Elizabeth Mazer

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Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for this moment. Jo, the widowed Lady Havenridge, has appeared in the series' previous two books as a woman who seemed to have it all figured out. The founder and leader of the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children, she has established not only a sanctuary for women and girls with nowhere else to go, but also a thriving business as the women operate their own brewery. She has work, purpose, a home and a community, but now it’s finally time for her to find love. And perhaps it’s a testament to how rare and special her situation is that love and matrimony—the longed-for prize of every young miss in Regency society—holds little appeal for her. She doesn’t actually say that she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but the implication is there.

However, in Cheers to the Duke, the right man is quite forcefully ushered in. Edward, the Duke of Grainger, is a solicitor from an obscure branch of the family tree who unexpectedly inherited the title (think Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey"). The search for a bride, someone to step into the shoes of his dearly loved first wife as Edward’s partner and mother to his young, sensitive son, has not gone well. Thrust into society’s so-called graces, he is fawned over by empty-headed debutantes with hungry eyes on his title even as they turn up their noses at his common origins. But then he’s brought together with Jo at the christening of Viscount Hurley, their mutual godchild. And by “brought together,” I mean “all but locked into a closet together by their friends who’ve decided they’re perfect for each other.” Edward is quick to agree that Jo is just what he needs—in his home, his heart and his bed. (His son, Thomas, is instantly on board as well, and in one of the sweeter moments in the story, actually proposes that Jo become his mother even before Jo and Edward officially meet.) Jo, on the other hand, is harder to convince.

In a genre as well-trod as Regency romance, there's much pleasure to be found in stories that subvert expectations, and this story (this series!) definitely accomplishes that. Rather than a society-defying rake who is tamed by love, MacKenzie features capable heroines who defy social norms and require heavy persuasion before they’ll give in to the virtues of wedded life and love. There’s no villain in the story, no rigidly disapproving family member interfering with the course of true love, no moustache-twirling scoundrel attempting to compromise or disgrace the heroine. The only roughness in the course of true love comes from the fact that Jo genuinely needs convincing that marriage is something she’d ever want, even with the perfect man. Her independence is both admirable and refreshing. The response of the other characters to that independence is . . . a bit less endearing. Like Bridget Jones, I’m not often a fan of “smug marrieds” who are convinced that no one can be both happy and single, and the other guests at the christening celebration lean a little far into that mindset. There could have been a bit less well-intentioned matchmaking, and a bit more genuine respect for Jo’s choices (there were a few too many conversations where she got steamrolled).

Still, the energy of the story is infectious, evoking the feeling of a family reunion where everyone’s truly glad to see one another. For those hoping for a happy conclusion to these characters and their adventures in brewing, the final Widow's Brew novel delivers love, laughter and libations.

Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s The Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for Jo, Lady Havenridge, to get her happily ever after, and Cheers to the Duke does not disappoint.

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The Princess Stakes contains several great love stories, and the book opens as one of them ends. We only get glimpses of a romance for the ages between a regal Indian maharaja and the English noblewoman who left everything behind to have a life by his side. We know they lived happily for a little while, but the happiness didn’t last. By the time we encounter the Maharaja of Joor, his beloved wife is dead, his authority has been drained away by the British and his precious daughter, Princess Sarani, has been forced into an engagement with the odious Lord Talbot. When the maharaja is betrayed and assassinated, Sarani must flee for her life.

And here’s where the book's grandest—and stormiest—love story starts, as Sarani’s desperate search for passage to her English family’s protection lands her on Rhystan Huntley’s ship. Rhystan, the Duke of Embry, despises Sarani for her duty-driven rejection of their love years earlier. Will sparks fly as the pair reunites? They will. Will the journey to England be fraught with tension, bickering and unrelenting desire? It will. And will Sarani's arrival in England create a tremendous splash when Rhystan—in a temporary deal that is intended to benefit them both—makes it known that they are engaged? Oh, it most definitely will.

