BLOG REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

25y.o. private secretary accepts the unenviable job as the housekeeper 
of the house of England's most promising political statesman, 35y.o. Hero,
who had secluded himself since his wife's death more than 10 months ago.
What he thought was the perfect politician's marriage 
was a sham, after discovering his late wife's infidelity and insidious sabotaging of his political career in the past 4-5 years.  Heroine is invested in getting him out of his bedroom so she can search through his papers to find the evidence she's looking for to buy the freedom she's been seeking the last 8 years.
No matter how often he fires her.  Or does what he can to make her cease her efforts
 to get him to move past his bitterness and hopelessness.
Her defiance shakes him out of his emotional paralysis,
awakens his interests,
and stokes a new kind of fire.
Heroine, however, knows that any romance between them can only be temporary.
For there's too much at stake, including her life. Their class differences are too wide. And she doesn't think he'll ever forgive her for her deception. How can they ever breach the gap?

I haven't been impressed with all of Duran's books but this one did. It took me 6 days to finish it, reading bits and continuing the book in pieces. For a book to enthrall me every time I read only a bit of it at a time is a very good book indeed. What stood out the most for me was the characterization of Hero and heroine. There was a maturity about them, as we see from their POVs (point of views): in how they handled their problems and their attitude about life. Heroine tended to see hope, even when there's none. And to fight for her needs and wants, even when the odds look insurmountable. Hero was also mentally and emotionally strong  and was a political powerhouse. But the betrayal of his wife and colleagues shattered his own views about himself and others. His strength got transferred onto his present depression and fatalism. He stubbornly clung to his negative viewpoints, eschewing people and his career. The battle of wills between heroine and Hero was 1 of the focal points of the book.  Heroine was not going to be beaten down by his growling bitterness and negativity, no matter how much he tried to offend and push her buttons. She tried to get him to snap out of his hopelessness, while he tried to remind continually her of his social superiority to no avail. 

I loved how we not only see the inner strength of Hero and heroine but also watch their relationship change. Their fights exposed their minds and hearts to each other. They both secretly admired the other's talents and strengths. They both surpassed difficult childhoods to become successful in their endeavors. Hero's was much more public but he was staggered by how much more heroine went through than, humbling herself with jobs lower than the lifestyle she was used to growing up and surviving quite well on her own since she was 17. He actually envied her and was sometimes angered at how much better she actually was than he in handling life problems. I loved how her no-nonsense, practical and positive attitude motivated him to do better. She was impressed with his great mind and social consciousness in his political career, championing the needy and unfortunate. Yet he was the one awed by her strength of character. She didn't scare easily and confronted him when no one else dared to. She sparked him out of his numb emotional state of the past 10 months and discomfited him out of his safe zone. We can see him emotionally thawing through the book as she continued to chip at his walls. The writing made their relationship alive and interactive and engaging. I felt like I was there, witnessing them in person. 

Their romance unfolded in conjunction with Hero's emotional thawing. Heroine was immediately attracted to handsome and charismatic Hero. But it took Hero a while to see her attractiveness since he was so blinded by his emotional problems. Heroine was plain-looking and hadn't had any suitors. So, for Hero to see her as beautiful after getting to know her was sigh-worthy. He became so enthralled with her, baffled by how she had not been snatched up by another man. He genuinely came to like her and be captivated with her. The sexual chemistry showed it, as it increased as the book progressed. And their sex scenes were hot. He couldn't control himself around her. And, given his sexual history, it says a lot about how she affected him.

       ---------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details---------------

Hero's solid character had been evident since growing up in his dysfunctional family. His father may be a duke but he was a irresponsible and self-seeking. A drunken lecher who took advantage of the female household staff. His mother may be a duchess but she was a neglectful mother who didn't hide her infidelities from her young son Hero.  His familial experience made him long for the warm and loving families he read about and saw in paintings. It also made him resolve to be the opposite of his parents. Thus, he stayed a virgin until he got married at age 29 or 30. There were temptations before then but he didn't give in to them. He was faithful to his wife and he had no sexual interests until heroine. 

