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Christmas in Rose Bend

Naima Simone. HQN, $8.99 mass market (416p) ISBN 978-1-335-62099-6

Simone returns (after The Road to Rose Bend) to Rose Bend, Mass., for an endearing holiday romance pairing an ER nurse who’s mourning her late parents with a carpenter who’s recovering from heartbreak and grieving the death of his best friend. Nessa Hunt agrees to a Christmas trip to Rose Bend hoping to connect with her 12-year-old half-sister, Ivy, whose mother died when Ivy was a baby and over whom Nessa has assumed legal guardianship following their father’s death. But Nessa’s carrying a heavy secret from her own mother’s deathbed: the man who raised them both was not Nessa’s biological father. Nessa dreads the holidays, and festive Rose Bend does nothing to improve her mood—a situation exacerbated when she crashes into the attractive Wolf Dennison while checking into the Kinsale Inn. This collision becomes a metaphor for their relationship as the two get repeatedly thrown together by small-town life. Nessa’s not looking for love and she’s determined to evade both Wolf and the town’s innumerable holiday events—but Ivy’s enthusiasm and Wolf’s magnetism eventually change her tune. Simone masterfully balances heart and heat, giving Nessa’s and Wolf’s grief the weight it deserves while building a convincing slow-burning romance. Readers will grow a soft spot for this quaint town. Agent: Rachel Brooks, Bookends. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Yuletide Kiss

Madeline Hunter, Sabrina Jeffries, and Mary Jo Putney. Kensington, $15.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-4967-3129-6

This intricately woven trio of Regency romance novellas makes for cozy reading during the holiday season. Hunter’s “The Unexpected Gift” finds Jenna Waverly closing her inn and sending most of the servants away, hoping for a brief Christmastime respite before a visit with her estranged brother. But when strangers seek shelter from an ice storm—among them the injured and feverish Lucas Avonwood—she graciously welcomes them in from the cold and nurses Lucas back to health. In Jeffries’s “When We Finally Kiss Goodnight,” another of Jenna’s guests, ladies companion Flora Younger, is dismayed to run into playwright Konrad Juncker, whom she believed to be courting her in Bath years ago. Gamely volunteering to help Jenna feed and entertain her unexpected visitors, the pair reconnect while composing a Christmas carol together and introducing the crowd to the German tradition of Christmas trees. The inn plays host to yet another unexpected reunion in Putney’s “When Strangers Meet,” this one with an even more complex backstory involving a quicky marriage in India. All three tales carefully follow the same timeline and incorporate the same overarching details to conjure a believable sense of place. Together, they form a well-rounded whole with plenty of heated moments for a cold evening. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Santa’s Sweetheart

Janet Dailey. Zebra, $8.99 mass market (400p) ISBN 978-1-4201-5107-7

Things get complicated when a student decides to play cupid for her commitment-phobic teacher in Dailey’s humdrum fourth Christmas Tree Ranch romance (after Holding Out for Christmas). First-grade teacher Grace Chapman has just turned runaway bride for the second time. She moves to Branding Iron, Tex., to escape her sordid past, not to pick up with a new guy. Sheriff Sam Delaney’s wife died only a year ago, but his daughter, Maggie, is so desperate for him to move on and get out of his funk that she goes on strike at school in order to get him into the same room as her pretty new teacher. Sam and Grace quickly catch on to the sneaky little matchmaker, but their attraction proves just as powerful as Maggie’s meddling, and, unbelievably, they fall in love after a single non-date and one spontaneous kiss. Before they can move forward, however, Grace must deal with her daddy issues while Sam works through his grief. The pair rarely get a scene without Maggie present, and their relationships with her are far better developed than their flimsy romance with each other. The festive Christmas atmosphere softens the disappointment, but this is still best suited only for the most devoted series fans. Agent: Richard Curtis, the Curtis Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Pretty Little Lion

Suleikha Snyder. Sourcebooks Casablanca, $8.99 mass market (312p) ISBN 978-1-72821-500-6

