TBR Challenge May 2023 – Freebie

When I saw the prompt “Freebie” for TBR Challenge, I have to admit that my first thought was of the big book conferences of my earlier blogging days, where freebies abounded. In the post-COVID landscape, many of these have vanished or changed considerably (and then there’s the history of RWA – but that could be many blog posts in itself.) However, ARCs, ebook freebies and gifts from friends are still very much around, and we had no trouble finding prospects this month. Lynn found a winner in her old conference stash, and Caz has an ebook to share that she originally picked up as a freebie.

The Short and Fascinating Tale of Angelina Whitcombe by Sabrina Darby

While I have a huge TBR, it’s been a little while since I picked up much by way of freebies. For my TBR Challenge read this month, I went down memory lane a bit and pulled a novella that I picked up at RWA about ten years ago. Back before RWA went off the rails, I used to attend to get book news, publishing information, meet favorite authors and just spend time with other book bloggers. Along the way, I discovered a number of new-to-me authors and I always came home with a box full of what I hoped would be hidden treasures. The Short and Fascinating Tale of Angelina Whitcombe definitely falls into that ‘treasure’ category. This novella by Sabrina Darby is a wonderful take on the Beauty and the Beast story.

The basic set-up is a tad unusual. John Martin has come home haunted by the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. He’s become something of a hermit, living in the ruins of an old castle on the family property in the north of England. His mother wants to see him married and settled and decides that she needs to get him interested in women again, so that he might be motivated to find a gently born wife. So, what does she do? She hires him a mistress.

That’s right. Angelina Whitcombe enters the picture as a mistress for hire. Once a successful actress, she has been spurned by her protector and is at somewhat of a loose end. She answers the ad in the newspaper, and finds herself wandering around the desolate castle ruin, ostensibly there to sketch the landscape. She manages to engineer a meeting with John, but the chemistry that builds between them is all too real.

The sexy love story that ensues is a strikingly beautiful one. John and Angelina are both wounded souls, even if the hermit-like John is perhaps the more obvious ‘Beast’ character in this scenario. Despite the somewhat cynical setup of the story, there is something incredibly tender about the writing in this novella. John and Angelina start to connect on a deeply emotional level and they become each other’s safest, most trusted person. Ms. Darby’s writing gives this story a very romantic feel.

Needless to say, all of this makes some of the tension in the story feel even sharper. After all, Angelina knows she has been hired for a job. And how can she tell John that without losing his trust? Then there is the difference in their stations. Angelina is the child of actors, who has been an actress and courtesan herself. The difference in stations between her and someone of the landed gentry, such as John, would appear almost impossible to bridge. Perhaps the ending is a touch improbable, but the book is written in such a way that one wants to believe in it anyway because these are characters whom readers will want to see riding off into the sunset for their much-deserved happy ending.

If you’re in the mood for a romantic story, this novella delivers. The Short and Fascinating Tale of Angelina Whitcombe is indeed a fairly short novella, and provides a lovely afternoon or two of reading.

Rating:    A-              Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon

Long Winter by Rachel Ember

I’ve read and reviewed books three, four and five in Rachel Ember’s Wild Ones series, but haven’t read the first two; I picked up book one, Long Winter, a while back, and have been waiting for the chance to dive in, a chance this month’s TBR Challenge prompt – “freebie” – provided.

Long Winter is a character-driven,friends-to-lovers romance full of longing and understated emotion set on the Nebraska ranch owned by the Chase family. Thanks to a really odd clause in their grandfather’s will, a Chase has to live at the ranch for a total of twenty-one years or forfeit it to another relative, and the task of ‘staying’ fell to the eldest Chase brother, Robbie, who, after the death of his beloved father when he was eighteen, became parent as well as brother to his younger siblings. From then on, he put Danny and Johnny first, essentially forfeiting a life of his own while making sure they had everything they’d need to be able to strike out on their own when the time came. And now, they’ve done just that and Robbie is alone. Not that he resents them or regrets his decisions, but he can’t deny that life is pretty lonely.

