Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review - - Anything for You

Anything for You
By Kristan Higgins
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: December 29, 2015

Countless romance novels end with a proposal, but this fifth novel in Kristan Higgins’s popular Blue Heron series begins with one. Connor O’Rourke and Jessica Dunn have spent years in an on-again, off-again relationship. Connor believes it is past time they made it permanent, and he is prepared with candlelight and champagne, the perfect ring for his gorgeous Jessica, and the traditional beseeching-male position on one knee. He is not prepared to hear Jessica respond, “Get up, doofus.”  If Jess is saying no to his proposal, then Connor is saying no to them. He will no longer accept their limited, secretive relationship. So the on-again is off-again, permanently this time. Or is it?

“Complicated” might be an understatement when it comes to this relationship. First, Connor and Jessica have a twenty-year history. Connor, a son of privilege, fell in love with Jessica, child of the bottom tier of “trailer trash,” when he was twelve. As if the class differences were not conflict enough for first love, there is the issue of the dog. One day as twelve-year-old Connor and Colleen, his twin (who got her HEA in a reunion romance in Waiting on You, 2014) were riding their bikes, Chico, a pit bull belonging to the Dunns, attacked Connor, mauling him badly. Connor ends up in the hospital with thirty-five stitches, and both he and Colleen, who saw the attack, are traumatized by the event. So is Davey, Jessica’s special-needs younger brother, who can only understand that the dog he loved has been taken away because of Connor. Davey does not understand the danger Connor was in or the combination of Connor’s father’s fury and power. He views Connor as Chico’s killer, and he hates and fears him.

In high school, Jessica is a wild child whose rumored promiscuity leads to her nickname, Jessica Does. But she stays away from Connor. Nevertheless,  from Connor’s perspective, there is an unrecognized bond: “Even so, it felt as if an invisible copper wire connected them, occasionally flaring with electricity and light.” Several years after high school, when Jess’s boss pays for her to take a one-day wine class at the Culinary Institute of America, Connor, in his senior year at the institute, teaches the class. They connect briefly, but the connection is shattered in a heartbreaking moment. Two years later, Connor has returned to Manningsport to open O’Rourke’s with Colleen. Jessica, whose hard work and upward mobility have gone a long way toward redeeming her reputation and improving her self-esteem, forgives Connor and they try again. However, Jessica has assumed responsibility for Davey, and Davey’s hysterical reaction to Connor convinces her that Davey and Connor cannot co-exist.

The pattern is set. They reunite for weeks or months, but each time some emergency in Jessica’s life signals that it is time to break-up. But Davey is as much excuse as reason. The truth is that Jessica does not trust Connor’s love for her. She believes that she herself is the only person on whom she can depend. Until she can conquer her fears and believe in Connor and her own self-worth, she can never find the life of which she dreams.

I’m not generally a fan of this kind of up and down romance, but Kristan Higgins can sell me on most any story line. Connor, of course, is an easy sale. He not only rivals movie hunks in the looks department, but he also loves his mother and sisters, cooks like a dream, and possesses a wicked sense of humor and superior nurturing skills. Granted he can be insensitive at times, perhaps verging on the downright stupid at least once, but who wants a perfect hero? Prickly Jessica may be more difficult to like, but rather than feeling irritated with her inability to trust Connor and commit to him, I felt sympathy for her. Higgins shows the reader why Jess is so reluctant to believe in Connor’s love and why she clings to her pride and determination to save herself with help from no one. There are too many poignant moments to list, but Jess’s vulnerability when she admits to herself how weary she is of the burden of her past left me misty-eyed: “She was so tired of being Jessica Does. So tired of being afraid and alone and taking care of everything all the time. She just wanted to be. To be normal, to be happy, to be light.”

In addition to the leads, Davey is an unforgettable character. Higgins does a superb job of capturing his limitations, his stubbornness, his volatility, and the toll his care takes on Jessica, emotionally, physically, and financially. But she also shows his capacity for love and the eternal childlikeness that make him endearing. The reader understands that Jessica’s feelings for her brother may include guilt, but her love for him is her primary motivation. For several reasons, I thought some of the most touching moments in the novel occurred during Connor’s efforts to establish a relationship with Davey. It is all the more remarkable that Higgins can weave this story with some painfully real dark threads without neglecting her trademark humor.

Higgins is one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of contemporary romance, and this is one of the best books in an extraordinary series—equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming. It made me cry; it made me laugh; it made me reorder my top ten romance reads of 2015. I give it my highest recommendation.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review - - Dukes Prefer Blondes

Dukes Prefer Blondes
By Loretta Chase
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: December 29, 2015

Lady Clara Fairfax is weary of turning down bi-weekly proposals from gentlemen who cannot see beyond her blonde beauty. She is equally weary of her mother’s spasms over an undutiful daughter’s refusal to choose a husband. Her work with the Milliners’ Society for the Education of Indigent Females, founded by the dressmaking Noirot sisters, one of whom is now Lady Clara’s sister-in-law, does give some meaning to her life. So when one of the most promising of the society’s girls needs help rescuing her young brother from a criminal street gang, Clara is determined to do her best. Smart and sensible enough to know that she can’t find the boy on her own, Lady Clara pays a visit to Oliver “Raven” Radford, a barrister with a reputation for being obnoxious and for advocating for pauper children.

