Review: Lightning by M.L. Buchman

Review: Lightning by M.L. BuchmanLightning (Miranda Chase NTSB #10) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #10
Pages: 388
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 7th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the autistic heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

Revenge? A terrorist attack? Or a declaration of war?

The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee lies dead. The murder weapon? An Air Force Learjet deliberately crashed into his DC hotel room.

Half a world away in the South China Sea, an F-35C Lightning II — America’s newest fighter jet — crashes during landing. It cripples the aircraft supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. An accident? Or China’s next move toward world domination?

Miranda Chase and her NTSB air-crash investigation team are spread thin as they struggle to unravel two horrific crashes at once — and halt a global firestorm before it burns them all.

Worst of all. The next target could be Miranda herself.

My Review:

As many times as M.L. Buchman’s work, particularly the Miranda Chase series, is compared with Tom Clancy, it seems fitting that the opening of Lightning is just a bit reminiscent of Clancy’s eighth Jack Ryan book, Executive Orders. That’s the one where Ryan finds himself very unexpectedly President after a plane crashes into a joint session of Congress and wipes out pretty much everyone.

Not that the crash that opens Lightning – actually, either of the crashes – does nearly as thorough a job on the entire government as that one did. But the description of that plane circling a landmark DC hotel did give me the same kind of vibe.

While President Roy Clarke in Miranda Chase’s world has already lost his VP (that’s just a tiny piece of the story in White Top) it does resemble Executive Orders, relative to its predecessor Debt of Honor, as Lightning takes place very much in the immediate wake of the events of that previous story.

Miranda’s team has just been split. Two of the members of her core team, computer genius Jeremy Trahn and Colonel Vicki “Taz” Cortez have been seconded to the Air Force office that investigates crashes AND the headquarters of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) in a joint assignment.

Jeremy has always been Miranda’s right-hand, the person she trusts most at a crash site to do things not just as she wants them, but just as she would do them herself. Jeremy is ready to “fly the nest” and run his own team. But Miranda misses him like a limb. She functions best when her personal world remains stable and the adjustment is difficult for her.

How much of that is her autism and how much is just that she misses Jeremy and Taz because they’re part of her found family is not something she’s able to determine. Miranda knows what makes planes tick and what makes them crash, but she has very little grasp on humans and their emotions – even her own.

Jeremy and Taz arrive in DC – with all their boxes and assorted crap – to take over the investigation of the plane crash in the heart of downtown DC that wiped out more than one luxury hotel. The initial question on the very bloody table is whether the crash was aimed at the hotel or at the regular guest whose suite it landed in – the late Senator Hunter Ransom, a thorn in the side of the current administration. But more importantly, a formerly influential Senator whose many many underhanded and/or under-the-table deals in the Middle East had just fallen through with a bang.

Meanwhile, Miranda and the rest of her team are investigating a plane crash at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage when they get “hijacked” by an order from the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to immediately fly to the site of a disastrous crash on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Because as bad as the mess at Elmendorf was, it doesn’t have even the ghost of the ghost of a chance of plunging the U.S. into war with China. If the incident aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was caused by anything other than “pilot error” the possibility of World War III opening in its wake is not inconsiderable.

Only Miranda and her team are capable of putting the very tiny pieces of the crashed plane and the circumstances surrounding it together in a way that will reliably point the finger at “whodunnit”. What the politicians will make of the situation after that isn’t remotely part of Miranda Chase’s remit – or her genius.

Escape Rating A+: The reason that Buchman’s Miranda Chase series gets compared to Tom Clancy so often is that both are stories about political brinkmanship as seen through the eyes of someone who is so damn good at their job that they frequently upset the best laid plans of the powers-that-be or wannabe by exposing either their incompetence or their triple-crossing craziness. Or both. In Mirada’s case at least, often both.

Miranda Chase is the best crash-scene investigator that the NTSB has ever produced. The laser focus that is a part of her being on the autism spectrum allows and/or forces her to keep pursuing her goal – solving the crash – until every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed no matter what it takes.

The team that has coalesced around her (their origin stories are all in the marvelous Start the Chase collection) are all the best at the best of what they do, whether that’s maneuver around the humans who are inevitably part of a crash scene (Mike), analyze data from every single piece of electronic equipment on the downed craft (Jeremy), provide the pilot’s perspective for helicopters (Andi) that Miranda herself has for planes, navigate the Pentagon’s darker corners (Taz) or just protect Miranda and the rest of the team from anyone who tries to get in their way (Holly). Together they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to finding the right needle in the crumpled haystack of a crash.

