Snowstorm Seduction: Stranded with the Rancher

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Stranded with the Rancher coverOne of the challenges of romance is getting your couple together, and keeping them together until propinquity kicks in, in a short period of time. A favourite device for this is weather enforced isolation. I do this in my Romance One, where a rainstorm and bridge washout leave my couple stranded and alone. I was worried this might be an outdated plot device, but it is still in use, as in Stranded with the Rancher, a 2018 Harlequin Western Romance by the prolific Rebecca Winters (a pseudonym). 

Wyatt is a sheep rancher and volunteer fire-fighter. A decade ago, he fell in love with Jenny. They planned to marry after she turned eighteen, but she miscarried, and her strict parents moved, taking her with them. Wyatt has always wondered what happened to her, and after seeing a friend reconnect with his high-school sweetheart, he hires a lawyer to try and find Jenny. Why a lawyer and not a private investigator is not clear, and even the lawyer asks, but Wyatt says he wants the lawyer to take care of things.

This sounds like the set-up for a second chance story, but then we meet Alex.

Alex is a New York City journalist, writing for a prestigious food industry trade magazine. She’s happily single after breaking an engagement six years ago to a fiance who called her too needy, and she likes her work, which keeps her busy. She’s just back from Florida, and traveling to Wyoming to interview sheep ranchers. She’s busy, but starting to wonder if there’s enough excitement in her life.

Alex’s research leads her want to interview Wyatt, but he’s up in the mountains. Wyatt’s grandfather arranges for her to get a ride up to the camp, so she can do her interview, come back the next day, and get her flight home.

There’s a storm coming. Heavy rain overnight turns to snow, and Wyatt and Alex are stranded for several days. There’s not much to do except talk, about things like their respective pasts, and their mutual awareness that Wyatt’s grandfather was playing matchmaker. Hanging over their potential relationship is Alex not wanting to be too clingy, and Wyatt thinking about Jenny.  A hired hand, his dog, and a wounded ewe add conversational and plot colour, and we learn a lot about sheep ranching. (In my last review, I criticized some details about camping trailers, a subject I know well. I know nothing about sheep ranching, so have no idea how accurate these details are.)

The storm clears about half way through the book, and the pace and tone shifts as Wyatt and Alex return to the real world. Alex has her job, and Jenny has been found. These obstacles are resolved, and I particularly liked how the relationship with Jenny is handled. Unfortunately, the ending is a long time coming, delayed by a climax involving a secondary character, and then an epilogue that is too sweet for me.

Wyatt is a great hero. He’s good looking, well-read, polite, cooks well, works hard, loving, family oriented, sentimental…almost too good to be true. And he’s wounded, having lost his family when he was five, then his child to a miscarriage, and then his girlfriend. He’s not afraid to seek out professional help – a refreshing portrayal of masculinity. To some extent, he is rescued by Alex, in that their relationship helps him come to terms with his past, but the narrative does not give all the work to her – he does some himself, and so does his grandfather. The story justifies why he is still single – often a problem with great heroes.

Alex is a little less satisfying. Whereas Wyatt is wounded, Alex has a case of ennui, perhaps with a little biological clock ticking. Although there’s a strong conservative tone in the outcome, she does keep her job, and there are story elements criticizing strict conservative morality. She’s capable in the storm, which is consistent with the variety of conditions she has presumably endured as a journalist.

The heat level is sweet, with ample sexual tension, and while the characters are financially comfortable, they are close enough to ordinary to be sympathetic. The relationship is a little less mutual than I like, but overall this story checks all my boxes for an enjoyable read – and reassures me that stranding my couple in a storm is a plot device that can work, at least in capable hands.

Campground Love: Hometown Girl Again

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Hometown Girl Again - coverThis book and the next I’ll be discussing have several aspects in common with my Romance One draft. It’s reassuring to see this, because it lets me know that my ideas are well within the genre. For example, in Stranded with The Rancher (next post), it’s a storm that brings together and isolates the couple (as in my Romance One), and some time passes between the initial meet, and the realization that they belong together, a plot timing I like to use. However, if there are too many similarities, I start to worry that I need to change my story.  In Hometown Girl Again, Katherine is starting a campground after inheriting property, and running into several challenges. The heroine of my Romance One is also starting a campground after inheriting property, and running into some similar challenges.

Fortunately, there are several differences. Most significantly, Hometown Girl Again is a second chance romance, which I’ve never considered drafting. And Alex, a wounded vet, is nothing like my hero. Katherine is starting a glamping park – she’s restoring vintage trailers, updating them with modern conveniences like toilets and air conditioners, and renting them out for people who want a retro camping experience without all the hassle of being hot or buying a sleeping bag. (There are several effective descriptions of how uncomfortably hot it is, and, since there are heat warnings here, I sympathize.)

My heroine is more interested in accommodating tent campers, but both stories include the realities of running a campground, which I enjoy reading and writing about (also see my review of What We Find for a fringe benefit of running a campground). Katherine and my heroine inherit their properties in different ways, and my heroine has to mortgage the property to pay for the campground construction – leaving her vulnerable to an unscrupulous lender. Yes, she falls for the man who has come to repossess the property. Don’t worry, he’s actually a decent sort and it all works out.

I really should finish that book.

Anyway.

Hometown Girl Again is a 2017 book by Kirsten Fullmer, from Augustine Press. They publish independent authors (whatever that means), don’t seem to have website, and perhaps they are responsible for the cover illustration that incorrectly features a modern trailer.

