Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan Mallery

Review: Happily this Christmas by Susan MalleryHappily This Christmas by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, holiday romance, women's fiction
Series: Happily Inc #6
Pages: 336
Published by Hqn on September 29, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Mallery, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold romances, proves there’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

There’s no place like Happily Inc for the holidays…

Wynn Beauchene has a thriving business, a great kid and a mildly embarrassing crush on the guy next door—local cop Garrick McCabe. She’s a strong, independent woman who can’t help dreaming what-if about a man she barely knows. Until he needs her help…
Garrick’s pregnant daughter will be home for Christmas, and his house needs a woman’s touch. Garrick and his little girl were tight once and he’s hoping a small-town Christmas will bring her back to him. But thawing his daughter’s frosty attitude will take more than a few twinkle lights. Maybe sharing the holiday with Wynn and her son will remind her of the joy of family.
As the season works its magic on these wounded souls, Wynn realizes it’s time to stop punishing herself for a painful secret, while Garrick remains haunted by the ghosts of past mistakes. Will he allow Wynn to open the only gift she truly wants—his heart?
Read more in the reader-favorite Happily Inc series:Book 1: You Say It FirstBook 2: Second Chance GirlBook 3: Why Not TonightBook 4: Not Quite Over YouBook 5: Meant to Be YoursBook 6: Happily This Christmas

My Review:

I decided I wanted a happier book in the middle of this week, and it doesn’t get much happier than a trip to Happily, Inc., the little town that makes big wedding dreams come true.

But the situation that opens Happily this Christmas isn’t all that happy. And as much as Garrick McCabe wants it to change, he’s far from sure that it can. Not that he isn’t going to try his level best to make it happen.

His 21-year-old, 8-months pregnant daughter is coming to stay with him in Happily for a few weeks before Christmas, when her baby is due to be born and her husband is scheduled to return from his military deployment in Afghanistan.

Hopefully not in that order.

Garrick’s daughter Joylyn used to be his best girl, his buddy, his partner in crime and the light of his life. And those feelings used to be mutual. But somewhere in the middle of her teenage years Joylyn withdrew from him. Completely, utterly and extremely bitchily into the bargain.

He’s sure he must have done something wrong – but he doesn’t know what that something was. Joylyn refuses to tell him. She also refuses to act like a decent human being in his presence.

This visit is a chance to make things right. Of course, it could also cement the estrangement in stone.

But Garrick has a secret weapon. He enlists the help of his next door neighbor, the single-mother, business-owner and generally put-together Wynn Beauchene to help him welcome Joylyn to Happily and get her visit off to the best start possible.

Only to find himself charmed by Wynn – a feeling that is definitely mutual.

It’s a good thing that Garrick has Wynn and her teenaged son Hunter in his corner, giving Joylyn people to meet, things to do and something to think about besides missing her husband, brooding over her mistakes and continuing to treat her completely confused Dad like he’s the scum of the earth.

Which he definitely isn’t.

Joylyn has a chance to make things right, if only she’s willing to take it. Garrick and Wynn have a chance at the happy ending neither of them ever managed to have – if they’re willing to take a chance on each other – and give themselves a second chance at not just love, but life itself.

Escape Rating B+: I was definitely in the mood for a happy book this week. I’ve read nearly all of the Happily series and really enjoyed them. The portrait of the wedding destination town, all the people who are part of the town’s primary industry, and everything that goes into pulling off those dream weddings has always been good for a smile or ten, along with the HEAs of the individual characters in each book.

So I fell into Happily this Christmas pretty quickly, even if I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around holiday romances this early in the year. On my other hand, perhaps wishing the rest of this year away is the best idea in the universe. 2020 has been pretty epic on the awful scale.

But this one wasn’t quite as happy as I was expecting. It was fascinating, but not happy. Because for the first half of the story, Joylyn feels like the main character and she is frankly a bitch. And it feels like that’s all on her.

As the story evolves, it turns out it isn’t ALL on her, but a lot of it is. Her reasons for cutting her dad out of her life are only partly her fault. And her current levels of extreme bitchiness are, while not excused, at least understandable as she’s extremely pregnant, her husband is deployed and quite honestly she’s scared about being a new mother.

But she’s also a spoiled, privileged little princess taking all of her problems out on everyone around her. When Wynn contrasts her own young motherhood, single, completely alone and utterly broke but still gamely trying to keep it together, that privilege becomes pretty clear and Joylyn starts to get over herself a bit.

Then the town, through Wynn and all of her friends, starts to take Joylyn to their hearts and her attitude finally gets better. She starts to grow up – and did she ever need to!

