Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

* * * * *

At the end of the nineteenth century, three revolutionary women fight for freedom in New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton’s captivating new novel inspired by real-life events and the true story of a legendary Cuban woman–Evangelina Cisneros–who changed the course of history.

A feud rages in Gilded Age New York City between newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. When Grace Harrington lands a job at Hearst’s newspaper in 1896, she’s caught in a cutthroat world where one scoop can make or break your career, but it’s a story emerging from Cuba that changes her life.

Unjustly imprisoned in a notorious Havana women’s jail, eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When Hearst learns of her plight and splashes her image on the front page of his paper, proclaiming her, “The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba,” she becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in the battle for Cuban independence.

With the help of Marina Perez, a courier secretly working for the Cuban revolutionaries in Havana, Grace and Hearst’s staff attempt to free Evangelina. But when Cuban civilians are forced into reconcentration camps and the explosion of the USS Maine propels the United States and Spain toward war, the three women must risk everything in their fight for freedom.

Source: NetGalley; ARC generously provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

It's been one of the highlights of the last few years for me to read each new novel in Chanel Cleeton's based in or about Cuba. I've delighted in the stories she's brought to life about the people in the era.

In The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba, set in the late 1800's, she introduces three women who are unyielding in their principles. There's the idealist, Grace, who has aspirations to become a journalist eager to cover the hard-hitting stories but that are only trusted to the men. Evangelina is a young Cuban woman who opposes Spanish rule and is determined to help her country get out from under its thumb. And finally, Marina who along with her husband has been fighting for the revolutionaries. In a nice bit of coming full circle, this Marina who secretly transports messages, is the ancestor of the Perez family we met in Next Year in Havana. These women's lives, so drastically different, intersect and the impact is forever life changing. 

Grace captured my attention probably because she's this wide-eyed ambitious young woman determined to succeed so she walked away from her family's money to do this on her own terms. Considering the time period, it's a courageous choice. I was especially taken with her composure. Her storyline introduced me to "yellow journalism" and the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. I can't tell you the number of times I set aside the book so I could look up more about the two men. And it's also through Grace's eyes that we see how Hearst played a role in getting America to intervene on Cuba's behalf. It's amazing how much influence he exerted. Once he heard about the plight of Evangelina Cisneros who was imprisoned by the Spanish government, he got personally involved in the plot to help her escape.

Evangelina's story both scared me and angered me. There's unfortunately not much historical information about her personal life, especially after she escapes, but Cleeton pieces together what is available to show us a picture of an impressive woman, often stoic in the face of the injustice thrown at her. Unaware at first of the media sensation that is built around her imprisonment, she becomes the poster girl and rallying cry for Cuba's freedom in America. Once she's free, she's booked for several tours around America, meeting with high-level officials and organizations to garner support among Americans for Cuba's freedom. The tone of Evangelina's story changed once she arrived in America as she went from an imprisoned woman to a woman putting on the persona that the media created for her. It made me mindful of how to this day the media does still latch onto an idea or a person, making them the face of whatever the topic is, and just runs with it. Evangelina's experience highlights that. I'll admit to being a little bored with her story as it wore on because her life in the spotlight became repetitive, and I sensed that Evangelina herself got weary of playing to the public's expectations. She probably wanted to be more directly involved in the revolutionary efforts but accepted that her role was to be the face and mouthpiece of her country and people.

Marina's is probably the most suspenseful story here. As a courier, she's tasked with delivering messages within a secret and tight-knit network of individuals plotting against Spain. Like Grace and Evangelina, she's given up the comforts of home and family. Unlike her wealthy family, she's chosen her side and fixed firmly there. She recalls stories of a thriving Cuba and longs to see that again. Marina is the everyday civilian who gives us a glimpse of a devastated country, and of its people struggling to put food on the table. Now with a resolute sense of duty, she willingly and without hesitation puts herself in the midst of danger. Her chapters were a tense experience as I was either worried for her or her daughter's safety.

