When last we left our hero Paul, he was clearly at a crossroads in his tempestuous life and career, and perhaps he was questioning some fundamentals (well, not those fundamentals – he’s still a male model, after all!) …on the barometer of personal indecision, ‘space armor’ is only a notch or two above ‘turtleneck’ when it comes to a shamelessly shirtless exhibitionist like our Paul. So when we left him wearing jumpsuits and fighting bug-eyed monsters, we had reason to fear the worst.
And surely those fears were realized by the cover of Anton Strout’s 2008 novel Dead to Me, which features Paul once again bundled up against the cold, impersonal winds of his own imagined future: he’s wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt under a thick woolen trenchcoat, and he’s staring meaningfully off into the distance, and his grasping hands are dripping with bright viscous goo …
Actually, the goo is ectoplasmic energy (note to you kids out there: it’s doubtful that line will work with your parents … better to stick to the time-tested ‘it’s mayonaisse’ keeper), because in this book Paul is going by the name of Simon Canderous, a new member of New York City’s Department of Extraordinary Affairs, which handles all the supernatural menaces the Big Apple’s police and fire departments either don’t know about or don’t want to know about. Paul brings to this job his own supernatural ability, but in Strout’s book, that ability isn’t ‘heating up a Speedo’ but rather ‘psychometry’ – the ability to gain psychic impressions about the past of an object simply by touching it. All throughout the book, Paul is forever touching things and getting them to spill their contents all over him.
I had worked hard to put my unscrupulous use of my powers behind me. Long before finding the D.E.A., I had been an impressionable, confused kid with burgeoning powers, working part time for any antique shop that would have me. Cutthroats swarmed that business like sharks being chummed, and there were plenty of sketchy opportunists more than willing to drag me into the world of big scores, petty cons, and fast money.
Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? A confessional ring, one might say. Paul uses his powers to confront the Sectarians, who are kind of an even-more-evil version of the Scientologists, and Strout keeps the proceedings popping along at such a snappy pace – and with such snappy dialogue – that readers of light fantasy will have a very entertaining time. He’s picked just the right power for his sexy protagonist to have: it’s both interesting and small-scale (it’s clearly a forerunner – right down to the cover – of a whole sub-genre of hunky-hero light sci-fi/fantasy).
The ending of Dead to Me finds Paul at a costume party dressed as Zorro, with a tight satin blouse cross-stitched across his bulging chest; readers of this series might at that moment sense something, the faintest tingle of a resurgence … after all, Paul could have dressed as Spongebob Squarepants, or Chewbacca. But no, he chose a revealing costume (which, inexplicably, isn’t the book’s cover image) – perhaps as a cry for help, or perhaps as the first distant hint that such help is no longer needed … because when Paul walked away from the Department of Extraordinary Affairs after that first adventure (he’d return for three more, and they’re all great fun and well worth some of your time), he left his identity crisis – and almost all of his clothes – behind him.
Luckily for all of us, however, he didn’t leave extraordinary affairs behind him. He moved on to London, to a loud party in the apartment of prim-and-proper freelancer writer Isobel Jameson, who spots him from across a crowded room hears that essential question that is the start of every romance: “Who is that guy?” Brainy Isobel at first affects indifference, but you and I both know it’s just plain impossible to be indifferent to our smoldering Paul, and as quick as you can say ‘rock-hard deltoids’ veteran romance author Anne Mather has the two of them tangling the sheets in night after night of torrid – and acrobatic – coupling:
As she touched him, Alejandro caught his breath, sucking air into lungs that suddenly seemed deprived of oxygen. “Cara,” he protested thickly. “Cuidado! Have a care! I have only so much control.”
Isobel’s tongue circled her lips. “But you like me to touch you?” she questioned, and he gave a strangled laugh.
Readers of passages like that one (from The Brazilian Millionaire’s Love-Child) might be forgiven for thinking that if our Paul ever really did lose his pouting mojo, he now firmly had it back again – except that shortly after he and Isobel give such repeated venting to their carnal desires, he up and leaves her … with no forwarding address and his spawn growing in her womb! In the three years that follow, she grows into a smart, determined single mother and he goes and gets himself into a car accident that leaves him crippled and – worse, far, far worse – ugly. Sure, this also means, in romance-novel terms, that he’s now worthy of her love, but so what? Who cares about worthy if you’re ugly?
Fortunately, plane tickets to exotic destinations can take the ugly out of just about anybody, and the first thing our resourceful Paul does is hop a flight to faraway Sydney, Australia and assume a guise that’s very familiar to him: the ruthless sexy businessman. In this case he’s merciless tycoon Vinn Venadicci, hero of The Venadicci Marriage Vengeance, a bastard (in every sense of the word) who was born to a maid of the once-prosperous St. Clair family and is now in a position to save that family’s finances – if only the family’s representative, buxom young Gabriella St. Clair, can swallow her, um, pride long enough go to him for aid. Author Melanie Milburne, in page after page of spirited, more-intelligent-than-it-looks prose, has these two stubbornly avoiding the schmaltz waltz in favor of a tighter tango, sparked – of course – by mutual desire:
In the nanosecond before she spoke Gabby quickly drank in his image, her heart giving a little jerk inside her chest in spite of all her efforts to control it. Even when he was seated his height was intimidating, and the black raven’s wing of his hair caught the light coming in from the windows, giving it a glossy sheen that made her fingers itch to reach out and touch it. His nose was crooked from one too many of the brawls he had been involved in during his youth, but – unlike many other high-profile businessmen, who would have sought surgical correction by now – Vinn wore his war wounds like a medal. Just like the scar that interrupted his left eyebrow, giving him a dangerous don’t-mess-with-me look that was disturbingly attractive.
This flight of fantasy (needless to say, this Venadicci bravo’s mincemeat face bears little resemblance to the sculpted perfection of Paul’s puss) is followed by many others, and the book’s conclusion is funny, diverting stuff – Milburne knows how to please (by random chance I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re equally good), and more importantly, so does her Harlequin cover artist, who gives us a small taste of the Paul we’ve been missing: mough agape, topless, and ever so slightly exaggerated in the pecs department. He seems natural somehow, munching so amorally on poor rapturized Gabby – he looks like a predator in its natural element, which is hardly the way we’ve seen him lately.
But all that is about to change! Our Paul has indeed been through some kind of refining fire – he’s been down so long, he can only go up! Our chronicle had faltered a bit, as our hero floundered and seemed destined to wander into a lackluster second-tier romance hero career with occasional moonlighting in galaxies far, far away. But sometimes, we need to hit rock bottom to know we can fall no further, and our Paul is done with that now! An unbroken string of triumphs lie ahead, all of them to be achieved by Paul finally believing in being Paul – to the fullest, every single photoshoot.
It’s a heady ride, and it begins in our next thrilling chapter!