What can I say about August? It’s hot, we’re all feeling a little languid and lazy – it’s the perfect time to have a random book pick in the TBR Challenge. No theme, no worries, just have fun. And in the arenas of romantic suspense and historical romance, we both had a good time. Read on for two solid book picks!

Strike Fast by Kaylea Cross

It took me a while to pick a book for this month’s prompt – Random Pick – which was entirely due to my having way too many unread books to choose from!  Eventually, I narrowed it down to Strike Fast, one of the books in the DEA FAST series by Kaylea Cross.  I’ve read (and listened to) a couple of her other books and have enjoyed her tightly plotted stories, strong, independent heroines and heroes who respect them and their abilities.  Strike Fast, the story of a widowed Blackhawk pilot and a single father DEA FAST agent is no exception; these are down-to-earth, mature characters with messy lives and difficult jobs who communicate well and work through the issues surrounding their relationship in a sensible manner. This is the fourth book in the series, and although it features characters who appear throughout, it works fine as a standalone.

Blackhawk pilot Tess Dubrovski was widowed three years earlier after her husband was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  She loved him very much and sincerely mourned him, but has decided that it’s time to move on with her life.  She hopes – eventually – to find love again, although perhaps not with another man with a dangerous career, so the fact that the one man to have caught her eye in quite some time is a tall, dark and handsome DEA FAST agent is inconvenient, to say the least.

Reid Prentiss has joint custody (with his ex-wife) of his nine-year-old daughter, Autumn.  Because of his job, he sees her a lot less frequently than he would like, but tonight, he’s taking her to the movies and dinner… after he stops in at DEA HQ for an important meeting.  They’re both disappointed at having their together-time interrupted, and Reid arrives at the office intent on settling his daughter in the kitchen with some milk and cookies only to discover Tess Dubrovski sitting there reading the newspaper.  It’s been a few months since they’ve seen each other (the last time was on a mission in Afghanistan) and Reid wonders how on earth he hasn’t noticed her before.  Admittedly, the last the last time they’d met it had been too dark to see clearly, but now he can…? No question, Tess is a very attractive woman; tall with lush curves, green eyes and killer dimples – and Reid can hardly take his eyes off her.  Tess offers to sit with Autumn for the duration of the meeting (she’s stuck there anyway as she’s getting a ride home from one of the analysts), and Reid gratefully accepts.  When the meeting ends and he goes to collect Autumn for their movie date, Autumn asks if Tess can go with them; Tess doesn’t want to interrupt their father-daughter time, but Autumn is adamant about her joining them and to Tess’ surprise, Reid raises no objections.  And at the end of the evening, Reid realises he’s enjoyed the time spent in Tess’ company more than he ever expected – and that he wants see her again and get to know her better.

The romance between the pair develops at a sensible pace given these are two people with a bit of baggage – more than a bit in Reid’s case, because not only is he having to try hard to maintain an amicable relationship with his ex-wife (who doesn’t make it easy), he’s an alcoholic (nine years dry) who carries a huge burden of guilt over the death of his best friend almost a decade earlier.  And while Tess is sure that it’s time for her to start moving forward, she knows conviction isn’t going to make it any easier to do so.  I appreciated that they took baby steps in their relationship and didn’t rush into anything, so that when things do heat up between them, it felt like a natural progression from the emotional connection the author had already established between them.

There’s a plot thread running throughout the series concerning the FAST team’s hunt for El Escorpion, the leader of the Mexican Veneto cartel, and their mission to shut it down.  In this story, they’re searching for Carlos Ruiz, one El Escorpion’s trusted lieutenants and the man responsible for the kidnapping of a reporter.  Ruiz is a vicious, sadistic bastard, and readers get a few chapters in his PoV that flesh him out into more than a pantomime villain and provide a disturbing insight into his character.  He is capable of the most despicable casual violence, he displays an utter hatred of women (there are a few unpleasant scenes here featuring a young woman held captive – sexual assault is implied but not detailed or ‘on page’) – yet he rescues animals and cares for them with a compassion and respect he shows to no human.  It’s a strange, chilling juxtaposition that serves to show just how unbalanced an individual he is.

