Tuesday, April 29, 2014

How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days

How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days
By Laura Lee Guhrke
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: April 29, 2014

Five years ago, near the end of an unsuccessful season in London, American heiress Edie Jewell was dreading her return to New York. Edie was unsurprised that not even her father’s millions were enough to win her acceptance in New York Knickerbocker society where the nouveau riche label had destroyed the hopes of wealthy young women with far more beauty and grace than Edie possesses, but the whispers that followed her every move after the nightmare in Saratoga left her reputation in tatters. The rattling tongues and her fear of encountering the man responsible for her ruin made New York intolerable for Edie, but her father’s hope that his wealth will be sufficient to overcome the deficiencies of  his tall, ginger-haired, freckled older daughter has proved vain. Even the wiles of Lady Featherstone, the renowned matchmaker for American heiresses in London, have failed. But just when it seems that Edie must steel herself to return to New York, she meets the Duke of Margrave, who accepts Edie’s astonishing proposal: she will pay the heavy debts he has inherited and fund his expedition to Africa, and he will give her the protection of his name and her freedom, insuring the latter by never returning to England.

Stuart, Duke of Margrave kept his promise to his wife for five years. But when an attack by a lioness leaves him a few breaths away from death, Stuart knows he must break his word and return home—to England and to Edie.  His wife’s dismay at his return makes his dream of a real marriage seem impossible, but Stuart, an optimist by nature, persuades Edie to strike a new deal. He has ten days to persuade Edie that she can have a whole and happy life as his wife. If he fails, he will disappear and leave Edie to live her life without the duke.

What follows is a story of sweet seduction that offers a rare blend of serious problems, light-hearted pursuit, and genuine communication. In another reversal from the expected, Edie is the one with the power. Stuart, in his quest to win the favor of his lady, does sometimes manipulate her into situations that push the boundaries of her comfort zone, but she always has a choice. It is a measure of Stuart’s understanding that he recognizes, even before he learns the details of Edie’s trauma, that having the power of choice is essential for her.

How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days is the second book in Guhrke’s American Heiress in London series. I liked the first book, When the Marquess Met His Match, and I thought this one was even better. Edie is an intelligent woman who is using her intellect and her considerable strength to survive a devastating experience, one that leaves contemporary women, with far more resources than a woman in the late 19th century had, battling anxiety and depression. Stuart is a heart-stealer hero with more than his share of charm, tenderness, and two undervalued qualities—patience and honesty.

I’ve been a Guhrke fan for years, but this one is special even as a book from a favorite author. I did have a quibble with the title, which suggests lighter fare than the book delivers. But that’s a minor point and certainly not enough to prevent my giving this book my highest recommendation and counting it among my top five Guhrke novels.

I really enjoy the American in England trope when it is done well. Guhrke’s Trouble at the Wedding is another excellent example of the trope, as are two of Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower books. Do you like the trope? What’s your favorite romance with an American heroine in England?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Falling for Owen

Falling for Owen
By Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Avon Impulse
Release Date: April 15, 2014

Owen is the older of the former Wild McBride brothers. He was the first to refuse to be controlled any longer by his past and to turn his life around. Once he had his law degree in hand, he returned to his hometown to practice and to help Rain Evans bring up his nieces (The Return of Brody McBride). Owen is happy that his brother and Rain are reunited, but their delight in one another makes him conscious of his own loneliness. Unattached but looking, Owen has his eye on Claire Walsh, new in town and the owner of a combination coffee shop and bookshop that is a favorite spot of Owen’s adored nieces. But Claire seems unaware of him.

Claire has noticed Owen. He’s the kind of man that a sane, heterosexual woman would find impossible to ignore, but Claire is cautious on two counts. First, a bad marriage to a good-looking charmer who was a chronic philanderer has left her wary of men in general and handsome hunks in particular. Second, every time Claire sees Owen, he is with two gorgeous little girls whom Claire concludes must belong to him. She also concludes there is a woman in the picture, and that makes him off limits for Claire.

Claire and Owen are thrown together when the abusive, drunken ex of one of Owen’s clients jumps to an erroneous conclusion and attacks Claire, leaving her concussed and bleeding and her home with a shattered glass door. Owen is there immediately, determined to see that Claire receives the care she needs and that the damage to her house is repaired ASAP. Claire finds him hard to resist, but trusting does not come easily for her. Owen has no doubts that Claire is the one he has been looking for, but he worries that a relationship may be dangerous for Claire.

