For many, the approach of Labor Day (or as some parents put it, "Independence Day") signals the end of summer. The end of August is bittersweet; on one hand, it's sad to start packing away the beach gear, but on the other, the start of the school year means that some of you will soon have a lot more free time to read. With that in mind, I thought I'd wrap up the summer by sharing my own favorite romance reads from the past few months.
I've encountered more than the usual number of spectacular titles this summer. My personal tastes in romance lean towards historicals (mainly regencies) and the occasional urban fantasy, but I've been pushing myself this year to read out of my comfort zone and try a wider variety of romance's subgenres. Regencies are still my favorites, but my wider reading has definitely unearthed a few gems that will keep me reading outside my usual categories. (I have yet to warm to western romance, but if anyone has recommendations, I'd be happy to hear them.)
All of these titles belong to (or begin) series, but I believe they'd all work well as standalones. I've put them in date order, not order of like (honestly, it would be too hard to choose precedence here). Without further ado, here's the best of what I read this summer....
1: Lecia Cornwall, The Secret Life of Lady Julia (2, Lynton Family trilogy)
The story: Julia Leighton's life was once everything a young lady of quality could wish: she was the daughter of earl, engaged to a duke from childhood, and soon to be married. But that was last year, before her husband-to-be died. Before her father cast her out for throwing away her virtue on another man at her own betrothal ball. Now she is merely the paid companion to a diplomat's sister. But Julia is not the sort to wallow in self-pity; she knew there would be consequences to her actions. Her lover, Thomas Merritt, made her feel beautiful for the first time in her life, and their encounter gifted her with an infant son whom she adores.
Now she accompanies the Ives family to Vienna for the peace negotiations in the wake of Napoleon's defeat. Her employer is kind, and Major Lord Stephen Ives, his brother, pays her flattering attention. But Vienna is a hotbed of intrigue and scandal, and a chance overheard conversation may lead Julia to play a greater-- and more dangerous-- role than she ever imagined.
Thomas Merritt and his valet are on their way to Vienna, too, where the crowned heads-- and their jewels-- are meeting to decide Europe's fate. Once a gentleman, he now has little more left to him than charm, and he must steal to survive. His target at Julia's betrothal ball was the lady's jewels; he never expected to lose his heart. He certainly never expected to discover scruples. Unable to steal from her but unable to stay, he fled London, never knowing what he left behind. He certainly never expected the lady to be the only thing standing between him and the hangman's noose....
Why I loved it: The emphasis here is definitely on the historical; the Congress itself is as much a character here as any of the people. The glamourous excesses and clever political maneuverings that signalled the close of Napoleon's reign will appeal to fans of historical fiction as well as romance. (In fact, Julia and Thomas don't even meet again until halfway through the book.) The author weaves real historical figures together with her own fantastically layered fictional characters, bringing the setting of the Vienna Peace Conference to life in all its magnificent glitter and intrigue.
The lead characters are compelling. Julia is brave and smart, and she's learned the hard way what's truly of value. She has a son now; can she really trust her future to a rogue? Thomas has flaws-- big ones-- but he also has a depth of character that even he's surprised to discover. He longs for redemption, even as he fears himself beyond all hope of it. And then there's Major Lord Stephen, who wrestles with his growing feelings for Julia. Her vengeful family could destroy his career, but he's coming to love and respect her deeply. If she already has his heart, could he, in honor, offer less than his name?
Together, the three of them are thrown into the deep end of a suspenseful, twisty plot. Look for a gripping, multi-tissue ending, and an epilogue that will get you right in the throat.
2: Tessa Dare, Any Duchess Will Do (4, Spindle Cove)
The story: The Duke of Halford has been abducted... by his own mother. Tired of his bachelor ways and determined to see him do his duty by the title, the indomitable duchess has brought him to the infamous "Spinster Cove" and demanded that Griffin choose a woman. ANY woman.
Griff is just as determined never to marry, for reasons of his own. But to teach his mother a lesson and end her scheming once and for all, he chooses the lady LEAST likely: Pauline Simms, Spindle Cove's barmaid. To clinch the deal, he offers Pauline a fortune to fail his mother's "duchess training"... but once he gets to know her, will he really want her to leave?
