Cold Cruel Kiss (Cold Justice: Crossfire #4) by Toni Anderson

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When the daughter of the US Ambassador to Argentina is kidnapped in broad daylight on Christmas Eve, the FBI sends one of its best negotiators to investigate.

Supervisory Special Agent Max Hawthorne arrives at an embassy thrown into chaos as US and local law enforcement hustle to track the young woman. Is this a simple kidnap for ransom, or part of a political agenda? Could it be something more sinister?

Lucy Aston has something to hide. Preferring to stay in the shadows, the lowly, fashion-challenged office assistant resents being assigned to help Max. But Max can’t resist a puzzle…he’s starting to suspect Lucy Aston is not what she seems.

When rumors emerge of a suspected Russian spy operating out of the embassy, Lucy’s carefully constructed life begins to crumble. As she and Max race to rescue the ambassador’s daughter, Lucy has to do whatever it takes to keep her cover from being blown—even if that means betraying the man she’s falling for.

Rating: A-

Book four in Toni Anderson’s Cold Justice: Crossfire series, Cold Cruel Kiss is a nail-bitingly tense, superbly plotted romantic suspense novel set in Buenos Aires, which finds Supervisory Special Agent Max Hawthorne of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit called in after the seventeen-year-old daughter of the US Ambassador to Argentina is kidnapped whilst on a Christmas Eve shopping trip. I’ve read or listened to the other books in this series (and to some of the earlier Cold Justice series) and this is the best yet; it’s clever and perfectly paced with a few good twists and turns and a couple of engaging leads whose romance, while fairly low key, nonetheless hums with chemistry.

British transplant Max Hawthorne – a former SAS officer – is on holiday in Cartagena when he gets the call to head to the US Embassy in Buenos Aires to co-ordinate the operation to ensure the release of Kristen Dickerson and her friend, Irene Lomakin, who was abducted alongside Kristen off a busy shopping street in broad daylight.  Max arrives to find chaos – and knows he’s got to perform a difficult balancing act; his priority is the safety of the two girls and getting them back, but this being an Ambassadorial family adds so many other potential problems to the mix.  The political angle, the need to keep the various agencies involved co-operating – and the fact that the Legal Attaché (the FBI representative abroad) is working on some big hush-hush operation that may or may not complicate things further;  the whole situation has the potential to go wrong for more than just the Ambassador and her family.

Max is immediately intrigued by one of the Embassy staff – Lucy Aston, assistant to the Ambassador’s PA – whom he senses is deliberately hiding in plain sight.  He can’t help wondering exactly why, but doesn’t really have the time to do more than wonder about it, as he’s caught up in meetings and setting up an operations centre… until later that day when Lucy is assigned to drive him wherever he needs to go.

Former CIA operative Lucy Aston has turned being unnoticeable into an art form following a devastating betrayal fifteen months earlier, when the man she fell in love with turned out to be a Russian agent.  Compromising photos and videos are now being used to blackmail her for information – although she’s sure nothing she’s given up so far could have anything to do with the kidnapping.  But the knowledge that those images have probably been seen by many people without her permission has destroyed her confidence and left her feeling vulnerable and violated, and now she goes out of her way to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, dying her hair a mousy brown, hiding behind big glasses and wearing clothes that are as unflattering as possible.  Usually she just fades into the background and nobody ever gives her a second look – until Max Hawthorne arrives and very quickly intuits that Lucy is not quite what she seems.

Lucy – who speaks fluent Spanish – ends up working with Max as he searches for information that could help them locate the girls as well as help in his negotiations, and a tentative friendship forms between them.  Lucy hasn’t been attracted to a man since her disastrous liaison with Sergio Raminsky, but Max’s kindness, his innate decency and trustworthiness draw her to him every bit as much as his handsome face and gorgeous body. And Max is intrigued by the embassy ‘mouse’ who can keep up with him at a run and can drop-kick a thug like a pro, and wants to know more about the woman who hides her intelligence, competence and humour behind such a drab exterior.

The suspense plot is complex and really well-constructed, with seemingly disparate plot threads gradually drawn together until they merge into one.  It’s thoroughly engrossing – once things kicked into gear, I couldn’t put the book down – but there are a lot of moving parts and I had to pause for breath once or twice just to remind myself who was who and who was working for whom!

We get several chapters from the points of view of the kidnapped girls, who, despite being terrified, manage to keep their wits about them and never once think about abandoning each other; they’re wonderfully resilient characters who are determined to fight to the end.  There’s no graphic violence, but there are a couple of violent scenes – one an attempted assault – and some detail of the conditions in which they’re kept that some readers may find upsetting.

I always say I like romantic suspense to have a good balance of both elements – but there are times when I get so swept up in a book’s storyline that the imbalance doesn’t really matter, and that’s the case here.  The romance takes a back-seat to the suspense plot, but it didn’t bother me; the mutual attraction between Lucy and Max is nicely realised (and thankfully without all the endless mental-lusting that is so prevalent in romance novels nowadays), and given that the story takes place over just a few days and both characters have priorities other than getting it on – priorities that really could mean life-or-death –  I actually liked that they weren’t declaring their undying love at the end, but were rather deciding they wanted to give a relationship a try.  It’s a strong HFN which works much better in context than a hearts-and-flowers HEA would have done.

Heart-pounding action, pulsing attraction, spooks, conspiracies, betrayal, political wrangling; Cold Cruel Kiss has it all and Toni Anderson moulds it into a terrific read and one of the best romantic suspense stories I’ve read in a while. Fans of the genre should definitely consider checking it out.

The Same End (The Lamb and the Lion #3) by Gregory Ashe

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Teancum Leon is pretty sure that if he plays his cards right, he can have it all: his childhood friend and former lover, Ammon Young; his best friend (although Tean is loath to admit it), Jem Berger; and his family. A boyfriend might even be in his future, although he’s having a heck of a time getting a second date with the guys he meets on Prowler.

Then the key suspect in a murder investigation asks to speak with Jem, overturning the precarious balance Tean has worked to maintain. A girl Jem knew in childhood is dead, and the man believed to have killed her was one of Jem’s tormentors at Decker Lake Juvenile Detention Center. Antonio Hidalgo insists he is innocent, and he begs Jem to find the real killer, a man Jem knows very well, the man who masterminded his torture at Decker: Tanner Kimball.

When Jem decides to check out Antonio’s story, Tean insists on helping. Their search takes them into Utah’s high desert, a land of redrock cliffs and hoodoo stones. But everything changes when they find a dead man in a remote canyon. He carries Tanner’s wallet, but the body has been disfigured, making identification difficult—if not impossible. Jem is convinced that the scene has been staged, and he’s determined to find Tanner and make him pay for the bodies in his wake.

Warnings begin piling up from the chief of police, the sheriff, a Bureau of Land Management special agent, even a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. Everyone wants Tean and Jem to understand that it’s in their best interest to go back to Salt Lake before they dig any deeper. A shipment of illegal drugs—several million dollars’ worth—might be the motive. But Tean and Jem begin to suspect that something else is driving events: a motive darker and stronger than money. Learning the truth, though, will take both men on a collision course with the past.

