Chosen Target is the first book I’ve read set in New Orleans post-Katrina. While the southern city has long been a popular setting for romance, especially paranormals, there seems to be some politically correct hesitation in recreating its fictional counterpoint. Author Melanie Atkins, however, dives right in, and uses the post-traumatic stress the city is suffering from to make a tight, taught thriller.
In this case, Atkins uses the havoc after the hurricane to her advantage. While both local and federal authorities are preoccupied fighting the devastation, they are unable to keep track of other potential problems. As a result, some questionable characters enter the city and set up a terrorist cell under the radar. Their plan? A bombing during the biggest event on the New Orleans calendar – Mardi Gras. It’s a terrifying, all too plausible plot. After all, the police in New Orleans can’t be everywhere, and helping the real problems of residents must take priority over the possibility of a terrorist threat. Second, what better example of Western extravagance than the celebrations of Mardi Gras, the very definition of excess.
The story starts on Jadan’s 31st birthday. She returned to the sity to rebuild her life and used insurance money to snatch up some prime real estate near the university to open a coffee shop. Jadan’s Java is doing well…Jadan’s social life, not so much. She’s at a bar celebrating by herself, and just as she plans to leave, she’s approached by a handsome stranger, Kent, who offers her wild anonymous sex.
Jadan is not a wild, anonymous sex kind of girl. That said, the alcohol she’s had, combined with the depressing fact that she’s always been a good girl, sprinkled with the unbelievable sexual potency of said stranger, leads Jadan to break her own personal rules. She follows Kent to his truck and proceeds to have the best sex of her life. Jadan is torn from her post-orgasm euphoria, however, when her handsome stranger dies in her arms.
Three weeks later, Jadan has not recovered from the humiliation of having to explain repeatedly to the police about her one-night stand. She throws herself into her work and tries to forget the whole mortifying experience. Then she finds a PDA in the men’s restroom and is nearly killed by its owner for reading the information contained within. The experience goes from harrowing to downright horrific when Kent walks through her front door.
Cole was in Iraq when he learned of his brother’s death. He was unable to return in time for the funeral, but now that he’s home, he resumes his position as a commander in the NOPD, determined to get to the bottom of Kent’s death. His first step? Finding the woman who was with him when he died and find out exactly what she had to do with it. They soon find that Kent’s death and Jadan’s near murder are not isolated events.
One minor detail: Kent and Cole are identical twins. I know, I know. Only in Romancelandia, right? But, trust me, it works. Atkins is quite clever in this regard. Cole and Jadan both have major issues that they need to work through. By making Cole not only related to, but the mirror image of Kent, these issues are brought to the forefront. Jadan must confront her own fear of relationships. Cole has to deal with the fact that he’s not only hopelessly attracted to his brother’s potential murderer, but also a woman under his protection. They both have to face their own mortality. This part of the plot packs an emotional punch. The secondary characters, friends on both sides and a humanized villain, in this novel are also well done, adding dimension to the plot.
Two elements detracted from the story. First, Atkins suffers from one of the pitfalls of romantic suspense – plot hogging. Creating a thriller requires meticulous plotting. When the action revolves something as intricate as setting up a terrorist attack, there’s the very real danger that the suspense plot will overtake the relationship building expected in romance. There are some places where the story is overshadowed by the details.
Secondly, there are some elements of xenophobia in Atkins’ writings. She consistently uses the words “foreigner” to describe the bad guys, which, at least for me, felt awfully close to racial profiling. While I don’t want to get into a long discussion about what an “American” is, I did feel uncomfortable with the constant distancing of people of different backgrounds, the “us” versus “them” dichotomy based on appearance.
One final element that Atkins uses that really works is a kind of meta-knowledge from her characters. Forced proximity novels are common, but, as everyone who ever watched Speed knows, relationships based on intense experiences never work out. It seems that both characters paid attention. While Cole and Jadan are aware of their growing attraction and burgeoning relationship, they each separately acknowledge that their bond may have more to do with the circumstances than any actual emotional attachment. They struggle with their own feelings through the actions of the book, and, after the denouement, take the time to explore whether their love is viable. This investigation made their final coming together that much more satisfying, as the reader knows that, unlike the disaster that was Speed II, Jadan and Cole have a real chance.
Final impressions: Chosen Target is a good, solid effort from Melanie Atkins, and will bring pleasure to romantic suspense readers.