Strictly Need to Know by MB Austin is a debut novel thriller that takes readers along for a dangerous ride as we follow the characters on an undercover sting operation inside the inner circle of an organized crime family.
Maji Rios has spent years in the Army being whoever they needed her to be. She’s part of an elite group of covert operators who do whatever it takes to complete their mission. Even before that, she spent her younger years attending an elite ‘training’ camp for girls. Now she’s returned to her Long Island refuge after a mission goes fatally wrong. She doesn’t expect to spend her first night back saving a beautiful woman from Russian mobsters. She also doesn’t expect to wake up the next morning next to that same beautiful woman, inside the Benedetti crime family’s estate. The last thing she expects is that she’s woken up already inside her next mission. Her time with Rose diStephano, the damsel in distress she saved the night before, is already over. Maji’s cover is as the girlfriend of her Army teammate, Angelo Benedetti, Rose’s cousin, and nephew of the current head of the Benedetti family. Angelo has decided to take down his uncle’s organization, and Maji is the one person he trusts to have his back.
Rose diStephano came to Long Island to visit her favorite cousin, Angelo. She’s aware of the Benedetti business model, but she’s never been a part of it. So the danger from the Russian mob catches her off guard. She meets Maji at the most opportune time, and there’s a lot of heat and chemistry there. But before she can even blink, Maji is pulling away. She knows there’s something going on with Angelo, and Maji is pretending to be his girlfriend in order to watch his back. When Angelo realizes that Rose is a target, he assigns Maji to protect her. Rose is delighted until Maji gives her the cold shoulder. Needing to stay professional, Maji refuses to let Rose get any closer than they’ve already been. But Rose is part Benedetti herself, and has the stubborn determination to get what she wants: Maji Rios.
Maji is a badass. She’s been training for her job almost her whole life. And she loves what she does. But she’s also got some bad history, and while it makes her willing to put her life on the line to do the right thing, it makes her very hesitant to put her heart on the line at all. The last time she did, the results got one of her teammates killed. So Maji is a woman whose character is unmatched, but who also holds herself apart.
Rose diStephano is an archeology professor, used to the classroom or the dig site. She definitely isn’t used to the dangerous intrigue surrounding her uncle’s organization. She’s visited in the past often enough to become extremely close with her cousin, Angelo, and she’d do anything for him. Except give up on the one woman who has stirred her heart more than any other. She won’t let Maji ignore the connection between them, and she definitely won’t let her go.
Angelo Benedetti grew up within the Benedetti crime family, with first his grandfather as the head, then his father, and now, with his father’s murder, his uncle. The thing is, Angelo is fairly certain his uncle had something to do with his father’s death. And now he’s back to make his uncle pay. He’s got a scheme that with take his uncle down. But to get the US government on board, he’s had to promise more than just the Benedettis. He’s come up with a daring sting that will set organized crime back years. How? It’s all about the money…
The Writing Style
For a debut novel, I found this story tightly plotted and well developed. The characters have depth, and the situations are realistic. There is a tendency, I think, when looking at this book, to think the narrative bogs down, that it takes too long to move to a resolution. I think this story represents something we don’t get very often anymore: a well set up sting operation combined with a slow burn romance. I think today’s reader is used to constant action, and breakneck romance, so few have the patience for this type of story. But in an undercover sting, there are a lot of pieces that need to be carefully maneuvered into the right positions, and that takes time. That’s what happens in Strictly Need to Know. On top of that, we see the chemistry between Maji and Rose, and we know the sex is explosive and satisfying between them. But romance and trust are slow to grow for some people. So while the reader wants more, and faster, impatiently waiting for Maji to wake up and smell the love, Rose knows that slow, steady pressure is the only thing that can help her wear down the walls around Maji’s heart.
The relationship between Maji and Rose grows unevenly. The physical attraction is instant, and the connection remains, but Maji’s concerns about her mission, and becoming too close to her protectee, mean the love and trust aren’t so instant. I loved the way Rose stubbornly refused to give up, and was rewarded in the end.
