Playing With Fire
by Amy Knupp
(Harl. Super Rom. #1646, $5.50, PG) ISBN 978-0373-71646-3
Amy Knupp has given us the first in a new series about firefighters on the Gulf Coast of Texas. They are all hunks and it looks to be a fun series if Playing With Fire is any indication. This story features not only a hunk, but one filled with angst who needs a woman to help him out of his funk.

Derek Severson has a reason for his funk, but his mother and friends think it has gone on long enough. Six months ago, Derek’s girlfriend and a fellow firefighter died in a burning building when the roof collapsed. Derek couldn’t have done anything really, but his heart and mind won’t let him get past the fact that he was working that day and didn’t save them. So Derek left Dallas and headed to the coast, with the excuse of helping his uncle Gus with his beach side restaurant and bar so Gus can retire and enjoy his life in the local retirement home.

Macey Locke is an old friend of Derek’s. They grew up together and were friends whose mothers happened to share a business. Derek never saw Macey, who was something of a wallflower, as more than a friend, but Macey has had a crush on Derek for years. When Derek joined the force, Macey went to college and has spent the last two years in Thailand in the Peace Corp. That stint taught her a lot about life; it increased her sense of self-worth and has given her the attitude that she can accomplish anything. Her goal is to come home and start up a private non-profit foundation to help children. Her first priority though, is to come to the coast and help Derek re-enter the land of the living. Her cast of characters (and helpers) include Gus, a young woman named Andie with a mysterious past, and a firefighter, Evan.

Derek is surly, less than friendly, and barely able to keep the bar going – working night and day with little help. Despite that, the bar is very busy and the happening place. The first day Macey is in town, she steps behind the bar and infiltrates. Soon she is not only helping, she is hiring staff, helping to do the organizing and serving as almost an assistant manager. Derek is peeved, amused, disgusted and ultimately cooperative. He is willing to be her friend, as they have always been, but resents that she is there to “help him.” He also is angry because he is starting to look at her with more than platonic eyes.

The story moves along on their slowly building relationship. I disliked the fact that there were a lot of starts and stops and most of these were due to two people who couldn’t seem to come clean with each other, even about simple things. There is a lot of game playing here that distracts from fully enjoying their romance. And of course, there are both obvious and subtle hints of stories to come. 

If you enjoy a story with lots of soul searching by the characters, then this tale will fall right into your lap. There were times when the action sagged due to all this introspection. The parts of the tale that could be considered action was pretty predictable…who would guess a stray dog could help bring out Derek’s protective interests? And it took a near-drowning to make both of them admit their feelings, only to have it backfire into a giant miscommunication and separation. 

Despite those obvious ploys from the author, the story keeps moving and we get to their happy-ever-after in a way that makes the reader glad to have stuck with things. I look forward to see if the author can bring a little more depth into the next installment. Playing With Fire is acceptable but she has potential to do better.  

--Shirley Lyons

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