Merciless: Merciless Duet Book 1, Willow Winters

Merciless by [Winters, W., Winters, Willow]

Two words.  Stockholm Syndrome.  Not Okay.  Inappropriate Relationship.  Disturbing Methods.  ...take your pick, they all fit this story.  Was the story good?  It's very well written and most of the characters we've met in previous stories and therefore have a bit of background.  Aside from that I'm not sure I could really sink deep into this story without some serious red flags, icky feelings, and extreme reservations.  Is the relationship believable?  Umm...yes?  I mean, Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing, it's been known to happen, documented cases of relationships forming because of forced captivity.  So yes, I can believe a relationship would form under these circumstances.  Does that translate into a lasting and true romantic relationship that could have formed without the captivity and breaking of wills?  No.  I don't buy it.

So we have Carter, the eldest brother in the Cross family.  He inherited a role he never wanted but still took to it like a duck to water.  We meet him briefly when we get Daniel and Addison's story, Possessive, and we see someone cold at the top but has a heart for his family.  What we're "tempted" with here is a man without a heart.  Someone stone cold with no heart at all.  He was forced to be this kind of man and yet he appears to embrace it with all of himself.  And yet there's the hope for that cold, cold heart...

Aria Talvery is a casualty of war.  At least that's what everyone thinks she'll be.  And they're all partially right.  Because of the violent interactions between the gangs in their area she's been hiding and now stolen in the name of brokering alliances and negotiations.  She's vulnerable, scared, and lonely.  Her loyalty is to her father despite knowing what he is and what he does.  When her world is turned upside down and she finds herself at the mercy of a merciless man, it'll take an inner strength she has neglected over the years.  If she can't find the strength she won't just submit, she'll break beyond repair.

The story takes a really long time to get anywhere.  Like, a really, really long time.  A lot of it is the plodding of time and the setup for betrayals, gang rivalries, emotional motivations, cryptic backstory, a few points of narrative exposition, and a whole lot of the disheartening inner monologues from both characters.  I find Aria shallow and weak.  Add in the whole Stockholm business and we've got a shell of a woman who had potential, a girl with a couple of interesting points that could have been developed but haven't been as of yet.  And Carter.  I wanted so much to like him.  To see something more than the incessant assurances that he's a horrible man who only wants to break Aria for his sexual use.  There's a whole evolution that we're not getting, in fact, we are barely getting any hints of one on the horizon in the sequel, Heartless, to be coming soon.

Overall I found the story slow-moving, extremely disturbing, the characters seemingly nonredeemable and quite unremarkable, and the "war" to be one that might never come to fruition.  With a severe lack of transparency for the audience, us the readers, despite getting both points of view, I'm finding it difficult to want to continue the story.  I probably will because I'm a little bit of a glutton for punishment.  If only to get more of the siblings so I can have something to look forward to as the Cross brothers each get their own book.  So I didn't hate the story, but I didn't like it ether.

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 Merciless: Merciless Duet Book 1, Willow Winters

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The Hardest Fall, Ella Maise

The Hardest Fall by [Maise, Ella]

Sometimes a meet-cute isn't a meet-cute at all.  Sometimes it's a meet-whole helluva lot of awkward.  But the impression has been made so it can only go up from there, right?  Well not so in the case of Zoe Clarke.  She and Dylan Reed stumble through three before things take hold.  Their first two meetings were disasters but something kept bringing them together.  The circumstances surrounding the third are the hardest and yet they're the ones that will keep them together if Zoe can find the courage to share the secrets plaguing her.  If they can overcome that, Dylan's pride and career will be lemon pie.

Lemon pie?  You know, "easy peasy, lemon squeezy" and "easy as pie" put together?  No?  Or maybe I should have jut gone with "piece of cake" instead?  Well, whatever, you get the idea.  Back to the point...

So many excellent one-liners in this story.  I'm sure making the teaser graphics were only difficult because there were too many to choose from.  The sentiments, the confessions, the almost poetic way Zoe has with how she rambles and spills everything from her heart and head so it jumbles together into a beautiful mess of feels.  Dylan's heart is much more straightforward and the way he adored every weird quirk, gesture, and obliviously sexy thing about Zoe was all tenderness aimed straight for the cockles of my heart.

 The Hardest Fall, Ella Maise

Cute, quirky, honest, big heart, earnest Zoe.  Devoted, sweet, focused, wonderful Dylan.  Really, really liked this story.  I actually liked how the story led me on like it did Dylan until we got the real story from Zoe like that's how we should have read the situation all along.  It was a surprise and yet not drawn out for days and days for it all to come to a gigantic explosion of awful in the last three chapters.  Yes, there was a bit of extended angst concerning the situation but the way it was written was engaging rather than just being strung along to increase tension artificially.

