Guest Post by Maria Rose: Midnight Secrets Baked Ziti

My good friend Maria Rose is guest posting today for me. She’s a reviewer for Straight Shootin’ Book Reviews and a truly voracious reader. She has great style and I think you’re going to love this review of Midnight Secrets by Lisa Marie Rice. I’ll pick back up with the recipe for baked ziti after the review. Take it away, Maria!
When Elisabeth and I were talking about doing a joint post for Cooking Up Romance, one where I would write up the review and she would do the work of testing out some recipes that fit the story, I kept my eyes open for something that would appeal to both of us. When I started reading this one, the fact that the female character in the story has a strong relationship with food caught my attention right away, and the sexy suspenseful storyline was exactly what I was looking for. Herewith is our collaborative effort, and my thanks to Elisabeth for having me as a guest reviewer.
Lisa Marie Rice is fairly well known in the erotic romance world for her suspense filled stories with interesting heroines and the ultimate in alpha male heroes.  This story is the third in the Men of Midnight series (a spin off from the original Midnight series) and can easily be read as a standalone. It features the romance between Isabel and Joe. Isabel is a crushed and barely surviving woman, her entire family, heavily involved in U.S. politics having been assassinated in a terrorist attack that left her comatose and clinging to life. She’s recovering one day at a time in Portland under a new name. Her neighbor Joe is a former Navy SEAL who nearly died, but has pulled himself back up by his bootstraps and is determined to get back to full health and to be a contributing man to the security company Alpha Security International (ASI) he now works for, made up of friends from his time in the service.
When Isabel moved in next door, he’d seen the pile of boxes on her lawn and gone over to lend a hand. In return, he’d found some fresh baking on his doorstep. This was their pattern, him helping her around her house, her making him wonderful homemade food but keeping him at an emotional distance–until Joe gets a mysterious email from an unknown source with the message “Protect Isabel”. The thought that his beautiful, mysterious and clearly traumatized neighbor might be under threat kicks in Joe’s protective instincts and he’s determined to uncover the mystery. The fact that they share an explosive sexual chemistry and that Isabel is willing to trust him with her body and her life? Even better. But the clock is ticking, and as Isabel’s memory of the horrible night that changed her life starts to return with Joe’s help, the danger to her and to him increases. Someone wants her dead – but this time they’ll have to get through Joe first.
The story is told from four main points of view – Isabel, Joe, the man responsible for the killing of her family, and his henchman whose job is to keep Isabel under surveillance. Right from the start we know who the bad guy is and what his motivations are. He’s a big player in the political world so we get an inside view of the politics and shaping of American political society pre- and post-attack.  I thought this was an interesting plot device, to have him known from the start and know that Isabel’s memory of the event and this man’s actions are going to shape the course of the story.
Isabel’s character change through the course of the story is quite pronounced. Before the attack she was a thriving, friendly, vivacious woman with an incredibly popular cooking blog.  After, she is a shell of a woman – suffering acute post traumatic stress disorder (understandably so), nervous, quiet, and with near daily dizzy spells and panic attacks to go along with her painful physical recovery. She has no memory of the attack itself, only the aftermath of waking up in the hospital and finding out her entire family is dead. Her initial interactions with Joe on a neighborly basis start to wake her up again to the good things in life, in particular to her love of food. Though her blog is dead, her beliefs about food and its importance in providing sustenance and pleasure have been stagnant. As the only way to really thank Joe for his help, she begins to cook again, leaving him treasures on his doorstep, and with this her love of cooking begins to re-emerge. It’s her heart and soul, and doing this for him, and his friends who she knows show up for poker night and other visits is the start of mending her brokenness. As the story progresses, her association with Joe and his friends, their care and concern for her make her realize that her life is worth living and she becomes a strong and determined woman once again, not willing to let someone threaten her without a fight.  I really enjoyed seeing her make this transformation back to her true self.
Joe is the epitome of the alpha male.  When he returned from his last tour of duty in a coma that lasted two months, he went through four operations and four months of hellish physical rehabilitation in an effort to get back to his former physical self. Mentally, while he may suffer some mild PTSD, for the most part he’s past it, recovered from the nightmares of Afghanistan and willing himself to full fitness to be a functioning member of the ASI group. As a security expert, he’s had his eye on Isabel since day one, keeping track of when she goes out, who comes over (no-one) and doing as much as possible to ease her life, waiting patiently for the day that she might be on the mend and willing to tell him her story. On another man, his watchfulness of her might come across as stalkerish, but with the knowledge that he has only good intentions it doesn’t feel that way.  He’s ultra protective, and he’s decided that if she has no-one to help her, then he will be the one she can turn to.  When Isabel witnesses a man watching her through her window, her screams call Joe over and from then on, things between them start to heat up. Once Isabel gives Joe the go-ahead that she’s interested in a physical relationship with him, they can’t keep their hands off each other.
What I really liked about Joe is that he is this handsome, strong, over protective guy, commanding in the sack and all that, but so not an alpha-hole on any level. He is perfectly willing to take it slow with Isabel, to give her the time she needs to be comfortable being intimate with him and letting her lead the sex between them, waiting for her signals and conscious of her comfort level. Outside of bed he is caring, supportive, always speaking with Isabel positively and helping her see that there is still good in the world. Their romance really worked for me on all levels.
Joe’s interactions with his friends, the members of the ASI group that he works with are 100% supportive in his quest to help and protect Isabel. Conveniently of course, due to their work, they have all sorts of gadgets and technological efficiency to provide their own surveillance of Isabel’s house and to try to figure out who is sending Joe the messages to protect her – and from whom she needs protection.   Joe’s relationship with the guys and their partners is one of strong friendship, camaraderie and lots of witty banter that made for some laughs in the middle of this sometimes tense story. They are all very accepting of Isabel and go a long way to ease her recovery. Most have been featured in other stories in the series that are definitely worth the read as well.  I enjoyed how the suspense plot was set up and how it progressed. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as each side moves a step closer to having what they want, with Isabel caught in the middle. There were some great twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. 
My final thoughts – super sexy scenes, a great suspense plot and strong characters. Just what I expect from this author and I enjoyed it thoroughly. 5 stars.
Thanks, Maria! How great does that book sound? I’m such a sucker for broken characters. And the food! There was some debate between Maria and I about which particular recipe to try out, but this baked ziti won out. It’s such a fast, easy, comfort food recipe. Like lasagna, but without the fussiness of all those layers.
And seriously, this recipe could not be easier. I use three pans and…um…well, that’s all. See, once the meat is browned and the noodles are boiled, into the oven they go. I don’t even dirty any measuring cups because when it’s time to add the mozzarella, I just used the empty ricotta container!
Then it’s into the oven for 25 minutes and you’re ready to eat. Seriously, it’s just like lasagna, but takes half the time.
Enjoy with your favorite beverage, hot neighbor, or preferably both.

