Dirty Little Secrets
by Julie Leto, contemporary (2005)
Downtown, $12.00, ISBN 1-4165-0162-2


At first impression, Julie Elizabeth Leto - now writing as Julie Leto for her mainstream books - has come up with what seems, from the back blurb, like another Stephanie Plum bandwagon series, just replace the Jewish-Italian bounty hunter with a Cuban-American ex-bail enforcement agent. But it isn't long before any lingering cynicism is dispelled by the round the heroine empties into her attacker's body. Marisela Morales is everything Stephanie Plum isn't - capable, smart, well-versed in martial arts - and she tackles the good and bad guys of this story in a way that will make an agent named Nikita proud. Readers looking for a genuine and credible bad-ass kick-butt heroine may want to check this book out. There is no slapstick humor, the heroine doesn't even have a cookie jar the last I check much less a gun inside that cookie jar, and when faced with bad guys, the heroine draws her gun and takes aim. Stephanie who?

Marisela lost her job as a bail enforcement officer but that doesn't stop her at the start of the book from flirting with her ex-boyfriend Francisco Vega in an attempt to keep him from skipping out on his parents that have recently posted his bail. Frankie is a bad-ass guy who had spent time in jail and was making a short trip home to Tampa, Miami, when he got busted for possession. Frankie and Marisela were each other's first, heck, they were in street gangs together when they were younger, and they are both chargined to realize that they may be older but they aren't any wiser, libido-wise. This scorching hot sexy interlude is just the quiet before the storm.

Frankie is a reluctant agent working for Titan International, a corporation specializing in taking contracts from organizations like the FBI and CIA to do things that these organizations aren't keen on dirtying their hands with. Frankie has this smart idea that Marisela will make a good partner for him in his one final mission for Titan so he brings up her name and her credentials to the American branch boss, Ian Blake. Ian, however, has other ideas, and he seeks to make Marisela a full-time agent of Titan International. Soon Marisela and Frankie find themselves posing as a married assassin duo - kinda like a happier version of Mr and Mrs Smith, come to think of it - to penetrate the defenses of a South American arms dealer's private island paradise and "retrieve" his seventeen-year old daughter Jessica Perez for her mother.

I find it hard to imagine that Marisela is capable of beating a man within an inch of his life like the reason Ms Leto gives for Marisela losing her job as a bail enforcement officer because Marisela, while a tough heroine, seems to have a very strong conscience when it comes to doing the right thing. Therefore, I can't see Marisela losing her temper and going wild on a guy that offends her sensibilities. Still, Marisela is a really fun heroine. Not once in this book does she ever need rescuing. When Ms Leto insists in her story that Marisela is a kickass heroine, she means it fully. Intelligent and capable of making good decisions, this is one heroine for fans of tough and independent heroines to rejoice over. And unlike that Sydney creature in Alias who lets her tears define her entire personality, Marisela has vulnerabilities but she knows very well that she cannot let her emotions overrule her survival instincts and even when she seems to act on her emotions in one pivotal moment in the story, it turns out that she instead sets in progress several events that help her achieve her aim and save the hero's life. My heroine.

If that isn't enough icing on the cake, Marisela has no contrived sexual baggage - she owns a vibrator - and she has a nice and healthy relationship with both her parents and her friend Lia.

There are two men playing major roles in Marisela's becoming the newest Titan International agent. Frankie is a more stereotypical Joe Morelli archetype in that he is a reformed bad guy, but because everyone in this book is a genuine kickass or badass character, Frankie can make Joe Morelli cry like a baby, I'm sure. Ian, on the other hand, is a character that I find more fascinating than the straightforward Frankie - he is a morally ambiguous character who won't hesitate to exploit his agents, he is a cultured Englishman (the author likens him to Pierce Brosnan in those James Bond movies) but he knows more about the shady dealings than an average cultured Englishman would. The attraction between Marisela and Ian at the moment feels forced, as if the author is trying too hard to create a love triangle, but gradually the forced attraction gives way to a more realistic relationship filled simultaneously with antagonism and growing (reluctant) respect on each side. On the other hand, when Marisela and Frankie are working out their sexual tension, the temperature shoots up the roof. How disappointing, therefore, that the love scenes don't deliver what the sexual tension promises.

Oh yes, Frankie and Marisela consummate their attraction to this book while there are times when Marisela finds herself attracted to Ian. There is no mention of love in this book although it's clear that Frankie and Marisela are fiercely protective of each other. Ian is a more murky figure and only Ms Leto will know what is in store for Ian.

A downside to this book is the main characters' mission. The villain is easy to deduce and the author inadvertently makes Ian look really foolish for not realizing that early on. However, this mission provides plenty of fast-paced action scenes involving bullets flying everywhere, some broken bones, and even a gunshot wound or two. All these scenes provide plenty of excitement and they are even more gratifying when Marisela gets to prove why she is worthy to be called tough and dangerous. On the other hand, I doubt that any agent leader worth his or her salt will condone Marisela choosing to act on her own interests as opposed to those of the mission like the leader in question does to Marisela towards the end of this book.

I think the biggest problem I have with this book is that the author is too afraid of getting her characters' hands dirty, therefore I have a supposedly successful organization like Titan International who have done who-knows-what going out of their way and taking unbelievably kind steps to spare lives and staging "deaths" instead of just blowing drug dealers up like they are supposed to. I understand when a novice like Marisela is appalled at some of things a covert agent is supposed to do (but I have to wonder, though - as a former bail enforcement agent, she shouldn't be this naive about the things covert agents have to do), but I find it harder to believe that someone like Ian would choose to play nice.

Still, the contrived attempts to ensure the main characters' hands remain free from blood will only be a big problem for me if it persists in later books. Right now, I'm more than happy to overlook this and the clumsy handling of the espionage plot because I really enjoy my introduction to Marisela, Frankie, Ian, Max, and other characters of Ms Leto's series. The action scenes are fun, the characters are likeable and tough, and there is plenty of excitement to be had here. Dirty Little Secrets is a most enjoyable introduction to a series starring a real tough heroine who can hold herself very well against the big guys when it comes to dishing out trouble like the best of them. Even Ms Leto's attempt to portray Marisela's softer side comes off pretty well without compromising Marisela's intelligence in the process. All in all, it's a really fine day for me, a fan of tough heroines and high-octane espionage adventures, when Dirty Little Secrets makes its appearance. I've never have this much fun in a long time, relishing this book and anticipating the upcoming books in this series. But to be on the safe side, I'll pray hard that the shades of Stephanie Plum will never ever come close to tainting this series. Don't you dare, Ms Leto. Don't you dare.

Rating: 93


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