There’s drama aplenty to be found in this romance, from disguised princesses to swashbuckling sailors to a highly publicized betting spree over which debutante will snag the handsome, eminently eligible Duke of Embry. Tempers run high, passions run hot and a mixture of greed, jealousy, prejudice and lust leads to more than one violent altercation from which Sarani and Rhystan must escape. The ton's small-mindedness and caustic disdain might make you wish that our hero and heroine would resort to violence themselves a little more often. (Trust me, some of those society folks have it coming.) But Sarani and Rhystan’s devotion to each other and to those dearest to them shines bright and fierce in contrast to the cowardly pettiness of those who try to undermine them. That love unites them against their foes and gives them the courage to push past their own fears and insecurities and embrace their happiness together.

Author Amalie Howard doesn’t shy away from showing the struggles a biracial character like Sarani would face, both in England and in India. Caught between two worlds, she’s viewed as not belonging enough to either to win true acceptance, but she finally finds the home she’s been searching for in Rhystan’s arms. Ultimately The Princess Stakes celebrates the power of love to win out again and again over hate: love for the person you trust to have your back; love for the family you are proud to claim; and love for yourself, exactly as you are.

This dramatic romance between an Indian princess and an English lord is a celebration of love’s victory over hate.

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The story starts with a tragedy. A ship sailing from Jamaica sinks just before it reaches England’s shore, leaving only two survivors. The first is a badly injured woman. The other is a baby girl, who is quickly deposited into the arms of Daniel Thackery, Earl of Ashbrook. He had come to the port to meet Phoebe Dunn, his bride-to-be. A baby wasn’t in his plans—but as the baby is a blackamoor (the Regency-era term for people with dark skin) like him, the sailors assume the child must be his. If he doesn’t claim the girl, who he can only assume was Phoebe’s daughter, she’ll be sent to an orphanage, or worse. Daniel is not one to leave an innocent without protection, so he adopts the baby and names her Hope.

Meanwhile, the other survivor, identified as Jemima St. Maur, can’t remember anything about her life before the shipwreck. Her only certainty, which comes from a place deeper than memory, is that her baby was taken from her. She’s filled with fear and despair, which only worsen when she’s committed to Bedlam—but, of course, she’s not in Bedlam for long. When Vanessa Riley’s An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler picks back up two years later, Jemima has become the toast of society. She has her pick of suitors, even if the only one who catches her eye is the barrister who secured her release and restored her to the ton—none other than Daniel himself.

It sounds like a setup straight out of a Hollywood movie, as Daniel rescues Hope, then Jemima, with the tantalizing possibility that the three of them are meant to be a family. While there’s a lot of humor and playfulness (Jemima’s letters to Daniel are highly entertaining), Riley doesn’t pull her emotional punches. An Earl opens on a powerful note, with Daniel waiting in line at the dock, seeing each person ahead of him grapple with the sight of the name of a loved one on the casualty list. When the narrative shifts to Jemima, alone and afraid in the hospital, the stakes only grow more intense.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Vanessa Riley explores the many layers of a Black aristocrat's experience in the Regency.

As the romance between Jemima and Daniel progresses, the heaviest weight comes from their vulnerabilities. Though Daniel is wealthy, educated, clever, kind and truly gentlemanly, he lives with the constant knowledge that as a Black man, any toe out of line could result in all his status and privilege being stripped away. Riley dispels the myth of the all-white Regency—people of color rose to the titled elite in this and in many other historical periods—while also refusing to diminish or gloss over an iota of the bigotry and judgment a blackamoor earl would face.

Jemima’s horrible experiences in Bedlam hang over her, shadowing not just how others perceive her but how she perceives herself and the security of her position. She was committed by an associate of her family, less because of her amnesia and more because it was convenient for her to be out of the way. With a clear and all-too-personal understanding of how easy it is for a woman to be committed to an asylum, she carries a fearful certainty that what happened before could happen again.

It’s no wonder that trust is a major theme of this romance. It’s not an easy thing for Daniel or Jemima to offer, not with so many people lined up to judge them. Their hesitance to trust each other can get a bit frustrating at times, but Riley makes it clear that they have good reason for their reservations. Love wins out over fear in the sweet ending—and the truth of what happened the day the ship sank, even when it’s not quite what anyone expected, sets them both free.

The story starts with a tragedy. A ship sailing from Jamaica sinks just before it reaches England’s shore, leaving only two survivors.

