Archive | December, 2012

Sarah Morgan’s “A Night of No Return” Proves Why She Is at the Top of the Pack in Category Romance

26 Dec
A Night of No Return (The Private Lives of Public Playboys #1) by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin, November 1, 2012)

A Night of No Return (The Private Lives of Public Playboys #1) by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin, November 1, 2012)

If I was to declare a queen of the Harlequin Presents line of books, I wouldn’t have to think twice before slipping the diamond crown on the head of British writer, Sarah Morgan. With the Presents line featuring Alpha Male billionaires, playboys and sheiks (sometimes all three in the same man), lots of writers can’t help but turn these guys into total jackasses, so much so that I want to run interference with the heroine, telling her “the sex might be amazing, honey, but I’m not sure he’s worth it.”

I would never say that to a Sarah Morgan heroine, even when her hero drips with jackass-ery, and my hesitation is due to the fact that she is such an empathetic writer. Yes, her men start off cold, sexy and dominating, but Morgan peels back the layers, letting you into their tortured dark souls in such a way that while you hate the behavior, you could never, ever hate the man. I fall for her couples again and again, whether it’s in Doukakis’ Apprentice or A Night of Scandal from the fantastic Notorious Wolfes series (such a good series!).

In keeping with a winter theme (but no Christmas in this one, which is why I’m publishing the review the day after the holiday), personal assistant Emma Gray is cursing herself for being so conscientious as she drives through a snowstorm to her boss’ country estate. When she arrives, she’s shocked at the evidence that intense and highly successful architect Lucas Jackson has sent whoever was there away and is now rip-snorting drunk. Concerned since the last time she saw him drunk (and passed out) was around this time last year in the office, she refuses to leave him until she’s reassured he’s well-enough to not hurt himself. After sufficient snarling and a moment of intense sexual awareness between them, she tries to leave, only to realize that the storm as worsened and she’s snowed in.

Lucas is angry that someone is witnessing his annual meltdown and that the someone is his PA of two years, the efficient Emma Gray, is not making him feel better. The fact that his roiling emotions and bottle of whiskey have made him suddenly aware of her gorgeous hair and shapely body isn’t making this any easier. When her empathy takes him too far into feeling, he turns the tables by losing himself in her body and she doesn’t seem to be protesting. The two of them spend a decent amount of time reassuring the other that it’s a one-off (I loved her playful response that she’d make them t-shirts as a reminder) but Lucas still insists that Emma accompany him to a fabulous Middle Eastern country where his hotel project has recently been completed. One of his best friends is the sheikh there, and he could use Emma’s help with the final negotiations, etc.

Woman in a Sheikh's World (The Private Life of Public Playboys #2) by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin, December 1, 2012)

Woman in a Sheikh’s World (The Private Life of Public Playboys #2) by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin, December 1, 2012)

What makes Sarah Morgan so talented is that, with a limited number of pages at her disposal, she manages to draw the histories of two people to the point where you feel you understand their characters. Emma is a hard-working sister who shares custody of her little brother with her older sibling, and she works hard for Lucas because she needs to money to help support her family. Her mother had a disastrous relationship with her boss and it’s one of the reasons that Emma is so horrified with her behavior. Lucas’ numbness and pain comes from his feeling responsible for the loss of his little daughter and his own rotten childhood (he also had a mother pining for a man she couldn’t have). Fans of the Ferrara books will be thrilled to see more of Christiano and Laurel’s happily ever after as their tiny daughter plays a key role in Lucas’ rehabilitation.

This book is the first of a duet, The Private Lives of Public Playboys, and the second book, Woman in a Sheikh’s World, tells the story of Mal, Lucas’ sheikh friend and Avery, the party planner we meet (and adore) in this book. Mal and Avery have a serious history and are still in love with one another, but she is no blue-blooded virgin, which is what Mal’s position requires. He takes duty and responsibility to his country very seriously, even if it means putting aside his own desires and personal happiness.

If I have any complaint, it’s with Sarah Morgan’s Goodreads page and her website in that the books related to one another are not clearly listed with any series name in parenthesis or grouped together. It’s a miracle if you figure out which are related (thank heavens she stuck the name “Ferrara” in the title of those books). Harlequin always pulls nonsense like this, largely because many of their series use multiple writers. Whatever, I don’t care what the reasons, give readers a chance to find more books and they’ll buy them, particularly when the writer is as good as Sarah Morgan!

Many thanks to Sarah Morgan for breathing life and love into such wonderful characters and giving us great books like these. Polish that crown! :-)

Countdown to Christmas: All I Want For Christmas… Gifts You With One Small Town, A Cheeky Santa and Three Hot Couples for the Holiday

18 Dec

All I Want For Christmas… by Lori Wilde, Kathleen O’Reilly, and Candace Havens (Harlequin Blaze, November 13, 2012)

While I love anthologies, I have to say my favorites are often the ones where the authors choose a common theme or, better yet, really work together to have an overall story arc that ties the novellas together. In this excellent collection, all the stories are set in the same small Virgina town a few days before Christmas. The local historic landmark, the Price mansion, caught on fire and the town is in an uproar.

“Christmas Kisses” by Lori Wilde

One of the first people on the scene of the burned out mansion is police sergeant Noah Briscoe. The upcoming holiday dredges up bad memories for him and poking around the burned out former governor’s home only makes them worse. At least working all the time helps him keep his mind off the gorgeous redheaded defense attorney, Alana O’Hara, with whom he shared several hot kisses a year ago before she decided they were too different. But he’s not been interested in anyone since that, having to settle for his erotic dreams and near-constant daytime fantasies about her.

Alana knows Noah has walls around him that would rival Jericho and she didn’t think he could be more bah-humbug about the season until she gets notice that he’s arrested Santa Claus at the scene of the mansion fire. Arriving to defend the very sweet Christopher Clausen, their proximity stirs up all that delicious sexual tension. But Alana brushes it off as just that. She knows if she allows herself to sleep with Noah, she’s going to want him to open up and have a relationship with her and it’s all too obvious that’s not in his nature.

The best laid plans of mice and men….Of course, they can’t resist how much they want each other, especially when Noah knows that Alana has seen him at the cemetery putting roses on his mother’s grave. She can figure out what he’s been through and he hopes she knows what she’s getting. He wants to tell her the feelings she stirs up in him but can’t bring himself to do anything other than love her with his body. Seeing as he does that really well, Alana is thrilled but knows she’s also fallen for him. When he starts having morning after cold feet, she plays it cool and let’s him know that if he shows up at the Christmas Eve Firefighter Ball she’ll know he’s interested, otherwise not to worry about it, even if she’s dying inside at the thought of losing him.

I loved how tortured Noah is and yet Wilde makes clear just how much love he has to give, especially as Alana just tramples over his defenses with her Christmas cheer and understanding. The ending at the ball was wonderful (I love the present he gets her) and to finally hear Noah tell her what’s really in his heart is worth waiting for. I would have liked a couple more pages to expand upon his epiphany, but other than that, this was a terrific start to the anthology and lays a strong sense of place for the subsequent novellas.

“Baring It All” by Kathleen O’Reilly

EMT Eric Marshall might be the only son of the wealthy Marshalls in town, but he rejected his snooty family’s dreams and law school to become an emergency responder instead. He’s a jaded man who prides himself on being detached in all situations and the EMT motto of “treat, transport, take off” could be applied to women for him as well. In hanging out outside the shell of the historic mansion as the firefighters put out the flames, he figures the worst case he’s going to get is from one of the rescue workers, but he’s galvanized into action when one of them pulls a woman from the wreckage.

Just Surrender… by Kathleen O’Reilly (Harlequin Blaze, April 19, 2011)

He’s even more shocked when he recognizes her. Chloe Skidmore, the daughter of the former caretaker of the Price mansion, is a blast from Eric’s past and while she might look different now (forty pounds lighter and a lot more vulnerable) he treated her so badly when she was sixteen that he’s ashamed of his behavior. When the wound on her head seems to have given her a temporary amnesia, it’s almost a relief, but his vision of a reunion where he can redress his wrongs crumbles upon seeing the ring on her finger. She’s married and while he might have cut a swath through almost every single woman in town, he doesn’t touch the married ones.

The woman caught in the fire opens her eyes to see a familiar man but she has no idea who she is or what happened. She’s frightened, but this handsome EMT with the deep gray eyes is enormously comforting. So why does she think of him in a tuxedo and be fighting the urge to hit him? As he helps her with a place to stay, all the while claiming it’s because he has to help her recover her memory so he can file the insurance claim for the ambulance, she knows that he knows who she is even though he’s not saying much. The more time they spend together the harder it is to resist the pull to touch each other, even with the elephant in the room of her marital status. As her memories slowly begin to come back, Chloe has to deal with the shame she felt growing up in a town that looked down on her, and on the secret relationship she and Eric had back when they were kids. Whether he’s willing to let everyone know he wants her now is still up in the air.

This was a VERY impressive story. Eric is such a cold customer and the more you find out initially, the less there is to like. But O’Reilly does a masterful job showing you how Eric was fighting his family demons and yet always had a thing for Chloe, even when she was heavy and from the wrong side of the tracks. The climactic scene in the hotel with the music was out of this world fabulous and I liked understanding the complexity of both the hero and heroine’s emotions as they dealt with the past. I’m going out to buy some O’Reilly stories ASAP after this one.

“A Hot December Night” by Candace Havens

Party planner and new transplant Kristen Lovejoy has been planning the Christmas Eve Firefighters Ball for months now and one of the best parts is having Assistant Fire Chief Jason Turner on the committee. He’s a gorgeous piece of eye candy but since she’s heard he’s a womanizer, she’s steering clear of him. Nevertheless, she can’t resist asking for a follow-up cup of coffee after the latest shouting match among the dedicated women volunteers of the town. The Price mansion fire has everyone anxious about making the fundraising party a major success.

Model Marine by Candace Havens (Harlequin Blaze, October 18, 2011)

Jason has been fantasizing about the voluptuous blond bombshell for months but not asked her out for fear of bringing small town scrutiny down on their heads. Even though this woman seems like she’s the type who would be looking for something long-term and that’s not been his MO in the past, he can’t help but blurt out a dinner invitation as they are sipping their coffee. To his relief, she says yes.

