Review: Squared Away (Book #5: Out of Uniform Series) by Annabeth Albert

Squared AwayIn the wake of tragedy, SEAL Mark Whitley rushed stateside to act as guardian to his sister’s three young children. But a conflicting will could give custody to someone else—someone Mark remembers as a too young, too hot, wild party boy. Even after six years, Mark can’t shake the memory of his close encounter with Isaiah James, or face up to what it says about his own sexuality.  Isaiah’s totally over the crush that made him proposition Mark all those years ago. In fact, he’s done with crushing on the wrong men altogether. For now, he’s throwing himself into proving he’s the best person to care for his cousin’s kids. But there’s no denying there’s something sexy about a big, tough military man with a baby in his arms.  As the legal details get sorted out, their long-buried attraction resurfaces, leading to intimate evenings after the kids are tucked in. A forever future is within reach for all of them, if only Mark can find the courage he needs to trust Isaiah with his secrets—and his heart.

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Source: Netgalley, Overdrive Audio/Public Library, and Purchase

My Rating: 4½/5 stars

Mark Whitley’s world has imploded, and it didn’t even happen during an op.  Thanks to a great deal of reckless behavior, Mark’s sister and brother-in-law are now dead and their three children are in need of a proper guardian.  As medic for his SEAL team, Mark has no idea how he’s going to balance being a SEAL and a dad.  He’s going to need a ton of help, and where that help comes from is perhaps as exciting as it is uncomfortable. 

Isaiah James simply can’t understand why no one considers him a proper guardian for his cousin’s children.  Even when their parents were alive, Isaiah spent much of his time looking after the kids, seeing to their needs and wants, and falling hopelessly in love with each of the little monsters.  Though Isaiah is technically related to the kids, he is young and his days of partying and playing the field have, unfortunately preceded him, making his case for custody a hard sell.

As expected, the legalities of custody are difficult, but the difficulties are compounded by competing wills and a large, large sum of money that will, eventually go to the children.  Everyone seems to want a piece of the pie with only Mark and Isaiah having any real interest in the welfare of the children.  With virtually no experience around children, Mark is like a fish out of water and would be totally screwed if it weren’t for Isaiah.  Isaiah is patient, kind, and fiercely loyal to the children.  He makes no secret of his desire to continue raising them and is willing to go to any length to secure their custody.  Mark likes the idea of having Isaiah around for the children, but his presence, in every other way forces Mark to confront his own feelings and issues related to his sexuality.  In all, Mark and Isaiah’s lives are one huge, hot mess!

The Bottom Line:  Once again, Annabeth Albert has made me fall in love with her Out of Uniform series!  One of the things I have always, always liked and respected about this series is the number of totally realistic scenarios and obstacles the men in these books must face.  Albert creates real world situations, some truly terrible, that these men must navigate while also trying to sort out their relationship.  Yeah, it’s real life, but with two men, and, in this case, three adorable children.  Mark and Isaiah don’t have an easy road to their HEA, but they do find ways to help one another, to support one another, to rely on one another, and, most importantly to love one another.  This isn’t an easy read given all the drama spawned by the death of Mark’s sister, Mark’s own terribly confused and conflicted feelings, and Isaiah’s desire to be taken seriously.  This story, and the series as a whole still has a variety and freshness I very much appreciate.  Until those qualities wane of disappear, I am absolutely committed to the men of the Out of Uniform series.

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Review: The Wedding Dress (Book #1: The Wedding Collection Series) by Rachel Hauck

Wedding DressCharlotte owns a chic Birmingham bridal boutique. Dressing brides for their big day is her gift . . . and her passion. But with her own wedding day approaching, why can’t she find the perfect dress…or feel certain she should marry Tim?  Then Charlotte discovers a vintage dress in a battered trunk at an estate sale. It looks brand-new-shimmering with pearls and satin, hand-stitched and timeless in its design. But where did it come from? Who wore it? Who welded the lock shut and tucked the dog tags in that little sachet? Who left it in the basement for a ten-year-old girl? And what about the mysterious man in the purple vest who insists the dress had been “redeemed.”  Charlotte’s search for the gown’s history-and its new bride-begins as a distraction from her sputtering love life. But it takes on a life of its own as she comes to know the women who have worn the dress. Emily from 1912. Mary Grace from 1939. Hillary from 1968. Each with her own story of promise, pain, and destiny. And each with something unique to share. For woven within the threads of the beautiful hundred-year-old gown is the truth about Charlotte’s heritage, the power of courage and faith, and the timeless beauty of finding true love.

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Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library          My Rating: 5/5 stars

The Wedding Dress was my first Rachel Hauck book, and the second I finished it, I went to Netgalley and my online library and requested everything else I could find!  I absolutely adored this book and can’t believe I haven’t been reading/listening to Rachel Hauck prior to this.  Here’s the skinny:

Charlotte is all about weddings and pairing the perfect dress with the perfect bride.  In fact, Charlotte has something of a gift for getting a bride into the dress that was simply made for her.  Her business is tremendously successful and if she could just get her personal life on track, everything if her life would be, simply perfect.  Then one day, everything changes when Charlotte buys an old trunk with a stunning, well-preserved wedding dress inside.

From the moment the dress arrives in Charlotte’s life, nothing is the same.  The dress is gorgeous, perfectly preserved, masterfully crafted, and has little in the way of information about who it belonged to and who made it.  With the few clues that remain, Charlotte embarks on a fact-finding mission that will lead her back more than a century to the original owner and creator of the dress.  Along the way, Charlotte meets a small group of people with their own history with the dress who not only help her continue to trace the dress’s history, but also become invaluable members of Charlotte’s small circle of friends.  Every new clue, every new person, every new story only further convinces Charlotte of how special the dress is and how happy it is going to make the woman she eventually pairs with the dress.

The Bottom Line:  I truly have no idea how this book has such a low overall rating on Goodreads!  I found this story to be a wonderful weaving of the past and the present, with interesting stories, absolutely endearing characters, and truly fantastic storytelling.  Though Charlotte seemingly has her life together, she really doesn’t until the dress comes into her life.  The dress seems to focus Charlotte, to give her a direction which ultimately balances and soothes her heart, her mind, and her life.  I found every aspect of this book to be, quite simply, excellent and unreservedly recommend it to readers who love sweet, low heat, past meets present reads.

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Excerpt and Sweepstakes: The Highlander’s Stolen Bride (The Stolen Bride Series) by Eliza Knight

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ElizaKnight_theHighlandersStolenBride_eCover_2500After a harsh betrayal, Magnus “Strath” Sutherland, Laird of Dornoch, accepts a commission from the king to squelch an English lord’s siege at the Scottish border. What better way to torment his new English enemy than to defeat his army and steal his beautiful bride? At first, Strath plans to toss the Sassenach lass into a dark cell and forget about her, but there is something about the way she defies him that he finds alluring, not to mention how very much he’d like to kiss her.

Eva de Clare, youngest daughter of the Earl of Northwyck, is pledged in matrimony to a cruel lord blackmailing her family. Her salvation comes in the form of a terrifying Highlander who interrupts the ceremony. But salvation turns to horror when she’s plucked from where she stands and whisked across the Scottish border. Eva isn’t about to be made a prisoner of war, and once she sees the kindness beneath her captor’s hard exterior she decides she won’t be sent back to England to be wed either. In fact, she just might be the woman to warm the Highland warrior’s hardened heart.

