For the “danger” prompt in this month’s TBR Challenge, Caz and Lynn both went for the darker side of romantic suspense. Both of us tried action-packed reads that were ultimately successful. So, if you’re looking for some good romantic suspense reads, here are a couple to check out. What are your favorite “danger” romances?

Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville

Jane Seville’s Zero to the Bone (2009) combines a complex and intriguing plot that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie with an intense, angsty romance between a hitman and his would-be victim.  It’s a gripping read for around the first three-quarters of the book but after that it starts to meander a bit and while I enjoyed it, it’s a bit overlong and could probably have done with a bit of judicious editorial pruning to tighten up some areas of the plotting and writing.

Maxillofacial surgeon Jack Francisco’s life is turned upside down and inside out after he witnesses a mob hit and agrees to give evidence at trial.  He has to leave his Baltimore home and the job that’s been his life’s work behind when he’s taken into protective custody and relocated thousands of miles away in Nevada while he waits for the trial to begin.

The hitman known only as D is one of the best in the business, but is known to have some odd quirks when it comes to which tickets he picks up.  Rapists, child molesters and murderers are fair game, but he won’t touch cheating spouses, kids who want to dispose of elderly relatives to get their hands on their money – or witnesses.  His handler knows this and isn’t surprised when D passes on the contract from the Dominguez brothers to take out a witness – but they aren’t going to take no for an answer.  They blackmail D into picking up the ticket on Jack Francisco, which is why Jack enters the supposedly secure apartment where the Marshals have squirrelled him away, to find a man sitting calmly in an armchair with a gun in his lap.

D knows that if he can get to Jack, then so can anyone else, and although it’s one of the worst ideas he’s ever had, he decides to get Jack out of there and that he’ll protect the man himself until the trial.  He knows he’ll have a price on his head within seconds of the news getting out, but he’s the only one who can protect Jack from the scumbags who are after him… and he also suspects that there’s something more going on than someone being pissed at him for refusing a ticket.  After all, there are plenty of others out there who would have taken the job without a qualm, so why did the Dominguez brothers go to the trouble of blackmailing him?

The author does a great job of building the suspense as Jack and D go on the run, gradually peeling away the different layers of the plot as it becomes clear that D’s suspicions are correct and someone is targeting him through Jack – and that there is a lot more going on than it at first seemed.  The story is intricate and fast-paced, and there are a number of vivid, edge-of-the-seat action scenes and near misses that really ratchet up the tension and keep the reader on their toes.  As we move from one heart-pounding scene to another, Jack and D are starting to get a bit of handle on one another, well, insofar as Jack is able to find out anything from the very tight-lipped and closed-off D other than that he’s… well, tight-lipped, closed-off and deeply damaged.

A break in the action allows the author to develop the relationship between the two leads, who are as different as chalk and cheese.  Jack is the light to D’s dark; he’s a highly respected surgeon and thoroughly decent man with a generally optimistic disposition, while D is a man tormented by the tragic past that has driven him to become what he is.  Weighed down by grief and guilt, he’s spent so much time suppressing his emotions and natural reactions that when we first meet him, he’s starting to wonder if he’s actually a human being any more.  But something about Jack gradually starts to make its way under his skin, and D doesn’t at first know how to handle that.  He’s drawn to Jack and wants to trust him – but for a man who’s lived by his wits and trusted only one other person (the mysterious X, who is something of a guardian angel at times) for the past decade, trust isn’t given easily.  Jack is equally smitten and wants to know the man behind the emotional walls D has constructed, and slowly, the two men forge an incredibly strong bond that develops into a deep and passionate love that is absolutely unshakeable.  The relationship is very well done and contains some beautifully written moments of vulnerability and intimacy; and while the sex scenes are not all that explicit, their mutual attraction, longing and need for each other is visceral and really leaps off the page.

[Note: there’s no mention of prep or lube in the first sex scene (ouch!) and no mention – or use – of condoms at all.]

