Blog Tour: The Ex Husband by Karen Hamilton

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

The Ex-Husband 

Author: Karen Hamilton

ISBN: 9781525811609

Publication Date: January 18, 2022

Publisher: Graydon House

Book Summary:
It’s an offer she can’t refuse…and can’t escape.

True: Charlotte has an unsavory past. She married the wrong man, got caught up in his con artist games, took what wasn’t hers. She got out, though: divorced Sam, started fresh.

False: She left him before things went too far. Nothing bad happened.

True: Sam is missing, and before he disappeared, he left cryptic messages about someone threatening him—someone who has been threatening Charlotte, too.

True: She’s on the straight and narrow, has accepted a job as a personal assistant for an engagement party on board a private luxury cruise ship, the Cleobella.

False: No one on board knows about her past, and she’s far away from anyone who means her harm.

As the Cleobella sails through its glittering destinations—the Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago—increasingly sinister events haunt the guests, and the turquoise waves and sun-drenched beaches give way to something darker. Someone knows what Charlotte did. Is it the blushing bride? The seemingly placid mother-in-law? Or the mysterious heiress?

Someone knows, and someone wants revenge—before the ship reaches its final port.

Review

Unfortunately, I have decided to DNF this book. It took a long time for the book to get to where we know it’s going based on the synopsis and while the locations are stunning I just don’t care enough about our main character, Charlotte, to continue. I prefer character driven stories, which this is, and I don’t mind an unlikeable narrator, which she is, but I think the problem is how boring I find her. I also think that Hamilton went a bit heavy handed with the writing and she would repeat the same thing often, sometimes even on the same page. I do think that there are some that would find this book enthralling and so I do think it is worth checking out the excerpt below to see if your interest is piqued by this story. I did really enjoy Hamilton’s previous two books so I think this book might just be the wrong time for me to pick it up and I fully intend on reading future books by her.

Author Bio: 

Karen Hamilton spent her childhood in Angola, Zimbabwe, Belgium and Italy and worked as a flight attendant for many years. She has now put down roots in the UK to raise her three children with her husband and she also writes full time. Her books include The Perfect Girlfriend, The Last Wife, and The Ex-Husband, out January 2022.

Social Links:

Author Website

Twitter: @KJHAuthor 

Facebook: @karenhamiltonwriter 

Instagram: @karenhamiltonauthor 

Goodreads

Excerpt

THEN

Eighteen Months Ago

Barbados

A TIP-OFF. THAT COULD BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION.

Dreaded realization filtered through the rows of passengers and crew in the cruise terminal via mutters about delays intermingled with curiosity and general resignation at the inevitable holdup. Sickening dread roiled deep in my gut. Surreptitiously, I glanced back at the queue snaking behind me. Still no sign of Sam. Where was he?

The person in front of me took a step forward, pushing his backpack with a foot. Reluctantly, I followed.

Sam had only darted back to the ship to pick up his watch, carelessly left beside the basin in his cabin. It should have taken him fifteen minutes—twenty max. He had insisted that I save our place in the line to save time. Our flight to freedom was less than four hours away.

I messaged him.

Where the hell are you? Hurry up! I am nearly at the front of the line.

Well, not quite, but it was true enough. 

No reply.

Indecision kept me rooted to the spot. Sam would be annoyed if I lost our place. It would break one of our rules about blending in. Then again, neither of us was thinking straight. Our nerves were frayed. We were both tense after a wakeful night dissecting what had gone wrong, each of us blaming the other. But he left me with no choice. We always disembarked together. We had each other’s backs. Rule number one.

I tried to calm my fears. The upheaval wasn’t necessarily anything to do with us. I was too quick to jump to worst-case scenarios, usually after my conscience had given me a good poke. Sam and I excelled at slipping beneath the radar, despite his popularity.

In the corner of the vast, high-ceilinged building, portable air-conditioning units blasted out woefully inadequate cool air. My heart pounded so hard it almost hurt. Sweat slid down my spine. I stepped out of line and walked back in the direction of the ship. James, head of the ship’s security team, was standing by the exit. Relief. He would know where Sam was.

Strangely, James didn’t acknowledge or return my greeting. His manner was uncharacteristically off. No, he said. I couldn’t go back on board.

“But Sam should have been back by now,” I said. “He only went for something he’d forgotten.”

James shrugged.

“Just wait for him in line. He’ll show up. There’s nowhere else for him to go. This is the only exit.”

“What’s going on?” I said, trying to cajole James into thawing his attitude.

I opted for a friendly, neutral tone. And why not? We were colleagues, after all. Friends, companions. Equals, really.

“There are searches, from time to time.”

“Not that I’ve ever seen,” I said. “I hope it doesn’t hold us up. What is it? Drugs? Weapons?”

I smiled, safe in the knowledge that I was carrying neither.

“Get back in the line,” said James. “Wait for Sam there.”

I had no choice. As I turned, I saw Sam up ahead. He must have joined a different line. His bag was already being searched. How the hell had we missed each other? Why hadn’t he called me? Why did he go through without me?

There was nothing I could do but rejoin the queue and watch. I couldn’t read the expression of the person searching his bag, but the body language appeared at ease. Jolly, even. Everything felt off, badly wrong. Fragments of our heated conversation last night started piecing together. Just wait until I get hold of Sam, I thought. I would kill him for breaking our rules and putting me through all this extra stress.

I watched as Sam exited into the outside world. I could imagine the sun brushing his face as he inhaled the warmth of the Caribbean air. I distracted myself by dissecting the type of people they were pulling over. Lone travelers. Fresh, bubbling red rage at Sam rose. I called him. Straight to voice mail.

I was now among the stragglers, recognizing some of the faces. God, this was torture. I fought the urge to push to the front, explain about Sam and ask to be whisked through so that I could catch up with him, find out what the hell he was playing at. Breathe, breathe, breathe, I repeated over and over in my mind. I can do this. It’s all about playing the game.

A calmness descended over me as I was beckoned forward. One step after another, a neutral expression on my face. I could see the sun through the glass doors. No sign of Sam in the crowds beyond. I focused on the large brandy or whiskey I was going to order on the flight. I thought about the type of movie I would watch, a comedy or something light and easy to absorb. Or maybe I wouldn’t bother with any distractions at all. I could use the time to think.

Half a yard, then another. The man in front was pulled over to my right, with a brusque wave. A harmless-looking elderly couple was also summoned. Not me. Not yet. I was so nearly there. Please, God. I know I’ve made mistakes. I know I’ve made bad choices, but just let me keep walking and I will make amends.

“Miss?”

Shit.

“Yes?”

“Can you come over this way, please, and place your bags on the table?”

I smiled. “Yes, of course.”

Everything turned numb, as though this was happening to someone else. Invincibility was Sam’s superpower, not mine.

Victimless. That is what Sam and I had always said about the people we befriended. Relax, I told myself. They won’t find anything. I’d triple-checked, hadn’t I?

My bag felt unusually heavy as I lifted it up. It was still covered in hotel, airline and cruise stickers. Funny, the inconsequential things I focused on. Sam often told me to scrape them off. “Bland and anonymous is always best. The smallest of details can offer up rich clues to the wrong people.” He would know.

“Open your bags, please.”

“Sure.”

My mouth was dry. I rotated the combination on my lock: one, eight, eight, my birth date and month, a small act of rebellion when it came to Sam’s insistence never to do the obvious. It clicked open. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to lift the lid, to display my personal belongings ready for public inspection. It was humiliating.

The officer lost patience and did it for me. Time slowed as he unzipped the bag. Nestling on top of my favorite red blouse was something that, although familiar, didn’t belong to me.

Blind panic.

“That’s not mine.” I reached to grab it, to remove the emerald necklace from its nest among my possessions. Someone had put it there.

“Stand back, please.”

I felt the fresh horror rise inside me as two other customs officers walked over and peered at the necklace.

“I said it’s not mine. Someone has been in my bag.”

Stony faces, bland expressions, dismissive words.

I tried again.

“You need to go through the CCTV, check who entered our cabin. Someone planted this.”

I looked from face to face.

Still nothing.

I should’ve kept quiet. They’d already decided that I was guilty. A thief. Someone without rights.

Anger replaced fear as my privacy was violated. My swimwear, toiletries, underwear, shoes, travel guides, my Spanish-language course books, my costume jewelry, my every-bloody-thing was removed and examined by careless rubber-gloved hands.

A glimmer of hope ignited when their search concluded. All they had found was something that was such an obvious plant. The necklace rested on the side of the counter, taunting me. Not for the first time either. Magpie-like, the moment I had first spotted the emerald-and-diamond choker with a teardrop pendant, I longed to own it. Green was most definitely the color of envy.

“Come with us, please.”

I was shown to an interview room. I could hear a baby crying outside. Alone, without my belongings, I had time to piece things together. Grim reality, like a blast of icy water. I had been sacrificed, thrown under the bus. Sam knew. He’d been tipped off. Instead of saving the two of us, he’d chosen to save himself. “For better, for worse” clearly no longer applied. It was a final act of cruelty. A brutal end, regardless of how rocky our marriage had been. All that mattered was himself.

       Time spooled and distorted. I sat, trying to appear nonchalant, yet as outraged as an innocent could be, robbed of her freedom. I felt watched. The heat stifled me. I wanted to plunge into a cold pool, swim below the surface, somehow wash away the dirty feelings that threatened to swallow me whole.

Anger took over as I sat there. I wasn’t taking the rap—no way. As two police officers walked into the room, I was prepared to embrace my inner canary. Whatever it took. But it became clear I wouldn’t need to sing that day.

I was free to go. It had all been a terrible mistake. Huge apologies. Strange, but true. My belongings—even the necklace—were returned.

Outside, despite the heat of the midday sun, I wanted to run. I had got away with it. I was free. Except… I wasn’t.

I didn’t like the person I had become—hadn’t for a long time. Something needed to change. Sam’s customary reassurances that “all would be well” had been my elixir. It smoothed away fears and doubts, the ones my conscience tried in vain to shove to the forefront of my mind during the darkest hours. The sudden and horrible unraveling of our gilded situation was the result of arrogance. His and mine.

But for now, I had to put myself first. I walked toward the shade and sat on a bench beneath a palm tree. I had less than two hours to catch my flight, but I could still make it. I sent Sam a message.

Call me. ASAP.

Nothing.

I hailed a cab to take me from the cruise terminal to the airport, deciding to make one detour to a friend’s house en route. I wanted to hide my pot of gold somewhere safe.

As we drew into the airport, fear took hold again. What if I was making a mistake? In a daze, I checked in. The airline staff wouldn’t tell me if Sam had checked in too. I called him again even though I knew, deep down, that there wouldn’t be an answer. As I placed my bag down to go through the X-ray machine, I heard my phone beep. I had to wait more painful minutes while my bag passed through the checks before I could snatch up my phone and read it. Sam!

One word.

Sorry.

What the hell was he doing?

Sam’s empty plane seat taunted me all the way to London as I planned the things I was going to say and do when I next saw him. Because I would see him again. He wasn’t the only piece of unfinished business, because there was someone else I needed to track down too. The real owner of the necklace and the catalyst behind our downfall and the death of our marriage. 

