The White Star series got off to a wobbly start in Lori Wilde’s Angels and Outlaws, which featured too much silliness and too little payoff on its mysterious premise to be a success. Carrie Alexander tones down the wackiness and provides more suspense in book two, Hidden Gems. Sadly, those improvements are undone by bland characters and a dull romance, resulting in a weaker read overall.
Master thief Jean Luc Allard has stolen the White Star, an amulet so mysterious few knew of its existence before he took it from its owner’s private collection. He has a client overseas waiting impatiently for him to deliver it. But when he tries to leave New York, an increased security presence at the airport forces him to dump the amulet in another passenger’s bag. Coincidentally enough, out of all the people in New York, the bag happens to belong to a close friend of the heroine from Wilde’s book, who was suspected of the theft in the first place. That’s the kind of contrivance that would work better if New York had a population of ten, but so be it.
Marissa Suarez returned early from a romantic vacation in the Cayman Islands after she caught her boyfriend sneaking away to meet with another woman. She finds comfort in the arms of her best friend, Jamie Wilson, who comes to pick her up at the airport. Their relationship is proof that men and women can be friends without sex entering the picture. Except, of course, Jamie wants to be more than just friends with Marissa. When someone keeps trying to break into her apartment, wanting something they claim she has, Jamie comes to her rescue. It isn’t long before they hit the sheets, but Marissa’s conviction that all her relationships are doomed has her eager to end things sooner rather than later. Jamie is just as determined to convince her they could have the real thing.
The book gets off to a promising start. It opens with a snippet of an old legend telling the amulet’s history (continued from the first book) followed by a snappy opening line from Marissa that begins Chapter One. Marissa’s Hispanic background made her stand out a little from the typical whitebread romance heroine, and the initial airport scenes were interesting enough. But I kept waiting for the story to really take off from that promising launching pad, and it never did. The pacing is rather slack; there’s enough happening to keep it from becoming slow, but it never becomes a page turner either.
The main problem is the love story. Basically, I didn’t care. Marissa’s issues aren’t very interesting and the conflict they pose to the romance is weak. It certainly doesn’t help that they’re mostly shoved aside when the suspense plot takes over in the final third. Jamie is a nice guy, which I like when done right. But even nice guys can be interesting, and he’s just dull. He’s an arts critic for a New York paper, the kind of thing I normally would find really cool and appealing. He’s too boring to be either.
Things are better on the suspense front, if only because it was more lively. There are some effective scenes as Marissa is confronted by a masked man in her apartment and tries to figure out why this is happening to her. However, the plot is mostly predictable. For instance, when Marissa tells her now ex-boyfriend that she saw him with the woman he sneaking away with through the viewfinder of her camera, he gets upset that she might have pictures of them together. Then when she lies and tells him she doesn’t, he immediately calms down, which raised a red flag with me right away. Marissa is oblivious, so she at least was surprised by the way everything played out. I wasn’t so lucky. The plot’s transparency kept me several steps ahead of the characters at all times. Once she clues in to the situation, Marissa shows some intelligence and ingenuity in how she handles everything, but the plot was too obvious to gain my interest.
The story does have its moments. I chuckled when Marissa got offended at the idea someone would think she smuggled something into the country like a drug mule just because she’s Hispanic and Jamie called her “Marissa, full of grace.” Jamie’s memory of a guitar he wanted to buy when he was a teenager and the lesson it taught him is effective. There are some nice lines and cute bits. The sex is reasonably hot, though probably not enough so for anyone looking for a “red hot” read to buy the book solely on that basis.
On a technical level, Hidden Gems is stronger than Angels and Outlaws. The author’s prose is solid and smooth, and the book has none of the goofiness that made me roll my eyes in the first. At the same time, it never made me care about the characters the way that book did, which ultimately made me forgive its sins. It doesn’t help that in the end the characters make an amazingly lame decision for the sole purpose of keeping the series going (although, knowing how these continuity series work, I suppose that’s not the author’s fault). The next book, Kristin Hardy’s Caught, sounds intriguing, but then, that’s what I thought about this one. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.