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Excerpt from The Highlander’s Stolen Bride (The Stolen Bride Series):

What is the bastard up to?

Magnus “Strath” Sutherland, the Laird of Dornoch and Earl of Strathnavor, sat on his horse in the woods just beyond the perimeter of Northwyck Castle. He’d been sent south on a mission by his King, Robert the Bruce. One, to determine if the daughter of Lord Northwyck was dead as had been claimed, and also to stop a certain vile Sassenach lord from his continued raids at the border, who may or may not be holding her captive. That man was in the castle before him.

A plan to ambush Belfinch and his men on the road had been thwarted when the whoreson disappeared. Unfamiliar with the land this far past the English border, Strath and his men had found their quarry on the moors riding at a clipped pace toward this castle. This turnabout would work in their favor it seemed, since he could now take care of both of his king’s requests at once.

The keep was only about four stories high, if he had to guess, and the wall was about half that. There was a thin moat around the perimeter, and a village to the west. Smoke filtered out of a few chimneys in the village, but it was only late afternoon, so most of the peasants would likely be in the fields working. Smoke came from several chimneys in the castle keep.

From the intelligence Strath had been able to gather, this was the home of another man, the Earl of Northwyck. None of Belfinch’s men had waited outside, which meant the Earl of Northwyck was used to the men coming here, or he’d been forced. But Strath was betting on him being an ally. If that were the case, which seemed likely, it would behoove him and his men to remove all the threats.

This was war, after all. And if he let them go, they’d only continue the border raids he’d been sent to stop. Strath wasn’t about to disappoint his king. As to why the king cared about a lass, that was a question he’d have to leave unanswered, for his liege had not offered the information. 

“What did ye find?” he asked when Tomaidh, his finest scout and best mate, returned.

“Two entrances that I could make out. The main gate has a wide drawbridge over the moat, still lowered from when Belfinch’s men went inside, and a postern gate that looks to be accessible only by a narrow drawbridge, but it was not lowered. The walls are guarded by a dozen men, more concentrated on the front gate with only a few at the postern. And I think one spotted me.”

“Damn.” Strath, as any warlord about to lay siege, much preferred the element of surprise.

“I was careful, but when I mounted my horse by the woods, I think my sword hilt caught the sun just when there was a break in the clouds. I heard a horn blown in the distance, which I’m guessing was the warning. I didn’t come straight here. I rode in the opposite direction and circled back through the woods in case they sent anyone out to follow me.”

“Ye did good.”

“I’m sorry, laird.”

“Dinna fash over it, Tomaidh. We’ll wait then. If they spotted ye, they’ll likely be preparing for an unwanted guest. With enough time, they will think spotting ye was nothing more than someone riding through. They will let their guard down.” Probably not all the way, but enough so he could still attack with success.

And he would succeed.

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Praise for the Stolen Bride series:

 “This is a wonderful book. I really enjoyed it. The characters are colourful and the history is well written. I loved the way the heroine could take care of herself in a time when they were never expected to. I have never read this author before but I certainly will look for more of her books.”—Goodreads Reviewer on THE HIGHLANDER’S REWARD

“Ms. Knight has a gift for writing wonderful characters that pull the reader into the story. For fans of Highlander romance, this series is a must read. I highly recommend it.”—Night Owls Reviewer, The Stolen Bride Series

“The Highlander’s Reward was an awesome read. I didn’t want to leave the world that Eliza Knight had woven, even when the book was done. I just wanted to keep reading.”—Night Owls Reviewer

“If you are looking for a hot romance set against a backdrop of a fascinating time in the history of the world, you need to read this series.”—A Bookish Affair Reviewer on The Stolen Bride Series

“If you are a lover of plaid-covered warriors that make your knees feel like jelly…than this [series] is for you.”—My Not So Vacant Shelf Reviewer on The Stolen Bride Series

About the author and where to find her:

ElizaKnightAuthorPhotoEliza Knight is an award-winning and USA Today bestselling author of over fifty sizzling historical, time-travel and contemporary romance novels. Under the name E. Knight, she pens rip-your- heart-out historical fiction. While not reading, writing or researching for her latest book, she chases after her three children. In her spare time (if there is such a thing…) she likes daydreaming, wine-tasting, traveling, hiking, staring at the stars, watching movies, shopping and visiting with family and friends. She lives atop a small mountain with her own knight in shining armor, three princesses and two very naughty puppies.

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SWEEPSTAKES

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Audiobook Round-Up

CakeThe Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert, Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library, My Rating: 5/5 stars

Synopsis: In downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lou works tirelessly to build her beloved yet struggling French restaurant, Luella’s, into a success. She cheerfully balances her demanding business and even more demanding fiancé…until the morning she discovers him in the buff—with an intern.  Witty yet gruff British transplant Al is keeping himself employed and entertained by writing scathing reviews of local restaurants in the Milwaukee newspaper under a pseudonym. When an anonymous tip sends him to Luella’s, little does he know he’s arrived on the worst day of the chef’s life. The review practically writes itself: underdone fish, scorched sauce, distracted service—he unleashes his worst.  The day that Al’s mean-spirited review of Luella’s runs, the two cross paths in a pub: Lou drowning her sorrows, and Al celebrating his latest publication. As they chat, Al playfully challenges Lou to show him the best of Milwaukee and she’s game—but only if they never discuss work, which Al readily agrees to. As they explore the city’s local delicacies and their mutual attraction, Lou’s restaurant faces closure, while Al’s column gains popularity. It’s only a matter of time before the two fall in love…but when the truth comes out, can Lou overlook the past to chase her future?

The Bottom Line:  I simply fell into this story from the very beginning and didn’t take my headphones off until the very end.  Lou, her friends and co-workers, and her loyal customers are simply delightful and really enrich the overall read.  While the plot itself is all kinds of crazy – a restaurant is shut down by a single review! – it works quite nicely.  The closing of the restaurant precipitates all the change in Lou’s life, both good and bad, and creates an avenue for considerable character growth.  In all, I found this book to be quite an excellent read with the full range of feels, good characters, a fine plot, and a very good narrator.

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30724640Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel, Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library, My Rating: 5/5 stars

Synopsis: Despite her innate ambition and Summa Cum Laude smarts, Kate Pearson has turned into a major slacker. After being dumped by her handsome, French “almost fiance,” she abandons her grad school plans and spends her days lolling on the couch, leaving her apartment only when a dog-walking gig demands it. Her friends don’t know what to do other than pass tissues and hope for a comeback, while her practical sister, Angela, pushes every remedy she can think of, from trapeze class to therapy to job interviews. For reasons no one (least of all Kate) understands, she manages to land a job in the admissions department at the prestigious Hudson Day School. In her new position, Kate learns there’s no time for self-pity during the height of the admissions season. Meanwhile, Kate’s sister and friends find themselves keeping secrets, hiding boyfriends, dropping bombshells, and fighting each other on how to keep Kate on her feet. On top of it all, her cranky, oddly charming, and irritatingly handsome neighbor is more than he seems.

