The White House Men series features an overarching suspense plot and investigation that carries across the books. Therefore, this review includes spoilers for events that occur in earlier books in the series.
Branson is an analyst for the CIA, one of the leads investigating the Pride bombing, as well as the assassination of the former president and the first ladies. The cases have been haunting him for a long time, and Branson is working long, hard hours, but they are finally getting some of the breakthroughs they have long been seeking.
Ryder is a forensic accountant who is also working the case for the CIA. It’s Ryder’s job to trace the money and the accounts that will track the movements and connections among the various players. Ryder loves his job, as he is well suited to the intense analytical work that it involves. He and Branson often work together on the investigation, but Ryder finds himself frequently annoyed with Branson’s teasing, as well as aspects of Branson’s personality. When Ryder ends up sharing his thoughts with Branson, however, rather than being annoyed, Branson appreciates his honesty and uses it as an opportunity for some self reflection.
The men slowly become friends and begin spending more time together. The chemistry is intense between them, and while at first they attempt to push it aside, it is soon more than either can ignore. Ryder and Branson finds themselves surprisingly compatible in bed, and can’t keep their hands off each other. But Ryder just got out of a bad breakup and he isn’t ready to trust in a relationship once again. For his part, Branson is falling for Ryder and would love to explore something more with him. Now Ryder has to decide if he is ready to take a chance on love once again, and reach for the happiness he could have with Branson.
Puzzle is the sixth book in the White House Men series and this is the perfect title, as the real focus of this story is on the investigation. While the case has definitely been a part of the last few books, it has been more of an undercurrent recently than it was in Press or Friends. And I think that makes sense, as those books featured characters who were less in the forefront of the investigation. But as we get close to wrapping up the series (one more book remains), I really enjoyed seeing the investigation coming to the forefront again. And boy, does a lot happen here! So many pieces fall into place as Branson, Ryder, and the rest of the team start to put all those connections together and figure out exactly who is behind the various moves and what they hoped to gain. Things really come together here so well and the case is quite interesting. We actually get almost all the loose ends tied up here, save one big piece that I assume will play out in the final book. I think Phoenix has done a great job with this suspense storyline, carrying it over across a long series with the right pacing to keep the story exciting and parsing out information at just the right places.
With the investigation at the forefront, the relationship between Ryder and Branson is slower to develop. Ryder doesn’t particularly like Branson at first, and even once they get past dislike, they are essentially just coworkers for the first quarter of the book. At least, Ryder is pretty clear that he doesn’t see Branson as a friend at this point, despite the fact that they spend a lot of time together, including frequent lunches. As the men start to explore the physical side of their relationship with a lot of casual hookups, their friendship starts to build as well. And ultimately, of course, the pair fall for each other and realize that what they thought was just friendship with a side of hot sex is actually turning to love. But their relationship definitely spends more time as coworkers and sex buddies than it does as romantic partners, and when the transition occurs, they jump quickly into love. So a little better pacing on the relationship development would have helped me.
While the romance is slow to bloom, the heat between these men is strong. Readers may remember Branson as “SpookyBigDick,” Seth’s former hookup. He is well known for his, you guessed it, giant dick, and so he is a perfect match for Ryder who is all about the hard pounding. Ryder’s ex was definitely not into him being a demanding bottom, and their sex life was pretty bland (in addition to the guy ending up being a total ass), so Ryder is thrilled at the sexual connection he has with Branson. So expect lots of high heat scenes and a great sexual dynamic between them.
The title also plays out in the relationship dynamic, as Ryder is a complex person and Branson sees him as a bit of a puzzle to figure out. I did find myself struggling to fully warm up to Ryder. I am a big fan of the geeky hero trope, and I love that Phoenix subverts some expectations by making Ryder all about the sex, rather than shy or inexperienced. But he is a very blunt man and not always particularly nice. When Branson wants to initiate a friendship, given that the two are coworkers working closely together on the case, Ryder basically rebuffs him. He then goes on to tell Branson what is “wrong” with him, which causes Branson to do a lot of self reflection that ultimately helps him. But I found myself put off by Ryder’s bluntness, especially because his issue with Branson is primarily that Branson is too accommodating of other people and loses himself behind his public face. Even the blurb for the book seems to present things as Branson’s fault, saying he is “determined to change and earn Ryder’s approval.” On the plus side, Branson actually likes Ryder’s forthrightness and isn’t offended by him at all. So the two of them are a good fit in that regard. I just found Ryder’s aloofness and blunt comments made it hard for me to fully connect with him.
That said, the heat between the men is great and when they ultimately find their way to a romantic relationship, there are some really sweet moments. So things do come together nicely in the end. And as I noted, the case here really is in the forefront and I loved seeing all the pieces come together and the team make some great strides. The final book is up in a couple of months and I’m super excited for it, both to see how the last pieces of the case ultimately resolve, as well as how Del gets his happily ever after.