I love to read.
I read romance, mysteries, thrillers, action-adventure (um, Clive Cussler anyone?), fantasy, science fiction … well, you get the picture. I read.
On good days (when I am not recovering from eye surgery), I read a book a night. It is how I relax and clear my mind before going to bed. So, I read a lot of books.
Every once in a while I read a book that blows me away, and then I have to read everything the author has written. Once such author is Tina Whittle, who writes the Tai Randolph series for Poisoned Pen Press. Now, if you can’t tell from the name of the publishing company, Poisoned Pen is a small indie press that publishes mysteries. I have read other authors published by Poisoned Pen, and they publish excellent books.
When I read the Publisher’s Weekly review of the first Tai Randolph book, The Dangerous Edge of Things, I was intrigued because the chief character, Tai, has inherited her uncle’s gun shop in Atlanta, Georgia. She finds a body across the street from her brother’s house where she is staying temporarily and becomes involved in the investigation, mostly to clear herself or her brother from being under suspicion. Having been a guide in Savannah (especially the graveyard tours and anything to do with the Northern War of Aggression aka The Civil War), Tai is a good researcher and begins digging into the dead female’s background.
Mystery? Yes, since there is a death, and she is an amateur sleuth. But her involvement and the potential for danger to herself (or so it seems to her over-protective older brother who is out of town at the time she discovers the body) has her brother asking for personal protection for Tai from his employer, Phoenix Confidential, which does mostly corporate personal and premises security. Thus, we meet Trey Seaver.
I must pause to fan myself. Because at the moment Trey comes into the novel, the subtle — and Tina Whittle uses a very delicate brush here — dance of attraction between Tai and Trey begins. At this point, the book becomes a romance and a mystery so intricately woven together that I am jealous I am not Tina Whittle.
While Tai is the lead character in this series, it is Trey who makes it a unique romantic mystery.
Yes, Trey is a hunk — all Irish dark hair and blue eyes and a body honed by Krav Maga. Swoon-worthy. But Trey is damaged. He had a car accident which resulted in a severe brain injury. Because of the damage to his brain, his reasoning ability has been limited to linear thinking, plus he lost much of his past and a sense of who he was. After the accident, he created a whole new persona from a GQ magazine, the Italian issue, and, thus, he dresses in Armani, drives a Ferrari, wears a Bulgari watch, and lives in a modern black-and-white decorated condo — all inspired by that issue.
He recreated himself on the outside, but on the inside he is still seeking, healing — all memories and emotions are blunted. Trey deals with things as black or white — there are no shades of gray in his world. There is right or wrong, legal or illegal, good or bad, on or off.
Since Trey had been an Atlanta cop, a member of their elite SWAT team (and we later find out in book three, a sniper), he had to quit law enforcement because his ability to make instant judgment calls was gone. He was hired by Phoenix for his almost computer-like ability to assess premises weaknesses and how to put security protocols into place to make the premises more secure. He’s most comfortable with numbers and his desk work, although the female owner of Phoenix likes to trot him out because he is eye candy.
Tai, on the other hand, is a seat of the pants, intuitive, creative thinker. She’s impulsive. She’s messy. She’s reads people well. She knows who she is and where she’s come from and attempts to get beyond a childhood which while not deprived materially was less than emotionally supportive.
Tai and Trey have issues (who doesn’t?), but Tai’s strengths are Trey’s weaknesses. And Trey’s strengths are Tai’s weaknesses. They complement one another; they find they make a great team while getting to the bottom of the woman’s death, which has ties to Phoenix, both Trey’s and Tai’s brother’s employer, and big Atlanta money.
But the linchpin of the Tai-Trey connection is she doesn’t treat him as an invalid. Since she didn’t know Trey before, she has no preconceived notions about how he should act, so she accepts him for what he is and works with his strengths and covers for his weaknesses. Yes, there are times she is frustrated with Trey, but she is also a very compassionate person. Yes, Tai’s impulsive acts, which usually get her into hot water, frustrate the by-the-book Trey, but he knows she has a reason and her instincts are good. So they learn to deal and work together,
And thus, the path to romance begins. First, with common goals (justice), and then with trust, and finally with desire.