The Bottom Line: Holy Hannah!!  Some people are just bat-sh*t crazy and that is especially true when it comes to getting their kids into the best schools!  Kate Pearson has NO idea what she’s getting into when she accepts a job in the Admissions office of the prestigious Hudson Day School.  To be fair, her new job is a far, far cry better than what she’s been doing over the past year, and her family and friends are thrilled to see her finally moving on with her life.  Over the course of the admissions season, Kate not only gets back on her feet, but learns some valuable lessons about life, finds her confidence again, and discovers the value of true friendship.  This book takes one on a roller coaster of ride of emotions from the seriously sad, to the utterly unbelievable, to the absolute in ridiculous, to sheer hilarity.  I often found myself laughing aloud and, by the end of the read, wishing for a sequel!

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Mad Fat Girl Series by Stephanie McAfee, Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library, My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis, Book #1: Graciela “Ace” Jones is mad—mad at her best friend Lilly who cancels their annual trip to Panama City for mysterious reasons; at her boss Catherine for “riding her ass like a fat lady on a Rascal scooter;” at her friend Chloe’s abusive husband; and especially at Mason McKenzie, the love of her life, who has shown up with a marriage proposal three years too late. Ace is never mad, though, at her near-constant companion, an adorable chiweenie dog named Buster Loo.  Ace’s anger begins to dissipate as she takes matters into her own hands to take down Chloe’s philandering husband—and to get to the bottom of a multitude of other scandals plaguing Bugtussle, Mississippi. Then, she starts to realize that maybe Mason deserves a second chance after all.  With a sharp and distinctive voice, Stephanie McAfee delivers a hilarious and fast-paced tale about Ace Jones and her two best friends—thick as thieves and tough as nails—navigating Southern small-town politics and prejudices, finding love, and standing up for each other all the way.

Synopsis, Book #2: Ace has left the tiny Mississippi town of Bugtussle for the palm fronds and mojitos of Pelican Cove, Florida. She’s finally opening her long-dreamed-of art gallery, is kick-starting a life with her fiancé, Mason, and has vowed to leave her straight-talking, sassy ways behind her. From now on, she’s going to be as sweet as sugar. Unfortunately, something comes along to sour her plans.   That something is Mrs. Lenore Kennashaw and her coterie of crones. They’re a bunch of snippy, snarky, and just plain mean ’ol ladies who aren’t quite as smart or rich as they’d like to think they are. But that doesn’t stop them from treating everyone else like second-class citizens. And when Ace inadvertently takes some of the steam from Mrs. Kennashaw’s stride, she becomes their #1 enemy. But with the support of a new group of fabulous friends, as well as her friends from Bugtussle—and her always-faithful chiweenie Buster Loo—Ace will find a way to make it, even if she has to throw some weight around…

Synopsis, Book #3: When her dream life in Florida with her now-ex-fiancé goes south, so does Ace — she moves back home to Bugtussle, Mississippi, and into her late Gramma Jones’ little house. But even though her best friends, Lilly and Chloe, are thrilled that she’s returned home, not everything is smooth sailing. Ace wants her job back as art teacher at the high school, but the beautiful Cameron Becker has no plans to relinquish that position. Although Ace wants to run Miss Becker out of town, she accepts a job as a substitute teacher. On top of her job woes, Ace’s friends keep setting her up on blind dates when all she really wants is for people to stop meddling in her love life.  In her quest to find inner peace, Ace takes up gardening and discovers old love letters in her grandmother’s well-worn gardening book. With her faithful chiweenie, Buster Loo, by her side, Ace is determined to get to the bottom of her Gramma’s secret life, all while hoping her own doesn’t implode.

The Bottom Line:  To date, there are three books (and two novellas!) in Stephanie McAfee’s Mad Fat Girl Series: Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, Happily Ever Madder, and Down and Out in Bugtussle.  To be completely honest, I only requested the first book in this series because of the title 😊  I find it hard to resist such fun titles, and what I got behind the title was just as fun!  The series revolves around the life, love life, antics, and shenanigans of one Ace Jones.  Ace Jones is a spitfire if ever there was one and her mouth and actions often get her into a world of trouble.  Ace Jones is fiercely loyal to her friends, hopelessly in love with a man she can’t seem to make a relationship work with, and often up to no good as a result of the very best of intentions.  While there are many, many, many tremendously funny moments over the course of the three books, there are also some serious topics such as abuse and bullying addressed.  What I found particularly fun about these books are solid characters, both good and bad, who populate the little town of Bugtussle.  From Ace and her best friends, to the local barkeep, to the little old ladies who seem to know everything about everyone, there is a character for everyone in this series.  Overall, I found the first and third books to be the best (to date) with the middle book being a bit slower, but necessary.  By the end of the third book, Ace and her friends have been through the wringer and back again and not even one of them are showing any signs of slowing down!

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Piggly WigglyWaltzing at the Piggly Wiggly by Robert Dalby, Book #1: Piggly Wiggly Series, Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library, My Rating: DNF

The Bottom Line: Plain and simple, I abandoned this book after less than half an hour of listening.  I wanted to keep going and find out the fate of the Piggly Wiggly, but I just couldn’t get past the narration/narrator.  I am, admittedly very new to the whole audiobook scene, but I’ve listened to enough to know when it just isn’t working.  Now, here’s the real rub: since I really do want to know what happens to the Piggly Wiggly, I decided to check out the print version since my main objection was the narrator.  Unfortunately, after reading a startling number of reviews on Goodreads, my desire to physically read the book has also gone away.  While I try not to let other’s opinions of a book sway me, there are just too many negative, yet thoughtfully written reviews for me to add this one to my TBR. ☹

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WeddingThe People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder, Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library, My Rating: DNF

The Bottom Line: YIKES!  I will freely admit, I didn’t make it very far into this book before having to call it quits!  While the narrator was fine, it was the cast of characters who put me off.  In the small amount of this book I listened to, I ran across two characters, Paul and Alice who were beyond despicable.  Neither had a nice word to say about anything or anyone, and I found I just couldn’t muster up the interest to see if they ever improved.  I generally like a book where despicable characters are changed and/or redeemed, but I just couldn’t keep going with this book to see if that sort of change ever happened!

Excerpt: Out of Shadow (Book #1: Roots of Creation Series) by Jason Hamilton

Magic in the air. Demons on the hunt. To save the kingdom, one girl must uncover her hidden abilities.
 
In a world bursting with magic, Jak’s ill-chosen powers seem worthless. When she needed them most, her enchantments were nothing compared to the horde of demons that raided her village and murdered her father. Determined to fulfill his dying wish and prove her worth, she sets off on a desperate quest to find her long-lost mother.
 
Knowing she wouldn’t last a day alone in the dangerous wilds, she joins a roving band of warriors and throws her full weight into training. But after a tragic encounter ties her fate with the mysterious Shadow Fae, she discovers her greatest source of power doesn’t lie in the strength of her sword arm… but in the giving nature of her true magic.
 
With dark forces gathering, can Jak unlock the secrets of her enchanted destiny to save her mother and the kingdom from the clutches of evil?
 
Out of Shadow is a captivating YA epic fantasy novel. If you like imaginative realms, magical showdowns, and heartfelt coming-of-age stories, then you’ll love Jason Hamilton’s enchanting tale.

Excerpt from Out of Shadow (Book #1: Roots of Creation Series):

Jak couldn’t move.

Her breathing increased, and she tried to bring her arms to her sides, to push herself out of bed. Her arms stayed where they were.