Reading this felt very "real time" to me, like I was transported there to see these events unfolding. Evangelina's story, Cuba's fight for independence, America's stake in Cuba, Heart's and Pulitzer's rivalry ... all of it riveted the entire nation, and me. One common thread in all these novels is that her heroines are brilliantly resilient in the face of adversity. They wear their pride and love for country on their sleeves. Cleeton beautifully brings out the richness and complexity of Cuba's long history so it shouldn't be a surprise that The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba is as spellbinding as her previous novels. 

~ Bel


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Southern Sinner (North Carolina Highlands #3) by Jessica Peterson

* * * * *

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Until I brought my fake girlfriend home.

When I took a seat next to the gorgeous brunette at the blackjack table, I had no idea it would be the start of the hottest weekend of my life. By day, Stevie and I dominate the casinos of Sin City.

By night, I dominate her in my penthouse suite.

Then my brother Samuel ruins it by asking me to come home for his engagement party.

Because he’s not just getting married. This isn’t a normal celebration for me. His future bride is my "one who got away." The girl I may or may not still be in love with.

The catch? He wants me to prove I’m over his fiancée before they set a date. So I ask Stevie to double down on our chemistry and pretend to be my girlfriend.

We set our ground rules: lots of sex, plenty of pretend smiles, and no strings.

But we’re not only gambling with the truth. We’re gambling with our hearts.

They say every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. But Stevie’s past may force us to fold on our future before it’s even begun.

Source: ARC provided in exchange for an honest review

Southern Sinner is an absolute winner for me. I adore this story of Hank who's been on a travel bender looking to get past his heartbreak and humiliation after being rejected (by his brother's girlfriend, though he didn't know they were together at the time), and Stevie who's newly single and ready to live it up. Hank and Stevie walk a different path to what I think is a happily for now for them. To make it simple, I've just listed my favorite takeaways from the story.

The good:

✔️ Younger guy, older woman dynamic 
✔️ Independent woman who declares aloud what she does and doesn’t want . Stevie wants the fun but not the hassle of a committed relationship as she’s recently finalized her divorce.
✔️ She’s an bad ass and successful entrepreneur 
✔️ Hank’s not intimidated by her ambition or success
✔️ He’s totally supportive of her aspirations
✔️ So many lovely and swoon-worthy references to Bridgerton
✔️ Close-knit family
✔️ Music - It plays a big part in their story. Stevie is named after the Stevie Nicks, after all. But it's also one of the most significant ways in which Stevie and Hank bond. There's a scene where they're composing a song together that to me is far more intimate than any of their sex scenes because they're speaking straight from the heart. It's raw, honest, vulnerable and it gave me the chills.
✔️ Steamy moments - Speaking of bonding ... it's Jessica Peterson so we know what we're in for and plenty of it!

Not so great:

✖️ Stevie’s self-doubting moments. She was terrified to let her guard down and that kept her inert. She stood in her own way and I understood where it all came from but I was still so frustrated on her behalf.
✖️ Close-knit family: the flip side.  I love the Beauregards but they bulldozed their way into Hank and Stevie’s business. That type of behavior makes me cringe no matter the story or the author, and I tend to have a visceral reaction to that.


➕ Hello, cliffhanger! Just drop that bomb on us and walk away, why don’t you, Jessica Peterson? 😉😆

If you’re in to the fake dating but falling for each other for real, long distance that complicates things, and overcoming some serious trust issues to get to that HFN/HEA, this is it! Hank and Stevie make a great couple. Hank, in particular, is one of the best romantic heroes I've read. He's considerate, secure, loves his family. He aims to be an equal partner which is exactly what Stevie was missing from her former marriage. The concept of equal partnership being so alien to her that she doesn't even recognize what Hank has been offering all along. I don't think people realize that they deserve that so I took great heart in seeing it come to fruition for someone like Stevie who carried all the guilt about her marriage failing.  

Southern Sinner is my favorite in the series so far and now I CAN NOT wait for Rhett's book because it sounds like it's going to be a doozy!

~ Bel

Here are the links to my reviews of the previous two books in the North Carolina Highlands series:

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

* * * * 1/2

From the author of Ayesha at Last comes a sparkling new rom-com for fans of “You’ve Got Mail,” set in two competing halal restaurants

Sales are slow at Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, the only halal restaurant in the close-knit Golden Crescent neighbourhood. Hana waitresses there part time, but what she really wants is to tell stories on the radio. If she can just outshine her fellow intern at the city radio station, she may have a chance at landing a job. In the meantime, Hana pours her thoughts and dreams into a podcast, where she forms a lively relationship with one of her listeners. But soon she’ll need all the support she can get: a new competing restaurant, a more upscale halal place, is about to open in the Golden Crescent, threatening Three Sisters.

