Stealing Mr. Right (Penelope Blue #1) by Tamara Morgan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

I’m a wanted jewel thief.
He’s FBI.
What’s that saying? Keep your friends close…and your husband closer.

Being married to a federal agent certainly has its perks.

1. I just love the way that man looks in a suit.
2. This way I always know what the enemy is up to.

Spending my days lifting jewels and my nights tracking the Bureau should have been a genius plan. But the closer I get to Grant Emerson, the more dangerous this feels. With two million dollars’ worth of diamonds on the line, I can’t afford to fall for my own husband.

It turns out that the only thing worse than having a mortal enemy is being married to one. Because in our game of theft and seduction, only one of us will come out on top.

Good thing a cat burglar always lands on her feet.

Rating: B+

I’d heard good things about this book when it first came out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Stealing Mr. Right is a fun, light-hearted read in the best caper movie tradition; our heroine, Penelope Blue, is a highly skilled jewel thief and her husband, Grant Emerson is an FBI agent. Right from their first meeting, they are locked into a sexy game of cat and mouse in which neither knows how much the other knows and wants to find out.

Thievery runs in the Blue family, because Penelope is the daughter of the infamous Blue Fox, one of the best in the business. When he disappeared after a heist gone wrong a decade earlier and her stepmother abandoned her, it left Penelope alone on the streets, to fend for herself. Fortunately for her, she was befriended by a street-wise kid named Riker and together they did what they had to survive; stole, ran scams, always moving onto bigger and better jobs.

When the book opens, they and their team are about to steal a fabulous two-million dollar necklace – the very one that Pen’s dad was attempting to steal when he was caught. It’s kind of a point of honour that she should finish the job, but things go wrong when she recognises the man accompanying the necklace’s owner – it’s her very own gorgeous, six-foot-two, former-football-player-turned-FBI-agent husband, Grant. Pen, Riker and the other members of their team, Jordan and Oz, get out and regroup, but it’s clear Grant’s involvement was no coincidence, and Pen thinks he must be stepping up his search for the fortune her father left behind when he disappeared/died.

The story of exactly how a thief and an FBI agent got married is told in flashback throughout the book, and it’s very well done. Penelope believes Grant is out to locate her father’s money, and she’s playing along to find out exactly what he knows while she is searching for it, too. She maintains she married Grant as a way of “keeping your enemies closer” and that as soon as her father’s stash is found, they will go their separate ways. It’s very clear to the reader, of course, that she’s head over heels for Grant, but she maintains that self-deception almost all the way through.

What the author does so cleverly is to muddy the waters where Grant is concerned, making the reader wonder as to his true motives. When we – along with Penelope – first meet him, he’s friendly and open, a gorgeous guy chatting up/being chatted up by a woman he’s interested in. Because the story is told entirely from Pen’s point of view, he remains something of an enigma, and in the sections of the book set in the present, she sews the seeds of doubt and makes us wonder if he really is the good guy who would do anything for the woman he loves, or if he did marry Pen for ulterior reasons of his own.

Tamara Morgan has crafted a terrifically entertaining story which, while for the most part, a fun, sexy romp, has its serious side, too. Pen’s relationship with Riker – her dearest friend and the one person in her life who has always looked out for her – is strained and, as she painfully realises, hasn’t much changed since their childhoods, and she still finds it difficult to believe in herself, one of the hang-ups she acquired as a result of her father’s abandonment. Her friendships with Riker and Jordan are nicely done – Riker is actually rather awesome, dark, brooding and sarcastic, and clearly needs his own book at some point!

The central characters are well-written and likeable; I enjoyed Pen’s wry humour and her resilience, and Grant is super-hot – smart, perceptive, self-assured and very, very good at hiding his thoughts and emotions, so that Pen – and we – are never sure if he’s really a doting husband or deep undercover. The chemistry between them is fabulous, but I can’t deny that the book’s one love scene was just a teeny bit disappointing after all that lovely sexual tension and build-up.

All in all, though, Stealing Mr. Right was a thoroughly enjoyable, read with a nice balance of suspense and romantic comedy. I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.

