Buy Link: Altered Heart
Author: Kate Steele
Publisher: Loose Id
Rio Hardin is hustling on the streets after running away from home. One night he agrees to go with the wrong guy– someone who turns out to be a sadistic alpha werewolf named Kevin Sutter who kidnaps him, turns him, and takes him as a pet. Rio is subject to horrible physical, sexual, and emotional abuse while under Sutter’s control, and after a month is malnourished, battered, and suffering from the inhuman treatment.
Most of the wolves in Sutter’s pack are afraid to report the abuse to the authorities for fear of the alpha’s retaliation. Rio is finally rescued when Mick Matranga, an agent with the Committee for Supernatural Behavioral Enforcement, shows up to arrest Sutter for the death of another young man. Mick takes Rio back home, intending to place him up with a friend who is alpha of another pack to help care for Rio and settle him into life as a wolf. But after the terrible experience with Sutter, Rio is scared and unhappy living with another alpha (although the man means him no harm) and keeps running away until Mick comes and brings him to his own home.
Mick has been trying to ignore all along that his wolf is drawn to Rio. He lost his wife a few years ago and knows he doesn’t want a relationship. Although they have a brief physical encounter early on, Mick realizes that getting involved is not a good idea and focuses on getting Rio counseling and started working towards his GED. However, as the full moon draws closer and Rio approaches his first change, Mick knows the man will need help making it through the process and that somehow sexual activity will help. Mick finally admits that he there is something strong between them that he and his wolf can’t ignore and he gives in to what he and Rio have both been wanting.
I originally picked this up when looking for stories with heroes with an age difference. In this case it is 18 and 47, which might have been squickier if not for the fact that this is a paranormal. Big age differences between humans (or recently turned humans) and supernatural creatures seem fairly commonplace in this genre so I wasn’t really bothered by it. I would have liked it if Mick didn’t refer to Rio as “kid” so much, but the age difference really wasn’t a major factor to me or in the development of the story.
What did bother me though was how quickly the men jump into a physical relationship after all the trauma Rio has suffered. This is a man who had been violently abused, including sexually. In addition, he had been selling himself on the streets and had experienced other sexual abuse. The idea that within a few days he was ready to make out in an alley, and within less than a month he wanted to have sex with another dominant wolf was hard for me to imagine.
I am willing to suspend my disbelief a lot when I am reading paranormals. I have no problem with instalove or mating bonds or any of the other common features of shifter stories. So I can accept the idea that Mick feels an immediate bond with Rio and that his inner wolf is connecting with him from the start. I just wish that early in their relationship rather than the bond turning his feelings to sexual attraction, instead they focused more on caring and protectiveness. As it was I couldn’t help but wonder at a man who is sexually attracted to someone who has been brutally abused for a month and is still barely functioning. What saved it for me is that Rio is clearly attracted to Mick and wants him in return, but it still seemed awfully fast.
This issue wasn’t helped by the fact that my first impression of Mick was not very positive. I felt like he was not nearly sensitive enough toward Rio when they first meet. When he is comforting Rio, Mick’s mind starts taking note of his attraction to the man. When Rio suddenly starts thrashing around not wanting to be held, Mick is “irritated to have his thoughts interrupted” and then when he lets go and Rio falls he says, “You said let go, so I did.” Then when Rio won’t give him his name or other information, Mick gives him a hard time and seems annoyed that Rio is not falling into line right away. I guess I kept thinking this guy has been horrifically abused and Mick seemed bothered by his behavior rather than recognizing Rio was totally out of sorts and needed sympathy and understanding. After this part of the book I felt Mick was very kind and loving to Rio. He makes sure he gets counseling, helps him deal with a resolution with his father, and reassures him that nothing that had happened was his fault. But these early scenes soured me on him a bit too much to ever really feel strongly connected to Mick during the rest of the story.
I was also a little confused on the world building. I really wasn’t clear whether the humans in the world are aware of the supernaturals. It is never actually discussed (at least that I noticed) so I assumed they were hidden, but at the end something happens that seems to indicate it is common knowledge. I felt like this really should have been clearer, especially because the idea of the humans and supernaturals co-existing is an interesting one I would have liked to learn more about.
One thing that I think was done really well is the scene where Rio first shifts. I think Steele does a really nice job of describing the dual presence of the human and the wolf and how one takes on a dominant role depending on which form they are in. I thought the description of the process and the lure of the moon was really interesting and well written.
Overall I think I liked the idea of this story a bit more than the execution. I wanted to feel more of a connection between the men and get a better sense of Rio’s healing before they entered into a sexual relationship. It was an interesting book and a slightly different take on a shifter story, but unfortunately it didn’t all come together for me as well as I would have liked.
P.S. This book was part of my Goodreads Bingo challenge in the category “Best Gay Shifters.”