The Baldwines are a wealthy, elite family who epitomize Kentucky high society. They own the vast estate of Easterly and their fortune primarily comes from their fine liquor company known far and wide for its excellent bourbon-making. The family patriarch, William Baldwine, died of an apparent suicide, leaving scandal, unanswered questions, and financial ruin in his wake. Now it falls to his youngest son, Tulane, to pick up the pieces and try to keep the company solvent and the family intact. Lane never wanted this responsibility and doesn't feel that he's qualified, but there's no one else willing to take up the mantle and lead the Bradford Bourbon Company through these dark times. So with his beloved Lizzie by his side, supporting him every step of the way, Lane delves into a complicated business world filled with political machinations and cooked books, trying to unravel the financial mess his father left behind and figure out who else in the company might have been privy to his father's dirty dealings.
In the meantime, a grisly discovery on the estate grounds makes it look more and more like William was murdered. Believing that someone close to him might have been responsible, Lane tries to keep this new information out of the press. His oldest brother, Edward has every reason to want their father dead. Everyone knows of the bad blood between the two, but broken in body and spirit, Edward hardly seems capable of such an act. He's been trying to live a quiet life as a horse trainer, while battling his craving for the alcohol that dulls the physical and emotional pain and pining for Sutton Smythe, the only woman he's ever loved but whom he believes he can never have. Then their mysterious middle brother, Maxwell, the black sheep of the family, finally returns home for their father's memorial service, bringing a cloud of suspicion with him. Will a deluge of scandal, bad decisions and unexpected confessions rock the Baldwines to the core or can Lane hold the family together amidst the turmoil even though it feels like his whole world is falling apart?
OMG! J. R. Ward could write the back of a cereal box, and I'd read it and probably love it. But luckily, The Angels' Share is nothing nearly that mundane. This was an incredible story that kept me glued to the pages and that kept getting better and better as it went along. Now, I have to stop here for a second and admit that I was a little bummed in the beginning. The cover blurb rather disingenuously implies that this is Edward's book, and while Edward did certainly steal the show by the end, it was definitely not his book alone. So at first, all the other characters' perspectives were making me impatient to get to the Edward stuff, but once I realized that wasn't what was going on here, I was able to settle in and enjoy the ride. This is an amazing family saga that's full of drama, angst, mystery and yes, some romance, although that isn't really the focus in this book. It's all about the incredibly dysfunctional Baldwine family trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the family patriarch's presumed suicide that soon starts looking like murder instead. It's also about all of the dirty deeds in which he engaged prior to his death that have ripped the family to shreds and nearly destroyed their bourbon-making business that's been the family's legacy for centuries, and how the members of the family must start pulling together to survive the fall-out. If you were a fan of the old nighttime soaps of the 1980s or if you're more hip and modern, but can't get enough of dysfunctional families like The Originals (although in this case the Baldwines, of course, are ordinary humans and not vampires:-)) who have a love/hate relationship with one another, then J. R. Ward's The Bourbon Kings series might just be what the doctor ordered. All I know is that I'm totally hooked by this new world that she's created and can't wait to read more.
As I said, I thought this book was going to be primarily about the oldest son, Edward, but if anything, it was more of a continuation of Lane's story. At the end of The Bourbon Kings, things were in quite the shambles. Lane's father, William, had been found dead, presumed to have committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, and after his death, it was discovered that he'd been siphoning money both from the Bradford Bourbon Company accounts and the family's personal accounts into a mysterious holding company. Now the once proud and wealthy family is pretty much broke. With Edward physically broken, living at the bottom of a bottle and refusing to have anything to do with the BBC, his brother, Max, God knows where, and his sister, Gin, more concerned about where she's getting the money for her next designer dress than about business, it falls to Lane to clean up the mess his father left them. Until he reunited with his true love, Lizzie, in the previous book, Lane had been little more than a playboy poker player crashing on his best friend's sofa. He knows very little about running a business, but he's now faced with doing just that. He has some really tough decisions to make and also finds that, in his desperation, he's willing to do almost anything to save the company and his family from financial and social ruin.
I adored Lane for the way he stepped up to the plate and became a strong leader in the face of adversity. Even though he had little other choice and didn't ask for this position, he really was a powerhouse in more ways than one. He's a great problem-solver who comes up with some creative solutions to get their creditors off their backs and keep the BBC solvent, since that's their main source of income and the only thing that's going to keep them afloat in the long-run. Also with Lizzie's practical help, he's able to cut costs by running the estate with a skeleton staff. When Lizzie finds William's missing finger buried in a flower bed at Easterly, and the investigation turns toward murder, Lane tries his best to protect his family from the suspicion being cast upon them. And in the midst of all these crises, he still finds a little time to romance Lizzie and take the next step in their relationship. Lizzie, of course, for her part, stands by her man, giving him all the support he needs while taking a more active role in the family even though she's still technically an employee.
