Nathan Hodges is a hunted man who spent years as the prey of a psychotic killer hell bent on revenge. For the last five years, Nate has led a fairly normal life, believing the man dead, but recent reports have sighted him alive and headed toward Nate's home in Florida. Knowing that this time he will have to kill or be killed, Nate wants to get as far away from civilization as he can to protect the few people he cares about and prevent innocents from being caught in the crossfire. He buys an old house on a secluded beach, which is reputed to be part of a centuries-old mission that carries a legend of ghostly lovers who were murdered there and can only be set free by the union of their counterparts in another lifetime. The house across the road, the only other one for miles around, was supposed to be uninhabited except for the summer months, so when Nate goes for a late-night walk on the beach, he is surprised to find a woman living there. She's also not just any woman, but the one he has been having dreams about for years.
Two years earlier, Cynthia Porter's husband was murdered in cold blood by one of the teen runaways he tried to help. Now the killer himself has met a violent death behind bars. In an attempt to put the past behind her and come to terms with the brutality around her, Cyn came to her family's beach house for a brief sabbatical. Never did she expect to finally find the man who has haunted her dreams since her teen years living across the road. From the moment she meets Nate, Cyn instinctively knows that he is a man with a violent past, but she also senses he is a man in trouble. Never one who could turn away from a soul in need, Cyn feels drawn to Nate, not only by an innate need to help, but also by a primal desire for a man she believes may be her soul-mate. Nate knows that he shouldn't get involved with Cyn at this dangerous time in his life, but neither can he resist the call of his heart. But when his arch-enemy locates him, Nate may not be able to keep both himself and Cyn safe long enough for them to share their lives and release the ancient lovers to finally find peace.
This Side of Heaven was my first read by Beverly Barton, and I found to be a generally well-written and enjoyable romantic suspense. It embodies a touch of the paranormal in two ways. One is that the hero and heroine have been dreaming about each other since they were teenagers. The other is that they are the contemporary counterparts of a pair of ghostly lovers from centuries past who are cursed to remain on "this side of heaven," walking the beach where they were murdered, until another couple is united in a way that they never were. By doing so, they will release the lover's spirits into the afterlife. Both of these elements were rather interesting and unusual, and precipitated the hero and heroine being drawn together the moment they first see each other. I think this allowed a certain degree of intimacy to exist between them right from the start without it seeming too forced, but even still, they fell in love a little too quickly to be entirely believable for me. Overall, it wasn't too bad. I just didn't feel as deep of an emotional connection with them as I would have liked.
Nate was a rare, over-forty romance hero, who was an uber-alpha. Normally, I don't go for the more intense guys, but he was a little easier for me to take than most. Admittedly, Nate's alpha-ness could be rather irritating such as when he's ordering Cyn around or calling her "woman," but at the same time he could be somewhat amusing, particularly when he was trying to mask his feelings for her. He created this push and pull relationship, because he simply couldn't resist her, but also knew that to allow her to mean anything to him would be to his detriment. Emotions were a distraction he just couldn't afford. Nate was also a pretty tortured hero who had a lousy childhood, never knowing his father and being raised by an abusive uncle after his mother died. He had also led a very violent life, spending twenty years in the Navy SEALs, including a stint in Vietnam. He seemed to be seeking peace for his battered heart and freedom from the brutality that had almost become second-nature to him. The only time Nate had felt any solace or joy was in his early childhood when his mother was still alive, and in his dreams of a mysterious woman. Unfortunately, the tranquility he was looking for was not to be found easily with a crazed, psycho killer on the loose who was trying to end his life. Out of necessity, he had had to be tough and now just needed someone to nurture him, and Cyn was a woman willing to give him her heart and soul. I wish that Nate had exhibited a little more vulnerability, as his alpha nature was still just a bit too much for me, but overall he was a pretty good guy and one that fans of intense alphas would probably like.
Cyn was a woman who had always been the strong rock to everyone around her. She just couldn't say "no" to a soul in need, and Nate was obviously very much in need of someone to lean on. I think she was courageous to carry on with her husband's work at the shelter for runaways after he was murdered by a drug-addicted teen whom he tried to help. She was also pretty brave to go into a bad area of town in an attempt to help a couple of wayward kids from the shelter. Cyn is basically a pacifist who abhors violence, so when she first meets Nate, she is a little afraid of the fierceness that emanates from him as well as his huge knife collection. It is that same intensity though that draws her to him, because she knows that he is a man who will love with his whole being. She is a sensitive, kindhearted woman who senses Nate's deep loneliness and wants very much to help him, but in spite of her gentleness, she is no pushover. Cyn can go toe-to-toe with Nate, and be every bit as obstinate as he is. One of the things I liked best about her is that she may have been stubborn and insisted on staying with Nate, but in the end, she always listened to him and didn't try anything stupid. The other great thing about her is that she intuitively understands that Nate is in trouble, even though he doesn't fully explain his situation to her for safety reasons. She also figures out that his prickliness is just part of his armor, and never gets offended like other romance heroines might. There were many times when the author could have easily resorted to the dreaded "big misunderstanding," but she never did which was a nice change of pace.
Overall, I found Beverly Barton's writing to be fairly strong and descriptive with pretty good character and plot development for the shorter Silhouette length. She managed to create some good intrigue surrounding a secondary character with ties to both Nate and Cyn. I went back and forth in my mind several times over whether he truly was villainous or not. The final showdown was engaging and included a twist that I didn't really see coming. I wasn't entirely thrilled with the constantly alternating points-of-view, as I'm just more used to whole scenes coming from one character's perspective. I think perhaps this and some passages being written more passively may have contributed to my lack of emotional connection.
Although the author's website doesn't list it as such, This Side of Heaven appears to be widely considered as the first book in The Protectors series. From the research I've done, it seems that the discrepancy is simply that this and the next two connected books are kind of prequels to the main series. This Side of Heaven introduces bodyguard, Sam Dundee, who I assume is the head of Dundee's Protection Agency (aka The Protectors) who becomes the hero of Guarding Jeannie four books later. Readers also get to know DEA agent, Nick Romero, Nate's best friend and fellow former SEAL who is the hero of the next book, Paladin's Woman. I liked Nick as a secondary character. He was injured in the line of duty in this book, and I look forward to seeing what's in store for him next. This Side of Heaven was first published as part of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line, but was later reprinted in the anthology The Protectors: The Beginning along with book #3, The Outcast.
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