted for her life. Other than BFFs Melanie and Jo, the only thing that kept Zoe sane during high school was her boyfriend, Luke.
She didn’t just leave, she escaped—turning her back on the shame of her black-sheep siblings and imprisoned dad. Now a celebrity chef in Dallas, she can afford all the things she never could have growing up. But when she returns to rustic, ruggedly beautiful River Bend, Zoe has to face all that she abandoned—including Luke.
While Luke was a refuge for Zoe in the past, he knows they inhabit totally different worlds now. Anchored by his parents and his job as a mechanic in his father’s shop, Luke never felt the urge to leave River Bend—until Zoe’s return.
But when the two rekindle their old flame, Zoe is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: remain in River Bend and confront her past before it destroys her, or say good-bye to everyone she’s ever loved…again, this time for good.

My Review:

doing it over by catherine bybeeIn a lot of ways, Staying for Good has more in common with yesterday’s book, The Cottage at Firefly Lake, than it does with the first book in its own series, Doing It Over.

These are all small-town romances that have at their heart a sisterly relationship. And it doesn’t matter a bit that the women in Cottage are sisters-by-blood while the women in the Most Likely To series are sisters-of-the-heart. The relationships are equally deep and equally lasting.

Also equally life-changing.

Unlike Doing it Over, the love stories in both The Cottage at Firefly Lake and Staying for Good are second chance romances. And they are second chances of the same type. Just as in Cottage, heroine Zoe Brown in Staying for Good gave up the love of her life when she left her small town after high school, and became a big star in a demanding field.

The causes were similar in both cases. Zoe absolutely had to leave River Bend, while Luke had always planned to stay. They didn’t fall out of love, they just went in completely separate directions. But they broke up before they had a chance to discover whether they could work long-distance, and never got past the loss.

Zoe has become a famous chef, both on TV and in restaurant gigs around the country. She’s come far from her origins in River Bend as the daughter of a violent abusive convict and his co-dependent victim. She came back to River Bend in Doing It Over, and discovered that not nearly enough had changed.

She still felt much too much for Luke, and her birth family was still much too much of a messy drama. She had tried to help as best she could, but her mother seems to be beyond help, and her brother and sister seem set to follow all the bad family patterns.

There’s nothing left in River Bend for Zoe except her sisters-of-the-heart, Jo and Mel, her surrogate mother Gina, and, of course, Luke. Who she shouldn’t want but still does.

Zoe is back again to help plan Mel’s wedding (see Doing it Over for deets) and steps right back into the family mess when her not-so-dear-old-dad gets parole, and immediately returns to his destructive ways.

But Zoe isn’t a child anymore. This time, she fights back. With Luke at her side, every step of the way.

Escape Rating B+: In spite of how many times I mentioned it above, you don’t actually have to read Doing it Over to enjoy Staying for Good. But it’s a terrific story, and if you enjoy small-town romances mixed with stories of deep women’s friendships, it’s a lovely book.

Back to Staying for Good. This is a story with three separate branches. One is, of course, the second chance at love between Zoe and Luke. They’ve spent years avoiding each other, and have both tried to move on. But it has been over 10 years, and neither of them has found anyone to replace the other in their lives. Not only has neither of them even flirted with the idea of a serious relationship with anyone else, but neither of them has found anyone who simply “gets” them the way the other does. They were best friends as well as lovers, and neither of them has found anyone who can fill both pairs of those shoes.

They’ve also both reached crossroads in their lives. Luke has been content in River Bend, running the local car repair garage with his father. But the small town is starting to feel a bit stifling. Or perhaps boring. He’s nearly 30 and hasn’t been anywhere or done much of anything with his life. Whether it’s his feet that are itchy or just his heart is a question he needs to answer.

Zoe, on the other hand, has been at the top of the chef’s world for several years. She can work where she wants, when she wants, and is a frequent guest chef at top restaurants and on big-name TV cooking shows. But she doesn’t really have a life. And while she doesn’t miss her parents much, she is worried about her younger brother and sister and misses her circle of friends a great deal.

She’s ready to put down roots, but not sure where to sink them. And she’s starting to realize that her heart is back in River Bend, even if her work is elsewhere.

