Desert Isle Keeper
Special Gifts is my all-time favorite psychic romance. The rest of the romance reading world may hold up Linda Howard’s Dream Man as the definitive version of this tale, but I’d take Anne Stuart’s spin on it any day. It starts with that oh-so-common premise: the psychic heroine, the skeptical hero and the serial killer. But while most writers are perfectly content to let that be the story, the ever wily Stuart uses it as a launching point for a tale that spins off into unexpected and wonderful new directions.
Elizabeth Hardy lives a solitary life in the Rocky Mountains, hiding from the “special gift” that shows her things she shouldn’t know. Occasionally she comes out of seclusion and gives her expertise to the Denver police to help them with their cases. But when she’s consulted on the disappearance of a housewife suspected to be the fourth victim of a serial killer, what she sees brings more trouble into her world.
It’s nothing more than a name written on a battered old truck, but that name has special meaning to Colonel Sam Oliver. It belongs to an Army Intelligence project that went horribly wrong years earlier. Highly classified, there’s no way some woman he’s never heard of should know about it. Of course he doesn’t believe she’s psychic, which must mean she’s involved with the terrorists who ruined the project.
The man appears on her doorstep one wintry night under the guise of being a stranded traveler, but Elizabeth knows immediately that he isn’t who he claims to be. For his part, Elizabeth isn’t what Sam expected. She seems more fragile, more innocent, but that doesn’t mean she is. She doesn’t like him and he doesn’t trust her, but there’s clearly a spark between them. The truth behind the murders soon places them both in danger. It becomes clear that there’s much more at work here than a simple serial killer, and far more than their own lives are at stake.
I’ll say no more about the plot, because one of the joys of the story is its unpredictability. Even having read it several times and knowing how it plays out, I still love experiencing the way it unfolds: the way Stuart gradually reveals the story’s secrets, how the plot shifts and changes over the course of the book. It begins as one thing before something happens to change the dynamics, sending the characters off in another direction, and then it shifts gears again, keeping both characters and readers on their toes.
This is that rare creature: a series romance with the scope and feel of a mainstream thriller, but with the tight focus on the two main characters of a series book. There are a few scenes from the perspective of the diabolical and terrifyingly believable villain, enough to amp up the suspense and show just how much is at stake. But for the most part, we remain in the company of the main characters, and they themselves are together for most of the book. There’s a great deal of character interaction, allowing us to see how they are together and the evolution of their feelings for one another, which helps sell this short love story that takes place in a brief time span.
Anyone who’s read a psychic romance before has likely come across a character like Elizabeth: emotionally fragile, haunted by her visions and a past incident involving them, possessing a wise old granny who loved her. I first read this book after reading several others (published afterward) with such a character, and Elizabeth still stood out immediately. In Stuart’s hands, she feels so much more vivid and real than most characters of the type, coming fully to life as a three-dimensional person. It’s easy to feel for her and root for her. She’s the kind of heroine Stuart does so well; she’s wounded, she’s vulnerable, but she’s not weak. She knows her own mind, has a temper and is capable of a cutting remark. One of the book’s most memorable scenes involves her defending herself from an attacker all by herself, and doing so quite well, thank you very much. One touch I particularly love is the way Stuart reveals her emotional states in the differing ways she drops the pieces of information she shouldn’t know, sometimes like a weapon, sometimes with almost resigned weariness.
Sam surpasses the simple skeptic role as well. He’s an equally complex character, an tough alpha hero with a tortured past and different shades that come to light over the course of the story. I love the way they interact; he challenges her, but doesn’t completely overwhelm her. The love story is passionate, poignant and romantic, with a lovely final scene.
As far as I can tell, Special Gifts is one of the few Stuart series titles that hasn’t been reprinted to date (though I’d love to be shown otherwise), strange considering how many tired and uninspired “new” books with this premise the publisher continues to release. I suppose the rationale is that reintroducing the world to a great version of this storyline would only make the current ones look that much more pallid in comparison. That’s probably true. With passion, adventure, suspense and emotion, Special Gifts is a wonderful and unforgettable tale that stands far above others of its kind.