A High-Heat Heist: Double Exposure by Rien Gray

the cover of Double Exposure

Note: While I’ve avoided major plot spoilers, this review is relatively detailed regarding the character arcs and themes.

Fittingly enough, I’ve been exposed to Double Exposure by Rien Gray twice. The first time was through the Happily Ever After Collective, which releases monthly romance novellas from a variety of authors. Last year, Double Exposure released to patrons along with other second chance romances, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m delighted to have my own print copy of this book due to its recent wide release. 

Double Exposure is a romantic suspense novella about a pair of rival art thieves, Jillian Rhodes and Sloane Caffrey, who are hired to steal the same target—a never-before-seen collection of infamously scandalous photos. Ever since a steamy encounter gone awry, they have been at each other’s throats from a distance, but competing to pull off a heist at the Art Institute of Chicago brings the tension between them up close and personal. The stakes rise as they realize a larger game may be afoot—if they can overcome their own drama to uncover it. 

Jillian’s client is the son of the late photographer whose scandalous affair is depicted in the photos. For the client, retrieving them before the exhibit opens is a matter of his family’s honor. For Jillian, it is a matter of bragging rights. Sloane is just as determined to prove they’re the best by stealing the photos for a greedy baron. Though they loathe him, they’re happy to take a large sum of his money in exchange for a successful heist.

While the thieves are equals in ambition and ability, their approaches and backgrounds couldn’t be more different. As a charismatic con artist born into a rich family, Sloane steals to redistribute the wealth and return pieces stolen by colonizers. Meanwhile, the ever-pragmatic Jillian prefers stealth to small talk. She grew up with next to nothing and survived alone at a young age, so she still prioritizes self-preservation and independence. For all their differences, each acknowledges the other as their only worthy rival. What they lack is trust. After a messy misunderstanding left them brokenhearted, they have spent years sabotaging each other, turning to vengeance rather than risking reaching out. They’ve isolated themselves by placing each other on pedestals, untouchable, when they both yearn to be with the one person who might understand them.

Their second chance at love echoes a second chance at life, as the characters have already remade themselves. After traumatic childhoods, they cut ties with their families and built up their careers. Jillian has fought to claim the freedom, security, and access she once lacked, while Sloane strives to heal the damage of their family’s harmful legacy. Each of them attempts to take charge of their own futures and change the world around them. Double Exposure is interested in the different ways that people wield power, and what happens when that balance shifts, whether the power stems from perception, money and status, or institutions. This is mirrored in the ways that Sloane and Jillian, as exes and rivals, are constantly trying to one-up each other. Neither is used to the vulnerability that comes from a willful give-and-take, and they have already been burned by their last attempt to open up to each other. 

If you’re interested in romance that doesn’t follow the traditional formula, a second chance romance novella offers a unique opportunity. Because the two have already met, tried to be together, and broken up, this book reads almost like a more developed third act of a traditional romance novel. It explores the already established barriers between the two and challenges them to overcome those barriers. Meanwhile, they have a heist to worry about, as well as threats they aren’t even aware of.

Double Exposure effectively maintains its gripping suspense. The prose is precise, with each word and detail carefully chosen and arranged. The writing itself feels confident in a way that sells the characters’ competence. It leans hard into the satisfaction of watching masters at work, as both Sloane and Jillian approach the heist fully aware they are at the top of their field, with plenty of specialized knowledge woven into the narration to demonstrate it.        

For me, the most memorable aspect is the characters. I was especially drawn to Sloane due to their charm, cunning, and life’s mission. Being nonbinary, Sloane is keenly aware that their gender presentation affects how people perceive them, and they must keep this in mind as they take their more public, sociable approach to their work. This blog’s readers may also be glad to know that Jillian is bisexual and a side character is a lesbian.

If mutual pining, cutthroat competition, and intoxicating intensity appeal to you, then give this book a chance to break and mend your heart.

