Desert Isle Keeper
Cold Cruel Kiss
Book four in Toni Anderson’s Cold Justice: Crossfire series, Cold Cruel Kiss is a nail-bitingly tense, superbly plotted romantic suspense novel set in Buenos Aires, which finds Supervisory Special Agent Max Hawthorne of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit called in after the seventeen-year-old daughter of the US Ambassador to Argentina is kidnapped whilst on a Christmas Eve shopping trip. I’ve read or listened to the other books in this series (and to some of the earlier Cold Justice series) and this is the best yet; it’s clever and perfectly paced with a few good twists and turns and a couple of engaging leads whose romance, while fairly low key, nonetheless hums with chemistry.
British transplant Max Hawthorne – a former SAS officer – is on holiday in Cartagena when he gets the call to head to the US Embassy in Buenos Aires to co-ordinate the operation to ensure the release of Kristen Dickerson and her friend, Irene Lomakin, who was abducted alongside Kristen off a busy shopping street in broad daylight. Max arrives to find chaos – and knows he’s got to perform a difficult balancing act; his priority is the safety of the two girls and getting them back, but this being an Ambassadorial family adds so many other potential problems to the mix. The political angle, the need to keep the various agencies involved co-operating – and the fact that the Legal Attaché (the FBI representative abroad) is working on some big hush-hush operation that may or may not complicate things further; the whole situation has the potential to go wrong for more than just the Ambassador and her family.
Max is immediately intrigued by one of the Embassy staff – Lucy Aston, assistant to the Ambassador’s PA – whom he senses is deliberately hiding in plain sight. He can’t help wondering exactly why, but doesn’t really have the time to do more than wonder about it, as he’s caught up in meetings and setting up an operations centre… until later that day when Lucy is assigned to drive him wherever he needs to go.
Former CIA operative Lucy Aston has turned being unnoticeable into an art form following a devastating betrayal fifteen months earlier, when the man she fell in love with turned out to be a Russian agent. Compromising photos and videos are now being used to blackmail her for information – although she’s sure nothing she’s given up so far could have anything to do with the kidnapping. But the knowledge that those images have probably been seen by many people without her permission has destroyed her confidence and left her feeling vulnerable and violated, and now she goes out of her way to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, dying her hair a mousy brown, hiding behind big glasses and wearing clothes that are as unflattering as possible. Usually she just fades into the background and nobody ever gives her a second look – until Max Hawthorne arrives and very quickly intuits that Lucy is not quite what she seems.
Lucy – who speaks fluent Spanish – ends up working with Max as he searches for information that could help them locate the girls as well as help in his negotiations, and a tentative friendship forms between them. Lucy hasn’t been attracted to a man since her disastrous liaison with Sergio Raminsky, but Max’s kindness, his innate decency and trustworthiness draw her to him every bit as much as his handsome face and gorgeous body. And Max is intrigued by the embassy ‘mouse’ who can keep up with him at a run and can drop-kick a thug like a pro, and wants to know more about the woman who hides her intelligence, competence and humour behind such a drab exterior.
The suspense plot is complex and really well-constructed, with seemingly disparate plot threads gradually drawn together until they merge into one. It’s thoroughly engrossing – once things kicked into gear, I couldn’t put the book down – but there are a lot of moving parts and I had to pause for breath once or twice just to remind myself who was who and who was working for whom!
We get several chapters from the points of view of the kidnapped girls, who, despite being terrified, manage to keep their wits about them and never once think about abandoning each other; they’re wonderfully resilient characters who are determined to fight to the end. There’s no graphic violence, but there are a couple of violent scenes – one an attempted assault – and some detail of the conditions in which they’re kept that some readers may find upsetting.
I always say I like romantic suspense to have a good balance of both elements – but there are times when I get so swept up in a book’s storyline that the imbalance doesn’t really matter, and that’s the case here. The romance takes a back-seat to the suspense plot, but it didn’t bother me; the mutual attraction between Lucy and Max is nicely realised (and thankfully without all the endless mental-lusting that is so prevalent in romance novels nowadays), and given that the story takes place over just a few days and both characters have priorities other than getting it on – priorities that really could mean life-or-death – I actually liked that they weren’t declaring their undying love at the end, but were rather deciding they wanted to give a relationship a try. It’s a strong HFN which works much better in context than a hearts-and-flowers HEA would have done.
Heart-pounding action, pulsing attraction, spooks, conspiracies, betrayal, political wrangling; Cold Cruel Kiss has it all and Toni Anderson moulds it into a terrific read and one of the best romantic suspense stories I’ve read in a while. Fans of the genre should definitely consider checking it out.