Book Review: Taking It Off by Claire Kent

Taking It Off by Claire Kent

Taking It Off by Claire Kent
Rating: 5stars
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I started reading Taking It Off with the expectation that it would be definitely sexy, and maybe light, fun, and sort of fluffy. It’s marketed as a romance for fans of Magic Mike, after all. What I got from this book was so much more. Taking It Off turned out to be a deeply emotional surprise that I just loved.

Matt (who I’m so tempted to call Magic Matt, but it’s just Matt) owns a male strip club called Bare Assets. While he’s a former stripper himself, he doesn’t get out on stage much anymore. Until he meets Elizabeth.

“You wear the ice princess like a costume, and the very first time I saw you, I wanted to take it off.”

Elizabeth is an art therapy teacher at a prestigious preschool. She makes a good living and is independent. Her father is seriously considering running for governor. Although Elizabeth would eventually like to meet a nice guy who’s marriage material, she doesn’t necessarily need a man right now.

Elizabeth’s upbringing has always been very ordered and polite. Maybe a little too polite and even forced. So when Elizabeth accompanies her friends to a bachelorette party at Bare Assets, she’s noticeably uncomfortable. She doesn’t understand the appeal of the dancers or the over-the-top atmosphere. Matt takes notice of her and issues a challenge: if Elizabeth will agree to come to the club twice a week for the next month, Matt is convinced that he can help her loosen up and let down her defenses.

Challenge accepted.

At first, Elizabeth is super hesitant and skeptical about the strip club experience. She sees that it’s fun for the other women, but she writes it off as just not being her thing. Slowly but surely, Matt convinces her that she doesn’t need to have her emotional guard up all the time, the way that she has her whole life. She can let go, let loose, have fun, and be free. He helps her with that and along the way, he and Elizabeth start to fall for each other.

Elizabeth felt like someone else–someone more fun, more spontaneous, less vanilla–had taken possession of her body. She liked herself this way.

Meanwhile, Matt’s got some secrets that he’s not keen on sharing with Elizabeth. Matt’s mother is a drug addict. He tries to help her, but she refuses to help herself. Matt’s almost ready to give up hope with regard to his mother when he meets Elizabeth. Elizabeth gives Matt new perspective. She helps him see that some things aren’t hopeless and encourages him to keep trying with his mother.

Matt had long ago given up hope about the important things in life, so it was a nice change to feel a spark of it about anything at all.

In the midst of all this–the juxtaposition of the fun club scenes and the heavy family stuff–there are some seriously smoking scenes between Elizabeth and Matt. We’re talking 5 out of 5 jalapenos, people. My ebook is highlighted within an inch of its life and I’m not complaining.

There’s some additional drama with regard to Elizabeth’s family, which I’ll avoid spoiling here. I’ll just say that it helped put the story in perspective, seeing how swept away both Elizabeth and Matt were with their new relationship. When this incident occurs, they realize they need to step back and decide who they each want to be–as well as what the future holds for them, separately or together.

As I mentioned, I really adored this book and have no hesitations giving it 5 enthusiastic stars. In Taking It Off, the author took a subject that I initially expected would be fun and lighthearted, and she created an intense story that’s incredibly satisfying on an emotional level. Claire Kent is a new author to me, but I’ve already bought a couple of her other books and I’m excited to read those.

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review. I’m slowly working through my NetGalley backlog and this book has since been published. My review is for the published version of the book.

Book Review: All Chained Up by Sophie Jordan

All Chained Up by Sophie Jordan

All Chained Up by Sophie Jordan
Rating: 5stars
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This book is SO good, I cannot even deal.

All Chained Up first caught my attention when I saw that it takes place in a prison.

Prison romance, you say? What? Why?!
Hear me out.

One of my favorite romance novels ever is Hard Time by Cara McKenna, which is also set in a prison: the hero is an inmate (who gets paroled) and the heroine is a prison librarian. In All Chained Up, the hero is an inmate who also gets paroled during the story, and the heroine is a nurse. Needless to say, this plot sounded like my perfect catnip.

Knox is an inmate at Devil’s Rock. He has been there for eight years, along with his brother North, for a crime that they committed together: they killed their cousin’s rapist. While I know I should be appalled at their crime, I’m just…not, to be honest. I mean, I’m not fully okay with it either, but it’s…understandable, in a way. Briar is a nurse at the prison, volunteering there temporarily while they’re short on medical staff. That’s how she meets Knox.

