Two years ago, Tulane Baldwine left Easterly, his wealthy family's estate and hasn't looked back since. It was never a pleasant place while he was growing up, and it only became more intolerable as an adult. The billionaire playboy finally found the one woman who made everything in his world seem right, but she had the unfortunate luck of being Easterly's head horticulturist. Marrying the hired help was something that just wasn't done in Lane's social circles, but he would have risked everything for Lizzie if not for an ex-girlfriend resurfacing, claiming to be pregnant with his child. Soon he found himself forced into a marriage he didn't want with a conniving socialite, while his relationship with Lizzie was destroyed. Needing to get away, he went to New York, where he's been living with a friend for the past two years and avoiding both his wife and his dysfunctional family. But when the family's cook, who was also the woman he considered to be his true mother, falls ill, he finds himself drawn back into a world to which he never thought he'd return, a world of secrets, lies, and possibly even murder.
Lizzie King enjoys her job at Easterly, so when things went south for her and Lane, she stayed on, but only because he was far away where she wouldn't be tempted by him. Now he's back in the mansion, where she keeps seeing him at every turn. Lane ripped her heart out two years ago, and even though he comes back apologizing and wanting to start over, she isn't sure she can let him into her heart again. As shocking truths and perplexing mysteries begin to surface, Lizzie can't help but feel for Lane over what his family's lies have done and are still doing to him. She tries to keep her distance, but he draws her like a fly to honey. Soon she finds her heart tangled up in a rekindled love affair, but when history starts to repeat itself, can she trust that Lane is innocent of the allegations against him or will their love once again be destroyed?
The uber-talented J. R. Ward has done it again. With The Bourbon Kings, the inaugural book in her new series of the same name, she has once more created a world that I'm eager to inhabit. This is the beginning of a family saga that isn't unlike the old '80s nighttime soaps such as Dallas and Falcon Crest that I consumed like candy, except this one is set in the world of high class liquor. We're introduced to the Baldwine family who take the word dysfunctional to a whole new level, and yet somehow I find myself rooting for all of them - or at least the kids anyway - to find their happy endings. And speaking of happy endings, Ms. Ward really freaked me out a little as I neared the end of this book. I actually started to worry, when about fifty pages from the end, she threw in a curveball for our hero and heroine. After the not so happy ending of her latest BDB book and accidentally picking up whispers of fans not liking this one as much as some of her others, I thought maybe she'd gone the unconventional route again, but I'm thrilled to report that everything righted itself before the final page. There is a happy ending, but still lots of room for more storytelling, not only for our "main" hero and heroine, but for all the other characters as well. I'm thoroughly intrigued by all of them and the overall story, so I'll be eagerly awaiting the release of the next book, which I'm sure won't happen until around this same time next year.
Lane is the next to the youngest of the Baldwine siblings and the youngest of the three boys. For most of his adult life, he'd been playing the consummate billionaire playboy, until he fell for Lizzie, the head horticulturist at his family's sprawling estate. They were a match made in heaven, but marrying the hired help is just not something that's done in his social circles. Through a series of mistakes and bad luck, Lane ended up married to a conniving socialite, destroying his relationship with Lizzie. After that debacle, he took himself off to New York, where he's been sleeping on his best friend's couch for the last two years. He never wanted to come home, but circumstances bring him back at a time when his family needs him the most. Lane finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to make sense of what's going on in his crazy family and needing to step up to the plate and lead during a time of utter turmoil. At this point, he's probably the closest thing to a normal, sane Baldwine there is, and that's not saying much since he's a pretty tortured individual himself. Of course, once he's back at home, he almost immediately reconnects with Lizzie and knows he wants her back in his life more than anything he's ever wanted before. I think it's super sweet that Lane never stopped loving Lizzie and that he remained faithful to her despite being separated from her for two years and marrying someone else. With the help of Lizzie and Miss Aurora, the family cook whom he considers to be his mother, he's slowly learning to become the strong man his family needs right now, even though the frightened little boy he once was is still inside him and would prefer to run away.
While this book has something of a Cinderella story vibe to it, I hesitate to actually call it that, mainly because Lizzie is no princess in need of saving. She's a stubborn, independent woman who has worked hard for everything she has. She's proud of the life she's carved out for herself and the little farm she bought that's all hers and that fulfilled a lifelong dream. Lizzie continued working for the Baldwines even after her relationship with Lane broke up. He was gone and she saw no reason to quit since he wouldn't be around to tempt her anymore. While she hates the sense of entitlement most of the Baldwines project, she finds her work there fulfilling and she has some good friends among the other staff members. When Lane returns unexpectedly, Lizzie is thrown for a loop. Seeing him again stirs up all those feelings for him that she thought she'd put to rest. Knowing she can't go through the heartbreak of losing him again, she tries to keep their relationship friends only, but he's like an addiction she can't resist. Soon the passion is flaring up between them again, but after everything that happened, she still has a hard time trusting him, which is nearly her undoing.
