Publisher: Loveswept

Ready to Run by Lauren Layne

Ready to Run by Lauren LayneReady to Run by Lauren Layne
Series: I Do, I Don't #1
Published by Loveswept, Random House Publishing Group on August 22nd 2017
Pages: 175
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Jordan Carpenter thinks she’s finally found the perfect candidate for Jilted, a new dating show about runaway grooms: Luke Elliott, a playboy firefighter who’s left not one but three brides at the altar. The only problem? Luke refuses to answer Jordan’s emails or return her calls. Which is how she ends up on a flight to Montana to recruit him in person. It’s not Manhattan but at least the locals in Lucky Hollow seem friendly . . . except for Luke, who’s more intense—and way hotter—than the slick womanizer Jordan expected.
Eager to put the past behind him, Luke has zero intention of following this gorgeous, fast-talking city girl back to New York. But before he can send her packing, Jordan’s everywhere: at his favorite bar, the county fair, even his exes’ book club. Annoyingly, everyone in Lucky Hollow seems to like her—and deep down, she’s starting to grow on him too. But the more he fights her constant pestering, the more Luke finds himself wishing that Jordan would kick off her high heels and make herself comfortable in his arms.

‘Ready to Run’ is sort of a spinoff take on The Bachelor/The Bachelorette, only that it ups the stakes for the guy in question in a new reality tv series that is touted to get the whole world talking. He has to be a runaway groom (which, by extension, means he’s probably a playboy who truly sweats at commitment) who’s going to find his true love on screen and be tied down as millions of eyes watch.

In this case, Luke Elliott is Jordan Carpenter’s target, and he’s so elusive that she has to fly all the way to a small town in Montana just to pitch her case. It’s a difficult return to small town life for her, though it’s way harder for Luke, whose 3 ‘failed’ altar runs aren’t exactly what they seem at all.

I’ll admit that from the beginning, Lauren Layne’s premise of this particular reality show was, well, a distasteful one to begin with – at least in the way I think of the trashy series that just goes on and on. It’s a shallow, mocking spectacle out of relationships, catering (mostly) to people who want their 15 seconds of fame and aren’t afraid to do anything to get it. But I am sort of at the point where I’ll pick up some books of Layne’s just so I can read the banter as well as some surprisingly heart-stopping moments that she’s known to write.

Consequently, there were parts I liked, and others that I didn’t as I struggled through several scenes. Characterisation was unfortunately, one of those. Luke’s nuanced backstory and his standup nature became clear as the story went on (and as I’d suspected, there was a lot more to those 3 altar failures than met the eye) and it was easy to root for Luke’s HEA, though the town’s methods of going about it were questionable and annoying. That he didn’t want to give an inch to Jordan was, frankly, his right and prerogative and I was glad to see that he stood by his own principles as much as he could.

On the other hand, I found Jordan extremely dislikable, and her intent to sell out Luke’s personal plight made her embodiment of reality tv in all its ugly glory as she canvassed the whole town for his back story when it was clear he didn’t want a thing to do with the show at all. The lack of respect she refused to give Luke as she relentlessly pried into his life was abominable and the many insulating layers that she’d put between herself and Luke made it difficult to think that the ‘connection’ between them was anything but skin deep.

The long and short of it really, is that ‘Ready to Run’ has been a mixed bag for me. Despite my qualms about Jordan, Layne quite nicely wraps up the whole ugly scenario without shortchanging either protagonist in a way that leaves you unsatisfied. That Luke and Jordan can walk into their sunset by the time the epilogue rolls around is quite the restoration of my tentative faith in this series, which I hope can only get better.

three-stars

I Knew You Were Trouble by Lauren Layne

I Knew You Were Trouble by Lauren LayneI Knew You Were Trouble by Lauren Layne
Series: Oxford #4
Published by Loveswept on June 13th 2017
Pages: 193
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Taylor Carr has it all—a sleek job in advertising, a stunning Manhattan apartment, and the perfect man to share it with: Bradley Calloway. Even after Bradley dumps her for a co-worker on move-in day, Taylor isn’t worried. She’ll get her man eventually. In the meantime, she needs a new roommate. Enter Nick Ballantine, career bartender, freelance writer—and longtime pain in Taylor’s ass. Sexy in a permanent five-o’clock-shadow kind of way, Nick knows how to push Taylor’s buttons, as if he could see right through to the real her.
Nick’s always trying to fix people, and nobody could use a good fixing more than Taylor. Sure, she’s gorgeous, with mesmerizing silver eyes, but it’s her vulnerability that kills him. Now that they’re shacking up together, the chemistry is out of control. Soon they’re putting every part of their two-bedroom apartment to good use. Then Taylor’s ex comes crawling back to her, and Nick figures she’ll jump at the chance to go back to her old life—unless he fights for the best thing that ever happened to him.

