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After Dark With the Duke

“Miss Wylde in the sitting room feels like . . . when you open up a window on a spring day, and in comes a breeze and birds tra-la-la’ing their heads off. And the duke . . . I suppose he’s like the first frost, ain’t he? And the first frost ain’t a bad thing. It’s just a very different thing. So I don’t know what kind of weather we have in the sitting room at night.”

Five Hallelujah Stars. I have now read it 8 times cover to cover.

He’s an icon and a hero. He’s revered and feted and admired. He has the gratitude of the entire British Empire.

But he’s also a man. No one seems to remember that. He wants human connection and sincerity and to be seen for his heart – not just his duty and his accomplishments.

She has clawed her way to a place in the world with drive and ambition, she is self-made. But her world has just crumbled beneath her and she is now the object of society’s derision and gossip. Her career is at an end.

What happens when the iron control that dominates every aspect of your life is finally breached? What happens when all of the emotions you have buried beneath a mask of implacability finally clamor to the surface? What happens when all of the hopes you surrendered finally stir once more? James and Mariana are about to find out.

He is as immovable and impacable as the sun- all of his admiring minions bask in his orbit like flies. He bears the standard against which all other men are measured. He has built his life as a leader of men, and, if his countrymen are to be believed, his fortitude, cunning and honor singlehandedly won the war. He was bestowed land, wealth and a ducal title for his bravery.

She is a woman trying to survive in a world built on innuendo and gossip. She has ascended through the ranks of the entertainment world by virtue of her voice and her beauty. But they are not enough to save her from the malicious nature of the aristocracy. She has become the scapegoat for their ridiculous foibles and insecurities, and lands at the Palace of Rogues with nothing to show for her glittering success.

But the Grand Palace on the Thames works its own miracles. It burrowes beneath the skin of its residents. It makes them aware of their vulnerabilities and opens their eyes to truths long denied.

James is the one man who seems impervious to her. He treats her as if she is beneath his notice, something to be scraped from the bottom of his shoe and then ignored. But Mariana craves his acknowledgment. A sly parlor game sparks emnity between them, and he deliberately wounds her feelings – using her naïve bravery against her. His attack is beneath him- and unforgivable in the eyes of his hostesses. They demand he make amends.

Mariana has always wanted to learn the meaning behind the arias she has memorized. When the glacial duke offers to teach her Italian as an apology for his abominable behavior, she accepts. The daily lessons become a very different sort of battle.

He battles the urge to absorb the impact of her beauty every time she crosses his threshold. She battles the urge to steal glances at his rugged profile while he is focused on his correspondence. They tiptoe over coals with one another. Coals that are precariously suspended above a shimmering, simmering, treacherous pool of molten lava. Lava that will forever alter their essence and purpose if they dare to take the plunge.

When they finally kiss it renders their foundations into nothing but dust and rubble. When they finally begin to see each other clearly – beyond masks and cloaks and the judgment and opinions of others – there is no turning back.

This is a love story about second chances and conquering heartbreak. It is a love story about two people so contained in their aloneness, they cannot fail to recognize the stark heart of isolation in each other. It is a story about self-acceptance, self-forgiveness and finally laying down one’s guard enough to realize that contentment is not enough. It is ultimately about the realization that we are all entitled to, and deserving of, happiness.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“Then again, he was still a man. Wasn’t he? Even if he was orders of magnitude more potent in real life than other men? She had not yet met one she couldn’t ultimately decipher. They’d all thus far regrettably proved the same beneath the skin, even if this one’s skin was made of battered steel plate, granite, and meanness.”

“He liked having people about, even if he didn’t necessarily want to talk to them. Strangers were often too deferential or too fawning or too mutely rapt. His own tendency to abbreviation—some might call it abruptness—born of being accustomed to barking orders, and a sense that time and life were so precious one ought not spend them listening to nattering—didn’t help.”

“Knights, queen, king, bishops . . . why are no pieces named for dukes?” “It does seem an oversight,” Mariana mused. “I think because dukes would ruin the fun for all the other pieces. You see, dukes could only go in very straight, narrow lines, so they would disapprove greatly of the bishop for having the nerve to do anything so original as move diagonally.” Dot laughed. “What else?” “And then . . . the duke would be able to tell all the pieces on the board what to do, because only the duke would know, of course. And no one would ever win a game. Let alone enjoy one.”

