Joanna Hopkins worked for the elite covert ops group know as Alpha Corp until the day she found out she was pregnant. Somehow, she had been artificially inseminated without her knowledge or consent and accidentally found out that Alpha Corp was responsible. She wasn't about to turn her baby over to her employer, so she went on the run. Six years later, with her extremely gifted son, Alex, in tow, she decides to move to a tiny town in Colorado where no one knows them. All she wants is some peace and quiet, but one of the first people she meets upon her arrival is the incredibly handsome sheriff's deputy. He only goes by the name of Hunter, but everything about him reminds her of Jonathan Estevez, the one man who always held her heart and who she's never been able to forget. He was also her commanding officer at Alpha Corp, and the man whom she believes to be Alex's father. Until Hunter, no man but Jonathan had ever made her body burn with desire, but if he is Jonathan, then why is he not telling her the truth about his identity and why is he trying to get close to Alex?
Issue of Trust has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite a while. I finally decided to pick it up, partly because it fit two reading challenges I'm working on and partly because I was in the mood for a nice "hot" book. Ellora's Cave books rarely disappoint when it comes to producing lots of steam, but unfortunately, on this count and several others this story ended up being a rather lackluster read for me. To begin with, I thought the premise was intriguing and had promise, but it lacked in execution. Joanna escaped her life with a covert ops agency, where she presumably worked as some sort of spy or mercenary six years ago, because she was artificially inseminated without her knowledge or consent. Since then she's been on the run trying to make a life for herself and her gifted young son, Alex. Then she unexpectedly runs into a man who's almost a dead-ringer for her former commander and the only man who has ever held her heart. This could have developed into a nail-biting romantic suspense novel, but the mystery and suspense parts fell flat. There is a certain degree of mystery as to whether or not Hunter is Jonathan, but that's pretty much all there was to it. The backstory of Joanna and Jonathan's time working for Alpha Corp was definitely underdeveloped. The author gives few clues as to what exactly they did for the company or what the company did other than some type of covert ops that mysteriously morphed into sci-fi style genetics altering experimentation. She also tells us that the company wanted Joanna dead, but not really why except that she carried a genetically enhanced child that they wanted for their experiments. Even when we finally get to the "big reveal," the author still never explained how on earth Joanna was artificially inseminated without knowing it, and the reason for why it was done ("I was under orders.") was pretty lame. I still don't see how that made any difference. It seems to me that Jonathan could have just impregnated her the "old-fashioned" way.
Joanna and Hunter both appeared to be good people, and I think I could have really liked them if I'd gotten to know them a little better. Joanna was a good and devoted mother to Alex. She had spent the last six years trying to ensure he was kept safe and out of the reach of Alpha Corp. She also tried to treat him as normally as possible even though he was obviously a little prodigy. She was a good friend to her neighbors/landlords, Jimmy and Susie, as well as their troubled teenage daughter, Heidi. The author dropped some tantalizing tidbits about Joanna's background prior to working for Alpha Corp that I thought was going to make her a very tortured and sympathetic heroine, but then never really went anywhere with it except to simply say that these things happened to her. Hunter had a certain appeal as the mysterious alpha hero, but with the story written entirely from Joanna's POV, I never felt like I got to know him as a person at all. Having no male perspective left a big hole in the story. I imagine the author did this to maintain the ambiguity regarding Hunter's identity, but I think that a more skillful writer could have managed to give the reader his POV while still maintaining the mystery.
As a couple, I had a hard time becoming invested in Joanna and Hunter's relationship. As with the rest of Joanna's backstory, the author tells virtually nothing of her time with Jonathan while they were with Alpha Corp or exactly why she fell for him back then. The few clues she does give about Jonathan make him seem like a man to be feared, not one who would engender loving feelings. Consequently, when Joanna meets Hunter and thinks he may be Jonathan, I don't really understand why she's so attracted to him. All we know is that Hunter is extremely handsome, but Joanna doesn't trust him if he is Jonathan nor does she trust him enough to ask. Without this trust, I don't know what kind of relationship they have other than a physical one. Not to mention, without that all-important male POV, I had no idea what Hunter might be feeling for Joanna or what his motives might be for wanting to get close to her. I also wasn't too thrilled with the fact that Hunter had a live-in girlfriend when Joanna came to town. I suppose that with a hot-blooded man like him that's not too surprising, but he breaks up with her and kicks her out of his house the minute he sees Joanna. I thought this made him seem cold, like he'd just been biding his time with the woman until something better came along and then started a rebound fling with Joanna. It just didn't sit very well with me, and I would have preferred he simply be unattached. If this wasn't bad enough, the author threw in a real zinger at the end by revealing a shocking one-night stand he had when he first came to town that didn't add anything at all to the story, and in fact, I felt detracted from it.
