Turn Me Loose
Although Turn Me Loose is billed as the sixth book in Anne Calhoun’s Alpha Ops series, the author includes enough relevant information about previous situations and characters to make it work as a standalone, although I will admit to having re-read Maria Rose’s review of Under the Surface in order to remind myself of a couple of things. This book turns the spotlight on Lieutenant Ian Hawthorn of the Lancaster PD, an ambitious officer with his eye on a captain’s stripes – stripes he hopes to earn by finally bringing down a large drug cartel and convicting the cops who are taking bribes and turning a blind eye to its operations. Turn Me Loose isn’t overly action-packed – there aren’t many car chases and shoot-out set-pieces – but I didn’t mind that because the story the author is telling is more character driven and that focus works well. The lack of action doesn’t mean there’s a lack of suspense, however – that comes from the protagonists’ proximity to the bad guy and the ever-present sense of danger the author creates as a result; and ultimately, I was absorbed in the story from beginning to end.
When she was just eighteen, Riva Henneman was arrested when she attempted to sell drugs to an undercover cop. Given the choice of prison or working as a confidential informant for Ian Hawthorn, Riva chose the latter, and helped him to bring a major dealer to trial. They haven’t seen each other since they parted seven years ago, and in the intervening years, Riva has turned her life around and now runs a scheme to help disadvantaged kids in the Lancaster area. She owns a small farm and a restaurant – Oasis – and is part of the growing farm-to-table movement which is dedicated to harvesting and cooking the freshest seasonal produce. She can’t believe her eyes one night when Ian Hawthorn walks in and asks for a table, his mere presence churning up feelings she’d thought dead and buried seven years ago.
Ian is equally surprised and unsettled to see Riva there, unable to believe the strength of the pull he still feels towards her after seven years. She is obviously not pleased to see him and at the end of the evening, asks him not to return, but fate has other ideas. When one of her young trainees is arrested for assisting his drug-dealing brother, Riva steps in to help secure his release by offering Ian some information she omitted to tell him when she was working for him – namely that back when he’d busted her for dealing, she had been working for her father, Rory Henneman, and that he is the man behind the pipeline of drugs flooding into Lancaster.
Ian is stunned by the news, but willing to listen further. Riva tells him that she’s no longer the gullible eighteen-year-old who so craved her father’s approbation that she would do anything to earn it, and explains that she knows where she can lay her hands on all the evidence Ian will need to convict him.
Even after seven years, Ian still feels guilty about all the potentially dangerous situations he sent Riva into in the past, and is not prepared to let her enter the lion’s den alone. He insists on accompanying her home to Chicago, where Riva plans to re-ingratiate herself with her father and gain his confidence with a view to becoming part of his operation in order to get the information she needs.
On meeting Rory Henneman, however, Ian decides upon an alternative strategy. Henneman is a sociopath, an egocentric, conscienceless and intelligent man who thrives on adulation and on playing mind-games with those around him, and Ian immediately senses that the way in is for him to act the part of willing acolyte. But it’s risky – Riva knows what her father is capable of and isn’t happy – but Ian is prepared to do anything to keep her safe, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.
The past Ian and Riva share is littered with hurt and misunderstandings, made even more complicated by the almost overwhelming attraction they felt for each other but never acted upon. When they meet again, that attraction slams into them both full force, but they’re older, wiser and more cautious; having a relationship with Riva could seriously derail Ian’s career plans and Riva finds it hard to let go of her bitterness and mistrust over the way Ian used her. Gradually, they both start to see that they are different people now and allow themselves to open up to each other; it’s a slow-burn but they have terrific chemistry and their willingness to communicate and be honest with one another is refreshing. I always enjoy romances where the characters act like adults and are mature enough to realise the importance of actually talking to each other instead of retreating behind emotional walls.
One of the other things that impressed me about the book was the way in which the author deals with the fact that Ian is a cancer survivor, capturing his bitterness at what the disease took from him and his frustrations at the way his body was betraying him when he was sick. Even though he’s been clear for almost ten years, he hates people knowing about it because he doesn’t want to be seen as anything special. He doesn’t want pity, he doesn’t want a free pass because he’s been ill – he just wants to be Ian, and while I am lucky enough not to have personal experience to draw from, these feelings seemed very realistic to me.
Turn Me Loose kept me hooked from start to finish, and I raced through it in just a couple of sittings. Ian and Riva are well-rounded, flawed, but likeable characters whose issues serve to create an interesting conflict between them without turning the story into an over-the-top angst fest; their sexual chemistry is scorching and the love scenes are both tender and steamy. Ms. Calhoun does a great job with the suspense elements, too, gradually increasing the sense of peril and raising the stakes as our heroes become more closely enmeshed with Henneman. The writing flows smoothly and the story is well-paced, with the judicious use of flashbacks to give readers an insight into Ian and Riva’s complicated history.
Turn Me Loose is recommended for fans of romantic suspense who like a strong emphasis on the romance and a couple of protagonists who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. I’ll definitely be seeking out this author’s backlist.