Archive | June, 2012

Tender Friendship, Spine-Tingling Suspense, and Hot Romance: Dangerously Close by Dee J. Adams Has It All

23 Jun

Dangerously Close (Adrenaline Highs #3) by Dee J. Adams (Carina Press, July 23, 2012)

On a rainy June afternoon, I was more than ready for a romantic suspense novel, so I sifted through my soon-to-be-published books from NetGalley and thought, “Huh, this one looks okay. I’ll try it.”

Dangerously Close by Dee J. Adams is more than okay. It’s awesome.

The third in Adams’ Adrenaline Highs series, I have determined to read the first two books ASAP because I need to discover if she can do such a great job balancing romance and suspense in her previous stories. Luckily, it is no problem for a reader to read this book out of order (always the mark of a great writer) since we have a sense of the other characters, but don’t have to suffer an awkward info dump to be brought up to speed.

Ashley Bristol is trying to remain cheerful in her recovery. After having a psychopath put her in a coma for two months, she is, months later, just now getting her life back on track. Yes, she still has to take seizure medication and she’s prone to migraines, but her best friend Ellie is helping her and renovating the beautiful beach home in Malibu she bought with the settlement is a terrific distraction. Until a freak accident leaves her almost fully blind from wet macular degeneration, that is.

With a sense of humor the long-suffering biblical Job wishes he had, Ashley takes on this next new challenge, learning how to function as a blind person (she can see the occasional shape and has some peripheral vision but otherwise sees nothing). Ellie needs to get back to her husband, so the two of them start interviewing candidates for a live-in companion, one that can teach Ashley to be more independent. When she finds the perfect person (and a boxer/pit bull stray) all in one day, she’s ecstatic. She begins to learn how to shift for herself as much as possible and is merely curious when someone moves into the previously empty multi-million dollar beach home that shares the yard and the oceanfront.

How I picture the view from Ashley and Mel’s Malibu beachfront property

Seger Hughes has been leading the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll lifestyle for way too long, a reality brought home when he wakes up with a barely legal girl in his bed and one hell of a hangover. He’s disgusted with what the years and his success have brought him, and finishes up his tour, determined to make some serious changes. He stops having sex with strangers, cuts out booze and begins eating well and working out, so much so that when he pulls into the beachfront home he bought using his real name, Mel Summers, no one would recognize his thin, blond former self for the muscular guy sporting a natural brown buzz cut.

He’s still worried about discovery, however, and super pissed to find out that the guest house he thought was part of his real estate purchase belongs to someone else. When he discovers its owned by a blind woman and her classical-music loving companion, he breathes a sigh of relief and vows to keep his distance. But it’s a vow that’s easy to break when there’s an enthusiastic dog and a friendly blond woman in the mix.

Dangerous Race (Adrenaline Highs #1, Tracey and Mac’s Story) by Dee J. Adams (Carina Press, September 5, 2011)

What floored me about this book was how Dee Adams manages to show Mel’s resurrection. With the lifestyle he had been living, a big part of him had essentially died. Through the unconditional acceptance and friendship of Ashley and her dog, Roamer, he begins to return to life. After hearing about Mel’s crappy childhood and quick path to success, you begin to get a sense of the profound loneliness he’s experienced and how this probably contributed to some of the self-destructive choices he’s made.

In a way, he resurrects a part of Ashley, too. She’s lonely with Ellie back in Indiana with her husband, but she’s exactly the friend everyone would want to have and her relentless warmth is like a fresh rain on parched earth for Mel. Yes, you don’t like him lying about who he is, but other than that, he tells her the truth in every other aspect of his life, even sharing personal details he never told anyone before. Their friendship very naturally becomes something much more to both of them, and I have to say that in the thousands of books I’ve read (romance or otherwise) I’ve never read a more well-written friendship unfold on a page than this one.

But this is romantic suspense and Dee Adams doesn’t leave us high and dry in that arena. Ashley obviously attracts psychopaths like ants at a picnic, although this one, in this case, is focused on Mel/Seger. A stalker for literally years (yikes) Paula sees the blind woman and her companion living next door as exactly what she needs to get close to the man she’s been obsessed with since middle school (yes, I said middle school). Her behavior is nothing short of chilling and manipulative even before she goes full-throttle crazypants at the end of the book. *shiver*

Danger Zone (Adrenaline Highs #2 – Ellie and Quinn’s story) by Dee J. Adams (Carina Press, February 20, 2012)

Their romantic and sexual feelings for each other highlighted by the adrenaline, when Mel and Ashley get together it’s not only caring and giving but pretty smoking hot as well. There is such joy in their lovemaking that the rush of emotion provides a strong contrast to the ever-present menace of our stalker. When the story finally cames to its resolution, I had such an attack of the feel good fuzzies that I walked around for a couple of hours smiling. (The song Mel writes for Ashley is so beautiful!)

I’m impressed by new author Dee J. Adams’ burgeoning platform as well. Her website and blog have lots of information (love her tagline “Ordinary People. Extraordinary Danger.”) and she is active on Facebook and Twitter with a decent Goodreads page (it would be better if she added her Facebook and Twitter accounts right on there, as well as on the front page of her website, so readers wouldn’t have to go to the blog).

Full disclosure. This book doesn’t come out until July 23rd (frustrating, I know) but I figured an interested reader might need a few weeks to read the first two in the series and be totally primed for Dangerously Close. Ashely and Mel won’t disappoint, I promise!

So You Want a Good Steampunk Romance?: Try the Best – The Iron Seas Series By Meljean Brook

13 Jun

The Iron Duke (Iron Seas #1) by Meljean Brook (Berkley Sensation, October 5, 2010)

A few years ago, I don’t think I was alone in being rather clueless about the subgenre of steampunk. There were a few young adult books I knew of that fell into this category, but I had pigeonholed them in my mind as being for the type of person who liked cosplay and that’s not really my scene. I made a point of collecting a few anthologies that had this subgenre as their focus, but didn’t pay more attention than that.

Big mistake. Upon further investigation, I discovered I love steampunk.

My first revelation was when I read Cassandra Clare‘s Clockwork Angel (the prequel to the Mortal Instruments series). Excuse me? Automatons? Clockworks? Corsets? Conflicted female gender roles? Sign. Me. Up.

Wanting to be reflective in the hope that it will clue me into other readers who might enjoy this subgenre, I think the following observations are in order regarding the reader group I have observed who really jones for these books:

  1. Steampunk readers seem to be made up of adventurous readers, usually ones who enjoy historical fiction, alternate history, science fiction, fantasy, historical romance, or all of the above. They aren’t the readers who bog down in one genre and stay there.
  2. Steampunk readers (at least in my library) are largely female and seem to revel in the many strong female characters.
  3. At the same time, those readers like the fact that there are some Victorian mores and REALLY enjoy the descriptions of the clothes and gadgets. (“Steampunk is…the love child of Hot Topic and a BBC costume drama.” – Gail Carriger, author of the steampunk The Parasol Protectorate series.)

When I looked at all these elements, it occurred to me that each of these points describe a lot of romance readers as well, so it makes sense that there would be some rather…well….adult romance books with a steampunk focus. Where the heck were they in 2009? *taps foot impatiently*

Enter Meljean Brook and The Iron Duke in 2010. As the rippling abs of the cover model indicate, this book has a racy side (a very racy side). That said, it is a fascinating and well-written steampunk novel with highly developed characters and a carefully constructed alternate history.

I will confess to being a little confused for the first 50 pages or so (my “give it 80 pages” rule usually pulls me through most books). Brook gives a terrific explanation of the alternate history she’s developed on her website but I’ve developed a nutshell version that might help other readers struggling as I did for that first bit of the book.

Wild & Steamy (an anthology containing Iron Seas #0.4 “The Blushing Bounder” – Constable Newberry’s story) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (2011)

Stretch back to your World Civilization class in high school and you’ll remember the early relationship between Kublai Khan and western Europe, specifically how the Polo family traipsed East and established some valuable trade routes (okay, much of my memory comes from the 1982 miniseries Marco Polo and the subsequently released novel based on the screenplay. Whatever.) In Brook’s books, rather than maintain a political strategy of isolationism (as China did for some time), the “Horde” uses their advanced Chinese technology to develop machines which roll into Europe a couple hundred years post-Polo, and conquer it, enslaving its citizens.

The wealthy flee to the Americas (and are referred to derisively as “Bounders” by the people who lived under the Horde), a haven of safety since the Horde has never developed a navy, but the remaining Europeans lived in terror. Part of the Horde’s strategy was to enslave and alter the people under them with technology. Citizens were infected with nanotechnology (“bugs”) that can control their behavior if needed, and some laborers actually have tools grafted to their arms a la Star Trek’s Borg (think coal miners with drills for arms). Much of the European continent and Africa which was used by the Horde solely for its natural resources had a separate type of infection, creating thousands of zombies that run amuck through those areas keeping people away.

Even the most intimate details fall under Horde control – the working classes are forbidden to marry and the entire country is subject to periodic “Frenzies” where the Horde activates the nanotechnology to cause citizens to literally fall on one another in a massive heat, regardless of age, sexual orientation, or existing genetic relationship. The babies produced from this event are usually given to the Creche, a state-run orphanage, with those children (if they are lucky) given over to guilds where they receive specialized training and financial sponsorship to receive the physical enhancement they need to survive.

