Rating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

Austen Payne has been a THIRDS Agent since he was 14 years old and he now works as a TIN operative, working undercover and taking out bad guys around the world. While Austen may be good at his job, he knows he isn’t going to get much more out of life than that. Austen learned long ago not to believe in true happiness, and wishing for it only will lead to disappointment. That is why he keeps bear Therian and fellow THIRDS agent, Osmond Zachary, at a distance. Even though Austen can’t stay away from Zach completely, he keeps himself at a distance because he knows getting too close is a mistake.

Zach has a huge, happy family and he would love to build a family of his own with someone special. He is crazy about Austen, but Austen keeps pushing him away. But there is enough there to make it clear that Austen returns Zach’s interest.

When Zach stops an assassination attempt, he ends up being a target of whomever is behind the killing. Austen is the best person to keep Zach safe while they try to find out who is after Zach and why. But being together just makes the connection between them stronger, and eventually Austen can’t hold out any longer. The two men find a sexual and emotional connection that thrills them both, yet Austen still has a hard time letting go and trusting that things can work out with Zach. But Zach is determined to prove that the guys are meant for each other. Now they just have to stay alive long enough to make that happen.

Love and Payne takes place in Charlie Cochet’s fabulous THIRDS universe and reunites us with two side characters from the main series. You could probably read this one without having read the THIRDS books as the main Destructive Delta team doesn’t appear here. However, it will obviously be a richer reading experience if you are at least familiar with that other series (also this does have some spoilers for the end of that series). I have been intrigued by Austen for a long time, and I loved the idea of him with Zach, so I was super excited about this one and it didn’t disappoint.

There is an opposites attract element here that is nice, not just in the size difference between the enormous bear and the smaller cheetah, but also in temperament. Zach is just solid and steady, a calm presence that fits so well with Austen’s more high strung personality. It is clear when we start the book (and from hints we get from the main series) that these guys have been dancing around each other for a while. Zach very clearly wants Austen, but Austen is wary. He wants to keep his distance, believing he can never really have something as special as Zach. But at the same time, he watches over Zach, keeps track of every member of his family, and can’t stay away, especially when Zach is in need. There is just a connection between the guys that you can really feel.

The story nicely combines the romance end of things with a suspense plot as the guys try to figure out who is behind the assassination attempt and why they are after Zach. Although things wrap up, it does seem like there are new bad guys on the horizon, so I am hoping we will get more of this story line in future installments.

My only real issue here is that I struggled a little with the set up and I had trouble just letting it go because it was making me kind of nuts. So without giving too much away, when Zach is in danger, they decide to move him to a safe location, which turns out to be a family lodge/compound up in the mountains. It makes no sense to me why they would choose to move him from a TIN safe house that presumably no one knows about to a family compound that 100 family members and countless other people know is there. Wouldn’t hiding him someplace his family doesn’t own make much more sense? Added to that, his ENTIRE family goes with him to the compound. I can get why some of the brothers would go, as they are THIRDS agents as well and can aid in protecting him. But they bring everyone — parents, grandmother, and all the kids. There is a big point made about how they all arrive at different times to keep it secret, but they are bringing an entire extended family at once to this place and no one is going to figure it out? Not to mention why would they possibly put all those people at risk when there are assassins after Zach? And so on one hand, we have this big life threatening situation and it is all intense, and on the other hand they are making hot chocolate and playing in the snow. It just made me a little crazy as it felt way too contrived. I loved them all there at the compound and I loved how it showcased both Zach’s family connections and helped Austen see how he could fit in. But I needed a better justification for getting them all there.

Aside from that, this one really worked for me. I loved Zach and Austen together and they totally made the book for me. We also get to see a bit of relationship development between two side characters, so I’d love to hear their story (frankly the entire Zachary clan could have a series of their own and I’d read it all). I really think Cochet has done a nice job here pulling together the key elements of the THIRDS world, but giving us a spin off here and I would definitely be excited for more books in this style.

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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