The date is an utter disaster, at least from Kristen’s standpoint. She botches her hair dye right before the date, can barely zip up her dress from the Christmas cookies she’s been eating (and then can’t get in his truck without assistance because of her pencil skirt), her bracelet catches on fire before the wine arrives (good thing Jason’s a fireman) and then she leans forward only to split her dress. After ditching him at the restaurant in utter shame, she comes home to her dog in labor and Kristen didn’t even know she was pregnant! That Jason handles everything with utter equanimity convinces her of how perfect he is.

There’s only one problem and it’s a big one. Jason’s job involves him putting his life in danger all the time and as the daughter of a military man who died in the line of duty, Kristen’s not sure she can handle that. It might be easier to cut this thing with Jason short now and save herself heartache in the end. But when Jason doesn’t take no for an answer, she’s got to confront her demons and figure out what she really wants for her future.

Candace Havens in a fantastic writer! I loved both Jason and Kristen (big surprise since Havens’ book, Model Marine, was one of my favorite Blaze titles read this year) and thought their relationship extremely well drawn with enough conflict to keep me guessing how this was going to resolve and lots of delicious heat between them. Havens has a talent for taking unlikely pairings and showing how there are enough commonly shared values under the surface for a relationship to work if both parties would just wake up and realize it! She’s also an extremely funny and authoritative speaker, if you ever get the chance to hear her.

Wilde, O’Reilly and Havens obviously coordinated well since the periodic appearance of a sage Santa helps prod the couples into the direction of Christmas romance. I think of all the books I’ve read for this Countdown to Christmas series, this one has the best injection of true romance for the season although I’m sure the small town setting and a higher than average hottie quotient per capita helps.

This anthology is an outstanding addition to the Blaze line and a great addition to anyone’s stack of holiday reads. Many thanks to these fine authors for giving us such a great Christmas present! :-)

Countdown to Christmas: Mackenzie Family Christmas Is THE Perfect Gift for Fans of the Highland Pleasures Series

17 Dec

This post isn’t going to mean much to you if you haven’t read Jennifer Ashley‘s Highland Pleasures series, one of my favorite historical romance series on the market. If you like hot historical romance, I would pose the question – why on earth haven’t you read these yet??? Gorgeous Victorian Scotsmen (nobles, no less) always on the wrong side of scandal lead dissipated, tortured lives until finding the feisty women who complete them. Humor, love, and passion abound in gorgeous settings until you’re ready to go marry the first Mackenzie man you meet.

The previous four books each focused on one of the brothers:

  • The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie featuring my favorite Mackenzie brother, Ian, who is autistic (although the time period doesn’t recognize that and simply labels him mad). He meets the wealthy widow Beth Ackerley and knows he must have her as she calms him while inflaming his senses like no other.
  • Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage focuses on Mac, the artist brother who – through his alcoholism – estranged his lovely wife Isabella. He’s sober now but wants her back and someone trying to pass off paintings in his name is the perfect excuse to show her he’s changed.
  • If Ian is my favorite, Cam is a close second, and in The Many Sins of Lord Cameron, his debauched lifestyle finds a purpose when Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting, the beautiful widow Ainsley Douglas, comes to help Isabella with her weekend party for the oldest Mackenzie brother, Hart, the Duke of Kilmorgan. Cam has an older teenage son, Daniel (who is wonderful – I’d marry Cam for Daniel alone), and a host of horrifying memories from his first wife who was insane. But Ainsley teaches him how to trust, and shows him that she’s happier with him and Daniel in the country with the thoroughbreds Cam trains than with jewels and parties in Europe.
  • The Duke’s Perfect Wife finally shows Hart Mackenzie, the Machiavellian political manipulator with a penchant for very specific sexual tastes, vulnerable to one woman, Eleanor Ramsay, who spurned him years ago. They’ve never stopped loving each other, even from afar when Hart finally married, losing his mouse of a wife and newborn to childbed fever. He’s been a widow for some time but when Eleanor pops into his life to avert a scandal that might cost him some of his hard won political power, he sees it as a sign he’s meant to get her back into his life.

I can’t emphasize enough how much you fall in love with these couples, and seeing each of them happy in subsequent books, with babies coming and Daniel growing up and headed to university, is so gratifying. The secondary characters, particularly of the quirky servants who surround the Mackenzies (they are an eccentric bunch) and the various in-laws offer no end of entertainment and run throughout the series.

The Seduction of Elliot McBride (Highland Pleasures #5) by Jennifer Ashley (Berkley, December 31, 2012)

So with that in mind, you can imagine how fantastic an e-novella like this is for Mackenzie fans. We see all our wonderful couples and their families, with Hart and Eleanor married for about a year and expecting a baby around the holidays. Naturally all the Mackenzies have gathered at the ducal castle, along with a host of related family members and are gearing up to celebrate Christmas (for the Sassenachs among them, the Scots make their big holiday Hogmanay, or New Year’s). Everyone is worried about Eleanor who is thirty-three and having her first child. She’s pretty uncomfortable and fairly bedridden at eight months pregnant, but it doesn’t stop Hart from lavishing her with attention even while he stays awake with the fear of losing her.

Ian is getting a lot of attention as well. He’s tracked down one of his fantastically expensive Ming bowls, this time from an elusive Russian aristocrat who was a reluctant seller, but tragedy strikes when the bowl is broken. When Ian retreats to his room, everyone worries he’s going to have another episode, but he’s secretly working on a very “Ian” gift for Beth and his children. Cam and Ainsley have their hands full with their daughter little Gavina, and Mac is painting something extra special for Isabella.

Jennifer Ashley is a master of laying the foundation for future books and she doesn’t ease up just because this is a self-published novella. When Isabella’s sister Louisa arrives and spots Lloyd Fellows, the Mackenzie born on the wrong side of the blanket to a Cockney mistress of the late earl, all she can think of is how she boldly kissed him at Cam and Ainsley’s wedding and how it was wonderful. But she’s determined to restore some of her family’s besmirched honor (between Isabella’s scandalous elopement and their father’s frittering away the family fortune, the Scrantons have a somewhat blackened name). Being interested in a common detective is not going to help Lady Louisa’s goals. (We’re going to see Lloyd and Louisa’s story in August 2013 in The Untamed Mackenzie, #5.5 in the series.)

Not far from how I picture the Mackenzie castle (although according to Ian, it’s actually more symmetrical).

Ainsley’s delicious Scottish brothers cause no end of story ideas to flow for Ashley as well. Confusingly, her brother Elliot is shown as being married, although his book, The Seduction of Elliot McBride doesn’t actually come out until December 31, 2012 (and yes, I have preordered it for Kindle delivery on the stroke of Hogmanay!). Wouldn’t that make Mackenzie Family Christmas number 5.25 in the series? I’m incredibly intrigued by Elliot without even knowing him, since his post-traumatic stress from his service in India is what gave Ainsley the ability to understand her husband Cam’s innermost demons.

Two other hints are thrown our way for future books – Daniel indicates he has a few more years to sow his wild oats while working on his engineering projects and being a scientist (and I knew from the start that this young Mackenzie was going to fall hard and young surrounded by all these men finding their true loves). His book, The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie (#6) has an October 1, 2013 release and I’m warning people now not to bother me that day.

Ainsley’s older brother, the widower Sinclair McBride, lost his beloved wife five years earlier and can’t seem to manage his two hellion children. The Mackenzie nanny makes it quite clear he’s got to get himself a good governess after his son sets fire to his bed (by accident). I’m guessing 2014 will have us see the publication of Rules for a Proper Governess (#7) where Sinclair and his children will finally meet their match. Ashley’s website indicates an unnamed #6.5 book in the series, so I’ll eagerly see what comes of that!

When so many authors crank out a tepid novella for a holiday tie-in, Jennifer Ashley gives us an emotionally poignant and always fun glimpse of the wild, loving Mackenzie family at Christmastime. I would say that she managed to give her fans of the Highland Pleasures series “the perfect gift.” Thanks, Jennifer!

Countdown to Christmas: Dark and Stormy Nights Need a Holiday, Too, So Check Out A Very Gothic Christmas For Delicious Shivers Down Your Spine

16 Dec

A Very Gothic Christmas with novellas by Christine Feehan and Melanie George (Pocket Books, January 11, 2002)

I’m not sure people really understand what makes a book “gothic” literature any more. Beginning with Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto in 1766, this genre combines horror and romance and is characterized by dark, brooding settings and often a paranormal element. Most romance readers have read works like Charlotte Bronte‘s Jane Eyre, Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, and Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca, enjoying both the books and the many film adaptations. Gothic literature continues into the modern day with some of the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice easily falling into this literature category.

The way to know if you are reading a gothic romance is the observation of key elements. Strong archetypes are present in these stories: a virginal heroine, a tortured Byronic hero, the often twisted representation of religion and the presence of looming, forbidding gothic architecture, complete with secret passageways. Presence of the supernatural (while also having the real threat come from more corporeal villains) is combined with the frequent threat of rape or incest, as well as a heroine with a sensitivity to what’s going on around her when others do not perceive any danger.

I think that there is a strong percentage of romance readers who loved incredibly scary ghost stories growing up, the kind told with flashlights under your chin and the need to have clumps of your girlfriends go to the bathroom together afterward since God knows what was lurking behind the toilet tank. I think there is more gothic romance in YA literature, but we’ve inherited elements of gothic literature in much of the vampire romance subset (a lot of vampire literature is also gothic literature) and also some romantic suspense. I was still excited to see, when browsing for Christmas themed romance novels, this dual novella anthology from Christine Feehan and Melanie George. Both authors hit the gothic romance nail right on the head, with these stories prepared to send delicious shivers down your spine, both from the standpoint of the looming threat posed and the sexual tension between the hero and heroine.

