Protect and Serve

Gwyneth Bolton
July 2008, Series Romance
Harlequin Kimani, $5.99, 256 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373860757
Part of a series

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Hot

Protect and Serve is the first in a series about four brothers who follow in the footsteps of the men in their family and have all entered either the police force or the fire service. In this first installment, we meet Jason Hightower who is a detective, and of course, we also meet the woman he falls in love with.

Carla has made many unfortunate decisions in her life, chief among them becoming a crack addict. Her other myriad misfortunes seem to stem from an unlucky nature and a weak will. The love of her life and the father of her child was wrongly convicted of murder; she was forced to give up her daughter, physically if not emotionally; and now her own dependable mother has died. We meet Carla at a low point, but sheís witty and frank, and has just enough edge of crazy to make us forgive her self-accepted foibles.

Sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, this novel isnít about Carla. Itís about her daughter, Penny. And Penny never comes close to being as engaging or understandable a character as her mother. After finishing the book and tossing the scenes around in my head over a couple of days, I decided I simply didnít like Penny. Fifteen years ago she got pregnant, had a miscarriage, made an extremely unfortunate decision concerning her boyfriend, and then left New Jersey for California. The novel starts off with her back in New Jersey for her grandmotherís funeral and back in contact with Jason Hightower, wronged ex-boyfriend. Through her internal monologues, weíre privy to her feelings of regret concerning Jason, but when she opens her mouth, she treats him with scant courtesy, and manages to indirectly blame him for what happened fifteen years past while demanding that he "get over it".

Not that I didnít agree with that last part. Jason needed to have gotten over that incident fifteen years ago, ten years ago. Not forget it, but move on from it. His behavior made it hard for me to fully support him because though I recognized the ill done to him, I felt it should have been tempered by the intervening years to at least give him some patience, some understanding, and a more level head. Instead, he acts as if heís nineteen all over again and the incident took place five minutes ago; he's rolls his eyes, and he holds a serious grudge. Come on, you thirty-something year old man! Grow up! But though he was annoying, he wasn't annoying enough to make me feel any compassion for Penny or her bizarre actions. She lied in the past and present. On both occasions I didnít understand the logic behind it and found her actions selfish. And for all her "Iíve moved on, Iíve made something of myself, Iím over this" type speeches, she really needed to grow up too.

The two of them were repetitive and tiring, so I appreciated the scenes between Carla and Gerald, Pennyís recently released father, all the more. Mother and daughter lead parallel lives throughout the novel Ė they both made decisions they regret and they both are given chances to right wrongs with their significant others. Both of them procrastinate, but Carla has more at stake than Penny in the telling of the truth, and frankly, sheís sharp whereas Penny is dull. Her words pop, Pennyís lie flat. She made me smile, Penny made me frown. You get the picture.

I will say now, that my reaction to Penny is so strong because I have a personal problem with someone telling me lies "for my own good", which is basically the point of contention in this romance. I would have respected Penny more if sheíd told lies for her own good and left Jason to deal with that fallout rather than presuming to know what was best for him.

Despite my distaste for Penny, I still enjoyed Protect and Serve. Yes, I thought a resolution to their problem should have come much earlier, or should be a carefully tended scar, not a fresh, gushing wound. But I believed in their love for each other. I wanted Penny, as lame as I found her, to get back together with strong, capable, intense Jason. People make mistakes and the characters in this novel make plenty. But I suppose thatís what made them seem less like characters and more like people to me. People I donít like, people I roll my eyes at, but people.

In the end, it made for a decent romance in spite of an annoying character. If a reader doesnít have my level of distaste with lying for someone elseís own good, they might enjoy the book even more. What we saw of the other Hightower brothers is interesting (hot, funny, hot, bitter and cuckolded, hot, intelligent, hot) so even though I didn't love the characters in this book, Iím looking forward to reading the rest.

-- Abi Bishop

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