Excerpted from The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton, Copyright © 2022 by Karen Hamilton. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Buy Links: 

BookShop.org

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Barnes & Noble

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Books-A-Million

Powell’s

~Cassie

Blog Tour: Little Girl Gone by Amanda Stevens

Thank you to Harlequin for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

LITTLE GIRL GONE by Amanda Stevens (on-sale Dec.28, Harlequin Intrigue): Nothing matters more to her when a child’s life is at stake. Special agent Thea Lamb returns to her hometown to search for a child whose disappearance echoes a twenty-eight-year-old cold case—her twin sister’s abduction. Working with her former partner, Jake Stillwell, Thea must overcome the pain, doubt and guilt that have tormented her for years and denied her a meaningful relationship. For both Thea and Jake, the job always came first…until now. 

Review

I love the premise of this story but unfortunately, it let me down a bit in execution. I was instantly hooked on the idea of two little girls going missing from the same bedroom almost three decades apart and Stevens did a great job balancing the two stories and keeping us guessing the whole way through. Thea and Jake had good chemistry and I enjoyed the second chance romance element they brought to the story. I also liked that they did a lot of their investigating solo so we got a lot of suspense and action that switched between the two of them. With that said, a couple of things that happened to them seemed over the top and too much time was spent on those elements. I did appreciate that Stevens balanced the romance aspect of this story well with the mystery of what happened to Kylie and Maya. I never felt that the romance was taking away from them solving the crime and I was even surprised at how little romance was in this book. The ending of this book leaves a lot to be desired since there isn’t a resolution of all of the pieces to the puzzle but I feel a little better knowing that the second book in this series comes out next week. It follows different characters but I am hopefully that tendrils of this story will continue into that one.

About AMANDA STEVENS: Amanda Stevens is an award-winning author of over fifty novels. Born and raised in the rural south, she now resides in Houston, Texas.

Excerpt

Excerpt, LITTLE GIRL GONE by Amanda Stevens

“While I was trying to fish the doll out of the pool, someone came from behind and hit me over the head hard enough to daze me. Next thing I know, I’m caught in a whirlpool several feet below the surface. I lost my flashlight, so I was spun around underwater in complete darkness. No up, no down.” He paused. “For a while there, I wasn’t sure how I’d get out.”

Thea watched his expression as he spoke. He still seemed shaken from the experience. She’d never seen him like that. “I knew something bad must have happened.”

He summoned a brief smile. “I know what you’re thinking. I even thought so myself at the time. So much for my keen instincts. Someone came up behind me and I never sensed a thing.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking.”

“No?”

“I’m thinking you could have died down there and I would never have known what happened to you.”

“Thea.” He said her name so softly she might have thought the tender missive was nothing more than a breeze sighing through the treetops.

The sun bearing down on them was hot and relentless, but Thea felt a little shiver go through her. It hit her anew how much she’d missed that tender glint in his eyes as their gazes locked. How much she’d missed his husky whispers in the dark. The glide of his hand along her bare skin, the tease of his lips and tongue against her mouth. The way he had held her afterward, as if he never wanted to let her go. But he had let her go and she’d done nothing to stop him.

She drew a shaky breath. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”

“Get caught in a whirlpool? I’ll do my best.”

She scowled at him. “Don’t make light. You know what I mean.”

“I’m fine, Thea.” He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but he held back. Maybe he thought she wanted his restraint. She did, didn’t she? They were in a precarious situation. Adrenaline and attraction could be a dangerous combination. Throw in unresolved issues and they were asking for trouble.

IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781335489357 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Little-Girl-Procedural-Crime-Story-ebook/dp/B09798Q8BQ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=LITTLE+GIRL+GONE+by+Amanda+Stevens&qid=1637001796&qsid=133-7575147-1798556&sr=8-1&sres=B09798Q8BQ%2CB003KVL35W%2C1250209765%2C1250132363%2C1250153964&srpt=ABIS_EBOOKS 

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/little-girl-gone-amanda-stevens/1139689805?ean=9781335489357 

Harlequin.com: https://www.harlequin.com/shop/books/9781335555557_little-girl-gone.html

~Cassie

Blog Tour: Backstage Benefits by LaQuette

Thank you to Harlequin for providing all info and graphics for this post.

BACKSTAGE BENEFITS by LaQuette (on-sale Nov.30, Harlequin Desire): When show business leads to secret pleasures, how can they resist in this Devereaux Inc. novel by LaQuette.Their daytime partnership sets the night on fire. Who said they can’t have it all? Lyric Smith didn’t become the nation’s most successful lifestyle guru by losing focus. Yet Josiah Manning, daytime television’s hottest—and sexiest—young Black producer makes her do just that. Publicly, Josiah wants Lyric to star in a new talk show. Privately, he’s headlining her sexiest fantasies. But when their explosive chemistry leads to complications instead of contracts, will Lyric find the ultimate partner to help her crush her rivals…or exit stage left alone?

About LaQuette:An activist for DEIA in the romance industry, LaQuette writes bold stories featuring multicultural characters. Her writing style brings intellect to the drama. She crafts emotionally epic tales that are deeply pigmented by reality’s paintbrush. This Brooklyn native’s novels are a unique mix of savvy, sarcastic, brazen, & unapologetically sexy characters who are confident in their right to appear on the page. Find her at LaQuette.com & at LaQuette@LaQuette.com.

Excerpt

Excerpt, BACKSTAGE BENEFITS by LaQuette

“Are you okay?”

She seemed slightly dazed, and he couldn’t tell if it was because his hand was still lingering on her arm. He was a perfect stranger, and just because he was boys with her play cousin Jeremiah didn’t mean he had a right to touch her or barge his way all up in her mix.

He dragged his hand away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”

    Josiah let his hungry gaze slide down her body, then brought it back up to meet hers. “If this is a hot mess,

then I don’t think the world is ready for when you get glammed up. You’re breathtaking.”

She nodded, smiling playfully as her laughter filled the cozy space between them. “You are a charmer, aren’t you? I bet all the Hollywood starlets fall at your feet when you pay them those kinds of compliments.”

He lifted a brow and pursed his lips. “You’d be wrong. I don’t pay compliments easily. And trust me, there’s no one in Hollywood that looks like you, so no, I’m not usually this charming.”

He could see the brown of her cheeks burn into a deep mauve as she blushed. “Then thank you,” she responded. “And on that flattering note, I’m gonna call a car and head home.”

“Call a car?” His question stopped her mid-turn. “You didn’t come in your own?”

“No, my cousin Amara and I had business earlier, and I hitched a ride with her. But as the family lawyer, there’s no way she can leave now.”

“Then let me take you home.”

Her cute smile as she dipped her gaze and blushed again tore down all his defenses. As a producer, he was around beautiful women all the time. But none of them disarmed him the way Lyric did.

“Is ‘take me home’ just an offer of transportation or a euphemism for sleeping with me?”

Pump your brakes, man.

He wasn’t thinking with his head at the moment, so he simply said, “Whichever you want it to be.”

He braced himself for the slap he knew he deserved. But it never came. Instead, she stepped closer to him, filling his senses with the light fragrance of citrus and coconut she wore.

“Take me home, and I’ll use the duration of the trip to decide.”

Well, I’ll be damned.

~Cassie

Blog Tour: Tall, Dark, and Off Limits by Shannon McKenna

Thank you to Harlequin for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

TALL, DARK AND OFF LIMITS by Shannon McKenna (on-sale Dec.28, Harlequin Desire): His job is to protect his best friend’s sister…not seduce her! Don’t miss the conclusion of the Men of Maddox Hill series by New York Times bestselling author Shannon McKenna. When it comes to his best friend’s sister, he’s tempted to be much more than her protector. Assigned to keep an eye on social media darling Ava Maddox, security expert Zack Austin is more than up to the task. After all, she’s like family. But dealing with the dynamic beauty requires every ounce of patience…and sexual control. They’ve been denying their forbidden feelings for way too long and soon professionalism gives way to passion. Zack’s willing to face her overprotective family’s wrath, but is Ava’s talent for finding trouble about to explode in his face?

Review

I really enjoyed this romance with a hero and heroine that had immediate and instant chemistry that came across as natural and authentic. However, the premise of this book threw me since there was a lot of talk about the troll that made it necessary for Ava to have constant protection but it never seemed that serious to me. It was just an excuse to get Ava and Zack together and then seemed to be put on the back burner until McKenna needed it again for the dramatic ending. The business trip that Zack accompanied Ava on was wonderful and I enjoyed seeing them being together in close quarters. I did find the bedroom talk between them entertaining but clunky. Another aspect of the story that I enjoyed was how upfront with their feelings both Ava and Zack were. McKenna could have gone the route of overusing the miscommunication trope but I think she handled it well. I always love in a romance when characters talk about and share their feelings so that was a big plus in this story. With that said, I was not a fan of the ending and how quickly things were wrapped up between them. Other than the premise not really working for me, I did think this book was entertaining and definitely delivered the steamy romance it promised.

About Shannon McKenna: Shannon McKenna is the NYT bestselling author of seventeen action packed, turbocharged romantic thrillers, among which are the stories of the wildly popular McCloud series and the brand new romantic suspense series, The Obsidian Files. She loves tough and heroic alpha males, heroines with the brains and guts to match them, villains who challenge them to their utmost, adventure, scorching sensuality, and most of all, the redemptive power of true love. Since she was small she has loved abandoning herself to the magic of a good book, and her fond childhood fantasy was that writing would be just like that, but with the added benefit of being able to take credit for the story at the end. Alas, the alchemy of writing turned out to be messier than she’d ever dreamed. But what the hell, she loves it anyway, and hopes that readers enjoy the results of her alchemical experiments. 

Excerpt

Excerpt, TALL, DARK AND OFF LIMITS by Shannon McKenna

“No wine,” Zack told the waiter brusquely, realizing too late how stuffy and uptight that sounded. “For me, of course,” he said to Ava. “Feel free to have some. I never drink when I’m working.”

“Good for you.” She smiled up at the waiter, whose name was Martin, according to the tag on his shirt. “I’ll have a glass of red wine, please.”

“I have a beautiful 2016 Romanée-Conti that’s open,” Martin told her.

“Sounds lovely.” She gave the waiter that trademarked blinding smile that brought men to their knees. Martin stumbled off, probably to walk into walls and tables.

And Zack just sat there, tongue-tied. When Ava Maddox was around, his foot always ended up stuck so far into his mouth, he needed surgical intervention to get it out. She was giving him that look. Big, sharp blue eyes that missed nothing. So on to him.

The restaurant had low light and a hushed ambience, and they were in the back, tucked in a wood-paneled corner booth. Now the challenge was to kick-start his brain into operation, instead of just staring at how beautiful she was in the flickering candlelight.

She just waited, patiently. Like she was all too used to men losing their train of thought as soon as they made eye contact with her. Like she was accustomed to cutting the poor stammering chumps some slack while they pulled themselves together.