The cases that meet in a headlong collision in Lightning are up to everyone’s eyeballs with political ramifications. Even the CIA Director Clarissa Reese, who hates Miranda and her team with an incandescent fire that can probably be seen from orbit, finds herself playing nice not just with Miranda but with the Chinese government who may, or may not, or may, be the architects of this series of disasters.

Watching Miranda, her team and the powerful people she has in her corner negotiate their way out of – or at least into a delay of – what seems like an inevitable war always makes for edge-of-the-seat reading – and Lightning was absolutely no exception to that rule.

I want to say this has a happy ending, but this is set in a version of the real world that is entirely too close to what is happening right now. The news doesn’t have a happy ending, and Lightning feels so ripped from the headlines that it doesn’t either.

What it does have is a sense of breathless anticipation for the next disaster. At least Miranda and her team have a chance at kicking doom down the road until the next book. And I can’t wait to see how they manage it next time!

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. BuchmanStart the Chase: a Miranda Chase Origin Story Collection by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: Kickstarter
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #9
Pages: 318
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase’s Team—before they were one!
Before they were the hottest, and most at-risk air-crash investigation team for the NTSB and the US military, the six members of Miranda Chase’s team had each started along very unique paths.
Courtesy of backers of The Great Chase tabletop game Kickstarter, their pasts are revealed. Discover why each team member’s future turned out so differently than they planned.
Six exciting stories filled with challenges, disasters, and triumphs. Five stories with fans as guest characters. A fun and wild flight.

My Review:

I usually have a hard time getting myself stuck into short story or novella collections, but Start the Chase was definitely an exception. Just as Miranda Chase herself is an exception in so many fascinating ways.

In the middle of a week that has gone completely off the rails, I was looking for something that I could get sucked into instantly that wouldn’t let me go until the end, and the Miranda Chase series has been good for that from the very first book, Drone.

But there haven’t been any new books in the series for a few months, as the author has been busy taking care of all the good business that was generated when he got his rights back to his earliest work. Which I loved from all the way back in The Night is Mine, lo those many years ago at the beginning of Reading Reality. So if you love military romance, now is a great time to start or restart his Night Stalkers series and all the deliciously good books that followed.

Howsomever, let’s get back to Miranda Chase and her team, which is where I started. I got a notification about the tenth book in the series, Lightning, coming out in June, which reminded me that I hadn’t read the ninth book in the series, Start the Chase, even though I participated in the Kickstarter.

I needed to get lost in a book and a world that I was already familiar with, and I wanted to read Start the Chase before Lightning struck, so here we are.

The stories in Start the Chase are all origin stories. Which makes this a great place to start the series if you aren’t already part of the action.

What makes the stories special is that they show us the characters we have come to know and love at pivot points in their lives. Specifically the pivot that changed their courses into the one that eventually intersected with Miranda Chase and the rest of her team. To kick things off there’s the pivotal moment when Miranda investigated her very first plane crash on her very own.

She had to do the investigation on her own, because the crash she was investigating was also her own. On her way to her first class at the NTSB her private plane crashed in the desolate forest between Washington State and Idaho. Miranda was the pilot and the only person aboard. Her meticulous investigation of a crash that she honestly didn’t expect to be rescued from kept her sane until her rescuers surprised her and themselves by finding her alive. She learned a valuable lesson in this story, and we learned a lot about her. Not that a lot of her past hasn’t come up over the course of the series, but this particular bit of detail was something special.

For each member of the team, the story in Start the Chase is just as pivotal as Miranda’s High Passage, Holly Harper’s story, Holly Games a New Path, begins during one of Holly’s darkest moments. She has just left the Australian Special Forces after the loss of her entire team. A new friend drags her to, of all places, a gaming convention, where Holly, costumed as Captain Marvel, discovers that she still has friends both in and out of the service, and that there’s a surprising, but surprisingly interesting opportunity for her if she is willing to seize the day.

Mike’s Last Big Con is the story that comes the closest to the opening of the Miranda Chase series, as we see the secretive Mike in his last undercover job for the FBI as it all goes completely pear-shaped. Working with Miranda is going to require that the long-time conman live on the straight and narrow – a place with which he is not even remotely familiar.