Rating: A

While boasting mysteries as complex and a central relationship as complicated and messy as any of those to be found in any of his other books, the overall tone of Gregory Ashe’s The Lamb and the Lion series has seemed somewhat gentler, somewhat lighter than many of those other books. The frequent laugh-out-loud humour, the wonderfully vivid descriptions of the landscape and the author’s ability to convey its majesty and stillness, the palpable affection between the two leads and their innate goodness, have, I think, sometimes worked to lull the reader into a false sense of security and to conceal the raw emotions that have been bubbling beneath the surface throughout.  It’s been obvious from the start that both Jem and Tean have a lot of hurt and trauma in their pasts and that those events have had a large hand in shaping the men they are now, but they’ve both done such a great job of pretending they’re fine, of hiding behind their teasing banter and playful affection that it’s been easy to forget that these are two very damaged individuals who are really struggling to process and let go of the things that hurt them, and to find a new path towards becoming the people they’re meant to be.

The Same End rips open the fault-lines in that dichotomy.

Wildlife vet Teancum Leon and grifter Jem Berger couldn’t be more different.  Tean is, by his own admission, introverted and repressed; Jem is outgoing and larger-than-life; Tean is something of a nihilist, prone to coming up with all manner of little-known facts and statistics about death; Jem takes life as it comes, living off his wits and the thrill of the game, never feeling more alive than when he’s ‘riffing’ during a con.  They met when Jem’s foster brother was murdered (The Same Breath) and they teamed up to find the killer; along the way they became lovers but that ended when Tean found out that Jem had been lying to him, and after reconciling (in one of the best make-up scenes ever), they decided they were better as friends.  After Tean tried – and failed – to ‘help’ Jem (helping him into a regular job, into renting an apartment and into what is – to Tean – a normal life, but which to Jem feels more like a straitjacket) in The Same Place, when The Same End opens, Jem is back to his old ways, grifting for money, living wherever he can – and Tean doesn’t like it.  Not because he doesn’t like Jem breaking the law (although he doesn’t like it), but because he’s worried about him.  Jem hides everything – what he’s doing, where he’s living, how he’s living, turning up at Tean’s place most days after Tean gets home from work and spending time with him but then heading off to… wherever – and he won’t accept help with anything (except with his reading.)

Although he’s ended his sexual relationship with deeply closeted (and married-with-kids) cop Ammon Young, Tean is determined not to lose a friendship of more than twenty years standing, and wants to find a way to keep both Ammon and Jem in his life.  It’s obvious to the reader that Tean is going to have to make a choice somewhere along the line, because Ammon and Jem are never going to get on in a million years; just as it’s obvious that Tean’s unwillingness to cut Ammon loose is giving Ammon the opportunity to worm his way back into Tean’s life and bed – even though Tean insists that all he wants is friendship.  But Ammon is insidious (and relentless) – unbeknownst to Tean, he’s running off any guy Tean dates – and he knows exactly how to fuck with Tean’s head, even going to far as to use Tean’s family to try to get back into his pants.

As in the previous books, the suspense plot hits close to home, but in this one, it’s even more devastatingly personal.  A young woman Jem knew in foster care is murdered, and the suspect – also someone from Jem’s past – insists he won’t talk to anyone but Jem.  Jem knows something isn’t right; that if the cops had enough evidence against the guy, they wouldn’t need him, but he agrees – begrudgingly – to talk to him… and immediately recognises the man as Antonio Hidalgo, one of a trio of boys who had made his life a misery at Decker Juvenile Hall, who physically and sexually abused him for fun.  Antonio is accused of murdering his girlfriend Andi, but he insists that Tanner Kimball – who was the ringleader at Decker all those years ago – is the real killer.  Seeing Antonio again brings back all those memories Jem has fought so hard to lock away, and he starts falling apart; he can’t sleep, he’s a bag of nerves and on edge all the time, and even though he tries to hide the state he’s in from Tean, Tean knows him too well by now to accept his insistence that he’s fine and nothing is wrong.  But he also knows that if he pushes, Jem will likely just disappear, so all he can do is hope that eventually Jem will confide in him.  But it’s tearing him up inside to see his friend so wrung out.

While Jem couldn’t give a fuck about what happens to Antonio, he wants to get justice for Andi – but his desire for revenge against Tanner is what really drives him.  Jem and Tean head into Utah’s high desert intent on checking out Antonio’s story – but the discovery of a dead body carrying Tanner’s ID in a remote canyon is just the start of an ever-expanding web of intrigue, murder and betrayal that could get them both killed.  But Jem can’t rest until they get to the truth.  He knows the dead man isn’t Tanner – and as the bodies mount up, everyone, from the chief of police to the highway patrol, is warning Jem and Tean to get out of town which only lends credence to the idea that they’re on to something that interested parties will go to any lengths to keep hidden. Ammon’s reappearance adds yet another point of strain to their already fractured relationship;  his manipulations, the pressure exerted by Tean’s family, and Tean’s inability to connect with Jem are wearing Tean down, while Jem is being tortured by memories and driven by a mess of dark, negative emotions that are threatening to eat him alive.

The characterisation of both leads is incredible.  They’re so real and so flawed; they make mistakes, they hurt each other and they let each other down, but they never stop trying – to be better, to understand each other and to do the right thing. They really do want what’s best for the other; Jem geniunely wants Tean to be happy (even if it’s not with him) and to start to see himself as the amazing person he really is; Tean wants the same for Jem, he wants him to be safe and to believe he deserves so much more than the life he’s chosen – which is all Jem think’s he’s worthy of.

The relationship between them is stunning in its complexity and the amazingly insightful way it’s written.  Mr. Ashe switches the mood seamlessly from laugh-out-loud humour to intensely emotional moments of honesty and introspection; from gentle, flirtatious teasing to deeply affectionate moments which affirm what the reader has known since the moment they met; that Jem and Tean really are the soulmates Jem jokes about. This is true of the other books in the series as well, but in this one… there were times it felt like my heart was actually hurting for this lovely, damaged pair.

The mystery is complex and clever and intensely satisfying, with a final twist that puts a very different spin on things, and Mr. Ashe ratchets up the tension to impossible levels during the nailbitingly tense denouement.  Thankfully however, the book ends on a beautifully bittersweet note that is perfect for this imperfect pair.  They’ve finally faced up to their pasts and are learning to let go of the damaging things they’ve held on to for too long, and although they’re got a lot of work to do if they’re going to build something lasting, the reader is left confident in the knowledge that they have what it takes to get there. As Jem says – “This isn’t the end… It’s the beginning”.

The Same End is a deeply emotional, skilfully plotted and utterly compelling end to The Lamb and the Lion series, and is, like its predecessors, impossible to put down.  Gregory Ashe is without doubt, an author at the top of his game, and I honestly can’t think of anyone else writing in this genre right now who can match him in his ability to craft, captivating, flawed characters, clever dialogue that will make you laugh one moment and cry the next, gripping plotlines, and well-developed, heartfelt relationships that plumb the depths and then scale the heights of human emotion.  Part of me hopes that one day, Mr. Ashe might re-visit Jem and Tean, while another part is more than happy to leave them here, at the beginning of a new life together.  After all they’ve been through, they deserve it.