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There were some angsty moments in the book as well. I was a bit teary-eyed towards the end of the book. The moment that Hero found out that heroine deceived him was a turning point in the book. He displaced his rage and need for revenge at being betrayed by his wife and others on to heroine. It didn't matter that she had a justifiable (and good) reason for deceiving him. 

      ---------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details---------------

Heroine believed her life was in danger since she was choked & left for dead 8 years ago by a man that worked for her father, who was Hero's close political colleague. Her father's romance with her mother was a secret one for as long as she knew him, especially when he got married to another woman when heroine got older. She thought he was going to help her when her mother died when she was 17 but she was almost killed instead. Heroine had been on the run since then, using different names and changing locations and jobs when her father's henchman found her. She found via the letters of Hero's wife to her mother's lover that she left documents in Hero's house that incriminated her mother's lover of unjust dealings that would kill his political career if exposed. These are the papers heroine wants to find in Hero's possession and the reason she found worked as his household staff.

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Hero became very black-and-white in his thinking about being lied to and deceived by a woman again.  He didn't want to hear the details. He just wanted heroine gone from his life.Heroine understood his stance and didn't manipulate him to change it. She knew she was in the wrong and she feared yet expected his consequent rejection. She knew their affair was limited as much as she hoped that he'd go beyond what was expected. So she left.  And she did so with documents that she thought were going to win her freedom but that Hero knew were forgeries. He basically left her out to dry without knowing what was at stake for her. He was so angry and vengeful at that time. He couldn't see past it. The more angsty moment came when he found out that she was imprisoned for blackmail. His realization of what she truly meant to him and who she was running away from as well as the danger she was in all came at the same time. That was another turning point in the book and the final turning point in their romance. It was after that event that I was convinced of their HEA(happy ever after). Hero and heroine showed such maturity and even more character growth through the book. Their being together after the misunderstandings, Hero's depression, and other trials soldered their HEA. It was a lovely feeling to have at the book's ending.

I definitely recommend this book.

BLOG REVIEW: Full Steam Ahead by Valerie Chase

Art-history college senior may seem like she's having the time of her life at the New Year's Eve cruise with her sorority and fraternity friends.
But she's actually trying to quell her despair
at being dumped and quickly replaced by her ex-boyfriend
and the never-ending blackmail 
that's causing her continued trouble in the last 2 years. Being stuck in the same cabin as her ex-boyfriend's frat brother doesn't make things any easier,
with his distracting attractiveness
and man-ho reputation.
But spending time together lets her see that he may not be as bad others say he is.
Pre-med college senior Hero is also finding out that heroine may not be the stuck-up rich girl he thought she was.
And trading secrets
opens them up to an unexpected closeness.
But, when he learns that she's been holding back from him, does that spell the end of their new romance?

A good start by Chase. This felt like a more realistic romance between 2 college-aged main characters. Their language, attitude, behaviors, and romance fit their ages & college lifestyle. Hero and heroine felt relatable and realistic, with their insecurities, wishes and plans, & not having everything together.  I liked that they weren't depicted so extravagantly like other romance-novel characters tend to be. Hero and heroine stumbled about and didn't get things right the first or second time. They made mistakes and, even at the end, it didn't feel like they had it all figured out. Their alternating first-person POV(point of view) helped give us a good sense of who they both were. Especially since both were good at hiding their personal problems with their outside appearances: Hero with his devil-may-care flirty attitude and heroine with her aloof and snobbish one. They both misjudged the other and it took awhile for either of them to realize they were wrong or to lay things out in the open. It was different. It was real and the ending gave us enough to expect that they'll be together for awhile. As far as marriage in their future? I'm not sure. They're both still quite young and embarking on adulthood post-college. They're definitely in love with each other but how their potential careers, further education, and future plans will play out in their relationship later is something the book doesn't answer. In some way, I appreciate its realism. But, on the other hand, the romantic idealist in me wished for a more clear-cut HEA(happy ever after) guarantee between these 2.  An epilogue showing them 5 years later, still very much in love but more emotionally mature, more settled in their careers, and maybe married or engaged, would've helped.