Lauren Layne takes on the enemies-to-lovers trope in the latest installment of the Oxford series, and after Lincoln’s heartbreaking story in the last one, the tone and setting of “I knew you were trouble” does come as a bit of a shock. Layne pits Nick Ballantine against Taylor Carr whom we saw in the last book as characters who hate each other for unexplained reasons but finally makes it clear here it’s not as simple as hating each other’s guts from the start. It’s instead, something that has festered over a period of a year as Nick and Taylor grew into their dislike for each other. Bad timing, lost chances and poor choices with far-reaching consequences merely exacerbated what could have been a much less antagonistic relationship as I wondered if they could ever resolve things between them despite the mutual attraction both had for each other.

I found my sympathies between Nick and Taylor shifting so frequently that it was difficult to decide whether I could really go for them as a couple. For a fair bit of the story, they used each other’s weaknesses against each other and that made it difficult to separate the fine line between love and hate simply because they couldn’t plainly say what they wanted without being snippy about it. There were times I was horrified that Nick used his words to eviscerate Taylor when she was hurting, just as much as I couldn’t understand why Taylor allowed the brief rejection from Nick to turn into unmitigated loathing as she held fast to the mantra of never appearing weak to anyone. Their own personal histories have left deep scars on them and as Layne typically writes it, these are the very aspects of themselves that they’ve used to hit each other with the hardest in the final, catastrophic fight before the resolution arrives.

In the end, the games Nick and Taylor played—whether accidentally hostile or not—felt like it simply came down to their inability to communicate plainly and their unwillingness to give themselves the chance that things could turn out both different and better. Throw some respective ex-es (rebound or not) that came into the picture and all I could think was that there was a huge, hot mess that surely had to take more than a peace treaty to untangle.

As far the Oxford series goes, “I knew you were trouble” is the most volatile one that I’ve ever been through. Somehow I emerged from this whole reading experience feeling dazed and whiplashed, still sore from the barbs and the potshots Nick/Taylor had taken at each other, but grateful nonetheless that Lauren Layne always writes an uncompromising HEA.

three-stars

Eye Candy by Jessica Lemmon

Eye Candy by Jessica LemmonEye Candy by Jessica Lemmon
Published by Loveswept on July 25th 2017
Pages: 205
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

Jacqueline: As an adult woman--and the vice president of a marketing firm--I shouldn't be waiting by my office window to ogle the mystery man who jogs by every morning at 11:45. Sure, he's a gorgeous, perfect specimen of the human race, but I can't bring myself to hit on a total stranger. However, my best friend-slash-colleague Vince Carson thinks I should do more than talk to the guy. In fact, he's borderline obsessive about "getting me laid." (His words.) But the more time we spend together, the more it's clear: The one I'm falling for is Vince.
Vince: Jackie Butler's got it bad for some pompous, over-pumped A-hole who struts his stuff past her window. That doesn't bother me. I know she deserves nice things. What does bother me is that she friend-zoned me big-time last year, so I can't ask her out myself. But what if I set her up with Mr. Steroids? Then, when he breaks her heart, I can swoop in and save her like the nice guy I am. Everything's going according to plan . . . until we share a ridiculously epic kiss. And suddenly anything is possible.

Vince Carson tries to convince his best mate and colleague Jackie to go after some anonymous hot runner with the intention of swooping in when it falls apart. But the best laid plans go awry as always and somehow, Vince and Jackie find themselves in a position where their professional and personal boundaries start blurring.

Aye-ay-ay.

What a tangled mess this is. ‘Eye Candy’ is rom-com in full-steam, as adults (vice-presidents of a marketing company no less) plot, manipulate and go the excruciatingly painful, roundabout way of trying to get back into a kind of dating game that really should be banned from this age-group.