Special Ops Seduction (Alaska Force #5) by Megan Crane

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She’s the last woman he ever wanted to see again…

After an official operation turned deadly, Jonas Crow began a new life in Grizzly Harbor with Alaska Force. But when fellow soldier Bethan Wilcox joins the group, she forces him to remember things he actively prefers to forget. That’s unforgivable enough. But now the two of them are forced together on a mission to uncover deadly secrets tied to their complicated past, and with the heat between them at a boil, forgiveness is the least of his worries…

And the only woman he needs.

Bethan Wilcox, one of the first women to make it through Army Ranger school, didn’t join Alaska Force to deal with Jonas’s foul temper. Or her own errant attraction to him. Thrown together in a race against the clock, they have to pretend to be a couple and play nice to throw the enemy off their scent. She knows better than to let their pretend love feel real…especially while time is running out.

Jonas has always been good at saving the world. But it’s Bethan he needs to save this time around—if she doesn’t save him first.

Rating: C+

Special Ops Seduction is the fifth book in Megan Crane’s Alaska Force series of romantic suspense novels and I picked it up mostly because I’d enjoyed the previous book (Delta Force Defender) and because I liked the premise of the romance in this one – two tough-as-nails special operatives who have an uneasy history have to pose as a couple in order to gain much-needed intelligence pertinent to their current mission.  Unfortunately however, the suspense plot, while quite compelling, doesn’t really get going until around three-quarters of the way into the book, the hero has as much personality as a plank of wood (which is partly intentional, but still makes him very difficult to relate to or like) and the middle section of the book is kind of all over the place and failed to hold my attention.

Bethan Wilcox is the only female member of the elite Alaska Force, which is comprised of former special forces operatives who wanted to continue to fight the good fight after they left the military.  As one would expect of a former Army Ranger, she’s strong, tough and fiercely competent; a woman operating in a man’s world, Bethan works harder, longer and with more intensity and determination than anyone, conscious she can never let her guard down and compartmentalising the different sides of her personality.  A fearsome hardass is the face she shows to everyone on the team; behind the locked door of her cabin home is the only place she allows herself to indulge in her softer side and be wholly herself.

Big, brooding, taciturn and deliberately unknowable, Jonas Crow is a perennial thorn in Bethan’s side.  He’s one of the founding members of Alaska Force and is known for his ability to be almost invisible – in the sense that he somehow does the exact opposite of attract attention – and for being utterly implacable and completely unemotional; more machine than man.  He and Bethan have a history that goes way back, well past the eighteen months she’s been with Alaska Force – a past he refuses to talk about or acknowledge, but one which clearly makes him uncomfortable (insofar as he feels any emotions about anything).   I have to admit here that given the way it’s built up, I expected this history to be something incredibly shocking – but it isn’t.  Bethan saved Jonas’ life following a bomb attack in the desert and kept him alive until help arrived; he apparently told her all sorts of things he now regrets saying as he drifted in and out of consciousness and – er… that’s it.  He behaves like a total dick to her for eighteen months because Mr. Big, Bad ‘n’ Broody is pissed he got saved by a girl.

Moving on.

The book opens really strongly with Bethan, Jonas and other members of the team on a mission to rescue Iyara Sowande and her brother – a brilliant biochemist widely touted as the world expert on a new form of chemical warfare – and get them both well away and to a safe-house.  Their mission is successful – although not without a couple of hiccups – and all goes to plan afterwards, until a few days later, they learn that the Sowandes are missing.

Here’s where the plotting gets a bit… tenuous.  There are apparently five men who could either have arranged for the Sowandes to be kidnapped OR have made a deal to gain access to Tayo Sawande’s research  – three high-ranking military officers and two Fortune 500 CEOs – and by a stroke of luck, all five of them are to be present at the wedding, in two weeks’ time, of Bethan’s sister, Ellen.  (Bethan’s father is also a high-ranking military officer, so they’re all members of that particular Boys Club).  Bethan doesn’t get on with her family and spends as little time with them as possible; her father is Air Force (she joined the Army to rebel against him), her mother disapproves of her because she’s not good at “the serious girl stuff” (telling her once that she was worried Bethan would show up at an event wearing fatigues) and her sister, well, they don’t have much of a relationship because Bethan’s hardly around.   So Bethan is about to go undercover in her parent’s home – as herself.  When Jonas volunteers to be her date for the week, Bethan is as surprised as everyone else.

Around half the story is taken up with the visit to Bethan’s home and the lead-up to the wedding.  We – and Bethan – finally get to see a different side of Jonas, although his one-of-the-lads act is just as much of a fake persona his usual day-to-day one.  He’s starting to struggle to keep his mask in place around Bethan though, and it’s not long before tempers flash and walls come tumbling down; but desperate, heated kisses and wall-banging sex aren’t enough to keep those walls from going up again almost immediately afterwards.  There’s definitely chemistry between Jonas and Bethan, but their relationship is severely underdeveloped, and while I could see what Jonas saw in Bethan – her competence, her abilities, her big-heart – I was at a loss as to what Bethan saw in Jonas, other than he’s hot.

In fact the best part of that section of the story was watching Bethan reappraise her family situation and realise that perhaps she’d misread it and misread them;  I was pleased she found a way she could be herself and have her family back in her life.

As I said at the beginning, the final section is where pretty much all the action is, but as with the previous book, the lead up to the HEA had me scratching my head.  It’s hard to say much without spoilers, but Bethan makes an assumption that directly contradicts something she and Jonas had said to each other just hours before, and it’s such an obvious way of manufacturing a delay to the HEA that it made me really cross.

I dithered a bit over the grade for this one, because while I really liked Bethan and her journey towards reconciling with her family and realising she could have both them and her job, this is supposed to be a romantic suspense novel and neither of those elements works all that well.  Jonas is one of those typically strong, silent, alpha types, but he’s almost entirely a one-note character – all about being dead inside and having no feelings and not wanting to think about Bethan in any way, shape or form. It’s like he’s TOO badass to have an actual personality, which made it hard to root for them to be together, because I couldn’t get a handle on him – and Bethan deserved better than someone who treated her like shit for years, especially considering she’d saved his life.

So I’ve reached the conclusion that while Special Ops Seduction has its good points, there aren’t enough of them – and certainly not enough of them in the romance or the suspense departments  – to merit  a recommendation.

Blind Trust (Men of Steele #6) by Gwen Hernandez

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After escaping from kidnappers in the Montana wilderness, Lindsey Garcia is her best friend’s only hope for rescue. But when her enemies trap her on the mountain with a sexy stranger she’s not sure she can trust, both her life and her heart are in danger.

Former special operator Todd Brennan is on a personal hunt for a killer when he saves Lindsey from a deadly fall. He plans to get her to the nearest town and renew his pursuit, but a fatal encounter forces him to choose between love and justice.

Rating: B

Blind Trust, book six in the Men of Steele series of romantic suspense novels, is another fast-paced, well-plotted and steamy tale from author Gwen Hernandez.   I’ve consistently enjoyed the books of hers I’ve read so far, although I have to say that the romantic conflict in this one was a bit drawn out and the plot seemed a little thin by comparison.  I’ve dipped in and out of the series easily; characters from previous books do cross over, but there are no overarching plotlines, so each one can be read as a standalone.

