Review: Imperator by Anna Hackett

Review: Imperator by Anna HackettImperator (Galactic Gladiators #11) Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #11
Pages: 206
Published by Anna Hackett on July 10th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Space station security specialist Sam has done one thing since her abduction by alien slavers…fight to survive. But now one strong alien gladiator stands at her side and Sam knows she is no longer alone.

Thrust into a lawless desert arena, Sam Santos has done terrible things in order to stay alive. As the Champion of Zaabha, she’s been fighting to find a way out. Everything changes when the Imperator of the House of Galen sacrifices his freedom to help her. The hard-bodied, fierce man has vowed to help her escape, but getting out of Zaabha is only the first deadly task they face.

Galen was bred to be a royal bodyguard and protect his prince. With his planet now destroyed, he’s grown powerful and forged his wealthy gladiatorial House on the desert planet of Carthago. All Galen knows is honor, service, and sacrifice. Now his life depends on working with one battle-hardened woman of Earth as they fight together to survive. But Sam Santos is not what he expected. Tough, yes. A brilliant fighter, for sure. But there is a softer side to the woman as well. And Galen finds himself irrevocably drawn to all of Sam’s captivating facets.

Then they uncover a devious plot by the Thraxians that could bring down the foundations of the Kor Magna Arena and all they hold dear. Galen and Sam will stop at nothing to defeat the evil alien slavers, even if it means war. In amongst the fighting, Sam may finally show a man who lives for everyone else, that he deserves more than just honor and freedom, but love as well…if they survive the coming battle.

My Review:

Imperator is the culmination of all ten previous books in Anna Hackett’s marvelous, universe-spanning Galactic Gladiators series. It brings this story to a fantastic, heart-stopping doozy of a happily ever after for the humans stolen from Jupiter station and the gladiators (and a few select others) who take these refugees into their hearts.

Even in a couple of cases where those gladiators weren’t actually sure they still (or ever) had hearts.

The series began in Gladiator when the slave-trading Thraxians exploited a temporary wormhole that led from Carthago on the far side of the galaxy to our own solar system. The Thraxians, being the bloodthirsty and evil slave traders that they are, attacked the station and kidnapped as many humans as they could, skedaddling back through the wormhole before it closed.

There may be no place like home, but there’s no way back home for the kidnapped humans.

As the series progressed, one by one, those humans were rescued from the slave traders and their illegal fighting pits by the gladiators of the House of Galen, led by their leader, the Imperator Galen himself.

The House of Galen discovered that the Thraxians and their allies were operating an underground fight ring, using kidnapped, enslaved, tortured and experimented upon fighters. At first the ring was literally underground, but when the gladiators discovered that set of pits, the masters of Zaabha moved to a floating arena, one that flies over the more deserted parts of the planet.

Imperator opens on the heels of the final events of the previous book, Cyborg. Galen and his gladiators have managed to free all the human captives save one, but at tremendous cost. Galen himself is stuck on the floating Zaabha, along with the one human woman that he has not been able to forget.

Galen would say that he stayed on Zaabha because he promised the human mates of his gladiators that he would rescue their friend Samantha Santos from Zaabha. But the truth is that he wants to rescue Sam for himself.

In the end, they’ll have to rescue each other. Not just from Zaabha, but from all of the guilt and demons locked inside their own hearts.

Escape Rating B+: I have loved this entire series. While I’m a bit sorry to see it end, I’m glad that the author left a glimmer of possibility for future stories in this world. There could be other captured humans that they have not found. Yet.

But this part of the story is done. The House of Galen and their allies have all found their happily ever afters with humans from Earth. And it was fitting that Galen’s story was the last – because he couldn’t let his own guard down until every single person under his protection had been taken care of.

And now they have.

Imperator is the final story in this series. Even if more kidnapped humans do turn up, this story ends this section. As such, this is no place to start the series. I’m not totally sure that they have to be read strictly in order, but I would recommend starting with one of the first three books, Gladiator, Warrior or Hero. Once you’re hooked, you’ll want to read them all, but there’s a point in this series where things really build on the previous books – a point we’re well past by Imperator.

This book also includes a bit of, not exactly an epilog, but a few scenes where we see the present from each of the preceding couples’ points of view. And those scenes only have resonance if you know where everyone is coming from.

In all of the stories, and especially in this wrap up, those HEAs are very definitely earned.

And it’s fantastic!

Review: Unidentified by Anna Hackett

Review: Unidentified by Anna HackettUnidentified (Treasure Hunter Security, #7) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: action adventure romance
Series: Treasure Hunter Security #7
Pages: 172
Published by Anna Hackett on June 12, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Finding undiscovered treasures is always daring, dangerous, and deadly. Unidentified contains two action-packed novellas starring sexy archeologists, feisty treasure hunters, and tough former Navy SEALs on the hunt for two priceless Incan emeralds.

The Emerald Tear: ambitious archeologist Oliver Ward leads a dig in the wild jungles of Ecuador and collides with feisty, independent treasure hunter Persephone.

Oliver Ward loves getting his boots dirty on fascinating digs, and investigating strange ruins in Ecuador is no exception. When bandits threaten his team, a small, tough treasure hunter bursts into his world to save the day. He finds himself captivated by the bright, vibrant woman and sucked into a wild and dangerous treasure hunt for a lost Incan emerald.

Daughter of a con artist, Persephone Blake trusts no one and has a plan—find and sell artifacts until she can retire on a white-sand beach. But her plans are derailed when a handsome, smart, and stubborn archeologist pushes his way onto her hunt. She finds herself irresistibly tempted by Oliver, and as they trek deeper into the jungle, danger follows. And Persephone isn’t sure what is in more danger—her body or her heart.

The Emerald Butterfly: former Navy SEAL Diego Torres finds himself helping the one woman who drives him crazy—the DEA agent who boarded his ship and handcuffed him.

Injured and tortured on a mission, Diego Torres was ready to leave the SEALs and loves being captain of his salvage ship, the Storm Nymph. As he begins his vacation, he planned for solitude, late mornings, and drinking beers while watching the Florida sunsets, what he didn’t plan for was the gorgeous DEA agent who boarded his ship several months before. And he really didn’t plan for an underwater expedition in search of a shipwreck and a priceless Incan emerald.

Sloan McBride’s grandfather dreamed of finding the Emerald Butterfly his entire life. Now he’s dying and she vows to find it for him…even if she has to work with the hard-bodied ex-SEAL she got off to a very wrong start with. But as Sloan and Diego work side by side, dogged by dangerous black-market thieves Silk Road, they uncover a scorching hot passion. They will do anything to protect each other, including calling in their friends from Treasure Hunter Security, and they’ll risk everything to beat Silk Road to the emerald.