“After the Music” by Christine Feehan (Christmas #1)

Magic in the Wind (Drake Sisters #1) by Christine Feehan (Berkley, September 2005)

Jessica was 13 when her mother went to work for rock star sensation Dillon and his troubled wife Vivian. She was happy to help her mother with the housekeeping and nanny chores to the couple’s newborn twins, Tara and Trevor. Vivian was troubled from the start but her latent instability rapidly degenerated into sexual infidelity, Satanic rituals and drug use endangering everyone around her. By age 18, Jessica and Dillon had feelings for each other but never verbalized or acted upon them due to his married status and her age. Nevertheless they were best friends with the common bonds of music and love of his children.

But one cataclysmic night, Vivian’s excess endangered Jessica in a way that sent Dillon over the edge, attacking his wife’s degenerate guests. The night ended with Vivian shot dead and six of her guests (and her) burned in the fire that reduceed Dillon’s home to ashes. Jessica managed to get the five year old children out of the house but Dillon suffered burns to his hands, arms and torso after rushing back in the house to save her and his twins as he didn’t know they’d escaped the inferno. In the subsequent medical treatments and two-year long trial (which absolves him of any guilt of the fire or the deaths), Dillon pushed away Jessica, her mother, and his children, giving them money to live comfortably but clearly wanting nothing to do with them as he became a recluse no longer producing music.

It’s been over a year since her mother died and twenty-six year old Jessica has done a great job raising Dillon’s children and forging a career as a talented sound engineer. Thirteen-year-old Tara and Trevor are fun, intelligent, and devoted to Jessica, but she’s worried for their safety. Her mother’s death was ruled an accident but Jessica has her suspicions, particularly after strange circumstances endanger her and the children. With Christmas a few weeks away, she makes the decision to brave the stormy weather and hire a boat to take the three of them to Dillon’s private island, an island where he has built a masterpiece to Gothic architecture not far from the ruin of his previous home.

The man who greets them is not the sunny, talented star of the past, but a truly tortured man (gothic hero, *check*) whose scars prevent him from playing the guitar and producing the music that was his life’s blood. The members of his former band (including the twins’ Aunt Brenda, Vivian’s sister, married to one of the band) are all in the house working with Dillon to produce a new album. Dillon hears music in his head all the time, but getting other people to realize his visions is an exercise in frustration.

Which is nothing to the frustration of seeing Jessica again. He feels like a monster in front of his children and her, but it’s minor to the longing he feels for all of them. Jessica – now a full-blown, stunning woman – calls to him, her presence always bringing light into his life. The vision of them as a family haunts him, breaking down his walls until he begins to see what his life could be. The fact that she is also able, in a way no one else seems capable, of helping him translate his musical dreams for others to understand and play makes his life worth living. But Jessica insists that there continues to be a real threat from one of the people living in Dillon’s home. Someone wants her and the children gone from his life, even if it means killing them.

I’ve read other Feehan books before and enjoyed them but I still was floored with the masterful writing in his novella. It’s rare for me to read a mystery where I can figure out who is the villain, but Feehan kept me guessing as she ladled suspicion on one character after another. Jessica and Dillon are a hot couple with a strong emotional and physical connection and the scene where they finally give into their passion for one another is both sexy and moving. The secondary characters are excellent, but Feehan nails the gothic setting with her description of the island and the mysterious happenings which continue to occur, endangering the children. Like the traditional gothic heroine, Jessica is virginal (she never wanted anyone but Dillon) and also sensitive to the paranormal and mysterious happenings around her, even as other people scoff at her suspicions.

“Lady of the Locket” by Melanie George

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down containing a novella by Melanie George (Pocket Books, February 2005)

This novella will appeal to to fans of Karen Marie Moning‘s Highlander series as it involves a similar time travel romance resulting in a passionate romance between a highlander from the past and a modern woman.

Rachel Hudson is not exactly in the Christmas spirit. It’s only a few days to the holiday and she’s alone in front of a dark castle not far from the bloody battlefield of Culloden. Her parents met one Christmas at this very castle, falling in love and married here exactly one year later. This Christmas would have been their 30th wedding anniversary and the whole family was going to celebrate it right here, but fate had different plans. Her mother died of cancer and her father followed her about a month ago, dropping dead of a heart attack. She’s here with the permission of the son of the castle owner to spend the holiday and spread their ashes on this place which meant so much to them.

Let in by the offsite caretaker, she’s immediately riveted by the portrait of the castle founder, Duncan MacGregor. It was painted in 1745 not long before his death and she’s left a little breathless at the compelling, handsome man with burning blue eyes. The castle itself is drafty and dark, with spotty electricity and the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the world. Wanting to know more about Duncan, she cuddles up with a history book she picked up and discovered that his enemy, the head of the Gordon clan, is responsible for burning down the ruined East Wing in an act of revenge after being wounded by MacGregor. People believe he perished in the fire and that his malevolent ghost haunts the castle to this day.

With that thought in her mind as she drifts off to sleep, Rachel is awoken by the thunder of a vicious electrical storm and the sounds of battle. When she hears someone calling out, she worries that there might be a person caught in the storm and runs out in her pajamas to look for them. She ends up by the castle’s ring of stones dating back to the Druid era, the stones where Duncan MacGregor was ultimately killed and buried. Just as a bolt of lightening blasts the stone engraved with his name to pieces, she sees a man on a black horse emerge and run straight for her.

Landscape near Inverness, Scotland

It’s Duncan, of course, come straight from battle and angry that he cannot find his men. His first thought is that the sodden Rachel is a witch sent by Gordon, but as he follows her into his home – annoyed by her testy response to his ordering her about – he quickly realizes that his home is different. Very different. As it sinks in that he is no longer in his own time, her compassion reaches him, enough to unleash the passion he has felt from the first moment he spotted her. But unlike any woman he’s ever come in contact with before, she refuses him, although he can clearly see she wants him.

For Rachel, it’s self-preservation. In all her twenty-seven years, she’s never felt this overwhelming attraction to any man and as she’s begun to accept that this is the Duncan MacGregor from the eighteenth century, she knows he’ll have to leave and return to his own time at some point. Terrifyingly, it becomes quickly apparent that Duncan’s presence has given Gordon’s ghost power as well, and the enemy actually manifests and attacks them both at various points, intent on taking both their souls. For Duncan and Rachel, their coming together is bittersweet as they realize they have each found their soulmate but cannot keep them.

Stone circle in Scotland

Christmas Eve is especially poignant, with Duncan making her a snowman (she had mentioned her family’s tradition) and she gives him her mother’s locket which has Rachel’s picture in it. As the power of Christmas Day pulls Duncan back to the exact moment Gordon burns down the East Wing of the castle, Rachel is left bereft, although an expected person finds her after she thinks she’s lost everything she ever wanted.

Notice how this edition of Rebecca indicates it’s “a classic tale of romantic suspense”. While that may be partially true, it’s really a gothic romance.

George makes it very clear from the first page that this is a gothic romance, having Rachel look at the forbidding castle and think that it’s a place for Heathcliff and then quote her favorite passage from du Maurier’s Rebecca. While Rachel is not a virgin, she does say that the orgasm Duncan gives her is her first (astonishing at twenty-seven – did she go to a doctor?). With Gordon’s ghost, the paranormal element (to say nothing of the time travel) is well satisfied, and this castle is as dark and forbidding as they come. There were a few points at which I wish Rachel had a little more backbone, but I could easily empathize with her being a buttoned-up person who thought love like her parents possessed would never find her. She’s overwhelmed when that kind of passion turns up in her own life, particularly such a doomed love. I loved the ending and could easily picture Rachel being able to talk about what happened to her and moving on with her own life.

Melanie George is unique among the authors I review in that she appears to have fallen off the face of the earth after her last book was published in 2006. No website or social media presence (and other people have tried to figure out if she even still belongs to the Romance Writers of America) makes it seem like she never existed. This is so sad as her books appear to still be popular and I definitely enjoyed the writing in this story. I would love to see her still have a website with her booklist and some information even if she didn’t plan on writing anymore. I think all readers understand that sometimes life’s circumstances cause people to stop writing, but a little website with key information is still an acknowledgment that you appreciate your readers continuing to buy your books. With the advent of ebook backlists, readers can find you more easily so it’s not like no one knows who you are, even without a new book on the Barnes & Noble shelf twice a year. Christine Feehan fortunately is going strong with her Drake Sisters saga (and other series) and her website is an example to other romance authors. I just wish she was on Twitter!

This taste of gothic romance has given me a desire for more, and prompted me to think about the genre in general. I loved the way the magic of the holiday blended with the love in these two couples and think that this excellent book deserves to be on everyone’s Christmas shelf! Many thanks to Christine Feehan and Melanie George for reminding us why gothic romance can still send shivers down our spines. :-)

 

Countdown to Christmas: Vampires Celebrate the Holiday in Holiday With a Vampire III from Silhouette Nocturne

15 Dec

You know I’m trying to approach my Countdown to Christmas series touching on a variety of subgenres in the world of romance, and I realized I had no vampires. *gasp* Paranormal romance with vampires and werewolves is a huge subset of the fiction we all enjoy, so I had to have some representation, right?

I stumbled across the fact that, for a few years running, Silhouette Books produced a holiday anthology with a vampire focus, collecting novellas from well-known authors of category romance in this area and inserting a holiday season and some snow.

The spirit of Christmas is most assuredly not the focus, so don’t go looking to this anthology for that. This collection is more about hot, hot vampires finding that one person meant for them right around the holiday. Honestly, my favorite Christmas vampire story comes from the best vampire series ever, the Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost. In the anthology, The Bite Before Christmas, Frost published “Home for the Holiday” where Cat and Bones try and have an ideal Christmas but circumstances throw a serious wrench in the works.

But if you haven’t read Jeaniene Frost (and for goodness sake, what are you waiting for?), then a collection like Holiday With a Vampire III can satisfy that craving at an affordable price and with no need for understanding complicated backstory or series’ arcs.

“Sundown” by Linda Winstead Jones

Interestingly enough, while Linda Winstead Jones is no stranger to paranormal romance, she had never written a vampire romance before this one. When speaking to her writing group about how she’d probably never do one, this story just sort of popped into her head…and stayed there. So she decided to write it down and here we are.

