Any long-time romance reader probably has a favourite type of hero. Protective alphas, arrogant arseholes, smooth spies and men of action… and then there are Anne Stuart heroes, who, as anyone familiar with her work will know, are a mixture of all the above with the aresholery often dialled up to the max. But you know what? They’re my blind spot. They’re so full of testosterone, over-the-top masculine and fiercely protective of their women (albeit not quite at caveman levels) that they’re almost caricatures… but I still don’t care – I love ‘em.
The big saving grace is probably that your Anne Stuart alpha-hole hero isn’t a Neanderthal. He’s highly-intelligent, well-educated, frighteningly competent, seriously hot – and ultimately redeemable. Yes, any sane woman would probably run a mile in the opposite direction if she met one, but fortunately, this is highly stylised fiction, and Ms. Stuart always manages to redeem these ruthless men admirably. But I can accept that her particular brand of gamma hero is an acquired taste, and if those types of characters aren’t for you, then I’m not likely to persuade you otherwise.
But for those of us who do drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid, Malcolm Gunnison, the hero of Wildfire – the third in the author’s current Fire series – is another in a long line of those guilty-pleasure heroes we love to hate. Mal is sent by the Committee – a covert, international organization that paid no attention to legal or moral implications in its quest to make the world a safer place – to the Caribbean island of Isla Mordita to meet with Archer MacDonald, international arms and drug dealer, and the man behind the development of a new biological agent, RU48 (also known as Pixiedust!) which is unlike any chemical weapon previously developed. Mal’s cover as an ex-Committee agent now acting as the middle-man for a potential buyer works perfectly to convince Archer that he’s dealing with a man every bit as dangerous as himself.
Mal’s job is to find out everything he can about the weapon, kill Archer and get out – and it’s up to him whether he gets the man’s wife out with him or leaves her there. A former CIA and State Department agent, Sophie Jordan was in the early stages of her Committee training when she was made part of a team sent to undertake surveillance on Archer and made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying him – only to discover, too late, that the man was a ruthless psychopath. When Archer discovered she had been a Committee agent, he ordered her murder. Sophie narrowly escaped death, but the bullet damaged her spine and for the past two years, she has been confined to a wheelchair, a literal prisoner on the island subject to the not so tender mercies of her husband, who takes delight in playing psychological games, and abusing her both emotionally and physically. But a year ago, she began to regain the use of her legs, and without anyone knowing, has been building her strength and training for the day when she will kill Archer and get the hell outta Dodge.
When Archer insists she join him in welcoming their latest guest to the island, Sophie is not at all prepared for the reaction Malcolm Gunnison elicits in her. Since her accident, she has maintained the fiction of being desperately in love with her husband, who no longer has any use for her and enjoys taunting her about her lack of sexual appeal. He has brought several attractive men to the island and paraded them in front of her trying to provoke a reaction, but she has remained completely unmoved – until now. Even so, it’s clear that Gunnison is just as much of a ruthless, murderous bastard as her husband, and she has no intention of allowing herself to be diverted from her purpose.
The suspense plot is full of twists and turns, and there’s no question that Ms. Stuart really knows how to ramp up the tension; all in all I found Wildfire a hard book to put down. The characters are engaged in an intense and potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Mal and Archer circling around each other, assessing and trying to get the upper hand, even as Mal and Sophie are doing much the same thing as they try to work out whether they can trust each other or not. The sexual chemistry between them is intense, the sex scenes are steamy and Mal and Sophie are undoubtedly in lust with each other, but the idea that a romantic relationship could have developed between them is harder to buy into. Sophie has been isolated for the past two years, suffered a serious trauma and has been subject to a sadistic, manipulative man. Yes, her training as an operative would have heightened her natural survival instincts and taught her self-reliance, but I couldn’t help thinking that given her circumstances, she might have fallen for anyone who had supported her and shown her that she wasn’t on her own anymore. I also found it difficult to believe that Sophie – who is frequently described as tough, intelligent and highly competent – could have been so gullible as to have dismissed everything she’d learned about Archer during her training and fallen so easily and completely for him. Much mention is made of the fact that she was inexperienced when she was sent on that fateful mission, but she worked for the security services for a number of years before being recruited by the Committee, and that level of naïveté just doesn’t ring true. On the positive side, though, I admired her sheer guts and determination in the face of such overwhelming odds. She’s under no illusions now, and her hatred of Archer is so visceral that the reader can actually feel it.
And Mal … well, he’s a pretty stereotypical Stuart hero – dangerous, frighteningly competent and utterly ruthless when called for – but that’s a potent and sexy combination that never seems to get old, and I’m not complaining.
While this is the third in a series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read the previous two books before starting this one; I think they can probably be read in any order. Even taking into account the drawbacks I’ve mentioned, Wildfire is still a fast-paced, edgy page-turner that kept me engrossed from start to finish. I’m sure fans of Ms. Stuart and her unique, dark brand of romantic suspense will enjoy it.