What was going on? Why couldn’t she move or see anything? Was she dead? She tried to thrash about, to move anything, even a finger, but nothing worked. She could still feel herself in her bed, presumably still in her father’s small hut on the outskirts of Riverbrook. Of course she was, how could she have been moved in the night, that made no sense. Besides, she thought she could still hear the bleating of their sheep outside. She struggled to move once more, with no result.

A low rumble shook the room around her, and she stopped all efforts to move. Someone was there, inside the room. She could feel it. She could sense it.

She tried to speak, to call for her father, for anyone, but she couldn’t. Try as she might, she couldn’t even get her lips to part. She must be dead, that was the only explanation. But no, she was still breathing, but her chest moving up and down was the only movement she felt. Well, that and the beating of her heart, which felt like it was shaking her body by now.

The rumble came again. It shook the bed she slept in and rattled her bones. Was it an earthquake? Surely her father would feel that and come for her. But no, it didn’t feel exactly like an earthquake. She’d felt those before, this close to the mountains. This rumble rose and fell. Wait! Jak’s mind began to catch up with her. Those were words hidden in the low vibrations. Deep and powerful, but there.

“IS IT YOU?” was all she could make out.

“Me, what?” Only after the words came out of her mouth did she realize that she could speak again. She almost laughed out loud with joy. But before she could call for her father, the vice-like darkness pressed into her again.

“YOU ARE A CHILD OF SHADOW. ARE YOU THE ONE?”

“I’m just Jak.” She was suddenly curious, despite the terrifying force that accompanied the voice. “I’m no one.”

The voice growled. Not quite like an animal, but not quite human either. Then with a suddenness that took Jak by surprise, the dark force left her. Her eyes immediately began to make out details in the room, though the light from outside was not strong. Even better, she felt her arms and legs move at her command.

Instantly she was up and out of her bed, sprinting for the door to tell her father…

But what exactly should she tell him? That there was an intruder in the home? And that that intruder had kept her from moving or seeing anything? Even now, thinking about it, and looking around her, it seemed silly. She must have just had a nightmare or something, and mistook it for real life. There was no one here.

She walked to the front door and confirmed the lock was still engaged. She didn’t need to bother her father with this.

The dream had probably come from all the stress she was feeling for the upcoming Branding. Yeah that had to be it. A Gifter was in town to give all eligible young people their brand, the magic power they would carry for the rest of their lives. No Gifter had entered Riverbrook in years, and Jak was finally old enough. She loved brands! She spared a glance for the journal that lay beside her bed. It held everything she had ever learned on all the brands. She knew each line by heart.

Nevertheless, the Branding was not only the most exciting, but simultaneously the most stressful thing to happen to Jak in her life. Just thinking about it made Jak hurry to get her breath of fresh air.

Slipping her boots on, she tiptoed outside. Even at sixteen, her father didn’t approve of her leaving the house before he awoke. He was ridiculously worried about her like that. He didn’t even let her go into town on her own yet. She was old enough, and all of her friends were allowed to go into town. In a small village of less than a hundred people, where everyone knew everyone, what possible danger could she get into? So she did her best not to make any noise. Regardless, she needed some fresh air, and to wash her sweating face.

Light had appeared in the east, though still faint. She grabbed a bucket and used the faint light to guide her to the nearby brook that gave the local township its name, and also provided water for farmers and livestock, including her father’s herd of sheep.

Upon reaching the brook, she bent down to pick up a handful of water, sipped gently, then used the rest to wash her face. The brook was cold to the touch, coming from the snow-covered peaks to the south. It was nearly spring, and the brook was finally starting to fill with water.

Jak pulled up her heavy, dark hair into a bun, careful not to cover the deep red streak that ran from her right temple to the tips of her hair. No one had hair like her and it was at least something that made her a little special in this tiny town. Though it was just about the only thing that made her special. She avoided twisting her finger in the streak, like she was prone to do when she was nervous. Her father said she got it from her mother, though he wouldn’t say more on that subject. Jak had never met her mother. Apparently she had gone off into the mountains shortly after Jak was born and never came back.

She set about dipping her bucket into the brook. The sun was just beginning to light the sky and she could faintly make out her surroundings. But…something was strange. The brook lay in front of her, but beyond it, closer to the mountains, she thought she saw a dark figure stalking the way near the foothills. She squinted, dread filling her stomach once again. Was there someone out there? Had her nightmare been real after all?

What if her experience had been caused by one of those demons she kept hearing about? She had heard that rogue Gifters sometimes created small armies of demons, though she had trouble believing it. Who would intentionally mutate a human like that?

Her father, who had an unusual knowledge of outsider things, always said there was some truth to rumors. So she peered intently at the far-off shape. But she blinked, and it was gone. Hesitant, Jak could feel a chill settling back into her spine. But no, it was probably a trick of the morning light anyway. She still couldn’t see much. Besides, demons would have…eaten her or something, if that had been the problem. She didn’t have a scratch on her, so it couldn’t have been demons. It must have been a nightmare. Best to just get on with her chores. Feeling slightly comforted, but still uneasy, she collected her bucket and turned back to the house.

Returning from the brook, she paused. Something bothered her and she still couldn’t figure out what. Wait a minute, she couldn’t hear the sound of any animals. The sheep were always making some kind of noise, and Grettle, their sheep dog, was usually awake as well. Just now, there was nothing, no evidence of life, not even the morning songbirds.

Curious, she diverted her course to the sheep pen. Perhaps they were all still asleep for some reason. Maybe she had just been too far away to hear anything. As she approached, though, nothing stirred. Upon arriving, she finally saw why. The bucket of water fell to the ground, forgotten as her hands cupped her mouth in shock.

All of the sheep were dead.

Not only were they dead, but they had been slaughtered. Entrails lay all over, and blood coated their fleeces. So much blood! More than a sheep could hold! It mixed with the mud, pooling and dripping down the slight incline towards the gate. Towards her!

A wild beast, no, several wild beasts must have come here in the night. They had left nothing alive.

Breathing hard, she slipped in the mud as she turned to run as fast as she could to the house, the pale of water still lying on the ground.

“Father!” she shouted as she approached the house. “Father, the sheep!”

She raced through the door and already her father was awake and out of his room with a knife in hand. That knife was never too far away from him. He carried it everywhere and always left it on his bed-side table at night. He held it now, unsheathed.

“What is it?” he asked, urgently. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she panted, having forgotten her nightmare. “It’s the sheep, they’re…” but at that moment, something jumped from her stomach to her throat, and she rushed back outside to vomit. Not much came out, she hadn’t eaten anything yet. But that didn’t stop her from heaving and coughing.

Her father put on his boots in an instant and stepped outside.

“Stay close to me,” he said as she wiped bits of bile from her lips.

“I don’t know if I want to go back there…”

“Stay. Close,” he said again, slowly with emphasis. It was not a suggestion.

Jak said no more. She wanted to protest his overprotective nature. She always wanted to protest that. But perhaps this time he was right. Something was out there, something that had slaughtered all their livestock. The last place she wanted to be was away from her father’s side.

They approached the pen, and Jak heard her father take several deep breaths.

