One Minute to Midnight by Nico Rosso

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Catherine Heloise. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Romantic Suspense category.

The summary:

Nico Rosso, author of the critically acclaimed Countdown to Zero Hour, returns with Book Two in the Automatik: Black Ops series—a sizzling romantic suspense in which two undercover operators fight to reclaim a small town from the ice-cold grip of gunrunners

He was her safety.

She was his backup.

Former navy SEAL Ben Jackson knows that sexy “Mary Long” is nothing but a cover; that beneath the stylish clothes and flirty smile is a stone cold super-soldier no one ever gets close to. Until her kiss hits him like one of her sniper rounds. But Morris Flats is no place for a hookup—menace hums through the town, and the more the two operators keep pushing for answers, the more deadly the current seems to run.

For former Special Forces sniper Mary Kuri, flirting with her muscular teammate feels like playing with fire. It’s hard to tell where the cover ends and the real feelings begin. What she does know is they can’t afford to lose focus. Their mission is to gather evidence, and with the gunrunners watching their every move, a single mistake could prove fatal.

It’s two against the world, and Ben and Mary are about to discover that not only do the lives of innocent people hang in the balance, but they’re also fighting to save the rare connection they’ve found with each other.

Here is Catherine Heloise’s review:

One of the fun things about the RITA challenge is reading books from subgenres that I don’t normally dabble in. This is partly making a virtue of necessity – I live in Australia, and the historicals and YA books tend to be gone before I wake up and see the list. But I always secretly hope to find a book that I will love that I would never have picked up otherwise.

This year, One Minute to Midnight was that book.

I don’t read a lot of romantic suspense, because every time I venture in that direction, it’s serial killers and sexual violence all the way down, and these are not the nightmares I need. However, I am pleased to report that One Minute to Midnight had absolutely no serial killers or sexual violence, and managed to keep me on edge and afraid for the characters for the entire book, without undermining anyone’s competence or professionalism. There were no damsels in distress, just two people facing an increasingly dangerous situation side by side.

Ben and Mary both work for a company called Automatik, which seems to be a black ops/paramilitary organisation that works with the FBI and other policing agencies. I’m a little vague on the setup, which I suspect was probably explained earlier in the series, but the main things you need to know is that Ben and Mary are both elite military types – he’s a former SEAL and a hand-to-hand specialist, and she is an expert sniper, formerly of Delta – and that they are the good guys. They have come to Morris Flats separately and undercover, on a mission to uncover evidence of a gunrunning ring, to discover its leaders, and ultimately, to shut it down.

Actually, I might start there, because one thing I liked about this book is that it seemed pretty well grounded in reality. Yes, Ben and Mary plan to shut down this gun-running ring, but they really are just the first operators on the ground – they have no intention of taking on the entire town on their own, because that would be stupid. The plan is to get enough evidence and information together for the rest of the team to come in and do the job. So while they are both extraordinarily good at what they do – and Rosso did a good job of selling this – they are not superheroes.

That said, this book is definitely competency porn. Both Mary and Ben are experts at their weapons of choice, at skulking around and breaking into locations, and at all the action hero stuff, but they are also extremely smart people. They notice the tiniest changes in body language, in suspects and in each other, and use this information to further their investigation, but also to warn each other of danger, and later, to identify and resolve sore spots in their relationship. They are consummate communicators. And they think about everything – about the repercussions of fighting in a particular way at this particular point, about just what they can say in front of a possible suspect that is in character but that also communicates to their team mate the information they need to know. It is an absolute delight to watch them in action.

Ben and Mary have both been working for Automatik for a while, and have a lot of respect for each other’s abilities, but this is the first time they have worked together as a team, and really had a chance to notice each other. One thing that I liked about this book – and which would have really been a problem if Rosso had gotten it wrong – is that they both keep their minds on the job, despite realising early on that they are very attracted to each other. They consider at every step what sort of relationship is realistic for their cover identities, and their own relationship is both a part of this flirtation, and kept separate from it.

He searched for words, staring out at a weedy on-ramp for a four-lane highway. “I’m just figuring out how to talk to you.”

