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December Read-a-Thon: Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont Offers a Short Novella Ideal for Jane Eyre Fans

31 Dec
Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont (Entangled Flaunts, December 30, 2013)

Twelve Days of Seduction by Maire Claremont (Entangled Flaunts, December 30, 2013)

I’m going to admit that I reread Jane Eyre about twice a year (and usually disdain any media adaptation of Charlotte Bronte‘s novel – no Mr. Rochester can equal the one in my mind), so any romance involving a potential mesalliance between a governess and a highborn man has my immediate attention.

Alexander Hunt, the eighth Duke of Beresford, is trying to remain cold and distant while he informs his beautiful governess that she is about to be fired a few days before Christmas. He’s followed her and discovered that she is a novelist whose work clearly indicates she comes from humble beginnings,. In fact, Miss Adriana Grey is actually Miss Adriana Flint, a granddaughter of an earl whose mother ran away with the man she loved only to fall into ruin in the East End of London. Alexander is no stranger to scandal – the men in his family have a reputation for doing exactly what they feel like, Victorian society be damned. Just the fact that the beautiful Adriana is the governess to his ward, Georgiana (in fact, his illegitimate daughter) right in his home says this is a man who writes his own rules.

Adriana knows that she doesn’t yet make enough money as a novelist to support herself and not turn to the petticoat trade, a direction her life almost took. That she was discovered by her handsome employer is not only disastrous but it also reveals that he has been as fascinated with her as she has been with him, and both of them have attempted to ignore it. Boldly addressing that fact, Adriana challenges Alexander to take the twelve days of Christmas to seduce her – if he can – and see if he would like to keep her as his mistress. While she admits that her background makes her the worst possible person for little Georgiana, the fact remains she loves the little girl and feels a strong attraction to the man. while she’s had only one other intimate relationship, she’s just desperate (and curious) enough to take a chance.

All I Want For Christmas Is a Duke anthology with stories by Delilah Marvelle and Maire Claremont (Entangled: Scandalous, 2012)

All I Want For Christmas Is a Duke anthology with stories by Delilah Marvelle and Maire Claremont (Entangled: Scandalous, 2012)

Claremont is brilliant for gently framing this story with the understanding that Alexander is the head of his family (and therefore answers to no one) and already has indulged in some unconventional behavior, like keeping his by-blow in his own home as his ward. While Adriana is legitimate and descended from aristocracy, her father not being of that class clearly would render her unacceptable to the vast majority of Victorian nobility. There’s definite heat between the hero and heroine but only a few spicy interactions with Alexander being, for the most part, very respectful of Adriana as he wants to get to know her better. I was so impressed at how much backstory on both of them Maire Claremont managed to pack into a mere 76 pages while moving the plot along.

While this story on its own is only $.99, I should also point out that this story is also available in the duology, All I Want for Christmas Is a Duke, also only $.99 and with that purchase you get the additional novella, Merry Christmas, Mrs. Robinson by Delilah Marvelle, an extremely well-regarded romance author. Two stories sound even better than one as long as you get Maire Claremont’s as well.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: The Earl’s Christmas Colt by Rebecca Thomas Is a Delightful Holiday Historical Short

30 Dec

The Earl’s Christmas Colt by Rebecca Thomas (Entangled Flirt, December 30, 2013)

I have a thing for animals in romance, particularly in historicals and what animal is better for this genre than horses? In Rebecca Thomas‘ delightful holiday short from Entangled Flirts, The Earl’s Christmas Colt, both the hero and heroine would rather spend time with horses than find a spouse, but duty calls.

Lady Arabella Sutton is appalled when her otherwise loving older brother informs her that he’s signed the contracts for her to marry…at the end of the week right after Christmas! She knows that she wasn’t that interested in looking for a husband in her last season, but the fact is she’d rather spend her time with her horses, especially since her father recently passed away. But now her brother informs her she’s supposed to marry some horribly old Earl (he’s four and thirty!) who will be a duke one day, as if she cares about that. Feeling betrayed, she heads out for a long ride – sans groom, thank you.

Unfortunately her lovely mare picks up a bad stone, bruising her hoof and forcing Arabella to head through a driving rain to the nearest coaching inn to get her under a dry roof to recuperate. When a handsome stable master with a gorgeous stallion and fetching colt helps her care for her mare and says he’ll help her get a room and send her brother a message, she doesn’t have a name for the strange fluttering in her chest or the tingling skin a chance touch leaves in its wake.

Oliver Westwyck, the Earl of Marsdale, is astonished that the gorgeous, wet young woman who knows horses backwards and forwards is his intended. A stray comment that hints at her disdain for dukes has him giving his mother’s maiden name instead of his own, a decision that allows him to know her a bit better but has him cringing at his deception. He simply wanted a good marriage of convenience after a disastrous engagement years ago trying to have a marriage based on love, but the more time he spends with Arabella, the more he’s worried that this woman is going to be much, much more than he’s ever experienced before. But his lie – and the bigger one perpetuated by Arabella’s brother regarding the state of the family’s finances – could come between whatever common foundation they might have laid in this stable.

I don’t usually fall for short stories with no sexy times, but this one (probably because it was an historical) absolutely charmed me. Author Rebecca Thomas is a self-confessed horse enthusiast and her knowledge and love of this noble animal shines through in her writing. There was a terrific foundation for conflict which, when combined with the sudden attraction between Oliver and Arabella, had me rapidly turning the page. I liked that the brother is well-intentioned and actually quite loving in his decision to match his reluctant sister with a good man who also loves horses. No two-dimensional villains here!

I’m super excited to read some more Rebecca Thomas who appears to be a relatively new author. Please note that this story is also available in the Entangled Flirts bundle, Twelve Days of Christmas Past, which includes not just this story but also the wonderful time-travel romance Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser which I reviewed earlier this month, as well as an additional story by Thomas and another Entangled author. At only $2.99 for four stories, that could be a post-Christmas bargain, but you can get the single story for a mere $.99 if you’d like to start just sampling this particular short. With such a wonderful example, I’ll be eagerly looking forward to her other works, historical or otherwise (and I hope they feature horses prominently).

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: You’ll Be Courting Disaster If You Don’t Read The Scandal Before Christmas by Elizabeth Essex This Holiday Season

29 Dec

The Scandal Before Christmas (The Reckless Brides #3.5 – Ian and Anne) by Elizabeth Essex (St. Martin’s Press, October 8, 2013)

It’s always a joy to find a historical author whose depiction of their chosen time period is so accurate and detail-rich that you feel immersed in the setting. I felt like I had hit the jackpot when I finally succumbed to the charms of Grace Burrows with Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait. Then Nina Rowan’s ‘Twas the Night Before Mischief restored my faith in Victorian romance not written by Jennifer Ashley (who is a goddess with her Highland Pleasures series). Therefore, it was an additional and unexpected pleasure to discover Elizabeth Essex via her holiday novella, The Scandal Before Christmas.

I read some intriguing reviews online about this plain-duckling-turns-swan novella and, since it fit into my December Read-a-Thon format, I thought I’d give it a try. Oh my gosh!! This is a hot, sweet story that burrows under your skin and lives there for a while afterward, and it’s a lovely feeling.

