TBR Challenge: Strike Fast (DEA FAST #4) by Kaylea Cross

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A military widow reluctant to risk her heart again.

After losing her soldier husband in combat, DEA agent Tess Dubrovksi swore never to fall for another man in uniform. The last thing she anticipates is for a sexy FAST agent single father and his young daughter to steal their way into her heart. Now Tess can’t stay detached, even though he brings a ton of emotional baggage she’s not sure she’s ready for. But when an unthinkable tragedy strikes and his daughter’s life is at stake, Tess is already in too deep to walk away, and will lay everything on the line to help.

A single father who protects what’s his.

A divorce and custody battle left DEA FAST agent Reid Prentiss cynical about love. Then a sexy helo pilot walks into his life and changes everything. But his newfound happiness with Tess is too good to last. His team’s latest target is looking for an opportunity for revenge, and finds it in Reid’s daughter. When a vicious cartel lieutenant decides to make a statement by kidnapping her, Reid’s whole world implodes. Now it’s a race against time to save her, and hope is fading with each passing hour. Even with his teammates and Tess at his back, it will take everything Reid has to endure this hellish nightmare and find his daughter…before it’s too late. Because when everything you hold dear is at stake, you’ll do anything to protect it.

Rating: B

It took me a while to pick a book for this month’s prompt – Random Pick – which was entirely due to my having way too many un-read books to choose from!  Eventually, I narrowed it down to Strike Fast, one of the books in the DEA FAST series by Kaylea Cross.  I’ve read (and listened to) a couple of her other books and have enjoyed her tightly plotted stories, strong, independent heroines and heroes who respect them and their abilities.  Strike Fast, the story of a widowed Blackhawk pilot and a single father DEA FAST agent is no exception; these are down-to-earth, mature characters with messy lives and difficult jobs who communicate well and work through the issues surrounding their relationship in a sensible manner. This is the fourth book in the series, and although it features characters who appear throughout, it works fine as a standalone.

Blackhawk pilot Tess Dubrovski was widowed three years earlier after her husband was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  She loved him very much and sincerely mourned him, but has decided that it’s time to move on with her life.  She hopes – eventually – to find love again, although perhaps not with another man with a dangerous career, so the fact that the one man to have caught her eye in quite some time is a tall, dark and handsome DEA FAST agent is inconvenient, to say the least.

Reid Prentiss has joint custody (with his ex-wife) of his nine-year-old daughter, Autumn.  Because of his job, he sees her a lot less frequently than he would like, but tonight, he’s taking her to the movies and dinner… after he stops in at DEA HQ for an important meeting.  They’re both disappointed at having their together-time interrupted, and Reid arrives at the office intent on settling his daughter in the kitchen with some milk and cookies only to discover Tess Dubrovski sitting there reading the newspaper.  It’s been a few months since they’ve seen each other (the last time was on a mission in Afghanistan) and Reid wonders how on earth he hasn’t noticed her before.  Admittedly, the last the last time they’d met it had been too dark to see clearly, but now he can…? No question, Tess is a very attractive woman; tall with lush curves, green eyes and killer dimples – and Reid can hardly take his eyes off her.  Tess offers to sit with Autumn for the duration of the meeting (she’s stuck there anyway as she’s getting a ride home from one of the analysts), and Reid gratefully accepts.  When the meeting ends and he goes to collect Autumn for their movie date, Autumn asks if Tess can go with them; Tess doesn’t want to interrupt their father-daughter time, but Autumn is adamant about her joining them and to Tess’ surprise, Reid raises no objections.  And at the end of the evening, Reid realises he’s enjoyed the time spent in Tess’ company more than he ever expected – and that he wants see her again and get to know her better.

The romance between the pair develops at a sensible pace given these are two people with a bit of baggage – more than a bit in Reid’s case, because not only is he having to try hard to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex-wife (who doesn’t make it easy), he’s an alcoholic (nine years dry) who carries a huge burden of guilt over the death of his best friend almost a decade earlier.  And while Tess is sure that it’s time for her to start moving forward, she knows conviction isn’t going to make it any easier to do so.  I appreciated that they took baby steps in their relationship and didn’t rush into anything, so that when things do heat up between them, it felt like a natural progression from the emotional connection the author had already established between them.