All six of the stories provide insights into characters we think we know. There have been hints before, but this collection fleshes out the details of how they ended up on the path that leads to the team. For fans of the series, it gives us an up close and personal look at people we thought we knew. For those coming in, it’s a great way of seeing who they were as individuals before they jostled their way into becoming part of such a marvelous whole.

Escape Rating A: I loved this collection. I got sucked in right away and didn’t get shaken out until the end – wishing there were more. Or wishing that Lightning was here now and not next month. I’ve missed Miranda and the gang and it was fantastic to spend time with them again.

Because this collection was produced as part of a Kickstarter campaign for The Great Chase Tabletop Game that Miranda and her team play during the later books in the series, there’s an additional fascinating piece to this collection of great stories.

One of the backer levels for the Kickstarter was the opportunity for five people to get themselves written into the individual stories as secondary characters. (This is called Tuckerization after the SF author Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I only mention this because once upon a time, when I went to a LOT of SF cons, I knew Tucker a bit. I digress.)

In Miranda’s story she’s alone, that’s a huge part of the point of the story after all. But in all of the other stories the secondary character who helps push or guide Miranda’s future team member into the path that leads them there is one of these backers. All of the stories include more than a bit of real detail about those backers, along with a way for readers to support the charities of their choice. So there’s a prompt to do a bit of good in the world – which seems to need it now more than ever – along with a terrific story.

If you like political thrillers, technothrillers and/or competence porn, you absolutely cannot go wrong following Miranda Chase and her team. Lightning can’t strike my TBR pile soon enough!

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + Giveaway

Review: Condor by M.L. Buchman + GiveawayCondor: an NTSB / military technothriller (Miranda Chase) Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #3
Pages: 428
Published by Buchman Bookworks on March 7, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Antonov AN-124 Ruslan “Condor”—the heavyweight champ among production cargo jets. Russian tanks, American firefighting helicopters, rescue submersibles, satellites, city-sized power transformers...the Condor hauls them all over the world.

But when one lifts a top-secret payload rated as too dangerous, the US government decides it must take action. Untraceable action. Call Delta Force? SEAL Team Six?

No. They call Miranda Chase, lead crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board to fake a crash. Miranda refuses, but the stakes grow higher and higher. Soon she may be too late to stop the new Cold War from becoming the final war.

My Review:

In this third book in the Miranda Chase NTSB series, the team has finally found the fifth man for its five-man band. And team leader Miranda Chase may have finally found somebody of her own who gets her for all the parts of who she is – laser-focused, single-minded, socially clueless, neuro-atypical and pure savant at figuring out what made a plane crash – no matter how much anyone – or everyone – attempts to hide the truth.

Whether they do that hiding before or after the crash she’s investigating hits the ground.

All of the books in this series have been named for the planes that have crashed – the planes that Miranda’s team has come to investigate. A Drone, a Thunderbolt and now a Condor – so far. And this one is no different in that start. But it is certainly different in the way that events play out.

And the story feels like it owes as much to Tom Clancy’s kind of spy games as it does to M.L. Buchman’s brand of military romance. In fact, it feels like the blend may be reaching an optimal mix for all kinds of combustion.

But first there’s a downed plane, a dead crew, a top secret and completely torched cargo, a Russian counter espionage agent and a CIA Director with designs on becoming the Second Lady of the U.S. – and eventually the First.

In the middle of it all, there’s Miranda Chase and her team, figuring out how and why the plane crashed in the U.S. – and how to make another one just like it crash in the middle of Russia – without ever giving the game away to anyone watching on either side of the deadly equation.

And without any members of her team getting bogged down – or taken out – by the weight of the baggage that they brought along for the ride.

Escape Rating A: In this third book in Miranda Chase’s series, it really feels like the team is hitting its stride. They have really begun to gel as a unit, and as a consequence, the individuals that make up the team have begun to trust each other enough to reveal some of the trauma that’s hidden in their pasts.

Miranda’s past, and its effects on her, have been part of the dynamic from the very beginning. She joined the NTSB and learned to analyze plane crashes because her parents died in one when she was a child. What she wasn’t aware of at the time, but certainly is now, is that her parents were CIA agents, and that their plane was sabotaged in a deliberate – and successful – attempt to take them out.

But we’re still learning about the rest of the team, just as they are learning about each other. As a consequence, the operation that provides the edge-of-the-suspense in this outing is wrapped around the team’s strongman – or in this case strongwoman – former Australian Special Forces operative Holly Harper.

