Elizabeth Mazer

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Long gone—and little missed—are the days when historical romance meant timid, angelic female leads swooning in the arms of dastardly, irresistible rogues we were told were heroes. These days, we have clever, witty authors crafting bold, charismatic heroines who are far more likely to seize a good brandy than clutch at their smelling salts.


Lily Hartley, of Anna Bennett’s The Duke Is But a Dream, knows quite a bit about style. At least, she knows enough to have all of the ton breathless with eagerness for her guidance. As the anonymous author of the wildly popular column The Debutante’s Revenge, she has created a scandal with her frank, liberal-minded advice, but her life away from the page is remarkably quiet—too quiet, tempting her to seek an adventure when she goes to deliver her column while disguised as a messenger boy. She couldn’t have known that her spontaneous jaunt would leave her knocked unconscious, or that she’d wake in the home of her rescuer, Eric Nash, Duke of Stonebridge, with her memory entirely gone. As she struggles to piece herself back together, Lily finds unexpected comfort in the friendship of the duke and his sister, Delilah—and unexpected passion in Nash’s arms. Meanwhile, although Nash and Delilah start out as rescuers, it’s lovely to see how Lily rescues them in turn, lifting them out of their sadness and breathing new life into their home. In this story of finding yourself, it’s the family the central characters create together that’s the most satisfying discovery of all.

Satisfaction is exactly what Brazen and the Beast’s Lady Henrietta Sedley is after on the eve of her 29th birthday—the commencement of what she’s christened the “Year of Hattie,” when she’ll finally go after what she wants: a career, a home of her own, financial security and a bright future. And to kick it off, she plans to discard her troublesome virginity so that she can close the book on ever becoming a bride. Always a wallflower and never a rose, Hattie’s resigned herself to the idea that she’s too tall, too big, too forthright and too indecorous to ever be the demure beauty men in her circle seem to want. She never thought to look outside her circle until she found a fierce, gorgeous beast of a man—Covent Garden crime lord Whit—tied up and unconscious in her carriage. And thus begins a merry chase as they battle and bargain and banter over what has been done to them, what they wish to do to each other and whether it’s more fun to fight with each other or fight for each other and for their rapidly growing love. Funny, playful and vivid, Sarah MacLean’s latest romance samples the best of both worlds with the earthy vigor of the slum’s crafty, loyal lower classes and the juicy intrigue of high society scandal.

Scandal and intrigue are the bread and butter of Miss Wilhelmina Penny’s world of spy craft and reconnaissance in Lenora Bell’s One Fine Duke. Or they would be, if her overprotective uncle—spymaster Sir Malcolm—would give her a chance. Secluded “safely” in the countryside, she’s spent years longing for the chance to take a bite out of life and swallow it whole; to become sophisticated and elegant like her lovely late mother, who died in service to the crown. Mina’s taught herself to pick locks, create weaponry and crack codes, but in order to escape her uncle’s well-meaning dictates, she’ll need to use the one tool he’s helpless against: an eligible duke. Determined to see her well married, Sir Malcolm has put together a “Duke Dossier” of the matches he thinks would take proper care of her. Topping the list is Andrew Bentley, Duke of Thorndon. Her uncle’s approval is enough to convince Mina that Drew could never be the man for her, and yet when they meet, sparks fly. They join forces to investigate a mystery surrounding his scapegrace brother, and yet the solution to her own personal puzzle surprises even Mina when she comes to learn that the duke she never thought she wanted was the secret key to her happiness all along.

These three rebellious historical heroines are far more likely to seize a good brandy than clutch at their smelling salts.
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If you like your sagas spiced with peril, these books have some delicious surprises in store for you. Authors Karen Rose and April Hunt are continuing their respective Cincinnati and Steele Ops series with a pair of page-turners packed with thrills, chills and more than a bit of sizzle as love—romantic and familial—overcomes fatal obstacles to always find a way.

Into the Dark
Dr. Dani Novak has structured her life around being a safe haven, both through her free clinic and her duties as an emergency foster mom to children in the deaf community. So it’s not a surprise when ex-Army Ranger Diesel Kennedy comes to her for help. What is a surprise is who he brings with him. Fourteen-year-old Michael Rowland is the only witness to a murder—which puts him on a killer’s hit list. As a deaf child with a heart-rendingly brutal past (which author Karen Rose discloses through some frank discussions of sexual assault of children and human trafficking), Michael’s trust isn’t easily won. By building a relationship with Michael and his little brother, Joshua, Dani’s heart opens in ways she hadn’t expected, including bringing her closer to Diesel and forcing her to confront the fear that has closed her off to romance for far too long.

A puzzle-box of a story, Into the Dark is so intricately layered, with such a huge cast of characters, that it can be difficult to hold all the threads together, especially for a reader who is new to the Cincinnati series. (Those who have read the previous four books, on the other hand, will have plenty of chances to revisit favorite characters and couples.) But while you may struggle to remember who is married to / related to / shared military service with whom, you’ll never doubt the overriding love that this family—and friends who are also family—shares.

As the mysteries unravel one by one, this warm, big-hearted adventure highlights how brightly love can shine against any encroaching darkness.

Lethal Redemption
FBI profiler Grace Steele thought she’d put her past in the rearview mirror, but it keeps landing in front of her—such as Cade Wright, her former Army Ranger ex-from-next-door who’s now in the private security business with her cousins. But the most frightening part of Grace’s past is tied to her early childhood, when she was raised in a cult—right up until she escaped at age 13. When the daughter of the vice president ends up as the cult’s newest recruit, Grace is the only one who can infiltrate the group to try to get the girl out. And Cade’s not about to let her go in alone.

While April Hunt isn’t the first author to create characters with heavy pasts to overcome, Grace and Cade have some exceptionally large gorillas on their backs. The irony is that the cult they infiltrate, the Order of the New Dawn, is all about getting closure, overcoming obstacles and letting go of burdens. Grace and Cade provide beautiful contrast to each other as they learn to work through their pasts by drawing together, leaning on each other’s strengths, supporting each other’s weaknesses and guiding each other toward forgiveness—with plenty of help from their families along the way.

With high tension and brutal stakes, the suspense will have you on the edge of your seat, but the peace and happiness the characters find together in the end will leave you with a smile.

