Luke Hamilton has been living as man since, her mother died when she was 12. Guarded and reserved Luke awkwardly tries to avoid the advances of Fleur, a prostitute former military buddies have paid for as parting gift.
Although warned by the Tess, the brothel's owner and one of the few people privy to Luke's secret that Luke's has special needs that require her discretion, Fleur, whose real name is Nora is puzzled and distressed by Luke's reticence and brusque refusal of her services.
Both Tess and Nora are truly shocked however when Luke returns to the brothel with a marriage proposal shortly after rescuing Nora's young daughter from a ugly altercation on the streets. Confused, wary but convinced of Luke's good-nature Nora agrees to join Luke on the grueling cross-country journey from Missouri to Oregon in hopes of providing herself and her daughter a more promising future.
Along the way Luke and Nora grow closer but their marriage is tested in several ways by the journey and the secrets they keep from each other.
I believed in this romance and the conflicts and tensions that drive Luke and Nora to make the unconventional but believable choices they have made. Jae carefully developed the characters and built up the tension around their secrets, slowly unwrapping the pasts that shaped them.
The only low-light in the novel for me was one of the encounters the caravan has with a Sioux, where a Lakota man tries to trade a pony and young woman for the red-headed Nora or Amy, much to Luke's frustration. Up to that point the novel had done a good job staying away from stereotyping Native Americans. That scene felt unnecessary to the story.
Beyond Ruin is the seventh book in the gritty and erotic post-apocalyptic romance series by Kit Rocha. I have an unapologetic love for this series, and I loved this book but you won't love it as much as I did if you haven't invested in reading the previous books in the series. Luckily Bree Bridges and Donna Herren, the writing duo known as Kit Rocha have made it easy to catch up by offering discounted book bundles and fantastic website with a great character directory.
In Beyond Ruin all the seeds of conflict between Eden and the sectors that have been planted from the very beginning are bearing fruit. The tensions that rock the central romance between Mad, Doc, Jade & Scarlet is inseparable from this conflict.
Mad, Adrian Maddox Rios, is the grandson of Prophet who built a powerful religious dynasty in Sector One. He is somewhat estranged from his family, having fled to Sector Four and joined the O'Kanes, rather than taking up leadership there and face the suffocating love the of Prophet's followers, who would gladly give their lives for him, and wear his sainted mother's image on their bodies.
Dylan "Doc" is a self-destructive pain-pill addict, who once was a sought after physician in Eden before he learned too many secrets and found himself a captive forced to oversee torture sessions. Dylan's family had sacrificed everything so he could get an education, but he became nothing but a tool to masters of Eden. He lost them and the position they had wanted for him and now he feels he has nothing left to lose. Once reckless and rootless, he has found some solace and comfort in Mad's embrace.
While Dylan and Mad are together they long for Jade and Scarlet, dreaming and fantasizing about them but unable to figure out how to approach them. They are caught in a tug of war of desire and fear, wanting and wishing but never quite acting on the flirtation, dancing frustrated circles around each other.
Jade came to Sector 4, fragile and strung-out, after being betrayed by the Cerys the head of Sector Two. She once used her training as an Orchid-trained prostitute to be serve as a spy, pleasing and manipulating powerful men in Eden with sex and submission. When her patron discovered the truth, he nearly killed through drugs and abuse. She has found comfort and love in Scarlet's arms but has not yet lowered the walls around her own heart enough to truly give and accept that love.
Scarlet is orphaned singer from the bombed-out Sector Three. She feels keenly out-classed by her lovers, never having lived in anything like the luxury and privilege they have all come from. They all adore her open-hearted embrace of life and sensation.
Beyond Ruin is probably the most plot heavy book Kit Rocha have ever written. A hell of a lot stuff happens, both to the central quartet and to Eden and the sectors. There are attacks, rescue missions, assassinations and the steady build-up toward war, all while Jade, Scarlet, Mad and Dylan try to figure out if their coming together as foursome can be maintained. There are a lot of moving parts to their relationship and they have to figure out how they can be there for each other beyond wrecking themselves with pleasure in bed. Kit Rocha excels at building toward some seriously dark wrenching relationship moments that are 100% earned and consistent to who the characters are. The push and pull of their ambitions, self-protection and instinctual drives, come up against the desire to truly accept, trust and belong to each other.
The stars of the book for me where Jade and Mad because they both struggle so much and respond so differently to very similar situations. I was fascinated by Jade's internal struggle to let herself be truly seen by her lovers and her agonizing sense of responsibility over all the girls from the pleasure houses in Sector Two. Raised from childhood to feign desire and pleasure, to mimic affection and care in order to manipulate and control, she constantly questions her reactions and responses, as she works to reclaim her authentic self. I felt Mad's anxiety and claustrophobia in Sector One, and his desire for and fear of wielding power over others. He is a true prophet in how clearly he saw his grandfather's corruption and is struggling with untangling his desire to protect, save from his grand-father's power-hungry appetites. His struggle is how to love and care without controlling and self-martyr-ship.
