Hot Stuff: Five new romance novels are all about second chances
We all want a second chance in life — an opportunity for a do-over or to make something right — at one point or another. Perhaps never is this more so than in our romantic lives, where the people we are at any given moment, or unexpected misunderstandings, can disrupt what might’ve been a grand romance. Whether it’s a failed childhood romance or two people who need a second chance at a supportive family or a Lord of the Underworld and his dissatisfied queen, EW’s October romance picks are bursting with all the wish-fulfillment we could ever want in that regard.
Angel in a Devil’s Arms
By Julie Anne Long
Review: Julie Anne Long continues her Palace of Rogues series with the second book, Angel in a Devil’s Arms. Angelique is the close friend and co-proprietress of the first novel’s heroine, Delilah. Together, they run the Grand Palace on the Thames, a once seedy location they’ve converted into a cozy boarding house. Angelique’s life is turned topsy-turvy when their newest client, one Lucien Durand, a.k.a. Lord Bolt, arrives. Durand has been presumed dead for a decade after being thrown into the Thames late one night, but now he’s back and wants revenge. Lucien and Angelique feel an immediate connection between them, the spark instantaneous from the moment of his arrival and palpable in their deliciously flirtatious banter and coy, stolen looks. But Angelique has been hurt by rakish men before and Durand’s plot for revenge directly conflicts with the dearest aims of Angelique and Delilah. Long has crafted a spectacular cast of characters with the warm, idiosyncratic denizens of the Grand Palace. Lucien and Angelique ground the story with their quieter, more reserved personalities that burn bright when they stoke the flames of their attraction. Their more interior personas are perfectly cast against this rich tapestry of supporting characters who infuse the novel with engrossing asides, amusing tete-a-tetes and laugh-out-loud personality quirks that only make them feel more vital and real. Long gives readers a gorgeous central romance that captures the breathless sensation of two wounded individuals finding unexpected salvation in the thing they may previously have thought to disdain most. It’s a real heartfelt meeting of two lost souls, the healing and care they instill in the other singing off the pages. Writing is hard no matter what, but there’s a certain art to making two more introverted characters utterly compelling on the page – there’s connection and funny banter between the protagonists without question, but Long also masters the quieter, more interior moments that make this into a lilting, achingly beautiful romance. She perfectly calibrates that gentle beauty with zippy dialogue and humor, her turns-of-phrase, distinct characterizations, and observational humor making for a diverting, laugh-inducing read. Lucien perhaps abandons his plans for vengeance a bit too readily and without much dramatic soul-searching, but that’s if we’re really nit-picking. Angelique and Lucien are nursing past shame and a sense that they’re unworthy or undeserving of love. For Angelique, it’s resulted in a meek desire to lay low, while Lucien’s has manifested as fear and rage. The two are granted beautiful character growth, drawing each other out of their shells and inspiring healthy change. Often, in romance, it’s a delicate balance between finding space for humor on the page and the angst necessary to drive the conflict of the romance. Long finds that delectable sweet spot with Angel in a Devil’s Arms, welcoming us all to the cozy warmth of the Grand Palace on the Thames with the peculiar blend of humor and pathos she writes with such aplomb.