Holly feels responsible for the deaths of her Australian team, as she was the only survivor of an operation that went so completely pear-shaped that even the pear would be outraged. Holly’s secondment to US NTSB was her way of putting her ghosts as far behind her as possible – literally half a world away.

She’s scared of being part of a “team” again, fearful that her bad luck has followed her across a very large ocean. But the operation that the team has been sucked into, faking the crash of a Russian military cargo transport in Russian airspace, is a job that requires all of the old skills that Holly hoped to never need again. But if she’s to save her new team, she’ll have to become the badass covert operative she left behind.

Because there’s an equally badass covert operative who is guaranteed to take out all the members of her new team with extreme prejudice. Unless Holly gets her first. Or unless that slimy new Director of the CIA plays them all.

The operation, in all of its many hair-raising and nail-biting parts is a big callback to some of the wilder adventures of the Night Stalkers in Buchman’s first military romance series. That both Holly and surprisingly Miranda come out of this adventure with the possibility of romance in their own respective futures made this entry in the series feel closer to what I was expecting back when I first picked up Drone – a heart stopping action adventure story with a little bit (so far) of heart pounding romance on top.

I can’t wait to see where Miranda and her team go – and which planes fall down in front of them – in the next book in this series, Ghostrider. I already have it on preorder!

I’ve enjoyed this author’s writing since I read his first military romance, The Night is Mine, back in 2012. He has written plenty of terrific books since then, ranging from military romance to action adventure romance to mysteries to  SF to thrillers and some that straddle all the lines. I haven’t read them all – he’s been VERY prolific! – but I’ve read quite a few and enjoyed every one.

So, as part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration, I’m giving one lucky reader the opportunity to climb aboard one of M.L. Buchman’s thrill-a-minute adventures. The winner of today’s giveaway will get their choice of any one of his books. Whoever wins is in for a real treat of a story!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Target of One’s Own by M.L. Buchman

Review: Target of One’s Own by M.L. BuchmanTarget of One's Own (The Night Stalkers 5E) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: military romance, romantic comedy
Series: Night Stalkers 5E #4
Pages: 366
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 29th 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

-a Night Stalkers 5E romance-
MISSION: Special Operations Forces barely miss capturing Pakistan’s #1 arms dealer. They know only one thing: he’s a champion driver in the most challenging car race in the world, The Dakar Rally. The Night Stalkers and SEAL Team 6 must join up again to face the race of their lives.

TEAM:
Drone pilot Zoe DeMille
— Her career never prepared her for going into the field rather than sending her drone. Driving dune buggies at Pismo Beach throughout her teen years, oddly did.
SEAL Team 6 Lieutenant Commander Luke Altman
— Trusts no one but his team. Ever!

Zoe convinces Luke that they must go undercover to target their prey in the wildest 5E mission yet. They enter the two-week, 10,000 kilometer race across the dunes, deserts, and mountains of South America to track him down.

But when Zoe’s viral fashion blog—The Soldier of Style—sparks a media frenzy, it threatens the very nature of this Black Op. She can’t outrace the madness. And she hasn’t a clue how to navigate Luke.

My Review:

I’m tempted to review this book merely by paraphrasing the scrawls that one sees on bathroom walls by saying, “for a good time, read M.L. Buchman” and call it a wrap. But that’s a bit short on details. Still correct, though.

Also appropriate to the story, as once upon a time in Pismo Beach, it would have been Zoe DeMille’s name and number on that bathroom wall. But she’s reinvented herself since those dark days.

Twice.

Her public persona is that of “The Soldier of Style: Living in the Cutey-Edgy Budget Battlespace.” It’s Zoe’s public vlog (and associated twitter feed) as a budget-minded fashionista blogger with a definite cute airhead vibe.

And it’s a cover for her real job as a drone pilot – they prefer the term RPA for remote piloted aircraft – for the Night Stalkers 5E. A job that is anything but cute, and at which she is anything but airheaded. The Night Stalkers only take, and only employ, the best of the best of the best. And she is.

But Lieutenant Commander Luke Altman of SEAL Team 6 only sees the cute little airhead persona and doesn’t really register the warrior behind the mask. Only the way she needles him at every turn through the headset that links his team in the field to Zoe’s “coffin” back on base where she controls the eyes in the sky that provide him with mission-critical intel.

At least, not until he’s on the ground in Pakistan, staring at the empty former headquarters of an arms dealing kingpin who clearly got word that ST6 was coming to get him.

Luke looks at the empty garage and sees a dry hole and blown operation. Zoe, looking through his headset, sees a golden opportunity to take down a major player among arms dealers working the shady side.