Although Briar is immediately attracted to Knox physically, she gives herself a reality check and remembers that he’s an inmate–the very definition of off-limits. The epitome of No Future Together. Nevertheless, she can’t deny their attraction to each other. So when a traumatic incident and series of events lead to Knox being granted parole and released from Devil’s Rock, he and Briar are suddenly free to pursue their mutual interest.

Things escalate rather quickly. From this point on, the method through which they communicate with each other is sex. In that aspect, they’re on the same page and speaking the same language. But whenever Briar tries to connect with Knox on deeper levels–i.e., emotionally–his instinct is to retreat. He backs off. After being imprisoned for eight years, it’s self-preservation for him not to show emotion or be vulnerable. But if he wants a future with Briar, he has to learn how to let himself be free to love.

This book hit every high note with me. There’s the forbidden romance aspect initially, but even after Knox is released, he and Briar have to reconcile what little they know about each other with their growing desire to be together. Their physical chemistry is undeniable (and amazingly hot), but do they have something that’s worth pursuing? Can this last? Can they really have a relationship on the outside? How on earth do you handle the logistics of dating a convicted felon? I think that the author portrayed their interactions realistically, especially with regard to how people treat Knox after he’s released.

I read the audio version, which has an excellent narrator (Christian Fox). But I fully intend on buying the ebook too because there are so many passages that I LOVED. Seriously, I want to own the ebook just so that I can highlight the crap out of it. Plus, I know that this is something I’ll want to re-read in the future–and I hardly ever do re-reads.

All Chained Up is the first book in the new Devil’s Rock series. I highly recommend it and I’m so excited about the next book, Hell Breaks Loose, which I’ll definitely be reading.

Book Review: Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O’Keefe

Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O'Keefe

Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O’Keefe
Rating: 5stars
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Everything I Left Unsaid is an intense and emotionally raw book. This story sucked me in and wouldn’t let go.

Fair warning: this book contains a cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, the next book (The Truth About Him) releases next month, so that’s not too long to wait.

I’ve read Molly O’Keefe’s contemporary romances before and enjoyed them. Her latest book, written under the name M. O’Keefe, feels like quite a departure from her usual books. It’s an erotic romance with elements of suspense. And I can’t emphasize enough just how intense the story is. There are dysfunctional relationships, family problems, phone sex, angst galore, more phone sex, heartache, actual in-person sex, but it all works within the context of the main characters, Annie and Dylan.

No one had worried about me. Not in a very long time.

When we first meet Annie, she’s on the run. She has fled her abusive husband and traveled across the country to North Carolina, where she’s now living in a trailer park. When she first moves into her trailer, she finds a ringing cellphone and answers it. The person on the other end of the line is Dylan, who is mysterious and cryptic, but to whom Annie feels inexplicably drawn.

I went into this story without many details, so I’m doing my best to avoid mentioning any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that the first phone call between Annie and Dylan has enormous consequences that alter the course of their lives. It’s strange how something as seemingly trivial as a phone call can have such far-reaching repercussions, but that’s the case here.

Just the thought of his name electrified part of me, like a filament in a lightbulb starting to glow.
Don’t. Don’t think about him.

At times, the book feels like an emotional roller coaster. As Annie and Dylan’s relationship becomes more overtly sexual over the phone, the more apparent it is that they don’t really know each other. Annie’s curiosity leads her to discover part of Dylan’s back story, but there’s a whole world that she’s unaware of. Likewise, Annie works hard to hide her past from Dylan. So much of their relationship is built upon lies; or at least, sins of omission. Eventually, the truth will have to come out.

I was caught in that wide chasm between what I’d had and what I could have. What my life had been and what I wanted it to be, and every step, every huge step I’d taken away from what I knew and into the unknown, felt terrifying.

This is probably one of the vaguest reviews I’ve ever written, but for me, a large part of my enjoyment of the book came from discovering Dylan’s secrets alongside Annie. He’s such a mystery to her. Even though what they have seems temporary and destined to fail–how can they have a future when they’ve never even met in person?–the longer their relationship continues, the deeper they fall for each other.

“When you’re in danger,” he said, “I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe.”