My Review:

The stories in the Unidentified duology are wrapped around a pair of matched emeralds that were discovered or rumored to be discovered in the jungles of Ecuador. These two beautiful stones sat on matched statues at the entrance to a lost Inca Temple.

Naturally, such priceless treasures draw the eyes of the infamous Silk Road gang. But, as always, the men and women of Treasure Hunter Security are there to stop them – even before there actually is a Treasure Hunter Security.

The first story takes place in the 1970s, and it’s all about the 20th century discovery of the temple and the Emerald Tear. It is also the story of how archeologist Oliver Ward and treasure hunter Persephone Blake, the parents of the THS team, found each other.

The Emerald Tear is a story where Indiana Jones is both Romancing the Stone and discovering The Lost City of the Monkey God. What’s even more fun is that the Lost City book is actually non-fiction, but the description still fits.

(For casting purposes, think of Oliver Ward as Indy, and Percy as a female version of the mercenary Jack Colton in Stone – not that Oliver is in the least bit as mousy as Joan Wilder – far from it!)

It feels like The Emerald Tear is the meatier of the two stories. We get Oliver and Percy meeting and falling in insta-lust if not insta-love. But they are just made for each other. Percy is scouting Oliver’s village dig and Silk Road – or its predecessor – is following her. She has clues to the location of the temple, and her clue (and Silk Road’s) is smack in the middle of Oliver’s dig.

Once they get together, the story, and their romance, are off to the races. Or at least off to the middle of the jungle on a dangerous and deadly quest to find the temple, the emerald, and the key to each other’s hearts.

Oliver and Percy’s story is a fast-paced adventure in a steamy jungle with just the right amount of equally steamy sex.

Escape Rating for The Emerald Tear: A-

On my other hand, the story when it picks up in The Emerald Butterfly isn’t nearly as compelling. In comparison to The Emerald Tear, The Emerald Butterfly is pretty but not nearly as riveting.

It’s not that the romance between THS operative Diego Torres and DEA agent Sloan McBride isn’t steamy and sexy, it’s the action that isn’t between the sheets feels a bit formulaic. Or at least obvious and predictable.

We know Silk Road are following, we know they’re going to do their level worst to take the Emerald Butterfly from our heroes, and we know that THS is going to swoop in and save the day, the stone and our heroes.

So this was fun but nearly as interesting or exciting as the first story. I wanted a bit more of The Emerald Tear but was more than content to finish The Emerald Butterfly.

Escape Rating for The Emerald Butterfly: B

Review: Sin and Tonic by Rhys Ford

Review: Sin and Tonic by Rhys FordSin and Tonic (Sinners, #6) by Rhys Ford
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: M/M romance, romantic suspense
Series: Sinners #6
Pages: 270
Published by Dreamspinner Press on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

Miki St. John believed happy endings only existed in fairy tales until his life took a few unexpected turns… and now he’s found his own.

His best friend, Damien, is back from the dead, and their new band, Crossroads Gin, is soaring up the charts. Miki’s got a solid, loving partner named Kane Morgan—an Inspector with SFPD whose enormous Irish family has embraced him as one of their own—and his dog, Dude, at his side.

It’s a pity someone’s trying to kill him.

Old loyalties and even older grudges emerge from Chinatown’s murky, mysterious past, and Miki struggles to deal with his dead mother’s abandonment, her secrets, and her brutal murder while he’s hunted by an enigmatic killer who may have ties to her.

The case lands in Kane’s lap, and he and Miki are caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. When Miki is forced to face his personal demons and the horrors of his childhood, only one thing is certain: the rock star and his cop are determined to fight for their future and survive the evils lurking in Miki’s past.

My Review:

If you are a fan of this series, this finale is going to seriously cut you up emotionally. And if you’re not a fan, or at least not yet, I suggest starting with the first book, Sinner’s Gin. Be prepared for one hell of a ride.

This is also a giant hint that Sin and Tonic is not the place to start reading the Sinners series. This is where it ends, and the emotional resonance of that ending will be completely lost if you start here. This one packs a hell of an emotional wallop, along with the solutions to all the mysteries that stand at the heart of Miki St. John, but only if you go back to where it all began in Sinner’s Gin.

You might need one – or more – of the drinks that all the titles are based on before you finish.

In the end, this entire series is the story of one man learning over and over again to become strong in all of his many, many broken places. And that in order for that to happen, he needs to let people (and a dog named Dude) into his life and his heart.

In this series finale, Miki thinks he has everything he needs to step into his future, when his past blasts into his life and tries to end it, once and for all. And nearly succeeds, Again. But with the help of his lover, his new-found family and finally his old-found family, Miki is the one left standing.

After one hell of a lot of tragedy, there’s finally triumph. And a happy ending.

Escape Rating B+: As much as loved Sin and Tonic, and in fact the entire Sinners series, I also have to admit that the first 2/3 of this book wasn’t as absorbing as some of the other books in the series, and I think that has to do with its length and what it took to make it as long as it was.

And it feels long. I have an eARC in my kindle app, and at 5156 kindle locations, this book is considerably longer than the 270 pages that Goodreads and Amazon claim that it is. I’d estimate that it is closer to 400 pages if not more. And as much as I hate to admit this, too much of those extra 130 or so pages is sex. While I enjoy a good sex scene as much as the next romance reader, for me at least there is a limit to how much of other people’s sex lives I find interesting. I was completely invested in solving the riddle of Miki’s origins and all of the truly awful things that have happened to him, and the sheer volume of sex scenes got in my way.

It’s not that each individual scene isn’t well written, because they are. But there were so many that they got in the way of the story. At least for me. Your mileage, and certainly Miki and Kane’s mileage, definitely may vary.

However, and in this case it’s a great big however, once past that ⅔ mark, the story kicks into high gear with a series of gut-wrenching revelations and a hail of bullets. More than one hail.

From the point where Miki finally learns the truth about his own origin story until the end, the story races in high gear from one crisis to the next, and the hits just keep on coming until the hitter is finally taken out.

That last third leaves the reader reeling, as all the secrets that have been powering this book, and in fact the entire series, are revealed and shot away, one after another. And that ending is glorious.

There is a tour for this book, and even though I’m not part of the tour, I loved this series so much that I can’t resist linking to it. I really want to share the love for this awesome series. So if you want to learn more about the book and the series, check out the tour. Rhys Ford’s site has all the details.