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There’s no place like home. Which might be the problem with Dr. Will Sterling. While reading Kate Clayborn’s Love at First, you get the sense that he’s never actually had anything that fits that title. As a child, he had a house that he lived in with parents who were obsessed with each other and largely indifferent to him. As an adult, he has an apartment that he barely sees in between long hospital shifts. There’s no one he’d consider family. There’s barely anyone he’d consider a friend. He works overtime in the hospital’s emergency room until his co-workers basically kick him out, not realizing that he doesn’t actually have anywhere better to go. And then, suddenly, he has a new . . . well, let’s call it a residence. An inherited apartment from his recently deceased estranged uncle that he’s very, very eager to get rid of but can’t, thanks to the terms of the uncle’s will. And with the apartment comes an added, unspoken inheritance in the form of the colorful neighbors that fill out the small, six-unit apartment building.

Eleanora Clarke—better known as Nora—might be the youngest resident (by far) in the crotchety, close-knit community, but she’s also its fiercest and most determined protector. Her own isolated childhood led her to treasure the place and the memories it holds of her beloved grandmother. When Will shows up with his smile and his charm and his decision to—horror of horrors!—renovate his inheritance and turn it into a short-term rental, she springs into action to combat him. The conflict is immediate, but if you’re expecting typical rom-com over-the-top exploits, then you’d be wrong. Sure, Nora pulls a couple of fast ones to try to get around Will, but then something far sweeter than hijinks ensues.

There’s a lovely, expansive hopefulness to Clayborn’s romance. Pretty much none of its characters have the life they’d imagined for themselves or the one they would have chosen. Everyone, not just the main couple, has experienced their share of grief, from the 80-year-old Lothario on the third floor (he’s very into dating apps) to Will’s direct supervisor at the hospital, a man who might be the most awkwardly endearing boss you hope to never have since Michael Scott from “The Office." But as all of them come together in a variety of ways—involving poetry, lost kittens, towel rods and really good marinara sauce—a sense of beautiful optimism shines through Clayborn’s prose. Love at First will not only make you believe that you can recover from the pain in your past but that you can, if and when you choose, break away from your past entirely and build a new future, surrounded by love and support. Rather than narrowly focus on its main couple, Love at First overflows with a sense of connection and community. While watching Will and Nora fall deeply, endearingly in love, you’ll also fall in love with the world they live in, the community they build and the future they have to look forward to together.

There’s no place like home. Which might be the problem with Dr. Will Sterling. While reading Kate Clayborn’s Love at First, you get the sense that he’s never actually had anything that fits that title.

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If I told you that The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon was an “enemies-to-lovers workplace romance,” you’d probably think you’d know what to expect, right? Especially if I said that this was a fake relationship story as well? It’s a familiar, much-loved plot. (Many people’s favorite is The Proposal, but I’m partial to Someone Like You, weird cow subplot and all, because Hugh Jackman—well, because Hugh Jackman. What other reason do you need?) But what if I said this story isn’t about faking being together, but faking breaking up?

Shay Goldstein is devoted to the public radio station where she works as a producer, but her dream is to host a show of her own. Still, she’s mostly joking when she suggests, at a come-up-with-new-programming-because-we’re-a-sinking-ship meeting, that the station create a relationship program hosted by ex-lovers. She’s stunned when the program director loves the idea and wants Shay to host it along with the station’s new hotshot reporter, Dominic Yun. But Shay and Dominic disagree on everything. They can’t hold a civil conversation. And, oh yeah, they aren’t exes. But no one needs to know that, the director suggests. They just have to fudge the truth a little (a lot—to everyone) and focus on telling a story, whether or not it’s true. Or they can lose their jobs due to cutbacks. Shay’s current show is on the chopping block, so it’s lie-way or the highway. The easier path seems to be to take a chance and snag her dream job, even if it means pretending to have fallen in and out of love with a man she doesn’t know but is quite sure she dislikes.

Of course, as they tangle in the sound booth, chemistry emerges—along with a burgeoning, unexpected friendship. There’s more to Dominic than Shay expected, and there’s a lot more to her feelings for him than disdain. She’s started to fall for the man now nationally known as her ex.