England manages to throw off the Horde’s control with the help of pirate Rhys Trahaearn, who destroys the tower that sends forth the signals which control the nanotechnology in each citizen, thus freeing the population. A grateful nation makes him the Duke of Anglesley, but he is shrouded in mystery and simultaneously loved and feared, becoming known simply as the Iron Duke to the people.

And this is where The Iron Duke begins. Enter our heroine, Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth, daughter of a countess who works (as many women do) but who constantly faces prejudice wherever she goes. Mina is the result of a particularly calculated “frenzy” as her mother was invited, along with the rest of British aristocracy, to a Horde-hosted ball when the frenzy instinct was activated. While her mother claims to remember nothing, Mina’s black hair and Eurasian features remind everyone she encounters of their time under Horde control, subjecting her to a great deal of verbal and physical abuse.

Burning Up (containing the novella “Here There Be Monsters” – #0.5 in the Iron Seas series) by Meljean Brook, et. al. (Berkley, August 2010)

But Mina is tough (and she has a fabulous sidekick, Constable Newberry, who acts as a bodyguard as well as fellow investigator) and when she is dispatched to investigate a dead body found at the Iron Duke’s London home, she attempts to simply work the case. However, the instant attraction between them complicates an already puzzling investigation. The body has been frozen and dropped from an airship as some kind of message and together, Mina and the Duke need to figure out what really is going on, little realizing the physical and emotional countries this journey will take them through.

I loved this book not just as a steampunk novel but as a true romance novel. The relationship, while having a lot of steamy attraction, develops naturally and deals honestly with the barriers in its way. The emotional damage people suffer in the wake of the Horde’s rule are ever present and add an additional dimension to forming an intimate relationship.

And, hello, these are intimate! The sex scenes are “burst into flame in your hands” hot. The descriptive language is a little more ribald that many traditional historical romance readers would probably expect, but it seems right for both a pirate and for a country that has lived through its recent history. This book was so outstanding that I immediately ordered a used print copy in addition to my ebook copy so I can reread it at will.

There are a couple fabulous prequel novellas. In chronological order, the first is “The Blushing Bounder” (#0.4 in the Iron Seas series) found in the Wild & Steamy anthology. This is Constable Edward Newberry’s story (the red-headed giant who is Inspector Mina Wentworth’s faithful assistant and protector), specifically the tale of his marriage to another bounder from Manhattan City who is dying of consumption.

Edward knows that if Temperance agrees to the nanotechnology infection that Mina’s physician father is happy to provide, she will live, but bounder preconceptions (on the part of both of them) as well as some existing tension in their marriage prevent her from doing so. Edward won’t become infected unless Temperance does, so they both seemed doomed to suffer until Temperance witnesses a murder from her bedroom window and forces beyond their ontrol are set in motion.

You don’t need to read this novella prior to The Iron Duke (and, in fact, I’d encourage you to read it afterward) but there is another prequel which is a fabulous introduction to Meljean Brook’s world and it is also a wonderful stand-alone romance which gives you a sense of her excellent writing. “Here There Be Monsters” (#0.5 in the Iron Seas series) is published in the anthology Burning Up (which also has a Psy-Changeling novella if you’re a Nalini Singh fan like I am).

This novella is just as well-written as The Iron Duke and has several tie-ins, both in characters and in overarching plot, and you do not to need to read any previous book or novella to understand it. In a way it feels like a lighter book, simply because the two love interests, Captain Eben Machen (known as “Mad Machen”) and Ivy Blacksmith, are less tortured than Mina and Rhys (but still have their own set of obstacles).

Ivy Blacksmith is a genius with any machinery and is happy with her lot until a strange group of men sneak into her rooming house, utilizing a mysterious device which freezes all the inhabitants, stealing a few of them out of their beds, and reminding Ivy all too well of life under Horde rule. Terrified that she might be next, she runs to the inn where the pirate Mad Machen and his friends are boarding prior to shipping out.

Eben Machen has already fallen for the red-haired pixie blacksmith who so patiently helped his friend Barker weather the transition to his prosthesis, so when she comes to them, terrified and tentatively offering herself in exchange for passage on his ship, he accepts not only to slake his lust but to keep her safe from others. But his airship captain friend, Yasmeen, has a different idea of what is good for Ivy and Eben, and helps Ivy escape Machen’s room. He searches for her for two long years until the Iron Duke and the Blacksmith come up with a cunning plan to protect the Welsh coast and they need a talented machinist to execute it.

Ivy can’t believe her eyes when Yasmeen and Mad Machen show up in the isolated Norwegian town in which she’s made a home. Mad Machen insists she share his bed according to their original agreement but she pays him each night to not touch her. The problem is, not only is she’s running out of coins but laying next to his hard body and feeling his gentle hands holding her while she sleeps awakens a host of feelings that she might want to act upon. How can she reconcile the tales of this wild pirate to the man she is beginning to see with new eyes?

Heart of Steel (Iron Seas #2 – Yasmeen and Archimedes story) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, November 1, 2011)

These two novellas definitely helped me be patient while awaiting the next full-length novel in Iron Seas series, but I was still chomping at the bit when Heart of Steel came out on November 1, 2011.

Yasmeen, airship Captain of the Lady Corsair, is not only one of the best airship captains out there but beautiful as well. She strikes terror into anyone who crosses her and is a true mercenary, willing to hire herself out for gold and not ask a lot of questions, but she has a code of honor to which she strongly adheres.

Which is why she is checking in on adventure writer, Archimedes Fox’s sister. Yasmeen feels a little guilty that she had to toss the handsome Archimedes overboard into zombie territory (in The Iron Duke) but she doesn’t feel that bad about keeping the priceless DaVinci sketch he brought on board – after all, no one pulls a gun on Yasmeen and tells her what to do with her ship.

But Archimedes is a like a cat with nine lives and turns back up looking for Yasmeen and his sketch, with Horde assassins close on his heels. Yasmeen doesn’t appreciate the trouble but she is interested in the wild passion that flares between them. The problem is Archimedes – he doesn’t just want sex, he wants her heart and her mind, and those are two items Yasmeen refuses to give to any man.

Yasmeen has always been an intriguing and compelling character with a wealth of secrets. The sexual tension between her and Archimedes is evident in the first book, so I was bouncing with excitement when I read this book was to be about them. Meljean Brook does not disappoint, fleshing out Yasmeen in all her glory and painting Archimedes as the sexy, playful beast he is. Where Rhys and Mina are all intense responsibility to others, Yasmeen and Archimedes have a wicked, devil-may-care side they share and it’s a joy to see their banter. The way Archimedes cajoles Yasmeen into admitting her feelings for him pulls on your heartstrings and its great to see Brook’s signature relationship – one of equals coming together and loving each other exactly as they are – in play.

Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City (Iron Seas #1.5) by Meljean Brook (Penguin, August 7, 2012)

After rereading these novels and novellas for the last couple years, it’s wonderful to finally anticipate a few new additions to the series! Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City is an enovella coming out on August 7, 2012 (although purportedly also in the reprinted paperback edition of The Iron Duke, so you could get it that way, too).

Taking place eight months after their marriage, this novella is categorized as an “epilogue novella” by Meljean Brook, and centers on a dead bounder. Mina is the primary investigator and becomes deeply concerned when the danger surrounding the death points back to her new husband. I cannot believe I have to wait for August for this! It makes me want to get a third copy of The Iron Duke in the mass market paperback so I can read it now. Patience. *deep breath* Patience.

Riveted (Iron Seas #3) by Meljean Brook (Berkley, September 4, 2012)

Now we have the pleasure of anticipating the third book in the series, which will be published on September 4th. Riveted deals with two characters with whom we have not been previously introduced and seems to also plan on broadening our horizons on the world of the Iron Seas.

Iceland has been abandoned due to a massive volcanic eruption and everyone thinks it was a natural phenomenon, but the truth has a more mechanical origin. Annika and her sister Kalla were part of a community of women who guarded the secret, but after Annika accidentally endangered the secret, her sister Kalla took the blame and was exiled. Annika serves aboard an airship, searching for Kalla in the hope they can one day return home.

David Kentewess chases volcanos for a living and is focused on ferreting out the truth of what happened in Iceland – a process that is bound to involve getting the lovely Annika to reveal her secrets. The process places them both in danger, however, abandoned on a glacier with a madmen in pursuit. Now they must get away while dealing with the attraction between them, no easy feat in the world of the Iron Seas.

I read the excerpt posted on Meljean’s website and it was fantastic! I’m so happy to be getting more of a New World perspective (previously only glimpsed briefly in Constable Newberry’s “The Blushing Bounder” novella) and this one promised to be much better fleshed out.

It’s rare to find an author who is as talented at complex world-building as she is in building an honest to God romance between two people, but Meljean Brook is the real deal. Her blog is full of information and she seems to have a terrific sense of humor in her entries, so I would strongly recommend adding her to your RSS reader if you enjoy following authors. Remember that while other authors (like Cindy Spencer Pape who I enthusiastically reviewed the other week) are more gaslight because of their incorporation of magic in their world, Brook is classic steampunk, and can be counted on to give any reader an excellent introduction to the genre. Be warned, though. You might find yourself addicted to it!

Interested in exploring steampunk further? Check out the GoodReads list of “Best Steampunk Books” list for a place to start. The Steamed! blog is also a great source of information for both readers and writers and has innumerable links to reading lists and writing tips. Enjoy your foray into this wonderful genre!