“Miss Wylde in the sitting room feels like . . . when you open up a window on a spring day, and in comes a breeze and birds tra-la-la’ing their heads off. And the duke . . . I suppose he’s like the first frost, ain’t he? And the first frost ain’t a bad thing. It’s just a very different thing. So I don’t know what kind of weather we have in the sitting room at night.”

“Very well. We have established I am a castle and you are in a fortress surrounded by free-roaming sheep. We have a sense of each other now, I believe.”

“I should think life is operatic enough without introducing an additional element of absurd drama, let alone a drama one pays to see. I keep a box at the opera but I do not use it. My son does.” “Fair point, your Grace. It’s just that one person’s absurd drama, as you put it, might be another person’s matter of life or death. And not everyone prefers their waking lives to their dreams.”

“She wanted another one of those smiles the way she’d wanted another sip of champagne that fateful night. And what did that say about her? Both were potent. Neither was wise.”

“Every one of those smiles were like a swift peek through a crack into the earth at something molten.”

“Because this space began to fill with an awareness that felt anything but safe. She supposed that was all her own doing. He sank into her imagination the way the sun from the window warmed her skin. She memorized the interesting cragginess of his face. She estimated that his shoulders were about twice the width of her own. And when she thought about it, the entirety of her skin seemed to hum with restlessness, imagining how it might feel . . . be to covered with the entirety of him.”

“How difficult would it be to find and keep one’s bearings in life when the road wasn’t at all defined? When life came at you as though you were a moving target? When one was falling, the reflex was to flail out for any steadying handhold, he supposed.”

“If it helps at all . . . given that I’ve been so helpful thus far . . . life is cheap and fragile, but ultimately it’s all we’ve got, isn’t it, when we have nothing else? And that makes it such an outrageously precious thing that we’ll do anything to preserve it. It’s quite the paradox. It’s a wonder we’re entrusted with it at all, given how easy it is to lose. And fate can make ridiculous rag dolls of us at any time, even the wisest of us. Even kings and dukes. But when you realize no one is exempt from the caprices of fate, well, that’s the greatest gift of all, I think. A good humbling early on is marvelous for building character.”

“Losing men never became rote, for me, Miss Wylde. Every one of them, I think, is scored somewhere on my soul. Assuming I still possess one.” He tipped the corner of his mouth. It was yet another thing he’d never said aloud to anyone. Her face suffused with that ache again, which she quickly disguised. “Just as some women are made to hold an audience captive with their voices, some men are built to withstand war. The more you endure, the more you can endure. Until one can easily bear weights—troubles, responsibilities, grievances, deaths, triumphs—that look to someone on the outside inconceivable. It happens over time. I was the one able to do it.” He paused. And said, quietly, “So I did it.” He had not ended that sentence with, until all you’re doing is enduring.”

“He had never before felt so full of things that he could not form into words. And he supposed that was the point of operas and sex, so that you could feel and communicate things you could never say.”

“If they could only see the way Mariana looked at him at night. That welcoming, fiercely joyous, tender, almost too-open generosity. Take all you need, she seemed to say. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t known what he’d needed. Or that he’d needed so much.”

“There was a part of him that battled the pleasure, and she understood. To be so wholly owned by it, to abandon yourself to the mercy of desire, to another person’s mercy—it wasn’t in his nature to surrender. But the deep and molten seam of passion was in his nature. And the primal hunger was. And the gift he had for giving pleasure was. He understood pleasure the way he understood war.”

“He felt ferociously protective of this small, lush, velvety, feral, gentle, generous person. How dangerous, in some ways, it felt to just hold her.”

“As he lay there in that empty room, he had a much better understanding of loneliness, because with her he had, for perhaps the first time ever, been so blessedly, blissfully not alone.”

“Though, like a feature of a landscape, say, a mountain, she could always feel his presence even when he was nowhere within her line of vision. She had a terrible suspicion that he would be a feature of her landscape for the rest of her life.”