Additionally, I grew to like Annie more as she evolved over the course of the story. She’s fearful and unsure in the beginning, but the more she explores her independence, the stronger her spirit becomes.

I really dislike cliffhanger endings, but I’m super excited to read the conclusion to this story. O’Keefe has created characters who have so much to hide and so much to lose. I’m looking forward to learning more about Annie and Dylan, in addition to seeing how their story is resolved.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Everything I Left Unsaid by M. O'Keefe

Book Review: Never Broken by Jewel

Never Broken by JewelNever Broken by Jewel
Rating: 5stars
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I’ve been a big fan of Jewel over the years, so I was excited when I learned that she was writing a memoir in addition to releasing a new album. Never Broken is a raw and candid look at Jewel’s life: growing up in Alaska with an abusive father and absent mother, being homeless and living in her car, becoming successful in the music industry, ending the toxic relationship with her mother, getting married, becoming a mother, divorcing her husband, and finally, finding herself in a place of peace and hopefulness. There’s a lot of information in this book, much of it heavy. But it’s definitely worth reading about because Jewel is an amazing woman.

And I’m still continuing the journey, relearning how to be truly safe in the world, and it isn’t what I thought. It’s not by avoiding pain in life–that’s impossible–it’s by knowing that safety is in vulnerability, not in armor.

In this book, the narrative of Jewel’s life story is interspersed with her poetry and various song lyrics from her albums, both past and present. Through a combination of reading and watching interviews, I had known that Jewel had a rough upbringing, but prior to reading this memoir, I hadn’t realized the extent. Her mother left when Jewel was eight, only to flit in and out through various stages of Jewel’s childhood and then conveniently reappear after she signed her record deal. Her father was abusive, though they have since reconciled and now have a functional relationship. But her relationship with her mother was an extremely unhealthy one.

I knew I had to start practicing something I had never been given or shown in my family. Kindness. Patience. Tolerance.

Jewel moved out on her own when she was 15 and eventually became homeless, living in her car for a time before she was discovered in San Diego and signed a record contract. Sometime after she became hugely successful, she discovered that her mother–who was her manager at the time–had squandered Jewel’s money. She found herself not only cleaned out financially, but also in debt. She made the decision to sever all ties with her mother, both in business as well as her personal life. Eventually, she recovered from the financial mess that her mother had left her, but to this day she no longer has contact with her.

But to look at life with an open heart, take it on the chin and say I am more yielding, I am more open, takes real courage.

Despite the struggles throughout her life, Jewel shares some good memories in this book. She tells about how she began performing with her father at the young age of eight in bars and clubs. Even though her relationship with her father was volatile when she was a child, he taught her about music and it’s this early start that instilled a confidence and stage presence that’s obvious when she performs today. She also tells the story of her family, about how her grandparents settled on an Alaskan homestead that lacked many modern conveniences that are so easily taken for granted. It was hard living, to be sure. But it also taught her a sense of character and strength from an early age.

Throughout her times of struggle, there were people in Jewel’s life who reached out to her and showed her kindness. She calls these people her angels. For every negative moment that she could resent, there’s another positive memory about someone who helped her along the way, for which she is still grateful.

Jewel also shares some details about her relationship with Ty Murray. Even though they are now divorced, it’s clear that they have their son’s best interests in mind. Jewel is respectful when mentioning him and she does so with the acknowledgment that her son might read this book one day. She definitely comes across as a loving mother, which is amazing considering the upbringing that she had.

Reality wins, and I’d rather see the truth than stay in love with a fantasy.

It’s also clear that Jewel has spent a lot of time working on making herself a better human being. Her maturity is revealed through her sense of empathy and focus on forgiveness. The end of the book feels almost like a self-help guide, in which she discusses the strategies that have helped her break the cycle of abuse in her family. She also shares the techniques–some psychological, some spiritual–that have made her a better person overall.

Never Broken is a surprisingly candid, sincere memoir from someone who has lived a complicated and sometimes painful life. But ultimately, it’s a life that’s now filled with joy from being a mother and from being secure in herself as an individual. I highly recommend this book, especially to other Jewel fans, although you certainly need not be a fan to appreciate her story. It’s impressive how much she has gone through, yet she’s not bitter or resentful about her past. She has accepted it, embraced it, forgiven, and chosen love. She is never broken.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Ever After by Rachel Lacey

Ever After by Rachel Lacey Ever After by Rachel Lacey
Rating: 5stars
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Ever After gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. The romance between the main characters is swoonworthy and I loved how the pets are supporting characters since they’re featured so much. Rachel Lacey is going on my Read Again list for sure.

