Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review - - A Talent for Trickery

A Talent for Trickery
By Alissa Johnson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Release Date: November 3, 2015

Eight years ago, Owen Renderwell was a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard who used one William Walker, an infamous thief, confidence artist, and expert with codes, to help him solve several cases. Walker, acting against instructions, was killed during the rescue of the Duchess of Strale who had been kidnapped along with her diamonds. The successful resolution of the case made public heroes of Renderwell and his two colleagues. Renderwell’s reward included a viscount’s title, and his two friends were knighted for their roles. The three of them now work together as private investigators.  When a coded letter reminiscent of a code Walker used is found at the scene where a brothel owner and known associate of Walker was murdered, Renderwell and his friends become involved in the case.
With Renderwell’s help, Walker’s three children disappeared from London and have since been living under an assumed name at Willowbend House in Norfolk. The eldest, Charlotte, refused further contact with Renderwell whom she holds responsible for her father’s death. For eight years, her loyalty to her father has remained undiminished, and her anger at Renderwell for what she believes was his betrayal of her father has simmered. She knows that she owes the secure life she and her siblings have led to Renderwell’s action in minimizing Walker’s role and removing the Walker children from the city where their father was known, but there is a disconnect between what she knows and what she feels. She is unwavering in her conviction that her father had been redeemed by his work with Renderwell.  She persists in feeling that Renderwell took credit for her father’s courageous act and denied him recognition for becoming someone better than the thief he had been.
Renderwell is aware of Charlotte’s feelings. She rejected every effort he made to communicate with her after Walker was killed, and he eventually accepted that she was unlikely to change her mind. But he needs access to the journals of William Walker and Charlotte’s knowledge of codes to help him decipher the letter found at the murder scene and those left at other crime scenes. When he and his friends show up unannounced at Willowbend House, Charlotte is just as unfriendly as Renderwell expected, but she reluctant agrees to help him. However, she is adamant that her fourteen-year-old brother, who has no knowledge that his father was a thief, remain ignorant of the purpose of the men’s visit.
Charlotte and Renderwell work furtively with Walker’s old journals to break the code used in the letters. Charlotte finds it more and more difficult to keep buried the memories of the friendship she and Owen once enjoyed and of the romantic dreams she built around him. Neither has ever forgotten the other, and their time together renews the old attraction. But with enemies pursuing them and posing a danger to everyone in the house, they have little time to work out their issues. They have to unite to fight an unknown, common enemy and to protect the most vulnerable among them. Only then can their reconciliation lead to a happy and satisfying conclusion.
Writers of romantic suspense have to walk a fine line between two genres to make their novels successful as both romance and suspense. Too often for my taste, the balance is lost and the romance gets short shrift or the suspense plot seems weak. Alissa Johnson gets the balance just right, and she does it so deftly that the reader is scarcely aware of the shifts. 

Charlotte is intelligent, fiercely loyal to those she loves, and stubborn to a fault. She knew her father’s failings all too well, but she needs to believe that he changed just as she needs to believe her brother is still a child who can be shielded from hard truth. Even the reader who wishes she were a bit more yielding in her early response to Owen will understand and sympathize with her choices. Owen is a man of honor and heart, confident of his own abilities and his role with its demands but aware that his feelings for Charlotte leave him vulnerable.

The secondary characters too are superbly drawn. Young Peter won my heart from his first appearance, and Esther, the younger Walker sister, is both a good foil for Charlotte and interesting—and surprising--in her own right. I look forward to her story with high anticipation. Owen’s friends and colleagues too are clearly defined personalities rather than standard-issue sidekicks. And although William Walker is dead when the story begins, he is very much a part of both the romance and the suspense plot and an intriguing character, in every sense of that word.

The summary makes this book sound dark, and it certainly has dark moments. But it also has wit and humor. It is one of those books that satisfy on every level. The characterization is extraordinary, the plot twists keep the reader guessing, and the prose is lucid and precise. Alissa Johnson is a gifted author who deserves to move to the next level. This is her first novel since 2012 and the first in her Thief Takers series. If you like historical romantic suspense, if you are a fan of Victorian settings, or if you just appreciate excellent storytelling, I highly recommend A Talent for Trickery. I’m betting at least some of you will replicate my experience with this author: you will read one book and immediately join the list of readers who find the novels of Alissa Johnson addictive.


Friday, November 27, 2015

Today's Special - - The Striker by Monica McCarty

The Striker
By Monica McCarty
Publisher: Pocket Books
Release Date: November 24, 2015

By the tenth installment, many book series have begun to lose the excitement and originality that marks early books. This is not the case with Monica McCarty's Highland Guard. The Striker has enough adventure, intrigue, and passion to capture my attention from the get-go and keep me reading until I reached the sigh-inducing conclusion at 2:15 am.

When the book opens, the year is 1313 and Eoin MacLean is about to launch a surprise attack on Dugald MacDowell, his father-in-law and enemy. The scene of the attack is the wedding of Eoin's wife - a woman he has despised for the past six years - to an English lord. For her part, Margaret MacDowell MacLean believes her husband, Eoin has been dead for the past six years. Though she has reservations, she has finally made the decision to move forward and try to find some happiness when her supposedly dead husband re-enters her life. At this point, the story reverts back to 1305 when a young Eoin and Margaret "Maggie" first meet and takes us with them on their journey from that first meeting to the event in 1307 that tears them apart.

Eoin MacLean is an intense and serious young man; a deep thinker who reads, writes, loves chess, and excels at strategy. Like his family, he supports Robert Bruce as the rightful king of Scotland and looks forward to following him into battle as a member of his secret, highly trained, Highland Guard. His future is mapped out, including marriage to a respectable woman from a like-minded family, a sedate woman who knows her duty and will support Eoin without question. The woman has not yet been asked but everyone knows it's only a matter of time. Then, at a gathering to attempt to bring rival Scottish clans together, Eoin comes face to face with Margaret MacDowell, his enemy's daughter, and everything changes.