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Learn My Lesson
By Katee Robert
Review: You’ve heard of fractured fairy tales but what about fairy tales that f—k? Katee Robert is turning the fairy tale on its head with her Wicked Villains series, which positions Disney villains as romantic heroes all circulating around a BDSM club run by none other than the King of the Underworld himself, Hades. Her first in the series, Desperate Measures, paired off Jasmine with a fiercely sexy Jafar, but now she pushes the envelope even further with this tale of Hades, Meg, and Hercules. Meg has been Hades’ queen for years, but lately she’s felt their (blue) flame start to flicker – closed off from his plans and feeling taken for granted, she wonders if their relationship has run its course. He introduces a disruptor in the form of hunky Hercules, who in a misguided effort to “free” Meg, offers up his services (sexual and otherwise) to Hades and his organization for eternity. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s playing directly into the hands of Hades’ trap, vengeance years in the making. Except Hades, nor Meg for that matter, didn’t anticipate developing real feelings (you could say he goes from zero to hero, but at the outset, they won’t say they’re in love #sorrynotsorry). What starts as a game of sexual seduction, domination, and submission quickly spirals into something altogether more intense. Robert expertly flips between the point-of-view of the three figures in this thruple, granting them each a distinct voice and perception of the proceedings. It’s thrilling to watch the balletic ease with which she jumps from Hades’ calculating, dry inner monologue to Meg’s palpable hurt and burgeoning desire to Hercules’ innate goodness. While her inspiration might be Disney, Robert’s books are anything but the stuff of childhood fantasy. They’re deeply dark and deliciously erotic, with her characters’ relationships being forged in the fire of kink and blooming in the intimacies of the care-taking that comes after their extremely intense sexual encounters. Her passages of their threesomes are breathtakingly erotic, but they also inherently understand the emotional components of such intense sexual connection. In a story where sexual activity occurs in essentially every chapter, Robert still finds the intimate heart of her story, crafting a tale of redemption, vulnerability, wounds healed, and the essential nature of communication in even the most established of relationships. Those who write romance and erotic fiction have to endure claims that they’re writing “mommy porn.” Yet, with Learn My Lesson, Robert throws that reductive nonsense out the window. She understands and proves in spades that a story bursting with sex is never just about the sex. Her writing is unspeakably hot (and verges on breaking our heat rating meter because there are not enough flame emojis in the world for this). But its true turn-on is the emotional beats and vulnerable subtext that plays out against its intensely erotic scenarios, a searing examination of interpersonal truths one might scarcely expect from a story inspired by a cartoon baddie with blue flames for hair. If this is what the Underworld is like, we’ll take a one-way ticket because Robert’s writing can go the distance.
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By Angelina M. Lopez
Review: Angelina M. Lopez makes her publishing debut with a romance novel that combines the soapy deliciousness of a telenovela with all the old-school romance feels you could ever want. As a Latinx CEO with a past she’d prefer stay secret, Roxanne Medina has clawed her way to the top of the boardroom – so when it comes to crafting the ending to the perfect fairy-ttale image she’s chosen to project, it makes sense to rope the prince of a Spanish principality into a marriage contract that grants him time with her three nights a month in the hopes she’ll bear a royal baby. But Príncipe Mateo Ferdinand Juan Carlos de Esperanza y Santo is more preoccupied with perfecting his new vine that he hopes will restore prosperity to his wine-growing nation, and he’s not about to willingly have a baby with a stranger. Mateo and Roxanne clash with the fieriest of sparks, the attraction instant and electric, pushing the bounds of consent within the confines of their contract. Lopez’s gift is her ability to push the characters and their bedroom antics to extremes without ever losing the intense heat and lush romanticism of her writing. There’s a definitive old-school flavor to the narrative, but Lopez punches it up with modernity time and time again, allowing readers to indulge in the throwback vibes without ever having to sacrifice evolving ideals of enthusiastic consent and the sacred HEA. Both Mateo and Roxanne have convinced themselves they’re falling short, believing they’re not worthy of love even if they have a contract dictating it. With royal parents that verge on cartoonish levels of evil, Mateo fears he’s failing his people just by existing, striving to save them. Roxanne is haunted by the demons of her past and a less-than-picturesque upbringing riddled with neglect, domestic abuse, and an unknown father. But as the two spend more time together, they become not just a means to an end for each other but intimate partners who see each other more clearly than anyone else in their lives. To find their happy ending, Mateo and Roxanne have to be willing to not only love themselves but to allow the world to love them, warts and all. Romance often gets belittled for its escapism, but what Lopez offers is almost a publishing magic trick in itself. She delivers that escapist fantasy in spades – what could be more outlandish than a billionaire CEO and her sexy prince? But then she digs into the wounds and hard work underneath that fantasy, exposing the truth that a happily ever after in the context of reality is all the more rewarding. In a world of soapy delight, she does the impossible by making the case for the real world. Lopez has a knack for the steamier side of things, the eroticism explodes off the page. But she knows just when to dial it back and hit you with a moving dose of reality, allowing you to revel in the deliciously extreme stakes she’s orchestrated without ever losing sight of what makes romance so endlessly appealing – the promise of a happy ending not in spite of real life, but in embracing of it.