When her mysterious aunt and her teenage cousin arrive from India for a surprise visit, they draw Hana into a long-buried family secret. A hate-motivated attack on their neighbourhood complicates the situation further, as does Hana’s growing attraction for Aydin, the young owner of the rival restaurant—who might not be a complete stranger after all.

As life on the Golden Crescent unravels, Hana must learn to use her voice, draw on the strength of her community and decide what her future should be.

Source: NetGalley; ARC generously provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review

I'd previously read Jalaluddin's, Ayesha At Last which was brilliant! Now with her follow up about a restaurant rivalry and an anonymous online friendship I knew I'd be in for a very interesting romance, indeed. 

Hana works at her family's restaurant while also working as an intern at a radio station. She has big dreams of developing her own show and discussing topics that are of interest to her. She has her own podcast that's been gaining traction and it's because of this podcast that she's struck up a friendship with a fan. As they remain anonymous in their communications they share personal dreams and goals with each other, oftentimes sharing advice and suggestions. In the meanwhile, problems arise when a new restaurant opens up that threatens to shut down Hana's family's restaurant which has already been struggling recently. Her family's livelihood becomes the center of her focus as she tries to save them, save her broadcast dreams and save herself from falling for her rival and recipient of all her ire, Aydin.

I easily fell into this story and I think mainly because it wasn't centered around finding a spouse. Instead it was firmly about Hana's desire to achieve her career goal of becoming a broadcaster which her parents fully supported. Admittedly, I took to this subplot because I worked in radio in my pre-kids days. A little detail that made me so happy and felt seen is that her fellow intern, Thomas is also South Asian, desi and Christian. Up until this I hadn't read of any desi character similar to me in that way and it felt great to see that representation even if he doesn't have a large role. Hana comes off as a wonderfully confident young woman who has a strong sense of self. Her rivalry and instant dislike of Aydin fuels a lot of the action in the story. And as much as she wants to all out dismiss him, learning of his backstory makes her sympathize with his situation. How he wears his face on the surface belies the turmoil he's reckoning with inside. After a horribly frightening and public racist encounter involving him, herself and her cousin, he shows a different side of himself to her which makes Hana stop to reconsider her actions towards him up until then. The racist incident is jarring and what results from it renews Hana's personal and professional missions.  

Even with the several subplots, I didn't think it was overwhelming nor did it feel like one was distracting from the other. They made sense and tied together, and I think Jalauddin struck a nice balance with all of them. I did think that Hana was a little naive sometimes like when she decided to sabotage Aydin's restaurant opening. It was childish and you could only shake your head at her. Come on Hana, you're smarter than this! With so many things coming to a head, she finds herself at an important juncture in her young adult life and we're witness to her character growth. The mysterious aunt who accompanies the cousin for a stateside visit provides well, the mystery. She's tight-lipped about the purpose of her visit but boy does she drop zingers on Hana. She really shakes up her thinking and gives Hana the inspiration at the very moment she's feeling lost. As for the cousin ... though he brings an outside-the-box kind of mentality, I personally would've preferred a dialed down personality. He was a little too much for me.

I liked Hana Khan Carries On tremendously even if it included heavier issues such as the scary racist encounter and the Islamaphobia that ensues. Hana's admirable journey to maturity during this wild duration of upending events is a big reason for my enjoyment of this book. She gets her happiness and fulfillment because she's determining what and who is important to her. This was a poignant read and I recommend that you add it to your list!

~ Bel


Monday, April 5, 2021

The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

* * * 3/4

Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won't hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city's hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they'll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems--until they discover a new one--their growing attraction to each other. They've built the syllabus for love's latest experiment, but neither of them expected they'd be the ones putting it to the test.