Baked Ziti

  • Author: Cooking Up Romance
  • Prep Time: 15
  • Cook Time: 25
  • Total Time: 40


An easy comfort food recipe for when you’re craving lasagna, but don’t want to bother with the fussiness!


  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound bulk Italian sausage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 pound pasta (ziti or rigatoni will work best)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 cups tomato sauce (homemade or 2 jars store-bought)
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella (divided)
  • 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan


  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Boil the water for the pasta with 1/2 teaspoon of salt added. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (use the low end of the estimated cooking time, typically 9-11 minutes).
  3. While the pasta cooks, add the ground beef, sausage, salt, pepper, chili flakes, oregano and basil to a large skillet and cook over medium-high heat until browned.
  4. Drain the pasta, return to pot. Add the ground beef and sausage mixture, the ricotta, 2 cups of the mozzarella cheese and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
  5. Transfer mixture to a 9 x 13 baking pan. Top with remaining cup of mozzarella cheese and the Parmesan cheese. Top with aluminum foil.
  6. Bake for 25 minutes. If desired, you can remove the foil and broil for 2 additional minutes to get the top all browned and crispy. But please don’t put glass pans under the broiler.


  • If you’re feeling ambitious, you can use this recipe for homemade tomato sauce, though it will make this recipe take a lot longer:


  • Serving Size: 8
Midnight Secrets Book Cover Midnight Secrets
Men of Midnight
Lisa Marie Rice
Romantic Suspense
Carina Press
June 8, 2015

One comment

  1. Wow! I thought I’d read every one of Rice’s Men of Midnight series. I’ll blame it on my infernal out-of-control TBR. I don’t know what’s lurking in there anymore. Thanks for the review and this super easy quick recipe. Perfect for busy weeknights.

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