Radford is the grandson of a duke, but Radford’s father, also a barrister, has kept his distance from his aristocratic family  and brought his son up outside the narrow world of the haut ton. Radford is his father’s son, confident in his knowledge with a finely honed legal mind, a well-developed social conscience, and a barely controlled impatience with the stupidity and banality of most people. Radford, who recognizes Lady Clara from a shared childhood experience, knows exactly the kind of sheltered life Lady Clara has led and how ignorant she is of the world into which the boy she is seeking has disappeared. He thinks her plan is hopeless, and he tells her so. But his determination not to get involved is no match for Lady Clara’s persistence or for his inability to ignore her beauty and her intelligence.

Lady Clara and Radford become contentious allies in the effort to find the missing boy. It is a dangerous task that exposes them to the dirt and disease of London’s underclass and to the enmity of one Jacob Freame, boss of a notorious street gang who is already planning Radford’s demise as payback for sending some of his minions to prison and some to death. But even those risks might not be as great as the one this lady and barrister are taking with their hearts.

Dukes Prefer Blondes is the fourth book in the Dressmaker series (Silk Is for Seduction, Scandal Wears Satin, and Vixen in Velvet), and Chase saved the best for last. Lady Clara, introduced in the first book as the woman the hero expected to marry, was one of those secondary characters so vital that she leaped off the page into readers’ hearts and imaginations. Chase fans have been hoping for Lady Clara’s story ever since, and I assure you that this one is well worth the wait. The only thing I didn’t love about Dukes Prefer Blondes is the title.

Lady Clara apparently has everything—beauty, social position, wealth, intelligence, a family that loves her, and gorgeous clothes. She understands that she is privileged, but she chafes against the restrictions imposed on her by the very privileges she enjoys. Her rebellions are carefully conceived to allow her to achieve her purposes without destroying her reputation or embarrassing her family. In one revealing conversation, she says to Radford:

“You’ve no notion how I live in the world you call a fantasy,” she went on in the same taut tone. “You’ve no idea what it’s like to spend your life wrapped in cotton wool, with all about you protecting you, mainly from yourself, because you don’t behave as they think a girl ought to do, and they believe something’s wrong with you. You don’t know what it’s like to watch your brothers go away to school and make new friends and have adventures you’ll never have, even vicariously, in books. You don’t know what it’s like to be scolded for reading too much and knowing too much – to be taught to hide your intelligence, because otherwise you’ll frighten the gentlemen away – to stifle your opinions, because ladies aren’t to have any opinions of their own, but must always defer to men.” She stamped her foot. “You know nothing about me. Nothing! Nothing!”

Radford rivals Chase’s best heroes, and that’s a big concession for me to make since half a dozen Chase heroes are in my personal Romance Heroes Hall of Fame. He is intimidatingly smart, and he does not suffer fools gladly. Yes, he is impatient and at times outright obnoxious, but he also has a saving sense of humor. And he is so clearly knocked for a dizzying, terrifying loop by his feelings for Lady Clara.

Clara’s face glowed, and her mouth turned up. The room brightened, as though the sun had contrived to force its way through both oppressive grey sky and sooty window.

There. That was it, in a nutshell. Infatuation or whatever it was, he knew he’d move heaven and earth to bring that light to her face, to awaken that smile and the glint of laughter in her blue eyes. He didn’t see how he could ever get used to it, let alone take it for granted.

Chase is known for her banter, and in this story, she creates the very best banter, the kind that is witty and scintillating and which the two people engaged in the exchange are clearly enjoying both as a duel of words and as a layered conversation with the unsaid as significant as the spoken. 
Then there are the love scenes, tender and sensual and without even a tinge of the generically titillating. They are crafted for these two people, and they reveal to the reader who Clara and Raven are individually and as a couple. Given some books I read this year, I feel as if I owe Loretta Chase a thank you note.

If you are looking for historical romance with characters you will adore, a story rich in humor and high in tension, sexual and otherwise, and written in beautifully lucid prose, add this one to the top of your list. It’s on my Best of 2015 list, I’ve read it twice already, and I have plans to reread the full series. It seems redundant to say I give it my highest recommendation.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Rock - - Excerpt and Giveaway

Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love medieval romance. I discovered Monica McCarty when she published her debut novel, Highlander Untamed in 2007 and have been a devoted fan ever since.  One would think that after eleven books, McCarty's Highland Guard series would be beginning to lose steam but, if anything, it's gaining in intensity with each new novel that is released. McCarty has her own keeper shelf in my book collection and I'm excited to add today's release, The Rock to the sixteen books already residing there. Please enjoy Chapter One from The Rock and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of your own. 

The Rock
by Monica McCarty
Publisher: Pocket Books
Release Date: December 29, 2015

New York Times bestselling author Monica McCarty continues her Highland Guard series in this eleventh steamy historical romance set against the sweeping backdrop of the Scottish Highlands.

The first time he caught sight of Elizabeth Douglas, Thomas MacGowan thought she was a princess. To the son of the castle blacksmith, the daughter of the powerful Lord of Douglas might as well be. When it becomes clear that his childhood companion will never see him as a man she could love, Thom joins Edward Bruce’s army as a man-at-arms to try to change his lot. If he’s harbored a secret hope that he could close the gap between them, he faces the cold, hard truth when Elizabeth comes to him for help. She might need the boy who used to climb cliffs to rescue her brother from the hands of the English, but she would never see the son of a smith as a man worthy of her hand.

Chapter 1

Douglas, South Lanarkshire, February 1311

Thom (no one called him “wee” anymore) had waited long enough. He struck one last blow with the hammer before carefully setting aside the hot blade.

Wiping the sweat and grit from his brow with the back of his hand, he pulled the protective leather apron over his head and hung it on a peg near the door.

“Where are you going?” his father asked, looking up from his own piece of hot metal—in his case a severely dented helm. The Englishman who’d once worn it must be suffering a foul headache. If he was still around to be suffering, that is.