Black Tie Optional (Wild Wedding #1) by Ann Marie Walker

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Everything about Coleman Grant III oozes power and sex. And not the perfunctory kind either, but the sheet clawing, heart stopping, gasping for air after you’ve screamed so loud you can’t breathe kind. From his dark wavy hair that stands in an artfully rumpled mess, to the blue eyes that sear your skin, to his full, sensual lips – on the surface he’s pure perfection.

Too bad he’s an asshole. An arrogant, uptight corporate raider hell bent on destroying the environment one species at a time.

Everything about Olivia Ramsey screams hippie humanitarian. From her blond hair tied in a sloppy bun, to her faded jeans with the Bonnaroo patch sewn on the thigh, to her combat boots still splattered with mud from the previous day’s site visit.

So it makes perfect sense that they would get married. In Vegas. Stone-cold sober.

Cole needs a wife. Olivia needs to save an endangered species. But what starts as a marriage of convenience soon turns into a battle of wills and sexual tension. Love is a game, and Olivia and Cole are ready to win.

Rating: B-

It’s no secret that the Marriage of Convenience is my favourite trope when it comes to historical romance. But it’s a plotline that is less easy to pull off in a contemporary, so I was keen to read Black Tie Optional – the first in Ann Marie Walker’s Wild Wedding series – to see whether it could be made to work in a non-historical setting. The answer is yes, for the most part, but it seemed to me that some of the things I so love about the trope – the couple getting to know each other and eventually falling in love – were rushed and/or glossed over, and I came away from the book wondering where the actual romance was. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable read, because it is; the central couple has chemistry so hot it could strip paint, their verbal exchanges are often quite funny and the wedding scene is hilarious – but when they’re not having sex, they’re thinking about how much they want to have sex and remembering how great it was the last time they had sex… and I can’t help wishing there had been less of that and more time spent on the development of an actual relationship.

The story is your classic enemies-to-lovers one, as environmental activist Olivia Ramsey butts heads (and other body parts) with tall, dark, handsome sex-god Coleman Grant III, the gorgeous arsehole whose multi-billion dollar company is about to develop land inhabited by the northern long-eared bat, an animal recently recognised as a threatened species. For eighty-three days, she’s confronted him on his morning coffee run, and for eighty-three days, he’s blown her off. It’s infuriating, she moans to her best friend Cassie – who teases Olivia about the fact that all she ever seems to talk about is Cole and suggests she’s got a thing for him. Olivia is adamant that she hates his oh, so handsome guts – because, yeah, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

For some reason, this eighty-third day is different. Cole notices how fabulous Olivia’s arse looks in her scruffy jeans and his head is suddenly filled with lots of salacious images while his small head perks up hopefully. It’s ridiculous – he doesn’t even like the woman – but then liking has little to do with wanting to get down to the horizontal mambo with someone.

However, he can’t afford to spend too much time lusting after a crazed environmentalist; he has a bigger problem to wrestle with, namely the clause in his late parents’ will that stipulates if he’s not married by the time he’s thirty, Grant Industries – which he has worked hard to transform from the successful investment firm his parents left him into a global leader in the emerging technologies market – and all its assets will automatically be transferred into the hands of his formidable grandmother. With his birthday just days away, he can sense her circling for the kill, but hopes that the lawyers will find a way to circumvent the stipulation. They don’t, however – news Cole receives after a spectacular night of unbridled passion in a Las Vegas hotel room… with none other than the woman of his dreams? nightmares?, Olivia Ramsey, who is in Vegas attending the same pre-wedding party as he is.

Anyway. Cole is backed into the proverbial corner and has just four days in which to find a wife.  Olivia is trying to sneak out of his suite and embark upon her walk of shame, but he stops her in her tracks when he asks her to marry him, explaining his reasons for asking and offering to back her conservation project in return.  They’ll get married, divorce after three months, the bats get a home and voilà!  Win-win for both of them.

That’s the set up for the marriage of convenience, and it works fine.  What doesn’t work so well is the fact that the pair of them then proceed to pretty much ignore the need to make their hasty marriage look convincing.  In spite of Cole’s warnings that his grandmother is an incredibly shrewd, ruthless woman, Olivia expects the fact they’re actually married will be enough to stop her being able to gain control of Grant Industries.  Even their closest friends, who are in on the secret, are amazed that Cole and Olivia haven’t sat down to invent a backstory and decide how they’re going to act once they get back to Chicago.

