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Isabel Jolie
Isabel Jolie, author
He’s a hunted hacker and former international criminal. She’s a bookshop owner and heiress to one of Napa Valley's greatest wineries. Erik Lai is on the run from his murderous former business partner, hiding off-grid in a vineyard safehouse. He and his small team are building a black ops high-tech security firm because he doesn’t plan to play defense forever. Vivianne Rossi is happy to leave the vineyards to her sister and brother. Her bookstore and a secret side hustle exposing cheaters via some light online hacking are her passions. Erik & Vivi have been friends in an online gaming world for the past fifteen years. Identities hidden - a haven from the real world. Where they were safe… until the day he walked into her store. Now -- he’ll stop at nothing to protect her.
Jolie pulls off a mainstream romance with substantial sweetness despite its grounding in a dark backstory. Hacker Erik Lai, hiding out in Napa with his team after they’ve switched from criminal extortion to white-hatting for the US government, can’t help but trace down his old online gaming friend Firefly, who turns out to be running a small bookstore cafe while downplaying her identity as Vivianne Rossi, heiress to the Rossi wine fortune and a bit of an internet sleuth herself. For Erik, getting to know Vivianne in the real world risks putting her on the radar of his dangerous enemy Kane, but disclosing his secrets to Vivianne feels emotionally risky as well.

Jolie creates an excellent balance between making Erik’s backstory and associated security paranoia seem realistic without actually shifting the tone of the novel from romance to thriller. Erik and his hacker teammates have a great rapport and function as a group of friends helping him navigate the idea of a relationship. The long-term remote fantasy gaming friendship also seems natural without being tied too closely to any particular game, and the peek she offers into the world of wine collecting feels convincing and well-researched.

Though the novel works fine as a standalone, Jolie’s fans will appreciate the tie-in to her previous title, First Light, in which Erik appears as the female lead’s brother. His long and still-maintained online relationship with Vivianne makes his desire to protect her less creepy than it would be for a truly new connection. Family warmth among the Rossis balances the relative isolation of the main characters. The careful plotting pays off Erik’s security paranoia without actually causing too much drama for the couple, and Jolie manages to make Vivianne seem independent and competent while still benefiting from Erik’s help. Fans of romance with a slice of action and thriller intrigue won’t want to miss this.

Takeaway: Mainstream romance fans will enjoy the balance of undisclosed secrets and online crime and plenty of sweetness and goodwill.

Great for fans of: Meredith Wild’s Hardwired, Mandy Baxter’s One Kiss More.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A