**Additional Notes and Updates:

Take a look at the review of Brook’s third book in the series, Riveted, as well as the fantastic follow up to Heart of Steel, the novella, Tethered, featuring the further adventures of Yasmeen and Archimedes. For a hint of Yasmeen’s airship, the novella in Fire & Frost cannot be beat either. Enjoy!!**

Sexy Texans and a Close-Knit Irish Family in C. H. Admirand’s The Secret Life of Cowboys Series

11 Jun

Tyler (The Secret Life of Cowboys #1) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, March 1, 2011)

Despite being a born and bred Easterner, I’ll happily admit to enjoying a good Western romance. The small town atmosphere that usually accompanies these books is always a pleasure and a real cowboy, one with a sense of honor and a direct approach to getting his woman, fits my romantic ideal to a “T”. That’s T for Texas, folks, that hot and steamy home of cowboys who can knock your boots off if they kiss you right.

They are like Scotsman but with boots instead of kilts.

I actually read the third book of the series first as a NetGalley review and was so utterly charmed by it that I had to read the first two. I’m so glad I did! The Garahan family is comprised of a hardworking trio of cowboys who are desperate to save the ranch that has been in their family for generations in the middle of Pleasure, Texas. The Circle-G with its feed bill and mortgage payment needs money like a steer needs fresh pasture and the Garahan brothers – Tyler, Dylan and Jesse – can barely make ends meet working dawn until way after dusk.

In the first book, Tyler, when the oldest Garahan brother sees a job listing at the new bar that’s opened up in town, he figures he can make some extra money lugging kegs. He’s startled when the lush figured, no-nonsense redheaded owner, Jolene Langley, asks him to strip. He didn’t realize that this was a strip club and that a real live sexy cowboy is great for business. He begins to think the money isn’t worth it until the second sexy redhead walks out to join her cousin.

Emily Langley might be covered in chocolate after losing a battle with her mixer and some brownie batter, but all Tyler can think is that he wants to lick it off her considerable chest. Those whiskey-colored eyes hold a sweetness that make this bookkeeper warm something deep inside him that none of his ex-girlfriends have touched before. When he realizes that someone is out to stop the Lucky Strike club from succeeding, all his protective instincts are aroused (a long with some other parts of him).

Emily and Jolene are hilarious spitfires who give feisty a capital “F” and the crew at the Lucky Strike are a nice mix of minor characters. The heat between Tyler and Emily is off the charts, with both their scarred hearts taking a chance on one another. The snootypants prisses from the town (who want to change the town’s name from Pleasure to Emerson since it’s less risque) provide a good foil and there is a ton of small town atmosphere, always a hit with romance lovers. We get a good sense of taciturn Dylan and talkative Jesse, and the fact that all three brothers have regular fistfights to blow off steam is an adorable indication of the machismo factor at the ranch.

Dylan (The Secret Life of Cowboys #2) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, January 1, 2012)

In the second book, Dylan, the quietest of the Garahan brothers agrees to take over for Tyler, who has had a nasty run in with a bull at the end of the previous book. In one of Dylan’s early performances he is asked to lasso a blindfolded brunette celebrating her birthday, but when the blindfold comes off he is astonished to find a glaring pair of emerald eyes. The undertones of vulnerability in those same peepers reel him in for a mind-blowing kiss, but when he asks her to stay and meet him after the show, she gives him sass like he’s never received. Rather than put off, he’s turned on beyond belief.

Ronnie DelVecchio is a transplant from New Jersey. She’s fled an ex-husband who decided to have an affair with her best friend and her heart is more than a little wary. Add to that the DelVecchio curse – that once every other generation a DelVecchio woman loses her heart to a pureblooded Irishman and promptly has twins – and she’s running away fast from Dylan Garahan, despite the pull of those incredible kisses. But running away is slightly complicated by the fact that her friend Emily has arranged for Dylan to help Ronnie put her store back together after the town vandals decimated the interior. The fact that she’s supposed to be paying him by cooking her home-cooked Italian cuisine for the brothers puts her right in arm’s reach of that quiet middle brother who is short on talk but long on action.

Since I’m originally from Northern New Jersey, Ronnie’s character of a hot-tempered, loving Italian who believes firmly in her family’s curse is a fabulous character I immediately loved. After having her heart broken by her philandering husband, it’s easy to understand why she is not ready to leap back into love. Her gut tells her that she is in danger whenever Dylan is around. He might hesitate to talk, but his tender actions and hot loving tells her practically everything she needs to know about the kind of man he is. Dylan gave his heart to his childhood sweetheart only to get hurt when she wiped the dust of town off her feet eight years later and headed off to adventure. But he never felt like this about anyone, and he’s not about to let go of Ronnie. You will love the law that gets invoked at the end of the book!

Jesse (The Secret Life of Cowboys #3) by C. H. Admirand (Sourcebooks, July 1, 2012)

Poor Jesse. We saw his friend Lori break his heart (for the second time) in Dylan, and Jesse now sports a barbed wire tattoo around his arm to symbolize how he isn’t going to let any woman get past it to his heart. Until he stops to help a gorgeous blond with car trouble, that is. One look at Danielle Brockway and her tiny daughter, Lacey, and he falls hard for both of them.

Danielle doesn’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire. Her rodeo husband left her and their daughter, taking all of Danielle’s hard earned savings while he was at it, and she’s retreated to Pleasure to stay with her loving uncle who owns the town diner. She might be attracted to the hunky youngest Garahan but she’s a mother first and she needs to do what’s best for Lacey.

Little Lacey steals the show. She’s the tiniest cowgirl in pink boots and a matching hat she wears to bed every night, and Jesse being a real cowboy puts her over the moon. Jesse wants Danielle and Lacey at the ranch all the time, but is harboring a secret. He’s taken an outside job to help with the mortgage payment (no, not at the strip club) and is being secretive about it with everyone. Danielle is worried she might have picked another man who is going to put her second, but she’s bolstered by seeing the loving Garahan family in action. Any man who comes from this crew is bound to be a solid citizen.

I might have wanted to shake Jesse a couple times in this book, but he’s likely to be my favorite Garahan so far (fear not, Tyler and Dylan, I still love you both). C. H. Admirand does a great job of showing how brusque cowboys can still be Southern sweet-talkers when they want to be and if the sex they dish out is any indication, there will be hordes of women moving to Texas post-haste. The best part of the book is when the Garahan cousins – the cops from New York and the U. S. Marshals from Colorado come out to join in the town of Pleasure’s annual party. I’ve got all my fingers and toes crossed that Admirand isn’t an author who would tease a reader with a bunch of sexy, single male cousins and then not deliver on future books starring them. Don’t disappoint me, Ms. Admirand! :-)

If you feel like a little twang, a wonderful small town, hot lovin’, and some sexy cowboys who find the women who make them sit up and realize what love is, you are more than ready to add The Secret Life of Cowboys series to your reading shelf. Jesse doesn’t come out until July 1st, but you can get started with Tyler and Dylan. But let me warn you. Reading about Texas in the summer is H-O-T, so be sure to have a cold glass of sweet tea nearby to cool yourself down.

From Gorgeous Scotsmen in Kilts to Rippled Muscles in T-shirts: Transitioning Donna Grant’s Dark Sword Series to Her New Dark Warrior Series

9 Jun

Dangerous Highlander (Dark Sword #1 – Lucan and Cara’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, April 2010)

I was reading an article about book cover design and one of the experts interviewed mentioned that, in romance, anything with a kilt on it is bound to sell. Duh. What red-blooded woman doesn’t have a visceral response to a hunky guy in a kilt? But it got me thinking, what is my favorite kilted book cover of all time? The answer to that got me pondering my favorite Scottish series, the Dark Sword/Dark Warrior series by Donna Grant.

In full disclosure, you need to understand that, while set in roughly the 1600s, this is not historical romance, but rather fantasy. Using a history stretching back to the time of the ancient Celts to explain its world, this series takes a paranormal approach to explaining the warrior ethos of the highlanders it features.

In an effort to rid their shores of the Roman invaders, druids practicing dark magic (known as droughs), asked a group of gods previously relegated to hell to inhabit the bodies of the best warriors from each clan in order to make them invincible fighters. The druids who had kept to the ways of life-giving magic (known as the mies) objected, but in their desperation the Celts agreed to call forth the gods.

You can imagine how this could potentially backfire. The gods were ecstatic to be freed and more than happy to unleash their violence on the Romans until they fled the shores of Scotland. But, the thirst for blood far from slaked, they turned on each other. With the wide scale slaughter occurring in their country, both groups of druids determined to band together to find a solution.

Druids – it’s not all mistletoe and stone circles.

In the end, the gods could not be sent back, so the ancient priests and priestesses found the spell which would bind the god within the man, returning each warrior to his human state with no memory of the atrocities he had committed. The god was still within him, but now the warrior could live a normal mortal life, with the god passing to the next best warrior of the clan upon the demise of his human host.

All was safe for centuries until one power hungry drough, Deirdre, came upon an ancient scroll which listed the name of only one of the clans which possessed warriors who hosted the bound gods – the MacLeods. Murdering their entire clan in an attempt to draw out the warrior, Deirdre manages to lure the three brothers, Fallon, Lucan and Quinn, to her mountain lair, torturing them and releasing their god, which it turns out is actually shared between them since they are warriors of equal cunning and strength.