The section of the story in which Olivia takes Cole home to meet her parents allows her to see a more relaxed version of him and discover he’s even more irresistible when he’s not so buttoned up, while Cole comes to understand more about Olivia’s passion for her work, and to see a less prickly, more affectionate side of her.  Her parents are terrific; her mother a committed environmentalist (so Cole can see where Olivia gets it from), her father a vet, and it’s obvious they adore each other.  Cole finally starts to think that perhaps what they have is something he wants for himself.  He has never really known what it is to be part of a family; born into money, he didn’t see much of his parents when he was younger, and was brought up by nannies and servants.  The author touches briefly on how much Cole is hurt that they put that clause in their will, but doesn’t dwell on it overmuch.

The premise is right up my alley and Cole and Olivia have smoking chemistry, but the romance is under-developed and we go from intense lust to love with almost no steps in between.  The pair  spends most of their time together thinking about sex – how great it was last time, how it can never happen again and… oh, bugger, we’re in bed again but this is absolutely, positively the last time.  Until the next one.  And the one after that.  They never talk about how they are going to handle Cole’s grandmother, his high-profile lifestyle, public appearances, or about how – or even IF – they are going to tell Olivia’s parents the truth.

The central characters are amiable enough, although neither of them is particularly memorable and some of their actions – most notably Olivia’s insistence on getting plastered on the plane and then at the party – are immature and made me actively dislike them.  Cole’s obvious affection for his half-sister is a point in his favour, although this – like the grandmother side plot – is another thread that is introduced and then suddenly dropped.

Black Tie Optional is a quick, sexy read that isn’t without charm or humour, but which ultimately lacks that certain something that would have made it an out-and-out winner.  There aren’t enough of those ‘moments’ that show us two people falling for each other; the moment they discover a shared interest or opinion, the moment they see the other person with fresh eyes, or those funny little episodes that show them growing closer together.  The characterisation is pretty superficial and we never really get to know exactly why Cole and Olivia fall in love as opposed to lust.  I did enjoy it, but not enough to be able to get past its various weaknesses or give it a wholehearted recommendation.

 

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

Pretty Face (London Celebrities #2) by Lucy Parker (audiobook) – Narrated by Morag Sims

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The play’s the fling.

It’s not actress Lily Lamprey’s fault that she’s all curves and has the kind of voice that can fog up a camera lens. She wants to prove where her real talents lie – and that’s not on a casting couch, thank you. When she hears esteemed director Luc Savage is renovating a legendary West End theater for a lofty new production, she knows it could be her chance – if only Luc wasn’t so dictatorial, so bad tempered, and so incredibly sexy.

Luc Savage has respect, integrity, and experience. He also has it bad for Lily. He’d be willing to dismiss it as a midlife crisis, but this exasperating, irresistible woman is actually a very talented actress. Unfortunately their romance is not only raising questions about Lily’s suddenly rising career; it’s threatening Luc’s professional reputation. The course of true love never did run smooth. But if they’re not careful, it could bring down the curtain on both their careers…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

Pretty Face, the follow-up novel to Lucy Parker’s successful and hugely entertaining Act Like It, is a funny, sexy Rom-Com set amid the hustle and bustle of London’s Theatreland that clearly proves that Ms. Parker is no one-hit-wonder. This book is every bit as charmingly well-written as its predecessor, just as full of zinging one-liners, and equally possessed of an attractive and engaging central couple and small, but well-drawn supporting cast. And in the midst of all the humour and delicious sexual tension are moments of true poignancy, too, moments that show the author is as gifted at creating three-dimensional characters with flaws and insecurities and shedding subtle insight onto their emotional lives as she is at writing wonderfully witty banter.

Actress Lily Lamprey was lucky enough to land a job on the popular costume-drama-cum-soap-opera, Knightsbridge, when she was fresh out of drama school, but four years later she is looking to move on and shed the image of man-eating vamp she’s acquired as a result of the part she plays on the show. She knows it has prevented her from getting other roles, but is determined to break out and show that she is capable of more than getting her kit off week after week on TV. And now she has the chance to do just that, as she’s been called to audition for Luc Savage, one of the most widely respected directors in the West End. Savage has a reputation for being cold and dictatorial, but there’s no denying his shows are incredibly successful and that working for him could really kick-start her career… even though Lily doesn’t think she’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of landing the part.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Tinderbox (Flashpoint #1) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the volatile tinderbox of the Horn of Africa, Morgan Adler has made the paleoanthropological find of a lifetime. The discovery brings her to the attention of a warlord eager to claim both Morgan and the fossils, forcing her to make a desperate dash to the nearby US military base to beg for protection.