First things first: I know the adage says that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but this book immediately caught my attention on NetGalley. That’s one pretty cover. Secondly, this is book three in the Love to the Rescue series. I haven’t yet read books one and two, but I was able to read this comfortably as a standalone. However, I intend on going back to the beginning of the series since I loved this one so much.

* * *

Olivia Bennett is an animal rights activist. She’s incredibly passionate about her cause, especially working to stop the abuse of factory-farmed chickens in her small hometown of Dogwood, North Carolina. When the story opens, Olivia is caught spray-painting the local chicken processing plant by Deputy Pete Sampson. Pete (aka Deputy Hot Stuff) arrests her for vandalism. Following the spray-painting incident, a series of events happen to Olivia that appear to be retaliation for her activism against the chicken plant. As more incidents occur, she finds herself increasingly involved with Pete as they attempt to find out who’s targeting her.

Everything about her was sexy as hell. And he had absolutely no business lusting after a woman he’d arrested.

Olivia is a strong character who I really enjoyed. At times, she behaves impulsively–such as her ill-advised vandalism incident–but she learns from her mistakes and makes restitution for them. She’s extremely passionate about her beliefs, but I never felt that she went overboard into fanaticism. For example, even though she’s a vegetarian, she isn’t preachy or judgmental to others about what they eat. In addition to her activism, she also helps foster dogs for her friend’s local rescue group.

Pete is an equally likable character. He’s an honest cop and has a great deal of integrity, but he also has some secrets that keep him up at night. I really felt for him because he has so much self-imposed guilt that just isn’t deserved. As he and Olivia begin a relationship, she has to figure out a way to help him center himself and rid him of his personal demons.

Olivia made him feel everything. And that might be even scarier than feeling nothing.

Even though their relationship begins on a casual level, over time it becomes apparent to both Olivia and Pete that they’re falling for each other hard. As I mentioned, the romance itself is the focus of the story, which makes it a really strong one. There’s some conflict when they must reconcile their diverging lives with their desire to be together, but the emotion between Olivia and Pete comes across as genuine and believable.

“Wherever you are is where I need to be.”

Additionally, I liked the supporting characters, who are couples from the previous two books. Olivia and Pete’s family members also play a huge role. And as I mentioned, I felt that the sweet dogs and cat are supporting characters in their own right because they’re such a big part of the plot. Their presence makes the story that much more heartwarming.

Ever After has the elements that I love so much in romance: a combination of humor with a lot of heart, not to mention that the romance itself is downright sexy. Fans of Jill Shalvis will love Rachel Lacey’s series. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading the others in the series.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Right Wrong Guy by Lia Riley

Right Wrong Guy by Lia RileyRight Wrong Guy by Lia Riley
Rating: 5stars
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Note: This is book #2 in the Brightwater series and I strongly recommend reading book #1 first in order to enjoy the unfolding story fully.

Man, I loved this book.

When I started it, I was a little leery when I realized that the hero, Archer Kane, is a self-confessed manwhore. Generally, I stay away from characters like him, but I adored the first book in this series (Last First Kiss), so I knew I wanted to keep reading. I’m so glad I did.

Archer is the brother of Sawyer, the hero in Last First Kiss. Archer’s a bit of a wild child–he’s got quite a reputation in town for being a ladies’ man, as well as someone with a devil-may-care attitude about life in general. When Archer wakes up in Vegas after an excessively wild night, he starts to think that maybe it’s time he put aside his reckless ways.

Did he really want to live out these shallow morning-after scenarios forever like some warped version of Groundhog Day?

While in Vegas, Archer meets Eden Bankcroft-Kew, an heiress from New York who has just discovered that her fiancé has been cheating on her. She learns this just in the nick of time–on the morning of their wedding day, just in time to call off the wedding.

When Eden meets Archer, she realizes he’s headed back to his hometown of Brightwater, which is where Eden’s cousin Quincy (also from the first book) now lives. Archer agrees to let her ride along with him.

“I’m glad we crossed paths. You’re the right guy at the wrong time.”
“Usually I’m the wrong guy at the right time.”