Source: NetGalley; ARC provided generously by publisher in exchange for an honest review

I enjoyed reading The Roommate last year (has it really been a year already?) and so was happy to jump into The Intimacy Experiment. One of the things I liked about The Roommate was I thought it presented a perspective on sex and sex workers that I hadn't considered before. The Intimacy Experiment continues to do that, but this time with added focus on how female sex workers are treated outside of the industry.

Naomi is now co-CEO of Shameless, the startup she runs with Clara from The Roommate. It's been wildly successful and now Naomi wants to take it to the next level by teaching in-person classes on sexuality. The problem is that no serious institution will hire her because of her "scandalous" past career. She is offered an opportunity at a networking event by the unlikeliest of people - a rabbi.

Rabbi Ethan needs to grow the size of his shul's congregation and he's thinking outside the box by asking Naomi to present a several weeks-long course of sexuality and dating. She thinks it's a ridiculous idea at first but then changes her mind. There's something so sincere about the rabbi's desire to appeal to a younger demographic and also address the matters that they care about. Ethan feels strongly that sex and religion can coexist spiritually.

Yes, this is all so weird and eyebrow-raising but Naomi has never been one to decline a challenge. She and Ethan are an unlikely pair and while tension builds up between them, it's a little slow burn before anything actually happens. Naomi might be tough as nails but she's not one to allow herself to be vulnerable. Ethan is just such a good guy, almost too good. He's so accepting and non-judgey about people in general, so he's not put off by Naomi's past. If anything, the more he's around her, the more he sees the uphill struggle she faces everyday to be taken seriously, or simply to be treated respectfully.

The more I think about it the more I realize that I was more attracted to the religious aspect than the romance. I know next to nothing about Judaism and so I naturally found Ethan's spirituality and philosophy interesting. There were a couple concepts that were referred to that made such perfect sense and hit me on a meaningful level. What I leaned in to most was that religion as Ethan was using it was not used to cast away or condemn but rather to include and uplift. Anyway, being that both the religion, and how it was being interpreted here were new  to me, I was drawn to it.

I questioned one detail in the plot. Naomi is such a resourceful, take action person that it's puzzling why she wanted to teach in traditional institutions instead of creating her own programming and presenting it at a venue of her choice. All I could guess at is that while she claims not to want people's approval, she probably does crave it just a little, and all her hard work and higher learning needs to have been worthwhile. 

Naomi, however, is impressive. Almost devastatingly so. Her tough exterior and approach to people and things can be abrasive to some but I liked how straightforward she is. One of the things she struggles with is an incident from her long ago past, back before she became an adult film star, that continues to affect her and drive her. Naomi does get to confront that somewhat by the end by stating things matter of factly. I thought it was a powerful moment for her and I think for a lot of women who'd want the bravery and opportunity to do the same. Danan has written an amazing female persona who's so complex, who's wiring is in knots from years of cynicism, self-preservation and punching out, and also shows her vulnerability and trust issues. This comes to the fore in one of the first intimate moments between her and Ethan. It's one of the most tender moments and a heart melter.

I loved The Intimacy Experiment in its parts. As a whole it's good. This is a complicated romance with so many factors inside and out affecting Naomi and Ethan's progress. They're an unlikely coupling but good together and for each other. This is a story that would please anyone looking for something a little unconventional, something that ruffles feathers and shakes things up.    

~ Bel

Content Warning: 

leaked nude pictures in high school resulting in harassment and slut-shaming (Naomi's memories); on page harassment in a bar when a random guy recognizes who Naomi is; Ethan's father's death (memory)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Happy Singles Day by Ann Marie Walker

* * 1/2

Single and proud of it! Oh, oops...

As a Certified Professional Organizer, everything in Paige Parker's world is as it should be. Perfect apartment, perfect office, perfect life. And now, the perfect vacation planned to honor Singles Day. After all, what's better than celebrating her pride in being single? Because who needs a man anyway? They have zero taste in quality television, leave the toilet seat up, and sleep with your best friend. No thanks. Her life is fine just the way it is.

As the owner of a now-dormant bed & breakfast, Lucas Croft's life is simple and quiet. It's only him and his five-year-old daughter, which is just the way he likes it. Because who needs a woman anyway? They nag you to clean up your stuff, want the toilet seat put down, and expect the dishes to be done the same day the meal is cooked. No thanks. His life is fine just the way it is.