But who knew that adults haven’t quite left this behind?

I couldn’t quite believe that Vince would play such games, though it was admittedly snort-funny to see a man for once, taking on the characteristics of what is traditionally ascribed to the insecure, plotting female protagonist along with the bar-confiding moments with another equally broken friend—all because he was probably afraid to really figure out what he wanted. I felt sorry however, for Jackie, swept along as she was for the ride and not getting everything upfront as she should have been getting, when it appeared that the men in her life couldn’t well, man-up.

I was frustrated more than entertained though, because of the lack of clarity that just didn’t seem to come in places where the sun doth shine. Getting exasperated with Jackie/Vince’s lack of communication—and I mean about the topics that bother them and not of the unintelligible kind—when it was going to be the main form of conflict in the book was probably a sign that I could barely tolerate the vacillating indecisiveness of both parties towards the end.

But those who like lighter reads, with the kind of tension and pacing found in rom-coms, ‘Eye Candy’ hits the mark. Jackie’s and Vince’s voices are distinctive enough to bridge the NA/adult contemporary gap, even though I’m not convinced that the whole dizzying set-up (that veers uncomfortably closely to issues like cheating and two-timing and getting back on the saddle to ‘use’ random women) is really suited for me. That said, I do enjoy Jessica Lemmon’s writing and well, even if ‘Eye Candy’ wasn’t exactly a story I could get into, it’s a series I’ll be keeping a sort-of-curious eye out for.

three-stars

Make Me Stay by Sidney Halston

Make Me Stay by Sidney HalstonMake Me Stay by Sidney Halston
Series: Panic #2
Published by Loveswept on June 27th 2017
Pages: 185
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

April: Walking away from Matt Moreno was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Lying to him was a close second, but for his safety, I had no other choice. I was undercover, working to put some nasty people behind bars. But when Matt nearly recognizes me on Lincoln Road a year later, all those very real feelings come rushing back. Now that my assignment’s almost over, will he understand why I lied? Why I had to leave? Most important, can he ever forgive me?  Matt: I was madly in love with June Simpson . . . or, at least, with the woman I thought was June. Then she just disappeared while my family’s nightclub went through hell. And after months of searching, when I think I’ve finally found that sexy, raspy voice and those exquisite blue eyes, she slips away once more. Turns out, “June” is actually Detective April White. She’s been playing me the whole time. And she’s about to rock my world all over again.

The review for ‘Make Me Stay’ is a hard one to write for sure; not because it’s a bad read (far from it), but because it’s so far from what I thought it would be that it has put me at a loss for words. Split into 2 parts, the first is the predictable flashback, a long, detailed recounting of the days after Matt Moreno meets June Simpson and how they fell for each other, even though June really isn’t who she seems.

Part 2, however, turned the entire book around with events that I didn’t see coming at all. But I was sorely disappointed not to see that same kickass cop I was hoping to see—this time coming into things in a blaze of glory—as the twist in the plot meant that the strong, take-no-prisoners detective had morphed into a broken, defeated woman who barely knew what she was doing. It was hard to reconcile this woman with the one we saw in the first part, but I had to constantly remind myself that this was contemporary romance rather than action or suspense. It’s an adjustment that takes for work for me, but reading about April (formerly known as June) and Matt rebuilding their relationship almost accidentally was engrossing to say the least, particularly so when they were now doing it for once, when no secrets were between them.

April and Matt were by and large likeable characters as well, which, in my opinion, made the book. Matt’s loyalty was indisputable, as was April’s own personal sense of justice and Sidney Halston writes both of them so flawed in a way that you can’t help but want them to succeed, even though the journey is an angsty one and paved with tears, anger and so much love. Even the epilogue doesn’t quite guarantee the perfect sunset, but it’s a realistic acknowledgement that the road to forgiveness is a rocky one, written with just the right glimmer of hope for the both of them.

four-stars

Walk of Shame by Lauren Layne

Walk of Shame by Lauren LayneWalk of Shame by Lauren Layne
Series: Love Unexpectedly #4
Published by Loveswept on April 18th 2017
Pages: 195
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