Katherine grew up poor, without a father, lived with her mother until her mother died, and now does nothing except work as a librarian. She does not appear to have any goals or hobbies, and does not date. When an uncle she barely knew dies, she inherits significant cash and a large piece of property, outside the small town her mother is from. While spending a summer there with her uncle, ten years ago when she was nineteen, she fell in love with Alex, but he left the town and her to join the army. Now he’s back in town too, wounded, and working as an electrician.

Katherine cannot sell the property she inherits until she has lived on it for ten years (the old “will with conditions” plot element). The portion she inherits does not include the house – that portion went to another relative – and she wants to invest the money she’s received, to provide future income. She decides to quit her job, learn how to restore vintage trailers, and turn the property into a glamping park where people can stay in vintage trailers. On the one hand, I love Katherine’s can do spirit, and the details about trailers, having owned a tent trailer and a motor home. On the other hand, it took a lot of suspension of disbelief to accept that someone who has apparently never so much as replaced a door, or has any interest in household maintenance, would decide to rebuild trailers. Even basic repairs like fixing a drawer are considerably more complicated in a trailer, which I know from having owned a tent trailer and a motor home, and spent a lot of time and money fixing them.

Katherine is strong, independent, resourceful, and smart, and she buys her trailers partly restored, but I’m wondering why she decided to restore vintage trailers for a glamping park when there does not seem to be anything in her past or character that would suggest this as an interest. This seems like a character issue with an easy fix. Katherine even owns a copy of The Long Long Trailer, which suggests some previous interest in RV living, but that’s not mentioned when the campground idea is introduced, and it could have been.

Fullmer, like her character, has obviously done research on trailers, and she knows installing an air conditioner in a trailer that never had one is not an easy job. Despite all the great details on trailers, there are several unfortunate errors, such as references to wheel chalks, which should be wheel chocks, and Katherine mentions that her recently acquired 1950s era Spartan Royal Mansion (a real trailer model, and as described) is the same trailer as in the film The Long Long Trailer, when in fact the trailer in that film is a (similar) Redman Champion New Moon.

By PunkToad from oakland, us (1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spartan Trailer, courtesy PunkToad from oakland, us (1954 Spartan Imperial Mansion) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The-Long-Long-Trailer

New Moon trailer, in a scene from The Long Long Trailer, 1954, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

Katherine needs to get the park built, which includes installing power at the sites. And there’s only one electrician in town. Actually, two, but Alex’s dad assigns Alex to the job, because everyone in town wants Alex and Katherine to get back together. Putting in the power is a couple of weeks’ work, which is lots of time for our couple to rediscover their attraction for each other. The course of true love is helped by Alex’s new therapy dog, and shared close-quarters tasks such as installing air conditioners in trailers that never had them.

Katherine and Alex have trust issues, with each other, and in general, but there are never any major obstacles to their relationship. The writing is generally flows well, and I love the line “Made no never-mind to him.” Last heard that expression in the film Paper Moon. The dialogue is crisp, although several times characters agree by saying “Rodger” instead of the more common “roger.” The sexual tension is handled well, with humour, and remains sweet. As in many romances, there’s praise for families, but also acceptance of less traditional family structures. For example, Alex’s parents are divorced, but it’s no big deal. The story of Katherine’s missing father is handled with an interesting mix of liberal and conservative attitudes, but, relative to current attitudes on display in the United States, it’s a hopeful example of compassion and open-mindedness.

There are a few small plot holes. For example, it’s not clear what Katherine does for food while she is living at the campground and apparently not coming into town, and since the property has neither water nor electricity, I’m wondering how she has internet access to set up her website. The details of using a generator and bottled water are appreciated, but underscore the lack of information regarding food and internet. However, the larger plot structures and the character development are solid. (This is where my story is weak. It helps me to read how similar story elements, such as a repair in close quarters, or settling down to watch a movie, are used to advance a plot and a relationship). Although fifth in a series, the references to other stories are subtle.

Overall, this is a gentle sweet romance, sentimentally pro-family but not obnoxiously so, with two people whose relationship helps them heal wounds and achieve individual goals. That’s how I like my romances. The story telling is strong enough to distract me from my usual suspicions of second chance stories. I’ll have to check out the other books in the series, and by the author, though I suspect the campground setting of this one will make it my favourite. I also liked seeing how another author handled setting up a campground, and that my own campground romance is a different path to the happy ending.

Angel, Brawn, and Brains

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I’m still catching up on reviews, after a few weeks of much reading and not much writing, so three for the click of one today. All were cheap purchases for inflight reading, from my local used book store. None were great, but all helped make flying easier.

prestonSatan’s Angel, by Fayrene Preston, is from 1991, and was published under the Bantam books Loveswept imprint. Nicholas Santini, who goes by Satan, runs a small airplane company. Two of his pilots recently died in separate crashes, testing a new plane, and his confidence is shaken. He’s driving back from the funeral of one when he takes a wrong turn, then crashes his Ferrari in remote Paradise, Oregon. Disoriented, he’s rescued by a woman called Angel, and she brings him to her house to recover.

Angel is an orphan, who lives a quiet life fixing appliances and doing home repairs. She also takes in stray dogs, gives good advice to acquaintances, and, thanks to her name, has a large collection of Angel figures given to her as gifts. When the injured man called Satan kisses her to find out if she is real, passion is awakened.

