There are only so many ways to do the woman-running-from-a-traumatic-past story. And while Shooter, the first in the Burnout series about Army Rangers turned good-guy bikers, has its share of clichés, I found it to be highly readable and with enough twists to give it a solid thumbs up.
Hayley Turner – totally not her real name – gets off the bus in Rapid City, South Dakota with three basic needs. Number one, a job that will pay her in cash, under the table, with a boss who doesn’t care that Hayley has no form of I.D. whatsoever. Second, a place to live that is cheap and safe, but mostly the first. And finally, a whole lot of leave-me-alone because she’s not about to talk to anyone about the reasons she’s been on the run for the past five years. She plans to follow her normal routine of four to six months in one spot, making as much money as she can before heading out of town. That’s the only way Hayley feels safe, and even so, she still pushes a heavy piece of furniture up against the door of the room she’s found at the Sleazebag Motel.
Ex-Army Ranger Chris “Shooter” Sullivan is certain that his good friend Marie is being scammed when she hires “Hayley” to waitress in her bar. Marie is far too trusting, a character trait that Chris learned during his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq can be a costly liability. While he doesn’t believe Hayley’s innocent act for one minute, he grudgingly offers her the rental house on his property. When Hayley decides Chris’s attitude is too high a rent price, he’s pretty indifferent. But then he gets a look at the hotel she’s staying in and puts the pressure on to take him up on his offer. Hayley assures Chris that their new arrangement of landlord and tenant will never include sex, and Chris scoffs at the mere suggestion. But he finds himself feeling protective of the clearly damaged girl who is actually a lot tougher than she first appears to be.
Slowly, Hayley begins to trust Chris. She also gains an entire pack of protective older brothers in the form of Chris’s former special operations teammates and current cycle shop business partners. While Chris believes he knows what happened to Hayley to cause her nightmares and account for her skittishness around men, the real truth of her story is far more shocking. Once he learns he truth, not only does Chris despair that Hayley will ever feel comfortable becoming close to any man, he worries that if she ever does manage to escape the demons that are still chasing her, she will return home and leave him behind.
Meanwhile, Hayley feels herself beginning to relax, discovering simple joys such as cooking for people who appreciate her culinary talents and having real friends who care about her well-being. She starts to see that her life of constant running has denied her the chance to be truly happy, but she also knows that staying in one place for too long could mean the end of any kind of life at all.
While the writing is a little bit rough – this book really could have used a decent editor – I found myself really invested in Hayley and Chris’s story. There aren’t a lot of huge surprises, but they are well done. The author achieves the delicate balance of revealing enough about Hayley’s past to let readers know that something serious has happened, but she manages to keep enough of it secret in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative, as if she is bending over backwards to keep us in the dark so she can manufacture a Big Dramatic Moment.
Hayley’s past also offers enough of a twist to avoid the déjà vu feeling of thinking I’d read this before. At first, what happens to send her on the run seems pretty predictable. Chris even manages to sum up her situation with only a few clues: girl was raped, probably during college, and is now terrified of all men. However, when Hayley does finally spill all of the details of the trauma she endured, no one, not Chris or his friends or even the reader could have begun to guess the truth of the horror.
I really loved the way that Chris and his buddies interact with each other. The dialogue between them rings very true, and their loyalty and acceptance of each other makes the transformation of their military brotherhood into something more permanent understandable. Once they adopt Hayley as a member of their tribe, to a man they hold one another accountable for any bad behavior and are as loyal to her as they are to each other.
I did have a bit of an issue with the way that Hayley and Chris make the leap from sexual attraction to full-on lovers with only the tiniest fraction of time spent in the taking-it-slow territory. This is a bit whiplash-inducing since from the very beginning of the book, every indication is that physical intimacy is something that terrifies Hayley. I very much expected West to take it slow – even Chris promises Hayley that they never have to do anything she’s not ready to do, ever. But once they manage the first kiss which does take a very long time, things progress pretty quickly with only a short-lived hesitation on Hayley’s part.
I also found the bit about the motor cycle gang to be somewhat unnecessary. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the story never delves too deeply into Chris’s past, which seems to include ties to the Badlands Buzzards that Chris worked hard to break. It’s almost as if the series needs a prequel to set up this particular story angle.
In the end, however, I found myself turning pages and unwilling to put the book down, which is always a sign of a good read. West doesn’t invent anything new, but she certainly kept me entertained and has enticed me to keep reading the rest of the Burnout books. There are five more in the series, one for each of Chris’s ex-Ranger buddies. The next one, however, features Tex who is a big fan of BDSM. I’m not a big fan of BDSM, so I will most likely jump straight to Hawk’s story.