Untouchable (Emperor’s Bride #1) by Linda Winstead Jones (Berkley, August 5, 2008) – Jones is known for sexy fantasy novels with a paranormal element

Abby is the owner of the Sundown Bar in Budding Corner, Alabama, a perfect town as it’s not too small nor too big. That’s helpful because as a four-hundred year old vampire, Abby needs a certain degree of anonymity. Because of her seniority and inherent power, other vampires are drawn to her and the bar for guidance. The city attracts the rogue vampires and the small towns have everyone in your business, so Budding Corner is just right.

Except for one particular human. Sexy detective Leo Stryker doesn’t seem to have the natural avoidance issues of the other humans who patronize the bar. He is drawn to the lovely Abby and keeps asking her out, unfazed by her stream of rejection. But when a patron is murdered, her throat ripped out and her body drained of blood, he has to question the last people who saw her alive, and they were all at the bar.

Abby is incensed that this murder happened on her turf, possibly by someone she knows. That it keeps throwing the temptation of Leo in her path is not helping her resist her craving for his blood and his body, not necessarily in that order. Taking him as a lover would endanger her control of the area as vampires see humans merely as pets with a short shelf life, but she can’t seem to stay away, even when she has wipe his mind after every encounter. Planting the suggestion that he should leave her alone doesn’t help, since he keeps coming back. But when whatever killed that girl puts Leo in its sights, Abby might not be fast enough to save the person who suddenly means more than her own life.

If this is Jones’ first vampire story, she would do well to try writing another – it was fantastic! I liked how vampire society existed right alongside humans but they didn’t realize its presence except to shy away from its members, a nice mammalian reminder that we are still animals who sense predators. Most convincing, though, was the cool and emotionally distant attitude of vampire toward humans. That seemed like a logical development when vampires knew humans were going to die (and that they might be the one to kill them). Leo breaks through Abby’s shell and you feel the pain every time they make a connection and she’s forced to wipe his mind. A terrific ending (and epilogue) that makes me cheer for the patrons of the Sundown Bar, wherever it may be located!

“Nothing Says Christmas Like a Vampire” (Secret Vampire Society #2) by Lisa Childs

Sienna Briggs is standing over her grandmother’s coffin right before Christmas, crying. She’s truly alone now, all her family dead, and trying to keep her promise to stay cheerful and celebrate the holiday but it feels impossible. When a handsome man with a familiar diamond-shaped scar on his chin sweeps in claiming she has to come with him so he can protect her, she thinks he’s a crazy con man attracted by the obituary in the paper. Until the memory of him, looking exactly as he is now, resurfaces. This man pulled her from the wreckage of the car accident that killed her parents when she was seven. She promptly faints into his arms.

The Secret Vampire Society (Secret Vampire Society #1) by Lisa Childs (Silhouette Nocturne, October 1, 2009)

Vampire Julian Vossimer knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he can’t help himself. He felt guilty he couldn’t do more to spare this woman pain twenty years ago when she was a child and now that she’s a gorgeous woman with a strong pull on him, he’s not about to let her be killed by his kind. Sienna doesn’t know that what she thought were drug-induced ravings during her grandmother’s last days was actually the truth. Julian’s powerful grandfather suspected Sienna’s grandmother of knowing about the secret society of vampires, but he couldn’t prove it until she was overheard in the nursing home by a planted spy. The grandmother died naturally, but now by law, Sienna must also.

I’m actually okay with the instant love at first sight (or sexual encounter) trope, particularly when one or both characters have paranormal qualities. There was an interesting backstory with Sienna’s grandmother rejecting Julian decades earlier because she knew (she had mind-reading abilities) that he was just fascinated with her beauty versus the man who actually loved her (Sienna’s grandfather). Julian has felt unworthy of love during his long existence with a string of distant relatives and other rejections, so when he falls head over heels – finally! – with Sienna, he doesn’t tell her, worried that she also will reject him. All Sienna hears is that the man she just slept with in a bone-melting way wants to marry her to protect her, but she is wearing her grandmother’s ring to remind her of her promise to only marry for love. While she’s fallen, it doesn’t seem like he has, and her trying to gain a little distance could result in both of their deaths.

A couple things. First, I happen to believe that if you had a secret society, you wouldn’t refer to it as “The Secret Vampire Society,” you’d come up with a better code name, but that’s clearly me. Childs, a well-known name in category paranormal, has an entire series built around the Secret Society of vampires and it’s very popular. This story is technically the second in the series (see above cover for the first), so if you enjoy it, you’ll have lots of other books to enjoy. I found the ending a little saccharine (and Sienna just gains her grandmother’s mind-reading ability all of a sudden?) but loved how Julian and Sienna had a happy ending after years of suffering.

“Unwrapped” (Draicon Werewolves #7) by Bonnie Vanak 

Bonnie Vanak is also famous with vampire romance fans, but her stories have a bit of a twist. Her vampires live in a world alongside the Draicon, the werewolves who also have their own society and traditions, and the two are usually enemies.

Unless they are more, that is. Adrian is the powerful son of his vampire clan leader, but is serving the term of his banishment in a mansion in Maine until Christmas Eve, when his father and elders come to evaluate his worthiness to return to the clan and be the heir. But six unruly goblins who are his friends (they are hilarious!) give him an ugly doll for Christmas, an enchanted one who just happens to be the beautiful werewolf Adrian is still in love with, despite his best efforts not to be.

Taken by the Alpha Wolf (Draicon Werewolves #1) by Bonnie Vanak (Amazon Digital Services, June 24, 2011)

After Sarah is dunked in a pool in the dead of a Maine winter, her magical ability to transform kept at bay with a silver bracelet, the last person she expects to see is her vampire friend from all those years ago. Adrian makes it clear he feels horribly betrayed when she left him on that beach to fight her enemies, the Morphs (evil werewolves who have killed their own kind and taken on the ability to transform into any creature). He still doesn’t know what called her away or what happened afterward, and she’s horrified to discover that the vampires present at the battle did not help him fight the way she assumed they would. Instead those cold representatives of his race watched him get beaten and then left him in the sun to suffer permanent scarring until he begged for their help. That incident began the term of his banishment since he had broken their laws to help a werewolf.

Adrian doesn’t want to feel anything but distance seeing Sarah again but she’s even more lovely than ever, if thinner and clearly exhausted. He tries to let his anger fuel their interaction, but she was his best friend as well as the untouchable woman he was in love with. Discovering that her destined mate died long ago without her ever being with him jolts him into the awareness that she might possibly be within reach, even if just for one night. They cannot be together by the rules of both their kind, but this tie between them cannot be denied. When he discovers that she did not maliciously leave him, but in fact left for a horrifying but very good reason, he realizes what a hell her life has been the last decade while he was wallowing. When their mutual enemies resurface, they both have a chance to conquer what tore them apart, but it might not be enough to keep them together.

In the romance world it’s not uncommon for one of the hero/heroine pair to know that they’ve met the person destined for them, but for whatever reason (they are too young, circumstances aren’t right, blah, blah, blah) they can’t be together and they sleep with other people in an effort to ignore what they know deep in their heart. Major kudos to Adrian who knows that there is no one but Sarah for him the moment he meets her eleven years earlier, and who remains completely celibate since - even after he thinks she betrayed their friendship by leaving him on the sand on that beach. He doesn’t even kiss Sarah out of respect for her being promised to a mate!

Adrian was the perfect tortured vampire (is there any other kind?) and Sarah was so brave with everything she’d been through. Her injury at the hands of someone she loved and trusted was heartbreaking and finding out just how close that tie was broke my heart. While I felt the ending was a little tidy with two races putting aside some rather long-standing animosity, certainly there was an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” vibe happening, so I’m willing to go along with it. I loved seeing them both happy after eleven years of suffering and hope they keep those awesome goblins around.

This anthology provided some solid vampire fare with a little injection of Christmas angst, enough to make your grateful for having a not-so-tortured holiday! With novellas from some famous authors in the paranormal category romance world, this is a nice way to sample the writing styles of women who can serve up many more books if you find yourself clicking with their view of the vampire world. While they might prefer red for a different reason, these sexy vampires are all ready to spread their version of holiday cheer. :-)

Countdown to Christmas: This Quintet of Erotic Romance Authors Will Light Your Christmas Fire in A Very Naughty Xmas

14 Dec

A Very Naughty Xmas by Stephanie Julian, Olivia Cunning, Raven Morris, Cherrie Lynn, and Cari Quinn (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 1, 2012)

One of the ways to have a toasty Christmas is to indulge yourself with some well-written erotica (or romantica, if you perfer that term for erotica geared to romance). When I saw A Very Naughty Xmas had a roster of some of the best erotica and erotic romance authors out there, this became a must-read.

And I want to make clear that this is both erotica and erotic romance. In case you’re unclear about what I mean, erotic romance has the end result of two (or more) people ending in a happily ever after or happily for now relationship with some type of commitment involved. True erotica, and some of these stories most assuredly fall into that category, has the focus of an intense sexual experience with no necessary commitment, although I prefer it if the encounter shows a degree of caring between the consenting adults involved.

While it won’t come as any surprise to fans of any of these writers, this is an outstandingly well-written anthology which falls under the “amazing value” banner since the ebook version is only $4.99 and you get 302 hot, well-written pages! I would cheerfully for over $4.99 for one novella from any of these authors to say nothing of one from each of them, so this is an example of Christmas coming early for me.

“Jingle Ball” by Cari Quinn

Des and Cole are business partners who share an apartment above their offices, among other things. They share women (and occasionally pleasure each other) but mostly they run a successful business. The only problem as Christmas approaches is that Des cannot stop thinking about his hot secretary, Wendy. She’s a sweet, beautiful woman who needs this job to take care of her sick mother, but all he can think about is her sexy Southern accent and killer body. After a year of getting to know and admire her, he’s not ready to admit to more than wanting her (although Cole knows better) but he refuses to be that boss. His mother knew all too well what it was like to have a boss who took advantage and Des would do anything to not inflict that heartbreak on a woman he cared about, especially one who needed her job.