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Twice in a Blue Moon
By Christina Lauren
Review: It should come as no surprise that writing duo Christina Lauren have delivered yet another fizzy rom-com full of feeling – they have a head-spinning ability to knock out books without ever sacrificing quality and verve for a staggering degree of output. Twice in a Blue Moon is their second 2019 release and their 24th since their 2013 debut. It’s a more deeply emotional, subdued title than their zippy enemies-to-lovers spring release The UnHoneymooners. The novel follows Tate Butler and Sam Brandis, a couple who fall in love as young adults on a summer trip in London and are unexpectedly brought together on a film set years later after a heartbreaking betrayal tore them apart. Tate is the secret daughter of the world’s most famous movie star – and if anyone finds out who she really is, her carefully protected life will be over as she knows it. When Sam abuses her trust, Tate finds herself thrust into the limelight – and 14 years later, she’s an up-and-coming actress whose first serious role could be in jeopardy when Sam unexpectedly turns up on set and shakes her confidence. Lauren combines the best of both worlds, capturing the youthful effervescence of first love before jumping into a second-chance romance imbued with all the hurts and heartbreaks of the intervening years. It’s more Tate’s story than it is exclusively a romance in the traditional sense. Everything Sam has ever done and means to her dominates her tale, but she also must wrestle with her relationship with her famous father, her own dreams, and how to live the life she’s wanted on her own terms without falling prey to the Hollywood machine. The book lags slightly in the middle, as Tate struggles to work out why Sam is even on set and keeps her distance from the inevitable. But it also continues Lauren’s marked shift to deeply felt emotion and narratives that plumb what it means to be a grown-up in a mature relationship that found its roots in the innocence of first love. Lauren initially charmed readers with their banter and impossibly sexy storytelling, and they can still deliver the swoons of a rom-com with the best of them – but they’re also treading new ground, delving into material that unpacks life’s hardest questions, like finding our identities and clinging to a hard-won sense of self-worth. Twice in a Blue Moon deals extensively with trust, and how we put ourselves back together when it’s broken – how we learn to do it again and not bestow it foolhardily. The novel is equally about Tate’s journey of self-discovery as it is a lusciously romantic tale of two hearts meant to share a life. The Hollywood trappings of the story lend it extra heft, with Tate’s name and story reminiscent of a performer like Tatum O’Neal, forced to reconcile their own desires and young fame with the ego of a famous parent. Lauren nails the behind-the-scenes details of a set, making the on-location shoot the ideal microcosm for new friendships, old flames, and self-examination. They also manage to fit in a thread of interracial romance and the cost of true love in a highly organic way that only deepens the stakes for our protagonists. Christina Lauren never disappoint, to an almost astonishing degree, but Twice in a Blue Moon portends new depths for the duo that they’ve only just begun to swim in – and frankly, we can’t wait for more.
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Reunited by the Badge
By Deborah Fletcher Mello
Review: Deborah Fletcher Mello continues her To Serve and Seduce series with this entry (though neither of them has a badge so the title feels irrelevant and forced). Reunited by the Badge follows successful prosecutor Simone Black and philanthropic M.D., Dr. Paul Reilly. Paul and Simone were college sweethearts, but his desire to pursue clinical work in Africa broke them apart, as Simone was reluctant to abandon her burgeoning legal career in Chicago to chase Paul around the world. The couple are thrown back together when Paul suspects that a pharmaceutical company is willfully giving patients tainted, poisonous drugs. He reaches out to Simone to assist him with legal concerns, but the two quickly find themselves on the run from the corporation’s hired killers. Mello delivers on the suspense component, offering readers a zippy thriller as Simone and Paul race to prove their suspicions, stay out of harm’s way, and uncover the primary culprit behind the negligence. In our troubled healthcare landscape, the terrifying implications of the tainted antibiotics and the rampant greed of the mega-corporation read as chillingly real. Mello gives readers high stakes at a breakneck pace. On the flip side, the central romance leaves something to be desired. Paul and Simone’s issues are resolved with almost convenient clarity, but then revisited again and again with no real forward movement or breakthroughs to truly offer a satisfying compromise. The majority of their conflict comes from external sources, except when Simone’s jealousy or self-doubt gets in the way (in contrast, Paul is frustratingly saintly). The course of their reunification and second-chance romance is by-the-numbers predictable with sudden developments and roadblocks evident from a mile away. Mello grants readers a rich cast of supporting characters in the form of Simone’s family, many of whom have served as subjects of her previous novels in the series. They’re a warm backdrop against which the frightening events of the novel take place. Reunited by the Badge is a diverting thriller, but it doesn’t quite spark when it comes to its romantic elements.
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