The story opens in media res, just after Lindsey Garcia has escaped the men who kidnapped her and her best friend in the wilds of Montana.  She and Megan had been looking forward to a quiet few days at a remote cabin, but when hiking, stumbled onto some private land where they were found by a couple of armed guards who offered to take them to someone who could help them find their way.  But then the two women were locked up in separate cabins on the compound – with no idea why.  Shortly after, Lindsey managed to get away by squeezing out of the bathroom window, and is running for her life when she slips; she’s seconds away from falling to her death when she’s grabbed by the wrist and hauled up by a man who is, thankfully not one of her captors.

Current Steele Security operative and former Pararescueman Todd Brennan has tracked his cousin’s murderer to Montana, and is making his way to the remote compound where he’s supposed to be – when he sees Lindsey fall.  After pulling her to safety, they’re confronted by the two kidnappers, and not wanting to endanger the man who saved her life, Lindsey agrees to go with them – but Todd isn’t about to let that happen.  Acting swiftly to overpower the goons and leaving them alive but incapacitated (courtesy of a handy roll of duct tape!), Todd realises that he’s going to have to temporarily abandon his search for Pete – his cousin’s husband and killer – so he can make sure Lindsay gets safely to the next town where she can report what happened and the authorities can make plans to rescue Megan.  When they make it to town the next day, they’re about to enter the sheriff’s office when a notice on the door stops them dead in their tracks.  It’s a ‘Wanted’ poster showing a sketch of Todd and a photo of Lindsey saying they’re responsible for an attack on the sheriff and his deputy, who died from his injuries.  Worse, it seems that the sheriff and deputy were the kidnappers – but they were both very much alive when Todd and Lindsey left them.

They’re being framed.  But why?  And by whom?

Whatever is going on, it puts a spanner in the works as far as Todd’s plans to take Lindsey to the police and get back on his way.  He can’t take her with him on his quest to track down Pete, he but can’t afford too long a delay in case the man disappears again, plus Lindsey is anxious about her friend.  With very limited options, Todd decides they need to make their way back to the compound and get Megan out; she can vouch for their story and identify her kidnappers – and then maybe he and Lindsey can avoid a murder rap.

As Todd and Lindsey make their way back along the trail, battling the elements and always aware of just how much is at stake, they get to know each other and have a chance to explore the attraction that’s been sparking between them since, well not quite the moment they met, but soon after.  The theme of trust runs through the story and is explored from different angles; can Lindsey trust Todd, a man she’s just met?  His actions in saving her and wanting to help and protect her would suggest that yes, she can.  And Todd must learn to trust his instincts in some ways, too – to believe that he and Lindsey have something worth hanging on to and working for.  He makes a big misstep on that front, and while I was pleased that Lindsey makes him work to earn her trust again, Todd’s reasons for insisting there was no long-term potential for them and his refusal to consider options even once it was clear that they were both falling hard for each other seemed somewhat contrived.

I did like Todd, though – he’s a great guy and a nice change from the hyper-macho, suffocatingly protective alpha types who are so often the heroes of romantic suspense novels.  He can be badass when called for, and he definitely wants to protect Lindsey and keep her safe, but he also listens to her and takes her opinions on board, and when it comes to the sexytimes, he’s all about respecting her boundaries and making sure she’s comfortable.  Lindsey hasn’t had great luck with men – her last boyfriend undermined her confidence really badly – so it takes her a while to realise that Todd is telling the truth when he compliments her, that he genuinely likes her and finds her attractive.  She’s intelligent and forthright and, when thrust into a situation unlike to anything she’s ever experienced, doesn’t fall to pieces and faces it head on.  They work really well as a team – again with the trust – relying on each other and making decisions together.

The suspense plot is intriguing and generally well-executed, although the last section seemed to drag on a bit before moving up several gears in the last couple of chapters and barrelling on into a high-stakes finale.  Blind Trust is an entertaining read that kept me eagerly turning the pages despite the reservations I’ve expressed – and most importantly, the author strikes a good balance between the suspense plot and the romance, which isn’t something I’m finding in a lot of m/f RS right now.  If that’s your jam, too, I’d suggest you might like to give this book – and series – a try.

In the Deep by Loreth Anne White

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I hope you don’t find him. And if you do, I hope he’s dead and that he suffered…

Real-estate mogul Martin Cresswell-Smith is the best thing that has ever happened to Ellie. After her daughter’s devastating death, a divorce, and an emotional breakdown, he’s helped her move as far as possible from the grief, the rage, and the monsters of her past. Ellie imagines her new home with Martin in an Australian coastal town will be like living a fairy tale. But behind closed doors is another story—one that ends in Martin’s brutal murder. And Ellie seems almost relieved…

Naturally, everyone thinks Mrs. Cresswell-Smith is guilty.

Senior Constable Lozza Bianchi has reasonable doubt. She sees evidence of a twisted psychological battle and a couple who seemed to bring out the worst in each other—adultery, abuse, betrayal, and revenge. If anything Ellie says can be believed, that is. As the case takes twist after spiraling twist, Lozza can’t shake the gut instinct that she’s being manipulated. That Ellie is hiding something. That there are secrets yet to surface. Lozza has no idea.

Rating: A

Loreth Anne White is one of my favourite authors, and I’m always ready to get stuck into a new book by her.  Her latest novel, In the Deep, is a fabulous read, a superbly constructed, clever thriller surrounding a murder that takes place in the Agnes Banks area of New South Wales, and I was pulled in straight away and hooked until the very end.

The book opens on the dramatic scene of the arrival of a murder suspect at the court where she is to be tried for the murder of her husband.  The car is greeted by angry crowds calling for justice, reporters, photographers, people waving mobile phones  – and when she and her lawyer exit the car, they’re surrounded by journalists eager for quotes.  It’s hard for her not to react to some of the horrible things being shouted at her, and as she’s swept inside, she can’t help asking herself how she’s come to be here.  When did it begin?

We then skip back to just over a year earlier, and to the discovery of a dead body in a swampy channel off the Agnes River.  Senior Constable Lauren – Lozza – Bianchi has reason to believe it to be that of property developer Martin Creswell-Smith, who was last seen heading out to sea in his boat four days earlier.  Which begs the question – if he’d gone overboard at his last known position ten klicks out to sea, how has his body come to be tangled up in a clump of illegal crab-pot lines in the Agnes Basin?  When Lozza and her fellow officer inspect the body more closely, they can see it’s been mutilated – clearly Creswell-Smith’s death was no accident.

Skipping back almost another year, we meet Ellie Hartley, a young woman whose life fell apart following the death by drowning of her three-year-old daughter Chloe.  Ellie blames herself for what happened; her marriage broke down under the weight of grief and guilt and Ellie became dependent on drugs and alcohol.  But she’s gradually emerging from that dark place of tragedy and despair and now, at the beginning of a new year, is determined to make a new beginning for herself.

That new beginning gets underway quickly after Ellie meets the handsome, charming Martin Creswell-Smith.  He’s in Vancouver seeking investors for his latest project – the development of a luxury resort in New South Wales – and over the following months, Martin drops in and out of Ellie’s life, whisking her away on exotic, romantic vacations at a moment’s notice, his attentiveness and understanding making her feel special  and wanted.  After they marry – at Ellie’s suggestion  – while they’re in Vegas on one of their whirlwind trips, Ellie packs up her old life and moves with Martin to Australia.

Which is when things start to go very, very wrong.

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot, which is diabolically clever, and will work best if you go in knowing as little as possible.   I think I can safely say that it’s fairly obvious to the reader right from the start that Martin isn’t at all what he seems, but that’s just about all you’re going to get from me!

