Wildfire is the third in Anne Stuart’s current Fire series of Romantic Suspense novels which have kind of picked up where the Ice series left off and in which The Committee – the super-secret agency which acts to wipe out the bad guys and keep the world safe by any means necessary – is now working out of its new branch in the US.
Sophie Jordan, former CIA and State Department operative, joined the Committee a few years previously and was sent on a fairly routine surveillance mission while still undergoing her training. The subject of this mission was one Archer MacDonald, a ruthless, megalomaniac arms dealer who also happened to be one of the most gorgeous men on the planet. Against every instinct and every aspect of her training, Sophie fell for Archer and married him, so blinded by love that she didn’t discover his true nature until some months after the wedding. Three years on, Sophie has spent most of that time as a prisoner on an island off the coast of Florida that Archer owns – Isla Mordita – two of those years confined to her bed and a wheelchair following an “accident” which saw her shot in the back.
It’s taken all that time for the Committee to work up another “in” with Archer so that Sophie’s original mission – to kill him – can be completed. British operative Malcolm Gunnison has now been assigned that task, and posing as the middle man for a potential buyer of Archer’s latest project, a powerful chemical agent (RU48), he arrives on Isla Mordita with instructions to get as much information on RU48 as he can – including the identity of the manufacturer – kill Archer and get off the island. Whether he kills Archer’s traitorous wife or saves her life is completely up to him.
When Mal arrives on the island he is surprised to discover that Sophie is confined to a wheelchair. At first he sees a gullible woman who is obviously besotted by the handsome husband who seems intent on belittling her, but Mal quickly realises that Sophie’s clever mask hides a woman who is anything but love-struck and is clearly hiding her true feelings. He is also the only person to discover the other thing Sophie has been careful to hide – that she has regained the use of her legs and has spent the last year and more secretly regaining her strength and fitness while plotting to kill Archer and make her escape.
In the meantime, though, she has to bide her time and grit her teeth to endure Archer’s cutting words and fleeting gestures of affection, all of which are designed to humiliate her in front of their guest. Over the past couple of years, Archer has taken delight in rubbing Sophie’s disability in her face by bringing a succession of good-looking young men to the island to try to provoke a reaction from her, but she has felt not the smallest interest in any of them and thinks that probably her libido has gone in to hibernation – perhaps is even dead. But her first sight of her husband’s newest associate hits her like a punch to the gut; Malcolm Gunnison might not be a pretty boy, but he’s sexy as hell and she’s never felt so strongly physically attracted to anyone, not even Archer. But he’s obviously just as much of a cold, calculating, manipulative bastard as her husband and she’s not going to allow an inconvenient infatuation to distract her from her purpose.
Ms. Stuart is a master of the genre, so it will come as no surprise when I say that the plot is full of twists and turns and that she really knows how to ratchet up the tension to nail-biting effect. The central characters are engaged in a high-stakes, potentially deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Mal and Archer circling around and assessing each other while trying to get the upper hand, at the same time as Mal and Sophie are doing the same, trying to work out whether they can trust one another and simultaneously fighting the powerful attraction that electrifies the air between them.
I did enjoy the story, because I’m an Anne Stuart junkie and am addicted to her particular brand of romantic suspense, but I do have a few niggles that affected my final grade. The sexual tension between Mal and Sophie is intense and the sex scenes are nice and steamy, but while I completely bought into their lust for each other, it was more difficult to believe there was much of a romance going on that they were falling in love. Theirs is a love/hate relationship for most of the book, with Sophie, in particular, fighting her attraction to Mal at almost every turn, often in over-long passages of internal monologue which cause some parts of the book to drag a little. It’s also rather difficult to swallow that such a hard-nosed, competent operative as Sophie must have been (and we’re told she was) could have ignored everything she had learned about Archer during her training and turned her back on her colleagues, her job and her life in order to marry him. Some explanation is offered; Sophie’s training wasn’t complete and she’d been sent into a situation that she wasn’t equipped to handle, but it doesn’t quite ring true.
I recently listened to Jill Redfield narrating the first book in this series, Consumed by Fire, and enjoyed her performance very much; I concur completely with BJ’s assessment of its being worthy of an A grade. Ms. Redfield’s performance here is equally accomplished in terms of the pacing – which is suitably edgy in the suspenseful moments and slower in the more intimate ones – character differentiation and acting choices, but I noticed something here I didn’t notice before, which is that she has a tendency to breathe in odd places. I haven’t listened to her enough times to be able to determine whether this is a one-off, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be down to poor lung capacity (!) or breathing techniques, because she doesn’t do it all the time. But she will sometimes begin a sentence or phrase, say two or three words, take a breath, and then continue. So a basic sentence such as:
When you were a prisoner in an armed fortress, silence was your friend.
Sounds like this:
When you were a prisoner (breath) in an armed fortress (quieter breath), silence was your friend.
And later in the same chapter, this:
She finished up her workout, going through her cool-down stretches, shoved her sweat-damp hair away from her face, and silently opened (breath) the door to her bedroom.
It’s a long sentence, true, but there are plenty of commas in there where taking a breath would be acceptable, so I couldn’t help but wonder why she hadn’t taken advantage of one of those more natural breathing places instead.
With that said, I don’t normally gets bent out of shape over audible breath sounds, as I find that they often add to the realism of the performance (and if I don’t hear them, I find myself holding my breath waiting for the narrator to breathe!) – but I do dislike them when they’re in the wrong place. And once you notice something like that, it becomes inevitable that you start actually listening for it, which can become distracting. It probably doesn’t help that whereas Consumed by Fire is quite dialogue heavy, Wildfire is the opposite, so there are long passages of narrative and character introspection where such things become more noticeable than they might be otherwise.
But with all that said, those issues don’t cast a pall over the whole performance, which hits all the right emotional notes and delivers exactly the right amount of tension. Ms. Redfield acquits herself well when it comes to Mal’s English accent (there are a few slips here and there but it’s generally solid), and I do like the way she voices the heroes in this series as a whole; pitching them low, with a soft, husky tone that never lets us forget how dangerous they are.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for a bad-boy hero and a heroine who won’t take his crap, then you’re probably already an Anne Stuart fan. Wildfire isn’t my favourite of this series so far, but it’s an entertaining listen and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever the author comes up with next.
Book Content: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Fighting
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Wild Fire was provided to AudioGals by Brilliance Audio for a review.
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