Full confession: I massively overidentified with the heroine. I don’t work in radio, but my nine NPR podcast subscriptions reveal my addiction. After a decade working in my dream industry, cutbacks sent my career trajectory, like Shay’s, on an unexpected left turn. (Rachel Lynn Solomon, are you my stalker?) So I might have related more than usual as Shay worked and struggled and stumbled on her path to success, professionally and romantically. Shay’s a great heroine, witty and wry and vividly real, and Dominic is just as complex and lovingly drawn. I enjoy the escapist fun of a sexy, confident, flawless hero falling for a me-substitute as much as the next girl, but it’s so much easier to believe in love that feels earned and grows between characters who aren’t props or fantasies but compellingly flawed people.

While its central romance certainly functions as the story’s framework, The Ex Talk also leaves room to explore other kinds of love, including love for family (it was Shay’s late father who inspired her love of radio), love for friends, love for your work—and the kind of love for yourself that means you know when it’s time to leave a toxic, misogynistic work situation. (Thought this story was all sweetness and fluff? Think again.) So I don’t believe it was overidentification that made me fall for Shay, Dominic and the idea of the two of them together. I believe they and their creator did that by being funny, sharp, charming and insightful. This wonderful romance speaks volumes about chasing your dreams, finding your courage and putting everything on the line (or on the air) for love.

While its central romance certainly functions as the story's framework, The Ex Talk also leaves room to explore other kinds of love.

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It’s said revenge is a dish best served cold, but what if it could be served hot? Really hot? Steamy, sweaty, decadent and deliciously hot? Because “hot” is exactly what flawless young aristocrat Lord Arthur Godwick is . . . and revenge against his family is precisely what Regan Ferry, a glamorous young widow with an icy edge, is after. Her revenge involves Arthur, stripped of his privilege and pretention, in her bed and at her mercy for 10 unforgettable nights. If he refuses, the priceless painting his reckless brother traded away will be lost forever. If he agrees—when he agrees—he’ll get the painting back, but what will he lose in its place?

Author Tiffany Reisz has a lot of fun playing with, inverting and interrogating positions of power in her latest erotic romance, The Pearl. Arthur—nicknamed King Arthur—seems to be a man who has everything: youth, beauty, wealth, influence, a flawless reputation, a bright future and a storied heritage, descended from generations of men who kept the reins of power firmly in hand. The hotel that Regan inherited from her late husband, the Pearl, was a favorite haunt of Arthur’s great-grandfather Malcolm back in the day when it was a brothel, and any woman there was Malcolm’s for the asking. Regan descends from one of the Pearl’s whores and has her own bitter experience of a man buying her, via a wedding ring, and relishing his authority over her. Little wonder that she revels in turning the tables on Arthur: having him kneel before her and service her in the hotel that her late husband owned, in the very rooms where Arthur’s ancestor once held sway.

In a subtler exploration of power, the rooms are decorated with a series of paintings (real, beautiful paintings—look them up!) by female artists with their own dark stories—not dissimilar to Regan’s—of cruel and careless men who tried to break their spirits. Paintings of fear, imprisonment, objectification, entrapment or desperation in which the artist, bloody but unbowed, gets the last word. And mingled among them—watching over them—is the one Arthur is bargaining for, the irreplaceable painting his family can’t be without. It’s a portrait of Lord Malcolm himself that might, it seems, have mysterious powers and an agenda all its own.

Reisz never fails to deliver a sizzlingly hot read, and there’s plenty of erotic pleasure to be found here as Regan and Arthur explore their desires and give rein to their passions. But The Pearl is also a deeper, darker meditation on love and trust, and what it means to give yourself willingly, freely to another, to let yourself be vulnerable enough to love and forgive in exchange for love and acceptance in return.

It’s said revenge is a dish best served cold, but what if it could be served hot? Really hot?

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There are quite a lot of truths to learn about Robert, Duke of Rothhaven, the hero of Grace Burrowes’ latest Regency romance. It’s true that he’s handsome. It’s very true that he’s rich. It’s very, very true that he’s clever. But the most surprising truth about him—the secret concealed from society—is that all Robert’s advantages are countered by the strain of severe physical and emotional disorders. The physical ailments are the result of inherited epilepsy triggered by severe childhood head injuries. The emotional problems . . . well, those result from the barbaric “care” he received in the institution that was paid lavishly to keep the so-called family embarrassment hidden away. After his brother found and rescued him from the wretched facility, his fears and phobias kept him isolated from the world for several years. By the time The Truth About Dukes opens, Robert has summoned the courage to step forward from the shadows for his brother’s sake. The truth even he would have struggled to believe about himself is that love is waiting for him out in the light.