The Scandal Before Christmas lands between the third and fourth full-length novels in Essex’s The Reckless Brides series. Fans of the naval angle of Horatio Hornblower are going to want to definitely check this author out as she has a strong historical background in naval detail and many of her characters have ties to the British navy. Set amid the Napoleonic Wars, this is a hard-core navy setting (no pirate fluff here) as well as with the books being linked loosely via certain characters.

Almost a Scandal (The Reckless Brides #1 – David and Sally) by Elizabeth Essex (St. Martin’s Press, July 31, 2012)

In fact, the hero of this novella served on the ship featured in the first book of the series, Almost a Scandal, where the heroine took her brother’s place to serve in the Navy and ends up falling for her superior officer. In The Scandal Before Christmas, Lieutenant Ian Worth is a victim of ill-fortune at the moment. His overbearing and heartless father Viscount Rainesford has always made his immediate heir tow the line, having dropped off second son Ian on the Navy’s doorstep when the boy was twelve and never looked back. Ian doesn’t exactly love the Navy, but it’s his career and he’s enjoyed the camaraderie of his shipmates while being able to indulge his licentious side when ashore. Unfortunately, he’s informed by his father that his older brother has had a horrible riding accident and appears to be paralyzed, negating any possibility of begetting heirs to inherit the title.

When his father tells him that Ian will have to honor his brother’s betrothal and marry the girl, the officer honed in over a decade of the Navy’s service balks, informing his father that he is already married. Not thrilled, his father nevertheless backs off and Ian is left with needing to get married in the next six days before shoving off for his next assignment. At least he’s got a plum channel dispatch job, which means he gets to return every couple of weeks to the home he loves, Gull Cottage, on the Isle of Wight. But where to find a wife when his experience is with opera singers and amenable barmaids?

Destiny provides an assisting hand when he’s joined in a tavern while drowning his sorrows by an old friend, Colonel Lesley. After hearing his predicament and asking Ian’s requirements – a quiet girl who won’t mind being left alone for long periods and who would shun the town amenities and social whirl – the good colonel informs him that his eldest daughter Anne would be perfect for him. Ian insists that Col. Lesley and his wife bring the girl to Gull Cottage so she can see what she would be getting and determine if she would like Ian enough to go through with the marriage. Ian just prays that he can be attracted to her enough to bed her.

A shot of the shoreline of the Isle of Wight – how lovely and remote is this? No wonder Anne thinks it’s the perfect place to escape her family. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The first glance isn’t promising. Anne Lesley is a plain, brown-haired, sober-gowned young woman who Ian mistook for her mother’s maid, but it’s possible she’s quiet because she can’t get a word in edgewise with such a garrulous mother. Her parents barely seem to notice she’s there and Ian can’t help but feel horribly disappointed at the thought of tying himself to such a plain mouse. Unfortunately, Anne overhears him saying so to his trusted manservant – and Ian realizes that he’s been overheard and feels horrible. In the process of apologizing to her, Ian makes a life-changing revelation, namely that Anne has a lot of impertinence and possibly passion bottled up inside of her, qualities which, when glimpsed in her eyes, suddenly bring her face to life. The chemistry that blazes up startles but pleases them both, but it’s uncertain if Ian can coax Anne to trust him amid all the lies to his father and his trampling over her feelings from the start. With the clock ticking, Ian must woo Anne to marry him to save his own hide while he also realizes that he must win her heart to save his own from breaking as he’s fallen for the woman who hides so much of herself from the world.

What I envision Gull Cottage looking like (this is an actual historic cottage you can actually rent on the Isle of Wight)…

Okay, I haven’t read the other books in this series (a condition I will soon remedy) but I can’t imagine that it’s possible to not love Ian. He is such a straight shooter, saying exactly what he’s thinking and feeling, but he’s also actually quite a gentleman who spoke in frustration at his situation when he accidentally hurt Anne’s feelings in commenting on her first impression. Ian is also a glorious, sensual beast and exactly the right person to appreciate Anne’s bottled up thoughts and emotions, making him the perfect coach to teach her all the rules of physical love. Anne’s anger understandably stems from knowing she has to leave her family before she goes officially insane (how she managed all these years with that mother is a mystery) but knowing that she would not be considered worthy of the handsome son of a Viscount. Once she understands Ian’s predicament she is all empathy, helped along by his sensual kisses and great library (which includes some racy erotic books he’s happy to share).

This novella is hot and tender with the barest hint at the holiday. I loved both the hero and heroine and thought the secondary characters were drawn with exactly the right level of depth to enhance the story but never take it over. Historical detail and language was pitch perfect with some of Ian’s less gentlemanly language and behavior easily explained by his lack of society contact and time in the Navy (and even he realizes he’s defying social mores). I liked that, while he was a bit of manwhore, he immediately recognizes that if he’s to ask a woman to be faithful to him he wants to give her the same in return (hence his desperate hope that they can be physically compatible). I was ready to move to Gull Cottage as it sounded wild, remote and beautiful, the perfect place for Anne to finally get the peace and quiet she deserved. In lieu of taking a vacation there right away (look at those pictures!), I’ll content myself with reading this wonderful novella. :-)

At a mere $1.99 for just under 150 pages, The Scandal Before Christmas is an excellent way to sample Elizabeth Essex’s writing and realize that you may have found another great historical romance author to add to your shelves.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Remind Yourself How Lucky You Are With the Military Anthology, A Soldier’s Christmas

28 Dec

A Soldier’s Christmas, featuring novellas by Leslie Kelly, Joanne Rock, and Karen Foley (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2013)

I’m a sucker for military romance any month out of the year, but come December, romances featuring members of our armed forces grab me by the throat as much as those damn Hallmark commercials or that Apple commercial with the kid who makes the video which induces the whole family to cry.

Fortunately the addition of hot sex and the promise of a happily ever after helps balance me out, and even luckier for me, the clever editors over at Harlequin’s Blaze line seem to know this, as based on their latest holiday anthology,  A Soldier’s Christmas.

Because it’s Blaze, readers get the perfect combination of sexy heat in these encounters balanced by the holiday “awwwww” each of them evokes. Luckily each of these three excellent writers have serious military romance chops, so you’ll be impressed by the tone and authenticity of each novella, I promise. Let’s get to the breakdown, okay?

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Leslie Kelly

Although it’s not yet listed on Leslie Kelly’s Santori series (featuring a very fun and feisty Italian American family from Chicago), this novella is actually part of that group. Ellie can’t believe that Rafe Santori has turned up at the New Year’s Eve party for a local pet rescue. This soldier broke up with her years ago after the best relationship (and sex) of her life, telling her that it was unfair to make her wait for him when he had several more years of service ahead of him in the Rangers. He seems shocked that she’s recently engaged to her good friend Dennis, but why would he be? He told her to move on and that’s exactly what this veterinary student has done. One slow dance and a New Year’s kiss that drags up old memories and he disappears. Again.

Flash forward a couple of years and Ellie is stranded in the airport in New York on Christmas Eve, desperate to get back to Chicago to be with Dennis and her family. While she didn’t marry him, he did marry her best friend – Rafe’s divebombing back in her life made Ellie realize that she didn’t have the necessary spark with Dennis (but he did with someone else). He’s a great partner with their small animal clinic and since it’s his baby’s first Christmas Ellie wants to be there. With a massive snowstorm burying the East Coast in snow, her only hope is to rent an SUV and chance the roads. Guess what soldier just got the last one?