Yes, as is typical in older books, she’s a virgin. And her appearance, angelic nature, and caring is uber feminine. On the other hand, she’s independent, lacks nothing, and is equally comfortable re-roofing a house, fixing a toaster, and patching up an old car. The story starts with her rescuing him, and when things get heated, in the first of a couple of steamy scenes, she’s not looking for promises.

You’re going to be sorry,” he muttered hoarsely against her lips, grasping the zipper in the back of her dress and sliding it down.

His tongue rasped against hers with a sensual abrasion that made the already smouldering fire within her flare and burn hot. She might be badly hurt, she thought, but she would never be sorry. “No I won’t.

The plot is thickened with a suspense subplot, and the climax involves mutual rescue. The angel angle is somewhere between over-obvious and annoying metaphor, and suggestion of paranormal. Satan’s character is less developed than Angel’s, and there’s no mention of birth control or protection, which is a conspicuous omission in a story of this vintage, but this is a pleasant quick read.

simms1From 1992 we have Not His Wedding, by Suzanne Simms, part of the Reluctant Grooms series, from Silhouette. Ross St. Clair is an engineer by training, and has just finished helping villagers build a well, on a remote South Pacific island. On a stroll to watch a sunset, he overhears people making plans to meet a woman at an airport, and get something from her, which may necessitate harming her.

Diane arrives at the Manila airport, and is surprised to be greeted by a rough and dirty man who seems to have come straight from the jungle. He has. He tells her she is in danger. She ignores him, but he follows her to her hotel, cleans up nicely, and manages to talk to her over dinner. She knows the type of man he is – a drifter, completely unlike her fiance, a stable, sensible man, who has been unable to meet her in Manila as he was called away on business.

Is the fiance bad news?  Is the sky blue? I figured out bad guy and the MacGuffin immediately, and I’m not good with suspense plots. However, the plot functions to bring our characters together, and get them to increasingly isolated and romantic locations. Diane’s a virgin, and she really does say “I never dreamed it could be like this,” but there’s a tiny acknowledgement that first sex may not be great. I’m happy to see that, modest as it is. And condoms are not just used, but actually discussed. A little bit.

The title and some of the packaging seems to be more about the series than the story. Ross is not a particularly reluctant groom. He’s not a fan of marriage, but that has a lot to do with his tremendous wealth, which is not revealed until late in the story. Not a spoiler since it’s part of the blurb, and since her wealth is established from the start, this not a case of opposites coming together. The story is essentially rich man rescues rich damsel in distress, and as you know, I’m not that sympathetic to the romantic problems of the wealthy. A few scenes reminded me of the film Romancing the Stone, but neither the characters nor the plot drew me in.

simms2Also from Suzanne Simms is 1994’s The Brainy Beauty. I know, why did I buy something with such an offensive title? I suspect it’s because I pay very little attention to them.

Samantha is a university professor. She has an opportunity to catalog a collection of Egyptian artifacts recently obtained by an eccentric billionaire, but she’ll have to stay at his estate. A narrative leap, but there’s lots of cool tidbits of Egyptian lore. Samantha’s been saddled with a bodyguard, courtesy of a worried uncle, and the explanation for his presence is that he’s a boyfriend.

They get separate but adjoining rooms. There are other characters at the house, and again I was reminded of a film, this time Clue, with elements of bedroom farce (and the estate housekeeper is Mrs. Danvers, with the reference discussed by the characters). Most sexual aspects of the story are very similar to Not His Wedding, right down to the discussion of condoms and some of the touches, as well as her virginity, and eagerness now that the right man has arrived.

However, compared to Not His Wedding, there is more sexual tension, more humour,  more complex characterization, and a more complex suspense plot. Samantha is the stereotypical nerd undergoing sexual awakening (like Hanna in Beautiful Player), and she gets rescued by her bodyguard, but in the course of the story she advances her career, and she takes the lead in defining some aspects of their relationship. Despite the title, overall it was another pleasant quick read.

One Royal Wedding and Four Happy Endings

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hartI’m not sure whether it was a newsletter or a tweet that led me to The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement (2017), by Jessica Hart, but promotions work.  This is the second story in a set of four overlapping stories, by different authors, and I went on to read two of the others.

Max lives in a small English village, looking after a once-grand home, part of a once-grand estate. He was able to rescue the home from his father’s financial scandal, but saved little else, and lost his wife in the process. He sees his children on weekends, remains on civil terms with his ex, and accepts some blame for the marriage ending. So our hero is flawed, brooding, and running a landscaping business to make ends meet.

Flora once had a crush on Max, but he married and she moved on. She moved to London to work as a chef, and live with one, but things did not work out, and she came home to look after her grandfather, and then her grandfather’s cat. Once the cat dies, she can sell the cottage and open a restaurant in London. Meanwhile, she does catering jobs and baking, to the extent she can in her tiny cottage kitchen.

Max’s much younger sister, Hope, is marrying into royalty, and has requested the wedding take place in her home village, with her friend Flora in charge of the catering. Max and Flora work out a deal: She’ll get the use of the large estate house kitchen for her business, in exchange for catering the wedding.  So far things have been relatively gritty and realistic: our couple have pressing financial concerns, difficult pasts, and are now brought together with the common and sensible goal of saving each other money, and ensuring a happy wedding for Hope. It’s a friends become lovers plot, which works well with realistic stories. I can easily forgive one narrative leap: It is sufficiently important to the wedding seating arrangements (and to the protocol mad princess), and therefore to the bride, that Max and Flora have partners at the wedding. To accomplish this, they pretend to be in a relationship. This includes Flora staying with Max when the palace security chief visits, and Flora and Max traveling together (and sleeping together, at first literally) for a pre-wedding planning visit to the principality.