Constance Wentworth knows quite a bit about dukes, and not just because the Duke of Walden is her overprotective brother. She’s well-acquainted with Robert as well, from a time when she was fleeing her own uncomfortable truths and wound up working as a maid at the facility where he was kept. A bond formed between them then that endures when they meet again in society, and it’s immediately clear just how good they are for each other. She defends him, he steadies her; she accepts him, he challenges her. She teaches him to trust himself, he teaches her that it’s all right to trust others. Love (kind of literally) blossoms easily. Happily ever after? That’s another story—and what a terrific story it is!

Sensitive readers should be aware that The Truth About Dukes doesn’t hesitate to poke into dark corners. The horror of mental health care in the Regency period is unflinchingly portrayed, although descriptions of the more brutal “treatments” are mercifully brief, and Constance's childhood was violent. But the trials Robert and Constance have faced only highlight their strength and resilience as a family. Their love for each other is fierce and lovely, and their fight to defend it is inspiring. It’s a wonderful ray of hope to read a story like this where tremendous obstacles are overcome through faith, family and a true and deep devotion.

There are quite a lot of truths to learn about Robert, Duke of Rothhaven, the hero of Grace Burrowes’ latest Regency romance. It’s true that he’s handsome. It’s very true that he’s rich. It’s very, very true that he’s clever. But the most surprising truth about him—the secret concealed from society—is that all Robert’s advantages […]
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Moments after laying eyes on Lady Jessica Archer, Gabriel Thorne decides that she is the woman he will marry. But this isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even like at first sight. Freshly returned to England to make a long overdue claim on his title and estate, he’s staying incognito, getting the lay of the land, when Jessica sweeps into the nondescript inn and asserts a superior claim to the private sitting room he’s reserved. He’s unimpressed with her arrogance. She’s unimpressed with his rudeness. Love is definitely not in the air, but matrimony . . . is?

Gabriel will need a wife by his side to manage the family drama he came to England to resolve. The right sort of wife—imperious, irreproachable, from the right family with the right upbringing, manners and connections. And Jessica, commencing her sixth (or possibly seventh—she’s lost count) season in London, is more than ready to settle down. While she’s always been praised as a “diamond of the first water,” encircled by a constant throng of smitten admirers (think of that barbeque scene from Gone with the Wind when all the men beg to be allowed to fetch Scarlett O’Hara’s dessert), she’s done with drifting through life. She has a plan to pick a groom that is every bit as practical as Gabriel’s plan to pick a bride.

Then they meet in the proper society setting, Gabriel makes his intentions clear—and everything goes off the rails. Jessica realizes, suddenly and deeply, exactly what she does and doesn’t want. And a strictly proper courtship, complete with stifling social calls, stiff dances and a constant evaluation of the assets that she brings into the match, is definitely on the “no” list. It doesn’t matter that she is highly valued on the marriage mart when her value has nothing to do with who she truly is inside. She demands that Gabriel find a way to romance her as a person. She doesn’t ask for love; if anything, she shies away from using that word. But she does demand to be respected for who she is rather than for her bank balance or her pedigree.

Up until that point, I was enjoying Balogh’s Someone to Romance as a stately, engaging dramedy of manners with lots of high-society escapism and the juicy fun of Gabriel’s family secrets. But when Jessica throws down that gauntlet, I started to really love this book. I admired Jessica’s strength and resolve, her determination to chart out her future on her own terms. And I was incredibly moved by Gabriel’s response to it—the tiny, deeply personal gestures with which he shows his growing esteem and trust. The happy marriage they build together is worlds away from the practical, businesslike matches they both anticipated at the start of the story, and yet it resolves in the sweetest of all imaginable happy endings.

This is a love story that earns the name on every level, not just for the love the hero and heroine find but also for the love you’ll feel for everyone involved by the time you reach the final page.