Don’t Open Till Christmas (Santori Stories #3 – Mark and Noelle) by Leslie Kelly (Harlequin Blaze, 2005)

Yep, it’s Rafe, who seems startled to see her but hesitantly asks if Ellie wants to share his ride. She realizes that this is fate giving her the opportunity to see if the man she fell in love with seven years ago still exists under that uniform. For Rafe, he knows he’s torturing himself with a married woman but he can’t help it – the thought of Ellie is what gave him comfort during some lonely nights and if he has to live with the reminder that he was an idiot for letting her go then so be it. The news that she is not married – especially when combined with his revelation that he’s officially stateside for one more year in the Rangers and then he’s a civilian – puts a whole different tone on their trip home. A few sexy detours into questionable motels due to the weather and these two people are contemplating that a Christmas miracle may have occurred…if they can convince the other person to take a chance.

One of my favorite things about Leslie Kelly’s writing is her sense of humor and this novella is no exception, continuing the hilarious situational fun and banter that I found in another book of the series (also a Christmas themed one), Don’t Open Until Christmas, Rafe’s brother Mark and his wife Noelle’s full-length novel. The whole series is fantastic (this is one over the top Italian family I’d love to join) but both Mark Santori’s story and this novella featuring his war-weary brother, Rafe, will brighten your holiday season.

“Presents Under the Tree” by Joanne Rock

Las Vegas producer Arianna Demakis is nervous this Christmas Eve and it’s not because she’s juggling three shows tonight. No, the reason she’s on edge is because sexy Air Force Captain Dylan Rivera – a man who gave her one unforgettable night four months ago – has promised to spend the holiday with her. It’s almost midnight and Ari is worried that he’s a no show, and she’s disappointed (but not surprised) since Dylan went on a mission right after their tequila-fueled celebration. She hasn’t heard from him since and it’s not a huge shock except for the fact that they are…um…married.

Full Surrender by Joanne Rock (Harlequin Blaze, September 1, 2012)

Dylan makes it to Ari by the skin of his teeth in the parking lot outside one of her theaters and finds himself as lost in her beauty and fire as ever. He’s happy to see she’s still wearing the ring he put on her finger four months ago but he knows she’s bound to ask for a divorce. He’s loved Ari since they were friends in high school, and couldn’t believe his luck when she showed up for his thirtieth birthday celebration. They’d promised each other senior year that they’d consider getting married if they both hit the big 3-0 and weren’t hitched yet. But he knows she must be worried that their alcohol-filled night was a mistake and he’s got a limited amount of time to convince her.

Dylan was adorable in his geekiness and the fact that he’s been thinking about Ari for years. He finds her fierce independence not just sexy but also potentially exactly what they would need if she agrees to give this marriage a chance – his tech job is perfect for a former chess club leader but his work falls under the highly classified label and he’ll potentially be out of touch for weeks and months at a time. Rock does a great job sketching both characters and showing their shared history and common interests that make their sudden marriage actually believable. I did wish that there was a little more discussion for the final revelation of feelings – and a hint of exactly how their relationship would work. I also felt like I was missing if this excellent novella was connected to another story; Ari compares her marriage to her friend Krista, who is married to a Lt. Col. (Lars?) in the Air Force – is this another Uniformly Hot novel? I really wish that Blaze would make a point of just tucking in a reference for readers at the start or end of novellas when there is a connection to another story. I don’t want to miss out and I’m enough of a completionist to be irritated if there’s another book I should be reading, particularly by an an author whose work I enjoyed in another story.

This was my first Joanne Rock story and I’ll definitely be trying another. She seems to have written quite a few military romances and other Blaze novels, as well as has a few historicals under her belt and is clearly an author worth exploring!

“If Only In My Dreams” by Karen Foley

Hot-Blooded by Karen Foley (Harlequin Blaze, 2010)

Navy SEAL Aiden Cross cannot figure out why he feels so horrible or why he’s no longer with his team traipsing through the African jungle on their mission. The only silver lining about waking up in a hot tent in excruciating pain is seeing army medic, Sergeant Lily Munroe hovering over him. He’s been attracted to her since the first moment he saw her nine months ago at a joint operations center in Entebbe. Knowing that relationships in the field can be more like hook-ups and often disrespectful to the women involved, he ignored his attraction (and hers). Much to his chagrin, his team buddy Brad swooped in and got involved with her, so she’s doubly off limits now, even if Aiden wasn’t suffering from Dengue fever. The only silver lining in all this pain is the news that he’s being shipped stateside for recovery in time for Christmas with his family and that Lily is going with him since she’s rotating out.

Lily has been extremely worried about Aiden and is more than a little nervous about traveling with him. Christmas is a pretty unhappy time in her family since her mother died on Christmas Eve when Lily was still a child, so she’s in no rush to get home. Despite her being attracted to Aiden and letting him know it, he wasn’t interested, hence her childish flirting with his buddy which came to nothing. When Aiden mentions on the trip home that he only believes in serious relationships and Lily knows she only does casual – having seen how hurt people can be when someone they love dies – she thinks that’s the door closing officially on anything they might have. But a combination of getting snowed into a midwest town without hope of making it home for the holiday, and her dispelling Aiden’s misconceptions that she’s in a relationship, seems to make their dynamic take a drastic shift. Sharing the last room in town might help Lily get her Christmas wish of Aiden in her bed, but the question still remains if there can be any kind of future between them.

OMG – such a good novella. I enjoyed having a military story not set in the Middle East and especially liked the realistic feeling of the misunderstanding between Aiden and Lily regarding her “relationship” with Brad. The B&B scenes were heartwarming and did a great job demonstrating Aiden’s ability to truly understand Lily and her fears – this was one man who I bet was amazing on a mission considering how focused he was on his objective! I’ve enjoyed several of Foley’s other military romances but just went out and bought a few others based on how hot and sweet this one was. She bowled me over!

Because of the nature of a soldier’s life, it’s hard not to come away from A Soldier’s Christmas being both high on the bittersweet romance of each story as well as impressed by the writing. As a reader, you are naturally thankful both for the men and women of our armed forces but also for being at home with family during the holidays when so many other people aren’t. I think a lot of the emotion I experienced reading this anthology wasn’t just provoked by the outstanding stories told, but how fortunate I felt to have love and family this holiday season in my life after seeing each of these couples experience their emotional roller-coaster during a potentially difficult time.

This is a terrific addition by the Blaze line to both their quality holiday novellas as well as their military romance collection.

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Put a Little Cowboy in Your Holiday with Cowboys & Angels by Vicki Lewis Thompson

27 Dec

Cowboys & Angels (Sons of Chance #13 – Trey and Elle) by Vicki Lewis Thompson (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2013)

There is a lot to love about Vicki Lewis Thompson – she’s an expert at writing heroes who aren’t bruising alphas (but who don’t lack sexiness or conviction); she’s phenomenally versatile with contemporary, paranormal, military and western books in her oeuvre; she’s prolific so fans never have to wait long before another great book of hers comes down the pike; and she seems like a great person, as evidenced by the love of family and animals expressed on her Facebook and Twitter accounts.

This holiday season, she’s given us yet another reason to appreciate her with the thirteenth installment of her wonderful western series, the Sons of Chance.