Pampered heiress Georgianna Watkins has a party-girl image to maintain, but all the shopping and clubbing is starting to feel a little bit hollow—and a whole lot lonely. Though Georgie would never admit it, the highlights of her week are the mornings when she comes home at the same time as her uptight, workaholic neighbor is leaving to hit the gym and put in a long day at the office. Teasing him is the most fun Georgie’s had in years—and the fuel for all her naughtiest daydreams.
Celebrity divorce attorney Andrew Mulroney doesn’t have much time for women, especially spoiled tabloid princesses who spend more time on Page Six than at an actual job. Although Georgie’s drop-dead gorgeous, she’s also everything Andrew resents: the type of girl who inherited her penthouse instead of earning it. But after Andrew caps one of their predawn sparring sessions with a surprise kiss—a kiss that’s caught on camera—all of Manhattan is gossiping about whether they’re a real couple. And nobody’s more surprised than Andrew to find that the answer just might be yes.

I haven’t been following Lauren Layne’s ‘Love Unexpectedly’ series, so jumping into ‘Walk of Shame’ because of the intriguing blurb and the hilarious expressions of the models on the cover is probably as good an idea as any to start this book which sounds like a romantic comedy with minimal angst and lots of bumps along the way. A spoiled, rich woman and a hardened, jaded lawyer? Bring it on.

But it’s a story, as I’ve come to realise early on, that people would either love or hate.

I’ll be the first to admit that Georgie Watkins is the kind of character I’d love to hate and it took a long, long while to warm up a little to her: the name-dropping, the airhead monologues (too many chapters were in her POV) and the constant mindless flitting from one meaningless activity to another all told in a mug voice weren’t characteristics I could even force myself to admire in a heroine.

Georgie is like the culmination of every spoiled socialite writ large in all the mean-girl movies and Layne has gotten her down to a science. There’s definitely the effort to show us Georgie’s softer side (she’s kind, caring, concerned for her family and friends) but I think I needed to see something more substantial beyond that. I’d expected to plumb her depths (no pun intended!) given so much of what we see of her is this apparently shallow woman. I’d hoped to see a bit more of an identity shake-up after seeing how Andrew’s own stodgy, awkward personality had changed by the end of the book, which didn’t really happen. In fact, Georgie seemed like someone content to have her head in the clouds, living the only reality she knew, and because Andrew trampled on that vision, he was quickly written off and expected to grovel because she couldn’t be rational about her parents’ divorce.

The long and short of it is that ‘Walk of Shame’ was a personal disappointment. It is definitely a light-hearted read though by the end, I wasn’t convinced about their compatibility (Andrew seemed more amused by her ridiculousness than anything else and in turn, Georgie appeared infatuated with this buttoned-up mystery) and liking the colour red felt like scraping the bottom of the barrel. Layne’s banter and sniping did make the story entertaining, but even after I finished the book, I simply couldn’t see Andrew/Georgie as a couple that would ultimately last.

two-stars

Down and Dirty by Tracy Wolff

Down and Dirty by Tracy WolffDown & Dirty by Tracy Wolff
Published by Loveswept on May 23rd 2017
Pages: 210
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

Emerson: Talk about bad first impressions. I have too much riding on this job to show up late on my first day looking like the winner of a wet T-shirt contest, all thanks to an arrogant quarterback who drives like he owns the road. Hunter Browning thinks that because he’s famous, he can fix everything with a smile and a wave of his hand. He’s too bronzed, buff, and beautiful for his own good. Or mine. I can’t let on that I’m a fan . . . no matter how much fun we’d have in the sack.

Hunter: Hitting that puddle was my best play since winning the Super Bowl with a touchdown pass. Sure, it’s not my preferred way to get a girl wet, but I’ll make an exception for Emerson Day. She’s got a sharp tongue and a red-hot temper, even with her soaking clothes plastered to her every curve. Now I know exactly what my next play will be: hire Emerson as my personal real-estate agent, save her job—and see if I can take her off the market.

Tracy Wolff certainly has a way of writing steamy scene after steamy scene, though quite a bit of the book reads like a porn movie set, where characters meet perfunctorily and get hit hard by lust. Resistance (there’s a little of it), of course, is futile when constant penile erections and hardened nipples and wet slits suddenly take over.

