Passion to Protect

Liane Mason and her two children fled to her father’s decaying ranch after her testimony sent her abusive ex-husband to prison for embezzlement and attempted murder. She didn’t expect it to be so difficult to live in close quarters with Jake Whitaker, the high-school boyfriend she dumped before going off to college. Time has changed them both: she is scarred by her marriage, and he is by the fire that claimed the lives of four of his fellow-firefighters–and his leg. Then, a prison-break threatens all that Liane holds dear . . .

Mac McCleary and his three fellow escapees want their due: a pile of money that Mac hid on the Mason ranch. When the money is missing, the fugitives are willing to go to any length to locate it–including kidnapping and murdering Mac’s children. They pursue Deke Mason and his grandchildren into the wilds near Yosemite, even as a thunderstorm and a sweeping forest-fire threaten.

Despite her shame and discomfort around Jake, Liane has no one else to help her rescue her children. Jake, too, is determined to help–even if he’s not certain whether he’s venturing into the forest to prove himself to his former love, or to prove to himself that even with a prosthesis, he is still capable of being a “hotshot.” Certainly, he wants the latter. But he also wants to win back the chilly Liane and build his own family–a dream he’d given up at eighteen.

As literal sparks ignite the forest, metaphorical sparks fly between Liane and Jake. Neither, of course, are willing to reveal their true feelings or the secrets that keep them estranged.

Passion to Protect is the first Harlequin Romantic Suspense novel I have read. Therefore, I do not know the series’ formula. However, I found Thompson’s book an enjoyable read. Far more of the novel concentrates on the protagonists’ attempts to locate Liane’s father and children and their subsequent fear that Mac might still be after them. At the same time, they must unravel the mystery of the missing money. There are fires, knives, gunshots, and battles. I would describe the book as high-energy, and I liked the mystery.

This suspense subplot (or was it the main plot?) enhances the romance between Liane and Jake, though at times their relationship takes a back seat to their battle with the burning forest and subsequent investigation. What I really appreciated (after reading a couple of Harlequin’s Nocturne and recent Historical lines) was the lack of forced “insta-chemistry” between Jake and Liane. Their relationship grows organically from their history and current danger.

In terms of the protagonists’ physical relationship, the book is discrete, offering a passionate kiss and a sensitively portrayed prelude to sex–then a well-timed “fade-to black.” The best aspects of the first scene involve the characters’ responses to the episode–particularly Jake’s revelation that although Liane was his high-school love, he is a man now and it would be wrong to let his libido override his common sense when his beloved is at her most vulnerable. Tasteful, sensible, and a point in Jake’s favor.

The more explicit scene dealt sensitively with the characters’ desire for one another and their insecurities about their changed bodies. Liane has borne and raised two children since she and Jake were last together. She has scars–and other damage–from Mac’s attempt on her life. Jake, on the other hand, has to deal with his prosthesis. Neither know how the other will react to their new bodies, which are nothing like those they had as teenagers.

On the other hand, some of Jake’s behavior rubbed me the wrong way. He–and many other characters in the book–has the unfortunate desire to “protect” Liane from the truth. The truth about her father’s financial straits. About the body in the woods. About the torn up cabin and the possibility that Deke Mason found and spent Mac’s stolen money to save his homestead.

Liane is a grown woman. These men had no business “protecting” her by witholding information.

The other strike against Jake is his response to Liane’s account of how Mac had treated her. Although unfortunately realistic, his response reeks of mansplaining, informing Liane of what she shoulda-coulda done about her abusive husband. He came close to blaming the victim and turned me off his character for the duration of the scene. Fortunately, his other virtues make up for this deficiency.

Passion to Protect features a number of realistic and developed secondary characters, especially Cody, Liane’s son–who is old enough to remember his father’s treatment of his mother and harbors a deep, child-like rage–and Sheriff Harry Wallace. True to the present economy, Sheriff Wallace is hampered by budget cuts, incompetent new (cheaper) employees, and his own inexperience dealing with truly murderous criminals. In addition, he has his own secrets. Thanks to Wallace, Cody, and the frightening, unstable Mac, Thompson’s book is well-populated with complex characters.

For readers who are sensitive to domestic violence, Liane’s past might be triggering. Mac is a frightening man, and at times my stomach churned with anxiety. That said, his instability contributes to the other exciting elements of Thompson’s plot. Her book is hard to put down.

If Passion to Protect is a typical example of Harlequin’s Romantic Suspense series, I look forward to reading more. Recommended for fans of mysteries, Westerns, and “second chance” love stories.

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