by Jillian Stone, historical (2012)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-2906-4
Normally, I'd be able to get a good feel of an author's style by the time her third book rolls in, but A Private Duel With Agent Gunn actually leaves me more bewildered than before. I don't know what to make of this story, because it seems to be put together using jigsaw puzzle pieces that, while they may seem to fit well at first, only produce a big picture that doesn't make much sense.
The hero this time around is Phineas Gunn. He works with the Scotland Yard, but he also works for the Crown, is an expert in jewelry and gems, a lover of women, and more. When he's not attending parties in the evening and suffering from all kinds of PSTD-thingies, of course. Don't ask me how this guy finds time to sleep. I think we're all supposed to be so awed by Finn's amazing mojo that we should just go with the flow.
Finn's assignment is - what else? - to stay close to our heroine Catriona de Dovia Willoughby because she is suspected to be in cahoots with those anarchists that want to give the good monarchy the middle finger. Finn and Cate have a past, though, but that's okay, because we all know that secret agents work and love best when they are paired with their ex-girlfriends, at least in romance novels.
Finn once got up close and personal with Cate because her brother was working with the anarchists. The sex was amazing, but oops, Finn led the charge against the anarchists that ended up with Cate's brother going out in a literal blaze of glory. Okay, so he lied to the woman and caused her beloved brother to die. It's no big deal, really. He sent word to her so that they could meet and he'd apologize, but for some reason he couldn't fathom, she didn't show up. That was then.
Today... well, Finn greets her by practically forcing himself on her and molesting her up and down, because that's exactly how any romance hero should greet a heroine whose brother he helped cause the death of under false pretenses. Cate melts, naturally, because even though she blamed Finn for her brother's death and he lied to her during their time together, he's just so hot.
Conveniently enough, she also needs help to track down some family jewels, and she has to ask Finn because, remember, he's the best gemologist in the whole world. Yes, Cate may be a hot ballerina on the stage, but she is also related to nobility. Like Finn, she's the whole package - designed to be cool and sexy in a not-really-a-whore way even if I end up wondering how all these pieces of her background and personality actually fit together. Anyway, these two have an excuse to stick together, so it's off for some mystery and what not.
A Private Duel With Agent Gunn is slower in pace than the previous two books in the series, and there is more room for the spotlight to shine on the romance, but the romance doesn't make sense to me at all. These two have a past that should deliver some intense drama, but Cate is pretty much ready to play choo-choo from the get go, and this doesn't make sense as she claims that she's not happy with Finn over the death of her brother. If that matter is such a big deal, then why is she so eager to put out to Finn? The romance is not believable because the whole thing seems more like two people who can't help boinking like bunnies because they can't control themselves even a little.
Finn, like Cate, is a bewildering character with bizarre and often inscrutable motives. He claims to be sorry about what he did to Cate, but at the same time, he has no problems resuming their sexual relationship even if he's doing exactly the same thing this time around. Am I suppose to believe that his remorse is just lip service? There is also a discomfiting tendency for Finn to treat women, including Cate, like nothing more than meat. He has a habit of invading Cate's space to pounce and put his hands on her body without even saying hello first, and he treats his mistress like crap. The author seems to be setting Finn up to be some kind of debonair secret agent guy, but his treatment of women often make him come off like a sexual predator who believes that women should bend over just because he wants them to.
A big reason for my bewilderment at the characters' romance is the author rarely going into the characters' heads. She tells me a lot about what the characters are saying and thinking and doing at a particular moment, but character motivation remains sketchy. There are many, many, many instances of mental lusting here that could have been excised to make way for some deep thoughts and what not, especially since mental lusting in this particular context doesn't make sense. I mean, it reflects horribly on Cate that she can't stop thinking of how hot the guy is when the guy lied to her and was responsible for her brother's death. It is one thing if she wasn't affected by all this, but she claims that she is, so no, I don't get her. I don't Finn as well, because he comes off like a creepy sociopath. He is also a bag of ill-explored subplots. Early on, much is made about Finn's mental baggage - he needs to see a shrink, oh dear - but by the next chapter, Finn has turned into a creepy smiling Pepe Le Pew, the whole "I need to see a shrink" thing pushed aside.
As for the plot, well, there is plenty of traveling and danger and some condoms flying here and there, but throughout it all, I am distracted by Finn's see-sawing attitude about his deception of Cate (I guess I should be comforted that he occasionally feels "a little guilty" about putting her life in danger once again) and Cate's falling back in love with Finn with an ease that seems to be facilitated more by plot than anything else.
At the end of the day, A Private Duel With Agent Gunn is an incompetent attempt to make heroes and heroines out of thinly-drawn Mary Sue characters. Since the previous two books are nowhere this cartoon-like and schizophrenic, I can only wonder what happened.
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