Pauline doesn't have a high opinion of "the quality" and no desire at all to be a duchess. She knows she's not fairy tale material. She's not eager to leave Spindle Cove, either, but it's only for a week-- and Griffin York's money could buy her a lot of things. Specifically, the circulating library of her dreams, which would mean independence for her and her sister. All she has to do is the same thing that's been expected of her all her life: fail. Oh, and resist the duke....
Why I loved it: I've loved Tessa Dare from the start for her witty banter, her strong, smart heroines, and her charming, swoon-worthy heroes. She's not one to neglect a lively, three-dimensional supporting cast, either. I feel like she's really hit her stride with the Spindle Cove series, and Duchess is no exception. Very few things in this story follow the expected route. Pauline is no hidden swan-in-waiting-- she is very clearly (and hilariously) a duck, who gets continuously reminded why she could never fit in Griff's world. But Pauline is also brave and witty and perfectly secure in what she is, despite the Ton's genteel derision. The high-handed, calculating duchess isn't as ruthless as she seems; she hopelessly yearns for a grandchild to love. Though I tried to hate her, she turned into one of my favorite characters in the book (and thanks to her, I will never think of knitting the same way again). And the arrogant, debauched duke... well, he's about to discover that breeding is no true measure of worth. And that he really does have a heart worth losing. (Have tissues. Lots of them.)
3: Anne Calhoun, Unforgiven (1, Walker's Ford)
The story: Adam Collins left Walker's Ford under a cloud: as a teenager, his recklessness broke Marissa Brooks' heart and caused a fellow student's death. Seeking penance, he took the dead boy's place in the Marines, hoping their discipline could tame the demons within him. Twelve years later, he's back to serve as the best man at his friend's wedding to Adam's ex-fiancee, Delaney Walker (daughter of the founding family). And within a half-hour of his return, it's painfully clear that his old attraction to Marissa hasn't died.
Marissa has had her own demons to fight. When Adam left, she stayed, pinned to Walker's Ford by the weight of her family legacy. Her father died broke trying to reclaim their ancestral home, and her own small dreams died with him. Now she's days away from achieving her father's dream, hosting the wedding of the decade at a fully restored Brookhaven. She doesn't have time for Adam, and she doesn't believe he'll stay, anyway. So why can't she stay away from him?
If Adam has any hope for a future in Walker's Ford, he's got to come to terms with the past. He needs to ask forgiveness from those he's hurt, and find the courage to forgive himself. And above all, he wants to give the girl of his dreams the chance to achieve her own. With him... or without him.
Why I loved it: This is a powerful, intense, deeply moving story about failed dreams, second chances, and forgiveness. It's as much a study of the characters' emotional growth and renewal as it is about their relationship. (And it manages all that without being preachy or cloying.) The chemistry between Marissa and Adam is downright explosive, and there are plenty of small-town secrets and jealousies to further complicate the plot. There's some intriguing role reversal, too-- Adam's a Marine, but Marissa's definitely the "tough guy" of the pair, the one who's learned how to shrug off her emotions and do what needs to be done. And Adam is the one who's willing to sacrifice what he wants so that Marissa can spread her wings. This book destroyed me, and I almost despaired of a happy ending. It stayed with me a LONG time after I finished it.
4: Sabrina Jeffries, What the Duke Desires (1, The Duke's Men)
The story: (This is straight from the back cover, which sums it up better than I could.) "Maximilian Cale, the Duke of Lyons, long ago buried his grief for his missing elder brother, Peter, who was presumed dead after being kidnapped. When a mysterious note arrives from Tristan Bonnaud asserting that the Duke's brother is alive, it leads Max straight to the winsome Lisette Bonnaud, illegitimate daughter of a viscount and Tristan's sister. Soon he and Lisette are traveling to Paris posing as husband and wife, in search of Tristan, who has disappeared. And the longer he spends with Lisette, the easier it is for Max to see that the line between dukedom and desire is easier to cross than he imagined..."
Why I loved it: Sabrina Jeffries is a queen of witty banter: "Forgive me, madam, it appears that you and I got off on the wrong foot." "You got off on the wrong foot. I merely watched you shove it into your mouth." It's delightful to watch two people with so much chemistry fight SO HARD against falling in love. They're both used to keeping people at arm's length (and have good reasons for doing so) but they're also clearly capable of deep caring-- after all, concern for their missing siblings is what got them each into this mess. The double mysteries of Peter's old kidnapping and Tristan's recent disappearance keep the plot ticking along nicely, and the ending is a real page-turner. And there's a bonus-- Eugene Vidocq, the father of modern criminology, is also a character in the book (as the Bonneaud siblings' mentor).