For a lot of the story, Joylyn and her issues overshadow the budding romance between Garrick and Wynn. But that’s also part of the story, as between Joylyn, Wynn’s son Hunter, all the holiday preparations and planning for both Thanksgiving AND Xmas, and the circle of friends and family-of-choice that Wynn gets Joylyn involved in, there are a lot of people around ALL of the time, and a lot of busy that needs to be worked through and handled.

While that handling is something that Wynn is very good at, the whole thing turns into the kind of three-ring circus that keeps its central participants, in this case Garrick and Wynn, so busy that they have enough time to acknowledge their attraction to each other, plenty of need to spend time together dealing with stuff, but not a lot of time just being together without at least part of the crowd to see if they have what it takes to turn that attraction into a real relationship.

Of course they do, but it nearly takes a village to help them figure it out.

So this entry in the series was bigger on the family and friendship aspects of living in Happily than it was the romance, but it was still – as always – a lovely read.

Review: Meant to be Yours by Susan Mallery

Review: Meant to be Yours by Susan MalleryMeant to Be Yours by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Happily Inc #5
Pages: 464
Published by Hqn on October 22, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In Happily Inc, love means never having to say “I do”…

Wedding coordinator Renee Grothen isn’t meant for marriage. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, plan. But she never could have planned on gorgeous, talented thriller writer Jasper Dembenski proposing—a fling, that is. Fun without a future. And the attraction between them is too strong for Renee to resist. Now she can have her no-wedding cake…and eat it, too.

After years in the military, Jasper is convinced he’s too damaged for relationships. So a flirtation—and more—with fiery, determined Renee is way too good to pass up…until his flame becomes his muse.

Renee is an expert at averting every crisis. But is she finally ready to leap into the one thing that can never be controlled: love?

My Review:

There’s a theory that dogs come into our lives because we need them, but cats come into our lives because they need us, can’t admit it, and the entire universe is rigged to do their bidding anyway. I digress, just a bit.

But this story begins with a dog. In fact, poor Koda is the first person who comes into Jasper Dembenski’s life because they are meant to be his. And helps Jasper to heal enough – or to acknowledge the progress he’s made in his own healing enough – to allow Jasper to let Renee Grothen into his heart – by way of his bed. Or hers.

Because they’re meant to be each other’s – even if it takes them both a while to figure that out.

After all, Jasper believes that the things he experienced during his military service, and the PTSD the service left him with, have left him too damaged to deal with any relationship more complicated than friends-with-benefits, with as much emphasis on the benefits and as little on the actual friendship as his partners in those “relationships” are willing to tolerate.

Renee is one of the wedding planners at Weddings Out of the Box, the themed wedding service venue owned and operated by Pallas Saunders Mitchell, the heroine of the series opener You Say it First (which, BTW was lovely and fun and charming and got me hooked on this series.)

When it comes to weddings, Renee believes that those who can, do. And those who can’t become wedding planners. Her love life has been fairly disastrous, and she’s not interested in trying again.

But a woman has needs. Needs that Jasper is more than willing to help her with. After all, men have needs too. In Jasper’s case, while he’s all in on the benefits of the friends with benefits relationship they enter into, Jasper also needs something else from Renee.

Jasper is the best selling author of a long-running detective series. And that particular series needs to wrap up. Both Jasper and his editor are sure that what his loner of a detective (art imitates life) needs is to fall in love and find his HEA – or at least some purpose to his life besides catching serial killers.

However, Jasper can’t figure out how to write a female character who is not either a serial killer herself or the victim of one. He needs to learn out how women think. So he turns to his friend Renee for help and advice.

Thus the confirmed bachelor ends up shadowing the wedding planner to discover what makes women tick by observing them as they plan their weddings. And Jasper and Renee end up spending a lot of time together, fully dressed, in scenarios where they have to talk with each other in complete sentences.

Not that they don’t still nearly screw everything up.

But with the help of nearly every person in Happily Inc, Jasper’s dog Koda, Renee’s cats Fred and Lucille – and Renee’s mother Verity who understands what ALL the animals in town are thinking – they finally manage not to mess up their own HEA.

Even if there are more than a few times when it feels like the entire situation is going to the dogs. Complete with pooper scooper.

Escape Rating B+: Koda does come into Jasper’s life because Jasper needs him. Don’t get me wrong, the dog gets PLENTY out of the arrangement, but Koda does an especially good job of helping Jasper. Meanwhile, Fred and Lucille come into Renee’s life because they need her to help them get back together.

And in spite of how many times Renee’s mother Verity’s gift for understanding what animals are thinking has caused Renee all kinds of grief, it’s Verity’s gift that allows Koda, Fred and Lucille to get their messages across.