But the brothers escape and take decades to learn to control the god inside them. As long as their god is able to emerge (in their case, at their will) the MacLeods are immortal. This is the backstory we discover in the first book of the Dark Sword series, Dangerous Highlander (a more in depth and better written account can be found at Donna Grant’s website).

How I picture the cliffs and landscape surrounding MacLeod castle.

They hide from Deirdre where she would never look for them, at the ruin of their old castle which the local people think is haunted because of the massacre which occurred there years ago, and this is where our story begins. Middle brother Lucan sees a beautiful girl lose her footing on the cliffs by the sea and on instinct shifts into his god form to save her. It is obvious to him and his brothers that Cara has some kind of druid magic, but her parents were murdered years ago and she has grown up sheltered in the local convent.

It turns out that Lucan saving her isn’t just fortunate because he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but because she didn’t know that she was a target of Deirdre’s as well. The entire village is slaughtered while Cara takes refuge at the MacLeod castle and, together, Cara and Lucan must figure out why Deirdre wants her so badly. Lucan knows that there is no way he’s letting Cara out of his life now that he’s found love after years of loneliness. Not everyone handles Lucan’s new happiness the same way; while Fallon begins to drag himself away from the alcohol he’s used to numb his god and resume leadership once again, Quinn is painfully reminded of the loss of his wife and son, so much so that he walks right into a trap and is captured by Deirdre at the end of the book.

All the main characters are thoroughly drawn and well-established in this first book, but Lucan is such a sexy sweetheart that it’s no wonder Cara falls so hard for him. Seeing Cara learn about her druid inheritance and wrestle with her burgeoning power helps the reader discover much more about the druid side of this world, and we begin to see the pull between druids and warriors as romantic partners.

Forbidden Highlander (Dark Sword #2 – Fallon and Larena’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 2010)

The fight against Deirdre is the ongoing story arc of both series and Donna Grant picks the story right up in the second book, Forbidden Highlander. After Quinn is captured, Fallon decides to go to Edinburgh to gain help. While at court, he spies the stunning Larena Monroe, who is looking for some help of her own. The sexual pull between them is undeniable, but Larena harbors a secret, a couple of them actually, and she doesn’t know if she can trust this gorgeous warrior.

Fallon quickly realizes that Larena is the perfect match for him but will she join forces to help him save his brother is the question. The discovery of other warriors who have tamed their god gives the MacLeods much better odds in the fight against Deirdre, but no one knows if it will be enough.

Larena is a fiesty, loyal heroine and you know from the first that this is a match made in heaven. Fallon carries a lot of guilt over his previous use of alcohol to escape the pressures of his god, but with the emotion shuttling between them, he is able to let go of his past and embrace a future with the woman who he wants as his wife.

There is a little overlap between Forbidden Highlander and the third book in the series, Wicked Highlander. Quinn’s story picks up in the dungeons of Deirdre’s mountain cave where he has to deal with the fact that he’s been duped into being her prisoner. When the evil druid throws a beautiful young mie druid to her supposed rape and death in the dungeon, Quinn simply reacts, taking her under his protection.

Wicked Highlander (Dark Sword #3 – Quinn and Marcail’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 2010)

When Marcail wakes up from her injuries she is with a warrior who possesses a voice like warm honey. She wouldn’t think she could feel safe in such a location, but with Quinn by her side she does. The attraction between them is instantaneous and only amplifies as she discovers why he carries such guilt over the death of his wife and son.

Quinn cannot imagine that he would find such peace and happiness in the arms of this turquoise-eyed beauty in Deirdre’s dungeon, but he realizes that if Deirdre discovers his feelings for Marcail, it can be used to hurt them both. Knowing his brothers will come for him, his first thought is Marcail’s safety, particularly after he discovers her power and why Deirdre can’t hurt her (but desperately wants to kill her).

I love several of the books in this series (and enjoy them all) but I usually have to reread Wicked Highlander once every couple of months. Quinn is so tortured in the other books that seeing him find redemption in the middle of a dank prison with Marcail (she’s my favorite heroine) renews your faith in love.

Worried we just ran out of MacLeods? Don’t be. The fact that they are joined by other equally as hunky warriors means Donna Grant has given us an unending supply of troubled men fighting the good fight against evil.

Untamed Highlander (Dark Sword #4 – Hayden and Isla’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, April 2011)

No one knows evil like Hayden Campbell, who hates the evil droughs with every fiber of his being. In the fourth book of the series, Untamed Highlander, Hayden scouts the area around Deirdre’s mountain after freeing Quinn and Marcail, finding a woman almost frozen to death in the snow. One touch and he knows that she is his, but when he discovers she is a drough, and worse, someone who helped Deirdre all these years, he fights the attraction for all he’s worth.

Isla did work for Deirdre, accepting the black magic under duress as the evil woman held Isla’s family members hostage. The final stand Isla took against her almost ended Isla’s life, but she finds herself in MacLeod castle surrounded by mies and warriors. Most of them seem willing to give her a chance, but Hayden reminds Isla that she is a woman first and a drough second. He spends as much time pushing her away as kissing her breathless and when she discovers why he hates droughs so much, it only accentuates the guilt she feels over her years of being Deirdre’s pawn.

Once Hayden realizes that Isla is more than her history with Deirdre, he begins to break out of his prejudice, finally recognizing that she is just as tortured and damaged as he. He almost loses her, but finally makes her his own, not only helping him by finding his soul mate but helping their cause by bringing in such a powerful ally.

Shadow Highlander (Dark Sword #5 – Galen and Reaghan’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, August 2011)

Since the moment we met Galen in the forest in the first book of the series, he is a binding force of reason with a good sense of humor and a seemingly bottomless stomach. But he avoids touch in any form since one of his powers is being able to read the minds of whoever he comes in contact with. In Shadow Highlander, Galen gets a book of his own and a mission that will bring him face to face with his destiny.

The warriors at MacLeod Castle have caught wind of the fact that there is a powerful druid relic that Deirdre wants. With careful scouting, Galen and some other warriors head out to scout the likely locations it could be housed, including a cloaked area of Druid power near a lake. Discovering an aging and rather helpless band of druids, Galen endeavors to move them back to the castle for protection, but not before being powerfully drawn to the beautiful young druid in their midst, Reaghan.

Reaghan loves her peaceful existence but can’t help thinking that there is something more to life, a thought only amplified when she meets the irresistible warrior bent on helping her community. She burns at his touch and Galen is baffled that he cannot read Reaghan’s mind; she is immune to his power. But strange flashes of memory added to the growing knowledge that she can’t remember all her existence lead them the realization that Reaghan has a power that puts her in danger, and its solution could mean the end of the love that has sprung between them.

Darkest Highlander (Dark Sword #6 – Broc and Sonya’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, January 2012)

The final book of the Dark Sword series has a tough job to do. Not only must it tell the story of the romance of its two main characters but it also needs to set up the premise for the next series, Dark Warrior, which will pick up right where it lets off.

Broc has been a presence from the very first book, but as Deirdre’s winged henchmen he has committed as many atrocities as Isla did before openly joining forces with the MacLeods. Broc has been working as a spy all this time, one bent on undermining Deirdre as well as protecting something very precious to him – the powerful mie healer, Sonya and her sister, Anice.

When Anice dies in a chaotic battle at the end of Shadow Highlander, Broc lashes out at Sonya for not being able to save her sister. In Darkest Highlander, Sonya leaves the castle bereft at the loss of her sister and her own healing magic, which appears to have deserted her. She suspects that Broc loved her sister and that she will never win his affection now that she couldn’t even save the person she has cared for all her life. Stumbling in the wild, Sonya is set upon by a wolf.

Naturally, Broc is filled with remorse for the way he accused her. He has watched over Anice and Sonya since they were children, protecting them even while working for Deirdre, who would have loved to have killed these two druids for their mie powers. But it has always been brave Sonya who has held his heart since she became a woman and the thought of something happening to her chills his blood. Rescuing her from the wolf in the nick of time, he takes her to a local inn to treat her and is astonished when she tells him that her healing power is gone.

Sonya is thinking about more than her lack of healing power in the room she and Broc share at the inn, since his handsome form fills her mind and heart. As the two of them are drawn together, Deirdre steps up her game with a final push to beat the MacLeod allies to the final relics that will give her the power she needs to defeat them and dominate the world.

There were a few parts of this book that hit a weird note to me. Namely, we get the impression that Broc “knew” Sonya’s sister in a biblical sense. Anice was a little mentally off, which is why for years Sonya thought that the handsome warrior Anice spoke of seeing was a figment of her imagination, and Broc pushes the carnal knowledge of Anice aside with a “I’m but a man, after all” kind of comment while affirming it was always Sonya he had a thing for. Hmm. I’m not sure that works for me. Even if it was just a kiss, it feels yucky and wrong. And Sonya just lets it go – I thought she was spunkier than that. Let’s hope I’m misreading this scene.

Time travel – because sometimes you can’t manage to kill your evil villain in your time, you have to go forward to ours!

What does work for me is that Deirdre is chilling in this book. She’s desperate enough to be even more dangerous than usual (which is saying something) but when she finds herself at the mercy of a villain even more powerful than she, well, that just throws ice in my veins. I was really surprised at the death of one of the warriors (it was so sad, I thought he was terrific and loved him from the third book) and even more surprised at the time travel aspect that is setting up the next series. Is it Karen Marie Moning who deserves this trend of whisking hunky highlanders into the modern era? I’ll thank her anyway.

