Harper Allen wrote some of my all-time favorite romances. She is noted for her emotional storytelling and strong, often tortured characters. When I heard she would be writing a book for Silhouette Bombshell, I was curious to see how her talents would translate to the line. Her first Bombshell, Payback, has its flaws, but it also showcases the strengths that made some of her previous books so good.
Dawn O’Shaughnessy was an extraordinary child with very special abilities. Not only did she have superior strength and agility, she also had superhealing powers that allowed her body to rapidly repair any injury. She can recover from any cut or bullet wound and she can die only if her oxygen is cut off. She was raised by the shadowy Lab 33 organization and her beloved Uncle Lee, who was the only family she had. He trained her to become an assassin, just like him, taking on missions for the government. She didn’t know she was created in a genetic experiment that caused her extraordinary abilities, or that she had two sisters she’d never been told about. Even worse, Lab 33 wasn’t connected to the government at all. They were the bad guys. When her Uncle Lee was taken down, she finally found out the truth about her heritage – and the fact that he’d murdered her mother.
Dawn wants revenge on the mastermind behind the lies: Lab 33 head Aldrich Peters. But before she can take him out, he reveals the cause of her recent debilitating headaches and blackouts. Her body is turning against itself, and the genes that saved her so often now might lead to her death. The only way to save her is with a serum Lab 33 has been developing, but they need one more piece to complete the formula. In order to save her own life, Dawn has to delay her vengeance and go on one more mission: infiltrate the lab of Sir William London, a renowned geneticist conducting experiments in tissue regeneration, and steal some of his research. Standing in her way is a military team led by British SAS officer Des Asher, who guard London and his work. Going undercover as an uptight researcher, Dawn gets into London’s compound, and soon finds herself going toe-to-toe with Asher. He’s immediately suspicious of her, but Dawn has too much on the line to fail at this particular mission.
This is the ninth entry in the Athena Force miniseries, and it’s not the easiest book to get into at first. While the last couple have stood on their own well enough, this one is more heavily linked to previous books in the series. There’s a lot of backstory to cover early on, and the heavy exposition doesn’t make for the smoothest beginning. In addition, this is a very narrative-heavy story that sometimes moves slowly, especially in the first few chapters. Early on, the author also indulges too much in the annoying device of having the heroine talk to her herself, saying what she’s thinking and feeling out loud when this could just as easily be covered in silent introspection. Of course this was probably done to break up the narrative, but there’s still so much that leaving these passages as narrative too wouldn’t make it any worse and would be less annoying.
At the same time, this is a book that gets better as it goes along – readers who stick with it will be rewarded. While the first third is the book’s weakest part, it greatly improves thereafter, even if some rough chapter transitions occur. As the story picks up steam, I mostly forgot my early reservations and became engrossed in it. Allen created an excellent heroine in Dawn – she’s a strong woman who is tortured without coming across as whiny or wimpy. Dawn feels tremendous guilt about her past as a killer and hates her “Uncle” Lee for his lies and what he did to her life, but she still has some residual feelings for the man who was her surrogate father. Her struggle with her happy childhood memories and the truth she now knows makes for some effective emotional drama.
Meanwhile, Asher has a dark past of his own. Though this isn’t an outright romance, the two have strong chemistry. They have exactly the kind of relationship I like most, where it’s clear they’re two very well-matched equals, whether they’re exchanging charged banter or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. They’re surrounded by a cast of vivid personalities as distinct as they are. By the end, the secondary characters felt as familiar as old friends, and I was surprised how much I cared when something happened to one of them late in the book.
As always, Allen writes with a great deal of emotion, and there are a number of phenomenal moments and amazing scenes. This author excels at delivering big moments with great impact, and this book is full of them. The storytelling from scene to scene isn’t always the smoothest, but the scenes themselves are juicy and powerful enough that I didn’t really care. Whether it’s the bits of wry humor, the scenes where Dawn’s healing capabilities are showcased, the surprise twists, or the hard-hitting emotional moments, when the story’s clicking it’s not just good – it’s great.
While there are weaknesses in the execution, I enjoyed this story nonetheless. It takes a while to pick up steam, but once it does, it’s a great ride. With a combination of unusual, distinctive characters, involving emotional drama and an action-packed plot, Payback is an entertaining read.