Tag Archives: holiday romance

Christmas in Rose Bend (Rose Bend #2) by Naima Simone Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

An ER nurse reeling from a shocking revelation about her father and the loss of her mother finds herself and her younger sister spending the holidays at the small town of Rose Bend, and discovering what it means to open their hearts in the process in author Naima Simone’s “Christmas in Rose Bend”, the second book in the Rose Bend series.

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The Synopsis

The holidays have never been her thing. But Christmas in Rose Bend has more than one surprise in store…

Grieving ER nurse Nessa Hunt is on a road trip with her sullen teen half-sister, Ivy, and still reeling from her mother’s deathbed confession: Nessa’s dad wasn’t really her dad. Seeking answers, they arrive in Rose Bend to find a small town teeming with the kind of Christmas cheer Nessa usually avoids. But then she meets the innkeeper’s ruggedly sexy son, Wolfgang Dennison.

Wolf’s big, boisterous family is like a picture-perfect holiday card. Nessa has too much weighed on her to feel like she fits—even though the heat between her and Wolf is undeniable. And the merriment bringing an overdue smile to Ivy’s face is almost enough to make Nessa believe in the Christmas spirit. But with all her parental baggage, including lingering questions about her birth father, is there room in Nessa’s life for happy holidays and happily-ever-after?

The Review

Now I know the new year has arrived and many people may be ready to move on from the holidays, but for me, the holiday season is the gift itself that keeps on giving, and the same can be said for holiday romances. What was so beautiful and emotional about this read was how the author managed to balance the Christmas magic that the town of Rose Bend embraced with the complex feelings and experiences both protagonists (Nessa and Wolf) have had coming into this narrative. The reader is able to connect with both characters through their shared sense of loss, whether it is the loss of a loved one physically or emotionally, and then heated and more intimate moments between the two that develop feel more passionate as a result of that shared past. 

The development of other characters was what brought a sense of belonging and togetherness to this narrative. Aside from the main characters, the way the narrative showed the rollercoaster of emotions that Nessa’s sister Ivy went through after losing her father, a man she and her sister have had very different experiences with, and the gap that has formed between the two women was so emotionally captivating and engaging that readers would be hard-pressed not to dive headfirst into this story.

The Verdict

A brilliant and sizzling romance that will heat up anyone’s holidays, author Naima Simone’s “Christmas in Rose Bend” is the perfect next chapter in the romance series. The story takes on so much more than a simple holiday romance as the story plays out though. It is a story of breaking down the barriers within ourselves, connecting the people closest to us when they need us the most, and coming to terms with our past to find a brighter future, and that is what makes this story so captivating. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today.

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

USA Today Bestselling author Naima Simone’s love of romance was first stirred by Johanna Lindsey and Nora Roberts years ago. Well not that many. She is only eighteen…ish. Published since 2009, she spends her days writing sizzling romances with heart, a touch of humor and snark.  She is wife to Superman–or his non-Kryptonian equivalent–and mother to the most awesome kids ever. They live in perfect, sometimes domestically-challenged bliss in the southern US.

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Here is an Excerpt For “Christmas in Rose Bend”

Nessa Hunt didn’t do Christmas. 

As an ER nurse, she’d seen the worst humanity had to offer during the holiday season. Electrocution injuries from plugging one too many Christmas lights into a single outlet. Shoppers with broken noses and blackened eyes from Black Friday fights that erupted over the newest must-have toy. Dads with busted backs from attempting to mount inflatable Frosties and reindeer-drawn sleighs on porch roofs.

And then there’d been that one memorable sex toy mishap— Santa had boldly gone where no Santa had gone before.

So, no, she was not a fan of Christmas.

Which meant the town of Rose Bend, Massachusetts, was her own personal version of hell. 

“It looks like Santa Claus just threw up all over this place!” her sister, Ivy, whispered from the passenger seat.

Now, there was a nice visual. But slowing to a halt at a stoplight, Nessa had to admit the twelve-year-old had a point. Who knew that three hours north of Boston and tucked in the southern Berkshires existed a town straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting? It seemed almost…unreal. If any place had that everybody-knows-your-name vibe, it was Rose Bend. Brick buildings housing drugstores, boutiques, a candy store, an ice cream parlor and diners lined the road. The long white steeple of a church towered in the distance. A colonial-style building stood in the center of town, the words Town Hall emblazoned above four columns. And everything was decorated with lights, garland, poinsettias, candy canes and big red bows. Even the stoplights sported huge wreaths decked out with miniature toys and elves—and the biggest pine cones she’d ever seen in her life. 

Mom would’ve lost her mind over all this. 

The thought snuck out of the steel door in her mind where she’d locked away all wayward, crippling memories of Evelyn Reed. A blazing pain stabbed Nessa in the chest, and she sucked in a breath. Briefly, she closed her eyes, blocking out the winter wonderland beyond her windshield. 

It had been eight long, lonely, bitter months since she’d lost her mother to uterine cancer. Since she’d last heard her mother’s pragmatic but affectionate voice that still held a faint Southern accent, even though she’d lived in Boston for over thirty years. Since she’d inhaled her mother’s comforting roses-and-fresh-laundry scent. 

Since her mother had rasped a devastating secret in a whisper thick with regret, edged with pain and slurred from morphine. 

Maybe the well-meaning friends who’d advised Nessa to see a grief counselor could also counsel her on how to stop being so goddamn angry with her mother for lying to Nessa for twenty-eight years. Maybe then Nessa could start to heal. 

’Til then, she had patients to care for. Now she had a sister to raise. 

And secrets to keep. 

“Oh wow!” Ivy squealed, jabbing the window with a finger. “There’s a real town square and over there is the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen! Can we get out and walk around? Please?” 

Nessa glanced in the direction Ivy pointed, taking in the square, and in the distance, a massive tree. The idea of strolling around in the freezing weather to stare at a Douglas fir wasn’t exactly her idea of fun. But when she’d agreed to make this trip with Ivy, Nessa had told herself to make an effort to connect. This was supposed to be about bonding with the sister she barely knew. 

Emptiness spread through her and the greasy slide of guilt and pain flooded into the hole. She glanced at Ivy, Nessa’s gaze lingering over the features they shared…but didn’t. The high cheekbones that dominated a face Ivy hadn’t yet grown into. The thin shoulders that had become even thinner in the last six weeks, since her father had died. 

A scream welled up inside Nessa, scraping her throat raw. Ivy’s father—Isaac Hunt—was the man who had raised Nessa until he and her mother divorced when she’d been about Ivy’s age, and then he’d been more out of her life than in it. He had named Nessa as his daughter’s guardian. He had trusted Nessa to care for Ivy, because she was his oldest daughter and Ivy’s half sister. And though she and Isaac hadn’t shared a close relationship when he’d been alive, she couldn’t let him down. And Ivy… 

Ivy had lost her mother as a baby, and now her father. Nessa knew what it was like to be alone. She couldn’t take Ivy’s sister away, too. 

Even if Ivy resented the hell out of Nessa and begrudged her guardianship with every breath she took. 

But God… Months of bearing a secret weighed on Nessa’s shoulders. And they ached. These last six weeks had been a special kind of hell. 

She was so damn tired. 

Inhaling a deep breath, Nessa forced herself to push past the soul-deep ache. 

She could do this. 

One of the first things she’d had to learn when entering the nursing field was how to compartmentalize hurt, grief and anger. Not allowing herself to be sucked down in a morass of emotion. If she hadn’t acquired that skill, she wouldn’t have been any good to her patients, their families, the doctors or herself. So what if some people called her Nurse Freeze behind her back? She got the job done. Besides, as she’d learned— first, when her father left the family; second, when her ex had traded their relationship for a job in Miami; and third, when her parents died—loving someone, caring for them, was a liability. Feelings were unreliable, untrustworthy. Parents, lovers, friends, patients—everyone always left. Only fools didn’t protect themselves.

And her mother hadn’t raised a fool. 

“Let’s wait on that,” she said, answering Ivy. “We need to find Kinsale Inn first and get settled. Then maybe later we can come back and do the tourist thing.” 

“Right.” Ivy dropped against the passenger seat, arms crossed over her chest. The glance the preteen slid Nessa’s way could only be described as side-eye. Paired with the curl to the corner of her mouth, Ivy’s expression had gone from wide-eyed excitement to Eff you, big sister in three-point-five seconds flat. “In other words, no.” 

“Did I say no?” Nessa asked, striving for patience. She’s a grieving preteen. You can’t bounce her out of your car. CPS frowns on that. With the mantra running through her head, she tried again. “Check-in at the inn was at twelve, and it’s now one thirty.” She hadn’t expected to hit so much traffic leaving Boston. Or to take the wrong exit halfway to the Berkshires and have to retrace her route. “We need to make sure they still know we’re arriving. The square and the tree will be there in a few hours.” 

“Uh-huh.” Ivy snorted. “And as soon as we get to the inn, you’ll find another excuse not to do anything. Especially with me. It’s not like you wanted to come here anyway.” 

“First off, kid, I’m not the kind of person who does anything she doesn’t want to do. Second, if I give you my word, I mean it. And third, what does ‘especially with me’ mean? Who else would I be up here with?” 

“Whatever,” Ivy muttered. 

Nessa breathed deep. Held it. Counted to ten. Released it. Then tried again. “Is this how the next month is going to be? You angry and me taking the brunt of it? Because I have to tell you, we could’ve done this dance back in Boston without carolers and hot chocolate stands.” 

“Don’t pretend like you did this for me. You don’t even like me. This is all for your guilt over Dad’s letter. Fine with me if we go back to Boston. I don’t care.” 

Nessa tightened her fingers around the steering wheel, not replying. Anything she said to Ivy at this moment would only end up in an argument. That’s all she and Ivy had seemed to do since the funeral. Nothing Nessa did could make Ivy happy. 

And as much as Nessa hated to admit it, there was some truth to Ivy’s accusation. Because a part of her—Jesus, she hated admitting it even to herself—didn’t like Ivy. Was jealous of her. For having more of Isaac’s love. For having him when Nessa hadn’t, even when she’d needed him. 

Even though Nessa had called Isaac Hunt Dad all her life, he was more or less a stranger to her…just like the silent, stiff twelve-year-old hunched on the seat next to her. He’d been an absentee parent since his divorce from her mother sixteen years ago, and Nessa had met her half sister maybe five times before their father died from pancreatic cancer. Hell, she hadn’t even known he’d been ill until the final time he’d ended up in the hospital. She hadn’t even had a chance to say…what? Goodbye? Where the hell have you been as a father for sixteen years? Why didn’t you love me as much as you loved your other daughter? 

