Barrel Proof (Agents Irish and Whiskey #3) by Layla Reyne

This title may be purchased from Amazon

FBI agents Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker can’t get a moment’s peace. Their hunt for the terrorist Renaud seems to be nearing an end, until a fire allows him to slip through their fingers—and puts Jamie’s life in danger. When Jamie is nearly killed, Aidan learns how many forms loss can take.

Aidan says I love you just moments before learning that Jamie’s been keeping a devastating secret about Aidan’s late husband. How quickly trust and love can go up in flames. When Aidan requests a solo undercover assignment, Jamie hopes Aidan will find a way to forgive him.

But the explosions are far from over. Aidan’s cover lands him in the heart of the terrorist’s conspiracy, and Jamie will have to put his life, his career and his freedom on the line to save the man who has become his entire world. Partners, always is a promise he intends to keep.

Rating: B

Note:  Because this is the final book in a trilogy with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the other books in this review.

Barrel Proof, the third and final instalment in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey trilogy of romantic suspense novels, picks up pretty much where Cask Strength left off and plunges us straight into the action.  Like its predecessors, Barrel Proof is a fast-moving, action-packed story with plenty of thrills and spills, an engaging cast of secondary characters, steamy romantic moments and a well thought-out and executed suspense storyline.  I enjoyed it a lot, although I have a couple of niggles over the ending which brought my final grade down a notch.

In the previous book, Jamie Walker and Aidan Talley were at an awkward place in their relationship when they were assigned to an investigation into fraud and match-fixing which took them to Jamie’s home state and to the sport he left behind some eight years earlier. Jamie is ready to commit, but Aidan is skittish, the loss of his beloved husband of ten years making him – perhaps understandably – shy of making the same sort of commitment to someone else and thereby opening himself up to the possibility of another devastating loss.  By the end of the novel, however, Aidan has finally come to his senses and has stopped trying to deny the depth of the feelings for his partner and lover, and is ready to move forward – but everything is blown apart when he discovers that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him for months, a secret concerning his late husband’s association with an international terrorist.  Jamie was sworn to secrecy by their boss (and Aidan’s sister-in-law), Melissa Cruz while he worked behind the scenes to put together the pieces of the puzzle, and has always felt uneasy about keeping his investigations from Aidan.  He wanted to present Aidan with more than a set of theories and ‘what ifs’; now, however, the cat is about to jump out of the bag as Jamie, Aidan and Danny (one of Aidan’s younger brothers, who is involved with Mel) are racing to Cuba after she took off on the trail of her Uncle Roberto whom, she has discovered, has been working with/for Pierre Renaud, the terrorist responsible for the murders of Aiden’s husband and his partner.  During the perilous confrontation that follows when they find Mel facing off with Roberto, Aidan finally learns the truth; that his husband, Gabe, had been working with Renaud (and so had Tom, his partner) and that Jamie has known about it for months.

Aidan is thrown completely by this news.  Having just admitted the truth of his feelings for Jamie, he’s angry and hurt at the fact that his partner has kept something so important from him for so long, and he asks for a solo assignment while he comes to terms with it all.  Jamie isn’t surprised and tries to understand when Aidan tells him that he needs time and space… all he can do now is hope that Aidan will come back to him when he’s ready.

 

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

 

Dirty Deeds (Dirty #1) by HelenKay Dimon

This title may be purchased from Amazon

No dirty deed goes unnoticed in a seductive game of cat and mouse. But for Alec and Gaige, the wrong move could get them killed.

Alec Drummond didn’t make his billions by playing nice—or by playing much at all. When it comes to pleasure, Alec only has time for whatever’s quick and easy, which is exactly what he gets from his company’s hot new computer genius. But Gaige Owens isn’t some pushover. He pushes back, and it’s giving Alec a rush. The question is, could Gaige be the one who’s leaking trade secrets? Just to be safe, Alec keeps him close at hand . . . night and day.

Gaige never thought he’d roll over for a man like Alec again, but who could resist sex this mind-blowing? Then there’s the draw of Alec’s mysterious side: his cutthroat ambition, his covert CIA connections, and the murder in his past. For Gaige, a deeper look proves an irresistible temptation. But when Gaige and Alec are stripped of their defenses by an unseen danger, everything they don’t know could bring them closer together—or tear them apart. Only one thing is certain: Before it’s all over, someone’s going down.