Having a solid supporting cast also gave the story a boost.  Even though there wasn't a lot of time spent on background for the side characters we get a good general idea of who they are, why they are who they are to Zoe and Dylan, and why they are important to the progress and evolution of the overall story.  The drama that came from their friends could probably have been left out but I think it helped the evolution of the Zoe and Dylan story by giving another focus, a way to encourage change, and an opportunity to see them show loyalty and to bond more deeply to one another as well.

 The Hardest Fall, Ella Maise

The resolution was good, not exactly formula either.  We did have Dylan being all butt-hurt and acting out a little, but it was minimal, controlled, and honest.  Then when he found out the truth his immediate reaction sealed the deal for me.  I wish there had been a little more groveling because he was on the other side of a similar misunderstanding and should have shown more understanding in the beginning but going after her as he did and baring his heart as he did calmed my need for a good grovel a bit.

And that ending, good Lord, the feels!!  I loved the ending so hard it's not even a joke at this point.  Being that it was from Dylan's POV we get to see how deep his heart actually goes.  His love for Zoe, his life, and all the pieces that made them special as a partnership came together beautifully.  The ending was longer than most in this genre and I can't tell you how much that made this story better.  It gave ample time for us to settle into their happiness, believe in their future.  Throughout the entire story I was charmed by the uniqueness of the characters, invested in their outcome, and absorbed by the events.  Win, all kinds of win.

 The Hardest Fall, Ella Maise

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 The Hardest Fall, Ella Maise
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Author Bio
Writing has become my world and I can’t imagine myself doing anything other than giving life to new characters and new stories. You know how some things simply makes your heart burst with happiness? A really good book, a puppy, hugging someone you’ve been missing like crazy? That’s what writing does to me. And all the hard work, all the sleepless nights, all the anxiety…everything is worth it at the end. And I'm hoping that reading my books will leave you with that same happy feeling.

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Physical Connection: The Physical Series Book 4, Sierra Hill

Physical Connection (The Physical Series Book 4) by [Hill, Sierra]

Two men and one sizzling attraction.  Mark is an excellent surgeon, Eli is an excellent nurse.  Working closely with one another is a double-edged sword, though.  They work well together and that connection is beginning to spill over into some forbidden thoughts.  Well, forbidden to Mark.  Not only is he concerned about their working relationship, but he's not ready to face the questions regarding his sexuality.  Eli has no such qualms.  He's been out since high school and despite his unfortunate past he's got a happy life and loves what he does.  But getting to know the sexy doctor could definitely make things better.

I liked each of these men overall.  There were some inconsistencies, dramatics, cowardice, and impulsive moments that I wasn't a fan of, but I did find the men a good match for one another when they finally got on the same page.  Together they had some intense chemistry and when the ending was really worth getting to.

Mark's coming out, or lack thereof rather, had more to do with being afraid than timing.  He was so sure everyone in his life would turn their backs on him because of one person he knew of in his circle that had a tragic end.  Then when he chose his two best friends to come out to he mentioned that he knew one of them would only be mad that he hadn't shared this part of himself earlier.  He was also a fairly dramatic person in his head.  But he was earnest and trying to be everything to everyone and I can't really fault him for that.  Everyone should be given a chance to come out when and how they choose.

Eli was easier for me to like from the start but probably because he was more clear about who he was and what he wanted.  That didn't mean he was without frustrating moments.  His immature and impulsive reaction to Mark's reassertion of his expectations was disappointing but I wasn't expecting him to reflect so hard and so honestly about it.  We get an idea of his past before this happens and it apparently touched a little too close to that hot button for him to react better.  Yet it's the way he apologizes, the sincerity behind each of his words and sentiments that makes me forgive him.

So in a short story we got to see two men that were surprisingly well-described and had sufficient back story to make them believable characters and plenty of chemistry.  The ending was really the best part and smoothed out the rougher edges of immature displays, drama queen inner monologues, and inner angsting.

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Physical Connection: The Physical Series Book 4, Sierra Hill

The Courage of a Cowboy: Elk Heights Ranch Book 2, Kristin Vayden

The Courage of a Cowboy (Elk Heights Ranch) by [Vayden, Kristin]

Unrequited love is never easy and when Kessed's hopes are crushed good and proper, she isn't sure what that means for her heart going forward.  If it were up to Jasper, he'd show her what it meant, but with him by her side instead of the oblivious Sterling.  The timing is off, though, until Cyler's steer delivery comes early and it'll take cooperation between Kessed and Jasper to get the ranch ready for them.  Along the way they find something deeper and better than they envisioned before.  But when an IED sends Sterling home with open eyes, Kessed will have to decide if it's the past or the unexpected that holds her heart's attention from here on out.