Karen Rose and April Hunt continue their respective Cincinnati and Steele Ops series with a pair of page turners packed with thrills, chills and more than a bit of sizzle.
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Delicious and decadent, these four historical romances transport us back to the England of yesteryear, when dukes and debutantes mix and mingle. But in addition to romance and adventure, they provide valuable insight into the way women were viewed and treated in the 19th century, including frank discussions of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Society was set up to keep them down, but the heroines of these books find a way to rise to the top anyway.


The Bachelor

The Hook: Heiress Gwyn Drake is poised to have her first Season—but it could all be ruined by the machinations of a despicable figure from her past. Gruff, scowling Major Joshua Wolfe, the cousin of her half brother, steps up to become her bodyguard . . . while trying desperately to hide his desire for the woman he believes could never love a wounded soldier like him.

The Surprise: Gwyn’s not a blushing teen or a wide-eyed innocent but a 30-year-old woman who knows her own mind. She also isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, whether that be shooting lessons or pleasure in the arms of a certain wounded soldier she’s entirely willing to love after all.

The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Gwyn’s chaperone, a friend of her mother’s named Lady Hornsby, is a hoot and a half—especially when she promises to teach Gwyn some of the bawdy songs she and Gwyn’s mother sang in their youth.

The Takeaway: Even if you arm yourself with guns, arrows and a sword in a cane, you can’t guard yourself against love, so you should let yourself enjoy it. (But still keep a sword in a cane—swords in canes are awesome.)

 

His Secret Mistress

The Hook: Wealthy engineer Brandon Balfour will never forget how actress Kate Addison shattered his heart. Still, she was supposed to be 15 years in his past, not a new arrival to town at the invite of Bran’s vain, spoiled nephew, the Duke of Winderton. Winderton falls for Kate instantly—and while he’s semi-patiently waiting for her to succumb to his (dubious) charms, it becomes Bran’s assignment to rein in his wayward nephew, quell local gossip and keep his own heart from falling right back into Kate’s hands.

The Surprise: Where does true nobility lie? An actress might be considered scandalous, but when Kate attends a soirée that gets a little out of hand, it’s clear that she’s not the one who needs lessons in how to behave with grace and dignity. Meanwhile, the handsome, titled young duke, whom one might expect to be a hero in stories of this sort, instead comes across (mostly endearingly) as a boy who still has a lot of growing up to do.

The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Mrs. Warbler, a gossipy matron, seems poised to be Kate’s biggest detractor. So it’s remarkable when the two women end up bonding. The somewhat stuffy widow shows unexpected depth as she talks about the poetry she’s written that has always been dismissed by others—and Kate offers her understanding and support. From that point on, her dogged support of Kate is really quite charming to see.

The Takeaway: Send in the cloooooowns . . . (Sorry, couldn’t resist—sometimes the Sondheim in my soul simply must break out.) For real now: It’s never too soon to let yourself trust, and it’s never too late for love.

 

An Inconvenient Duke

The Hook: As a war hero and newly appointed duke, Marcus Braddock can get anything he wants—except for answers from Danielle Williams about what happened to Elise, Marcus’ sister and Danielle’s best friend, who died while he was serving overseas. Refusing to take no for an answer, Marcus keeps digging for Danielle’s secrets, and Elise’s, in a search that uncovers a sinister scandal that has woven its way through England’s high society.

The Surprise: Danielle is basically a superhero. The secret she’s hiding from Marcus is that she’s been working to spirit women away from unsafe situations such as abusive husbands and lecherous employers. It’s easy to glamorize Regency society, especially for those in the upper echelons, but author Anna Harrington shines a brilliantly honest light on just how little agency those women had—and the steps they might take to seize some of it back.

The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: The Viscountess Bromley—Danielle’s great-aunt Harriet—tells the best stories imaginable: dining with George Washington on a chicken the general believed to be a British spy; skinny-dipping with Benjamin Franklin; pinching the bum of the king of England. Are any of these stories meant to be true? Who knows? Who cares? They’re fantastic, and Harriet, bless her, is a gift that keeps on giving.

The Takeaway: In a world full of dark corners, happiness comes from finding someone to help you hang a light.

 

Chasing Cassandra

The Hook: Railway magnate Tom Severin has built himself up from nothing thanks to his brilliant mind, his iron will, his immense stubbornness and his remarkably shrewd negotiating abilities. But when he meets the beautiful Cassandra Ravenel, all his abilities seem to fail him. He’d be delighted to be her husband, friend and protector. He wants to deck her with jewels. He’d give her anything she could think to ask for. But he’s entirely certain that love is simply something he’s not built to feel. And a marriage based on love is the only type she’s willing to accept. But when an immovable heart meets an irresistible Ravenel, is there any doubt what will happen in the end?

The Surprise: In a story as sweet, fun and wonderfully charming as this one, it’s a shocking reminder that bad things often happen to those who least deserve it when Cassandra is subjected to a true betrayal. But it’s to Lisa Kleypas’ credit that she presents the bad, acknowledges it and then shows all the good that comes from having the right people (wonderful, loveable, staunchly supportive people) around you to help you bear it.

The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Bazzle. Oh, Bazzle. Darling, ridiculous Bazzle—the street urchin who Tom takes in, and who slowly works his way into Tom’s heart. Bazzle who is composed of wonderfulness—even if that wonderfulness is occasionally hidden behind head lice and fleas.

The Takeaway: Don’t condemn a man for missing the point of the novels you adore. Even if he thinks that Jane Eyre would be much improved if Rochester simply “told Jane the truth and installed his wife in a decent Swiss clinic,” what matters isn’t whether he becomes a literary analyst. What matters is all the effort he’s willing to make to try to understand you better. Because that’s love—whether he’ll admit it or not.

Their society was set up to keep them down, but the heroines of these books find a way to rise to the top anyway.

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They say that behind every great man is a great woman. What they never say is what exactly she’s doing there, and why she felt she couldn’t step out front and be great, all on her own. These two books—set in different locales, in different eras, and focusing on entirely different issues—answer that question. Why is she there? Because she was put there, and told it was her place.

And the next question: Will she stay there? In these books, absolutely not.