I love you. 

Dammit. Damn damn damn

She fisted her fingers to keep from pounding the steering wheel. 

So yes, guilt had pushed her into taking a previously unheard-of short-term leave from the hospital. It’d goaded her into going up to Ivy’s school and letting them know the girl would be missing the last two weeks before Christmas break to take an extended vacation. 

She swallowed a sigh, and as the light changed, pressed on the gas pedal. A tense, edgy silence filled the car. Nothing new there either. Nessa snuck another look at the girl, noting the sullen expression turning down Ivy’s mouth and creasing her eyebrows into a petulant frown. 

Maybe their time in Rose Bend would give Ivy her smile back. Or at least rid Ivy’s lovely dark brown eyes of the sadness lurking there. 

And maybe Santa really did fly around the world. 

Yeah, Nessa had stopped believing in miracles and fairy tales years ago. Better Ivy learn now that life dealt shitty hands, and you either folded or played to recoup your losses. 

Soon, they left the downtown area and approached a fork in the road. As she turned her Durango left onto a paved road bordered by trees… 

“Oh wow,” Ivy breathed. 

“Good God,” Nessa murmured at the same time, bringing her vehicle to a halt in the driveway that circled in front of the huge white inn. 

Oh, Mom. You would’ve so loved this. 

A short set of stairs led up to a spacious porch that, according to the brochure, encircled the building. The wide lower level angled out to the side, with the equally long second floor following suit. The third, slightly smaller story graced the building with its dormer window, and a slanted roof topped it like a red cap. A broad red front door with glass panes along the top and dark green shutters at every window—and, damn, there were a lot of windows—and large bushes bordering the front and sides completed the image of a beautiful country inn. But it was the wreaths and bows hung on the door and walls, and the lights that twinkled along every surface, that transformed the building into a fairyland. A Christmas fairyland. 

Excerpted from Christmas in Rose Bend by Naima Simone. Copyright © 2021 by Naima Simone. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

The Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A woman working as a meteorologist in California must return to her hometown in Michigan after losing her job to an AI at her local station, and must confront her past and reclaim her popularity as a meteorologist in the public eye while also finding an unexpected possibility for romance in author Viola Shipman’s “The Secret of Snow”.

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The Synopsis

When Sonny Dunes, a So-Cal meteorologist who knows only sunshine and 72-degree days, has an on-air meltdown after she learns she’s being replaced by an AI meteorologist (which the youthful station manager reasons “will never age, gain weight or renegotiate its contract.”), the only station willing to give a 50-year-old another shot is one in a famously non-tropical place–her northern Michigan hometown.

Unearthing her carefully laid California roots, Sonny returns home and reaclimates to the painfully long, dark winters dominated by a Michigan phenomenon known as lake-effect snow. But beyond the complete physical shock to her system, she’s also forced to confront her past: her new boss is a former journalism classmate and mortal frenemy and, more keenly, the death of a younger sister who loved the snow, and the mother who caused Sonny to leave.

To distract herself from the unwelcome memories, Sonny decides to throw herself headfirst (and often disastrously) into all things winter to woo viewers and reclaim her success: sledding, ice-fishing, skiing, and winter festivals, culminating with the town’s famed Winter Ice Sculpture Contest, all run by a widowed father and Chamber director whose honesty and genuine love of Michigan, winter and Sonny just might thaw her heart and restart her life in a way she never could have predicted.

The Review

Such an engaging and memorable read. The balance found between the humorous character interactions and the emotional character growth really highlighted a great character arc overall not just for the protagonist both those closest to her. The setting and tone of the narrative really were perfect, because they captured the magic of winter without focusing intently on the holidays themselves, showing how there is distinct energy and feeling that this time of year can bring. 

To me, the standout of this novel was the equal parts romance and equal parts emotional personal growth. The harmonious way the author delves into “Sonny” and the woman behind the public figure was so incredible to read, as the author truly explored the psychological and soulful journey the protagonist went on while also highlighting this blooming romance that she and Mason found with one another, becoming a very healing and hopeful message for readers.

The Verdict

A brilliant, engaging, and hopeful journey of love in all its forms, author Viola Shipman’s “The Secret of Snow” is a must-read winter read of 2021. With captivating characters and entertaining storylines that will harness the magic of winter for fans of cozy winter romances, this is one novel that readers will want to binge read before the end of the year. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Viola Shipman is the pen name for Wade Rouse, a popular, award-winning memoirist. Rouse chose his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire his writing. Rouse is the author of The Summer Cottage, as well as The Charm Bracelet and The Hope Chest which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and become international bestsellers. He lives in Saugatuck, Michigan and Palm Springs, California, and has written for People, Coastal Living, Good Housekeeping, and Taste of Home, along with other publications, and is a contributor to All Things Considered.

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Here is an Excerpt from The Secret of Snow

“And look at this! A storm system is making its way across the country, and it will bring heavy snow to the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes before wreaking havoc on the East Coast. This is an especially early and nasty start to winter for much of the country. In fact, early models indicate that parts of western and northern Michigan—the lake effect snowbelts, as we call them—will receive over 150 inches of snow this year. One hundred fifty inches!”

I turn away from the green screen in my red wrap dress and heels.

“But here in the desert…” I wait for the graphic to pop onscreen, which declares, Sonny Says It’s Sonny… Again!

When the camera refocuses on me, I toss an adhesive sunshine with my face on it toward the green screen behind me. It sticks directly on Palm Springs, California.

“…it’s wall-to-wall sunshine!”

I expand my arms like a raven in the mountains taking flight. The weekly forecast pops up. Every day features a smiling sunshine that resembles yours truly: golden, shining, beaming.

“And it will stay that way all week long, with temperatures in the midseventies and lows in the midfifties. Not bad for this time of year, huh? It’s chamber of commerce weather here in the desert, perfect for all those design lovers in town for Mid-Century Modernism Week.” I walk over to the news desk. The camera follows. I lean against the desk and turn to the news anchors, Eva Fernandez and Cliff Moore. “Or for someone who loves to play golf, right, Cliff?”

He laughs his faux laugh, the one that makes his mouth resemble those old windup chattering teeth from when I was a girl.

“You betcha, Sonny!”

“That’s why we live here, isn’t it?” I ask.

“I sure feel sorry for the rest of the country,” says Eva, her blinding white smile as bright as the camera lights. I’m convinced every one of Eva’s caps has a cap.

“Those poor Michigan folk won’t be golfing in shorts like I will be tomorrow, will they?” Cliff says with a laugh and his pantomime golf swing. He twitches his bushy brows and gives me a giant wink. “Thank you, Sonny Dunes.”

I nod, my hands on my hips as if I’m a Price Is Right model and not a meteorologist.

“Martinis on the mountain? Yes, please,” Eva says with her signature head tilt. “Next on the news: a look at some of the big events at this year’s Mid-Century Modernism Week. Back in a moment.”

I end the newscast with the same forecast—a row of smiling sunshine emojis that look just like my face—and then banter with the anchors about the perfect pool temperature before another graphic—THE DESERT’S #1 NIGHTLY NEWS TEAM!—pops onto the screen, and we fade to commercial.

“Anyone want to go get a drink?” Cliff asks within seconds of the end of the newscast. “It’s Friday night.”

“It’s always Friday night to you, Cliff,” Eva says.

She stands and pulls off her mic. The top half of Eva Fernandez is J.Lo perfection: luminescent locks, long lashes, glam gloss, a skintight top in emerald that matches her eyes, gold jewelry that sets off her glowing skin. But Eva’s bottom half is draped in sweats, her feet in house slippers. It’s the secret viewers never see.

“I’m half dressed for bed already anyway,” she says with a dramatic sigh. Eva is very dramatic. “And I’m hosting the Girls Clubs Christmas breakfast tomorrow and then Eisenhower Hospital’s Hope for the Holidays fundraiser tomorrow night. And Sonny and I are doing every local Christmas parade the next few weekends. You should think about giving back to the community, Cliff.”

“Oh, I do,” he says. “I keep small business alive in Palm Springs. Wouldn’t be a bar afloat without my support.”

Cliff roars, setting off his chattering teeth.

I call Cliff “The Unicorn” because he was actually born and raised in Palm Springs. He didn’t migrate here like the older snowbirds to escape the cold, he didn’t snap up midcentury houses with cash like the Silicon Valley techies who realized this was a real estate gold mine, and he didn’t suddenly “discover” how hip Palm Springs was like the millennials who flocked here for the Coachella Music Festival and to catch a glimpse of Drake, Beyoncé or the Kardashians.

No, Cliff is old school. He was Palm Springs when tumbleweed still blew right through downtown, when Bob Hope pumped gas next to you and when Frank Sinatra might take a seat beside you at the bar, order a martini and nobody acted like it was a big deal.

I admire Cliff because—

The set suddenly spins, and I have to grab the arm of a passing sound guy to steady myself. He looks at me, and I let go.

he didn’t run away from where he grew up.

“How about you, sunshine?” Cliff asks me. “Wanna grab a drink?”

“I’m gonna pass tonight, Cliff. I’m wiped from this week. Rain check?”

“Never rains in the desert, sunshine,” Cliff jokes. “You oughta know that.”

He stops and looks at me. “What would Frank Sinatra do?”

I laugh. I adore Cliff’s corniness.

“You’re not Frank Sinatra,” Eva calls.

“My martini awaits with or without you.” Cliff salutes, as if he’s Bob Hope on a USO tour, and begins to walk out of the studio.

“Ratings come in this weekend!” a voice yells. “That’s when we party.”

We all turn. Our producer, Ronan, is standing in the middle of the studio. Ronan is all of thirty. He’s dressed in flip-flops, board shorts and a T-shirt that says, SUNS OUT, GUNS OUT! like he just returned from Coachella. Oh, and he’s wearing sunglasses. At night. In a studio that’s gone dim. Ronan is the grandson of the man who owns our network, DSRT. Jack Clark of ClarkStar pretty much owns every network across the US these days. He put his grandson in charge because Ro-Ro’s father bought an NFL franchise, and he’s too obsessed with his new fancy toy to pay attention to his old fancy toy. Before DSRT, Ronan was a surfer living in Hawaii who found it hard to believe there wasn’t an ocean in the middle of the California desert.

He showed up to our very first official news meeting wearing a tank top with an arrow pointing straight up that read, This Dude’s the CEO!