So our fearless crew is scrambling to not only get revenge for the death of one of their own, but to recover his brother who has gone missing enraged with grief, and to figure out where the hell Deirdre has ended up. They can’t defeat her if they can’t find her and Broc uses his amazing location ability to figure out that Deirdre is 400 years forward in time.

Midnight’s Master (Dark Warriors #1 – Logan and Gwynn’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 22, 2012)

Luckily, they have some powerful druids in the castle who are able to whip up two spells, the first one throwing some of the warriors forward in time to attempt to find Deirdre and the other spell putting a bubble of protection from time over the castle, protecting it’s non-immortal inhabitants (the druids) from aging. The castle dwellers agree essentially to wait the 400 years at the MacLeod home and meet up with the warriors for whom this day will feel like yesterday when they arrive in the future. Do druids just really have spells like this in their arsenal? That seems like pretty quick thinking. Only for Donna Grant am I willing to suspend the disbelief.

And so Midnight’s Master, the first in the Dark Warriors series, begins. Logan Hamilton, the jesting hottie who hides his own dark secrets arrives in modern day Scotland. He’s understandably surprised at some of the details of his country in the future, but with the god inside him, his ability to process information is practically a superpower and he rapidly adjusts. Drawn to the area around the Isle of Eigg, where the last showdown with Deirdre occurred and where the last artifact she sought is probably housed, he makes inquiries and stumbles upon the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

Midnight’s Lover (Dark Warrior #2 – Ian and Dani’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, June 26, 2012)

Gwynn Austin is a Texan searching for her father, a professor who specializes in ancient Celtic history. While the two of them don’t have the best relationship by a long shot, after her mother’s recent death, he is her only living relative. Hearing he quit his job at the university and hared off to Scotland, she follows determined to track him down. One look at the Scotsman wearing a tattered kilt that doesn’t quite look like the others she’s seen and Gwynn knows she is not in Texas anymore. But what Logan tells her changes her whole sense of identity.

Logan can feel Gwynn’s power – she has inherited a druid legacy (and aren’t we all relieved considering these warriors need druids to fall in love with!) which directly relates to the relic Deirdre and our new uber-villain want. Logan helps her understand the situation and what’s she’s up against and Gwynn throws in her lot with the MacLeods and anti-Deirdre brigade.

Gwynn is plucky, can-do heroine who is instantly likable and who takes genuine pleasure in Logan (luckily she’s okay with muchmuch older men since he’s around 500 years old by now). Once she wraps her head around the Deirdre/time travel concept (and it’s easy for her to do as being in the vicinity of Eigg and Logan ramp up her previously latent mie powers) she is all in and ready to fight evil. The scene where she leaves a special Christmas present for Logan is so sweet that I got all sniffly. Donna Grant awesomeness, for sure.

I did have more than a few questions related to the time magic piece. The MacLeod brothers et. al. who stayed in the castle had the bubble of protection which sheltered them from aging. Clearly this was for the non-warriors, since their god keeps them immortal, but the druid women have managed to not age a bit. However, they have to stay at the castle. Granted, they’ve got the internet now, but that feels like they are trapped to me. This might have been okay back in ye olden days when travel was a slow-moving pony cart, but this seems a little more like a prison once you start thinking about 19th/20th/21st century modes of travel. Do they have legal documentation? How did their castle get modernized? Did Fallon get an electrician license? Did anyone get online degrees? How would you keep yourself from going crazy for 400 years waiting for the other warriors to find you? You can’t have awesome sex all the time with your warrior husband, particularly when there are others around (or maybe you can – suddenly 400 years seems more manageable).

Midnight’s Seduction (Dark Warrior #3 – Camdyn and Saffron’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, October 30, 2012)

You can see in the book cover progression for the new Dark Warrior series that, while we can all mourn the loss of the kilts, there are compensations. The cover model representing Logan for the Midnight’s Master book cover is not ungifted in the posterior department, and you can see above that the next book in the series, Midnight’s Lover (due out at the end of June) has got a pretty sweet bicep shot, complete with cool tattoo.

Midnight’s Lover is Ian’s story, the warrior who lost his brother in Darkest Highlander and got shot forward in time against his will. Since he was temporarily insane from the doubling of his god power, it will be interesting to see how he gets himself off the proverbial ledge and what woman helps him come to terms with his grief.

We are back to bare chests, rippled abs, and (ahem) a lengthy dagger by the time the third book rolls out (due at the end of October). Toward the end of Midnight’s Master, the first book, the warrior crew raided the mansion of our new villain who is attempting to manipulate Deirdre and gain total power. In his dungeon, Camdyn MacKenna discovered a beautiful blind druid chained to the walls and it is her story and his that will be showcased in this third book, Midnight’s Seduction, seen above. Considering the fact that she was held because she is a powerful seer, I think our warrior group could have a powerful new ally in Saffron.

Midnight’s Warrior (Dark Warrior #2 – Ramsay and Tara’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 27, 2012)

The fourth book, Midnight’s Warrior, seems to be set farther along in time than the first few, since its description clearly states that the heroine, Tara, has been on the run, avoiding both the warriors and the villains for ten years.

But Ramsay MacDonald (love Ramsay!) finds her, and once he holds her he knows that his secret is going to come out. Ramsay not only has the power of his god, but also holds a significant amount of druidic power, a force he might not be able to tamp down when he is around Tara.

Donna Grant indicates that there will be four more Dark Warriors books coming out in 2013, but she’s going to run out of warriors at some point, I’d imagine. There is potential in other areas that I would guess she’d exploit. We saw that there were plenty of other warriors in Deirdre’s dungeon with Quinn in the third book, and since they are immortal, that would mean they could have also lived those 400 years and be in the present time (and have one hell of a history, I imagine). The idea that one of these warriors could have been killed at some point in the last 400 years by another warrior would also create the potential storyline that the god would go to another member of that warrior’s clan, yet this person could be a modern human having to suddenly deal with wrestling a god. These would be fascinating stories to read, especially in Donna’s capable hands.

Dark Craving (Dark Kings #1) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, July 31, 2012)

I don’t know when she finds time to sleep and shower considering that not only does she have these Dark Warrior books coming out, but she also writes on her blog that St. Martin’s asked her to come up with some related enovellas that would complement the books, leading her to come up with the Dark Kings spin-off series.

Each of the Dark Kings enovellas will come at the end of July, August and September and feature characters that will be introduced in the Dark Warriors books. By the, um, look of the book cover for the first in the series, Dark Craving, I think this premise seems very promising! With a publication date of end of July, I am not happy about the fact that these still aren’t up for me to pre-order, but I’ll be keeping a close eye for when Amazon finally puts them up for purchase.

Donna Grant is a talented writer whose affinity for Scotland makes her a natural fit for readers who love their kilts and highlanders. It’s a testimony to her abilities that we still want to keep buying her books, even when the kilts are taken out of the equation. I guess as long as it’s still a hunky highlander as the hero, she’s got a following.

Carina Press Presents Editor’s Choice Volume 1 Is a Smorgasbord of Delicious Romance

6 Jun

Editor’s Choice Volume 1 edited by Angela James (Carina Press, June 4, 2012)

It’s not the best title, I grant you. Very few hearts beat faster when you read Carina Press Presents Editor’s Choice Volume 1, but the idea of sampling three romance enovellas, which were chosen by Carina Press’ Executive Editor Angela James should make your heart beat faster since, with her job description, she knows how to promote the best of the genre. Remember yesterday, where I talked about how anthologies are like fabulous Las Vegas buffets where you can sample all kinds of things you would never actually order and you end up liking, if not loving some of them? This book fits that description to a “T”.

I was actually super impressed by James’ chutzpah in tying three such different sub-genres together in one volume. Here we have a Steampunk novella (okay, technically a Gaslight novella since magic is a factor and, yes, I’ll explain this in just a minute), a romantic suspense novella, and finally a traditional contemporary romance novella.

It’s been my experience as a librarian that usually the readers of these three romance subgenres usually stick to their guns, to the point of getting itchy trigger fingers when you suggest another romance subgenre. But I’ll confess to the liking the idea of coaxing these die hard fans out of their comfort zone. Three varied novellas are naturally ideal for omnivorous readers (like me), but just in case you don’t like the idea of buying two books you know you’ll never read, each enovella is sold separately (and the link in each review below is to the individual novella, while the link above and in the caption is to buy the anthology).

So, let’s take a look at what you get for under $8, shall we?

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Kilts & Kraken (Gaslight Chronicles #3) by Cindy Spencer Pape

THIS was the reason I wanted to read this anthology. I have loved Cindy Spencer Pape since I read Steam & Sorcery, the first book in the Gaslight series, when it came out last year (and I ended up buying a bunch of her other books as well). Her second installment in this series, a short novella entitled Photographs & Phantoms (and it’s free on Amazon or from her website, so don’t hesitate to download it) proved that she could maintain the series momentum, so I was a goner.

In the world that Pape has created, Victorian England is filled with clockworks and dirigibles, technologies that have made a more advanced England (and a more comfortable one). But next to this scientifically advanced society lies a world more in the shadows, one populated by magick (it’s spelled that way in the book) and supernatural creatures. Sworn to protect Britain are the Knights of the Order, the direct descendants of the Knights of the Round Table. Born with varying degrees of magick, these men ferret out magical threats to society.