Based on the group of siblings who run a horse breeding operation and ranch not far from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Sons of Chance series not only focuses on the Chance siblings but also on their extended family, friends and ranch hands. Thompson writes these books so you can easily pick up one and understand everything (although be warned you’ll find the secondary characters interesting enough that you’ll go out and find their books to read after sampling them in a few pages).

In Cowboys & Angels, Trey Wheeler has never stopped looking for his angel. Last spring, distracted from a bad breakup with his girlfriend, he lost control of his car and ended up thrown into a snowbank. A woman rescued him – a blond angel with blue eyes and a musical voice – but he never discovered her name and his concussion made it hard to remember exactly what she looked like. After months of looking, he still hasn’t given up hope, but to commemorate her saving him he had a pair of angel’s wings tattooed on his arm.

In Jackson Hole for the wedding of longstanding friends (who have booked an entire ski resort for the weekend to the delight of the Chance family and their friends), he’s shocked to be in the local gift shop and hear the voice of his angel. One good look at her and he feels like he has another concussion – she’s gorgeous, modest about helping him, and a ski instructor at the resort. Elle Masterson is the total package and Trey’s already halfway to being in love with her. Too bad she’s looking at him like he’s a card short of a full deck.

Harlequin Blaze December 2013 Bundle – a terrific deal at only $9.99 for almost 700 pages of killer Blaze novels and anthologies.

Elle immediately recognizes the cowboy she helped out of a snowbank and into a hospital. His accident happened right before she left for her summer job teaching skiing in Argentina, but she’s back for her shift in Jackson Hole. He’s even better looking than she remembered (and that’s saying something) but his gratitude and the fact that he had brokenly called for a woman when he was injured tells Elle that Trey is a full-throttle kind of guy, and with her life split over two continents for her job, she can’t do anything but casual. Still, Trey doesn’t give up and a combination of the fact that he’s a great musician – who wrote her a song back when she was his anonymous angel, for goodness sake – and that he delivers knee-weakening kisses make her throw her “no relationships with guests” rule to the wind. But she’s worried that she’ll be nothing but heartache to a man who can’t give less than everything and that she’ll discover that the heart she’s guarded for so long can definitely be broken.

OMG – I love it that a common trope in Thompson’s work is the heroine who is definitely not ready for a long-term relationship, either because she’s been burned in the past or because her career is at a place where it’s hard to fit in. It’s always impressive that in the length of a category romance novel (which we all know isn’t long) she manages to give us enough backstory on Elle to understand her tough family situation and how she’s worked hard all her life to not get attached to people or places. That pathology forms an understandable barrier when it comes to resisting Trey and she’s only half-successful, because – my God – who could resist him? He’s such a romantic and the perfect gentlemen (respectful to women at all times and a tiger in the sack – yowza). Trey is tailor-made for breaking down Elle’s defenses and I liked that her epiphany was a little slow in coming, with the perfect denouement occurring at Christmas on the ranch.

Cowboys & Angels is a fantastic western holiday novel which moves quickly and to an excellent resolution. Keep in mind that Harlequin is also offering it as part of a four-novel holiday bundle for only $9.99, which includes Tawny Weber’s Naughty Christmas Nights as well as the anthology A Soldier’s Christmas featuring a wonderful reunion story by Leslie Kelly. Just the novel by itself will only set you back around $3.00, so either deal is a great holiday bargain.

Give yourself a hot, romantic cowboy for the holiday with this fantastic book from Vicki Lewis Thompson. You’ll find very quickly that you’re in the mood for country. ;-)

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: A Naughty Girl Gets a Happily Ever After in Twas the Night Before Mischief by Nina Rowan

26 Dec

‘Twas the Night Before Mischief (Daring Hearts #2.5 – Darius and Penelope) by Nina Rowan (Forever, December 10, 2013)

It’s always the mark of a good novella when the minute you finished it, you’ve hopped online and are ordering the other books in the series. That’s exactly what you get upon finishing Nina Rowan‘s third installment in her Daring Hearts series, focusing on the Hall siblings. Set during the Victorian period, this rather unusual aristocratic family has lived under the umbrella of their mother’s scandal in both St. Petersburg and in London, so naturally, as the siblings come of age, conventional relationships are not going to meet their needs.

Falling between the second and the third full-length book (which comes out in late May 2014), this novella focuses on the serious Hall twin, the spectacled Darius. His fascination with machinery has led him to have a multi-year professional relationship with Henry Darlington, an innovative confectioner, who has worked with Darius on various ways of separating out cocoa butter. This collaboration allows Darius to see the effect of Henry’s sudden remarriage on his twelve year old daughter, Penelope, and offer his own brand of rather (ineffective) cerebral comfort.

Flash forward and Darius is interested in seeing the now fully-grown Penelope again but is shocked at what he finds. Rather than the dutiful, quiet daughter he remembers, this young woman is stunning and vivacious, attracting male attention right and left. In particular, she’s garnered the focus of a Scottish fortune hunter who the Hall family recently ran off from Darius’ sister, Talia, but Darius’ warning to Penelope seems to fall on deaf ears. Yet even this changed Penelope still has the fire in her eyes that always attracted Darius and he steals a mind-blowing, stunning kiss under the mistletoe.

It doesn’t stop Penelope from running away with her Scottish suitor. She’s tired of being the dutiful daughter and getting no recognition from her father. While she likes her stepmother and siblings, she nevertheless feels like she’s on the outside looking in and the memory of her daring mother who would fill a room with the force of personality makes Penelope want more than the invisibility of a woman’s lot in life. She wants someone to truly see her, and so far no one has. When her elopement doesn’t work out and her father’s cool, intellectual colleague Darius Hall shows up in Scotland to rescue her, humiliation wars with relief…and something more. For Penelope finds that Darius is really more like his mistletoe kisses than the cool scientist he leads people to believe, and she might not be the only one with a fire inside. But will their short trip back to London be enough time to explore what’s between them before Penelope has to go back to being a good girl?

I cannot wait to read the rest of Nina Rowan’s Daring hearts series if this novella is any indication. It’s clear by both the author’s Ph.D. in Art History from McGill University, as well as her writing style, that she endows her characters with broad intellectual interests well-rooted in excellent research and solid theory – my favorite kind of historical writing! Both Penelope and Darius are extremely compelling, likable characters and it’s a joy to see them gain a greater understanding of each other. While it’s hard to imagine an aristocrat (even a much younger son) marrying a shopkeeper’s daughter, Rowan does make it clear even in this novella that the Halls are an unconventional lot who have lived through enough scandal that a little more doesn’t really faze them.

While there are a few mistletoe kisses (and a seriously naughty inn scene), there also isn’t a huge emphasis on Christmas, just the holiday season in general, so it’s a wonderful story to continue your holiday reading through the end of December. Many thanks to Ms. Rowan for writing such a terrific novella!

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan Will Insure You Have a Very Merry Christmas

25 Dec

Sleigh Bells in the Snow (The O’Neill Brothers #1 – Jackson and Kayla) by Sarah Morgan (HQN, November 1, 2013)

If I’m going to bother to write a review for Christmas morning, you can be darn sure it’s going to be a really good book that I’m recommending. Knowing that I wanted a story with serious oomph, I deliberately held off on even reading Sarah Morgan’s Sleigh Bells in the Snow – I wanted it to be like a present to myself. So one night with the snow drifting outside, the ski slope lit up in the distance (you can see one from my living room windows) and a fire crackling, I sat down and read it in one sitting.