Like a wildflower in a rose garden, she did not belong. And it wasn't just because of the soft tumble of hair that was streaming down her back rather than being covered by a veil, or because in a room full of ladies dressed in velvet and jewels she managed to look more regal in a simple wool gown and brightly colored plaid. Nay, it was far more elemental. She was carefree and unabashedly happy in a room of modesty and reserve. She was wild and untamed in a sea of constraint and conformity. 

But either she was unaware of the attention or she did not care about it. She met the silence - half of which was admiring and half of which was condemning - not with a dropped gaze and maidenly blush of shyness at being the focus of so many, but with the confident, take-no-prisoners grin of a pirate captain seizing a ship, and the jaunty walk to match. 

Eoin is captivated and the feeling is mutual, much to the dismay of both families, but the couple is determined to be together and pledge themselves to one another in marriage. Maggie, filled with dreams of a wonderful life together, instead finds herself dumped with Eoin's disapproving family, his suspicious clan and his deceptive foster brother who hates her as much as he desires her. Not knowing where her husband has gone or what he's doing, she only knows that in their two years of marriage she has only been with him for a handful of days and he doesn't trust her enough to tell her why. Eventually, it all becomes too much and she escapes back to her own family where Eoin finally comes to her, in secret. The love between them is still there, still strong, but still lacking trust. And it is that lack of trust that causes an unwitting betrayal with devastating results.

At this point, the story moves back to the aborted wedding in 1313. Capturing Maggie's father is Eoin's sole objective. He wants nothing to do with Maggie but when the life of someone they both care for is put at risk they are forced to work together. Will they go their separate ways once the mission is complete or will they rediscover the love that at one time filled them with joy? And, more importantly, will they finally learn that without trust, their love will always be doomed to failure?

I've been a Monica McCarty fan since the 2007 publication of her debut book. She brings medieval Scotland to life with a vibrancy and realism that has landed all of her books on my keeper shelf. While there is plenty of action in her novels, it's also clear that a good deal of attention has been devoted to development of the characters. Fictional characters are true to their time and place and so realistically drawn that it's difficult to differentiate between them and the actual people and events which are deftly woven into the story.

Maggie and Eoin are put through the wringer emotionally in this book and I went right along with them; laughing, crying and feeling the gut-wrenching pain of betrayal. While there were times I wanted to whack Eoin upside the head and shake some sense into him, I fully understand that he's a man of his times and a young one at that. Maggie makes her share of mistakes too but she's also young, only eighteen, and thrown into a life for which she has no training. For those reasons, and because the deep bond of love between them was always there, regardless of the obstacles, I continued to root for them throughout their tumultuous journey.

While The Striker is the tenth book in the Highland Guard series, it stands well on its own. You could easily read this book without having read the previous nine in the series. If you aren't reading Monica McCarty, you're missing one of the best voices in historical romance. I highly recommend The Striker and all of the Highland Guard books.


Do you enjoy second chance stories?

Are you reading Monica McCarty's Highland Guard series?

Do you read medieval romance?

What's the last book that kept you reading late into the night?

One randomly chosen person leaving a comment will receive a print copy of The Striker from Pocket Books. (U.S. / Canada only)

The Striker
Chapter 1

St. Marys Church near Barnard Castle,
Durham, England, January 17, 1313

It was a damned fine day for a wedding. Eoin MacLean, the man who’d devised the plan to use it as a trap to capture the most wanted man in Scotland, appreciated the irony. The sun, which had hidden itself behind storm clouds for weeks, had picked this midwinter morn to reemerge and shine brightly on the sodden English countryside, making the thick grasses around the small church glisten and the remaining foliage on the trees shimmer like trees of amber and gold. It also, unfortunately, caught the shimmer of their mail, making it difficult to blend into the countryside. The long steel hauberk was unusual armor for Bruce’s men, who preferred the lighter black leather cotuns, but in this case, it was necessary. 

From their vantage on the forested hillside beyond the church, the small village on the River Tees in the shadow of the great Barnard Castle looked pretty and picturesque. A perfect backdrop for the equally pretty bride and her knightly English groom. 

Eoin’s mouth fell in a hard line, a small crack revealing the acid churning inside him. It was almost a shame to ruin it. Almost. But he’d been waiting for this day for nearly six years, and nothing—sure as hell not the happiness of the bride and groom—was going to stop him from capturing the man responsible for the worst disaster to befall Robert the Bruce in a reign filled with plenty of them from which to choose. 

They had him. Dugald MacDowell, the chief of the ancient Celtic kingdom of Galloway, the last of the significant Scots opposition to Bruce’s kingship, and the man responsible for the slaughter of over seven hundred men— including two of Bruce’s brothers. The bastard had eluded capture for years, but he’d finally made a mistake. 

That his mistake was a weakness for the bride made it even more fitting, as it was Eoin’s foolish weakness for the same woman that had set the whole disaster in motion. 

He felt for the carved piece of ivory in his sporran by instinct. It was there—as was the well-read piece of parchment beside it. Talismans of a sort, reminders of another, but he never went into battle without them. 

“You’re sure he’ll be here?” 

Eoin turned to the man who’d spoken: Ewen Lamont, his partner in the Highland Guard, and one of the dozen men who’d accompanied him on this dangerous mission deep behind enemy lines. Though Bruce himself had led raids through Durham last summer, the king had had an army for support. If Eoin’s dozen men ran into trouble, they were on their own a hundred miles from the Scottish border. Of course, it was his job to make sure they didn’t run into trouble. 

Opugnate acriter. Strike with force. That’s what he did, and what had earned him the war name of Striker among the elite warriors of Bruce’s secret Highland Guard. Like the striker who wielded the powerful blows of the hammer for the blacksmith, Eoin’s bold, just-on-the-edge-of-crazy “pirate” tactics struck hard against their enemies. Today would be no different—except that this plan might be even bolder (and crazier) than usual. Which, admittedly, was saying something. 

Eoin met his friend’s gaze, which was just visible beneath the visor of the full helm. “Aye, I’m sure. Nothing will keep MacDowell from his daughter’s wedding.” 