“The truth lay in the contrasts. If what approached at the thought of losing her was desolation, then whatever he felt for her was precisely the opposite of that. He had known more than one defeat in battle, but defeat was just a tool he’d used to learn to become victorious. He would never be accused of being an optimist, but he was indomitable. He’d experienced grievous losses and blows and struggled to his feet again. It was what a warrior did. But nothing in his experience was of use to him here. Desolation was not an enemy army. It was more like a looming shadow, or a creeping mist. He couldn’t grasp hold of it with logic. He couldn’t conquer it with strategy. His power and influence were as nothing in the face of its inexorable approach.”

“Some types of loneliness had only one cure. He was hers. She was his.”

“Funny isn’t it?” She sniffed. “You’re a bloody hero and you’re used to ordering legions what to do. And your reward for that is that you’re at the mercy of legions now. Brave, brave, stupid man who can’t make himself happy. And can’t you see that? Can’t you see you’re a man?”

“He wrapped his arms around her, because he didn’t know what else to do. Holding her was the only comfort he’d truly known. Possibly the only peace he’d truly known. Because peace was being known.”

SO……. if you need a book right now that will remind you why none of us are an island, why we all need the acceptance and welcome that comes when you feel comfortable laying your burdens on the shoulders of someone else, this book is for you. If you need a book right now about the bravery it takes to scale the walls of what looks like an impenetrable fortress when your standing on the periphery, but is actually a carefully constructed disguise to shelter a vulnerable heart, this book is for you.

And last but not least. If you need a book with a stern brunch daddy hero who is implacable, impermeable, irresistible and impossible, THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher, the author and Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this extraordinary, unforgettable book in exchange for an honest review.

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Lizzie and Dante

Yes it broke my heart. And yes, it put all of the Humpty Dumpty eggshell fragile pieces back together again. 

Lizzie isn’t living on borrowed time. She is living on finite time. She knows her days are numbered and few, and doesn’t want to cause agony for those who love her. So, like a bird, she rests lightly. She refuses to build nests or rest in the arms of others. 

Dante is a single father enchanted by her sassy comebacks, her sparkling gaze and her open heart. Etta is his precocious, piquant, priceless daughter. A twelve year old girl desperately seeking her place in the world, who longs for a mother’s care and love.

Lizzie and Dante’s story is about making your own family. The cast of complex, conscientious friends Lizzie is surrounded by will remind you to cherish your people, and fight for them as they would fight for you. 

Lizzie and Dante’s story is about making the most of every single golden, breathless moment we are given. It is about gratitude for the fleeting beauty we find, and a celebration of the love we give and receive. 

Lizzie makes peace with the finite nature of the sands in her hourglass. She makes peace with the boundless love and acceptance she is offered. She makes peace with moments that become blessings, not stolen and plagued by guilt and regret. She embraces her fearlessness, and finally alights on her nest.

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Kissing Under the Mistletoe

I loved this collection of Christmas romances! The stories all stand alone, and are not interconnected.

In Enoch’s Great Scot, a woman content with a life she considers full of purpose, discovers unexpected love. At the age of thirty three, Jane has given up on finding happiness and accepts a position as the companion of Lady Aldriss.
Brennan Andrews is the brawny Scottish architect hired by the Aldriss family. He is a man disfigured by a terrible accident, who has known great loss and sorrow. He has given up on finding his own love story. Library sketches, and long walks and deep conversations draw them together.

In Grey’s Christmas at Dewberry Hollow, a musket accident brings together and an arrogant earl and an independent innkeeper’s daughter. Isabelle only wants her family inn to succeed- but bare cupboards and short staff can’t be rectified with underpaying customers. John wants to help his grandfather find reminders of happier times. Both hexand Isabel make assumptions that erupt into fiery banter. They are opposites drawn to each other despite their emnity.

In Bennett’s Mistletoe Beau, Eva only wants to recover her father’s pocketwatch from the libertine earl who now possesses it. He agrees to relinquish the pocketwatch in exchange for a kiss. The kiss becomes an agreement to pose as the current object of the earl’s affections. But the feigned attraction develops into much more as they exchange more kisses and outlandish names.

This is the perfect escape for the holiday season.

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Just Haven’t Met You Yet

First impressions are deceiving!!!