Loreth Anne White has penned a fast-paced, gripping tale of psychological suspense that will slowly tie you up in knots, each turn of the screw ratcheting up the tension and the stakes that little bit more.  The characters are complex and three-dimensional; none of them are particularly likeable, but they’re compelling nonetheless, and at the centre is Ellie, riddled with insecurities and battling addiction, an unreliable narrator who should, given what she’s been through, elicit the reader’s sympathy, but who has an edge to her that means we’re never quite sure if she’s killer or victim.

One of the themes running through the book is that of misdirection, the ability of the trickster “to make us all look at thing one way while something is slipped past us another way.”  The author brilliantly uses such devices herself to tell the reader one thing and show them another, to imply that characters are one thing, and then another – and ultimately, to deliver a real coup de grâce towards the end which was so utterly brilliant that I put down my Kindle to give her a round of applause.

“The magician is much the same as a storyteller-a trickster who uses misdirection, sleight of hand, to manipulate a person’s beliefs about the world.”

Everything else about the book works wonderfully, too, from the structure – the split between Ellie’s story “Now” and “Then”, interspersed with scenes of the murder investigation – to the vividly described locations, which enable the reader to feel the sweltering heat and humidity, see the bizzare flying foxes, hear the screeching of the Kookaburras and smell the Eucalyptus trees.  I also appreciated those moments of insight the author offers into the perception of mental illness and those who have survived it.

In the Deep is a remarkable piece of storytelling, a riveting tale of emotional manipulation, betrayal and palpable fear that will keep you glued to its pages from first to last.

Note: This book contains one scene (not graphic) of sexual assault and the implication that others have taken place.

Cold Wicked Lies (Cold Justice: Crossfire #3) by Toni Anderson (audiobook) – Narrated by Eric G. Dove

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In an effort to halt an armed standoff, FBI negotiator Charlotte Blood tries to unravel the mystery of a young woman’s death on a remote mountainside. Pity she has to fight her stubborn, sexy, Hostage Rescue Team counterpart every step of the way.

As a highly skilled operative, HRT leader Payne Novak doesn’t have time to play detective or make nice with killers who flout the law. His focus is getting inside the compound and ending the siege as quickly as possible.

Forced to work together, the battle-hardened HRT team leader and the quietly determined negotiator figure out they might have more in common than they anticipated. As the clock ticks, Charlotte discovers there are some dangers she can’t talk her way out of, and the race to unearth long-buried lies becomes a matter of survival for everyone on the mountain.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – A-

Cold Wicked Lies is book three in Toni Anderson’s Cold Justice: Crossfire series, which is a spin-off from her long-running Cold Justice series. I recently listened to book one of the Crossfire books, Cold & Deadly, and thoroughly enjoyed it; I’ve leapfrogged over book two (which I intend to listen to very soon), but even though characters from other books do appear in others, all the books in both series work as standalones, so I had absolutely no trouble diving straight into this one.

The Crossfire series features characters who work as negotiators in the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, agents who are deployed to manage crisis situations and hopefully bring them to a peaceful resolution through negotiation and co-operation. In Cold Wicked Lies, the CNU is called to a remote mountainside location in Washington State to try to prevent an armed standoff between law enforcement and the inhabitants of a local survivalist compound. When TJ Harrison – son of the group’s leader – stumbles across the dead body of a young woman in the nearby woods, he is discovered by a Federal Wildlife Officer who clearly assumes he had something to do with her death. Scared, TJ runs back home followed by the FWO, who is shot and wounded by someone inside the compound. A gun battle between those on the inside and local Sheriffs and other FWOs ensued, and now the compound is locked down tight – and the last thing the FBI wants is another Waco or Ruby Ridge.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Silence (Columbia River #2) by Kendra Elliot

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A man is savagely murdered outside Portland, and Detective Mason Callahan finds blood-spatter evidence that tells a troubling story. Files reveal the murder victim, Reuben Braswell, was a radical conspiracist. In his home, investigators find pages of diatribes against law enforcement as well as ties to Mason’s fiancée, FBI special agent Ava McLane. The victim was her informant—and had strong reasons to be paranoid.

To Ava, Braswell’s rants were those of a wearying and harmless man…until they collide with her investigation into the murders of police officers and finding the connection becomes urgent. Meanwhile, Braswell’s brother and Ava’s twin sister both disappear, and disturbing acts of sabotage target Ava’s personal life.

For Mason and Ava, the brutal crimes and escalating mysteries create a perfect storm for a terrorist conspiracy that becomes dangerously personal—one that has yet to claim its last victim.

Rating: B

The Silence is book two in Kendra Elliot’s Columbia River series, but I don’t think I missed out on anything in terms of the plot by not reading the previous book, The Last Sister. Although the two principals in this story have featured in other books by the author – they’re an engaged couple – the mystery plot is completely self-contained, so you’d have no problems reading this as a standalone.

Detective Mason Callahan of the Oregon State Police is called to the scene of a particularly brutal murder at a house on the outskirts of Portland. Rueben Braswell was killed with a blunt instrument and his body was mutilated – the face bashed in, most of the fingers cut off and strewn around – which, if not for the fact that he was found in his own home, would normally have indicated that whoever killed him was trying to conceal his identity. Officers are carrying out a routine search of Braswell’s home when one of them finds a folder on his desk containing pages of anti-law enforcement rants and conspiracy theories – and blueprints of a building, the local courthouse, that indicate a bomb is set to detonate there that afternoon. As Mason gets on the phone to alert others to the threat, he and his partner notice one particular name among Braswell’s papers – that of Special Agent Ava McLane. Mason’s fiancée.

Ava isn’t having the best day either. She’s just about to leave for work when a young man she doesn’t know arrives on her doorstep and introduces himself as Brady Shurr – the man her troublesome – and troubled – twin sister Jayne had left a local drug and alcohol rehab centre with eight months earlier. Ava’s history with her wayward sister is complicated – it’s probably more detailed in the books in the Callahan and McLane series, but the author includes enough detail here for new readers to be able to catch up quickly. Basically, Jayne is selfish, conscienceless and manipulative – but she’s still Ava’s twin and no matter how much Ava wishes she could simply wash her hands of her… she can’t. Shurr tells Ava that Jayne has disappeared, and while Ava is intensely sceptical and is inclined to believe it’s yet another instance of her sister’s cruel and careless behaviour, when Shurr tells her that Jayne had told him to contact Ava if she ever disappeared, alarm bells start ringing in Ava’s head.

Things go from bad to worse when she arrives at the office to find out about the bomb threat and about Braswell’s murder. Braswell had been an informant of hers, although she’d quickly realised he had a huge chip on his shoulder about law enforcement and that he really just wanted someone to vent to. He’d insinuated he was associated with various anti-government factions, but most of their few meetings had yielded nothing useful; and at their last one, Braswell had crossed a line by grabbing her, and she’d walked away. Now Ava asks herself if she’d been too hasty – but she knows he never mentioned anything about a bomb.

When Mason and Ray arrive at the courthouse, the place is heaving with LEOs. They’re wading through the crowd when suddenly, shots are fired, chaos erupts and Mason realises the truth – there IS no bomb; the warning was a ploy to draw out cops and kill as many of them as possible.