“To the river to wash,” Thom replied.

His father frowned, the dark features made darker by the layers of grime that came from toiling near the fires all day. Every day. For forty years.

Though no longer the tallest man in the village (Thom had surpassed his father in height almost ten years ago), Big Thom was still the most muscular, although a few more years of Thom wielding the hammer might force his father to cede that title as well. Physically the men were much alike, but in every other way they were opposites.

“There is still plenty of time before the evening meal,” his father pointed out. “Captain de Wilton is anxious for his sword.”

Thom gritted his teeth. Although the villagers in Douglas had no choice but to accept the English occupation of their castle—with the current Lord of Douglas a much hunted “rebel”—it didn’t mean he had to jump to their bidding. “The captain can wait if he wants the work done properly.”

“But his silver cannot. Those tools aren’t going to buy themselves.”

Though there was no censure in his tone, Thom knew what his father was thinking. They wouldn’t need the coin so badly if Thom wasn’t being so stubborn. He was sitting—or more accurately sleeping—on enough silver to replace every tool in the forge and expand to take on a handful of apprentices if they wanted them. But that was his father’s dream, not his. His mother had left him the small fortune, and Thom wasn’t ready to relinquish it—or the opportunity that went along with it.

They wouldn’t need coin at all if the current Lord of Douglas wasn’t so busy making a name for himself with all his “black” deeds that he actually gave thought to those who were left in his wake and bore the brunt of English retaliation. Thom tried to push back the wave of bitterness and anger that came from thinking of his former friend, but it had become as reflexive as swinging his hammer.

The last time Sir James “the Black” Douglas had attempted to rid his Hall of Englishmen—about a year ago when he’d tricked the then-keeper, Lord Thirlwall, from the safety of the castle into an ambush but failed to take the castle—the remaining garrison had retaliated against the villagers, whom they accused of aiding the rebels.

“War is good for business,” his father liked to say. Except when it wasn’t. Big Thom MacGowan, who’d never been shy about his loyalty to the Douglas lords, had paid for that loyalty with a nearly destroyed forge and the loss of some of his most expensive tools. Tools that were probably in some English forge right now.

Fortunately the garrison and commander who’d replaced Thirlwall, De Wilton, seemed a more fair-minded man. He didn’t blame the villagers for the actions of their rebel laird, and he and his men were frequent customers of the village smith, or as the wooden sign not-soimaginatively proclaimed it, The Forge. His father might not like the English, but he was happy to take their silver, especially at his special English rates.

“I’ll finish it soon enough,” Thom said. “And Johnny is almost done with the mail, aren’t you lad?”

His fourteen-year-old brother nodded. “A few more rivets and it will be as good as new.” He grinned, his teeth a flash of white in his blackened face. “Better than new.”

Thom grinned back at him. “I don’t doubt it.”

Although more like their father in his even-keeled, contented temperament, Johnny possessed the same instinctive skill with the iron as Thom. Big Thom liked to say his lads were born to it, which made Johnny beam and grated on Thom like emery under his plaid. The instinctive skills such as knowing just when to pull the metal out, where to strike it with a hammer, and how to make it strong enough to do its job without being so hard that it shattered or broke that made his father so proud felt like a chain wrapped around Thom’s neck.

It would have been far easier if he’d never showed any talent for the work. If he’d shattered one too many blades by cooling the metal too quickly or striking it in the wrong place while hardening. If he were less precise in detail, couldn’t fit a handle to save his life, a poorer judge of temperature, off on his proportions . . . anything.

His father didn’t understand how someone with Thom’s “God-given talent” wasn’t content. Skill like theirs was meant to be used.

Which was part of the problem with Johnny. Johnny was too good with the hammer to haul coal and operate the bellows, the tasks normally given to a young apprentice. With Big Thom handling most of the day-to-day smithing work, from repairing cast iron pots to shoeing horses, and Thom with more sword work than he could handle, they were turning away jobs as it was. Big Thom wanted Johnny at the forge, which meant they needed someone to do the apprentice work. But Thom couldn’t bring himself to give up the one chance he had to change his destiny. His mother had wanted to give him a choice.

Thom opened the door and—ironically—coughed at the breath of fresh air. His lungs were so accustomed to the black smoke it was as if the purity somehow offended them. Daylight at this time of the year didn’t last long, and night was already falling. The mist, however, was not. The stars would be out tonight in full force. That was what he was counting on.

He wasn’t all that surprised to hear the door open behind him. “Son, wait a minute.”

Thom turned, seeing the features so like his own aged by time, hardship, and loss. He knew his father had a woman in town he sometimes saw, but no one had ever replaced Thom’s mother in his father’s heart. Not that you’d ever hear his father rail or complain about the injustice fate had handed him. Like everything else, Big Thom had taken his wife’s death with unquestioning, stoic acceptance.

Thom never accepted anything. It was his curse, and the source of his discontent. He envied his father and brother sometimes. Life was simpler when you didn’t question. When you didn’t want more than what birth so capriciously allotted.

He met his father’s worried gaze.

“Don’t go, son.”

“I’ll finish the sword—”

“I know she’s back.”

The words fell with the weight of an anvil between them. Thom stiffened, his jaw clamping down like a steel wall, an implicit warning that beyond there be dragons. The subject was not one he wanted to discuss with his father— ever. It was a subject upon which they would never agree.