The transition from pretending to be in a relationship to being in a relationship is an easy one to make, but when it comes to making it last there are obstacles, like Flora being a cat person, and Max being a dog person, and Flora’s determination to open her own restaurant in London, while Max is devoted to the family home.

This is a sweet romance, well told, with realistic characters, humour, and moments of pathos. Contemporary English village life is presented with authentic sounding detail, and the overlapping stories ensure secondary characters in this story are themselves complex. There are hints of Gothic in the setting. Hart has led a fascinating life of travel and adventure, and began writing romances to finance her PhD. in Medieval History, so she is able to write with authority on a number of subjects.

westonThe royal wedding is the overall narrative arc for the series, which starts with The Prince’s Bride, by Sophie Weston (a pseudonym for Jenny Haddon). Hope is dealing with her father’s scandal and death by traveling through Europe. While house and dog-sitting in a (fictional) principality, she gets lost in a forest, and is rescued by a handsome ranger, Jonas.

Jonas is a reluctant prince, lawyer in the family firm, and volunteers as a park ranger. He falls for Hope, at least in part because she does not know or care who he is, and he’s reluctant to share that. And she’s reluctant to be with anyone who keeps secrets, or be in the public eye.

Hope’s story is more fairy tale than Max’s. It’s not just the meet of being rescued by a prince in a near magical forest. Jonas and Hope lead relatively charmed lives. While the story is well written, and a little hotter than that of Max and Flora, I found it less appealing. However, I did enjoy the different perspective on the same events, and the additional context on Max’s situation.

fieldingI also read the third book, The Bridesmaid’s Royal Bodyguard, by Liz Fielding.  Ally, a friend of Hope’s, worked for a gossip magazine, but was fired. She’s moved back to her parent’s place in the village, cleans at a local pub, and, at Hope’s request, is handling PR for the wedding. Initially, this means keeping it quiet. She’s also preparing an authorized book about the wedding, and while the sales will benefit a charity Hope is administering, Ally is counting on it to boost her career.

Frederick is head of security for the royal family, and immediately suspicious of a deeply indebted former gossip writer. But she’s the one who publicly greets him as a boyfriend, in order to provide a cover for his early arrival in the village, and kisses him, to stop him from talking.

Ally and Frederick meet and must work together due to Hope’s wedding.  As with Max and Flora, they make up a pair for the wedding seating plan. Ally has financial, career, and trust issues, and Frederick, while free of financial concerns, has trust issues and various wounds, psychological and literal. Despite differences in age and personality, they have more in common with each other than they care to admit, or initially realize, and they assist each other address ghosts in the past (with particularly interesting and refreshing results in one case, and pathos in another). There’s fish out of water humour with Frederick’s introduction to English country life.

Again there is the different perspective on some events, which is entertaining, and the complexity of secondary characters. There are two relationship obstacles that seem a little forced, but I’ll let it go, since the story is otherwise well plotted and well told, with solid characters. I also noted a missed edit – a repeated line – but such is modern publishing. This story is between the fairy tale touch of the first one, and the realism of the second.

mcallisterThe royal wedding happens at the end of the third book, but there is fourth book: The Best Man’s Bride, by Anne McAllister. This is a second chance story, featuring a more peripheral character from the Royal family, and her rock star ex-husband. I have not read this one yet – second chance stories are not my favourites, and I’d just read a set from Donna Alward, but it’s on my list. Online reviews suggest it offers another perspective on events, and is as well plotted as the others. I suspect The Baronet’s Wedding Engagement will remain my favourite of the series, but all are worth reading for the collection of different plots, different perspectives, and different writing styles, exploring aspects of the same event and characters.

I’d really love to see you tonight: Healed with a Kiss

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When I’m writing stories or essays, I listen to light classical music, or Enya. For other online work, such as these posts, my music of choice is soft rock from the 1970s and 1980s. As I started drafting this post, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight,” from 1976, started to play, and it seemed appropriate. Most of the lyrics, and the gentle casual vibe, match the story. Let’s listen.

wilkinsHealed with a Kiss is a 2014 Harlequin Special Edition from prolific writer Gina Wilkins. This is the third in series from the same author, using the same location, but it reads like a stand alone.

Alexis tried to make it big on Broadway, but left the big city, and a boyfriend only interested in the trappings of her career. She bought a small town wedding planning business in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia, and got to work making other couples happy. With a family history of bad marriages, and her own relationship disappointment, she has no interest in romance or marriage.

A major customer is a local inn, run by two sisters and their brother, Logan. Logan was a software entrepreneur, but a bad partnership ruined the business, and he’s content to do landscaping and maintenance at the inn, with some consulting on the side. He’s also had relationship disappointments, and is not interested in romance or marriage.

Alexis and Logan regularly meet when there are weddings at the inn. He complains about the promises she makes to brides, and she complains about his grumpiness. A couple of evenings a month he comes to her place for no strings sex (like the song). He never stays the night, of course. Both are happy with the arrangement, and at first they don’t realize how the arrangement is changing their lives.