Snyder’s sharp and steamy paranormal romance expands the politically driven alternate reality introduced in Big Bad Wolf, perhaps biting off more than it can chew. This time the game is spy versus spy. With a potentially disastrous weapon on the black market, Elijah Richter, a lion shifter and cofounder of the supernatural vigilante organization Third Shift, goes undercover to infiltrate the criminal enterprise of Mirko Aston—and the mogul’s Indian celebutante girlfriend, Meghna Saxena-Saunders, is his way in. But Meghna is a far more practiced seducer than the earnest British-Jamaican Elijah. As an apsara, a Hindi supernatural gifted in the art of charm, Meghna’s used to exploiting relationships to get close to her targets. The attraction between them is credible, but rather than focus on that tension, the story diffuses its attention across myriad subplots, including an equally steamy and possibly even more poignant one about a triad between fellow Third Shift loyalists. Jumping between perspectives and story lines, the narrative takes on a chaotic, stream of consciousness feel that can be hard to follow. Still, Snyder delivers a frothy mixture of sex, lies, and espionage, punctuated by well-executed, fevered couplings. With so much going on, some readers will struggle to keep up, but others will revel in the sexy mayhem. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Lady Gets Lucky

Joanna Shupe. Avon, $8.99 mass market (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-304505-7

Shupe entices with her second Gilded Age–set Fifth Avenue Rebels romance (after The Heiress Hunt). Handsome charmer Christopher “Kit” Ward meets Alice Lusk at a Newport house party. Eager to escape the clutches of her overbearing mother, Alice knows she must marry, but she hopes to marry for love, not the lure of her large dowry. In exchange for “certified scoundrel” Kit’s tutelage on how to attract a man, Alice agrees to give Kit recipes from famed chef Angelo Franconi for the grand opening of Kit’s supper club, having memorized many of Franconi’s dishes when he worked for her family. As Kit teaches Alice the art of flirtation, he finds himself seduced by her intelligence, beauty, and passion for cooking. Though Alice’s family discourages her dreams of becoming a chef, once back in New York City, Kit’s business partner requests Alice’s services for the club’s preview dinner, and Alice agrees so long as her identity is kept secret. Meanwhile, Alice garners the attention of the Duke of Lockwood, forcing Kit to choose between taking a chance at love or losing Alice to another man. Shupe enhances the relationship between these candid, intelligent characters with sensual, emotional love scenes. The simmering romantic tension keeps the pages flying. Agent: Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Rebel

Kendall Ryan. Kendall Ryan, $14.99 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-952036-04-0

Ryan (Playing for Keeps) launches her Looking to Score series with a steamy story full of delicious detail that’s light on angst. Eden Wynn is a wealthy girl from the right side of town, and though Holt Rossi has harbored a crush on her for years, he’s never felt worthy of her. When their one college hookup ends with Eden leaving him a note that reads, “This was a mistake,” Holt’s worst fears are confirmed. Years later, Eden inherits her grandfather’s hockey team and must publicly cope with the fact that her ex, Alex Braun, is one of her players. Just when things couldn’t get more stressful, her team hires Holt as her new security detail. The last thing Eden needs is a relationship tied to her work, but Holt still has feelings for the girl that got away, and soon enough Eden realizes that she made a mistake all those years ago. Ryan keeps the focus on the feelings rather than action, and the result is a soothing escape that more than makes up for its lack of twists and turns with endearing characters, sizzling sex scenes, and an emotion-driven plot. This is the literary equivalent of comfort food. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Not Your Average Hot Guy

Gwenda Bond. Griffin, $16.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-77174-2

Bestselling YA author Bond (Dead Air) makes her adult debut with an entertaining paranormal rom-com and duology launch. Recent college grad Callie is left in charge of her family’s escape room business while her mother is away. But what was supposed to be a quiet weekend with her best friend, Mag, takes an unexpected turn when a Satanic cult steals an occult prop from one of the rooms, revealing it to be the real deal. Callie and Mag are unwittingly pulled into the cult’s plan to summon a demon—the handsome, leather-jacketed Luke Morningstar. Snarky Luke, the Prince of Hell and son of Lucifer himself, is on a trial run collecting souls for his father, but he’s instantly taken with fierce Callie. The cult, not content with mere demon-raising, works to start the apocalypse, and Luke and Callie must team up to stop them, giving rise to conflicted yet steadily mounting feelings. Luke and Callie’s romance is more sweet than sultry, leaving plenty of room for crossover appeal to Bond’s YA fans, though the tone can sometimes feel a bit young for adult readers. The paranormal elements are stronger than the love story, coupling familiar occult references with imaginative depictions of Hell. The result is fun, light, and funny. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Rock Star’s Guide to Getting Your Man