Both Hero and heroine had secrets they're used to handling on their own. Heroine's, though, was the bigger one.

     ---------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details--------------

Two years ago, heroine was involved in a car accident with some minor injury. Her parents presented her with the idea that she could help rescue their family from financial and social disaster if she claimed to be seriously injured from the car accident, with the aid of a crooked doctor who'll attest to her medical claims. Heroine agreed and her family was rewarded a large sum by their insurance company that kept them financially solvent for awhile. However, somebody got a hold of the audio-recording from the doctor's office with heroine and her parents making arrangements to commit insurance fraud.  And that person has been blackmailing heroine's family for money, which heroine has been consistently paying off for fear of legal ramifications for her and her parents.

She told her boyfriend of 18 months about it because she knew he was going to propose marriage to her soon. He broke up with her instead as she feared. He didn't want such a scandal affecting him and his affluent family.

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Both had secrets regarding their families. They were motivated to keep their secrets from their friends and sorority/fraternity groups they belonged to. So they shared a secret isolation rooted in fear of being socially rejected while externally seeming like they were just like everybody else in their sorority/fraternity. It was what drew them together the first time. They learned that the other had inner depth they didn't expect and shared their struggles that helped them understood. Although their romance unfolded only in a span of a few days, their honesty with each other produced some major breakthroughs that pushed them to risk social and romantic rejection. It was a beginning for both of them and they made a pretty good start to living life less pretentiously.  

I moderately recommend this book.

BLOG REVIEW: Kiss of Fire by Charlotte Lamb

25y.o. heroine has the apprehension that buying Hero's book would put an end to her quite life as the proficient secretary of a film director.
It's been 3 years since she last saw former race-car driver Hero
who was involved in a car accident that killed her boyfriend,
who was Hero's best friend since childhood.
She and her boyfriend had a secret romance
due to her boyfriend's disapproving mother.
So Hero became their decoy, 
whom heroine ended up spending more and more time with.
Until their increasing attraction to each other gave way to their own secret romance,
which ended abruptly with the accident. Hero's bitterness over heroine's part in the whole affair is apparent in his reality-based fiction novel and his attitude towards her now.
And his goading her as they have to work together to turn his book into a movie affects her more than she lets on.
But he knows how much he affects her and he uses it to his advantage.
Until she finally confronts him about the past.
Will he listen? Or will he continue to hold on to his bitterness?

Like most of Lamb's books, this one had its twists and turns. It wasn't predictable and I liked the tumultuous relationship Hero and heroine had because of their love triangle. They were both victims and partly responsible for the complications of the past. It didn't start out as a love triangle but it became one and it very soon turned awry. There were too many secrets and it heaped on each other. Hero was the secret-keeper of heroine and his best friend's secret romance. Then, he became the pretend boyfriend of heroine to ward off suspicion of heroine spending time with his best friend. It then gradually manifested into an progressive and secret attraction between him and heroine, as her romance with his best friend dwindled. The whole deal came to its climax at the day of the accident.

     ---------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details--------

Hero told heroine his feelings and vice versa. She confessed that she was no longer in love with her boyfriend (BF), especially since she realized he valued his mother more than her. Hero and heroine's love confession was immediately followed by their first sexual intimacy.  Heroine was a virgin. Their plan the next day was to break the news to her BF that their relationship was over. Hero, however, wanted to be the one to inform him. 

Things unfolded where she ended up telling her BF that she was no longer in love with him and she was in love with Hero instead. Her BF smacked her and went in search of Hero, taking her along with him. Her BF and Hero had some heated words, which heroine couldn't hear. Basically, her BF lied to him in telling Hero that heroine slept with him as a ruse to get his (BF's) attention, which worked because now he and heroine were getting married. Hero didn't believe him then and was done with the conversation. Her BF chased Hero's, ending in the fatal car accident that killed her boyfriend. That was her last memory of them in the last 3 years. Heroine felt so much guilt over what happened and decided to distance herself from Hero who was hospitalized due to his injuries. 