Yes, Tai and Trey start with sex, but the romance builds with each book. By the end of the first book, Tai and Trey have met the goals (bad guys are caught), they are a team and trust the other to cover the other one’s ass, and then they connect sexually. These books are not erotic romance, but romance. Most of the sex is off-scene, but Whittle’s prose fans the flames of my imagination and I have a damn good imagination. Plus, Trey when aroused is intense and focused. Is there anything sexier than a man who is goal-oriented for both himself and his partner in sex? I don’t think so. Fanning myself here.
In the second book, Darker Than Any Shadow, which centers on the Atlanta’s Spoken Word Poetry Team vying in the Performance Poetry International contest, and in the third, Blood, Ash & Bone, which takes Tai and Trey to Savannah for a Civil War re-enactor’s event, the romance builds.
Throughout the series, so far, Trey’s old partner continually gets mad at Tai for pushing Trey into situations where he just might explode — remember? — on-off, good-bad, black-white. Because of his law enforcement training, the post-accident Trey pursuing a murder suspect in a high speed chase becomes a potential for disaster, because his switch to seek justice has been turned on and he can’t turn it off. But Tai can. She has touched some part of Trey, and his healing brain is finding pathways to becoming more sensitive to the nuances in the world around him.
It might sound like a cliche but Tai provides the healing power of love, trust, and her belief that Trey is more than his MRIs. And Trey is giving her stability she never had as a child of social-climbing parents. While Trey can’t express emotions well (she has to instigate kisses and touches early on in the series), he promises her that as long as she needs him, he will show up. Showing up is important to Trey, and Tai also shows up for him.
I also like this series, because the writing is tight. Each word is chosen carefully, and the sum total has a powerful impact.
Example: This short bit of narrative is near the end of the second book and shows how Whittle with her tight, simple prose paints the picture of their burgeoning romance. An injured Tai has stayed behind at Trey’s place against her inclination to be at the poetry slam finals. Trey has asked her to, because he can’t (because of his inability to multi-task) protect her and her childhood friend Rico, who is in the slam finals, at the same time. Tai agrees because she understands Trey and doesn’t want him to worry. Then she is attacked in his very secure apartment, and Trey has rushed to her side, driving 120 miles per hour in the city of Atlanta to get to her. When she realizes he has abandoned his precious Ferrari at the lobby door, leaving it open for anyone to steal, Tai comes to a realization:
…I looked him right in the eye, and for the first time since he’d burst in the door, he met my gaze directly.
And what I saw there took my breath away. His eyes burned like I’d only seen during high arousal, clean blue flame. I recognized it, yes, from the heat of passion, but not like this. And I knew what I was seeing was Trey, all of him, no persona, no safe wall, the real beating-heart whole of him.
I hitched in a breath, but still the tears came. He held my face, thumbs light on my temples. He was a little shaky from the adrenalin afterburn, but rock solid underneath. I snuffled my wet face into his neck, and with no prompting, his arms went around me.
“It’s not just sex,” I mumbled against his skin.
He froze. “This is about sex?”
“No, it’s not. That’s the point.”
And then I kissed him full on the mouth, which hurt a little, but then he kissed me back, real gentle, and then it was a little about sex. But mostly it was the other thing, the big good thing. And when the kiss was done, he sat beside me on the sofa, one arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him, my warm good-smelling rock.
Excerpt from Darker Than Any Shadow (Poisoned Pen Press, Trade print edition, 2012), p. 283.
My heart turned to mush during that scene. Plus, at the end of Blood, Ash, & Bone, I literally cried happy tears. Now, I can’t wait for the fourth book, which she is currently writing, to see where she takes Tai and Trey next. If I had to compare this series to any other, I would compare it to J.D. Robb’s Death series; Tai and Trey have the same emotional impact for me as Eve and Roarke.
So, if you are in the market for a darn good romantic mystery series with unique characters and setting, interesting mysteries, and a touching romance with hints of intense sex, I recommend the Tai Randolph series. The books are available in hard cover, trade paper, and e-book. I own both the e-books and the trade paperbacks. Yes, I loved these books so much, I bought them in paper and e-book — and that should tell you something about just how good they really are.