By Maureen Lee Lenker
February 12, 2020 at 08:15 AM EST
Credit: Kensington; Forever; Sourcebooks; Avon

Love can take you to some pretty crazy places — from the wilds of Antartica to the velvet-cloaked walls of a gambling hall to the balcony of a lakeside inn and beyond. In this month’s Hot Stuff, four new romance releases dig into the beauty and allure of their settings to deliver steamy, sweet love in all the right (and wrong) places.

Credit: Sourcebooks

By Adriana Anders
Review: Adriana Anders kick-starts the year with a perfect wintry read, one that scorches and chills in equal measure with its red-hot central love story and gripping suspense. South Pole cook Angel Smith is on the verge of leaving Antarctica after using the frigid continent to hit reset on her life, but suddenly the remote research station she’s called home is attacked by thugs. After witnessing the murder of her colleagues and running for her life, she finds herself cast adrift, alone on the ice with taciturn glaciologist Ford Cooper. The two forge a reluctant partnership as they’re faced with trekking hundreds of miles in sub-zero temperatures, in a race against time, weather, and their dangerous pursuers. Anders has a knack for writing genuinely terrifying suspense, opening with characters in mortal peril and never taking her foot off the gas. Whiteout is engrossing, a knockout read that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It draws you in with its thrilling tale of survival and holds you with the growing attraction between Angel and Ford. Anders expertly builds the tension between them, mounting to an explosive kiss that’s only enhanced by the limitations of their environment (i.e., the risk of exposing any bare skin to the elements). It’s a taut thriller, zipping across unforgiving conditions and untold dangers, all the while slowly unfurling even more sinister elements of the plot. Anders gifts romance readers a Russian Doll of a novel, one that wraps its blistering romance inside the breathless adventure story and then packs another conspiracy tale inside all of that. She deftly balances these elements, and numerous viewpoints, to leave the reader racing through pages, desperate for some relief from the bracing cold and relentless suspense. It comes in the form of the yearning and heartfelt emotion between Angel and Ford. They’re two broken people, who ironically find the way to put themselves back together just as their bodies are pushed to their physical limits. Anders delivers an utterly satisfying take on the “we’re probably gonna die, so let’s have sexy times” trope, layering in plenty of emotion and genuine connection amidst their cuddling for “warmth” and desperate danger banging. It’s a delicate dance, to balance emotional, sexy romance with the heart-pounding suspense of an expert thriller. It’s the best of both worlds. Anders writes with the precision of any best-selling thriller author, while upping the ante with fierce romantic connection and character development. Whiteout is a thrill ride, one that’s so terrifying and rousingly sexy that it will leave you anything but cold.
Heat Rating: ?????
Grade: A

Credit: Avon

Never Kiss a Duke
By Megan Frampton
Review: With the first in her new Dukes of Hazard series, Megan Frampton offers readers a beautiful Regency romance that predicates its happy ending on securing a life of purpose you’ve chosen and earned. Historical romances have long made the Cinderella story their bread and butter: a common woman or man elevated to higher status through the power of true love. But with Never Kiss a Duke, Frampton flips that fairy tale on its head for a love story steeped in questions of identity and life purpose. Sebastian de Silva finds himself completely unsettled when a chance discovery changes him from the Duke of Hasford to plain Mr. De Silva overnight. Nursing his woes, he finds himself at Miss Ivy’s gaming house and is immediately entranced by Ivy and her fierce sense of self-possession. Ivy offers him a job, and as they both struggle to find what it is they want out of life, they fall harder for each other each day. Frampton’s sparkling tale triumphs work and purpose over winning the inheritance lottery. While romance novels of old might find a last-minute loophole to restore Ivy and Sebastian to positions of wealth and prestige, Frampton instead catalogs the value earned from brokering a life on one’s own terms. She interrogates the value of wealth inherited versus earned, while making Ivy and Sebastian’s love intensely knitted up in their abilities to prize and know themselves. The book bursts with delightful banter, restorative supporting characters who dance off the page, and plenty of steamy interludes and tantalizing yearning. But it’s Ivy and Sebastian’s determination to build lives for themselves, before realizing it’s all the better if they build one together, that makes the book sing. Within a subgenre fraught with questions of privilege and class stratification, Frampton dares to couch her happy ending in notions that not only circumvent the system, but subvert it entirely. Great romances are built on an idea of romantic happiness helping their protagonists achieve a level of personal fulfillment, but Frampton digs deep into the hard work required to assess what within ourselves can truly feed our souls. Ivy and Sebastian’s happy ending is all the richer because of the blood, sweat, and tears they’ve realized are essential to their own sense of achievement. With Never Kiss a Duke, Frampton launches a daring new series that balances plenty of swoons with provocative distillations of what it requires to develop a hard-earned sense of self-worth and personal gratification. Her characters work — for love, for money, and for the dignity and self-respect required to make someone the best partner they can be.
Heat Rating: ?????
Grade: A-