No Dress Required (Love Required #1) by Cari Quinn (Entangled Publishing, December 25, 2011) – This great novella also involves the spirit of Christmas with two people who loved each other from afar finding each other when one Christmas party goes differently than they each expect.

Wendy doesn’t know about Des’ tortured past, just that she has been head over heels in love with her boss since she got a good look at him. That he’s a caring, hard-working man only makes him that much hotter, but she knows that she’s not likely to ever get a taste of him, and isn’t that a depressing thought for the holidays! Everything changes, however, at the building’s holiday party when Des catches Wendy in Cole’s office masturbating. He thinks she’s doing it thinking of Cole, but in actuality she couldn’t resist after seeing (and smelling) Des’ shirt draped on Cole’s chair. Des decides to teach her what happens to bad secretaries who do naughty things in the boss’ office, and calls Cole in to help him dispense a little justice.

I loved this story (Cari Quinn never disappoints) in the way she depicts such hot yearning between Des and Wendy without either of them letting on how deeply they care about the other person. The menage with Cole is really there to make Des more comfortable being with Wendy, but it is hurtful and confusing to her why she can have sex with Cole and do plenty of things to Des (and he to her) but Des never has intercourse with her. It was typical guy logic how Des rationalized that if he didn’t have sex with Wendy he wasn’t going to be like his father, but the ending was so sweet (and hilarious when her mother and aunt walked in on them) that I forgave Des any illogical thinking.

“Christmas Is Coming” by Raven Morris

Wow, wow, WOW. I honestly didn’t believe that married sex could be this hot, but Raven Morris (the erotica pen name of fabulous paranormal romance author Judi Fennell, who I have had the pleasure of hearing speak at a workshop for my romance writers chapter) proved me very wrong.

Jacked (Tied with a Bow #1) by Raven Morris (Amazon, July 1, 2012)

Deb and Jack are a professional husband and wife very much in love and with a smokin’ hot sex life. Previously that year, Jack gave Deb a present she’d always wanted – a threesome – arranging with his friend David to come over and make all her fantasies come true. This Christmas, Deb is beside herself at the thought of reciprocating. Her college roommate Amanda, gorgeous and always sexually adventurous, is in town for the holidays and Deb wants to tie her up with a bow and give her to Jack for the two of them to enjoy.

These two people live in a haze of love and sex so evident to others that the partner’s wives at the Christmas party pester Deb for sex tips and details about Jack. For one novella, this story packs so many jaw-droppingly hot sex scenes that you will need a pitcher of ice water to get through it (and you may need to pour it over yourself rather than drink it to cool off). I guarantee you will never look at a 16″ strand of pearls the same way.

While I’ve read plenty of menage erotica, I had never read one about a couple who each invite a partner into their bed (yes, David shows up as Deb’s present and Amanda is Jack’s present) so a menage a quatre was something new for me. I was a little worried about it, as multi-partner sex can devolve into who-is-putting-what-where but Morris blinds you with a writing ability that is so strong, the emotional quotient never wavers. This highly sensual experience is between caring people, two of whom are doing it to bring added pleasure to their life partner. It’s incredibly sweet, actually, which is honestly not something I thought I’d ever write about four people having sex together!

This is part of Morris’ Tied With a Bow series, the first book of which, Jacked, is actually the story of Jack presenting David to Deb for her birthday. As of right now, Jacked is available for free on Amazon, so I’d head over there and get this story downloaded to your ereader ASAP to double your pleasure. I’ve bought the first anthology of this series since I was so impressed with this story.

“Light Me Up” by Cherrie Lynn (Ross Siblings #2.5)

This story is actually part of the Ross siblings series and the epilogue to Cherrie Lynn’s second book in that series, Rock Me, an incredibly popular book in the world of erotic romance. Please note that this story and/or the anthology is not listed in the series list (something I hope Lynn can remedy) so if you’re a fan there’s no way you want to miss this!

Rock Me (Ross Siblings series #2 – Brian and Candace) by Cherrie Lynn (Samhain Publishing, May 4, 2010)

I can see why fans are so enthusiastic. Brian is the ultimate bad boy with a boatload of sensitivity under the surface. He and Candace have been together for about a year and a half and they are head over heels in love with each other, at least in her opinion. She comes from a pretty awful family, one of the rich ones in town, and her parents and siblings are not happy about her being involved with a Ross. After her mother corners her at the mandatory holiday party to ask her where her relationship with Brian is going, Candace doesn’t appreciate her raining on her parade.

But naturally it makes her begin to wonder, and watching Brian makes her even more nervous. It’s clear that he’s not comfortable with her mother talking to her about this and despite all their amazing sexing it up, she’s worried. Candace just determines that she’ll take Brian however she can have him because having him in her life is more important than having a ring, when he turns the tables and gives her an incredible Christmas present.

I immediately went and bought this book (and the first in the series as well) because of how utterly impressed I was with this story. While told totally from Candace’s perspective, this story showcased not only their deep love for each other but also how Lynn can infuse sexual situations with so much emotion that the overall reading experience is heightened beyond belief. Brian is the ultimate bad boy every woman wants to turn to the forces of good but he is one artistic, romantic hero who I imagine causes women to swoon all over the reading world.

“An Indecent Proposition” by Stephanie Julian

By Private Invitation by Stephanie Julian (Berkley, December 31, 2012)

I’m not going to lie, I am a GIGANTIC Stephanie Julian fan. I’m not joking, I have read all but three of her books and I still own the three I haven’t read and have them on my to-read list. She’s consistently one of the best erotic romance writers and I have learned more about Etruscan culture (no, that’s not a typo) than I ever thought possible via her hot paranormal series like Magical Seduction, Lucani Lovers (heart you, Kyle!) and the Forgotten Goddesses books. Like Raven Morris, I’ve also taken a workshop with Julian at my PLRW chapter meeting which was fantastic. This author is hard-working, creative, and extremely nice, with an air of earned authority wrapped in a friendly approachable package. What more can you ask for?

Had I known I would have asked for a super-hot erotic novella, but wait…Stephanie Julian just gave me one in this anthology! As usual, she manages to infuse what could just be hot relatively anonymous sex with caring and affection so the encounter becomes something so much more. I never get tired of her (which is why I’ve already ordered her newest book coming out in a couple of weeks – take a look at the image to the right).

Erik Riley and Keegan Malone have been best friends since their rooming days at boarding school. While in Princeton, they learned that sharing women brought them both a great deal of pleasure, so they dabbled in that while getting their degrees. Setting up a highly successful company, their good luck seemed to run out three years ago when Erik got caught in an explosion in one of their labs. Keegan is wrestling with his conscience as he was the one who was supposed to be in the building. While Erik has brutal scars that even reconstructive surgery can’t repair, Keegan has watched his vibrant best friend retreat into himself and show no interest in anything. Even their sex games, when Erik chooses to indulge, is about him watching in the shadows or participating in a way that no woman they share can ever see his face.

But things change when the company’s holiday party benefits from the beautiful Julianne Carter as a waitress. Keegan has a reaction once Erik points her out over the remote com they use so he can see the proceedings and their mutual fascination has them making an outrageous offer. They will give Julianne $500,000 if she comes to the house for a sexual encounter.

Julianne Carter can really use that half a million dollars. Her mother had breast cancer and her asshole father gambled their money away and spent a bunch of it on hookers while treating her mother like crap. He’s fortunately out of their lives, but there are plenty of bills to pay and her twelve-year-old Civic isn’t getting any younger. One of her friends works for the man making the offer, and has assured her it’s on the up-and-up; if she’s the slightest bit uncomfortable she can just walk away from the situation. Julianne enjoys sex, as long as it’s with someone she thinks is attractive and likes, so she’s uncertain whether she’s going through with this.

One look at Keegan Malone and her body practically makes a cha-ching sound! Sleeping with this gorgeous, strangely nervous man will be no hardship, but she gets the sense that there is someone watching in the beautiful shadowed Victorian room they are in. Keegan almost has a heart attack when Julianne calls into the shadows to Erik and even more of one when Erik decides to show himself to her. This could be exactly the breakthrough they both have been waiting for.

This was incredibly sensual and so utterly clever the way the situation and the sexual energy broke down Erik’s remaining barriers and let fly some of the tension between him and Keegan. I loved Julianne’s openness and she comes across as a hard-working, great daughter who is ready to try something safe and sexually adventurous, particularly when she realizes it’s totally on her own terms since she can walk away at any time. With her experience with her mother, she’s older than a lot of women her age and has already learned to look past the surface to the real person underneath. If I had any complaint, it’s that she drove away at the end of the night, although it was hinted that it wouldn’t be the last she’d see of Erik and Keegan. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another novella with these three since they’ve haunted me ever since I read this.

“Share Me” by Olivia Cunning

Try Me, Tempt Me, Take Me (the first three books in the One Night with Sole Regret series) by Olivia Cunning (Vulpine, December 6, 2012)

If you happen to love rock and roll and enjoy erotica, you need look no further than author Olivia Cunning. Famous for her fantastic Sinners on Tour series about a rock band and their finding lust and love on the road, she has also penned a slightly more mild (and it’s still raging inferno erotica, do not misunderstand me) series called One Night with Sole Regret.

More than any other story in this collection, this one is true erotica. In this prequel to the One Night with Sole Regret series, Lindsey and her best friend Vanessa are at a Sole Regret concert drooling over the band members and decide to follow the tour bus slogging through the blizzard to see if it stops somewhere they can meet the guys. When the band takes a break at a scenic view to wait out the storm, the two women end up on the bus, basically having hot sex with all the band members (and the bus driver).

Cunning does a great job introducing each of the band members and hinting at their personalities and/or tortured pasts. The two women are imminently likable and clearly indulging in a one-night only fantasy they can cling to when they have crying children with chicken pox somewhere down the road. While this story certainly didn’t have the emotional charge of many of the other stories in the anthology, the band members are depicted as caring, friendly guys who don’t want to push the women into doing anything they aren’t 100% on board with (and fortunately they are on board with a lot). It’s a facile vehicle for setting up with series as a whole and I was overjoyed when I discovered the above anthology of the first three books available for free as part of my Kindle loan program. I’ve got it until January 2013 and plan on using it to save on electricity since I’ll be able to turn my heat down while reading it!