But his formidable father wasn’t one to back down from dark looks—or dragons. “I know Lady Elizabeth is back, and you are going to try to see her tonight. But don’t go, Thommy. No good will come of it. Leave the lass be.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about.” His father had never understood about him and Ella—or Jamie for that matter, when they were still friends. From the first time he’d come home after rescuing Ella from that tree, his father had tried to discourage his friendship with the Douglases, warning him not to get too close. But the four of them had been inseparable before Ella had been sent away to France for her protection at the start of the war— and Jamie had discovered Thom’s secret. He’d lost the girl he loved and his best friend in one day.

Thom tried to turn away, but his father took hold of his arm. “I know more than you think. I know she’s been back for the better part of a fortnight. I know she’s staying at Park Castle with her stepmother and younger brothers. I know that she could have come to see you, if she wanted, but she hasn’t. I know you’ve loved her since she was a little lass, but she’s not a little lass anymore. She’s a lady. A noble. The sister of our laird. She’s not for you. She’s never been for you, and there is nothing you can do to change that. I wish it were different, but that’s the way it is.”

“So I should just give up, is that it? Accept it?” Thom shook him off. “That isn’t me, that’s . . .” You.

He stopped before the word was out, but it was too late. He saw the flinch reverberate through his father’s big frame. His father, who was one of the toughest men in the village, who’d broken up more fights in the alehouse because no one was fool enough to strike him, could be hurt by his son’s unthinking words.

“I’m sorry,” Thom said, raking his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair. “Don’t listen to me. I’ve no right to take my foul mood out on you. I just wish you’d try to understand.”

“I do, Thommy, more than you know. I was in your place once. But the daughter of a household knight is a far cry from the daughter of one of Scotland’s leading nobles and sister of one of Robert the Bruce’s chief lieutenants. The lass has spent the better part of the last five years in France; can you honestly see her happy with the life you could give her?”

His father’s words struck too close to the mark, raising fears Thom didn’t want to give voice to. “Ella isn’t like that. You know her.”

His father’s eyes leveled on him somberly. “I knew a chattering magpie of a ten-year-old lass who I had to ban from the forge so you could get some work done, and I knew the sweet, teenage lass you used to sneak out to go visit at night.” He paused at Thom’s look of shock. “Aye, I knew about that. Just as I knew that if I tried to stop you, you would only find another way. The lass looked at you like a brother, I didn’t think there would be any harm. But I was wrong. The Douglases put ideas in your head. They made you think this wasn’t good enough.” Thom started to protest, but his father put up his hand to stop him. “Maybe not in words, but by bringing you into their world. A world in which you don’t belong. Not even your mother’s coin will raise you high enough for a Douglas—whatever you try to make of yourself. You’ve a God-given gift, son. With your skill you could be making swords for a king one day; don’t waste it by chasing a foolish dream.”

Thom tightened his jaw. It wasn’t foolish. The bond between him and Ella was special—different.

Acceptance. Fate. He didn’t want to hear it. “So I can stay here and chase your dream instead?”

Thom regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. But it was too late to retrieve them.

His father stilled, his expression as tight as steel hardened right to the shattering point. After a pained pause, he stepped back. “Perhaps you are right. I’ve no right to interfere. You’re a man now. Three and twenty is old enough to make your own decisions. I’ll not try to hold you here if you wish to leave. But make sure you are doing so for the right reasons. Leave because you don’t like being a smith, not because you think it will give you a chance with Lady Elizabeth.” He paused and held Thom’s gaze. “I know how you feel about her, lad, but if she feels the same way, why hasn’t she come to see you?”

It was a good question, and one Thom would have answered tonight.

The old stone peel tower of Park Castle wasn’t as easy to climb as Douglas Castle. Or maybe it was just that Thom was out of practice. It had been nearly five years since he’d scaled the walls of the tower house of Douglas Castle to meet Ella.

Their rooftop meetings had started not long after his father barred Ella from the forge, where she would sometimes (often) “drop by” with some excuse to watch him finish his work. His father was right. The lass could chatter for hours. But Thom had never minded. He’d listened to her stories and her silly jokes and even cleaning up had sped by.

Knowing how disappointed she was, and missing her company more than he’d expected, one night he’d decided to surprise her. She’d mentioned that sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, she climbed up to the roof and sat on the battlements, looking at the stars. He had to climb the tower five nights in a row, but on the sixth she finally emerged.

She’d been shocked, excited, and amazed. Not just at his ability to climb the keep, but also that he could do so while evading the castle watch. It hadn’t been all that difficult—although he certainly didn’t tell her that (even back then he wanted her admiration)—people didn’t look where they weren’t expecting to see anything. All he had to do was watch the guardsmen on patrol, figure out their pattern, and stick to the shadows. The castle itself, although “enceinte,” and fortified by a stone wall, was of wood frame construction, giving him a virtual ladder to climb.

For the next handful of years, a few times a month on the nights the mist permitted the stars to shine, Thom would wait in one of the outbuildings for the castle to quiet and then climb the tower where Ella would be waiting for him. They’d talk for hours—actually, Ella would do most of the talking, except when he’d point out the constellations and tell her the old stories his mother had passed on to him before she’d died. He didn’t know how many times he’d had to retell the one about Perseus and Andromeda, but the lass never grew tired of it.

Those nights on the tower were where their friendship had turned to something more—at least for him. The meetings had been their secret, until Jamie discovered them right before he’d marched off to join Bruce. Or so Thom had thought. He still couldn’t believe his father had known this whole time and never said anything.

Thom’s arm muscles strained as he reached for a gap in the rock big enough to grab on to in the rough surface of the stone wall. He made sure his grip was solid before moving his right foot and then his left up another couple of feet. Finally, with the next handhold he was able to reach the edge of the crenellated parapet wall and lift himself over and onto the battlements.