The first book, Steam & Sorcery, introduced Sir Merrick Hadrian who, in the course of his fighting strange clusters of vampires, is helped by five magically gifted children living in the London slums. He brings them back to his home where their animal spirits wreck his London townhouse and his peace of mind. His sister recommends they engage a governess, but who can they find who can handle this brood – which includes the possibly illegitimate offspring of a knight, a mechanical genius (love Wink! She’s the best!), a sweet young medium who talks with ghosts, a talented pickpocket and a young boy who dreams the future?

Enter Miss Caroline Bristol, a talented governess who has always thought her delicately pointed ears are just a fluke until she begins working for the incredibly handsome Merrick. Merrick thinks he’s a fool for hiring such a beauty, no matter how wonderful she is with the children, but as he discovers more of her past, he realizes he can’t ever let her go. But he worries she won’t be willing to embrace the danger and chaos that would be the life of a wife of a Knight, while Caroline frets that the illegitimate granddaughter of an Earl and working governess is the last person who would be a suitable match for a peer.

Merrick is fabulous as the overwhelmed Knight who can slay vampires but can’t handle five rambunctious children. The chemistry between him and Caroline is set at inferno level and their love scenes are both hot and incredibly tender. The reader falls in love with each of the children (and a few of the minor characters) cheering all the way for this wonderful couple.

The short novella, Photographs & Phantoms, is set in the lovely seaside town of Brighton where Canadian Amelie Deland has set up a thriving photography studio where she can pursue her art. When her subjects start dying sudden and mysterious deaths, she’s worried she might have something to do with it, particularly when a menacing form appears in her pictures. She reaches out to the great-uncle who cut off her grandmother when she eloped to North America with her French lover – her family tells her Lord Drood is a powerful man who can help with supernatural dealings like this. What she does not expect is the arrival of the young and handsome Kendall Lake, a Marquess in his own right and heir to a dukedom, who is more than capable of helping her with the situation.

Kendall cannot believe that no one warned him that Lord Drood’s relative wasn’t the silver-haired spinster he was expecting, but rather a vibrant, intelligent beauty whose smile fires his blood. Although she makes it clear that marriage is out of the question since she wants to maintain her chosen profession, the physical heat between them explodes and he quickly realizes that he has to make this relationship more permanent. Kendall calls in reinforcements from the Order to help diagnose the situation, but when the threat becomes directed at Amelie, Kendall realizes he will do anything to prevent any harm coming to her.

This story is set a few years after the first book, and we have the delight of meeting dark and sexy Kendall, who is the heir to the lovely Duke of Trowbridge, head of the Order who we met in first book. Lord Drood also resurfaces with all the power you’d expect from someone descended from the original Merlin, but what readers will adore is seeing Caroline, now Lady Northland, with her brood of older children (and two new little Hadrians to boot!). They all escort Nell, the sweet motherly girl we met in Steam & Sorcery, who now is a young woman of about 15 and still possessing medium powers which she employs to help crack the case.

In Steampunk and Gaslight literature, Krakens are cranky giant squids so attack ships and the occasional shoreline. Yuck.

Kilts & Kracken is a beefier novella than Photographs & Phantoms and readers will enjoy not only the setting in the Hebrides, but the main characters. Dr. Geneva MacKay is more than aware of the work of her father and brother as members of the Order, but her small amount of magick is employed helping her patients. As one of the few female physicians in Scotland, she doesn’t get a lot of respect but she loves her work. When her father asks her to answer the call for a physician who understands magick in the Hebrides she reluctantly agrees to help him, not sure of what to expect.

She definitely doesn’t expect to see a man who looks like a Nordic god unconscious from a Kraken attack. Magnus Findlay is a Baron and laird of his clan, but he is frustrated with the continued losses of the good people of his island. Almost dying in an attack, he washes up on the local island of Mull, and feels the magic of his island draining from him. When he opens his eyes to the beautiful lowland doctor, he whispers his name and the imperative that he must get back home. Thinking it’s his dying request, she ferries him back, astonished at the way he recovers with power of his island helping him.

But they both realize that their magick calls to one another, but (to paraphrase Facebook) it’s complicated. Magnus is desperate to halt the kraken attacks but he’s also lonely. Not being able to leave the island makes him finding a wife rather difficult. He compromised the first time he was married, marrying someone he liked but didn’t love, with disastrous results. The feelings he has for Geneva almost overwhelm him, but how can he ask a talented physician like her to leave her practice in the city and come to a remote island?

Geneva’s presence naturally brings the Order on the scene, including her brother, Connor, and engineer sister, Melody, who arrive via airship. Connor and Melody bring Melody’s good friend from Oxford, Miss Winifred Hadrian (Wink!) and her handsome foster brother, Sir Thomas Devere. Together they help Magnus discover the dark undercurrents of what is drawing the Kraken to his beautiful island and help push Geneva and him in the right romantic direction.

This is a FANTASTIC series. Cindy Spencer Pape not only draws a complicated, wonderful world the reader buys hook, line, and sinker, but she draws such compelling characters that you find yourself hoping they pop up in the next book since you can’t get enough of them. I’m PRAYING the next book will be Wink’s now that she is a beautiful young woman in her twenties and I can’t help but keep my fingers crossed that the hunky werewolf constable she was enamored with when she was fifteen resurfaces when the time comes. Her foster brother Tom Devere is no slouch either, so I’ll enjoy watching him fall when his number is up. :-)

Just as an FYI. What is the difference between steampunk and gaslight? Steampunk maven Meljean Brook, author of the Iron Seas series (which kicks TOTAL ass – I’ll have to do a review to convince you) has a handy little graph to distinguish the difference. Take a look:

 So steampunk equals more science and technology driven whereas gaslight introduces magical elements. I hope that helps. The young adult series from Cassandra Clare, The Infernal Devices series, (set in Victorian England and prequel to her Mortal Instruments series), is another terrific example of a pitch perfect gaslight series.

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Negotiating Point (Private Protectors Series #3.5) by Adrienne Giordano

I love romantic suspense so I was excited to try this novella by Adrienne Giordano. Even though it’s part of a series, I had no trouble figuring out the dynamics of the characters. Giordano gives exactly the right amount of information so that a new reader understands enough backstory to get sucked into the drama of the situation quickly (and this is quite a skill – for so many writers this is awkwardly done no matter how great the story).

Gavin Sheppard left the FBI as a hostage negotiator to take a position at Taylor Security and now he’s faced with the acid test – his boss’ pregnant wife has been kidnapped by a fringe political group and he has mere hours before the more gung ho members of the group are going to go in with guns blazing. Good thing he has good help.

Help in the form of Janet Fink, the lovely resident geek who gets information from sources where angels fear to tread. Janet has been drooling over Gavin from the minute he stepped in the office months ago, but can’t chance the office gossip a work relationship would incur. But there is serious heat between them, even while Gavin is undergoing the negotiation of his life.

Gavin is damaged goods – he had a painful divorce with a woman who was unable to handle the stresses of his job. Sexy, pixie Janet understands him effortlessly and he is ferociously attracted to her delectable body and terrific sense of humor, to say nothing of her intellect. He can’t afford to be distracted while trying to save a pregnant woman, but wonders if he can take the bigger risk with his heart.

This novella had a great balance of the suspense element with the burgeoning romance between Gavin and Janet. The romantic tension and sex scenes were hot but brief (consistent with most romantic suspense) but Giordano manages to effortlessly interweave the romance with the actual action so both plots progress. I felt that this story was excellent and promptly put all the previous books in the series on my “to-read” list.

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Slow Summer Kisses by Shannon Stacey

I’m not a huge fan of the sweeter contemporary romance, but I loved that this one was set in New Hampshire (my favorite state of all time) and involved a cranky recluse and his type-A neighbor, so I was happy to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did – Shannon Stacey is a fabulous writer who gives the reader a strong sense of place (I could smell the trees and hear the lake while I was reading) and three-dimensional characters.

Anna Frazier is a victim of the recent economic downturn, losing a high-paying job in finance and forced to retreat to her grandparents 1970s-decorated cabin in rural New Hampshire. She has some memories of being by the lake as a child, but has been on the fast track for so long that slowing down seems like an endeavor meant for other people.

Slowing down is exactly what Cameron Mayfield excels at. His marriage dissolved years ago when he realizes that his work in the city was driving him to the same early grave which claimed his father’s life. Now he fishes, swims in the lake, and does various carpentry jobs, loving his life. Yet he’s still a pretty cranky individual, but damn it, he’s happy.

When Anna shows up at the cabin next door he remembers her as a bossy little kid and not a lot seems to have changed, except for the fact that she’s utterly gorgeous. Compelled to help her to the point that even he doesn’t understand his motivation, Cam finds himself drawn more and more to her, but he knows there’s no future here. Anna is desperately trying to get right back on the hamster wheel he rejected long ago.

Cam was cranky enough that it took a while for me to warm up to him (Anna was a little easier to love, although even she drove me slightly crazy with her lists – and I like lists!). It seemed so intrinsic that these two characters were just not the types to talk about their feelings or take risks, yet I wondered about that – wasn’t the point of their lives that they had been risk takers in the past? I guess not in the relationship arena. Seeing the well-crafted scenes of the two of them simply being with each other showed the progression of their relationship and the Yankees vs. Red Sox conflict was absolutely hilarious! I also think that the final scene where Anna confesses her feelings for Cam, having stripped out of her business suit and jumped in the lake, was a poignant moment that I’ll be thinking about for a good long while.