Ava is given permission to work as part of the task force looking into the court house shooting, and I appreciated that the author addresses the potential conflict of interest by making it clear she’s on board under special circumstances; so often in novels like this, things like that are handwaved away. Mason’s investigations into Braswell’s murder reveal he had a brother he didn’t get along with – yet his car was seen parked in his driveway just days earlier. Could Shawn Braswell have killed his brother? Could he have been responsible for the shootings? Or are the two cases completely unrelated?

There’s a lot going on in The Silence, but the story never feels rushed or cluttered, and Ms. Elliot crafts a complex and fast-paced thriller as she juggles her various plot threads and begins to skilfully weave them all together. The investigations into the murder and shootings are nicely balanced by familial storylines, which provide some depth to Ava’s character, and the whole thing is slick, well-paced and engaging.

On the downside, I have to admit to feeling just a little bit disappointed because Ms. Elliot is generally billed as an author of romantic suspense, and the romance in this story has already happened (in the Callahan and McLane series), so it’s a kind of tying up of loose ends for the central couple. I liked Mason and Ava, but this is a plot- rather than character-driven story, and I didn’t feel as though I actually got to know either of them that well.

Those quibbles aside, The Silence was a suspenseful and entertaining page-turner with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing. It’s the first book I’ve read by Kendra Elliot, but I will definitely read her again.

Tainted Evidence (Evidence #10) by Rachel Grant

tainted evidence

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Some family secrets are deadly…

Inventorying human remains can be difficult at the best of times without a creepy security guard hovering over Maddie Foster’s shoulder. Nervous about being stuck in the crypt with the strange man, Maddie asks a friend of a friend to drop by and pretend to be her boyfriend to force the guy to back off.

Raptor operative Josh Warner recently moved to Oregon to take over as guardian to his troubled niece and open a new private security branch in the Pacific Northwest. Josh doesn’t hesitate to help Maddie and is intrigued by the brainy museologist. His protective nature kicks into high gear as he discovers she may be in very real danger.

Tensions run hot in the summer heat as Josh’s work puts everyone he cares about at risk, and Maddie’s research into the museum collection raises questions better left buried. As their city teeters on the precipice of violence, Josh and Maddie find themselves embroiled in a deadly scheme that could reshape the nation.

Rating: B

Rachel Grant is one of my favourite authors of romantic suspense (if not THE favourite) and I was thrilled when she announced she’d be continuing her long-running Evidence series following the winding up of her excellent Flashpoint trilogy.  Tainted Evidence is the tenth Evidence book, and the author shows no sign of running out of steam, presenting just the sort of high-stakes, clever plot I’ve come to expect together with interesting, complex characters that are easy to root for, and a number of tense, edge-of-the-seat storylines.  One of the things I always enjoy about Ms. Grant’s books is their topicality – I recall some of the scenarios in the Flashpoint books being all-too-scarily plausible for example – and that is definitely the case here, as the suspense plot deals with some sensitive and very current topics about things happening in America today. I know that not everyone is up for a dose of real-life politics in their romance novels, so I’ll say right now that while I do recommend the book, some readers may find certain aspects of it cut a little close to the bone.

Museologist Maddie Foster has been employed to examine over two hundred sets of remains housed at the mansion – formerly a private museum – of the Kocher family in Troutdale, Oregon.  Almost a century earlier, Otto Kocher had looted hundreds of ancient and indigenous graves, stealing both funerary objects and human remains, and circumvented the law about displaying the remains by housing them in underground vaults. But now the state has finally ordered the museum’s closure and the disgruntled family can’t sell the house until all the remains have been catalogued prior to repatriation.   When the book opens, Maddie is on her first day of at least ten in the musty basement of the house – and as if being cooped up for days underground weren’t bad enough, Otto’s grandson Toby, who is – ostensibly – acting as a security guard, is creeping her out.  He stands too close, repeatedly draws attention to the gun and taser he wears, obviously in an attempt to intimidate her, and while she hates admitting it, even to herself, Maddie IS intimidated.  On her lunch break, she calls her best friend, Trina Sorensen (Witholding Evidence), who is now happily married to Keith Hatcher, CEO of Raptor, a high-end private security and military training company.  A few weeks earlier, Trina had mentioned that one of Keith’s best friends, Josh Warner, was moving to Portland and tried to set them up, but Maddie had just gone through a break-up and wasn’t interested in dating anyone.  Now, however, she needs someone to get Kocher to back off, and she asks Trina if maybe Josh would be able to show up and pretend to be her boyfriend for an hour.

Josh Warner grew up in Oregon, and, following his stint in the Navy, has been working for Raptor out of their DC office for the past five years.  When he received news that his brother was being sent to prison, Josh knew he needed to get home to look after his seventeen-year-old niece, Ava, a troubled young woman with anxiety and abandonment issues.  He’s now Ava’s legal guardian and is determined to do his absolute best to provide the safe, loving environment she needs.  But between his responsibilities to Ava, to Raptor and his friend and former comrade Owen, whom Josh has been helping to get back on his feet following injury and addiction, Josh has no time for a personal life  – which is a real bummer, because the minute he sets eyes on Maddie he feels an instant pull of attraction… and knows it’s mutual.

Maddie and Josh have terrific chemistry and move very quickly from that initial attraction to heated making out, but both agree that the timing is bad and that they should put the idea of anything more than friendship onto the back burner.  The trouble is that it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and I rather liked what became their running gag about going on ‘not-dates’ and having a ‘not-relationship’, because it was clear as day to them and everyone around them that they were pretty far gone for each other even after just a few days.  That’s not to say that everything is plain sailing for them; the conflict in the romance comes as the result of a bad judgment call and takes considerable effort to undo.

The suspense plot is, as I’ve said, fast-paced and complex, and the author tackles a number of issues that are hugely relevant all the time, but are perhaps even more so at the present moment.  Maddie’s research leads her to uncover a plot by a group of white supremacists to debunk years of scientific exploration and theory as part of a larger scheme to … well, no spoilers, but it’s a doozie;  and Josh comes up with a plan to train groups of volunteers to peaceably protect those wishing to protest the planned rallies by the neo-Nazi White Patriot group.  The author packs a lot of hot topics into the story – political corruption, media perception, doxing, tribal rights, a woman’s right to choose, to name but a few – and weaves them in skilfully, but even though my personal views align pretty closely with hers, there is a degree of heavy-handedness here which I haven’t felt in her other books.  I’m always impressed with the amount of fascinating information Ms. Grant imparts and love it when I can learn new things while I’m being solidly entertained, but some of the hammering home here lacks her usual subtlety.

Josh and Maddie are engaging characters in their thirties who are confident in their abilities and know who they are and what they want.  Josh is one of those heroes with a protective streak a mile wide, something Maddie susses out right away, which prompts her to wonder who takes care of him while he’s so busy looking out for everyone else.  Maddie is determined and resourceful, and I particularly enjoyed her interactions with Ava, being open with her but also setting clear boundaries.  The attraction between Josh and Maddie comes to a boil quickly, but as the book progresses, it becomes clear they really are a very good fit and that they’re prepared put in the work needed to move forward together.

Tainted Evidence is a great addition to the excellent Evidence series, an enthralling, cleverly-plotted, hard-to-put-down novel with a satisfying balance of steamy moments and nail-biting tension.  I enjoyed it, and the reservations I’ve expressed don’t prevent me from giving it a strong recommendation.