Wounded heroes are abundant in romance fiction, but I am sometimes skeptical of how quickly and simplistically recovery from childhood traumas and other psychological damage occurs. I really like the fact that both Owen and Brody are aware that vestiges of their darkness remains and that they both have moments when their belief that they can fully overcome their past is shaken. I also love that Claire is smart enough to accept help when she needs it and to understand that enjoying a little tender, loving care after suffering a hard hit (literally in her case) doesn’t compromise a woman’s independence. Finally, I love that Rain and Owen still have a special connection and that the reader sees not only Rain and Brody’s HEA in progress but also the developing closeness between the brothers. I liked the first book in the series, but I also had some problems with it. I thought this one was a better book. I marked it a keeper, and I’m looking forward to Dylan’s Redemption, the story of a McBride cousin, scheduled for release in August.

Do you sometimes find that a series that you began with mixed feelings gets better with successive books? Have you ever almost cut a series off with the first book, only to be happy you did not after reading the second one?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday Will Be Postponed Until . . .

My Tuesday review will become a Friday review this week. I'm about seventy-two hours from a deadline for which I still have to write two lengthy articles, and I write--and type--slowly. So I'm chaining myself to my computer until Wednesday evening. No reading, no Facebook, no reviewing until I finish this project. I expect to be freed from the Deadline Dungeon around 11:55 Wednesday night and collapse and recover Thursday, but I will be back on Friday. I hope you will be here too.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Taken with You

Taken with You
By Shannon Stacey
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: March 25, 2014

Hailey Genest may think longingly of the shops, restaurants, and other perks of city life, but she loves her hometown of Whitford, Maine, and her job as librarian in the small town’s only library. But the sudden rash of weddings and babies among her friends have made her newly conscious of her single status and the limited dating pool Whitford offers for a woman who just hit 40. When a new, single friend suggests they celebrate their singleness by joining a wilderness adventure expedition, Hailey, who is so not an outdoors type, stays calm and buys hiking boots. She’s not really surprised when she and her friend get lost, but she is unprepared for the bearded, dirty, smelly Grizzly Adams type who shows up to lead the two lost women back to civilization. He might offer an excellent rear view, but he is the very opposite of the man Hailey is looking for.

Matt Barnett is enjoying the final days of his vacation before moving to Whitford and taking up his new position as game warden for the area. He’s much more interested in the beer waiting for him back at his cabin than he is in playing savior for two lost women, but he’s too much good guy to ignore their plight. The pretty blonde catches his eye, but he recognizes that a woman who wears full makeup and new hiking boots for a trek through the woods is definitely not his type. That feeling is reinforced by her obvious distaste for his unkempt appearance. Matt has had his fill of women who turn up their noses at the dirt and sweat that are an inevitable part of his outdoors vocation and avocation.

Neither Hailey nor Matt think they will ever see one another again, so the reluctant attraction each feels toward the other is not an issue. But when Hailey sees Matt in her library teaching an ATV safety course, she knows that she’s going to see more of him than she’s comfortable with, and when Matt finds out that his new next-door neighbor is the blonde from the woods, he knows she is not going to be so easy to dismiss from his mind. Despite the chemistry between them that is too powerful to ignore, Matt and Hailey know they are too different for the long term, but they agree to enjoy the moment with each other, exploring all the facets of their incomprehensible connection with no promises for tomorrow. They forget that the heart is no organ of reason, and soon what was supposed to be just a lusty friendship turns into love. But those very real differences exist, and they may be too great for even love to overcome.

I’ve been addicted to Shannon Stacey’s Kowalski series since I read Undeniably Yours and upon finishing it, immediately bought Exclusively Yours, the first book in the series. Taken with You is not a true Kowalski book since neither of the lead characters belongs to that family, but it takes place in the Kowalski world, and most of the Whitford branch makes an appearance. More importantly, these characters have the same genuineness, humor, and layered lives that made me a fan of the earlier books.