I got just over half way through the book confidently expecting to give it a fairly high rating – maybe even a DIK – but as I headed into the final quarter, it started to run out of steam and the excitement and tension that had made it such a compelling read were dissipating.  I’m not sure why that was;  there was plenty of plot still to go, but it felt overly dragged out and in the end, went on for too long.  Reading the epilogue, I got the feeling Zero at the Bone was supposed to have been the first in a series (checking the author’s website later, I found this to be the case), but no sequel has so far appeared :(

Other weaknesses I noted were the lack of background and depth of characterisation of Jack.  We’re told early on that he was married to a woman, and later that he’s had a few relationships with men since; he’s very comfortable with his sexuality, but his marriage and divorce are not explained at all and I couldn’t help wondering why, if he knew he was gay, he married a woman in the first place.  (It’s never suggested he might be bisexual.)  There’s also a real lack of character description;  we don’t even know that Jack is dark-haired until really late in the book, for instance, and I found it very hard to picture him or D.

I really liked the author’s writing style, and she has a real talent for describing locations and action sequences so vividly that the reader is right there with the characters. However,  I wasn’t wild about her decision to write out D’s dialogue in a way to reflect some kind of accent – we’re never told where he comes from, but it’s “ya” for “you” and “fer” for “for” and “caint” for “can’t”.  It’s not as intrusive as some written-out dialects I’ve come across, but it was distracting nonetheless.  Also, some of the internal monologuing could have used a trim; there’s a tendency for a character to have a long-winded conversation with himself in the middle of an action scene or when he has to make a split-second decision, and it disrupts the flow.

Fortunately however, the balance between action, suspense and angsty romance is just about right, the good outweighs the not-so-good, and I enjoyed Zero to the Bone in spite of my reservations.

NOTE:  It has come to my attention that since I purchased this book, the rights have reverted to the author, who has revised and republished it.  One of the things she has changed is the way D’s accent is conveyed; I haven’t got the newer version so I can’t comment on how successful (or otherwise) it is; I just wanted to point out the change.

Grade: B         Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

Hostile Pursuit by Juno Rushdan

This action-packed romantic suspense novel definitely fits the “danger” prompt. The hero and heroine are in serious danger almost from the first page, and the action does not let up until the very end. Juno Rushdan has a great sense of pacing, and even if parts of it were hard for me to handle, Hostile Pursuit was quite well done.

Early on we learn one of the key facts that makes the setup of this book work: The hero and heroine have already met. Accountant Lori Carpenter has been in protective custody for a year, and Nick McKenna is one of the US Marshals who has been living at the safe house with her. In the opening scenes, as they discuss Lori’s upcoming move back to the city to testify, the author manages to show both the obvious chemistry between these two as well as the equally obvious maintenance of boundaries. Nick is not a creepster who keeps trying to push the envelope on consent, and I appreciated that.

Things have been tense but relatively quiet for Lori in protective custody, but everything changes when she goes on her approved trip to a store to buy her court clothes. After foiling an assassination attempt, Lori and the marshals run for safety only to find themselves in an ambush. Lori and Nick are the only survivors, and the rest of the book features the two of them trying to both survive and get Lori safely to court as scheduled.

The action in this book does not let up. Just when Lori and Nick reach apparent safety, the author throws another twist into the plot. While the suspense definitely dominates in this book, there is some relationship-building going on, particularly in the lulls between fights, chases and other adventures. Because Nick and Lori have an established rapport and friendship going into this book, the progression to romance feels anything but forced.

With regard to the characters, it’s fair to say that they hide some deep, dark secrets. And I do mean Anne Stuart levels of dark here. Some readers will struggle with the revelations of Nick and Lori’s pasts. If I’m being honest, I’d include myself in that number. As a reader, I had trouble accepting some of what these two had done in their pasts, particularly Nick. However, even as I acknowledged the darkness was something too much for me, I could also see how well Ms. Rushdan had written it.

Speaking of darkness, Ms. Rushdan also creates an intriguing villain in this book. Some of the villains are just bad from the word go, but there are more layers of character given to some in this book. For instance, there is a mastermind who does some horrendous things throughout the novel, but the author puts in enough detail to make this person human rather than simply a two-dimensional monster. Touches like this made the book stand out in my mind.

Because of that, I would say that this novel may not be for everyone. but if you like your romantic suspense to be on the high-action side and morally complex characters are not a dealbreaker, then definitely give Hostile Pursuit a try.

Grade:  B        Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Indiebound

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Queer romance, romantic suspense and historicals - romance, mysteries, fiction -  are my genres of choice these days, and when I haven't got my nose in a book, I’ve got my ears in one.  I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and am rarely to be found without my earbuds in.