Into the middle of Zoe and Luke’s romantic dilemma, Zoe is also in the middle of her own family drama. Her father fits the classic portrait of an abuser. He beat his wife, he beat his kids, he was worse when he drank, and he was just a mean bastard all the way around. He was also an expert manipulator. And when he returns from prisoner, he goes right back to manipulating the family. Since Zoe is not only out, but willing to throw a lifeline to any of her family members who are willing to grab it, he does his level best (and worst) to alienate the family from her. And he nearly succeeds.

making it right by catherine bybee(I will say that the way that this part of the story is resolved reminds me a bit too much of Doing it Over. Without spoiling the story, let me say that this particular method of resolution veers into deus ex machina territory when repeated, so I hope that the budding suspense angle in the third book in the series doesn’t resolve quite the same way.)

The final thread to the story, of course, is the sisterly bond between Zoe, Mel and Jo. This isn’t just Zoe’s story, it’s also all of theirs. The portrayal of the friendship between these women is always marvelous. Because all three of these women are fantastic characters, I’m really looking forward to Jo’s story in Making it Right.

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

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Review: Black Diamond by Susannah Sandlin + Giveaway

Review: Black Diamond by Susannah Sandlin + GiveawayBlack Diamond (Wilds of the Bayou, #2) by Susannah Sandlin
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Wilds of the Bayou #2
Pages: 255
Published by Montlake Romance on October 18th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

For some people, the untamed beauty of the bayou is a place to hide. For Louisiana wildlife agent Jena Sinclair, it’s a place of refuge—one where she can almost forget the tragedy that scarred both her skin and her soul. But when the remains of yet another fisherman turn up, Jena realizes that Bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes is not safe for her…or anyone else.
The mysterious deaths aren’t her only problem. A dangerous drug known as Black Diamond is circulating through Terrebonne Parish, turning addicts into unpredictable sociopaths. Jena’s investigation leads her to Cole Ryan—a handsome, wary recluse struggling with his own troubled history—who knows more than he’s willing to admit. If they want to stop the killer, Jena and Cole must step out of the shadows of their pasts and learn to help each other…before the evils lurking in the bayou consume them both.

My Review:

Drug mules are always bad news, but in Terrebonne Parish some of the drug mules have four legs, a tail, and seventy-two big, sharp teeth. In other words, there’s a crazy fool using live alligators to smuggle drugs.

While karma is bound to catch up with these idiots eventually, the agents of the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife can’t wait that long. The new drug being smuggled, Black Diamond, is a nearly instant addicting drug of the bath-salts type. One user has already shot himself in broad daylight from the top of a drawbridge.

And newly returned LDFW agent Jena Sinclair has just come home to find her kid brother Jackson at their house, higher than a kite, and a stash of Black Diamond in his room. This case has just hit way too close to home.

wild mans curse by susannah sandlinAfter the events in Wild Man’s Curse, Jena has come back to the LDFW scarred and more than a bit fragile. Being forced to return to her parents’ toxic household in New Orleans for her rehab was very nearly the death of Jena. And she’s still not all the way back at the beginning of this case.

Hunting down drugged gators and crazed drug dealers leads Jena straight to the equally scarred and still somewhat fragile Cole Ryan. Cole is living completely alone and off-the-grid after his wife, daughter and mother were killed by a teenager hopped up on meth who decided to shoot up a shopping mall to get revenge on his ex-girlfriend. He missed the girlfriend and wiped out Cole’s family, and a whole lot of other families, instead.

When he meets Jena, Cole sees her as a kindred spirit and an attractive woman, and discovers that his time alone on the bayou has healed him way more than he thought. But the isolation that Cole found so healing is just the kind of isolation that the drug dealers need for their insane “catch and release” program for their toothy drug mules.

Once Jena traces the clues, with Cole’s help, it’s a fight to the death to stop the dealers before the dealers stop them – permanently.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored the first book in this series, Wild Man’s Bayou, and loved Black Diamond almost as much. This is a romantic suspense series where the suspense is front and center (and suspenseful!) and the romance, while not in the forefront of the action, backseat drives this story at all the right moments.

This story has a big whodunnit aspect, as Jena and the LDWF, along with every other law enforcement agency for miles around, is desperately trying to figure out who is smuggling the Black Diamond into the parish, and how. While it is pretty clear from early in the story that the gators are somehow involved, working out the who, how and why takes center-stage.