This is a comfortable story of a couple discovering they are in love, and being unsure how to react. Nothing more. There’s no initial dislike, the complications are mild, the stakes are low, the sex is discreet, the climactic event is almost trivial, and yet it adds up to a satisfying read, thanks to good writing. Wilkins is skilled at including just the right amount of detail to describe a scene, set a mood, and establish realism. (Several years ago I found His Best Friend’s Wife less satisfying, but noted good use of detail). A key sequence in the book does a great job of showing the relationship develop, and demonstrates that you can throw things at your characters other than rocks. It was delightful to see these two hard-working, equally strong, and somewhat cynical individuals overcome past wounds, and accept that a relationship might work.

Hot Stuff: Beautiful Player

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Beautiful Player coverBeautiful Player is a 2013 novel from Pocket Books, by Christina Lauren, a pseudonym for a pair of writers. The cover blurb promised a hilarious depiction of modern dating. Um, no. This is mostly a collection of steamy scenes that is fun sexual fantasy, wrapped in a deeply conservative plot.

Hanna is a twenty-three-year-old sciences grad student, with no social life or skills, who spends all her time in the lab. She’s dated a bit, but has not had any serious relationships, and wants to focus on school. She does not work, but does not seem to have any debts or money concerns, and lives alone in a Manhattan apartment owned by her parents. Her family pressures her to start dating (hmm), and suggests she contact Will for advice.

Will is a thirty-year-old who looks hot and does something high paying in an office. This is a later book in a series, and apparently he was introduced earlier. Will visited with Hanna’s family a few times when she was a teen, and she developed a crush on him, but they have not seen each other for years. He has a reputation as a player. As the story begins, he is seeing one lady Tuesday nights, and one lady Saturday nights, but starting to find the routine rather dull, and has noticed his friends are settling down (as I said, later book in a series). Will and Hanna meet, and he agrees to help her develop dating skills.

This is a friends become lovers plot; specifically, the variation where the safe friend teaches you how to be a lover, and ceases to be the safe friend. What distinguishes it here is copious amounts of sex, of the female sexual awakening variety.

Hanna is not a virgin, in a nod to contemporary lifestyles, but her sexual experiences have been brief, dull, and limited. She’s a virgin for all narrative intents and purposes. She has a remarkable sexual curiosity, but did not explore it with any past lovers, and until she gets together with Will, her work was her focus. Once she and Will decide to be friends with benefits, she is eager to try every position and act, and suddenly sex seems to her focus. The demands of grad school fade away.

Meanwhile, Will is eager to satisfy her – she has large breasts, and keeps asking about things she’s seen in online porn videos. He’s never been friends with any of the women he’s bedded, so spending non-sexual time with a woman is new to him, but he’s also apparently never been with a woman who needed his help with anything. In other words, he was not attracted to independent women, but infatuated with one who worshipped him years ago, and has come to him for help.

Hanna’s sudden interest in sex seems a little odd, but Will offers the perfect chance for her to explore sexuality without risks or the challenges of a relationship. I can appreciate the appeal of this. What’s troubling though is that Will is not just a sexual tutor, but a lifestyle coach. Will runs every morning, and invites her to join him. At first, she finds this challenging, but she gradually loses a little weight and tones up. Will also asks the girlfriends of his friends to take her shopping for clothing, including better bras. When a guy at a party asks her out, is it her new sexual confidence, or her improved figure and better supported breasts? We know it’s not her apparently impressive research skills.

A happy ending usually means the couple coming together, but in this case I wanted Hanna to thank Will for the sexual initiations, and start her own decade of playing the field. But the story is too conservative for that. Not that I cared much for either of the characters – the assortative mating habits of rich and beautiful people are not that interesting, they have few interests apart from work and sex, and the relationship obstacles here are so minor there are never any doubts. This is nothing like the dating I’ve experienced, or that of younger friends I know. Being friends with benefits has challenges and awkwardness, which are humourously portrayed here, but all relationships have challenges and awkwardness.

Lauren writes well. There’s lots of fun dialogue, thanks largely to Hanna’s uninhibited manner of speaking, and the sexual tension of escalating acts, though the descriptions themselves get a bit tiresome. Yes, she’s wet, he’s hard…I know. That’s usually how sexual arousal goes. And after the first time they never thought it could be like this, why do they keep getting surprised? The chapters are alternating points of few, which helps maintain reader interest, though I found the use of different typefaces distracting rather than helpful.

I’ve nothing against erotica, but when it’s paired with a very traditional relationship (parents encourage daughter to connect with older man acceptable to family), and the woman’s impressive intellect is considered less attractive than big breasts in a good bra, I begin to suspect I’m being fed candy coated asparagus. A sweet romance of equal partners is ultimately hotter, and more modern, than a sexy tale of a nice girl who reforms the rake.

Second Chances

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Travel, when it comes to my reading and writing, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I get extra reading time. Light reading is a perfect way to pass nervous hours on planes, and during long bus rides. On the other hand, I get less writing time. Although I can write in noisy areas like food courts or coffee shops, I can’t do it on a bus or a plane. Now I need to catch up on reviews – and that’s not procrastination. Honest. I read for pleasure, but also to learn how to write better. True, I’ve been working on Romance One for almost six years, but each revision makes it a better story, and the current set of revisions may be the last. I’m also enjoying the process of building the story. Even if I sell very few copies, a likely outcome, the time is well spent.

Today I’m looking at a set of second chance romances by one of my favourite authors, Donna Alward. I’m not sure why collections like this are called boxed sets – this is strictly an ebook offer. Regardless of what they call it, it’s a great deal, and Alward writes great sweet and semi-sweet romances. Buy it.

The first book is Almost a Family. I previously read and enjoyed that, and it’s reviewed here.