It is always so exciting to watch a terrific category romance author take the plunge into longer length, single title books. Granted, it’s nerve-wracking – can they make it? Are they able to fill all those extra pages with solid character development and tension or will the book feel like a category romance with way too many scenes?

No one who loves Sarah Morgan has anything to worry about with the recent release of her outstanding Christmas novel, Sleigh Bells in the Snow. Not only has she graduated to writing emotional longer books with compelling characters and sniffle-inducing families, but (thank god) this book starts up a series, the O’Neill Brothers, that feels a lot like Jill Shalvis’ Animal Magnetism series or Bella Andre’s Sullivan series, so if you enjoy those two contemporary authors and their family dynamic, you probably want to take a look at the sexy, skiing O’Neills.

Jackson O’Neill has made more than a name for himself in the global skiing industry with his running some of the most successful European skiing locales. But after his father’s tragic death, he dropped it all to come home to Vermont and take over Snow Crystal Resort, the ski resort founded by his great-grandfather and handed down to each eldest son. Unfortunately for the entire O’Neil family, Jackson’s father loved the skiing but not the business side of things, meaning Jackson has inherited not only a property inches away from bankruptcy, but also a large family grieving his father’s passing while also having a noisy stake in the business. Arguing with his irascible grandfather, his concerned grandmother and mother, as well as his two brothers is the norm but it doesn’t make it any less exhausting. He knows they need serious help and Jackson has a line on a fabulous PR firm in Manhattan which supposedly has some kind of wunderkind in the ranks who can turn around businesses like his. Wasting no time, he goes to New York to take a look.

How I picture some of the O'Neill's resort. And how do I get some of that Belgian hot chocolate??

How I picture some of the O’Neill’s resort. And how do I get some of that Belgian hot chocolate??

Kayla Green was happy to leave London for New York for the plum position at Innovation PR and she’s well on her way to being the youngest vice-president in the company’s history. Right now her major problem is that she hates Christmas and yet is living in a city known for attracting tourists just to enjoy the holiday atmosphere…and it’s killing her. When she hears her workaholic boss is interested in her taking over the O’Neill account – and that doing the preliminary pitch and research would involve her being at a secluded mountain cabin with no holiday decorations – she’s all over it. That Jackson O’Neill is one of the handsomest men she’s seen in forever is just an added complication, but it’s something she’s sure she can ignore.

That is, until she gets to Vermont, and then nothing can be ignored – not the weather which she’s woefully unprepared for, or the fact that she didn’t even know what a moose looked like, or that she’s never skied. What really can’t be ignored is the tumultuous, lovable, frustrating O’Neill family who seem to live and breathe not just every aspect of the holiday but also highlight to Kayla everything that is missing in her life, bringing up the most painful memories and forcing her to face her demons. But facing all those dark fears while trying to be a professional and help Snow Crystal find its deserved place on the map is next to impossible, particularly while fighting her growing attraction to Jackson – it’s like Kayla is in the middle of an emotional blender.

The O'Neill family has a history of horse-drawn sleigh proposals. Seriously!

The O’Neill family has a history of horse-drawn sleigh proposals. Seriously!

When Jackson realizes that this vulnerable side to Kayla is even more attractive than the sexy, blonde killer with that knee-weakening British accent he saw in the Manhattan boardroom, nothing is going to stop him from getting under her skin and into her bed. O’Neills are renowned for knowing what they want and going after it with serious determination, and Jackson knows that Kayla is not only what the resort needs, she’s also precisely what’s been missing in his life as well. But getting past her icy walls is going to take some serious maneuvering and possibly the help of his whole family to win her.

Oh, wow. I defy you to not fall for each one of these frustrating, flawed, sexy, wonderful O’Neills! At just shy of 400 pages, Sleigh Bells in the Snow has ample time for character development beyond just the hero and heroine and Morgan takes advantage of the extra length, sussing out family history and conflicts and giving us a little backstory on each of the family members and secondary characters. It’s easy to see the other brothers’ future matches (and how hard it’s going to be to make those work) while being reminded that it’s often very easy to see other people’s problems while being blind to your own. Kayla’s backstory is so painful that I want her parents invited to the resort simply so the O’Neills can detonate an avalanche above them – it’s not hard to appreciate how much she has to overcome in the space of a short week to face what she could have with Jackson and his family.

Suddenly Last Summer (The O’Neill Brothers #2 – Sean and Elise) by Sarah Morgan (HQN, June 24, 2014)

Perhaps because of all this great character development, there is terrific potential for the future books in the series, and not just with the wonderful brothers. Peppy cousin Dana and the outlier sheriff Josh are ripe for their own novella(s) and I can picture a prequel or two for both the O’Neill brothers’ parents and the grandparents considering the hints dropped regarding their proposal stories which also happened at the resort. This is one romantic mountain!

The only disappointment to be had with Sleigh Bells in the Snow is that 1) these gorgeous men are sadly fictitious and 2) this mountain resort with its private cabins and hot tubs doesn’t actually exist. So, you are left with doing the next best thing and booking your time with the first of Sarah Morgan’s fabulous series. Stay tuned for the second book in the series, which focuses on the hilarious, very French chef of the resort, Elise, and Jackson’s twin brother, Boston’s top orthopedic surgeon, Sean, who are both confronted with the memory of a spectacular summer night together when he comes back for a visit. Their story, Suddenly Last Summer, will be out by the end of June 2014 and this reader has already pre-ordered it!

Many thanks to Sarah Morgan for giving me such a great book (and such a terrific family) to love this holiday season. Merry Christmas!

December Read-a-Thon: Snowbound Wedding Wishes Anthology Gives Us a Holiday Dose of Harlequin Historical

24 Dec

Snowbound Wedding Wishes by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford, and Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, November 1, 2012)

I’m really picky about my historical romance authors – REALLY picky – so much so that I often don’t try new authors until I’ve read every review on Amazon and Goodreads of a given book. The slightest whiff of something off – using language not yet invented in the time period, extremely unconventional behavior for the era or excessive dickishness of the hero – and I won’t even pick it up. I guess my paranoia stems from the fact that with a history/biology double major in college, I know enough about historical periods that it’s easy to jar me out of the story with the result that I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

With this caveat, you can imagine that I actually do like anthologies (and anyone who reads this blog knows I love them as a method of finding new authors). When I saw that Harlequin Historical had produced an anthology last year entitled Snowbound Wedding Wishes, containing stories by Louise Allen, Lucy Ashford and Joanna Fulford – all Harlequin authors I have seen receive good reviews – it occurred to me that this volume was an excellent opportunity for me to perhaps highlight a great book for the December Read-a-Thon while also dipping a toe and seeing if I would like these authors as much as everyone else.

Mission accomplished. I was impressed with not only the writing but particularly the historical detail provided in each of these stories, which all possessed accuracy in the historical representation of the Regency period, lovely heroes and heroines, and a distinct voice.