Shannon Stacey is the author of the highly rated Kowalski Family series, books I’ve seen great reviews for but never indulged in. I may have to change that since this novella possessed strong writing even if the characters weren’t what I would normally choose for my romance reading. It’s easy to see why the name Shannon Stacey is synonymous with humorous, heartfelt romance.

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Needless to say, my final verdict is that this anthology of novellas is comprised of top quality writers. Listed for $7.99 (Amazon currently has it for $6.79), that works out to only a couple dollars per book, so if all three sound appealing, your best value is the anthology. Each individual novella lists at $2.99 each, but even that shouldn’t make you shy away since they are each long enough to be worth it.

This anthology does exactly what I expected it to – introduce me to a few new writers (while enjoying one I already loved). Readers can trust Angela James to not steer them wrong – I for one would like to offer her a personal “thank you” for putting this anthology together. It turns out buffets are almost as delicious as Carina Press novellas, but of the two, Carina offers me a cheaper deal, more hours of enjoyment and no calories. Which one would you go for?

Something Wicked This Way Comes 2 Anthology Is Wickedly Delicious

5 Jun

Something Wicked This Way Comes 2 by Jaid Black, et. al. (Ellora’s Cave, May 1, 2012)

I’m not going to lie – I love short story anthologies. Other reviewers seem to get cranky and whine about how the stories aren’t long enough, they don’t know the author, they like shifter not BDSM, they didn’t like every story, blah, blah, blah.

Get over it, people.

Short story anthologies are just that, an anthology, which simply means a collection gathered together for consumption. You don’t have read it in order, you don’t have to read every story, you just pick and choose and enjoy what you get. Think of it like one of those fabulous Las Vegas buffets. Hate waffles, but love pancakes? Eat the pancakes and see if that kiwi fruit salad is as good as it looks even though you’ve never tried kiwi before. You’re not committing to a lifetime, it’s just a little bowl of fruit salad.

For me, anthologies satisfy a much-needed reconnaissance mission of scoping out new authors. With a three to 18 book per week habit, I am on the constant lookout for new authors (from any genre) to add to my repertoire. With that in mind, you can imagine I was thrilled to see this short story compilation available on Netgalley and snatched it right up to review.

I can honestly say I enjoyed all of the short stories, with a few standing out to the point where I have several authors’ works added to my “to-read” list. After reading that Jaid Black, the first listed contributor, is the pen name for Tina M. Engler, the owner of Ellora’s Cave Publishing, it’s no surprise about the quality of this anthology. Who better to get the best out of erotic authors than the woman who owns the publishing house synonymous with erotic fiction? Here’s my take on each contribution.

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“Fatman and Robyn” by Jaid Black

Jake Chamberlain is a star quarterback of the New York Bloods, but the Super Bowl ring on his finger just reminds him how actually empty is life is. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t warm up to the skinny supermodels he’s expected to date. Even when he fantasizes they are the lush, curvy woman of his dreams, one touch of their bony body and his erection takes a nosedive. He’s even sought out a therapist, but doctors don’t seem to have an answer either.

Resigned to his fate, he goes to enjoy a pastry in a small shop in Little Italy when a lush siren in a sundress highlighting more curves than the Pacific Coast Highway walks in and suddenly an erection is not a problem. Knowing he’s found the woman of his dreams is complicated when said woman, Robyn DiMarco, thinks the red-faced and muttering Jake is a madman. Correcting her misunderstanding, he begins to woo her, falling head over heels in love with both her and her crazy, loving Italian family. But when Robyn realizes that she doesn’t fit the mold of what people expect from a woman dating Jake, his longed-for happily ever after might never come true.

One of my starting points for reading more from this author

This story had me laughing like an idiot and alternately sighing over the poignant moments. I went through so many emotions, I had to recheck how long the story was – the impact of it was so hard that I felt like had read a full-length novel! Robyn and her wonderful family make you wish you were a DiMarco and Jake’s struggle to be respectful of Robyn when he really just wants to ravish her wins you over damn quick to this hero. I’ve added a bunch of Jaid Black books to my “to-read” list just on the basis of this amazing story.

“Scarred and Kilt” by Laurann Dohner

Do you know what makes a hot Scotsman in a kilt even hotter? Making him an uber-smoking sexy vampire, that’s what. Matty is a night owl who has appointed herself the neighborhood watch, a natural side effect of her attack from a would-be rapist. She fended him off, but it’s left her with some scars, both physical and otherwise. She’s enjoyed the eye candy of her neighbor who walks around in a kilt, always at night and gets regular deliveries from a blood bank. Yes, she’s figured out “Kilt” is a vampire, but since he doesn’t hurt anyone who is she to judge?

When some guy shows up with stakes and holy water and breaks into Kilt’s house, she grabs her stun gun to go help, much to Kilt’s astonishment. When he kisses her to heal an injury, the fire that leaps between them ends up with unbelievably hot sex on a desk (yowza) but Blaron (Kilt’s actual name) realizes that they are destined to be together, something Matty is not quite ready for, having just spoken to him for the first time five minutes earlier.

This story wrapped up a little quickly, but I still loved every word. The hero and heroine felt fleshed out and the vampire world is familiar enough to paranormal romance lovers that it was easy to understand some of the world details. Blaron was H-O-T and bringing Scotsmen and vampires together makes for a sexy mash any woman could get behind. I was interested to see that Laurann Dohner’s speciality tends towards more science fiction storylines. You could fooled me with the facility she handled this more purely paranormal one.

“Tinderbox” by Regina Carlysle

Jaguar Hunger by Regina Carlysle (Ellora’s Cave, January 2010)

Classic shifter menage, this was nevertheless nicely handled for a short story. When the local police bring in shifter P.I.s Nate and Daniel all they have is the footage of a pretty blond being kidnapped during a carjacking. But once they scent the purse she left behind they are stunned – not only is she a rare female jaguar but she’s also the mate they’ve searched for over a hundred years to find. They quickly catch up to her, freeing her from her kidnapper, but there’s a major complication. She’s in heat.

Oliva knows she should be elated to be free but biology is interfering with her enjoyment of being rescued by two unbelievably gorgeous men. Unable to shift until they go through their heat cycle and mate, female jaguars have a complicated biology that results in a tremendous amount of pain if they aren’t finding a sexual release with a mate.

This story is set in the same world as Regina Carlysle‘s previous work, Jaguar Hunger (a 68 page story) and the characters from that work pop up in this one. I was most impressed at how sensitively Regina handled the fact that Olivia is compelled to have sex with two strangers, albeit very caring ones. All three members of the partnership regret not being able to woo Olivia and gradually get to know one another, but the sex is smoking and the moment when she shifts emotionally charged and very sweet.

“Asterion” by Katalina Leon

Having lost her father and her betrothed in battle, Larisa is betrayed by the weak village chief. He rows her to a remote island where a gorgeous palace, dedicated to the Minotaur, stands and where she will be a virgin sacrifice. But rather than die at the horns of a god, Larisa finds herself used to give corporeal form to an alien being, one whose chosen form is that of a handsome man bent on pleasuring her and helping humanity.

This was one of my favorite stories! I felt the reader didn’t need the couple pages of explanation about the Minotaur prior to the story, but other than that blip, it was pitch perfect. Larisa is brave and bold and the “god” who takes such on a luscious form delights in his body and Larisa’s with such abandon that you have to smile for the thousand-plus year old virgin. I was surprised to discover that Katalina Leon has written a ton of books (she has a few listed on her Goodreads page) and none of them seem to be myth based like this story. I’ll be trying one of her books to see if she can delight me again.

“Decadent Dance” by Aubrey Ross

Another sci-fi erotic novel by Aubrey Ross

Choreographer Zoe purchased a dress in an odds and ends shop that came with a funny little booklet that she thought was fiction since it detailed wars between planets and men who guarded the far reaches of the universe. After she tried on the dress and got transported to an alien vessel, she’s taking its tale a little more seriously.

Vaden has been lonely for a while, waiting for his contract on his Decadent Dancer to come through, and now she claims she had no idea about the contract’s existence to say nothing of its terms. She says she’s a dancer but is seemingly surprised at the idea of intimate contact. What gives?

This was an interesting idea, but I worry that science fiction is something that involves a lot of world building (more than paranormal, since there are certain known tropes which readers can associate with those plotlines). It was easy to emphathize with Zoe for being startled about her sketchy dress transporting her to the ship and with Vaden for being so frustrated after waiting for sexual companionship to have a beautiful woman hemming and hawing about having sex with him. But where this stuttered to a stop for me was a crucial point in the story, namely where Zoe realizes that the race of people she has ended up with has no art or music…and she’s a dancer. This seemed like a big piece of culture to be missing and all those anthropology classes in college tell me that there really isn’t any such thing as a culture without some kind of music. That really threw me.