An Heiress to Remember

It’s 1879 in Gilded Age New York when Beatrice Goodwin, the titular heiress of Maya Rodale’s beautifully empowering An Heiress to Remember, makes the safe, conventional choice to marry a fortune-hunting duke rather than her penniless Irish-immigrant sweetheart. Sixteen years later, scandalously divorced, she returns home and is horrified to discover that her wastrel brother has run the family’s landmark department store straight into the ground. If she doesn’t act quickly, it’ll be sold to Wes Dalton, owner of the hugely successful operation across the street . . . and Beatrice’s former sweetheart. He’s spent 16 years clawing his way up the ladder, eager to get his revenge on those who saw him as less. Buying and destroying Goodwin’s would be final feather in his cap—but it’s a victory Beatrice won’t allow. Rallying support from the Ladies of Liberty, a group of women dedicated to promoting the professional advancement of women, she seizes control of the store and turns its fortunes around. Faced with real, powerful competition, Wes is forced to grapple with whether it’s truly revenge that he wants, or Beatrice.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Maya Rodale on the appeal of the Gilded Age romance.


In a less ambitious book, that would be the whole journey: Wes would realize he actually wants Beatrice after all, and would declare his love. Beatrice would tearfully fall into his arms, happy to be with the only man she has ever loved. Cue wedding bells, and happily ever after. That would be a perfectly nice romance. But this is not that story. Wes has a much more complex and compelling obstacle ahead of him than simply removing his head from his nether regions, because after a decade and a half of turning himself into New York’s most eligible man—a prince of industry who matches and exceeds Beatrice’s duke husband on every score—he comes to discover that Beatrice is not looking for the right man to come along and make her happy. She’s looking to dictate her own happiness. To stand up for what she wants, and to create a space where other women can do the same. She chooses empowerment and independence, and those are rivals for her hand and her heart that make even Wes pale in comparison. Winning her doesn’t mean sweeping her off her feet and setting her up in a castle. She had one of those already, and she hated it. Winning her means accepting her as she is, and finding a way to let her choose love and choose to continue living her life on her own terms.

If I Never Met You

Meanwhile, Mhairi McFarlane’s Laurie Watkinson thought she’d made all the right choices. She was living exactly the life she wanted as a successful lawyer in an important Manchester firm and in a dedicated, long-term relationship. Then her life falls apart when her boyfriend Dan walks out on her. Worse? He (suspiciously, immediately) has a new girlfriend. Even worse? That new girlfriend is (suspiciously, immediately) pregnant. Worst of all? Laurie and Dan work at the same firm, which means she has the fun of being the center of gossip and the object of pity while trying to hold her broken heart together. At her lowest point, the office playboy—gorgeous, ambitious Jamie Carter—offers her a deal. He needs a “respectable” girlfriend to impress the senior partners. She needs to give Dan a wakeup call, and get some confidence back. A fake relationship between the two of them would be a win/win…right?

McFarlane wrote one of my favorite books of 2019—Don’t You Forget About Me—so I was expecting another deeply funny, deeply emotional, deeply engaging story, and that’s exactly what I got. What I wasn’t expecting was how hard If I Never Met You would be to read. If you or someone you love has had their trust betrayed by a long-term partner and is now struggling to regain their self-worth, figure out what went wrong, fend off creepy men looking to exploit the emotionally shaken and plot out a path forward, then it’s going to be tough for you to get through the first hundred pages. McFarlane is astonishingly clear-eyed in all of her writing and even the most rom-com of plots (the characters make references to When Harry Met Sally, but I kept thinking of another Meg Ryan film—French Kiss) are deployed with an emotional honesty that cuts no one any slack. Every revelation and insight in the story feels earned, including heartbreaking moments where Laurie recalls a childhood sexual aggression or when Jamie struggles with self-blame over his brother’s death years before.

This book isn’t easy. But it’s so, so worth it. Laurie’s journey is devastating and honest, which is precisely what makes it so empowering when she moves past her heartbreak and opens her eyes to things she hadn’t allowed herself to see. Like the chauvinism in her workplace where some colleagues—including Dan—think they have the right to determine her romantic future. Like her group of “couple” friends who defined her by her connection to Dan. Like Dan himself, who used her in ways so subtle that it takes a lot of hindsight before she can even see it. The book is a romance, so it’s no surprise that Laurie falls in love with Jamie. But the more powerful transition is her removing her blinders, fully understanding her world and her relationships, and making some hard choices to decide for herself what comes next. That includes the choice to open her heart to Jamie, who would never push her into the background and who wants nothing more than to stand by her side.

What’s a woman’s place? For Beatrice and Laurie—and me, and every single one of you—it’s anywhere she damn well chooses to be.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. What they never say is what exactly she’s doing there, and why she felt she couldn’t step out front and be great, all on her own.

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Little girls like Prince Charming. Grown women like a different sort of man—a man with a little more edge, a little more stubbornness and grit. Prince Charming can sweep you off your feet, plucking you from your tragic backstory and escorting you into another life that’s shiny and new. But it takes a true hero to step up to be your equal, not your rescuer. To share your battles and take them seriously instead of brushing them all away. To appreciate and value you for who you are, rather than “saving” you from yourself by turning you into someone else. These grumps with hearts of gold prove themselves as worthy heroes by showing the women they love that they are and always have been heroines in their own right.

In Sarah Morgenthaler’s The Tourist Attraction, Zoey Caldwell certainly doesn’t think of herself as a heroine, even on the dreamiest of all dream vacations, visiting the Alaska wilderness she’s saved every penny to see. Though she’s visibly out of place with the ultra-rich jet setting crowd that fills the exclusive Moose Springs resort, she couldn’t be happier to soak up every experience, including a meal at the infamous local diner The Tourist Trap, run by grumpy local Graham Barnett. Graham hates tourists—with good reason. And after a series of mishaps that include an energetic kick to somewhere . . . indelicate on their second meeting, Zoey’s not exactly going out of her way to make a great impression. Yet it’s clear that she dazzles him from the start. Before he knows it, Graham’s breaking all of his rules: taking her to the best dives known only to the locals, going on godawful expeditions with her just to make her happy, and, most dangerous of all, giving his heart away to a woman who’ll be leaving after two weeks.