Moments after laying eyes on Lady Jessica Archer, Gabriel Thorne decides that she is the woman he will marry. But this isn’t love at first sight. It’s not even like at first sight.
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High drama isn’t just soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez’s day job, it’s also her life in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola. After getting her broken heart splashed over all the tabloid covers, she’s restrategized and plans to lead a man-free, drama-free, scandal-free life while tackling the juicy title character role in a high-profile telenovela adaptation. As down as she’s been, surely there’s nowhere to go but up—or so she thinks, until her first bold step forward into her new leading lady life ends on . . . well, not exactly a sour note but certainly a coffee-splattered one. For Jasmine, this first meeting with her co-star, the gorgeous and aloof Ashton Suárez, is not exactly ideal. But for the reader at the start of this smart and engaging madcap romance, it’s certainly a lot of fun!

Considering the usual telenovela twists, the story is actually surprisingly down-to-earth. (There is an evil twin, but alas, it’s just a plot thread on the show.) A few situations are dialed up for laughs, such as the infamous coffee incident during the meet-cute, but for the most part, Jasmine and Ashton face realistic challenges as they deal with their careers, their personal relationships and their blossoming feelings for each other. Jasmine, who is adored but rarely understood by her loving, intrusive family, has the habit of falling too hard and too fast for anyone who makes her feel wanted. Ashton, grappling with a long-held secret, has the opposite problem as he hesitates to let anyone close. Both struggle to balance the success they crave versus the lack of privacy that comes as its price. And while they do have a steamy affair, it includes its share of roadblocks as they work to figure out at each stage how intimate and exposed, in every way, they’re willing to be. Their love story is dramatic but it’s also sweet and complex, as layered and grounded as the characters themselves.

Daria fills the story with palpable warmth and affection, not just for her hero and heroine but for the dual worlds they inhabit: the film industry and the Latin American community. If you enjoy behind the scenes peeks, the story includes plenty of fun details about the nuts and bolts of a working set. (A key character is the set’s intimacy coordinator—a newer role on film sets but one that is, thankfully, becoming increasingly common.) And if you appreciate a media landscape that embraces diversity, you’ll love the chance to explore how Jasmine and Ashton carry their heritage with them, determinedly carving out opportunities not just for themselves but for all the gifted, undervalued Latinx performers searching for a place.

High drama isn’t just soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez’s day job, it’s also her life in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola. After getting her broken heart splashed over all the tabloid covers, she’s restrategized and plans to lead a man-free, drama-free, scandal-free life while tackling the juicy title character role in a […]
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It’s not every day that the “meet cute” starts with a shotgun . . . but not every heroine is Ellie-May Blackwell. Tough, strong and stubborn—not to mention fierce when she needs to be—Ellie-May brooks no nonsense and protects what’s hers, whether that’s her two children, her struggling farm or the memory of her late husband, Neal Blackwell. Neal is viewed with reverence by most of the town of Haywire, Texas, after dying a hero’s death while saving children from a burning schoolhouse. Ellie-May is not viewed nearly as kindly. The child of a notorious outlaw, she knows all too well how it feels to be treated as guilty by association.

So when Texas Ranger Matt Taggert shows up with suspicions that Neal participated in a stagecoach robbery the day before he died, well, Matt’s lucky that all he gets is a shotgun pointed in his face. He’s not welcome. His suspicions aren’t welcome. And most unwelcome of all are the doubts he plants in Ellie-May’s heart—doubts that make her question everything she thought she knew when she finds a sack full of banknotes stuffed under her front porch.

Ellie-May is a heartbreakingly relatable character. On the one hand, she desperately wants to prove wrong all the whispers and taunts that say she’s no better than her father, but on the other hand, she’s ferociously determined to protect her son and daughter from being tarred by the same brush. The children think of Neal as a hero and she’d do anything to keep from shattering that ideal. That turmoil would be enough to twist any woman into knots, even without the distraction of a certain very handsome, very appealing Texas Ranger. But then Matt goes and makes himself even more desirable by being kind to her children and genuinely compassionate about Ellie-May’s background, approaching it from a place of true understanding, since the death of their own father led Matt’s brother to spiral out of control and become an outlaw himself.

