Category: Contemporary Romance

In Dark Water by Leslie Tentler

In Dark Water by Leslie TentlerIn Dark Water by Leslie Tentler
Series: Rarity Cove #3
Published by Left Field Press on February 5th 2019
Pages: 236
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four-half-stars

One year after the tragic loss of her husband, Mercer Leighton returns home to Rarity Cove to be near family and resume her former job at the St. Clair resort. Feeling adrift in life, what she doesn’t count on is being witness to a double murder in nearby Charleston’s French Quarter.

Charleston Homicide Detective Noah Ford is no stranger to the dark, violent side of humanity. Nor is he happy about the lone eyewitness in his investigation being part of one of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s most prominent families. However, when an attempt is made on the beautiful widow’s life, Noah vows to protect her.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the killer will stop at nothing to eliminate the witness, Noah also begins to suspect the presence of a traitor in his own department. After a stunning betrayal, he is forced to take Mercer into hiding to keep her alive. As the two fight for survival, they also fight the simmering attraction between them.

But the killer is out there, and he refuses to give up.

A return to Leslie Tentler’s Rarity Cove after so long took a bit of re-orienting, a bit of catching up, but the slow build-up of ‘In Dark Water’ makes it very easy to jump into Mercer Leighton’s and Noah Ford’s story after Mercer unwittingly witnesses a murder and eventually finds herself at the hands of law enforcement as they scramble to take her into protection when it becomes evident that she’s next on the hit list.

There isn’t much unpredictable about the plot however: the homicide detective and widowed witness fall for each other, the leak in the law enforcement ranks, a criminal out for revenge, but I thought the execution of it was quite well done and that alone made the story worth savouring. Mercer and Noah were not just believable together, but Tentler’s measured pacing, the explosive action in the last quarter and the sensitive way she writes of their progressing relationship—adulting is done pretty well here, so no complaints from me—probably made ‘In Dark Water’ my favourite in this series.

My preference for more explicit, lusty smut between them and higher-octane action—essentially higher highs and more breathtaking swoops of passion I guess—that most likely stems from B-grade movie leftovers is probably a petty one, considering how much I liked this.

By and large, this latest offering from Tentler reminded me why I do wish her new books could some somewhat faster. I do like her law enforcement heroes and Noah’s one whom I immediately grouped into this odd, cop-sized shape compartment that I have for them. And while it might be a story that’s probably done in some variation or other, ‘In Dark Water’ is one I’ll remember for some time.

four-half-stars

Reverb by Anna Zabo

Reverb by Anna ZaboReverb by Anna Zabo
Series: Twisted Wishes #3
Published by Carina Press on 6th May 2019
Pages: 286
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three-stars

The tougher they are, the harder they fall.

Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess—gorgeous, sexy and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: a stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing—not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training—prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice—lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

I think Anna Zabo goes where not many mainstream authors tread, where sexuality (and what it means) is put to the forefront of the Twisted Wishes series. ‘Reverb’ on the surface, might seem like an M/F book as opposed to the first to M/M ones, but I’ve always thought that Mish—the unapologetic loudmouth, Spartan rock queen, bold and take-no-prisoners bass player Mish Sullivan—wouldn’t settle for anything vanilla. Apparently Zabo thought so too.

Getting stuck with a bodyguard isn’t Mish’s idea of a good time, but the internet stalker is making the band nervous enough to put her under David Altet’s watch. What follows is an oddly sweet, progressive step—from attraction and lust to something deeper—with the idea of the band as a close-knit family being reiterated throughout Mish/David’s story.

I’m guessing (and I might be wrong here) that it’s not a book that all readers would take to—to each her or his own, really—especially since the Twisted Wishes series is the furthest from heterosexual pairings. Anna Zabo didn’t make David’s transgender status a big issue at all but then queerness in the band members in the previous 2 books had already set the stage for Mish’s own book where bucking gender norms had already taken centre stage.

What I did have a bit of an issue with however, was that both David’s and Mish’s pasts were very much glossed over in favour of the here and now. There were merely hints of the traumatic times both had in their earlier years, and where I was hoping for a deeper (and perhaps more painful, brutal look) at David’s transition, his deployment in the army and Mish’s own difficult childhood, what came instead were quite a few repetitive scenes of the band touring, its meteoric rise and the building chemistry between David/Mish.

