DarkRiver sentinel Mercy Smith is starting to feel the pressure to find a mate. All her fellow sentinels have already settled down and now her Brazilian grandmother who is alpha of her pack is sending two of her own sentinels in hopes that one of them might connect with Mercy. But Mercy isn't in the mood for matchmaking family members. Right now she just needs to scratch an itch after a long period of celibacy that her cat side isn't too happy about, and the person who shows up when her need is greatest is SnowDancer lieutenant Riley Kincaid. They work together as liaisons between their two packs, and most of the time, they push each other's buttons in the worst way, but they quickly discover a blazing hot sexual chemistry that can't be denied. However, Mercy's leopard and Riley's wolf are both accustomed to being in control and don't entirely trust each other. When a brilliant young scientist who was under DarkRiver protection goes missing, Mercy and Riley must work together to investigate, taking them and their pack-mates down a rabbit hole of deception, conspiracy, and intrigue. As they work to solve the mystery and keep their packs safe, they may also discover that they share an unquenchable passion. But can they find a way to compromise that doesn't leave either of them out in the cold?
Branded by Fire is the sixth full-length novel in Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series. It features DarkRiver sentinel Mercy paired with SnowDancer lieutenant Riley. These two are both dominants in their packs, with Riley being the right-hand man of SnowDancer alpha Hawke, while Mercy is an invaluable and trusted soldier to her own alpha, Lucas. They've worked together as liaisons between their packs and generally tend to rub each other the wrong way. However, their relationship in this book gets off to a steamy start with them giving in to their animal lust in Chapter 1, but they think it's only a one-night stand to scratch their itch after both going through a dry spell. As dominants, they don't know if there can ever be anything more between them, because they both chafe at the idea of submitting to the other. Also with one of them being a wolf and the other being a leopard, their inner beasts are innately wary of one another, and they don't know if their human sides can overcome that. But it doesn't stop them from getting horizontal over and over again, while discovering that their feelings may run a lot deeper than they anticipated. While they try to figure things out, a political maelstrom is brewing. The Human Alliance ramps up their efforts to exert control in a world where they feel increasingly left behind, a plot to assassinate the entire Psy Council is uncovered, and several Psy seemingly go crazy, committing high profile acts of public violence. It was a very eventful book that provided a great deal of intrigue as the greater Psy-Changeling story arc continues to develop, while definitely not skimping on the love, romance, and steamy goodness between our main couple.
Riley and his siblings lost their parents at a young age, and although the pack cared for all of them afterward, he's felt solely responsible for his younger sister and brother ever since. He grew up into a strong, dominant warrior for whom pack is everything. As Senior Lieutenant, Riley is the second-highest ranking member of the SnowDancer wolf pack, reporting directly to alpha Hawke. He's earned the nickname, The Wall, because of both his strength and his stoicism. He has a reputation for never losing his cool and can sometimes be hard to read. Because of his strong sense of responsibility to both family and pack, he still bears some emotional scars and guilt from when his sister, Brenna, was kidnapped and mind-raped by a brutal Psy serial killer way back in Slave to Sensation, the first book of the series, even though she's since fully recovered. When he has nightmares from it and seeks out Mercy's comfort, it was a sweet moment of vulnerability for him. During his work as pack liaison, Mercy has driven him a little crazy, but there's an undeniable physical attraction between them. After their first steamy night together, Riley doesn't think he can get enough of Mercy, but it's a difficult road to finding a balance in their relationship and getting to a place where their animal sides can trust one another completely. Riley screws up a few times along the way, but despite being a dominant, he isn't unreasonable, nor too stubborn to learn from his mistakes. He's good at finding compromises, even to the point of being willing to leave his own pack if necessary in order to be with Mercy. He's also a deliciously generous lover.
Mercy comes from a good family and she loves them to pieces even though they sometimes meddle in her personal life. Her brothers tend to be bossy, while her grandmother, who is alpha of her Brazilian pack, thinks it's high time for Mercy to get mated, and since her prospects in DarkRiver are slim to none, she sends a couple of her most attractive pack members to woo her granddaughter. Of course, this only serves to annoy Mercy and inflame jealousy in Riley. Mercy may not be interested in the Brazilian hotties, but with all her other fellow DarkRiver sentinels already mated, she's starting to feel rather left out. She wants someone to share her life with, but fears that as a dominant, she might not be able to find someone who can respect her independence while also being strong enough to handle being with her. After eight months of celibacy, she's also craving affection. For Changelings, physical touch and intimacy are like air and water to them, so when Riley shows interest, she can't resist. Then he rocks her world, bringing her back for more. Soon Mercy finds that she's drawn to Riley in more than a sexual way, but at the same time, she has doubts that two people who butt heads so often could make a good match. I usually tend to relate better to sweeter, more submissive type heroines, so alpha heroines can often be dicey for me. Knowing how dominant Mercy could be from her appearances in the previous books, I wasn't sure how well I would like her, but I'm happy to say that she ended up being pretty relatable. She does get her back up a few times, which in other similar heroines, I've found to be rather annoying and bitchy. But with Mercy, it was more a case of her letting Riley know where her boundaries are, so she didn't really push my buttons. She can also be reasonable enough to find middle ground and has a more loving, giving side as well, wanting to take care of Riley in the same way he takes care of her.
Branded by Fire boasts a plethora of supporting characters, many of whom have their own stories in the series. Lucas and Sascha (Slave to Sensation) play prominent roles with some interesting new developments in their lives. Hawke (Kiss of Snow) has an important role as well, while the tension between him and Sienna, his eventual heroine, increases, leading to a somewhat surprising change for her, too. All of the other DarkRiver sentinels, Nate ("Beat of Temptation" from Wild Invitation), Vaughn (Visions of Heat), Clay (Mine to Possess), and Dorian (Hostage to Pleasure), as well as SnowDancer lieutenants Indigo (Play of Passion) and Judd (Caressed by Ice) all look after their packs and help with investigating the kidnapping of a Lynx Changeling under DarkRiver protection. Riley's brother Drew who becomes Indigo's mate and his sister, Brenna, who is Judd's mate, both support and tease their older sibling. We're introduced to Mercy's oldest brother, Bastien, who becomes the hero of the novella, Secrets at Midnight. Pack healers, Tamsyn, who is Nate's mate, and Lara ("Texture of Intimacy" from Wild Invitation) help out during a couple of medical emergencies, while Tammy also gives Mercy advice. We're introduced to Bowen, a human, who becomes the hero of Ocean Light. Kaleb (Heart of Obsidian) continues to be the enigmatic Psy Councilor who is equal parts deadly and cunning. I can't wait to uncover all of his secrets. Then last, but not least, Psy Arrow Vasic (Shield of Winter) is briefly seen.
Overall, Branded by Fire was another excellent book in this series that I very much enjoyed. Mercy and Riley may not have been officially engaged in the mating dance until late in the story, but they take part in a dance of sorts throughout the entire book that was fun to read. With two dominant characters like they are, it could have been really frustrating reading for me, but each of them gradually gives a little in order to find the perfect middle ground that will make it possible for them to become mates. They may push each other's buttons from time to time, but they never annoyed me or made me feel like they were constantly at each other's throats, which was a major plus. The intrigue that progressed the overall series story arc was nicely woven into the background, although I have to admit that there was so much happening on so many different fronts that it did get a bit confusing at times. I figured out most of it by the end, but there were one or two small things that weren't entirely clear to me, which is why I dropped the half-star. Otherwise, this was a great story that kept me engaged and has left me eager to pick up the next book soon.
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