I stumbled upon the books of Lee Winter last summer when I was on vacation and in desperate need of a good romance to read by the beach. It felt like divine intervention. The clouds parted, the heavens opened up, and here was a treasure trove of lesbian romances featuring my absolute favorite tropes: ice queens and age gaps. I started with Breaking Character (per Winter’s own ice queen rating system: 3 out 5 icicles), and over the course of the next week, I had read The Red Files (5/5 icicles), Under Your Skin (4/5 icicles), The Brutal Truth (5/5 icicles), and Hotel Queens (3.5/5 icicles). I was worried the magic would fade whenever I started a new one, but Winter hooked me again and again.
Which is all to say, when my beloved editor Kayla asked if I wanted an ARC of Lee Winter’s latest romance, The Fixer, I was, as they say, extremely down to clown. The basic plot is thus: Eden Lawless is an activist with a big heart and an almost pathological drive to do The Right Thing™ at all times. She’s hired by Michelle Hastings, the CEO of a mysterious organization to take down a corrupt mayor from her hometown.
This is where things get interesting. The character Michelle Hastings also appears in The Red Files and its sequel Under Your Skin. It’s not uncommon in romance for side characters to become the protagonist of their own stories, and I don’t want to spoil anything from either of those books, but it does provide important context for the unorthodox way The Fixer is structured. Here’s what I will say: Michelle Hastings did a bad thing to someone. And when I say bad, I don’t mean romance novel bad like, “I was too scared of my feelings so I skipped the opening night/wedding/gallery party/family Christmas.wp_postsI’m talking about something truly cruel, something done with intention that had lasting and devastating consequences.
When I (metaphorically) cracked the epub and read this line in the acknowledgements: “I never intended to write one story told over two books, but it turns out some ice queens take quite a bit longer to melt than others,wp_postsI sat up a little straighter. One story over two books in contemporary romance is something of a rarity — after all, the Happily Ever After (HEA) is pretty much the only thing the genre demands. I knew Michelle was going to be a tough character to crack, and I was excited to get into a book that features a character whose values and morals are…questionable, to say the least. Still, I was a little worried. Would the book feel satisfying — or would I feel robbed of my HEA?
The answer is…both? I know that’s deeply unhelpful, and you are gliding that mouse to close this window in disgust, but gimme a sec, okay? I’ve had some time to sit with the book, and I think more than anything, the part of me that wasn’t satisfied was the part that is trained to expect a tidy, happy ending. Because I loved everything else about this book: the characters, the world they lived in, and how fun and inventive Eden’s scheme to take down this corrupt mayor was. Truly, a tip of my cap to Winter for including a mysterious political scandal in this story, because the thrill is so enjoyable that you almost — almost! — forget that Michelle and Eden have exchanged one single hug by the end of the book.
Okay, that’s enough tablesetting; let’s get into the meat of it all. Eden is an activist who travels the country protesting, and when she’s not protesting, she’s consulting for other groups, getting their message out or helping them get organized. She lives most of the time in a van painted and named Gloria Steinem, she says “Goddesswp_postsunironically, and it is truly a testament to Winter’s writing that I was still charmed by her, despite all signs pointing directly to “Character Most Likely to Drive Me Nuts if We Met at a Party.wp_postsShe’s in DC for a job interview that has something to do with her old nemesis, Francine Wilson, a property-developer-slash-slumlord who got Eden expelled from college once she started protesting the conditions of the properties Francine owned. Oh, and she also got Eden’s dad fired from the hospital where he worked, something for which he still has not forgiven his daughter.
Michelle is the CEO of “The Fixers,wp_postsa shadowy consulting organization made up of hackers and spies and ex-CIA/FBI employees. Think Olivia Pope & Associates with a lot more money and a lot more employees, and that’s basically the firm. To me, Michelle is a wife. She’s brilliant, hot, good at her job, and if she is choosing to ignore the fact that she is running herself into the ground, well, sometimes that is just the way it goes. The Fixers have been hired to stop Mayor Wilson from getting elected to another term, and Michelle’s research points to Eden as the solution. She is the only person who has ever been able to figure out how to rattle Francine, which makes her perfect for this contract. That is about as far as Michelle has thought about this, because it’s as far as she thinks about any job. The company’s morals are primarily dictated by who can afford to pay for their services, which means they are usually not great! Eden assumes The Fixers are some kind of well funded vigilante justice organization, and Michelle knows her life will be easier if Eden thinks that, so she lets her.
The Fixer is primarily Eden’s book, and the majority of our focus is on her as she returns to her hometown and everything she left behind after Mayor Wilson got her expelled. But she is good at her job, and the town-wide scavenger hunt she devises is pretty brilliant. This is something I have come to expect in Winter’s work — a B plot mystery or scheme that unravels along with the romance. They’re always expertly handled, helping to shade in the developing romance. After a while, the clues in the scavenger hunt become something she looks forward to giving to Michelle on their nightly check-in calls, something that allows them to get to know each other a little better. Eden needs something to look forward to, because even though her plan is slowly working, being home is hard for her. She still thinks her father blames her for his life falling apart, and she is constantly worried about running into him.
One of the magic tricks that Winter pulls off is making it clear that Eden’s father has treated her terribly and that he does not deserve to be forgiven just because he is her dad. When they finally have their heart-to-heart, he doesn’t demand she forget the pain he caused, nor does he try to minimize it. He gently points out that living by the impossibly high moral standard Eden’s mother has set might not always be possible — and that’s okay.
“It’s okay not to be perfect, not to be too rigid about defining what’s allowed and right and ethical. It’s okay to live in the shades of gray. It’s especially okay to accept that people are a bit good and a bit bad and not all evil.”
Hm, I wonder if any of this is going to come up as Eden starts falling for a woman who works for a spooky shadow organization???? (Spoiler, it will!!!) This is the overarching thread that runs throughout this book and the next, the thing that pulls Michelle and Eden together, even as it pushes them apart. What does it mean to be a good person? Does it mean you always have to do the right thing, no matter the cost? If you’ve done something terrible, how long should you be punished for it?
While The Fixer is largely about Eden, Winter slowly shows us different parts of Michelle, a woman so closed off and impenetrable that I was tempted to inform my own therapist that I am actually doing just fine, comparatively! The forthcoming sequel, The Chaos Agent — which comes out next month — allows Michelle to take the stage fully, and you better believe I will be back with a deep dive on the full story of Michelle and Eden’s romance. Here are some parting words I will leave you with, until then: If you have ever known the joy and the pain of being totally head-over-heels invested in a slow burn, incomplete fanfic, then The Fixer is for you, I promise.