Christ, that had been harder than he’d anticipated. His arms were burning as he took a moment to look around and catch his breath. It hadn’t looked that difficult, but the jagged stone walls of Park Castle didn’t provide as many foot- and handholds as the wooden framework of Douglas Castle. Although the tower was small and no more than thirty feet high, he might not have been able to climb it at all had it not been neglected for years, with much of the lime-rendered harling—meant to even the surface and protect the stone from weather—cracked and worn away.

Park Castle had been built as a watchtower years ago by the church, but was purchased some years back by the English knight Lady Eleanor Douglas had married after the death of the old laird. William the Hardy had died in the Tower of London about two years after Thom’s mother for rebelling against King Edward again. Ella had been forced to leave Douglas Castle for a couple of years then as well. It had been a difficult time for her, one that she didn’t like to talk about.

With the English and Sir Robert Clifford in possession of the old Douglas lands, Park Castle now served as home to Lady Eleanor (recently widowed for the third time), her stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s two half brothers, Archie and Hugh.

He looked around. The pitched wooden roof and surrounding battlement were deserted. Thom tried not to be disappointed. It was early yet. Ella usually waited until well after everyone went to sleep, making it easier to sneak up to the garret to access the small door.

Despite the clear night, it was cold, and Thom was grateful for the extra plaid he’d tossed into his sack as he sat to wait. He’d been right. The stars were out tonight. Coupled with the nearly full moon, a soft glow had been cast across the quiet countryside. It seemed so peaceful it was hard to believe they were in the midst of a long, brutal war.

The village of Douglas had seen more than its share of conflict, and as long as the English occupied its castle, Thom knew it would see more. If James Douglas had to destroy the entire town, he would to rid Douglasdale of the English for Robert the Bruce. Thom wanted the English gone, too, but Jamie’s vengeance went too far. His former friend had changed.

Had Ella?

Thom didn’t want to think so, but why hadn’t she come to see him? When she’d left, he’d been so certain that she’d begun to feel the same way as he. “Will you wear my ribbon around your sleeve when you are a knight in a tourney, Thommy?” or, “I know you hate it, but how will we go to France when we are older if you don’t learn to speak French? ” She’d been thinking about a future with him, even going as far as telling him one of the rare times he lost his temper with her that if he were her husband, she’d put spiderwort in his soup (which was known for its digestive effect), and give him cause for his black mood, if he ever snapped at her like that again. He’d been chastened and enchanted. His little princess had some fire.

If only Jamie hadn’t sent her away, damn it.

Time passed slowly while Thom waited. After a few hours, he was forced to concede that she wasn’t coming. He stood and started to stuff the plaid back into his sack. He was a fool. His father was right. Five years was a long time. She’d probably forgotten—

The door opened, and his heart dropped.

He glanced up as she stepped over the threshold, a beam of moonlight catching her in its hold and taking his breath along with it.


He might have jolted. The glimpse he’d caught of her with her stepmother, as she’d ridden through the village a couple of weeks ago, had not prepared him for the vision before him now. Long, shimmery waves of flaxen hair tumbled around her shoulders in a silky veil down her back. Her features were small and even, perfectly positioned in an oval canvas of snowy white. Her mouth was red, her cheeks pink, and her chin delicately pointed. Dark arched brows and long feathery lashes framed round, wide-set eyes the unusual blue of peacock feathers. She was gowned in an ice-blue dressing robe lined with white fur, the thick gold braid belt around her waist emphasizing its trimness as well as the softly rounded curves above and below. Her breasts were firm and generous, her hips slender, and her legs long.

Ella had always been beautiful, even as a child. But it had become so commonplace to him that he stopped thinking about it. The last time he’d seen her at a just-turned-sixteen, she’d still possessed the vestiges of the girl who’d traipsed all over the countryside with him and Jo. But the woman standing before him didn’t look like she’d ever traipsed anywhere—she floated. She didn’t look real; she looked like a figment from a faerie tale or an ice princess from the lands of the Northmen. Refined, sophisticated, and utterly untouchable. She looked nothing like the girl he remembered.

Thom didn’t second-guess himself very often, but he did so now.

It was only when he looked down on her wrist and saw the faint edge of brass that he felt some of his confidence return. She still wore the bracelet he’d given her right before she’d been sent away. She hadn’t forgotten him.

Have you read any of Monica McCarty's books?

Do you have a favorite?

Are you a fan of medieval romance?

One randomly chosen person leaving a comment will receive a print copy of both The Striker and The Rock. (US/Canada only)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Our Best Books of 2015

I seem to say this every December but this year, 2015, truly was an exceptional year for romance fiction and choosing my top ten was more difficult than it has been in years. While we're all looking forward to the new stories awaiting us in 2016, Janga, Lisa, Manda, Hellie and I have taken a moment to look back over the past twelve months and put together lists of our favorite books of 2015. 

Janga’s Top Ten Romance Novels of 2015

This reader has found 2015 a very good year. Among the 352 books I read in 2015, I gave 4.5-5.0 stars to slightly more than 16 percent of them.  Although I read roughly the same number of historicals and contemporaries, more than half of the books that left me raving to friends and preparing for a reread were historicals. Selecting a top ten from the forty plus romance/women’s fiction titles on my A list was a difficult task that involved rereading sections of books and frantically reordering a dozen times or so. Because I am still wavering on how I rank the top ten after I move past #1, I list them in order of release date.

1.     Rise, Karina Bliss (January 14)
This was my top contemporary read of the year, and I’m not really a fan of rock star romances. But Bliss won me with this redemption story of a bad-boy musician who is risking everything on a comeback and the college professor/Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whom he convinces to write his biography. These are flawed, intelligent characters who should not work as pair but who do regardless. They left me rooting for them as individuals and as a couple. Bliss made a believer out of me. Now I want to know what’s next in the Rock Solid series.

