Fragile, by Shiloh Walker

3 Feb

Hello, my name is azteclady, and I’m a Shiloh Walker fangirl (and no, I don’t need no stinkin’ program, thank you)

Fragile, by Shiloh Walker

Ms Walker’s latest print release, Fragile, is a mix of erotic romance and romantic suspense, and it succeeds beautifully in both subgenres. All too often erotic romances focus so much on the erotic part that the romance feels short-changed; not so with Fragile, at all. All the different elements are so well balanced that I have trouble trying to label this novel into any one subgenre.

Unless the label happens to be, “excellent” ‘cause then it’s easy.

Here is the back cover blurb:

Sometimes the last thing you want is exactly what you need.

Six years after trading in his combat gear for hospital scrubs, Luke Rafferty is faced with things just as heartbreaking as those on the battlefield. The abused children being brought in by the pretty redheaded social worker tug at his soul like nothing he’s ever known.

For Devon Manning, being a social worker is a rewarding job, but also a constant reminder of her own troubled youth. Devon takes everything one day at a time—unable to form a relationship with anyone except the children she rescues.

When Luke meets Devon, he thinks he might have found what he’s been looking for, but in order to get the life he wants, Luke has to break through Devon’s emotional barriers and make her realize that his healing touch might be just the complication her life needs…

Going by that blurb, this would seem to be a straightforward romance. Well, it isn’t. There is an extremely well realized suspense plot that starts quite early on, subtly enough, and which unfolds with a vengeance during the last third of the book. It is so well done that all I can say without spoiling it is this: things are not what they seem.

(I bit my nails for close to a hundred pages, s’all I’m sayin’)

The beginning of the novel gives us some key background on the hero. Luke Rafferty has had a good life, and he is well aware of it, for he was spared the hell his twin knew, growing up at the hands of their mother. Being born early with some respiratory complications translated into being raised by his father instead and knowing love from day one.

The heroine is introduced later, and her past is revealed more slowly, as the relationship between the two of them develops. Devon Manning hasn’t had it easy. Hers is a story of survival and triumph over rather large odds, from neglect to sexual and emotional abuse to drug addiction. Devon’s current stability is a testament to the large streak of steel in her character.

The first half or so of the novel focuses mostly on the relationship between these two. There are emotional obstacles on both their sides, but mostly Devon’s. Only once before had she been tempted to try the relationship gamble. Not only didn’t it work, but the experience pushed even her further away from people. At this point, she is convinced that there is no possibility of change, but Luke’s presence taunts her, making her imagine a different reality. When Luke realizes that the attraction is mutual, there is very little that would stop him from reaching for her.

I have said before that I love Ms Walker’s characters, and Luke and Devon are no exceptions. They are real, complex, likeable, flawed, human. Because they both have issues—he is almost too protective of her; she has serious issues to overcome, with both sex and trust—the little step forward, step back, step forward dance they engage in feels very real, very immediate, as something that anyone who has baggage of their own can relate to.

The coolest thing, though, is that while their relationship progresses, the rest of their lives are not in stasis. Things are happening, other forces in their lives are moving forward, and those forces impact them, individually and as a couple. Luke is particularly talented at manipulating the effects of those external developments into having a positive impact on their relationship (i.e., something bad happens, so he moves in with Devon to keep an eye on her). Devon is no wilting flower, however. Yes, she has serious emotional issues to overcome, but she’s no passive doormat—on any front. Even during her darkest hour, she continues to fight.

The sexual aspect of the relationship is very well written. Writing convincing sex scenes is not easy, let alone graphic ones. Writing sex scenes that either move the relationship forward or showcase character development is even more difficult. Ms Walker’s writing accomplishes both here.

There are a few secondary characters, only one of which has significant page space—Quinn, Luke’s twin brother. However, most of those characters who have very little face time are vividly drawn, with one or two paragraphs. One example early in the novel is the widow of one of Luke’s fallen army comrades. She has three or so lines of dialogue, total, and appears only during the funeral scene, yet her pain at losing her husband and her joy at being pregnant with their child are conveyed so clearly, I still get teary for her.

Now, to my quibbles.

There are a couple of bits of information which are repeated a couple or three times with wording that is too similar, particularly when it’s different characters retelling the information. This is something I’ve noticed before in Ms Walker’s writing, but with each new book it happens less and less.

Also, there are a couple of loose threads remaining at the end of the story which I would have liked to see addressed. For example, at one point Luke breaks into Devon’s email account. Yes, his motives are all good, but that’s a huge violation of privacy. Does she ever find out? How does Luke justify or explain it to her? can she trust him not to do it again?

A key question regarding the villain’s actions is left unanswered (and I cannot be more specific without giving out too much information, but trust me, you will know what I mean when you get to the last page: how did the villain do that?)

Fragile is a great novel, a wonderful romance and a very well crafted thriller. 9 out of 10.

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