The information about Maggie’s—Margaret’s—planned nuptials had fallen into his hands by chance. Eoin, Lamont, Robbie Boyd, and James Douglas had been with Edward Bruce, the king’s only remaining brother, in Galloway for the past month doing everything they could do to disrupt communication and the supply routes between the MacDowell strongholds in Scotland’s southwest province of Galloway and Carlisle Castle in England, which was provisioning them. During one of these “disruptions,” they’d captured a bundle of missives, which included a letter from Sir John Conyers, the Constable of Barnard Castle for the Earl of Warwick, giving the date of Conyers’s marriage to MacDowell’s “beloved” daughter. Dugald had eight sons, but only one daughter, so there could be no mistake as to the identity of the bride. 

Lamont gave him a long, knowing look. “I suspect the same could be said of you.” 

Eoin’s lip curled in a smile that was edged with far more anger than amusement. “You’re right about that.” 

This was one wedding he wouldn’t miss for the world. The fact that it would lead to the capture of his most hated enemy only made it more satisfying. Two debts, long in arrears, would be repaid this day. 

But bloody hell, how much longer was this going to take? He was always edgy before a mission, but this was worse than usual. For Christ’s sake, his hands were practically shaking! 

He’d laugh, if he couldn’t guess why. The fact that she could get to him after all these years—after what she’d done—infuriated him enough to immediately kill any twitchiness. He was as cold as ice. As hard as steel. Nothing penetrated. It hadn’t in a long time. 

Finally, the appearance of riders on the drawbridge, one of whom was holding a blue and white banner, signaled the arrival of the groom. 

Eoin flipped down the visor of his helm, adjusted the heavy, uncomfortable shirt of mail, and donned the stolen surcoat, which not coincidentally was a matching blue and white. 

“Be ready,” he said to his partner. “Make sure the others know what to do, and wait for my signal.” 

Lamont nodded, but didn’t wish him luck. Eoin didn’t need it. When it came to strategies and plans, no one did them better. Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver, and when necessary, outfight. MacDowell may have gotten the best of him six years ago, but today Eoin would even the score. 

Bàs roimh Gèill,” Lamont said instead. 

Death before surrender, the motto of the Highland Guard—and if they were lucky, of Dugald MacDowell as well. She was doing the right thing. Margaret knew that. It had been almost six years. She’d mourned long enough. She deserved a chance at happiness. And more important, her son deserved a chance to grow up under the influence of a good man. A kind man. A man who had not been made bitter by defeat. 

None of which explained why she’d been up since dawn, running around all morning, unable to sit still. Or why her heart was fluttering as if in a panic. Panic that went beyond normal wedding day anxiety. 

She hadn’t been nervous at all for her first wedding. Her chest pinched as just for a moment—one tiny moment—she allowed her thoughts to return to that sliver in time over seven years ago when everything had seemed so perfect. She’d been so happy. So in love and full of hope for the future. Her chest squeezed tightly before releasing with a heavy sigh. 

God, what a naive fool she’d been. So brash and confident. So convinced everything would work out the way she wanted it to. Maybe a little anxiety would have served her better. 

She’d been so young—too young. Only eighteen. If she could go back and do it all over again with the perspective of age . . . 

She sighed. Nay, it was too late to change the past. But not the future. Her thoughts returned to the present where they must stay, and she focused, as she always did, on the best thing to come out of that painful time. The thing that had pulled her out of the darkness and forced her to live again. Her five-year-old son, Eachann—or as they called him in England, Hector. 

Eachann had a small chamber adjoining hers in the manor house that had been their home in England for the past four years, since her father had been forced to flee Scotland. But she and her son would be leaving Temple-Couton for good this morning. After the wedding ceremony, they would remove to Barnard Castle with her betrothed—her husband, she corrected, trying to ignore the simultaneous drop in her stomach and spike in her pulse (two things that definitely shouldn’t happen simultaneously!). 

Instead, she forced a smile on her face and gazed fondly at her son, who was sitting on his bed, his spindly legs dangling over the side and his blond head bent forward. 

The soft silky curls were already darkening as the white blond of toddlerhood gave way to the darker blond of youth. Like his father’s. He was like his father in so many ways, looking at him should cause her pain. But it didn’t. It only brought her joy. In Eachann she had a piece of her husband that death could not claim. Her son was hers completely, in a way that her husband never had been. 

She smiled, her heart swelling as it always did when she looked at him. “Do you have everything?”

He looked up. Sharp blue eyes met hers, startling again in their similarity to the man who’d given him his blood if nothing else. Eachann nodded somberly. He was like his father in that regard as well, serious and contemplative. “I think so.” 

Stepping around the two large wooden trunks, Margaret glanced around the room to make sure. Just below his small booted heel, she spied the corner of a dark plank of wood. 

Following the direction of her gaze, Eachann attempted to inconspicuously kick it farther under the bed. 

Frowning, Margaret sat on the bed beside him. He wouldn’t look at her. But she didn’t need to see his face to know he was upset. 

“Is there a reason you don’t want to take your chessboard? I thought it was your favorite game?” 

His cheeks flushed. “Grandfather said I’m too old to play with poppets. I need to practice my swords or I’m gonna end up a traitorous baserd like my father.” The little boy’s mouth drew in a hard, merciless line, the expression a chilling resemblance to her father. Why is it that she’d never noticed the negative aspects of her father until they appeared in her son? “I’m no traitor! I’ll see that bloody usurper off the throne, and Good King John restored to his crown, if it’s the last thing I do.” Another chill ran through her. St. Columba’s bones, he sounded exactly like her father, too. His head tilted toward hers. “But what’s a baserd?” 

“Nothing you could ever be, my love,” she said, hugging the boy tightly to her. This was one word that she wasn’t going to worry about correcting. 

If she needed proof of why she was doing the right thing, she had it. She loved her father, but she would not have her son warped by his disappointments. She would not see Eachann turned into a bitter, angry old man who thought the world had turned against him. Who reveled in being the last “true” patriot for the Balliol claim to the throne, and the only significant Scottish nobleman who still had not bowed to the “usurper” Robert the Bruce. 