I enjoyed Kessed's feisty attitude.  Her loyalty to her friend, her wit, her honesty.  She's a fun character to get to know and while her vacillation becomes a bit tedious, it's her honest introspection and careful thought that I respect.  By taking the time to truly think about each person and the way each made her feel she could get to the heart of the matter and make the best choice.  And aside from the unfortunate moment that was witnessed, the way Kessed handled it was sweet, hot, funny, and extremely appropriate for each person she interacted with.  She truly knew each of them and knew what to say and how to get her point across while maintaining the essential parts of their relationships and being true to herself as a person, not just true to her feelings.

Jasper was sweet, patient, and adorably funny.  He was a great partner for someone like Kessed and it's his balance for her personality that made me cheer him on the most.  The fact that he also had a great relationship with his sister was another point in his favor.  Their sibling banter was cute but it also introduced us to a sound voice of wisdom concerning his course forward with Kessed.  Harper's brand of honesty and sass was perfect to get Jasper to see that he couldn't assume and make decisions for Kessed without getting her side or allowing her to work through her feelings in her own time.  His presence, his goodness and humor, those things were what made Kessed see what she really needed and not just what she'd been hoping for as a doe-eyed adolescent.

With two great MC's and an equally stellar side cast this story was allowed to focus on the relationship and the individuals so we could really get to know them.  I was impressed with the outcome of the story despite my reservations about Kessed before I started reading.  I'm so very glad to have been put in my place by watching her be awkward, sweet, honest, and unique.  With the encouragement, understanding, and passion she got from Jasper she could grow into a confident woman who believed she could gain everything she hoped and more.  I'm looking forward to reading Harper's story where Sterling will meet the woman who will put him in his place and bring him out from his wary military shell.  His steadiness is sure to provide the ideal environment for Harper's heart as well...so here's to hoping Elk Heights will bring back a solid cast and do them justice.

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 The Courage of a Cowboy: Elk Heights Ranch Book 2, Kristin Vayden

Both Harper and Sterling have a lot of healing to do.
But maybe they can help each other...
If only they can give up the illusion of control
and trust in the healing power of love.
The Cowgirl Meets Her Match (Elk Heights Ranch) by [Vayden, Kristin]
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Releases August 14, 2018
 The Cowgirl Meets Her Match: Elk Heights Ranch Book 3, Kristin Vayden

Laken and Cyler have their own history.
When revenge and redemption don't mix
it'll take determination and forgiveness
before they can find a future in love.
Heart of a Cowboy (Elk Heights Ranch) by [Vayden, Kristin]
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Heart of a Cowboy: Elk Heights Ranch Book 1, Kristin Vayden

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Squared Away: Out of Uniform Book 5, Annabeth Albert

Squared Away (Out of Uniform) by [Albert, Annabeth]

Crushes are rarely a prelude to a great love.  When Isaiah sees Mark again after a mostly-absent six years he's absolutely sure that his crush has died.  The tragedy that's bringing them together this time will test both of their resolves to keep things civil enough for the children.  Mark isn't expecting Isaiah to stick around or be what he's promising to be.  All he can see is his own need to control the situation.  Isaiah and Mark both have their hangups about the other person and unless they can truly forge a partnership together, their grief and fear will ruin the best thing that could ever happen to them, each other.

Isaiah has come a long way.  He has finally found what gives him purpose.  He's struggling a bit regarding what could give him direction and fulfillment in his career, but when he takes up the mantle of guardian for his nieces and nephew he's more than willing to step up to the task.  Over the years he's been the go-to person when a caretaker is needed so he's got a good deal of experience.  The way he takes things in stride, doing his absolute best to care for the children despite his own heartache is commendable.  But it's his tenderness, his determination, his inner strength that really makes him shine.  Knowing who he is, that yes he enjoys partying, but knowing when to set those trivial pursuits aside for the greater love of the kids gives me the opportunity to see that he's growing up and getting his priorities straight, the ones that really matter.  It's tough to see how his father, and even Mark in the beginning, treat him because of his youthful behaviors.  He hadn't really needed to be different until now and he isn't the immature party/play boy everyone paints him as.  There are times when his patience with Mark runs thin because there's a lack of time under his belt, but overall he's a good man, a mature man, the kind of person that can see what's right, what's best, and move toward it.

