REVIEW: Hunt Her Down by Roxanne St. Claire
Dear Ms. St. Claire:
Of all the Bullet Catcher books, Hunt Her Down is the one I most enjoyed reading. That is because I was pretty much glued to the book the whole way through, my internal critic entertained into submission. The protagonists were well-drawn and sympathetic, their attraction palpable, the suspense aspects of the book moved the plot forward effectively, and the voice felt confident and focused. It was one of the easiest and most fun reading experiences I’ve had in a while. And even once I closed the book and began to contemplate its particular elements, Hunt Her Down held up substantially well to my critical contemplation.
The last time Dan Gallagher saw Lena Smith, they were different people. In Dan’s case, that difference was literal: he was in disguise and undercover for the FBI as Michael Scott, infiltrating the Jimenez family drug business and collecting valuable intel from the son’s girlfriend, Maggie (Magdalena) Varcek, who is also Michael’s secret lover. When the FBI raids the operation, Michael Scott urges Maggie to run away, but before she disappears into the night, she looks back one last time to see Michael’s lifeless body wheeled out, the dreams she was nursing for a life together beyond the Jimenezes now apparently as dead as he.
Fourteen years later Maggie has been married and recently widowed, and she lives a quiet life in Florida with her 13 year old son, co-owner of a local bar and fully representative of respectability and stability. When Dan Gallagher walks into the bar, intent on warning Maggie that the Jimenez men are out of jail, possibly on to her betrayal, and likely on the hunt for a fortune in drug money that has gone unrecovered for all those years, he is struck by how beautiful she still is and how powerfully the attraction between them still fires. And while Maggie does not recognize the blonde, green-eyed totem of gorgeousness before her, she feels the attraction just as strongly as he does, and she can’t resist a late-night drive to the beach with Dan. Neither of them believes the tryst is going anywhere, Maggie doesn’t know she’s been reunited with a man she once loved, and Dan has no idea how he’s going to tell her the truth.
However, the truth must be revealed soon, because Maggie unwittingly holds some information necessary to find the unlaundered drug money, and now that Ramon Jimenez and his father, Alonso (aka El Viejo), are out of prison, everyone’s going to be heading for the money. And it’s going to take some time for Maggie to adjust to the fact that the man she was in love with, the man who died fourteen years ago, and the man who had left her with a piece of himself of which he was unaware, is not only alive, but is the spitting image of her teenage son, Quinn.
I vacillated about whether to mention this aspect of the book, but since it is revealed in the prologue and is critical to being able to discuss the book in any detail (as well as a hot button issue for many Romance readers), I decided to include it.
As far as Quinn Smith knows, his father died four years ago. He has no idea of his mother’s past or the way she found refuge with Smitty, who knew the circumstances of Quinn’s conception but loved Maggie and did whatever he could to help her. And Dan, the former Michael Scott, has never aspired to be a father, actively resisting the domesticated path his best friend Max Roper has taken. So not only is this a reunion Romance, it’s also technically a secret baby book, and a mystery. Which means it’s working on several levels integrating several threads at once.
It is a testament to St. Claire’s talents as a storyteller that for the space of the book itself, I was completely absorbed in following along as it all played out. A large part of the book’s success if the palpable tension between Maggie and Dan, the immediacy of which is facilitated by their history:
"Aw, Dan." She leaned closer. "You really want to talk about my husband?"
He turned his head, which put them face to face. "Do you?"
"I don’t. . ." She inched to him. "Really. . ." A little closer. "Want to talk at all."
He could feel her breath on his mouth, see her eyes shutter closed. "One more centimeter, Maggie, and it’s gonna be all over."
"No, it’s gonna start.". . .
This was all he wanted – one more time with Maggie.
He was transported back to the smell of sticky Miami nights and sweaty clandestine trysts. The burning, insistent desire to be inside her. Anywhere. Anytime.
Her legs wrapped around him, her crotch molded to his hard-on.
"Another life, huh? Her words against his lips pulled him back to reality. Had she figured it out? Remembered him from just one kiss?
"I really don’t believe in all that," he sad, sliding a hand over the curve of her hip and headed for the sweet rise of her backside.
"But you feel familiar," she said, rolling against him again. "And trust me, I don’t do this that often."