I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d grow to like Archer as a character throughout this book. In the beginning, he comes across as cocky and charming, but without much depth. As he and Eden (aka Edie aka Freckles) grow closer, his best qualities are brought to the surface. She has that effect on him.

When Eden moves to Brightwater, she wants to leave her awful ex behind and start fresh. Even after her ex attempts to blackmail her, she refuses to be defeated. She reinvents herself as Edie Banks and follows her dream of opening a bakery/coffee shop. Most of the residents in town accept and welcome her–although she does hit a couple of bumps along the way.

Edie and Archer are worlds apart in terms of their lifestyles. Edie has lived her life on the upper crust of New York society, always prim and proper. Archer is a cowboy who has never committed to much in life, especially not to a single woman. On the surface, they seem utterly incompatible, but the simple truth is that they’re perfect for each other.

The romance in this book is volcanic. Edie tries to resist her feelings for Archer at first, but then she decides to follow her heart. I think it’s that initial slow burn that makes their chemistry so off-the-charts. And have I mentioned how amazing Archer turns out to be? Seriously, he’s in the running for one of my favorite heroes of 2015.

High time to stop running away from responsibility and see what he was made of. Instead of living up to his reputation, he’d create a new one.

Edie truly transforms over the course of the story. In the beginning, she’s insecure and unsure of herself as well as the sincerity of other people. As she becomes more comfortable in Brightwater–making new friends in addition to falling for Archer–she learns to trust her instincts and open herself up to the possibility of so many good things in life. Before coming to town, Edie/Eden’s life lacked color and passion. She went through the motions but didn’t really feel alive. In this small town, falling in love, she’s discovering who she really is–and she likes the person she sees.

“You deserve nothing but the best life has to offer. And in the future, if you ever need me, don’t hide–tell me and I’ll be there. I’ll always be there.”

I highly and completely recommend this book. It put such a good feeling in my heart while reading it. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

I received an advance copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for my review.

Book Review: 30 Days by Christine d’Abo

30 Days by Christine d'Abo30 Days by Christine d’Abo
Rating: 5stars
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30 Days is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seriously, I loved this book SO HARD.

Alyssa Barrow is only in her mid-thirties, but she’s a widow after losing her husband, Rob, to cancer. They had a comfortable but loving marriage, having met when Alyssa was just nineteen. In fact, Rob is the only man she’s ever had sex with, but she’s always been okay with that.

I wasn’t still looking for that special someone–I’d found and lost him.

When Rob was nearing the end of his life, he told Alyssa that he wanted her to find happiness again after his death–to move on and fall in love again. So Rob, feeling a little bit like Alyssa has been deprived, leaves her with a stack of sex cards. Thirty cards, to be exact, filled with thirty days of sex challenges, to be used when she’s ready. It’s a strange gift to leave for your widow, but clearly Rob had an interesting sense of humor.

He wrote me freaking sex cards. I fell in love with him all over again. My best friend and lover was giving me advice on how to hook up with other people from beyond the grave. The idea was a mix of weird and sweet, the perfect descriptor for him.

It’s two years after Rob’s death and Alyssa comes home to her condo one day to find that she has a new neighbor. A ridiculously hot new neighbor, in fact. It’s the first time she has felt something for anyone since Rob died and she’s not sure what to make of it. But the presence of Harrison Kemp, her new neighbor, gets Alyssa considering that maybe–possibly–she can attempt to start living again.

I could either continue to live a solitary life with my head and heart stuck in the past, or I could do what Rob wanted me to and take a step out into the big world on my own.

Despite the fact that she barely knows Harrison, Alyssa decides to enlist his help with completing her thirty days of sex. Harrison agrees, on the condition that the two of them understand that it’s just sex, not a relationship. Harrison is in town temporarily due to his work contract, so he’s leaving in three months. He’s also vague about his reasoning, only admitting that his last relationship ended badly. He and Alyssa agree that, with her history, she’s not ready for a serious relationship anyway. This will be purely physical and fun. No serious commitments.

(That’s what they all say in the beginning.)

This was totally about sex. Yup. No way I was going to let myself fall for the first guy I hook up with after Rob, because that had bad idea written all over it. Really bad. Super bad.