So she runs with that golden opportunity, and with Luke, straight to Senegal and one of her biggest fans. A man who races in international road rally races. Including the annual Dakar Rally. Luke thinks she’s gone off the deep end – especially as it feels like she’s the one running the op and he’s just her “personal assistant”.

But Zoe has connected the dots and spun one glance at a top flight auto mechanics shop in a remote base with the date of the Dakar Rally circled on a calendar to a strong working hypothesis that their mystery arms dealer is a regular participant in that grueling rally – and that her fan in Senegal is their ticket to the inside track of a lifetime.

It takes Luke a little while to catch up to Zoe’s flash of brilliance – and to figure out that the dots he really wants to connect are the ones that lead to her heart.

Escape Rating A-: I had a great time with this book. I had such a great time that it made me reflect on why this author’s romances always work for me – even while I’ve become aware that I’m reading less romance in general.

The answer seems to be in the characters. Not just the way that the author draws them, because lots of romance authors do a good job of creating interesting characters. But it’s the way that his characters find each other and make a relationship.

One of the things that all too often occurs in romance – in real life too – is that two people come together and meet kind of in their middle. There are always compromises on both sides. But in romance fiction, all too often the compromise results in the woman giving up more of who she is and what she wants to make the relationship work for the man.

It feels like, all too often, she becomes less and he becomes more. In historical romances it can be worse. There are too many time periods where, even if she does maintain her separate identity and career after marriage, it only happens because he allows it to happen. Because society, public opinion, and even the law say that his voice is the only one that counts.

None of that ever happens in one of M.L. Buchman’s romances. The characters begin and end as equals – even as they find a way to both work together and make a romantic partnership. Sometimes they are both equal in the same sphere, as was true in his first Night Stalkers romance, The Night is Mine. Both the hero and the heroine are military officers. Both are warriors. And both remain so even when they marry. Eventually Emily Beale gets pregnant and the situation necessarily changes somewhat, but she remains every bit the kickass heroine she was at the beginning, just in a different venue.

Zoe and Luke are also both warriors, just not in the same way. But they are both at the top of their respective fields – and they remain so at the end. One of the things that makes Luke such a great hero is that he not only eventually accepts Zoe exactly as she is, but that he is able to recognize when it is better that she lead and that he cheers her on as she does. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough, either in romance fiction or in real life.

The story here is also a whole lot of fun. It’s one of those experiences that most people won’t have, but is tremendously fascinating to experience vicariously. The Dakar Rally is a real event, and the story and characters here follow the real course – or at least as much of a course as there ever is. After all, the Dakar is an off-road endurance event. A big part of this story is the way that Zoe and Luke bond, endure and find their target in the midst of this once in a lifetime event.

(If you want to read a romance set while the protagonists are running a completely different but equally dangerous and fascinating race, take a look at Sue Henry’s Murder on the Iditarod Trail.)

Part of the tension in this particular romance is that both Zoe and Luke are damaged and neither of them thinks they are worthy – not of love in general, not of the other in particular. It’s a possible interpretation that Zoe heals Luke’s inability to love, but Luke is not the healer of Zoe, because Zoe has already, for the most part, healed herself. He’s there to hold her as the last of the hard pain finally fades, but she’s already done most of the work.

He’s her reward for doing that work. And for once, we have a hero that’s worth it.

“I received a free copy of this title from the publisher for an honest review.”

Review: Big Sky, Loyal Heart by M. L. Buchman

Review: Big Sky, Loyal Heart by M. L. BuchmanBig Sky, Loyal Heart (Henderson's Ranch, #5) Format: eARC
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Henderson's Ranch #5
Pages: 256
Published by Buchman Bookworks on November 30th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

-a Henderson Ranch Big Sky romance-

Major Emily Beale struggles to excel in her new role as both mother and wife.

Colonel Michael Gibson’s career reaches a crisis, not that he’s talking about it.

Trainee military war dog Rip naps—he was named for Rip van Winkle, after all—while awaiting inspiration.

Film student turned cowboy Patrick Gallagher just keeps riding through life...until the woman of his dreams threatens to ride off into the sunset without him.

Recently retired war dog handler for Delta Force, Lauren Foster sets herself a simple mission: forget about the Army, get back to New York City, and try to be a civilian.

But first, Lauren must escape Montana before she gets caught by the Big Sky and a loyal heart.

