His to Defend (NOLA Knights #1) by Rhenna Morgan

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His world. His rules. Her love.

Though his methods may be rough, when it comes to protecting what’s his, Russian vor Sergei Petrovyh’s heart is always in the right place. That’s never been more true than when the gorgeous Evette Labadie asks him for a job. He knows enough to keep his hands off someone as beloved by the locals as Evie, but there’s something about her that calls to him—no matter how badly he burns to make her his.

Don’t think Evie hasn’t noticed the powerful Russian mafia boss who makes her favorite diner a regular stop. How can she not? He’s as hot as his reputation is dangerous. But everyone in her struggling New Orleans neighborhood knows he’s the man to turn to. And right now she needs money to get her son out of trouble.

Her other needs—needs she knows damn well Sergei can more than satisfy—will have to wait.

Evie soon finds herself playing Cinderella to a man who, despite what people believe, is definitely more prince than villain. She can’t help falling deeper in love with each passing day. But when a turf war between Sergei and a rival brings violence to her doorstep, Evie must come to grips with loving a man who will do anything to defend her…or walk away from her best chance at a happily-ever-after of her very own.

Rating: C-

I haven’t read a book by Rhenna Morgan before, so when I saw she was starting a new series, I decided that was as good a place as any to jump in and picked up His to Defend – first in her new NOLA Knights series – for review. The novel starts well, introducing and fleshing out the main characters quickly and smoothly, but the bulk of the story moves at a snail’s pace, and while the sex-scenes are steamy and well-written, the romance goes from zero to sixty so fast I was in danger of whiplash.

Single mother Evie Labadie has been dismissed from her cleaning job, and needs to find another job quickly if she’s going to be able to scrape together the money for her seven-year-old’s school fees. Entering the diner owned and run by her oldest friend (where her son Emerson waits for her after school), Evie notices – not for the first time – the large, charismatic and very handsome man sitting quietly in a booth at the back – and decides this might finally be the time to ask for his help.

Sergei Petrovyh is Russian Bratva and everyone around there knows it. Since moving to New Orleans, he’s been slowly helping the community, ridding the streets of the scum who prey on the locals, intent on earning their loyalty by protecting them when they can’t protect themselves – all with the aim of controlling the majority of the enterprise in the area and wiping out the competition. He’s known to be ruthless but fair, trading in favours and quid pro quo – and hasn’t missed the way Evie, the neighbourhood darling, always looks at him whenever she sees him at the diner. He likes the boldness of her unabashed perusals, the way her gaze challenges him – but has never pursued her, knowing the respect he is working to earn within the community would take a serious hit were he to mess around with her. He’s surprised – and pleased – when Evie approaches him to ask for his help getting a new job, and decides on the spot that helping her is the perfect way to further his plans to ingratiate himself with the community; everybody knows and loves Evie, so helping her helps him, too.

Evie had no idea that when Sergei told her to turn up at a gorgeous, plantation style house in the Garden District on Monday morning that she was going to be working for him – and living in – managing his house and estate, and no idea that bringing her into his personal space was a statement of intent on his part.  The attraction Evie already feels for Sergei  only grows more powerful  the more she witnesses his kindness towards Emerson and his obvious respect and consideration for her;  and Sergei is determined to make her his, no matter his belief that he’s undeserving of the “touch of someone so light and good” because “the darkness in him was too thick.”

I realised, as I was reading this, that I haven’t read a romance in which the hero is a mobster before.  But now I have read one, I confess that I’m somewhat ambivalent.  In this story Sergei is a great guy and perfect romantic hero material (if you’re into alpha males with a capital ‘A’.)  The author makes it clear what he does for a living – and there’s a scene towards the end of the book that reinforces that – he never lies to Evie, never tries to sugarcoat the truth of what he does and she goes into the relationship with her eyes open, knowing where Sergei’s money comes from and accepting the possible dangers that come with being in a relationship with a man like him.  We’re told that Sergei and his crew have cleaned up the streets of the district, and that he’s working to make life better for those in the area – he’s an ‘enlightened’ mobster if you will – but I still couldn’t quite ignore the ‘mobster’ part of that phrase.  I know the crime boss with a heart of gold is a popular trope… I’m just not sure it’s one for me.

I was also very much NOT impressed in the scene in which Sergei and Evie get carried away and, in the heat of the moment, have unprotected sex.  When Evie expresses her dismay afterwards, Sergei’s response is to say that Emerson will make a great big brother and then:  “… we will not be using condoms again. I will not have anything between me and my bride.”

He’s magnanimous enough to say that she can use other contraception (my words), but honestly, I wished she’d just kneed him in the balls and stormed off.

Evie is an engaging heroine. Life hasn’t dealt her the best of hands – her parents are dead and the only relative she has left is a scumbag uncle she avoids – but she’s clever, resourceful and independent, she’s a good mother and Emerson is her main priority – and I appreciated that the author doesn’t send her down the TSTL path when the opportunity opens up.  Emerson is a cute kid, but Ms. Morgan keeps on telling us how serious he is for a seven-year-old and that he’s old for his years, so that it eventually starts to sound like an excuse: ‘hey, I know he sounds like a teenager, but I couldn’t make him that old without putting Evie into her mid-thirties!’

I had a problem with the pacing of the romance as well.  When Evie first approaches Sergei in the diner, he doesn’t intend to make a move – mostly because he’s so bad and she’s so good (eyeroll).  But within a couple of chapters, he’s done an about-face and is actively pursuing her, and after not much longer is making it clear he wants something permanent with her.  It’s too fast and without much foundation; sure Evie’s a great person – funny, sexy, compassionate and a good mother, but Sergei goes from ‘she’s too good for me’ to ‘Mine!Mine!Mine!’ so fast I thought I’d skipped a few chapters.  The overall pacing was pretty slow, too, with large chunks of not much happening in the middle and then a bit of a suspense plot introduced near the end.

There are plenty of four and five star reviews of His to Defend on Goodreads that seem to put my opinions in a minority. On the plus side, the writing is strong, the central characters are likeable and I enjoyed the suspense element introduced in the last part of the story, but maybe this author – or this trope – just isn’t for me.