Obviously I fell into this particular book for the pets, and they are an important part of this story. Also, the giant dog wedding is a hoot!

But as much fun as all of the animal interactions are, it’s the humans in this one who are involved in the romance. Even if that’s not what either of them thinks is happening at first. Especially if that’s not what either of them wants to happen, or thinks is even possible TO happen.

The romance of this one is watching Jasper and Renee take two steps forward and sometimes three steps back on their road to a real relationship. At the beginning they are both certain that they are too broken for love or marriage – but having a regular sex partner is terrific.

They become friends. Slowly and hesitatingly. And their friendship eventually manages to work because Renee calls Jasper on his shit and doesn’t back down until he both understands what he did wrong AND apologizes for it.

His laser focus on his work and his tunnel vision in pursuing his vision of it does get him into trouble. Watching him work his way out of that trouble is fascinating. At the same time, one of the things that really worked for me in their relationship is the way that Renee accepts his need to completely concentrate on the work when it’s flowing. She doesn’t expect him to change who he is. He just needs to learn to not step on anyone else in his drive to get the story “right”.

As much as I love the town of Happily Inc and this series, it was the portrayal of Renee that dropped the story from an A- to a B+. Let’s just say that I empathize with how hard Jasper found it to get inside her head because I had the same difficulty.

I liked so much about her, but her fear of a relationship didn’t feel quite right, at least not based on the examples of where her previous relationships went wrong. The action and reaction didn’t feel quite proportionate – but YMMV.

I did like the way their relationship built slowly, and by fits and starts. And I certainly loved seeing Jasper grovel when he needed to – and there were plenty of times when he needed to.

But for this reader the animals stole the show and happily trotted away with it!

Review: Not Quite Over You by Susan Mallery

Review: Not Quite Over You by Susan MalleryNot Quite Over You (Happily Inc., #4) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Happily Inc #4
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on October 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Susan Mallery, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Fool’s Gold romances, proves there’s nowhere better than Happily Inc to rekindle first love.

Silver Tesdal has a head for business and a mouth made for kissing, and banker Drew Lovato has his eye on both. But ever since he was dumb enough to let her go, she’s kept him at a distance. When the bank turns her down for a loan, Drew sees a double opportunity—he can finance her brilliant, unique idea to rock Happily Inc’s wedding industry and win back her trust.

Despite her reputation, Silver’s not as tough as she seems. Losing Drew nearly destroyed her. Still, his kisses are as tempting as his offer to invest in her business. If she can’t quite get over him, maybe she should get under him and knock him out of her system once and for all.

But her best laid plans begin to unravel as Silver finds herself falling even harder than when they were high school sweethearts. Which means that she’ll have to come clean about the secret she’s been hiding from him for years—and risk losing him forever.

My Review:

This isn’t exactly a second chance at love romance. It’s more like an “unfinished business” romance. Well, it’s also a second chance at love romance, it’s just that it feels more like they picked up where they left off because they just never got it out of their systems the first time. As the title implies, Silver and Drew never got over each other.

All the way back in high school, Silver and Drew were head over heels for each other. For three whole months. One glorious summer. The summer before Drew left for college. And when he left town, Silver let him go.

I don’t mean let him go to college, her permission was not required. I mean let him go as in broke up with him. She knew that time and distance was going to do that anyway, and that it was better to make a clean break.

When she discovered she was pregnant, that option almost went off the table. But again, Silver made the mature decision. She did go to tell him about the baby, and when his reaction was to offer to marry her, but seemingly not out of love, she handed him the paperwork for her to give the baby up for adoption. And he signed.

Twelve years later Silver is still in Happily and Drew has been back for almost a decade, an officer in his family’s bank. A bank that has just turned Silver down for a business loan to expand her AlcoHaul business.

The town of Happily is a destination wedding town, and Silver’s burgeoning business creates signature drinks for the many (many, many) themed weddings and brings her customized trailer filled with drinks and a full bar to venues all over town. Hence the catch name, AlcoHaul. Because that’s what she does, haul alcohol all over Happily.

Silver is also part of the “brain trust” that helps Pallas design and put together her “Weddings Out of the Box”. The details of how that came about are in the first book in this series, You Say It First.

Drew has seen Silver’s business plan, and he wants to help. Yes, he does have hopes of getting back together, but he’s also a savvy businessman with a heart. First, her plan is solid, and so is her business. She’s a good investment. Second, he believes the bank should be using its resources to help the town, and one way to do that is to help local businesses. He’s not a bleeding heart, he just wants the local bank to invest in the town that supports it for the betterment of both.

