Arctic Wild, book two in Annabeth Albert’s Frozen Hearts series, is a gently moving, slow-burn romance between two very different men who find themselves re-evaluating their lives following an almost fatal accident. There are places where perhaps the pacing could have been a little faster and the focus a little sharper, but I really liked the way the romance developed and how the author explored the dynamics between the leads and the secondary characters/family members who also appear in the story.
Workaholic corporate lawyer Reuben Graham has been persuaded to take a long-overdue vacation with a couple of friends when a last minute change sees him heading off to Alaska on his own. He’d much rather just have cancelled, but was pretty much guilted into going and anyway, he’s got plenty of work with him so when there’s no decent internet connection he’ll just hunker down and read all that paperwork he’s got piled up. With any luck, his guide will be some “grizzled old mountain man pilot” who is disinclined to talk and will leave Reuben to work in peace. But he’s out of luck in that department and is instead greeted by a gorgeously attractive, vivacious, younger (too young for him, anyway) man who definitely doesn’t seem as though he’s the strong silent type.
Pilot and tour guide Toby Kooly (whom we met briefly in the previous book, Arctic Sun) is very good at what he does. Personable, informative and fun, he genuinely enjoys making sure his clients are having a good time and doing whatever he can to help them make the most of what is generally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But on meeting Reuben Graham he instantly senses the man is going to prove something of a challenge; he obviously isn’t particularly enthusiastic about being there and seems resistant to enjoying himself. And he presents another sort of challenge, too; older guys don’t normally do it for Toby, but something about this tall, distinguished silver fox – no, silver bear – with the broad shoulders and the commanding presence most definitely turns his crank. But hooking up with clients isn’t something he makes a habit of, so he pushes temptation aside and concentrates on doing his job, determined to win Reuben over and get him to enjoy himself.
And over their first couple of days and tour stops Reuben does gradually start to unwind and even finds himself opening up a little about himself, chatting casually with Toby in a way he can’t remember really doing with anyone, especially not someone he’s known for so short a time. Both men are aware of the hum of an attraction between them, but before they can do anything about it, the trip takes a swift turn into hell when a freak storm blows in while they’re in the air and despite Toby’s best efforts, the plane crashes. Having sustained some serious injuries, Toby is pretty helpless and it’s down to Reuben to get them to safety while they wait for the rescue team to arrive.
This near death experience has big ramifications for both men, who find themselves having to make some major reassessments and adjustments in their lives. Toby, who has been the main provider for his family (an invalid father and two sisters at college) for over a decade, is unable to work due to a broken arm and broken leg, and is immediately swamped by money worries, while the event gives Reuben the push he needs to start rethinking his life. At forty-eight, he’s too young to retire, but his firm is restructuring and has offered him a buyout package, which he hasn’t really had the time and inclination to think about so far. Now, however, he realises he’s been given an opportunity to make the sorts of changes he hadn’t realised he needed to make, which includes spending more time with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Amelia. He’s missed out on a lot of her life and is determined to do better by her, and when he discovers the extent of Toby’s injuries (and knowing that he can’t possibly afford rehabilitative care) Reuben offers to rent a place that Toby can share with him and Amelia, who is coming to spend the Summer with him.[On a side note, reading about how much Toby worries about his medical bills makes me so thankful for the NHS!]
The principal conflict in the story arises because Toby doesn’t find it easy to ask for and accept help. As Reuben falls in love with Alaska, and the two men fall in love with each other, Toby’s stubbornness on that point and his deep-seated fear of dependence threaten to derail things between them. He’s convinced that Reuben deserves someone as rich and sophisticated as he is and that whatever is happening with them can only be a short-lived thing – which isn’t helped by his father’s obvious disapproval of Reuben (he’s too old and too rich) and his constant insistence that a man must take care of his own shit and not rely on anyone else. It’s a mantra that Toby has been brought up with, and it’s hard for him to shake so many years of conditioning and admit to himself that he likes being taken care of for a change. Reuben freely admits that he enjoys taking care of others, but that gives rise to other doubts. Is Toby just some sort of ‘project’ to fulfil Reuben’s desire to feel useful and needed ? And given the feelings he’s no longer able to deny he has for Reuben, how will he cope when summer ends and they go back to their old lives?
While I admit that Toby’s reluctance to ask for and accept help did perhaps go on a little too long, and I had a few issues with how easily he was able to get around with a broken arm and leg (I’ve been wheelchair-bound and the kitchen counters were just about eye-level, so no way would I have been able to cook like Toby does!), I enjoyed everything else about the story very much. I could easily understand Reuben’s desire to make big changes in his life and I loved the slow-burning but sizzling attraction between the two men, which eventually culminates in some sensual love scenes. Ms. Albert takes her time developing their romance and she does it beautifully, showing them growing closer and their connection deepening as they spend more time talking and enjoying each other’s company.
Reuben’s daughter appears in a large chunk of the book, and comes across as a typical fourteen-year-old, wanting to be ‘grown up’ but isn’t quite yet. Ms. Albert captures that aspect of her character really well, and skilfully shows her gradually reconnecting with Reuben and recapturing some of the optimism and youthful enthusiasm she’d lost. The other secondary characters – Toby’s dad and sister, Nell (who befriends Amelia) – are well-drawn, and as in Arctic Sun, the Alaskan landscapes are vividly and tantalisingly described.
Arctic Wild earns a strong recommendation in spite of my few reservations, and I’ll definitely be picking up the next in the series, Arctic Heat, when it comes out later this year.