Graham’s soft heart makes an earlier appearance than you might expect given his forbidding demeanor, but that’s just because Zoey is so irresistibly charming, walking around with her own heart on her sleeve as she practically vibrates with love for his beautiful hometown. Graham warms to her quickly, but that doesn’t mean his rough edges have gone away, or that their love is destined for smooth sailing. (There is, in fact, a bout of very rough sailing that is simultaneously one of the cutest and grossest scenes of the book.) As with any good romance, it’s Graham and Zoey’s imperfections that make them such a perfect match, bringing out new sides of each other and opening each other’s eyes to new experiences, new perspectives and a new belief that love might actually be able to conquer all.

By contrast, the hero of A Duke by Any Other Name by Grace Burrowes is very slow to succumb to the charms of the heroine. In fact, it takes an invasion of pigs (not flying, sadly) before Nathaniel Rothmere, the Duke of Rothhaven, deigns to give Lady Althea Wentworth the time of day. Leaning hard into his reputation as Yorkshire’s leading crank/recluse, he has no visitors, pays no calls, shows no courtesies and gives not a flying fig for anyone’s opinion—which means, of course, that the town views him with great admiration and awe. It’s a position Althea desperately envies. Although she’s the beautiful, well-educated, extremely wealthy sister of a duke, her position is lower than low among the ton who resent her rise from poverty and obscurity, who seize every opening to deliver another petty, nasty, viciously “civilized” slight.

Turning to Nathaniel for advice is roughly akin to sticking her head in a lion’s mouth, but she’s desperate enough to try, and both bold and clever enough to succeed. He spars with her, in spite of himself. He likes her, in spite of himself. He even counsels her, giving really awesome advice in the process. (I now know precisely how to give the cut direct: “You notice, you hold in a contempt too vast for words, you dismiss.”) But even when love finds him—despite all the literal and metaphorical walls he’s hidden behind—the twisted bonds of a dark family secret mean he can’t give in to what he feels. Here again we see how the hero needs the heroine, how the only counterbalance for his darkness is her light, and how in turn his grounded nature helps to set her free.

As you might expect from two such strong and determined characters, the sparks that fly between Nathaniel and Althea are undeniably fierce. Their banter is quick-paced and witty, sharp as a fencing foil. Sharp too is the edge with which Burrowes portrays their circumstances. Both were victims of shocking cruelty from their earliest years. The story touches on themes of violent parental abuse, exploitation of physical and psychological disabilities and even child prostitution. But these heavy shadows are balanced by the honor and kindness Nicholas and Althea demonstrate, the warmth and dedication they give to each other and to their families and, most of all, by the beautiful love they slowly build and (even more slowly) accept between them.

Little girls like Prince Charming. Grown women like a different sort of man—a man with a little more edge, a little more stubbornness and grit.

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We all need a little kindness. We need patience and understanding—for ourselves and for each other. We need reminders of the good things in the world. We need beautiful sights. We need heartwarming stories. We need laughter and joy and a sense that things really can get better.

We need some hot cowboys cuddling puppies.

Thankfully, Jennie Marts and Lucy Gilmore are here to provide them.


In A Cowboy State of Mind, you get a whole menagerie of cute animals as Bryn Callahan starts an animal rescue—accidently. It begins when the spunky waitress decides to rescue a horse being taken to slaughter. From there, she ends up with another horse, a dog with a litter of five puppies, a miniature pony, a pair of lovebirds and even a massive pig that thinks it’s a house pet. But of course, the stray she collects who needs the most healing is cowboy Zane Taylor. Scarred, inside and out, by a bitter childhood and devastating losses, Zane is fully convinced that he’s beyond saving. It takes all of Bryn’s grit, dedication and determined sunniness to convince him that he has the right to be rescued from his fears and doubts, and that he deserves to claim the joy Bryn brings him.

I’m a city girl through and through, so it says something that Jennie Marts makes me wish I lived in the small town she has created. Creedence, Colorado, radiates a warmth that could soothe the weariest heart. I love the thought of a diner where the waitress helps you with your crossword puzzle, or a feed store where you walk in to find a neighbor has put some money on your tab, just to lend a hand. And while everyone in town knows your problems almost before you do, they act on that knowledge by pitching in to help—with a trailer full of supplies, or a bowl of ice cream on the house or a stern talking-to aimed at your deceitful ex—just when you need it the most. The story has its share of heartache, but there’s sweetness to it, too, including a happily ever after that’s mixed up and backwards and perfectly wonderful all at once.

There’s far less chaos out on Dearborn Ranch in Puppy Kisses—and that’s a problem. Handsome Adam Dearborn runs his life and his ranch on precise, orderly lines, partially to accommodate the blindness he’s had since childhood, but mostly because he feels he’s safer coloring inside the lines, never risking his heart and never leaving his comfort zone. But then dog trainer Dawn Vasquez comes speeding into his life with a stolen (or rescued—let’s go with rescued) golden retriever puppy and throws his tidy world into turmoil. Dawn is everything Adam is not: vivacious, impulsive, passionate and heartbreakingly aware that the world tends to view her as “too much.” Adam, by contrast, is convinced he is not enough.

The chemistry crackles as these opposites very much attract—but sex, alas, doesn’t manage to solve their problems (no matter how fun it is to read!). What they need is a little emotional honesty, and who better to teach them that than a dog? Or even a pair of dogs, when Dawn tries to convince Adam to accept another candidate and give the golden retriever to her. Dawn visits the ranch to train Adam and his guide dog, but it feels more like the dogs are training Adam and Dawn in how to love without hesitation, trust without fear and accept (others and yourself) without reservation.

So in short, come to these books for sparkling writing, fun characters and rich emotional journeys, but also . . . well . . . hot cowboys and cuddly puppies. Because you need to remember that these things exist in the world. Be kind to yourself and pick up these books.

We all need a little kindness. We need patience and understanding—for ourselves and for each other. We need reminders of the good things in the world. We need beautiful sights. We need heartwarming stories. We need laughter and joy and a sense that things really can get better. We need some hot cowboys cuddling puppies. […]
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Some stories are just baked into our hearts. We search the night sky for the second star to the right, so we can fly straight on till morning. We find balconies to stand on just so we can ask wherefore art thou Romeo. And when we try on a new dress and spin in front of a mirror, feeling beautiful—suddenly beautiful, like a surprise—we half expect to see a fairy godmother standing behind us with a magic wand. Each of these two romances puts a twist on a timeless tale, giving readers fun of falling in love with some of their favorite stories all over again.