She shifted her body from defensive to open and leaned against her car door. “And I’m figuring out if you’re worth talking to.”

All things their salespeople personas who’d just met would say. Also true for the black ops soldiers who’d run assaults together, drank beers together, but had never shared any details from their past like they had in the diner.

“Fair enough.” He nodded and took a step closer. She remained where she stood, but wanted to move forward to test how real the connection was.

No one could hear them this far in the parking lot. She maintained her cool smile for appearances and asked, “How did it happen that our covers started flirting so hard?”

He was within a couple of feet of her. Close enough to see the lines in the corners of his eyes as he grinned. Her legs nearly walked her to him on their own. “It happened naturally.”

[…]

She returned her face to neutral. “Just classic fieldwork tricks.”

But his heat remained high. “I saw some tricks, but I saw some truth.”

“A testament to my skill.” He was right though. And it had been liberating to show a little of herself to someone.

“You might be trained, but I’m experienced.” His body remained neutral near her. “Mary Long can tell me to fuck off, and I’ll still give one thousand percent of my effort backing up ‘Bolt Action’ Mary on this op.”

One thing I absolutely loved about this book, and that I think I haven’t seen in a romance before, is that there is a really strong baseline of trust between Mary and Ben from the start of the book, on a professional level. They know that however the relationship goes, they have each other’s backs, absolutely and without question. Mary is more hesitant about the relationship than Ben, and one thing I liked about Ben is that he made a point of stating, and more than once, that the professional relationship was one that Mary could rely on, regardless of where the personal one went. There aren’t stupid betrayals, or hesitations due to hurt feelings in this book, because that would be unprofessional.

But I also liked the fact that their mutual trust on a professional level does not automatically translate to emotional and personal trust, and this needs to be established separately. Also, the nature of the job is such that they are very careful about making any commitments while it is ongoing. Still, that baseline of respect and professional trust made their attraction and the swiftness of their relationship (I think the entire story happens over three days, though it may be four) very convincing to me. And when they actually do start making plans and promises about things that will happen after the mission is over, that carries real weight.

Another thing I found interesting in this book was a sort of underlying awareness of racism that isn’t quite made explicit. Ben is black, and while nobody makes any overt comments about his race, it doesn’t go unnoticed, either. His two hostile encounters with the police are definitely coloured by this awareness (and the second one, in which his car is stopped by the police in a fairly isolated location and he is asked to get out, is particularly terrifying for anyone who has been following the news in the US over the last few years). It’s noticeable, too, that the teacher at the underfunded school is Latino, that all the cops seem to be white, that it’s the black kid and his friends who get pepper sprayed for no good reason, that there is immediate faint hostility to Ben from the start. Even the generally friendly barman at the hotel comes over almost as soon as Ben approaches Mary for the first time, and asks her if everything is OK here. (Mary, whose parents are Lebanese, seems to pass as white, judging by everyone’s reactions to her – but I noticed that her internal voice describes white people as white, rather than taking that as a given and only describing other things about them. She is also slightly bitter about the Army’s use of her in the Middle East and how much of an ‘asset’ it made her that she looked like a local.)

There’s some very good writing in this book. Rosso has a lovely way with words, and I like this little moment, early in the story, when Mary is noticing Ben noticing her.

He had such a casual way of gazing at her. Appreciating but not leering. It could’ve been disarming, but she never let someone take her weapon away.

One Minute to Midnight had a very different feel from other romance novels I’ve read – more like an action movie than a novel in some ways, especially with the extended battle at the end. I was also impressed at the level of suspense and tension that the book managed to maintain, even on my second reading. And I liked the sexual tension between Ben and Mary, too, and their flirting – Mary has a lovely dry wit, and Ben is very laid back, but he definitely has moves. I liked them a lot as partners, and loved them as a couple.

I thoroughly enjoyed One Minute to Midnight, and I think if you like fast-paced action, clever banter, and smart, competent characters, you will enjoy it too. It’s making me want to give romantic suspense another try, except… serial killers. So maybe not. But I think I am going to go back and see what else Nico Rosso has written.

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One Minute to Midnight by Nico Rosso

July 18, 2016

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