One Warm Winter
Let’s face it: bodyguard romances can swing toward creepiness if you write them the wrong way. While the protectiveness between asset and protector can be swoonworthy, some authors can take the I-know-everything-about-you-and-my-job-is-to-stare-at-you-all-day part of the deal and make them creepy. Jamie Pope’s work fall right between those two extremes to produce a nice novel with some frustrating plot points. One Warm Winter is part of the Sunny and Warm series, about a group of special agents who have retired to freelancing and own a compound together on an exotic island. This story features a shy linguistics professor and the Irish bodyguard who comes to love her.
Georgetown teacher and polyglot Wynter ‘Wyn’ Bates grew up a child of sheltered privilege; a child of privilege who worries that if she stands up for herself she will be seen as ungrateful. And she has much to be grateful for. Told she was adopted from a South African orphanage by Warren Bates, a tech billionaire with presidential aspirations, she was swept away into a life of luxury, all because she resembled her father’s long-dead sister. Now a translator for the state department, an ESL summer school teacher and occasionally an interpreter for the DC court system on top of her teaching duties, she spends more time with her nose pressed to the spine of a book than exploring the world. The solid presence of her handsome bodyguard, Cullen, adds direction and a sense of safety and protection she hasn’t experienced in other areas of her life. Then her quiet universe is shattered by scandal and political disaster.
Cullen Whelan is a strong, silent type – and he took this job against his better judgment but desperately needed the mental respite after his time in the service, where he was shot three times and saw things no mortal should witness. A former British intelligence agent and at one time Special Forces operative in Afghanistan, the Irishman is a mystery to his client, a solid but commanding presence, watching over her with intensity. When news about Warren Bates’ affair with his cleaning lady explodes into the press – and reveals that the affair produced a now-mysterious biological child which may or may not be Wyn – the scandal soon involves the FBI, and Wyn’s adoptive parents abandon her to the wolves. When she turns to Cullen for a suggestion, he tells her they should fly the coop. Together they go to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, to a compound/commune filled with his former spy colleagues. He then suggests she pose as his girlfriend so they won’t ask him further questions.
Wyn settles into her new routine well, and as she and Cullen begin to learn more about one another and her boundaries are expanded, Cullen’s attraction to her grows. As they begin to fall in love, the possibility of the scandal – and the real world they left behind in Washington – ruining their paradise looms large and threatens to capsize their mutual sense of peace.
Wyn sometimes has a bad tendency to become whatever the author needs her to be in the moment. Helpless and swooning as the press attacks her, then sturdy and able to banter with Cullen and others in high pressure situations, her behavior veers between goody-goody wallflower and confident professor – and sometimes I felt like her mom-friending of Cullen’s friend Jazz was too quick a character development. But Wyn is also kind and quite likable, brainy, self-conscious about her own blandness and mousiness, and creates her own personal sea change by doing some real self-searching. I liked that one part of her growth involved accepting her natural hair and embracing parts of herself as black woman that her adoptive parents had demanded or forced her to deny. But I really, really wanted to hear her speak some of those eight languages she knows – authors, if you write a linguistics professor heroine she should be putting out snippets of different languages or the plot should at least have her use them.
Cullen is also likable – a scarred hero, but with problems. He has a heavy burden in his past, one that takes us back to Ireland during the Troubles, and the author doesn’t shy away from portraying their effect on his family and how the abuse his father visited upon him still haunts his life.
While Wyn and Cullen’s relationship is tender, warm and sweet, it’s also rather patriarchal. She allows him to make choices for her nonstop – like how heavy her coat should be, and where she should go to hide out from the press – while only putting up a minimal amount of fuss. By the time that turns around mid-book, he’s still thinking possessive thoughts about her. This causes him to feel more like like a father than a lover in places. Considering her issues with her dad, that can end up feeling creepy; at one point he even thinks to himself that she’s too pure to lie; her girlish innocence is what attracts him and when they make love a powerful sense of ownership comes over him. For some this will be enticing – for others, well… it’ll be creepy.
I liked the other members of Cullen’s team well enough, though none jumped out at me as extra exciting sequel bait. I did like the only other woman in the group, Jazz, a friend of Cullen’s who hides her vulnerability under a thick layer of sarcasm. There is unnecessary conflict between her and Wyn, and she constantly jabs at her when she isn’t crying on her shoulder, and constantly considers herself broken and unworthy of the love of another of the agents because she was used as sexpionage bait by her country (ugh).
The prose feels flat and wooden occasionally, particularly at the beginning, because Pope has a tendency to use short, declarative sentences that feel stiff. Sometimes the novel flows more smoothly, but sometimes it falls back on this pattern.
As for the meatiest part of the conflict, on one hand, the mystery plot flows very well, and leads to a surprising connection and a thoughtful discussion of mental illness, but the way the lie-to-my-friends-for-me plot winds up is rather annoying. That mixture of good and bad, interesting and tedious, is what ultimately leaves One Warm Winter in the mid-grade range, and me with mixed feelings.