But when Paige books a room that Lucas' well-intentioned sister listed without his knowledge, their two worlds collide. If they can survive the week together, they just might discover exactly what they've both been missing.

Source: library; Hoopla ebook

Paige books an impromptu vacation at the behest of her assistant who thinks that she desperately needs the break. She arrives at the bed and breakfast and it is not as advertised. Uh oh. 

Lucas is hostile towards Paige and treats her as an intruder even though she's a paying guest and he knew perfectly well that she'd be arriving. Okay yes, his sister Sophie went behind his back to post his B&B's listing but that's hardly Paige's fault. There's no way for her to turn around and hightail it out of there because, of course there'd be some massive storm that would ground all ferries to and from the mainland. We're clued in on the fact that Lucas is a widower who's still grieving his loss and has no heart to open up the B&B that was his wife's dream. But somehow these next few days of forced proximity forces Lucas and Paige to play nice and tolerate each other. One thing leads to another and then things get pretty steamy between them. Their bubble has to end eventually when she has to return to her life and he to his.

I was so prepared to love this story but I had a hard time buying in to her and Lucas as an item; and I generally like this trope. This might be kind of a spoiler but he was so hesitant to get involved with another woman let alone fall in love, then his change in attitude happened overnight because of a dream. The change was instantaneous and his intensity about getting with Paige threw me off.  Not to mention he has a five year-old he's so protective of, so while it's too early to put a label to it, the reality is that Paige is only a passing visitor and his life is on the island raising his daughter. I feel like that was entirely glossed over. Then there's the ending which perplexed me. Once again, without spoiling it, it involves a drastic life change and the grandest of gestures which felt so presumptive and risky. It all felt too much, too sudden because I didn't get a good sense of how much time had lapsed nor did I get the sense that they had been in touch since she left the island after her one-week stay. I think it needed just a little more of what happened in between. Filling in those gaps would show how the relationship developed and help make sense of the ending. At least that's what I wish for.

There are pieces of the story that I did enjoy, like Paige. She's so smart, self-assured and a kindhearted person. I was amused by her friendship with her assistant. I also like Sophie who's spunky. By the way, she owns a bookstore which is in an old fire station so that automatically makes her pretty awesome. Lucas' daughter Maddie was cute, though as with a lot of toddlers written into romances I was skeptical. Having been through 3 kids myself no amount of suspension of disbelief can make me think a child is that well-behaved, LOL. As for Lucas... I just never warmed up to him after his rude behavior at the beginning, and he'd make some offhanded remarks that rubbed me the wrong way.

I've liked what I've previously read from Walker and I did like the idea of Happy Singles Day  but in the end this was a miss for me.

~ Bel

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Harlequin Spring Fling Blog Tour - Day 4 - Cinderella's Night in Venice by Clare Connelly

Day 4 and our final featured book, CINDERELLA'S NIGHT IN VENICE by Clare Connelly. Keep reading for more info and to read the excerpt.

On sale date: April 27, 2021  

Price: Ebook $3.99 USD / MMP $5.25 



Book Description:  

This shy Cinderella will go to the ball…but will she end the night in the billionaire’s arms? Harlequin Presents author Clare Connelly enchants with this passionate and uplifting romance. 
The most infuriating man she’s ever met. 
The only man she’s ever wanted… 
When Ares Lykaios insists that Bea Jones accompany him to a gala, she wants to refuse—if just to put the arrogant Greek in his place. Yet Ares is as gorgeous as he is commanding, and she can hardly say no to her PR firm’s biggest client. 
Bea is shy, awkward…and breathtaking in a ball gown. And one kiss proves her desire matches Ares’s own. So after the opportunity arises to finish what they started in Venice, resisting becomes the ultimate test of his strict self-control! 
From Harlequin Presents: Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds. 
Signed, Sealed…Seduced 

Book 1: Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation by Dani Collins 
Book 2: Cinderella’s Night in Venice by Clare Connelly 


Heartfelt or thrilling, passionate or uplifting—our romances have it all. Visit TryHarlequin.com to sample FREE books from among 12 different series. It’s just a taste of the new books published each month—every story a journey guaranteed to leave you with That Harlequin Feeling. 



