Arctic Heat is the third and final book in Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts trilogy of romances set in and around the spectacular landscapes of Alaska, and in it, we meet winter state park volunteer, Owen Han, an energetic, outgoing guy who has recently survived testicular cancer, and the reserved and closeted ranger, Quilleran Ramsey, who is just about as different from Owen as it’s possible to be. It’s a relationship that probably shouldn’t work – yet somehow it does, although of course for two such different men, the road to forever isn’t going to be an easy one.
Having, as the synopsis puts it “kicked cancer’s ass”, Owen Han has put his career as an investment banker on hold and is taking time out to work his way through his bucket list. Next up is something he’s been dreaming of doing for a long time – since childhood – spending the winter in Alaska as a state park volunteer assisting the rangers and other park employees. He’s waiting with the other volunteers for their training to begin, trying hard not to stare at the ranger porn, the uniformed rangers who “make drag green and khaki downright sexy with their broad shoulders, and generous muscles and rugged jawlines.” One particular ranger catches his eye though, a frisson of anticipation Owen had feared might be gone for good running through him at the sight of the man’s tall, well-built frame, handsome face and steely blue eyes. He thinks the guy might be stealing glances at him, too and makes a beeline for the seat next to him just as the presentations are about to begin.
Quill Ramsey immediately pegs the chatty newbie as the high maintenance type who’ll never be able to handle the hard, often gruelling work of winter park management. Even though he has the – surprisingly muscular – build that means he might be able to keep up, Owen Han is, thankfully, not going to be his responsibility; Quill appreciates a positive attitude but has never understood why some people feel the need to fill a perfectly good silence with questions and small talk. But Owen is dangerously distracting – smart, funny and possessed of killer dimples – and there’s no room in Quill’s life for anything besides his job.
Later that night after dinner, Owen and Quill are on the way back to the hotel when Owen takes the opportunity to kiss a very willing but still guarded Quill. The kiss is like nothing Quill has ever experienced – hot, sweet and almost overwhelming – but he firmly rebuffs Owen’s further advances. Owen is disappointed but doesn’t make a thing out of it; he’s already worked out that Quill is repressed and deeply closeted and they go their separate ways. But of course, that’s not going to be the end of it. The next day, when Quill learns his assigned volunteer is unable to make it and that Owen is to be spending the winter with him instead, he’s not best pleased. However, he’s too professional to insist on a change, and tells himself it’ll be fine. He’ll focus on his job, make sure Owen knows what needs to be done and keep his distance; there’s no need for them to spend much (if any) time together and there will certainly not be anything… extra going on.
Owen on the other hand, isn’t giving up hope. He’s certainly not going to pester Quill or make him uncomfortable, but the Alaskan winter is seven long months and given the combustible chemistry between them – as shown by that single kiss – he likes his chances of getting more of them. Or of their at least becoming friends.
Annabeth Albert does slow-burn, opposites-attract romance so well, and Arctic Heat is another terrific example. Owen and Quill are nothing alike, and yet somehow they fit together perfectly; in spite of his determination to remain aloof, Quill slowly begins to respond to Owen’s genuineness, warmth and sunny disposition. But it’s not easy for him. He’s plagued by years of repression and insecurities born of a dysfunctional family whose difficult dynamics have given him a horror of any form of relationship ‘drama’ together with an unfortunate relationship with someone who clearly wanted Quill to be someone else. Owen isn’t without his own problems though; he has some lingering physical issues as a result of his treatment and has begun to question his place in the world. He realises he badly wants to belong to someone, to have that forever kind of connection, and believes he’s found it in Quill – but will Quill ever be able to overcome his natural reluctance to commit to loving Owen openly?
This is a quiet, character driven story that focuses firmly on the central romance while at the same time providing readers with considerable insight into the work of the park rangers and the awesome beauty and potential dangers of the region in which it the book is set. It’s clear Ms. Albert has done her homework when it comes to Alaska and I once again enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the climate and locations.
Quill is reserved and steadfast, but his stoic exterior conceals a well of hurt and his deep loneliness is poignant and well-portrayed. Owen, with his almost relentless optimism and innate confidence, could, in the hands of a lesser author, have turned out to be pushy and annoying, but thankfully, he’s nothing of the kind. He takes his second chance at life seriously and doesn’t take anything for granted; he’s even-tempered, friendly and polite, slow to anger and even when he is mad he doesn’t stay that way for long. They are engaging, well-rounded characters and the chemistry between them sizzles right from the start. The sex scenes enhance the romance, helping to show Quill’s growing trust in Owen and how he comes to learn that sex can be wild and messy and fun and that the only rules are the ones he and his partner choose to make. If I have a criticism, it’s that Quill’s late-book turnaround on being with Owen openly happens rather quickly, but it works, and I applauded his courage in finally deciding it was time to stop caring about what others thought and to focus on what was truly important to him – his love for Owen and their future.
Tender, sexy and emotionally satisfying, Arctic Heat rounds out the Frozen Hearts trilogy nicely.