“What was it, wolves?” Jak asked. It was the first explanation that came to her mind. Wolves had never been a huge problem near Riverbrook, but they were known to take a sheep or two, when they could catch one alone. But a slaughter of this magnitude…

“No wolves could do this.” Her father growled. “This was something worse. Did you see anything else?”

Jak shook her head. “Nothing. I went to the brook to collect water and when I got back I…”

“What is it?” her father asked, looking down at her.

“There was something,” she said finally, looking back at the house. “I woke up this morning and couldn’t see or move. I thought it was just a nightmare, but then out towards the mountains, I thought I saw a dark shape. It wasn’t an animal though, it walked on two feet. But I couldn’t see much more than that.”

“This nightmare of yours, did anything speak to you?”

Jak met his eyes, surprised that he had guessed. But then again, he knew a lot more than she. “Yes,” she replied, looking at her feet. “I almost couldn’t make it out, but I think I heard the words ‘is it you?’ from…something. It didn’t talk like a person.”

Rael swore under his breath. “Come!” he said, almost harshly. He never raised his voice at her, even when he was angry. Jak did as commanded, not daring to question him when he was in this kind of mood.

Once they were back in the house, her father told her to get ready to leave. They were going into town. That was fine, they had planned to go there today anyway, for the Branding. Despite everything that had happened in these short morning hours, hopefully they were still going. It was the only day that the Gifter would be here for the next two or three years. She didn’t want to wait any longer.

Thankfully Britta and Sandy, their two horses, were still alive. Whatever had killed the sheep had stayed away from the stables. From the way they stamped their feet and shifted from side to side, Jak could tell that they had been spooked though. They understood that something horrible had just happened.

After calming them down, Jak helped bridle and attach the horses to their wagon. As she brought them around the house, she saw her father carrying several barrels of grain in the air with his brand of Telekinesis. She marveled as she watched his magic at work, the brand on his left hand glowing with the effort. He placed them on the wagon and went back inside to get more, calling on Jak to help as well. Pulling herself out of her thoughts, she did as instructed.

“Are we taking all of the food?” she asked her father. Her mind was starting to race. What did this mean? Were they leaving the house for good?

“I don’t know exactly what we’ll do next,” her father replied. “But we’ll be staying in the town tonight. Perhaps Naman and his wife will let us sleep on their floor.”

Staying? In Riverbrook! She’d love to stay with Namen, even if she had to sleep on the floor. She could stay up all night talking to Marek, Namen’s son. Marek was her best friend in all the world, and had been since they were young. For years they had talked about what brands they were going to get, and now they would finally have some of their own. She wagered they would never stop talking tonight.

She hid her excitement, only nodding her head and continuing to fill the wagon. Once they had loaded most of the grain and dried mutton, some clothes, and a few blankets, they were ready to set off. The only other item Jak made sure to grab was her journal. She took a moment to glance at it while she waited for her father to bring the last of their supplies. It was full of illustrations that Jak had penned herself, pictures of the various brands, with notes scribbled below and around each one. It was an orderly mess, but one that Jak adored. And today would be the day that she would receive her very own. Or at least, she hoped. She wasn’t certain what the Gifter would say when she made her request.

Jak hoisted herself into the driver seat. Her father usually let her drive the horses these days, one of the few liberties he allowed her. Though he still never let her go alone.

Rael’s hands were full as he ducked through the entrance of the house to join Jak in the yard. His bow and quiver were strapped to his back, his arms held a long item wrapped in leather. Jak swallowed. She hadn’t seen the long spear since she’d snuck into his room a few years ago and unwrapped it from its leather cover. It was taller than a man with a sharp stone point lashed to the tip of the wooden shaft, stained old with time and Jak didn’t want to think what else. Jak had asked her Father about it once, but his calm, quiet face had grown stiff, his eyes hard and angry. “It was from another life, Jak. Don’t ask me about it again.”

Jak didn’t dare ask him why he was taking it out now. Perhaps he had some idea of what had attacked the sheep in the first place. Whatever it was, it had him on edge, and that frightened Jak more than the dead sheep.

Her father hoisted the spear into the wagon where it landed on the foodstuffs with a heavy thud. He then hopped on himself, keeping the bow and quiver on his person. He said nothing, but nodded at Jak to begin driving. After a sharp crack of the reigns, they were off.

Neither said much as they approached the village. It was several miles away, following the river. Rael never was one for talking, and Jak was too busy thinking about the morning, but also about the Branding. Despite her father’s obvious bad temper, she eventually had to ask.

“Uh, father.” She swallowed trying to find the right words. “We’re still going to attend the Branding today, right?”

Her father closed his eyes and…was that a smile? “I haven’t forgotten. Yes, of course, we’ll be there. I need to talk to Parrem anyway.”

Parrem, or the “Lord Mayor” as everyone else called him, was the man in charge of Riverbrook. Which mostly meant he sat around all day and occasionally organized and hosted the Branding. He also conducted the village’s religious ceremonies, primarily reading to them from the Annals of Adam on High Morning.

Relief flooded her. At least her father was being reasonable on this matter. Despite everything that had happened, the last thing she wanted to miss was that rare event. She had been too young the last time a Gifter had visited their small town.

She had never told her father which brand she wanted to get, and her father never pushed her for information. Branding was a personal decision, he always said, and it should be made without outside influence like parental or societal expectations. That level of freedom was unusual coming from him. Most would probably assume she’d take the same brand as her father, but he had never made that assumption for her.

Despite her father’s assurances, Jak knew that he secretly wanted her to join him as a Telekenetic. Many children did this, choosing the brand of their parents as a way to make apprenticeship easier. But as exciting as her friends found it to be, Jak never wanted Telekinesis. She knew what she wanted, and she also knew that her father would not like it.

By the time they reached the town of Riverbrook, the sun was already high in the sky. The town was small, or at least that’s what people said. Jak had never seen anything bigger, so she couldn’t really say for herself. But to her, it was the best place in the world. Coming to Riverbrook meant spending time with her friends, gazing at the larger homes, and maybe getting a piece of candy from Marek’s parents at their shop.

Most of the buildings ran along one street, though some of the bigger structures, like the Lord Mayor’s house, sat off on the east side on a small hill overlooking the town.

“Jak, you’re here! Jak!” A voice cried out.

It was Marek, Jak’s best friend. She looked at her father, who nodded, and Jak hopped off the wagon, taking only her journal with her.

“Hey Marek!” Jak called out, “Are you excited?”

“Am I excited?” the boy stared at her, “Of course I am! What are you planning to get?”

“I…I’m still not sure,” she lied.

“What?” another voice called out. This time it was Paul, another of Jak’s friends, who trotted over to meet them. Jak had known the boys since they were small children, but she couldn’t help noticing how square their shoulders were starting to look. “You know brands better than anyone in the village, probably better than anyone from here to Tradehall.”

Jak hid her blush. “I just like learning all I can before making a decision.”

“Well I know exactly what brand I’m getting.”

“Oh yes,” said Marek. “Everyone knows what you’re getting.”

“What? Enhanced strength is obviously the best option. Who doesn’t want to be strong? Maybe I could join the Watchers!”

Jak snickered, trying to picture Paul in a uniform. “They would never let someone like you in.”

“I could do it!” His face scrunched up, indignantly. “Though I suppose Blood-burning would be pretty cool too.”

Marek looked sidelong at Paul, and Jak’s face flushed. “Paul!” she cried, “Don’t even joke about that!”