Along with Jena struggling to get her feet back under her and her game face on. Jena is the first cop to leap to the idea of the gators as the mules, but has a difficult time shoring up her confidence to even suggest the possibility to the powers that be.

We see her search her soul for the reasons that she doesn’t want to take the charge she knows she has to, and we feel for her every step of the way. As we do for Cole Ryan, as he just about brings himself back from the dead to reach out to Jena and save them both.

However, if we never see Jena’s parents in any future books in this series, it will be just fine with this reader. Much of Jena’s self-doubt can be laid at her parents’ door, and I found myself wanting to slap them until they got their heads out of their asses about both of their children. I digress just a bit.

The ending of Black Diamond is bittersweet, as we discover the ways that good people do very bad things for very unfortunate reasons. And it feels right.

I love this series, as I have nearly everything that the author has written under both her Susannah Sandlin and Suzanne Johnson names. I sincerely hope that the Wilds of the Bayou series continues, because I want to read more about this fascinating place and these marvelous people.

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Review; Not Quite Perfect by Catherine Bybee + Giveaway

Review; Not Quite Perfect by Catherine Bybee + GiveawayNot Quite Perfect by Catherine Bybee
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Not Quite #5
Pages: 314
Published by Montlake Romance on September 20th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

New York Times bestselling author Catherine Bybee delivers the fifth heartwarming, flirty novel in the wildly popular Not Quite series.
Mary Kildare knows how to read people. It’s both why she makes a great therapist and why she refuses to trust the average bachelor. Staying fiercely independent has been her primary relationship strategy—until wealthy playboy pilot (and commitmentphobe) Glen Fairchild reappears in her life. After a yearlong teasing tug-of-war, Mary and Glen test the waters of attraction, only to find that their physical chemistry runs deeper than flirtation.
At first, a bicoastal romance suits them both—especially since Glen can swoop in and whisk Mary away on one of his company’s planes. But no matter how close they get, they’re still three thousand miles apart. And when Mary’s life is threatened, Glen realizes the one luxury he doesn’t have is time. Can he close the distance between them before it’s too late?

My Review:

I was first introduced to Catherine Bybee’s books via her MacCoinnich Time Travel series. I absolutely adored them, and wish there were a few more.

Since then, I have dipped or dived into her contemporary romance series, have found them to be just as much fun as time travel. But I seldom seem to catch them from the beginning. Her Not Quite series is no exception. I have them all, I just haven’t managed to find a round tuit yet.

not quite forever by catherine bybeeI started on this series with book 4, Not Quite Forever, which shows that it is not necessary to read this series from the beginning to enjoy whichever book is before you at the moment. This is certainly true with book 5, Not Quite Perfect. While it isn’t quite perfect, it is quite a lot of fun.

For those of us who have read Not Quite Forever, we’ve met these characters before. Mary Kildare is Dakota Laurens’ BFF. Her husband Walt is best buds with the Fairchild family, and Glen Fairchild and Mary Kildare struck sparks off of each other every time they met in that earlier story.

But Not Quite Perfect is their story. And they are not quite perfect for each other. Glen Fairchild is just what the blurb calls him – a handsome player. He’s not even looking for Ms. Right Now, more like Ms. Right Tonight. But he can’t get Mary out of his head.

And Mary is not looking for a commitphobe like Glen, while not admitting that she really isn’t willing to let anyone into her life. Mary is used to people letting her down, and she is afraid to let anyone get close enough that she begins to rely on that person. She was abandoned at a Catholic church as an infant, and is sure that anyone else she needs will abandon her as well.

Which doesn’t mean that she hasn’t managed to let some people into her life. The ex-nun who raised her, the former Sister Mary Frances, is her mother in everything but name. And BFF Dakota is the sister she never had.

But Mary is a psychologist who tends to diagnose first and ask questions later. She knows that Glen is a player, which means he can’t be relied upon. Until he proves that he can. If she will let him.

Escape Rating B+: This series is just plain good mind-candy. If you want to be swept away for a few hours, this is a great place to start.

In some ways, this is a typical contemporary romance – serious woman meets player, and sparks fly everywhere. Glen isn’t a bad guy, but Mary is certain he is bad for her. She doesn’t do casual. The problem is that right now, she isn’t doing anyone at all.