Rating: B-

Dirty Deeds is a fast-paced, action-packed story that begins when billionaire businessman and all-round hardass Alec Drummond catches Gaige Owens breaking into his company’s vault.  It transpires that Gaige has been ’employed’ (or rather, had his arm twisted) by the enigmatic, equally hardass Seth Lang (Guarding Mr. Fine) to deliberately trigger Drummond Enterprises security systems  and thereby force Alec to sit up and take notice of Seth’s requests for a meeting.

Alec’s company is one of the world’s leading food/food-hybrid manufacture/bio-research companies that also dabbles in research into alternate fuel sources – and Seth thinks that someone is setting it up for a fall, most likely terrorists or regimes who want to be able to control people by means of controlling the food supply.  It’s all very cloak-and-dagger, and Seth is reluctant to say any more than he has to.  It’s clear that he and Alec have locked horns before and the testosterone flies liberally as they face-off against each other while a puzzled and not too pleased Gaige looks on.

While all this is happening, Gaige and Alec are sizing each other up in a different way and very much liking what they see.  It’s an odd moment, perhaps, for insta-lust to strike, but strike it does, with a very large ‘clang!!’  Seth wants Gaige to pose as an external security expert at Drummond to see if he can trace who is setting them up – but Alec isn’t happy; he doesn’t want a total stranger poking his nose into his company.  Still, he also needs to find out who’s trying to sabotage him and agrees to Seth’s plan, intending to keep Gaige on a firm leash and keep an eye on him 24/7.

Alec installs Gaige in his Munich home and pretty soon the intense attraction the two men feel for each other is impossible to resist.  Alec is a workaholic, Gaige – a hot nerd with a wry sense of humour – was badly burned by his previous lover, so neither is looking for anything long-term.  They agree to keep it to casual, no-strings-sex, but it’s not long before they find it impossible to remain detached, and start to share confidences.

The insta-lust from practically the first page is a bit much although the author does it well, and keeps it running into the sex scenes, which are frequent and nicely steamy.  I liked how she showed Alec and Gaige gradually lowering their defences, although given the story takes place over about a week, this is perhaps somewhat unbelievable, especially for Alec, who doesn’t trust easily and whose privacy is intensely important to him.

I’m not sure I completely bought into the plot and the characterisation isn’t especially deep, but Dirty Deeds is an enjoyable, undemanding read that kept me entertained for the couple of hours or so it took me to read it.  If hot nerds and hard-ass billionaires wrapped up in industrial espionage and each other are your thing, I imagine you could do worse than pick this one up!

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.

The Hunting Grounds (Hidden Sins #2) by Katee Robert

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Maggie Gaines used to be an FBI agent—top of her class and one of the bright, up-and-coming stars—until she spectacularly fell apart during her first high-profile case. That was eight years ago. Now she’s a ranger at Glacier National Park, and she’s found some measure of peace. But when the body of a murdered woman is discovered, she must finally put the past behind her and work with the one man she thought she’d never see again.

For months, Vic Sutherland has been hunting a killer who’s been targeting unsuspecting hikers in national parks—and now the predator has come to Glacier. Vic knows the case will bring him face-to-face with his former partner, yet nothing can prepare him for seeing Maggie again after all these years, or for the memories of passion it stirs in both of them.

As the investigation brings them closer together—and closer to the killer—Maggie and Vic fear they have only each other to trust. But even that might not be enough to make it out of Glacier alive.

Rating: B-

I enjoyed Katee Robert’s first foray into romantic suspense, The Devil’s Daughter, earlier this year, even though I felt that the balance between the two elements wasn’t quite right and that the suspense plot worked better than the romance. I’m afraid I have similar reservations about The Hunting Grounds, which, while it is well-written and has an intriguing plot about a serial killer who is hunting and murdering his victims in national parks, suffers from somewhat uneven pacing and a lack of strong chemistry between the leads.

Seven years earlier, Maggie Gaines was a rookie with the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit partnered with Vic Sutherland, one of the unit’s most experienced and successful agents. Her first case proved to be an incredibly tough one – involving a child killer – and after a year of working on it, it broke her and she left the Bureau, burned out and feeling like a failure. At her lowest ebb, she reached out to her partner for comfort – which turned into a passionate kiss, even though she knew Vic was married and off limits.

Maggie now works as a Park Ranger at Glacier National Park in Montana. She’s good at her job and is happy with her quiet life and small circle of friends; she’s not an especially social person and likes it that way. But when she is called to the scene of a gruesome murder within Glacier, she finds herself thrust headlong back into the world she thought she had left behind seven years ago.