There’s a plot thread running throughout the series concerning the FAST team’s hunt for El Escorpion, the leader of the Mexican Veneto cartel, and their mission to shut it down.  In this story, they’re searching for Carlos Ruiz, one El Escorpion’s trusted lieutenants and the man responsible for the kidnapping of a reporter.  Ruiz is a vicious, sadistic bastard, and readers get a few chapters in his PoV that flesh him out into more than a pantomime villain and provide a disturbing insight into his character.  He is capable of the most despicable casual violence, he displays an utter hatred of women (there are a few unpleasant scenes here featuring a young woman held captive – sexual assault is implied but not detailed or ‘on page’) – yet he rescues animals and cares for them with a compassion and respect he shows to no human.  It’s a strange, chilling juxtaposition that serves to show just how unbalanced an individual he is.

When Reid and his team receive intelligence that Ruiz is holed up at a remote location in New Orleans, he can’t know that simply doing his job is going to have far-reaching repercussions.  But after the raid, those are quick in coming when Autumn is kidnapped by one of Ruiz’s enforcers, and it becomes a race against time to find her before she becomes another victim of the cartel’s trafficking operation.

The author skilfully weaves the suspense plot throughout the story and builds the tension slowly until switching up a gear in the second half as the kidnap plot takes centre stage.  However, the trust and understanding Tess and Reid have been building together isn’t forgotten as Tess helps Reid stay grounded and focused while the DEA and other agencies work tirelessly to find Autumn.  There are some really tense, edge-of-the-seat moments during the final action set-piece – which is written vividly so it’s easy to visualise – and regular readers of Ms. Cross’ novels are sure to be pleased by the cameo appearances from some of the characters from her Hostage Rescue Team series.

I had a few small quibbles with the story, such as the placement of the sex scene and the fact that  ‘heroine-bonds-with-single-dad’s-kid’ is such an oft-used trope, but those didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

Strike Fast was a quick but engrossing read with a fast moving plot, interesting characters and a central romance between a couple that were easy to root for and who were clearly good for one another.  I’ve been dipping into Kaylea Cross’ backlist here and there whenever I’ve felt the need for a romantic suspense fix, and fortunately for me, her catalogue is fairly extensive, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading more of her work in future.

The Pros & Cons of Deception (Pros & Cons #2) by A.E. Wasp (audiobook) – Narrated by Tor Thom and Alexandre Steele

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

There’s nothing like being blackmailed by a dead man to really bring a group of cons together. The deal is simple, we do the jobs and Charlie’s lawyer wipes the slate clean for each of us, one at a time.

Job number two lands right in my lap. I’m Bond. Wesley Bond. (I can’t resist saying it that way. Blame my dad, if you can find him.) You could call me a hacker. I redistribute wealth – moving it from rich slimebags to poorer but infinitely more deserving people – and make a tidy profit as I do. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to bring down some modern-day slave traders.

With the life of the one person in this world I love on the line, I can’t afford any screw-ups or distractions. Unfortunately, my biggest distraction is my biggest asset – Danny Monroe. Danny is a leftover complication from our first job. He’s a smart, funny, gorgeous ex-prostitute, who can’t seem to keep his clothes on. I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut around him. But I need a fake boyfriend, and Danny is the only option.

We don’t know who the bad guy is; we have no idea how to prove anything. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to need all the help I can get. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

Rating: Narration: C-/B-; Content: C

The Pros & Cons of Deception is the second book in the Pros & Cons series, and the synopsis for the series – a group of misfits is blackmailed into carrying out a series of missions left to them by a dead man – sounded like a mash-up of LeverageCharlie’s Angels and Ocean’s Eleven and as though it might be fun. Having finished this instalment, I not sure that “fun” is the word I’d use to describe it; in fact, it turned out to be rather silly, with a bunch of grown men acting and talking like hormonal, teenaged-boys, and a plot so thin as to be see-through.

