Dear Ms. St. Claire:
I read your new book, Make Her Pay, with a bittersweet sensibility, because while the end is still open for the series, it appears that this will be the last Bullet Catcher book for a while. Which made me want to love this book, even though we only met Constantine Xenakis in the wonderful Hunt Her Down. And as with all the books in this series, there is much to enjoy here: snappy dialogue between the protagonists, a nice balance of suspense and romance, an interesting backdrop, and sizzling hot attraction combined with good camaraderie between the leads. Although Make Her Pay did not completely wow me, I still found it a respectably entertaining read and a solid contribution to the series.
Constantine "Con" Xenakis is trying hard to switch sides. The former thief is determined to do a letter perfect job for Bullet Catcher CEO Lucy Sharpe, even though the job involves treasure – sunken treasure, to be precise. And someone is stealing these priceless objects, despite the supposedly airtight security treasure-hunting mogul Judd Paxton has in place. So Con must both identify the thief and protect the treasure, along the rest of the dive boat, from the poacher. Can Con resist that much temptation? Lucy seems determined to make Con’s test as difficult as possible.
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Dare is out to avenge her family’s name. Having recently lost her father in a dive accident (or was it?), Lizzie suspects that the treasure they are secretly unearthing from the waters just off the Florida coast is the cargo of the Spanish ship El Falcone, of which her distant relative, Aramis Dare, was captain. Lizzie is convinced that her "many times great grandfather’s" ship was attacked and sunk by Portuguese pirates who had tried to cheat Aramis out of payment for the treasure he had arranged to sell them. Because Aramis Dare had purchased the treasure quietly (albeit legally) and arranged to sell if privately, and because he never registered his ship, the circumstances of his death labeled him a pirate, creating a dishonorable legacy for the Dare family name. Like Aramis Dare, Judd Paxton is an opportunistic treasure hunter, and he also wants the twin Portuguese royal scepters with flawless Bombay blue diamonds that were rumored to be among the El Facone’s treasure.
Lizzie does not see Paxton in the same light as Aramis Dare; she sees Paxton in the light history sees her many times great grandfather. Which raises the question of whether she’s stealing the artifacts so that Judd Paxton cannot make his own private profit off of them. That’s certainly what Con thinks when he catches her in the "gold hold" of the dive boat at 3AM. One closet clutch, a spilled cup of nitric acid, and an impromptu shared shower later, he’d like to believe otherwise, especially since she’s so very sexy. And Lizzie would sure like the trust of the big, handsome Greek, even though she has no idea who or what he really is. Except that she’s very attracted to him and feels strangely safe in his presence:
But it wasn’t just the way he responded to that nitric acid – so protective and calm under pressure. Sure, he was a smart ass, cocky as hell, and determined to paint her as a thief when she wasn’t one – not technically, anyway – but there was something about him. And it wasn’t just his gorgeous face and godlike body, although that didn’t hurt the package.
Deep down Lizzie knows that she’s got to tell Con her story and hope he helps her; otherwise she will likely not have another chance to clear her family’s name:
"Is that what you’re trying to do?" Con almost laughed. "Single-handedly find two matching scepters and two of the world’s most valuable diamonds, figure out a way to somehow bring them up without your dive partner seeing them, get them off this boat, and report him to the state, using the scepters to prove that this is El Falcone and that some kind of Cuban paperwork says they belong to your family?"
Her smile was slow at the end of all that. "Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Would you help me?"
"Why would I do that?"
She put one hand on his knee, squeezing softly. "Because you are one of the good ones, Con. I see it in your eyes. In your attitude. I see a good man. Will you help me?"
When she found out the truth about what he was doing, she’d hate him. Not that it mattered what this spunky little blonde thought of him. He had a job to do.
And helping her, in some way, might actually be doing that job. He’d know if she found anything, and then he could let Lucy know.
In some ways, Make Her Pay is a complicated novel to describe. There are multiple mysteries – who is stealing the artifacts, why are they being stolen, is Lizzie right about Aramis Dare, what will happen when she finds out Con is working for the man she hates. There are multiple motivations to consider and so many people who are potentially involved in the wrongdoing. Then there is the relationship between Lizzie and Con, which is working on several levels simultaneously. Con is trying to get back into Lucy’s good graces after his long-ago wash-out as a Bullet Catcher (he found thieving much more profitable and complementary to his background), even though he’s not convinced of his own worth. Lizzie, on the other hand, seems to trust Con implicitly (all he has to do is mention his Navy SEAL background and she’s mentally spun an imaginative tale of his extensive virtue and trustworthiness), despite the fact that he consistently warns her otherwise. So Con, who doesn’t trust himself, must deal with Lizzie’s naÃ¯ve trust, knowing that he will, in fact, disappoint her when she finds out he’s working for Paxton. It’s really quite a nice set-up, because it pulls on several points of tension and conflict at once.