Master Sergeant Pax Blanchard has orders to intercept Dr. Adler before she reaches the base, and in so doing saves her life. After a harrowing afternoon, he safely delivers her to his commanders, only to find his responsibilities toward protecting the obstinate archaeologist have only just begun. Morgan and Pax are forced to work together in the Djiboutian desert heat, but it is the fire that ignites between them that threatens to combust them both. For the Green Beret, involvement with the woman he must protect is a threat to his career, while for the archaeologist, the soldier is everything she never wanted but somehow can’t resist. When Morgan uncovers a mystery surrounding Djibouti’s most scarce and vital resource, the danger to her reaches the flashpoint. For Pax, protecting her is no longer a matter of following orders, and he’ll risk everything to bring her back alive.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

I discovered Rachel Grant’s romantic suspense novels less than a year ago, and have been hooked ever since. I’ve read and listened to several of the titles in her Evidence series, all of them tightly-plotted thrillers interwoven with a nicely steamy romance featuring intelligent, sassy heroines and gorgeous, alpha-male heroes. The author makes excellent use of her own background in history and archaeology in her books, which are extremely well researched both in terms of the locations in which they are set, and the technological and specialist detail which add so much interest and depth to the stories. Tinderbox, the first book in her new Flashpoint series is no different. The story opens with a bang – literally! – and the pace never lets up, as our two protagonists are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy in a part of the world which exists on a knife-edge.

Doctor Morgan Adler has been contracted by the Djibouti government to undertake an archaeological survey of the proposed route of a new railway. That particular area, known as the Horn of Africa (on the East coast – Djibouti is bordered by Eritraea, Ethiopia and Somalia) is a haven for terrorists and pirates –as well as being a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists. Morgan has just made what is likely to be the find of the decade – if not the century – in ‘Linus’ a set of three and a half million-year-old remains that could prove to be as significant an archaeological find as Lucy was in the 1970s. But she has been forced to flee the dig by several armed men working for Etefu Desta, an Ethiopian warlord looking to expand his territory into Djibouti. With the American Embassy closed, the only place she can think of that will be able to provide secure storage for the finds she has so far uncovered is the US military base at Camp Citron, and she’s on her way there with her precious cargo when she’s stopped by two Green Berets – Special Forces Operatives – about two miles from the camp.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A COPY OF THE AUDIOBOOK OF TINDERBOX, READ MY INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR AND ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE

Live Wire (Nashville’s Finest #1) by Caisey Quinn

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE’S NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING…

Explosive ordinance disposal specialist Chase Fisk never breaks a sweat defusing even the most complicated of explosives. So when a homicidal maniac threatens to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival, Chase is the man to take him down. But with the reappearance of a woman he thought was long dead, everything he thought he knew is blown away.

EXCEPT LOSING HER AGAIN.

FBI operative Vivien Montgomery is an enigma to everyone around her. So when a deadly threat lands her in Nashville and paired up with the only man she’s ever loved, she isn’t looking forward to an emotional reunion. She’s only here to get the job done and get out. But when the madman behind the chaos targets her for death, the one man she left behind might be the only person she can count on to save her life…

Rating: C-

Live Wire is the first book in Caisey Quinn’s aNashville’s Finest series, and with a blurb that promised a homicidal maniac threatening to set off military-grade IEDs during Nashville’s largest music festival,  and a rekindling romance between an explosives expert and his former lover, now an FBI agent, you’d think I was in for an action-packed, emotional rollercoaster of a ride, right?

Wrong.

Because Live Wire is, in fact, a damp squib.  There is very little action, the romance is perfunctory, the characters are barely two-dimensional and the plot is predictable and not particularly suspenseful.