Retriever of illicitly obtained information Charlie Bingham is dead, and in his will, he left instructions for his lawyer, Miranda Bosley (yes, really ;)) to bring together a disparate group of men – some of them criminals, some not – in order to carry out his last instructions in exchange for the destruction of the information Charlie held on each of them. In the previous book, The Pros & Cons of Vengeance, ex-Special Forces Close Protection specialist Steele Alvarez was instructed to take down a dirty Senator – and along with hacker Wesley Bond, grifter Carson Grieves, thief Ridge Pfeiffer and disgruntled FBI Agent Leo Shook – set about doing just that. Along the way, he and the team rescued two young ex-hookers – Breck and Danny – from a violent situation, and Steele fell for Breck (who happens to be Ridge’s brother). When this book opens, we find them all, together with the enigmatic housekeeper Josie (whom the author bills as an “International Woman of Mystery”), comfortably holed up in Charlie’s luxury home in Miami.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Mainly by Moonlight (Bedknobs and Broomsticks #1) by Josh Lanyon

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Can a witch avoid a murder rap without revealing the supernatural truth?

Cosmo Saville guiltily hides a paranormal secret from his soon-to-be husband. And if he can’t undo a powerful love spell, uncertainty threatens his nuptial magic. But when he’s arrested for allegedly killing a longtime rival, he could spend his honeymoon behind bars…

Police Commissioner John Joseph Galbraith never believed in love until Cosmo came along. Falling head over heels for the elegant antiques dealer is an enchantment he never wants to break. So when all fingers point to Cosmo’s guilt, John struggles to believe what his heart is telling him.

As Cosmo searches for the real killer among the arcane aristocracy, John warns him to leave it to the police. But with an unseen enemy threatening to expose Cosmo’s true nature, the couple’s blissful future could shatter like a broken charm.

Can Cosmo find the lost grimoire, clear his name and keep John’s love alive, or will black magic “rune” their wedding bells?

Rating: B

Josh Lanyon’s latest novel is kind of Adrien English meets Bewitched as the owner of an antique store (who also happens to be a witch) finds himself suspected of murder just a few days before his wedding to the city’s Police Commissioner.  Mainly by Moonlight is an enjoyable romp that’s perhaps a little more light-hearted than some of the author’s other novels – and as it’s the first in a trilogy, it sets up more questions than it answers, so don’t pick it up expecting everything to be cut and dried by the time you get to the last page.

For years, witch and antiques dealer Cosmo Saville has been trying to locate the Grimorium Primus, the first and most powerful of the Five Grimoires and an important family heirloom. When he receives a message from business rival Seamus Reitherman telling him he has the Grimorium in his possession, Cosmo goes to meet him at his store late one evening – only to find the man lying dead in a pool of blood. Panicked, Cosmo doesn’t have time to do much more than register that Seamus has been murdered (there’s a double-edged knife sticking out of his back) and notice the beginnings of a sacred symbol on the floor in yellow chalk above Seamus’ head before flashing lights and sirens herald the arrival of the police.  He’s immediately arrested – and then recognised as the police commissioner’s fiancé.  He’s taken to the police station where series of phone-calls eventually leads to the arrival of Commissioner John Joseph Galbraith (who has no idea that he’s engaged to a witch!), and to Cosmo’s release, although it’s clear that’s not the end of the matter.

As soon as he can, Cosmo goes to see his mother Estelle, Duchesse d’Abracadantès and next in line to be Crone – or Queen of the Witches – to tell her about the events of the previous night, only to have another bombshell dropped on him.  Like most of Cosmo’s friends, Estelle is not pleased about his plans to marry John, and when Cosmo expresses doubts as to whether the wedding will go ahead seeing as he’s a murder suspect and John is the commissioner of police, Estelle points out that John can’t change his mind because he’s under the power of a love spell – one which Estelle assumed Cosmo must have cast himself.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Gift (Love in O’Leary #2) by May Archer (audiobook) – Narrated by Iggy Toma and Alexander Cendese

This title may be downloaded from Audible by Amazon

Daniel: I suck at relationships and don’t trust anyone, but there are reasons for that. For one thing, every person I’ve ever cared about has let me down. The only recent exception: O’Leary’s town veterinarian…my new best friend.

I came to O’Leary for a fresh start. To pare things down to essentials. To forget about the failures in my past. The last thing I need is complications, and most definitely not a boyfriend.