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There were a lot of blame going on, especially on Hero's part. Heroine partly blamed herself over the accidental death of her boyfriend (BF).  She linked her emotional and sexual infidelity against her BF as indirectly leading to his death. She struggled with nightmares about him constantly for years. But she did come to a point and accepted that her BF ultimately chose to act immaturely and be reckless with his life, causing his death. She'd stop blaming herself for causing his death in any way and for falling in love his his best friend Hero. She was at peace with herself by the time she saw Hero again. Hero, on the other hand, was not. 

Hero mostly blamed heroine for what happened in the past. Although he didn't believe what her boyfriend (BF) told him 3 years ago, heroine's abandonment of him after the accident seemed to confirm what her BF told him about her. He felt used and viewed heroine as a fatal seductress, which was how he portrayed her character in his novel about a love triangle. I think he was justified in his anger.  Heroine left him out to dry, when he was weak and vulnerable. Her recent love confession didn't hold much water when he needed her. Yes, he should've confronted her about it but he had already made up his mind that she really did use him, just as her BF said and what her abandonment of him conveyed. 

I liked how heroine confronted Hero about his unjustified blame game. She pointed at her BF's weak character and how Hero knew about it and knew her, despite what her BF said to him a few minutes before he died. Her confrontation also pointed at Hero's denial of his part of their love triangle. It forced him to look at the past and himself in a whole new light. We see him change towards his attitude and treatment of heroine thereafter. What I didn't like was the sweeping of the apologies that both of them needed to say to each other. They had so much bitterness, resentment, and abandonment between in the last 3 years. The ending swept all this heavy emotional history under the rug of their "I love you"s at the end, followed by some generalized sexy times. It left me at an emotionally awkward lurch. 

I moderately recommend this book.

BLOG REVIEW: Some Like It Wild by M. Leighton

22y.o. paralagel wants the simple things in life:  marriage to a good man and a family.
Things haven't been working out lately and she's back in her hometown, living with her parents. Seeing 26y.o. Hero again as she inventories his family's orchard changes her life even more.
Hero is used to a restless life of carefree adventures and the only commitment he has is to his job as a firefighter.
Their last meeting 4 years ago ended with him stealing a kiss. And he's still making his attraction to her obvious.
And tempts her
into stepping out of her proper upbringing as a preacher's daughter.
But he wants to make sure she's also clear about the temporary nature of an affair between them.
Matters at home finally push her into taking the wild plunge with him. Literally.
And romantically.
As clear as his warnings are, it's difficult for her not to fall for him when he understands her like no one else does.
But he still won't open up to her.
And, when it's time for her to go back to work, he ends things as he meant to at the start.
What will it take for him to let her in his life fully? How long will it take?

I enjoyed the push and pull of my emotions in this Leighton book. The alternate 1st-person POV(point of view) of Hero and heroine let us in their heads and hearts. There were some funny, sexy, hard, and poignant moments. We got to see them make progress in areas they're stuck at: heroine in her ordered but disatisfying life and Hero in his carefree but empty and lonely life.  We got to see them do some growing up, especially Hero towards the end. They're both strong characters with good hearts who knew what they wanted but were blocked into achieving it due to their issues with their family. As stuck as they were by the roles they played in their family, both Hero and heroine didn't act immature like other New Adult romance characters sometimes do. They're both stable in their careers of choice and make friends easily. But they both feel unfulfilled in their emotional life and being reconnected again brings that to the forefront. They both wrestled with their feelings for each other, especially Hero. They made some hard choices and suffered the consequences for them, helping them realize what they really wanted in life. And once they did, I really liked that they both didn't waste time in going after it, even if it meant rejection. They both learned to take risks for each other.

Heroine may be proper and raised in a religious environment via her preacher father & homemaker mother but she wasn't a pushover or a rebel. She knew what she wanted and was ok with not following the crowd. She cared for her parents and valued how they thought of her but she didn't push her real identity aside just to please them. I liked that she stood up to them like an adult child and didn't let them get away with their sabotaging ways (i.e., surprising her with her ex-fiance). In some way, reconnecting with Hero helped her be more courageous to keep going in this vein. She was ripe for taking control of her life as an adult and Hero was the right person to encourage her with it.  She didn't just let him take the lead in their relationship either. When she wanted to, she directly expressed her needs and wants. She talked when she wanted but didn't feel the need to fill silence with chatter. She was real with him and he liked that about her. I liked that about her.

