Desert Isle Keeper
Bad to the Bone
I rarely read series romance, as I find that the shorter format tends to work against the kind of plot development and characterizations that I most enjoy. But there is one I picked up on a whim some years ago – Debra Dixon’s Bad to the Bone – that simply knocked my socks off. Not only do I have a copy of this in my keeper stack, but I almost always have extra copies to hand out to friends who seem to look for the same things in a romance that I do.
Bad to the Bone is part of the Treasured Tales IV “shake-up-a-fairy-tale” series, which also featured Donna Kauffman, Faye Hughes and Janis Reams Hudson. According to Dixon’s intro, her story might have been aptly subtitled Goldilocks and the Three Hitmen. That’s enough to intrigue me right there, but this book has one of the most compelling prologues I’ve encountered in my entire romance-reading experience: 12-year-old Jessica Dannemora pulls off a desperate and violent escape from her abductors, who had already killed her twin sister in an attempt to prod her recalcitrant, millionaire father into coughing up the ransom.
The story opens sixteen years later, and Jessica is still fighting her demons when she gets a late-night call from Iris Munro. Iris’s father, Phil, owns a security business and also manages a handful of elite, trained assassins who carry out the secret government assignments that he negotiates. Jessie is officially retired, almost unheard of in her line of work, where operatives either die on the job or are terminated with extreme prejudice. But Phil had let her walk away, and it’s out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude that she gets involved when Iris informs her that Phil is missing. Unfortunately, Iris had made a couple of other calls before contacting Jessica: not only is the CIA now aware of Phil’s disappearance, but a local police detective, Sullivan Kincaid, is on the scene at the Munro compound when Jessica arrives there.
Sully, of course, knows nothing about Munro’s assassins-for-hire, and Jessica wants to keep it that way. He is there because of an “anonymous” tip suggesting that Phil Munro might be in danger. Jessica quickly sizes up the situation, introduces herself as Iris’s aunt and reassures Sully that Phil is away on business, completely safe from harm. It mostly works, but Sully is nobody’s fool, and his gut feeling tells him that Jessica’s responses are just a little too facile. Making it clear he intends to keep his eye on both of them, he leaves; naturally, their paths cross again then finally merge as they pursue the available leads and complications, like an assassination attempt, arise.
An astute reader will be able to find loopholes in this story (like why Munro would only have one bodyguard situated at his house, given the business he’s in), but it seemed mostly credible and engaged my interest throughout, so I was more than willing to go along for the ride. I found Jessica’s reluctance to bring in the police or CIA believable. First, she fears being identified and pressured by the government into resuming a line of work that was killing what remained of her humanity. Second, she figures that Phil’s survival may require her to shoot first and ask questions never at least one more time, in order to save the man who had bought her soul, but then compassionately given it back into her keeping.
What I like best about this book is the interplay between the two main characters. Both of them are tortured by the crimes of the past for which they can’t forgive themselves, and the recognition of that darkness in the other is at least part of their mutual attraction. When it comes to verbal sparring, they are equally matched, though Sully does manage to infuse much of what he says with more sexual innuendo than Jessica is accustomed to fielding. Dixon does an excellent job of establishing credible attraction and sexual chemistry from the start, with Sully musing that Jessica’s “legs were a shade longer than the Texas legal limit” and that she has the look of a woman who is easily able to bring a man, gladly, to his knees. She’s an enigma to him, supremely confident but occasionally showing subtle signs of fear when his questions are too probing: a brassy boldness offset by a hint of carnal innocence. For her part, Jessica has had no place in her life for relationships (yes, a virginal heroine, but Dixon makes her believable), and her usual skill at managing the men she has encountered doesn’t work with Sully, a man with the “most unforgiving blue eyes she’d ever seen.”
Bad to the Bone is not only an incredibly sexy read, but features some of the best lines I’ve ever encountered in a romance. My favorite may be when Sully is admiring the bounty exposed by Jessie’s open blouse and “decided a moment of silence was in order.” Or when Jessica says, “You’re in” as she pushes Phil’s office door open after picking the lock, and Sully whispers, “Not yet. But I’d like to be.” Some of the dialogue might have seemed corny had I not bought so thoroughly into Sully’s sexy appeal, like their exchange about crimes and her “wicked” mouth and his “darlin’, the only crime would be letting a mouth like yours go to waste” right before he kisses her the first time. But then, I’m a sucker for dialogue that is sarcastic, provocative, or simply playful.
For readers who enjoy good banter, lots of sexual tension and a hero and heroine badly in need of the redemption that a happily-ever-after promises, you can’t go wrong with this book.