This month’s TBR prompt was a fun one – “a book by a favorite author.” Sometimes the challenge pulls me outside my comfort zone, but this month we just got to work our way through backlists we’ve already been enjoying. Lynn caught up on a high-action romantic suspense series, while Caz read a lovely contemporary m/m romance. Whose backlist do you want to explore next?
High Priority Asset by Juno Rushdan
I’ve been enjoying Juno Rushdan’s books, particularly her Hard Core Justice series, so picking up the next book in that series was an easy choice when I saw that this month’s TBR prompt was “book by a favorite author.” In High-Priority Asset, Rushdan expands her range a bit, and the results primarily worked for me, though I did have a few issues.
I’ve read four of Rushdan’s books, and I enjoy them because they tend to have intense, fast-paced action and very intriguing plots. Sometimes in romantic suspense, the romance gets lost in the action, but Rushdan balances things beautifully by often featuring couples who already know each other. Since the leads have a prior acquaintance, readers skip over the initial getting-to-know you niceties and we are believably dropped into the middle of the action and the budding relationship. It’s a formula that has worked well for her in the past, but in this book, Rushdan changes things up a bit.
In High-Priority Asset, Dutch Haas gets sent from Louisiana to California on a special assignment. so not only has he never met the heroine, he’s also new in town. Readers of earlier books in this series will remember that it is built around the branch of Witness Protection being run out of San Diego. An internal breach led to personal information about the marshals and their witnesses being leaked, and in this installment, the rush is on to stop an auction of this information believed to be planned by the leader of a drug cartel.
In order to stop the auction, Marshals are trying to get access to the auction and its ringleader. Since Dutch has no ties to the area and would not be a familiar name or face, he has been brought in to start a relationship with Isabel Vargas, the niece of the cartel leader. Isabel is known to be close with her uncle, and the Marshals hope she will lead Dutch to his inner sanctum. They meet plausibly enough when Dutch, who has been watching Vargas, intervenes to stop a purse snatching outside the gallery she owns. The two hit it off, but Dutch quickly figures out that (1)Vargas is not the sort of person federal profilers believe her to be and (2) his interest in her isn’t going to be strictly professional.
Rushdan mostly makes this slower-paced romance work. We see Dutch getting to know Isabel, winning her trust and gradually courting her. For a variety of reasons, neither is ready to jump into bed right away, and this slower progression fits the story well. On the one hand, since the reader knows Dutch’s secret, I had issues with him getting to know Isabel under false pretenses. However, the author does believably convince the reader of Dutch’s real feelings so I was willing to hold on and see how the Big Reveal would be handled.
Because the romance moves more slowly in this book, Rushdan also changes up her usual pacing of the plot action as well. In many of her books, the leads are constantly on the move and almost always trying to evade danger. However, things move a little bit differently here. Instead of constant pursuit, we have Dutch and Isabel staying put for much of the story. They face various dangers, but the menacing events are a little more subtle and come initially in the form of unsettling encounters and warning notes rather than armed attackers jumping out at every turn. While there aren’t constant close calls, chases and big escapes, the author does do a good job of maintaining the tension so that readers stay engaged.
Despite the issue of Dutch’s not being fully honest with Isabel, the first part of this book worked better for me than the last few chapters. Towards the end, Isabel makes some missteps that felt out of character and while they do advance the plot, they veer awfully close to TSTL territory. In addition, while there’s an HEA, the resolution of the suspense plot feels rather rushed and disjointed in places.
While not perfect, I did enjoy seeing Ms. Rushdan try something that was a bit outside her usual plotting. Even with its issues, I enjoyed High-Priority Asset and after its tease of an ending, I can’t wait to read the next in the series. It’s a marriage-in-trouble story, which is a plot trope I love, so that means it’s even higher on my TBR than it already was. If you like high-action romantic thrillers, you will definitely want to check this series out.
Grade: B- Sensuality: Warm
~ Lynn Spencer
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Served Hot by Annabeth Albert
I was a bit pushed for reading time this month (too many new releases to review!) and I was actively looking for a fairly short read to fulfill this month’s prompt, so I was pleased when I came across Served Hot on my Kindle. I’m a big fan of Annabeth Albert’s books, but I’m still playing catch-up with her backlist; Served Hot dates from 2015 and is the first book in her six-part Portland Heat series of novella-length stories featuring guys who work in the restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bars of the city. It’s short, sweet and sexy and the author packs a decent amount of character and relationship development and a lot of heart into the limited page count.
Self-employed barista Robby Edwards enjoys working his busy coffee cart in the Old Emerson building in Portland, and the highlight of his day is the arrival of David Gregory, an attractive, well-dressed guy who always buys a vanilla latte and sits at one of the nearby tables to eat his (obviously home-made) lunch, alone. They don’t do much more than exchange pleasantries or talk about the weather, and even though Robby doesn’t know if David is gay, he has a major crush – but no idea how to go about striking up an actual conversation and maybe even flirting a little bit.
When Robby decides to go for it and mentions he’s going to Portland Pride that weekend, he can’t help being a bit disappointed when David doesn’t react and seems to withdraw a little. He wonders if he’d have been better not to have said anything at all. So he’s absolutely delighted when David shows up after all and makes it clear he’s there for Robby. They spend a little time talking and share a sweet (but not quite chaste) kiss before they part having arranged to see each other again soon.
The next time we see David and Robby, they’ve been dating for about six weeks… and Robby is starting to get a little frustrated. Not just sexually (although he’s that, too) but because he’s falling hard for David and isn’t sure where he stands with him. He’s wary of pushing too hard and scaring him off – while David is clearly not quite sure how to be in an openly out relationship. He’s not closeted – not any more – and when we learn his backstory, his inability to move forward is easy to understand, although that doesn’t excuse the fact that he doesn’t always treat Robby fairly.
Despite that however, David is a very sympathetic character and it’s easy to root for him to be able to get past his issues so that he can be with Robby, because there’s no question these two belong together. Robby is smart and funny and a bit insecure, and I liked that he recognises his flaws and owns them. He’s very well fleshed-out considering this is such a short book and I enjoyed spending time in his head. And although we don’t get David’s perspective, Ms. Albert does a terrific job of bringing him to life through Robby’s eyes; he’s shy and endearing, and his backstory is heartbreakingly realistic. And in fact, I loved how real this story was – Robby and David aren’t stunningly handsome billionaries; they have normal jobs, and they talk about normal things like money and food and friends and family.
The story is told in four sections that take place over just under a year, so there are time jumps, but the format works. One criticism I often make of novellas is that the romance is rushed, but that’s not the case here as we get to see the different stages of Robby and David’s relationship as they both navigate unfamiliar waters and learn – together – what a healthy relationship looks like and how to deal with fears and problems just like every couple has to.
Served Hot is a charming read, a warm, feel-good story with just the right amount of angst (and steam!) featuring two likeable characters, and I’m looking forward to reading more in the Portland Heat series.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
~ Caz Owens