Another reason I had a hard time connecting to the characters and their relationship was that the narrative has a decided lack of feeling words and expressions of emotion. Joanna went through hell, both growing up and while working for Alpha Corp, which could have made her an excellent tortured heroine, but she never came off that way at all. She just kind of took it all in stride and did what she had to do in a relatively dispassionate manner. Now, she thinks that the man who stirs her desires may be the same one she left years ago, and the presumed father of her child, but I can't say I ever knew how she felt about any of it. A few times, I even skimmed over parts I'd already read to see if I'd missed something, but couldn't find any real clues as to her emotional responses. This all made it very difficult to buy into the idea that Joanna supposedly loved Jonathan very deeply all those years ago. Normally, I can at least expect some hot, steamy sex, but without that deep emotional connection, even the love scenes felt like nothing more than a physical manifestation of need rather than the intense longing finally fulfilled that it should have been.
The final issue I had with the book is that Ms. O'Clare has a rather rambling and repetitious writing style that I didn't find to be very conducive to immersing myself in the story. I myself am a writer and have always been told that every event in your novel should help propel the plot forward, yet there were several occurrences in Issue of Trust that didn't seem to have any real bearing on the main part of the story and a few plot points that were simply dropped and didn't go anywhere. First, there was Joanna killing a mountain lion which as an animal lover kind of bothered me. In spite of that, it wouldn't have been a problem for me, except that there didn't really seem to be a good reason for killing it. She and her son were safely inside the house, and although the cat was scratching on the screen door, it seems like it would have been a fairly simple matter to just close the door and windows so it couldn't get in. Next, there was the whole side-plot involving her neighbor's daughter, Heidi. Since Heidi had loving parents and a good home, the reasons for her actions seemed rather weak to me. The girl was also drugged and raped by some friends of her boyfriend which definitely wasn't given the attention something of this magnitude deserved. At the end, Heidi thinks she's seen her abusers in town, so Joanna starts to go after them on her own. Then this part of the story is abruptly dropped, and we never do find out if they were the rapists or if they were arrested. This sub-plot didn't seem to serve much purpose except to give Joanna something to do, since she didn't have a job and also to fill up space, since we don't get to see what Hunter is up to. Lastly, there was a sweet local guy who asked Joanna out, but all she did was passively put him off, never really giving him an answer. I guess maybe this was intended to stir up jealousy in Hunter, because he eventually said something to the guy who was never heard from again. Exactly what Hunter said was a complete mystery since Joanna wasn't close enough to hear. In my opinion, all this served to do was make a make a nice guy look like a wimp and Hunter look like he's trying to control Joanna's life. The author also likes to go into lengthy details about nearly everything, especially home design and decorations, as well as the specific articles of clothing each character is wearing, which I didn't think was necessary. Just enough to create ambiance and explain a particular character's style would have been sufficient. She also repeats details of Hunter's appearance and physique over and over. Mentions of his curly black hair, chocolate brown eyes, and roped muscles were starting to get annoying. I think I got it the first time that the guy is gorgeous and ripped.
Considering all the criticisms I've had of this book, readers may be wondering why I didn't give it a lower rating, and there were a few reasons for that. In spite of sometimes being bothered by certain story elements and feeling that the overall writing quality could have been better, I did like the characters for as well as I got to know them. I was particularly taken with Joanna's son, Alex. He's such a cute, smart and polite kid, it would be impossible not to like him. He's like a miniature grown up who still knows how to act like a kid with his occasional whining and temper tantrums. In fact, he was probably the best character in the book. I can also see why it might appeal to some readers. It's erotic language, plentiful sexual tension and a few explicit love scenes might be just enough to satisfy those readers for whom a deep emotional connection isn't a must. I'm also giving Ms. O'Clare some credit for coming up with an interesting premise even if I thought the execution could have been better. And last but not least, I'm also giving credit for the fact that the story didn't completely bore me, so I think it could be classified as a worthwhile read.
I have to admit that I'm a little confused about whether Issue of Trust is part of a larger series or not. It is definitely the first in a duet about these same two characters with the second book being titled, Taking It All. Where the confusion comes in is that Taking It All is listed by several sites, including Ellora's Cave, as part of the Torrid Love series, but I can't discern any connection between the books of that series. It also doesn't make much sense that Taking It All is part of the series while Issue of Trust isn't, so I'm still scratching my head over that one. In any case, Issue of Trust reads fine as a stand-alone story, and since it didn't exactly have the strongest ending, I might be persuaded to take a chance on Taking It All at some point just to find out what happens next for Joanna and Hunter. I'll simply have to remember not to expect a whole lot from it.
Note: Issue of Trust was rated S-ensuous by Ellora's Cave, so it isn't as erotic as most of their titles tend to be. It does contain quite a bit of explicit language that is typically reserved for the erotic romance genre, but it only has three full love scenes that are on par with most steamy mainstream romance, nothing kinky.
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