Lance Taylor’s life was changed forever when, at the age of nine, Danny Chase sat next to him on the school bus one day and they became best friends. Lance grew up on the neighbouring property, but was never allowed to have or make friends; his alcoholic father spent all his money on drink and Lance never had enough to eat or decent clothes to wear. Becoming friends with Danny meant Lance was kind of ‘adopted’ by all three Chase brothers – even Robbie, although he was ten years older. Over the years, Lance developed quite the crush on the gentle, softly-spoken Robbie, even though he knew nothing could ever come of it. When he was sixteen, after a life of neglect and misery, and years of his unrequited crush on Robbie, Lance decided he needed to leave.

Six years later, Lance comes back into the Chase’s lives in a most unexpected way when, in desperation, he calls Danny to ask him to come to bail him out of jail. He’s been arrested for stealing a car (a car that had been his until his former boyfriend changed the title and then maliciously reported it stolen) and Danny is the only person he can turn to for help. But Danny isn’t in town and doesn’t get Lance’s message until the next morning, when he calls Robbie to ask him to go bail Lance out.

To say Robbie is surprised at the request is an understatement, but he’s ready and willing to help, no questions asked; Lance had been – is – like one of the family after all. But there’s little trace of the sweet, shy boy who used to look at Robbie with his heart in his eyes in the beautiful, elegant and closed-off young man Robbie collects from the local jail, and Robbie doesn’t quite know how to relate to him. Lance is clearly giving off ‘don’t ask’ vibes so Robbie falls back into their established pattern: Lance would never let Robbie take care of him the way he wanted to, so Robbie would just make sure he had something to eat and somewhere to sleep when he wanted them – and he can do the same now.

When the weather interferes with Lance’s plan to find somewhere else to hole up before his court appearance the following week, he ends up staying with Robbie in the converted hayloft at the ranch that has served as Robbie’s living space since the main house was destroyed in a fire. Robbie, who has long been aware of his bisexuality but has never acted on it, can’t deny that he’s very attracted to grown-up Lance, and as Lance realises that his long-ago crush hasn’t gone away, he can’t help but notice the signs of interest Robbie is inadvertantly sending his way. The enforced proximity quickly leads to sexually-charged longing and kindling desire, and even though Robbie knows Lance isn’t going to be sticking around – he has another life (as a photographer and model) in Chicago – maybe, just for these few days, he can take something he wants for himself and take care of Lance.

Lance and Robbie are well-developed, complex characters who are easy to like, and their chemistry crackles nicely. Lance’s childhood with an emotionally distant and neglectful father has (not surprisingly) led to his having issues around self-worth and trust, and Robbie, who had to take responsibility for his younger brothers and the ranch at a young age, has spent most of his adult life looking after everyone but himself. Seeing Robbie finally reaching out for something he wants for himself and Lance finally finding his place with someone who really cares about him is really lovely. Even though the story takes place over about a week, there’s a feel of a slow-burn to their romance, and I liked the way their history is drip-fed throughout the novel in flashbacks that give us a glimpse into Lance’s lonely, neglected childhood and how his friendships with the Chase brothers gave him the kind of safety he’d never had before.

The writing is strong and atmospheric; the isolation of ranch life in winter is superbly conveyed – the author creates a strong sense of the routine necessary to run such a place – and Robbie’s feelings of deep loneliness really leap off the page. I enjoyed the story a lot, although I had to ding it a bit because Lance veers perilously close to TSTL territory with a rather nonsensical decision he makes near the end. I’m also a bit ambivalent about the fact that while the book ends on an HFN, it’s really only half Robbie and Lance’s story, which continues (and reaches the HEA) in book two, Signs of Spring. Despite that, however, Long Winter deserves a solid recommendation, and if you’re in the mood for a snowed-in, slow-burn romance featuring lonely cowboys and lots of pining, this might be just the book for you.

Rating: B                Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon


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