“You can call me Ro-Ro,” he’d announced upon introduction.

“No,” Cliff said. “I can’t.”

Ronan had turned his bleary gaze upon me and said, “Yo. Weather’s, like, not really my thing. You can just, like, look outside and see what’s going on. And it’s, like, on my phone. Just so we’re clear…get it? Like the weather.”

My heart nearly stopped. “People need to know how to plan their days, sir,” I protested. “Weather is a vital part of all our lives. It’s daily news. And, what I study and disseminate can save lives.”

“Ratings party if we’re still number one!” Ronan yells, knocking me from my thoughts.

I look at Eva, and she rolls her eyes. She sidles up next to me and whispers, “You know all the jokes about millennials? He’s the punchline for all of them.”

I stifle a laugh.

We walk each other to the parking lot.

“See you Monday,” I say.

“Are we still wearing our matching Santa hats for the parade next Saturday?”

I laugh and nod. “We’re his best elves,” I say.

“You mean his sexiest news elves,” she says. She winks and waves, and I watch her shiny SUV pull away. I look at my car and get inside with a smile. Palm Springs locals are fixated on their cars. Not the make or the color, but the cleanliness. Since there is so little rain in Palm Springs, locals keep their cars washed and polished constantly. It’s like a competition.

I pull onto Dinah Shore Drive and head toward home.

Palm Springs is dark. There is a light ordinance in the city that limits the number of streetlights. In a city this beautiful, it would be a crime to have tall posts obstructing the view of the mountains or bright light overpowering the brightness of the stars.

I decide to cut through downtown Palm Springs to check out the Friday night action. I drive along Palm Canyon Drive, the main strip in town. The restaurants are packed. People sit outside in shorts—in December!—enjoying a glass of wine. Music blasts from bars. Palm Springs is alive, the town teeming with life even near midnight.

I stop at a red light, and a bachelorette party in sashes and tiaras pulls up next to me peddling a party bike. It’s like a self-propelled trolley with seats and pedals, but you can drink—a lot—on it. I call these party trolleys “Woo-Hoo Bikes” because…

I honk and wave.

The bachelorette party shrieks, holds up their glasses and yells, “WOO-HOO!”

The light changes, and I take off, knowing these ladies will likely find themselves in a load of trouble in about an hour, probably at a tiki bar where the drinks are as deadly as the skulls on the glasses.

I continue north on Palm Canyon—heading past Copley’s Restaurant, which once was Cary Grant’s guesthouse in the 1940s, and a plethora of design and vintage home furnishings stores. I stop at another light and glance over as an absolutely filthy SUV, which looks like it just ended a mud run, pulls up next to me. The front window is caked in gray-white sludge and the doors are encrusted in crud. An older man is hunched over the steering wheel, wearing a winter coat, and I can see the woman seated next to him pointing at the navigation on the dashboard. I know immediately they are not only trying to find their Airbnb on one of the impossible-to-locate side streets in Palm Springs, but also that they are from somewhere wintry, somewhere cold, somewhere the sun doesn’t shine again until May.

Which state? I wonder, as the light changes, and the car pulls ahead of me.

“Bingo!” I yell in my car. “Michigan license plates!”

We all run from Michigan in the winter.

I look back at the road in front of me, and it’s suddenly blurry. A car honks, scaring the wits out of me, and I shake my head clear, wave an apology and head home.

Excerpted from The Secret of Snow by Viola Shipman. Copyright © 2021 by Viola Shipman. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Mistletoe Season (The Carolina Girls Book 2) by Michelle Major Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

Two former friends turned enemies find themselves back in each other’s lives years later, and a shared bond and goal forces them to examine what they truly mean to one another in author Michelle Major’s “Mistletoe Season”, the second book in The Carolina Girls series.

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The Synopsis

Spend the holidays in Magnolia, North Carolina, where two lonely hearts find exactly what they need for Christmas.

Angi Guilardi needs a man for Christmas—at least, according to her mother. What she really needs is to grow her fledgling catering business. Partnering with Magnolia’s Firefly Inn holds promise, but when her mother falls ill, Angi’s drawn back to the family restaurant. Balancing work and her eight-year-old son, there’s no time for romance… until Angi runs into Gabriel Carlyle.

Temporarily helping at his grandmother’s flower shop, Gabriel’s plan isn’t to stick around, especially after he runs into Angi, one of his childhood bullies. Sure, she’s all grown up and gorgeous now, and when they find themselves under the mistletoe, their chemistry is undeniable. But it’ll take more than a Christmas miracle for Angi to break through the defenses of Gabriel’s well-guarded heart and find a love built to last.

The Review

The tension between the two protagonists was palpable as the story began. The way the author explores the past these two characters share with one another and the impact their families have had on them as well was so intriguing and engaging and made the impact of their growing romance that much more meaningful. The pain of their pasts both tougher and individually elevated their character arcs to new heights and allowed the reader to feel connected to their emotional states overall.

The small-town vibe and history of the characters and area really made this story what it was. The intimate moments between the protagonists and the holiday romance felt much more alive due to the connected way the town and its citizens interacted with one another, and the connection each protagonist had to the wellbeing and overall happiness of Angi’s son brought out the best of each of them, making this such an emotionally-investing narrative.

The Verdict

A memorable, hopeful, and well-written holiday romance, author Michelle Major’s “Mistletoe Season” is the perfect read for romance fans this winter. The world-building and character development the author captured here in this narrative was entertaining and emotional all at once, and the twists and turns their relationship takes will keep readers on the edge of their seats. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Michelle Major loves stories of new beginnings, second chances and always a happily ever after. An avid hiker and avoider of housework, she lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, two teenagers and a menagerie of spoiled furbabies.

Buy Links: 

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Author Website

Facebook: @MichelleMajorBooks

Instagram: @michellemajorauthor

Twitter: @michelle_major1

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Here is an Excerpt from “Mistletoe Season”

1

ANGI GUILARDI LET herself out of Il Rigatone, the restaurant her family had owned in Magnolia, North Carolina, for the past thirty years, and locked the door behind her. It was nearly eleven at night, and a brisk December wind whipped down Main Street. Although she should be wearing more than a white button-down, now stained with smatterings of red sauce, Angi welcomed the gust of air. At least it blew away the smell of sausage and tomato paste that clung to her like a barnacle.

Scents that seemed to be infused into her at this point, bringing back memories of years of a childhood spent in and out of the restaurant. It had been a long day, so she needed a shower and a glass of wine in equal measure.

She started toward her car, parked around the corner, but the sound of a door slamming nearby caught her attention. Downtown Magnolia rolled up the sidewalks early on a weeknight, so she didn’t expect anyone else to be out and about. She arched a brow at the woman approaching.

“Are you stalking me?”

Emma Cantrell gave an impatient snort as she moved closer. “That’s what it feels like, but it wouldn’t be necessary if you’d return my calls or answer messages.”

Angi turned to fully face her business partner—now former partner. “I’ve been busy,” she said, trying to make her tone dismissive. Instead, the words reeked of desperation.

“How’s your mom?” Emma asked gently, her annoyance with Angi temporarily put aside because, clearly, Emma was a good person. Too good for Angi to be ignoring her the way she had.

“Equally weak and ornery.” Angi dropped the oversize set of keys into her purse with a jangle. “The doctor says two more weeks, and then she can slowly begin to resume her normal activities.”

“Like running Il Rigatone?”

“We don’t know yet if she’ll ever return at the same capacity.” Angi bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. “It doesn’t matter because I’m running it now.”

“But only temporarily,” Emma insisted. Or suggested, like saying the words out loud would make them true.

Oh, how Angi wanted them to be true.

She gave a small shake of her head. No more time for fanciful thoughts or big dreams about making her life her own. Unable to meet Emma’s sympathetic gaze, she looked across the street to the storefronts decorated in festive holiday cheer.

Colorful twinkle lights danced in the darkened window of the hardware store, and she could make out the shadow of garland wound through the sign for the dance studio. Boughs of greenery with bright red bows hung from every light post on either side of the street. Magnolia had gone all out on the holiday cheer this year.

Too bad Angi didn’t feel much of the holiday spirit. Sure, she’d gone through the motions of assembling the fake Christmas tree that had graced the corner of the restaurant’s small waiting area each December for as long as she could remember.

During a lull in customers yesterday, she and one of the waitresses had pulled out the totes of decorations from the storeroom, but nothing managed to conjure up the magic of the season. Not for her.

“I’m sorry I let you down,” she told Emma, thankful her voice remained steady. “I’ve got calls in to a couple caterers in the area to see if they can—”

“I don’t want another caterer.” Emma stepped forward. “You’re it, Ang.”

“I can’t…” She swallowed when a lump of sorrow lodged in her throat. “I should never have deserted my mom in the first place. If she hadn’t been working so much and upset about me as well, maybe the heart attack wouldn’t have happened.”

“Sweetie, you aren’t to blame for that.”

“She almost died,” Angi insisted, needing to make it clear. “Less than a year after my father. She collapsed in the restaurant’s storeroom, and I wasn’t here.”

“You were at the inn.”

“Having a grand old time, not a care in the world. My mom was fighting for her life, surrounded by employees until the EMTs got there, and I wasn’t with her. When she needed me the most—”

“Stop.” Emma held up a hand. “I remember that day, Angi. It was the McAlvey wedding, complete with the bride’s niece and her tiny Irish dancer friends pounding away on the parquet floor we assembled in the backyard. You made food for over a hundred guests. Plus lunch baskets for the Thompson reunion and their picnic at the beach. Five of the six online reviews that came from those two events mention the food being a highlight. You care a lot, so don’t pretend otherwise. Not with me.”

Emma still didn’t get it.

“I should have cared more about my mom. The way she did when I needed her. She looked so pale, Em.” Angi crossed her arms over her middle, squeezing tight. “I kept waiting for her eyes to pop open so she could start ordering me around or give me some kind of guilt trip, but she was still in the hospital bed with the monitors beeping and the smell of antiseptic permeating everything. She needs me now, and I can’t let her down.”

“What about letting yourself down? What about your happiness?”

Angi sniffed. “Doesn’t matter.”

“It should.”

“I’m sorry,” Angi said again.

She’d met Emma in the spring when the other woman bought an old mansion in town with a plan to turn it into a boutique inn. Emma had had her share of setbacks, but Angi admired her dedication to her dream. She also knew that leaving behind her old life had cost Emma her relationship with her mother.