“Sahara Heat” by Diana Hunter

Another BDSM-themed novel from Diana Hunter

When an archeologist friend calls her from the desert to tell her about a fascinating find, romance writer Carla Braun agrees to meet with the colleague who is presenting the paper with all the details. But Carla is shocked that her friend’s colleague, Dr. Josef Anderson looks like a Nordic god…and seemingly has an ego to match. While he’s infuriating, she can’t help but notice the heat between them. With Josef about to leave New York in a day or two he could be the perfect fling, but she’s worried he’ll disappoint her like all the others.

Josef can’t believe that this red-haired beauty is a romance writer. Despite his being so cranky, she agrees to meet him for dinner. Maybe with a little too much hope in his heart, he goes to the nearest hardware store and buys the ropes and chains that are his stock in trade. What if he misread the situation? Or what if this spicy woman gives him the ultimate surrender?

This was another one of my favorites from the anthology. Diana Hunter shows how utterly respectful and caring a Dom/submissive relationship can be with her tender portrayal of Josef and Carla and the moment where they realize what they have found in one another. I was just sorry this story wasn’t longer!

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If there was any criticism I could constructively offer, it’s that several of the authors in the anthology were rather difficult to find on Twitter and nonexistent on Facebook. That’s tough for me since I like to keep track of authors through social networks, particularly if they don’t have a regularly updated blog I can put in my Google Reader.

I can’t help but connect the lack of social networking to the fact that many of these authors, who have clearly been producing at least a book or two per year for a few years, have very few reviews of each work on Goodreads. Without promoting them online through different venues, it makes sense that a talented author might very well go unnoticed versus a lesser one relentlessly promoting themselves to potential readers. It’s hard that an author has be both a writer and worry about promoting themselves on a platform, but I’d hate to see them lose publishing opportunities because they aren’t selling as well as they should. Please promote yourselves, authors! Readers want to hear from you. :-)

While it doesn’t have a release date yet, I was happy to see that Something Wicked This Way Comes 3 has a designed book cover and will be coming out (fingers crossed) hopefully this year. Not only does it have new contributions by Jaid Black and Laurann Dohner (both of whom had stories I adored in this anthology) but there’s even a story from Kele Moon, who I just finished qvelling over in a previous blog post about her fabulous book, Defying the Odds. I’m also happy there are a few more authors I haven’t read since I’ll have a chance (again) to see if I can find a new favorite.

I’ll be purchasing Something Wicked This Way Comes 3 as soon as it hits the Kindle store. After all, any good buffet/anthology involves going back for second helpings.

In Defying the Odds, Author Kele Moon Lives Up to Her Tagline, Love Has No Rules

4 Jun

In the world of contemporary romance, it’s easy to run out of fresh ideas. Which isn’t to say that talented authors don’t give an idea their own fresh perspective, but the conflict/setting/occupations etc. of the hero or heroine often ring with familiarity. After reading literally thousands of romance novels in the course of my life, I feel like I can definitely say, I’ve seen it all.

At least, I could have said that before I took a chance in reading the startlingly fresh and romantic erotic novel, Defying the Odds, by Kele Moon.

At first glance of the synopsis, this novel can engender a “Whaa?!” response. A formerly abused small-town waitress being matched up with a UFC Champion renowned for the relentless fighting he employs to channel the rage of his past does not seem like a match made in heaven. But it is.

Clay Powers has lived in the small town of Garnet all his life, the last twenty or so years devoted to becoming a Hall of Fame champion UFC fighter. He had a crappy childhood filled with foster homes and if it weren’t for his best friend since middle school, Sheriff Wyatt Conner, and Wyatt’s sister Jules, he’d be even more of a cranky bastard than he already is.

When the new waitress of Hal’s Diner, a sweet, blond beauty who looks like an angel, treats him to a piece of pie during a lonely Thanksgiving dinner, something cracks open inside. Clay has never had anyone do something nice for him expecting nothing in return (Wyatt and Jules are as hard-nosed as Clay) and the more he finds out about the waitress, Melody Dylan, the more he wants to know her better. Much better.

But Wyatt warns him that Clay is the last person who should pursue Melody. She escaped an abusive husband by the skin of her teeth and is still hiding from him, working herself to exhaustion and learning to not live in fear all the time. What the sheriff doesn’t know is that Clay Powers is the best part of Melody’s day when he comes to the diner. In her gut, she knows that, despite his six and a half foot frame and plethora of muscles, she can trust Clay not to hurt her. The burn of desire she feels for him is a welcome change from her past and she wonders if she can take a gamble in getting to know him better.

An example of the mixed martial arts fighting style of the UFC.

Kele Moon gives us a strong sense of place with the small town of Garnet and the people who inhabit it. Garnet grows Marines and UFC fighters and while I feel comfortable with Marines, I’ll confess to not knowing the first thing about UFC. A little research revealed that this sport, begun in the 1990s, involves two fighters employing Mixed Martial Arts fighting, a style that consists of traditional boxing, a variety of martial arts and wrestling techniques. It is a full-throttle sport with a devoted fan base who appreciates the barely leashed violence of the men who make this fighting their career. Through Clay and Wyatt, the reader gets a strong sense of what draws people to love UFC.

While this is termed an erotic novel and Moon does an amazing job of building the sexual tension between our characters, I think that this is a book which would be a wonderful introduction to the erotic novel subgenre for someone a little tenuous about escalating the sensuality in their romance reading. There’s isn’t anything kinky or beyond what you would read in a traditional romance novel in terms of sexual content, just language that is a little franker than your average euphemisms, and the author keeps the emotional connection ratcheted so high, you’ll be doing a lot of sighing while drinking a cold drink and fanning yourself vociferously.

It’s been a long time since I fell for two protagonists with whom I had less in common, but Clay and Melody crawled right into my mind and took up permanent residence. I had to re-read the book a couple days after the first read just to prove to myself it was as good as I remembered (and it was!). Through both action and strong internal monologues, Kele Moon draws three-dimensional characters who walk off the page and into your heart as you root for them to find their much-deserved happily ever after. She is one hell of a writer! You can bet your boots that I’ll be buying her other books, which I’ve already added to my Goodreads “to-read” list.

And can we talk about the beautiful cover for a minute? Erotic novels often get the low budget book covers, sometimes demeaning their high quality contents (can someone PLEASE reissue better covers for Lisa Marie Rice’s Midnight series?), but I’ve been elated recently with publishers like Entangled and, in the case of Defying the Odds, Loose Id. Finally, here are smaller presses who realize that well-produced book cover can not only inspire confidence in the author’s writing, but look so good as to not constantly remind the reader that the book is not from a big six publisher. Smaller presses who really “get” cover art are bound to find a strong readership, particularly when the people making the purchase realize that the writing quality and editing back up that beautiful first impression.

This book is first in Moon’s new Battered Hearts series, and I am looking forward to the next installment in the series (due out in 2012 according to her Goodreads page) which will star fiesty lawyer, Jules Conner and the UFC contender we met in Clay’s championship match, New Yorker Romeo Wellington. Wyatt Conner’s book was hinted at in the epilogue of Defying the Odds when he referred to a woman he cared about, Tabitha, who had experienced as a hard a life as Clay but left their small town due to feeling judged. I assume we’ll get the pleasure of her coming back at some point soon.

I would encourage anyone who loves great characters and an unusual pairing to put themselves in the capable hands of contemporary erotic romance author Kele Moon. This is one gamble where everyone is a winner.

A Delicious Victorian Erotic Novella: Improper Relations by Juliana Ross

3 Jun

Improper Relations by Juliana Ross (April 23, 2012 by Carina Press)

When I began seeing the reviews for Improper Relations by Juliana Ross cropping up in the blog-o-sphere, my first thought was “Yowza! What a great cover!” Historical romance, even those with an erotic element, are often reduced to the back shot of the unlaced dress (which often barely reflects the time period accurately *inelegant snort*), so it’s delightful to see a racy cover for this novella set in the Victorian era.

Hannah is a widow reduced by circumstances to being the lady’s companion for her demanding relative. Dressed in plain clothes and an unflattering hairstyle by her employer, she’s attempted to be a proper and invisible woman rather than lose her job. Hannah has tried to ignore Leo, her very distant relative and her employer’s roguish son, but when she accidentally witnesses him receiving oral sex and bending the chambermaid over the table to pleasure her from behind, Hannah’s eyes are opened. Her late husband didn’t do ANYTHING like that and she’s incredulous that the maid seemed to take such pleasure in both acts.

Before she can sneak out, Leo let’s on that he knows she’s there…and knew the whole time he was copulating with the maidservant. Never really noticing her before, he’s impressed she’s not having hysterics but rather seems curious and intrigued by what she witnessed. He offers to show her some of details left out of her sexual education by her deceased husband. Since Leo had mumps as a child, he was left sterile and is rather a hit with the ladies of all stations because of it. His loss can be Hannah’s gain, in this case.

When I began reading, I was a little nervous because the book is in Hannah’s voice alone and I really prefer two points of view for my romance novels. After a chapter or two, I bought in hook, line and sinker. Hannah’s voice is a clear, engaging one and it was clear from her descriptions of Leo’s behavior how much he was smitten with her, even when she didn’t realize it. In actuality, the first person account gave a strong authenticity to the Victorian nature of the tale and definitely helped emphasize the moral code and social strictures of the time.

The happily ever after is FABULOUS – so romantic! – I was ready to go out and marry Leo myself. A novella of about 58 pages, this book is a tasty treat (and a highly affordable one in the $2 range) for anyone with an interest in historical erotic romance.  Enjoy!

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