Dex MacLean has a smile like sin and a body like a Hemsworth—all wrapped up in a kilt. Forget eye candy, the man’s a whole eye meal, and he’s been Stacey Lindholm’s summer hookup at the Renaissance fair for the past two years. But when Ren fair season is over and Dex's band is back on the road, Stacey feels a little lonely and reckless—and kinda drunk—and ends up sending a message to his fan page that she’ll deeply regret in the morning. Yet when the reply comes, her regrets start to fade. Through emails and texts, she finds herself falling for a man she’d dismissed as a shallow but sexy playboy. Maybe there’s more to Dex, maybe he’s a man worth loving after all.

Or . . . maybe not. Because there’s someone else behind the emails that kickstart Jen DeLuca's second novel, Well Played—a certain band manager who has always been in the other MacLean’s shadow. There’s a good bit of Cyrano de Bergerac to Dex's cousin Daniel as he woos Stacey: his humor, his kindness, his passion for her and his honesty about everything except for his name. But the heroine, delightful as she is, reminded me less of the beautiful Roxanne and more of Sleeping Beauty. She’s been sleepwalking through life ever since her plans for the future got derailed, staying in her small town where everything’s always the same and the rest of the world speeds on without her. It isn’t until love wakes her up that she finds the courage to chase after the life she wants. Stacey and Daniel find love easily—it’s recognizing it that’s hard. It’s a lesson Cyrano de Bergerac taught us that still rings true as this warm, funny, sincere couple stumbles into love, making us believe it once more.

At the start of Brass Carriages and Glass Hearts by Nancy Campbell Allen, you might struggle to see the Cinderella story there. Bold, outspoken—loudly spoken—Emmeline Castle O’Shea seems worlds away from Disney’s demure princess, and not just because she’s living in a steampunk version of Victorian London. As an activist for supernatural shifters, the first interaction we see between her and the hero consists of him dragging her away from a protest so he can throw her into jail. He hauls her over his shoulder, kicking and screaming; she threatens to bite him. You don’t exactly hear “So This Is Love” playing in the background. 

But though Emmeline is vivid and daring, at her heart is a wellspring of courage and kindness, filled with a commitment to helping and protecting those society likes to target and torment. And while Detective-Inspector Oliver Reed doesn’t initially seem to fit the mold of a chivalrous hero, he’s driven by a code of duty and honor that most princes, no matter how charming, could only hope to match. This is a story that stands—jumps, leaps, flies, races—all on its own, with plenty of plot points to dazzle and amaze (including a murderous conspiracy and a number of deadly, damning secrets), but in the end, it keeps returning to the core of who the characters are and what the Cinderella story means. Courage and kindness are rewarded. A valiant man overcomes every obstacle. A brave, adorably wonderful Gus Gus saves the day. And at a ball, surrounded by the most important figures in the land, love conquers all. This story is a dizzying, madcap adventure that will have you looking at happily ever after in a whole new way.

Two romances put a twist on timeless tales, giving readers the fun of falling in love with some of their favorite stories all over again.
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Dark and angsty romances certainly have their place, but laughter and love never go out of style. In these two romances, you will find not just humor and heart but also a pair of happily ever afters that remind you life goes on and love always finds a way.

Love’s path is more than a bit unconventional in Lauren Baratz-Logsted and Jackie Logsted’s Joint Custody, a story that feels a little like The Parent Trap and a little like the Disney short “Feast,” with a couple that has separated and a devoted dog that’s bound and determined to bring them back together again.

Three years before the beginning of the story, the couple in question, named only the Man and the Woman, connected when the Man, a reclusive but highly acclaimed author, adopted a dog and immediately met the Woman, a successful book editor. They bonded over their shared appreciation of good books and handsome (not cute) dogs, and love ensued. The dog is named after their mutual favorite book, The Great Gatsby, and Gatz becomes a major part of their courtship as the pair falls in love . . . and then ends up in an awkward shared custody situation when the relationship starts to fall apart.

The story is narrated in its entirety by Gatz, who loves pop culture references and has the same kind of wryly amused exasperation for his hapless humans that you might expect from a smarter-than-the-grownups kid in a rom-com. In fact, the story has a lot of classically screwball comedy Hollywood hijinks.

New York City’s publishing world is a crucial element of the story, providing not just a social circle for the characters but also a rival for the Woman in the form of an author she meets at the London Book Fair, spurring Gatz to new heights of matchmaking—and match sabotaging. You could say that the plot has some tricks up its sleeves, but of course, the protagonist doesn’t wear any. Perhaps: It has some surprises tucked under its tail, or a few unexpected treats in its doggie bags.

However you want to say it, the plot gets to its happy conclusion in a way you won’t expect, but the journey to get there is filled with all the fun and playfulness you could want, and some surprising warmth to close it all out.

“Warmth” certainly comes to mind when considering the main characters of The Worst Duke in the World. Continuing her delightful Penhallow Dynasty series, Lisa Berne introduces a hero and heroine so kind and pleasant and amiable that they seem almost entirely out of place in a 19th-century romance. If you’re looking for high drama, desperate passion, brooding and poetic heroes or delicate, swooning heroines, look elsewhere. There is a devastatingly handsome aristocrat in the story, but when the hero tries to imitate his smoldering eyes, he’s accused of squinting. The heroine does start off tragically impoverished and waifish—but when her circumstances change and food becomes readily available, she’s more than happy to take every opportunity to stuff down multiple sandwiches, several tea cakes, a few apple puff pastries and perhaps more chocolates than are good for her.

This well-fed heroine is Jane Kent, recently discovered to be the illegitimate offspring of the Penhallow clan. And her squinting sweetheart is Anthony Farr, the Duke of Radcliffe, who lives on the neighboring estate and is—according to his sister—the worst duke in the world. This is largely because he cares very little about being grand and snobby and marrying again to father more heirs, and very much about being a good landlord, a good father to his 8-year-old son and a good caretaker to the enormously fat prize pig that he named Duchess and which he hopes will win the weight contest at the local fair.