Blood-burning was a very dangerous type of brand, one that allowed the user to boil the blood inside a person. It was outlawed for most people, but rumors persisted that the queen at Skyecliff had a secret band of Blood-burners as her most deadly assassins.

Jak turned back to Marek, “So what brand do you want?” she asked.

“Telekinesis,” he replied, “I thought maybe your dad could teach me?”

“I’m sure he’d love that.” Jak said. Her excitement rose. She would love that too, though she’d never say as much to Marek. Maybe this meant she would see her friend more often. But just as soon as she thought it, she realized that was impossible, and her spirits slumped. Not with the brand Jak was about to choose.

“Say, why is your wagon so full?” Marek asked Jak. “And why does your father have his bow. Are you guys going somewhere?”

Jak felt her spirits fall even further as she remembered the morning events. “No, I’m afraid we had some trouble this morning.” And she proceeded to tell them everything that had happened, about the sheep, the smell, and the gore, and the creature she thought she saw though she left out the part about her nightmare. She needed to know more before she told anyone else.

Marek and Paul gaped at her with an odd mixture of revulsion and admiration. Boys were so weird.

“You mean, all of them were dead?” asked Paul, disbelief on his face.

“She’s probably lying,” a voice came from behind Jak. She turned and closed her eyes in exasperation. It was Estel, a girl just a year or two older than Jak, and her least favorite person in the world.

“It’s true, Estel.” She spun on the girl, her fists clenched. Estel always seemed to have it in for her. “Why would I make up something like that?”

“How should I know, you’ve always craved attention. Oh!” she placed a wilted hand against her chest in mock distress. “Look at me! I can recite all the brands, my hair is so different, my father never lets me have fun.”

Jak felt her face grow hot. Who did Estel think she was? Well, she would give her a piece of her mind if it—

“Cut it out Estel, she never did anything to you.” Marek glared at the girl, the same disgust on his face that Jak felt.

Marek was the only one who frequently stood up to Estel, and the girl seemed to like that. Even now, Jak could see the hungry look in Estel’s eyes as Marek told her off. Jak’s eyebrows furrowed. If Estel knew what was good for her, she would stay away from Marek. If not, Jak would…well, she wasn’t exactly sure what she would do.

“We’ll see how you feel after the Branding,” Estel hummed at Marek. “I’m going to be a Firedancer. If you’re lucky, maybe I’ll dance for you.”

“Ahem, so…I wonder where the Gifter is,” said Paul, trying to cut the tension.

“He’s with the Lord Mayor,” Marek answered, his eyes still on Estel. “He arrived last night.” Marek’s parents were shop owners, and got to see almost all of the visitors into town.

“We should probably head over there,” Jak said, “All the new blood and trade masters are supposed to meet at the Lord Mayor’s home by midday.” She looked up at the sun. It must be close to midday already.

“Yeah, let’s go!” said Paul, “I gotta see if I can find Vern.”

Naturally. Vern was a trade master for Strength, even though he only received the brand himself a little over five years ago. He also ran the only tavern in town. Assuming that Paul really did receive a Strength brand, Vern would likely be his trade master.

They walked through the village, down main street and up a small side street that led up to the Lord Mayor’s home. The building towered over all the rest. It was the only building within miles to have a third story. What would anyone do with all that space? Though she had to admit, it was still the most exciting building in town.

Catching herself staring, she forced her eyes back down to her level and joined several other boys and girls her age at the door, which hung open to let everyone in. She recognized all of them, though many, like Estel, were a little older than she. Because Jak had only recently turned sixteen, she only barely made the cut.

Naomi, one of Jak’s older friends, waited inside to greet them as they came in. Naomi currently had a job as the mayor’s assistant.

“Come in,” she said. “The Lord Mayor has been expecting you.”

They each shuffled in, admiring the large house from within. There was enough room to fit Jak’s entire wagon and stable in here! Who needed so much space? Jak had never been in the Lord Mayor’s house before. The man himself was portly and, some say, came all the way from Skyecliff. Apparently he had run into some financial trouble there, or at least as much financial trouble as a nobleman could have. He moved to the small town of Riverbrook and soon became its mayor. Most of the villagers didn’t mind this, as long as the old man left them alone, which he did for the most part. His main role was to represent Riverbrook when passing nobles or Gifters arrived.

Naomi led them to a large room in the back of the mayor’s home, where benches stood in neat little rows. Many of the adults were already there, including Rael, Jak’s father. He was standing silently in the corner with his arms crossed, observing the room. He was always like that: watchful, sober, never relaxed. The other adults were all trade masters, specialists in one particular brand or another. They greeted the young hopefuls by bringing their brand hand to their chest, nodding and smiling. Jak eagerly sought out the brand on each hand she saw, running through all the different options in her mind.

A door at the other end of the hall opened, and the Lord Mayor stepped in. He was accompanied by a man who was unmistakably the Gifter. The stranger had on a long coat that hung down to his knees. The coat was dirty and worn, as was the man’s face, hair, and beard. His brown eyes twinkled as he saw Jak and the other young women and men. He ran a hand through his beard, which was starting to gray.

The Lord Mayor spoke first. “My friends! Welcome to this very special occasion. You are here because it’s finally time for you to come of age and join the rest of us in our glorious union as…”

Jak kept her eyes fixed on the Gifter, who was taking a moment to meet the eyes of each young person in attendance while the mayor rattled on and on. When he met Jak’s eyes, she thought she saw something there, a deepness. His eyes lingered on her, perhaps more than the others? Jak swallowed. Did he know anything? Could a Gifter somehow tell what brand a prospect wanted? She glanced at her left hand, imagining the brand there. She was brought out of her thoughts as the mayor abruptly finished his little speech and gestured to the Gifter, turning the time over to him.

“Welcome,” the newcomer said, “My name is Gabriel. As you might have guessed, I am the Gifter.” A few polite chuckles scattered through the room. “I travel a lot these days but my home is in Skyecliff, at the college of Skyecliff specifically where I teach when I’m not abroad.”

Wow, a real teacher from Skyecliff. What it would be like to see a city that big.

“Before we get started, I want to impress upon all of you the importance of today’s event. What you will receive today is sacred. They are not gifts from me; I am merely the intermediary, the middle man. These are gifts from the Holy Relics, passed on from our ancestors long before any of you were born.”

Jak felt excitement course through her. She loved any mention of the Holy Relics, the sources of all magic. Branded artifacts that had first provided templates for the brands. Everything they knew came from one Relic or another, and one day, she hoped to see one with her own eyes.

“Those gathered around you will be your tutors. Depending on what brand you choose, one of them will instruct you in its use. I believe, we have quite a variety for such a small town as this. Even a Telekinetic.” He nodded towards Rael, who returned the nod. “As always, we advise you to choose a brand that will benefit you in your chosen profession. For this reason, many of you will choose the same brand as your parents or another family member. We encourage this, as they will know best how to guide you. But, of course, the choice is yours.”

Jak clutched her journal, and felt her nervousness rise. What if the Gifter said no? What if she couldn’t get the brand that she wanted? What if…? Every possible scenario played out in her mind as the Gifter began to list the approved series of brands. She already knew all of that, and she only partially paid attention. This was obviously a routine that the Gifter had recited many times before, for his voice had grown monotone. So Jak was almost surprised when he turned to the first child on the row in front of him.

