Forged By Desire

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Garrett Reed, Acting Master of the Nighthawks, has a secret, a dangerous and lethal secret. Only weeks ago, an Echelon lord, in a chemically induced blood frenzy, shattered Garrett’s chest and literally dragged his heart halfway out before he was subdued. In order to heal such an extensive injury, the virus that makes him the blue-blooded vampire-like creature that he is had to go into overdrive.

Now, Garrett’s craving virus percentage has nearly doubled and is still rising in small increments daily. At this current rate, in just mere weeks he will be unable to control his need for blood and will become a danger to anyone around him. And because he is leader of the Nighthawks, he will not simply be incarcerated and forced to die of starvation, he will be summarily beheaded.

However, that’s not the only secret he has to keep. He has been partners in the Nighthawks with Perry Lowell for nine years. And during a recent sting operation, Garrett discovered that Perry is a woman. Now, he’s always known that Perry is female, the only one in the Nighthawks, in fact, and one of the few female blue-bloods in existence. But she has always worn the men’s leather uniform and armor, has a man’s haircut, and fights with all the deadliness and strength of a male blue-blood. She is his best tracker and his best friend.

However, when she dons a formal flowing gown for the sting operation and he observes her ability to function socially and flirtatiously in Echelon society, Garrett sees the “woman.” And he is lost, wanting more than friendship but afraid his virus levels will cause him to kill her. So he pushes her away onto a new partner, determined to keep all his secrets and keep her safe.

Well, Perry Lowell has some secrets, too. Nine years of them, in fact. The first is that she has loved Garrett all of those nine years. Knowing, however, that he only saw her as a partner and friend, she has kept her feelings hidden. Then, after he acknowledges her desirability during the sting operation, but summarily shoves her away before she can reciprocate, Perry decides that her feelings will just have to stay a secret after all.

If unrequited love were Perry’s only secret, life would be a cinch for her. Nine years ago, she faked her death to escape the sadistic attentions of the Duke of Moncrieff, with whom she had been forced by her father to make a blood and flesh rights thrall contract. Perry had discovered that Moncrieff sponsored a psychopathic doctor in his experiments to develop mechanical body parts. When Perry protested the experiments on live and unwilling subjects, she became one of the “experiments.”

Forcibly infected with the craving virus, Perry was repeatedly sliced and diced so that the doctor could document the healing effect of the virus. But the doctor didn’t count on the increased strength caused by the virus, a defective restraint buckle or Perry’s skills with a blade, and Perry escaped, thinking that she had killed the doctor. Moncrieff was suspected of murder when she disappeared and was sentenced to exile in Scotland for 10 years.

Now, Moncrieff is back, not only pardoned by the Prince Consort but appointed to the ruling Council. And Perry, while investigating the deaths of two Echelon debutantes, falls through a trap door in a factory floor, horrified to find herself in an exact duplicate of the laboratory where Moncrieff’s doctor had tortured her so long ago.

Bec McMaster writes a compelling and pulse-pounding tale about the effects that keeping secrets have, not only on the person who has the secrets but on the people from whom those secrets are kept. She delves intimately into the motivations, both selfless and self-serving, for keeping those secrets, even in the face of emotional or physical death.

The author is masterful in her timing and in the phrasing of each secret’s reveal. The frustration and the tension she builds as you witness the effects of the lies of omission, as you wait for each secret to be divulged and acted upon, makes this a page-turner.

While the story may be set in an alternate history, or steampunk, version of 1800’s England, the bulk of the story is pointed more toward the emotional realm than the science fiction one. The scientific and medical technology in use is a parallel, though crude, version of today’s devices, from tape recorders and ear bud communicators to artificial hearts and blood dialysis. Thus, little suspension of disbelief is required, beyond a belief in the supernatural itself, to feel at home with the storyline.

This book is the 4th full-length novel in McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it is definitely not a standalone book. In fact, this story arc is highly dependent upon the reader’s memory of the events that transpired in the 3rd novel, “My Lady Quicksilver.” Without that background, you will not sufficiently understand the Nighthawks or the dynamics between Garrett and Lynch, Garrett’s former and long-time commander, that fuel a lot of this story. And without that point of reference, it may be lost on you why certain characters believe it absolutely necessary to sacrifice blood, breath and soul in order to continue another’s survival.

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Santa’s Little Heist

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Cute Christmas holiday romance. Reasonably complicated murder case. Unbelievable premise on which to base both.

First, the romance. Chief Inspector Darcy Carrington and Inspector Ethan Hunter are pulling a 72-hour shift that begins on Christmas Day. They do not normally partner together, but they are the only homicide detectives in their precinct without a spouse or children with which to spend the holidays. So Carrington has volunteered for the duty and has assigned Hunter to assist.