I also really liked the sting that Angelo planned and carried out. That seemed slow to resolve, but all the action at the end made the buildup worth it. I also loved Angelo’s grandmother. She seemed like a typical Italian grandmother, letting the men of the family take care of business, but wow, in the end, she was a pistol.
Two things to look out for here: The aforementioned pace of the story is first. If you’re impatient to get to ‘the good stuff,’ this may not be the right book for you. This book is an investment, and while I found my patience well-rewarded, if that drives you crazy, don’t bother. The second thing is that this book doesn’t seem to have a Happy Ever After for our lovebirds. I’m not even sure I could call it a Happy For Now ending. Both women have careers that mean long periods of time spent apart, and that was a huge obstacle for Maji. But what the book did have was a hopeful ending. I came away satisfied with the direction the relationship between Rose and Maji was headed, although technically I can’t say it was either HEA or HFN. Although I see by the blurb in the second book that my hope might be rewarded, so unless this is a hard line for a reader, I’d say give it a chance.
I enjoyed this book. There was a lot of character development between quite a few of the characters, some subtle and some easy to see. I liked the overall plot with Angelo and the Benedettis, and the fact that while the romance was important to Maji and Rose, it didn’t overwhelm or take over from the main plot. I also loved the idea of Helen’s training camp for girls and women. I’d love more of that. With regards to the main plot, the mission Maji and Angelo are on, I found the goal admirable, the setup realistic, and the conclusion wholly satisfying while containing a few twists that not only did I not see coming, but that made me love the book even more. If you like thrillers, badass women, and slow burn romances, give this one a try. I think you’ll be happy you did.
Excerpt from Strictly Need to Know by MB Austin
In the back alley by the dumpsters, a black SUV sat idling, diesel fumes mixing with the sickly sweet odor from the trash and compost. The driver watched edgily as his partner struggled to open the back door while grappling with the feisty woman in his arms. So only one of you is in this to win it.
“Back off,” Maji barked in full command voice, drawing both men’s attention to her. “Cops are coming. Let her go–now!”
As she marched toward him, the captive-wrestler stopped fussing with the door and turned partway toward Maji. He took in her five-foot-four frame as she looked up at him, her empty palms raised as if to placate him. “We go,” he responded flatly. “You back off, or I shoot you.”
Finally coming to his partner’s aid, the driver started to open his door. Maji slammed it on his hand, barking out in Russian, “Stay inside.”
He seemed inclined to comply, but she left a hand on the car door in case, pinning his hand. Keeping just enough awareness to act if he moved, Maji directed her main message to the armed man towering mere feet from her. The one still holding the civilian. “Losing the girl will make you boss mad, but not as mad as if you go up for murder,” she said slowly and clearly in Russian. “She’s not worth that.”
The big man snorted, masking his surprise at her use of his language. “Prison doesn’t frighten me, little girl. American prison is summer camp.”
Definitely a Vor, and proud of it. Work that. She sneered at him. “Oh, you like prison, suka? Then you can kiss the cops hello, suka.”
The carefully targeted barb did its job. He looked startled, then irate, pushing his captive behind him and raising his gun abruptly.
Maji tracked the gun’s arc and shifted sideways slightly while stepping in toward the Russian, grabbing his wrist, and sweeping his feet out from under him. The gun skittered off toward the restaurant door as sirens erupted at the far end of the alley. The driver gunned the SUV and screeched out, not bothering to close his door completely after pulling his mangled hand inside.
Rey, Bubbles, and Frank spilled out of the back to find the police cruiser bouncing to a halt beside Maji, her knee on the Russian’s back, his arms twisted behind him. The intended target climbed to her feet, using the cruiser’s hood for support, pale and shaky. Rey and Frank hung back, Maji noticed. But Bubbles beelined for the woman as the uniformed officers emerged, hands on holsters. Guess we got a gun drill after all.
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Maji Rios Series
Strictly Need to Know
Running Off Radar
Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 9781635551150
- Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
- MB Austin Online
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