Review: Hell Squad: Manu by Anna Hackett

Review: Hell Squad: Manu by Anna HackettManu (Hell Squad #16) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Hell Squad #16
Pages: 220
Published by Anna Hackett on May 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

As the battle against the invading aliens intensifies, a group of bad boy bikers and mercenaries will stand and fight for humanity’s survival…

When former berserker Manu Rahia lost his leg on a mission, he was forced to leave his squad. He knows his new role as head of the Enclave’s firing range and armory is important, but hates that he isn’t still out there fighting face to face against the aliens and protecting his brothers’ backs. But then one woman catches his eye. A no-nonsense woman dedicated to her job as head of security. A woman who seems cool on the surface, but who Manu is convinced is hiding more under her business-like exterior.

Captain Kate Scott dedicated her life to her career in the Army. Now she works hard taking care of security for the Enclave and its residents. She learned a long time ago that she isn’t a passionate woman, and that she’s better off sticking to her work. But seeing one big, bronze-skinned, muscled man at the range every day has her hormones going into overdrive. She’s never felt like this and she’s determined to get herself under control.

But when the aliens launch a viscous new attack, right on the Enclave’s doorstep, Kate and Manu must join forces to stop the raptors before more people get hurt. Kate will fight fiercely to protect her team and the base, as well as her heart. But Manu Rahia is a man who knows what he wants, will walk through fire to get it, and what he wants is Kate.

My Review:

It was a hell of a lot of fun to return to the world of the Hell Squad, even if – or especially because – their post-alien-invasion apocalyptic world would absolutely not be a great place to visit and as the situation currently stands I wouldn’t want to live there either.

When last we left our heroes, back in book 15, Levi, it was obvious that the alien Gizzida were working on yet another superweapon in their ongoing attempts to wipe out the remaining resistance fighters – our heroes – and cement their control of our planet – so they can strip the rest of it bare and move on.

We don’t get to see the weapon, whatever it is, in Manu’s story. Instead, we get to follow along as the plucky survivors of the Enclave deal with the Gizzida’s new and always deadly distraction tactics, as they do their level best – or is that their absolute worst – to keep the fighters penned into the Enclave so they can test their superweapons someplace else.

Not that those tactics don’t become readily apparent pretty early on. The survivors in the Enclave wouldn’t have survived this long if they weren’t really, really smart as well as very, very brave.

So unlike many of the stories in this series, Manu sticks fairly close to home. And that gives us a chance to see more of Manu, who was a member of the Berserker Squad along with his brothers Tane and Hemi.

(Hemi has already had his own book, and gotten his own HFN. It’s been pretty obvious for a while that Tane has his eye on his own, but he’s not ready. Or she’s not. Or both. Yet. Even if all the readers certainly are!)

Manu is no longer a member of the Berserkers because the Gizzidas ate his leg. Well, they certainly took his leg and they probably ate it. His former squadmates went out – against orders – and stole a high-tech prosthetic for him, and he gets around the Enclave just fine. He’s now the head of their armory, and seems to have adjusted to his new life – sort of. He’s certainly good at his job, but there’s no denying that he misses being out with his squad and his brothers.

Being stuck in the Enclave has one advantage. He gets to see a whole lot more of Kate Scott, the head of Enclave security. And he likes everything that he sees – even if Kate isn’t willing to acknowledge the chemistry between them.

When they are forced to work together when the Gizzidas latest threat strikes much too close to home, it’s impossible for them to deny what’s happening between them. But they are both too independent or make that too stubborn and too battle-scarred, to let themselves lean on anyone else – even if that’s the only way to not merely survive – but to really live.

Escape Rating B+: I always have a good time with any of the author’s stories, and Manu was certainly no exception. I’m not sure whether this was just the right story for the right time, or whether it had been long enough since the previous book in the series (Levi) to make the established patterns pleasantly familiar rather than merely predictable.

One of the things that this author does very well in all of her series is that her heroines are always every bit as strong as her heroes, whether that is the same type of strength as it is here, or whether they are in completely different fields with completely different sets of strengths and weaknesses.

In this particular case, they are also both the same kind of stubborn. Kate is the kind of strong, driven woman that a lot of men, especially weak ones, want to tear down so that they can feel big. And she’s had enough of that. She’s old enough and experienced enough to know herself, and that she is who she is and that the core parts of her personality are not going to change. She’s never been able to lean on anyone, because too many people, especially men, will see that as a sign of weakness, and she’s never been able to afford to be weak.

I liked Kate a lot.

At the same time, Manu is still mourning the loss of his leg and the forced changes in his life, while trying to pretend that he’s completely adjusted. He’s used to being strong and can’t even stand the thought of being seen as weak. But when he wants Kate to lean on him when she needs to, she rightfully calls him on his BS. It has to go both ways, and that’s a hard adjustment for him. But definitely, definitely worth it.

Earlier, I referred to Manu’s brother Hemi getting his HFN in his book. For this reader, it feels as if HFN is the only option available for any couple in the series. Not because they don’t want to stay together or are not likely to stay together. None of these people are going to change their minds about their partners. It’s that the situation they are in is so fraught with deadly danger that HFN is all that’s available because “ever after” is far from assured.

Not that I don’t want to see it, because I really, really do. I’m still hoping for an Independence Day kind of ending (the original movie, not that horrible sequel) where the human resistance kicks the invading Gizzida off our planet in an explosive stand-up-and-cheer ending. And I hope that ending isn’t too many books in the future.

Review: Path of Love: Cinque Terre, Italy by M.L. Buchman

Review: Path of Love: Cinque Terre, Italy by M.L. BuchmanPath of Love: Cinque Terre, Italy Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Love Abroad B&B #2
Pages: 282
Published by Buchman Bookworks on April 19, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

-a Love Abroad B&B romance-

Welcome to the Cinque Terre, the jewel of the Italian Coast. In shades of warm gold, apricot, and peach, these remote stone villages face the Mediterranean. Their narrow cobbled streets are car-free. Instead they’re filled with soft sunlight and hope.

Erica Barnett always dreamed of visiting Italy. But she never planned to arrive alone and devastated. Putting her life back together ranks as a distant second to the priority of fixing her heart.

Ridley Claremont III, wealthy son of a Californian vintner and his trophy wife, discovers the shallowness of his life when his parents are killed in a car wreck. Seeking forgetfulness on a motorcycle driving the European backroads, he stumbles into the tiny cliffside town of Corniglia. Vibrant life greets him around every corner: food and flowers, gelato and friendship. And the wine, most especially the wine.

A man who never faced himself and a woman who finally has, meet in the only place they can. Along the Via dell’Amore, the Path of Love, in Cinque Terre, Italy.

