Pamela Clare’s latest I Team book is a fine addition to an exciting series. Ms. Clare’s I-Team is a group of investigative journalists who work for the fictional Denver Independent. The women of the team, all reporters, have in previous books taken on pernicious social evils, while falling in love (and lust) with smart, sexy heroes. Ms. Clare, a journalist herself, knows how to write a gripping story and Breaking Point is her most compelling romantic suspense novel thus far.
She dedicates her tale to “the memory of the hundreds of murdered and missing women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico…. (who) were brutalized and discarded.” Ms. Clare’s passion for justice for Las Muertas de Juarez – it’s estimated that as few as 400 and as many as 5000 women have disappeared from that border town in the past two decades – makes this book not only an absorbing read but a stirring call for justice for the women and the brave reporters who have been killed while working in Mexico. That nation, as Ms. Clare points out, is now the most dangerous place in the world – outside of an outright war zone – to be a journalist.
The I-Team reporter in this book, Natalie Benoit, has come to Juarez for a three-day professional conference. Natalie lost her fiancé and parents in Katrina and is still tormented by that storm’s aftermath. She signed up for the conference hoping it would push her past the emptiness she constantly feels. As she and the other conferees are headed to an event, their bus is highjacked by a group of stone-cold killers who shoot all the Latino journalists and kidnap Natalie. They cuff her, heave her into the trunk of a car, take her to an abandoned church in the remote countryside, and imprison her in a cell. In the chamber next to her, chained to the wall, is Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Zach McBride.
Zach and Natalie are being held by Los Zetas, a powerful Mexican crime ring ostensibly run by Arturo César Cárdenas (whom Zach was attempting to take down). Zach was betrayed by a colleague – a Mexican Interpol agent – and now Los Zetas, who don’t know he is a U.S. agent, believe he has stolen a large shipment of cocaine from them. When Natalie arrives, Zach is hanging on to sanity by a slight thread. Los Zetas have beaten him badly, broken his ribs, and spent the better part of a week torturing him by depriving him of food, water, and sleep. Most horrifically, they have been using electrical cables and a truck battery to try and make him talk. As Los Zetas throw Natalie into the cell, Zach hears the men say Natalie is here for Cardenas. (Natalie’s Spanish is poor and she can’t understand what the men are saying.) Zach knows Cardenas is a death sentence for Natalie; he’s known for brutally sexually abusing women, then sacrificing them to La Santa Muerte, the grisly sect saint of many of Mexico’s narcotrafficers. Zach and Natalie begin to talk through their cell walls. Listening to Natalie keeps Zach’s pain at bay and, Natalie, terrified and sure she’s going to die, talks openly about the horror of her time in New Orleans. They verbally bond, give each other courage and, in a nail-biter of a scene, manage to escape Los Zetas. They travel through the lethal Mexican desert, trying to get to the border, while the vicious Los Zetas are hot on their trail.
Ms. Clare’s story is a complex one. Los Zetas are after Natalie for reasons that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the brutal drug trade. The thugs seeking Zach want their millions of dollars of missing cocaine and, once they realize he’s on the run with Natalie, they bring in the power behind Los Zetas, a man of unlimited political and financial resources. In this book, like the other books in the series, the greatest criminals are those with money and power. These men will stop at nothing to recapture Natalie and Zach. The suspense in the novel is thrilling and doesn’t relent until the end of the tale.
The romance in this book is equally intriguing. Zach and Natalie each have had heartbreaking losses in their pasts. Zach, a former SEAL who suffers from PTSD from his time serving in Afghanistan, doesn’t believe he has the capacity to love or be loved. Natalie lost everything and everyone she loved in New Orleans and is afraid to open herself up again to the risk that comes with caring. As they make their way back to the U.S., they must trust and rely on one another. The two, who are trying to escape death, find solace in sex and their passion for each other is intense and primal.
As Natalie and Zach journey through Mexico toward the U.S. border, other members of the I-Team and their spouses work to help the two make it home safely. One of the delights of this book — for those who have followed the series — is its inclusion of past heroes and heroines. Ms. Clare skillfully integrates these other characters into her story and their presence strengthens an already strong book.
I began reading this book on a gorgeous Sunday morning and didn’t put it down until dusk when I turned the last page. I’ve liked all the books in the I Team series, and this fifth one is my favorite. Zach and Natalie are clever, balanced characters who refuse to be limited by either the criminals who pursue them or the pasts that pain them. They make choices that fit both who they are and the situations they find themselves in. Their sexual relationship is scorching and – as long as one overlooks that fact that having vigorous sex after having been electrocuted and while suffering from cracked ribs seems a challenge most men wouldn’t be, ah, up for – lays a believable foundation for their emotional connection.
After I finished Breaking Point, I looked up Las Muertas de Juarez. I was aghast. In Ms. Clare’s novel, Natalie escapes from her criminal captors alive and unharmed. Hundreds of women haven’t. I, like Ms. Clare, hope that those who have taken so many bodies and lives will someday be caught and held to account for their sins.