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Dangerous Ground

As Justine Davis:

Badge of Honor

Gage Butler's Reckoning

Dangerous Games by Justine Dare
(Signet, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-40773-3
Unlike Hollywood movies, romance novel sequels don't have to be pale imitations of the originals. Justine Dare's Dangerous Games improves on its predecessor, Dangerous Ground. The novel showcases the author at her best, with intensity, complexity and plot well integrated into a satisfying romantic thriller.

Alison Carlyle is the owner of an art gallery in the small Colorado town of Jewel. For months, she has hung a disturbing but moving painting in the gallery's window, hoping that the artist would come to claim his work. When that finally happens, it is not at all the interaction she expected.

Lachlan "Lake" McGregor is one of two surviving members of The Wolf Pack, a covert operations team whose acronym stood for "Without Option, Lethal Force." As the "Gray Wolf," he was the group's designated killer. In Dangerous Ground, Jess Harper, the "Lone Wolf," uncovered a plot to kill the Wolf Pack members conceived by a high-ranking public official. The deadly plan was carried out by Joplin, a bitter, violent man who was once recruited for the Wolf Pack but cut from the group at the last minute because he was too violent and unpredictable. At the end of Ground, Joplin was wounded but still very much alive and vowing revenge on Lake, the only other surviving member of the Wolf Pack.

Years ago, as a teenager, Lake left Jewel in disgrace after he accidentally caused the death of his younger brother. His own mother led the outcry against him, and his father refused to defend him. Now Lake has returned to Jewel with the idea of drawing out Joplin and forcing a confrontation. He is stunned, and not at all pleased, to see a painting he created as an outlet for his tortured emotions hanging in the window of Alison's gallery. He is even more surprised that she believes he has a marketable artistic talent and wants to know if he has more paintings that could be used in a gallery exhibit.

Alison has been fascinated with Lake's painting ever since his father brought it to her shortly before his death. She alone among all of Jewel's residents knows the truth about the crime that sent Lake into exile, and she wants to tell Lake her secret before he disappears again. But Lake is more concerned with dispatching Joplin and doesn't want to hear about the past, even if he is more than a little impressed by Alison's courage, intelligence and beauty.

Dangerous Games works so well because of the complex plot layers. Lake is similar to many of Dare's heroes, a tormented but honorable loner who doesn't believe he deserves the heroine's love. But his talent for creating brilliant but disturbing paintings, and his inner quest to come to terms with his past give his character added dimensions and create fascinating dynamics. For although Alison thought that the truth would set Lake free, in reality it only adds to his emotional confusion until she helps him realize that he is more than a hired killer. The author's trademark emotional intensity between hero and heroine is in full display here, and their interactions sizzle although the love scenes are limited.

Parts of the novel are told from Joplin's twisted third-person point of view, and they add a chilling, creepy tone to the story. They also account for more violence than I have encountered in a Dare/Davis novel before not on the same level of a Tami Hoag or J.D. Robb thriller, but enough to be slightly disturbing.

The internal conflict regarding Lake's past, and the external conflict regarding Joplin's bloodthirsty revenge plans, converge in a memorable climax that leads to an emotional, well deserved happily ever after. It is a tribute to Dare's skills that I found myself hoping that somehow she could write one more book in this series, even though there are no more remaining live members of the Wolf Pack. Maybe a novel in which the spirit of one of the dead men haunts a young heroine until she can avenge his death? Given Dare's prior success at creating satisfying fantasy novels, it could happen..

--Susan Scribner

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