After reading two "literary" books in a row that left me cold, it was a relief to read Justine Dare's latest release, and experience the satisfaction of having my emotions fully engaged by a darned good romance. I've followed this author's career through categories (written as Justine Davis), futuristic and contemporary suspense thrillers and I always look forward to the intensity and passion that she creates between her hero and heroine. I'm pleased to report that Night Fires is the strongest of her contemporary novels to date.
Dare usually utilizes a tortured yet sympathetic hero, and she stays true to form with J.T. Trager, a loner who has been living in the small Washington town of Keating's Port for the past year. The other residents eye him with vague suspicion, which flares into outright hostility when Mayor Reed Keating's son, Garrett, is reported missing. Only Jodi Campion comes to Trager's defense, insisting that he has done nothing to merit the town's ugly accusations of kidnapping and worse. The fact that Jodi is a life-long resident, and Reed's current girlfriend, strengthens her defense of "the town oddball," but Jodi still has to head off a lynch mob of angry residents.
When Garrett is found, unharmed, on Trager's property, Jodi discovers that the nine year old boy has been hanging out with the loner. He feels much more comfortable in Trager's rustic cabin than in his own elegant home, and relates more easily to Trager than to Reed and Reed's overbearing older sister, Regina. In fact, Trager is the first person Garrett has connected to since he lost his mother in an accident a year ago.
As Jodi spends more time with Trager, as a chaperon for Garrett, she is intrigued by the quiet man whose eyes reflect unspeakable pain and sadness. However, Jodi watched her father fall apart when her mother died, and she has vowed to avoid caring for someone else so deeply. Also, she has been the recent victim of small but nasty pranks, and can't help wondering if Trager could be involved somehow. After all, she barely knows him, and the problems started soon after he moved to Keating's Port.
Trager has his own reasons for settling in the small town, and he's not telling anybody. He is attracted to Jodi, but after the losses he's suffered he won't allow himself to feel anything for anyone else again, especially for such a beautiful, spirited, caring woman. Little by little, however, she breaks down his barriers, just as the violence against her escalates. Coincidence or not? Is there a part of Trager that is so wounded that he has the potential to be violent, or is there someone else who wants to hurt Jodi?
Of all of Justine Dare's contemporary novels, Night Fires feels the least like a long category. It's full of interesting secondary characters and rich subplots. The romance between Jodi and Trager is fairly standard caring woman/wounded man stuff, but at least Trager isn't a stereotypical undercover cop or anti-terrorist operative. He is a man in uniform (to say more would be unfair), but he's no superhero. His reawakening
from merely existing, to living and loving is gradual but satisfying, and his tentative friendships with Garrett and Chet, the town's police chief, are almost as gratifying as the romance.
Dare's strength is her ability to draw the reader into the story and experience the full range of the characters' emotions -- the pain of a nine year old boy whose own father doesn't see his obvious anguish, the joy of a man who realizes he's ready to take a chance on love again, the desperation of a villain who sees carefully laid plans going astray. And while the identity of the villain may seem obvious at first, there are a few surprises awaiting even the astute reader.
Justine Dare's novels are so enjoyable that it feels nitpicky to mention
that her constant use of ellipses can
be...somewhat annoying. I can understand the effect she's trying to achieve
when she uses them, but
almost every piece of dialogue is interrupted by those three little dots,
which can be...very distracting. But
that's her style, love it...or leave it.
And for the most part, I love it. Whether the heroine is an overweight dynamo (Layla in A Whole Lotta Love), a futuristic spaceship pilot (Shaylah in Lord of the Storm), or just a strong woman like Jodi, the reader is always happy to see her get her man and is confident that the two will have that happily-ever-after. And after all, what more can you ask for in a darned good romance?