My Review:

I was still looking for light and fluffy after those two epic grimdarks earlier this week, and while M.L. Buchman’s military romances don’t quite qualify as “light and fluffy”, with their HEAs they are still lighter and fluffier than my week began. And this isn’t a military romance, it’s a contemporary. I’ve only read one of his contemporary romances (so far) and that was a real treat. It was Off the Leash if you are in the mood for a light and fluffy romance with just a hint of suspense.

Today’s little gem, in spite of its absolute mouthful of a title, is indeed a light and fluffy little treat, with just a tiny bit of serious mixed in to give it just the right hint of bittersweet to make the HEA feel earned. And it ends with a teensy bit of Brigadoon-type magic.

The story here is about two lost people finding themselves on the Via dell’Amore (that’s Path of Love in English)  in the area of Italy known as Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is a rugged stretch of the Italian Riviera. In other words, the places named in this book really exist, except for one, the little Bed and Breakfast and attached bar called Il Cane, named for a dog named Snoop. Not Snoopy, just Snoop.

Erica Barnett and Ridley Claremont III are both on voyages of discovery – even if neither of them thinks of their Italian peregrinations quite that way. Erica is fleeing the loss of her job and the breakup of her relationship with her boss. Her married boss. Ridley is running away from his grief over the unexpected death of his much-beloved mother. Both of them are convinced that they are running away, and it’s only after their separate journeys collide in the tiny village of Corniglia that they both stop running long enough to figure out that maybe all that running away has put them in the place where they belong.

Whether they belong there separately or together is just another part of that journey – the part that will be either the most heartbreaking, or the most rewarding, or even a little bit of both.

Escape Rating B: I was looking for light and fluffy, and I certainly found it, along with loving descriptions of the Cinque Terre region that made me want to book a vacation there immediamente!

Both Erica and Ridley ran away to Italy to lose themselves, although for much different reasons. Erica is at loose ends in so many ways. To a significant extent, she is angry with herself. She’s always seen herself as a smart and capable person, but she let herself be used and now she’s second guessing herself and trying to figure out where she missed the signs. She’s letting her doubts and her fears control her life, and she’s mad at herself for letting it happen and the self-doubt cycle is pretty vicious. Then she wrecks her rental car, gets stuck in Corniglia and runs right into Ridley Claremont III pretending to be a badass.

But Erica is the only person who seems to recognize it as a pretense. Not that Ridley doesn’t have bad-boy playboy written all over him, but the act doesn’t seem to reflect the man she keeps running into. He keeps telling himself that he’s the love ‘em and leave ‘em type, but can’t manage to leave either Erica or the welcoming little town. And can’t even think to himself that he might have found a love, or loves worth staying for.

But while Ridley flounders around emotionally, Erica gets over the self-defeat that brought her to Corniglia and emerges from her shell. Part of that emergence is due to her love affair with Ridley, but Ridley is the catalyst and not the real reason for the change.

So even when Ridley can’t admit to himself what they are to each other, and makes emotional hash out of both of them, Erica picks up the pieces and moves on with the life she’s figured out she wants.

It takes Ridley a lot of heartache as well as a significant amount of backbreaking labor to finally get on the same page. But it’s lovely when they reach it. Together.

If you’re interested in my little hint about Brigadoon, you’ll need to get the book for yourself. Or reach back to the first book in this series, Heart of the Cotswolds. That’s certainly my plan for the next time I need a bit of fluff!

 

Review: Cyborg by Anna Hackett + Giveaway

Review: Cyborg by Anna Hackett + GiveawayCyborg (Galactic Gladiators #10) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #10
Pages: 250
Published by Anna Hackett on April 1st 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Scientist Ever Haynes was shocked when she was abducted by alien slavers...but the last thing she expected was to find herself pregnant with a cyborg's baby.

Ever has been fighting for her life since her abduction, and the only good thing to happen to her was one heated night with a mysterious prisoner--a connection, a flash of light in the darkness. But then he was rescued and she was left behind. Now, weeks later, she's been saved by the House of Galen gladiators...and by the man she shared the hottest night of her life with. But cool, emotionless cyborg Magnus Rone has no memory of their night together and finding out that she's expecting his baby is a shock to everyone.

Created in a military program, Magnus is genetically and cybernetically enhanced--emotionless, ruthless, focused. He vows to protect Ever and the baby she carries, and despite his lack of memory, everything about tough, levelheaded Ever draws him in. All his life, his emotional dampeners and training have limited his ability to feel emotions...but one small Earth woman cuts through all that and leaves him feeling.

As they work together to hunt down the deadly desert arena of Zaabha and the final human woman trapped there, Ever and Magnus find a stunning passion neither can resist or ignore. But in the dangerous desert sands of Carthago, with the House of Galen gladiators by their sides, deadly enemies are closing in. Ever and Magnus will be dragged back into the darkness, and Magnus will do anything and sacrifice everything to keep her safe.

My Review:

As has been clear for many months, actually years at this point, I love Anna Hackett’s work, and have ever since she took me on her first journey with the Phoenix Brothers, back At Star’s End.

She’s also marvelously prolific, meaning that I get something new from her about every other month, and a good time is always had by all. Some books are a better time than others, but she always manages to sweep me somewhere fascinating and dangerous.

The Galactic Gladiators are currently my favorite series of hers. As always, she has taken a tried and true premise and turned it into something different and special.

This series feels like a take-off of the “Mars Needs Women” trope mixed with a sun-and-sandals gladiator story. In this science fiction romance series, a band of nasty, disgusting, evil slave traders (yes, I know that’s kind of redundant) took advantage of a temporary wormhole to raid Jupiter Station of its personnel and jump back to the far reaches of the galaxy before the wormhole closed.

All those Earthans that they captured are now stuck on the planet Carthago, far, far from home. Without another wormhole, it’s just plain too far to go back in one human life span – or even several.

But it isn’t too late for all those stranded Earthans to make a new life for themselves where they are right now – providing someone rescues them from slavery – or they rescue themselves.

And that’s what happens in the series. One by one, those humans are rescued by the heroes, the gladiators from the House of Galen as well as some of their allies. And each time one of those Earthans is rescued, they manage to fall in love with one of the gladiators, and very much vice versa.

Part of what makes this series so special is that it feels like the gladiators are the women’s reward and not the usual other way around – not even in the one book where the gladiator is female and the Earthan refugee is male. I love it when the women are the equal of the men, and even better when that equality is represented in different ways between each couple and in each relationship.

The story in Cyborg revolves around the relationship between, obviously, a cyborg and one of those rescued Earthan women. In this case, the cyborg is Magnus Rone, the Imperator of a gladiatorial House allied to the House of Galen. As a cyborg created and trained to be a soldier and only a soldier, even though Magnus left his people long ago he still believes that his training holds, that he’s better off without emotion and that relationships only cloud his focus.