So begin the thirty days of sex. I don’t want to spoil the challenges because they are amazing and wonderful. They’re also sweet at times and simply dirty at others, and isn’t that the beauty of it? Alyssa finds herself actually having fun with Harrison, not just in bed with slowly getting to know him as well. Despite their initial agreement that it’s only sex, inevitably, they become friends. With that come all of the emotional entanglements that they swore they’d avoid by relegating their connection to the solely physical. That’s just the thing–it becomes clear that they’re falling for each other, despite their initial intentions.

This was what I’d been missing. It wasn’t so much about the sex as it was the connection.

With Harrison’s impending departure looming, there’s always a bittersweet feeling that surrounds him and Alyssa. That imminent separation creates a sense of urgency when they’re with each other because they know that their time together has an end date. But the deeper they go with their relationship (despite the fact that they don’t want to call it that), it’s obvious that emotions and hearts are becoming involved. Alyssa decides that she will try to win Harrison’s heart.

I knew that maybe, possibly, I was in love with Harrison.

Alyssa’s plans get a bit derailed along the way and because I loved this book so much, I will refrain from spoiling the ending. Suffice it to say that this book simply blew me away. It’s such an interesting mix, at times bittersweet and heart-wrenching, while at other times smoking hot and unbelievably sexy. The tone of the story reminded me of Anne Calhoun’s writing, but with much more levity. I loved getting to know Alyssa as a character; she’s someone you genuinely feel for and can cheer on. After living with so much grief and tragedy, you just want her to be happy.

For the majority of the book, I felt that Harrison is very much a mystery. I didn’t mind that at first, but as the plot went on, I wanted him to open up more to Alyssa. Eventually we do learn what he’s all about, but I would have liked more candor from him a little earlier on in the book. That’s really the only small complaint that I have.

Go forth and read this. It’s amazing and put me through a gamut of emotions: sadness, joy, frustration, elation, and finally, the lightness that comes after you’ve read something completely wonderful and unexpected. I love, love, loved this book and highly recommend it.

Love wasn’t an either-or situation. It was a limitless entity that grew in strength the more it was shared.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Taking the Heat by Victoria Dahl

Taking the Heat by Victoria DahlTaking the Heat by Victoria Dahl
Rating: 5stars
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I’ve read all three books in Victoria Dahl’s Girls’ Night Out series and Taking the Heat is my favorite, hands down.

The hero is a super-hot librarian named Gabe. (I’m tempted to just stop there while you run off to buy the book right now, but I should probably elaborate.)

Veronica writes an advice column for the local newspaper in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She moved back to town when her dream of living in New York City didn’t turn out to be everything that she had hoped. When we first meet Veronica, she’s having a panic attack just before going onstage for a live “Dear Veronica” Q & A. She’s freaking out because she considers herself a fraud. Although she’s great at giving advice to help solve other people’s problems, especially about love and sex, Veronica is actually a virgin. It’s a secret she has kept from even her closest friends.

Gabe works with one of Veronica’s friends, who invites him to the Dear Veronica show. But when Gabe first meets Veronica, he gets the wrong impression of her. He mistakes her nervousness for being cold and aloof, so he intends to keep his distance from her. But when Veronica takes the stage and engages with the crowd, Gabe is charmed. He wonders if he rushed to judgment about her.

No, Veronica Chandler was nothing like he’d thought she’d be. And he was kind of…thrilled.

As a result of nerves combined with alcohol, Veronica ends up spilling her secret to Gabe: Dear Veronica is a virgin and a great pretender. But rather than being scared off, Gabe is further intrigued. In the light of day (and sobriety), Veronica is mortified when she realizes what she’s told Gabe, but he doesn’t let that stop him from wanting to get to know her better.

Maybe she was the perfect girl. Maybe he was in big trouble.

Veronica and Gabe strike up a friendship that quickly escalates into a physical relationship. Since he’s already aware of her secret, it takes some of the pressure off of Veronica. She’s still embarrassed, but Gabe does his best to put her at ease. In fact, on several occasions, Veronica attempts to enlist Gabe in losing her virginity, but Gabe actually tells her that they should wait, so they do. (For a little while.) When Veronica and Gabe finally have sex, their chemistry is explosive. Victoria Dahl sure knows how to write some amazing sex scenes. I loved the fact that even though Veronica was a virgin, she’s not clueless or naïve about sex in general.

He wanted to know, but he also liked her secrets. He liked the honesty of them and the glimpses of her that no one else saw.

