bestworst It’s always a bit of a scramble for me to find a contemporary romance for this prompt, because I don’t read them very often and don’t own many. And I like to choose my challenge books from books I already have, as buying something new rather defeats the object of the exercise! Fortunately, I found Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake among my Kindle books; I know she’s a popular and highly-rated author, so that was it, job done and choice made.

The story is pretty much a classic enemies-to-lovers one, which is a trope I enjoy when it’s done well – and that’s certainly the case here. But even in a relatively small page count (170 pages), the author has done more than simply write a couple that gripes, snipes and then falls into bed with each other; she’s fleshed out both protagonists in such a way that it’s easy to see why these two people who, at first glance, are completely and utterly wrong for each other are actually so perfect together.

Violet Sutcliffe really can’t understand what her best friend Elizabeth sees in Martin St. Clair, the man to whom she’s been engaged for a number of years and is on the verge of marrying. In Violet’s opinion, Martin is old before his time; a stuffy stick-in-the-mud, he’s leeched the life out of Elizabeth, who seems intent on becoming the perfect corporate wife. Violet supposes Martin must make her friend happy on some level, but even after six years, isn’t able to tamp down the strong reactions he evokes in her or curtail her persistent need to provoke him. She tries, for Elizabeth’s sake… but rarely succeeds. Violet is a free spirit, a “wild-child” type who often says and does outrageous things as well as dressing, in Martin’s opinion, like a cheap tart. He’s as antipathetic towards her as she is to him, but plays nice for Elizabeth’s sake, knowing that Violet is like a sister to her.

But with six weeks to go before the wedding, Elizabeth makes a discovery that changes the course of her life. She calls everything off, breaks up with Martin and flies out to Australia in order to find the father she never knew – leaving Violet inwardly cheering at her decision to take charge of her life. But even though Violet has never liked Martin, she can’t help feeling sorry that he was dumped so summarily and maybe feels just a bit guilty for the fact that she’s happy about it; so for reasons she doesn’t really understand, she turns up at his office some weeks later with a peace offering – a bottle of the peach schnapps she’s remembered he particularly likes – wanting to make sure he’s okay.

True to form, they snap and snarl at each other, and Violet storms off (although she leaves the bottle anyway), but it’s only later when he’s back at home that Martin starts to wonder why exactly she brought him that particular drink:

He didn’t usually have a sweet tooth, but when he’d tried schnapps for the first time at a West End bar last year he’d discovered that there was something about the sweetness of the peach and the heat of the alcohol that appealed to his palate.

He lifted the glass to his mouth again, then stilled as it occurred to him that Violet had been there that night, too, lolling against the bar in a purple sparkly dress that had been too short and too tight and too bright.

And when she’d gone looking for a pity gift for him, she’d bought him peach schnapps, out of all the options open to her at the off-license.

Which meant it was either a coincidence… or she’d remembered that night and how much he’d enjoyed the schnapps.

At which point he is suddenly assailed by all sorts of memories of Violet – and realises he’s in trouble. Half drunk on the schnapps, he heads over to her flat and – in a scene little short of a masterclass in how to write sexual tension – demands to know why she bought it for him:

“So? I remembered you liked the peach schnapps. It’s not a big deal.”

“Isn’t it? I remember that you hate escargot. And that you refuse to watch any movie with Kate Beckinsale in it. And that you have every George Michael album ever made.”

She blinked. “Why would you remember all of that?”

“I don’t know. I used to think it was because you annoyed me.” He took a step towards her. “I used to think it was because you were always wearing short skirts and low cut tops and laughing too loud. I used to think it was because your perfume would get in my clothes and stay with me for days afterward, even though I’d barely brushed up against you.”

He took another step toward her and something powerful and undeniable thudded in the pit of her stomach.

“You hate me,” she said staring at him, knowing she should put some distance between them before this became something it shouldn’t.

“Do I?”

One thing leads to another and they end up having hot, explosive sex on the couch. Afterwards, while Martin curses himself for making such a colossal mistake, Violet hides in the bathroom until he leaves, absolutely drowning in guilt for having had sex with her best friend’s ex-fiancé.