"Then why me?"
"I don’t know." She inched back, considering him. "Something about you made me feel . . . adventurous."
"Everything about you made me feel . . ." He opened his hand over her backside, pulling her into him a little. "Good."
Dan, the ever-cool, slow moving, deceptively laid back cowboy, did not need the cover of Michael Scott to desire Maggie, and the resurgence of their chemistry awakens so many feelings in him – of lust, protectiveness, regret, fear, confusion – while Maggie can hardly believe that the man she thought was dead never existed at all. Maggie, the sentimental, independent, world-wise, but still surprisingly trusting woman. Her feelings are equally complex, because as soon as Michael Scott ceased to be, Maggie Varcek went undercover as Lena Smith:
"You told [Quinn] you were a waitress to protect him. . . . A lie to protect someone is not a lie."
"Straight from the Gallagher Book of Bent Rules."
"They’ve worked well for me."
"Everything works well for you. You don’t have to change history. You walked away from that parking lot in Miami a hero, while I walked away a pregnant tramp. You went on to glamorous jobs, important assignments, enough money to buy cars I can’t even pronounce, and I’m worried about paying the orthodontist."
She sounded bitter, but couldn’t stop. Hell, she was bitter.
Because of all the emotional complexity between Maggie and Dan, as well as the multiple players in the drug money conspiracy, there is very little downtime in Hunt Her Down, which may be part of the reason that its weaknesses are easy to miss in the moment. There’s Dan and Quinn’s budding relationship (without Quinn’s knowledge of their real relationship), Maggie’s struggle to reconcile past with present, Maggie and Dan’s race to obtain and decode a series of clues that supposedly lead to the money, and the interference of various members of the Jimenez clan, including Alonso, Ramon (the son and Maggie’s ex-boyfriend), and Lola (formerly Ramon’s younger sister Lourdes, who Maggie babysat), as well as several other individuals who are peripherally involved (or wanting to be involved) in the treasure hunt.
Upon reflection, I can identify the book’s weaknesses with much more clarity. For example, there is the speed with which both Dan and Maggie adapt to their new realities, something necessary for the speed of the story but still somewhat oversimplified. And then there is the mystery of the money itself. Supposedly Alonso’s brother was responsible for placing the money somewhere safe and communicating its location in these disparate clues. But why engage in something that is much more likely to get screwed up than just find a more direct, super secret method of communication? Again, this piece catalyzes the danger and suspense, but it also seems needlessly overcomplicated. Also, the players on both sides don’t seem to be too swift at times. For example, when Maggie and Dan break into the old Jimenez house, now abandoned, they trip a silent alarm. But the guys who pursue them there don’t seem to notice the shot out lock on the door, assuming that it was a squirrel or something. And at one point, Dan gets a clear clue to Alonso’s whereabouts that he does not even seem to recognize as such. Then there are Alonso’s children, whose behavior is a bit baffling at several critical moments in the book, allowing, I suppose, the mystery to continue unsolved until the end of the book. And while one of the villains was a bit of a surprise, the apparent reasons for his villainy struck me as downright ridiculous.
All that said, the book was exceptionally entertaining in the way of a really good martini with even better company or a refreshing mimosa with brunch. It was funny in a smart-ass, dry-humored way; it was suspenseful enough to keep the action moving but not so suspense-heavy that the romance suffered; the only truly TSTL moment was enacted by someone who you’d expect to be stupid under those circumstances; and the romantic bond between Dan and Maggie is built on mutual respect, affection, and shared experiences, not solely through mind-blowing orgasms.
I know there are some Bullet Catcher fans who will be disappointed that Lucy and Dan did not end up together, and after I finished Hunt Her Down I went back and read the two books in the series I still had not finished, the two books that fill in Lucy and Dan’s backstory. All I can say is that the Dan and Maggie pairing worked for me, much better, in fact, than the Lucy and Jack pairing. Had I read the books in order, I might have been expecting a different outcome, and I might not have been as easily convinced. But I think the choice of creating a long-ago connection between the protagonists – while convenient and never previously mentioned – was a very smart way to create the foundation for their relationship. Like most of Hunt Her Down, it worked while I was reading, and it worked really well. B