Margaret understood her father’s anger—and perhaps even commiserated with him about the source—but that did not mean she wanted her son turned into a miniature version of him. Despite Eachann’s “traitorous bastard” of a father, Dugald MacDowell loved his only grandchild. Indeed, it was her father’s mention of having Eachann fostered with Tristan MacCan—his an gille-coise  henchman—so the lad could be close to him that gave Margaret the push to accept Sir John Conyers’s proposal. 

When the time came next year for her son to leave her care—God give her strength to face that day!—Sir John would see to his placement and not her father. Being a squire to an English knight was vastly preferable to being fostered by a man so completely under her father’s influence, even one who was a childhood friend. Her son’s safety came above everything else.

“Chess pieces are not poppets, my love.” She pulled out the board etched with grid lines and the lovingly carved and painted wooden pieces. Some of the paint had begun to flake off on the edges, and the carefully painted faces had faded with use. She’d taught Eachann to play when he was three. He played against himself mostly, as despite prodigious efforts otherwise, she’d never had the patience for it. But he did. Her son was brilliant, and she was fiercely proud of him. “It’s the game of kings,” she said with a bittersweet smile. “Your father played.” 

That surprised him. She rarely mentioned his father, for various reasons, including that the memories pained her and mention of him drew her family’s ire. They all tried to pretend that the “traitorous bastard” never existed around Eachann, but if the eager look on the boy’s face was any indication, perhaps they had been wrong in that. 

“He did?” Eachann asked. 

She nodded. “It was he who taught me to play. Your grandfather never learned, which is why he . . .” She thought of how to put it. “Which is why he doesn’t understand how useful it can be to a warrior.” 

He looked at her as if she were crazed. “How?” 

She grinned. “Well, you could throw the board like a discus, or use the pieces in a slingshot.” 

He rolled his eyes. She couldn’t get anything past him, even though he was only five. He always knew when she was teasing. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mother. It wouldn’t make a good weapon.” 

His expression was so reminiscent of his father’s she had to laugh so she didn’t cry. If anyone needed proof that mannerisms were inherited, Eachann was it. “All right, you have me. I was teasing. Did you read the rest of the folio Father Christopher found for you?” 

They’d been reading it together, but he’d grown impatient waiting for her. Like with chess, her son had quickly outpaced her hard-wrought reading skills. 

He nodded. 

She continued. “King Leonidas was a great swordsman, but that’s not what made him a great leader, and what held off so many Persians at Thermopylae. It was his mind. He planned and strategized, using the terrain to his advantage.” 

A broad smile lit up Eachann’s small face. “Just like you plan and strategize in chess.” 

Margaret nodded. “That was what your father did so exceptionally. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew. In the same way that you can look at the chessboard and ‘see’ what to do, he could look at an army on the battleground and see what to do. He could defeat the enemy before he even picked up a sword.” 

Though Eachann’s father had favored a battle-axe like his illustrious grandfather for whom he’d been named: Gillean-na-Tuardhe, “Gill Eoin (the servant of Saint John) of the Battle-axe.” He’d been good with it, too. But she didn’t want to mention that. In spite of her son’s auspicious name, harkening to one of the greatest warriors of ancient times, Hector of Troy, Eachann was small and had yet to show any skill—or love—of weaponry. Her father had begun to notice, which was another reason she had to get her son away. She wouldn’t mind if Eachann never picked up a weapon and buried himself in books for the rest of his life. But Dugald MacDowell would not see his grandson as anything but a fierce warrior. Another MacDowell to devote his life to a war that would never end. 

But she wouldn’t let that happen. The constant conflict that had dominated her life—that had torn apart her life— would not be her son’s. 

She stood up. “Why don’t you put your game in the chest, while I go to tell Grandfather we are ready.” 

He gave her a nod and hopped off the bed. She was almost to the door before she felt a pair of tiny arms wrap around her legs. “I love you, Mother.” 

Tears filled her eyes as she returned the hug with a hard squeeze. “And I love you, sweetheart.”

Certainty filled her heart. She was doing the right thing.

Three hours later, Margaret had to remind herself of it. As she stood outside the church door, her father, son, and six of her eight brothers gathered on her left, and Sir John on her right, flanked by what seemed like the entire garrison of Barnard Castle, it didn’t feel right at all. Indeed, it felt very, very wrong. 

Were it not for the firm arm under her hand holding her up, she might have collapsed; her legs had the strength of jelly. 

Sir John must have sensed something. He covered her hand resting in the crook of his elbow with his. “Are you all right? You look a little pale.” 

She had to tilt her head back to look at him. He was tall—although not as tall as her first husband had been—and the top of her head barely reached his chin. He was just as handsome though. Maybe even more so, if you preferred smooth perfection to sharp and chiseled. And Sir John liked to smile. He did so often. Unlike her first husband. Wresting a smile from him had been her constant challenge. But when she’d succeeded, it had felt like she’d been rewarded a king’s ransom. Sir John’s life also didn’t revolve around battle—thinking about battle, planning about battle, talking about battle. Sir John had many other interests, including—novelly—her. He talked to her, shared his thoughts with her, and didn’t treat her like a mistake. 

Then why did this feel like one? Why did the very proper wedding, with the seemingly perfect man, feel so different from the improper one, with the wrong man that had come before it? 

Because you don’t love him. 

But she would. By all that was good and holy in heaven, she would! This time it would grow, rather than wither on the bone of neglect to die. She was being given a second chance at happiness, and she would take it, blast it! 

She drew a deep breath and smiled—this time for real. “I was too excited to eat anything this morning. I’m afraid it’s catching up with me. But I’m fine. Or will be, as soon as we get to the feast.”

Sir John returned her smile, she thought with a tinge of relief. “Then we must not delay another moment.” He leaned down and whispered closer to her ear. “I don’t want my bride fainting before the wedding night.” 

Her eyes shot to his. She caught the mischievous twinkle and laughed. “So I’m expected to faint afterward?” 