His family, or at least his aunt Libby, currently has a hate-on for Silver, for no reason that is ever made clear, and makes sure Silver’s loan application is turned down. It’s fairly obvious that Libby just wanted to watch Silver jump through the hoops so she could shoot her down at the end.

So Drew offers to buy a minority share of Silver’s business so that she can expand. But their unfinished business with each other makes her wary of accepting his help. It takes a few days for her to come to the conclusion that it is good business for both of them, whatever else happens.

What happens, of course, is that working together leads them right back to where they were all those years ago – but with a bit more maturity and a lot more baggage. The spark is certainly still there, and blazes back into life all too easily.

But all the factors that pushed them apart in the past are still unresolved in the present. They may be older and a bit wiser, but Silver is still from the wrong side of the tracks and Drew is the scion of one of Happily’s most prominent families. A family that has plans for him that definitely don’t include a woman who owns a bar. Or even three bars.

The first time around, Silver and Drew were too young to fight for each other. It would be easy to give up again. Neither of them has any experience fighting for what they want when it comes to matters of the heart.

They’ll have to learn this time – and fast.

Escape Rating B-: On the one hand, I liked the relationship between Silver and Drew, because they were both really neat people. Silver was right back in high school. They did need to break up – not because they didn’t love each other, but because they weren’t mature enough to deal with a long-distance relationship. Silver knew that she wanted to stay in Happily, and Drew needed to leave – at least long enough to appreciate what he’d left behind.

It was also great that they weren’t angsty about both living in town. They didn’t interact, but they didn’t seem to go out of their way to avoid each other. They’d had what they’d had, and it was over. At least it was mostly over.

Drew wants to try again – even if he isn’t quite ready to admit that to himself at the beginning – but Silver is afraid to trust him. She’s also afraid to trust herself, which is much more the crux of her journey in this story. She’s so afraid of being like her mother that she almost succeeds in turning herself off completely – and gets a bit too over the top angst when she finally realizes that Drew is already back inside her defenses. She’s afraid to fall in love again, only to eventually figure out that she never fell out of love with Drew in the first place – and to have several panic attacks about it.

The difficult part of this story for me, and the reason why it’s only a B- story, is the involvement of Drew’s family – or at least the involvement of two particular members of it. The two villains of this piece, and they definitely are villains, are Drew’s Aunt Libby and his mother Irene. The rest of his family is pretty terrific, especially his Grandpa Frank, but his mother and her sister are a pair of Cruella de Villes.

And we’re never sure why.

Libby was also the villain in the first book, You Say It First. She’s Pallas’ mother, and the woman never, ever, ever has a decent thing to say about her daughter. She spends that entire book cutting Pallas down at every single turn, and Pallas just takes it for entirely too much of the story.

Libby continues her evil ways in Not Quite Over You, blocking Silver’s loan application, undermining Drew at the bank, and generally attempting to score off against her sister Irene at every turn using Drew as a proxy.

Drew’s mother Irene is just as bad, in her own way. Irene, along with Drew’s father, left Happily to open a high-powered lobbying firm in Washington DC. She has determined what Drew’s life course will be and simply doesn’t listen to anything he says about what he wants. He wants to stay in Happily and eventually run the bank. He does not want to come to DC and join the family firm. Her inability to accept that Drew has plans of his own for his life – after all, he’s pushing 30 and his plans are quite good plans – gets to the point where she is not merely manipulative to the max, but also lying to Drew’s father and everyone else as well as using Drew’s phone to get Silver into places where she can lie to her and cut her down as well.

It’s not well-meaning parenting gone astray, it’s vicious and cruel and needs to be both explained and then resolved. She’s so evil that she, along with her sister Libby, need to get some just desserts delivered and it doesn’t happen, which left me feeling like the story isn’t done. Call it a bit of unfinished business. Hopefully both Libby and Irene get what’s coming to them in a future book in the series.

Review: Why Not Tonight by Susan Mallery

Review: Why Not Tonight by Susan MalleryWhy Not Tonight (Happily Inc., #3) by Susan Mallery
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Happily Inc #3
Pages: 384
Published by Hqn on September 18, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads


Susan Mallery welcomes you to Happily Inc, where true love isn’t just for fairy tales…

Natalie Kaleta will do anything for the artists at her gallery, including risk life, limb and the effect of humidity on her naturally curly hair. Braving a downpour to check on reclusive Ronan Mitchell, Natalie gets stranded by a mudslide at his mountain home, where the brooding glass artist reveals his playful side, sending her inconvenient crush from under-the-radar to over-the-top.