Angi’s mom had been outspoken in the way only Italian mothers can manage when Angi walked away from the restaurant to partner with Emma on the inn. But Angi assumed that her mom would get over her disappointment. That they’d find a way to bridge the emotional distance between them. She loved her mom, even if Bianca Guilardi could be overbearing and autocratic. The willful matriarch had good intentions.

But they never got the chance to mend their fences because, a month earlier, Bianca had suffered a massive heart attack that led to double bypass surgery. In an instant, all of Angi’s plans changed.

She’d moved from her cozy apartment back to her childhood home, along with her ten-year-old son, Andrew, in order to care for her mom. She’d also stepped in at the restaurant, and in doing so, she’d left Emma in a pinch.

For that, she felt sick to her stomach with regret.

“If you can’t find someone to take care of the holiday events, I’ll still manage it,” she offered now, absently thinking about ways to clone herself.

“You can’t do both.”

“I will.”

Emma sighed. “My intention for tonight wasn’t to guilt you into more work.”

“Come on, I’m a master of guilt.”

“I know.” Emma gave her a pointed look. “That’s why I don’t want to add to it. I thought we were friends—business partners, as well. But you cutting me off as a friend is what hurts.”

Cue the remorse, Angi thought. She didn’t need anyone to lay it on her. She could do that very well for herself.

“It seems like all I’m doing lately is disappointing people. You and my mom.” She hitched a finger at the restaurant. “The staff who can tell I don’t want to be there. Andrew.”

“Wait. What’s going on with Andrew? I know you’re an amazing mother. That kid thinks the sun rises and sets on his mommy.”

Angi’s throat tightened again at the thought of her sweet, awkward, lanky string bean of a boy. He was everything to her, and now he was struggling and she didn’t know how to make it stop.

“He’s being bullied at school,” she confided. As difficult as it was to talk about, she appreciated the flash of supportive fury in Emma’s dark eyes.

“Give me the kid’s name.” Her buttoned-up friend spoke as if she were some kind of avenging angel.

“I don’t have it. Andrew won’t say anything, and his classmates are keeping quiet, as well. But he came home with a split lip and scrapes on his hands. I talked to the teacher and met with her and the principal. They said all the right things, but kids can be such jerks. Maybe if we lived in a bigger town or someplace where differences were more accepted, it would be easier for him to find his way. I hated growing up in Magnolia, and now I’m doing the same thing to him.”

Her nails dug into the fleshy part of her palms, and she welcomed the pain. At least it distracted her from the telltale scratchy eyes that foretold a bout of tears. She wasn’t going to break down in the middle of the sidewalk, even if it was deserted.

“How is it possible to hate it here?” Emma shook her head. “It’s idyllic.”

“Not for the Italian cannoli princess,” Angi muttered.

“Is that like a Midwestern Corn Queen at the state fair?”

“Not exactly. Never mind. My point is that I’m screwing up in every aspect of life. I’m sorry I ghosted you, Em. We are friends, but I didn’t want to admit that I was ditching the inn. You gave me the new start I wanted, and I can’t keep up my end of the bargain.” She let out a humorless laugh. “Here comes the guilt again.”

“I didn’t give you anything. You earned your place in our partnership, which I refuse to believe is over. At least until your mom fully recovers and we see what happens next. I’ll find someone to help with the nitty-gritty food prep and serving, but I’m going to take you up on your offer to manage things for the holidays. As long as it’s not too much. We can reassess in the new year.” She enveloped Angi in a gentle hug and couldn’t have known how much it helped. “Either way, the friendship stands.”

“Okay.” Angi couldn’t help but agree. She wasn’t ready to let go of her dream, even though she knew she had to. She dashed a hand over her cheeks. “Do you believe in Christmas miracles?”

“Not really.”

“Me neither,” Angi agreed with a wry smile. “But I sure could use one.”

Excerpted from Mistletoe Season by Michelle Major. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Major. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

The Christmas Escape by Sarah Morgan Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

Two life-long best friends find their relationship tested during the holidays as buried feelings come to the surface and their focus on other relationships take center stage in author Sarah Morgan’s “The Christmas Escape”.

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The Synopsis

This Christmas, be whisked away by USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan in this uplifting novel of friendship, the festive season, and risking everything for the biggest gift of all…

Christy and Alix are forever-friends. Not even Alix’s well-meant but badly-timed intervention the night before Christy’s wedding has put a dent in their bond. There’s nothing Alix won’t do for the woman who helped fill the hole in her heart left by her own family’s rejection. But taking Christy’s boisterous little daughter Holly on holiday to Lapland, days before Christmas, is a huge ask. Marketing whizz Alix might know how to turn toys into million-dollar Christmas bestsellers, but the responsibility of parenthood terrifies her. And unfortunately, she’ll have a witness to her ineptitude, in the annoyingly delicious shape of Zac, Holly’s father’s best friend, who will also be there…

Christy had hoped this year would be her dream Christmas, in her dream new family house. Instead, it’s turning into the nightmare before Christmas, with a frightening list of household repairs, no money, and a make-or-break crisis in her marriage. Even worse, it’s a crisis of her own making, and one that is on her shoulders to fix. With best friend Alix coming to the rescue and looking after Holly, Christy will finally have time to focus on rebuilding her relationship.

As Alix confronts her fears and finds unexpected romance under the Northern Lights, and Christy fights to save her marriage, could it be that their Christmas holiday opens their eyes, and their hearts, to what they’ve always wanted?

The Review

This was such an emotional and well-rounded holiday read. The author did a perfect job of conveying the protagonist’s friendship and struggles both apart and together. The tension that can build between two longtime friends when living their own separate lives was perfectly illustrated here, and the struggle to find a balance between the friendship you once had and the evolution that it has taken was explored expertly here. 

The heart of the narrative was the relationship between all of the characters, not just the protagonists. While the friends were the driving force of the story, getting to see how each interacted with others in this vacation setting was interesting, from Alix’s budding romance to Christy’s fragile marriage and the struggles with her own past, this novel really allowed the characters to shine while still keeping a bit of the magic of the holidays with such a wintery setting.

The Verdict

A gripping, heartfelt, and engaging holiday story, author Sarah Morgan’s “The Christmas Escape” is a must-read women’s fiction and holiday romance bundled up into one novel. The captivating character developments and the emotional journey that these protagonists take during this holiday retreat make this story such a powerful narrative, and one not to be missed. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

USA Today bestselling author Sarah Morgan writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction. Her trademark humour and warmth have gained her fans across the globe and three RITA® Awards from the Romance Writers of America. Sarah lives with her family near London, England, where the rain frequently keeps her trapped in her office.

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Here is an Excerpt from “The Christmas Escape”

1

Robyn

She hadn’t dared hope that this might happen.

Someone less cynical might have thought of it as a Christmas miracle, but Robyn no longer believed in miracles. She was terrified, but layered under the terror was a seam of something else. Hope. The kaleidoscope of emotions inside her matched the swirl and shimmer of color in the sky. Here in Swedish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, the unpolluted skies and clear winter nights made for frequent sightings of the northern lights.

She heard the door open behind her, heard the soft crunch of footsteps on deep snow and then felt Erik’s arms slide around her.

“Come inside. It’s cold.”

“One more minute. I need to think…” She’d always done her best thinking here, in this wild land where nature dominated, where a human felt insignificant beneath the expanse of pink-tinted sky. Everything she’d ever done that was foolish, selfish, risky or embarrassing shrank in importance because this place didn’t care.

Trees bowed under the weight of new snow, the surface glistening with delicate threads of silver and blue. The cold numbed her cheeks and froze her eyelashes, but she noticed only the beauty. Her instinct was to reach for her camera, even though she already had multiple images of the same scene.

She’d come here to escape from everything she was and everything she’d done and had fallen in love with the place and the man. It turned out that you could reinvent yourself if you moved far enough away from everyone who knew you.

Erik pulled the hood of her down jacket farther over her head. “If you’re thinking of the past, then don’t.”

How could she not?

Robyn the rebel.

Her old self felt unfamiliar now. It was like looking at an old photo and not recognizing yourself. Who was that woman?

“I can’t believe she’s coming here. She was three years old when I last saw her.”

Her niece. Her sister’s child.

She remembered a small, smiling cherub with rosy cheeks and curly blond hair. She remembered innocence and acceptance and the fleeting hope of a fresh start, before Robyn had ruined it, the way she’d ruined everything back then.

Her sister had forbidden her to ever make contact again. There had been no room for Robyn in her sister’s perfect little family unit. Even now, many years later, remembering that last encounter still made her feel shaky and sick. She tried to imagine the child as a woman. Was she like her mother? Whenever Robyn thought about her sister, her feelings became confused.

Love. Hate. Envy. Irritation. She hadn’t known it was possible to feel every possible emotion within a single relationship. Elizabeth had been the golden girl. The perfect princess and, for a little while at least, her best friend in the world.

Time had eased the pain from agony to ache.

All links had been broken, until that email had arrived.

“Why did she get in touch now, after so long? She’s thirty. Grown.”

Part of her wanted to celebrate, but life had taught her to be cautious, and she knew this wasn’t a simple reunion. What if her niece was looking for answers? And what if she didn’t like what she heard?

Was this a second chance, or another emotional car crash?

“You can ask her. Face-to-face,” Erik said, “but I know you’re nervous.”

“Yes.” She had no secrets from him, although it had taken her a while to reach the point where she’d trusted their relationship not to snap. “She’s a stranger. The only living member of my family.”

Her sister was gone, killed instantly two years earlier while crossing the road. There was no fixing the past now. That door was closed.

Erik tightened his hold on her. “Your niece has a daughter, remember? That’s two family members. Three if you count her husband.”

Family. She’d had to learn to live without it.

She’d stayed away, as ordered. Made no contact. Rebuilt her life. Redesigned herself. Buried the past and traveled as far from her old life as she could. In the city she’d often felt trapped. Suffocated by the past. Here, in this snowy wilderness with nature on her doorstep, she felt free.

And then the past had landed in her in-box.

I’m Christy, your niece.

“Was it a mistake to ask her here?” It was the first time she’d invited the past into the present. “Apart from the fact we don’t know each other, do you think she’ll like this place?” For her it had been love at first sight. The stillness. The swirl of blue-green color in the sky, and the soft light that washed across the landscape at this time of year. As a photographer, the light was an endless source of fascination and inspiration. There were shades and tones she’d never seen anywhere else in the world. Midnight blue and bright jade. Icy pink and warm rose.