Not your typical dukely traits, perhaps, but such appealing ones, attached to such a gentle, awkward, good-humored, warmhearted man, that it’s hard to imagine wanting a duke to behave in any other way. And while Jane might make a more classic heroine if she were tormented with despair or haunted by her past, her sunny frankness and keen appetite—for sweets, yes, but also for knowledge and friendship—make her endlessly endearing.

As light as a meringue and as sweet as honey, this romance is deliciously satisfying down to the last drop.

Dark and angsty romances certainly have their place, but laughter and love never go out of style. In these two romances, you will find not just humor and heart but also a pair of happily ever afters that remind you life goes on and love always finds a way.
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Two emotional romances wholeheartedly embrace their protagonists’ complications and complexity. Classic romances often tell us that finding love will fix the parts of ourselves that aren’t as they should be. Love will turn the mousy girl next door into the prom queen, the shy wallflower into a confident seductress, the browbeaten stepchild into the princess. Love will save us from ourselves and make our problems melt away—but these contemporary romances know better. 

Charlie Matheson doesn’t initially come across as a mess in Roan Parrish’s wonderful Best Laid Plans. On the contrary, Charlie seems like someone who’s poised to sweep in and make someone else’s messes go away, which is what he tries to do for Rye Janssen, the Seattle transplant who comes to Charlie’s secluded Wyoming town with a tiny cat, a death-rattling car and a truly massive chip on his shoulder. 

Rye has inherited a house he doesn’t know to fix from a grandfather he never met, and the renovations are causing a whole host of problems that he doesn’t know how to solve. Charlie is very, very good at solving problems. He’s also very, very good at ignoring his own issues—like the anxiety he feels over how to handle his attraction to Rye because he’s never been in love before. 

Charlie and Rye are wonderfully endearing creations, as is their terrific, lovingly crafted community. Parrish’s Garnet Run is a small town where individuality and nonconformity are celebrated. If you need someone to hug you and tell you you’re appreciated exactly as you are, pick up this book—it’s just the embrace you need. 

Equally warm, satisfying and conformity-defying is Yes & I Love You. Set in a New Orleans coworkingspace, Roni Loren’s novel takes the classic idea of a workplace romance and rebuilds it into something entirely fresh and unexpected. 

Freelance writer Hollyn Tate might fit a casting call for the pretty-but-doesn’t-know-it heroine. She also has Tourette syndrome, which has left her with deep anxiety about interacting with a world she’s sure will judge her. Meanwhile, Jasper Deares, a struggling improv actor and the new barista in the office space’s coffee bar, is gorgeous and charming but wrestles with his own fear of failure in an entertainment industry that’s been quick to dismiss him. When he learns that Hollyn is the undercover entertainment critic known as Miz Poppy, he knows that her influence could turn his career around. At the same time, her own career is at risk due to her editor’s demand that she overcome her camera shyness and start vlogging. 

The story starts out with Hollyn and Jasper needing each other—she needs his training to become camera-ready, while he needs her status to back his act—but it quickly becomes so much more. Loren’s depiction of Hollyn and Jasper’s mutual attraction is lovely and natural, and she continually highlights how rare and special their connection feels to both of them. And they’re always honest with each other—which is near-revolutionary in a genre that’s always leaned hard on misunderstandings. Instead of zany hijinks, Yes & I Love You features real issues, honest struggles, inspiring growth, scorching love scenes, fantastic side characters and hilarious moments of improv gold. This isn’t the office romance that Hollywood has taught you to expect—it’s better. Instead of telling us that love can fix us, these romances embrace the liberating idea that we can be who we are and find happiness, success and love.

Two emotional romances wholeheartedly embrace their protagonists’ complications and complexity.

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Complex and delightful friend groups ground two new romances in warts-and-all reality.

Trying to find love can mean putting your best foot forward: being the hottest, smartest, coolest version of yourself whenever the object of your affection is around. But as guarded as we are with romantic prospects, we open ourselves wholeheartedly to the friends who love us exactly as we are. By showcasing strong friend groups, two romances offer a glimpse into their characters’ truest, facade-down, flaws-exposed selves.

In Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project, Oscar Nelson and his friends have been fixtures in each other’s lives since college, providing encouragement, nagging, advice, excessive emojis and unconditional love. These are all things that Oscar needs badly, given the powerful and pervasive anxiety that threatens to crush him when he loses his miserable customer service job and must put himself out there to find another gig. 

A temporary reprieve comes when Jack hires Oscar to clean out his grandmother’s house. Jack’s late grandfather was a hoarder, so this is no easy task. It’s potentially awkward as well, as Jack and Oscar have never really gotten along. And since Jack and Oscar slept together that one time, well . . .

This story, if you’ll pardon the pun, has a lot of unpacking to do. Ripper digs deep into Oscar’s issues, depicting them with such uncompromising starkness that readers may have trouble envisioning how he will come out on the other side and step into healthy choices and happy endings. Ripper also devotes time to Jack’s issues, since he’s got his own burdens to carry. 

By the end, Ripper methodically reveals that nearly every character has had to work hard to get where they are—even the sunniest character, Jack’s hilariously irrepressible grandmother, Evelyn. While The Hate Project depicts a lot of struggle, including a fair and realistic amount of backsliding, it also showcases lovely moments of hope, steadfastly suggesting that troubles can be overcome with loyal friends.

The friendship group in Just Last Night faces a challenge that’s far more abrupt—painfully so. Three 30-somethings who’ve been tightly wound into each other’s lives since they were teenagers are forced to grapple with a shocking and sudden death among their ranks. 

Eve, Ed and Justin are wrecked at the loss of their fourth, Suzie. But their bond is further undermined when Eve discovers that, 10 years ago, Suzie had a one-night stand with Ed. Ed, who is now engaged. Ed, whom Eve has been hopelessly, silently in love with for years. This revelation shakes Eve down to her foundations, causing her to reevaluate the relationships that define her and those she'd written off, including her relationship with Suzie’s gorgeous, estranged brother, Finlay. He and Eve grow closer as she sorts through the impact of the past on her present and the ways the people around her have influenced the person she chose to become.