The Girl Most Likely, from 2014, reunites Katie and Ric. Close friends in high school, she turned him down for a prom date, in a humiliating fashion, and they went their separate ways. He grew from gawky math geek to successful but lonely Calgary real estate developer. She struggled through restaurant jobs and an exploitative workplace relationship that left her unemployable. Ten years after high school, she wants to open her own place, and approaches Ric for financing. He agrees, but he’s looking for a new challenge, and proposes they be partners in the project. She wants to make it on her own.Though there is a prior relationship, much of the plot is more friends become lovers than second chance.

Breathe, from 2017, opens with Anna, her baby, and her four-year-old, arriving at the home of Jace. Anna and Jace were teen lovers, but he was the son of an employee at her wealthy family’s winery, and after they broke up she quickly married someone more acceptable to her family. It was an unhappy marriage, but when her husband dies in a boating accident, out with his mistress, Anna needs some time to sort out her feelings. She and Jace have kept in touch, and she thinks a guest house at his winery in BC’s Okanagan area would be the perfect hideaway. Unfortunately, the guest houses aren’t ready. He’s prepared to let her stay in his house, but his bachelor lifestyle is not prepared for children, and he’s always resented her quick marriage.

Sold to the Highest Bidder, also from 2017, stretches the boundaries of second chance stories. Ella and Devin married at eighteen, but when she left town for college, she wrote a letter saying she was not coming back. They have not seen each other for twelve years, and she’s avoided learning anything about him, believing her future happiness means leaving the past behind. She wants a divorce, but he won’t sign the papers. (Where I live, if the other person does not reply to the request for a divorce, it’s granted, but either the law is different in Colorado, or this is a narrative gimmick). When her newspaper sends her to her hometown to cover a medical insurance story, she plans to visit Devin in person, and get the papers signed. And he can’t avoid her if she buys him for the weekend at a charity bachelor auction. He agrees to sign the papers – at the end of the weekend with him. But his reluctance to sign is not just stubbornness.

Alward’s characters, male and female, tend to be wounded. Difficult childhoods abound, compounded by mistakes and assumptions in the early relationships, often organically rising out of the childhoods (and the characters were essentially children when they met – there are elements of YA in these stories). The common situation is a couple re-examining their former relationship with a more mature perspective, but still making mistakes and assumptions. Even the heroes are imperfect, and they don’t outgrow it so much as acknowledge it.

No one here is really broke, but several characters have or had money concerns, and the American set Sold to the Highest Bidder addresses the challenges of getting sick in a country without universal health care. This is part of the gritty realism Alward often incorporates. On the fantasy side, entrepreneurial ventures always seem to work out well. I’m torn between praising the independence of characters (male and female) who make their own success, and wondering if there is a little too much Horatio Alger in romance stories. (Alward is hardly the only writer to do this, and I must confess that both my characters in Romance One are self-employed, and the hero has worked his way out of poverty.)

Although a set, these are all different and discrete stories. There’s no location, location type, or character continuity, and heat levels vary. Breathe has the sexual tension and results you’d expect from former lovers sharing a house, and Sold to the Highest Bidder has a couple of well-integrated bedroom scenes. The Girl Most Likely keeps things sweet, but has a great seduction scene. It’s all the more powerful because it’s not a seduction – at least, not immediately. Sometimes the best seduction is just being a good friend.

There are a few hard to swallow moments, which the characters themselves observe, some playful incidents where Alward is clearly having fun, and few loose ends, but there are also some darker elements, in the past and the present. I’m happy to see a story where children are brats, at least some of the time. Each of these stories has at least one standout aspect to recommend it, and the collection gives a happy variety of variations on the second chance theme. Alward is a former Harlequin writer who now publishes independently, and I suspect that freedom allows her to bring up certain subjects and increase suspense, leading to sweet romances that still have a happy ever after ending, but are more complex, interesting, and ultimately more heartwarming than many of the genre.

Harder to Love a Rich Man: Billionaire’s Forgiveness

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Cover - Billionaire's ForgivenessBillionaire’s Forgiveness is the rest of the story started in Billionaire’s Love, which I just reviewed. Yes, I’m reviewing another recently released book. The world is full of wonders. Brenda Pearson took a couple of years to put this together, but since I only just read her first one, I was spared waiting.

The opening is fabulous, with a disorienting, surprising, and engaging twist on where we left our couple at the end of the previous book. As the excerpt in the previous book suggested, this one has an action/suspense plot, and the romance plot is wrapped up relatively easily. That’s fine, since “will they live?” has much higher stakes than “will they get back together?” In between shootings and explosions there are several steamy scenes – the heat level is significantly higher than the previous book.

We get more character development, which helps explain why the initial relationship had such staying power, and increases character sympathy. There’s more use of the Montreal (and Quebec) setting, too. Max is still an alpha male, but for much of the story he is relatively powerless, which is an interesting angle, and there’s some appreciated role reversal. This does not affect his virility, which is made apparent through not one, but two cliches about fertility, complete with a wink to the reader.

At various times there are hints of romance story lines for other characters, which could become subplots or other books, but none of them get very far, except for one mentioned in the epilogue. The epilogue is longer than they usually are, and in several ways it does not match the rest of the book. There are also a few loose ends, but since an excerpt shows another book starting where this one ends, presumably those will be addressed.

Overall, this is a fun and fast-paced read.