Their easy, developing affection—with a more alpha, dominating female and a sensitive transgender man—surprised me nonetheless, when I thought it’d be full of angst and suppressed passion. Quickly falling into sync together, so much of them together consisted of laughter, desire and acceptance…well, at least until it came to a climax, the pushing away and the pre-requisite grovelling.

‘Reverb’ turned out to be a sweeter, more yearning read than I thought, at least with less of an edge that the first two books had. There’s still a certain sense of satisfaction in seeing Mish’s story that rounded out the band members’ own zig-zagged paths to their own HEAs, but the bottom-line perhaps, is that I enjoyed myself for most part.

three-stars

Taken by Rebecca Zanetti

Taken by Rebecca ZanettiTaken by Rebecca Zanetti
Series: Deep Ops #1.5
Published by Zebra on 30th April 2019
Pages: 111
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three-stars

Hunter Holt might be the most stubborn ex-soldier ever born, but when he’s called on to help find a lost foster kid, he jumps into action. Even if it means working with the woman who broke his heart five years ago—the woman who still haunts his dreams . . .

Faye Smith has spent five long years trying to get her life back on track. She knows she should’ve turned toward Hunter and not away from him. But they both had too many demons to destroy. Maybe now they’ll get another chance—and save someone else’s life too . . .

But first they’ll have to stop arguing long enough to trust the Deep Ops team. Hunter was a lost boy himself once. In fact, he ran away from the exact same man, their monster of a father. Now he and Faye will have to unite to find the brother he never knew—and maybe each other . . .

As a side-story of Rebecca Zanetti’s Deep Ops series, ‘Taken’ is pretty much a compact standalone as Raider Tanaka’s old friends take the stage in a short, second-chance romance.

In this case however, the brevity of the story probably made me less engaged than I could have been, since this felt as though it could have been a full-length book and had lost so much because it wasn’t. All we know is that Hunter Holt and Faye Smith had once been together; she’d split five years ago and is now back to get him to search for his teenage half-brother he’d never known existed. In fact, I felt as though I’d been missing a big chunk of their backstory—the breakup, the —even though it was sort of told in a few lines what had happened to Faye and Hunter.

Coming back together in the midst of the search, then pledging themselves to each other again after scorching sexy times or talking things through to re-cement their broken bond just seemed too easy, too soon…too coincidental. Would Faye really have searched Hunter back out had it not been for this incident when she’d done nothing for five years? As a result, Faye/Hunter were a pairing that seemed to happen only again because unexpected circumstances forced them back again, rather than a pairing that actively wanted to solve the problems that had first rent them apart while finding their way back to each other again—a rather common occurrence in the second-chance romance trope that typically leaves me feeling scratchy on the inside.

There’s no denying that Zanetti writes pretty well though, but what constantly threw me off were the strange and awkward inserts of humour that broke the intensity of what would have been otherwise an enthralling narrative. In here, it come in the form of out-of-the-blue humour, even odder animal behaviour and weird pick-up lines that bad-ass characters spout, incongruous to what you think they might behave.

In short, ‘Taken’ was pretty much what I thought it would be—no big surprises and not entirely a let-down either but not something I could really get excited about…at least not while Raider’s story is in the making.

three-stars

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai

The Right Swipe by Alisha RaiThe Right Swipe by Alisha Rai
Series: Modern Love, #1
Published by Avon on 2nd July 2019
Pages: 400
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two-stars

Rhiannon Hunter may have revolutionized romance in the digital world, but in real life she only swipes right on her career—and the occasional hookup. The cynical dating app creator controls her love life with a few key rules:
- Nude pics are by invitation only
- If someone stands you up, block them with extreme prejudice
- Protect your heart

Only there aren't any rules to govern her attraction to her newest match, former pro-football player Samson Lima. The sexy and seemingly sweet hunk woos her one magical night... and disappears.