I loved this sweet romance about the deception of first impressions!

When Laura is sent to the Channel Islands to explore the perfect Meet Cute storyline, she has her own motives. She’s pursuing the origin of her parents’ love story.

A luggage mishap convinces her that her own Fated Mates lovestory is in the making. She persuades Ted to ferry her around the island in his taxi, to show her all of the magical places and help her craft her article.

Along the way, Lauren finds out that history can’t always be viewed through rose-colored glasses, love sneaks up on you and sabotages everything you thought was true, and first impressions are almost always not to be trusted.

This is the perfect read for fans of contemporary romances by Kate Clayborn, Beth O’Leary, and Mhairi McFarlane.

Ink (7th and Main #1)

Opposites attract, workplace, slow burn, steamy romance.

Ox and Emmie should be polar opposites. She’s seen the screaming matches and melodrama between he and the banshee he’s dating. But he really is eye candy, and she’d love a reveal of his tatted physique. Her romance reads have given her a vivid imagination, and the landscape of his skin, and all of those muscles, are very intriguing.

When Ox’s banshee and he part ways, and she throws all of his worldly goods into the street, Emmie kindly lends him boxes and then provides a place to store them. And then she has an epiphany about the perfect hook to drive customers to her bookstore. She’s inherited the family business from her grandmother, and it’s in serious need of a rebranding and a makeover.

Her brick and mortar bookstore will share floorspace with a resident sexy tattoo artist.

They become business partners. And then they make a pact. No dating each other so they can make sure the business is a success.

I loved this steamy, slow burn, opposites attract, workplace romance.

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The Virgin Who Bewitched Lord Lymington

A stern brunch daddy and an unconventional, blue collar heroine find unexpected love.

He is intimidating because he is gorgeous and unaware of it, stoic and unyielding because he despises weakness and is determined to rectify past wrongs, unapproachable and irresistible.

She is a woman in hiding. She is adept at masquerading as something she is not to ferret out the answers she needs. She is resolute in her vow to protect other vulnerable women from her fate.

From the moment he eavesdrops on her meeting, he is caught in her web. From the moment he glowers at her, she is ensnared.

They must join forces to solve a string of disappearances and murders, and every time they meet more secrets are uncovered between them.

I could not put down this wonderful romance with its unconventional main characters and unique plot. Highly recommended if your historical romance TBR needs a stern brunch daddy and a resourceful, blue collar heroine.

A huge thanks to Kensington and Netgalley for the opportunity to read an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Sisters of the Great War

A captivating glimpse into the Suffrage movement and the horrors of WWI.

Ruth and Elise have struggled t meet the demands of their father. His expectations of womanhood, and a woman’s role in the world, are those of a nurturing homebody with no aspirations outside the domestic sphere.

Edwardian society is unforgiving and it is impossible weather even the tiniest scandal. When Ruth is inadvertently arrested in the middle of a suffrage protest her father is incensed and she is dismissed from nursing school. Her arrest becomes a window to evaluate what she truly wants from life, and to forge her own path. Her younger sister Elise is trapped and unhappy as well, forever tinkering with their father’s automobile, never more content than she is when covered in grease with a wrench in her hand.

Ruth’s meeting with a young doctor, and his assurance that her skills will be useful on the battlefield, is serendipitous. She accepts his invitation. The bloody, tragic fields of WWI will mold both sisters into strong women unafraid to shape their own destinies.

Ruth finally has the opportunity to engage in an operating room as more than a nurse, and Elise finds love and purpose as a mechanic for the trucks that ferry supplies and soldiers to and from the front.

Pick up this lovely book if you enjoyed Band of Sisters or Masterpiece Theatre’s Crimson Fields, are intrigued by the origin of the suffrage movement in Canada, or want an intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of WWI.

A heartfelt thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the opportunity to read an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

The Matzah Ball

A sweet, swoonworthy enemies to lovers holiday romance!

I loved this sweet holiday romance!

Rachel Greenberg is a successful author of Christmas themed romance. She stashes all of her Christmas obsessions in her study, which is a glittering noel explosion, because she’s Jewish. To admit her fascination to her family or community would be utter sacrilege.