Buy Links: 

Harlequin     I     IndieBound     I     Amazon     I     Barnes & Noble     I     Walmart

Apple Books     I     Google Play     I     Kobo 


Author Bio 

Photo source: Goodreads

Clare Connelly grew up in a small country town in Australia. Surrounded by rainforests, and rickety old timber houses, magic was thick in the air, and stories and storytelling were a huge part of her childhood.  

From early on in life, Clare realised her favourite books were romance stories, and read voraciously. Anything from Jane Austen to Georgette Heyer, to Mills & Boon and (more recently) the 50 Shades trilogy, Clare is a romance devotee.  

She first turned her hand to penning a novel at fifteen (if memory serves, it was something about a glamorous fashion model who fell foul of a high-end designer. Sparks flew, clothes flew faster, and love was born.)  


In 2016, Clare Connelly accepted a book deal with Harlequin and now fulfils a life-long dream by writing romance that sets your soul on fire for the brand that the world trusts with its heart. 


Author Links 

Website     I     Goodreads     I     Facebook     I     Twitter     I     Instagram  



Blog Tour Excerpt 


‘Oh, my God.’ Bea stared at the fast-spreading blob of coffee with a look of sheer mortification on her dainty features. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.’  

The man—at least, he looked part-man, yet he was also part-warrior, all broad shoulders, lean muscle and hard-edged face—stared at her with surprise first, and then displeasure. ‘Evidently.’  

‘Please, let me—’ She cast an eye around for some- thing—anything—she could use to mop up the man’s shirt, which now bore the marks of her early evening energy boost. ‘I just made it. It must be hot. Does it hurt?’  

‘I’ll live.’  

She grimaced, looking around the office, but it was past six and almost everyone had left. ‘Let me just grab—’ She plucked a tissue from a box on a nearby desk, lifting it to his shirt and wiping furiously, all the colour draining from her face when she realised she was only making it worse. Little white caterpillars of tissue detritus were sticking to the coffee stain, damaging the obviously expensive shirt even more.  

His fingers curled around her wrist, arresting her progress, and warmth enveloped her out of nowhere, shocking her into looking up into his face properly for the first time. At five foot ten she generally found she was almost at eye level with most men but not this guy. He stood a good few inches above her, at least six foot two, she guessed.  

There was something familiar about him, though she was sure they’d never met. She’d definitely have remembered him. His face was angular and strong, like his body, a square jaw covered in dark facial hair—not a look that was cultivated or painstakingly trendy so much as a fast-growing five o’clock shadow. His lips were curved and bracketed on either side by a deep groove, like parentheses in his face, his cheekbones were prominent and his brows were thick and dark, framing his grey eyes in a way that turned the already spectacular specimens into works of art.  

Her breath caught in her throat and she pulled at her hand on autopilot, a familiar instinct to deny anything approaching closeness marking her actions, her lips twisting in a silent gesture of rejection and simultaneous apology. ‘Naturally the London Connection will cover the dry-cleaning fees,’ she offered, her cheeks growing hot under his continued inspection.  

He held up a hand in a gesture of silence.  

Bea swallowed, taking a step back. ‘I didn’t see you.’ Quit talking, Captain Obvious, she derided. It was a tendency she’d worked hard to curb—speaking when nervous was a girlhood habit she’d kicked long ago. Or thought she had.  

‘Where is Clare?’  

‘Clare?’ Bea parroted with a frown, flicking a glance at her wristwatch to be sure she had the time right. Was her friend and founder of the London Connection—a woman who was as well-regarded for her business nous as she was for being notoriously disinterested in romance and relationships—dating this guy? She hadn’t mentioned anything, but something had been different with Clare recently. Perhaps this explained it?  

‘Clare Roberts—about this tall, dark brown hair? Given that you work here, I imagine you’ve heard of her?’  

Bea’s eyes narrowed at his tone, which was innately condescending. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell the man that not only had she heard of Clare, but they’d gone through almost every major event in their lives, along with Amy Miller, side by side together. The three amigos, from way back.  

‘We had a meeting and I do not appreciate having my time wasted.’  

‘Oh.’ She grimaced; the oversight was unprofessional and unexpected. ‘She’s not here.’  