In summary, this anthology represents the very best of erotica and erotic romance, lining up one powerhouse writer after another to take us on a variety of journeys, all of which occur during the holiday season. Like any good collection, this one nudges you to other books and series that will provide you with hours of enjoyment, while lighting your Christmas fire from deep within. Partners and spouses would do well to consider giving this book as a gift this holiday as it might very well be the gift that keeps on giving!

Many thanks to Stephanie Julian, Cari Quinn, Raven Morris, Olivia Cunning, and my new find Cherrie Lynn for being such hard-working and talented writers turning out book after wonderful book. You are all the best Christmas present a reader could ask for! :-)

Countdown to Christmas: Jill Shalvis’ Holiday E-novella Under the Mistletoe Reminds You Why Lucky Harbor is the Place to Be at Christmas

13 Dec

Under the Mistletoe (Lucky Harbor #6.5) by Jill Shalvis (Forever Yours, December 4, 2012)

In a competition of which place I most wanted to live in a contemporary romance series, Lucky Harbor would undoubtedly make the top three. Remember, this was the series I read backwards, first reading books four through six then reading books one through three. Truth be told, I like the most recent three books the best, but I love Shalvis‘ writing and the town of Lucky Harbor, like the series, cannot be beat.

If there was a contemporary romance author who was secretly a Christmas elf, Jill Shalvis would probably also have that spot. I can’t count the number of holiday anthologies she has warm and fuzzy novellas in (some of which involve sexy chemists and their high school crushes) and even her Lucky Harbor series has had a few holiday tie-ins (see below). I’m thrilled her Christmas spirit overflows to the point where she has to publish new stories for her readers, so you won’t catch me complaining!

The subject of this novella is Mia, the wonderful, forthright, brainy but vulnerable seventeen-year-old we meet in The Sweetest Thing, when she goes to the town to find her birth parents, Tara Daniels and Ford Walker, who are rapidly realizing that the heat that brought them together as teenagers has not gone away. The three of them figure out a new dynamic of love and acceptance and it’s great to see Tara and Ford’s horror as Mia gets together with the gardener of the Daniels sisters’ Bed & Breakfast, the wonderful and sexy Carlos.

Christmas in Lucky Harbor (the first two books in the Lucky Harbor series including the one in which Mia is introduced) by Jill Shalvis (Forever, November 1, 2011)

In Under the Mistletoe, Tara lives in New York City and is enrolled in a graduate program to become a high school counselor. For six months she has been dating Nick, a sexy, handsome guy she met in one of her classes. They bonded when they discovered they’d both been put up for adoption as infants – the difference being that Mia got adopted by a wonderful family and then rediscovered loving birth parents on top of her original good fortune. Nick, on the other hand, stayed in the system but was determined to break out and help others. He’s recently graduated law school and just passed the bar, so Mia is hoping that he might someday say the “L” word to her soon, particularly since she knows she’s fallen for him.

A romantic candlelit dinner and plenty of sexy flirting later and she’s hoping that this will be the night Nick says it. She decides to up the ante by giving him his holiday present early – she’s gotten him a ticket to go home with her to Lucky Harbor for the holiday to watch her Aunt Chloe get married on Christmas Eve. But Nick’s reaction is far from what she imagined. She knows that he’s commitment phobic from his past, but she wasn’t asking him to get married, she just wanted to spend the holiday with him. His abrupt “no” and closed off body language sends a clear enough message to her and she ends their night by shutting the door in his face.

Nick knows he’s screwed this up in a big way. Mia makes him feel things he never has before. He even meant to tell her at dinner that he got the big legal job with the nonprofit which serves underprivileged kids – the one that will enable him to do all the traveling he’s always wanted – but being with her made him believe he didn’t want to go anywhere. He tries to tell himself it’s for the best as he tosses and turns but he gives up when the morning comes. He might not know anything about families or relationships but he does know that Mia is too important to him to give up so easily. Their shared experience of being given up for adoption gives him an insight others don’t have. Listen to Nick explain it.

And he also knew something else, something she’d never verbalized to him: for as well adjusted as she was, she needed her people to make a stand for her.

Nick had failed her in that, big-time, and both his heart and gut were churning over it. She’d never asked for a thing from him, but he’d known that need of hers was there and he hadn’t fulfilled it.

He could fix that. He would fix that, and then she’d never doubt him again.

Shalvis, Jill (2012-12-04). Under the Mistletoe (Kindle Locations 206-209). Kindle Edition.

Small Town Christmas (including #2.5 from the Lucky Harbor series “Kissing Santa Claus” which focuses on the happily ever after for Tara’s ex-husband, NASCAR driver Logan) by Jill Shalvis (Forever, November 1, 2011)

After discovering she’s already left the city, Nick flies to Lucky Harbor and walks in on Mia talking to her ex-boyfriend Carlos, getting a pretty cozy hug from him. This is not good, considering the fact that not six months ago when Nick’s relationship with Mia was starting up, Carlos showed up with a ring wanting to renew their relationship.

Nick doesn’t know that Mia has been moping for a day and that Carlos is with the love of his life now. Mostly, Mia is surprised and astonished to see Nick. In typical Lucky Harbor fashion, his request to talk with her is made in front of her birth parents, all her aunts and uncles, her young cousin (Maddie and Jax’s daughter), a dog and Carlos, with no one looking to move away to give them any privacy. It’s a pretty priceless moment (and it’s great to see all those previous couples so happy).

But they do go somewhere private, on a houseboat on the lake, actually, which leads to a super sexy love scene between Nick and Mia. Nick realizes that he’s undergone a massive paradigm shift of never wanting to get too close to anyone, to knowing that Mia is it for him. After their amazing physical reunion, he tells Mia he loves her to which she replies that she never asked him to love her, just to be with her “for now.” While most guys would love to hear that, Nick sticks to his guns, insisting on staying for the wedding and figuring out how to show Mia and her family that he is in this relationship for the long haul.

He does figure it out, in a very eloquent way, that convinces Mia and everyone else that Nick knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s a heartwarming happily-ever-after that will put a Christmas smile on anyone’s face. A big Santa hat for Jill Shalvis for combining her great Lucky Harbor series with the holiday to give us yet another super love story for this wonderful town!

Countdown to Christmas: Steampunk Blends with the Holiday in A Clockwork Christmas

12 Dec

A Clockwork Christmas edited by Angela James (Carina Press, December 5, 2011) featuring novellas by J. K. Coi, P. G. Forte, Stacy Gail and Jenny Schwartz.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I love steampunk romance. Whether I’m raving about how Meljean Brook is the best introduction to steampunk or qvelling over the gaslight overtones of Cindy Spencer Pape, corsets, clockworks and romance float my boat.

But finding other great steampunk or gaslight authors is challenging (there are a lot of writers who sound like they should still be on a fan fiction site honing their skills a little longer before finding a publisher), and anthologies are one of the best ways to taste the flavor of a new author without committing to a longer book to see if they pull off the genre. I’m pleased to say that Carina Press editor Angela James has worked her usual (gaslight?) magic to find a roster of authors up to the task in A Clockwork Christmas.

James has her usual friendly introduction to the anthology and I was interested in hearing how she has had a personal interest in steampunk since before it penetrated the world of romance fiction. I found it reassuring when she excerpted her own recent letter to ComicCon attendees when she said, “Maybe being a geek has become trendy, but at Carina, we’re not just interested in trendy; we’re interested in publishing great, compelling, readable stories.”

Selecting these four stories because of how they work together, James nevertheless indicated that she was overwhelmed by how many excellent steampunk stories she received after Carina expressed an interest in the genre. Many of them were independently published by the ebook publishing house this past year and seem to be of novella length for the most part. As with other anthologies I’ve read from Carina, you can buy this compilation as either the anthology (linked above to title) or as individual ebooks (linked below in the title of each individual story).

Crime Wave in a Corset by Stacy Gail

I fell for Stacy Gail’s writing the other week when I drooled all over her science fiction novella How the Glitch Saved Christmas. She keeps up her writing streak of awesomeness with this story, set in a nineteenth century Boston rife with clockworks.

Crime Wave in a Corset by Stacy Gail (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Cornelia Peabody is a loner and thief, but she’s content with her life of relative success. The fact that she limits herself to stealing from companies or organizations rather than individuals gives her some peace at night. As she walks through Beacon Hill days before Christmas, she realizes her home has been broken into as one of her careful alarms has been tripped. Being a thief herself, she’s not about to call the police, but she carefully uses her surveillance equipment inside the foyer to see if anything looks amiss. Deciding it doesn’t look dangerous, she still takes precautions to check on her office – where she is pounced upon by a large man in black who knows her name and her crimes. He obviously hates her, but she doesn’t know why.

Professor Roderick Coddington is elated he finally has the monster responsible for murdering his sister in his grasp…and he’s angry that she’s so beautiful and that his body clearly wants her. Ignoring its demands, he slaps a special clockwork bracelet on her that she cannot remove and then takes her to his workshop to see exactly what it can do. An electrocution device, the bracelet is set on countdown for seven days; either Cornelia Peabody steals back the Faberge egg that she took from Roderick’s sister, the loss of which sped her demise, or she dies a horrible death in one week.

It’s not much a of choice, so Cornelia does it, trying to deny to herself that it hurts to be hated by this man who doesn’t even know her. The more time they spend together, the more their illusions shatter. Roderick is capable of emotions other than anger (quite compelling ones) and Cornelia has a strong sense of honor despite being a thief. Her intellect and ability amaze him and once he sees the scars that cover her body from the nightmare childhood that led her to her profession, he begins to realize that nothing is as simple as he would like to make it. The final job of stealing back the egg causes them both to confront the past, leaving the reader to wonder if their choices will be different, at least different enough to allow for a future between these two lovers.

