Sexy/Dangerous, by Beverly Jenkins

>> Thursday, November 23, 2006

I'd never read Beverly Jenkins before, but when I read the blurb of her latest book, Sexy/Dangerous, I had to have it. It's just the plot I've wanted to read for a long time: a really kick-ass heroine paired off with a normal guy. It can be a secret agent or a special forces soldier rescuing a civilian hero, or like this one, maybe a bodyguard protecting a regular guy. I thought I'd found this a few times, but all those authors felt it necessary to make their heroes turn out to be even more kick-ass than their heroines, which just ruined it for me.

book coverWearing her shades, a black Stetson, and snakeskin cowboy boots, security agent Maxine "Max" Blake is the baddest thing walking. Ex-marine, ex-cop, and a whole lotta 'tude, Max doesn't have time for anything but her job. Her latest assignment: to protect Dr. Adam Gary. Her problem: he doesn't want her there.

Adam wants to focus on his work, not to be distracted by this tall, sexy woman. A foiled kidnapping attempt may have forced him to take an undercover agent into his household, but no one said anything about the agent being a woman, or that she'd be beautiful, or that she came with two monster rottweilers. How is he supposed to concentrate on his top-secret project that could revolutionize the world when all he can think about is her smooth, coffee-colored skin and those long, lean legs?

But as danger nips at their heels, love may be a distraction neither of them will live to enjoy...

The first scene, which showed scientist Dr. Adam Gary fending off a kidnapping attempt and kicking the asses of three baddies, made me fear this would be another one of those books. But when Max (Maxine, but don't call her that) Blake shows up, it was a whole other story. This was a very enjoyable B+.

The plot is simple: Adam, one of the most promising scientists of his generation, has developed a prototype for an efficient and inexpensive alternative energy source. After a kidnapping attempt right after a conference in Madrid, in which he had just unveiled his breakthrough, it becomes clear that there are some very bad people who want the prototype (and Adam, of course), so he is to have a bodyguard. And that bodyguard is to be NIA agent Max Blake, who'll masquerade as his housekeeper.

Max is just... wow. I think she's the best heroine I've read so far this year. This is a totally kick-ass woman who's tough and competent and wonderfully confident, both in her professional abilities and in her femininity. She's confident without being arrogant, straightforward without being abrasive, decisive without being stupidly stubborn. And at the same time, Jenkins managed to make her not this perfect, cold robot, but a real, very human woman, and all without compromising any of her strength.

There is no tragic past to try to tell us "yes, she's got vulnerabilities, too", or any inane bursting into tears constantly to try to tell us "she's strong, but don't worry, not too strong". There's just a very careful, deep characterization, which uses no silly gimmicks to succeed in establishing a character who felt completely real.

Even Max's relationship with her dogs is beautifully used to illustrate the person she is. See, Max comes to her jobs with her team, which is composed by two rottweilers, Ossie and Ruby, the smartest, best-trained dogs I've ever read. Many authors would have fallen into the temptation of using this to show that Max, can, too, be nurturing and talk to them in baby talk, but not Beverly Jenkins. Max obviously cares for her dogs and would do anything to protect them, but she respects them and their abilities, and while she takes every care before sending them into dangerous situations, she doesn't hesitate in doing so.

Speaking of the dogs, I'm not Max, so I totally would have been talking to them in baby talk, because these two were the funniest, most adorable dogs ever. There's a scene in which there's some construction going on in the house, so Ossie and Ruby are in doggie versions of hard hats, and I just melted. Yeah, I'm easy.

Anyway, going back to the story: the same straightforwardness and honesty and confidence that characterize Max in all things, define the romance. Adam and Max's relationship is tense at first, mostly because Max's very necessary actions to make the house into a place where she can guard Adam interfere with his research (think contractors doing some very intense construction work), and she refuses to tiptoe around trying to sweeten Adam up. What needs to get done, gets done, period. Max doesn't suffer fools gladly. And there's also the dogs. Adam is very cold towards them, something Max cannot understand, given that they're perfectly trained and really are necessary for keeping the house secure (which she's carefully explained to him).

But Adam and Max soon warm up to each other (not least because Adam finally tells Max about the childhood dog attack that left him with a fear of them), and give in to their attraction without any games or manipulation, and with plenty of communication.

Adam is a wonderful hero. I love super-smart, good-hearted heroes, but the main reason I thought Adam was wonderful was because of his reactions to Max. What I loved best in this area was that again, Jenkins goes deep in her characterization. She does not gloss over the fact that it might be difficult for a man to go into the house to be safe while the woman he's very attracted to goes out to face the guns to protect him. But the wonderful thing here is that, while Adam's first instinct is to shove Max behind him and face the bad guys himself, he doesn't do that.

Adam acknowledges that he's not nearly as well prepared as Max to do the job (he's never even fired a gun, while Max is an expert in all kinds of weapons and combat situations), and furthermore, he respects her abilities and recognizes that it would be disrespectful to her not to allow her to do the job she's been hired to do. So instead of doing what his gut tells him to do, Adam steps back and doesn't interfere with Max. And he's full of admiration for the way Max goes about doing her job.

I just loved this. There's no question in my mind of Adam coming off as weak for being willing to have a woman do his physical fighting for him. I guess that's the reasoning behind all those civilian heroes who end up protecting their bodyguard heroines, but I think it's just the opposite. For me, Adam is actually stronger than all those guys, in the way that matters most, which is mentally. He's not ruled by prejudices or by his instincts, but is able to fight against them and win.

The ending is just as good as the rest of the book, and touches on these subjects again. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say I loved the way Jenkins solved the issue of how Adam and Max can have a life together, given that her job has her jumping from dangerous situation to dangerous situation and staying in each for months at a time. And if you know me even a little bit, you can probably deduce that I wouldn't like a book in which the heroine gives up a lifestyle she loves just because a man demands it of her ;-)

It's been nothing but raves so far, right? So why a B+ and not an A? A few reasons.

First, the writing style, which I didn't love. It felt a bit awkward sometimes. Yes, I have a nerve saying this, when Jenkins has a pretty extensive backlist, but that's how I felt. It seemed to me there was a lot of telling instead of showing, and this bothered me.

Second, the villains. Their nefarious plans were interesting, and certainly unique (for one thing, it's not those easy targets, the oil companies, who want Adam's prototype, as I assumed it would be), but the villains themselves were ridiculously inept! I almost felt sorry for them for being so stupid, which really cut down on the sense of dangerousness. My favourite was a scene in which the Big Baddie has been told by someone that Adam is ready to sell out and calls him, only to be very surprised when Adam denies it. This scene read like an irate customer talking to customer support, which was just surreal.

Finally, S/D is fourth in a series about NIA agents (NIA seems to be this kind of crime-fighting private agency), and there's a lot of intrusion from characters and events from the earlier books, which was mildly annoying.

Even with all this, though, the hero and most of all, the heroine made this an immensely enjoyable book. I'm definitely going to be doing some exploring of Jenkins' backlist!

Note: The first 3 NIA books are The Edge Of Midnight, The Edge Of Dawn and Black Lace (this last one is available in electronic format here, so I'm off to buy it right now). And S/D is also slightly related to two of Jenkins' historicals, as Max is great-great-granddaughter of the heroines from A Chance at Love and Always and Forever.

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