Carrington is a beautiful woman and Hunter is well aware of that fact. But he is just as, if not more, appreciative of the fact that she is an intelligent, insightful and capable detective. Unknown to Hunter, Carrington is just as impressed with his skills. When the 72-hour shift becomes a 7-day marathon due to an outbreak of food poisoning amongst the other detectives, their constant togetherness eventually brings their personal lives into the mix.

But this romance is not a case of lust fueled by opportunity. It is a tale of two people who see each other as beautiful inside as well as out – professionally and personally.

Next, the murder. On Christmas morning, the body of a middle-aged man is found lying in a non-public hallway of the local mall, battered beyond recognition. Although his wallet is beside him, all his identification has been removed, even his wedding ring and his watch. His fingerprints are not in the system and the detectives have only two clues – an anonymous 999 call telling where to find the victim and scads of surveillance video from the mall’s many cameras.

For Hunter and Carrington, their first break in the case is a missing person’s report filed that afternoon that matches the victim. And what seems to be a brutal crime of passion takes on a new twist when the dead man is identified as the manager of Dylan’s Diamonds, a high-end jewelry store in the mall. And that store has been robbed overnight.

Now, the poor premise on which both the romance and the murder investigation depend. At the very beginning of the story, we are told that Hunter and Carrington are the only homicide detectives scheduled to work that 72-hour period beginning Christmas Day. This is predicated on the “fact” that for an untold number of years, that precinct has had virtually no murders between Christmas Day and New Year’s.

No murders? None? No unattended deaths at all? Oh. Come. On.

This is London, not some village of a hundred people out in the boonies. And it is Christmas, a time that seems to produce the most suicides and the most violent domestic disturbances of all regardless of geographical region. Any reader who takes the books of Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes for a ride on a regular basis knows that this premise requires a suspension of disbelief that is beyond the pale.

But the killer for this book (no pun intended) is the poor editing. First, we have co-authors and perhaps the left hand did not read what the right hand had already written. For instance, we are first told that Hunter started out as a beat patrolman. Then, later on, we are told he started out as a crime scene photographer. Only one of these scenarios can be the truth; they are not compatible assignments. So the question is whether one author wrote the first scenario and the other didn’t read that part before continuing with the next section.

But the editing errors go way beyond incompatible facts related to backstory. We also have typographical errors – and there are a lot of them. Some of these errors involve changes of tense and of possession within a single sentence. There are also sentences with missing words and sentences with words that shouldn’t be there. Some sentences contain phrases and clauses that just make no sense when referenced back to the subject of the sentence. And these confusing sentences cannot be chalked up to the differences between British and American speech. These situations would be just plain poor sentence construction in any language or culture.

And this leads me to my major disappointment. P.D. Lake, as previously mentioned, has a co-writer for this book, a person who is a well-published author in her own right, an author whom I have read many times. And this co-author is also a professional editor and proofreader! Perhaps this book just slipped through the cracks in an attempt to get it published in time for readers intent on Christmas-themed entries. No matter – left-hand or right-hand, a professional editor should not have let that happen.

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Lifeblood and Stone

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Sometimes literary brevity can be a blessing.

“Lifeblood and Stone” is Breena Wilde’s very short – as in only 15 pages – introduction to her Moth Society series. In this entry, we meet Michael Lifeblood, one of the governing partners of the law firm, Lifeblood and Stone. We also meet Amanda, who is a fast-rising attorney in Lifeblood’s firm. It is Amanda’s POV through which we experience the events that unfold.

These events take place over two scenes, one of which serves to place the characters at the law firm’s annual Halloween masquerade ball. This section is very well written and sets the stage perfectly. The other scene is for Lifeblood and Amanda’s sexual encounter, or should I say, “encounters.” And this section is written about as poorly as I have seen in some years.

In this second scene, Wilde pens four separate and different sexual interactions within a span of approximately 10 pages. And each is graphically and luridly described with gutter-level verbiage.

Now, I am no prude. I possess a few favorite expressions of my own. I also feel that erotic scenes that are well placed in a story arc can be both a delight and good transition points. But this was overkill, too much in too little space, and it came across as oily, smarmy and dirty rather than hot and steamy.

Now, before I ever started the short, I knew the genre was listed as paranormal erotica and the promotional blurb included a maturity warning. But, frankly, by the time I got to the paranormal part – and the name “Lifeblood” is a big clue here – I felt I needed to wash my brain out with soap.