Hard to Love a Rich Man: Billionaire’s Love

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Billionaire’s Love is a 2016 romance novel by Brenda Pearson, from Friesen Press. First, I have to say that I love this cover. A beach at sunset, the pose, minimal detail, and lots of clear space for title and author. And this scene is implicit in events in the book. Great work from Katie Harding Photography.

This is a second chance story. Max and Megan bumped into each other (literally), and it was lust at first sight. It did not last. He dumped her, with a note stating he does not do relationships. Now they are working together, as their respective companies have a joint project. He has realized dumping her was a mistake, and wants to win her back. She’s torn between her ongoing attraction to him (and fond memories) and the memory of his betrayal.

The plot is reasonable, but I had trouble accepting the endurance of the original relationship. It was only two weeks, while both were on vacation, and three years ago. He was her first lover, which heightens the betrayal, but, for both of them, their recollection of the relationship implies something that was longer, more committed, and/or more recent.

The couple are more or less equals, which I like. She’s not a billionaire property developer like him, but moves in the same social and business circles, and she’s not struggling. After being dumped by Max, she finished her degree, got a good job at her parent’s construction company, and bought a condo with a fabulous view, which she shares with a friend – for the company. When stressed, she likes to hang out at a spa. So there’s a touch of lifestyles of the rich, if not famous, going on here.

The good news is that their relationship has no elements of financial necessity. The bad news is that when both characters are wealthy, the stakes are often lower. It’s true that Megan has to work with Max for the benefit of her family’s company, but her choice is not forced by the possible failure of the company or homelessness. Her choice is forced by her pushy brother/boss.

I appreciated the urban and Canadian setting (Montreal), though I would have liked to have seen more of it. I also appreciated that Megan has a male friend, who is close, but just a friend. Max is too aggressive at times, but this book was published a year before #metoo, and relationship creepiness is a common issue in second chance stories. We know that Megan is still attracted to him, but when Max has an opportunity to take advantage of her, he is almost a perfect gentleman (and his actions allow for a couple of touching moments and some erotic tension).

There are some rough spots in the writing. For example, a couple of descriptions seem out-of-place. However, the pacing is strong. As I was reading a paperback version, and not an ebook, it looked like the end might come too quickly and be incomplete, but instead there’s a cliffhanger ending, and the note that this is book 1 of 3. Sneaking a look at the blurb for book 2, Billionaire’s Forgiveness, (recently released) it looks like the relationship plot is complicated by a suspense/action plot, which would also raise the stakes. The blurb also notes that book 2 is the conclusion of the story. From reading Pearson’s blog, it looks like book 2 got lots of editing and review.

This was Pearson’s first book, and it’s a good start. I just purchased book 2, and I’m looking forward to find out more about Max and Megan, as well as seeing what Pearson has added and improved for this story.

Romance One Excerpt: Does this Conversation Work?

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Here’s a longer excerpt from Romance One. I’m still tweaking this, but would love to have your comments.

Darwin arrived at Marianna’s campground earlier in the day. She found him attractive, but unprepared for camping. She’s curious about why he is there, but happy to have a paying customer. He’s there on business – his employer holds a mortgage on her property, and wants the land. He’s not above a little flirting to get information his company can use against her.

This is their first conversation of any significance, and it’s a challenge, as I need to establish the mutual attraction, his duplicity, and her hesitation, and do a little foreshadowing. Does it work?


[Marianna is in the pump house for her well].

Marianna was replacing a clogged filter when it started to rain . She could hear it lightly tapping on the tin roof, slowly increasing in volume and frequency. By the time she had put away the tools and opened the door, it had become a heavy, wind-driven downpour. As she headed for house, she looked over to Darwin’s site. She could not see him, but it looked like there was a light inside his truck. He might be drier sleeping in there, she thought. By the time she reached the house she was soaked through to her underclothes.

She shucked her wet clothes in the kitchen. She put a kettle on the stove, and while it heated she went upstairs to her room, and put on some sweats. The kettle started to whistle as she was heading back down the stairs, and as she entered the kitchen there was a knock at the door. “Just a minute,” she called, turned off the stove, and briefly considered changing. She decided to get the door. Her hope that it was another guest lasted only until she opened the door and saw Darwin in her porch, in a shiny yellow rain poncho that was too thin to last a week. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping to charge up my phone. Given the weather, I can’t use the outlet at the site.”

“No, of course not. Come in. Wait – hang your poncho over to the left there,” she said, indicating a row of hooks in the porch behind him. “I’m just making some tea. Would you like some?”

“That would be warming, thanks.” Darwin hung up his poncho in the porch, and stepped into the kitchen. “Wow – this is gorgeous.” Darwin surveyed the large kitchen. It ran the length of the back of the house, with a wall of windows facing the ocean, above a long counter. The windows and pink cupboards were decades old. A modern fridge and stove along the far wall contrasted with a huge old wood burning stove opposite the windows. “Do you use that,” he asked, pointing at the wood stove.

“Sometimes. If the power goes out, and it’s a good source of heat in the winter. What kind of tea would you like? I’m making herbal for me – hibiscus, but I have others. Please, take a seat at the table.”

“Just regular tea – with lots of sugar, thanks.” Darwin walked over to the table. Where can I plug in my phone?”

The kettle started to whistle. Marianna turned off the stove and poured the tea.  “Sorry, over here.” Darwin walked over to her, close enough that she could smell a mix of the lingering vinyl scent of the poncho and something like a cedarwood soap. He plugged in his phone. She took a step sideways to put a little distance between them.

“This one mine?” he asked, indicating the mug with the brownish tea.