“An Earl Beneath the Mistletoe” by Louise Allen

Major Hugo Burnham can’t believe he survived the Penisular Wars to be caught on a freezing cold night a few days before Christmas so he can die of exposure in the English countryside. On his way home to his ancestral manor, circumstances detoured him from his original route until he is more than a little lost. Both he and his horse are thrilled to see a light in the distance and even more astonished when a lovely widow answers the door to the alehouse he finds tucked away in a small hamlet. Her twin boys are bright as copper pennies and the more time he spends with them, the more Hugo realizes that Emilia and the boys have him wanting – wanting a real family. Despite her having a cultured accent, it’s clear they are not nobility (if they were, they wouldn’t be in an alehouse) and any protectiveness he feels toward her must just be a result of empathy for her circumstances.

In addition to numerous historical romances, Louise Allen is also the author of the well-rated nonfiction book, Walking Jane Austen’s London, a guide I hope to one day take to heart while exploring that city with an eye to a favorite author!

Emilia Weston realizes that the handsome serious major is definitely above her station, at least her station now. Having eloped with a poor younger son from a good family earned her family’s disinheritance, leaving Emilia with few options. Now she exists in limbo in the village, politely tolerated by the villagers and given the occasional head nod from the local gentry but belonging to neither. She wants to make sure that the boys have everything they need to at least enter the law and have a chance at financial success and happiness. She’s made the best of her circumstances and she wouldn’t have given up the time with her loving husband for anything, even with her hardships – Giles was a wonderful husband who did his best for her. Some of the side benefits of that relationship are foremost in her mind as the honorable Hugo can’t seem to keep his hands and mouth off Emilia despite his best intentions and she’s frightened to discover she doesn’t want him to. As the snow deepens and this officer stays under her roof for Christmas, Emilia can’t imagine that any Christmas miracle can be forthcoming regarding her growing feelings for someone she’s sure is an aristocrat.

I adored this story! Emilia is plucky and yet real, with frustrations that make her a three-dimensional character and one easy for the reader to fall for, to say nothing of Hugo (the poor man didn’t stand a chance). Allen’s details about Emilia’s daily work with the ale were fabulous and yet never crossed into “info dump” territory – very skillful. Hugo’s character is totally understandable and coming home from the war, taking up his role as the Earl of Burnham, and then falling in love with an alewife had to equal not just a hell of week but a tough adjustment for him. Hearing about Hugo’s childhood gave further insight into his immediate understanding of Emilia’s unique and loving mothering style, and this helps him begin the mental trek to thinking about what he wants in a wife and family. The resolution was plausible and extremely emotionally satisfying, causing me to turn the final page with a huge grin on my face. I’ll be checking out other Louise Allen books for sure!

“Twelfth Night Proposal” by Lucy Ashford

Theo, Lord Dalbury has experienced a strange series of events. A former officer in Wellington’s army, he returned to England after Waterloo and was happy with his friends and a minor barony to his name. Then an elderly woman he had only met once left him a property in Derbyshire with some strange instructions and his life has taken a strange turn. His immediate goal is to simply take a look at the property while conveniently avoiding all the matchmaking mothers of the ton, but the vicious country roads and uncooperative weather is making what should be straightforward all too difficult. An odd encounter with a group of children, led by a blond beauty dressed as a lad, ends in a fall from his horse and unconsciousness – a rather ignominious introduction to Northcote Hall, his new property.

The Captain’s Courtesan by Lucy Ashford (Harlequin Historical, September 1, 2012)

What he finds is at once horrifying and mysterious. Northcote Hall is in shambles with only a flighty housekeeper and corrupt steward at the helm. After witnessing the steward sexually threatening the young blond woman he met at the scene of his accident, Theo fires him and attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. The blond, Miss Jenna Bruchs, is no peasant but neither is she gentry and she and her mother are fiercely attached to the Hall. In fact, she and many of the locals appear overly eager to see him take up residence, an attitude undoubtedly linked to the former steward’s vicious rein of terror. Theo guesses that Jenna is the natural daughter of an aristocrat stemming from when her mother worked as a housekeeper, and the more time he spends with her the more he wants her. But what kind of future can they have together, even during the twelve days of Christmas?

This was a wonderfully written story with a compelling hero and a feisty young woman trapped in almost impossible circumstances. The villain is horrible and yet more than just a two-dimensional vehicle to move the plot along. Terrific conflict and a very satisfying resolution from the unconventional Theo made me love the ending. My only criticism is how disappointed I am to find that Lucy Ashford does not appear to have any social media presence to speak of, with just a basic (if lovely) website for readers. I worry her talent is not being as showcased as it could without this way of reaching the many fans she must have. Reading hundreds of romance novels a year, I’ve seen the correlation that authors with no social media presence always have fewer reviews and, I imagine, fewer sales. My fingers are crossed that she overcomes her reticence and embraces more of a digital footprint!

“Christmas at Oakhurst Manor” by Joanna Fulford

This is a reunion romance (which normally I’m not a huge fan of) but Ms. Fulford made this quite realistic and lovely. Ten years ago Max Calderwood told the woman he loved that he was leaving her to go to India and make his fortune. Vivien was high-born and Max felt he could not give her what she deserved or even keep her in the style she was used to. Setting her free was the hardest thing he had ever done, especially after hearing her plea to take her with him while he sought his fortune, but he knew he was doing the right thing, even when he told her not to wait for him. Working hard in India, Max realized he made a huge mistake based on how he was devastated by the news of her marriage, but it was the bed he made and he resolved to lie in it.

A decade later, Max is incredibly rich and has finally made his way back to England to purchase a property and enjoy that for which he labored all those years. Startled to see Vivien at a house party for Christmas, he’s astonished not only with the realization that she is even more beautiful than he remembered, but the news that she has been a widow for 18 months and has two children. Her sadness and vulnerability call to him, but he’s unsure if she would be willing to take a chance on the man who hurt her all those years ago.

The Viking’s Defiant Bride by Joanna Fulford (Harlequin Historical, 2009)

Vivien actually knew Max was going to be at the Christmas party but she couldn’t disappoint her friend or her children and back out at the last minute. It’s unfair that he’s even more handsome than ever – and clearly the target of other women’s matrimonial designs – to say nothing of the fact that he’s wonderful with her children, something their father never was. Vivien married a much older man, convinced respect would make for a good marriage and she’s regretted the decision so much that even his death was a guilty relief. She’s glad to have her children, but with her husband a poor money manager, their future is extremely uncertain. Yet Vivien is strong enough to stand her ground and not make the mistake again of accepting marriage where there is no love. When Max attempts to convince her that his feelings are still strong even after all this time, Vivien is forced to face her demons to see if she is the still the brave woman she once was.

I enjoyed this novella very much and want to sample Joanna Fulford‘s other writing after reading it. With my recent interest in the surge of Viking romances, I was interested that Fulford, mostly a Regency historical author, has dabbled in the Viking genre to good reviews. I’m going to have to look at those and at some of her other Regency tales since this one had a sweetness to it (it was the only story of the three with no sex, just kissing) that was period appropriate and endearing. Perhaps because of that, it felt very accurate to me, with both the hero and heroine taking a while to work up to anything beyond polite pleasantries. That undercurrent of the unsaid subtext felt very Austen, which I liked. The characters are still extremely honest about their feelings to themselves which keeps the story moving.