Glen decides to pursue Mary for real, because he can’t get her out of his head. And Mary decides to let him, because she can’t seem to forget him, either, not even after a year of trying.

We don’t really see Glen deal with whatever his issues might have been about commitments and avoiding them like the plague. Mary is the woman he has been waiting for, and once he figures that out, he’s all in – even before he recognizes that it’s already happened.

Mary’s story is more complicated, both because we see more of her internal dilemma, and because her external dilemma takes center stage. Someone is stalking her and she doesn’t have a clue who it might be. She doesn’t have an ex, possessive or otherwise, or at least not since college several years ago.

If one of her patients has gone off the deep end, she can’t pinpoint who it might be. If some of her marriage counseling patients went after each other, it wouldn’t be a total surprise, but she can’t see who might feel so personally betrayed by her that they would break into her house and trash it, while stealing nothing at all.

Whatever it is, it’s personal.

But as bad as the stalking is, it makes her change her life. As Glen sticks by her through thick, thin and a cross-country relationship, she learns that she can lean on him when she needs to, and that he’ll be there. It’s a lovely surprise for both of them, in the midst of a mess that nearly claims her life.

What makes the story special is that even when the chips are very, very down, Glen doesn’t ride to the rescue. It’s Mary’s story and Mary’s agency. Mary rescues herself. But she is finally ready to let Glen help her pick up the pieces – after the mess is over.

And that’s awesome.

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Review: Doing it Over by Catherine Bybee

Review: Doing it Over by Catherine BybeeDoing It Over by Catherine Bybee
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Most Likely To #1
Pages: 332
Published by Montlake Romance on April 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

Voted Most Likely to Succeed, Melanie Bartlett ended up anything but. The down-on-her-luck single mom wants a complete do-over—is that too much to ask? With her family long gone from River Bend, strong, independent Mel is as surprised as anyone to end up in the quaint small town she once called home. But with her friends, Jo and Zoe, by her side, and a comfortable room at Miss Gina’s quirky bed-and-breakfast, she just might have turned the corner on a new life.
Wyatt Gibson never liked the big city. River Bend suits the ruggedly handsome builder just fine. Wyatt knows he’s home, even if that means being charmed by the appearance of Melanie and her spunky, adorable daughter. Is Wyatt’s calm devotion—even amid a coming storm—enough to convince Mel she may have found a home to call her own, a family that never leaves, and a true love to last a lifetime?

My Review:

They say that no good deed goes unpunished. I say that no bad ex fails to show up in a romance novel. Once they and their badness are introduced, the reader just knows that they are going to show up as soon as the hero or heroine finally starts getting their life together, just so that they can mess up their life all over again.

In Doing It Over, that dastardly ex added a suspense element that kept on giving chills right up to the very end of the story.

But the story doesn’t start with the evil ex (there should be a word, “evilex”) it starts with three sisters-of-the-heart and their small-town high school graduation. As they chew over the infuriating comments left in their yearbooks, they vow that, no matter what happens in their lives, they will all come back to tiny River Bend, Oregon, for their tenth high school reunion. (It feels like River Bend is just down the road from Thunder Point, and that’s a good thing!)

When Melanie Bartlett returns to River Bend for that reunion, all of those yearbook predictions have been turned on their heads. Jo, voted most likely to end up in jail, is now the local sheriff. Zoe, voted most likely to stay in River Bend, is a jet-setting, world-renowned chef who lives in Dallas, far, far from River Bend.

And Melanie, voted most likely to succeed, is a flat broke single-mother whose crappy car dies its final death less than 20 miles from River Bend. Mel has had only one success in her post-high school life, her seven year old daughter Hope. Who has not been happy cooped up in the car for several days on the road from Bakersfield to River Bend.

But when they all come home for that reunion, everyone’s life starts to look up. Jo has her BFFs back, and finally has someone she can tell the truth about her father’s death. Zoe finds herself drawn back to the life, and the man, she left behind in River Bend ten years ago.

And Melanie finds out that you can go home again. In River Bend, she has friends and a support network to help her raise Hope. She makes a job at Miss Gina’s very quirky Bed and Breakfast, and finds again that Gina is her surrogate mother, and is thrilled to be a surrogate granddaughter for little Hope.