“What’s your name, child.”

“Ella,” the girl said timidly.

“Well Ella, do you know which brand you want?”

“Yes,” she said, and offered a pouch full of coin. “Hungerless.”

Of course. Ella was from one of the poorest families in the village. They must have spent years saving coin for the brand, knowing that a brand like Hungerless would save them money in the long run. Many families chose this brand. Ella would still need to eat, but in far-less quantities than before. It was a passive brand, one of the few that didn’t require an apprenticeship.

“Ah, very well. Are you sure? The brand stays with you for life. You will never have another. You can never change it.” Ella hesitated, but nodded. Gabriel accepted the pouch, and placed one hand on Ella’s left wrist. Ella gasped as a sound like burning flesh filled the air. Light shone from the Gifter’s own brand as his magic did its work. When the light subsided, a patchwork of black lines had formed on the back of Ella’s left hand, the traditional location for a brand. She raised her hand to look at it, excitement evident on her face.

“Th..Thank you,” she muttered. The Gifter smiled and moved on to the next in line. He continued this process, asking the young person what brand they wanted, occasionally asking a mentor if they would accept an apprentice, taking the money, then giving the requested brand. He was coming closer and closer. Soon, it would be Jak’s turn. Nervously, she clutched her journal closer to her chest.

Marek was sitting next to Jak and the Gifter approached him first.

“And what is it that you want?” he said.

“Telekinesis,” he said without hesitation, holding his pouch of coin high.

A mutter ran through the room. No one had asked for that brand yet. Rael was the only mentor in the whole town, and he lived far enough away to make regular journeys a staunch commitment.

“Well it’s been awhile since I performed that one.” Gabriel said, in good spirits. “I wonder, does Master Rael agree to take on an apprentice.”

Jak looked over at her father. He still stood in his corner. Would he accept after what had happened this morning? With all the sheep gone, Jak didn’t know how they were going to make a living for the near future. With that uncertainty, could Rael really commit to an apprenticeship? But after a moment’s hesitation, Rael nodded, “I will accept.”

“Very good, well then.” Gabriel offered a hand and took Marek’s outstretched arm. He was visibly shaking with anticipation. His face quickly turned from excitement to pain as the brand settled into him. Soon, however, it was over, and a criss-cross of black lines extended from the back of his hand. It was one of the more complex brands.

Now, it was Jak’s turn. She swallowed. She had imagined this moment for a long time, but now felt like she almost couldn’t work up the courage to ask for the brand she had chosen.

“And what would you like, my dear? Telekinesis like your friend or your father?” Jak blinked. How did he know that she was Rael’s daughter?

“I…um…” she had trouble speaking the words. Gabriel stood patiently. “I…I want to be a Gifter like you.”

Silence filled the room.

 
 
 
Jason is an unapologetic nerd of all things science fiction and fantasy. He’s particularly fond of expansive shared universes like Star Wars or superheroes. Now he writes in his own shared universe called the Argoverse, which includes the Roots of Creation series and the Alice: The Last Founder series. When he’s not living in his own head, he’s marketing web content, playing piano, cooking, or simply enjoying a good story.
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Audio Review: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Broken WheelBroken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds that Amy’s funeral has just ended. Luckily, the townspeople are happy to look after their bewildered tourist—even if they don’t understand her peculiar need for books. Marooned in a farm town that’s almost beyond repair, Sara starts a bookstore in honor of her friend’s memory.   All she wants is to share the books she loves with the citizens of Broken Wheel and to convince them that reading is one of the great joys of life. But she makes some unconventional choices that could force a lot of secrets into the open and change things for everyone in town. Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is a warm, witty book about friendship, stories, and love.

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: Overdrive Audio/Public Library          My Rating: 5/5 stars

For the first time in her life, Sara is doing something bold and daring; Sara is flying halfway around the world to Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet her beloved friend and pen pal, Amy.  With her visitor’s Visa, a chunk of her savings, and all the books she can fit in her suitcase in tow, Sara arrives in Broken Wheel only to find her friend dead and buried.  And so, begins the greatest adventure of Sara’s life.

Broken Wheel is the smallest of small towns with very little in the way jobs, income, businesses, and opportunity.  Many of the once prosperous stores have closed their doors and those that are still open are struggling to stay afloat.  Through Amy’s letters, Sara knew much of the situation and much more about the citizens of the dying town.  From the moment she arrives, Sara is made welcome by Broken Wheel’s residents and offered every courtesy including rides around town, free meals at the diner, and groceries at the small store. Though Sara is grateful for the courtesy, she knows the situation many of these people and wants to contribute to the community in some way.

And then, an idea in memory of her dear Broken Wheel friend is formed . . . .

Though literally every resident of Broken Wheel tells Sara her idea to open a bookstore is hairbrained, she refuses to listen and enlists help where she can find it.  Within days, Amy’s emptied hardware store has been cleaned and transformed into Broken Wheel’s first bookstore.   Though Sara doesn’t expect much from Broken Wheel’s residents, she is convinced if she can just get them in the door, she can convince them of the worthiness of books and reading.  What’s more, Sara is absolutely convinced there is a book out there for everyone and her gift is matching readers with their book. 

And the days go by . . . .

Sara is most certainly an oddity in Broken Wheel and that, more than the allure of books brings people into her little store.  But Sara is also an exceedingly kind and generous person and through her conversations, she learns more about the people of Broken Wheel and what they like.  With her garnered information, Sara begins to pair people with books and it isn’t long before the whole town is thoroughly enchanted by Sara and her books.  Even the toughest, most resistant residents are charmed by Sara and it isn’t long before the town concocts a crazy plan to keep Sara with them.

The Bottom Line: This is one of those reads where I just can’t understand the lowish overall rating on Goodreads.  I found this book to be utterly charming, packed with the most delightful characters, and a story based on the power of reading and friendship.  Sara is very much a balm to the residents of Broken Wheel and her bookstore helps revitalize a town and a group of people who have all but given up.  There are so many moments in this read: happy moments, crazy moments, sad moments, truly unbelievable moments, and the quiet moments that very much define this read.  I freely admit, there are some sluggish bits to this book, even in audio form, but those are few and far between.  What’s between those sluggish bits is a truly good story about love and friendship, community, companionship in all its forms, and dedication and devotion to a common cause.  What’s more, this book will especially appeal to book lovers with all its references and referrals to books from a wide variety of genres and across time periods.

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Review, Excerpt, and Sweepstakes: Deep Cover (Book #3: Love Over Duty Series) by Scarlett Cole

DeepCover_Badge

Deep Cover CorrectedEx-Navy SEAL Cabe Moss always comes when called to duty—at all costs. Even though the death of his fiancée nearly destroyed him, Cabe won’t let his past interfere with any work that has to get done. When his latest task pushes him to team up with FBI operative Amy Murray, a fierce beauty with the undercover skills to match, Cabe must admit that, for the first time in years, he wants to do more than just complete their mission together…

Amy was born ready for this assignment, but working side-by-side with the the strong, silent, and frustratingly professional Cabe seems to be the biggest challenge of all. But when the sparks begin to fly—and the stakes rise to dangerous heights—the only thing Amy is left worrying about is how she can resist him. Their lives may be in danger, but their hearts hold the biggest risk of all…

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: Netgalley          My Rating: 4/5 stars

Amy Murray is dedicated to her job as an FBI agent; more importantly, Amy Murray is dedicated to the victims of the crimes and criminals she tracks down.  Like a dog with a bone, Amy refuses to let go of a case until she knows justice has been served.  Of late, her obsession is a string of missing women all last seen and last employed at the same casino.  Unfortunately, Amy’s agency isn’t the only alphabet agency interested in the casino which is how she finds herself as one of many members of a joint operation. 