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The Vicarage Bench Anthology

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In the small village of Bury, England, a rose bush grows behind a bench outside the church vicarage. That rose bush is special, and not just because it blooms in three different colors – red, white and pink. That rose bush has the ability, with the prick of one of its thorns, to transport the spirit of one person into another person’s body. That prick also leaves the body of the soul traveler comatose.

In the first story of the anthology, “She’s Me,” the bush works its magic on Jenna McBride, a bratty supermodel, and Lucy McGillicuddy, a dowdy librarian. Dr. John Norman, the town’s new physician, and Jake Dadson, Jenna’s manager, work hard to solve the problem of the co-joined spirits, but the red rose has other plans for the time being. And those plans include a total psychological makeover for both women and a dual romance, Dr. Norman with Lucy and Jake with Jenna. Those plans also include Dr. Tobias Andrews, an area psychiatrist, who is destined to solve the mystery of how to separate the spirits.

The second story, “He’s Her,” involves a powerful but bitter Las Vegas casino owner, Rhett Parks, and Carrie Temple, a schoolteacher who is treated like a doormat because she continually tries to be nice. When Carrie pricks her finger on a rose thorn, she drops the rose as she slips dizzily onto the bench. When Rhett, who is sitting on that same bench, picks up the rose Carrie dropped, the thorn also pricks him. And, voila! Rhett’s spirit is now lodged firmly in Carrie’s brain. When bitter and angry must live in the same body with sweetness and light, something has to change. And the rose, with Dr. Andrews’ help, has plans for just that.

In the third story, “We’re One,” Ashley Parks, the brother of Rhett Parks, finds himself needing to save the woman he loves from the maniacal enforcer of a rival Las Vegas casino owner. Knowing what happened to his brother – and the HEA that Rhett and Carrie achieved – by way of the rose bush, Ashley flees with Crystal Davis to Bury, England, Dr. Andrews, the vicarage bench and the thorns of the pink rose bloom. Unfortunately, Ashley doesn’t tell Crystal what he’s going to do before he does it and she is not pleased, not a bit happy at all, when she finds her spirit looking out through Ashley’s eyes. And when the sociopathic enforcer and his partner fall into the rose bush while chasing Ashley/Carrie, both getting pricked by the same bloom, the story takes on a whole new twist. Dr. Andrews and the rose bush have their work cut out for them this time!

It is important for the reader to know that this anthology is a collection of sequential short stories. The first entry is very short, about 50 pages, while the second and third are about 85 pages each. And neither the second nor third entries are standalones. The events presented in them presume that you have read the first story and no synopsis of previous events or any backstory of previous characters is provided in subsequent entries.

The whole anthology can be read in a day. However, I honestly feel that you will enjoy the series more if you read the entries over three different days.

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He’s Her

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Rhett Parks, a Las Vegas casino owner, has just buried his absentee, alcoholic father in a church cemetery located in the English countryside. Still wearing on his face the anger and bitterness generated by memories of his childhood, Rhett sinks down onto a bench across from the church’s vicarage. As both a handsome and rich man, he is used to the attention of beautiful women, but he inwardly groans when he sees a gorgeous young woman steadfastly approaching him.

However, Carrie Temple isn’t heading for Rhett. Instead, she steps to the side and snips a rose from the bush growing behind the bench. Rhett hears her gasp as a thorn pricks her finger and then he sees her sway, drop the rose and sit down hard on the bench. Reaching down to pick up the rose, Rhett pricks his own finger on the thorn. And, in the space of a second gasp, Rhett’s body slips, comatose, to the ground, and his spirit watches it all from above – and through the eyes of Carrie Temple.

This is the second entry in the Vicarage Bench series, after “She’s Me.” And I feel, to understand the dynamics of the time travel and space displacement, that entry definitely needs to be read first.

Mimi Barbour does a much better job with this second story than she did with the first. She has made this entry longer by about 30 pages, which allows for a bit more detail and fleshing out. And she limits the time span of the plot line to several weeks instead of the several months she tried to cram into the first one.

The character growth of both Rhett and Carrie is solid and believable. Their interactions with others are consistent to the characterizations drawn. And the romance is both palpable and erotic. But it is the epilogue that will make this entry stick with you long after you have moved on to your next read.

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Moon Dragon

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The focus of this short novel, the 10th in its series, is Samantha Moon’s humanity. The dark master, who came to possess part of her mind, body and soul when she was transformed into a vampire nine years ago, is now fighting for total possession. And Samantha is losing the battle.

This is definitely not a standalone work. Rain references both events and persons from previous novels with little recap of circumstances or timing. Relationships between Samantha and the other characters are only tangentially explained. Therefore, being up-to-date in the series is a must for maximum enjoyment and to avoid that “do what?” feeling.