Some said the life up here was harsh and hard, but Robyn had known hard, and this wasn’t it. Cold wasn’t only a measure of temperature, it was a feeling. And she’d been cold. The kind of cold that froze you inside and couldn’t be fixed with thermal layers and a down jacket.

And then there was warmth, of the kind she felt now with Erik.

“Christmas in Lapland?” He sounded amused. “How can she not like it? Particularly as she has a child. Where else can she play in the snow, feed reindeer and ride on a sled through the forest?”

Robyn gazed at the trees. It was true that this was paradise for a Christmas-loving child, although that wasn’t the focus of the business. She had little experience with children and had never felt the desire to have her own. Her family was Erik. The dogs. The forest. The skies. This brilliant, brutal wilderness that felt more like home than any place she’d lived.

The main lodge had been handed down through generations of Erik’s family, but he’d expanded it to appeal to the upper end of the market. Their guests were usually discerning

travelers seeking to escape. Adventurous types who appreciated luxury but were undaunted by the prospect of heading into the frozen forest or exploring the landscape on skis or snowshoes. Erik offered his services as a guide when needed, and she, as a photographer, was on hand to coach people through the intricacies of capturing the aurora on camera. You couldn’t predict it, so she’d learned patience. She’d learned to wait until nature gave her what she was hoping for.

Through the snowy branches she could see the soft glow of lights from two of their cabins, nestled in the forest. They were five in total, each named after Arctic wildlife. Wolf, Reindeer, Elk, Lynx and Bear. Each cozy cabin had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a breathtaking view of the forest and the sky. The Snow Spa had been her idea and proved a popular addition. The focus here was wellness, with an emphasis on the nature that surrounded them. She and her small team used local resources whenever they could. Guests were encouraged to leave phones and watches behind.

Erik was right. It was the perfect escape. The question she should have asked wasn’t Will she like it here? but Will she like me?

She felt a moment of panic. “The last time I saw Christy—well, it wasn’t good.” The kitten incident. The memory of that visit was carved into her soul. Despite all her good intentions, it had gone badly wrong. “What age do children start remembering? Will she remember what happened?” She hoped not. Even now, so many years later, she could still remember the last words her sister had spoken to her.

You ruin everything. I don’t want you in my life.

Robyn pressed closer to Erik and felt his arms tighten.

“It was a long time ago, Robyn. Ancient history.”

“But people don’t forget history, do they?” What had her sister told her daughter?

Robyn the rebel.

She wondered what her sister would say if she could see her now. Happy. Married to a man she loved. Living in one place. Earning a good living, although no doubt Elizabeth would see it as unconventional.

Christy, it seemed, was happily married and living an idyllic life in the country, as her mother had before her.

What would Elizabeth say if she knew her daughter was coming to visit?

Robyn gave a shiver and turned back toward the lodge.

Elizabeth wouldn’t have been happy, and if she could have stopped it, she would have done so. She wouldn’t have wanted her sister to contaminate her daughter’s perfect life.

Excerpted from The Christmas Escape by Sarah Morgan. Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Morgan. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

First Kiss at Christmas (The Off Season Book 5) by Lee Tobin McClain Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A preschool teacher who’s never had a first kiss meets a handsome man and his nephew, who are both grieving the loss of the man’s sister, and both must figure out if they can get past their trauma and insecurities to find a new family in each other in author Lee Tobin McClain’s “First Kiss at Christmas”, the fifth book in the Off Season series.

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The Synopsis

At 25 years old, preschool teacher Kayla Harris is embarrassed to admit she’s never been kissed. When Tony DiNunzio and his grieving nephew show up in her classroom, she can’t help being drawn to both of them. If only her insecurities-and his guilt over his sister’s death-would stop standing in their way.

As Christmas approaches, can these three come together to form a family… not just for the holidays, but forever?

The Review

What a powerful and emotional holiday romance. Tragedy marks the male protagonist of this story, putting him into the role of a caregiver to his nephew after his sister’s tragic murder. Trying to help his nephew through his loss and struggling with his own guilt, the author really did an amazing job of showcasing the emotional turmoil that a loss of this magnitude could have on a person, and the lengthy process of not only letting go of that guilt but of allowing ourselves to feel love again in the face of that tragedy was such a powerful message for this narrative.

The balance the author found with that profound theme and the more holiday romance magic of the female protagonist’s story was amazing to read. Her own struggles with the past and her desire to experience love and her first kiss was the romantic incentive the narrative needed, and the story did an amazing job of showcasing these two characters’ evolution and the way opening ourselves up to others could help with the healing process.

The Verdict

A beautiful, heartbreaking, yet truly romantic and emotional read, author Lee Tobin McClain’s “First Kiss at Christmas” is a must-read holiday romance drama. The gripping story of these two characters and their developing relationship will absolutely enthrall readers, and the magical romance that drives the narrative forward brings a harmonious tone to the more tragic circumstances of the character’s backgrounds, making this a truly remarkable read. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your own copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Lee Tobin McClain is the bestselling author of more than thirty emotional, small-town romances described by Publishers Weekly as enthralling, intense, and heartfelt. A dog lover and proud mom, she often includes kids and animals in her books. When she’s not writing, she enjoys hiking with her goofy goldendoodle, chatting online with her writer friends, and admiring her daughter’s mastery of the latest TikTok dances.

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Check Out This Excerpt From First Kiss At Christmas

1

KAYLA HARRIS CARRIED a bag of snowflake decorations to the window of her preschool classroom. She started putting them up in a random pattern, humming along to the Christmas music she’d accessed on her phone.

Yes, it was Sunday afternoon, and yes, she was a loser for spending it at work, but she loved her job and wanted the classroom to be ready when the kids returned from Thanksgiving break tomorrow. Nobody could get as excited as a four-year-old about Christmas decorations.

Outside, the November wind tossed the pine branches and jangled the swings on the Coastal Kids Early Learning Center’s playground. A lonely seagull swooped across the sky, no doubt headed for the bay. The Chesapeake was home to all kinds of wildlife, year-round. That was one of the things she loved about living here.

Then another kind of movement from the playground caught her eye.

A man in a long, army-type coat, bareheaded, ran after a little boy. When Kayla pushed open the window to see better, she heard the child screaming.

Heart pounding, she rushed downstairs and out the door of the empty school.

The little boy now huddled at the top of the sliding board, mouth wide open as he cried, tears rolling down round, rosy cheeks. The man stood between the slide and a climbing structure, forking his fingers through disheveled hair, not speaking to the child or making any effort to comfort him. This couldn’t be the little boy’s father. Something was wrong.

She ran toward the sliding board. “Hi, honey,” she said to the child, keeping her voice low and calm. “What’s the matter?”

“Leave him alone,” the man barked out. His ragged jeans and wildly flapping coat made him look disreputable, maybe homeless.

She ignored him, climbed halfway up the ladder, and touched the child’s shaking shoulder. “Hi, sweetheart.”

The little boy jerked away and, maybe on purpose, maybe not, slid down the slide. The man rushed to catch him at the bottom, and the boy struggled, crying, his little fists pounding, legs kicking.

Kayla pulled out her phone to report a possible child abduction, eyes on the pair, poised to interfere if the man tried to run with the child.

One of the boy’s kicks landed in a particularly vulnerable spot, and the man winced and adjusted the child to cradle him as if he were a baby. “Okay, okay,” he murmured in a deep, but gentle voice, nothing like the sharp tone in which he’d addressed Kayla. He sat down on the end of the slide and pulled the child close, rocking a little. “You’re okay.”

The little boy struggled for another few seconds and then stopped, laying his head against the man’s broad chest. Apparently, this guy had gained the child’s trust, at least to some degree.

For the first time, Kayla wondered if she’d misread the situation. Was this just a scruffy dad? Was she maybe just being her usual awkward self with men?

He looked up at her then, curiosity in his eyes.

Her face heated, but she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. She was an education professional trying to help a child. “This is a private school, sir,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

The little boy had startled at her voice and his crying intensified. The man ignored her question.

“Is he your son?”

Again, no answer as he stroked the child’s hair and whispered something into his ear.

“All right, I guess it’s time for the police to straighten this out.” She searched for the number, her fingers numb with the cold. Maybe this situation didn’t merit a 911 call, but there was definitely something unusual going on. Her small town’s police force could straighten it out.


“WAIT. DON’T CALL THE POLICE.” Tony DeNunzio struggled to his feet, the weight of his tense nephew making him awkward. “Everything’s okay. I’m his guardian.” He didn’t owe this woman an explanation, and it irritated him to have to give one, but he didn’t want Jax to get even more upset. The child hated cops, and with good reason.

“You’re his guardian?” The blonde, petite as she was, made him feel small as her eyes skimmed him up and down.

He glanced down at his clothes and winced. Lifted a hand to his bristly chin and winced again.

He hadn’t shaved since they’d arrived in town two days ago, and he’d grabbed these clothes from the heap of clean but wrinkled laundry beside his bed. Not only because he was busy trying to get Jax settled, but because he couldn’t bring himself to care about folding laundry and shaving and most of the other tasks under the general heading of personal hygiene. A shower a day, and a bath for Jax, was about all he could manage. His brother and sister—his surviving sister—had scolded him about it, back home.

He couldn’t explain all of that, didn’t need to. It wasn’t this shivering stranger’s business. “Jax is going to enroll here,” he said.

“Really?” Another wave of shivers hit her, making her teeth chatter. Tony didn’t know where she’d come from, but apparently her mission of mercy had compelled her to run outside without her coat.

He’d offer her his, but he had a feeling she’d turn up her nose.

“The school is closed on Sundays,” she said.

Thank you, Miss Obvious. But given that he and Jax had slipped through a gap in the playground’s loosely chained gate, he guessed their presence merited a little more explanation. “I’m trying to get him used to the place before he starts school tomorrow. He has trouble with…” Tony glanced down at Jax, who’d stopped crying and stuck his thumb in his mouth, and a surge of love and frustration rose in him. “He has trouble with basically everything.”

The woman shook her head and put a finger to her lips, then pointed at the child.

What was that all about? And who was she, the parenting police? “Do you have a reason to be here?” he asked, hearing the truculence in his own voice and not caring.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I work nearby,” she said. “Saw you here and got concerned, because the little guy seemed to be upset. For that matter, he still seems to be.”

No denying that. Jax had tensed up as soon as they’d approached the preschool playground, probably because it was similar to places where he’d had other bad experiences. Even though Jax had settled some, Tony could feel the tightness in his muscles, and he rubbed circles on his nephew’s back. “He’s been kicked out of preschool and day care before,” he explained. “This is kind of my last resort.”