‘She must be.’ His nostrils flared as he exhaled a deep breath. ‘Please go and find her.’  

‘Find her?’ Bea felt like a parrot, but her senses were in overdrive.  

‘You know, walk through the office until you dis- cover where exactly she is?’ He spoke slowly, as though Bea was having difficulty comprehending what he was saying, when his English was perfect, albeit tinged with a spicy, exotic accent that was doing funny things to her pulse points.  

Old feelings of inadequacy were stealing through her, making her stomach swirl with a very familiar sense of unease. She tried to banish it, forcing a tight smile to her face. ‘Clare was called away on urgent business,’ Bea explained, a pinprick of worry at her friend’s inexplicable and urgent departure pulling at her. ‘Is there anything I can help you with, Mr...?’ She let her question hover in the air, allowing him time to offer a name.  

His brows knitted together, and every cell in his body exuded impatience. ‘You must be mistaken. This meeting has been scheduled for weeks. I flew in this after- noon for this specific purpose.’  

Bea’s eyes opened wide. If that was true, then they’d bungled something—badly—and that ran contrary to every instinct she possessed. ‘Oh.’  

‘Yes,’ he clipped, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring—there was really no other way to describe his expression—at her across the space. The air between them seemed to grow thick with a tension that made Bea feel as though she was continually cresting over the high point of a roller coaster. She dug the finger- nails of one hand into her palm, forcing her expression to remain neutral with effort.  

‘As I said, something urgent came up, otherwise I know Clare wouldn’t have left you in the lurch.’ She waved a hand in the direction of Clare’s office, the lights off, door closed. ‘If you give me a moment, I can try to get in contact with her, or log into her calendar and see if—’  

He scowled fiercely. ‘This is completely unacceptable.’  

Bea hesitated, unprepared for this man’s obvious frustration. When he was cross, like this, his accent grew thicker, more mysterious and honeyed.  

‘I do not have time to be messed around, nor to accept excuses from some secretary or cleaner or what- ever the hell you are. I’ve worked with Clare a long time, but this is—’  

Bea felt as though she were drowning. She’d only been with the London Connection for a few months but she knew what this company meant to her friends. Not to mention what it meant to her! This PR firm was important to all of them and, whoever this man was, she didn’t want to have a disgruntled client on her hands.  

‘Yes, very disappointing,’ Bea inserted, belatedly remembering that while she was relatively new to the firm she was also the head of the legal department, having been recruited across from her senior partner role in a top tier City firm. She wasn’t accustomed to being spoken to as if she were the dirt on someone’s shoe. Modulating her voice to project an air of calm authority, she met his eyes straight on, her spine jolting at the clarity of their steel-grey pigment. They were like pewter; she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen anything like it before. ‘Unfortunately, standing here firing scorn and derision at me isn’t going to achieve very much, is it?’  

His shock was unmistakable. His eyes widened, flashing with an emotion she couldn’t register, and then his jaw moved as though he was grinding his teeth together.  

‘I am not—’  

She expelled a soft breath as she cut in. ‘Yes, you were, but that’s okay. I understand you’re disappointed. And I am truly sorry that you’ve flown to London from—’  

He said nothing.  

She waved a hand through the air. ‘Wherever, only to find Clare not here.’ She turned, moving towards her friend’s office. ‘You mentioned that you’ve worked with Clare for a long time, so obviously you’re aware how unusual this is. I hope you’re able to overlook this rare mistake.’  

‘I am not generally in the habit of forgiving mis- takes, rare or not.’  

A shiver ran down her spine at the steel in his words. She didn’t doubt for a second that he meant what he said. There was an air of implacability about the man that she’d felt from the minute he’d arrived.  

Bea had, at first, thought his accent was Italian, but as he spoke more, her appraisal changed. She was al- most certain he was from Greece—one of her favourite places in the world. She’d spent a summer there during her degree, and had fallen in love with the sun, the water, the history and, most of all, the anonymity. When she travelled abroad, no one knew Bea as Bea- trice Jones, daughter of Rock Legend Ronnie Jones and Supermodel Alice Jones.   

‘Then I hope you’ll make an exception just this once,’ she implored as she flicked Clare’s screen to life, typing in her friend’s password quickly. ‘Please, have a seat.’  




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