Rhi thought she'd buried her hurt over Samson ghosting her, until he suddenly surfaces months later, still big, still beautiful—and in league with a business rival. He says he won't fumble their second chance, but she's wary. A temporary physical partnership is one thing, but a merger of hearts? Surely that’s too high a risk…

In a thoroughly contemporary take on 21st century dating, Alisha Rai takes on the lingo that have slowly but surely become entrenched in dating-speak— ghosting, hooking up, dick pics, one-night stands, casual relationships, swiping right—and waves a story around it, along with the cynicism, the bouncing around and the jadedness that come along with the reality of finding the ‘right’ match.

From a hookup to a ghosting to a meeting as business rivals, Samson Lima and Rhiannon Hunter meet again when the former has every intention of buying up a rival’s dating company…just as the latter is stepping into said company as a favour for his aunt.

Rhiannon is a strutting, ball-busting shark through and through, a hard entrepreneur with a vendetta who’d made her way to the top and in some ways, a man-eater who takes no prisoners, more ironically so since she’s the founder of a wildly popular dating app for women.

But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Rhiannon’s steam-out-the-ears, full-on thoughts showed it, as she rocked out with bluster and claws extended trying to show that Samson’s ghosting didn’t hurt when it did. Still, she came across as petulant, hell bent on being detached, unforgiving and unkind, sometimes emotionally juvenile in her inability to let things go—all of which so that she’ll never have to feel weak and vulnerable anymore. Understandable, though these were qualities that didn’t seem to be at all attractive or redeeming as the story wore on.

Samson came through as the sweeter, yearning, milder one—it felt like he *had* to be one, given the kind of ‘heroine’ Rai had chosen to portray from the beginning—and I actually started and ended it all not just feeling sorry for him, but frustrated that he was constantly facing an uphill battle trying to convince her he was worth another shot while she simply stood there, twiddled her thumbs and punished him for his entire gender’s sins.

The whole point is, I’m not so sure if I’m on the boat with this role reversal, especially if the point is yet again, to show in the written word how women can do things equal or better than men and have it shoved down my throat in the abrasive, disaffected, trust-no-one form of Rhiannon Hunter.

I wish I could say that it was a story that grew on me but it didn’t exactly. Not quite. It got bogged down in the middle as Rhiannon and Samson circled around each other, skimming the surface but never quite going deeper as the Rhi’s trust issues kept flaring up while Samson tried to ease his way around it. Rinse and repeat.

Yet objectively speaking, ‘The Right Swipe’ a brilliant take on the app dating scene vs. the traditional dating one and all the thorny issues that surround it. In fact, Rai tackles it quite smartly, with conversations that range from tart and witty to penetrating and questioning, to the interconnected themes of women in business, to the existing patriarchy, sexual harassment and simply, the lengths people go to to protect themselves. I do think many readers would like Rai’s feminist take on it—it does champion women doing whatever the hell they want when it comes to dating and sex after all—just as I know my disappointment with the book makes me the minority here.

two-stars

The Last Letter by Rebecca Yarros

The Last Letter by Rebecca YarrosThe Last Letter by Rebecca Yarros
Published by Entangled: Amara on 26th February 2019
Pages: 432
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four-stars

Beckett,

If you’re reading this, well, you know the last-letter drill. You made it. I didn’t. Get off the guilt train, because I know if there was any chance you could have saved me, you would have.

I need one thing from you: get out of the army and get to Telluride.

My little sister Ella’s raising the twins alone. She’s too independent and won’t accept help easily, but she has lost our grandmother, our parents, and now me. It’s too much for anyone to endure. It’s not fair.

And here’s the kicker: there’s something else you don’t know that’s tearing her family apart. She’s going to need help.

So if I’m gone, that means I can’t be there for Ella. I can’t help them through this. But you can. So I’m begging you, as my best friend, go take care of my sister, my family.

Please don’t make her go through it alone.

Ryan

It’s hard to put into words what ‘The Last Letter’ is about, even if the emotions they draw out are raw and unrelenting, leaving you to grapple with them past the last page of the story. On the surface, it’s about a loyal soldier putting down roots in a small town because he’d promised his best friend to take care of his sister, though there’re some secrets he’s carrying on him along with the burden that he’d long fallen in love with her before they had even seen each other face to face.

