This is the fourth book in Rachel Grant’s Evidence series, but fortunately, this is a series in which all the stories are self-contained, so it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the other books.  There are some characters who have obviously appeared before and it’s clear that certain plot details were planted in previous books, but the author has given enough information here for a newbie like me to be able to dive right in and enjoy.

Incriminating Evidence is a fast-moving, well-paced story with plenty of intrigue, nail-biting moments of peril and action running alongside a sexy and nicely developed romance between an unlikely couple – an introverted archaeologist and a wealthy businessman running for political office.

Isabel Dawson is an archaeologist whose current gig is searching for ancient settlements that could be threatened by the upcoming timber harvest in Alaska. She’s a bit of a loner, so her job of hiking through the remote wilderness suits her and she enjoys it – although right now, she isn’t completely focused on her task. Around a year earlier, her brother Vincent, a soldier, was killed, supposedly on a training mission at Raptor, a private security firm that trains military personnel in combat techniques designed specifically to be employed in the war against terror.  Isabel is convinced Vin’s death wasn’t an accident, but her attempts to instigate an investigation have met with dead ends, principally due, she believes, to the fact that Raptor CEO Alec Ravissant ordered a cover-up.  She has emails from her brother that indicate he believed he had been kidnapped, tortured and experimented upon, and Isabel is determined to find out the truth by finding the location Vin described.  But her plans are disrupted when she literally stumbles across a badly injured man in the woods.  She has to make a quick decision.  She is miles from her car and from the Raptor Compound, but there is an old settler’s cabin a mile away.  If she leaves the man to go for help, there’s the chance that whoever worked him over will come back to finish him off, or that he’ll die of exposure, so she patches him up as best she can, fashions a make-do stretcher, lashes him to it and drags him all the way to the cabin.  It’s only once there that she realises that the man whose life she has just saved is none other than Alec Ravissant.

When Alec eventually comes round, Isabel begins to regret her decision to save him; not only is he violent towards her, he’s rude and ungrateful, having her arrested on suspicion of kidnapping him once his security team locates them the next morning.  Alec has no memory of what happened to him; he remembers driving and then swerving to avoid something in the road – then nothing until he comes to when Isabel is dragging him to the hut.  He quickly realises that even though Isabel Dawson has been a thorn in his and Raptor’s side for some time,  she may in fact be the only person he can trust, as there is clearly something untoward going on at the Raptor Compound, and everyone is suspect.

I can’t say much more without spoilers, but the plot is ingenious and very well constructed.  Alec and Isabel are great characters who strike sparks off each other from the get-go, and I enjoyed the way the author gradually develops the trust between them.  Isabel is a bit skittish; the death of her parents when she was a child, and then of the brother who more or less raised her has made her wary of getting attached to people and places, so she moves around a lot and never puts down roots.  Alec comes from old money and was groomed to enter politics practically from the cradle, but veered off the path his family had mapped out for him by spending twelve years in the military.  Now, however, he’s ready to face the challenge of the political arena, having discovered that his desire to serve his country and its people has not ended with his departure from the Rangers.  As well as being a total hottie, he’s a great guy; quick to own up to the fact that he could have done more to investigate Vincent’s death, and to realise that his feelings for Isabel go way beyond the intense sexual attraction that pulses between them.  I liked that there is a real sense of equality between them in spite of their different backgrounds.  Isabel is smart, sassy and more than capable of looking after herself in tricky situations; Alec knows that and respects her for it, and while he wants to protect her, he recognises her abilities and her need to be involved with the search for evidence regarding her brother’s death. Ultimately, their romance is believable;  the chemistry between them sizzles and the sex scenes are nice and steamy.

I enjoyed the book very much, but I do have one or two niggles about the story overall.  Isabel is ready on several occasions to believe the worst of Alec and to run from him, either refusing to believe his explanations or refusing to allow him to make one; and it got a bit old after the first time or two.  It also seems that Alec rebuilds his political campaign very easily given all the problems that arise as a result of his relationship with Isabel.  I’m not an expert by any means, and certainly not on US politics, but this does seem to have been somewhat hand-waved away.