But when he was briefly captured, the human woman Ever Haynes somehow got under his skin. It may have helped that the events of his capture managed to knock out a chunk of his programming, but whatever the cause is – Ever makes him feel. And he’s not sure what to do about it.

Or about the baby that he and Ever managed to make during his brief captivity – in spite of the fact that his programming is supposed to have rendered him sterile. This is clearly yet another lie that he was told.

Magnus feels duty-bound to protect Ever and their baby at all costs – costs which become incredibly high when Ever is captured by the slavers yet again. But amidst all the chaos, Magnus discovers a universal truth – love doesn’t make you weak – it makes you strong.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things I love about this series is the way that it turns all the old tropes on their pointy little heads and spins them around. Not just that it feels like the women are the ones getting rewarded for their trials and suffering instead of (really in addition to) the men, but also that part of what these women fight tooth and nail for is to be part of a relationship of equals. There are no damsels in distress in this series – only strong women who sometimes need a little help from their friends.

I also like that this series doesn’t feel “thin and stretched” to me, the way that the Hell Squad series does. That one is pointing towards an inevitable ending, and I’d like it to get there already.

The Galactic Gladiators series doesn’t have to end. It probably will, and I think it’s heading there, but it doesn’t have to. Jupiter Station had to have had dozens of personnel, if not hundreds. Endless possibilities!

One of the things that this author does well is to point the end of each book in the direction of the next one, without giving the game away of how the next couple can possibly get out of whatever fix they are in to achieve their HEA.

It is clear from the ending of Cyborg that the next book will finally be Galen’s, and I can hardly wait. I always love seeing the leader fall – and this time will be especially fun. My husband’s name is also Galen, and I don’t often read his name as the hero a romance – except of course our own.

This will be grand!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Today is my birthday. And as a birthday present to me, Anna is letting me give away some marvelous prizes. The lucky winner(s) will receive a signed paperback from her Galactic Gladiators series, a signed paperback from the Hell Squad, and a pack of Hell Squad Trading Cards, pictured below. This is a real treat!

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Review: Guardian by Anna Hackett

Review: Guardian by Anna HackettGuardian (Galactic Gladiators #9) by Anna Hackett
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Series: Galactic Gladiators #9
Pages: 200
Published by Anna Hackett on March 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

Rescued from alien slavers, former cop Dayna wakes to discover she’s host to a powerful alien symbiont, and the only man who can help her is the mysterious and dangerous casino owner, Rillian.

Dayna Caplan has dedicated her life to protecting others…and now that she’s no longer a captive at the desert arena of Zaabha, she desperately wants to help find the last of the other human women who were abducted by the Thraxians. But now she has to deal with the intense hunger and powerful new abilities the alien living inside grants her…and the person forcing her to confront her new reality is the cool, enigmatic, and far-too-attractive Rillian.

Rillian has wheeled and dealed his way to the top of the food chain on the lawless desert world of Carthago. He lets no one close and keeps iron-clad control on his life…which vital to keeping the lethal power within him in check. But one human woman—tough, stubborn, and fascinating Dayna—works her way under his skin, and he finds himself obsessed with protecting her. But as dead bodies start appearing in his casino as a deadly warning, dangers are closing in on them.

With their allies, the gladiators from the House of Galen, Rillian and Dayna find themselves fighting for survival on every front. On the hunt to find Zaabha and the lost humans, they will face murderers, slavers, and the deadliest of all challenges…the aliens living within them.

My Review:

One of the things that I absolutely love about Anna Hackett’s writing, and particularly in her Galactic Gladiators series, is the way that so many tropes get set on their pointy little heads.

In fantasy, SF, and so many fairy tales, the woman is the reward that the man gets for finishing his quest, whether that’s fighting evil, finding treasure or simply surviving. In the Galactic Gladiators series, it feels like the gladiators are the rewards that the human refugees get for surviving all the crap they’ve had to deal with since the Thraxian slave traders kidnapped them from Jupiter Station and took them back to Kor Magna through that blasted temporary wormhole.

While in most of the stories, the human is female and the gladiator is male, the reversed trope really isn’t reversed in the one story where those boots are on the opposite feet. The gladiator Saff is Blaine Strong’s reward for surviving the hellhole that is the underground fight rings of the planet Carthago. But it can also be seen that he is her reward as well.

But in Guardian, as in most of the stories in this series, the human is female, and the one native to the Kor Magna side of the galaxy is male. But as is becoming increasingly common (and a nice change), the male in this particular entry is not a gladiator. Not that Rillian, the owner of the Dark Nebula Casino (and possibly half of Carthago) can’t fight with the best of them, but his skills lie outside of the Kor Magna Arena.

Which hasn’t stopped him from banding together with the gladiatorial House of Galen to wipe out the illegal slave trade and the underground fight rings that it feeds. Particularly now that one of those rescued humans, former police detective and security officer Dayna Caplan, is in his care.

She came out of her ordeal with a symbiont bonded to her body, and Rillian is the only person who can help her – because he has a symbiont of his own. He also suffered through a bonding process that he wasn’t expected to survive. He’s willing to use his experience to help Dayna, not just because he knows what she’s going through, but because she’s the answer to all the questions that he’s never dared to ask.

But when the Thraxians begin targeting women from Rillian’s past and his present to keep him from helping the House of Galen, he knows that Dayna is next. And that he’ll destroy anyone who threatens what’s his – even if he has to let go of his much vaunted control to make that happen.

If he can’t keep control of his symbiont, he’ll become the kind of killer of which nightmares are made. But if he can’t let go, he won’t be able to save Dayna from everyone coming after her.

And he’ll never be able to save her from the most dangerous predator that she faces – himself.

Escape Rating A-: As I said at the top, in this series it particularly feels like the gladiators (and the other oh-so-hot alien males) are the women’s reward for surviving their one-way trip across the galaxy and everything that Carthago has thrown at them. Especially as most of what’s been thrown at them has been pretty damn awful until the point where they get rescued.

But even though they are definitely in need of rescue, it’s not because they are weak women who have turned into damsels in distress. Anyone in their situation would need to be rescued, as is shown by the rescues of both their male colleague Blaine Strong and the rescue of the big blue alien warrior Vek.

There are times when everyone needs a little help from their friends, even friends they haven’t met yet.

One of the other things I love about this series is that while it may be moving towards its ending, there isn’t anything integral to this world or the situation that requires that it come to an end. (Unlike the Hell Squad series, where as much as I love it I also need the catharsis of kicking the invading Gizzida off our Earth).

Although there seem to have been a limited number of humans brought to Carthago, the real limit to the number of humans is the size of Jupiter Station, which has not been established. There could have been more ships in transit that got scooped up by the Thraxians.

