Dear Ms. Clare,
I was interested to read your I-Team novella, Skin Deep (I-Team 5.5) for two reasons. The first is, in general, I’ve enjoyed the series. I loved the last book, Breaking Point (reviewed here by Jane), and I’ve grown invested in the lives of the men and women the series features. Secondly, I was interested to see what you would do with the confines of a novella. Your novels are complex, with multilayered plot-lines and multi-faceted characters. I wondered what you’d create using just 47,000 words. As you say on your website, “It’s very difficult to fit significant character development and plot into such a small amount of space.”
I’d say you pretty much pulled it off although if I hadn’t read the other I-Team books, Megan, your heroine, wouldn’t have been so easy for me to understand. Megan, Marc Hunter’s younger sister (he’s the hero of Unlawful Contact, reviewed here by Jane), was repeatedly raped while in juvenile detention and has struggled to find her way. In the past few years, however, Megan has rebuilt her life; moving to Denver where Mark and the rest of the I-Team crew lives, getting a job as a graphic designer with the city, and living quietly with her four-year old daughter Emily. Megan may have rebuilt her external world, but emotionally, she’s still deeply scarred by her earlier experiences. She’s terrified of men, especially of any physical contact with them. Her brother can hug her and, if he lets her know he’s going to do so, so can Julian Darcangelo, her brother’s best friend (and the hero of Hard Evidence). But, proximity to the rest of the male sex reminds Megan of the abuse she suffered and she stays away from any unnecessary interaction with men.
One day, as Megan is leaving the homeless shelter where she volunteers, she’s accosted in her car by her slime bucket, meth-head ex boyfriend (and father of her child), Donny. Donny threatens to hurt Emily if Megan doesn’t give him a cut of the 1.5 million dollar settlement Megan recently received from the Colorado State Department of Corrections. Just as Donny hits her and tells her he’s got others on her tail, the door of her car is thrown open and Nate West, an ex-spec op Marine, grabs Donny, tosses him to the pavement and then yells at Megan to duck as the two are shot at by Donny’s compatriots. Donny and the shooters escape, but Megan is safe and overwhelmed with gratitude. When Nate introduces himself and shakes her hand, Megan is startled to see she doesn’t shy from his touch, that,
“surprisingly, she felt no desire to pull away like she usually did when a man touched her. In fact, she found the contact reassuring.”
Where Megan’s scars are all internal, Nate’s are visible to the world.
Though he was a good two years beyond the explosion that had nearly killed him, he was still far from the man he’d been, his right arm weak, the tendons in his elbow and shoulder stiff, his scarred muscles constricted. He needed to exercise his arm and chest as much as he could. And, although he didn’t much care for coming into town, he had to get off the ranch once in a while and spend time with people other than his old man.
Or so his old man said.
It was getting easier—the stares, the whispers, the shock and revulsion on people’s faces. The way people tried not to look, averting their gazes, only to sneak a covert glance as he passed. The honest curiosity and fear of children, pointing and asking, “Mommy, what happened to that man’s face?”
An IED—improvised explosive device—is what had happened.
He and the rest of his fourteen-man MSOT—Marine Special Operations Team—had been traveling with a four-man team of Navy SEALs on their way back from a joint mission in Afghanistan when their convoy was hit by an IED. One moment he’d been talking with Max about the sheer quantity of heroin produced in Kandahar Province and the next…
A pop. A hiss.
A deafening blast.
Blinding light. Searing pain.
Nate’s helmet and combat goggles had protected his scalp, eyes and right ear, but the right side of his upper body, including his face, had been a mess of second- and third-degree burns. The surgeons had done what they could, saving his fingers, replacing charred flesh with skin grafts, giving him a new right nostril that almost looked real. But even after more than twenty surgeries, the right side of his face still looked like someone had painted his skin on with sloppy strokes of a putty knife.
Nate hasn’t been with a woman since he was wounded. He’s noticed Megan at the shelter and thinks she’s beautiful,
But inside he was numb. He rarely left the ranch, and when it came to women—hell, he couldn’t even begin to go there.
Donny and his friends however, pose a genuine threat to Megan and Emily and Megan, given her horrific past experience at the hands of the law, doesn’t trust the police to protect her. Megan, Emily in tow, ends up at Nate’s family’s cattle ranch which is high in the hills above the city. When a severe snowstorm strands her there, she and Nate begin, despite profound hesitation on Megan’s part, a tender romantic relationship.
I liked their love story, although, given that the blizzard only last a few days, things between the two heat up incredibly quickly. Megan goes from someone who can’t stand the idea of sex to burning up the sheets with Nate faster than is credible. Their sex scenes are beautiful—I love the way Megan’s touch heals Nate’s internal scars—and hot as hell; I just didn’t think either of them were capable of making such tectonic shifts in their sexual/emotional psyches so rapidly.
As I said earlier, I felt as though I “knew” Megan from the earlier books. The brevity of this tale limits the exploration of Nate and his post-Marine, PSTD haunted life. I liked Nate, found him heroic and admirable; but his journey to healing had less resonance than Megan’s simply because his character was less developed.
If you haven’t read the earlier books, this novella is not as likely to entertain. Its plot is predicated on things explored in the earlier books and almost all the secondary characters, other than Nate’s wonderful dad, are part of the I-Team gang. For those who have read the other I-Team novels, this novella, thought too short, will still be a treat. (Its dedication reads, “Hey, I-Team fans, this one is for you…) I give the novella a B- with the caveat it’s likely to be best appreciated by those familiar with Ms. Clare’s very good series.
(There is, in the Kindle edition of this novella, a short story included entitled Mark and Julian Make a Beer Run. I couldn’t stand it. It has all the men in the series out on a grocery run—this after they’ve had an uber-macho discussion about how much they love their guns. The grocery run turns into a shoot-em up robbery rescue which pleases the guys to no end. When the men return to the party, they recount to their women folk the tale of their derring-do. Here are the story’s last lines:
Marc had his own perspective. “The way I see it, we made a difference in the lives of that liquor store owner and his daughter today. Who knows what would have happened to them if we hadn’t shown up when we did. We weren’t on duty, but we did our job, and we did it well. Because of that, three criminals are behind bars, and those two are safe tonight. When it works out like it did this afternoon, I do enjoy it. It’s one hell of a feeling to go to bed at night knowing you got someone dangerous off the streets or saved someone’s life.”
Natalie raised her glass, looking from one woman to the next. “To our husbands and all the brave men and women like them.”
Glasses and bottles were raised, Marc meeting each man’s gaze before sipping, the scotch burning a sweet path to his stomach.
Sophie looked up at him, her gaze soft. “That was beautiful.”
He kissed her cheek, the scotch and her scent warming his blood. “Thanks.”
Oh, yeah. He was so getting laid tonight.
Mark and Julian Make a Beer Run earns a D.)