Four years before the book opens, Chase Fisk watched the love of his life get blown to smithereens when a military training exercise went badly wrong.  He still has nightmares about that day, and has never really got over Vivien Brooks, in spite of having spent the first couple of years after her death trying hard to forget her in the beds of numerous other women.  An injury sustained during the blast got him a medical discharge from the army, and Chase now heads up an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit with the Nashville PD.

When a tip off leads Chase and his team to a condemned building on the east side of town they aren’t expecting to find a stash of military grade explosives and maps of the city marked up in a kind of code.  But with the prestigious Country Music Festival just weeks away – which will see a massive influx of tourists into the city – there’s no time to waste in decoding the maps, working out what is planned – and who is planning it.

Given the nature of the discovery, the FBI is called in, and immediately dispatches three highly trained agents to aid the Nashville police.  Among them is Vivien Montgomery, who, four years previously, had been undergoing military training when she’d been informed that she was the target of a Russian mafia boss who had a grudge against her family.  For her own safety, the Bureau faked her death and she was then sent on an undercover assignment to take down said mafia boss, which lasted around two years.  She is naturally wary at the prospect of seeing Chase again, certain he’s going to be furious at her deception rather than pleased to see her – and this is borne out at their first meeting, which is anything but a tender reunion. Fortunately, however, after some initial hostility and sniping, they realise they can’t go on this way and decide they need to address the elephant in the room.  On the one hand, I was pleased the author chose not to drag out this aspect of their relationship; Chase and Vivien act like mature adults and have talked things out between them before the half-way point of the book.  But on the other, that’s it for the romance – which wasn’t actually very romantic to start with.  They’ve kissed and made up, they’ve decided they want to be together, and after that, things are all lovey-dovey, with the exception of a little workplace conflict, and there’s nowhere else to go.  I was more interested in the brewing romance between one of Chase’s buddies (Luke) and Annalise, the sister of another of his friends, who works for the PD as an intelligence gatherer and analyst.

The author attempts to give some depth to Chase’s character by mentioning, once or twice, that he survived an abusive childhood, but that’s it; there’s no attempt to relate his past to his present.  It’s like Ms. Quinn stuck a pin in a list of “Things to Make Your Characters More Interesting” and that’s the one she decided to bolt on.  Vivien is from a military family, and we’re told how kick-ass she is, but never really see it for ourselves.  And one thing I found really odd is that other than the fact that Vivien has red hair, neither she nor Chase is described in the sort of detail one normally finds in a romance novel, and consequently, I found it difficult to get a mental picture of either of them.

The plot plods on, complete with the obligatory last-minute twist which picks up a previously planted clue that the bomber’s target is Vivien rather than the city. The pace does pick up a bit in these last chapters, but it’s too little too late, and the ending is somewhat vague.  Some of the bad guys are apprehended, but some aren’t so I’m guessing the story is to be continued in the next in the series. Reading this was reminiscent, at times, of watching a police procedural, complete with fast edits, sudden leaps of logic and overblown dialogue – and that’s fine, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I like watching them as much as the next person, but I don’t like reading them; in a book, I expect something more carefully constructed and possessed of greater depth.

As is obvious, I’m not going to recommend this, and even though I sort of want to know what happens with Annalise and Luke, I will probably not be continuing with the series.  When compared to some of the other romantic suspense novels I’ve read recently, by authors such as Mary Burton, Rachel Grant and Laura Griffin, Live Wire is static and unimaginative and the writing is pedestrian at best.  I’m sorry, Nashville’s Finest, but you haven’t lived up to your epithet.

 

Blindsided (Men of Steele #3) by Gwen Hernandez

blindsidedThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

SHE’S RUNNING FOR HER LIFE
Framed for espionage, reformed hacker Valerie Sanchez has no choice but to run. Worse, when the proof of her innocence is destroyed, things turn deadly. Can she trust the sexy terrorist hunter who mysteriously turns up to protect her, or is he the real threat?

HE’S HOT ON HER TRAIL
Former Marine sniper Scott Kramer’s job was supposed to be easy. Follow the hot computer geek who stole plans for classified weapons until she meets her buyer, then let law enforcement take over. But when Valerie becomes an assassin’s target, Scott’s gut says she’s innocent. Now, he must risk his life—and his heart—to keep her safe.