2.     It Started with a Scandal, Julie Anne Long (March 31)
With readers panting for Lyon and Olivia’s story, the book before the long-awaited conclusion to their romance could have been a colossal failure. Instead, Long gives readers a cross-class romance that ranks with the best in the genre. Two people who are all wrong and all right for each other fall in love in an unforgettable tale. Then, there’s a child who totally won my heart. I love this book!

3.     This Heart of Mine, Brenda Novak (March 31)
Novak’s eighth novel in her Whiskey Creek series is a romance with a heroine who has just been
released from prison and a hero who became a single father at eighteen. I think Novak deserves special recognition for moving off predictable paths with the characters in this series. I give this my Best of Series Award and consider it one of the best books this prolific author has written.

4.     The Color of Light, Emilie Richards (July 28)
Emilie Richards has been on my auto-buy list for more than two decades, and this story about a woman pastor, a priest experiencing a crisis of vocation, and the imperfections and overcomings of a contemporary congregation earned a spot on a special keeper shelf for comfort rereads. I think it is her best since Prospect Street (2003).

5.     Luck Be a Lady, Meredith Duran (August 25)
Duran had two winners this year, but Luck Be a Lady edged out Lady Be Good because I so admired Duran’s ability to take a man who behave immorally and an ice queen devoid of human attachments and make me not only believe in them as hero and heroine but also root for their HEA.

6.     Not Always a Saint, Mary Jo Putney (August 25)
MJP is one of my never-fail authors. I’ve loved every book of hers, but some are more beloved than others. This one falls in the latter group. Daniel is a good, although imperfect, man who tries to live a life of wholeness, that is, a life in which his choices reflect his beliefs. He falls for a “wicked widow” with an immediacy and intensity that surprises even him. I love a rogue as much as any romance reader—and MJP has created some classic rogues—but I also love a deftly crafted good-guy hero.

7.     Forever Your Earl, Eva Leigh (September 29, 2015)
Since Eva Leigh is also Zoe Archer, she is not eligible for debut of the year honors, but she counts as my discovery of the year (via PJ’s recommendation). This book made me an instant fan. I especially loved the intelligence of the characters and the gender reversal of a heroine passionate about her work and a hero in need of substance and meaning in his life. Plus the prose is wonderful with the sound and sense melding of poetry.

8.     The Legend of Lyon Redmond, Julie Anne Long (September 29)
This is it: my top read of the year! My expectations were so high that I was afraid to turn the first page for fear that it would disappoint, but those fears proved groundless. Long weaves together the tangled past and present of Lyon Redmond and Olivia Eversea with skill and grace and gives enough of a glance at their future to leave readers with a happy sigh. This book was everything I hoped it would be and more, and it left me an even more devoted fan of Julie Anne Long.

9.     Dukes Prefer Blondes, Loretta Chase (December 29)
Fans have been asking for Lady Clara’s book since the Dressmakers series began, and Chase delivers in the best book of the series. I don’t want to preview my upcoming review or to include spoilers, so suffice it to say Chase offers further evidence of why she justifiably has the reputation of being one of the best writers in the genre of romance. I’ve read DPB twice and I’m sure I will be rereading it again.

10.  Anything for You, Kristan Higgins (December 29)
Kristan Higgins’s Blue Heron series has become one of my all-time favorite series, and the combination of humor, emotional power, and superior storytelling that characterize this book demonstrate how the series has earned that distinction. AFY is the story of Connor O’Rourke and Jessica Dunn, two characters in whom many fans are already invested, and it is a blue ribbon winner. A review of this book is also forthcoming.

Glancing over this list, I long to reread them all, but I am also reminded of books I loved almost as much that are not on the list. Mary Balogh’s Survivors’ Club series continues to be incredibly good. Manda Collins and Madeline Hunter gave me all-time favorite heroes. Tessa Dare and Eloisa James gave me books with humor and heart that I cherish, as I do the books by Kim Law, Julia London and Marilyn Pappano that moved me to tears. Grace Burrowes proved as addictive in contemporary romance as in historicals, Anne Gracie and Rose Lerner, in their usual fashion, added books to my keeper shelves, and Lauren Willig ended a beloved series with wit and grace. Forgive me if I repeat myself, but 2015 was a very good year for this romance reader.

Lisa's Top Ten   

1.      When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare
2.      Trade Me by Courtney Milan
3.      Suddenly One Summer by Julie James
4.      The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean (12/29 release)
5.      The Liar by Nora Roberts
6.      Fallen by Carey Baldwin
7.      Hero by Night by Sara Jane Stone
8.      The Legend of Lyon Redmond by Julie Anne Long
9.      Dead by Midnight by Pamela Clare
10.    Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt

Manda's Top Ten  (in no particular order)

Beyond Limits -- Laura Griffin

We've been waiting a couple of years to see Elizabeth LeBlanc and Derek Vaughn get their HEA and it was worth the wait. I especially loved that Elizabeth was great at her job and didn't need to be rescued. Griffin never fails to keep me riveted and her subtle characterization makes her romantic suspense some of the best out there.

Closer Than You Think -- Karen Rose

When I heard Karen Rose was moving the action of her romantic suspense novels back to Cincinnati,  I was a little worried we'd be leaving all out favorites from her Baltimore books behind.  But I shouldn't have worried. Both Faith and Deacon put in appearances in previous books, and Karen Rose's tight plotting and stellar characterization are present no matter where her books are set. I loved this one,  even when I was gasping at some of the over the top twists.