The sex in these books continues to be inventive, hot but most importantly emotionally meaningful. The storyline continues to build with great payoff for longtime readers and I am on the edge of my seat waiting to see what the future holds for the O'Kanes as their world is shaken once more.
I received a review copy for Beyond Ruin from one of its authors and was happily immersed into it.
For the second month in a row I read a TBR challenge book but not one that conformed to the month's theme. The theme this month was series catch-up and my book is a better fit for last month's theme of "We love short shorts".
Under His Kilt is a delightful workplace romance, with playful banter and a sweet resolution.
Jocelyn Pearson is a month away from her 30th birthday and has a long list of things she want to do before she does. Number one on her list is being bold enough to stop pining away from her handsome temporary co-worker, Ian Baird and get a peek under his purely metaphorical kilt.
Ian Baird is a rolling stone, traveling around the world for his career hasn't giving him an opportunity to build any lasting relationships and he sees no reason to change. Jocelyn, however is super tempting.
Before long Ian and Jocelyn are getting physical together and struggling to figure out just how emotionally attached they can let themselves become as they are both too aware of the end date for Ian's work assignment. I love how deeply in denial both of them are about how their relationship has moved beyond the physical. I will definitely try more books by Melissa Blue.
Kari is cutting through a back alley when she is viciously attacked by large dog-like creature. She miraculously survives only to be kidnapped by the Cherchez pack of wolf-shifters. Andreas, the pack alpha is hugely conflicted as he never meant for Kari, who he feels is his mate, to be turned against her will but is compelled to protect her and help her through her first transition. I really liked Kari, who reacts sensibly to this whole situation until she sees proof and even then consistently stands up to herself, never hesitating to call out sexist crap behaviors, despite finding Andreas physically yummy.
Wolf's Ascension is extensively revised and re-edited version of Ascension (Cherchez Pack 1) originally published by Ellora's Cave. I know and love Dane for her later contemporary and urban fantasy series. This book has much in common with later Dane novels, dominating alpha-male hero and smart and independent heroine but story is structured differently than most of Dane's later novels. I loved the first 1/3 of the book when story was focused on the romance. I have real weakness for the fated mates trope,I love when the protagonists have to try to sort out their feelings against the unrelenting pressure of their attraction. I love it when the characters understand that despite their bodies wanting something, and it seeming inevitability, a romantic relationship needs to be more than frantic coupling.
The last two-thirds of the book were action packed but less engaging for me. The storytelling tension shifts away from the romance, towards Kari's ascension as the true alpha of the clan, Kari must negotiate a new life for herself while dealing with several assassination attempts, and relationship and family conflict. Kari confronts jealous ambitious exes, unfamiliar and somewhat confusing sexual mores. while sorting out who she can trust or not in this new family. Andreas lost serious hero points for me at points during this part of the book when he his avoidance & reticence to share uncomfortable truths endangers Kari. I loved the heroine and that carried me through to her hard-fought HEA but it will not be series I return to.
I received a review copy of Wolf's Ascension by Lauren Dane from Carina Press.
To tonish society Lady Catherine, Viscountess of Cranbook is a somewhat scandalous widow whose pleasurable but short liaisons with younger men draw little notice. When an old associate of her late husband asks her to join his espionage ring, and pose as courtesan in order to help uncover a plot against the British government, the risks are an incentive rather than a deterrent. But her task becomes harder and more complicated when she meets James Burnham. James is doctor and earnest social reformer who engages Lady V out of a very personal desire to understand the reasons women enter prostitution at all levels. At first she enjoys tempting and needling him but sincerely comes to like and admire him. When Lady V uncovers a scheme involving children that deeply distress her but is of little interest to her home office handlers she turns to James for help, endangering both their lives and reputations.
I really enjoyed getting to know Lady Catherine's backstory and watching her struggle to discover her personal ethics and boundaries. While her interest in James prompts some of it, it is really her own journey to finding purpose and meaning in her life. I found James's journey less compelling and complete, as he lets go of past resentments . However their romance and the sacrifices they have to make for it was wholly satisfying. I liked the humor and playfulness to Catherine and James initial interactions. I particularly like how Catherine comes to consider James's feelings without giving up her agency and autonomy.
I very much enjoyed the historical details and the broader scope of Regency life, Holiday portrayed in the Viscountess of Vice. I will be going back and reading the previous Regency Reformers books, to catch up on this different corner of Regency world.
I received a review copy of The Viscountess of Vice from the author.