But Rachel’s publisher wants her to capitalize on the heritage she’s been ignoring, and embrace her own voice. They want her to write a Jewish themed holiday romance. She’s at a loss until she finds out her childhood crush turned foe is at the helm of planning a huge holiday event for Jewish singles- The Matzah Ball. She is determined to infiltrate the planning committee and use her experience as inspiration.

I’m a sucker for childhood nemesis turned irresistible love interest, and The Matzah Ball delivered!

The banter between Rachel and Jacob was fantastic, and watching him bend over backwards to show her how he truly feels was both gratifying and realistic. He groveled with amazing panache!

The cast of secondary characters and the depiction of the close-knit community was wonderful, and I loved watching Rachel fully embrace her heritage and stop hiding her chronic illness.

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A Reckless Match

5 Hallelujah Stars

I absolutely devoured the first book in Kate Bateman’s new Ruthless Rivals series.

This enemies to lovers story had me swooning from the very first page. I am a goner for childhood pranks that disguise the fact that the incorrigible boy is yanking on the spitfire girl’s pigtails because he wants her attention. Gryffud and Madeleine were always raising the stakes as one another’s childhood nemesis. Their families have cherished a centuries long game of intrigue – determined to thwart and bedevil one another at every turn. Madeleine and Gryffud were natural beneficiaries of this enmity – and plagued each other with humiliation and inconvenience.

Now they are adults. Gryffud is returning home as the new earl – and he has a date with destiny that requires a meeting with the Montgomery family. If he fails to show up, Maddie and her family can restore their fortunes. There are no horsemen approaching and Maggie’s hopes are expanding. When Gryffud’s mount thunders towards her, she is crestfallen that he has once again become the instrument of her downfall.

Madeline needs to restore her family’s fortunes- and she can’t afford to be distracted by Gryffud. He’s a scoundrel and a wretch determined to thwart her at every opportunity. And he will never admit that she was the one vision that kept him sane while he was fighting in a bitter war. He will never admit that sparring with her makes him feel more alive than anything else.

Smugglers, cave-ins, rare books and circumstances beyond their control finally ignite a bonfire that has been simmering beneath the surface for ten years.

Dive into this lush historical romance! It will cure your reading slump and give you something to snuggle with during the chilly autumn nights.

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I’m Only Wicked With You

5 Hallelujah Stars

A man who has lost everything and a woman who wants to be valued for herself, not her beauty or her wealth or her social cachet, are irrevocably drawn to one another.

In the third book of Julie Anne Long’s Palace of Rogues series, a blunt, brave, self-made man unlocks the heart of an ice princess. Hugh Cassidy makes the best of his life. He has endured his share of the bitter and longs to savor the sweet. But first, everything must go according to plan. He is building an empire, and his latest goal is one of the final steps to ensure it becomes a reality. From the moment he finds her wreathed in cheroot smoke, she is a distraction he can ill afford. They come from different worlds, and the future her family envisions for her does not involve a brash American.

Lillias is attracted to his wide shoulders and glorious grin. She pokes and prods at him, determined to burrow beneath his calm surface. She loathes him because he is judgmental and self-righteous. She loathes him because he challenges her toe-to-toe, and always manages to have the last word. The barbed words they hurl at each other are thinly disguised as polite conversation, and they count coups and hoard the satisfaction of the ones that draw blood.

The constant sparring is a form of self-defense. The latent desire that simmers beneath their exchanges threatens to pull them under its spell. Like a match to tinder, each insult deepens the fascination and attraction and undermines the lies they tell themselves. He has a goal with a finite timeline. She and her family will move back to their glittering ballrooms when the repairs on their mansion are completed.

One parlor discussion of Persephone’s plight reveals what they truly want. Rooftop moonlight confessions make them equally vulnerable. Hugh’s soft, simmering kisses that can excavate a soul, and the touch of his calloused hand – these are the haunting moments that shape the evolution from loathing to necessity. Hugh is scarred, and raw and determined to build his life again. Lillias teeters on the edge of grasping what she wants and defying social expectations. Her beauty has confined her to a box she no longer wants to inhabit, and the love that grows between she and Hugh is the catalyst for her self-acknowledgment and self-empowerment.