And there are plenty of innocents trafficked into slavery by the Thraxians and their allies the Srinar. The series could branch out into saving other people. Or another wormhole could temporarily open up.

Unfortunately, while it looks like the House of Galen will eventually take the Thraxians down, the underground fight rings exist because there are beings who are willing to pay for the deadly “entertainment” they provide. Which means that taking down the Thraxians is not a permanent solution, because there is no permanent solution.

This particular entry in the series is interesting because neither Dayna nor Rillian follow any of the usual patterns in this series, so far. And because it expands the different types of people who got captured from Jupiter and who help them. Dayna was a cop, and has no desire to become a gladiator. She wants to work security and solve crimes – it’s what she’s good at. And Rillian still wants to buy the other half of Carthago one of these days. A casino owner can always use more good security people, and Dayna is one of the best.

They are good together. Rillian is someone who, of necessity, keeps everyone else at a distance. Dayna needs to be let in. They drive each other crazy, at least until they figure out why they drive each other quite so crazy. They’re a great match. And they’re terrifically fun to watch.

I’m looking for more great stories from this series. The next one, Cyborg, is obviously going to add a cyborg romance to the mix. And I think we’ve finally met the woman who will match Galen himself. I can’t wait!

Review: Surrender My Heart by L.G. O’Connor + Giveaway

Review: Surrender My Heart by L.G. O’Connor + GiveawaySurrender My Heart: A Second Chance Romance (Caught Up in Love, #3) by L.G. O'Connor
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Caught Up in Love #3
Pages: 384
Published by Collins-Young Publishing LLC on February 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads


Do you remember your first love in high school? What if you never stopped?

For decades, Katherine "Kitty" McNally has secretly loved John Henshaw, the man lying shot and unconscious in the hospital bed next to her. Then again, maybe not so secretly. Those closest to her, including her soon-to-be ex-husband, have suspected it for years. Their story ended with a gunshot wound the last time, too. Life seems to have taken her full circle, but only the dead know the secrets she still keeps.

Detective John Henshaw fell in love with his "Kat" the moment she became his geometry tutor in high school. When they graduated, he thought their future was sealed. Wrong. Enter life's nonstop curveballs. The worst two moments of his life were the two times he lost Kat. After thirty-five years and one failed marriage trying to forget her, he can't escape the fact that he's never stopped loving her. Maybe it's just his ego, but he could swear he sees a spark of love in her eyes every time she looks at him. That's what keeps him in the New Jersey town that holds his most painful memories. That's why he accepted his place decades ago as a family friend to the McNally sisters.

As John recovers from his hospital stay in Kitty's care, they slowly rediscover each other. This is Kitty's last chance to confront her past and rekindle their love--if John can forgive her once he learns the truth.

My Review:

Just as with all of the books in the Caught Up in Love series, be sure to bring tissues when you read this one. If you can get a cat to curl up in your lap for the extra comfort and snuggles, that would probably be good, too.

Like the previous books in this series, Caught Up in Raine and Shelter My Heart, the romance in this book is definitely a three-hankie special, as is all the drama that surrounds Kitty and John and the romance that was meant to be – but mostly never was.

In ancient history, when John Henshaw and Katherine McNally were in juniors in high school in the late 1970s, Katherine was one of the geeks and John was on the football team. Their worlds should never have collided, but John needed math tutoring to stay on the team, and Kat needed the money.

It was either a match made in heaven, a scenario out of Romeo and Juliet, or a little bit of both. It was certainly love at first sight. But John lived in what passed for the barrio in Summit, and Kat’s family owned a house where the rich folks lived.

Nothing about that situation was exactly as it seemed. John’s mother was Cuban, and even though he looks “white” he’s Hispanic and proud of it. Also not a dumb jock – he just missed a lot of school because of a family crisis and needed a bit of help getting back up to speed in trigonometry – and who wouldn’t?

Kat’s family may live on the rich side of town, and her mother certainly postures as if the family can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower, but the fact is that they are barely keeping their heads above water because one of Kat’s aunts is in a lovely but expensive care facility, and most of their income goes for her upkeep. Kat really does need the money.

What she doesn’t need is the way that her mother treats John, as if he weren’t worth scraping her shoes. Her mother does everything she can to push them apart, while her other aunt, Vera, does everything she can to help them together.

It all goes smash at graduation, not that it hasn’t been heading there for a while. Their relationship ends but it is never really over, and in spite of failed marriages on both sides, neither of them really moves on.

Their 35th high school reunion is coming up. It feels like they have one last chance to grab the happy ever after they denied themselves all those years ago. But only if they can finally let out all the truths they’ve both been holding back. Truths that will either bring them together, or tear them apart forever.

Kat can’t keep herself from betting on the latter – and she might be right.

Escape Rating B-: I loved Caught Up in Raine, and really enjoyed Shelter My Heart, but while in the end I liked Surrender My Heart, I also have some mixed feelings.

It may be that I felt some of this book a bit too deeply. When I read Caught Up in Raine, I got caught up in the older woman/younger man romance because the author did it so very right. I was Jillian’s age when I met my husband, and we have a similar age gap. Much of Jillian’s situation, minus the baby, felt real and right.

On the other hand, Kat and I are contemporaries. I was in college when Kat was a junior and senior in high school, so my memories of that time are very similar to hers, albeit in much different circumstances. The way that the late 1970s WAS felt so familiar.

But the romance between John and Kat, and the sheer level of angst and melodrama in their on again, off again relationship and history, sometimes seemed a bit over the top. John’s situation, while it had some pretty sucky aspects, was relatively straightforward. Kat’s on the other hand, had so much going on under the surface that it could have fueled several soap operas for months.

While the story is set in the here and now, we see their past in long flashbacks from both of their perspectives. John certainly has his own issues, but he mostly seems like a young man with his head on straight, in love with a marvelous girl whose mother is a complete bitch.

Kat’s side of the story is heavy with foreshadowing, to the point where there’s so much shadow that everything drags a bit. The reader knows the hits are coming, and is even able to guess what at least some of those hits are, so there are points where the reader, or at least this reader, was just waiting for her to get on with it already.

Kat’s big secret was obvious fairly early on, and it’s not one of my favorite tropes. To say anything else would be a huge spoiler – or maybe not if you figure it out as quickly as I did.

The contemporary parts of the story worked better for me. And I loved reading a hot romance between two adults who are in mid-life. Just because someone is over 50 (or 60) doesn’t meant they are dead and/or uninterested in sex or undeserving of love. A part of me wishes that the entire story had all been told from the contemporary perspective, without so much heavy foreshadowing in the flashbacks. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The sheer staying power of their romance is amazing, or perhaps it’s the power of unfinished business. That they never got over each other felt right. They never got to finish what was between them, so they never got past their shared past. That their families mostly stayed in touch provided a level of torture that most people wouldn’t go through, but John’s presence in their extended family over the course of the series has made this particular story highly anticipated.