She frowned. “You know he can hear you, right?”

“Of course he can hear, he’s not…” Tony trailed off as he realized what she meant. He shouldn’t say negative things about Jax in front of him.

She was right, but she’d also just met him and Jax. Was she really going to start telling him how to raise his nephew?

Of course, probably almost anyone in the world would be better at it than he was.

“Did you let the school know the particulars of his situation?” She leaned against the slide’s ladder, her face concerned.

Tony sighed. She must be one of those women who had nothing else to do but criticize how others handled their lives. She was cute, though. And it wasn’t as if he had much else to do, either. He’d completed all the Victory Cottage paperwork, and he couldn’t start dealing with the program’s other requirements until the business week started tomorrow.

Jax moved restlessly and looked up at him.

Tony set Jax on his feet and gestured toward the play structure. “Go ahead and climb. We’ll go back to the cottage before long.” He didn’t know much about being a parent, but one thing he’d learned in the past three months was that tiring a kid out with active play was a good idea.

Jax nodded and ran over to the playset. His tongue sticking out of one corner of his mouth, forehead wrinkled, he started to climb.

Tony watched him, marveling at how quickly his moods changed. Jax’s counselor said all kids were like that, but Jax seemed a little more extreme than most.

No surprise, given what he’d been through.

Tony looked back at the woman, who was watching him expectantly.

“What did you ask me?” Sometimes he worried about himself. It was hard to keep track of conversations, not that he had all that many of them lately. None, except with Jax, since they’d arrived in Pleasant Shores two days ago.

“I asked if you let the school know about his issues,” she said. “It might help them help him, if they know what they’re working with.”

“I didn’t tell them about the other schools,” he said. “I didn’t want to jinx this place, make them think he’s a bad kid, right from the get-go. He’s not.”

“I’m sure he isn’t,” she said. “He’s a real cutie. But still, you should be up front with his teachers and the principal.”

Normally he would have told her to mind her own business, but he was just too tired for a fight. “You’re probably right.” It was another area where he was failing Jax, he guessed. But he was doing the best he could. It wasn’t as if he’d had experience with any kids other than Jax. Even overseas, when the other soldiers had given out candy and made friends, he’d tended to terrify the little ones. Too big, too gruff, too used to giving orders.

“Telling the school the whole story will only help him,” she said, still studying Jax, her forehead creased.

He frowned at her. “Why would you care?”

“The truth is,” she said, “I’m going to be his teacher.”

Great. He felt his shoulders slump. Had he just ruined his nephew’s chances at this last-resort school?


MONDAY MORNING, KAYLA welcomed the last of her usual students and stood on tiptoes to look down the stairs of the Coastal Kids preschool. Where were Tony and Jax?

She’d informed two of her friendliest and most responsible students that a new boy was coming today and that they should help him to feel at home. If he didn’t get here in time for the opening circle, she’d tell all twelve of the kids about Jax.

But maybe his uncle had changed his mind about enrolling him.

Maybe Kayla’s mother, who was the principal of the little early learning center, had decided Jax wasn’t going to be a good fit and suggested another option for him. That would be rare, but it occasionally happened.

Mom said Kayla fretted too much. Probably true, but it was in the job description. Kayla felt a true calling to nurture and educate the kids in her care. Sometimes, that meant worrying about them.

The Coastal Kids Early Learning Center was housed in an old house that adjoined a local private school. Kayla’s classroom was one of three located upstairs, and from hers, she could see down the central staircase to the glassed-in offices. Her mother was welcoming a few stragglers, but there was still no sign of her new student.

She turned back to face her students. “Good job sharing,” she said to redheaded Nicole, who was holding out a plastic truck to her friend. “Jacob, we don’t run in the classroom. Why don’t you look at the new books on our reading shelf?”

After making sure all the kids were occupied with their morning playtime, she stepped out into the hall. If she could flag down her mother, she’d try to find out what was going on with Jax.

And then Tony came into the school, holding Jax’s hand.

Kayla sucked in a breath. Wow. He cleaned up really well.

Not that he was entirely cleaned up; he still had the stubbly half beard that made him look a little dangerous, and his thick, dark hair was overlong. But he wore nice jeans and a green sweater with sleeves pushed up to reveal muscular forearms. He knelt so Jax could jump onto his back for a piggyback ride, then stood easily, and Kayla sucked in another breath. There was something about a guy who was physically strong.

He stopped and spoke to Kayla’s mother—she’d been occupied with another parent right inside the office, apparently—and then, at her gesture, headed up the stairs toward Kayla’s classroom.

One Christmas Wish (Catalina Cove Book 5) by Brenda Jackson Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A wrongly convicted businessman finally exonerated of his wrongful conviction and a young woman raising her goddaughter and looking for a fresh start find themselves drawn together during the holidays in author Brenda Jackson’s “One Christmas Wish”, the latest in the Catalina Cove Series.

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The Synopsis

It’s Christmas in Catalina Cove, a time of promise and second chances. But when you’re starting over, love is the last thing you’re wishing for…

Vaughn Miller’s Wall Street career was abruptly ended by a wrongful conviction and two years in prison. Since then, he’s returned to his hometown, kept his head down and forged a way forward. When he is exonerated and his name cleared, he feels he can hold his head up once again, maybe even talk to the beautiful café owner who sets his blood to simmering.

Sierra Crane escaped a disastrous marriage—barely. She and her six-year-old goddaughter have returned to the only place that feels like home. Determined to make it on her own, Sierra opens a soup café. Complication is the last thing she needs, but the moment Vaughn walks into her café, she can’t keep her eyes off the smoldering loner.

When they give in to their attraction, what Sierra thought would be a onetime thing becomes so much more. Vaughn knows she’s the one. Sierra can’t deny the way Vaughn makes her feel, but she’s been burned before. With Christmas approaching, Vaughn takes a chance to prove his love, and it will be up to Sierra to decide if her one Christmas wish—true happiness—will come true.

The Review

The author immediately brought a level of intrigue to the characters with the introduction of Vaughn. His backstory and the trials and tribulations he endured to get to the point he is at in the story was so emotionally driven, and to be able to convey that in a short introduction to the character and bring those emotions to the forefront showed the depth of the author’s writing immediately. Sierra showed such strength and resilience in the face of her own tragic past and highlighted the power and heart that goes into owning our own power and our ability to fight our own battles while still having a support system.

The romance and passion really drove this narrative forward greatly. The story does incorporate a bit of holiday setting and magic into the book, but this is definitely still a very steamy and heated romance, delving into both the emotional depths of their relationship and the more intimate and sexual nature of their bond together, giving romance readers a well-rounded narrative overall.

The Verdict

A brilliant, heartfelt, and truly creative holiday romance, author Brenda Jackson’s “One Christmas Wish” is a must-read story this holiday season. For fans of passionate and heated romances with a heartwarming holiday twist, the narrative takes readers on an emotional journey that tears down two people’s barriers and ends on a fantastically emotional twist of an ending that will keep readers feeling all the feels this holiday. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Brenda Jackson is aNew York Times bestselling author of more than one hundred romance titles. Brenda lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and divides her time between family, writing and traveling.

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Here is an Excerpt From One Christmas Wish by Brenda Jackson

1

SIERRA CRANE CRINGED every time her ex-husband called. Their marriage had ended almost two years ago, so why couldn’t he get on with his life the way she had gotten on with hers? She hadn’t heard from him since the divorce and now this was the second phone call in a month.

And why did he always manage to call her at the worst time? The dinner crowd was arriving at her soup café, the Green Fig, and she was short a waitress tonight. The last thing she needed to be doing was talking on the phone to her ex.

“What is it now, Nathan?” she asked, trying to keep her voice low to avoid being overheard by the customers coming in.

“You know what I want, Sierra. We rushed into our divorce and I want a reconciliation. We didn’t even seek counseling.”

She rolled her eyes. It wasn’t as if counseling would have helped their marriage. She had put up with things for as long as she could, and had to remove herself from that toxic environment. His infidelity had been the last straw, and then there had been his total lack of sensitivity when her best friend Rhonda Andrews was dying.

“Why are we even discussing this, Nathan? You know as well as I do that no amount of counseling would have helped our marriage. You betrayed me. I caught you in the act. Look, I’m busy,” she said when she saw customers waiting to be seated. “And do me a favor and don’t call back. Our divorce is final, and I intend for it to stay that way. Goodbye.” She clicked off the phone and, for good measure, she blocked his number.

Moving from behind the counter, she assisted her staff in seating customers and taking orders. It was an hour later when the dinner rush had ended that she found the time to go into her office and work on tomorrow’s menu. The monitor screen on her desk was connected to a video camera showing the perimeters of the dining area. If she was needed to assist her staff again, she would know it.

She sat in the chair behind her desk thinking about Nathan’s call. The nerve of him thinking they could get back together. Not only had he cheated on her but he had resented all the trips she’d taken from Chicago to Houston to spend time with Rhonda in her final days. It hadn’t mattered to him that Rhonda was terminally ill and there had been so much to do and so little time left.

The main focus had been the well-being of Rhonda’s four-year-old daughter, Teryn, who’d lost her father two years earlier in Afghanistan. Without family on both sides, Sierra was Teryn’s godmother and Rhonda had made Sierra promise to take care of Teryn when the time came. Nathan, who’d never wanted children, had been resentful of that, too.

It had been one of those weekends she’d visited Rhonda in Houston and she’d returned home early to find another couple, namely her neighbors, in bed with her husband. That’s when she’d found out about his swinging lifestyle. He’d confessed it was something he had tried during his college days but thought he had put behind him…until he had discovered their new neighbors had enjoyed doing that sort of thing.

When Sierra had filed for divorce, Nathan assumed if he kept sending her flowers, calling her all the time, and showing up unexpectedly at her new residence with chocolates, designer purses and jewelry, he could wear down her resistance and she would call off the divorce. He finally saw that wasn’t happening.

An hour later Sierra left her office to return to the dining area. It was time for her only waitress on the floor tonight to take her break. Sierra had just stepped behind the counter when the sound of the bell above the door alerted her that she had a customer.

The Green Fig, which served lunch and dinner Mondays through Fridays, had been open for business for only a year. The restaurant closed every night at eight. Most of her customers were locals who’d known her grandmother and were happy that Ella Crane had passed her delicious soup recipes on to her granddaughter.