“I would consider it the highest compliment if you would. It is every groom’s hope to so overcome his bride on the wedding night that she swoons.” He nodded to indicate the soldiers behind him. “How else am I to impress the men over a tankard of ale?" 

“You are horrible.” But she said it with a smile. This was why she was marrying him. This is why they would be happy. He made her laugh in a way she hadn’t laughed in a long time. His humor was just as wicked as hers had been. Once. 

Following the direction of his gaze, she scanned the large group of mail-clad soldiers. “Is that what you talk about when you are all together? Aren’t you breaking some secret male code by telling me this?” 

He grinned. “Probably. But I trust you not to betray me.” 

Not to betray me . . . 

A chill ran down her spine. Her gaze snagged on something in the crowd. Her skin prickled, and the hair at the back of her neck stood up for a long heartbeat before the sensation passed. 

It must have been Sir John’s words, unknowingly stirring memories. Unknowingly stirring guilt. 

Tell no one of my presence . . . 

Pain that not even six years could dull stabbed her heart. God, how could she have been so foolish? The only good thing about her husband dying was that she didn’t have to live with the knowledge of how much he would have despised her for betraying him. 

“Margaret?” Sir John’s voice shook her from the memories. “They are waiting for us.” 

The priest and her father, who had been talking, were both now staring at her, the priest questioningly, her father with a dark frown. Ignoring them both, she turned to Sir John. “Then let us begin.” 

Side by side, they stood before the church door and publicly repeated the vows that would bind them together. 

If memories of another exchange of vows tried to intrude, she refused to let them. Of course it was different this time. This time she was doing it right. The banns. The public exchange of vows outside the church door. The only thing they wouldn’t have was the mass afterward. As she was a widow, it was not permitted.

 If she secretly didn’t mind missing a long mass, she was wise enough not to admit it. Now. She wasn’t the wild, irreverent “heathen” from “the God Forsaken” corner of Galloway anymore. She would never give Sir John a reason to be ashamed of or embarrassed by her. 

When the priest asked if there was anyone who objected or knew of a reason why these two could not be joined, her heart stopped. The silence seemed to stretch intolerably. Surely that was long enough to wait— 

“I do.” 

The voice rang out loud and clear, yet for one confused moment, she thought she’d imagined it. The uncomfortable murmuring of the crowd, and the heads turned in the direction of the voice, however, told her she hadn’t. 

Sir John swore. “If this is some kind of joke, someone is going to regret it.”

“You there,” the priest said loudly. “Step forward if you have something to say.” The crowd parted, revealing a soldier—an exceptionally tall and powerfully built soldier. Strangely, the visor of his helm was flipped down. 

He took a few steps forward, and Margaret froze. Stricken, her breath caught in her throat as she watched the powerful stride that seemed so familiar. Only one man walked with that kind of impatience—as if he was waiting for the world to catch up to him.

No . . . no . . . it can’t be. 

All eyes were on the soldier wearing the blue and white surcoat of the Conyers’s arms. She sensed the movement of a few other soldiers, circling around the crowd in the churchyard, but paid them no mind. Like everyone else, her gaze was riveted on the man striding purposefully forward. 

He stopped a few feet away. He stood motionlessly, his head turned in her direction. It was ridiculous—fanciful—his eyes were hidden in the shadow of the steel helm, but somehow she could feel them burning into her. Condemning. Accusing. Despising

Her legs could no longer hold her up; they started to wobble. 

“What is the meaning of this, Conyers?” her father said angrily, apparently blaming Sir John for the conduct of one of his men. 

“Speak,” the priest said impatiently to the man. “Is there an impediment of which you are aware?”

The soldier flipped up his visor, and for one agonizing, heart-wrenching moment his midnight-blue eyes met hers. Eyes she could never forget. Pain seared through her in a devastating blast. White-hot, it sucked every last bit of air from her lungs. Her head started to spin. She barely heard the words that would shock the crowd to the core. 

“Aye, there’s an impediment.” Oh God, that voice. She’d dreamed of that voice so many nights. A low, gravelly voice with the lilt of the Gael. Oh God, Maggie, that feels so good. I’m going to . . . “The lass is already married.”

“To whom?” the priest demanded furiously, obviously believing the man was playing some kind of game. 

But he wasn’t.

Eoin is alive. 

“To me.” Margaret was already falling as he spoke. Unfortunately, Sir John wasn’t going to get his wish: the bride would faint before the wedding night after all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review - - Starlight on Willow Lake

Starlight on Willow Lake
By Susan Wiggs
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: August 25, 2015

Susan Wiggs focuses on another branch of the wealthy Bellamy family in the eleventh book of her Lakeshore Chronicles. The book opens as the three children of Alice and Trevor Bellamy gather in New Zealand to spread the ashes of their father on the mountain where he perished when he was caught in an avalanche while skiing. Their mother survived, but her injuries were severe. The woman who traveled the world and joined her husband in his athletic pursuits is now a paraplegic who rarely leaves the luxurious home on Willow Lake outside Avalon, New York, that her older son Mason has had outfitted for her needs.

Burdened with the knowledge of family secrets as a teenager, Mason Bellamy responded by preserving an emotional distance from both his parents. That distance colors his memories of his father and his relationship with his mother. A successful financier, Mason spends exorbitant sums of money to purchase the Willow Lake estate, install every convenience that will make his mother’s restricted life easier, and pay the salaries of a large staff to serve her, but he is uncomfortable spending time with her. When Adam, who has moved into an apartment over the boathouse in order to assume the major responsibility for Alice’s care, has to be away for several months of training in arson investigation at the same time that a long-awaited opportunity in Paris opens up for Ivy, their younger sister, Mason is forced to take a more direct role in his mother’s care.

Embittered and angry, Alice has driven away every home health care provider hired to care for her. Mason’s first task is to find someone who can deal with his difficult mother. He reluctantly remains at Willow Lake to interview applicants. The most promising of the group is Faith McCallum. Mason’s plan is to hire her, stay long enough to make sure she was the right choice, and return ASAP to his life in NYC.