Hero was a flirty and carefree guy. It masked his fears with love and commitment. 

   ------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details-------------

He felt loved and cared for by both his parents until about age 4, when his mother got pregnant. They found she had cancer and her pregnancy worsened it. But she was willing to suffer the consequence for the sake of her baby. His father began focusing all his energy on caring for his mother and unborn sister. The next 4 years was a trial for them all, with his mother becoming sicker. From ages 4 to 8, he spent time with her in her room as she progressively got weaker and wanted relief for her suffering, more for their sake than hers. She asked him to get her bottle of pills one day, not knowing that his dad began hiding them for fear of her safety. She told him to go outside and play and she overdosed herself on the pills. Since finding her dead, his dad had blamed Hero for taking his wife away from him. A few years later, his dad told him directly that he'd never forgive Hero and that there was something wrong with Hero that he didn't know how to love people because he ended up hurting those he loved. This was the recurring message he heard from his dad from age 8 onward via his dad's actions and words towards him. In the meantime, his dad showered Hero's younger sister with the love his dad used to give him before his mother got sick.  Hero had learned to keep an emotional distance from his dad and sister and everyone else since then.

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Hero was used to running from his fears since he was a child and he'd been ok with it. But being with heroine made him realize what he's been missing. He knew he was feeling some deep emotions but pushed it away with sex and fun with her. She knew he was getting emotionally entangled with her as she was with him during times she'd catch him watching her or let him see the tender and broken side of him before he'd quickly hide it again. I like that we got to see him struggle through weeks after ending their affair.   He couldn't get her out his thoughts for. Even the willing women who came on to him lost their appeal because they were not her. Missing her and getting a taste of life without her made him do some major re-assessment. And the question of losing her made him decide really quick what he was going to do. It made him realize that love meant making sacrifices to make her happy. And we see him immediately do that. I loved how verbally open he became with her about his feelings, wants and needs. He also let others know how he felt about her. The epilogue showed that he continued to be open and honest with her and treasured her in his life. It was nice to see.

I recommend this book.

BLOG REVIEW: Best Kind of Broken by Chelsea Fine

19y.o. college student now has an awkward relationship with her childhood best friend's brother, 20y.o. Hero.
The 3 of them were like the Three Musketeers since heroine was 6.
Until a year ago, when both of them got closer like never before.
And then everything changed. Popular Arizona college quarterback Hero is now a college dropout and works as a handyman for a remote inn. 
Heroine has since changed her appearance 
and artistic style.
A far cry from how she was 13 months ago.
Neither of them know how to break their distance. No matter how thick their sexual tension is getting.
No matter their shared pain and guilt.
But an easing in their tension occurs with heroine's breakup with her boyfriend.
Is this all that they've been waiting for to seal their romance?
If so, then why did she insist on remaining friends only?

I haven't read any Fine books til this one. I liked it. There's a lot of burgeoning tension throughout the book. Multiple kinds of tension: sexual chemistry, poignancy, despair, deprivation, frustration, resistance, and shared but unspoken memories. I loved how all these were conveyed mostly non-verbally. Hero and heroine were either tiptoeing or aggressively walling-off any talk about what happened 13 months ago. They were in so much pain and mired in guilt and self-blame. Yet both feared worsening the thread of contact they now have again, temporarily living and working at the inn together.  

We don't find out what actually happened 13 months ago until about 50% of the book. The ongoing hints of what it could be added to my tension as I read it.  When it was finally revealed, it explained a lot. Yet it also made me question some things.

     --------SPOILERS: Don't read below if you don't want to know the book's details-------------

Thirteen months ago, heroine and Hero's sister were drunk but Hero's sister decided she could still drive home in that condition. Nothing bad happened. Because Hero blocked them from the driving further. They got a reprimand from him and heroine felt bad for letting her friend drive them in a drunken condition. They also got a ride from him in his truck. And that's when the devastation happened. A truck driver hit them. Hero's sister died and heroine was hospitalized for a hip to chest injury that left a long, reddish scar. 