Well, most of the time.  But the romantic heart that beats inside him has a whole other challenge to overcome.  That crush on Mark didn't die, it merely sat on the back burner until Mark came home.  He has fears and frustrations, same as anyone, and Mark's own difficulties just seem to make them worse.  Except when they finally get on the same page?  Straight swoon.  They are equally tender, sweet, understanding, and sexy together.  Isaiah's patience and willingness to let Mark set the pace frees Mark in ways he was never expecting.  He comes out of his shell and we can see his growth on every page.  Until he starts worrying about all the things in the outside world that he isn't ready to face.

Mark had never entertained the idea of a lasting partner, one that would accept him for everything his is, all that he can and can't do.  And then Isaiah not only opens the door, he busts it down quite spectacularly.  When Mark begins to embrace his own sexual discovery it's more tender and sweet than steamy and raunchy.  I loved this.  We get to see his heart so clearly and I'm more and more drawn to him with each gentle and loving thing he does for Isaiah.  It's just when he freezes up and lets his fear do the talking that we see the "one step forward, two steps back" dance that threatens to ruin it all.  He's not alone in the things being done to end the relationship before it can take root, no, but his hangups are in the driver's seat more often than not.  Yet it's his confession when he lays it all on the line that really moves me in this story.  While I have mixed feelings about his "option three" everything surrounding that and his heartfelt words that make the most difference.  Seeing him through Isaiah's eyes as he bonds with the children, cares for the baby, blurts all his feelings and fears out, and his tentative yet enthusiastic sensuality wins me over in the end.

This story had ups and downs and a ton of feels.  Both men had failings and yet they figured it out and found a way to rise above it all and not just make the best of the situation, but created a set of circumstances that allowed them to win and thrive.  The story fits so well with the rest of the series and each pairing gives us an additional foothold into the family of friends they're creating.

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 Squared Away: Out of Uniform Book 5, Annabeth Albert

Echo: Pierce Securities Book 9, Anne Conley

Echo (Pierce Securities Book 9) by [Conley, Anne]

If Simon Pierce can't get control of his personal demons he just might fail not only himself, but the woman he can't live without.  There's more at stake than his carefully ordered life and rules.  Lacie, Bonnie, and his entire team are at stake if they can't connect the dots and finally put Jonas out of commission.  Simon will have to prove to himself that love can open the doors to trust, that history won't repeat itself if he lets Lacie into more than just his bed, and that there's no force on Earth that will keep him from solving this case and protecting them all.

Lacie Hill is being haunted by multiple people.  When her father witnesses one of the men accosting her he hires Pierce Securities to watch out for her.  Lacie isn't stupid, for which I was impressed and glad for, so when Simon shows up she can tell something is up and is grateful for the protection once the truth comes out.  She also isn't one to run scared either, so she does her best to live her life as she would if the threat weren't there.  But being tugged to and fro by Simon's hot/cold reactions to their chemistry she's left confused, vulnerable, and then when the stalking gets worse, she's becoming increasingly frustrated and scared.  There's a lot that weighs on her and Simon is actually making things worse.  I admire her inner strength and her ability to compartmentalize is useful, wise, and a healthy coping mechanism.  She goes a bit far sometimes, but for the most part I think she's smart and resourceful.

 Echo: Pierce Securities Book 9, Anne Conley

Simon Pierce, on the other hand, for all his control, rules, and rigidity, is running scared.  Scared of his past coming back in the form of another woman, scared of his feelings, scared of failure, scared of his enemies.  While it's not apparent on the outside, when we get the full story about his background and his frustration concerning the team members' relationships with their clients it becomes obvious that his vulnerability pervades everything he thinks and does.  I do like Simon.  I think his vulnerability is something that makes him attractive, someone worth healing and loving.  And Lacie is the perfect partner for him in that regard.  What I don't particularly enjoy is his priggish attitude at times.  The way he treats Lacie in the beginning gives me hope, the way he treats her after he realizes he's attracted to her crushes it.  There's something about Simon that bothered me in this story that I wasn't expecting and I can't even put my finger on it.  He vacillated a bit too much for me and his treatment of Lacie was disappointing more often than not.

But together, when Lacie wasn't willing to put up with Simon's retreat and confronted him, they became so much more.  Lacie's inner strength drew out Simon's and I loved where they ended up.  Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that made them ideal partners for one another.