“Yes. I know it’s not a proper tea cup, but I prefer a larger serving.”

“That works for me.”

She poured water into her mug. The water turned bright red. He wrapped a hand around his mug. Large hands, she thought, but that doesn’t mean anything. “Spoons are in the drawer in front of you.” He took a spoon, and offered her one, but she shook her head. “No thanks – never in herbal tea. Sugar’s on the table.”

Darwin crossed the room and sat at the long side of table, in a chair opposite the window. She followed. Definitely works out, she thought.

“You get rain like this much?”

“Not too often. And it usually passes quickly.” She sat down at the short side of the table.

“Oh? You checked the forecast?”

“No,” Marianna said, “But you can’t rely on the forecast here anyway. Sometimes there is heavy rain on one part of the island, and just a light shower next cove over.”

“Must be bad for business, though.”

“Usually when people go camping, they’re prepared for bad weather.”

“And you’re saying I’m not?”

“I don’t get many tent campers, and they’re usually, more…”

“Outdoorsy?”

Marianna blushed. “Well, no offence, but you look like you work in an office, and you didn’t show up on a bike.”

“People do? But yes, you’re right, I do work in an office. I work out, though. How can you tell I work in an office?”

“It’s late summer, and you have no tan. Short hair, neat nails. And a lucky guess.”

“So you were checking me out?”

“I’m in a service business – I need to know my customers.”

He sipped his tea. “Usually campgrounds have a shelter or some something for rainy weather.” A gust of wind splashed water against the kitchen window.

“I’m hoping to build one next year. I was going to this year, but I had to upgrade the water system, which cost more than I was expected, and it’s hard to get bank loans, especially when you are not an established business, and especially when you’re a woman. As it is, my mortgage is with a shady outfit, at a ridiculous rate, but that’s all I could get. I’m hoping to transfer to a more respectable company next year, and that should free up some funds for a picnic shelter.”

Darwin digested this news. Her interest rate was very fair, under the circumstances, but if she thought she could refinance, she might be more resistant to takeover plans.

“What made you decided to start up a campground, especially with the financial challenges?”

“After I finished my marketing degree –“. The light flickered once, a second time, and went out.

“I guess I can’t charge my phone now.”

“It may not be out very long. I’ve got a generator if it is. For now, I’ll light candles.” Marianna got up and went over to the counter.

“I’ll help.”

“No need. I just need to get a match – there’s already candles beside the table.”

“So this happens a lot too?”

“No, I just like using candles.” She got up, moved some candles from a shelf to the table, walked over to the stove, and returned with a long match. She lit the candles, put the match on the stove, and sat down again.

“Now isn’t this romantic?” said Darwin. “I’m a lucky guy – just got here, and I’m already enjoying a candlelit evening with a beautiful woman.”

Marianna felt the heat of her blushing, and was grateful it was too dark for him to notice. Her hair was a ragged mess from the rain, and she was wearing worn sweats. But no one had shared her bed since that French cyclist at the beginning of the summer, and the season was almost over. Darwin was a little odd but seemed decent. The changed light made him look more rugged, and his stubble was noticeable. “Just trying to show you some good old fashioned Cape Breton hospitality.”

“So you’re from here?”

“No. My family’s from here. I’m from Toronto, but my mother was from here. This was my grandmother’s place, and I used to come here in the summers. I moved out here a couple of years ago, and started turning it into a campground. What about you? How far have you travelled to get here?”

“I’m working in Toronto now, “said Darwin, “but I’m actually from down Yarmouth way. Moved to Toronto when I was 17, and never looked back.”

“So I left the corporate world, and you sought it out.”

“Looks that way. But tonight we are both here. Funny how that happens.” Darwin reached over, gently took her hand, and started stoking his thumb across her palm. She looked up at him, but he was looking out the window. He turned to her, smiled, and took a sip of tea. She smiled at him and took a sip. Another gust of wind splashed water against the windows. The lights flickered on and Marianna jumped up. She picked up her mug with both hands.

“Well, there we go. Power again.” She walked over to the counter, feeling foolish. He was charming enough, but as pleasant as it might be, she didn’t need a one night stand with a pale gym rat who probably wanted to share her bed because he thought it was a better option than a tent in a storm.

“I think the rain is slowing,” said Darwin. He got up and walked around to the window. “Yes, it’s clearer now, and I’ve taken enough of your evening. I can just leave the phone here, if that’s okay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks for the tea.” He bought his mug to the counter, then checked his phone for messages and texts. “No signal. I guess with the power outage it might take a while to restore cell service. Your website said you have internet service, but I’m not picking up Wi-Fi.”

“I don’t have it yet. The internet is a shared computer up front, but it uses the cell service for internet, so until the cell network is back there’s no internet.”

“Well, I wanted a vacation. Guess I can get some reading done. Thanks for the tea.” He opened the door to the porch and put on his poncho.

“You’re welcome. Hope you have a good night and keep dry.”

“You too. I mean, I’m sure you’ll keep dry, but have a good night.” He opened the outer door, and Marianna was relieved to see the rain had almost stopped. She waved as he closed the outer door, then closed the inner door, and leaned her back against it. She touched her palm where Darwin had stroked, and smiled. His phone buzzed. She walked over to the counter, and saw New Message, from Carla, the words “miss you” and a heart. It was only there an instant before the phone locked and the screen went blank.

Just another pig, she thought. It’s a good thing the power came back on before that went any further. She considered calling him back to tell him there was message, but decided against it. He could get his damn message in the morning.