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Everyone knows the story of the girl from widow hills…

When Arden Maynor was six years old, she was swept away in a terrifying storm and went missing for days. Against all odds, she was found alive, clinging to a storm drain. Fame followed, and so did fans, creeps and stalkers. As soon as she was old enough, Arden changed her name and left Widow Hills behind.

Twenty years later, Olivia, as she is now known, is plagued by night terrors. She often finds herself out of bed in the middle of the night, sometimes streets away from her home. Then one evening she jolts awake in her yard, with the corpse of a man at her feet.

The girl from Widow Hills is about to become the centre of the story, once again…

Rating: B

In the latest thriller from Megan Miranda, The Girl from Widow Hills, the central character is a young woman who went through a traumatic event as a child and then, in an attempt to escape the continuing media circus years later, changed her name and left her home town in order to reinvent herself and make a completely new life.  The author explores the idea of what it means to be the subject of intense media scrutiny and the sort of impact it can have on the subject while also crafting a complex and suspenseful mystery that brilliantly evokes the feelings of unease and dread experienced by the protagonist, keeping the reader as on edge as she is.

When she was just six years old, Arden Maynor disappeared from her home during a bad storm and became the focus of an intense and desperate local search and round-the-clock media attention.  Found – miraculously alive – in a storm-drain three days later the story went that she had gone outside while sleepwalking and been swept away by the flood torrents, and to this day, no-one knows how she survived, not even Arden, who has little memory of that time and has no wish to remember it.  After her rescue, her mother sold the story, went on talk shows, wrote a book about what happened, and made a lot of money off the back of it all  – money which, by the time this book opens, has largely disappeared.  When the tenth anniversary of the event came around, Arden was old enough to refuse to have anything do to with the ‘commemorations’, hating the idea that she was seen as a commodity, some sort of public property because everyone involved – whether directly or remotely – felt she owed them something.  Not long after that, she left home and changed her name.

Now the twentieth anniversary is approaching, and Olivia Meyer (I’m going to refer to her as Olivia in the current timeline of the book, as that’s how she thinks of herself) – has made the new life she wanted and has fiercely guarded her privacy.  She likes her job as an hospital administrator, has a couple of good friends, lives in a fairly isolate location near the woods, and keeps herself to herself, which is just as she wants it.  When the book begins, she has recently received news that her mother – from whom she was estranged – died of an overdose seven months earlier, and she receives a small box containing her minimal personal effects.  Nothing in it really means much to Olivia, and she puts the box away.

More troubling is the fact that she seems to have started sleepwalking again.  Her neighbour, Rick, wakes her up outside her house one night, and she has no recollection as to how she got there.  Seriously shaken, Olivia wonders if the unexpected resurgence of something she hasn’t done since childhood could be the result of the looming twentieth anniversary, and tries to take steps to make sure she remains inside in case it happens again.  But the next night, she wakens to the sound of a ringing phone – and just as she realises she’s outside again, she trips over something soft and warm… something which turns out to be the body of a man lying across the boundary of her and Rick’s property.  Panicked and disoriented, Olivia has no idea what happened.  Could she have killed the man while completely unaware of what she was doing?

Olivia has spent much of her life being wary of everything and everyone, carefully excising irrelevancies from her recollections and constructing a personal history built on lies of omission.  But when it turns out the dead man was Sean Coleman – the man who rescued Arden all those years ago – Olivia realises that she has no alternative but to tell the detectives investigating the murder the truth about her past – and she once again finds herself at the centre of a major investigation and news story.

The novel starts off fairly slowly, and the main narrative is interspersed with snippets from interviews, news items and commentary from the time of Arden’s disappearance and other key points along the timeline.  The whole thing is related from Olivia’s point of view, so the reader only knows what she knows, and as she is quickly revealed to be something of an unreliable narrator – because she has obviously blocked out most of the facts surrounding her ordeal – it’s even harder to get a complete picture of what happened.  So this is really a mystery on two fronts; who killed Sean Coleman, and what really happened to Arden before she was found in the storm drain?

But the trouble with an unreliable narrator is that they are hard to know, and I felt that way about Olivia for most of the book, which meant that I often felt removed from the action.  Her desire to escape her past is understandable, but her insistence on maintaining a distance from just about everyone – she hasn’t even told her best friend her real name – and her near-paranoia about the possibility of anything about her past coming to light made her seem a bit cold and at times, I got quite frustrated with her refusal to let anyone in.  But with that said, Olivia’s growing sense of dread, her feelings of being watched and of being off-kilter are palpable, and I didn’t see most of the plot twists and turns coming – although I did figure out the answer to one of the big questions before the reveal.

Even so, I enjoyed The Girl from Widow Hills, and although it is, as I said, a bit slow to start, things started to pick up after the first quarter or so and as the story gradually gained momentum, I found it to be a compelling read.

Wayward (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #4) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Emery Hazard is trying to plan his wedding, even though his fiancé, John-Henry Somerset, isn’t exactly making things easy for him. To be fair, Somers has been distracted lately; his father is running for mayor in a hotly contested election, and their hometown is splintering under the weight of divisive politics.

In a matter of hours, those poisonous politics invade Hazard’s life in a way he couldn’t have imagined. Glenn Somerset, Somers’s father, shows up on their doorstep, and he wants two things: first, for Hazard to neutralize a blackmail threat; and second, for Somers temporarily to move out of the house he shares with Hazard, part of public relations stunt to win the election. To Hazard’s shock, Somers agrees.

Determined to lose himself in his work, Hazard takes on a missing person’s case, but his investigation only leads him deeper into the tangled web of small-town politics. To find the truth, he must face off with the viciously rich who rule Wahredua—and with the poor, desperate, and marginalized, who fight just as viciously in their own way.

When Hazard’s investigation uncovers a murder, he is forced to work with Somers to bring the killer to justice, despite their fractured relationship. But the sudden news that Hazard’s father is failing fast threatens to put an untimely end to the case—and, in doing so, jeopardize Somers’s last-ditch effort to repair his relationship with his own father.

Rating: A

Having written over a dozen reviews of Gregory Ashe’s books over the last couple of years, I really am running out of ways to express just how damn good they are!  So forgive me for repeating myself when I say that Wayward, book four in the second Hazard and Somerset series, A Union of Swords is another fantastic combination of tightly-plotted, twisty mystery and complex and compelling romantic relationship which Mr. Ashe continues to examine with laser-sharp insight.  The wry observation, humour, snarky dialogue and fantastic storytelling readers have come to expect from this author are all present and correct in this penultimate instalment of the series, as our two favourite dysfunctional detectives – now an engaged couple – struggle with many of the same day-to-day relationship issues as the rest of us while working hard to clean up the streets of Wahredua. *grin*

The last book, Transactional Dymanics, really put Hazard and Somers’ relationship to the test, with the re-appearance of Hazard’s abusive ex and the resurgence of Somers’ tendency to retreat into a bottle as an avoidance tactic.  It’s always hard to read them when they’re at odds and hurting each other as they work through their issues, but there’s always the sense that they’re bound together by a  bedrock of love and committment that keeps them firmly anchored to each other.  By the end of that book, they’re back on an even keel and as much in love as ever.  But this is Gregory Ashe, and if you’ve got this far, you’ll know all too well that that tends to signal the calm before the storm 😉

Wayward begins a few weeks after Transactional Dynamics and Hazard is grumbling about wedding plans as he and Somers spend a relaxed evening with their neighbours Noah and Rebecca, and their friendship group – Dulac and Darnell, Wesley (the local pastor) and his girlfriend, Mitchell Martin – who narrowly escaped the Keeper of Bees in The Rational Faculty – and even Nico, who I was really pleased to see growing up and acting like a proper friend in this book.  But we’re not allowed to bask in their domesticity for too long; a day later, after an exhausting day during which he and Dulac were asked to handle an upsetting custody exchange, Somers’ father shows up to throw several cats in among the pigeons.