Julian: I’ve lived in O’Leary my entire life and learned to fly under the radar a long time ago. I do what’s expected, say what’s expected, and keep to myself as much as possible. It’s a hell of a lot simpler spending my time working with animals than trying to interact with actual people. The one unlikely exception: the gorgeous guy who moved to a cabin just outside of town and somehow became my best friend.

But friendships are complicated, and one morning I find myself accidentally telling the whole town the biggest lie of my life. Which is how Daniel Michaelson, my very straight, very hot best friend becomes my fake boyfriend, even though he’s most definitely not my lover.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content:C+

May Archer’s The Gift – the second book in her Love in O’Leary series – is a cute, low-drama, fake-relationship/GFY romance set in a small town in upstate New York where everyone seems to know everyone else and has their nose in everyone else’s business. That intrinsic busybody-ness is part of what sets this particular story in motion, when one member of the community, thinking to spare a friend from the gossip-mongers, basically announces to everyone in town that he (who is gay) and said friend (who is not) are romantically involved.

Daniel Michaelson moved to a small house in the woods outside O’Leary some months earlier after his big city life imploded and his career went tits-up. Wanting to get away from everything – his friends, his family and, most of all, reminders of his failure – he keeps himself to himself, travelling into O’Leary rarely and, unbeknownst to him, gaining himself a reputation as a bit of an oddball. Towards the end of the previous book in the series, that reputation caused the O’Learyans to become suspicious of him, the rumour mill even going so far as to suggest that he may have been involved with the recent disappearances of a couple of hikers – and it’s this suspicion that causes the town vet, Julian Ross, to give Daniel an alibi by telling everyone they’re a couple.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Digging Deep by Jay Hogan

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Drake Park has a complicated life. As a gay male midwife, he’s used to raising eyebrows. Add Crohn’s disease and things get interesting—or not, considering the sad state of his love life. Experience has taught Drake that most men are fair-weather sailors when it comes to handling his condition—gone for dust when things get rough. Staying healthy is a full-time job without adding in any heartbreak, so a little loneliness is a small price to pay. If he says it often enough he might even believe it. One thing for sure, the cop who arrested him isn’t about to change that.

Caleb Ashton does not have a complicated life. A senior detective with the Whangarei Police Department, he likes his job and is good at it. He works hard and plays hard, happy to enjoy as many men as he can while he’s still young enough—or at least he was. These days he feels adrift for the first time in his life, and the only thing sparking his interest—a certain prickly young midwife.

But can Drake find enough faith to risk opening his heart again? And does Caleb have what it takes to cope with the challenges Drake’s condition presents?

Rating: B+

Digging Deep is the first book I’ve read by New Zealander Jay Hogan, and I have to say I was pretty impressed.  In it, the author takes a long, hard look at how living with a chronic illness impacts on every single aspect of life for the person who has it and those around them, while at the same time developing a tender, sensual love story between two men who have a lot to learn about how to maintain a relationship under difficult and often debilitating circumstances.  Jay Hogan has clearly done her research when it comes to the disease itself (she acknowledges the input she received from many of those living with Crohn’s disease), and although there are times when the text gets a little bit info-dumpy, it never overwhelms the story or romance, and she injects a lot of humour into the tale while never belittling the disease or those who live with it.

Duck-Young Park (father, Korean, mother, Irish/Fijian) – who prefers to be called Drake – is a midwife who works in private practice in Whangarei in the Northland of NZ, alongside two close friends.  He loves his job and is very good at it; he has a great relationship with his colleagues and has a couple of clients he counts as friends, but other than them, his best friend, and his family – with whom he’s really close – he lives a fairly lonely life.  After his last relationship crashed and burned – his boyfriend of two years bailed when Drake had a fairly serious Crohn’s flare-up – he’s been cautious about getting involved again and has come to the conclusion that romance is not for him.  Staying healthy and the pressure that puts on him is hard enough; the last thing he needs is another broken heart over a guy who won’t stick around when the going gets tough.