This enemies to lovers story had me turning pages all night, scrawling seven pages of excerpted quotes, and weeping at its beauty and pathos. The sparkling banter, the glorious character arcs that ensure we see into the chaotic hearts of the hero and heroine, the rich, descriptive, language. The whole story is seeded with humor and perfect portrayals of the resilience and buoyancy of love. It is a reminder that falling is something you are powerless to fight – and the one who is meant to catch you may not be whom you have dreamed of, but they are exactly who you need.

My Favorite Quotes:

“He had looked into the barrel of enemy rifles, the slavering jaws of a furious bear, the lifeless faces of his father and brother. He could build a home from the stripped timbers on up, shoot to kill nearly anything, expertly hold a newborn baby. He figured he’d been tested in more ways than Hercules, and in the end he supposed he was grateful that the war had sorted the entirety of his life into two categories for him: what was worth living for, what was worth dying for.”

“The nerve of him, looming up out of the dark like a cliff, the sort ships founder on in storms. Shoulders blocking the light, the shadows clinging to the valleys created by his cheekbones and jaw sculpting him rather starkly, and when he’d come closer – she perhaps should not have allowed him to get so close, but then, he’d felt like a dare from nearly the moment he’d appeared, —”

“Broke in two’ made heartbreak sound as simple as treading on a twig – snap! She could now speak with some authority that the sensation in the actual moment – two months and two days ago, to be precise- was less a break and more of a swift harpooning – she had full access to her father’s library and read a good deal; she was good at choosing words. And there was nothing simple about it. It wasn’t just one emotion. A whole flapping Pandora’s Box full of them had been released: astonishment, wounded pride, mordant amusement about the wounded pride, mordant amusement about the astonishment, confusion, scalding grief, a flailing loss.”

“And…well he recalled hearing that Sir Galahad had been speechless when he’d first clapped eyes on the grail. It was a bit like that. Words seemed both pointless and impossible. But Galahad had allegedly been pure of heart, and that’s where the comparison ended. Hugh’s thoughts were anything but.”

“His smile was slow, and contained such a combination of genuine amusement, self-deprecation, and appreciation for her that for an instant every part of her felt illuminated, warmed, and too exposed.”

“Hugh sought the right words. “It’s just that…” He pushed his hair back. And then he sighed. “I feel that if one is properly living life…an excess of rumination and metaphor can put you at a remove from all that’s beautiful about it. If one takes advantage of all the senses – breathing, feeling, seeing… touching…tasting…” he tried not to look at Lillias “…then merely being alive is poetry.”

“He felt feral, standing naked – clearly the word of the day – and perspiring at an open window, irritable and restless, acutely aware of every inch of his skin, or, more accurately, the full contours of his being. As though it had been coiled into a cramped place and newly freed, and now was needling him as the blood flowed again. Skin was useful for more than being the thing between his viscera and bullets, for instance. It was capable of knowing glories.”

“She gazed up into his face, and he gazed down into hers as if she were a landscape he was inspecting for hidden enemies. Or perhaps hidden wonders. Lost. His voice lowered conspiratorially. “Would you like your hand back?” The right words to say were bobbing around somewhere in the syrup her brain had become; she couldn’t quite fish them out. The truth was, at the moment, her hand seemed to rightly belong to him. As though it were a trophy he’d won for snatching arrows out of air.

“How he felt (hard as a wall, safe as a house, dangerous as a wild animal), how he smelled (sweat, sawdust, smoke, musk, sex), how he tasted (like sin, if sin was a liqueur)- taken together they should have all comprised an adventure. And then a lesson. And then be rapidly consigned to history.”

“Once I have the target in my sights,” he said, close to her ear, “I think of what I love most in the world. What will happen if I miss? Will they be harmed? Will they go hungry? Will I see them again?” He paused at length. “Because I’ve learned that once you know what truly matters in life, and once you know who and what you truly love, then you know who you are…and your aim will always be true.”

“I thought love was meant to be an easy, peaceful thing, Lillias. But it’s like life itself. It’s maddening. And beautiful. And changeable and funny and passionate. It’s…like a Hudson River Valley sunset. Underneath all that fire and glory the sky is ever constant. It’s like you. For me, it is you.”