Anyone who has ever been in a long-term committed relationship learns that compromise has a necessary role, but it’s not an element given much attention in romance. I really liked seeing Hailey and Matt learn that love doesn’t melt essential differences but that, as the old Diamond Rio song says, “ain’t no road too long when we meet in the middle.” I also loved that Hailey is an unabashed forty and still believing in the possibility of Prince Charming—and that when he arrives, he is so unprincely and uncharming that she almost fails to recognize him.

Although Taken with You is officially Book 8 in the Kowalski Family series, it can easily be read as a standalone. If you like your contemporary romance with a generous serving of heat, likeable characters whose lives and loves have an appealing verisimilitude, and connections of family and friendship that plausibly bring former characters into new stories, Shannon Stacey’s Kowalski series is among the best. I highly recommend it, and Taken with You can serve as an introduction. Once you read it, I bet you’ll look for Stacey’s backlist. After eight books, my addiction is still going strong. I’m now eagerly anticipating Falling for Max (July 29, 2014); it’s the story of the mysterious Max Crawford and Hailey’s wilderness adventure partner, Tori Burns. I’m hoping to see more of Hailey and Matt in it and, of course, more of the Kowalskis.

The attraction of opposites is a popular theme in romance fiction, but it is one that often fails to convince me of the HEA. Taken with You is an exception because it shows the role of compromise. Do you believe opposites attract? What is necessary for you to believe in the HEA of opposites?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Winter Bride

The Winter Bride
By Anne Gracie
Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: April 1, 2014

Freddy Monkton-Coombes reluctantly agrees to his friend Max’s request that Freddy keep an eye on Max’s aunt Lady Beatrice Davenham and her charges Jane, Damaris, and Daisy Chance while Max and his bride, Abby Chance, are on their wedding trip. Despite Max’s assurances that the task will not be onerous, Freddy is not surprised that his new responsibilities take up more and more of his time. First, there are the literary afternoons where the subject of the readings always seems to be some unfortunate fellow being pushed or charmed into marriage, a state Freddy is dedicated to avoiding.  Then there is Damaris Chance’s insistence on leaving Lady Bea’s home at the crack of dawn and journeying to an unsafe part of town to paint china. Of course, Freddy has to accompany her to assure himself of her safety, a practice that makes him and his valet most unhappy.

Damaris knows Mr. Monkton-Coombes disapproves of her work, but she cannot let his disapproval weigh with her. Her affection for Lady Bea is strong enough to persuade her to go along with the lady’s plan to give her unmarried “nieces” a season in which to enjoy pretty clothes, dancing, and suitors, but Damaris knows that the goal of the season is to find a husband
--and Damaris has no need of a husband since she is unalterably opposed to marriage for herself. Instead, she dreams of earning enough money to buy a cottage in the country where she will be safe and independent.

When Freddy learns that his mother has planned a house party to coincide with his annual visit to his parents’ home and invited a host of eligible young women, many of whom are relentless and audacious in their pursuit of Freddy, he decides he needs a fake fiancée. Since Damaris has made her aversion to marriage clear to him, she is the perfect candidate.  Damaris thinks Freddy’s idea is mad, but when he offers her an irresistible deal, she agrees to play the role and to accompany Freddy on his visit.

Neither Freddy nor Damaris is what he/she seems to be. Both have come through darkness—scarred but refusing to surrender to the pain. As they come to know one another better, a genuine liking and friendship develops. By the time they realize that friendship has ripened into love, each considers marriage to the other to be a consummation devoutly to be wished. But there are still obstacles to overcome before they can begin their HEA.

Damaris is the kind of heroine who deserves to be termed “strong.” She has suffered devastating loss and has had the courage to survive events that would have destroyed a weaker person. That she has done so without becoming bitter or vengeful makes her all the more remarkable. Familiar with The Autumn Bride, the first book in the Chance Sisters series, I was aware that Damaris had secrets that she did not share even with those she loves, but I wasn’t expecting her past to hold so many levels of suffering. She deserves an accepting, tender, protective hero, and Freddy is all of these.