Glennworth Somerset is front-runner in the upcoming mayoral elections (the lesser of two evils – it’s him or Naomi Malsho!) and wants to hire Hazard to find out who is behind the blackmail threats he’s begun to get recently.  Hazard is reluctant, but Somerset Snr. reminds him of a deal they struck a while back – and he’s calling in the debt.  But that’s not the only debt he’s collecting.  With the election just two weeks away, he reminds John of an agreement they reached (most likely over the loan to start Hazard’s business) and asks Somers to  temporarily move out of the house he shares with Hazard in an attempt to sway undecided voters who don’t like the idea of having a mayor with a queer son.  Knowing how many times Somers has raised the figurative finger to his parents, or told his father to plain fuck off, Hazard waits to hear it this time.  And waits.  But what he’s forgotten to take into account is that Somers, while having spent most of his life rebelling against his father, nonetheless craves his approval – and Somers, knowing it’s just a stunt and that nothing about it is real, misreads the situation and doesn’t say no.  Furious, hurt and utterly disgusted, Hazard storms out in an attempt to calm down – and returns home to find Somers already gone.

The day after Somers moves out, a young woman enters Hazard’s office saying she wants to hire him to find her missing sister.  Something about Courtney Vega is familiar, and Hazard realises that the sister she wants to find – Donna May Plenge – is none other than the antifa activist who disrupted the tree-lighting ceremony last Christmas and assaulted and threatened to kill a police officer (Police Brutality).  Donna has a history of sudden disappearances but she has always – so far – returned to Wahredua, and this last time, she made it clear she intended to stay for good, because she was going to stick around for her four-year-old daughter, Dolores, and possibly get back together with Dolores’ father, Josh Dobbs, the son of a local well-to-do family.  Dolores had, until recently been living with Donna’s parents, and is the little girl Somers and Dulac had to escort from her grandparent’s home the day before.  But Donna has disappeared again, and Courtney doesn’t believe she’s simply run off this time.

The mystery is complicated and of course nothing is as it seems.  None of the leads Courtney gives Hazard pan out; Donna isn’t at any of her local haunts, the last people to see her are all telling similar but not-quite-the-same stories, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s been sent on a wild goose chase.  When a hunch leads him to find Donna’s body hidden in the boathouse on the grounds of the Dobbs’ residence, it’s time to call the cops.

The involvement of Somers (and Dulac) in the murder investigation sees Hazard and Somers having to find a way to work together, which isn’t easy, given that Hazard is still furious at Somers and hardly speaking to him.  At the same time, Hazard is working on the job he agreed to do for Somers’ father, and when his enquiries lead him to a bit of late night B&E, Somers insists on tagging along. This leads to one of the best scenes in the book, when the two of them slip effortlessly into their old patterns of working together.  It’s glorious and silly and funny and perfect; they’re feeling the old, familiar rhythm between them, and it’s the best either of them has felt in days.

The mystery is solved and the blackmailer is found  by the end, but as always in this series, Hazard and Somers and their complicated, angsty relationship are the big draw, and wow, is Gregory Ashe delivering an amazing story there.  I admit that when I read the synopsis for Wayward I worried I was going to end up disliking Somers (much as I love Hazard, Somers is my boy!) but that never happened, because Mr. Ashe does a superb job of not taking sides, showing that they’re both wrong and both right.  Somers doesn’t immediately see why what he’s agreed to is a big deal – he and Hazard are going to spend the rest of their lives together, so in the grand scheme of things, living apart for two weeks isn’t a long time.  It doesn’t take Somers long to realise he’s made a serious error of judgement, but Hazard’s refusal to communicate or engage makes it impossible for any attempt at hashing everything out.  The rumours about their ‘break-up’ being permanent which quickly start to circulate don’t help the situation, and only add to Hazard’s already big pile of insecurities.  Hazard sees Somers’ willingness to do as his father asks as a personal rejection and betrayal of everything they’ve built together, and on top of the hurt and fear and low self-esteem that’s been fostered by scumbags like Billy Rolker, the events of the previous summer and his continued refusal to admit to or get treatment for his PTSD, are making it harder and harder for Hazard to control his temper and his emotions. It’s like trying to keep a faulty lid on a pressure cooker; steam is leaking out around the edges and it’s only a matter of time until it blows.  And right now, that’s Emery Hazard.  His tendency to retreat inside himself and shut everyone out when his emotions start to get the better of him is increasing, in spite of his promise to try to be more open, so here, he just shuts down and shuts John out – and watching him spiralling out of control and getting so dangerously close to the edge in this book was a heart-breaking punch to the gut (please, Mr. Ashe, let him get some therapy soon!).

This is probably the closest the couple has come to a real split, and there are times it’s really difficult to see how they’re ever going to be able to pull back from the brink.  Yet scenes like the one I mentioned earlier really do help both of them to remember why they’re so good together, and a slow but solid rapprochement begins.

The other thread running through the story is one about father/son relationships.  Readers got some insight into Somers’ family dynamic in Paternity Case; he was something of a rebel, marrying Cora against his parents’ wishes, becoming a police officer instead of going to law school; he thumbed his nose at his parents every way he could, and yet it was also clear that he desperately wanted validation from his father.  In Reasonable Doubt, we met Frank Hazard, who is dying from cancer, and while the Hazard men’s relationship is different, the underlying theme of wanting a father’s approval isn’t too dissimilar.

And in the end, it’s family and those fraught relationships that finally seal the cracks in Hazard and Somers’ bruised hearts and battered relationship.  A family emergency forces some soul-searching and re-evaluation of what it means to be a family, and by the end of the novel – and in a lovely and somewhat whimsical final scene – Hazard and Somers recommit to each other all over again.

On top of all this, Darnell and Dulac are still on-off, Somers makes an unsettling discovery and the Keeper of Bees is still out there, just waiting to strike again.  Hazard is no closer to working out their identity (and neither are we) and I’m sure that by now, we’re all scrutinising the actions of every other character in each book and wondering if it could be them! (I have no idea, but I’m notoriously bad at working out whodunit!)

Wayward has plenty of the humour and snarky banter that are the hallmarks of the series – and the author’s work in general – but Emery and John spend a lot of the book on the outs, and it’s hard to read them hurting and wounding each other so badly.  But – and I know I’ve said this before – Gregory Ashe’s ability to focus in on what makes both men and their relationship tick is incredible, and the fact that he can pull off a story like this and make it so relatable and convincing is testament to his skill as an author.  If you’ve come this far with Ree and John, then you won’t want to miss this instalment in the Union of Swords series; just prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.