Hero blamed himself for what happened. if he didn't interfere with his sister and heroine, they'd still be alive. Hero suffered in silence because no one comforted him or supported him through his grief. His parents were too busy fighting. Then, they soon split up and moved away. Their avoidance with him added to his self-blame. So, he did what they did and he avoided heroine. Even during his sister's funeral, where he saw grieving heroine all bruised and in a wheelchair. He wanted to hug and comfort her but he believed himself to be the cause of her injury and didn't think she'd ever want his touch again. He had hopes for a romance with heroine after their first make-out session the day before the accident happened. But the accident killed those too. 

Heroine also blamed herself for what happened. If she didn't let her best friend drive drunk in the first place, the accident wouldn't have occurred. The fact that Hero and his parents never talked to her and moved away after the accident confirmed her self-blame. Even though she and Hero went to the same college, Hero never went near her or talked to her. The accident was her fault and they wanted nothing to do with her ever again. So, she effectively lost her best friend and the only family she'd ever had. Her cruel mother added to her pain by blaming her for the accident like she blamed heroine for many negative things in her life. 

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The extreme avoidance and zero communication would've annoyed me if not for Hero and heroine's ages. I had to remind myself that Hero and heroine were only ages 20 and 19. Very young and understandably emotionally immature. They both went through something horrible and blamed themselves as most kids do when something personally horrible happens. They didn't have the emotional wherewithal to step back and objectively assess their situation. Neither did they have the social support to help them get through it. Hero and heroine were mired in their pain and guilt, as encouraged by the avoidance and blame by the people around them.  So they were alone with their self-recriminations and emotions. And they both settled for avoidance as the best way to handle them. As a result, their emotional detachment produced a physical detachment from each other for a year. So, now that they're forced to be in close contact again, the tension between them increased the more that they both avoid what they clearly share so much of.  At some point, they both had to choose if they kept on running away from their shared pain. Or share their pain together. I liked seeing the beginnings of their emotional maturity as they finally chose to face their pain.

What I had questions about was heroine's blaming Hero for abandoning her in her grief. I understood her viewpoint because Hero and his family was who she considered her family since she was a young girl. Yes, Hero avoided her at the funeral and at their college. Yes, it must be because he blamed her for the accident. So why blame him for abandoning her? He didn't blame her, even though he thought the exact same thing but blaming himself instead. Hero didn't get mad and sorry for himself that heroine avoided him at the funeral and at their college. He thought it was his fault too and understood that she'd want nothing to do with him now. Yes, he was selfishly self-focused on his pain and guilt. But so was she. Hero later felt bad for being selfish and not considering what heroine was going through at that time. Well, she did the same but she didn't acknowledge it like he did. I did like that she forgave him and asked for his forgiveness. That was such a difficult adult thing to do but she did it anyway. If I could pat her back, I would've. I was proud of her for being the emotionally braver one between the 2 of them and initiating their emotional confrontations. Several times. She risked and experienced rejection from him yet she pushed through because she chose to heal and go past the emotional muck they were stuck at for a full year. 

The resolution was good but just the beginning. I think Hero and heroine had much going for them with their love for each other. But I had questions about heroine's emotional dependency on Hero and his family. I don't know how entangled her romantic love for Hero was with her love for him as her link to her best friend and his family. Was her love for him purely because she loved him for himself? Or was it her way of staying connected with the family she almost completely lost? Was her decision to stay in Arizona because of Hero or was it due to her fear of the unknown like many new adults have?  It would've helped if the epilogue showed us Hero and heroine 3 or 5 years later instead of a few months later. I would've liked to see them still together but having healed more and matured more fully. I would've like to see what career path they took and what their plans were for cementing their relationship. I do think they have a very good HEA(happy ever after) chance but their young ages and their emotional maturity at close of the book make it harder to realistically believe that their decisions now will stick later.

I recommend this book.