However, with all that is going on in Make Her Pay, I kept getting stuck on Lizzie’s almost immediate trust in Con, finding it so naÃ¯ve that I had a difficult time accepting everything else that was based on that premise. Like her rapid disclosure to Con of things he could use to seriously harm her. Like her stubborn unwillingness to consider the circumstances under which he showed up on the boat and her refusal to question the vague implications he offers about his background. The difficulty, of course, is that the novel needs Con and Lizzie to be close enough together to move the plot and the relationship forward, a need that becomes downright urgent once someone on the boat is murdered. So unlike the relationship in Hunt Her Down, which had been partially built in the past, before the book opened, the relationship here must gain traction almost immediately to keep up with the rapid pace of the suspense.
There are, however, different ways to build traction, and while I am glad that the old device of romantic friction was not the automatic answer here, there were too many times that I felt Lizzie’s trust was based on the reader’s knowledge that Con is the hero, so he can’t be the bad guy. After all, many readers know and love the protective male who does not have a proper estimation of his own worth. That set up gives the heroine an important task in the novel – to make the hero recognize his worth by believing in him until he steps up to her expectations. And some of that is operative here:
"You’re looking at me funny."
"Am I? I was just trying to hate you."
He laughed softly, dropping down on the bed next to her. "Anything I can do to help that along, just let me know."
"That’s just the problem," she said, scooting to lean against the headboard. "You do everything to help." . . .
"It’s really hard to hate someone who is so . . . " Thoughtful. Competent. Protective. Gorgeous. Smart. The list was laughably long, so she went for the obvious. "Good." . . . "And deep down, to the bone, Paxton out of the picture . . . you really are one of the good guys."
Something darkened in his eyes. Pain? Regret? Longing? "No, I’m really not, honey." But he looked like he wanted to be. . .
Ultimately, Lizzie doesn’t really save Con, and thankfully Lizzie proves herself to be a strong character, despite her reflexive trust in Con, but I was never able to surmount that persistent dynamic of, "Oh, Con, I know you’re a good guy deep down!,’ and "No, I’m not; don’t trust me, Lizzie!,’ even as I recognized the nice subtleties in the way the trust issues are layered and worked out through the novel. Where, for example, the book could take an expected turn – Con betrays Lizzie and she stomps off until he grovels at her feet – it takes a more interesting path – Con betrays Lizzie but she’s not so stupid as to run into danger on the pretext of proving that she doesn’t need him, dammit! This same pattern is true with the secondary characters, too. Those we are likely to distrust are not necessarily untrustworthy, and those who are clearly untrustworthy do not necessarily present the greatest danger. There is not a lot I can say about this without divulging major spoilers, but I will say that I liked the twist the novel delivered on the crazy woman in the attic device. And I especially liked the way Lizzie comes into her own regarding her family history and the family passion for diving and treasure salvaging. For all of the ways in which Lizzie sees Con as larger than life, she manages to shine in the end, and I appreciated her growth.
Because Make Her Pay is being published so close to Hunt Her Down, it is difficult not to make some comparisons, one of which is that Make Her Pay is, I think, is more focused on the suspense aspects of the story than Hunt Her Down. I mention that not as a criticism of the novel but more as an observation of the balance in the novel between romance and suspense – here the suspense drives the relationship rather than the other way around. The upside is that Lizzie and Con are able to spend much time together as a couple in a way that seems unforced and realistic. The downside is that character and relationship development unfolds around and through crisis, which often gets shorthanded into the "I trust you/don’t trust me’ exchange. And by halfway through the novel I wanted more variations on that theme.
Ultimately, I suspect that there will be readers who prefer Make Her Pay to Hunt Her Down for the very reasons I found it to be slightly less engaging. I was engrossed in Dan and Maggie’s story at a level I don’t know if I ever reached for Con and Lizzie. So I noticed a few places of awkward writing, found myself asking questions about why characters (especially Lizzie) were acting a certain way, and took more frequent breaks in reading. Had I not read Make Her Pay so soon after Hunt Her Down, I may not have registered the slight dip, but since that is how they were released, I could not register my response any differently. And ultimately, Make Her Pay registered for me as a B-, combined with a fervent hope that this is not the last we’re going to see of the sexy, savvy Bullet Catchers. I can’t be the only one who’s eager to know how Lucy is going to balance dictatorship with motherhood!
p.s. thanks for the obvious condom placement; in gratitude, I won’t rant about the euphemistic value of “mahood.” ;)