Movingly told with a very slow burn, ‘The Last Letter’ is women’s fiction and romance with the heavy emotional waves of angst and brooding that I’m tempted to shove into the New Adult category all at once. It’s both easy and difficult to get through because of the very weighty, no-easy-answers topics Rebecca Yarros has chosen to cover here, but the payoff then, is one that understandably leaves readers reeling: if the characters are put through the wringer, so are we.

There are more than the usual tinges of reality creeping in here, nonetheless. Yarros’s marked conditions in this are that the HEA doesn’t come without a price and it’s quite a steep one that the characters pay for. Without the typical fluff cloud that many romance stories are built on, Ella/Beckett’s story resembles the very thorny bed of roses of real life more than the sometimes-unrealistic bent of HEAs that I’ve gotten used to; it’s a brutal kick in the arse and a sombre awakening as much as it is one that can make my chest ache with the poignancy of a love that comes with lots of attached baggage.

And where do I even begin with Beckett? Eloquent, stalwart, and so so unswervingly loyal that he stands out as a protagonist who should be enshrined, Beckett Gentry’s strength, integrity and stability became my pillar of light as he was Ella’s as they navigated the murky waters of child-cancer and the ever-lingering shadow of death that never seemed far away.

Yet oddly what deterred me from giving a higher rating really was Ella’s reticence and her own refusal to see past her mixed signals and her own hang-ups. Her lack of understanding when it came to Beckett’s omission, the overwhelming need to shut him out and only do what she thought was right for her frustrated the hell out of me especially when Beckett had laid everything else on the line repeatedly. And the overall enjoyment I had for it detracted not because of the shock ending, but because I thought Beckett had the constant uphill battle to climb when it came to Ella, even when he’d laid out his own insecurities and was instead, flayed and punished for it by her.

With not quite an instant love, but an old-time affection that develops over the written word—it’s strange but magnificent to see how the epistolary form has been done here—, ‘The Last Letter’ is a book that made me glad I took up despite my initial reservations. Yarros starts an intricately woven tale of tragedy and joy mixed with pockets of angst and ends it that way, but because of this, it’ll stick with me longer—ironically, perhaps—than many of the books that have passed me by.

four-stars

Still Burning by Leora Gonzales

Still Burning by Leora GonzalesStill Burning by Leora Gonzales
Series: Braving the Heat, #3
Published by Lyrical Press on 28th May 2019
Pages: 227
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two-stars

Sasha Kendall grew up in a family of firefighters. So when she falls hard for Jack Turner, her brother’s best friend and fellow firefighter, everyone's thrilled. But when her brother is killed in the line of duty, Sasha knows she can’t handle another loss. Jack will have to choose between her and his career . . .

Jack knew Sasha was meant for him right away—the same way he knew he was meant to fight fires and saves lives. Letting Sasha go was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. But even though she left town, he’s never given up hope that heat between them still burns . . .

Four years later, Jack and Sasha meet again at a friend’s wedding—older, wiser, and hotter than ever. Will they flame out, or do they finally have what it takes to keep their love alive for good . . .

Coming straight into this particular story without having read the previous books, the setup of the ‘Still Burning’ isn’t difficult to grasp: there’s the death of a firefighter, some grieving and a breakup—written and done in short order in the first chapter before the story picks up again 4 years later.

And this is on me, really, not having realised that this was a second-chance romance that had iffy conditions surrounding a pairing’s reunion when I requested this book. Mea culpa.

But I suppose having a protagonist rub you the wrong way didn’t bode well for the entire read at all.

There just weren’t enough emotional peaks and troughs in what I thought could have been a turbulent, heartfelt reunion between a couple who split so suddenly. I get it—the death of a loved one can make people do things. Stupid things or otherwise. But I didn’t feel it too much here, sadly, except for the gross injustice Sasha dealt Jack when she upped and left and cut off all frantic contact with him the the next 4 years, without much that she needed to make up for even when they finally met again.