A job that provides a decent salary and living quarters is just what Faith, a widow with two daughters, needs. Debt from her late husband’s medical expenses and the cost of her younger daughter’s care have stretched Faith’s resources so thin that she and the girls are at the point of becoming homeless. An unexpected crisis showcases Faith’s cool head as well as her medical skills and convinces Mason that she is the perfect caretaker for his mother. So Faith and the girls join the household. Faith’s blend of challenge and compassion and the honesty and liveliness of her daughters soon have Alice involved in life again. Grateful for the job, Faith tries to ignore the attraction that simmers between her and Mason. Not only is he way out of her class, but he also has a fiancée.

Mason had not counted on the chemistry and connection that he finds with Faith nor the appeal of seventeen-year-old Cara’s intelligence and toughness and eight-year-old Ruby’s charm and courage. These feelings are threatening Mason’s carefully constructed reserve and even reshaping his relationship with his mother. But Faith’s memories of a husband she loved and lost and her awareness of the social chasm that separates her from Mason make her wary. Can these two let go of their fears and accept that the love they were not looking for may offer all their hearts desire?

Wiggs delivers another Lakeshore Chronicles book peopled with engaging characters dealing with the unexpected turns their lives take. I especially enjoyed watching the relationship between Mason and Faith develop gradually. Faith is a wonderful heroine, committed to her profession, devoted to her daughters, and strong in significant ways while still human and vulnerable. I was a bit slower to embrace Mason because I have ODed on the emotionally distant hero, but his discovery that his adored father was deeply flawed provided a credible reason for the man Mason became. And I loved watching Faith and her girls melt his reserve.

The romance is central here, but family relationships are also important—and they are complex and compelling. Wiggs excels at reminding her readers that each character, even the minor ones, has a story, and she does so without distracting the reader from the central tale. Although this book is part of a long-running series and characters from earlier books make brief appearances, Starlight on Willow Lake works well as a standalone. If you like contemporary romance rich in contexts and centered on a relationship that is at least as much about the dreams and doubts and scars and struggles of the two people involved as about fire in the blood and the loins, I definitely recommend this book.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Today's Special - - Laura Moore

Bestselling contemporary romance author Laura Moore's first story filled a coffee-stained notebook before she realized she might actually have written a love story that others would enjoy. Ride A Dark Horse was published a year later.

An accomplished equestrian and lifelong animal lover, Laura Moore lives in Rhode Island with her husband, two children and their black Lab. Their cat, Zevon, keeps them all in line.

You can find Laura at her web site: -- she encourages you to sign up for her newsletter!

Please join me in welcoming Laura Moore! 

Hi, everyone! It’s so good to be back here at The Romance Dish.

Anyone who’s read my books knows that I’m an animal lover. Pretty much every story of mine has featured either a four-legged or a winged or a finned creature. To me, the animals in our lives represent an important connection to the natural world, and how we treat them reveals a great deal about our characters. In this day and age of always being plugged in or staring at some electronic device, the simple, basic forms of communication through speech, body language, and touch are infinitely appealing. Interacting with animals forces us to slow down. It requires us to be present.

My heroine, Quinn Knowles, in Once Touched, Book three in my Silver Creek series (note that all the books can be read as stand-alones) understands this implicitly. She was born and raised on a sprawling cattle and sheep ranch, has been riding since she was barely more than a toddler, and rescued her first animal--an injured bunny when she was a little girl. As an adult, her connection with animals has only deepened.

When Ethan Saunders, a photojournalist who’s been embedded with an army unit in Afghanistan arrives at Silver Creek Ranch, he’s wounded, both in body and soul. Burdened by the horror and guilt of his wartime experience his aim is to hide away from the world. He’s counting on the Knowleses--old family friends of his parents--to leave him alone.

But he hasn’t counted on Quinn Knowles, who’s no longer the pig-tailed girl he used to lead around
on her pinto pony. She’s grown into a strong and determined woman who doesn’t back down even when he shows her his surliest, bear-like side.

For Quinn, the visible and invisible wounds Ethan carries can’t be ignored and she can’t resist trying to heal them. She knows that to allow Ethan to retreat from the world will only cause those wounds to fester. From her experience working with animals, she recognizes that the best medicine and therapy for Ethan right now is to be with them.

In writing about Quinn and Ethan, I drew a lot on research about therapy animals, in particular how much they can help disabled veterans returning home. I hope that when you read Once Touched, not only will you fall in love with Quinn and Ethan’s story but you’ll be equally moved by the healing powers animals hold.   

Excerpt from Once Touched:
              When Quinn opened her front door four hours later, she was greeted by a series of barks and leaps from Sooner, a figure-eight pass between her legs by Pirate, and eardrum-splitting squawks from Alfie, who was doubtless doing somersaults from one perch to the next in his oversized cage in the study.
              Her friend Lorelei was the only sentient being under the roof who chose not to greet her acrobatically. She remained curled up in an armchair, reading. One of Sooner’s more ambitious leaps and spins must have entered her field of vision, for she looked up from her book. With a smile of greeting, she removed two bright orange earplugs. “You’re back.”
              “Yeah. Brilliant idea,” she said with a nod at the foam plugs. Brushing past Sooner’s wriggling black and white body, she sank onto the drop-cloth-covered sofa with a groan of relief and patted the cushion next to her, so Sooner would know he had permission to join her.
              Her cat didn’t need permission. Pirate jumped up and then took a stroll along the back of the sofa, brushing his body against Quinn’s head. From the study, Alfie began barking.
              She grinned. “Boy, it’s good to be home. Got any more earplugs?”
Lorelei laughed. “No, but I can’t recommend them enough. They make all the difference. Francesco got them for me after our first takeout dinner here. He brought over these great burritos from this new Mexican place on Route 101, just south of Ukiah. The guac was to die for. He’s such a sweetie,” she said happily.
              Francesco and Lorelei had been dating for almost a year now, and from what Quinn could tell, Francesco wasn’t just a sweetie; he also had intelligence and good taste. He was crazy about Lorelei.
              “Yeah, you could do worse,” she said. “Like fall for the guy I just had to spend three-plus hours with. Luckily, he slept most of the drive.” The second Ethan had fallen asleep, his closely cropped head resting against the window and the tightness in his jaw relaxing somewhat, Quinn had eased up on the gas to smooth out the ride. Judging from the dark circles beneath his eyes, she had a feeling he hadn’t slept in a while.
              “This is the guy you were picking up at the airport? The family friend?”
              “His parents are friends. The jury’s out on Ethan.” She blew out a breath. “It’s possible he’s a prince.”
              “From your tone I’d guess he was more toad than prince.”
              “Mm-hmm. A prehistoric toad. Still . . .” She sighed and stroked Sooner’s head, which was resting on her thigh. He was gazing at her with fixed devotion—a balm after the hostility Ethan had displayed. “To be fair, it’s hard to tell what he’s like. He’s pretty beat up. I imagine he’s none too happy about his limitations. What I can’t figure out is why he’s chosen to come here. I parked as close to the cabin he’s staying in as I could, and even then he looked ready to pass out by the time he reached the cabin door. And he’s big—whip thin but tall. Hard to lug.” Impossible to lug, she added silently, since she’d have been terrified of hurting his arm.