Vic Sutherland has been working the case of a killer who has so far murdered two victims in two different national parks. The MO in each case is the same – and is the same as the newly found victim in Montana, making three killings in nine months. The FBI has a serial killer on its hands and the lack of time between the last murder and this latest one indicates that he’s escalating and that there is likely to be another one soon. Vic arrives at Glacier and meets with the medical examiner, who confirms to him that the latest victim was hunted and ‘field dressed’ in the same gruesome way as the others. His next step is to interview the rangers who found the body – one of whom is Maggie Gaines, who, he feels sure, isn’t going to be all that pleased to see him.

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

Cask Strength (Agents Irish and Whiskey #2) by Layla Reyne

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Professionally, the FBI team of Aidan “Irish” Talley and Jameson “Whiskey” Walker is as good as it gets, closing cases faster than any team at the Bureau. Personally, it’s a different story. Aidan’s feelings for Jamie scare the hell out of him: he won’t risk losing another love no matter how heart-tripping the intimacy between them. And loss is a grim reality with the terrorist Renaud still on their trail, leaving a pile of bodies in his wake.

Going undercover on a new case gets them out of town and off the killer’s radar. They’re assigned to investigate an identity theft ring involving a college basketball team in Jamie’s home state, where Jamie’s past makes him perfect for the role of coach. But returning to the court brings more than old memories.

As secrets and shocking betrayals abound, none may be more dangerous than the one Jamie’s been keeping: a secret about the death of Aidan’s husband that could blow his partner’s world apart and destroy forever the fragile bonds of trust and love building between them.

Rating: B+

Note:  Because this is the second book in a series with an overarching storyline, there will be spoilers for the previous book, Single Malt in this review.

Cask Strength, the second book in Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish and Whiskey series picks up a few months after the events of Single Malt.  At the end of that book, Aidan Talley and Jameson Walker were instrumental in foiling a terrorist plot – and Jamie’s investigations into the car crash that killed both Aidan’s husband and his FBI partner have revealed that both the deceased were somehow connected to the very same terrorist, Pierre Renaud.  He is sworn to secrecy by their boss – who is also Aidan’s sister-in-law – and even though he hates deceiving the man he loves, Jamie agrees to keep what he knows under wraps until he can find out more.

As Cask Strength opens, Aidan and Jamie are in a good place professionally and are celebrating their position at top of the FBI’s clearance board.  Personally, however, things are far from perfect.  They’re lovers;  they enjoy each other’s company and the sex is great, but Jamie wonders how much longer he can keep what he knows from Aidan, and Aidan continues to be reluctant to commit to Jamie for fear of once again losing someone he cares for.  At the end of the previous book they agreed to keep things casual between them – or rather, Aidan decided he didn’t want to embark on a serious relationship and Jamie went along with it, willing to do whatever it took to keep Aidan in his life and in his bed.

But it’s getting harder and harder for Jamie to pretend he doesn’t want more, especially as part of “keeping it casual” for Aidan means he dates other men.  Aidan’s desperation to keep himself emotionally closed off is – perhaps – understandable, but it’s still frustrating to watch as he continually pushes Jamie away, even though deep down, it’s clear that he’s in denial about his true feelings for Jamie – and yet he persists in hurting him anyway.

Jamie’s investigations into Renaud lead him and Aidan to question the two detectives who worked the case of the crash that killed Gabe (Aidan’s late husband) and his FBI partner Tom Crane – and not long after that, those detectives are gunned down in the street.  Judging it best to get Aidan and Jamie out of the spotlight for a while, their boss sends them to North Carolina – Jamie’s home state –  to look into accusations of match fixing, illegal betting and identity theft involving a college basketball team.  Jamie goes undercover as himself – Jameson “Whiskey” Walker, former star college and NBA player who is joining the team as assistant coach, while Aidan poses as his agent, Ian Daley.  Jamie is thus best placed to work out who – if anyone – among the players could be suspect, and Aidan can do the same among the department and administrative staff.

Once again, Ms. Reyne has crafted an intriguing and exciting suspense plot which kept me eagerly turning the pages, and which at the same time throws more light on the personalities of our two protagonists and further develops their relationship.  Jamie is practically floored by lust the first time he sees Aidan in all his red-headed Irish glory as Ian – and green-eyed with jealousy at the flirtatious – albeit fake – relationship Aidan embarks upon with the college’s athletic director in order to get closer to the criminal operation.  But the jealousy isn’t all one-sided; Jamie’s former lover, Derrick Pope, is back on the scene, and makes clear – in no uncertain terms – his interest in picking up where they left off.