In the end, I was glad to see them let all the poor cats out of all the suffocating bags, and finally get the HEA they deserved.

In my review of Shelter My Heart, there was one character I mentioned as deserving her own HEA, and my hope that she would get one in some future book in the series. I’m very happy to say that Lettie Soames will get her own HEA in Caught Up in Raven, later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to it!

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away an ebook copy of Surrender My Heart to one lucky winner!

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Review: Shelter My Heart by L.G. O’Connor

Review: Shelter My Heart by L.G. O’ConnorShelter My Heart (Caught Up in Love, #2) by L.G. O'Connor
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance, women's fiction
Series: Caught Up in Love #2
Pages: 348
Published by Collins-Young Publishing LLC on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads


Two Weeks. One Life-Changing Proposal.

Devon, an ailing, young CEO-in-training due to inherit his dead father's conglomerate saves the day for Jenny, an engaged young woman on her way home to see her family. To repay his kindness, she agrees to be his date for his family's annual society gala and convince the board that he's healthy and going to marry. Two weeks are all Devon needs, and two weeks are all Jenny can give--until the stakes rise, forcing Jenny to answer the question: How far is she willing to go to save Devon's life?


Shelter My Heart is a Kindle Scout Winner

Contemporary Romantic Women's Fiction - New Adult, Billionaire Romance

My Review:

I picked this book because I absolutely loved what turned out to be the first book in this series. Caught Up in Raine was a terrific younger man/older woman romance, and if you like that trope I recommend it highly.

Although that book was Jillian and Raine’s story, the author decided to continue to follow the women in Jill’s family after Jill found her HEA. Shelter My Heart is her niece Jenny’s story, and the third book in the series will hopefully answer all the questions about whatever happened between Jenny’s mother Kitty (Jill’s sister) and family friend John Henshaw. We’ll see in a couple of weeks, as I’m scheduled to review that book, Surrender My Heart, in a couple of weeks.

But Shelter My Heart is Jenny and Devon’s story, and it’s a doozy.

As this story begins, Jenny is trying to rush all the way across the country to be there for Jillian when she has her baby. And things keep getting in her way. Not just the fight she has with her fiance on her way out the door, but even her airline connections are against her.

Jillian’s been rushed to the hospital, and Jenny is stuck in the middle of nowhere because her incoming flight and her outbound flight missed each other. It happens. But there are no coach seats on any of the remaining flights outbound, and tomorrow might be too late. Jillian’s is a high-risk pregnancy, and there are complications. Jenny needs to be there.

A knight in bespoke suit armor comes to her rescue, paying for her first-class ticket home. And, as it turns out, the seat right beside him. And that’s where our story really begins, with Devon Soames and Jenny Lynch on a plane together, discovering that they each have the ability to take the other one out of themselves, in spite of everything that is going wrong in their lives.

Jenny’s problems, in spite of the current scare over Jillian and her baby, are mostly either of her own making or completely beyond her control. She knows her engagement should be over, she’s just having a difficult time formalizing the ending, both to her family and to the douchebag in question.

She’s also lived through a lot of death. Four people close to her have died in the past few years, one every other year. And even though none of those deaths are remotely her fault, the events that surround the first one have made her feel cosmically responsible for the others.

Devon, on the other hand, is pretty much in the middle of a crap sandwich that isn’t his fault. But that white-knight syndrome of his won’t let him do anything but sacrifice himself and all he has in the hope of making things better for his sister and his invalid mother, if not for himself.

Jenny has the feeling that death is following her around. Devon, on the other hand, is very definitely dying. He survived cancer, but the chemotherapy he needed did a permanent number on his kidneys, and they’re failing fast. He needs a transplant to survive.

The problem is that pretending that he is completely healthy is absolutely required to keep his repulsive half-brother from taking over his late father’s company. And taking over that company is the only way to provide enough money to give his mother the care that she will need for the rest of her life.

Devon feels as if he has no future. And he might not. But meeting Jenny makes him dream about happy endings again – no matter how much he tries to convince himself that they are not for him.

Until they very nearly aren’t. The end. Almost.

Escape Rating B+: This is the kind of melodramatic, soap-opera-ish, angsty romance that you just want to eat up with a spoon. And I very nearly did – I finished in a day. As crazy as some of the situations are, there is a lot of heart in this story and I just could not stop reading until the end.

This is a story where pretty much everything piles on. There are so many points where it is angsty well past the point of melodrama, because just so much happens, and it is all a bit over the top.

And most of it happens to poor Devon.

Jenny did have a tragedy in her past, but it looms bigger in her memory than she is actually responsible for. And while her about-to-be-ex-fiance is a douche, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping Jenny from kicking him to the curb, with or without Devon in the mix.

Devon, on the other hand, seems to have drawn most of the rotten cards out of the deck. He is rich, and that’s the one thing that falls mostly right for him, except his wealth is threatened and may even be temporary.

Devon’s Dad was a real, honest-to-goodness (or make that honest-to-badness) douchecanoe of epic proportions, and it’s those proportions that Devon is dealing with, in addition to caring for his invalid mother, imminent kidney failure, and staving off a corporate takeover.

When Devon, who is not yet 25, was undergoing cancer treatment, douchecanoe daddy changed his will to leave the family corporation to Devon if and only if Devon was pronounced healthy and able to provide an heir to the family on his 25th birthday. If he dies, can’t pass a physical or doesn’t have a sperm count (Devon had testicular cancer, so this is more relevant than it seems), the company will go to his half-brother, who is an even bigger asshat than dear old dad. Which is saying something since said half-brother is the product of daddy’s adulterous affair, not a previous or subsequent marriage.

And oh by the way, this “boys club” arrangement completely disregards the existence of Devon’s twin sister, who is an absolute shark as far as executive material is concerned. She is a better CEO for the company than either Devon or the bastard, a fact which Devon fully acknowledges but that dear old dad refused to admit on account of her gender. Like I said, Daddy was a douche.

There also turns out to be enough corporate skulduggery going on to fill an entire season of a soap opera like Dallas or Dynasty, but it does mostly take a back seat to the romance between Jenny and Devon – even though he refuses to open up about all the shit that’s going down in his life until generally the last possible moments. Over and over again.