New UK cover for the anthology

Snowbound Wedding Wishes is an anthology I can heartily recommend to historical romance authors who enjoy the Regency period, particularly when the holiday season is the focus. While I had held onto this book since last year, I’d like to point out that it’s recently been reissued by Harlequin UK with a different cover for their British audience, who I’m sure will also greatly enjoy it.

At less than $5 for almost 300 pages, the cost of this anthology feels like a good bargain to me (although you might also want to check your local library since it has been out for a year). I’m pleased to have found three authors who have published enough that I have a nice body of their work to explore and to gain further confidence in Harlequin’s Historical line to know that their editing and author choice is rock solid.

Happy reading (and Merry Christmas)!

December Read-a-Thon: Bayou Noel by Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright Offers An Addictive Holiday Snippet of a Great Series

23 Dec

Bayou Noel (Bayou Heat #8.5 - Garrick & Molly) by Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright (Amazon Digital Services, December 11, 2013)

In my job as a librarian during the day, I often recommend great YA novels to my teenagers with the laughing caveat that certain books should come with warning stickers like “Warning! You will not do any homework while this book is on your end table.”

Please note the adult warning for Bayou Noel. “This delicious holiday novella is a gateway drug to the addictive Bayou Heat series.” Come on. Everyone is doing it (in these books!).

Granted, it is the holiday, which means that hopefully the vast majority of romance readers have more time off for reading. Add to that this novella is a mere 60 pages and you can devour it between ham bastings. The best part is that, like me, you can read it with zero knowledge of the series and no difficulty understanding anything. (And then, like me, run out and buy the first six books of the series which you read while your husband watches three football games in a row.) Since Bayou Noel is currently free on Amazon - and a great deal that I featured in my Sunday Reflection post yesterday) – you can read it and see if you like the writing of Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright. I certainly did!

Set in the world of the Pantera, mythical puma shifters living in an enchanted world in the Louisiana bayou where humans cannot enter, this book is a prequel (and should actually be labeled book #0.5) since it happens prior to Raphael finding his mate in the magical human Ashe in book one of the Bayou Heat series. The Pantera work hard to insure the safety of their people, particularly since their numbers are dwindling with no new babies in the last 50 years. They may be a long-lived species but mated pairs want cubs. With the Nurturers handling the medical and personal care, the Suits handling diplomacy and business out in the human world, and Hunters insuring the safety of their people, each person is sure that their efforts help their friends and family.

Raphael / Parish (Bayou Heat 1 & 2 – Raphael and Ashe, Parish and Julia) by Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright (Amazon Digital Services, January 3, 2013)

Garrick knows that his work on behalf of the Pantera is worthwhile. Coming from a long line of diplomats, he’s seen the sacrifices his family have personally made for their people which is why he’s busy in Paris negotiating the purchase of a safe house. Returning to his apartment, he’s immediately cheered to see a letter from home. Molly, his elderly mother’s caregiver, always sends him missives filled with humor and all the news of the bayou and these notes continue to keep him strong. He’s naturally shocked and borderline ballistic when the letter he thought was a newsy installment instead turns out to be Molly’s resignation. Without even thinking about it, he books a flight to Louisiana.

Molly is sad to be leaving the pithy, elderly Virginia but she knows it’s the right choice to go back to Medical for her career and her personal peace of mind. She’s loved Garrick for five years, the two of them pouring out their hearts and minds to each other in their letters, but every time he’s come home (and that hasn’t been often), he’s treated her like an aloof employer. She needs to give up on her dream of him and even Garrick bursting on the scene and ordering her not to leave is not going to dissuade her. But for all his bluster, can Garrick face what’s between them with courage, or will he simply run away again?

Garrick is the ultimate, oblivious alpha male. Everyone around him can clearly see that he’s desperate to mate Molly if not for the emotional baggage he’s carrying from his childhood, baggage she has no knowledge of since he’s managed not to mention it in his letters. Molly is the spunky heroine we all are bound to admire who won’t let herself be used by Garrick when her heart is on the line – she’s strong enough to demand all or nothing and you’ll be ready to cheer her on even after a short acquaintance.

The Bayou Heat Bundle (the first six books of the series) – a steal for only $4.99 when the books would normally cost you around $7, plus you can get Bayou Noel for free!

In sixty pages, the talented team of Alexandra Ivy and Laura Wright managed to have me order the first book of the Bayou Heat series, Raphael/Parish, which then led me to return it so I could instead purchase the very affordable (and better financial deal) of the Bayou Heat Bundle which includes books 1 – 6 and is only $4.99. As each “book” is only just under 100 pages, and they each have a cliffhanger ending which takes you right into the next one of the series focusing on another couple, I’m going to strongly recommend that you’ll want to prepare yourself for needing to know what’s next. These are fun, almost breezy paranormals which nevertheless possess interesting world-building and a compelling story arc of a vivid human threat to the Pantera’s existence. Paranormal romance readers looking for a free holiday read as a present, shouldn’t hesitate to download this story – just be warned. One hit will not be enough!

Happy reading!

December Read-a-Thon: For My Own Anthology Rounds Up Three Excellent Authors To Deliver Hot Romance Right Down Your Chimney

22 Dec

For My Own: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology by Shari Mikels, Kinley Cade, and Alison Packard (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

I’m going to honest – I got this anthology specifically for Alison Packard, whose work I adored in The Winning Season and Love in the Afternoon (so amazing!). Luckily for me, any anthology in the hands of Angela James of Carina Press is going to deliver on every page and For My Own: A Contemporary Christmas Anthology is no exception.

As with all Carina Press anthologies, you are given a tremendous amount of choice, with the anthology available at a great price of $5.38 or individual stories having a purchase price of about $2.50 if just one or two interest you. Under each book cover is a link to that specific story pictured, FYI.

Despite having three authors and no connection between the stories in terms of characters or setting, For My Own is unified by the common theme of one or more very lonely people for whom the holiday highlights all the insecurities and vulnerabilities in their life. In each case, fate decides to present them with the one person who might just give them the courage to face their demons head on in order to move forward and find happiness. Let’s take a closer look at them, shall we?

Christmas for Carrie by Alison Packard

A Christmas for Carrie by Alison Packard (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Packard has done a great job gently tying this novella to her other two outstanding works, Love in the Afternoon (the heroine of this novella mentions how she watches the soap featured in that story) and The Winning Season, since our hero is a sports agent who alludes to the hero of that novel and his remarkable journey.

That said, there is zero problem following along with this story as its a straightforward premise should you not have read Packard’s other work (and why haven’t you?). Carrie Jones is a hard-working paralegal laboring in the small town where she was raised. Unfortunately for her, the buildup to Christmas  is in full swing and it’s rough on this young woman who has no good memories of the season. Her childhood was pretty crappy with two parents constantly arguing, one a mean drunk and the other a sentimental drunk. The only highlight during her teenage years was being a math tutor for her crush Nick Johnson who just saw her as a buddy. Imagine her shock when she hears his voice greeting her in the Starbucks parking lot!

Despite the cold, Nick is thrilled to be able to relocate to be with his parents for four weeks around Christmastime. With his successful sports management agency having reached the big time, he just needs a laptop and a phone for most of his work, and one look at the curvy body and strawberry blond hair of Carrie Jones has Nick thanking a higher power that he arranged to be in town. He can’t believe how blind he was back in high school if he was busy lusting after unattainable cheerleaders with this woman by his side. He thinks Carrie’s aversion to the holidays is not just a tragedy but also a great opportunity to spend time with her while he “helps” her get over her Scrooge-like stance. But all the time in the world with Carrie doesn’t change the fact that Nick has a life back in San Francisco and she might not be interested in a long-distance relationship.

