When Gwen Chastain’s grandparents left for a three-month tour of the South Pacific, her grandfather entrusted the family stamp shop to her. Everything went well at first, until the day a recently-hired employee failed to turn up for work, and Gwen discovered millions of dollars worth in rare stamps were missing. In order to save the business’s reputation, Gwen has to recover the stamps both before her grandfather gets back and anyone finds out about the theft.
She soon learns that her errant employee is staying at the Versailles Resort and Casino in Vegas, and she makes her way there to track him down. In order to keep him from recognizing her as she tries to steal the stamps back, quiet, ordinary Gwen disguises herself as a big-boobed, blond-haired vixen named Nina. It isn’t long before she draws the attention of sportswriter Del Redmond, who’s covering the World Series of Poker tournament being held in the casino. A few too many cosmopolitans leads her to briefly abandon her mission for one night in his bed. But the next morning she finds it none too easy to shake her would-be one-night-stand.
Del can’t help but be intrigued by the mysterious Nina, who acts very secretive and whose personality often seems contradictory. Who exactly is this woman and what the heck is she up to? Del has been itching to get out of the sports section and into covering hard news, and he suspects there’s a story here. For her part, Gwen doesn’t want him interfering in her mission, especially when there’s so much on the line. It isn’t long, though, before he proves to be an invaluable ally. As the poker tournament unfolds, with Del, Gwen and her prey all playing, there’s much more at stake than the hands being played on the tables.
One thing I like about the Blaze line is that the stories are more likely to be fresher and more original than the typical series romance. That’s certainly the case with Certified Male. The backdrop of the poker tournament was very cool, and the rare stamps aspect is unique. I haven’t read many, if any, romance novels to involve either of these subjects, let alone both of them together. The author convincingly brings the world of high-stakes poker to life. It really feels like we are there with the characters, experiencing the thrill of the competition. At the same time, she provides interesting details about the rare stamps involved. Admittedly, I don’t know the first thing about stamps, and for all I know she could be making it all up, but she certainly sounds like she knows what she’s talking about. More importantly, the characters do. The same goes for Del. Although the story isn’t particularly heavy on sports references, the ones used are well-chosen and serve to make Del convincing as a sportswriter. I really appreciated how detailed the story was, including the Vegas setting, which the author captured well.
Gwen and Del are both very engaging and likable characters. As is often the case in a plot-driven book, they could be developed more, particularly Del. It really felt like we could have learned more about him and his background than the few tidbits offered, but I didn’t mind too much.
Unlike many Blazes, this book is more focused on the plot than on the characters’ sexual relationship. While the sexual interludes are all explicit, there’s so much more to the story that at times I forgot I was even reading a Blaze (and that first one-night stand seemed a little forced as a result). Did that bother me? Not in the least. The level of sexual content fit the story, which is what matters. However, readers looking for a lot more sex and focus on the sexual tension in their Blazes may feel otherwise.
While the level of sexuality worked for me, there were a few small weaknesses. The beginning is a little slow. The theft isn’t discovered until the end of Chapter One, and everything up until that point is basically exposition, which makes makes for a leisurely start for a mystery/suspense plot. Also, the climactic scenes are a little predictable, with the overblown Big Misunderstanding most readers will see coming a mile away and a revelation connected to the theft that’s no surprise at all. Even so, the author’s storytelling is lively enough that those minor weaknesses were easy to overlook, and the story ends with a nicely romantic finale.
Certified Male is the first in what looks to be a two book miniseries, with the story of Gwen’s sister coming in a few months. You can bet I’ll be picking it up. As for this book, it’s one of the more enjoyable Blazes I’ve read in some time. With an intriguing premise, good characters, and an energetic plot, it’s a cool, fun read.