Fiona Brand may go down as one of the fastest flame-outs in recent memory. After bursting onto the romance scene with her impressive first three books, Cullen’s Bride, Heart of Midnight, and Blade’s Lady, she regressed with the mediocre Marrying McCabe, then got even worse with the dreadful Gabriel West: Still the One. I skipped her single-title debut last year, but High-Stakes Bride concludes the series begun in her previous Silhouette Intimate Moments and I figured I might as well finish it. It’s better than her last series romance, but still a far cry from the books that won her so many fans in the first place.
The book gets off to a sluggish start, which at least matches the leisurely middle and poky ending. In the prologue, eight-year-old Dani Marlow wakes in the middle of the night when the man who’s been chasing her and her mother breaks into their home. This should have been much more exciting than it was. Part of the problem is that it’s seen from Dani’s point of view, but the narrative voice isn’t believable as an eight-year-old’s, no matter how mature she is. It doesn’t help that Dani’s mother is mostly referred to by her first name, which was jarring. “Susan crumpled…” “Susan was white and still…” “Susan said not to call anyone…” What eight-year-old would think of her mother by her first name? The whole thing rang so false I couldn’t buy into it, which made it hard to get into the story.
Chapter One begins four years later with twelve-year-old Dani and her mother now settled in Jackson’s Ridge, New Zealand. Susan has fallen in love and is pregnant. Wary of men, Dani is unhappy with the new developments. Meanwhile, she briefly meets Carter Rawlings, a cocky boy from a neighboring farm who’s convinced she likes him because girls always do. Both of these chapters just cover exposition that could have been woven into the main storyline. Instead, they get the book off to a slow and lazy beginning.
Chapter Two finally brings us to the present day, as the 30-year-old Dani struggles to keep the family homestead afloat after the death of her mother and stepfather. This is where the story should have begun, except it doesn’t pick up much. Carter, a Special Air Services officer and Dani’s frequent ex-boyfriend, returns to Jackson’s Ridge after being missing in action for a brief time. He wants to pick things up with her. She wants nothing to do with him. When a series of arson attacks strike the area, Dani becomes the prime suspect, and Carter tries to help her find the true culprit.
But not until Brand treats us to still more exposition. After their initial reunion, Carter spends quite a few pages thinking about his experiences as a POW, then still more pages are dedicated to Dani thinking about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of her parents, for which she feels responsible. Again, this was just lazy, and I kept wondering when the flood of backstory was going to end and the story itself was actually going to begin. Brand is often compared with Linda Howard, most likely because of their alpha heroes. I’ve found the biggest similarity is in their storytelling styles. Both authors tend to favor long paragraphs and heavily narrative sections. Howard can generally make it work, and Brand has in the past. Here, it often slips into tedium, with too much long introspection and narrative that isn’t very interesting and makes for slow going.
The biggest problem with the romance is that the reader doesn’t get to see any of it. Brand keeps telling the reader the characters are attracted to each other and love one another, without bothering to develop the relationship or really show those feelings. We see their first meeting, then it’s eighteen years later and there have supposedly been all these hook-ups and break-ups between them, none of which we got to see. Even in the present day, they think about how they have feelings for each other, but the reader is treated to too few scenes of them interacting in a meaningful way to make it believable. Both characters are flat and one-note, and they have little chemistry. They’re surrounded by a cast of equally boring characters.
The suspense isn’t suspenseful, although there are some effective moments in the end. Mostly I couldn’t bring myself to care. Brand does have a very natural storytelling style. Her prose is generally smooth (with a few exceptions, such as some abrupt scene changes) and eminently readable. She has an engaging voice, which is all that really keeps the book even slightly afloat. But her plotting, her characterization and her ability to deliver a good romance have gotten progressively weaker over time, and this book is a case in point. Anyone who hasn’t read Brand before should try Heart of Midnight or the RITA-nominated Blade’s Lady, and fans would be better off sticking to those as well. High-Stakes Bride is a disappointment from an author who began with such promise and seems to have lost her skill somewhere along the way.