Striking Distance

Debra Webb
2004, Romantic Suspense
Harlequin, $5.99, 300 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373835574
Part of a series

Grade: B
Sensuality: Hot

Debra Webb's first single title after a long run of series books comes complete with a glowing cover quote from Linda Howard. It might raise expectations that can't be fulfilled, since this book doesn't compare to Howard's best. But like many of Howard's books, it lives and dies by its hero. While it contains a number of rough edges overall, Webb provides a very dark, very tortured hero who makes Striking Distance a worthwhile read.

Victoria Colby is the head of an exclusive private investigations agency founded by her late husband. The agency became her life after the murders of her husband and son years earlier. Now the same man who took away her family wants to finish her off once and for all.

Lucas Camp has no intention of letting that happen. A former colleague of her husband and a high ranking official in the intelligence community, he has loved her for years and will do anything to protect her. When he learns of the assassin tracking Victoria's every move, he hatches a plan to stop the killer by sending in someone who can get close to him.

CIA recruit Tasha North draws the assignment. After spending the first few months of her career sitting behind a desk, she is determined to prove herself in the field. That includes doing whatever it takes to get close to the dead-eyed assassin known only as Seth. The man is cold, utterly ruthless, and bound to his mission to kill Victoria Colby. That doesn't mean he's immune to Tasha's feminine wiles.

But getting close to him exposes Tasha to more danger than she expected. The seduction takes place entirely on his terms, pushing her into riskier and riskier territory. The closer she gets, the more she realizes just how dark his psyche is. The path that led him to become a killer is unimaginable, and even though her instincts warn her not to grow too attached, she can't fight her growing feelings for the man she has to destroy.

Striking Distance is a continuation of the author's multi-book Colby Agency and Specialists series that spread across the Harlequin's Intrigue and American Romance lines. It sits in that Harlequin single title gray zone, far more than a series book, but not quite a mainstream release. Webb still has a series author's habit of telling a lot more than showing, with way too much narrative and heavy expositional scenes. The opening in particular is slow with everything she has to set up. But storywise she's off to a strong start. There's more than enough material to justify the book's longer length, with its dual relationships between Tasha and Seth and Victoria and Lucas, and the complex suspense plot. It's not even close to being just a padded series book. It actually could have been longer, and some of the scenes push way beyond series territory, with at least one darkly sexual scene that made me wonder how far Webb was going to go in a romance.

On the other hand, despite being labeled a romance on the spine, the book is definitely far more suspense than love story. Character development for everyone except the hero is sacrificed to the action. The hero is so tortured and just plain screwed up that, while it's clear they've formed a strong bond by the end of the book, this is definitely just the beginning of their relationship. This felt more natural to me than squeezing their entire romance into a brief period of time, but other readers may feel differently. There are some problems with the plotting, especially with events that fell into place too easily. I had an issue with one big hole in the villain's motivation, and the "shocking" revelation that comes out late in the story isn't all that surprising, particularly for anyone read an earlier Colby Agency book with the exact same twist.

That said, it is still a fast and compelling read, mainly because of the fascinating hero. He is the sole reason I bumped the book up to a B when it otherwise lingered around a B-/C+. Tasha is a good tough-yet-vulnerable heroine and a good match for him, but the hero is the one who kept me turning the pages. He's more of an antihero. Very little, if any, of what he does in the book can be considered heroic. Dangerous and unpredictable, he's dark in ways most recent so-called tortured heroes can only aspire. I loved not knowing exactly what he would do or how far he would go. The darkly seductive relationship between the two crosses into some extremely gritty territory, and the story builds to a series of key emotional moments that are very effective. Some of what he reveals about himself to Tasha is devastating stuff, more daring than some authors would risk. His story carried me past the book's weaknesses. He really is one of the more interesting romance heroes I've read about in some time.

While the book had its problems, they were relatively minor in the overall scheme of things. A fast moving plot steered by two strong characters, Striking Distance is a most compelling read.

-- Leigh Thomas

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