With complex subjects and complicated characters, Mhairi McFarlane's unflinchingly honest romances often go where other authors fear to tread. The turmoil and heartache in Just Last Night feel visceral and real, as do the scars from the past. A scene that describes a character's experience of childhood abuse carries a lot of weight and is particularly difficult to read. 

But McFarlane’s romances are always worth the journey. With incredible warmth, humor and humanity, they stir such deep empathy and engagement that you won’t just watch the characters’ cathartic experiences; you’ll feel them. Likewise, you won't just admire this group friendship; you'll feel like you're a part of it, and that you’re all the better for it.

Complex and delightful friend groups ground two new romances in warts-and-all reality.

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There’s a special allure to a soldier in historical high society, almost as if he’s a magic trick. This singular creature has the strength and ferocity of a warrior simmering beneath the veneer of a gentleman. He knows how to behave, but he might choose, at any moment, to rebel. It’s no wonder that he makes for an exciting, unconventional hero in the restrictive worlds of Georgian and Regency Britain—and no surprise that he finds love with the most interesting and unconventional of heroines.

In A Scot to the Heart by Caroline Linden, our soldier hero is Andrew St. James, a Scotsman who joined His Majesty’s army to support his mother and sisters after his father made a mess of the family finances. To everyone’s surprise, Andrew learns that he is next in line to become the Duke of Carlyle. Which means, as the dowager duchess informs him, he needs to straighten up, learn estate management, do absolutely nothing to bring shame to the family—and find a suitable wife immediately

But suitability is the last thing on Drew’s mind when he returns home to Edinburgh and meets Ilsa Ramsay, the notorious “wild widow” who plays golf, keeps a pet pony that she treats like a child and paints her drawing room to look like an open field. After a loving but stiflingly overprotected childhood and a frustrating marriage to a neglectful husband, Ilsa relishes her freedom and couldn’t bear to tuck her selfhood away into the role of a duchess. And yet, the thought of letting Drew becomes unbearable.

Ilsa is a vivacious, engaging heroine. Those familiar with the Georgian period know how easily a woman like Ilsa could end up committed to an asylum against her will, or shunned and disgraced, simply because she wants to color outside of society’s restrictive lines. Her driving desire to throw open life’s windows and let the world in shows the kind of spirit that should be admired instead of stifled, but it’s exactly this spirit that makes her think she could never be the wife that Drew needs. 

Drew, to his credit, doesn’t take too long to let her know he disagrees. Even when scandal makes her a more inappropriate choice by the minute, he stays by her side to prove that he loves her for who she is, not for who others wish her to be. The way the scandal itself plays out is a bit of a sore spot—the true villain is never really held accountable—but one can forgive A Scot to the Heart for failing to satisfy readers’ vengeful sides when the romance wraps up so very sweetly.

Sweetly satisfying could also apply to the romance in Mary Balogh’s Someone to Cherish, the eighth installment of her Westcott series. It’s been a year of lonely widowhood for Lydia Tavernor after the tragic death of her handsome, charming and wildly charismatic vicar husband. Lydia harbors harmless fantasies, idly imagining what it would be like to take a lover. But things don’t stay idle when she accidentally lets slip a reference to those fantasies to the man who is their perennial star: Major Harry Westcott. No fantasy can compare to the flesh-and-blood passion of the man himself when he enters her life—and her bed—just as no fury can compare to the community’s outrage that Lydia would betray her “saintly” husband’s memory.

Here again is a story that easily could have been tragic, with another heroine who was lovingly smothered by her family and then overshadowed and ignored as a wife before embracing her widowed independence. But where Ilsa settles for private eccentricities, Lydia shows her strength and truly remarkable courage by stepping forward into society, directly challenging everyone’s view of her. When Lydia attends a public gathering dressed in pink, not black or gray or lavender as everyone would expect, it feels as shockingly brave as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman striding undaunted across No Man’s Land. 

One of the loveliest things about this romance is how, as Lydia comes into her own, the reader gets to watch Harry’s view of her shift accordingly. In the beginning, he really does dismiss her, as everyone has before. She’s not an instantly captivating beauty who dazzles every room she enters. Instead, she has a quieter loveliness that grows as Harry gains a better understanding of her and as she comes to a better understanding of herself. It’s that loveliness, inside and out, that surprises Harry, moves him, wins his heart in spite of himself and rallies his entire, hilarious family to support and encourage their match. (The Westcott family, by the way, is out in full force in this book. At this point in the series, it would require several pages to explain how everyone is linked, a fact that Balogh playfully lampshades when Harry teasingly threatens Lydia with a written test.) Harry works to win Lydia’s heart, but most of all, he fights to earn her trust—to prove that he loves her as she is and does not seek to change or control her. That’s what makes him worthy of her love in return.

In the end, these soldiers aren’t heroes because of their prowess on the battlefield, but because of how they fight for freedom for themselves and the women they love.

Upstanding soldiers get swept away by unconventional, openhearted women in two historical romances.

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A Regency romance without a scandal is, of course, hardly any kind of romance at all. What’s the fun of having all those rules if no one breaks them? But while we’ve all relished our share of rakish heroes with scandalous pasts and sinister reputations, there’s something bold and delightful about this trio of romances featuring convention-defying women. These heroines seem, at least on paper, to be the very last sort that any Regency hero would marry.

Charlotte Hurst, the heroine of Not the Kind of Earl You Marry by Kate Pembrooke, is most definitely an unexpected match for William Atherton, Earl of Norwood—especially given that their engagement is announced in the newspaper before the two of them have even met. It’s part of a plot to embarrass William and damage his political ambitions, but Charlotte and William choose to combat it by keeping the ruse going and playing the happy couple. Or at least, that’s William’s hope. Because he initially accuses Charlotte of being the source of the story, she takes some convincing. That’s his first hint that she's not like the other women he’s known. Far from fawning over the rich, handsome and titled gentleman, she’s quick to tell William off, informing him that he’s not the last man she’d ever marry, because that doesn’t go far enough. She’d never marry him, even if there were literally no options left.

Pembrooke uses the pair's first meeting to set the stage for the relationship they’ll build, in which Charlotte continues to startle and engage William by defying his expectations and puncturing his ego in the process. Charlotte’s pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude is refreshing not just to William but also to readers, who will appreciate her honesty, her kindness and the warmth and sincerity of her growing love for the one man she was quite certain she’d never marry.