Indeed, struggles and sufferings in their past are something that all of the key characters in this story share, from Matt’s grief over his father’s loss and his brother’s downfall, to Ellie-May’s bruised spirit over the town’s scorn, to her farmhand Anvil’s past as a vagrant, to Jesse, the teenage sidekick Matt accidentally picks up (my favorite character, I must confess), whose father crawled into a bottle after losing his wife. Even Neal, Haywire’s local saint, had a painful secret in his past that kept him from ever finding peace. Margaret Brownley is not gentle with her characters, and they’re the better for it. The troubles they’ve faced have tempered them, making them wiser, stronger, kinder. More loyal. More generous. And ever more deserving of the happy endings they all find in the end.

It’s not every day that the “meet cute” starts with a shotgun . . . but not every heroine is Ellie-May Blackwell. Tough, strong and stubborn—not to mention fierce when she needs to be—Ellie-May brooks no nonsense and protects what’s hers, whether that’s her two children, her struggling farm or the memory of her late […]
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Audrey Tate has the perfect life. Just ask any of the subscribers to her wildly popular online platform. A professional influencer with a glamorous, successful lifestyle in the most posh parts of Manhattan, Audrey always knows how to look, sound and be just right for any situation. Except when it comes to romance. Her heart was broken a year and a half ago with the reveal that she was one of three women involved with her boyfriend—including his wife. While she and the other women scorned have become devoted friends, she still carries wounds from the ordeal. And it taught her a lesson: Prince Charmings are for other women. Not her. She can have the perfect townhouse, the perfect dress, the perfect smile or quip or hashtag for any situation. But she can’t have the perfect man, unless she’s willing to play along with the perfect lie.

Clarke West, her best friend since childhood, has always been there to love her, tease her, support her, aggravate her and occasionally use her as a shield when his flings get too clingy, or his controlling mother gets too difficult. But when he pretends (yet again) that they’re engaged to dissuade a persistent ex, right when Audrey’s love life takes another embarrassing turn, a plan is formed. Why not keep the fake engagement going? It will aggravate his mother, ward off his ex and restore Audrey’s reputation after vicious attacks from an internet troll. Win, win, win. Except for the part where lines start blurring and staged kisses start to feel a little too real. Audrey and Clarke’s “safe” choice to be together becomes more and more risky when their hearts end up on the line.

This novel concludes the Central Park Pact trilogy, bringing a happy ending to all three of the women burned by the same deceitful ex. Of the three, Audrey’s story might have the most bitterly ironic twist, in that the woman who makes a living putting everything on display was fooled by a man hiding behind his lies. While the story’s high-society setting and rom-com premise embue it with plenty of frothy fun, Audrey’s sadness and self-doubt, along with Clarke’s own insecurities as the child of parents who don’t quite seem to know how to show love to anyone, give it depth. Thankfully, they have each other, and the strength of their friendship helps them heal enough to realize not just that they’ve been in love all along, but that they deserve the happiness they’ve found together. Warm and heartfelt, this story conveys author Lauren Layne’s real affection for her characters as they overcome the past and build a beautifully messy, perfectly imperfect future.

Warm and heartfelt, this is a story that truly cares about its characters, showing how they help each overcome their pasts and build toward a beautifully messy, perfectly imperfect future.

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Lady Georgina Kirkpatrick would love a reason to not marry the loathsome Lord Travers as her father has decreed. She just wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped mere weeks before the planned wedding day. And she certainly wasn’t expecting to be kidnapped twice. After escaping her captors—er, her first (and worst) set of captors—she’s swept away against her will again, but this time into the custody of Robin Kerr, Marquess of St. Just, her brother’s best friend. His intentions are chivalrous, even if his methods are infuriating. As a woman alone, traveling with only her maid and temperamental spaniel, Rob knows that Georgie needs his protection to keep from falling back into her (original) kidnappers’ clutches, whether she’ll admit it or not. And if protecting her means locking her into a cabin on his ship and sailing her to his castle in Cornwall, that’s what he’ll do. What he doesn’t expect is to find her company shifting from an aggravation to a torment of quite a different sort as the fiery-haired, fiery-hearted widow sparks a desire in him like nothing he’s ever known.

