Desert Isle Keeper
The Mysterious Stranger
Since romances set with cults as backgrounds are among my least favorite books to read (that and serial killer stories rank in my top two of Nope!), there are few authors whose books I would even consider with that type of plotline. Lucky for Ainslie Paton, she’s delivered enough compelling and unique romances that when I heard about the plot for The Mysterious Stranger, third in her Confidence Game series, I cringed a bit but ultimately decided to take the plunge. And I’m so glad I did because she delivers an intense, exciting, sexy and wholly unique friends-to-lovers romance.
Zeke Sherwood never fails to go out on a limb to be there for his family and his best friend Rory Archer, whom he’s loved from afar for years. When she chooses his brother over him for a romantic relationship he takes it in stride, and when that relationship falls apart, he’s ready to pick up the pieces – only the poor decisions Rory made on exiting that arrangement left her vulnerable and embarrassed and not ready to be around anyone in the Sherwood family, Zeke included. But now there’s a mission Rory wants in on and Zeke doesn’t have it in him to tell her no.
A doomsday cult has been taking advantage of wealthy but vulnerable people – those willing to shell out a lot of cash for a place that will protect them from the coming apocalypse. Furious at another example of powerful men taking advantage of those in dire straits, Zeke plans to take down the cult by infiltrating it with the help of Rory, who will pose as his drug-addicted sister who wants to get clean and needs to be away from society for it to succeed. Their fake personas have inherited a fortune from their deceased parents but have nothing to spend it on – making them prime targets for the cult. Rory looks at this mission as a way to redeem herself after past mistakes. What she doesn’t count on is seeing Zeke in a whole new light, a handsome and mysterious stranger who shows her new sides to his personality as they adapt to life in the cult and try to figure out how to take it down. And she doesn’t know that Zeke has held a torch for her all along. Under pressure, hiding more than a few secrets and with time running out, their attraction flares into something new and exciting. But if they make it out alive, will their new feelings for each other prove to be as illusory as the cult’s promises?
Making this story about a doomsday cult that isn’t focused on religious extremism and physical or sexual abuse of the members is what made this readable for me. That’s not to say that some of the women aren’t pushed into sexual relationships they don’t want (though it’s not on page), but the emotional abuse is more the focus of this story.
It begins for Rory when she and Zeke, who had asked to be housed together as brother and sister when they arrived, are separated. It’s a full week before they see each other again, during which time Rory has been told to work in the kitchens, then given no job but to stand and watch. No one speaks to her or sits with her, she doesn’t know where Zeke is and when he’ll be bac,k and so when he does return, the relief she feels at his presence is magnified by the isolation she’s been forced to endure. Remembering that she’s supposed to be his sister is hard when all she wants to do is hold him tightly. Zeke’s week is just as tough, a hazing out in the woods where he undertakes hard physical labor with a construction crew. This forced separation makes them realize they’ll have to accelerate their agenda to get dirt on the leader of the cult, especially since he’s taken a liking to Rory and thinks to make her his next bed partner. She’s able to hold him off, but won’t be able to keep him at bay for long.
The tension builds rapidly, and since Rory and Zeke are being housed separately, they must sneak out to see each other and discuss their findings. It’s also in these secret moments together that Rory can acknowledge how attracted she is to Zeke, a mutual feeling that they take the opportunity to act on in some very sexy and emotional scenes. The sexual tension is enhanced by the knowledge that if anyone discovers them their ruse will be uncovered and their lives will be in danger. Things get more fraught in the second half of the story, and at one point I wasn’t sure they’d both make it out alive. But this is a romance with a promised happy ending, and the author delivers it in spades. All’s well that ends well but it’s the getting there that makes this an intense and compelling read. I’m glad I took the chance on this setting under this author’s deft hand and I hope there will be more stories to come in the Confidence Game series!