Lady Fortune

Prince of Magic

The Right Man

Shadow Lover

Shadows at Sunset

Still Lake

The Widow

Wild Thing

Into The Fire by Anne Stuart
(Mira, $6.50 ,PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-694-4
Wicked and sinister, I think this is Anne Stuart’s best book in ages. Certainly the darkness, the moral complexity, and the ambiguous hero who is determined to keep everyone at bay are what I always hope for from her stories. Nobody does bad boys like Anne Stuart.

Jamie Kincaid wants answers about her cousin Nate’s death. Raised as her brother since age ten, the “charming, feckless” Nate became the apple of the family’s eye. Jamie’s mother has always excused Nate’s many transgressions and now, with no interest from the authorities, has insisted that Jamie look into the circumstances surrounding Nate’s violent end.

Unfortunately, the only person who has any first-hand information about Nate’s death is Dillon Gaynor, Nate’s ‘lifelong best friend and nemesis,’ the person who, in Jamie’s opinion, dragged Nate “into the gutter and held him down there.” Her qualms about approaching Dillon only intensify when she arrives to see him in front of his automotive repair shop, beating someone up.

Dillon isn’t happy to see Jamie, either, but she has no transportation and nowhere to go, so he lets her in and gives her a place to sleep. When she awakens in the morning, her purse – with all her money, identification and credit cards – is gone. She doesn’t know who the culprit is, but she knows Dillon isn’t conspiring to keep her there since he’s just as anxious for her to go as she is to be gone. So what’s happening?

Certainly the opening of this book is vintage Stuart. The shocked reader can only wonder how the violent, arrogant, even menacing Dillon could ever be a hero. Even better, there is no tidy little page of tedious exposition describing how poor, misunderstood Dillon came to this unfortunate pass. Nope, Ms. Stuart keeps us on our toes with a steady trickle of hints and clues that seduce the reader as surely as they do the heroine.

Even better, she is able to maintain Dillon as a complex character whose dangerous side is no act. He is what life and his own will have made him, and neither the character nor the author is inclined to apologize for it. In a genre overflowing with stock characters mouthing clichés, protagonists like Dillon are a welcome relief. Even when a book has a happy ending, it’s exhilarating to venture into the shadows along the way.

While the reader wonders about Dillon’s intentions towards Jamie, one thing is crystal clear. He pushes her outside of her comfort zone, bringing out the best and worst in her, sometimes simultaneously. While he’s at it, he pushes the reader out of her comfort zone, as well. This can be a bit unsettling, particularly since it is so unusual in romances, but I find it both refreshing and invigorating.

I also appreciated the way Ms. Stuart manipulated my perception of the villain. He is also not what he seems to be, although to say more would be unfair to both author and readers. Suffice it to say that just as I was beginning to roll my eyes, the author whispered an interesting secret in my ear.

The book does have a weakness, though, and unfortunately it’s the heroine. Jamie starts out really well and is an excellent foil for Dillon as she tries to reconcile her memories of him with the current reality and her turbulent feelings for him. But she gets a bit bogged down in her own history and pre-conceived notions, so her growth as a character slowed to a crawl while she repeatedly covered the same territory. This seemed even greater in contrast to the vigor and mystery of Dillon’s character.

The love scenes, like so much of the book, can be intense – sometimes more fighting than lovemaking. Again, in a genre that is embracing political correctness and bland predictability, this was a welcome bolt of electricity.

Anne Stuart had nearly slipped off my auto-buy list, but after reviewing this book I will happily offer up my own money for the next one.

-- Judi McKee

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