Cabe Moss doesn’t enjoy being bed with the various alphabet agencies, but if it brings he and his men closer to their goal of shutting down a terrorist, he’ll gladly crawl in right beside the feds.  As it turns out, one of those feds is a striking woman who, for the first time since the death of his fiancée, has peeked his interest.  Cabe is undeniably attracted to Amy and that brings up a whole host of emotions he isn’t at all prepared to deal with, especially when he’s ass-deep in a dangerous op!  Unfortunately, his attraction to and interest in Amy won’t be denied.

Amy has never met a man like Cabe Moss, but thanks to a most unfortunate incident in her past, getting involved with a co-worker isn’t in the cards!  What is in the cards is Amy and Cabe going undercover in the casino where so many women have gone missing.  Amy’s goal is to find the missing women; Cabe’s goal is a bit more fluid, but it absolutely includes keeping Amy safe.  Though Amy bristles at Cabe’s protective side – she is a skilled and competent agent! – it is nice to know there is someone else on the inside working toward their shared goal. 

Amy and Cabe insinuate themselves right into the bad situation, as they are meant to do, yet find it difficult to not worry about one another.  While this doesn’t ever really compromise their jobs, it sure brings into sharp focus their intense attraction to one another.  In fact, as the op becomes ever more serious and dangerous, Amy and Cabe simply must accept the obvious, they want one another something fierce and nothing is going to stand in their way!  Of course, this also means each must deal with their past issues and confess to one another exactly what it is that is holding them both back from a proper relationship. 

The Bottom Line:  Man, oh man!  With one single read, the Love Over Duty series is back on track for me!  While I am generally a bigger fan of the men as opposed to the women in Cole’s books, this time around, Amy stole the show!  Amy Murray is relentless when it comes to her job though not in the consequences be damned, take crazy-stupid risks kind of way.  She is dedicated and willing to go to great lengths to achieve justice for those she considers her victims.  What’s more, Amy is skilled, intelligent, crafty, cunning, and courageous.  She really is a wonderful partner for Cabe, and Cabe accepts her for who she is and what she is capable of without asking her to change.  Of the three books in this series, I liked this plot the best.  The card playing (AMY!!), the casino, the missing women, and the joint operation was a bit of a switch up that worked well for Amy and Cabe’s characters as well as Eagle Securities.  With all the new members of the team and the possibility of future joint operations, there should be many, many more books to come in the Love Over Duty series!!!

Deep Cover Like Icarus

Excerpt from Deep Cover (Book #3: Love Over Duty Series):

“Where are you hiding my baby girl?” a large voice boomed from the Caesars Palace hallway.

Valentina nodded her head in the direction of the doorway. “You should go find him before he disrupts any of the private tables,” she said with a smile.

Amy wandered to the door and found her Stetson-clad father looking into one of the rooms. “I’m right here, Dad,” she said as she hurried to him and hugged him in the hallway. He smelled of leather and cigar smoke. Maybe it was because she’d lost her mother so many years ago, but it was impossible to explain the feeling of safety that washed over her when she was fortunate enough to spend time around her father.

“Let me look at you,” he said, taking a step away from her. He studied her face. “Humph. San Diego appears to agree with you. I was kinda hoping it wouldn’t.”

“It does. And while you know I can’t talk about what I’m working on, the job does too.” Over her father’s shoulder, she saw Cabe walking toward them with Uncle Clive. She smiled when she noticed that Cabe was wearing a black jacket that fit him to perfection. He’d remembered. “Dad, let me introduce you to Cabe Moss.”

Her father turned and offered Cabe his hand. “Well aren’t you one big son of a bitch? If you’re the guy who has my little girl’s back, I feel better already.”

Cabe’s face broke into a grin. “My pleasure, sir.”

“Sir. I like manners in a man. Military?”

“A SEAL, sir.” Cabe said.

“Well, let’s see if we can’t teach you a thing or two. Which room are we in, Clive?”

As Uncle Clive led her father farther down the hallway, she turned and noticed Cabe’s eyes were on her legs. Her bare legs. “Eyes up here, soldier,” she said, humor in her tone. It made her feel warm inside that he was looking.

“It’s sailor,” he said with a wink. “They’re good-looking legs, and I’m only human.”

It was wrong to let him flirt, it was wrong for her to respond, but for a moment, she wanted to pretend the rules didn’t apply. She reached forward and brushed a piece of lint off the shoulder of his jacket, then smoothed down his lapels. It was an intimate thing to do, she knew. And a risk, given the requirement to stay focused on the job. But hell, a piece of her had always believed in the what-happens-in-Vegas slogan. Here, in the middle of Caesars Palace, the real world didn’t truly exist. “You look good in a suit, sailor.”

Cabe placed his hands on top of hers and squeezed them gently. “You’re killing me, Ames.”

The heat of his fingers burned her inside. Made her want things she had no business wanting from a man she had no business wanting them from. “Why Ames?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just like it. It’s catchy. Makes you sound like one of those TV cop heroines from the seventies.”

Amy looked at their joined hands for just a millisecond longer before pulling them away. “You should go and start practicing,” she said. “If I’m going to work my way into the Lucky Seven Casino’s inner circle, I’d feel better if you were there too.”

“I’ll be there. But rest assured, even if I’m not invited, I’ll find a way to cover your back.” Cabe placed his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her forward gently to place a chaste kiss on her forehead. “I’ll be there, even if you can’t see me. I promise.”

Copyright © 2018 Scarlett Cole

Deep Cover I'm here for the woman you are

Want to start from the beginning?

Read UNDER FIRE (Book #1):  Amazon | Amazon UK | B&N | Chapters Indigo | iBooks

Read FINAL SIEGE (Book #2): Amazon | Amazon UK | Chapters | B&N | iBooks

Read DEEP COVER (Book #3): Amazon US | Amazon UK | B&N | Chapters | iBooks

About the author and where to find her:

Scarlett Cole

The tattoo across my right hip says it all really. A Life Less Ordinary. Inked by the amazingly talented Luke Wessman at the Wooster Street Social Club (a.k.a. New York Ink). Why is it important? Well, it sums up my view on life. That we should all aspire to live a life that is less boring, less predictable. Be bold, and do something amazing. I’ve made some crazy choices. I’ve been a car maker, a consultant, and even a senior executive at a large retailer running strategy. Born in England, spent time in the U.S. and Japan, before ending up in Canada were I met my own, personal hero – all six and a half feet of him. Both of us are scorpios! Yeah, I know! Should have checked the astrological signs earlier, but somehow it works for us. We have two amazing kids, who I either could never part with or could easily be convinced to sell on e-bay.  I’ve wanted to be a writer for a really long time. Check through my office cupboards or my computer and you’ll find half written stories and character descriptions everywhere. Now I’m getting the chance to follow that dream.

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