But although they’re getting closer physically, there are still some secrets between Veronica and Gabe. When Veronica finds out what Gabe’s secrets are, it’s not pretty. There’s also the matter of Veronica’s family life. Her mother died when Veronica was young and her father briefly remarried. This time was awful for Veronica because her stepbrother treated her horribly. On top of all this, Veronica’s father, a powerful judge, has remained emotionally distant from Veronica her whole life.

So, while Veronica and Gabe are figuring out the parameters of their new relationship, they’re simultaneously juggling their separate family issues. But the main focus of the book is their relationship, which is one reason why I liked the book so much.

Something I also loved about the book is the strong message of sex positivity. When Veronica decides to have sex for the first time, it’s on her terms and Gabe is incredibly respectful of her. As she becomes more and more comfortable with her sexuality, it’s something that she explores freely with Gabe and that freedom, combined with trust, instills more confidence in Veronica. She knows what she wants and she goes after it.

She wasn’t weak and scared anymore. She was brave and real and confident.

There’s some conflict when Veronica discovers that Gabe is only in Wyoming temporarily, but the angst isn’t overwhelming, which I appreciated. Even though they’re dealing with separate family matters, Veronica and Gabe both have to reconcile their desires with their respective families’ expectations of them. Ultimately, they each have to make similar choices with regard to finding what they want in life and not just doing what others want them to do.

I really loved this book. The main characters are relatable and likable, so I rooted for them to figure things out and stay together. It was also nice to see characters from the previous books in the series again. As I mentioned, this is my favorite of the Girls’ Night Out books and I hope there are more planned for the future.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis

Second Chance Summer by Jill ShalvisSecond Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis
Rating: 5stars
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I was so excited when I heard about Jill Shalvis’s new Cedar Ridge series. I’m actually still working my way through her Lucky Harbor books, which I love, so I had hopes that this new series would have the same type of feel as Lucky Harbor. I absolutely loved Second Chance Summer!

The book takes place in Cedar Ridge, Colorado, a resort town. Lily Danville moves back home after her stint as a cosmetologist in an upscale San Diego salon ends in disaster. She’s hesitant to come back, as she left Cedar Ridge ten years prior, following her sister’s accidental death and her father’s subsequent death not long after that. But she’s desperate for a job and needs to make a fresh start, so she reluctantly returns to her hometown.

Lily has a history with Aidan Kincaid, who’s now a firefighter and on the local search and rescue team. After the death of Lily’s sister, she didn’t just run away from Cedar Ridge; she also ran away from her relationship with Aidan. Now that she’s back, it’s obvious that their mutual attraction is still there and stronger than ever.

The corner of his mouth quirked. “Did you just kiss me to shut me up?” he asked. She blew out a sigh. “It made a lot more sense in my head.”

But there are complications in each of their lives. Lily struggles with a combination of grief and guilt over her sister’s death, even to the point of somehow blaming herself–even though it was an accident. In turn, Aidan feels his own guilt over the fact that his deadbeat father abandoned the family years ago, creating years of repercussions for everyone he left behind. Lily and Aidan are each suffering from their own type of self-blame, even though neither of them is responsible. Together, they slowly have to come to terms with letting go of their respective pasts and figuring out how to find happiness in the present, with each other.

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t give her a chance to devastate him again. But somehow over the past few weeks he’d lost sight of keeping his heart safe and moved onto wanting to heal her heart.

In Second Chance Summer, Shalvis writes with her signature combination of humor and emotional depth that I love so much about her writing. In this book, we’re introduced to the other Kincaid brothers, who we’ll see again in later books. As with the Lucky Harbor series, this story has a strong supporting cast of characters, especially Aidan’s mom and brothers. I just loved the banter between Aidan and his brothers, as well as the comedic dialogue between Lily and her friend/boss, Jonathan. And of course, the romance between Lily and Aidan is off the charts. Shalvis knows how to write some amazing love scenes and the ones in this book are some of the steamiest I’ve read from her. Loved them!

I’m eager to revisit Cedar Ridge in the next book and I highly recommend this excellent start to the new series.

I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Book Review: Last First Kiss by Lia Riley

Last First Kiss by Lia RileyLast First Kiss by Lia Riley
Rating: 5stars
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I loved everything about this book. I’m actually trying to think of anything I disliked, but I’m at a loss because it’s so well-written and enjoyable.