Still the One -- Jill Shalvis

I usually think of Jill Shalvis as a writer I can go to for laughs and witty banter--and there is plenty of that here--but I didn't expect to find myself nodding in recognition at her description of how it feels to distrust your own body. Darcy Stone's struggle to regain her mobility after a bad auto accident is chock full of moments like that for me. And her romance with hunky physical therapist AJ is sweet and funny. Shalvis at her best.

The Other Side of Midnight -- Simone St.James

With her trademark combination of period detail and paranormal mystery, The Other Side of Midnight is a poignant and powerful addition to St. James's canon. Set in the years after WWI when England is mourning the loss of a generation of young men, it's the story of a reluctant medium and a determined policeman.  Wonderful book.

The Shameless Hour -- Sarina Bowen
Sarina Bowen was one of my happiest discoveries this year.  From the first book her Ivy Years series has pushed boundaries,  and The Shameless Hour is no exception. With a virgin hero and a heroine who isn't afraid to own her sexuality, this book takes on the issue of campus sexual assault with insight and humor without feeling like an after school special.  Plus it's just a solid romance with a cute and sexy beta hero.

The Friend Zone -- Kristen Callihan
I kinda hate Kristen Callihan. Okay,  maybe jealous is a better word.  Not only does she write amazing paranormal historical romance,  but she also has written one of my favorite New Adult romances of the year. Gray Grayson and Ivy MacKenzie are funny and sweet together and their story hits all the right notes. It's smoking hot, but also incredibly tender. This is just damn good romance.

Taking the Heat -- Victoria Dahl
Take one sexy male librarian,  one surprisingly innocent advice columnist and add strong attraction and you've got the makings of Victoria Dahl's latest Jackson Hole set contemporary romance.  Fresh and funny, sexy and sweet,  I adored sexy beta hero Gabe and his mad skillz (librarianish and otherwise). And Veronica's self doubt over her failed attempt to leave home for the big city really hit close to home for me.

Dark Wild Night -- Christina Lauren
There needs to be a word for that feeling you get when a couple you've been rooting for over several
books finally gets together. If there was such a word Dark Wild Night would be next to its definition in the dictionary.  Lola and Oliver surprised me in a great way. Their own story was both sweeter and sexier than I expected.  And I loved it. If Comic Book Guys are like Oliver sign me up!

Irresistibly Yours -- Lauren Layne
Fun and frothy, sexy and sweet,  Lauren Layne's contemporary romances set amid the exciting world of New York magazine publishing are another of my favorite discoveries this year.  Complete with a charming meet-cute this funny,  sexy friends to lovers story deserves to stand out in the crowded contemporary field.

? -- ?
Since there's still a month to go,  and I'm an optimist, I'm leaving the #10 slot blank.  Because it always makes me nervous to compile a list of the best books of the year before the year is over. So, here's to finding #10 and another year of new discoveries. 

Hellie's Favorite Books of 2015

I’ll be honest: picking favorite romance novels for me is like picking my favorite M&Ms out of the giant bag. I mean, sure, I love the green ones, but are the orange ones that bad? No. They’re all awesome and make me feel a big pile of mush and goodness when I’m in their presence. And I can’t stop consuming them.

But I’ll give it a shot.

If you’ve been around my reviews a while, you would imagine this is going to be a list of ONE. Because there’s only one book that came out this year that I absolutely cared about more than I could about my own firstborn with Tom Hiddleston.

     THE LEGEND OF LYON REDMOND by Julie Anne Long 
      Oh, BFF, Jules, you lived up to your own legend. This book was magical, funny, romantic, and angsty-angsty goodness. I had to wait a long time for this Happily Ever After, but it was brilliant.

      IT STARTED WITH A SCANDAL by Julie Anne Long
      The penultimate leading up to Lyon’s book. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened in it now because I still have Lyon’s ballad in my head, but I remember loving and rhapsodizing about it at the time.

      WHEN A SCOT TIES THE KNOT by Tessa Dare
      I feel like I’m saying this with every new Tessa Dare series, but really the Castles Ever After is her best series. (I will undoubtedly say it about whatever series she writes next.) But OMG, I could not stop laughing in this book. The scene with the bog—I think I cackled a lung out of my body just reading it. Then I wanted to read it aloud to someone and act it out so they could enjoy it as much as I did.

      SAY YES TO THE MARQUESS by Tessa Dare
      Much like It Started With a Scandal—I can’t tell you much about it other than I laughed and enjoyed it mightily at the time.

      COLD HEARTED RAKE by Lisa Kleypas
      Being we have waited AGES for a new Lisa Kleypas historical, I think this is on most everyone’s favorite list this year. She writes the most delicious rakes of all time.

      SWEETEST SCOUNDREL by Elizabeth Hoyt
      OMG! The scene with the highwaymen. Asa is so BADASS and delicious and I loved him so dearly. I just love Elizabeth Hoyt heroes. They’re not conventional, but they are wholly, WHOLLY masculine and sex-on-a-stick.

     THE STRIKER by Monica McCarty
      I cannot get enough of her books. This story was sadder than many of the others in this series (though her stories are typically emotionally powerful and you are put through the wringer each time you read one). I was so worried this couple wouldn’t work out because there was so much to let go of. Relationships where a betrayal of trust occurs are terribly hard to put back together, especially when the betrayal is something as large as large numbers of men lost in a battle.

Now the next three I haven’t actually read yet because they’re due later this year, et al, but they’re on this list because I have a good feeling I will want them on this list.