Ashlyn Kane. Dreamspinner, $16.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-64405-993-7

With this diverting contemporary romance, Kane (Fake Dating the Prince) reconnects rocker Jeff Pine with Carter Rhodes, his former BFF and unrequited crush, after 15 years apart. Jeff returns to his hometown of Willow Sound to avoid his band’s looming album deadline, find himself, and make peace with his past. He gets distracted from these goals when he and wholesome workaholic Carter, “Canada’s dreamiest park ranger,” reunite and fall in love. Kane gives the men plenty of issues to deal with, from attending Carter’s father’s funeral and Carter breaking his foot on a nature outing, to Jeff potentially going away on tour and planning to leave his label. Kane breaks up the story into lessons learned by Jeff along the way (“Lesson Four: The Truth Will Set You Free but in, Like, Absolutely the Most Terrifying and Inconvenient Way Possible”). It feels like an unnecessary framework; far more successful are the clever media reports interspersed throughout, which add detail and shading to Jeff’s characterization. This romance is best when the guys slow down and enjoy the quiet life, having campfire nights rather than grappling with the paparazzi, so it’s disappointing when the band’s drama overtakes the story’s second half. Still, there’s plenty of charm to this second chance romance. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Love and Lotus Blossoms

Anne Shade. Bold Strokes, $19.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-63555-985-9

Shade (Masquerade) imbues this optimistic story of lifelong self-discovery with a refreshing amount of emotional complexity, delivering a queer romance that leans into affection as much as drama, and values friendship and familial love as deeply as romantic connection. Janesse “Ness” Philips’s teenage exploration of her sexuality with Nikki Carter, the boyish girl-next-door, settles into a best friendship that defies Ness’s mother’s deep-seated homophobia. Nikki supports Ness through her on-and-off flirtation with mutual male friend Justin and her mentor-with-benefits relationship with well-connected Keisha. But the romance that continuously draws Ness back throughout her life is that with fashion stylist Maya Lawson, who keeps reappearing despite the relationship mistakes made on both sides. Shade’s well-drawn Black cast and sophistication in presenting a variety of relationship styles—including open relationships and connections that shift between romance and friendship—creates a rich, affirming, and love-filled setting that bolsters Ness and Maya’s true love arc. Throughout the long time frame, which follows Ness from her high school years into her 50s, Shade communicates both bountiful energy and stable comfort. Readers of all ages will easily find many moments that resonate along Ness’s journey. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Anne Ever After

Lynne Marshall. Lynne Marshall, $2.99 e-book (158p) ASIN B08VF6M2J4

Marshall (the Fortunes of Texas series) launches the Return to Whispering Oaks series with an earnest second chance romance. Nurse Anne Grady heads home to Whispering Oaks, Calif., to care for her parents after a motorcycle accident. Her visit reunites her with Jack Lightfoot, the math teacher and volunteer fireman who saved her parents’ lives—and broke Anne’s heart 12 years ago. The pair were once two parts of a tight-knit trio rounded out by Brianna, Anne’s best friend and Jack’s girlfriend. Their strong teenage connection led them to kiss behind Brianna’s back. It meant the world to them both, but before they could confess their feelings, Brianna was diagnosed with cancer, compounding their guilt and leading them never to speak of their potential romance again. This intense backstory saves the otherwise paint-by-numbers plot as Anne and Jack wrestle with and are bonded by their grief and regret. Their connection reignites over hiking trips, roller blading excursions, and hot air balloon rides, but unfortunately their personalities remain sketchy at best and their will-they-won’t-they is resolved not through introspection or personal growth but via a convenient act of god when Jack’s life is endangered. Still, readers will appreciate the romantic dates and heartfelt emotional core. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/06/2021 | Details & Permalink

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