Catherine Mann has won a lot of buzz over the past year for her Wingman Warriors series about Air Force men and women, including a RITA win. With Suzanne Brockmann focusing on her single titles, Mann seems to have stepped in to fill the void for military category romances. I’ve only read one other book by her, – the Family Secrets prequel The Cinderella Mission – and while I didn’t care for it, the writing was strong enough for me to want to try her again with one of her own stories instead of one dictated by Silhouette. Strategic Engagement shows a great deal of promise for this author on the rise, and while it didn’t meet all my expectations, it was still an entertaining read.
Daniel Baker and Mary Elise McRae were best friends growing up, until the day their feelings moved beyond friendship and Mary Elise became pregnant. Daniel intended to put all his plans for the future on hold to do the right thing and marry her. But when Mary Elise lost the baby, they went their separate ways.
Mary Elise went on to marry another man who was obsessed with having children with her. After she failed to carry a baby to term, she learned just how obsessed he was and filed for divorce, only to have him try to kill her. No one believed that her fine, upstanding husband could be capable of such a thing, not even her parents, and he convinced everyone she was irrational and overemotional after all her failed pregnancies. With no one to turn to, she contacted Daniel’s father, the ambassador to the Middle Eastern country of Rubistan. He arranged for her to come to Rubistan and work as a teacher in the American school there.
She is finally starting to feel safe again when the ambassador and his wife are killed in a terrorist attack, leaving their two young sons orphaned. In order to protect them from the terrorist who wants to use them for his own gain, the CIA authorizes a secret mission to sneak them out of the country. The Air Force officer in charge of the mission is one with a personal stake: Daniel, determined to save his younger brothers. Mary Elise is the last person he expects to see accompanying them.
It’s clear from the start that there are still feelings between them, and when Daniel convinces Mary Elise to help him get used to taking care of the boys, the time they spend together only brings them closer together. But they also have to deal with danger from several different sources, as well as confront their past, before they can think of any kind of future.
Despite the military element, this story wasn’t as action-packed as I expected, other than the opening and climactic scenes. It’s mostly a character book, focused on Daniel as he tries to do the right thing toward his brothers and Mary Elise. Daniel is a strong, well-developed hero and Mann gives the scruffy, laidback airman a number of personality quirks that help make him multi-dimensional. Daniel’s struggle to connect with his brothers is the best part of the book. Daniel never got along with his father, and the boys are the product of their father’s second marriage. The older boy, Trey, makes sure to remind him that he is their father’s namesake, not Daniel. There are a number of affecting moments as they slowly bond and mutual acceptance occurs.
Mary Elise is the story’s weak link, a fairly bland heroine (neither that strong nor that weak) with little personality other than sweetness and her nurturing mother role. True, she managed to get away from her crazy husband, but she still comes across as a bit wishy-washy, and at times her behavior annoys. When Daniel picks them up, he calls ahead to a female doctor to check out the boys when they land, and Mary Elise gets jealous and wonders if he’s involved with this woman. She hasn’t seen him in eleven years, which makes her reaction seem a little juvenile. Like so many series romance heroines, Mary Elise is defined by her uterus, more mommy wannabe than a flesh-and-blood woman. I really didn’t get a sense of who she was other than a victim, although she does have her moments toward the end.
There are a number of storylines at play here, most of which are handled well. In fact Mann does a better job juggling her multiple storylines and making them into a cohesive whole than Brockmann did in her most recent series book, Night Watch. The relationships between Daniel’s fellow Air Force officers come across in a nice, unobtrusive way that generates interest in them without making the new reader feel left out. Other than the heroine, characterization is a real strong point in the book, and the military touches are authentic and believable. While I wouldn’t have minded a less cartoonishly evil villain in Mary Elise’s ex-husband, the suspense subplot is handled well and builds to a good climax. The story also finishes on an effective emotional note in the final scene.
If Strategic Engagement is any example of the other books in this series, it shows why the author has made a name for herself in such a short time. An appealing hero and good character drama combine for a solid read. This looks like a series I’ll be following from now on.