Given Aidan’s insistence that there’s no long-term future for them, Jamie starts to question his past decisions and wonder if he did the right thing eight years ago, getting out of professional sports.  His brief stint as assistant coach at CU shows him that he’s got a real aptitude for working with players off the court, and I enjoyed seeing that side of him, briefly unencumbered by terrorist threats or FBI cases, and just wanting to do the best by his team members; it’s a glimpse of what “Whiskey” Walker might have been had he not left the game.

There’s a lot going on in this story, what with the identity theft case, the search for Renaud and the development of the romance, but I never felt as though things were moving too fast for me to take everything in.  The balance between the different plot elements is just about right; there’s plenty of nail-biting action mixed in with moments of tenderness, humour and scorching sex scenes (*cough* pool table *cough*) and Ms. Reyne skilfully drives everything along to a highly suspenseful conclusion that ultimately forces both protagonists – Aidan especially – to confront the truth of their feelings for each other.

The sexual chemistry between the two men is intense, but the author does a great job of creating emotional closeness and intensity between them, too, so there’s never any doubt in the reader’s mind that these two need and care very deeply for each other.  There’s a well-drawn secondary cast (I hope we’ll see more of Nic and Cam, Jamie’s best friend) and I once again enjoyed the glimpses of the strong familial ties between Aidan and his younger brother Danny, who, it seems, is now dating Mel Cruz, Aidan’s boss and sister-in-law.   The book ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, as Jamie and Aidan wrap things up at CU and are set to head home when Aidan’s brother Danny appears with potentially devastating news, setting the stage for what I imagine are going to be some pretty explosive developments in the final book, Barrel Proof.

Cask Strength is a riveting read, and one I’d strongly recommend to fans of romantic suspense. One word of caution; it doesn’t really work as a standalone, so I’d advise reading Single Malt first.

The Drowned Girls (Angie Pallorino #1) by Loreth Anne White

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared …

But Detective Angie Pallorino never forgot the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victim’s foreheads.

When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?

Then the body of a drowned young woman floats up in the Gorge, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.

Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake lose some unsettling secrets about her own past . . .
How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?

Rating: A-

The Drowned Girls – the first book in Loreth Anne White’s Angie Pallorino trilogy – is a superbly plotted, intense romantic thriller which sees the heroine trying to come to terms with family problems, the recent death of her work-partner and concerns about her own mental health – all while continuing to work as a detective in the Metro Victoria PD sex crimes unit and gunning for a promotion to the elite, all-male homicide division.

Angie has always been a bit difficult to work with.  She’s hot-tempered, stubborn and doesn’t work well with others, but she’s good at her job and truly believes she makes a difference by doing what she does, putting away the sick bastards who prey (mostly) on women and young girls.  But dealing with the sorts of things she has dealt with on a daily basis for the past six years has gradually taken its toll, and even before her partner was killed a few months earlier, Angie had begun to shut down her emotions and close herself off, to become all about the job and nothing else. But since his death, and the death of the child they were working to save from her abuser, Angie has pretty much gone down the rabbit-hole; she’s in a self-destructive downward spiral, driving herself harder and harder, having to work hard to contain her aggression and fury and needing to maintain control at all times, using meaningless sex with strangers as her coping mechanism and way of blowing off steam.

When a comatose sixteen-year-old girl is found dumped at the foot of a statue of the Madonna in a local graveyard, having been brutally assaulted, mutilated and almost drowned and has the shape of a crucifix carved into her forehead, Angie is sure it’s the work of the same killer she and her partner had been trying to put away three years earlier.  There were two victims (that they knew of) both sexually assaulted and with a crucifix drawn on their foreheads with a red marker.  The further disfigurement of the latest victim would indicate that the perpetrator is escalating – and the discovery of another body bearing the same mutilations and signs of assault, this time one who has been wrapped in polythene and dumped in the river – definitely supports that theory and indicates that he is almost certainly going to strike again soon.

Sergeant James Maddocks, formerly of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) has recently moved to the area in order to be close to his daughter, Ginny, who is a student at the University of Victoria.  His marriage broke down under the strain placed upon it by his job and while the move to the Victoria PD is a bit of a step-backwards career wise, he wants to be near Ginny and to be a better dad.  He is assigned as lead on the case of the body found in the river, and when the victim from the graveyard dies, the case turns into a double homicide.

