Taking the Heat
Taking the Heat took me by surprise. Not only did it have a stalwart hero, it had a pretty stalwart heroine as well. Now, you wouldn’t think there’d be much appeal to a romance that centers on a female corrections officer in an Arizona state prison, would you? But somehow, some way, Brenda Novak makes this unique premise work, and I found myself caring very much about what happened to Officer Gabrielle Hadley and convicted murderer Randall Tucker.
The story opens with wealthy businessman Tucker’s conviction for the murder of his wife. It’s obvious to the reader he’s innocent, but when he’s sentenced to life, Randall is stunned and furious. He and his late wife were having problems, and he figured they were headed for divorce, but to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit sends him in a downward spiral of anger and depression. And heartache: what will happen to his little boy with him in prison for the rest of his life?
Gabrielle Hadley has only been a corrections officer for about a week. In her late twenties, she has an adorable one-year-old daughter, and a devoted ex-husband. David Hadley is devoted to the point that he has not yet accepted that he and Gabrielle are never going to reconcile. Gabby just doesn’t love David the way she should, and knowing that, she has left him in the hopes he will find somebody more worthy.
Gabby has major self-esteem issues. Though she is beautiful, her mother abandoned her when she was three and the foster home in which she was raised left her feeling like a perennial outsider. She’s hoping to become self-supporting but the only work she could get in the town of Florence, Arizona, was a job as a prison guard. Why Florence? Because that’s where her real mother lives. Though Gabby has been in town for two months, she has yet to knock on her mother’s door and introduce herself. Will her mother want her or will she reject her all over again? Gabby’s terrified to find out.
Gabby and Randall meet when four convicts set out to beat him to a bloody pulp. While the other guards stand around and watch, it is Gabby alone who steps in to break up the fight. This makes everybody mad, including Randall, who doesn’t want any kindness from anyone. It’s been two years since his conviction, and he’s turned into a hardened, bitter man. But when Gabby comes to his cell that night to try to see to his wounds, he softens toward her a bit.
A corrupt warden and a brutal guard combine to make things difficult for Randall. Their solution is to ship him off to a higher security prison, which they do. To punish Gabby for trying to get some decent medical care for Randall, the warden makes her and another officer move the prisoner, but when something goes wrong; the car is wrecked and the other officer injured. Gabby unlocks Randall’s chains to free him from the wreck and he takes off across the desert, without water. Gabby, unsure what to do now, takes off after him with water – and her gun.
Under the searing Arizona summer sun, Randall and Gabrielle find they must rely on each other to stay alive. It is during this three-day trek that Gabby realizes Randall is innocent. One night, when they are hot, exhausted, pushed to the limits, she holds him in her arms while he cries, and Gabby falls totally and thoroughly in love with him (she wasn’t the only one).
But the questions remain – Can Randall find out what really happened the night his wife was killed before he’s recaptured? What of Gabby? She loves Randall, but what if he flees the country? Will she ever see him again?
Very little of the story takes place in or around the prison environment, which was good. Much of the story involves Randall and Gabby’s interdependence as they make their way through a raw and hostile environment, and how seeing each other at their worst, they still manage to fall in love. Randall is a very hunky hero, and his emotional torment is clear and well depicted. Gabrielle has vowed to do her job come hell or high water, and the only time she fights to get away from Randall is when she thinks she may never see her own child again. Through the course of the story, both characters evolve and become stronger in a very satisfying way.
Another plus for this author is the fact that the ex-husband is not a snarling, abusive loser, but is as equally heroic as Randall. David is a nice guy and a very sympathetic character. I’d love to see him get a story of his own.
My sole complaint is the meager love scene. Randall and Gabby are all over each other in their minds and with their hands when they’re on the desert, but when they hit the bedroom, the door shuts firmly in the reader’s face. I felt a bit cheated since I had been led to believe there would be some sort of “payoff” to bring to a peak all that lusty preamble, so it was a letdown when it didn’t happen.
It’s clear the author has done her research on Arizona prisons and desert survival techniques. But, while Gabby has the requisite amount of training to do her job, there were some elements to the story I wasn’t all that ready to accept. A beautiful, young woman is a corrections officer in an all-male prison? Sounds like an open invitation to trouble. Even though the author explains that staffing was down, I still had a problem believing that. And, for the time Randall and Gabby spent in the desert with very little sunscreen and no hats, they should have been a lot more sunburned and dehydrated than they were, yet neither sought medical attention.
Having said that, I found Randall and Gabby a strong couple; it was easy to see why they’d fall in love and feel worthy of each other. I got into the book immediately and didn’t put it down until I’d finished it – a very good sign. Even with the unusual premise, there is a lot to like here, and I think you should give this one a try. And do let us keep our fingers crossed for David to get an HEA of his own.