Hard Target (Cobra Elite #1) by Pamela Clare

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A life debt…

Derek Tower has spent his life at war, first as a Green Beret and then as the owner of a private military company, Cobra International Security. When a high-ranking US senator asks Cobra to protect his daughter, a midwife volunteering in Afghanistan, Derek’s gut tells him to turn the senator down. The last thing he wants to do is babysit an aid worker. But Jenna isn’t just another assignment. She’s also the younger sister of his best friend, the man who died taking bullets meant for him. There’s no way Derek can refuse.

An inescapable attraction…

Jenna Hamilton doesn’t need a bodyguard, especially not one hired by her intrusive and controlling father. She knew the risks when she signed on to work in rural Afghanistan, and the hospital already has armed security. She also doesn’t need the distraction of a big, brooding operative skulking about, even if he is her late brother’s best friend—and sexy as hell. As far as she’s concerned, he can pack up his Humvee and drive into the sunset. And, no, nothing her hormones have to say about him will change her mind.

A merciless enemy…

From the moment his boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, Derek does his best to win Jenna over, posing as her brother so the two of them can spend time alone. Except that what he feels for her is anything but brotherly. Stolen moments lead to secret kisses—and an undeniable sexual attraction that shakes them both to the core. But events have been set into motion that they cannot escape. When a ruthless warlord sets his sights on Jenna, Derek will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, even if it costs him his heart—or his life.

Rating: B-

Hard Target is the first book in a new series of romantic suspense novels from popular author Pamela Clare featuring the men (and maybe women?) who work for Cobra International Security, the high-end security firm owned and run by Derek Tower, who was a recurring character in the author’s earlier I-Team series.  I confess that I haven’t read any of those books yet, so I was pleased to be able to jump in on the ground floor with this new series. Hard Target is an exciting, fast-paced read set mostly in Afghanistan, a country that is still unstable and tearing itself apart, and the author does a great job of showing just how dangerous it can be and how people like the heroine – who have gone there to help – walk a tightrope every day in order to do their jobs and stay safe.

Derek Tower is furious when he receives a call from Senator Hamilton, demanding Derek personally brings his daughter – currently working as a midwife in Afghanistan – home to the US.  The senator sits on the Armed Services Committee and thus has the ability to make life very difficult for Derek and his company, but even so, Derek refuses to be intimidated.  He can’t just kidnap a US citizen and tells Hamilton so – but he agrees to fly to the hospital Jenna Hamilton works at to see if he can persuade her to come back to the States.  But he doesn’t do it for Hamilton or for Cobra. He does it because Jenna’s brother had been Derek’s best friend when they were both green berets, and had died saving Derek’s life.  He owes it to him to try to keep his little sister safe – although he doesn’t hold out much hope of being able to persuade the young woman to return with him.

And he’s not wrong in that.  Jenna is six months into her two-year contract working  with and helping to train badly needed midwives, as well as running in education and outreach programs to help women to understand more about the changes their bodies undergo during pregnancy.  Jenna is a spirited, independent woman who refuses to let her father dictate her life any more, and is determined to see out her contract and refuses to budge.  She’s doing good, much needed work; she’s saving lives and hopefully more will be saved in the future and she’s not about to give it up because her controlling father insists she should be sitting at home waiting to get married.

When Derek tells Hamilton Jenna refuses to come home, the senator goes ballistic – and then Derek finds out that he’s fired Cobra from the job. He decides to stay for a while longer – on his own dime – to watch out for Jenna. Her father wasn’t wrong when he said that extremists had been known to kill midwives, and now he’s got a feel for the situation at the Kazi Women’s Hospital, he’s reluctant to leave. When Jenna gets herself into hot water by arguing in favour of a life-saving procedure for one of her patients – a girl of twelve whose body isn’t mature enough to be able to bear her child – Derek and the head of hospital security manage to smooth things over… but it’s a close-run thing.

I found the aspect of the story that addresses the situation facing women in Afghanistan really compelling – as well as depressing – as I read about the way women are treated in this once enlightened country, deprived of education, forced to stay indoors, isolated from the world, their lives controlled entirely by men. When Jenna gets into trouble over the twelve-year-old girl, it’s not because she is rude, but because she dares to speak to another woman – the girl’s mother-in-law – in the presence of a number of men to whom she is not related. As one of Jenna’s students says, “it is better to be a goat in Afghanistan than a woman.”

I was thoroughly caught up in the plot, in which the author creates an atmosphere of uncertainty with a real sense of imminent danger that kept me invested in the story and wanting to know what was going to happen next. Unfortunately, however, the romance in the novel is almost non-existent; Derek and Jenna are instantly attracted to one another, and although Derek has to go through all that ‘shagging my best friend’s little sister would be breaking the Man Code’ and ‘I don’t do relationships’ stuff – none of it stops them from getting down to business at the first available opportunity. It’s clear they like and respect each other – which is as good a basis for a relationship as any – but there’s nothing much beyond that; there’s no real emotional connection between them and not a great deal of chemistry either.

For the first three-quarters of the way through the book, I was confident I’d be awarding Hard Target a solid B grade, due entirely to the well-conceived and executed suspense plot and interesting background. Ms. Clare is a veteran of the romantic suspense genre and really knows how to write an exciting action sequence, and it’s clear she’s done her homework on current Afghan society and on the science of midwifery. The trouble is, however, that when she turns her focus to the romance in the last quarter of the novel, the pacing collapses faster than an undercooked soufflé. And because I didn’t feel there was much between Derek and Jenna other than a healthy dose of lust, I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome of their (not)romance.

So I knocked off half a grade point for the fact that the romance (such as it was) failed to capture my interest. If you’re a fan of the author’s, or if you like your romantic suspense much lighter on the romance than the suspense then Hard Target is probably worth a look.