With the death of the assault victim, the hunt for a serial rapist becomes the hunt for a serial killer, and, given her familiarity with the killer’s MO and with the earlier unsolved murders, Angie is seconded to the homicide team investigating both murders.  The discovery that her new partner and boss is the guy she’d picked up in a bar and fucked the night before just pushes her closer to the edge; how can she work with someone who knows something so personal about her, and who – she is sure – must know she’s screwed up inside?

But Maddocks is a good guy.  He doesn’t push and he agrees with Angie that they should put that night behind them – although it becomes quickly clear that isn’t going to be easy for either of them. There’s an attraction there than neither can ignore; and for Angie, it’s a problem.  She has rules, lines she mustn’t cross; sex for her is about control, not caring, but she senses that Maddocks is someone she could come to care for and it scares the hell out of her.

This is the first book I’ve read by Loreth Anne White, and it definitely won’t be the last.  I was completely gripped by the story from the start and kept eagerly turning the pages as she ratcheted up the tension, introducing new plot threads and characters into the mix and weaving an increasingly complex and engrossing story involving political corruption, a rogue reporter with connections to the earlier victims, and possible links to a sex-trafficking ring.

But at the heart of the book is Angie herself, a woman who pushes herself too hard and is clearly on the edge of a major breakdown.  At the beginning of the book, her father has just had her mother admitted to a psychiatric care home for a mental illness that began to manifest itself several years earlier.  Angie’s relationship with both her parents has deteriorated badly in recent years, and it’s clear that her father, a university professor, is not happy about her chosen career.  When Angie starts hallucinating, seeing a little girl in a pink dress, she starts to wonder if it’s because she’s gone too long without sleep… or if perhaps her mother’s condition – which can be inherited – is starting to affect her.  Angie is a complicated and not always likeable character who makes some questionable decisions, but there’s no doubt that she cares deeply about getting justice for the victims of the crimes she investigates.  Her relationship with Maddocks is nicely done; they’re combustible together but neither is prepared for the emotional pull they feel toward one another, or for the degree of trust that builds between them.

The Drowned Girls kept me reading late into the night as layer upon layer was peeled away to reveal the intricate connections between the various characters and the extent of their involvement with the killer. Angie’s storyline is equally compelling; she’s a mess of issues around control, trust and intimacy, and needs to face up to them if she’s ever going to climb out of the hole she’s dug for herself. She has the guts to do it – but in doing so, uncovers secrets about her past that cause her to question everything she’s ever known.

The balance between thriller, romance and Angie’s personal journey is just about right, and Ms. White does a terrific job in inexorably building the dramatic tension as she propels us into an exciting, high-stakes climax. But while the case is solved by the end of the book, Angie has much to learn about herself, and I imagine that her search for answers, together with her developing relationship with Maddocks will continue through the other books in the trilogy.

The Drowned Girls is strongly recommended for fans of edgy heroines and gritty romantic suspense.  I’m already counting the days until book two comes out in November.

Turn Me Loose (Alpha Ops #6) by Anne Calhoun

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When she was on the verge of adulthood, Riva Henneman committed a crime and got caught red-handed. Luckily, she was busted by a HOT young cop…who also had a big heart. A one-time SEAL candidate, Officer Ian Hawthorn knew how it felt to have your dreams derailed. So he gave Riva a choice: face prison time or work for him as a confidential informant. But even a get-out-of-jail-free card comes with a cost. . .

Years later, Ian still remembers beautiful, innocent Riva–and the smoldering attraction they shared but both tried to ignore. Will they have a second chance, now that they’re back in each other’s lives? Riva’s work with inner-city children has led to a surprise run-in with Ian, who has his own agenda–one that could put them both in grave danger. Is their desire worth the risk this time?

Rating: B+

Although Turn Me Loose is billed as the sixth book in Anne Calhoun’s Alpha Ops series, the author includes enough relevant information about previous situations and characters to make it work as a standalone, although I will admit to having re-read AAR’s review of Under the Surface in order to remind myself of a couple of things. This book turns the spotlight on Lieutenant Ian Hawthorn of the Lancaster PD, an ambitious officer with his eye on a captain’s stripes – stripes he hopes to earn by finally bringing down a large drug cartel and convicting the cops who are taking bribes and turning a blind eye to its operations. Turn Me Loose isn’t overly action-packed – there aren’t many car chases and shoot-out set-pieces – but I didn’t mind that because the story the author is telling is more character driven and that focus works well. The lack of action doesn’t mean there’s a lack of suspense, however – that comes from the protagonists’ proximity to the bad guy and the ever-present sense of danger the author creates as a result; and ultimately, I was absorbed in the story from beginning to end.