All in all however, Rachel Grant has crafted a compelling story that revolves around a series of strange attacks and incidents, and an unusual and very cleverly thought-out secret weapon that is scarily plausible.  The background detail relating to the military/special-ops aspect of the story is interesting and well-done, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are very evocative, putting the reader right there.

Incriminating Evidence was my first experience of Ms. Grant’s writing but it definitely won’t be my last.

Grade: B+        Sensuality: Warm

– Caz Owens

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 I cut my teeth on historicals and romantic suspense, so I always enjoy an excuse to dive back into either of these subgenres.  This month’s TBR Challenge prompt of paranormal and rom susp gave me the perfect excuse. I’d read all but one of the books in Jill Sorenson’s Aftershock series and inexplicably the one I’d neglected was the one that intrigued me most.

Badlands reunites Owen Jackson and Penny Sandoval, two of the most fascinating characters from Aftershock. When readers last saw these two, they were trapped together in an earthquake – an ordeal which drew the young, very pregnant Hispanic mother and the convicted felon member of a white supremacist gang together. I enjoyed seeing them dance around one another and open up to having their assumptions about people challenged in that first book and I longed to see them get together.

This novel picks up five years later. Owen has completed his prison sentence and now works security for Penny’s wealthy father. Penny is now the mother of 5 year old Cruz and finds herself more in need of security than ever as her father runs for President.  As the book opens, Penny is on the verge of speaking at a campaign event when she and her son are kidnapped.  While trying to protect Penny, Owen gets swept up by the kidnappers as well.

To his horror, the gang holding Penny and her son for ransom are led by Owen’s older and more hardened brother.  So begins a story that took me not only on a wild chase through the remote badlands of California, but also into the darkness of Owen’s past.  In some ways, this book is a bit more raw than others in the series. However, considering the journey taken by the characters, particularly Owen, I think it needed to be.

The suspense portion of the book is tightly plotted. Like many criminal schemes involving multiple players, this one does not go off without a hitch.  As Owen tries to escape to safety with Penny and Cruz, what ensues is a cycle of the bad guys trying to hold their scheme together while Owen and Penny each try to find the cracks in the plan and push through them. Even though I knew I was reading a romance and that it would presumably have an HEA, there were times that I honestly wondered whether these three were going to make it back home.

The action/suspense portion of the story isn’t the only place where tensions run high. After the experience they shared 5 years ago, we see now a Penny and Owen who aren’t quite sure how to approach one another. Their attraction and deep feeling for one another is blatantly obvious, yet neither seems to have the confidence to bring it out into the open. Owen feels keenly the difference in status between them,and his background stands between them in more ways than one. Not only did he grow up in poverty and brokenness, but there is his criminal history and his haunted memories of what he had to face while imprisoned. For much of the book, he just will not let himself step outside the role of providing security for Penny and I kept thinking that Penny had to see that this was more than just a job for him.

Penny has a loving family, but I enjoyed how the author showed how expectations, both internal and external can eat at someone. I could really believe that Penny felt pulled in different directions by her attraction to Owen and her family’s expectations that she marry a prominent man in the Hispanic community. She wants to please them, but she also has very definite opinions about what she wants in life.  And I kept rooting for her to get the courage to tell Owen how she felt.

Badlands is one of the best constructed romantic suspense novels I’ve read in ages. And though it’s a 2014 release, I found it oddly prophetic, too, as the presidential election described in Sorenson’s book features tensions between establishment politicians such as Penny’s father and a hard right-wing faction with ties to racist groups and violence. I don’t know why I didn’t read this sooner, but I’m glad I picked it up now.

Grade: A-           Sensuality: Warm

– Lynn Spencer

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