Her cell rang, and she gave him an apologetic glance when she saw the display. “Gotta take this. One sec.” She tapped the screen and held it to her ear. “Ernest? Thanks for getting back to me. Are you still in the office?… Yeah? Could you get a cab to swing by the Mathesson Pub and Grill on your way home?… Yeah, I need my laptop, the pink one with the collage cover. I’m talking to the Maddox Hill CSO about the online harassment…yeah, I know, but still…uh-huh. Okay, thanks. You’re my hero. Later, then.”

She laid the phone down. “Ernest is my assistant. He’ll bring my computer here so I can show you the master list of the last few of years’ worth of Blazon’s projects.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have your laptop with you at all times,” he said.

“I usually do,” she said. “But I had every intention of going back to Gilchrist House tonight. I have a crazy weekend coming up. Ernest and I are flying down to the Future Innovation trade show in Los Angeles tomorrow. It’s a very big deal.”

Zack couldn’t hide his disapproval. “Traveling to Los Angeles? Going back to a deserted office late in the evening? Leaving by yourself, going home by yourself? With all this going on?”

Ava sighed. “Zack, Gilchrist House has a twenty-four-hour doorman. And I would call a car to take me from doorstep to doorstep. I’m not an idiot.”

“I never suggested that you were.”

“I’m not in physical danger,” Ava assured him. “Really. This is just, you know, the new normal. The incivility of our modern electronic age. It’s ugly and unsavory, but I’ve got to get used to it and learn to roll with it.”

“The hell you do,” he said. “New normal, my ass. I’ll tell you what’s normal. When I find that bottom-feeding son of a bitch and grind him into paste.”

Ava gave him that narrow, nervous look, which by now he recognized. It was a signal that he wasn’t behaving professionally. He was too intense. Making it personal.

In a word, scaring her.

“Ah, wow, Zack,” she murmured. “I’m surprised at your reaction.”

“Why? This situation is a disgrace. Why should you be surprised that I’m horrified?”

Her eyes slid away. “Well, I don’t know. It’s just that you’ve never taken me seriously before, so why would you suddenly take me seriously now?”

“I’m sorry I gave you that impression,” he said stiffly. “It wasn’t intentional.”

“Oh, don’t be that way.” Her tone was light. “I’m  used to it. I rub a lot of people the wrong way. I’m just too much for people sometimes. Drew’s always on my case about it, telling me to tone it down. And I try, I really do. But it never works. Boom, out it comes. The real Ava, right in your face.”

“He shouldn’t do that,” Zack said forcefully.

“Shouldn’t what? Sorry, but I’m not following you.”

“Drew. He shouldn’t be on your case. He shouldn’t tell you to tone it down.”

Her eyes were big. “Ah… I didn’t mean to get you all wound up.”

Amazon:https://www.amazon.com/Tall-Dark-Limits-Maddox-Hill-ebook/dp/B0974TCK7N/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=TALL%2C+DARK+AND+OFF+LIMITS+by+Shannon+McKenna&qid=1637071256&qsid=133-7575147-1798556&sr=8-1&sres=B0974TCK7N&srpt=ABIS_EBOOKS 

Barnes & Noble:https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/tall-dark-and-off-limits-shannon-mckenna/1139674789?ean=9781335735393

Harlequin.com: https://www.harlequin.com/shop/books/9781335735393_tall-dark-and-off-limits.html 

~Cassie

Blog Tour: The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

The Sorority Murder : A Novel 

Allison Brennan

On Sale Date: December 28, 2021

9780778311683

Mass Market

$9.99 USD, $12.99 CAD

448 pages

ABOUT THE BOOK:

New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan’s suspenseful new mass market original about a college senior’s podcast that delves into an unsolved campus murder of a sorority girl three years earlier, as individual callers explode every fact previously thought to be true.

Lucas Vega is obsessed with the death of Candace Swain, who left a sorority party one night and never came back. Her body was found two weeks later, and the case has grown cold. Three years later while interning at the Medical Examiner’s, Lucas discovers new information, but the police are not interested.

Lucas knows he has several credible pieces of the puzzle, he just isn’t sure how they fit together. So he creates a podcast to revisit Candace’s last hours. He asks listeners to crowdsource what they remember and invites guest lecturer, former US Marshal Regan Merritt, to come on and share her expertise.

New tips come in that convince Lucas and Regan they are onto something. Then shockingly one of the podcast callers turns up dead. Another hints at Candace’s secret life…a much darker picture than Lucas imagined—and one that implicates other sorority sisters. Regan uses her own resources to bolster their theory and learns that Lucas is hiding his own dark secret. The pressure is to solve the murder, but first Lucas must come clean about his real motives in pursuing this podcast – before the killer silences him forever.

Review

This is an interesting mystery that I largely enjoyed but did find that it got bogged down in minutiae that didn’t matter. The cold case of who killed Candace and what she was doing the week before she was killed was engaging and compelling. I really enjoyed seeing all the pieces slowly unravel and the brief flashbacks that we got of Candace during the lead up to her murder were some of my favorite moments. The big selling point for me was the podcast element of this story and I think that was also a high point of the story. The podcast helped the pacing of the story stay consistent since our protagonists, Regan and Lucas, are working off of what they just learned from people calling in during the episode . It helped to break up the many aspects to Candace’s murder and each reveal that happened was compelling and satisfying.

However, the weakest parts of this story were the characters. There was just way too much detail about their lives that I found irrelevant. This is a pretty substantial book at almost 450 pages and I don’t think all of it was necessary to tell the story. I went into this book thinking it was a standalone and while reading it I became convinced that it is the first book in the series. I have tried to look it up to see if it is but I can’t find anything which is confusing. There is so much backstory give to our heroine, Regan, that it seems pointless to keep bringing aspects of it up if it’s not going to lead to anything. It got to the point where when the characters weren’t focusing on solving the case that I found myself wanting to skip through. Which is a personal thing and is probably due to me connecting more with Candace then either Lucas or Regan.

I don’t know how many casual readers of the mystery genre would appreciate this book since it doesn’t completely focus on the mystery. If you are like me and love the slow unraveling of an engaging mystery than I do recommend this. I also think it takes a talented writer for me to mourn a character that I know going into the story is not alive. But in the small pieces of Candace that we got to see she was hands down my favorite character and for that reason I think this book will stick with me for a long while.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

ALLISON BRENNAN is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over thirty novels. She has been nominated for Best Paperback Original Thriller by International Thriller Writers and the Daphne du Maurier Award. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, Allison lives in Arizona with her husband, five kids and assorted pets. The Sorority Murder is the first of a new mass market series,

Social Links:

Author website: https://www.allisonbrennan.com/

Facebook: @AllisonBrennan

Twitter: @Allison_Brennan

Instagram: @abwrites

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/52527.Allison_Brennan

Excerpt

One

Three Years Ago

Friday, April 10

 Candace Swain forced a smile as she walked out of her dorm room.

Smiling was the last thing she wanted to do, but Candace had an image to uphold.

She was going to be late for the Sigma Rho Spring Fling—the last big party before the end-of-year crunch. Studying for finals, capstones and senior projects, stress and more stress, and—for some of them—graduation.

The mild April weather was perfect for an outdoor gathering. Candace had led the sorority’s social-events committee with setup, and they’d included heat lamps along the perimeter. The Mountain View dorm—which housed all campus sororities, each with their own wing—was on the northeast corner of campus, adjacent to the football field. The Spring Fling was held on the large lawn that framed the north entrance, where they had the most room. It was open to all students for a five-dollar admission, and was one of the biggest moneymakers for the sorority, more than charities. Candace had fought for—and won—giving the profits to a rescue mission that helped people get back on their feet. She volunteered weekly for Sunrise Center, and it had changed how she viewed herself and her future. She now planned to be a nurse in the inner city, working for a clinic or public hospital, where people deserved quality health care, even if they were struggling. She even considered specializing in drug and alcohol issues, which were unfortunately prevalent among the homeless community.

She used to think of her volunteerism as penance for her failings. She wasn’t religious but had had enough preaching from her devout grandmother to have absorbed things like guilt, penance, sacrifice. Now, she looked forward to Tuesdays when she gave six hours of her time to those who were far worse off than she. It reminded her to be grateful for what she had, that things could be worse.

Candace exited through the north doors and stood at the top of the short flight of stairs that led to the main lawn. Though still early in the evening, the party was already hopping. Music played from all corners of the yard, the din of voices and laughter mingling with a popular song. In the dusk, the towering mountains to the north were etched in fading light. She breathed deeply. She loved everything about Flagstaff. The green mountains filled with pine and juniper. The crisp, fresh air. The sense of community and belonging felt so natural here, something she’d never had growing up in Colorado Springs. With graduation on the horizon, she had been feeling a sense of loss, knowing she was going to miss this special place.

She wasn’t close to her parents, who divorced right before she started high school and still fought as much as they did when they were married. She desperately missed her younger sister, Chrissy, a freshman at the University of South Carolina. She’d wanted Chrissy to come here for college, but Chrissy was a champion swimmer and had received a full scholarship to study practically a world away. Candace had no plans to return to Colorado Springs, but she didn’t know if she wanted to follow her sister to the East Coast or head down to Phoenix where they had some of the best job opportunities for what she wanted to do.

Vicky Ryan, a first year student who had aspirations of leadership, ran up to her.

“That weirdo is back,” Vicky said quietly. “Near the west steps. Just loitering there, freaking people out. Should I call campus police?”

Candace frowned. The man Vicky was referring to was Joseph, and he wasn’t really a weirdo. He was an alcoholic, and mostly homeless, who sometimes wandered onto campus and wouldn’t accept the help he had been repeatedly offered. He wasn’t violent, just confused, and sometimes got lost in his own head, largely from how alcohol had messed with his mind and body. But his problems understandably made her sorority sisters uncomfortable. He’d twice been caught urinating against the wall outside their dorm; both times, he’d been cited by campus police. He wasn’t supposed to be on campus at all anymore, and Candace knew they’d arrest him if he was caught.

“I’ll take care of it,” Candace said and made her way around the edge of the party.

She found Joseph on the narrow grassy knoll that separated the football field from the dorms. A small group of students approached her, but one in their group turned toward the grass, likely to confront Joseph.

Candace walked faster, caught up with the student, and smiled brightly. “I got this.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll handle him.”

“I said I will take care of this. I know him. But thank you anyway.”

Mr. Macho didn’t want to walk away, yet Candace stood firm. She didn’t want anyone to harass Joseph, and she knew he would listen to her. While he wasn’t violent, he could be belligerent, and being confronted by a jerk wanting to impress his girlfriend was a surefire way to trigger Joseph and have him dig in his heels. It would only lead to an arrest, and that wasn’t going to help him in the long run.

The group walked off, grumbling; Candace ignored them. She approached Joseph cautiously, so as not to startle him. “Joseph, it’s Candace,” she said. “Remember me? From Sunrise Center?”