I really enjoyed Lane and Lizzie's romance. Nothing gets my heart going more so than a reunion romance. The longing between Lane and Lizzie when they come back together is very palpable. You can tell that Lane has never stopped loving her despite all that's happened. It's equally apparent that Lizzie still cares for him and wants to let him back in, but simply doesn't want to risk another broken heart. I think Lizzie is really good for Lane. She helps to ground him in a reality that his wealth and privilege doesn't. Even though Lizzie's mistrust nearly tears them apart again, I loved her selfless act of contrition at the end. I think it really showed just how much she truly loved Lane. The only thing that maybe could have been slightly better is if they'd had a few more detailed love scenes. This book just isn't quite as hot as most of J. R. Ward's BDB books, but I have a feeling that perhaps she was either constrained by word count or trying to appeal to a broader audience since this is a different kind of story.
Much like with her BDB books, the author juggles many other character perspectives. We get to meet Lane's oldest brother, Edward, who used to be the golden boy in business, sports, and basically everything he laid his hand to. He was also his father's whipping boy, and after being kidnapped during a trip to South America and tortured, he's merely a shell of his former self. Broken in both body and spirit, he's been hiding himself away from the world. The only woman he's ever loved is Sutton, the daughter of their family's chief rival in the bourbon business. Sutton is a beautiful, savvy businesswoman in her own right, and far more kind than most of the people who run in their circles. She's also loved Edward from afar most of her life. Things heat up for them in this book, but they end up hurting each other. I hope that these two find some peace and happiness together in a future book.
Then there's Gin, the youngest of the Baldwine siblings. She's something of a spoiled princess, who can't bear the thought of doing without. She's in a position where she'd rather marry an abusive man she doesn't love rather than give up her lifestyle, because trying to make her way in the world on her own scares her more. She also has a teenage daughter born out of wedlock when she herself was only a teenager, but she isn't particularly involved in the girl's life. Gin is one of those characters it would be easy to dislike, but I actually felt rather sorry for her. She's basically a product of her upbringing and suffered from her father's actions almost as much as her brothers. The only man she's ever loved is Samuel T., Lane's friend and attorney. For his part, Samuel T. loves her just as much, but he doesn't really trust her. These two have an incredibly dysfunctional romance in which they sleep with each other from time to time, but won't allow themselves to actually admit or embrace their love. Instead, they've spent most of their adult lives childishly trying to hurt and one-up the other with various affairs. Despite how bad they seem for each other, I'd still like to see them get together once and for all. If they could have an epiphany, stop the game playing, and begin to trust and forgive one another, I think they could turn things around to actually be good for each other.
Other characters whose influence is sure to be felt in the coming books include William Baldwine, the family patriarch, who is a horrible person. I absolutely hated him for all the terrible things he's done to nearly everyone around him, not the least of whom are his kids. I doubt we've even come close to finding out the full extent of his evil deeds. Lane's soon-to-be ex-wife, Chantal, is about as conniving as they come. She's nearly as evil as William, but while I harbor absolutely no sympathy for her, I think she may have been a victim of his villainy as well. Then there's Miss Aurora, who is the complete opposite. She's an angel on earth, nothing but goodness and light in the dark world of the Baldwines. She's a God-fearing woman who's worked for the family for many years and who basically raised all the kids like they were her own. She showed them there was a different path they could take besides the one their evil father was walking down. The middle Baldwine brother, Max, is seen in some of Lane's flashbacks to childhood, but at present, he's missing in action. Mack, the master distiller and Lane's childhood friend, has a strong reverence for the bourbon-making process. He really knows his business and is among the first to start shedding some light on William's misdeeds. Lane's best friend, Jeff, is a banker who comes to Easterly at his request to help make sense of the Bradford Bourbon account books. Last but certainly not least is Shelby, the daughter of the man who put Edward back on track after his kidnapping ordeal. Her father died, so she's come to Edward looking for a job. He hires her, and she ends up picking up where her father left off, trying to save Edward from his own self-destructive behavior. I'm not sure what her future role might be, because she's starting to get pretty close to Edward. She a sweet girl and I really like her, just not as a romantic interest for him.
Overall, The Bourbon Kings was a great start to this new series. There was enough romance to keep me satisfied, while wanting to know what new treachery of the elder Baldwine would be uncovered next. There's lots of mystery and intrigue as well, surrounding missing money and dead bodies that isn't resolved in this book, so I have plenty to look forward to in future books of the series with regards to that, as well as my hopes for future romantic parings. I'm not sure why I've seen indicators that this book isn't as good as some of Ms. Ward's others. I always try to avoid reviews before reading a book like this, but now that I'm finished, I can read them and finally find out. All I know is that it certainly has me hooked. For readers who enjoys soap-opera-style family sagas, I can't imagine this book not hitting a home run.
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