Rating: B

New-to-me author Gwen Hernandez has crafted a tightly plotted page-turner in Blindsided, the third book in her Men of Steele series.  The heroes are all ex-military men who now work for Kurt Steele’s  security firm, and even though this is the third in the series and some characters from the other books are referenced or make brief appearances, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Valerie Sanchez is the daughter of an infamous ‘black hat’ hacker (i.e, someone who hacks into computer systems with criminal intent) but although she worked alongside her Papá when younger, she now works for Aggressor International – a government funded organisation that hunts down terrorists – as one of their team of ‘white hat’ hackers, people employed to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security holes in the computer systems of their clients.  She’s an unashamed geek who loves her job and her current assignment is to hack into the servers of Westgate Defence Systems to find and report on any weaknesses in their online security.  With her partner, Jay Suresh, she has finally managed to find a way in, but before she can file her report, she discovers something odd; all the companies she has been employed to hack over the past few months suffered security breaches following her investigations.  Believing that this must mean the clients have not undertaken the security measures outlined in her various reports, she makes her concerns known to her boss, Duncan Hollowell.

Former marine sniper Scott Kramer, a member of the Steele Security team, has gone undercover as a new employee at Aggressor in order to undertake surveillance on a staff member suspected of stealing information from the company.  The few times he’s spoken to Valerie Sanchez, she’s seemed flustered and tongue-tied; she might be a bit geeky but his gut is telling him that this woman isn’t guilty of anything.  So he’s astonished when Hollowell tells him she’s downloaded several files relating to classified weapons systems and tells him to keep her under surveillance until the FBI team arrives to arrest her.

Valerie soon realises she’s been set up, but before she can make a run for it, the FBI is banging on her door.  She’s being escorted to a car when shots ring out – one of the agents is hit and someone screams at Valerie to run.  Watching all this, Scott heads after her, but does nothing to stop her getting away.

A couple of weeks later, and Scott has followed Valerie to Zachari, CA.  She hasn’t dared contact anyone, but is hoping she can meet up with Jay, as he’s the only one who can prove that they were actually assigned to work on Westgate’s systems and help her to clear her name.  She tracks him down at a local bar and he agrees – reluctantly – to help her, but as he leaves, he’s gunned down outside by a man Scott recognises as one of the FBI agents sent to arrest Valerie.

Realising that there is more going on than he knows, and because his gut is telling him that something isn’t right, Scott gets Valerie away. She doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her, but it soon becomes clear that Valerie isn’t the only one of them to have been set up;  Scott has been named as the sniper-accomplice who helped Valerie escape and there’s nothing for it but for them both to run until they can work out exactly what’s going on and how they can fix it.  Fortunately for Scott, his friends at Steele have his back and are prepared to do what they can, but ultimately, it’s down to Valerie’s computer skills and his more traditional physical and tactical ones to keep them alive while staying one step ahead of the people hunting them.

Blindsided is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced romantic thriller that makes excellent use of the cyber-crime plotline, although I confess I often felt like Scott when all the technical stuff went right over my head!  (Fortunately, there isn’t too much of it). The attraction between Valerie and Scott builds believably and at a good pace, and they are well-rounded characters whose flaws and insecurities make them seem that much more real and easy to relate to.  They come from very different backgrounds, but neither of them have had it easy and I liked the way that the gradual revelation of their pasts leads to a deeper understanding between them and brings them closer together.  Valerie’s Dad was murdered in front of her, and his lover, her Papá, went to prison for fraud, while Scott grew up with an abusive father who constantly belittled him and insisted Scott was a runt who would never amount to anything.   It’s a refreshing change in this particular sub- genre to discover a hero who isn’t your typical big, macho, muscle-bound ex-military type.  Scott is good-looking, he’s ripped and he’s hot, but he’s five-nine and wiry; he still suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex about his height and slight build which isn’t helped by the scars he now bears as the result of serious injuries incurred while on active duty.  And while Valerie has beauty to go with her brains, she’s spent most of her working life hiding it behind geeky classes and baggy clothes because as a woman in a very male oriented profession, she wants to be appreciated for her brains and not her boobs.

This is the first book I’ve read by Gwen Hernandez, but it won’t be the last.  The first book in the series, Blind Fury is now waiting for me on my Kindle, and I will certainly be checking out the other books in this series as and when they come out.