He turned slowly at the sound of her voice. A tall man, nearly six foot four, he could intimidate people. But he was also skinny and hunched over from years of walking the streets and looking down, rummaging through garbage, with his hangdog face, ragged salt-and-pepper beard, and watery blue eyes. He was the kind of guy her grandmother would have called a bum—dressed in multiple layers of dirty, mismatched clothes, and smelling of dirt and stale beer. He looked about sixty, but she knew that he was only in his early forties. She’d heard he’d been living along Route 66 for the better part of ten years. The people who ran Sunrise Center didn’t know much about his personal life, only that when he was sober (which was rare), he would talk about home being east, at the “end of the line.” But no one knew if that meant Chicago or any of the stops in between.

Candace wanted to know more about his story, how he came to be in these circumstances, why he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—accept help. Many of the homeless who came to Sunrise for shelter or food would talk to her freely. But not Joseph. When she’d pried once, he disappeared for a while, so she stopped asking. She would rather him be safe than riding the rails, which was dangerous.

“Candace,” he said slowly after several moments.

“You can’t be here, Joseph. The campus police told you that. Don’t you remember?”

He didn’t say anything or acknowledge that he understood what she said.

“Would you like me to take you over to Sunrise Center? You can get a hot meal there, maybe a cot for the night.”

Again, silence. He turned away from her but didn’t leave.

She really didn’t want to call campus police, but if she didn’t do something, someone else would.

“Is there a reason you are here?” she asked.

“Leave me alone,” he said.

“I will, but you have to leave. Otherwise someone is going to call the police.” If they haven’t already.

He abruptly turned toward her, staggered on the slope of the lawn. His sudden movement startled her; she stepped back.

“No cops!” he shouted.

“You have to leave, Joseph,” she said, emphatic. Her heart pounded in her chest, not so much from fear but uncertainty. “Please go.”

Again, he turned abruptly, this time staggering down the short slope toward the stadium fence. She held her breath, watching him. He almost ran into the fence, put his arms out to stop himself, then just stood there. A minute later, he shuffled along the field perimeter, shoulders hunched, without looking back.

She breathed easier, relieved that he was heading off campus. She would talk to the director of Sunrise on Tuesday, when she went in to volunteer. Joseph couldn’t keep coming here, but she didn’t really want to call the authorities on him. He needed help, not more trouble, and definitely not incarceration.

Candace was about to return to the party when she heard someone call her name. She turned and saw one of her former tutoring students, Lucas Vega, running toward her. She didn’t want to talk to Lucas tonight. How many times did she have to tell him to leave her alone?

She stopped anyway and waited.

“Candace,” he said, catching his breath. “Thanks.”

“What do you want?” she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” she said bluntly.

“I didn’t mean to upset you the other day. I am sorry about that.”

She blinked. He sounded so sincere. And truth be told, something he’d said to her a few days earlier made her think long and hard about herself, her life, and the time she’d spent as a student at Northern Arizona University.

A lie for a good reason is still a lie.

Lucas and his wide-eyed, good-natured innocence, his innocuous questions had her feeling guilty for no reason. He had picked up on that. And pushed.

No reason? Ha. Plenty of reasons. All these doubts and worries she’d been having this semester, the sleepless nights, all came from something she’d done as a freshman that she now had good reason to regret. But what could she do about it? What would come of the truth now?

Maybe there was no good reason to lie.

“All right,” she said. “Thank you.” It was easier to forgive Lucas than to hold on to this anger. None of what happened was Lucas’s fault.

“So will you tutor me again, for finals?”

“No. Afraid not.” She could forgive him for prying, but she really needed first to forgive herself. And she didn’t know if she could do that with Lucas around, reminding her of her failures and mistakes. He didn’t even know what she’d done, but seeing him now was like reliving the past, and her chest tightened. “I’m sorry, but I have too much studying of my own, too many tests. And I’m not working at the writing lab anymore.”

Because of you.

Was that even fair? Was it because of Lucas…or because of her own guilt?

He was disappointed, but that wasn’t her problem.

“Okay, I understand,” he said.

“Besides, you’re smart. You’ll be fine.”

He shrugged. “Thanks.”

“Uh, you want to come to the party?” She gestured over her shoulder. They could hear the music from where they stood. “I’ll get you a pass. Won’t even cost you the five bucks.”

He shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m not really one for parties. But thanks anyway.”

He turned to leave.

“Lucas,” she said. He looked at her over his shoulder. “I’m really sorry.”

Then she left him there, waiting for something she couldn’t give him.

It took Candace several minutes before she could work up the courage to return to the party. An idea she’d been thinking about for the last few months was now fully developed, as if something inside clicked after her brief conversation with Lucas. Everything shifted into place, and she knew what she needed to do; it was the only thing she could do.

No one was going to like her decision.

When she realized she no longer cared what anyone thought, a burden lifted from her heart. She was certain then that she was doing the right thing.

Everyone at the party was asking for Candace, and Vicky had become worried when her friend and mentor hadn’t returned after thirty minutes. She sought out Taylor James, the Sigma Rho president, and told her about the homeless guy. “I don’t know where Candace is,” she said. “I should have just called campus police.”

“Candace says he’s harmless,” Taylor said, frowning. “Sometimes she’s so naive. I’ll go look for her.”

“Thanks. The party is great by the way. Everyone seems to be having fun. How does it compare to previous years?” This was the first party Vicky had helped put together for the sorority, so she was eager to know how well she’d done.

“As good or better,” Taylor said with a wide smile.

Vicky tried not to gloat as she practically floated over to her friends chatting near one of the heat lamps. It wasn’t cold, but the warmth of the heat lamp and the glow from the string lights added terrific ambience to the place.

“Oh my God, Vicky, this is a blast,” her roommate, Nicole Bergamo, said. Nicole was a half-Black, half-Italian math major who could have easily been a model she was so tall and stunning. “Everyone is talking about how great it is.”

Vicky smiled, talked for a bit, then moved around, being social, doing all the things that she’d seen Sigma Rho board members do. Hundreds of people were dancing, talking, mingling, eating, drinking, playing games. Mostly, they were having fun, which was the whole purpose. When the new Sigma Rho advisor, Rachel Wagner, told her it was the best Sigma Rho party she’d been to ever, Vicky thought she’d never come down from cloud nine.

“I agree,” said the gorgeous woman who was with Rachel. “I’m Kimberly Foster, by the way,” she introduced herself. “I’m a sorority alum, and I’m so happy I came up this weekend. You’ve done a fantastic job. Rachel said you’re part of the social-events committee. Isn’t Candace leading the committee? I haven’t seen her yet.”

“Yes, she’s around,” Vicky said. “This is all her vision. We just implemented it.”

“I love Candace. Oh! I see her over there.”

Vicky looked to where Kimberly was gesturing. Candace was talking in a small group.

“I’m going to catch up with her,” Kimberly said. “Nice to meet you, Vicky.”

The two women walked away, and Vicky continued her rounds. She was having a blast as her worries that the party might flop were replaced with pride and satisfaction over its success.

Hours later it was midnight, and per city ordinance—because their dorm bordered a public street—they had to cut off the music. That put a damper on things, but it was fine with Vicky—she was exhausted after working all day prepping and all night making sure everything was running smoothly. She was a little miffed that Candace was hardly there: Vicky had only caught a glimpse of her twice. But whatever, she’d seemed preoccupied, and that would have been a party downer.

Vicky ran into the dorm to get extra trash bags—they had to clean up tonight so wild animals wouldn’t get into the garbage and create a bigger mess in the morning. She came back out and heard voices arguing near where the DJ had been set up. He’d already packed up and left. She couldn’t hear exactly what was being said. It seemed like a quiet, intense exchange between Taylor and Candace though Rachel and her guest Kimberly were there, too. Everyone, especially Taylor, seemed angry.

About sixty people were still milling around, mostly Sigma Rho sisters helping with the cleanup. Nicole came up to Vicky and said, “What are Candace and Taylor fighting about?”

“I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.”

“It’s not nothing,” Nicole said. “I heard Taylor call Candace a selfish bitch.”

“Ouch. Well, Rachel is there. She’ll mediate.”

But Rachel looked angry as well; it seemed that Candace was on one side, and the other three women were yelling at her.

“You’re wrong!” Candace screamed, and Vicky jumped. She glanced at Nicole, who looked perplexed as well. Vicky handed her a garbage bag, and they both started picking up trash. She didn’t want anyone to think she was eavesdropping.

But she was. As she inched closer to the group, she heard Kimberly say, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow, okay? When everyone has had a good night’s sleep and we can all think more clearly.”

“I am thinking clearly,” Candace said. “I’m done. Just…done.”

She left, walked right past Vicky without even seeing her. There were tears in Candace’s eyes, and Vicky didn’t know if she was angry or upset, but probably both. Vicky thought about going after her to make sure she was okay, then felt a hand on her shoulder.

She jumped, then laughed nervously when she saw Rachel. Taylor and Kim had walked away in the other direction.

“Sorry. You startled me.”

“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” Rachel said.

“I didn’t, really. Just saw that Taylor and Candace were arguing about something. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“It’s going to be fine. Just a little disagreement that Candace took personally.”

“About the party?” Vicky asked, her insecurities rising that she’d messed up something.

“Oh, no, the party was perfect. Don’t worry about that.”

Relieved, she said, “Maybe I should go talk to Candace.”

“No, let her be. I’ve known her since she was a freshman and took my Intro to Bio class. She has a big heart, and sometimes you can’t help everyone.”

Now Vicky understood, or thought she did. Taylor had been the most vocal about the creepy homeless guy hanging around the dorms, and she’d been the one who’d called campus police last time, after Candace said not to.

“Let me help,” Rachel said and took a garbage bag from Vicky’s stash.

Rachel chatted with Vicky, who felt lucky to be able to spend so much one-on-one time with her sorority advisor. Rachel was so smart, an associate professor at just thirty-two, an alum of the University of Arizona Sigma Rho chapter. Plus she had such interesting stories to share. By the time they were done with the cleanup—it didn’t take long with so many people working together—Vicky had forgotten all about the argument between Candace and Taylor.

It was the last time anyone saw Candace alive.

Excerpted from The Sorority Murder by Allison Brennan, Copyright © 2021 by Allison Brennan. Published by MIRA Books.

Buy Links:

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/the-sorority-murder-9780778311683/9780778311683 

Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780778311683

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-sorority-murder-allison-brennan/1138522928?ean=9780778311683

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Sorority-Murder-Novel-Allison-Brennan/dp/0778311686/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+sorority+murder&qid=1639533550&sr=8-1 

Books A Million:https://www.booksamillion.com/p/Sorority-Murder/Allison-Brennan/9780778311683?id=8395335675878 

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Sorority-Murder-Novel-Allison-Brennan-ebook/dp/B08R8ZSV4D/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr= 

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-sorority-murder-allison-brennan/1138522928?ean=9780369706515 

Kobo:https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/the-sorority-murder?gclid=Cj0KCQiAnuGNBhCPARIsACbnLzrMC9oKq6v7ZQp7IQyylb5JsW6Z-qHjPhkqkmW3FVyHXzbzQ-IcH7gaApHeEALw_wcB 

Google Play: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Sorority_Murder.html?id=5M8QEAAAQBAJ 

Apple books:https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-sorority-murder/id1546368124 

~Cassie

Blog Tour: My Darling Husband by Kimberly Belle

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

My Darling Husband

Kimberly Belle

On Sale Date: March 8, 2022

9780778311560, 0778311562

Trade Paperback

$16.99 USD, $23.99 CAD

Fiction / Thrillers / Psychological

352 pages

About the Book:Bestselling author of DEAR WIFE and THE MARRIAGE LIE, Kimberly Belle returns with her most heart-pounding thriller to date, as a masked home invader reveals the cracks in a marriage.

