Dane White Eagle's family and friends think that he has given up on a promising future to work as a security guard at a local company, but in reality he is an agent with the FBI, working deep cover narcotics in an attempt to infiltrate an illegal drug operation on the reservation. The bureau knows who is running the ring that has been selling tainted Ecstasy that is killing teenagers, but they don't know where the lab is located. When Dane's little sister is tragically murdered, his handlers come up with a scheme to get him into the good graces of the ring leader, Bobby Big Elk. With Bobby already in prison, Dane takes the fall for killing his sister, so that he will go to prison too. Months later, the FBI gets him out, and he returns to the reservation to work on Bobby's brother, Leland, who has been running the operation since Bobby's imprisonment. But how long can Dane keep up the charade when some of his people still think he is a murderer and the woman who has haunted his dreams since his trial is now living on the reservation and may be in danger from the drug dealers?
Dr. Claire Colby was on duty in the emergency room the night that Dane brought his sister in. It was, in part, her testimony that sent him to prison, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she could never quite shake the feeling that he might be innocent. Claire is tired of the rat race of a big city hospital and deciding she needs a change of pace, applies for a position as the Indian Health Services doctor on the reservation. Claire has never quite been able to forget Dane, because he too haunts her dreams that unbeknownst to her are eerily similar to Dane's. When she arrives on the reservation, she is surprised to find Dane there, and very disconcerted to discover that he is now a tribal police officer. Dane knows that he should stay away from Claire for her safety, but he can't seem to resist the lovely doc. When Claire's car breaks down, Dane goes above and beyond to offer assistance, showing her a side of himself that slowly begins to earn her trust. But will Dane be able to keep her alive and safe from the drug ring, and will she ever be able to forgive him when she finds out that he's been keeping the truth from her?
I've always been a fan of Native American themed romances, but most of them tend to fall into the historical category. Secret Shadows is the first fully contemporary Native American themed romance that I've read, and pairing that with a suspense plot, made the story unique and engaging. Judie Aitken is the best author I've read to date at rendering the Native American culture and lifestyle in a very realistic way. I really appreciate this and actually feel like I'm learning things from her writing. In fact, the book begins with a letter from the author which includes a recipe for frybread and notes on specific aspects of Native American culture that are mentioned in the story. Lakota words and phrases are also peppered throughout the narrative. The majority of the novel takes place on a fictional Indian reservation and a very poor one at that. I felt that the author really conveyed the pride these people have in their culture and the close bonds within the tribe, which evoked empathy in me, but not pity as some might feel, in spite of some heartbreaking living conditions. The author keeps the plot moving steadily forward, but at a rather languid pace, which gave the story the feel of what I imagine the pace of life on an Indian reservation to really be. Actually, no matter what type of scenes Judie Aitken is writing, she seems to have a knack for keeping it real. Whether it's courtroom action, prison scenes, undercover action, or medical scenes, Ms. Aitken either has personal knowledge of these things or has done her research well, because everything seemed very authentic to me.
Dane was a very sexy hero. He is an undercover FBI agent, working to bring down an illegal drug operation on the reservation. Even though it brings pain to both him and his family and friends, he isn't able to tell them who and what he really is, leaving some, including his own mother, thinking that he has betrayed his own people. Dane even allowed himself to be wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, and one that personally affected him in a profound way at that, in order keep up the pretense of being a drug dealer. I personally know someone who used to work deep cover narcotics, just like Dane, so I really liked the way that the author brought out Dane's feelings of loosing his sense of self in his undercover work, which was another very genuine aspect of the story. I also really enjoyed reading about Dane's commitment to his culture and tribe, and how everything about him was so very "Indian". I also throughly enjoyed Dane's sense of humor and the way he teased Claire. Most of the time he was very serious, but these subtle exchanges showed another side of his personality, the "real" him, which often made me smile.
Claire is a very admirable heroine. She is a talented ER doctor whose testimony helped put Dane in prison, which sets up an intriguing conflict. She desires a change of pace and the ability to build real relationships with her patients, rather than seeing them just one time, which drives her to apply for a job as the Indian Health Services doctor on the reservation. In my own personal experience, it is very rare for a doctor to have this level of care and commitment for their patients, and as such, I thoroughly liked and deeply respected Claire for this. I thought she also exhibited a certain braveness of spirit to enter a culture that was very different from her own, and to move from the conveniences of city life to a tiny town on a reservation where some don't even have running water. I love that she wasn't scared away by the filthy house that came with the job, and how she threw herself into her work with gusto, wanting to get to know everyone and treat the whole person, not just their illnesses. There was one thing about Claire that I felt the author left as a hanging thread, and that was her former marriage and history of domestic abuse. I had thought that this might become a bigger part of Claire's characterization, and help build relationship intimacy between her and Dane, but aside from mentioning that she was divorced, she never even told him about it during the course of the story. I really would have liked to see more come of this element, but in the end, it didn't really add anything to the plot, making it rather unnecessary.
I'm sure that it is very difficult for an author to find the right balance between suspense and romance in a romantic suspense novel. There isn't much of a mystery to be solved (in my mind, the motive was really the only question), but the suspense aspect of Secret Shadows was very well done, in my opinion. It held my interest and kept me reading, but I did feel that it somewhat overshadowed the romance. There is an instant attraction and a decent amount of sexual tension between Dane and Claire. They also repeatedly have the same shared dream and are both mysteriously being followed around by wild rez dogs. All of these things helped to build a connection and the latter two added just a hint of the paranormal, however, they don't even kiss until nearly 2/3 of the way into the story. I guess this was all rather understandable since Dane couldn't tell her who and what he really was, and he was reluctant to get involved while he was working undercover for fear that it might endanger her. Still, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed by the rather low-key nature of their romance.
Aside from a few continuity errors, Ms. Aitken managed to create a strong story with a likable hero and heroine. There was a large group of supporting characters too, my favorite of whom was probably Clement, a wise old Indian who becomes Dane's staunchest defender. The book gets off to a heartbreaking start right in the first chapter, and then builds into an interesting cat-and-mouse game between Dane and the bad guys. Secret Shadows is the second book by Ms. Aitken that I've read and I thought both were very well-written. Although she has only authored a total of four books, I look forward to trying the other two at some point. Anyone who enjoys romantic suspense and/or Native American stories should definitely give Secret Shadows a try.
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