Then there's Edward, who I'm now madly in love with. This poor man has been though so much and he's always been the family's protector. He's broken in both body and spirit, but he starts to make a come-back in this book. Through sheer will-power and a little support from his friend and employee, Shelby, he finally sobers up and starts getting his life back on track. He's still madly in love with Sutton, and the feelings are definitely mutual. They get to share a much-needed passionate interlude, but it's little more than that. I don't know where Edward got the strength to do it, but he pushes Sutton away, telling her he can't be what she needs and would only drag her down. That was all in preparation for the ending that just about ripped my heart out. At this point, I don't believe a word that Edward said, and think he's just reverting to form, being the Edward he's always been. I suppose Ms. Ward could surprise me by taking things in the opposite direction, but it would take a lot for me to abandon my love for Edward at this point. Right now, all I know is that in spite of what he now claims, this guy is too wonderful for words and after everything he's gone though in his life, no one deserves an HEA more than him. I'm just praying that will happen in the next book, or that at least, he'll get out of the horrible place he's in and get moving in the right direction.
The last of the primary players are Gin, Samuel T., and Amelia. I know a lot of readers hated Gin in the previous book, but I never did. I felt sorry for her, because she's a casualty of her father's cruelty every bit as much as her brothers are. She just manifests her pain in a different way, by acting shallow and putting on a mean girl facade. At first it seemed like her shallowness and love of money was driving her to marry Richard, a man who abuses her, but I think Samuel T. hit the reality of it on the head when he told her she was afraid of not being anything without the money. Samuel T. knows Gin better than anyone, but believing they aren't good for each other, he's been self-medicating with lots of women and booze. I couldn't help but love him, though, for the promise he made to Gin and for telling her she's priceless no matter how many zeros there are in her bank account. By the end, Gin was starting to turn around, but I'm a little worried about what she's planning to do to "take care of herself" as Samuel T. told her to. In the midst of all this, their daughter, Amelia (who Samuel T. doesn't know is his daughter) comes home from boarding school, appearing to be a chip off her mother's block, and all I'll say about that is that appearances can sometimes be deceiving. They'll probably have a hard road to reconciliation, but these three deserve to be a family and have an HEA too.
There are lots of supporting characters as well. Lane's best friend, Jeff, an investment banker who came down from New York to help make sense of the company's books, sticks around for the duration, but only because Lane twists his arm a little. He'll continue to play a strong role in the future of BBC. Lane's other friend, Mack, the company's master distiller, hires himself a new office assistant who he's already having lustful thoughts about, and again, without him, BBC couldn't survive. Miss Aurora, the family's cook and the woman Lane and his siblings consider to be their real mother, is the conscience of the family, but she's very ill with cancer and may not be with them much longer. If she does pass on, she's going to leave a huge vacuum in their lives. At first, it looked like Edward might get a little more intimate with his friend, Shelby, but all I'll say is that things between them went exactly as I would have hoped. I can't help hoping that Gin's new husband, Richard, gets what's coming to him soon. The man's a menace and every bit as loathsome as William Baldwine was. Lane's soon-to-be ex-wife, Chantal, puts in an appearance, and I have a feeling we haven't heard the last of her yet. Then we find out that her unborn child isn't the only Baldwine bastard out there. Another of daddy dearest's offspring is uncovered, but so far, he seems like a good kid. Little V. E., as the Baldwine siblings' mother is called, put in her first appearance, but her condition is rather shocking and sad. And last, but not least, the errant brother, Max, finally returns, though we don't get to know much about him or where he's been all this time. All we know is that he refuses to stay in the main house and he definitely doesn't seem to have been living the high life.
Overall, I'd have to say I loved everything about this book. The characters really came to life, and I very much enjoyed following along with all their ups and downs, even if my heart was a little broken for Edward and Sutton, and for Gin and Samuel T. too. Fingers and toes crossed that J. R. Ward turns things around for both these couples and gives them the same happiness that Lane and Lizzie have found. I'm looking forward to these two sealing the deal, and with all the other Baldwines still in the throes of crisis, I have a feeling Lane and Lizzie are still going to be pulling most of the weight for a while. Two big events at the end of the book nearly killed me and have me clamoring for the next installment. I can't believe I have to wait another year. Next August can't get here soon enough. At the same time, the final chapter was rather heartwarming, and showed that in the midst of tragedy and heartache, the Baldwines are stronger then they seem and that blood really is thicker than water. I have no doubt that Lane will eventually lead this family back to greatness and hopefully a few more romantic HEAs too.
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