She reaches out again. The man who tried to rescue her and her broken-down car turns out to be a man who will stand beside her, and who falls in love with her daughter every bit as much as he does with Melanie.

Of course, her nasty dastardly ex shows up just as Melanie is getting her life back on track. He says he just wants to take care of the daughter he once denied might even be his. And he wants a divorce – which surprises the hell out of Melanie, because she never married the bastard. Getting to the bottom of what smarmy, weaselly Nathan really wants gets the whole town behind Melanie and Hope. It’s a good thing that Melanie came back to River Bend, because she needs all the protection she can get!

Escape Rating A-: There are two completely opposite sayings about going home. One is the Thomas Wolfe version, “You can’t go home again.” The other is the Robert Frost version, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Although the women all experience a bit of that first version, in that all the places they remember from their childhood all seem much smaller now, what Mel does is definitely that second version – she has to go home, and the town she called home takes her back in and calls her their own.

The irony in this story is that none of these women go home to their birth families. Mel’s parents divorced and left River Bend the minute she graduated high school. Jo’s parents are dead. Zoe’s dad is in prison and her mother is still codependent. So instead, the home that Mel goes back to is Miss Gina’s B-and-B. Miss Gina was always a surrogate mother, always the favorite “cool” aunt to these three girls who had no one but each other.

And the old lady is still “cool”. But she’s also ready to hand the reins of her B-and-B over to younger and more energetic hands – when the right hands come along in the person of Melanie.

We see enough of Melanie’s perspective to understand why she is extremely leery of Wyatt Gibson when his truck pulls up beside her very dead car on the road to River Bend. But once one of her friends vouches for Wyatt, Melanie finds it difficult to resist the attraction she’s been feeling ever since the tall, dark stranger offered her a rescue.

The great thing about this story is that while Wyatt offered her a rescue from her broken-down car, he doesn’t try to rescue her from her life. Melanie comes back to River Bend to stand on her own two feet. She’s grateful for the support, and can’t help falling in love when Wyatt rescues her fearless daughter from falling off a roof, but he doesn’t “save” her. He just makes the life she has saved brighter.

The suspense element in this story kept me guessing until the end. When slimy ex Nathan shows up, Melanie knows him more than well enough to recognize that the bastard is up to something. While it is mostly possible that he is just up to messing up Melanie’s life by threatening to take Hope, there’s too much smoke for that to be the only source of the fire. Nathan is so obviously playing a much bigger game, but Melanie doesn’t know enough about Nathan’s current life to figure out what he is really after and why he is after it.

Set a thief to catch a thief. Wyatt’s dad comes to the rescue. In order to ferret out the motives of a lawyer, get another (and better) lawyer. As the case unravels piece by piece, we find out just what a slime her ex really is, and what he was really after. And what is after him.

The solution to the mystery was a surprise until nearly the very end. And the way that the situation is finally brought to a close is a lovely bit of poetic justice. If you are looking for a new contemporary romance series to get lost in, Doing It Over, and River Bend are a terrific read.

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Review: Wild Man’s Curse by Susannah Sandlin

Review: Wild Man’s Curse by Susannah SandlinWild Man's Curse by Susannah Sandlin
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Wilds of the Bayou #1
Pages: 276
Published by Montlake Romance on April 5th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The bones said death was comin’, and the bones never lied.
While on an early morning patrol in the swamps of Whiskey Bayou, Louisiana wildlife agent Gentry Broussard spots a man leaving the home of voodoo priestess Eva Savoie—a man who bears a startling resemblance to his brother, whom Gentry thought he had killed during a drug raid three years earlier. Shaken, the agent enters Eva’s cabin and makes a bloody discovery: the old woman has been brutally murdered.
With no jurisdiction over the case, he’s forced to leave the investigation to the local sheriff, until Eva’s beautiful heir, Celestine, receives a series of gruesome threats. As Gentry’s involvement deepens and more victims turn up, can he untangle the secrets behind Eva’s murder and protect Celestine from the same fate? Or will an old family curse finally have its way?
From award-winning author Susannah Sandlin comes the first book in the Wilds of the Bayou series.

My Review:

If you are looking for romantic suspense that is just a touch creepy but is still firmly planted in the real world, run, don’t walk to get a copy of this book. I’ll confess to loving all of Susannah Sandlin/Suzanne Johnson’s work, but Wild Man’s Curse was simply marvelous.