      THE ROCK by Monica McCarty
      THE ROGUE NOT TAKEN by Sara Maclean
      ANYTHING FOR YOU by Kristan Higgins

PJ's Top Ten (in no particular order)

Mistress Firebrand: Renegades of the American Revolution by Donna Thorland (March 3)

Thorland continues to bring the passion and danger of the American Revolution to life through her well-developed characters, believable scenarios and impeccable writing. Her characters leap from the pages, so realistic that it's often difficult to discern the historical figures from the fictional. If you enjoy historical romance set amidst the American colonies' struggle for independence, Donna Thorland should be your go-to author. 

Montana Cherries by Kim Law (July 28)

A complex, compelling story that delves into the impact of mental illness on a family. This emotional, contemporary romance was originally meant to be a stand-alone but Law has since decided to write more stories for the Wilde family. If any characters deserve happy endings, it's these and I'm delighted that the talented Kim Law has decided to take them on. 

Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist (May 5)

In Tiffany Girl, as well as her other Chicago World's Fair books, Gist creates a sense of time and place that draws me into the world of her characters as if I'm traveling their journey with them. Her research is impeccable and her well-formed characters come to life through the pages of the book. She brings 1893 New York City to life in this intriguing look into the lives of the independent, working women known as the Tiffany Girls.  

Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis (June 30)

Second Chance Summer has everything I look for in a contemporary romance: spot-on dialog, a rich and real depth of emotion, laughter and tears, a sizzling romance, and a patchwork family that has captured my heart. Lily and Aidan are complex characters who have been given a second chance but only by overcoming fear and guilt, and finding forgiveness and acceptance will they have a shot at a happy ending together. This is Shalvis at her best!

The Legend of Lyon Redmond by Julie Anne Long (September 29)

I waited a long time for this book. A long time. The final story in Long's Pennyroyal Green series, this brings us the highly anticipated journey of Lyon Redmond and Olivia Eversea. When expectations are as high as they were for this story, the fear of disappointment is always lurking. I'm delighted to say that Long not only met my expectations, she blew them them straight out of the water. The best way to describe my feelings for The Legend of Lyon Redmond, my top book of 2015, is through the final paragraph of my 5-Star, Top Dish review of the book: "Like a beautiful symphony, The Legend of Lyon Redmond hits every note perfectly, creating a masterpiece that brought me to tears and filled my heart with joy. It's my favorite book of 2015. Years from now, when people are asked to list their all-time favorite books, I fully expect Lyon and Olivia's enduring love story to be among those at the top. It really is that good."

Forever Your Earl by Eva Leigh (September 29)

Smart writing, an intelligent, independent heroine, fast-paced action, a rich secondary cast and a worthy hero who captured my heart highlight this outstanding historical romance by Eva Leigh. Leigh, who also writes historical adventure and historical paranormal romances as Zoe Archer has been a favorite of mine for years but I think she's hit a new high with this first book in her The Wicked Quills of London series.

Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt (November 24)

My favorite book in an outstanding series of favorites, Sweetest Scoundrel is lush, sizzling, deeply emotional, and endearingly romantic. I adore an earthy, rough-around-the-edges hero with a vulnerable heart and Asa Makepeace is one of the best. Pair him with a repressed spinster who has never known desire or love and who carries a dark secret in her heart and I'm there. Asa and Eve are among my all-time favorite heroes and heroines and their story is a keeper. 

Obsession Falls by Christina Dodd (September 8)

I love a good suspense thriller that engages all my senses and keeps me glued to the pages. Obsession Falls grabbed me from the get-go and took me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions from the shocking beginning to the OMG twist at the end. Fast-paced, intense, and filled with more twists and turns than a mountain road, this is a story that refused to let go. I read the entire book - 401 pages - in one day, forgetting about everything but these characters and their gripping story. 

Say Yes to the Marquess by Tessa Dare (December 30, 2014)

I've been a Tessa Dare fan since her debut. She never fails to delight me with the charm and humor of her books. Though both of her 2015 releases were 5-star reads for me, this one edged out When a Scot Ties the Knot for "best of" honors. Rafe and Clio captured my heart with their determination to make their mark despite the vulnerability they hid from the world and delighted me with their banter. I may never look at wedding cakes the same way again. 

Behind the Mask by Carolyn Crane (May 18)

Carolyn Crane blew me away with this intense, gritty, romantic suspense thriller that pairs deeply flawed characters fighting for their lives. This is not my usual type of reading but I couldn't turn away from the book and I'm still thinking about the main characters more than six months after reading their story. Crane's writing is exquisite, with multi-layered, complex, supremely flawed characters within a world that is painted in such perfect detail that I was right there with them every step of their non-stop, action-packed journey. 

There were many exceptional books published in 2015. A few that didn't make my top ten cut but deserve honorable mention are: Home by Morning by Kaki Warner, The Striker by Monica McCarty, It Started with a Scandal by Julie Anne Long, Playing with Fire by Kate Meader, The Spring Bride by Anne Gracie, Good Earl Gone Bad by Manda Collins, Four Nights with the Duke by Eloisa James, Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne and The Match of the Century by Cathy Maxwell. As Janga mentioned above, it was a very good year for romance! 

There were also many outstanding novellas published this year. A few of my favorites were Lord Dashwood Missed Out by Tessa Dare, A Pirate for Christmas by Anna Campbell, Her Pirate from the Past by Caro Carson, and Melting Point by Kate Meader

What books made your Best of 2015 list? 

Three lucky people who leave comments will be winners. I'm giving away a print copy of The Legend of Lyon Redmond (US only), a print copy of Forever Your Earl (US only) and a Kindle copy of The Legend of Lyon Redmond (open to all). Winners will be drawn from all comments left before 9:00 pm, December 30, 2015 (EST).