Giveaway Alert!

I’m going to be giving away a copy of Once Touched (paper or e-book, winner’s choice--U.S. residents only, please). To enter, just leave an answer to the following question in the comment section. The winner will be chosen at random by The Romance Dish.

Do you have an animal? What kind and how has it improved your life?

The youngest of the three Knowles siblings, Quinn has in her blood the love of the land and its beautiful creatures. Raising enough money to build an animal sanctuary is a dream Quinn lives every day—while fending off her family’s well-intentioned matchmaking schemes. Though harboring secret fears about intimacy, Quinn soon realizes she cannot fight her growing attraction to a man who has suddenly entered her life.

Scarred by his months in Afghanistan and the violence he witnessed there through his camera lens, photojournalist Ethan Saunders throws himself into hard ranching work as a prescription for healing. But falling for Quinn has given him the one thing he thought he’d lost forever: hope. Ethan discovers that Quinn, like the innocent animals she rescues, is shy, and afraid of entrusting her heart to a man. Passion soon awakens Ethan’s strength, and his tender seduction may be just what Quinn needs to believe in herself—and in his love.

Buy Links for Once Touched:


Review - - Once Touched

Once Touched
By Laura Moore
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: November 24, 2015

Love is in the air and Quinn Knowles wants no part of it. Her brothers have recently been hit with Cupid's arrow and even her long-married parents are acting like newlyweds but Quinn reserves her love and affection for the rescue animals under her care. She's tried relationships before but her fear of intimacy has led to cruel rejection and she has no desire to subject herself to that humiliation again. She'll continue to work on her family's ranch with an eye to saving enough money to open an animal sanctuary and leave love and marriage to others.

Ethan Saunders returned from Afghanistan broken in both body and spirit. The only survivor of a roadside bombing, the photojournalist is suffocating under the well-meaning care of his parents. As soon as he's physically able to travel, he convinces his parents to ask their friends, the Knowles, to let him come to their ranch, a land of wide open spaces that he fondly remembers from a visit in his teens. Though he's barely strong enough to lift a feed bucket and is sporting the personality of a wounded bear, he's determined to find a place for himself on the ranch and earn his keep. He never expects to find love.

In this final installment of Moore's Silver Creek trilogy, she's created an emotional story of love, trust, and healing on many levels. She brings the characters to life as well as life on the ranch and left me wanting to book the next flight to California to spend time with these people. I love the vulnerability Quinn hides beneath her tough ranch-girl exterior. She has a huge and kind heart but isn't afraid to stand her ground with man or beast. She's exactly what Ethan needs. And Ethan is exactly what she needs. I love the patience and tenderness he brings to their relationship.

The romance between Quinn and Ethan builds slowly and organically. Beginning with instant animosity, they gradually transition to work-mates then to tentative friendship, simmering desire, and finally, a deep and enduring love. But Ethan has demons to conquer before he can give himself fully to a relationship and Quinn's well-meaning attempt to help him do that could end their relationship for good.

I highly recommend this wonderful novel of family, hope, healing, and love. While Once Touched is the final book in the Silver Creek trilogy, it stands well on its own. However, if you enjoy it as much as I did, you'll probably be seeking out the other two books - Once Temped and Once Tasted - as soon as you finish this one.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Last Chance Winners

The following people have not claimed their prizes from the anniversary celebration. 
Please send your information to theromancedish (at) gmail (dot) com no later than 
11:00 pm, Tuesday, November 24, 2015. 
I will draw new winners for any prizes unclaimed after that date and time. 

Angela Covarrubias (email address)

Annie (email address)

Donna (email address)

CathieVeres (email address)

patoct (name and address)

hope (name and address)

Phyllis Lamken (name and address)

Winner - - An Unexpected Wish

The winner of an e-copy of An Unexpected Wish by Eileen Richards is:



Please send your email address to

theromancedish (at) gmail dot) com

Winner - - A Gentleman For All Seasons Giveaway

The winner of four books from the authors of A Gentleman For All Seasons 
(one book from each author) is:



Please send your full name and mailing address to

theromancedish (at) gmail (dot) com

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review - - A Winter Wedding

A Winter Wedding
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Release Date: October 27, 2015

Kyle Houseman has been in love with Olivia Arnold for what seems like forever, but he made a big mistake years ago that he has been paying for ever since. He allowed himself to be seduced by Olivia’s sister Noelle and married her when she ended up pregnant.  Olivia’s broken heart was repaired by Kyle’s step-brother, Brandon Lucero. Olivia and Brandon have been married for several years, and Kyle and Noelle have been divorced almost as long. But as often as Kyle reminds himself that Olivia is happily married and merely his sister-in-law now, he recognizes he still has special feelings for her, feelings strong enough to keep him from falling for anyone else. And as often as he reminds Noelle that they are divorced, she has another problem that requires his attention and his money.