Credit: Forever

Mermaid Inn
By Jenny Holiday
Review: Comedic master Jenny Holiday returns with her new Matchmaker Bay series. Mermaid Inn is a small-town second-chance romance bursting with humor, grand (and small!) gestures guaranteed to make you swoon, and a heartfelt examination of how essential finding your voice is to achieve your happy ending. Eve Abbott and Sawyer Collins were teenage sweethearts, falling in love while Evie wiled away her summers on the banks of Lake Huron at her beloved aunt’s Mermaid Inn. A betrayal sent Eve running from town for 10 years, avoiding a return until her aunt Lucille dies and leaves her the inn. In addition to inheriting an inn, Eve will soon discover that her heartbreak was Sawyer’s ploy to avoid her choosing a path that would prevent her from chasing her dreams and realizing her full potential. Amid their tentative run at forgiveness and a second shot at love, they both must learn to communicate, voicing their fears and desires rather than making decisions for the other. Of course, Holiday surrounds this deft emotional journey with a vivid sense of setting, a inviting cast of supporting characters, and her signature gift for quirky scenarios and witty banter. Moonflower Bay, fittingly nicknamed Matchmaker Bay, feels like the warm environs of a sitcom or a Hallmark movie (only with LGBTQ individuals and people of color — what a concept). Holiday elevates the classic small-town rom-com setting by zooming past stereotypes, instead imbuing each of her characters with immense humanity, nailing their lovable shortcomings and their overwhelming love for their community. From the antics of local community theater to the bromance of Sawyer and his friends, Holiday nails the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, her stories rife with observational humor and a gift for making her world feel utterly real. Her characters experience quirky, larger-than-life scenarios like getting locked in a floral fridge or eating grilled cheese (with brie!) during sexy times, but they do it with such relatability and heart, it’s impossible not to laugh and fall in love with them all at once. Not to mention, Sawyer is a hunky bearded gentlemen who makes enthusiastic consent a breathless art, and Eve is an ambitious, big-hearted heroine who’s learning to ask for exactly what she wants. Underneath that bubbly exterior of rom-com perfection, Holiday has also crafts a beautiful tale of why and how we put up walls, and the courage it takes to tear them down in pursuit of what we want (especially if we fear it might hold others back). Fittingly, for a tale bursting with mermaid tchotchkes and plentiful references to Ariel, it’s a romance that’s all about how taking a chance on the right person and truly becoming a part of their world is all about finding your voice.
Heat Rating: ?????
Grade: A

Credit: Kensington

Owner of a Broken Heart
By Cheris Hodges
Review: Cheris Hodges launches a steamy new series with Owner of a Broken Heart. Nina Richardson thought she had the perfect life as a freelance sports reporter, but when locker room disrespect and a cheating boyfriend blow everything up, she retreats to her close-knit family’s renowned B&B in Charleston, S.C. There she meets Clinton, her family’s newest employee, fresh off working for their rival. Nina and Clinton have instant sparks, but the two must learn to trust each other, which includes Nina permanently closing the door on her exes and Clinton proving he’s not secretly working for the enemy. Hodges excels most in her moments of heat, providing steamy interludes seemingly every few pages. Hodges’ dialogue could use some tweaking, and it’s frustrating that Nina and Clinton’s issues continually could be resolved by some basic communication and resisting the urge to jump to conclusions. Questions about Clinton’s loyalties make up the bulk of the conflict, but it resolves too quickly, forcing Hodges to throw even more obstacles in their path before reaching their HEA. Still, in spite of those bumps, Hodges crafts a charming romance about two people utterly themselves. It’s rare to find romance heroes comfortable in their own skin, just looking for the right person to trust. The story digs into the bonds (and betrayals) of family, welcoming the reader into the Richardson family. Their familial ties are warm and real, with four distinctly different sisters: baby of the family Nina, type-A Alex, fashion diva Yolanda, and marriage-in-trouble Robin. They’re all united under the auspices of their loving, diligent father, Sheldon. He’s the axis around which the Richardson family and Clinton’s love for them tilts, a steady and heartwarming fixed point amid the swirling drama. While Owner of a Broken Heart could do with some streamlining and punchier dialogue, it’s still a sexy romp with an undercurrent of emotion and familial devotion.
Heat Rating: ?????
Grade: B

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