Zack Hunter left his hometown of Douglas, AZ ten years ago, after a fight with his step-father in defense of his mother led to his arrest. Because of the circumstances, Zack was released, but guilt over the incident made him feel like he wasn't good enough for the love of his life, Skylar McKenna. Now an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Zack is back in town to investigate a rash of cattle rustling on the ranches that border Mexico. Zack has never quite been able to forget Sky, and now that he is heading home for good, he has every intention of picking up where they left off and making Sky his forever this time.
Since her father's retirement, Sky has been running the family's cattle ranch and doing quite well for herself, but the rustlers seem to have hit her ranch the hardest of any in the area. When sexy Zack Hunter shows up at her door investigating, she can't believe he's finally back in town. Sky has never forgotten Zack or how badly he broke her heart when he left. She tried to pick up the pieces and move on, but no one ever quite measured up to Zack for her. Now seeing him all the time as he tries to figure out who has been stealing her cattle, is a vivid reminder of the passion they once shared, leaving Sky very hot and bothered. Her body would like nothing more than to surrender to his every demand, but when Zack's requirement involves rekindling their relationship, Sky isn't sure if she's willing to give him her heart again so easily.
Much like Zack's up-and-down relationship with Sky, I also had a roller coaster relationship with this book. There were some elements that I enjoyed reading and thought had earned at least four stars, but there were others that I thought were weak and probably didn't warrant any more than three stars. Hence, why I went with the in between rating. Being an Arizonan, I enjoyed reading a story set in my home state. I happen to be an urbanite, but I thought Ms. McCray did a good job with describing rural and small town life in Arizona, which is probably a testament to her writing what she knows. Even though cattle rustling wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for a mystery/suspense plot, I thought that it was pretty well done. The author set up a number of suspects, and although I had a feeling I knew who the bad guy was about halfway through, she did make me second-guess myself a couple of times. The love scenes were very hot and spicy, borderline erotic, and for the most part I enjoyed reading them. My only issue is that the one scene that actually took place in the bedroom was, in my opinion, pretty rushed and unsatisfying, almost as though the author didn't quite know how to write a "normal" love scene that didn't involve living on the edge. Not that I'm complaining about the variety, and otherwise, these scenes were probably one of the best things about the book.
Normally, I'm a big fan of reunion romances, but this one just didn't quite touch me in the same way that most do. The author started to develop the character's backstories, but then the relationship stuff seemed to peter out in favor of the mystery/suspense plot and hot sex scenes. I just felt like Zack's reasons for leaving ten years earlier and breaking Sky's heart were rather weak (or perhaps just not explained to my satisfaction). Then Zack comes back to town doing his best caveman impression, determined to make Sky his again with absolutely no plan of what he'll do if she's married or involved with someone else. Of course, when he finds out she's still unattached, he couldn't be happier. There's an instant magnetic re-attraction, and the clothes start flying off within a couple of days with no apologies, explanations or real reconnection of any sort, which was rather disappointing to me and hard to believe, in spite of the hotness factor.
Zack is a sexy Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent with a dangerous-looking scar on his face and a bad-boy past to back it up. He begins the story being pretty arrogant and extremely po-ssessive almost to the point of being ob-sessive about Sky. I was a little worried that Zack might end up irritating me with his uber-alpha-ness, but thankfully he never quite tipped the scales. In fact, he seemed to soften up a little as the story progressed. I can honestly say that in his seductive moments, he could be quite appealing in spite of his intense alpha nature. Zack had a pretty horrific past, having watched both his father and step-father regularly beat up his mother, and then becoming the recipient of some of that abuse himself. This would normally be something I would sympathize with very deeply, but I didn't feel like the author created enough of an emotional connection to the character for him to become one of those tortured heroes that I'd love nothing more than to wrap up in my arms. The only reason that was ever given for his abruptly leaving town ten years earlier was that he didn't feel worthy of Sky after he nearly killed his step-father in defense of his mother. This just didn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle to me, and I felt that if he and Sky had just had a good old-fashioned heart-to-heart, they could have worked things out instead of pining after each other for a decade. At one point, Sky mused about how their earlier relationship had lacked maturity, and I would definitely agree, but even after Zack returned there still wasn't much communication going on between them, at least not of the verbal variety.;-)
Sky was a tough cowgirl who had continued to successfully run her family's ranch after her father's retirement, which was something I could admire. She could be as stubborn as Zack at times and pretty insistent upon taking care of herself, but I liked that when she came across the rustlers near the end, she didn't go rushing headlong into the fray like a TSTL heroine would. Instead she used her brain and tried to call for help. Sky definitely had her good points, but there were a couple of things that bothered me about her and made her loose some of my respect. The first is that when Zack comes back, she is as hot for him as he is for her, and she ends up allowing him to have sex with her without ever discussing why he left and how much he hurt her, even though she's obviously and understandably still angry with him about that. In this respect, Sky was one of those contradictory heroines who keeps telling herself in her head all the reasons she shouldn't want the hero, but just can't seem to keep her panties on when he's around. The other thing that irritated me about her was that she was willing to use Zack for hot sex without making a commitment to giving their relationship another try, even though Zack was completely up front about that being what he truly wanted from her. Although I can't say that Zack necessarily did anything spectacular to earn her trust back at any point in the story, Sky at least finally came to her senses and didn't end up acting completely cold and insensitive. Oh yeah, and I sure would like to know what Sky was doing to have half the male population panting and salivating after her, or more accurately obsessing to the point that they think they own her. When Zack and her ex boyfriend, Wade, got into a fight over her, there was so much testosterone flying, I had to duck.;-)
For me, Zack ended up being one of those OK stories that I thought could have been really good with a little more TLC. If the author had given a bit more attention to Zack and Sky working out the problems that broke them up the first time, instead of them being so obsessed with sex, I would have liked the book a lot more. As it was written, I felt plenty of lust emanating from the pages, but not a whole lot of love. Without the resolution of their prior conflict, I just wasn't entirely convinced that these two could have a long happy life together even with the HEA ending. I also had a couple of minor issues with the writing itself in that I didn't feel like the narrative flowed quite as well as it could have, and even though I don't drink, I know I could have made a great drinking game out of the repetitious words and phrases I found. Still, in spite of all my criticisms, I probably would have given the book four stars, except that I frequently found my mind wandering throughout my entire reading of it, which is never a good sign. I think this may have had a lot to do with me feeling like the author was telling me too much and not showing me enough, therefore it didn't fully engage my imagination. Overall, Zack was a worthwhile read, and anyone who likes a combination of hot, steamy love scenes with a decent suspense plot, but is more forgiving of character flaws and lack of relationship development than I am, will probably enjoy it. Zack is the first book in Cheyenne McCray's Armed and Dangerous series, and the first I've read by her. Even though it wasn't an entirely satisfying read for me, I will likely give her another chance, perhaps when the next book of the series, Luke, featuring secondary character, Luke Rider, as the hero, comes out next month (10-27-09).
Note: Zack reads very much like an extra-steamy, traditional, contemporary romance, but the inclusion of some mild exhibitionism (a couple of the love scenes take place in public or semi-public places) and some explicit language give it a borderline erotic feel.
I also discovered that Zack is basically a re-titled version of Wildfire which was originally released by Ellora's Cave Publishers. The names of the characters have been changed and it has been expanded by about 50 pages, but the storyline is basically the same. I'm beginning to suspect that the entire Armed and Dangerous series may just be a re-tooled version of Ms. McCray's Wild series.
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