When she was just eighteen, Riva Henneman was arrested when she attempted to sell drugs to an undercover cop. Given the choice of prison or working as a confidential informant for Ian Hawthorn, Riva chose the latter, and helped him to bring a major dealer to trial. They haven’t seen each other since they parted seven years ago, and in the intervening years, Riva has turned her life around and now runs a scheme to help disadvantaged kids in the Lancaster area. She owns a small farm and a restaurant – Oasis – and is part of the growing farm-to-table movement which is dedicated to harvesting and cooking the freshest seasonal produce. She can’t believe her eyes one night when Ian Hawthorn walks in and asks for a table, his mere presence churning up feelings she’d thought dead and buried seven years ago.

Ian is equally surprised and unsettled to see Riva there, unable to believe the strength of the pull he still feels towards her after seven years. She is obviously not pleased to see him and at the end of the evening, asks him not to return, but fate has other ideas. When one of her young trainees is arrested for assisting his drug-dealing brother, Riva steps in to help secure his release by offering Ian some information she omitted to tell him when she was working for him – namely that back when he’d busted her for dealing, she had been working for her father, Rory Henneman, and that he is the man behind the pipeline of drugs flooding into Lancaster.

Ian is stunned by the news, but willing to listen further.  Riva tells him that she’s no longer the gullible eighteen-year-old who so craved her father’s approbation that she would do anything to earn it, and explains that she knows where she can lay her hands on all the evidence Ian will need to convict him.

Even after seven years, Ian still feels guilty about all the potentially dangerous situations he sent Riva into in the past, and is not prepared to let her enter the lion’s den alone.  He insists on accompanying her home to Chicago, where Riva plans to re-ingratiate herself with her father and gain his confidence with a view to becoming part of his operation in order to get the information she needs.

On meeting Rory Henneman, however, Ian decides upon an alternative strategy.  Henneman is a sociopath, an egocentric, conscienceless and intelligent man who thrives on adulation and on playing mind-games with those around him, and Ian immediately senses that the way in is for him to act the part of willing acolyte.  But it’s risky – Riva knows what her father is capable of and isn’t happy – but Ian is prepared to do anything to keep her safe, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.

The past Ian and Riva share is littered with hurt and misunderstandings, made even more complicated by the almost overwhelming attraction they felt for each other but never acted upon.   When they meet again, that attraction slams into them both full force, but they’re older, wiser and more cautious; having a relationship with Riva could seriously derail Ian’s career plans and Riva finds it hard to let go of her bitterness and mistrust over the way Ian used her.  Gradually, they both start to see that they are different people now and allow themselves to open up to each other;  it’s a slow-burn but they have terrific chemistry and their willingness to communicate and be honest with one another is refreshing.  I always enjoy romances where the characters act like adults and are mature enough to realise the importance of actually talking to each other instead of retreating behind emotional walls.

One of the other things that impressed me about the book was the way in which the author deals with the fact that Ian is a cancer survivor, capturing his bitterness at what the disease took from him and his frustrations at the way his body was betraying him when he was sick.  Even though he’s been clear for almost ten years, he hates people knowing about it because he doesn’t want to be seen as anything special.  He doesn’t want pity, he doesn’t want a free pass because he’s been ill – he just wants to be Ian, and while I am lucky enough not to have personal experience to draw from, these feelings seemed very realistic to me.

Turn Me Loose kept me hooked from start to finish, and I raced through it in just a couple of sittings.  Ian and Riva are well-rounded, flawed, but likeable characters whose issues serve to create an interesting conflict between them without turning the story into an over-the-top angst fest; their sexual chemistry is scorching and the love scenes are both tender and steamy.  Ms. Calhoun does a great job with the suspense elements, too, gradually increasing the sense of peril and raising the stakes as our heroes become more closely enmeshed with Henneman.  The writing flows smoothly and the story is well-paced, with the judicious use of flashbacks to give readers an insight into Ian and Riva’s complicated history.

Turn Me Loose is recommended for fans of romantic suspense who like a strong emphasis on the romance and a couple of protagonists who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.  I’ll definitely be seeking out this author’s backlist.