Better Off Dead
It never fails to amaze me how some heroines always manage to find a military commando when they need one. Heroes for regular romance can be lawyers, actors, even politicians, but for romantic suspense, it seems, you really need an ex-Navy guy. This book provides one, but also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone dreaming of a man in a Special Forces beret. Those secretive habits die hard, it seems.
Samantha Robbins was once a hot-shot accountant at PowerTec, an Enron-like company doing Enron-like accounting. When she discovered that the bosses were up to some very fuzzy math, she called in the Feds, who managed to plant an undercover agent in the accounting department. The agent ended up executed, and Samantha ended up in the Witness Protection program (WITSEC) with a new name, Lindsey Wallace. We first meet her as Lindsey in Santa Fe, where she is very lonely, very edgy, and suddenly without the FBI agent who has been looking out for her for over a year. He’s been promoted back to Washington, but before he leaves he warns her that someone was trying to access her information – but it’s okay as the FBI stopped them. Luckily for her, Lindsey doesn’t bet on it, and sure enough a hit man strolls into her jewelry gallery within days, and her one and only friend in Santa Fe is murdered. Lindsey takes her dog and runs.
Three months later, she’s Devon Summers, applying for a job coordinating weddings for a small cruise company in Honolulu, mainly because it’s a small office with lots of exits. Thanks to the fantastic resume and references the FBI has created for her, she gets the job, catching the intensely sexual interest of Chad Langston, who owns a nearby dive shop. Devon refuses to acknowledge the overtures he makes, though. The last friend she made got killed just for knowing her, after all, and she doesn’t want another death on her conscience. Even if he is so hot it makes her mouth water.
What she doesn’t know is that Chad is a retired Delta Force commando, who now investigates water-related homicides, and in his spare time tests experimental super-super-secret devices for a Department of Defense research lab. Devon snags his interest in a huge way, more than he can understand, and he determines to find out if she’s really the ice queen she acts like, or the sex tigress she looks like. He’s sure it’s the latter – and he thinks about it quite a lot – but why does she act like she has something to hide? Could she possibly be after his latest top-secret gadget?
Devon is a tough babe, but not too tough – she’s an accountant with a degree in statistics, after all. She knows very well that she’s got to look out for herself, and mostly she does. Even when she and Chad join forces, she’s not a helpless victim waiting for him to rescue her, although his expertise does come in very handy. Still, her situation gave her an almost fatalistic air: the bad guys could kill her at any moment, so she alternates between not wanting to get attached to anything or anyone, then at other times throwing caution to the winds and living only in the moment.
Chad is an unusual character, part alpha male commando, part beta big brother who will go shopping with his sisters. He was unquestionably smart, sexy, at times adorable, and lethal when necessary. He has one big flaw, though, that drove me nuts in the middle half of the book: Chad is so consumed by curiosity about Devon that he resorts to some really stalker-like activities. By necessity, she has to lie to him, making up reasons for why she came to Honolulu and being evasive about where she lives. WITSEC requires this of her, and Devon is living in legitimate fear of her life. But when Chad checks up on every last thing she tells him, he finds discrepancies, which only throws fuel on the fire and makes him probe more. His digging around really freaks Devon out; she doesn’t always know it’s Chad asking questions about her new identity, she thinks it could be the same killers who almost got her in Santa Fe. Chad tells himself he believes what she tells him, and that he’s “a total skank” for checking up on her, but he does it anyway. It will come as no shock to anyone that he arrives at some very wrong conclusions. If he hadn’t recovered from them once he finally got a clue about her problems, I would have booted his control-freak butt out the door – but when she finally started telling him the truth, he finally started trusting her. Better late than never, I suppose.
I strongly suspect the author would have liked to include an introductory chapter on WITSEC and super-secret government agents. It takes a while to set up Devon’s complicated situation, and Chad’s history is also complex and requires a lot of explanation. Often, especially early in the book, the story pretty much takes an informational break, with a page or two about WITSEC or Chad’s military experience. After a while I almost expected to see footnotes. It’s generally useful information related to later plot twists, but the info dump really slowed down the beginning of the book. That, and way too much information about the sex life of one of the villains.
The plot is pretty complex, and feels alarmingly real given recent events (Enron, Iran-Contra, and the Lacy Peterson case are all mentioned) although by spending so much of the story in the villain’s point of view, it does lack in actual suspense. I would much rather not know for absolute certain that the hero and heroine are walking into a trap, for instance. And right in the middle of the story, the author indulges in a moment of pure self-promotion when she has Devon read a romantic suspense novel by… Meryl Sawyer (although strangely, it isn’t really holding Devon’s attention). If you prefer your suspense to be more “woman in jeopardy” than tense thriller, this book might be up your alley, but otherwise it’s nothing extraordinary.