That Jack suddenly muscled back in on her date out of the blue in 4 years, asking to try again, without the breathless feels, the awkwardness and the backlog of pain and angst took me by surprise for starters, at how…too easy it all went. And having come across as rash, selfish and impulsive after breaking up with Jack over the fact that Sasha couldn’t date another firefighter, to the extent where it was ‘easier’ to suffer a break up than risk him dying, playing the non-committal woman the second time around who just didn’t do enough to fight for a relationship made it all tank for me. I mean, should that poor man really do all the work here?

Throw in some odd and perplexing time jumps past their reunion, the unresolved arson case, and the unwelcome intrusion of a psychotic ex-girlfriend to stir up more drama and I was about done with the bumpy reading experience. That Jack hadn’t moved on properly, so to speak, with an insane woman stalking him and creating more drama—using the villainous ex as a plot device to steer the reader’s attention to how Sasha’s the only one for him-didn’t sit well at all.

Needless to say, ‘Still Burning’ didn’t work out as a good read for me. I’d hoped I was getting a brother’s-best-friend kind of trope, but hey, failing to read the blurb properly after the initial excitement of seeing another firefighter story? That’s my fault.

two-stars

Royally Endowed by Emma Chase

Royally Endowed by Emma ChaseRoyally Endowed by Emma Chase
Series: Royally, #3
Published by Emma Chase LLC on 14th August 2017
Pages: 211
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three-stars

Logan St. James is a smoldering, sexy beast. Sure, he can be a little broody at times—but Ellie Hammond’s willing to overlook that. Because, have you seen him??

Sexy. As. Hell.

And Ellie’s perky enough for both of them.

For years, she’s had a crush on the intense, gorgeous royal security guard—but she doesn’t think he ever saw her, not really.

To Logan, Ellie was just part of the job—a relative of the royal family he’d sworn to protect. Now, at 22 years old and fresh out of college, she’s determined to put aside her X-rated dreams of pat-downs and pillow talk, and find a real life happily ever after.

The Queen of Wessco encourages Ellie to follow in her sister’s footsteps and settle down with a prince of her own. Or a duke, a marquis…a viscount would also do nicely.

But in the pursuit of a fairy tale ending, Ellie learns that the sweetest crushes can be the hardest to let go.

Logan St. James grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, in a family on the wrong side of the law. But these days, he covers his tattoos and scars with a respectable suit. He’s handsome, loyal, brave, skilled with his hands and…other body parts.

Any woman would be proud to call him hers.

But there’s only one woman he wants.

For years he’s watched over her, protected her, held her hair back when she was sick, taught her how to throw a punch, and spot a liar.

He dreams of her. Would lay down his life for her.

But beautiful Ellie Hammond’s off-limits.

Everybody knows the bodyguard rules: Never lose focus, never let them out of your sight, and never, ever fall in love.

I’m leery of getting into royalty-type, aristocratic stories.

There you have it, my confession. Not just because royalty stereotypes tend to mirror the British royal folks too much (writ large, with many liberties taken especially with the playboy princes), but because I’ve also a huge hang-up when the series revolves around a fake country – where the hell is Wessco? – that pops up in my own mental map of the world.

I decided to give Emma Chase another go years later, when ‘Tangled’ just didn’t work out for me, but also because ‘Royally Endowed’ involves peripheral characters who are associated with the royal line and not the royals themselves. It’s essentially, a bodyguard and mark love story written along New Adult lines with the ongoing fairy-tale of princes and castles already in full swing.

And in short, there were parts that I liked despite the predictable journey: Ellie Hammond and Logan St. James were clearly made for each other despite dancing around for 5 years. The sudden tumble into hurried confessions and scorching sexy times did kind of work after the slow, slow burn.

Yet there were parts that were cringeworthy (getting it on in the throne room without security cameras?!) and too ridiculous to buckle down and believe. Chase’s execution of Ellie/Logan’s 5-year-ride was done bumpily, with small developments at several points in the journey that didn’t seem significant enough to record – basically, with several scenes that I thought should be shown rather than told and vice versa.

That said, Chase’s writing is easy to get through within a few hours or arm-chair travelling to ‘Wessco’: there’s enough fire between these two to keep the burn going and if the bottomline of romantic fiction is to produce a pairing that readers can and want to get behind, then I’d say ‘Royally Endowed’ has got it made.

three-stars