Sierra had a good staff. She’d hired Emma, who’d been a friend of her mother’s for years, as head cook and Maxine, who’d graduated from the New Orleans cooking school last year, as Emma’s assistant. Normally there were two waitresses, Iris and Opal, who handled the dining room, and Sherri took care of the take-out orders. On any given day there were more take-out orders than sit-down orders, especially during lunch.

She’d hired Levi Canady as the assistant manager. An ex-cop who’d retired early from the force due to an injury, he was also a good friend of Sierra’s father from their elementary school days. Levi was a godsend and would take over for Sierra whenever Teryn came home from school. He managed the restaurant every night except on Wednesdays. He also opened and closed for her on Saturdays, when the restaurant was open only for lunch. Whenever Teryn had gymnastics practice Sierra would help out in the café until she got home. Today was one of those days.

Sierra glanced at the door and saw Vaughn Miller walk in, dressed in a business suit. On any other man the outfit would probably look like just regular professional attire, but on him it appeared tailor-made. He was a very handsome man and looking good in anything he wore was just part of who he was.

Sierra didn’t know Vaughn personally, although they had both been born in Catalina Cove and had attended the same schools. She hadn’t had the right pedigree to be in his social circles since his family had been one of the wealthiest in town. They had come from old money, probably as old as it could get in the cove when you were a descendant of the town’s founder.

When Vaughn Miller took a seat at one of the booths, she grabbed a menu out of the rack and headed to his table. He’d come in once or twice before, but it had always been for takeout. It appeared that today he intended to dine in.

“Welcome to the Green Fig.”

He looked up when she handed him the menu. “Thanks.”

This was the closest she had ever been to Vaughn Miller and she couldn’t help noticing things she hadn’t seen from a distance. Like the beautiful hazel coloring of his eyes. He had sharp cheekbones and she liked the way his nose was the perfect size for his face and the full lips beneath it. And speaking of lips…did his have to be of such sensual perfection? And then she couldn’t miss the light beard that covered his lower jaw and how it enhanced those lips but didn’t hide the dimple in his chin.

Vaughn’s skin was a maple brown and he wore his thick black hair long. It wasn’t down past his shoulders like Kaegan Chambray’s, but it was long enough to touch his collar. To her the long and tousled hairstyle did much to highlight his French Creole ancestry.

The Creoles derived from free people of color from Africa, France and Spain, as well as other mixed-heritage descendants. Those blended races and cultures were a large population of Louisiana, and more specifically, New Orleans, Catalina Cove and other surrounding cities.

Sierra had to concur with the feminine whispers around town that Vaughn Miller was a very handsome man and a sharp dresser, yet she noted he had a definite rugged masculine appeal. Even dressed nicely in a suit, all you had to do was add a tricorne hat on his head and a loop earring in his ear and he would instantly become a dashing pirate. A look that no doubt would make his great-great-great-great-grandfather, the cove’s founder, Jean Lafitte, proud.

She knew six years ago he’d been sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Three months ago, articles appeared in numerous newspapers reporting on his exoneration and how those who were guilty had been brought to justice. He had been cleared of all charges.

“What’s the special for today?”

She blinked upon realizing she’d been standing there staring at him the entire time. Clearing her throat, she said, “Today’s special is the broccoli and cheese soup and it’s served with a half sandwich. Turkey or chicken.”

He smiled up at her and that smile made his features even more beguiling and clearly showed that dimple in his chin. “That sounds good. I’d like a bowl with a chicken sandwich.”

She wrote his order down on the pad and noticed his French accent. She recalled overhearing her parents say that his mother had been French and his father mixed French and African American, and that French had been the primary language spoken in the Miller household. She also remembered hearing while growing up he would spend his summers in France as well with his grandparents. That was probably the reason the accent was still strong after all this time.

“What would you like to drink?”

“Brown ale.”

Sierra nodded. “Okay, I’ll put in your order and get your ale.”

“Thanks.”

She turned and walked toward the kitchen. When she knew she was out of his sight and that of customers and staff, she fanned herself with the menu. Vaughn Miller had definitely made every hormone in her body sizzle.

One Christmas Wish by Brenda Jackson. Copyright © 2021 by Brenda Streater Jackson. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Snowbound with Her Mountain Cowboy by Patricia Johns Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A woman finds her ex-husband at the front door of her winter resort just as a winter storm hits the area, injured and suffering from amnesia. Soon old feelings and romance begins to bloom as she helps care for him, but will their past come hurtling back and upend what they are building together? Find out in author Patricia Johns’s novel, “Snowbound with Her Mountain Cowboy”. 

The Synopsis

A lost memory could mean a second chance! Mountain resort owner Angelina Cunningham has her hands full with a massive winter storm. Which is exactly when her ex-husband arrives, injured and suffering temporary amnesia. Ben King has always been her weakness. Though he doesn’t remember her, he’s still as charming and sweet as ever, and Angelina is falling for him all over again. But can their rekindled love outlast the storm and the return of their past mistakes?

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The Review

This was such an engaging and beautiful story. The author does a great job of exploring the depths that love can take us on. While the fairytale, love at first sight style stories are so fun and entertaining to read, getting a much more layered and in-depth exploration of romance between two people who were in love, lost that love, and then found it again was so much closer to reality and gave readers someone to identify within this novel. 

The character development was so rich and gripping to behold. The thing the author really zeroed in on during this read was the need for love to be worked on, not just taken for granted. Love can sadly be a fleeting thing if people don’t work together to hold onto it, and the characters and their journey really explored this to the fullest, showing that feelings can remain in our hearts and can be brought to the surface if people are willing to work on it.

The Verdict

A remarkable, honest, and emotional read, author Patricia Johns’s “Snowbound with Her Mountain Cowboy” is a must-read holiday romance novel. The honest and engaging way the author explored this relationship and the exploration of love and romance’s more complicated facets will keep readers engaged throughout the novel’s entirety. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

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About the Author

Patricia Johns writes from Alberta, Canada where she lives with her husband and son. She has her Honors BA in English Literature and writes for both Harlequin and Kensington books. She loves prairie skies and time with her family. 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Snowbound-Mountain-Cowboy-Patricia-Johns/dp/1335426507/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=SNOWBOUND+WITH+HER+MOUNTAIN+COWBOY+by+Patricia+Johns&qid=1637073870&sr=8-1 

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/snowbound-with-her-mountain-cowboy-patricia-johns/1139136603?ean=9780369714497 

Harlequin.com:  https://www.harlequin.com/shop/books/9781335426505_snowbound-with-her-mountain-cowboy.html

Meet Me In London by Georgia Toffolo Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

A hustle and bustle businessman hoping to convince his powerful parents that he isn’t alone asks a local bartender and working designer to pretend to be his girlfriend during the holidays, and soon sparks begin to fly in author Georgia Toffolo’s “Meet Me In London”, the first in the Meet Me series.

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The Synopsis

What do you do when your fake engagement starts to feel too real?

Aspiring clothes designer Victoria Scott spends her days working in a bar in Chelsea and her evenings designing vintage clothes, dreaming of one day opening her own boutique. But these aspirations are under threat from the new department store opening at the end of her road. She needs a Christmas miracle, but one is not forthcoming.

Oliver Russell’s Christmas is not looking very festive right now. His family’s new London department store opening is behind schedule, and on top of that his interfering, if well-meaning, mother is pressing him to bring his girlfriend home for a visit. A girlfriend who does not exist. He needs a diversion. Something to keep his mother from interfering while he focuses on the business.

When Oliver meets Victoria, he offers a proposition: pretend to be his girlfriend at the opening of his store and he will provide an opportunity for Victoria to showcase her designs. But what starts as a business arrangement soon becomes something more tempting, as the fake relationship starts to feel very real. But when secrets in Victoria’s past are exposed, will Oliver walk away, or will they both follow their hearts and find what neither knew they were looking for?

The Review

The author did such a great job of finding that perfect balance between slow-burn romance and in-depth character development. The theme of the class difference between the working class trying to keep their businesses afloat in the face of a massive launch of a megastore in the same neighborhood paired well with the wealthy businessman desperate to find a way to maintain his business and help out the local community all at once.

Yet it was the characters themselves that brought the romance aspect of this holiday read to life. The haunting past that Victoria is desperate to steer clear of and the struggle of Oliver to reconcile the man his family expects him to be with the man he wants to be is so fascinating to read, and the way this plays into their growing feelings for one another makes this such a heartwarming holiday romance.

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The Verdict

A heartwarming, engaging, and truly thoughtful read, author Georgia Toffolo’s “Meet Me in London” is the perfect first installment in this brilliant romance series. The harmonious way the holiday setting and the character growth came together in this story and the twists and turns this relationship takes the characters into, especially when neither was looking for a romance, to begin with, was so entertaining to read and readers will be eager for more entries in this series. If you haven’t yet, be sure to grab your copy today!

Rating: 10/10

About the Author

Georgia Toffolo is a broadcaster and TV personality. She has been a firm favourite with the public right from the start of her TV debut, Made in Chelsea, all the way to winning over the hearts of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2018.

Georgia turned her eye to fashion and has curated two sell out collections with fashion retailer Shein. An ambassador for many British brands, both large and small, Georgia has also collaborated with Dyson, Baileys, Emma Bridgewater, Great British Racing, Foreo and Malibu amongst many more.

Most recently, Georgia has dived into the world of fiction by publishing her debut novel Meet Me in London with publishing house Mills and Boon. This is the first of an original series of four books following a group of lifelong friends and bringing personal anecdotes to life with humour and charm.

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Here is an Excerpt from “MEET ME IN LONDON”

1

OLIVER RUSSELL COULD wrangle a wayward balance sheet back into the black, take failing stores apart and breathe new life into them, make difficult calls on staffing and personnel issues, make his shareholders happy and very, very rich. But he had never managed to curb his mother’s meddling in his private life.

Some things were just impossible.

Earth to Oliver. This is your mother asking about your Christmas Day plans. Will I need to set an extra place at the dinner table? Hint, hint. Your mother xx

Sitting on a stool at the bar in the upmarket wine bar The Landing, Oliver groaned as he interpreted the “hint” as yet another badly veiled attempt to discover his relationship status. Great one, Mum. Way to put pressure on a guy.

Could this week get any worse? He threw his mobile phone onto the sticky, beer-stained counter, gripped the tumbler in front of him and took a sip of a much needed fifteen-year-old Scotch. As the honey-colored syrup oozed down his throat and hit his stomach with a warming buzz he silently counted all the ways things had gone wrong in such a short space of time.

First mistake: allowing his mother to believe he was finally settling down when in reality his love life could only be described as…nonexistent. And now having to think up all the ways he could appease his parents over the holidays without going quietly insane.