Smoking hot love scenes and the ability to capture powerful emotions make Stacy Gail’s story a standout. As in her science fiction story, she has the ability to layer the world-details, many of which are highly technical, in such a smooth fashion that you don’t realize the amount of information you are swallowing, you just know that the rich details of the place and time period are truly alive. As with any couple in an extraordinary situation, Cornelia and Roderick’s descent into lust and then love, is so believably written that your feelings transmute along with theirs, until you are pulling so hard for them to work through their issues that you cheer at the ending!

This Winter Heart by PG Forte

Ophelia Winter has been left destitute by her father’s death. With the war between the states ended and the Confederacy triumphant, his inventions, which could have helped the Union cause, were left unfunded. The person who refused to fund them was none other than Ophelia’s husband, Dario Leonides, due to the fact that her father chose to reveal that Ophelia was one of those inventions – a sophisticated automaton whose blood and flesh were formed from the raw material from her father and his dead mistress. As neither Ophelia or Professor Winter ever revealed her nature, Dario felt betrayed by them both, determining that as a machine, Ophelia was incapable of returning the love he felt for her.

This Winter Heart by P.G. Forte (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Ophelia was and is totally in love with Dario, and understands why he felt betrayed but it was no excuse to throw back the dedication and love she felt for him when he asked her to leave his home and his life. Seven years later, she’s back in Santa Fe and needing Dario’s help. She has to find a way to support herself and her son with Dario, a son he doesn’t know exists.

Naturally Dario is stunned and disbelieving at the thought that Ophelia had his child. Her father was very clear that he felt she couldn’t have children. But the boy Arthur resembles them both with winning ways that begin to open Dario’s very closed heart. Even while his body wants Lia, he tells himself and her she has no soul and is just a “thing,” a cruelty that Ophelia cannot overlook. When the tension between them comes to a head, the situation endangers Arthur, and Ophelia reacts with the maternal instinct to save her child, a reaction that could cost the family their only chance at finding happiness.

I’m not a fan of second chance romance, particularly not when one of the couple acts like a jerk, and Dario fits this bill. It’s a credit to author Forte that she makes very clear Dario’s mental block – he was so appalled at being lied to by two people who he trusted and loved that he just shut off the part of him that loved Lia. Using his religious background to excuse his behavior (a “thing” cannot feel pain or love), he also uses it to explain why he hasn’t divorced her all these years. Most importantly, he has no excuse for his reluctance to divulge her secret, other than his long-denied feelings for her. They both know she would be captured and experimented upon if anyone found out what she is, and Ophelia clings to this one gesture of compassion.

But it’s hard to fall for a hero who acts like an utter prick for two-thirds of the story, even when you know his motivation. While the cataclysmic event that almost takes Arthur and Lia from him turns Dario around and he works to help her realize he’s changed, I’m not sure it’s enough for me (although it’s beautifully written). Forte’s writing is truly excellent, so I think this is really my problem with not being able to forgive a hero/heroine who acts so abominably toward another human being.

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz

This was an extremely sweet story (the hero and heroine don’t even kiss in this novella, it’s so in keeping with its time period) set in a rapidly growing steampunk Australia in 1895. Esme Smith is the daughter of a successful inventor who has raised her to be independent and determined in all her endeavors. Right now, she needs a scoundrel, a charming, good-looking man she can hire to inflitrate the exclusive mens’ clubs where politics are discussed. You see, Esme is a suffragette looking to lobby for the vote for women in her young country. Luckily, her uncle, a captain, has just docked and says he has a likely candidate for her on board.

Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

Jedediah Reeve takes one look at the golden-haired beauty in the Captain’s cabin and is more than happy to do anything she wants. He’s even more impressed when she outlines her political machinations; not only does he agree with her, but he also can see her motivation comes from her own sincerity and belief in her cause rather than a bid for personal power. Laughing inside at the thought of being taken for a scoundrel when his family thinks he’s the most boring one of the bunch, he shakes her hand and looks forward to spending more time with her as she coaches him in key talking points.

But Esme has a nemesis in the form of one Nicholas Bambury the Third (what a perfectly pompous name!) who not only wants to use his good looks to court Esme but happens to spout the opposite political agenda at these mens’ clubs where Esme can’t enter. Jed hates him on sight, an instinct only amplified as Bambury’s suit for Esme’s hand becomes apparent, and when Bambury attempts to bully Esme into marrying him, Jed is ready to defend her honor.

Esme is a caring, managing female who has met her match in Jed. Rather than a typical alpha male, Jed revels in Esme’s personality and assists her while making it clear he’s doing what he wants rather than having her direct his every move. Schwartz has a rather expository writing style, with characters filling in a certain amount of backstory. Her strength is the ability to evoke a strong sense of place, with her description playing on all the senses until you can literally see and smell Australia in front of you. The steampunk aspect is natural and unforced and Jed’s real profession of invention offers a conduit to explaining the clockworks and machinery he encounters. My personal taste is for a lot more sexual heat, but this is a lovely story in a setting I truly enjoyed.

Far From Broken by JK Coi

Far From Broken (Seasons of Invention #1) by J. K. Coi (Carina Press, December 5, 2011)

I was trepidatious about tackling yet another second chance romance when they are not my preference, but I was pleasantly surprised to find J. K. Coi’s writing so compelling that I was immediately sucked into this story. Lord Jasper Carlisle (Colonel Carlisle) has had his secret life as a spy come crashing around him. Upon returning home after a disastrous mission, he discovers that his young, vivacious wife, the prima ballerina Calliandra, has been kidnapped from their home. With the help of a few loyal servants and friends, he finds her, horribly tortured and barely alive in a nearby hunting cabin. Having known the military has advanced technology that can help repair massive injuries, Jasper takes Callie to them, agreeing to any price to save her. When her excruciating screams indicate that his presence is not helping, he leaves to track down the three men responsible for torturing her, ensuring their demise is just as painful as what they did to his beloved wife.

Callie is horrified to awaken and see heavy iron limbs with clockwork mechanisms in place of the feet and legs she has danced on all her life. Her iron hand and gunmetal gray eye also appear alien despite the realization that they work better than their predecessors. Sitting more heavily on her spirit than her heinous modifications is the fact that her torture and resurrection are a result of the lies her husband told her – she never knew he was a spy working for the military. When he returns to face her, accepting the blame for her misfortune completely and allowing her to heap the guilt of their situation upon his shoulders, she finds herself confused. Jasper is behaving like he is still in love with her, despite her transmutation into a dark creature when compared to the sunny woman she used to be.

Broken Promises (Seasons of Invention #2) by J. K. Coi (Carina Press, September 10, 2012)

Determined to show Callie that he is still profoundly in love with her, perhaps more so as her strength and inner beauty has become more visible, Jasper is determined to prove himself and let her decide what’s next for their relationship. But his courting of his own wife takes a sudden turn upon an attempt on their life, a bid for assassination which reveals a much more sinister twist in the circumstances of Lord and Lady Carlisle.

WOW. I’m overjoyed to realize that this is actually the first of a series (Seasons of Invention) starring Jasper and Callie because there is no way just one novella is going to cut it with these two people. Jasper is honorable and tortured and Callie demonstrates how a woman can be strong and vulnerable at the same time in her situation. Because of Callie’s modifications, the military now has a claim to her as an agent, a fact which appalls Jasper who thought his bargain was any price the military wanted from him. Callie has a sense of how powerful she is now and part of her newfound outlook on life is that she wants no secrets between her and Jasper. While he still wants to protect her every chance she gets, she’s no longer a delicate flower to be protected, and she forces him to renegotiate their marriage with this in mind.

I think what blew me away the most was the fantastic and very sinister world our hero and heroine live in. Technological adaptations have occurred which make this world a dirty one with people separated into have and have-nots regarding enjoying the benefits of scientific progress. The mysterious and menacing General Black, head of the spy ring for which Jasper and now Callie work, has a story arc within him that I’m eager to read more about. This couple is also not lacking in the hot and heavy department, adding a sexual heat to their marital power dynamics. A nice roster of secondary characters make this a series I will be reading, for sure.

I have to give a major shoutout to the cover designers at Carina Press – I honestly think this was the best grouping of covers I’ve seen in a couple of years. Not only are they beautiful and rich looking, but the accurate level of detail (down to the appearance of the models or the small presence of key story features like the balloon that endangers Lia in This Winter Heart or the map of Australia and the kangaroo in Wanted: One Scoundrel) was astonishing. The cover of the anthology did not disappoint either, with the frosted design of the goggles and the bright red balloon clearly indicating the holiday with a bit of steampunk twist.

This was a fantastic anthology that clued me in to more than a few authors of the genre who I’m going to have to follow. Many thanks to Carina Press and Angela James for compiling such a great collection that will get steampunk lovers’ internal clockworks all warm and fuzzy. :-)

Countdown to Christmas: Samantha Hunter Has a Holiday Classic with I’ll Be Home for Christmas

11 Dec

I’ll Be Yours for Christmas by Samantha Hunter (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2010)

Plenty of great holiday romances aren’t new to the publishing scene and this little gem from Samantha Hunter came out two years ago. Hunter lives in the Syracuse area, and her knowledge with New York state comes through in this romance, which is set in the Lake Cayuga area, known for the beautiful city of Ithaca, home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Samantha Hunter is one of those solid, powerhouse category romance writers (alongside my favorites like Sarah Mayberry and Sarah Morgan) who never seems to take a false step in her writing. I love finding authors like these women since it means you can buy any book they’ve written and you’re pretty much guaranteed it’s going to be great.

I’ll Be Yours for Christmas falls into this category. Abby Harper practically chokes on her food at the cute Ithaca restaurant where she’s lunching with her best friend when she spots Reese Winston. Reese’s family owns the vineyard next to hers, and he teased her for years growing up. When he went away to become a famous Formula One racer in Europe, she figured that was the last she would see of sexy Reese but his recent crash, combined with an ill parent, obviously brought him home.