Lourdes Bennett was a rising star in country music just a short time ago, but her decision to make a pop album sent her career in a downward spin that has left her worried that she’s finished. As if that were not enough, she is fairly certain that her manager fiancé is cheating with the younger woman who has replaced her as the next big thing. In need of a quiet refuge to write songs for a new album she hopes will restart her career and to make some decisions about her personal life, she rents a farmhouse outside Whiskey Creek, a farmhouse owned by Kyle Houseman.

When the heating in the farmhouse malfunctions, Kyle invites his famous tenant to take sanctuary in his spare bedroom until he can have the heating repaired. As these two very different people spend time together, they find a friend in each other. They confide in each other about their mistakes and the consequences and discover they are remarkably simpatico. Neither is looking for romance, but the chemistry between them makes it difficult to keep their relationship platonic. Kyle’s tight circle of friends, including Olivia and Brandon, like Lourdes and welcome her to the group. They would like nothing better than to see these two together. But Noelle is skilled at complications and manipulations, and Lourdes still has her manager fiancé and her career that require attention. Can these two overcome all these obstacles and make their way to an HEA of their own.

Brenda Novak began her Whiskey Creek series in the summer of 2012 with When We Touch, a novella featuring Olivia and Brandon, with Kyle’s betrayal of Olivia and his wedding to Noelle as backdrop. I wrote in my review of When We Touch:

Noelle is a one-dimensional bitch who is easy to hate. . . . Kyle is more interesting, a guy who made a stupid mistake and is paying the price of marriage and shared parenthood with a woman he doesn’t even like very much. Neither does his family or friends. Interesting possibilities there, so maybe we’ll see more of Kyle in other Whiskey Creek books.

It has been interesting to see Kyle in the rest of the series, suffering in various ways for his mistake and growing in the process. He completely won me over with his compassion for Phoenix Fuller in This Heart of Mine (Whiskey Creek 3). I thought Novak did an excellent job of showing him in his book as the same person, still capable of being victimized by Noelle who is as self-absorbed and manipulative as ever, but overall, wiser, more mature, and more likeable.  I found Lourdes an immensely likeable character, and I was glad to see Kyle let go of Olivia and accept her fully as his friend and Brandon’s wife. I especially appreciated the slow build of the relationship between Kyle and Lourdes and the way their HEA was achieved.

With Novak committed two other series, Fairham Island and Hanover House, this generally excellent small-town series may be winding down, although there will be at least one more book (Discovering You, May 24, 2016). I applaud Novak for the risks she has taken that has set the Whiskey Creek books apart from predictable small-town series, and I recommend this book. With a wedding, a new baby, the reaffirmation of the bonds of friendship, and one more heartwarming HEA, The Winter Wedding has everything needed to win the hearts of readers who love small-town contemporary romance stories.


Review - - Hope Springs on Main Street

Hope Springs on Main Street
By Olivia Miles
Publisher: Forever
Release Date: October 27, 2015


Conscious that she is the target of town gossip and that her cheating ex-husband is having no problem moving on with his mistress, Jane Madison is trying to cope with life as a divorced woman and mother of one. She knows the gossip and the poor-Jane looks are only going to get worse when Briar Creek learns that her ex is soon to marry his pregnant mistress. This is not how she saw her life when she gave up her best chance to conquer a larger world as a dancer and married her high school sweetheart instead. Added to her hurt and disillusionment is her worry about tightening finances because the dance studio where she teaches is cutting classes, some of them the classes Jane teaches. But Jane is determined not to burden her mother and sisters with her problems, especially since the family is focused on her sister’s upcoming wedding.

Henry Birch is not happy to be in Briar Creek. The town holds too many memories that haunt him, memories of his alcoholic mother and her neglect and of being an object of the town’s gossip and pity. Only his love and concern for his sister Ivy have brought him back after a six-year absence. He feels guilty that he did not return to help Ivy when their mother died, and he is determined to be there for her to help clear out their childhood home and put it up for sale. He also wants to make sure Ivy, who has Type I diabetes, is taking care of herself. His plans are to take care of business and leave Briar Creek as soon as possible.

Henry is not surprised to learn that Jane and Adam are divorced. Adam may have been his best friend, and Adam’s parents may have given Henry the only experience he has ever known of being part of a real family, but even so, Henry knew before Jane married him that Adam was a player. Jane unknowingly claimed Henry’s heart when they were in high school, and he has never forgotten her. Sure, the fact that she is his best friend’s ex creates some awkwardness, but all the connections that made Henry and Jane friends who “got” each other are still there with the potential for fireworks added. Henry even falls for the charms of Jane’s young daughter. But Jane’s roots in Briar Creek are deep, and she deserves a man without Henry’s baggage and his history of failed relationships. But sometimes a man finds that he has to go home again and hope that the woman who is more than he deserves can forgive him for leaving.  

Hope Springs on Main Street is the third book in Miles’s Briar Creek series, after Mistletoe on Main Street and A Match Made on Main Street. It is a slightly different take on the friends-to-lovers trope. Henry and Jane have a history, but they also have six years of silence and Henry’s loyalty to Adam—or perhaps more accurately, Adam’s family—to complicate matters. They are both good people, but they are far from perfect. Some readers may find Henry’s fear and self-doubt irritating, but I thought the characteristics were exactly those one would expect to see in the adult child of an alcoholic. I found Jane’s refusal to share her problems with the family that loves her more difficult to understand. But I cared about both these characters and wanted to see them reach an HEA.

As much as I liked the romance, I also appreciated that all the other relationships are also dynamic. Henry’s relationship with Ivy may be the most interesting, but Jane’s relationships with her daughter and with her sisters also change and grow. I found Henry’s developing relationship with young Sophia charming. Although I went in search of the first two books in the series as soon as I read this one, I had not read either before reading Hope Springs on Main Street and had no problem reading this book as a standalone. I am hooked on the series now, however, and am hoping for Ivy’s story soon. I had heard good things about Olivia Miles’s books, and I’m delighted that all the yea-sayers were right. I am adding another small-town series to my must-read list, and I definitely recommend that all of you who are fans of small-town romance or of romance with lots of sexual tension but closed bedroom doors give this one a try.