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High Stakes by Justine Dare
(Onyx, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-41011-4
It’s been more than a year since Justine Dare’s last release, so I eagerly anticipated her new novel. I almost overlooked High Stakes on the bookstore shelf, though, because Onyx inexplicably has burdened it with a cover that is virtually indistinguishable from Kay Hooper’s Shadow series. That’s a crime, because Justine Dare is nobody’s imitator. Her intensely passionate characters deserve to be recognized on their own merits.

You can always count on Justine Dare to utilize a tortured, loner, alpha hero…until now, that is. Our hero in High Stakes is Aaron Montana, owner and manager of the Golden Phoenix Casino in Outpost, Nevada. Aaron has loving parents, and he comes from a long line of Montana ancestors who founded the town and built the casino up to its present level of success. He’s well-liked and respected by his employees, friends and neighbors. Aaron does have one fault; he is a chronic caretaker who adopts what his ex-wife refers to as “wounded birds.” This character flaw led him to a disastrous marriage but it hasn’t stopped Aaron. He needs to be needed.

Shelby Wyatt spent her adolescence on the streets of Los Angeles as a runaway, and she’s going to require all of her old street smarts to get her out of this mess. One man is dead, another is stalking her, and she needs a place to hide. Although she has had a stable, loving home for the past 15 years, she doesn’t trust easily, so when Aaron finds her she can’t believe his offer of help comes without strings or ulterior motives. But as she gets to know Aaron, she realizes that he is the real deal - honest, caring and determined to protect her from the dangerous secret she can’t reveal.

Aaron is a major change of pace from typical Dare heroes, and he’s absolutely delightful. Big and not particularly handsome, he’s a prince in every other way. He has a tragic past (of course - this is a Dare novel) but it hasn’t destroyed his life or his ability to relate to other people. As I read the first few chapters, I worried that Shelby would be a hapless damsel in distress to his rescuing knight, but she is much tougher than she appears. When Shelby and Aaron work together to rescue a third character, they demonstrate great teamwork and ingenuity. Too bad that Dare only gives them one really good love scene.

Aaron and Shelby share narrative time with several secondary characters, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it showcases Dare’s talent for creating multi-dimensional characters, several of whom seem poised to branch off into their own stories. On the other hand, the frequent point-of-view shifting dilutes the intensity of the romance between Aaron and Shelby.

Several major characters keep Big Secrets, so if that plot device drives you crazy you might find yourself yelling, “Tell him the truth, already!” when your patience wears thin. But Dare has a plausible justification for the secrets, so they don’t rankle too badly.

The fast-moving, suspenseful 350 page novel was easily finished in 24 hours, leaving me wondering why Dare’s releases have slowed down. Come back again soon, Justine, we miss you.

--Susan Scribner

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