Annie Carson is a popular mommy blogger. From reading her blog, Musings of a Mighty Mama, you’d think that she has an ideal life. She has a successful husband and an adorable five-year-old son named Atticus. The beautiful photos that Annie posts are Pinterest-worthy. Her blog comments are filled with her readers’ admiration about what a wonderful life she has.

But the reality is that Annie’s life is not perfect at all. In fact, Annie finds out that her husband has been cheating on her. After the divorce, she and Atticus move back to Annie’s small hometown of Brightwater, California.

Annie intends to fix up her family’s old farmhouse and sell it so that she and Atticus can move to San Francisco, where she’ll have ample opportunities to advance her blogging career. They’ll also be closer to her sister, who lives nearby. But upon her return to Brightwater, Annie runs into Sawyer Kane, the local sheriff and cowboy who once broke Annie’s heart when they were teenagers. What happened between them years ago was a big misunderstanding and now Sawyer wants to make things right.

As a boy, he’d loved that bewildering, beautiful girl and lost her. Maybe this was his chance to be the man who finally got a shot at righting past wrongs.

The Carsons and Kanes have had a feud spanning multiple generations. Sawyer’s Grandma Kane believes that the Carson land rightfully belongs to the Kane family and makes no attempts to hide her disdain when Annie moves back to town. Indeed, some residents of Brightwater treat Annie poorly because her father was rather eccentric when Annie and her sister were growing up. Their dad was known as Kooky Carson, mostly due to the fact that he was quite a hippie and embraced all kinds of alternative practices.

But here in the present, Annie doesn’t give much thought to what people think of her or her father. She just wants to do what’s best for her son. It’s apparent throughout the story how much she loves him and wants him to be a happy little boy. There are plenty of opportunities when Annie could wallow in self-pity about the unexpected turns her life has taken, but she doesn’t. I think that’s why I liked her character so much. She’s no pushover and her son is her number one priority.

Something else that I loved are Annie’s blog posts. The book has a hilarious opening chapter. Several other chapters open with her blog posts, which she self-censors to show her best face on her blog. Her true thoughts are included (but struck through) so that we, the readers, can get an idea of how she’s really feeling. I really enjoyed Annie’s quick sense of humor.

Was it a kiss? What’s a kiss, technically? WHAT IS LIFE? Ah forget it. Who needs kisses when there’s a sale at Save-U-More on Ben & Jerry’s Funky Monkey?

Sawyer is a lovable hero and the definition of strong, silent type. And how could I not love a hero who’s a cowboy sheriff by day and amateur astronomer by night? *swoon* He has always held a torch for Annie, even after she left town years ago. He has a crazy ex-fiancee who tries to worm her way back into his life, but he only has eyes for Annie. It’s super sweet. Understandably, Annie is hesitant to get involved with Sawyer since she’s planning on leaving Brightwater in the near future. Also, she’s not sure how Atticus will be affected. But there’s a really lovely exchange between Annie and Atticus that shows how good for her Sawyer is:

“Do you love Sheriff Sawyer?”
The engine revved and she eased her foot off the clutch. “What makes you ask that?”
“Whenever you see him you smile.”
“Do I?” She mentally raced through explanations and arrived at the most simple. “I guess he makes me happy.”
“That’s good. I like you happy.”

At first, when Annie comes back to town, Sawyer is surprised to learn that she has a child and he admits that he doesn’t know much about kids. But the more that he spends time with them, the more easily he finds himself interacting with Atticus. In turn, Annie realizes what a good presence Sawyer is in her son’s life.

Annie and Sawyer’s chemistry just sizzles. There’s this delicious air of sexual tension whenever they’re together. So when their relationship turns physical, it’s just plain awesome. The fact that they had this history together from years ago makes the relationship that much more meaningful.

Life has a funny way of denting us all in ways that will never fully be fixed. But if you are lucky, one day you might find someone who loves those banged-up parts.

As I mentioned, I absolutely loved this book and I would recommend it to fans of Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor series and Maisey Yates’s Copper Ridge series. It has a similar small-town setting and a really well-done cast of supporting characters, combined with a romance that’s fueled by humor and sexiness. This was my first time reading something by Lia Riley and I’m looking forward to the next books in the Brightwater series.

I received an advance copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for my review.