Sometimes I’m browsing NetGalley to see what the various publishers are up to, and mostly I feel like I’m just skimming the book covers, reacting to the images. Every now and then, though, I catch a glimpse of an author I love and everything comes to a screeching halt as I fervently press the “Request” button and pray that I’ll get to take a look at their latest offering.
I almost broke my enter key when I spotted Catherine Mann‘s name!
And not just her name, but the fact that this book indicates a new series, one published under the Harlequin Desire line. You might remember that I adore her Elite Force series, since she writes with an amazing balance of compelling lead characters, great minor characters, and outstanding technical information that makes the plot oh-so-believable.
But how would she translate to category romance? Contemporary romance often crosses over into the category romance subgenre, which simply means that major publishers, like Harlequin and Mills & Boon, produce large numbers of shorter romance novels (this one is 190 pages), releasing a certain number of titles each month in given “categories” (like medical romance, etc.). I find myself very picky about who I read in category romance, simply because the brevity of the novels often means that the plot stays relatively superficial, with one main conflict, barely developed characters, and an unsatisfying ending.
My great news for you is that you don’t have to worry about those shortcomings with Catherine Mann. Yes, this novel is not as in depth as her other work, but in 190 pages (versus 347 pages for one of her Elite Force books), it’s understandable that we don’t have a ton of minor characters with their own plot lines and romances.
What we do enjoy are interesting, three-dimensional main characters wrestling with real issues while being swept out of their comfort zone in their reaction to one another. Troy Donovan was a hacker prodigy from rich, indolent parents and his devastating break into the Department of Defense computer system would have landed an older kid into a federal penitentiary. But Troy ends up instead in a tough military school run by the hard but fair Captain Salvatore, who doesn’t plan on letting him get away with anything. Finally finding friends among the brilliant and troubled kids in the school, Troy founds the “Alpha Brotherhood” with them, forming a club comprised of capable, damaged geniuses. As they age and meet with tremendous success financially, they are still called upon to do international spying and government work occasionally at the behest of the same former headmaster, Salvatore.
Hillary Wright is on a plane bound for Chicago to help the government identify the business partner of her former boyfriend, both of whom were responsible for embezzling thousands of dollars from scholarship funds. She’s sickened by both their behavior and her own gullibility – she thought she left the Vermont farm of her childhood long behind her, but it seems her trust in others has bit her in the butt. Again. When she feels attraction for her handsome and charming seat mate on the plane, she’s hesitant to do anything but talk, knowing how bad a judge of character she is. When he’s taken off the plane in handcuffs, she’s shocked at how nothing ever goes right for her and at the sudden recognition that the man with whom she felt such a strong connection was none other than millionaire software developer and playboy, Troy Donovan!
But Troy outwitted Salvatore, who didn’t want Troy and Hillary to meet until the party, deliberately putting himself next to Hillary to gauge her personality. After reading her file, he had a feeling that she was an innocent in more need of protection than she was going to get and after feeling the heat between them and enjoying her refreshing skepticism and honesty, he knows he was right on the money. The handcuffs were merely a stunt for the bachelor auction for the Chicago party he and Hillary are both attending, but she feels additionally duped and lied to when she has the epiphany that Troy works for Salvatore as well and she is just a job to him. But as they trot all over the globe, falling deeper and deeper in love and lust with one another, both these damaged individuals realize they are in way over their head.
For such a brief number of pages, I was impressed at how Mann was able to compress so much character development into them. Troy’s home life is nothing short of child neglect and Hillary has run as fast as she could from her home in Vermont and from a mother in and out of rehab. Yet both are able to have close relationships – Troy with the “Alpha Brotherhood” and Hillary with her sister – so there is potential for them to love and care for another person. Mann does a good job of drawing a psychological profile, while regularly showing how Hillary can’t help being caring (no matter what her inner voice might be warning against) and Troy can’t help treasuring her and trying to make her happy. Their flaws are understandable and work well for the plot and conflict, and I found myself rooting for them to face their inner demons so they could be with each other already!
The Alpha Brotherhood series device was actually quite refreshing. Rather than the typical security company or brothers-in-arms, the idea of men who became friends while still extremely young and immature, bound together by the shared conditions of military school and their child prodigy status, is a terrific idea and one that lets Mann operate a little out of the box. We get a glimpse of Troy’s friends – Hughes, the economics genius turned Monte Carlo casino owner and the man known as “Mozart,” the music prodigy now a sexy cross between Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble. Both are also spies, and for Hughes, it destroyed his marriage, yet for each other, they’ll do anything.
With books this short, you basically fall in love a little with the protagonists (versus head over heels in love with the characters in Mann’s longer books) and sacrifice the fabulous technical details like those in the Elite Force series. Yet, at under $4 for the Kindle version of these books, they are a terrific value since they offer a wonderful escape to a jet-setting world (it is Harlequin, after all) with flawed heroes and heroines who nevertheless deserve to be loved.
The next book, to be published January 1st (see above book cover), is to feature Conrad Hughes and his estranged wife, Jayne, and I’m guessing that Playing for Keeps, listed on the series page on Goodreads as due out in April, will be Mozart’s love story. I’ve already pre-ordered Hughes’ book and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the Alpha Brotherhood. Thanks, Catherine, for giving us these sexy prodigies to fall for!