5: Laura Florand, The Chocolate Touch (4, Amour et Chocolat)
The story: Dominique Richard is the bad boy of Paris's top chocolatiers. He has a rough past, an infamous temper, and a reputation as a womanizer. Even his chocolates are wild-- decadent, exotic pairings of unexpected flavors. On the face of it, American Jaime Corey couldn't be more different-- shy, tired, and alone... a woman with painful secrets. Damaged, but recovering. Day after day, she comes to Dom's salon to sample his confections, letting the vitality of his creations heal her spirit. Day after day, Dom watches her return for more... as if she can't get enough of him. If she really knew him, of course, she would never come back. But perhaps he's ready to take that chance, in order to know her.
Why I loved it: This follows the pattern of all of Florand's Amour et Chocolat books: French master confectioner + woman associated with the food industry = romance. Really, I don't know why someone hasn't hit on this combination before. Consider all of the passion, persistence, drive, and focus (as well as patience, creativity, and exquisite attention to detail) that a top chef requires to excel in his position. Now imagine him bringing all of those qualities to bear on a woman. Add the ability (the need, really) to cook for her and feed her. Oh, and chocolate, of course-- decadent, exquisite, fanciful delights of chocolate from his own hands. (Seriously, I can't read this series without having plenty of good-quality chocolate to hand. And pastries. How are French women not the size of houses?)
I ADORED Dom with his big, tough, leather-jacket outsides and his hurt-little-boy, marshmallowy insides (okay, so I have a thing for wounded Beasts). Jaime was an amazing lead, too, with her complex (HA! understatement) family issues and wounded-warrior past. I loved that the author could take two people with so much pain in their pasts and give them a strong, supportive relationship WITHOUT tipping them over into co-dependence. Speaking of support, the supporting cast is great, too-- Dom's staff, of course, but also the neatly self-contained cameos of characters from some of her other books. Délicieux, indeed.
6: Erin Quinn, The Five Deaths of Roxanne Love (1, The Beyond)
The story: Roxanne Love and her twin brother Reece share something no one in their family likes to talk about: they're freaks. Three times in the past they've both died, and three times they've inexplicably, miraculously come back to life. Roxanne doesn't know why or how it happens. She doesn't exactly WANT to die. She just wants a normal life, and when the inevitable happens (again), she wants to stay dead like a normal person. Now a strange cop has walked into her family's bar, and won't stop staring at her. She knows, because she can't stop staring at him, either. He's dark and sexy, but she can't shake this ominous feeling around him-- that, with his arrival, something really bad is about to happen.
The Reaper assigned to collect Roxanne's soul wants exactly the same thing she does. He's frustrated; he's been cheated of his prey three times already. This time, he means to make sure that her next death is her last. He's taken the body of a suicidal cop named Santo, and he's going to take care of her personally. But his borrowed humanity comes with unexpected complications-- like emotions, and regret, and a strange fascination with the very woman he's meant to take. Nor is Santo the only one hunting Roxanne and her brother. Something has followed them back from the Other Side. Something evil. Something hungry. And there's a lot more where it came from....
Why I loved it: This book has great worldbuilding, visceral description, and molten-hot chemistry from the get-go, and the characters are surprisingly relatable. It's easy to get into Roxanne's head; death issues aside, she's a pretty normal person and has a hard time accepting all the strange stuff going on. She's powerfully attracted to Santo, but wary, too-- he freaks her out.
The Reaper is as dark, broody, and powerful as any paranormal fan could want, but he's also confused and severely limited by the human form he's borrowed. His supposedly simple job-- reap Roxanne, and make it stick this time-- has turned into a mess of difficult questions. Roxanne keeps escaping him-- but why? He realizes what's after her-- but how can he stop it? And why is he so determined to save her, anyway, when killing her is his ticket out of this mess?
The plot is chock full of secrets and lies and hidden motives, and it quickly becomes hard to tell who's trustworthy. (Even Santo isn't. Or IS he?) The subplot with Reece, Roxanne's twin, adds tension and complexity to an already twisty, suspenseful plot.
(note: Some of these descriptions are adapted from my own Goodreads reviews.)