The physical aspect of ‘Down and Dirty’ was never in doubt when Hunter zeroed straight in—from the very first meeting—like a panting dog in heat on Emerson, as I wondered if this book could better be classified as erotica than contemporary chick-lit. But I lost count of the number of ways he imagined her in all the sex positions, her lips doing dirty things to him and so on, up until the point where I finally decided that Hunter was a bad bet all around, led around mostly by his dick (and posturing a lot with it too), with copious amounts of dirty descriptions dedicated to how much he liked Emerson’s sexy body. And because Emerson is more special than his numerous one-night hookups, he has to relearn how to ‘woo’ a woman, which in his book, means loading her with lavish gifts that his wealth affords him.

Apart from Hunter’s concern for his ailing sister, I was inclined to think he was generally a classless act with mood swings and obscene excess (as is typically written of the lifestyle of the superrich), crude but bland, yet cockily arrogant with very little character depth. His rationale for only having hookups was that his mind was already full with his family problems, yet there was no issue diving into this routine with Emerson when it suited him. When things took a turn for the worse, he pushed her away in the nastiest way possible, unable to deal with the overwhelming emotions—all typical alpha male behaviour that still surprises me with its stupidity at times.

And while Wolff certainly portrays the grieving process well, I couldn’t get over his callous treatment of Emerson, almost as though grief gave him license to be an idiot around others. I didn’t think very much of Hunter at all at the end as a result, especially since it felt as though he merely used Emerson as a bandage slapped over wounds, or that he was with her in a bid to keep a part of his life from spinning out of control.

Emerson fared somewhat better in my opinion, standing her ground against him, though you do know her issues will crumble under Hunter’s oh-so-experienced, superior touch. From there (and it’s just a week!), the falling in love bit came easily…perhaps too easily for me. She’s nevertheless, somewhat more multifaceted, with deeper perspectives and an more unshakeable sense of compassion than Hunter’s tunnel vision on women, football and his sister, which made me wonder just how much he really deserved her.

I tried to enjoy this, I really did. I did like how the introduction of an dying sibling gave the story more gravitas than a contemporary romance would have, though I’m not quite convinced yet that it’d helped shaped the pairing out to be a more solid and believable one that successfully weathered a storm together, because they didn’t quite do so. So unfortunately it didn’t quite work for me as I prefer my stories with a bit more narrative and character depth. But if getting hot and bothered is your primary goal, then ‘Down and Dirty’ would be it.

two-stars

Guarding Mr. Fine

Guarding Mr. FineGuarding Mr. Fine by HelenKay Dimon
Series: Tough Love #3
Published by Loveswept on February 14th 2017
Pages: 213
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
two-stars

As an agent with the CIA’s special activities division, Seth Lang lives for risk—and yet he’s stuck playing bodyguard to the U.S. consul general in Munich. Although Seth’s last assignment nearly killed him, babysitting some desk jockey in a suit sounds way too easy. But when he lays eyes on the new top man, tactical expert Rick Fine, Seth’s thrilled to see just how hard this job is going to get. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Quiet has a body worth guarding—and he requires hands-on attention day and night.   Dispatched to a German consulate to expose the murder of his predecessor, Rick finds himself in an extremely vulnerable position. He needs a man like Seth—in so many ways. This mission will inevitably plunge them both into jeopardy, but each new threat only brings them closer. Rick just hopes that he can keep his deepest, darkest secret hidden—or else risk imperiling a relationship they’re both fighting for their lives to protect.

This is far from a bad read, because HelenKay Dimon does the cloak and dagger business all too well. The setup itself should have been intriguing: a mysterious death, an ongoing investigation and an insider doing illegal jobs that clearly has dire consequences. Personally, I found the story hard to get into because I didn’t quite know the direction it was heading in and most of the time, it was as though I was taking round and round for a joyride without knowing what would happen next. But this is on me and not a reflection on Dimon’s solid writing.

In fact, I think Dimon does M/M romance with quite a bit of nuance and subtlety, cataloguing the interactions between men differently as when she writes men/women romances—and these are differences that I definitely look out for and appreciate. Seth and Rick did make a believable pair as a result, and I liked the start of the book very much, but the action and the multiple dangling threads of the story lost me close to the halfway mark.

two-stars