Everyone is about to know what her husband isn’t telling her…

Jade and Cam Lasky are by all accounts a happily married couple with two adorable kids, a spacious home and a rapidly growing restaurant business. But their world is tipped upside down when Jade is confronted by a masked home invader. As Cam scrambles to gather the ransom money, Jade starts to wonder if they’re as financially secure as their lifestyle suggests, and what other secrets her husband is keeping from her.
Cam may be a good father, a celebrity chef and a darling husband, but there’s another side he’s kept hidden from Jade that has put their family in danger. Unbeknownst to Cam and Jade, the home invader has been watching them and is about to turn their family secrets into a public scandal.
With riveting twists and a breakneck pace, My Darling Husband is an utterly compelling thriller that once again showcases Kimberly Belle’s exceptional talent for domestic suspense.

Review

Kimberly Belle outdid herself with one of the most suspenseful books that I have ever read. This entire book takes place in about a five hour span of time, minus the interview scenes that take place after the events, which only serve to enhance the tension of the story. Belle firmly entrenches us in the minds of Cam and Jade but also the home invader and the constant shifting between narrators was intoxicating. From Cam’s terror and intensity of trying of secure the ransom money and Jade’s fear and plotting on how to save herself and her kids, I couldn’t get enough. Speaking of the kids, Beatrix and Baxter were some of my favorite kids in books. Most of the time I’m not a fan of how author’s write kids since I find them flat and infantilized. I was happy to see that Belle chose to portray them in a way that I felt accurate and lifelike. Beatrix, in particular, was a great addition to the story and helped Belle keep the fear and intensity well balanced. I had no clue how Belle would end this story and she didn’t disappoint. From early on I found it terrifying for the fact that this could easily be a true story. And I was sorry to hear from the ending author note that this book was inspired by what friends of hers went through. I think this book will appeal to all kinds of readers as long as you are in the mood for a fast paced suspense that will keep you on the edge of your seat the whole way through.

About the Author:

Kimberly Belle is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of seven novels, including her latest, My Darling Husband (December 2021). Her third novel, The Marriage Lie, was a semifinalist in the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Mystery & Thriller, and a #1 e-book bestseller in the UK and Italy. She’s sold rights to her books in a dozen languages as well as film and television options. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, Belle divides her time between Atlanta and Amsterdam.

Social Links:

Author website: https://www.kimberlybellebooks.com/

Facebook: @KimberlyBelleBooks

Twitter: @KimberlySBelle

Instagram: @kimberlysbelle

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/kimberlybelle 

Excerpt

Jade

3:18 pm 

I see the black figure in the shadows, and my first thought is of the kids, an immediate, full-throttle alarm that comes on like a freight train. This is parenthood in a nutshell: utter terror for your children’s welfare, always. It’s something Cam and I never thought about back when we were trying to get pregnant—the overwhelming insecurity when the doctor settled our babies into our arms, the unrelenting worry whenever they’re not near. I spot movement and I reach for them at the same time—instant and instinctual. My brain identifies a person, a male-sized form that does not belong here, and I shove their little bodies behind mine. 

A man, looming in my garage. Breathing the same air. 

I don’t move. I can’t. No fight. No flight. I just stand here, transfixed, dumbstruck, stock-still. 

I think of my phone, buried under the mail and trash in my bag. I think of the panic button on the alarm pad in the house, on the other end of a breezeway and tucked safely behind a locked door. I think of my keys, next to my phone. Even if I managed to get us out of this garage, where would we go? I’d never make it inside the house, and the backyard is fenced, the gates either electronic or secured with a complicated, child-safe latch. There’s nowhere to escape.

“Don’t move. Stay quiet and I won’t hurt you.” 

The voice is so frighteningly close. Hoarse, rattling in air hot with my sticky fear, and I don’t believe a single word. Especially not when he steps closer, and I get a better look. The man is wearing a mask. He’s holding a gun, a stubby black thing in a fist. Head-to-toe black, every bit of him covered, even his hands. His fingertips. 

Run. I scream the word in my head, urging myself on. Grab the children and run. 

Now.

A chill races down my spine. The hairs soldier on my skin. 

This man is here to hurt me. To hurt us.

And still I can’t move. 

So this is it, then. This is how my body responds when faced with sudden fright, with this hot, sluggish horror—like when your fingers brush over a strange lump under your armpit and you realize your life has veered sideways. Some people run. Others scream. Me, I just stand here, paralyzed by the mounting terror. 

The kids, too. They stare at him with big, frightened eyes. A little hand grabs my pants leg.

“Please,” I somehow manage to squeak, but I can’t finish. Please don’t touch the children. Please don’t shoot us. The words are too horrifying to say out loud.

He moves closer, his gait smooth but there’s something sinister in the way he’s walking across the concrete floor. He’s like an animal on the hunt, joints loose, ready to pounce. All dangerous, coiled energy lurking just below the surface. 

“Take my car.” I hold out my bag, a stupidly expensive designer thing from a couple years ago. “The keys are in here somewhere, and so’s my wallet. I—”

“I don’t want your purse. Don’t want your car, either.” His voice is deep and scratchy, the kind that sounds filled with cigarette smoke. 

My stomach spirals, and I search his face for more, but the parts of him I can see—his lips, his eyes—are closed off. I search for something recognizable, something human I can appeal to, but there’s nothing. It’s like searching for meaning on a covered canvas. 

Still, I take in every detail I can see and commit them to memory. Just under six foot, medium build, broad shouldered. Caucasian. I know this from his eyes, olive green and flecked with amber, the pink patch of skin around his mouth. His teeth are white and straight, the kind of straight that comes from braces. 

“Do you want money? I don’t have cash, but take my card. My pin is 4-3-0-8.”

“Jade. Shh.”

My name on his tongue tightens a knot of panic in my gut, and I scurry—finally—backwards, putting some distance between me and this man, pushing the kids behind me and towards the door. 

Stay calm. 

Don’t panic.

Whatever happens, do not let the gunman in the house. That’s how people get killed. That’s how entire families end up in a pool of blood. As soon as you let the gunman into the house, you’re already dead. 

Excerpted from My Darling Husband @ 2021 by Kimberly S. Belle Books, LLC, used with permission by Park Row Books.

Buy Links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/My-Darling-Husband-Kimberly-Belle/dp/0778311562/

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/my-darling-husband-kimberly-belle/1138090011?ean=9780778311560 

Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/books/my-darling-husband-9780778312116/9780778312116 

IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780778312116 

Books-A-Million: https://www.booksamillion.com/p/My-Darling-Husband/Kimberly-Belle/9780778311560?id=8388215054600 

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/my-darling-husband 

AppleBooks: https://books.apple.com/us/book/my-darling-husband/id1539274871 

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Kimberly_Belle_My_Darling_Husband?id=6JMHEAAAQBAJ 

Libro.FM: https://libro.fm/audiobooks/9781488212611-my-darling-husband 

Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/my-darling-husband-a-novel/9780778333135-item.html 

~Cassie

Blog Tour: The True Cowboy of Sunset Ridge by Maisey Yates

Thank you to Harlequin for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review. They also kindly provided all info and graphics.

THE TRUE COWBOY OF SUNSET RIDGE

Author: Maisey Yates

ISBN: 9781335620965

Publication Date: December 28, 2021

Publisher: HQN Books

Book Summary:

When a bull-riding champion is left holding his friend’s baby, could it be time to put down roots in Gold Valley?

Midwife Mallory Chance is ready for a fresh start in Gold Valley. And when she locks eyes with a handsome cowboy across the saloon, it feels like fate. After too many years wasted on her cheating ex, good girl Mallory is read to cut loose and prioritize herself. But when the dust settles on their hot night, it turns out that her mysterious one-night cowboy is none other than her new landlord – and someone she’ll be seeing very regularly around Gold Valley…

Bull rider Colt Daniels has a wild reputation, but after losing his friend on the rodeo circuit, he’s left it all behind. If only he could walk away from his guilt as easily…or the temptation of Mallory! He can’t offer her the future she deserves – what does a cowboy with a heart as damaged as his know about forever? Then his friend’s tiny daughter ends up in Colt’s care, and he’s in over his head. Colt has never wanted to rely on anyone, but he needs Mallory’s help taking care of the baby he’s beginning to love as his own. But is it all still temporary, or is it their chance at a forever family?

Review

Wow, this book packs a punch. It is beyond emotional and extremely steamy. Colt and Mallory are both trying to overcome traumatic pasts that have left them putting up walls for years. Mallory is dealing with the trauma of why she let herself stay in a toxic relationship for as long as she did. And Colt is dealing with yet another death of someone close to him after losing his parents as a teenager. The entire Gold Valley series is excellent and this book was no different.

My favorite thing in a romance is the emotional connection between the lovers and this book somehow delivered on that front, even when the beginning of Colt and Mallory’s relationship was just a (hot) hookup. I cried multiple times reading this and like every Gold Valley book, I felt an immediate bond to the characters. Mallory and Colt are both dealing with some tough issues so there is a major trigger warning for death, including stillbirth. Mallory is also a midwife so there is some significant time spent on all the things that could go wrong with a pregnancy.

All this trauma is balanced out with the incredible moments between Colt and Mallory and the heartwarming community that surrounds them. However, I did think that the pacing of this story was a little off. Things were progressing along and then there was a time jump but it wasn’t confirmed until the end exactly how much time had gone past. I also think that the message Yates was trying to get across, while a beautiful one, felt a bit heavy-handed at times.

With all that being said, I still very much enjoyed this read. I only read a few of the 14 books in the Gold Valley series but I am saddened that there won’t be anymore. I know that this is a series that I will read and reread over and over again in my life. If you love romance and are wanting a book that will give you all the feels but also deliver some spice, then you can’t go wrong with The True Cowboy of Sunset Ridge.

Author Bio: 

Maisey Yates is a New York Times bestselling author of over one hundred romance novels. Whether she’s writing strong, hard working cowboys, dissolute princes or multigenerational family stories, she loves getting lost in fictional worlds. An avid knitter with a dangerous yarn addiction and an aversion to housework, Maisey lives with her husband and three kids in rural Oregon. Check out her website, maiseyyates.com or find her on Facebook.

Social Links:

Author Website: http://www.maiseyyates.com/

Facebook: Maisey Yates – https://www.facebook.com/MaiseyYates.Author/

Twitter: N/A

Instagram: @MaiseyYates – https://www.instagram.com/maiseyyates/

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

It was him. The man. The fantasy man. The one who had haunted her dreams for the past six months.

And he was just like Mallory Chance remembered him.