While Freddy’s class and gender made him less vulnerable physically when those who should have offered him compassion, understanding, and love failed to do so, he was no less vulnerable emotionally. Like Damaris, he keeps his past to himself, and even those who know him best and realize some of what he has accomplished accept him essentially as the light-hearted rake he appears to be. I confess that I was already a little in love with Freddy because he reminded me a bit of Georgette Heyer’s  Freddy Standen, a hero I adore, but Gracie’s Freddy is a more complex character and the very best kind of beta hero, a man who combines strength and honor with kindness and a nurturing nature.

In addition to an engaging hero and heroine, Gracie gives her readers a cast of appealing secondary characters. Lady Bea is as endearing and benevolently manipulative as she was in the first book. Max and Abby have roles to play in this story, and she shows enough of Jane and Daisy to leave readers eager for The Spring Bride and The Summer Bride

Anne Gracie is among a very select group of authors whose books never fail to move me to tears, to laughter, and to blissful sighs of readerly satisfaction. The Winter Bride joins a long list of Gracie keepers on my bookshelves. I highly recommend it.

Anne Gracie has been on my auto-buy list since I read Gallant Waif in 2001—and immediately ordered her first book Tallie’s Knight, both of which I still reread. Do you have an auto-buy list? Have you added authors based on the first book you read by them?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Day He Kissed Her

The Day He Kissed Her
By Juliana Stone
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Release Date: 
April 1, 2014

Mackenzie Draper is back in Crystal Lake for the long Memorial Day weekend to say hello to his mom and spend some time catching up with his best buds, Jake Edwards and Cain Black, and then it’s back to New York City, his job at the architectural firm where he’s just about to make partner, and a free-wheeling social life that leaves him free of responsibilities. A few days in Crystal Creek are about all he can take before the bad memories from his childhood start taking him places he doesn’t want to go. His abusive father may be in jail now, but that doesn’t prevent Ben Draper’s presence from being very real in the home in which Mac grew up. But an unexpected meeting with a curvy blonde and heated memories of a New Year’s Eve with bedroom fireworks more explosive than any that lit up the skies leave Mac reconsidering his friend Jake’s request to spend the summer in Crystal Creek designing houses for an Edwards’ land development project.

Lily St. Clare has her own share of dark memories, but Crystal Creek and the friends she has there are helping her to heal. She’s found a measure of serenity in the small town, but serene is the last thing she feels when the stranger from a passionate New Year’s Eve encounter turns out to be her friend Jake’s old friend Mac. To her own surprise, Lily, who meets life head on, can’t run away fast enough from this man who makes her feel things that threaten her carefully controlled life. But she can’t escape the man or the feelings, and when Mac assures her that he will be back in Crystal Creek for the summer, Lily knows that whatever is between them is far from over.

  Neither Mac nor Lily is interested in long-term commitments, so when the heat between them makes a July afternoon seem mild in comparison, they agree to seize the moment, accepting that forever is not part of the plan. But soon they are spending every possible moment together and building a shared life even if love is still a word that strikes fear in their hearts. But Mac is a damaged soul, his childhood wounds still festering and his anger barely contained. He and Lily have no hope for a future when he is controlled by his past.

The third novel in Stone’s Bad Boys of Crystal Creek series is the darkest of these emotional tales. Mac and Lily are both wounded creatures who fiercely protect their vulnerabilities. Lily is further on her journey toward health and wholeness than is Mac whose hatred of his father, anger mixed with love and pity for his mother, and fear that he is a man in his father’s image, inside and out, color every choice he makes. The redeeming power of love is a standard theme in romance fiction, but Stone makes it more potent by showing that a hero must believe himself worthy of love and happiness before he can be transformed.

I fell hard for Stone’s wounded bad boys, and from the first book, I’ve hoped to see light and love shatter Mac’s darkness. The Day He Kissed Her fulfilled my hopes, and Lily was a perfect match for Mac. There were some loose ends left with secondary plots. Perhaps that means readers have not seen the last of these bad boys and the people in their lives. If you like your romance high on sizzle and emotional twists, I suggest you check out this book. For readers like me who prefer a lower sensuality level, these characters are sufficiently engaging to make it worth moving outside your comfort zone.

Romance fiction ranges from sweet to scorching, and it’s not always easy to tell where a particular book falls on the sensuality scale from the cover and cover copy. Some people advocate a number system that gives readers a clearer idea of what to expect. What do you think of that idea?  Where would the books you read most often fall on such a scale?