Content notes drawn from the book: In addition to explicit sex between consenting adults, this book contains “brief references to societal transphobia, historical anti-Black racism in Chicago, class discrimination, and exploitation of the opioid epidemic, as well as one incident of gun violence.”

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

JJ Taylor reviews Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn

just enough light AJ Quinn

Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn (Bold Stroke Books) is a romantic thriller between two women working at an isolated Search and Rescue center in the Rockies. The setting is captivating, the romance challenging and satisfying, although the mystery suffers a little in pacing and some dots just don’t connect.

Warning for:  mentions of child abuse and rape, rape flashback, child/teen death.

Kellen Ryan is a tough, worldly, skilled elite Search and Rescue instructor who was injured in the line of duty by a mysterious bad guy. Dr. Dana Kingston needs to get out of the shadow of her well-known father, and decides to take her practice to the small town of Haven, Colorado, high up in the Rockies. Their first meeting involves a flat tire, the ubiquitous poor weather conditions of the setting, Kellen’s secret coffee recipe, and a rescue dog. (Bogart is a real hero through the whole book!)

The romance meets its first challenge when Kellen and Dana realize they’ll be working side-by-side on Haven’s Search and Rescue headquarters. What’s more, Dana has the unique challenge of an outsider entering a close-knit group of men and women who regularly risk their lives for one another.

Some spoilers ahead!

One hazard of the setting and the subject that bothered me was some of the rescue victims dying. It may have been a realistic reflection of  the dangers faced by the SAR operation, but in two cases, there were dead kids. While I get that not everything turns out OK in the field in real life, the deaths gave the romance novel a gloomy cast.

Still, the appeal of the life-or-death teamwork lured me in, and Kellen and Dana’s strong chemistry and real relationship challenges kept me turning the pages.  

The found family was the novel’s real strength. The richness of Haven’s community, the vibrant picture of the SAR center and the cabins were so vividly painted that I longed to vacation there even though I would have been too much of a wimp to even venture anywhere up the mountains. From coworkers at the SAR center to the neighbors in town, everyone came alive in the small, isolated community. AJ Qinn made me want to gain Kellen’s trust and make a home for Dana.  I wanted to sit by the fireplaces in the cabins and romp in fresh powder with Bogart. I wanted beer and wings at the local dive. And after it all, I wanted to be welcomed over to hangout with Dana, Kellen, and Kellen’s girls Ren and Cody. Each woman in the story, not just the main characters, have found their existing “birth” family to be anything from insufficient to actively harmful. In its stead, and oftentimes despite harrowing circumstances, they came together to make a family of their own choosing.

The FBI crashes into the insular world of Haven, demanding Kellen reveal who she was before Haven, so they can determine if there’s a connection there they can use to find the killer who’s after her and targeting other SAR teams across the country. I liked FBI Agent Grant, though I wanted to send him off to do some research or hire his own experts because he seemed to be flailing around in the dark for the majority of his investigation.

The investigation pushes Kellen to reveal secrets about her past that could have tied into the overall mystery, but ultimately felt forced. And while the reveal sheds light on her isolation, resilience, and nomadic past, it doesn’t connect to the overall plot as foreshadowed. What she running from all those years was an emotional threat and herself, not literal danger. I didn’t need Kellen’s past to connect to the mystery, but it would have made the two disparate parts of the story smoother if it had.

Kellen’s adopted runaways were great as windows into her secretive, sometimes cold and hard to reach character, but their own dark pasts also come up in an another odd red herring in the search for the mysterious shooter.

If you want to be immersed in the immediacy of Search and Rescue, give witness to very raw struggles for characters with painful pasts, and can handle the suspense of a sniper lurking in the snowy mountains, then Kellen and Dana’s romance will eat up your whole weekend. And hopefully you have a rescue dog like Bogart to keep you safe.

JJ Taylor loves stories about stories. She reads, writes, and chases chickens in the woods with her wife and their ridiculously adorable baby. You can find her on Twitter and on Tumblr @jjtaylor.