Tall, broad shoulders, broad chest. Tight black T-shirt and black cowboy hat. His midsection looked hard and solid, and so did his thighs.

He was the sort of man who would have terrified her when she was a teenager. Far too much masculinity to cope with—and why bother?—when there were soft, gentle boy band members to fantasize about from the safe distance of a bedroom wall poster.

The sort of man she’d never had the chance to lust after because she’d made her choices about men at fifteen—again, when she’d been more into boy bands than bad boys and had proclaimed chest hair “gross”—and had therefore been stuck with her teenage sensibilities even as she’d transitioned into adulthood.

He looked like danger. The kind you ran from when you were a girl and wanted to run to when you were a woman.

The hardest-looking man in the room.

The one who would win the bar fight.

The one whose muscles looked like they could carry the weight of the whole world. Or possibly just handily beat up her trifling ex.

But it wasn’t enough that the man had the most incredible body she’d ever seen.

He had dark blond hair, dark stubble covering a square jaw. His mouth was perfectly formed, and while she’d never given much thought to what constituted a perfectly formed mouth, it turned out she knew it when she saw it.

But his eyes…

That night in the Gold Valley Saloon, six months ago, while she’d been seated next to her boyfriend, they’d locked eyes.

And she’d felt it all the way down to her core.

Like a bolt of lightning.

An electric current that had run beneath her skin and down to her bones and had left her feeling changed.

It had been a moment. A brief moment. But she hadn’t been sure how she would breathe through it, let alone carry on like it hadn’t happened.

She’d never experienced anything like it before.

Like she was staring down fate in cowboy boots.

But that had to be ridiculous because she didn’t believe in things like that, and if she did, she’d have to claim Jared as her fate, not some random guy in a bar.

Jared, the man she’d been with since she was fifteen years old.

What was that if not fate?

At least, that was what she told herself. For a long time. Too long.

Fate.

The word whispered over her skin, the concept like firecrackers going off in her stomach.

It was why she had come here tonight, and she would be lying if she said that wasn’t true.

All the whole way from San Francisco she had played the music as loud as she could, had rolled the windows down and shouted Taylor Swift lyrics into the wind. Because her world had been broken open, and because Jared had hated that music.

And it didn’t matter what he liked or didn’t like.

Not anymore.

So she’d done it, because she could. And she had ignored the ten times her cell phone had rung with his number flashing across the screen.

She wasn’t taking him back. Not this time. Not ever again.

In the past he’d left her, and she was the one who felt lost. And every time, she’d just get used to him being gone, he’d call and she’d pick up. She’d tell him to come home. Because she needed him.

She hadn’t known how not to need him. And she’d done her best to make sure he needed her. Because it was in that space where she felt right. Like she was doing the right thing, and like she mattered.

That sweet spot of contentedness and a little bit of penance.

Not this time. This time she’d done the leaving.

With very little forethought, and nothing more than a couple of haphazard emails, she had decided to uproot her entire life and go to the town of Gold Valley.

Mallory had been enchanted by Gold Valley from the first time she had come to visit her brother, Griffin.

She and her parents had come six months ago, along with Jared. It had been wonderful. And he had been horrible. And all of the doubts that bubbled up on occasion had come roaring to the surface during that week.

He’d been bored at dinner; he’d been completely uninterested in all of the quaint brick buildings in town. He’d overslept and missed family breakfasts.

In general, every single one of his bad qualities, every single thing that Griffin hated about him had been on full display.

Your brother already hates me. I’m not going to perform.

He’d said that while lounging in the passenger seat of her car, his sunglasses on, holding his phone up, paying it more attention than he did her, as usual. In the years since they’d started dating, his blond hair had transitioned from floppy boy band to man bun, which was the only way he’d transitioned from boy to man, really. He was still handsome in that smooth way, slim and… Well she’d always found him… Cute.

But he was much less cute when bored and slumped in her car, texting on a phone she’d paid for while he acted aggrieved by the vacation she’d also paid for.

He’d said that her brother hated him. And it was true. Griffin did hate him. But it was based on things like that, not on nothing.

Griffin had never been shy about his feelings for Jared, and it had always hurt Mallory.

She’d idolized Griffin all her life. Her older brother was her hero and always had been. A shining beacon of everything good and successful. Her parents had always been so proud of him. And so had she.

Eight years older than her, she’d been ten when Griffin had moved out, and it had devastated her. Even though it was the natural order of things. It had changed her world, and she felt unspeakably lonely with him gone.

He’d gone off and gotten his own life. Fallen in love, gotten married.

And then he lost his wife and little girl, and Mallory had lost her beloved sister-in-law and cherished niece.

Even though Griffin had survived, in many ways she’d felt like she’d lost him too.

It was only since he’d met Iris that Mallory felt like she really had them back.

Which, other than the natural pull she felt to the town, had been the reason that she’d come to Gold Valley.

She wanted to be near her brother.

And she needed, desperately, to be very far away from Jared.

Her rental wouldn’t be ready for a couple of days, but she just… She hadn’t been able to stay. Not anymore.

And there were a whole lot of conversations that she was due to have. Mostly because Griffin didn’t even know that she was moving to Gold Valley.

Her parents didn’t even know what she was doing.

Par for the course, isn’t it?

Maybe. But there were just… There were some things she just wanted to keep to herself. So she didn’t have to feel the sting of their disappointment. Her own failures mixed together with disapproval from the two people who mattered so much to her.

She’d always tried to cover for Jared too. Every time he’d left and hurt her, she’d tried to minimize it. Every time he’d spent three weeks or a month apart sleeping at another woman’s house, only to come home, she’d tried to hide that.

And she’d tried to forget it.

Her relationship with Jared was fifteen years long. They’d grown up together. Well, he’d grown up less, she’d grown up more. But they’d shaped their lives around each other and she’d felt like…

Like he was the only person who knew everything about her. Things she’d never shared with her parents, never with her brother… He’d been there for.

And in the darkest time, he had been there. And she’d clung to that through every bump in their road.

But this time, he’d cheated. They hadn’t been separated before he’d found his way into another woman’s bed. She’d thought everything was fine. Great. Better than it had been for a long while, in fact.

And that was what hurt the most.

She gritted her teeth. Feeling angry. And she looked back over at her mystery cowboy.

Yeah, the thing was, he had probably cheated on her before. He had probably been cheating for their entire relationship, and she had just believed him every time he ever said that the only times he’d touched another person had been when they were on a break.

That had hurt. It always had. Because she had never…

He was her one and only.

And of all the silly things that had enraged her, the one that had fueled her down I-5 the whole way here, was… That.

Was the fact that she had seen a man that had made her feel things just with one look that no one, not even Jared, had ever made her feel before.

She’d felt that deep connection back then. Sitting there with a man who was tipsy off his sixth beer, which she’d paid for, while she looked at another man who incited some kind of fire in her stomach—it felt unfair. And in that period of time when she’d been in that house she used to share with Jared in a town that she wanted to leave desperately, she just decided she needed to… Go.

And she could stay in a motel until the rental date.

But she needed to be gone. And she had told herself that it wasn’t the vision of that man’s eyes that had propelled her. She had told herself that it wasn’t why, after she checked into the little Wine Country Motel on the edge of Gold Valley, she’d taken a shower and freshened up, put on some makeup for the first time in three weeks and a light, summer dress.

No, she had told herself that none of those things had anything to do with her mystery man.

And then, when she was bored and hungry and had bypassed any number of actual restaurants on the main street of town, walking to the Gold Valley Saloon, she had decided that there was no way she had any hope of seeing that man. Because what were the chances?

But then, in the back of her mind it was there. How people did like their regular bars. How it was possible.

But so not likely that, six months from the first time she had seen him, he would be there. Just happened to be there.

When she was free and unattached, angry and needing desperately to reclaim something… Or rather, claim it for the first time.

But there he was. There he was. And she was frozen to the spot in that Western bar, her feet grounded to the rustic wood floor. People were talking and laughing and dancing all around her. Country music was playing over the jukebox, and there was tension filling the air. Couples were everywhere. New and old, she imagined. Some who had forever. Some who were looking for a night.

But he was alone. Standing there at the back of the bar with the neon light from a beer sign shining over him like an unholy sign from the heavens. She knew it was him. Because she could never have confused him with anyone else. Sure, there were other handsome men in the room. But none of them made her feel like fire.

None of them made her feel like everything she’d ever known before was a pale, cardboard construct, and he might be the only thing that was real.

The only thing that could make her real.

She swallowed hard, walking over to the bar. The bartender was a handsome man, broad chested with a quick smile, tattoos up his brown forearms, a bright gold wedding band and a twinkle in his eye. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah. I… Whiskey. Please.”

“All right. Any particular kind?”

She didn’t know anything about whiskey. “Do you have a special kind that makes you brave?”

He grinned. “Even cheap stuff will do that. Just comes with a headache.”

“It’s my experience that just about everything in life comes with the headache,” she said, trying to smile. And then she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Goose bumps broke out over her arms.

And the fire inside her flared.

That happened a split second before she heard a low, husky voice just behind her.

“It’s you, isn’t it?”

She turned, and there he was.

Excerpted from The True Cowboy of Sunset Ridge by Maisey Yates. Copyright © 2021 by Maisey Yates. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Buy Links: 

BookShop.org

Harlequin 

Barnes & Noble

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Books-A-Million

~Cassie

Blog Tour: Cry Wolf by Hans Rosenfeldt

Thank you to Harlequin Trade Publishing for providing all info and graphics for this post.

CRY WOLF

Author: Hans Rosenfeldt

ISBN: 9781335425713

Publication Date: December 28, 2021

Publisher: Hanover Square Press

Book Summary:

The first standalone Swedish crime novel by Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of the TV series The Bridge as well as Netflix’s Emmy-winning Marcella.

A dead wolf. A drug deal gone wrong. A female assassin of rarely seen skill. Hannah Wester, a policewoman in the remote northern town of Haparanda, finds herself on the precipice of chaos.

When human remains are found in the stomach of a dead wolf, Hannah knows that this summer won’t be like any other. The remains are linked to a bloody drug deal across the border in Finland. But how did the victim end up in the woods outside of Haparanda? And where have the drugs and money gone?

Hannah and her colleagues leave no stone unturned. But time is scarce and they aren’t the only ones looking. When the secretive and deadly Katja shows up, unexpected and brutal events start to pile up. In just a few days, life in Haparanda is turned upside down. Not least for Hannah, who is finally forced to confront her own past.

Author Bio: 

Hans Rosenfeldt is a Swedish screenwriter, radio presenter, novelist and actor. He created the Scandinavian series The Bridge, which is broadcast in more than 170 countries, as well as the ITV/Netflix series Marcella

Social Links:

Author Website – none

Instagram: @hansrosenfeldtofficial

Facebook: @hjorthrosenfeldt

Goodreads

Excerpt

Everything had gone according to plan.

First their arrival.

Be the first in place, park the jeep and black Mercedes be-side each other on a rutted clearing in the middle of the forest, used by lumber trucks and harvesters for loading and U-turns, then position the coolers to face the narrow forest road they’d just come down. The ruts beneath them, the nocturnal birdsong around them, the only thing besides absolute silence until the sound of engines announced the arrival of the Finns.

