Given the number of disappointing romantic suspense reads I’ve experienced lately, it’s no understatement to say that I’ve been very eagerly awaiting the next book from Rachel Grant, someone I know I can rely on to deliver a fast-paced and tightly-plotted story of mystery and suspense alongside a well-developed steamy romance. Dangerous Ground is a little bit of a departure for her however, in that it’s the first of a series that will feature the same central couple, so I want to make it clear that there’s no HEA –or even HFN – in this book, although I’m sure our hero and heroine will get there eventually. Actually, I’m pleased to see an author of m/f romantic suspense taking this approach; most of the really good RS I’ve read lately has been m/m in series in which each book features a self-contained suspense plot while the character and relationship development is ongoing. So I was in no way put off by the lack of a concrete ending for the protagonists in Dangerous Ground and have high hopes for the further progression of their relationship in subsequent books.
Another reason I always look forward to Ms. Grant’s books is the way she so skilfully draws on her background in history and archaeology to produce stories that are incredibly well-researched and informative about the various aspects of conservation/preservation/exploration that she includes in them, and this is no exception. Civilian naval archaeologist Fiona Carver is part of the team assigned to produce an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) of the new submarine base the US Navy wants to build in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Five weeks before the story begins, Fiona had made a very significant discovery – that of a prehistoric village on Chiksook Island – but before she was able to do any further excavation, an emergency evacuation was ordered. Expecting to be back in a few days, she took as many precautions as she feasibly could with the equipment she had available at the time, but now, five weeks later, she fears the site may have been destroyed. Dangerous Ground opens as she is returning to Chiksook along with a few members of the original team, and a couple of newcomers she hasn’t met before, one of whom is ornithologist Bill Lowell. Objectively, Fiona can see Bill is gorgeous (she mentally nicknames him “Hot Bird Man”) – but she can also see he’s one of those men who is well aware he’s attractive, and shuts down his attempts at flirting while trying her best to remain friendly. She doesn’t do field flings (or any type of fling, really) and isn’t about to change her stance on that, no matter how good-looking or charming the guy is.
Wildlife photographer Dean Slater’s twin brother Dylan, a volcanologist, was one of Fiona’s team-mates on the previous expedition, but Dean hasn’t seen him since his supposed return from Chiksook Island. The last email Dean received from him stated that he was going off the grid for a few months, but that email came from a generic work email address rather than Dylan’s personal account and Dean is certain Dylan wouldn’t just go off like that without at least talking to him beforehand or leaving him some contact details. And when he gets stonewalled by both the Navy and their contracted engineering company, he becomes increasingly suspicious. Worried for his brother’s safety, Dean ‘borrows’ the name of an ornithologist he’d worked for years ago and blags his way onto the team. It’s risky – if he’s found out he could face going to prison – but there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his brother.
The person Dean is most interested in meeting is Fiona Carver. Dylan’s emails had been full of her and he’d said she was his girlfriend, so surely she must know something? Yet she shows no sign of knowing anything, and Dean dislikes what he interprets as a total lack of concern for her boyfriend. Yet despite that – and the fact that she’s “Dylan’s girl” – he can’t help being drawn to her. She’s beautiful, sure, but there’s more to it than that; there’s a passion for her work, a competence and assurance and fierce intelligence that impress and captivate him.
The first quarter or so of the book is fairly slow going as we’re introduced to the two leads and the author starts to lay out some of the clues that may – or may not – relate to Dylan’s disappearance. Fiona does have some suspicions about what may have happened to him, although she’s wary of making unfounded accusations and doesn’t at first realise his personal safety is at stake. There are things about Bill that don’t add up, an uncomfortable feeling about a last-minute replacement on the team, and all this, together with her worries over the fact that she may have unintentionally contributed to the destruction of a hugely important ancient site, contributes to a growing sense of unease she just can’t shake off. The author does a fabulous job of creating and gradually building an atmosphere full of apprehension and suspicion as Fiona starts to wonder who she can trust. Then things take a sudden and dangerous turn for the worse, and Fiona and Dean find themselves stranded together with no way off the island and no way to survive the harsh conditions unless they can find a way to work together. But overcoming their mutual mistrust is the last of their worries when they realise that there may be someone else on the island – someone who wants to make sure they never leave it.
Dangerous Ground is a strong start to this new series, boasting a unique setting, smart and interesting characters and fascinating background detail. Fiona is a terrific heroine; she’s smart, capable and courageous, and I very much liked that she’s not afraid to own up when she’s scared and then pushes herself through it. Dean is harder to like to start with – he’s pushy and a bit smarmy when he’s pretending to be Bill, although I kind of gave him a pass because the author makes it so very clear just how much he loves Dylan – who is his only family. He’s basically a decent guy forced to take desperate measures although he does do and say some dumb things, especially in his persistence in believing that Fiona and Dylan are an item when she repeatedly tells him otherwise. And while I sort of understood the reasons for his playboy lifestyle and aversion to relationships, his ‘love kicked me in the guts and I want nothing more to do with it’ stance is rather stereotypical and it got old fast.
I always come away from a Rachel Grant book having learned something new, but there’s a bit of information overload in this one and I have to admit that some of the technical detail and overly obvious ‘teaching moments’ took me out of the story a few times.
Dangerous Ground is an intriguing, suspenseful mystery with an intricate, well-woven plot, well-written action sequences and an engaging heroine. The romance is clearly going to be a slow burn and I can’t deny that the ending is somewhat abrupt, but I enjoyed it despite my criticisms, and I’ll definitely be back for book two, Crash Site, when it’s released early in 2022.