After a secret tore apart his family and made him question his sense of self, Ronan fled his hometown for Happily Inc, but the sunny small town can’t fix his damaged heart. He won’t give in to his attraction for beautiful, perpetually cheerful Natalie. She’s untouched by darkness—or so he thinks.

Natalie knows that when a heart goes through the flame, it comes out stronger. Life may not be a fairy tale, but sometimes dreams do come true. Why not this one? Why not tonight?

My Review:

Although this story, and the entire Happily Inc. series so far, are definitely contemporary romances, this entry in particular has every bit as much to do with family as it does with romance.

Not that hero Ronan Mitchell doesn’t need his family to find his HEA. Because he’s cut himself off from his brothers and his parents, and without them he can’t seem to find the inspiration he needs – and he does need it. Ronan, just like his brothers Nick and Mathias (and their piece of work father) is an internationally acclaimed artist.

Cutting himself off from the people who care about him – and who he’s currently unwilling to admit that he cares about as well, is also cutting him off from the wellspring that lets him create.

Natalie Kaleta crashes into his solitude and changes, well, everything. For the better. Not that it doesn’t take Ronan a while, a long while, to admit it.

Natalie, the office manager of the gallery where Ronan and his two artistic brothers all display their work, is also an artist herself. And she’s one of those people who cares deeply about the people in her life.

Unlike Ronan, Natalie has no surviving family-of-birth. Her father died before she was born and her mother raised her alone. They were two against the world until her mother died of cancer. But Natalie is not alone, finding herself stranded in Happily Inc. she found herself a job that gives her time to create and created a family-of-choice that sustains her.

She envies Ronan for his close-knit family, and thinks he’s a fool and an idiot for turning his back on them. And she tells him so when she gets stuck in his mountain house during a storm.

He still has a chance to mend fences with his family, fences that he tore down. His struggle is not unreasonable, but his continuing to be a butt-head about it certainly is.

Their forced proximity during the storm gives the sparks between them a chance to rise to the surface, so even though Ronan claims not to want a relationship with anyone, and Natalie is interested in finding commitment, they make a mutual decision to have fun while whatever they have lasts.

When Natalie figures out that she wants more – Ronan does what he does best these days and retreats to his castle, pulling up the figurative drawbridge behind him.

It takes some brotherly intervention to crowbar Ronan’s head out of his ass. But when he finally does, his new perspective lets him figure out what’s been right in front of him all along.

Escape Rating B: I returned to Happily Inc, in order to be taken away to a special little town populated with quirky people, based on an equally quirky PR stunt. There was no wagon train, there were no stranded brides – at least not in the 19th century.

Natalie, however, was a stranded bride in the 21st century – one who decided to make a life for herself in this little wedding destination town. She’s found a family-of-choice and a job that lets her focus on her art.

Ronan, on the other hand, came to Happily Inc. to hide away from his family in Fools’ Gold after a family mess came to light. Ronan’s father, the famous glass artist Ceallach Mitchell, revealed that Ronan was his biological son by someone other than his wife. That means that the four brothers that Ronan believed were his full brothers are only half brothers. That the brother he thought was his fraternal twin isn’t. And that the woman he believed was his mother has been lying to him all these years.

Ronan’s response is to run, hide and brood in Happily Inc. Two of his brothers, Nick and Mathias, follow him there. Their stories are marvelously told in You Say It First (Nick) and Second Chance Girl (Mathias). (As an aside, both of those titles make complete sense in the context of their stories. this one doesn’t and it’s driving me crazy.)

When Natalie gate crashes his solitude, he finally starts to realize that he needs people. She is well aware of it, but his head is too far up his fundament to see the light – figuratively and literally.

For this reader it felt like the romance took a back seat to the family drama – and that felt right. Ronan has to figure out his place in the world again, mend his fences with his family, and most importantly learn to trust himself and others again before he can even like himself enough to love someone else. Even someone has completely awesome and totally right for him as Natalie.

It’s an important part of the story that Natalie doesn’t try to “fix” Ronan, because you can’t really fix someone else’s problems. She does provide him opportunities to fix things for himself, and she does create situations where he can work on fixing things if he wants to try, but she doesn’t mend his fences for him – and she isn’t willing to settle for someone who always has one foot out the door.

And she repeatedly calls him on his bullshit – because it needs to be called.

In the end, Why Not Tonight was a heartwarming story about family, where the romantic happily ever after was the reward for the journey and not the central point of the book. I really like these people and especially this place and can’t wait to go back with Not Quite Over You.

Review: Second Chance Girl by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

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


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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he might be right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: You Say it First by Susan Mallery + Giveaway

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway