Deadly Fall: A Protector Hero Romance (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Book 1928)
Let me begin by stating that I am fan of Elle James' novels, but this is only the second novel I've read in her Devil's Shroud series, set on the Oregon coast, and it brought me back to my high school fixation on the Gothic novels of Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt, complete with the air of mystery surrounding a lost treasure in missing jewels, the possibility of a resident ghost, an oppressive fog, a Gothic mansion, and it all worked for me--I give it 4.5 stars.
As the novel opens, scarred yet handsome Wall Street billionaire Andrew Stratford is searching for his 6-year-old daughter, Leigha, and her dog, Brewer, in the thick fog that regularly descends over Cape Churn, Oregon. Although she's not supposed to leave the house, she's a willful, adventurous and curious little girl who spends far too much time alone with only their housekeeper, Mrs. Purdy, and an imaginary friend she's rather tight-lipped about, for company in Stratford House, the huge, 3-story Gothic mansion high on the cliffs above the Pacific ocean. As the Devil's Shroud fog closes in, Andrew senses a presence just before someone (or something) shoves him off the edge of the cliff, yet he manages to grab onto a tree root and climb his way back up to safety, rather than falling onto the jagged rocks 300 feet below. While at the hospital to have his wounds seen to, he reports the incident to the deputy policeman who, after hearing his tale, suggests that he contact SOS, the Stealth Operations Specialists, who have recently opened their service in Cape Churn, to have them recommend a bodyguard for his daughter. He's expecting a big brawny bodyguard, but that's not who they send him. If you're expecting a faint-hearted damsel in distress, you're in for a surprise.
Enter Dixie (Dix) Reeves, a new hire at SOS, a well-trained Army Ranger who was once captured and tortured by terrorists, and has the PTSD and emotional scars to prove it. She's also a champion MMA fighter, and she doesn't like Stratford's assumption that she's too small and weak to be of service until she has no problem subduing him. While she didn't expect that her first assignment with SOS would be something so common as to be tasked with being a bodyguard to scarred and reclusive Andrew Stratford and his daughter, Leigha, she’s committed to doing her best to keep them safe, and the sparks that fly between Dix and Andrew are a distraction she doesn't need.
What follows is a rock-solid, suspense-filled Gothic romance novel, with quite a bit more sexual tension between the main characters than the novels I read in high school. Leigha is an absolutely charming child, although she too bears emotional scars from the incident that caused Andrew's physical burns and scars, and the explanation for all that is one I won't reveal, but it was hard to miss the similarities between this story and elements of Daphne de Maurier's classic novel, Rebecca, and Charlotte Bronte's brilliant novel, Jane Eyre--two of my all-time favorite reads.
My only complaint with the novel is that Ms. James never gives us a full explanation of exactly what happened while Dix was held captive to make her so wary of a relationship that she calls herself "damaged goods" when Andrew makes his attraction to her known. It was far easier to understand Andrew's physical scars when the explanation for how he got them is revealed.
Aside from the aforementioned minor flaws, this was a very good read, with well-drawn characters, mystery-upon-mystery, and it was hard to put down. The nefarious goings on at Stratford House, ghostly encounters, hidden tunnels, and the multi-layered family history behind them is riveting, the characters are compelling, and although part of a series, it all worked perfectly well as a standalone, and I am happy to recommend it.
I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader copy of this novel.