My Review:

Big Sky, Loyal Heart may be the fifth book in the author’s Henderson’s Ranch series, but it calls all the way back to the first book of this author’s that I ever read, The Night is Mine, all the way back in 2012.

Not that one has to have read the entire oeuvre, or even all of the Henderson’s Ranch series to really fall in love with this one, but a little background might help.

As the long, overarching story stands in 2017, Mark Henderson and Emily Beale, the hero and heroine of the military suspense romance The Night is Mine, have moved on, not merely to the second chapter in their lives, but actually the third. In their second chapter, they flew firefighting hotshot crews to wherever the fires were hottest (and conducted a few secret quasi-military operations on the side) in the Firehawks series.

After that chapter, they have moved back to Mark’s family ranch in Montana, where they provide cabins, horses, and guides for guests, as well as jobs for some of their fellow special operations veterans.

Big Sky, Loyal Heart is all about one of those veterans, and the cowboy she falls for. Right after he falls into a mud puddle.

Lauren Foster has mustered out of Delta after 15 years. She left with a dog-sized hole in her heart that she doesn’t know if she can ever fill, a humvee-sized load of guilt and whole lot of confusion.

Jupiter was killed by enemy action. But it was action that he should never have been in. The order was wrong. Lauren knew it. Even the dog knew it. But Lauren followed orders, and Jupiter followed orders and now he’s dead. And Lauren has had enough.

But as she stands on the tarmac at Ft. Bragg with no clear direction for her return to civilian status, Colonel Michael Gibson swoops her up and tells her to follow him. He was her commanding officer in Delta, so she follows in his wake, all the way to Montana and Henderson’s Ranch.

She has no idea why she’s there. She has no idea why Gibson is there. And less than no idea why he brought her with him.

Lauren Foster expects to go home to New York City and surf her brother’s couch until she figures out what her civilian life is supposed to be.

It turns out that she’s already found it. She just doesn’t know it yet.

Escape Rating A-: This is just a terrific romance. I loved every minute of it, as I have pretty much everything I’ve ever read by this author, starting with The Night is Mine all those years ago.

This story rides on the backs of its two leads, Lauren Foster and her film student turned cowboy, Patrick Gallagher. While they both hail from New York City, they have found their respective ways to Montana by completely different roads.

Lauren is fascinating because she is one of this author’s trademark military women. She’s tough and strong and has spent years not showing weakness, trying to make everyone around her lose as much sight as possible of the fact that she’s female. She’s had to be “one of the boys” to earn the respect she’s needed to do her job, and it’s never been easy.

And yet she’s never a caricature or the stock character of the”strong heroine” that so often appears these days. She has her weaknesses and her flaws, she’s just used to hiding them. And she’s properly confused about why she’s at the Ranch and what she’s supposed to do with her suddenly open future.

Patrick is, in many ways, her opposite. He’s certainly her perfect foil. Where Lauren has been forced to tamp down all of her emotions, Patrick is charming and wears his heart on his sleeve for all to see. He also has a strong whimsical side. His background in film makes him see life, even his own life, as a movie, and he’s usually been cast as the comic sidekick in his own life. When Lauren drops into Montana, the ranch, and his heart, he has the chance to play the romantic hero, if he can just find a way to make the role fit for him.

Part of what makes this story, and so many of this author’s romances, work so well is that while Patrick is not anything like a ‘beta-hero’ he recognizes that Lauren is going to be the ‘alpha’ in their relationship – and he’s fine with that. There aren’t nearly enough heroines like Lauren, nor are there nearly enough heroes like Patrick. A romance where a strong woman finds a man who loves and respects her exactly as she is always appeals to this reader.

Although I have not read any of the previous books in the Henderson’s Ranch series, I have read most of the Night Stalkers and Firehawks books that came before it. It is marvelous to continue following Mark and Emily through their lives as they transition (more or less) from being elite soldiers to a still very active, but different, civilian life. And it was interesting to see Colonel Gibson, a background character throughout the Night Stalkers series and the hero of Bring on the Dusk, start changing directions in his life.

It’s always good to visit old friends.

Even if you haven’t dipped into the previous series (but do, they are all awesome) Big Sky, Loyal Heart is a lovely contemporary romance all on its own, and is complete in itself. But it will give you a yen to read the backgrounds of the marvelous crew that you will meet within its pages.

For those of us who have followed Mark and Emily through multiple series, there’s a hint at the end of Big Sky, Loyal Heart that their saga not only continues but moves into a new phase. I can hardly wait!