When Reid and his team receive intelligence that Ruiz is holed up at a remote location in New Orleans, he can’t know that simply doing his job is going to have far-reaching repercussions.  But after the raid, those are quick in coming when Autumn is kidnapped by one of Ruiz’s enforcers, and it becomes a race against time to find her before she becomes another victim of the cartel’s trafficking operation.

The author skilfully weaves the suspense plot throughout the story and builds the tension slowly until switching up a gear in the second half as the kidnap plot takes centre stage.  However, the trust and understanding Tess and Reid have been building together isn’t forgotten as Tess helps Reid stay grounded and focused while the DEA and other agencies work tirelessly to find Autumn.  There are some really tense, edge-of-the-seat moments during the final action set-piece – which is written vividly so it’s easy to visualise – and regular readers of Ms. Cross’ novels are sure to be pleased by the cameo appearances from some of the characters from her Hostage Rescue Team series.

I had a few small quibbles with the story, such as the placement of the sex scene and the fact that  ‘heroine-bonds-with-single-dad’s-kid’ is such an oft-used trope, but those didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

Strike Fast was a quick but engrossing read with a fast moving plot, interesting characters and a central romance between a couple that were easy to root for and who were clearly good for one another.  I’ve been dipping into Kaylea Cross’ backlist here and there whenever I’ve felt the need for a romantic suspense fix, and fortunately for me, her catalogue is fairly extensive, so I have no doubt I’ll be reading more of her work in future.

Rating:  B                     Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo


A Noble Captiveby Michelle Styles

This month’s prompt to pick something at random felt freeing and overwhelming all at once. If, like me, you have a fairly generous TBR, you may know exactly what I mean. Since I’d been craving a Harlequin Historical for a while, I narrowed things down by going over to my shelf of Harlequins and just pulling one out at random. I ended up with A Noble Captive by Michelle Styles. This novel, set on Crete during the days of the Roman Republic, was definitely an unusual historical and largely an enjoyable one as well.

Tribune Marcus Livius Tullio is captured on the high seas with his men and brought by pirates to Crete. When the pirates come to pay tribute, Marcus is able to remember just enough of the rituals of the temple goddess to request the protection of the goddess Kybele. Upon hearing the ritual words, the sibyl feels bound to shelter the Roman prisoners on the temple grounds until their ransom comes from Rome.

We as readers quickly learn that something is amiss. The “sibyl” is in fact Helena, the sibyl’s assistant and niece. Because the sibyl’s position amid the rival factions of seafarers is precarious at best, Helena is trying to protect her seriously ill aunt by appearing in disguise until her aunt hopefully recovers. Marcus figures out early in the story that something is not quite right at the Temple of Kybele as well and he also finds himself quite drawn to the sibyl’s beautiful and intelligent assistant. The two form an alliance and friendship of sorts, though the romance in this novel is definitely of the slow-burning variety.

From a historical perspective, I enjoyed the story quite a bit. As Helena and Marcus get to know each other, their very different worldviews come into play and the author does a good job of showing them navigating that. Marcus supports Rome without question, and he will not be swayed from his conviction that many of Helena’s problems would be solved if only her island would throw in its lot with Rome. Helena and her people strongly distrust Rome and its growing ambitions – probably with some reason – and while she is personally drawn to Marcus, she does not view Rome as a benign power. While Marcus’ internal monologue is awkwardly worded on occasion, the dueling viewpoints felt believable and added tension to the story.

For such a short book, the author also does a notably good job of presenting readers with unexpectedly nuanced “bad guys.” Frequent references are made to piracy in the ancient Mediterranean, and we as readers see it from several different viewpoints. Helena sees displaced people trying to survive and an island that owes its survival to the provisions and protection provided by the captains, while Marcus knows well the theft, violence and destruction these crews leave behind.

My one major beef with this book is the pacing of the romance. Given the circumstances, a slow-burn love story between Helena and Marcus makes perfect sense. However, even the initial stages of attraction and mutual yearning felt too muted here. The backstory developed well, but the leads needed to develop a bit more chemistry together in the early portions of this book.

If you love historical fiction but sometimes find yourself wary to take a chance on a book that might not have an HEA, this novel may be right up your alley.  The romance is very much central to the novel’s plot, but the backstory is so well-developed and rich with detail that I think it will appeal to readers of historical fiction as much as readers of romance. 

Rating:          B             Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble