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REVIEW:  Nightfall by Anne Stuart

REVIEW: Nightfall by Anne Stuart

Dear Anne Stuart:

You have been one of my autobuy authors from the moment I discovered you in the early 2000s, and no one writes bad boy heroes like you do. In today’s era of alpha billionaires, Motorcycle Club anti-heroes, and New Adult dudebros who wreck everything around them, I wondered how your dangerous men from an earlier era would hold up. When I saw that one of my favorite Romantic Suspense novels ever, Nightfall, was available in ebook form, I had to revisit it. Does the book hold up after 20 years? And is Richard Tiernan still the epitome of sexy/dangerous? The answer to both questions is: oh yes, and how.

nightfall anne stuartWhen the story begins, Richard Tiernan has been convicted of the grisly murder of his wife and has been released pending appeal after famous author Sean O’Rourke posts his million-dollar bail. Tiernan holes up with O’Rourke in the latter’s Park Avenue apartment, where O’Rourke plans to write a novel about Tiernan and the killing. Meanwhile, Tiernan’s young children have disappeared and he is suspected in their deaths.

Cassidy Roarke, Sean’s editor daughter, comes up to New York from her home in Baltimore after receiving a cryptic message from him and discovers that Sean wants her to help with the manuscript. She recoils at the idea of participating but can’t say no to her brilliant father, especially since she suspects there is more going on with him than just the desire to complete the novel he says will be the crowning achievement of his career.

Cassidy is both drawn to and repelled by Tiernan; she has no reason to doubt the judgement against him and he doesn’t do anything to persuade her otherwise. Tiernan is clearly attracted to her and Sean seems to be egging him on. The result is a type of cat-and-mouse game in which Cassidy is not exactly the mouse (because she’s quite clear-headed and relatively good at taking care of herself), but she does feel a bit like an insect on a pin. Tiernan is constantly studying her and engaging with her (mostly with Sean’s complete and somewhat baffling approval), and Cassidy soon finds herself enmeshed in Tiernan and Sean’s machinations.

Sean was in the midst of some high-flown fantasy, staring out the window at the New York skyline. Tiernan was sitting in the huge green leather chair that had been in Sean’s office since the beginning of time.

Cass remembered when she was small, curling up in the warm leather arms of that chair, sleeping. It had been her favorite place in the world. Tiernan didn’t turn, but she knew perfectly well he knew she was there. He seemed to have a sixth sense.

She wanted to order him out of her chair. Instead she simply stood in the doorway and cleared her throat.

Sean whirled around, an accusing expression on his florid face. “About time you woke from your beauty slumber, Cassie,” he said. “You never used to be such a slothful creature. We have work to do, and time’s a wasting.”

“Is it?” She carefully avoided Tiernan’s gaze. He was dressed in jeans and a cotton sweater against the cool morning air. She was wearing the same thing. He had a mug of black coffee in his hand. She drank hers black as well.

“You’re the one who’s so determined to get back to Baltimore, though why any sane person would choose to live in Baltimore when they have the option of New York is beyond me,” Sean declaimed. “We’re planning on changing your mind, aren’t we, Richard? Make it impossible for you to leave.”

“Impossible,” Richard echoed.

She couldn’t help it, she threw him a wary glance as she moved to her father’s littered desk. He met the gaze blandly enough, but she wasn’t so gullible she didn’t recognize the challenge. The threat.

“I have a job,” she said mildly, glancing at one stack of papers that looked like official court transcripts.

“You could take a leave of absence.”

“I could. I don’t want to. I have plans, things I want to do with my life.”

“Richard doesn’t.”

I can’t give away much more of the plot without spoiling the reading experience. Stuart does a terrific job of creating a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces slowly come together until you suddenly see the picture you’ve been working on. Every character in the story has a purpose, and even the minor characters are well drawn. I particularly appreciated Cassidy’s relationship with Sean’s current wife, Mabry. Unlike so many fictional stepmothers, Mabry, who is a gorgeous, thin, platinum-haired ex-model, has an excellent relationship with Cassidy. The two women don’t compete; they talk to each other, and they are connected by their common love for Sean and their ability to see him clearly. Cassidy’s mother, who appears late in the story, is far more of a caricature than Mabry, but even she is a recognizable type.

Richard Tiernan is the anti-hero whom every author writing such a character hopes to produce. He is genuinely frightening and genuinely sexy. As Cassidy gets to know him better he reveals more sides to himself and more honorable attributes, but he never loses that aura of danger. Richard was a college professor before the murder, and Stuart does a terrific job of making me believe that a person in an unexciting, unheroic occupation can have psychological depths we never imagine (and they may never explore). This is definitely a romance, and there is definitely an HEA, but Richard never, ever loses his edge.

In Stuart’s novels, bad boys aren’t always paired up with heroines who stand up to them, or who feel like true partners. Some of them verge on TSTL, while others seem to walk right across that line and take up residence. Cassidy, thankfully, doesn’t go there. She’s spent her entire life dealing with narcissistic, emotionally unavailable people, and she’s good at carving out a space for herself and a life that doesn’t kowtow to them practically or emotionally.

As a result, when Cassidy and Richard finally get together, the sparks really fly. I’d forgotten how sexy a sex scene can be. This is not a case of Tab A into Slot B. The language can get a little lush, but it suits the characters’ temperaments and relationship. And every scene has meaning for the story.

The suspense plot is top-notch. There are clues scattered throughout the story, and since this last reread was my third or fourth time through the novel, I could see the trail. But when I read it for the first time I was so engrossed in trying to figure out Richard Tiernan that I almost didn’t pay attention. I don’t mean to suggest that the mystery is grafted on, not at all, this is a suspense thriller down to its bones. It’s just that the Sean-Richard-Cassidy relationship is so intriguing that I almost didn’t care about whether Richard did it and if he didn’t, who did.

There are books that grab you and don’t let go when you read them, but they don’t wind up being unable to stand the test of time. This is not one of those books. As an inveterate rereader, I have no doubt that I’ll read Nightfall again one day, and when I do, I’ll enjoy it yet again and probably find something I missed before. Grade: A

~ Sunita

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REVIEW:  Burned by Sarah Morgan

REVIEW: Burned by Sarah Morgan

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Dear Ms. Morgan:

I enjoyed the novella Ripped, but found it leaned more towards chick-lit than I like, with its humor based on the narrator’s humiliation. The sequel Burned gets the balance just about right, combining many of the usual elements of contemporary romance with a fun, fresh voice and an emphasis on being loved for who you are.

Rosie’s boyfriend has picked the worst possible time to break up with her. It’s not like she’s in love with him — “do I look stupid?” she asks rhetorically — but her job as a physical trainer has been threatened by a buy-out, and her sister’s recent happiness has made her more aware than usual of how lackluster her own love-life is. “It wasn’t as if I thought Brian was my happily-ever-after. But happy to the end of dessert would have been nice.”

But the hits have just started coming: as Brian finishes telling her how unfeminine and threatening she is, Rosie realizes that the man listening at the next table is Hunter Black.

 

Hunter, the first guy I’d ever dated. The first guy I’d slept with. The man who had taught me that a broken heart was more painful than a broken bone.
My nemesis.

If you’ve read more than five contemporary romances, you know the rest: Hunter is, of course, the new owner of her fitness club. And he obviously still has strong feelings for Rosie — and she for him. But Rosie isn’t just fearful about being hurt again; she’s disgusted by the person she was when she was with Hunter:

It embarrassed me to remember how pathetic I’d been. The memory was so humiliating I tried not to think about it. I tried not to think about him. Deep down I knew he’d done the right thing to break it off — although I don’t think he needed to have been quite so brutal in the execution. I’d been so clingy, so dependent, so good at leaning on him I’d forgotten how to stand upright by myself.

Despite the bad break-up, Hunter genuinely cares for Rosie, and he’s just about perfect for her. He loves martial arts as much as she does, and he’s proud of her strength and skill, not threatened by it. But Rosie is scared to let herself depend on anyone again:

‘I fight my own battles. I comfort myself when I’m low. I have a secret stash of chocolate for that purpose.’
The corners of his mouth flickered. ‘Being able to do those things for yourself doesn’t stop someone else doing them alongside you.

I really liked Rosie’s voice; it’s wry, funny, and vulnerable. I also liked how much was packed into this short novella — it’s definitely focused on the romance, but Rosie’s relationship with her sister is very important to her, as is her job and her love of martial arts. There’s a nice sense of place, and the ending, featuring the London Eye, was swoon-worthy.

I was less crazy about the constant emphasis on how incredibly hot Hunter is, and the way Rosie’s descriptions of their physical interactions sometimes felt like she was talking about it more than feeling it. This is a pretty typical current romance style, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I also found myself thinking of Liz Mc2′s criticism of Ripped:

“And much as I enjoyed this book I found myself wondering if the novel didn’t do to Hayley a bit of what her nasty ex Charlie did: belittle her, and deny her skills. She’s an engineer (of some vague kind): isn’t the size of a dress in relation to the size of one’s breasts, and the strength of its seams, basically an engineering problem? I could accept that her pride made Hayley agree to be bridesmaid for her ex and the friend he dumped her for, but does that pride have to extend to not insisting her puke-yellow condom dress is the right size?… Do we have to go as far as exposing the heroine’s breasts in public so she can be rescued by hot hero Nico?

It’s interesting that Burned does precisely the same thing. Although Rosie is a skilled martial artist and excellent at self-defense, she still winds up in a dangerous situation too big for her to handle and has to be rescued by Hunter. It’s like the books are saying, it’s okay to be smart and strong, and some man will love you for it… as long as he’s smarter and stronger.

Despite those complaints, this was a lot of fun; I think it’s a standout in its “short sexy reads” genre. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

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