Unfortunately, Rob isn’t the only man that Georgie has driven into a state of madness. As their journey progresses, they’ll be chased by her irate father, her bewildered but indignant brother, a slew of hired hands deputized into capturing her and—most sinisterly of all—Lord Travers, who orchestrated the first kidnapping himself to compromise Georgie so thoroughly that she’d never be able to escape him. No pirate could ever be more hounded than Rob for this treasure he’s stolen, but as the passion between them strengthens and grows, his love for her becomes something he’ll defy any authority to protect. And Georgie herself, who starts out the story so listless and resigned, bowing to her father’s authority and certain she’s buried any hope of love with her late husband, finds a new, maverick drive to seize this second chance at happiness. She even proves willing to fight—with kicks, curses, flying chamber pots and a feisty dog—against anyone who tries to take it away.

There’s a delightful cheekiness to Jenna Jaxon’s playful Regency adventure, a refusal to take the rules and dictates of family and high society all that seriously. Jaxon doesn’t shy away from displaying how very vulnerable a woman was in that time and place—an undesirable suitor could manipulate her into an unwanted match, or her family could have her committed to Bedlam for being contrary. But while the dangers are real, Georgie’s response to them is charmingly cathartic as she shows that even a woman with precious little autonomy over her courtships or her fortune can still have her own mind and make her own choices. With humor and heart, Jaxon shows that love—and a liberated woman—will always find a way.

Lady Georgina Kirkpatrick would love a reason to not marry the loathsome Lord Travers as her father has decreed. She just wasn’t expecting a kidnapping mere weeks before the planned wedding day.

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Boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Boy wins girl. Boy . . . sells girl out, and then flees the country, never to see her again—until 14 years later, when their paths cross once more.

Twice in a Blue Moon starts off simply enough: small-town California girl Tate Jones visits London with her grandmother. Vermont farm boy Sam Brandis is in London with his grandfather, and in a meet-cute lovingly borrowed from E.M. Forster and an acclaimed Merchant Ivory film adaptation, the pairs swap rooms so the ladies can have “a room with a view.” The view includes the hotel’s garden, where Tate and Sam meet nightly to stargaze and flirt, and to share their dreams and secrets.

Tate’s secret is a doozy. She’s the daughter of Ian Butler, the world’s most idolized actor. As a little girl, her red carpet images were recognized around the world. But when she was 8, her mother—heartsick about her husband’s blatant, unrelenting infidelity—took Tate and left the spotlight behind. Back in her tiny hometown, they buried their pasts, adopting the last name Jones. Only a handful of people know Tate’s true identity, and Tate shares it with Sam with all the overflowing trust of a girl in love for the very first time. But when she steps out of the hotel to find a waiting mob of paparazzi—tipped off by a well-paid “trusted confidante”—she gets her first broken heart, and resolves to be more careful about ever loving again.

Fast-forward 14 years. Tate, having used that unwanted reveal to launch an acting career, is about to start filming a role that could push her onto the A-list. The pressure has doubled, since a supporting role will be filled by her superficially doting, micro-aggressive father. Worst of all, she’s totally blindsided to show up on location and meet the screenwriter: Sam Brandis, writing under the pen name S.B. Hill. Pulling it together to give the screen performance of a lifetime will be hard enough, but when the cameras stop rolling and she has to write her own life’s dialogue, Tate grapples to find answers, inner strength and possibly forgiveness.

The best-friend writing team known as Christina Lauren never fails to delight. Twice in a Blue Moon is funny and engaging, whether Tate is bantering with her badass bestie, or navigating an awkward love scene with her adorable co-star. It also rings true on the low notes. Tate’s genuine heartbreak over her secret’s exposure comes both from being betrayed by Sam, and her personal sense of having betrayed her mother and grandmother’s trust. Her lack of faith in her own judgment—and in men, in general—requires Tate to reach deep to find the strength and conviction she thinks she lacks. It's a strikingly poignant note, and makes her journey toward trusting herself, and determining who else is worthy of her trust, all the more meaningful.

Some—including me—might quibble that Tate gives her trust back to Sam a little too quickly. (I’m the Old Testament type who thinks betraying men should get struck with lightning bolts from on high—preferably aimed at their crotches.) But it’s hard to argue with a character who has fought this hard to figure out what she wants, and who finally finds the courage to go and get it.

Boy meets girl. Boy woos girl. Boy wins girl. Boy . . . sells girl out, and then flees the country, never to see her again—until 14 years later, when their paths cross once more.

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