The story continues predictably but enjoyably as Violet and Martin try to keep away from each other but fail miserably as the bewildering attraction between them only gets stronger and stronger. The chemistry between them is off the charts and the sex is hot, but there’s more to the book than that. Both Martin and Violet gradually begin to realise what they had believed was dislike was really anything but, and as they spend time together and start getting to know each other properly, what started out as an intense, physical impulse evolves into a real relationship.

Martin turns out not to be Mr. Stuffed-Shirt at all, of course. He’s funny and sexy and decent through and through, and I loved the care and consideration he shows Violet. When he realises that there’s more going on between them than just sex, he isn’t slow to admit it and to want to take things further; and even though he isn’t quite sure how the flamboyant, outgoing Violet is going to fit into his life, he knows he doesn’t want to give her up. He sees past the barriers she erects to protect herself to the hurt, tender person she is underneath, and one of the things I loved about the story is the fact that they’re both willing to compromise to make their relationship work.

In fact, there’s a lot to love about the book, but there is one thing that really bugged me, which is Violet’s inability to tell Elizabeth that she’s in a relationship with Martin. Even when “E” tells her that she’s met someone else (that story is told in the companion book, Hot Island Nights), Violet is still consumed with guilt, and of course, the longer she leaves it, the harder it gets. It’s frustrating to read, but it’s also very much in character; having been kicked out of her family home when she was nineteen, Violet is naturally scared of losing Elizabeth – who is the closest thing she has to a family – as well. And just as importantly, Violet is so caught up in her own deep-seated insecurities – thinking she’s unworthy of friendship, or of love; her fear of fessing up to Elizabeth is a manifestation of her misconceptions about herself as much as it is about guilt.

But in spite of that reservation, Her Best Worst Mistake is a terrific, sexy read that is much more than a simple “opposites-attract-and-have-lots-of-hot-sex” story. Okay, yes, there is plenty of hot sex, but what starts out as a “crazy sex thing” turns into so much more and there’s a strong emotional connection between the central characters. I devoured it in one sitting; it’s short, cute and steamy but doesn’t lack depth or insight, and even if, like me, you don’t read many contemporaries, I’d encourage you to give this one a try. Grade: A-

– Caz Owens


beyondjewelsLately, my tastes have tended toward historicals, gothics, and romantic suspense. So, for contemporary month, I challenged myself to find a contemporary in my Wall o’ Books that was a romance rather than a mystery. At some point, I’d been fascinated by the fact that Carole Mortimer had published several gazillion books with Harlequin, so I had a few of her Presents titles lying around. I opted to read her 2014 release, A Prize Beyond Jewels.

Though book 2 in a trilogy, this one stands alone just fine. The premise of the story involves the D’Angelo brothers – owners of the three Archangel galleries, prestigious art display and auction houses. The brothers apparently take turns running the galleries in London, Paris and New York because…I don’t know….who needs realism and practicality when you’re reading a Harlequin Presents?

At any rate, Raphael D’Angelo, known as the playboy among the three brothers, is in charge of setting up the exhibition of Dimitri Palitov’s famed jewelry collection. At the outset, he is informed that he will be working with Palitov’s daughter Nina, whom he assumes to be middle-aged and frumpy. When Nina turns out to be a gorgeous, smart woman in her 20s, Rafe starts taking a little more interest.

The reclusive Palitov and his prickly daughter make Rafe’s life difficult, but there’s just something about Nina that gets under his skin. The chemistry between these two characters wasn’t what I would call magical, but I could tell that the author has written many a romance before, so there weren’t too many missteps either. Rafe can be a touch arrogant, but nowhere near the stereotypical overbearing Harlequin Presents hero. Given Nina’s upbringing, I could understand some of her reserve and reluctance where Rafe was concerned. After all, her father is domineering, even to the point of insisting that his adult daughter live in his building and only pursue a career working with him.

When Rafe and Nina do get together, I had hope for them. However, there’s a bit too much of the “Now we’re on, now we’re off” stuff going on and that tends to be one of my pet peeves in romance. I can understand needing to work through issues or hitting a rough patch, but this conflict at times fell flat with me because there was so much that that characters could have solved fairly quickly if they would actually talk to each other.

Even with that drawn out conflict toward the end of the book, I did still end up enjoying A Prize Beyond Jewels. However, the Palitovs’ deep dark secret takes so long to be revealed that it felt like a big “So what?” by the time we got to it and while I did like the book while I was in it, it was a somewhat forgettable read. Grade: C+

-Lynn Spencer