In contrast to Charlotte, Kathleen Calvert knows exactly how she consistently ends up the subject of gossip in Vanessa Kelly’s The Highlander’s Irish Bride. She keeps finding herself in absurdly inappropriate situations through (mostly) no fault of her own. When the latest scandal gets her banished from London and sent to visit a cousin who has married into a Scottish clan, she immediately clashes with Grant Kendrick, the most staid and serious member of the somewhat riotous family. He’s Scottish while she’s Irish. He’s quiet while she’s talkative. He’s proper and buttoned up while she’s . . . not. Kathleen’s immediate reaction is that they could never suit, which any romance reader knows means that they’ll eventually discover they’re perfect for each other. Which they are, of course. Kathleen’s exuberance brings much-needed color into Grant’s rather drab life, while his steadiness eases her restless energy and helps her find a place to belong at last.

There’s a lovely poignancy to the scenes where the couple bonds over the things they do share: love of family, devotion to siblings, deep-seated sadness over the loss of parents. Grant and Kathleen are surrounded by quite a bit of drama and chaos as their romance progresses (people are held at gunpoint multiple times, and there’s a love triangle that gets delightfully convoluted) but Kelly uses their growing love as an anchor, grounding all the excitement in something real and warm and lovely.

Hanna Zaydan, Diana Quincy’s heroine in The Viscount Made Me Do It, is the most scandalous of this trio, but she is also the most heroic. She’s a bone setter, a historical occupation that was a bit like a chiropractor, but without a formal education and without a fraction of respect from the established medical community. As such, Hanna is viewed as a charlatan at best and a prostitute at worst, and even her own Arab English family finds her choice of profession inappropriate. The only person who believed in her was her father, who trained her in the craft and whose practice she has taken over following his death. Thomas Ellis, Viscount Griffin, comes into her life as he searches for his parents’ killer, and Hanna earns his admiration and respect when she cures him of a long-standing injury that the medical establishment has been unable to treat. His admiration grows into a fascination that soon tips over into love. It would not only be shocking for a viscount to wed a working-class woman in a disreputable profession, but Hanna’s big, close-knit family would never view Thomas as an acceptable match, since he's not an Arab.

In a subgenre as WASPy as Regency romance, The Viscount Made Me Do It is a marvelous breath of fresh air, reminding readers that there were other cultures, other religions and other perspectives present in this era besides the ones most commonly focused on. Hanna is a fascinating creation for all the ways in which she defies convention—and her love story is all the more dazzling for the richness and vibrancy her perspective brings.

A Regency romance without a scandal is, of course, hardly any kind of romance at all. What’s the fun of having all those rules if no one breaks them?

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These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.


Witch Please

In Witch Please by Ann Aguirre, Danica Waterhouse knows the rules: Mundanes are off-limits. She interacts with them as needed to keep her electronic repair business running, but they can never know the truth about her power, and they can never be considered romantically. The family curse says falling for a mundane will drain a Waterhouse witch’s magic away. Magic binds Danica to her work, her family, her coven—everything that matters. So when she meets the most incredible man, and feels the most incredible draw to him, she makes an incredible effort to keep her distance . . . and fails. Because Titus Winnaker is amazing: handsome, funny, goofy and smitten with Danica from the start. And he bakes. And he’s a volunteer firefighter. And he’s absolutely forbidden.

Smart, strong, determined and compassionate, Danica knows how to fix everything except her own heart, and her turmoil is palpable on the page. Endearing, clueless Titus is a beautiful cinnamon roll, too sweet for this world. The most magical moments they share don’t involve any witchcraft at all but instead feature two people simply being good to each other, in every imaginable way. Aguirre has concocted an exciting, engaging whirl of a story.

The Ex Hex

Vivienne Jones—spurred on by her broken heart, her loyal, vengeful cousin and way too much vodka—curses her no-good, horrible ex to have bad hair, bad sex and bad luck forever and ever, amen. However, when Rhys Penhallow returns to the small town of Graves Glen, Georgia, nine years later, his hair is still perfect and his sex appeal is still intact. So Vivi concludes, with a little sadness and a little relief, that her momentary whim of a curse didn’t take. But then a series of mishaps proves that bad luck has infected the town, potentially leading to disaster if the situation isn’t solved by Samhain, which is fast approaching.

While The Ex Hex is pure rom-com with its fun tone and witty characters, author Erin Sterling takes things deeper with potent, beautifully portrayed symbolism, especially when it comes to tarot cards and the intriguing, melancholy mystery tangled up with the curse. It’s a romance magically enhanced to be more vivid, more daring and more potentially deadly, and it’s all the more satisfying for it.

Payback’s a Witch

In Lana Harper’s Payback’s a Witch, there’s not just one witch scorned. There are three. Emmy Harlow left town as a brokenhearted teen after being used and discarded by Gareth Blackmoore, scion of the richest, most influential family in Thistle Grove. The four witch families that founded the town still run things, but the lion’s share of power and influence goes to whichever family wins the “Gauntlet,” a semicentennial event that the Blackmoores have won pretty much every time. The Thorns and the Avramovs have always lagged behind, and the Harlows have never stood a chance—which is why Emmy got the whole “It’s not you, it’s how utterly insignificant your family is” brush-off from Gareth years ago. But now she’s back, and she learns that Gareth has since toyed with Emmy’s longtime bestie, Linden Thorn, and also with Emmy’s secret high school crush, the stunning, untouchable Talia Avramov. And thus an alliance is formed as the three women come together with the goal of toppling the ascendency of the Blackmoores and putting Gareth firmly in his place.

Harper’s adult debut is gorgeous in every way. It’s hilariously funny, deeply moving, powerfully uplifting and so glue-you-to-the-page engrossing that this reviewer literally did not put it down for the final hundred pages. The love story between Talia and Emmy develops beautifully, but the true romance is with the town and the community. The bonds of both family and friendship shine from start to finish, and Harper balances the different clans and captures how, together, they make Thistle Grove the magical place that it is.

These witchy rom-coms are whimsical and hilarious—with just a touch of wickedness.

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