The promise of a truly strong heroine was all I needed to pick up Beverly Jenkins’s Sexy/Dangerous. Max Blake more than lived up to her billing in one of the more solidly enjoyable 2006 romances I’ve read.
Dr. Adam Gary is on the verge of a landmark scientific breakthrough that has made him the target of terrorists. After an attack in his hotel room in Madrid, the government decides he needs protection and calls in security expert Maxine “Max” Blake. A former Marine, Max and her two trained Rottweilers head to the government house in Michigan where Adam is staying. Adam wasn’t expecting a woman, and he doesn’t want her or the two vicious-looking dogs there. But when his government contact refuses to replace her, the two are forced into an uneasy coexistence.
The best part of the book is Max, a legitimately kickass heroine like (too) few others. She’s not one of those supposedly strong heroines whose tough outer shell masks a weepy center. There’s no deep trauma in her past to “explain” her strength and cause her to flail about and sob in the hero’s arms at some point. She’s strong because she’s strong. She’s that rarest of heroine, a tough, multifaceted woman with a strong and loving family background and real, human emotions, with both physical strength and the wits and ingenuity to be an excellent secret agent. So many times I come across a cop or soldier or secret agent heroine who is supposed to be good at her job yet who just seems either inept or a poseur. I never had any doubt Max was more than up to hers, as she demonstrates it throughout the book.
The love story is a good one, as Adam is a worthy hero for her. It helps that I like intelligent heroes, and that Adam is thankfully not overly threatened by Max’s strength, recognizing it as an asset and admirable quality. That doesn’t mean he’s weak either, since he holds his own while acknowledging her abilities when it matters most. It’s the kind of relationship I like the most, one that doesn’t require one character to be stronger than the other, but where each person is strong and appreciates the other’s strengths. There’s a very genuine sense that they come to like and respect each other, and ultimately this is one of the most convincing and satisfying relationships I encountered in a 2006 romance.
Max and Alex aren’t the only good characters in a book where the character development is generally very good throughout. Jenkins deftly draws her supporting cast in a way that captures the essence of who they are in a short amount of time. This includes Max’s dogs, which should win over any animal lover (although coming so soon after I read Meljean Brook’s Demon Angel, they couldn’t help but pale somewhat in comparison to the dog in that one), and at least one of Max’s cohorts who comes across as very cool and intriguing.
There are some minor stylistic issues in Jenkins’s prose that drew me up short every once in a while, such as some of the awkward and abrupt P.O.V. changes, but on the whole it’s very readable. The main reason the grade isn’t higher though is the uneven plotting. Readers who prefer their romantic suspense to be heavier on the romance than the suspense may enjoy this book more than those who want more of an even balance, or for their romantic suspense to be, you know, suspenseful or mysterious, which it isn’t for most of the first half of the book.
Once Max arrives at the house, the first half focuses mainly on the characters with very little action, suspense or mystery. Max and Adam bicker and she heads a renovation project on the house. Max squares off against Adam’s assistant and said assistant’s arrogant father. Max’s ex shows up, romances the assistant, and they play poker. Adam’s (very obvious) reason for not liking dogs is revealed and he slowly thaws toward Ruby and Ossie. This part of the story is enjoyable because the characters are good enough that following their interactions and the evolving relationships is entertaining. But I would have enjoyed it even more if it had all taken place within the context of the suspense plot rather than have that element minimized as much as it is. A lame e-mail threat, a pathetic, easily foiled attempt to infiltrate the property, and the occasional hokey scenes of the villain plotting from far away (whose sole purpose seems to be reminding the reader that there is a suspense plot at all) are the only real signs of an aspect that is otherwise pushed into the background. As a result, the suspense plot seems kind of half-baked, and the villain seems inept. I have to admit I started getting restless at times during the first half. It’s too bad, because the general ideas behind the villains and their motives are atypical and intriguing.
Eventually, the suspense plot does kick in with full force, with nonstop action and excitement. It makes for riveting reading, but at the same time, the characters and romance take a backseat. Then, when the suspense plot is resolved, the balance switches back, as the story continues for quite a while with one of those overly drawn-out romance endings. More than once in those final few chapters I found myself wondering, “Shouldn’t this be over by now?”
That probably sounds really critical, but it’s really only what kept me from enjoying Sexy/Dangerous even more than I did, which was quite a bit. I don’t have any reservations about recommending it, and I suspect it’s a book many readers will enjoy even more than I did.