New-to-me author Gwen Hernandez has crafted a tightly plotted page-turner in Blindsided, the third book in her Men of Steele series. The heroes are all ex-military men who now work for Kurt Steele’s security firm, and even though this is the third in the series and some characters from the other books are referenced or make brief appearances, it works perfectly well as a standalone.
Valerie Sanchez is the daughter of an infamous ‘black hat’ hacker (i.e, someone who hacks into computer systems with criminal intent) but although she worked alongside her Papá when younger, she now works for Aggressor International – a government funded organisation that hunts down terrorists – as one of their team of ‘white hat’ hackers, people employed to identify and fix vulnerabilities and security holes in the computer systems of their clients. She’s an unashamed geek who loves her job and her current assignment is to hack into the servers of Westgate Defence Systems to find and report on any weaknesses in their online security. With her partner, Jay Suresh, she has finally managed to find a way in, but before she can file her report, she discovers something odd; all the companies she has been employed to hack over the past few months suffered security breaches following her investigations. Believing that this must mean the clients have not undertaken the security measures outlined in her various reports, she makes her concerns known to her boss, Duncan Hollowell.
Former marine sniper Scott Kramer, a member of the Steele Security team, has gone undercover as a new employee at Aggressor in order to undertake surveillance on a staff member suspected of stealing information from the company. The few times he’s spoken to Valerie Sanchez, she’s seemed flustered and tongue-tied; she might be a bit geeky but his gut is telling him that this woman isn’t guilty of anything. So he’s astonished when Hollowell tells him she’s downloaded several files relating to classified weapons systems and tells him to keep her under surveillance until the FBI team arrives to arrest her.
Valerie soon realises she’s been set up, but before she can make a run for it, the FBI is banging on her door. She’s being escorted to a car when shots ring out – one of the agents is hit and someone screams at Valerie to run. Watching all this, Scott heads after her, but does nothing to stop her getting away.
A couple of weeks later, and Scott has followed Valerie to Zachari, CA. She hasn’t dared contact anyone, but is hoping she can meet up with Jay, as he’s the only one who can prove that they were actually assigned to work on Westgate’s systems and help her to clear her name. She tracks him down at a local bar and he agrees – reluctantly – to help her, but as he leaves, he’s gunned down outside by a man Scott recognises as one of the FBI agents sent to arrest Valerie.
Realising that there is more going on than he knows, and because his gut is telling him that something isn’t right, Scott gets Valerie away. She doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her, but it soon becomes clear that Valerie isn’t the only one of them to have been set up; Scott has been named as the sniper-accomplice who helped Valerie escape and there’s nothing for it but for them both to run until they can work out exactly what’s going on and how they can fix it. Fortunately for Scott, his friends at Steele have his back and are prepared to do what they can, but ultimately, it’s down to Valerie’s computer skills and his more traditional physical and tactical ones to keep them alive while staying one step ahead of the people hunting them.
Blindsided is a thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced romantic thriller that makes excellent use of the cyber-crime plotline, although I confess I often felt like Scott when all the technical stuff went right over my head! (Fortunately, there isn’t too much of it). The attraction between Valerie and Scott builds believably and at a good pace, and they are well-rounded characters whose flaws and insecurities make them seem that much more real and easy to relate to. They come from very different backgrounds, but neither of them have had it easy and I liked the way that the gradual revelation of their pasts leads to a deeper understanding between them and brings them closer together. Valerie’s Dad was murdered in front of her, and his lover, her Papá, went to prison for fraud, while Scott grew up with an abusive father who constantly belittled him and insisted Scott was a runt who would never amount to anything. It’s a refreshing change in this particular sub- genre to discover a hero who isn’t your typical big, macho, muscle-bound ex-military type. Scott is good-looking, he’s ripped and he’s hot, but he’s five-nine and wiry; he still suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex about his height and slight build which isn’t helped by the scars he now bears as the result of serious injuries incurred while on active duty. And while Valerie has beauty to go with her brains, she’s spent most of her working life hiding it behind geeky classes and baggy clothes because as a woman in a very male oriented profession, she wants to be appreciated for her brains and not her boobs.
This is the first book I’ve read by Gwen Hernandez, but it won’t be the last. The first book in the series, Blind Fury is now waiting for me on my Kindle, and I will certainly be checking out the other books in this series as and when they come out.