Police officer Caleb Ashton makes no secret of the fact that he’s not interested in relationships.  He flits from casual fling to hook-up and back again, and likes it that way; he’s not boyfriend material anyway – he’s too selfish for that – and he’s content with the way things are.  His best friend is the glorious drag-queen, Carmen Bendover (otherwise known as Daniel when not in drag), he gets along really well with his work-partner, Leanne, and okay, so he’s not seen much of his family for the last couple of years, but that’s down to him… and he knows he really must make an effort.  He just hasn’t got round to it.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Triangulation (Borealis Investigations #2) by Gregory Ashe

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After a recent case with a treacherous client, North and Shaw are ready to go back to work building Borealis Investigations. They’re also ready to go back to dodging their feelings for each other, with neither man ready to deal with the powerful emotions the Matty Fennmore case stirred up. Everything is getting back to normal when their secretary asks for help: her girlfriend’s boss has gone missing.

Shep Collins runs a halfway house for LGBTQ kids and is a prominent figure in St. Louis’s gay community. When he disappears, however, dark truths begin to emerge about Shep’s past: his string of failed relationships, a problem with disappearing money, and his work, years before, as one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.

When Shep’s body turns up at the halfway house, the search for a missing person becomes the search for a murderer.

As North and Shaw probe for answers, they find that they are not the only ones who have come looking for the truth about Shep Collins. Their investigation puts them at odds with the police who are working the same case, and in that conflict, North and Shaw find threads leading back to the West End Slasher—the serial killer who almost took Shaw’s life in an alley seven years before. As the web of an ancient conspiracy comes to light, Shaw is driven to find answers, and North faces what might be his last chance to tell Shaw how he really feels.

Rating: A-

Gregory Ashe has become one of my favourite authors over the last year or so, and I’ve been longing to dive into Triangulation, the second book in his Borealis Investigations series ever since I turned the last page on the first book, Orientation, earlier this year.  I’m addicted to the blend of well-constructed mystery, complex, dysfunctional characters and angsty, slow-burn romance I’ve found in his novels; the plotting is tight and full of twists and turns, the romantic chemistry is combustible and his writing is wonderfully assured, ranging from the vividly descriptive to the lyrical, from grin-inducing humour to the pointedly insightful.

Although the mystery central to Orientation (which should be read first) was wrapped up by the end, events contained therein continue to have repercussions throughout Triangulation, so there will be spoilers in this review.

Triangulation picks up a few months after the previous book ended, and sees Borealis Investigations on a much firmer footing than it was when we first met North and Shaw, thanks to an upturn in business following their recent success in apprehending a blackmailer and murderer.  But the Fennmore case threw a ticking time-bomb into the middle the long-standing friendship between the two men, and the resulting wounds are still raw.  Neither of them is ready to admit to the shift in their relationship or work out what it means, even Shaw, who normally loves to talk things through; and North… well he most definitely doesn’t want to go there.

So on the surface at least, things are pretty much back to normal.  North grumbles and snarks his way through the days and Shaw is as upbeat and endearingly enthusiastic as ever.  When their assistant, Pari, asks them to look into the disappearance of her girlfriend’s boss, an LGBTQ youth worker and prominent figure in the St. Louis gay community, North isn’t wild about taking the case, especially when he learns that the man in question, Shep Collins, used to administer conversion therapy to gay teenaged boys.  But Pari’s girlfriend Chuck is distraught, and insists that Collins is a completely different man now; he’s out and married, the kids he works with love him and he sees his work now as a way of atoning for what he did in the past.  North doesn’t want to take the case… but as a result of one of those typical North-and-Shaw roundabout not-conversations, ends up ungraciously agreeing to do so.

North and Shaw start digging for information, and from the outset, they’re confronted with differing accounts of who Collins was and conflicting stories about his last known movements.  Nobody is telling the truth, even Chuck, who was worried enough about the man’s disappearance to hire Borealis to find him in the first place.  But when Collins’ body is found in the trunk of her car, things escalate quickly and Chuck is arrested for murder.  Determined to find out the truth, North and Shaw’s investigation leads them into direct conflict with members of St. Louis P.D.’s LGBT task force, and specifically with two of its detectives, whose interest in the case seems more focused on North and Shaw than on actually finding out who killed Shep Collins.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

King Slayer (Fog City #2) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Never fall for a mark. Mission fail.