In the end, it’s the love story that carries this tale. The reader is caught up in the two of them, as they fall in love, and its the real deal, in spite of how brief a time they’ve known each other and all the crap that they are forced to wade through. You want them to find their HEA, even though Devon is frequently too boneheaded to let Jenny in.

His sister Lettie blames that on a combination of white-knight syndrome and testosterone poisoning, with an emphasis on the testosterone poisoning. She is often the person pushing them together, and definitely the one pushing Devon to reveal all before it’s too late.

Lettie really deserves her own happy ending. She’s earned it. And I hope the series extends long enough for her to get one. But wrap Shelter My Love and it’s story up in a very pretty, neatly tied bow. In spite of the long arm of coincidence, and the octopus tentacles of family greed and corporate shenanigans, this one is like dark chocolate, yummy and gooey with just that touch of bitter to make the sweet really pop!

Review: Off the Leash by M.L. Buchman

Review: Off the Leash by M.L. BuchmanOff the Leash (White House Protection Force #1) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: White House Protection Force #1
Pages: 210
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 26th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

-White House Protection Force Romance #1-

The White House Protection Force Saves the Day! Come meet the behind-the-scenes specialists who keep our White House safe—even while they lose their hearts.

White House Chocolatier Clive Andrews takes pride in the subliminal messages hidden in his State Dinner showstoppers. But there’s more than sensual sweets at risk when his heart begins to melt.

Sergeant Linda Hamlin left the Army after a decade of service. As the newest member of the U.S. Secret Service K-9 Team she expected flak. She didn’t expect to be paired with a misfit mutt named Thor. Together they face down bombers, master spies, and a teenage genius.

All of which might be manageable, if not for the handsome chocolatier who teaches her that a little indulgence can be a very good thing.

My Review:

This was so much fun!

I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened this book, but whatever it was, I was absolutely charmed by the book itself. The opening scenes sucked me right in, where Sergeant Linda Hamlin meets her new dog, Thor, as part of her final exam for the Secret Service K-9 corps.

Linda was just honorably discharged from the Army Rangers K-9 unit after over a decade of very meritorious service. Now she’s a bit burned out and totally at loose ends.

Thor is not what she thought she needed, and neither is White House chocolate chef Clive Andrews.

First there’s poor little Thor. I know it’s difficult to attach the name “Thor” to something little, but this mutt seems to have gotten the name as a very bad joke. He’s a mish-mash of small terrier breeds, and not exactly the prettiest mix of them either. He looks like a purse dog, and he’s not much bigger – maybe 30 pounds. That’s not just small for a police dog, it’s downright tiny.

But he comes with one hell of a training pedigree, if not much of an actual one. Thor and Linda bond instantly, and pass the final exam course with flying colors – much to the chagrin of the exam proctor.

There’s nothing about Clive’s job as a White House chef that should have him watching Linda’s final exam. But when the mysterious Miss Watson, who occupies a hidden office in the White House sub-basement and seems to be on no known org chart whatsoever, says go here and do thus-and-such, people go there and do whatever she said. She “asked” Clive to watch Linda’s final test, so he does.

And he’s instantly captivated.

As Linda gets settled into her new duties as part of the White House Secret Service, she and Thor find themselves in the middle of a case that begins with diplomatic repercussions, but just gets weirder and weirder as it goes along.

It’s possible that two career Japanese diplomats are attempting to smuggle explosives into or near the White House – but that makes no sense whatsoever. And the more that Linda looks into the things that don’t fit about that puzzle, the stranger things seem.

When the likeliest, but oddest, conclusion is that someone is planning to disrupt a state dinner that brings Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and Philippine diplomats to the table to discuss the real-life situation in the South China Sea, there’s still no clue as to why, who, or what the purpose of the disruption is.

It’s only when Linda, with a bit of help from Thor (and Clive) figures out the who that the why and the what become clear. And in the process, Linda, who has never really felt she belonged anywhere or with anyone, finally realizes that she’s come home.

Escape Rating A-: This was fun. In fact, it was way more fun that I was expecting, and I was certainly expecting good things. This is the second book I’ve received as a member of the M.L. Buchman Special Mission Review Team, and based on the two examples (the other was Big Sky, Loyal Heart) I’m really, really glad I’m in it.

(I received this book in exchange for an honest review. And honestly, I loved it!)

Big Sky, Loyal Heart turns out to be the precursor for Off the Leash and the entire White House Protection Force series, of which this is the first book. But many of Buchman’s series are loosely interconnected, from his first series, Night Stalkers, through Firehawks, Delta Force and Henderson’s Ranch, among others. You don’t have to read them all to enjoy any one of them, but they are all terrific.

There are two plot threads going on in Off the Leash. One is the case that Linda finds herself in the middle of, and the other is her unexpected romance with Clive. Well, it’s certainly unexpected to her, if not to the reader after their first meeting.

While I want to say the romance is a bit of “opposites attract” the more I think about it, the less that feels right. Their careers are certainly nothing alike. Linda has gone from the military to the Secret Service, so effectively into yet another protective role that involves a lot of potential danger. Clive’s career is a totally peacetime operation – he’s a chef! But both of them are driven to be the best at what they do, and both of their jobs, in very different ways, are high pressure, high stress and frequently all consuming. They have similar perspectives on their work, even if the work is very different.

They also have entirely different feelings about love and family and well, feelings. While Clive has not exactly been looking for Ms. Right when he meets Linda, he is very aware that love exists and that families are built upon that foundation. Linda, on the other hand, was a poor little rich girl with a nightmare of a family, and is certain that love is merely a hormonal imbalance that will right itself with time. Their differing beliefs on love and even its existence become the shoals on which their relationship nearly crashes and burns.

The case feels just a bit made-for-television. It was a lot of fun to watch Linda figure it all out, but the resolution was just a bit over the top. We don’t really see enough of the villain or his motivations for the crime to make sense in context. Which didn’t make it any less interesting seeing the whole thing come together.

One final note. That secondary character, Miss Watson, absolutely fascinates me. A long time ago, when I read the author’s first book, The Night is Mine, I said then that the story reminded me of some of the best Jack/Sam fanfiction from Stargate SG-1. Miss Watson, on the other hand, reminds me very much of the inimitable character of Henrietta “Hetty” Lange, the mysterious operations manager in NCIS: Los Angeles. Making the character of Miss Watson tall with her hair in a bun feels like the cosmetic equivalent of filing off the serial number. This is a character I am really looking forward to seeing a whole lot more of. She’ll never be the focus of one of the romances, except possibly in flashback, but she certainly is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, and I’d love to know more.

I’m also definitely looking forward to seeing more of this series. Off the Leash was both a heartfelt romance and a page-turning bit of romantic suspense. And Thor is a scene-stealer at every turn. I can’t wait for more!