She always does an excellent job of painting the setting of her stories, and this one is no exception. Wild Man’s Curse mostly takes place in Terrebonne Parish, on the swampy southern coast of Louisiana. It is one of those places that is losing ground to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, literally. It is also a place where the gumbo of Cajun culture is still alive and well, preserved in fish camps and tiny houses all up and down the bayous.

Both Gentry Broussard and Celestine Savoie are children of those swamps. But they are both all grown up now, and dealing with deadly legacies and cursed inheritances that have passed from mother to child, or from brother to brother.

Ceelie’s great aunt Eva is brutally murdered in her house on Wild Man’s Bayou. Gentry is the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) agent who discovers her slashed body and witnesses her murderer running away. But he doesn’t believe the man he saw leaving could possibly be real because Gentry knows he killed his brother Lang in a drug-bust shootout three years ago in New Orleans. But the killer looks much too much like Lang to be a coincidence.

Ceelie Savoie is old Eva’s great-niece, and her last living relative. Ceelie inherits Eva’s cabin, along with the ire of whoever killed the old woman. Ceelie has also inherited Eva’s talent for “reading the bones”, even if her skills are rusty. In that melange of French, Spanish, Cajun and Creole culture that makes up the Louisiana swampland, Eva was a practitioner of some of the arts we think of as voodoo. And so, much to her surprise, is Ceelie.

So Ceelie comes home to Wild Man’s Bayou from a floundering attempt at a singing career in Nashville. She has no place else to go. But she promised her late father that she wouldn’t stay in Terrebonne, so she’s planning to clean up Eva’s estate and take her inheritance elsewhere. No matter how much the swamp calls her back home.

And no matter how attracted she is to Gentry Broussard. And very definitely vice-versa.

But before she can even think of leaving, Ceelie and Gentry have to figure out who targeted the old woman, and what on earth they wanted from an old lady who didn’t seem to own anything beyond a well-tended shack in the back country. And for Gentry, he needs to know if the reports of his brother’s death are, as they say, greatly exaggerated. Because if Lang is still alive, it’s entirely possible that Gentry is going to have to kill him again.

If only to prevent Lang from taking away the woman that Gentry has come to love.

Escape Rating A: Wild Man’s Curse is pure romantic suspense, and it is absolutely marvelous. If you have been considering reading one of Sandlin/Johnson’s books but we’re turned off by the paranormal, this one will get you hooked for sure.

The voodoo practice in this story is of the tarot card/ crystal ball variety, not that either of those elements is used. The story works perfectly well whether the reader or the characters have any belief in the supernatural or not. Some of the key characters are superstitious, but then, lots of people are. Eva and Ceelie’s ability to “read the bones” only provides them with vague warnings, and it is clear in the story that those warnings aren’t enough to prevent events, only to help them prepare a little.

The suspense element in the story is what keeps it moving along at a pulse-pounding rate. Gentry isn’t sure that he’s seen Lang, and with good reason. So there’s a big element of the story of Gentry owning up to seeing his dead brother, and putting resources in place to take care of the threat. As well as Gentry eating a lot of professional crow because he doesn’t warn people soon enough.

A big part of the investigation is just trying to determine how everything ties together. There are a lot of questions, and at the beginning, very few answers. We get to watch as Gentry, Ceelie, the detectives from LDWF, the Parish police and everyone else work to find the missing link between old Eva Savoie and young Lang Broussard, as well as trying to discover what the secretive old woman might have owned that would be worth torturing and killing her for, as well as worth continuing to hunt Ceelie for.

The secondary characters are also well done. Gentry’s LDWF partner is terrific. It is marvelous to see male-female police partners who have no sexual chemistry. They are partners. They are almost siblings. But while they each appreciate the scenery, there is no sexual tension at all. And I like Jena and hope there’s a book and romance in her future.

The romance between Gentry and Ceelie burns hot from the very beginning. But they both rightly resist the impulse for as long as they can, ramping up the tension every step of the way. While Gentry’s dog Hoss steals his every scene along with Ceelie’s, and the reader’s, heart.

I loved this first entry in the Wilds of the Bayou series, and absolutely can’t wait for more.

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