Christopher Perri—a.k.a. Dante Perry—infiltrated the Madigan organization with one goal: vengeance for his murdered partner. Falling for the assassin at the head of the table wasn’t part of the plan, but Hawes Madigan is not the cold, untouchable Prince of Killers Chris expected. Everything about the newly crowned king is hot, and every inch of him eminently touchable…and off-limits once Chris’s cover is blown.

Exposure couldn’t come at a worse time. Hawes’s throne is threatened, and Chris suspects the same person who killed his partner is behind the coup. Working with Hawes benefits them both, but Chris’s employer has other ideas. Dismantling criminal organizations is what Chris does best, and his boss expects the King Slayer to deliver.

But Hawes is taking the Madigans in a new direction, one Chris can get behind, and the two men form a shaky alliance strengthened by the irresistible attraction between them…until Chris learns who killed his partner. Once he knows the truth, the King Slayer is unleashed, and Chris will stop at nothing to destroy those who betrayed him, including the king who stole his heart.

Rating: C+

King Slayer is the second book in Layla Reyne’s current Fog City trilogy about the Madigans, a powerful family in the criminal underworld of San Francisco.  For the past three years, owing to a massive change of heart by Hawes Madigan, the family has been cleaning up its act and getting out of the shadier side of the business, and in this, he’s aided by his twin brother, Holt, and their sister, Helena.

In book one – told entirely from Hawes’ PoV – we met the Madigan siblings, their formidable grandmother and police chief, Braxton Kane – who served in the military with Holt – and learned that someone was out to take down the Madigans – principally Hawes – and that whoever it is could be someone from within the operation who is unhappy with the direction Hawes is taking the business.  Private investigator Dante Perry confronted Hawes with those suspicions and, in Prince of Killers, started working alongside the Madigans, trying to work out who was behind the attempts on Hawes’ life and at destabilising the company.  Over the course of about a week, lots of shit went down and Hawes and Dante quickly acted on the mutual attraction that sizzled between them right from their first meeting.  Hawes was surprised to find himself so quickly coming to rely on Dante in spite of his siblings’ urging him to caution, but something about Dante drew him like a moth to a flame – and ultimately to getting burned when it was revealed at the end of the novel that Dante, aka ATF agent Christopher Perri – was pursuing his own agenda; he’d infiltrated the business and got close to Hawes in order to find the truth about the death of his partner three years earlier.

This instalment of the story picks up immediately where book one finished and the PoV switches to Dante/Chris (I’m going to refer to him as Chris from now on).  At this point, readers know the reason behind Hawes’ decision to start pulling back from the less legitimate operations of MCS (the ones that involve killing people!) and who killed Chris’ partner, but Chris and Hawes still have secrets to reveal and uncover; and it becomes clear that someone is manipulating the Madigans, Chris and Kane, and that Chris and Hawes need to work together if they’re going to find out exactly who that is. But can Chris convince Hawes to trust him, even a little, after his betrayal?  And besides, with their mutual desire and need for one another showing no sign of abating – if anything it’s growing stronger – what sort of future can there possibly be for an (ex) assassin and a Fed?

There’s a bit less action in this book, which focuses more on developing Chris’ character, introducing his family members, and showing why he’s so determined to find out who was responsible for the death of his partner, who was there for him at an incredibly difficult time in his life and kept him on an even keel when he was in danger of going off the rails. We see less of the Madigans in action – although I found seeing Hawes through Chris’ eyes gave him the edginess that was missing in the first book – but there are some exciting plot developments, and once again, we end on one helluva cliffhanger that certainly whets the appetite for the next instalment.

Layla Reyne certainly knows how to tell a good yarn, but I still find myself wishing for more depth in the characterisation, romance rather than insta-lust, and side-eyeing some of the more implausible parts of the story (techies/hackers in Ms. Reyne’s books seem able to do pretty much everything at the touch of a key and in ten seconds flat, for instance).  But there’s usually something about her books that intrigues me enough to make me want to keep reading them.  Which means she must be doing something right, I suppose – and I’ll be back for book three in the series.