A Volvo XC90, also black, drove up. Vadim watched as Artjom and Michail took their weapons and left the Mercedes, while he and Ljuba climbed out of their jeep. He liked Ljuba, thought she liked him, too. They’d gone out for a beer together a few times, and when they asked her who she wanted to drive with, she’d chosen him. For a moment he considered telling her to wait in the car, take cover, say he had a premonition this might go wrong. But if he did that, what would they do afterwards?

Run away together? Live happily ever after?

That would be impossible once she knew what had happened. She’d never betray Valerij; she didn’t like him that much, he was sure of it. So he said nothing.

The Volvo stopped a few meters in front of them, the engine switched off, the doors opened and four men stepped out. All of them armed. Looked around suspiciously as they fanned out.

Everything was still.

The calm before the storm.

The Finnish leader, a large man with a buzz cut and a tribal tattoo wrapped around one eye, nodded to the smallest of the four Finns, who holstered his gun, walked behind the Volvo and opened the trunk. Vadim also backed up a few steps to un-lock his jeep’s trunk.

So far everything was going according to their plan.

Time for his plan.

A bullet from a rifle with a silencer on it entered just beneath the eye of the large Finn closest to the car. The sudden explosion of bone, blood, and brain matter as the projectile made its way through the back of his head made the others react instinctively.

Everyone started shooting at the same time.

Everyone except Vadim, who threw himself behind the shelter of the jeep.

The man with the tattoo on his face roared loudly, hugged his trigger, and immediately took down Michail with four or five shots to the chest. Artyom answered with gunfire. The tattooed man was hit by two bullets, staggered back, but re-gained his balance and turned his weapon on Artyom, who threw himself behind the cover of the Mercedes, but it was too late. Several bullets hit his legs from the hip down. Shrieking in pain, he landed on dry gravel. The tattooed man continued bleeding, roaring, and shooting as he moved toward the Volvo, determined to make it out of here alive. But a second later he fell to his knees gurgling, let go of his weapon and pressed his hands to what was left of his neck.

Somewhere more shots were fired, more screams could be heard.

Artjom slid up into a sitting position, while trying to stop the blood that gushed from his thigh in the same rhythm as his racing heartbeat. Then another series of shots, and he went still, his gaze turning from desperation to emptiness, his lips forming some soundless word before his head slumped onto his chest.

The third Finn had thrown himself into the cover of a shallow ditch with a good view beneath the parked cars. A round of concentrated fire from his semi-automatic had hit Artjom in the back. Vadim realized that he, too, must be visible and flung himself around the jeep to hide behind one of its large wheels. When he got to the side of the car, he saw the smallest of the four Finns lying dead on the ground.

Ljuba wasn’t visible.

Another round of shots sounded from the ditch at the forest edge and bullets hit the metal on the back of the wheel, puncturing the tire. One went through the rubber and hit him in the side, just above his butt. The pain was a white-hot flash through his body. He closed his eyes, swallowed a scream, leaned his forehead against his knees and made himself as small as he could. As he slowly let the air in his lungs out again, he realized the gunfire had ceased.

It was silent. Completely silent.

No movement, no voices, no roar of pain or betrayal, no bird-song, nothing. As if the very place itself were holding its breath.

He peeked out carefully from behind the jeep.

Still silent. And still.

Slowly, slowly he raised his head for a better view. The sun hung below the trees, but still above the horizon; the scene in front of him was bathed in that particular soft, warm light of the midnight sun.

He rose cautiously to his feet. A bullet was still lodged in his muscle and tissue, but it didn’t seem to have damaged any vital organs. He pressed his hand to the wound. Blood, but no more than he could stop with a compress.

“Ljuba?”

Ljuba was leaning against the rear bumper of the Finn’s car, breathing shallowly, the front of her gray T-shirt beneath her jacket soaked in blood, the gun still in her right hand. Vadim assessed the damage. The blood was running out at a steady rate, so it hadn’t nicked an artery. No air bubbles, so her lungs were probably intact. She might very well survive.

“Who shot us?” she asked, out of breath, grabbing Vadim’s jacket with a bloody hand. “Who the fuck started shooting?”

“He’s with us.”

“What? What do you mean with us? Who is he?”

“Come on.”

He gently took the gun away from her, pushed it into his pocket before standing up, leaned forward and helped her to her feet. She grimaced from the pain of exertion but managed to stand. With his arm around her waist and her arm around his shoulders, they walked out into the open area between the cars. When they reached the rise where the tattooed Finn had fallen, Vadim stopped, gently removed Ljuba’s arm, released his supportive grip from around her waist, and backed away with two large steps.

“I’m sorry…”

Ljuba’s gaze was uncomprehending at first, but she soon realized what was happening, why he’d brought her here. Seconds later a bullet pierced her temple and she was thrown to the ground.

Vadim pressed his hand to the wound on his lower back and stretched, let out a deep sigh.

In the end, everything had gone according to plan.

Excerpted from Cry Wolf by Hans Rosenfeldt, Copyright © 2022 by Hans Rosenfeldt. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Buy Links: 

BookShop.org

Harlequin 

Barnes & Noble

Amazon

Books-A-Million

Powell’s

~Cassie

Blog Tour: New Year Kiss with His Cinderella by Annie O’Neil

Thank you to Harlequin for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion. They also provided all info and graphics for this post.

NEW YEAR KISS WITH HIS CINDERELLA by Annie O’Neil (on-sale Dec.28, Harlequin Medical Romance): From a midnight kiss…to a reunion in the ER! When Dr. Carter shares a New Year’s kiss with a captivating stranger, he doesn’t expect a reunion. Then he walks into Saint Dolores’s ER the very next day…and discovers she’s his new colleague! Awkwardly, their smoking-hot attraction hasn’t gone away! But for Carter, life has meant staying mobile, and he can’t simply lay down roots. Yet there’s something about Nurse Avery and Nashville that’s starting to really feel like home.

Review

This is a spicy romance with a lot of heart. Carter and Avery have instant chemistry that leaps from the page and it is perfectly balanced with the emotional side of their relationship. Both of them have heartbreaking pasts and sisters who have greatly impacted their lives. The emotional connection was the most swoon worthy part of the story and I enjoyed seeing them make it work. I believe this is also my first Medical Romance and I wasn’t expecting to like that aspect of the story as much as I did. It reminded me a lot of an episode of Chicago Med so if you enjoy that show then you might want to pick this book up. The first chapter takes place on New Year’s Eve so it’s also the perfect book to pick up tomorrow for a quick and steamy read.

About ANNIE O’NEIL: Annie spent most of her childhood with a leg draped over the family rocking chair and a book in her hand. Novels, baking and writing too much teenage angst poetry ate up most of her youth. Now, Annie splits her time between corralling her husband into helping her with their cows, listening to audio books whilst weeding and spending some very happy hours at her computer writing.  

Excerpt

Excerpt, NEW YEAR KISS WITH HIS CINDERELLA

“You’re that confident, are you?” she asked, her tongue dipping out for a quick swipe along her lips.

She was warming to him. Good.

The guy who’d climbed on the bull after her had been thrown off and someone else was climbing on. Carter would glue himself to the bull if that’s what it took to stay on the longest. But it wouldn’t take that. Back in Texas, he’d called his riding paying the bills. His sister had called it sheer stupidity. They’d both been right.

“Never met a bull who didn’t take to my winning personality.” He tipped the brim of his hat to her.

Her eyes didn’t leave his. “If you win my money, I’m not taking it.”

“And I’m not letting you walk away empty-handed.”

She frowned. “I guess you’d better come up with something else, then. I don’t steal prizes that aren’t mine.”

He held his hands out, then ran them alongside his body. “Apart from my guitar, this is the only other thing I’ve got on offer.”

He wasn’t actually broke. He wasn’t a thief, either. That role in the family was already taken.

A loud roar from the crowd filled the air as another contender climbed aboard the longhorn.

She tilted her head to the side, and he took the few moments she was assessing him to do the same. Skin that looked so soft there probably wasn’t a thread count high enough for it. A body that rocked the hell out of her double-denim getup. A pair of cowboy boots that definitely weren’t just for show. Goddamn she was sexy.

“Well, then,” she said. “I guess you’d better get on up there and show me what you got.” When she met his gaze, he was pretty sure he wasn’t only seeing neon lights flaring in her eyes.

She put out her mittened hand. They were going to shake on it, apparently.

Carter smiled. Progress. She liked him, too. Enough to want to see him show his stuff atop a mechanical bull anyway. Maybe she merely wanted a good laugh. Either way, he could work with that. Not that he’d be seeing her again, but…it was New Year’s Eve. The bit of him that believed in destiny, that hoped that fate wasn’t something only poets spoke of, wanted her appearance in his life to signify something more than a chance meeting. Yet another moment in time that would slip through his fingers when reality reared its head and cut things short. Again.

It surprised him how much he wanted her to be a sign of good things to come. Needed it, even. Perhaps if he won that kiss…

He put his thumb and index finger on the tip of her thumb. “May I?”

She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t refuse. Just watched, mesmerized, as he tugged off her mitten, slowly, so that when their hands finally met, it would be flesh on flesh.

The atmosphere changed. The sounds of the crowd dulled and somehow, the way the world can sometimes, everything stilled so that it seemed like it was just the two of them out here in the middle of Nashville with nothing but a few flakes of snow between them.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Year-Kiss-Cinderella-Nashville-Book-ebook/dp/B09715F19Q/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=NEW+YEAR+KISS+WITH+HIS+CINDERELLA+by+Annie+O%27Neil&qid=1637072953&sr=8-1 

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/new-year-kiss-with-his-cinderella-annie-oneil/1139663410?ean=9780369712417 

Harlequin:  https://www.harlequin.com/shop/books/9781335408990_new-year-kiss-with-his-cinderella.html 

~Cassie

Blog Tour: Christmas at Rose Bend by Naima Simone

Thank you to HQN for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest review. They also provided all info and graphics.

CHRISTMAS IN ROSE BEND

Author: Naima Simone

ISBN: 9781335620996

Publication Date: October 26, 2021

Publisher: HQN Books

Book Summary:

The holidays have never been her thing. But Christmas in Rose Bend has more than one surprise in store…

Grieving ER nurse Nessa Hunt is on a road trip with her sullen teen half sister, Ivy, and still reeling from her mother’s deathbed confession: Nessa’s dad wasn’t really her dad. Seeking answers, they arrive in Rose Bend to find a small town teeming with the kind of Christmas cheer Nessa usually avoids. But then she meets the innkeeper’s ruggedly sexy son, Wolfgang Dennison.

Wolf’s big, boisterous family is like a picture-perfect holiday card. Nessa has too much weighing on her to feel like she fits—even though the heat between her and Wolf is undeniable. And the merriment bringing an overdue smile to Ivy’s face is almost enough to make Nessa believe in the Christmas spirit. But with all her parental baggage, including lingering questions about her birth father, is there room in Nessa’s life for happy holidays and happily-ever-after?