Reese finds himself thrilled to see Abby Harper again, and she looks even better than the last time he saw her, if that’s possible. For months, all Reese has been able to think about is the pain of his injuries and beating the odds the doctors gave him that he’d ever race again. It’s been depressing, actually, but seeing this pretty blast from the past has made him feel randy, but just for this one woman. When she shows up at his door with a bottle of her family’s wine to chat, he knows she’s there to do much more, particularly with that hungry look in her eye.

Actually Abby was there just to chat. She’s worried that Reese, acting as proxy for his parents, is planning on selling the vineyard to a horrible housing developer, which would ruin her vineyards and their view (which would hurt their tourism business). If she’s casting any looks at Reese, they are no different from the glances she’s been giving him since he defended her (and her braces) against a horrible boy in middle school. From that moment on, she’s had a crush on him. A glass of wine and some passionate kissing and they are both ready for something more horizontal.

The gorgeous scenery of Lake Cayuga, New York. You can even make out the grape vines in the forefront of this picture!

But Reese spots flames out the window and they both run to save Abby’s buildings. In the aftermath of the fire, Abby thinks her business is lost until Reese steps up and invites her to live next door with him in his family’s big house, moving her events and tastings to the Winston Vineyard. He makes it clear he plans to sell, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow, and in the meantime he’ll get to have Abby nearby.

Samantha Hunter does a great job of showing the push/pull in a relationship just starting up, particularly when one party is incredibly damaged physically and emotionally from a recent trauma. Reese wants Abby and they are great together, but he also doesn’t want to discuss his crash or the potential long-term effects of it, and he is almost comical in how he makes clear (again and again) that this is a temporary relationship. Abby gets it – she’s not stupid, after all – and she’s happy to take Reese on his terms, but pulling her close and pushing her away is frustrating and she has too much self-respect to put up with it.

Which is why I like her so much! I also love their sexual dynamic. Abby is as adventurous as any woman Reese has known, happy to take risks and experiment (with a little light bondage, tantric sex, public sex, you name it) and it intoxicates Reese. Like the truly great writer she is, Hunter takes a limited amount of space and fully fleshes out our two protagonists so we know and understand them as people. The ending where Reese names the wine for the way they fell for each other – “Christmas in Bed” is a great name for a vintage! – is so sweet and it’s a satisfying ending all around, with a little compromise from everyone and a lot of love. The holiday plays a minor part in the plot but it’s still there in the background, adding its own blend of romance.

This is an extremely satisfying holiday romance, which would look festive in everyone’s Christmas stocking, along with a bottle of Finger Lakes wine. Thanks, Samantha Hunter, for giving us such a great stand-alone romance!

Countdown to Christmas: To All a Good Night Is Sweeter Than a Cup of Hot Chocolate This Holiday Season

10 Dec

To All a Good Night by Donna Kauffman, Jill Shalvis, and HelenKay Dimon (Kensington Books, October 1, 2009)

We live in a great age for books. Back in the olden days before Amazon, you would have had to rely on friends or paperback exchange stores to find a holiday collection published from a few years ago. Even today, when we are fortunate to find them used, or better yet, download them instantly on an ereader, the paper versions of these books appear on supermarket and bookstore shelves in October/November and then are gone, never to be seen again in a retail store, by New Year’s Day.

Social networks geared toward reading, like Goodreads and LibraryThing, are godsends in that they offer terrific reviews and reader-generated lists of favorites. We can see what books people have loved based around themes, historical periods, or particular kinds of characters (military men, heroines with paranormal abilities, etc.). When I spotted the To All a Good Night anthology on a Goodreads list of great Christmas reads, I was elated. I mean, Donna Kauffman, Jill Shalvis and my recent happy find, HelenKay Dimon? Color me there.

These women do not disappoint. We have three hot, sweet stories with satisfying romantic endings, plenty of emotion, and a heated level of sensuality.

“Unleashed” by Donna Kauffman

I’m looking forward to reviewing Kauffman’s The Three Musketeers series after the holidays!

Based on the books of Donna Kauffman’s that I’ve read (and I’ve enjoyed all of them), her heroines are determined, honorable and unconventionally pretty, a combination I really like. Emma Lafferty fits this mold as a new business owner trying to get her petsitting business off the ground. She agrees to take an unusual two week job at the weekend home of an extremely wealthy older man over the holidays since she hopes it will help build up a more high-end clientele. Driving through a horrible ice storm, she barely makes it to the completely empty mansion before the roads become dangerous. Once there, she easily makes friends with the dogs and parrot in her care, but jumps out of her skin when a sexy male voice asks what she’s doing there.

Trevor Hamilton was hoping to get what he needed and be gone by the time the petsitter arrived but mother nature clearly has other plans. While he needs to get away from her and search his great-uncle’s house, he can’t help but be fascinated by Emma. This petsitter looks at him hungrily – not like the women who want his trust fund, but as if she wants him, the man. He’s trying to keep it playful and not pressure her but he makes his interest clear enough and she’s responding like a dream. One taste of her and Trevor can feel his priorities changing. What suddenly seemed important might not be in the face of finding someone who will love him for himself.

I love stories where people get trapped together due to weather, and this one (with those great dogs and the funny bird) was delightful. Seeing Trevor and Emma just click together, like pieces of puzzle they weren’t aware would fit, was downright heartwarming and I fell for them as hard as they fell for each other. The only part that confused me was the epilogue. I don’t see anything linking this story to another book or series, but the final pages of the novella clearly indicate the connection to another character. I’d love to read a connected story (particularly if I can catch a glimpse of Trevor and Emma again), so if someone knows the answer, please tell me!

“Finding Mr. Right” by Jill Shalvis

I can’t emphasize this enough – whether it’s ball players or firefighters, Jill Shalvis is consistently one of the best contemporary romance writers on the market.

I think that you’re not a true fan of contemporary romance if you don’t love Jill Shalvis. I devour her books and appreciate that she writes novellas as well as she does full-length books. Whether it’s her Lucky Harbor series or her fantastic Animal Magnetism books, Shalvis is as rock solid dependable as her strong heroes.

Her heroines are also full of quirks and that aspect always makes me like them that much more. Maggie Bell has multiple degrees under the white lab coat she wears every day and she loves puzzling out her work, which could help melanoma cancer patients and save lives. She’s aware that her research could also make the company she works for a ton of money, but it’s secondary in her mind which usually is honed like a laser on her work. Since the building is undergoing renovations, however, she finds her mind more than fixated on an extremely fine, blue jeans clad butt belonging to one Jake Wahler, her former high school crush and supervisor of the crew. When her sister tells her to stop trying for the brainiac guys who are just like her and go for someone the exact opposite, her mind naturally turns to Jake.

Jake is pushing his crew to finish this job before the holiday so they can all get their bonus and he can fly to New Orleans to meet his brother and do some serious partying. He can’t help but notice the gorgeous scientist who almost always trips on their equipment as she walks distracted through the hallways, but he’s astonished to find out that she was the 8th grade prodigy who tutored him in high school. Maggie Bell definitely did not look like this, with her killer curves, flawless skin and hair his hands beg to be buried in. She’s acting like the hot sex they had on her lab table was a one-time thing, but when it’s clear she’s getting threatened by someone who wants to hurt her, there’s no way he’s leaving her alone.

Jake was such a guy, and I loved seeing him react to Maggie’s nervous fact spouting (which is the trait of the schoolteacher friend, soon to the be the next heroine, in the Animal Magnetism series, so I’m thinking Jill Shalvis loves her trivia!). The scene with her crashing into the dishwasher was priceless, and I loved the testosterone showdown between Jake and Maggie’s boss, who briefly dated her. Macho guys falling, and admitting they are falling, are some of the sexiest heroes out there and Shalvis never, ever disappoints. I heart her.

“Can You Hand Me the Tape?” by HelenKay Dimon

HelenKay Dimon has published several romantic suspense novels with Harlequin as well.

It was just this holiday “Countdown to Christmas” series that exposed me to HelenKay Dimon with her novella in Romancing the Holiday, and I was impressed enough to get excited upon seeing her name again in this anthology.

As in that novella, this heroine is also someone recovering her self-respect after a crappy relationship. Natalie Pritchard is a tough parole officer whose always been frustrated dealing with her boyfriend’s law partner, Spencer Donovan. She doesn’t think he cares enough about the clients he represents and they’ve had a few run-ins. His partner, Charlie, may be tall and handsome but he’s been a self-absorbed manipulator, too, and she had enough a couple weeks ago when she broke up with him.

But there’s a complication. She had made a “tape” for Charlie for Christmas (uh-huh, that kind) just of herself, but she doesn’t want him or anyone seeing it now. In the hullabaloo of the breakup, he accidentally took it (without knowing what it was) and she desperately wants it back. While it kills her to do it, Spencer is the person most likely to help her. She’s disturbed to find out that Spencer is dissolving his law partnership with Charlie, but she manages to convince him to help her, even with the whole courthouse whispering about the time they are spending together.

Spencer has always hated the way Charlie spoke to his girlfriend, Nat, so much so that it was one of the reasons he’s jettisoning him as a partner. But until Nat swallowed her pride to ask for his help, he never noticed before how beautiful she is and the thought of her making this “tape” has his head spinning with images he can’t ignore. Can she get over the emotional damage Charlie has inflected on her to see what they have is special?

Dimon does a great job showing that, even if you’ve lost a lot of weight, that heavier person still lives inside your head, coloring how you think of yourself. Nat wrestles with her sense of inadequacy but watching her regain her self-respect and throw off Charlie’s past control (the elevator scene was downright triumphant) is fantastic and actually very realistically accomplished. HelenKay Dimon continues to impress me – she’s definitely getting placed on my “must-read” list.

To All a Good Night is another enjoyable anthology by three outstanding writers. One of the benefits of novellas in this format is, if you have only a limited time before bed, or the minutes are ticking by until your kids need you, you can get in a whole story from start to emotional finish and feel like you accomplished something! It’s like three novels in one, and considering the under $5.00 price tag in ebook form or even less money if you find it as a used paperback, you’re clearly getting serious value for your money.

So make that cup of hot chocolate and sit down to something else smooth and sweet with this anthology. You won’t be sorry. :-)

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