The drama of this story brings the case against Jonas to a close.  Finally!  Each confrontation without truly being a confrontation was really good at ramping up the tension.  Connections were all over the place but missing one piece, just one thing that would bring it all together.  The final confrontation was big, emotional, and harrowing.  The interrogation was disturbing and actually quite perfect to finally get the answers into a little of Jonas' twisted, sick mind.  Answers.  That's really what this novel offered more than any of the others.  We finally see where everything was heading, the why's of all the trauma and drama, and the reality of what they were all facing.  At last we see it all.  Including the happiness.  Having their barbecue at Ryan's place was the right way to bring it all together.  Food, family, hopeful announcements, Simon's softer side, and most of all, happiness and peace.

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 Echo: Pierce Securities Book 9, Anne Conley

Quick Reads and Quick Reviews 19

Sapphire Embers: The Beginning of Dragons by [Chase, Jadyn] From Bodyguard To Boyfriend by [Isaac, Wyatt] Promise Me We'll Be Okay by [Iris, Nell]

Sapphire Embers: The Beginning of Dragons by [Chase, Jadyn]For being so short the author packed a lot of stuff in here.  Heartbreak, dragons, war, apocalyptic meteors, shifting, confusing clones, "save the species" mating, insta-love, angry townsfolk, dramatic sacrifice, and a kind of open ending...and that's not even everything.  I think there were too many elements to sufficiently do any of them justice.  The writing style is also not really my cup of tea.  It was far too flowery and surface-skimming rather than direct, moving, and the kind that delves deep enough to captivate you and keep your attention.  When it came to the long-lost-love aspect of the relationship it wasn't really believable.  There were quite a few things that you had to suspend reality for in the story but the relationship part shouldn't have been one of them.  It should have been the focus instead of feeling like an add-on to a complicated shifter/birth of dragons/post-apocalyptic world type of story.  I was quite underwhelmed and disappointed after being quite interested when I read the synopsis.  In fact, if you read the synopsis you pretty much read the condensed version of the story.  Needless to say, I was hoping for something a little more but got a little less.  2 stars.
 Sapphire Embers: The Beginning of Dragons, Jadyn Chase

From Bodyguard To Boyfriend by [Isaac, Wyatt]Attracted from the start, Gabriel and Jensen dance around it and forge a tentative friendship while they get to know one another.  But one night in Honduras changes things for them.  As they learn to navigate their new dynamics it's their fear and uncertainty that will drive them apart if they don't admit to themselves and each other what really matters.  We're given a pretty good picture about each of these men right in the beginning.  Even up to their first time together we get a sense of why they would be good for one another.  From that point, though, things become a little muddy.  What we're led to believe is their main obstacle is given a token moment of consideration before determination that it's not what matters overwhelms it.  But then near the end it becomes the giant wedge between them and is addressed poorly.  Gabriel's other concerns were more natural and organic to their relationship drama and I feel that age was what was expected to be the problem even though it really wasn't.  There were also some awkward moments I came across that made me feel like I was missing something.  The dinner at Carly's house near the beginning felt out of place despite giving us the first moment of "contact" and hinting at something more than just a crush on a coworker.  Overall I felt the story lacked a read-through that could have caught the lack of fluidity in the relationship's progression before their falling out.  The ending, though, that was tender, sweet, and well thought out.  It made me want to forgive the other issues I came across.  And adding in the touching epilogue brought it up to where it should have been all the way through.  3 stars.
From Bodyguard to Boyfriend, Wyatt Isaac

Promise Me We'll Be Okay by [Iris, Nell]When the pressure of family and appearances becomes too much for Vincent he sheds what's causing him the most stress.  At least that's what he thinks he's doing when he leaves Jude.  He had no idea how wrong that decision would be until the only person he loved almost as much as Jude is taken from him.  With nothing left worth losing he finds the courage to knock on the door to his past, and hopefully his future.  Jude is doing his best to move on.  But being left is far different from doing the leaving.  Half of his heart is gone and he's reaching a point where he's going to break if he can't move forward and away from the devastation of Vincent leaving him behind.  And then a knock on his door one night changes everything.  If he can forgive, if Vincent can prove he's changed, they might stand a chance against their fears and insecurities and be able to build a future far better than they could have imagined.

Both men had their faults and they were each likable at their core.  I do wish there had been more groveling, more explanations.  What was there was sufficient but it also felt like it was lacking something, a punch of some kind.  And I'm not saying a physical altercation between the men.  There are quite a few moments where one or both of them put the explanations off.  Saying they needed to talk, they needed answers, and then not really getting back to it wasn't really satisfying.  And while the end was absolutely sweet, spontaneous, secret, and cute, it was a little bit of a shock.  With something in-between their reconciliation and the ending, some kind of settling, this could have been an even more enjoyable story.  As it was it was good but it could have been great with a little more detail, a little streamlining, and maybe a little more directed focus.  3 stars.
 Promise Me We'll Be Okay, Nell Iris