Catching Heat by Alison Packard (Carina Press, February 10, 2014)

Catching Heat by Alison Packard (Carina Press, February 10, 2014)

One the characteristics of Packard’s writing that I enjoy is that there is no insta-love, with the characters’ feelings unfolding naturally over a distinct period of time (not that I don’t adore insta-love stories, I do, but it’s nice to have a well-done, realistic love story, too). Nick was a geek back in high school and there are shades of that in his personality now – he’s sweet, sensitive, and honestly a little slow-moving and cautious with Carrie although he wants to help her love Christmas as much as he wants her in bed.

I adore when friends turn to lovers and their comfort level with each other starts off at a good level. That said, this is a gently moving romance with not a ton of conflict although Carrie has some baggage to overcome. A romantic lovely epilogue and I feel confident I’ll catch a peek at Nick and Carrie in future books by Packard (and I’m looking forward to it!). The author does a lovely job of introducing Nick’s sexy partner, Adam, as well as a problem player who I look forward to seeing as future heroes. It’s a lovely addition to her series and Packard’s fans need to trot over to their bookseller of choice and pre-order Catching Heat, the next book which is going to feature backup catcher J. T. Sawyer and the one-night stand who becomes much more to him. The publication date of February 10th can’t come too soon!

Christmas Curveball by Shari Mikels

Christmas Curveball by Shari Mikels (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

During the holiday season I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m grateful for, and this year, I’m incredibly grateful for Carina editor Angela James finding the fantastic talent that is Shari Mikels. While Christmas Curveball is the debut story of this hot new author, I feel like I’ve gotten a present that I’m going to be able to enjoy her work in the years to come. After all, anyone who says she learned to write via a Sarah Maclean workshop and lists Jill Shalvis and Lauren Dane as major influences, already has a leg up!

Rachel Tanner knows she’s in trouble when her brother informs her that Kevin Ganlin is back in town. Kevin, a successful professional baseball player has been in her life since he and her brother were best friends in grade school, and she’s had feelings for him just about as long. Truth be told, Rachel married her ex-husband because he reminded her of Kevin. She divorced him because of his philandering and, based on Kevin’s history of going through women like tissues, that’s yet another thing they have in common. Despite his attitude toward women, Rachel is worried that Kevin has secreted himself in his mountain home and isn’t telling anyone he’s back – her brother is keeping secrets and she wants to know what’s going on and if Kevin is all right.

Kevin is decidedly not all right. Not only has his shoulder injury caused the team to let him go, but he has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Having Rachel appear on his doorstep is both a dream and a nightmare – he realized right before her breakup with her ex that his confusion around her stemmed from the fact that she was the woman for him. Yet her brother has made it quite clear that someone like Kevin shouldn’t be caught dead sniffing around her. Kevin stopped seeing any women the moment he made his life-altering realization because he wanted to be a man worthy of her and stand a chance. Figuring out how to pull off this delicate maneuver and determine if she’d be interested in him has been something he’s dwelled on as much as his aching shoulder.

How I picture the view from Kevin's mountain cabin (view of North Carolina mountains - public domain image via Pixabay)

How I picture the view from Kevin’s mountain cabin (view of North Carolina mountains – public domain image via Pixabay)

When the cruel gods not only put her in his home but then cause her to slip and fall on the way out (necessitating his taking care of her overnight), it’s more apparent to him that he’s got to make a move. But that move doesn’t go exactly as planned and it rapidly becomes clear to both of them that Rachel might not be able to get over her trust issues when it comes to men with a past, particularly when that past shows up ready to sabotage a new and fragile relationship.

Christmas Curveball has the mark of a great novella in that you do feel like you’ve read a regular length novel by the end of it. Rachel is hilarious and adorable in turn and it’s not shocking that Kevin has been in love with her for a long time. I loved the way Mikels wrote Kevin’s slow transformation from “Mr. Grumpypants” (as Rachel calls him) to a man who begins to realize that there is a place for him back home, even though it’s different from the one he pictured long ago. The conflict was excellent and the resolution extremely sweet (I adored the scene of Rachel’s final epiphany about Kevin), so I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be seeing these characters again.

With that desire in mind, I’m elated to see that Mikels lists on her website a possible tie-in novel to Christmas Curveball featuring Rachel’s brother and Kevin’s best friend who has an old college flame return to town during the lead up to his sister’s wedding – that has a lot of potential. I’ll also be ordering her current works in progress when they come out, entitled the Douglas Lake series, about a family with a construction company and some of the tensions that result.

Kissing Her Scrooge by Kinley Cade

Kissing Her Scrooge by Kinley Cade (Carina Press, December 5, 2013)

Kinley Cade is another brand, spankin’ new contemporary romance author for Carina and anyone with sisters is going to appreciate the zany sense of humor Cade brings to sibling interaction in this novella. Hannah Jones works her butt off to give her town a terrific Christmas pageant and in fact, she does as much for the town as humanly possible. The oldest of three triplets, this nice girl has made a profession out of doing for people, wanting to fill the shoes of her parents who believed strongly in giving back. Her polar opposite seems to be the town’s resident curmudgeon, Christmas tree farmer and environmentalist Griff Green. Despite his profession being tied to the holiday, Griff has zero interest in the holiday, but he does seem to turn up regularly where Hannah is, which has her thinking about him way too much.

There’s a reason Griff turns up wherever Hannah happens to be working – it’s because he’s more than a little obsessed with her. Whether it’s her elf costume or her sexy tight skirts, this woman makes him crazy and he has no idea what he’s going to do about it. Griff may be a tree farmer but he’s also a massive cynic having come from a wealthy family and a mother who only married his dad for his money. Used to women with mercenary designs on him due to his bank account, Griff thinks that Hannah is too good to be true and keeps waiting for her flaws to emerge. She’s got them, but they have nothing to do about money and everything to do about feeling in control of her situation. Unfortunately, Hannah’s quirks combined with Griff’s mistrust might just end up making their holiday anything but celebratory.

I’ve got to hand it to Cade, I’m not 100% sure that I necessarily liked either of these characters but I actually loved reading about them and their struggle! I know that sounds strange, but it was fascinating to see how the hero and heroine were absolutely meant for each other if they could just understand one another a little better. The only thing keeping them from perfect understanding was that they weren’t yet at a place where they shared very specific background information and feelings, and there is nothing more deadly to a relationship than two people with no clue about how to discuss what is going on in their head and heart.

I adored Hannah’s pragmatic and hilarious sisters as well as Griff’s friend, Steve (and would love to read a story where he ends up with one of the Jones’ women). Cade has the small-town feel down pat in her writing, so much so that I’m very interested to read her next story, whenever it comes out. She writes paranormal romance under the name Kinley Baker, so I may try one of those stories to see the similarities and differences.

Angela James and the staff at Carina Press have managed to put together three surprisingly different contemporary romance novellas in the For My Own anthology and in doing so have made my holiday a little brighter. Thanks, Carina!

Happy reading!

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