by Elizabeth Jennings, contemporary (2010)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23599-7
Elizabeth Jennings also writes a more steamy variation of romantic suspense under the name Lisa Marie Rice. If you are new to this author, then Shadows At Midnight will be a test as to whether you can cotton up to the author's style to become a fan. This is because there is a very obvious element of sameness to this author's books. You can easily put her in the same category as Christine Feehan, Shannon McKenna, and Lora Leigh - Ms Jennings specializes in one kind of hero in one kind of story line, and she proceeds to make a career out of creating variations of this sameness for her fans.
In this book, Ms Jennings offers a familiar over-the-top alpha male protecting a damsel in distress story. Claire Day is a Defense Intelligence Agency working as a mole in the US Embassy of the Republic of Mokongo, a West African country. When the story opens, the town of Laka in which the Embassy is situated comes under attack from the local bloodthirsty half-crazed rebels. Gunnery Sargeant Daniel Weston, our hero, is the Detachment Commander of the Marine Security Guard stationed at the US Embassy. They have a moment of connection before the whole place goes kaboom and Dan believes that Claire is dead. How sad.
We then cut to a year later. It turns out that Claire isn't dead after all. She was in a coma and when she finally comes to, she can't remember what happened on that day in Laka. She is nonetheless haunted by fragmented memories and nightmares, and she is also plagued by guilt, knowing that her father died of "heartbreak" because of what happened to her. By chance she spots Dan on TV and she realizes with shock that he is the man she has been seeing in her dreams all this while. She decides to seek him out in hope that he can help her remember what happened that day.
Dan is happy to see Claire alive. Actually, he had been infatuated with Claire long before they talked to each other in Laka. He deliberately got himself posted in Laka so that he could be near her always, to see her, to talk to her, to touch her... oh, don't worry, he's hot, he has a stomach hard and flat enough to become a landing strip, so there is no way he can be mistaken for a creepy stalker. When Claire's attempts to remember what happened that day cause the bad guy to send his henchmen to kill her, Dan is more than happy to flex every muscle in his body to protect the woman and shag her brains out.
As per the author's formula, Dan is over the top as the epitome of old-school action hero masculinity. Claire only has to spend a short time in Dan's company before realizing that her previous dates and lovers were all metrosexuals - eeuw, no wonder she's not happy until she's with Dan. Dan is the kind of hero who can make love for ten days straight without drooping an inch and send a woman screaming into orgasm with a flick of his finger because he's all man, baby. He is also impossibly protective and determined to rip apart anyone who dares to even look at Claire in a vaguely menacing manner.
However, here's the unusual thing about Dan: he doesn't overwhelm or steam roller over Claire. He actually listens to Claire instead of declaring that he knows what is best for her, he gives her space when she needs it (he's still within a good distance to protect her, of course), and he doesn't do that caveman "Woman! You are mine! So give me a beer and spread those legs!" alpha male act. He's just someone who respects the woman he protects and there is nothing he won't do to ensure that she is safe. He puts Claire on a pedestal to such a degree that I find it hard to remember that he's a bit of a creepy stalker. Hey, what's a little creepy stalking, after all? Dan is pretty yummy in the sense that he appeals to that part of me which swoons at the idea of such a protective hunk of an action man despite my best intentions.
As for Claire, she's a damsel in distress, but she is not a victim. There is a difference where Claire is concerned - Claire is traumatized by her memory loss and the way her life falls apart after that day in Laka, and she is not trained to be an action woman who breaks down a door with both guns blazing. In that manner, she needs protection. But Claire can still think and even assist in nabbing the bad guy. It just happens in this story that Claire needs protection because she is at severe disadvantage, not because she's an idiot victim who cannot map her way out of a paper bag.
There are some moments of both Dan and Claire being dumb, but I chalk that up to bad romantic suspense plotting than anything else. If there is an obvious flaw in this story, it's the romantic suspense plot. It's adequate, but it also has the hero and heroine doing some stupid things - things that the author believes to make sense but they actually don't. There is a scene where Dan allows Claire to come with him into a scene where bullets fly, for example, and Dan explains that this is okay because he needs to get rid of the threat on Claire's life ASAP. But it seems to escape the author's attention that Dan has put Claire in danger by doing this - she could have been hit by a stray bullet for all he knew. Meanwhile, the villain is a standard evil fellow who is not even subtle. I can only wonder how he manages to fool the people around him for so long.
I should also warn you that the author is one of the many romance authors who believe that unprotected sex is okay if both parties hadn't had sex in a year or so. Considering how Dan was said to be hump-happy before he met Claire, the whole excuse to have a sex scene without a condom has me rolling my eyes. I've said this so many times before and I'll say this again: if the author doesn't like the rubber spoiling her boinking scenes, then just don't mention the rubber at all.
This book also has me scratching my head when Ms Jennings has Dan finding the many women he had boinked in the past most lacking because they wanted to have fun in bed. The implication here is that he finds a woman worthy only if she needs something from him - like his protection - instead of merely wanting to have a good time with him. But given that Dan is portrayed as the man with the biggest erection in the whole wide world, I should have expected him to have Madonna/Whore issues.
Still, all things considered, Shadows At Midnight is actually an entertaining read. It's a perfect book to just read without thinking too much and revel in the whole "Oh, protect me now, my big and hot and studly action hero man! Swoon!" melodrama. It also helps that this book is somewhat different from the usual alpha male-centric romances out there by the fact that the heroine is allowed to hold her own pretty well against the hero. This book also has sex scenes clearly written by a, er, woman of a certain age with very little understanding of what "safe sex" actually means, as well as a romantic suspense plot that is not as sophisticated or even halfway logical as it should have been. But do the flaws matter? This is a guilty pleasure kind of romance novel, so perhaps the silly justifications for unprotected sex and the occasional absurd moments in the plot are par for the course.
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