Whereas other families had jolly traditions of games and church on Christmas Day, his parents’ idea of fun was to corner him in the living room, pin him down with laser stares and interrogate him for signs of commitment, a potential wife and progeny. A grandchild, or preferably many grandchildren, to spoil and give meaning to their later years, someone to carry on the family name and also an heir to entrust the business to. As an only child Oliver was expected to do so, as his father had done before him.

Trouble was, after his last romantic failure, settling down was not on Oliver’s bucket list. At least, not for a very long time.

Second mistake: in the spirit of keeping the family business afloat he’d agreed to clean up the mess his cousin was making of the new build. Ollie should have let him fall on his sword, but that would have meant his parents suffering too and there was no way he was going to allow that. So, here he was in a rowdy bar in Chelsea at ridiculous o’clock at night—or was it early morning?—having only just finished work, with the prospect of another seventeen-hour day tomorrow and the next day, and the next…

He took another sip of whiskey but almost choked as someone bumped into his hip, jolted his arm and sloshed the Scotch, rich but burning, down his throat.

“Hey, gorgeous.” A woman old enough to be his mother—and even though deep down he loved his mum, Lord knew he didn’t need two of them—appeared at his shoulder and beamed at him. Her eyes were wine-glazed and the lipstick smudged over her mouth almost up to her nostrils made her look like a startled fish. “I’ve got mistletoe, you know what that means, right?”

“That it’s time I left?” Scraping his stool back he stood, steadying the woman as she swayed, and then handed her into the waiting arms of her friends who were all dressed as…well, he wasn’t entirely sure, but there were glitter wings and feathery haloes involved, so he imagined they were supposed to be Christmas angels. In November?

As if knowing all about his work stress and family dilemmas even the music in the bar seemed to mock him. Too loud and too cheery and all about being home and in love at Christmas. He shuddered. No thanks.

Which brought him to his third mistake: choosing the bar from hell to drown his sorrows in. It wasn’t even December and yet here they all were screeching Christmas carols at the top of their tone-deaf voices. Christmas was everywhere. In the glittery tinsel that hung in loopy garlands across the ceiling and the fake tree in the corner. The soundtrack to the evening. The clothes people were wearing. Christmas was hurtling fast towards him and he was running out of time. He had so much to do to fix his first mistake before the doors of the new Russell & Co. department store opened, way behind schedule, but in time for the busiest, and therefore most lucrative time of the year.

He just needed some kind of miracle to make it happen.

On the counter his phone vibrated. He picked up and grimaced at another text, knowing what was bound to be coming but also knowing if he ignored her it would only get worse: Oliver? It’s a simple question. Blink once for yes. Twice for no. Are we finally going to meet your new girlfriend? Your mother xx.

Uh-oh. She was dropping the veiled interest and taking a more direct approach. This was serious.

He flicked a text back:

When your message flashes onto my screen it identifies you as my mother. There is also a little photo of you smiling at me at the top of your texts. You don’t need to tell me who you are.

He added two kisses, because, well, she was his mother: Ollie xx.

A pause while he watched three gray dots dance on his screen and then:

Not a single blink. How do I interpret that? We just want to see you happy. Your mother xxx

By happy, she meant married. As if you couldn’t be otherwise. Although he knew just as many people who were married and miserable as married and happy.

How was he even meant to send a blink by text anyway? He rolled his eyes instead. Nothing confirmed as yet.

Before he could say “Bah Humbug” her reply flashed on his screen:

When will you know? Your mother xx

Oliver: I don’t know.

If he told her the delightful Clarissa had moved on to a more malleable boyfriend his mum would be trying to arrange dates for him.

As if on cue another text arrived:

Is there something you’re not telling us? Is it over? So soon? Again? Oh, Oliver.

He could feel the disappointment coming through the airwaves as her next text quickly followed:

Perhaps I should invite the Henleys over on Christmas Day. I heard Arabella’s back from her Indian ashram trip and SINGLE. And stop rolling your eyes at me. Your mother xx

He couldn’t help but laugh at that, despite his growing frustration. He tried to stay noncommittal. Apparently, according to his ex, noncommittal was a strength of his:

Do NOT set any more dates up for me. Nothing’s confirmed re Xmas. I’ll let you know when I know.

Mum: At the new store opening then?

Just a matter of weeks away. She clearly wasn’t giving up. She never gave up. She wouldn’t give up until she was holding his first child. Or maybe his second—his second set of triplets.

That was the problem; she wasn’t giving up. He just needed to appease her. Or ignore her. So, he chose the latter.

Realizing he hadn’t finished his drink and grateful that the bar staff were now shuffling the off-tune singers outside, he sat back down and resumed his contemplation of the whiskey in front of him. At some point the staff would shuffle him out too, but for now he craved this brief peace and quiet, save for his mother’s infuriating but well-meaning texts and a muted conversation between the servers coming from a little room off to the side of the bar.

He could hear Paul, the guy who’d served him earlier say, “Hey, Vicki, are you OK to close up tonight? I promised Amanda I’d get home early. It’s our anniversary.”

“Of course.” A soft voice filtered through. “You helped me out by taking the early shift so I could teach my class, so I’m more than happy to hang around here for the stragglers. Sara said she’d stay on and help me clear up.”

Stragglers? Was that what he was now? Ollie looked around the bar at the three other solo drinkers—all male, all staring hopelessly into glasses of alcohol. He laughed to himself. Yeah, damned right he fitted that description; moving slowly. He didn’t want to hurry because the sooner he went home, the sooner tomorrow would arrive bringing with it all his problems.

“So how did class go today?” he heard Paul ask the owner of the soft voice. “Any more visits from the local cops?”

Police? Interesting. Ollie leaned forward to hear the mystery woman’s answer.

“Oh, that was all just a misunderstanding. Her brother gave her the iPad, Jasmine didn’t know it was stolen.” A pause. “Um. By her brother.” A rumble of soft laughter that sounded so free and bright had Ollie straining to see who the voice belonged to. It wasn’t the other woman who worked here because she was now collecting glasses from empty tables and her accent was Cockney through and through. This Vicki woman was from somewhere else. Southwest maybe, a tiny hint of something he recognized from holidays down in Cornwall. Laughter threaded through her intonation. “We sorted it out. The police dropped the charges against her.”

“So, one of the kids you’re teaching is harboring stolen goods. Great. You really need to stay away from trouble like that, Vicki.” Paul came back into the bar and started to wipe down the counter with a dishcloth.

The woman followed. “If I stayed away there’d be even more trouble for her, I’m sure. She’s so talented. You should see her designs, they’re stunning. Really fresh ideas. She could go a long way with the right guidance. I’m pulling out all the stops.”

“You’re too good to those kids.” Paul frowned. “Instead of focusing on your own career you’re spending all your energy on a bunch of no-hope teenagers who probably have never even heard the word gratitude.”

The Vicki woman turned and put her hands on her hips, giving Ollie full view of her face. Wow.

She was wearing a dress that looked like it had come straight out of the nineteen fifties; all slash neck and cinched waist in a fabric of cream and scarlet flowers. Her glossy, dark hair was loosely tied into a ponytail that was pulled forward over one shoulder. She had bright red lipstick on full lips—not smudged in the slightest, and the most intense dark eyes he’d ever seen.

In stark contrast her skin was pale; he wasn’t sure whether it was makeup or natural and he didn’t care. Oliver Russell had known a lot of beautiful women in his time, but she was next level. Quite simply, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

That gorgeous red mouth curled into a smile, but a little frown appeared over her eyes. “Paul, honestly, they’re struggling in so many ways. They have so much hope and potential and no one else seems to care. If I don’t help them, then who will?”

“I’m just saying, be careful, that’s all. Your heart’s too soft, Vicki, you’re going to get hurt.”

“It’s a fashion design class for underprivileged kids, Paul. Not target practice in the ’hood. Trouble is, we’re fast running out of opportunities for them to showcase their work. All the design schools have organized shows already and we’re lagging behind. I’m going to have to be creative with my thinking.” Her eyes wandered over the bar and settled on Oliver, just for a moment.

Instinctively, he smiled. She gave him the faintest of smiles back and didn’t look away immediately. A look of surprise flickered behind her eyes. Even from here he could see the flush of her cheeks as their gazes met and, as if someone had flicked a switch, a rush of heat hit him too. Interest. The flicker of awareness. Brief. So brief he checked himself; maybe he’d imagined it?

Excerpted from Meet Me in London by Georgia Toffolo. Copyright © 2021 by Georgia Toffolo. First published in 2020 by Mills & Boon. This edition published in 2021 by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. 

Harlequin Series Winter Tour Special Posts: Opening His Holiday Heart by Renee Ryan

Hello everyone! Throughout the next month, I am honored to be sharing some special posts sharing an upcoming holiday or winter-themed reads from Harlequin Books as part of the Harlequin Series Winter Tour 2021. Each of these posts will have this intro, followed by a prepared post featuring info on the latest book on this tour and where you can find it. I hope you will check out this amazing tour and support the authors and Harlequin Books, who I have thoroughly enjoyed working with these last couple of years and can’t wait to continue reading their amazing catalog of authors. Enjoy this next selection.

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OPENING HIS HOLIDAY HEART by Renee Ryan (on-sale Nov.30, Love Inspired): With a little boy’s help, can he let go of painful memories? Casey Evans wants no part in the holidays, which is a major problem for Mayor Sutton Wentworth. Sutton has her heart set on their town winning a national Christmas contest, and Casey’s refusal to decorate his coffee shop could ruin everything. Thankfully, her precious son has worked his charms on Casey. But can one little boy—and his mother—change the mind of the local grinch?

About Renee Ryan: Renee Ryan grew up in a Florida beach town outside Jacksonville, FL.  Armed with a degree in Economics and Religion from Florida State University, she explored various career opportunities, including stints at a Florida theme park and a modeling agency. She currently lives in Savannah, Georgia with her husband and a large, fluffy cat many have mistaken for a small bear.  Renee can be contacted through her website at www.reneeryan.com

Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Opening-His-Holiday-Heart-Inspirational-ebook/dp/B095M3R8XQ/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=OPENING+HIS+HOLIDAY+HEART+by+Renee+Ryan&qid=1637073717&sr=8-1 

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/opening-his-holiday-heart-renee-ryan/1139540765?ean=9781335758958 

Harlequin.com: https://www.harlequin.com/shop/books/9781335758958_opening-his-holiday-heart.html