The incident that jumpstarts the action is a meeting between Sam and her deceased husband’s former mistress, a meeting that has been requested by the mistress. As is often the case between a wife scorned and “the other woman,” this encounter starts off just a bit tense and defensive on both sides. But Nancy has some previous experience with monsters and the two are able to find a common ground and even a small measure of respect for each other within short order.

As Nancy explains to Sam, the man she became intimate with, after Danny became a ghost, talks in his sleep. It appears that Gunther Kessler is a werewolf who spends his full moon change devouring his evening meal while it is still on the hoof and very much alive. And he likes that meal to be human and female. With barely a week to the next full moon, Nancy believes Sam is the best chance of stopping the man before another woman just simply disappears off the face of the earth.

Sam agrees to take the case and begins tracking Gunther’s movements in an attempt to locate the hidey-hole where he stashes his entrée-to-be. But as the days pass, she begins to have ambivalent feelings about the need to find and stop Gunther. The thought of Gunther’s hunt and then the kill is becoming more exciting to her by the hour. She finds that she doesn’t really care about the fate of the victim anymore. And then she begins to think that people who put themselves in a position to be taken by the werewolf deserve to die anyway.

J.R. Rain’s portrayal of Sam’s descent toward depravity and murderous madness is tension-filled and fearful. The once-in-a-while, un-characteristic action and the occasional, stray, uncharitable thought become a spate of these actions and thoughts. The spilled blood of an innocent seems, and is, inevitable. And you find yourself holding your breath wondering just how this descent into such viciousness and hate could possibly resolve itself in an acceptable and believable manner.

So many characters from the previous novels have roles here in Sam’s fight for her humanity. Allison and the Librarian are cast as solid support along with Sam’s children while Kingsley and Fang are central to the denouement. Kingsley’s love is critical to Sam mentally while his knowledge of immortals aids her against Gunther. And Fang’s friendship, as well as his own recent descent into darkness, reaches past Sam’s anger and ennui, cutting to the real issue regarding her humanity.

But the introduction of a new dark master into Sam’s life is crucial to Sam’s physical survival. And, it seems this same evil entity, perhaps the most evil and quite probably the very first of Sam’s species, could be essential to her existence, to her potential and to her power as a vampire. As such, Rain has laid out on the table some very enticing hooks for the next, or next several, entries in the series.

And, by the way, the title to the book? Pay close attention, particularly toward the end, think “Talos,” and all will be revealed.

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Cherry Pie

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John Ford is lost. Oh, he knows where he is physically. He is in Mercury, NC, a small town he moved to from LA several months ago. About a year ago, Ford’s long-term partner, Steve, had been killed while on military assignment to Afghanistan. And when multiple lovers – both past and current – showed up for Steve’s funeral, Ford lost his self. The exclusive relationship that Steve had declared he had with Ford was anything but, and Ford had unknowingly lived a lie for years.

Now, in Mercury, a town where Steve once said he would like to retire, Ford has purchased a ramshackle house. There, he is trying to rehabilitate both the house and his soul with good, old-fashioned, hands on, hard work. And neither project is faring very well.

Conner Meecham is also lost. Yes, like Ford, he knows where he is physically. He’s in Mercury, NC, standing in front of his mother’s old house, the house where he was raised, the house that is now owned by John Ford. Conner lost his college education when a knee injury ended his football scholarship. Conner lost his dignity when he became addicted to the painkillers for his knee and turned to prostitution to pay for his habit. Conner lost his self to a year in jail for possession. He lost his mother to disease while he was in prison, not even able to say goodbye. And Conner lost his mother’s house to auction when he couldn’t pay for it from jail.

Now, out of jail, finished with probation and clean for over a year after voluntarily seeking rehab, Conner has come back to Mercury. He believes he lost himself here, so here is where he has come to get his soul back.

John Ford is at the end of his road, living day to day. Conner Meecham is back to the beginning of his road, living the same way. And the two men, bound to the same house, find themselves on a collision course with each other, with their pasts and with their needs for a future.

Samantha Kane has written a character-driven romance that stresses the importance of communication skills, self-respect, and acknowledgement of need, another’s as well as one’s own. The sexual encounters are appropriately placed, and are graphically but sensitively written. These scenes actually serve, not as gratuitous erotica, but as catalysts for character growth and as precursors to the various conflicts that the two men must resolve.

Even though “Cherry Pie” is a relatively short novel, coming in at less than 150 pages, it is not short on clarity or continuity. There is no murderer for our protagonists to ferret out or extra pages needed to thwart an ex-lover come to make trouble. Kane gives us just the right amount of time and space to see that losing your way as you try to get what you want may be exactly the path that helps you find what you need.

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