Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-269221-4
Romantic Suspense, 2018
HelenKay Dimon’s The Pretender, which is the latest entry in the Games People Play series, is structurally very similar to the previous story The Enforcer. We have another story about the hero protecting the heroine while keeping things from her, a heroine who is suspected of murder, a dead body, a zealous family member of the deceased who is absolutely convinced that the heroine is the murderer, and the actual villain who is so much in the background that when this fellow is unmasked, my reaction is a big meh. Still, despite these similarities, the end product does have enough flavor to avoid coming off as too much of a rehash.
Due to some family drama (to put it mildly) in their past, our heroine Gabrielle Wright is estranged from her family. She is however still on talking terms with her sister Tabitha – something that many people is not aware of – and when the story opens, our heroine finds her sister dead in Tabitha’s big house in an island that now deceased woman named after herself. There is no arrest made, but her uncle is convinced that Gabrielle murdered her sister for money and is determined to make life very difficult for her. Our heroine claimed that she saw a man running away shortly before discovering her sister’s body, but no one could locate that man.
Well, that man is Harrison Tate, our hero. He’s a former art thief turned band-of-brother hero who still steals art on the side. Illegally obtained art, of course, which he then returns to the rightful owner, and if you ask me who made him judge, jury, and executioner over stupid things that belong to people with way too much money, I can only shrug and say that maybe we’re supposed to go, “Ooh, The Thomas Crown Affair!” and have an orgasm on the spot. Anyway, Harris was trying to steal something from Tabitha when he found her dying and, oops, she was now dead. He fled, and since then, he feels guilty about contaminating the crime scene and letting Gabby out to hang, but it’s okay, he occasionally stalks her and broods a lot about how guilty he feels, so he’s like totally a good guy, y’all.
And despite claiming that he’s watching her 24/7, he manages to overlook her uncle’s latest effort to pin her down and his boss ends up sending him to Tabitha Island to work with the uncle as an “art evaluator”, the better to watch after her. The clothes fall off, sex happens, and the hero spends a lot of time brooding and feeling guilty over his deception.
You know, for a romantic suspense, this one has a lot of conversations and not much suspense. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: it allows the author to create a lush setting full of angst and unhappy people having amazing sex, and the romance is allowed to simmer nicely to a boiling point. These two are the main reasons why this story gets three oogies: the characters by themselves and the suspense are flat. The emotions are here, and the setting feels interesting and different from the usual fare found in romantic suspense.
The suspense falls flat on its face because of one crucial misstep: the actual villain barely figures in the story, so when I discover this person’s identity, I can’t bring myself to care. This villain could have easily played a bigger role in this story, as the author has placed this person nicely to be anything from the heroine’s confidante or at the very least a supportive friend to her uncle’s closest lackey who perhaps tries to cast suspicions on Harris. Anything would be better than the villain’s current sad role as the fellow who is dragged out during the denouement to have fingers pointed at this fellow. After all the rolling around Gabby and Harris did up to the point to show off what angst-bags they are, the pay-off should have been better than this flaccid reveal.
Harris is the standard one-dimensional capable hero whose only reason why he didn’t solve the whole mystery by page 150 is because he’s too busy brooding and thumping his chest to tell me how much he hates lying to the heroine. Meanwhile, Gabby pays lip service to being sassy and spunky, but she’s actually a sad sack who has spent her entire life being lied to, gaslighted, manipulated, and steamrollered by her own family and friends, and she just has to fall in love with a man who is lying to her all the way to nearly the end of the story. Of course, Harris is the romance hero, so it’s a given that he’d be good for her in the long run, but this romance only demonstrates that she has an unfortunate pattern when it comes to choosing the people to offer her love to.
Perhaps it would have been better if the hero hadn’t revealed to her at all that he was the man she saw running away from Tabitha’s body. I will be okay with that, because as far as I’m concerned, he has done enough to make up for whatever guilt and self-loathing he claims to feel. At least, if Gabby doesn’t know, then she wouldn’t need to discover that she’s been lied to, feels betrayed, and then quickly decides to take him back anyway because, yay, love. For someone who has a history of being used and misused by the people she cares for, Gabby’s happily ever after feels more like a repeat of an unfortunate pattern of behavior, and I can’t help pitying her. Pity is not something I should be experiencing after closing a romance novel.
Tonally, The Pretender is off too. Similar to the previous story, this one sees the author using a secondary character to show up and interject with one-liners, like he’s a refugee from a cancelled TV show by Joss Whedon, The author ramps up the bathos here with this Damon wretch, and it’s awful because this supposedly sexy and mysterious sequel bait ruins any poignancy or gravity of a scene with his stupid wisecracks, and it’s hard to see someone who talks like a sassy teenage girl as a sexy, masculine action hero. He is also unrealistically fixated on the love lives of his buddies, again something that I have a hard time believing a sexy, masculine action hero would do. This character may be better off in some romantic comedy; in a supposedly sober romantic suspense, Damon is a jarring presence – his presence ruins the tone of the story completely.
At any rate, similar to the previous story, this one is better off in the hands of folks who don’t mind lackluster suspense so long as the romance hits all the right spots. Even then, the romance in this one leaves me feeling sad for the heroine. It’s good that this one feels less cookie-cutter than the previous entries in this series, but the execution could always be better.