Review

If you are looking for a book that not only screams Christmas but will also hit you with all the feels then look no further then this book. Right from the first page we are hit with a town that prides itself on not only looking over the top Christmas but also has daily Christmas activities. The rich setting for this book worked perfectly in balancing out this equally heartbreaking and heartwarming story. Wolf and Nessa are both dealing with some traumatic issues that have caused them to build up walls to protect their hearts and it is more than satisfying when they slowly start to chip away at those walls. There is a lot that happens in this book and it can feel overwhelming at times, especially since some of what is happening can be triggering. There is the death of parents (one from cancer), war time loss of best friend, abandonment, family issues, issues dealing with self worth, etc. It seems like a lot of heavy stuff, and it is, but that’s where the lighter moments between the town, the festivities, and the relationships with other characters come in to lighten everything up. I definitely had tears in my eyes a few times while reading this but I also laughed out loud a few times. If you are looking for the perfect book to give you a romance that you will swoon over combined with a book that will give you the holiday feels then I highly recommend you give this book a chance.

Author Bio: 
USA Today Bestselling author Naima Simone’s love of romance was first stirred by Johanna Lindsey and Nora Roberts years ago. Well not that many. She is only eighteen…ish. Published since 2009, she spends her days writing sizzling romances with heart, a touch of humor and snark.  She is wife to Superman–or his non-Kryptonian equivalent–and mother to the most awesome kids ever. They live in perfect, sometimes domestically-challenged bliss in the southern US.

Social Links:

Author Website

Facebook: @naimasimoneauthor  

Instagram: @naimasimoneauthor

Twitter: @Naima_Simone

Goodreads

Excerpt

Nessa Hunt didn’t do Christmas. 

As an ER nurse, she’d seen the worst humanity had to offer during the holiday season. Electrocution injuries from plugging one too many Christmas lights into a single outlet. Shoppers with broken noses and blackened eyes from Black Friday fights that erupted over the newest must-have toy. Dads with busted backs from attempting to mount inflatable Frosties and reindeer-drawn sleighs on porch roofs.

And then there’d been that one memorable sex toy mishap— Santa had boldly gone where no Santa had gone before.

So, no, she was not a fan of Christmas.

Which meant the town of Rose Bend, Massachusetts, was her own personal version of hell. 

“It looks like Santa Claus just threw up all over this place!” her sister, Ivy, whispered from the passenger seat.

Now, there was a nice visual. But slowing to a halt at a stoplight, Nessa had to admit the twelve-year-old had a point. Who knew that three hours north of Boston and tucked in the southern Berkshires existed a town straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting? It seemed almost…unreal. If any place had that everybody-knows-your-name vibe, it was Rose Bend. Brick buildings housing drugstores, boutiques, a candy store, an ice cream parlor and diners lined the road. The long white steeple of a church towered in the distance. A colonial-style building stood in the center of town, the words Town Hall emblazoned above four columns. And everything was decorated with lights, garland, poinsettias, candy canes and big red bows. Even the stoplights sported huge wreaths decked out with miniature toys and elves—and the biggest pine cones she’d ever seen in her life. 

Mom would’ve lost her mind over all this. 

The thought snuck out of the steel door in her mind where she’d locked away all wayward, crippling memories of Evelyn Reed. A blazing pain stabbed Nessa in the chest, and she sucked in a breath. Briefly, she closed her eyes, blocking out the winter wonderland beyond her windshield. 

It had been eight long, lonely, bitter months since she’d lost her mother to uterine cancer. Since she’d last heard her mother’s pragmatic but affectionate voice that still held a faint Southern accent, even though she’d lived in Boston for over thirty years. Since she’d inhaled her mother’s comforting roses-and-fresh-laundry scent. 

Since her mother had rasped a devastating secret in a whisper thick with regret, edged with pain and slurred from morphine. 

Maybe the well-meaning friends who’d advised Nessa to see a grief counselor could also counsel her on how to stop being so goddamn angry with her mother for lying to Nessa for twenty-eight years. Maybe then Nessa could start to heal. 

’Til then, she had patients to care for. Now she had a sister to raise. 

And secrets to keep. 

“Oh wow!” Ivy squealed, jabbing the window with a finger. “There’s a real town square and over there is the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen! Can we get out and walk around? Please?” 

Nessa glanced in the direction Ivy pointed, taking in the square, and in the distance, a massive tree. The idea of strolling around in the freezing weather to stare at a Douglas fir wasn’t exactly her idea of fun. But when she’d agreed to make this trip with Ivy, Nessa had told herself to make an effort to connect. This was supposed to be about bonding with the sister she barely knew. 

Emptiness spread through her and the greasy slide of guilt and pain flooded into the hole. She glanced at Ivy, Nessa’s gaze lingering over the features they shared…but didn’t. The high cheekbones that dominated a face Ivy hadn’t yet grown into. The thin shoulders that had become even thinner in the last six weeks, since her father had died. 

A scream welled up inside Nessa, scraping her throat raw. Ivy’s father—Isaac Hunt—was the man who had raised Nessa until he and her mother divorced when she’d been about Ivy’s age, and then he’d been more out of her life than in it. He had named Nessa as his daughter’s guardian. He had trusted Nessa to care for Ivy, because she was his oldest daughter and Ivy’s half sister. And though she and Isaac hadn’t shared a close relationship when he’d been alive, she couldn’t let him down. And Ivy… 

Ivy had lost her mother as a baby, and now her father. Nessa knew what it was like to be alone. She couldn’t take Ivy’s sister away, too. 

Even if Ivy resented the hell out of Nessa and begrudged her guardianship with every breath she took. 

But God… Months of bearing a secret weighed on Nessa’s shoulders. And they ached. These last six weeks had been a special kind of hell. 

She was so damn tired. 

Inhaling a deep breath, Nessa forced herself to push past the soul-deep ache. 

She could do this. 

One of the first things she’d had to learn when entering the nursing field was how to compartmentalize hurt, grief and anger. Not allowing herself to be sucked down in a morass of emotion. If she hadn’t acquired that skill, she wouldn’t have been any good to her patients, their families, the doctors or herself. So what if some people called her Nurse Freeze behind her back? She got the job done. Besides, as she’d learned— first, when her father left the family; second, when her ex had traded their relationship for a job in Miami; and third, when her parents died—loving someone, caring for them, was a liability. Feelings were unreliable, untrustworthy. Parents, lovers, friends, patients—everyone always left. Only fools didn’t protect themselves.

And her mother hadn’t raised a fool. 

“Let’s wait on that,” she said, answering Ivy. “We need to find Kinsale Inn first and get settled. Then maybe later we can come back and do the tourist thing.” 

“Right.” Ivy dropped against the passenger seat, arms crossed over her chest. The glance the preteen slid Nessa’s way could only be described as side-eye. Paired with the curl to the corner of her mouth, Ivy’s expression had gone from wide-eyed excitement to Eff you, big sister in three-point-five seconds flat. “In other words, no.” 

“Did I say no?” Nessa asked, striving for patience. She’s a grieving preteen. You can’t bounce her out of your car. CPS frowns on that. With the mantra running through her head, she tried again. “Check-in at the inn was at twelve, and it’s now one thirty.” She hadn’t expected to hit so much traffic leaving Boston. Or to take the wrong exit halfway to the Berkshires and have to retrace her route. “We need to make sure they still know we’re arriving. The square and the tree will be there in a few hours.” 

“Uh-huh.” Ivy snorted. “And as soon as we get to the inn, you’ll find another excuse not to do anything. Especially with me. It’s not like you wanted to come here anyway.” 

“First off, kid, I’m not the kind of person who does anything she doesn’t want to do. Second, if I give you my word, I mean it. And third, what does ‘especially with me’ mean? Who else would I be up here with?” 

“Whatever,” Ivy muttered. 

Nessa breathed deep. Held it. Counted to ten. Released it. Then tried again. “Is this how the next month is going to be? You angry and me taking the brunt of it? Because I have to tell you, we could’ve done this dance back in Boston without carolers and hot chocolate stands.” 

“Don’t pretend like you did this for me. You don’t even like me. This is all for your guilt over Dad’s letter. Fine with me if we go back to Boston. I don’t care.” 

Nessa tightened her fingers around the steering wheel, not replying. Anything she said to Ivy at this moment would only end up in an argument. That’s all she and Ivy had seemed to do since the funeral. Nothing Nessa did could make Ivy happy. 

And as much as Nessa hated to admit it, there was some truth to Ivy’s accusation. Because a part of her—Jesus, she hated admitting it even to herself—didn’t like Ivy. Was jealous of her. For having more of Isaac’s love. For having him when Nessa hadn’t, even when she’d needed him. 

Even though Nessa had called Isaac Hunt Dad all her life, he was more or less a stranger to her…just like the silent, stiff twelve-year-old hunched on the seat next to her. He’d been an absentee parent since his divorce from her mother sixteen years ago, and Nessa had met her half sister maybe five times before their father died from pancreatic cancer. Hell, she hadn’t even known he’d been ill until the final time he’d ended up in the hospital. She hadn’t even had a chance to say…what? Goodbye? Where the hell have you been as a father for sixteen years? Why didn’t you love me as much as you loved your other daughter? 

I love you. 

Dammit. Damn damn damn

She fisted her fingers to keep from pounding the steering wheel. 

So yes, guilt had pushed her into taking a previously unheard-of short-term leave from the hospital. It’d goaded her into going up to Ivy’s school and letting them know the girl would be missing the last two weeks before Christmas break to take an extended vacation. 

She swallowed a sigh, and as the light changed, pressed on the gas pedal. A tense, edgy silence filled the car. Nothing new there either. Nessa snuck another look at the girl, noting the sullen expression turning down Ivy’s mouth and creasing her eyebrows into a petulant frown. 

Maybe their time in Rose Bend would give Ivy her smile back. Or at least rid Ivy’s lovely dark brown eyes of the sadness lurking there. 

And maybe Santa really did fly around the world. 

Yeah, Nessa had stopped believing in miracles and fairy tales years ago. Better Ivy learn now that life dealt shitty hands, and you either folded or played to recoup your losses. 

Soon, they left the downtown area and approached a fork in the road. As she turned her Durango left onto a paved road bordered by trees… 

“Oh wow,” Ivy breathed. 

“Good God,” Nessa murmured at the same time, bringing her vehicle to a halt in the driveway that circled in front of the huge white inn. 

Oh, Mom. You would’ve so loved this. 

A short set of stairs led up to a spacious porch that, according to the brochure, encircled the building. The wide lower level angled out to the side, with the equally long second floor following suit. The third, slightly smaller story graced the building with its dormer window, and a slanted roof topped it like a red cap. A broad red front door with glass panes along the top and dark green shutters at every window—and, damn, there were a lot of windows—and large bushes bordering the front and sides completed the image of a beautiful country inn. But it was the wreaths and bows hung on the door and walls, and the lights that twinkled along every surface, that transformed the building into a fairyland. A Christmas fairyland. 

Excerpted from Christmas in Rose Bend by Naima Simone. Copyright © 2021 by Naima Simone. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

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~Cassie