The urge to kill was ever present, woven deep into the fabric of Gabriel Ingram’s very being. When he worked for the CIA, it served him well. He slipped into and out of roles like fish slips through water. But all that was years ago. Now retired, Gabriel lives a quiet life as a famously aloof university professor. Despite the distance from the grimy underworld of being a government operative, that urge to kill has never gone away.
Not until he meets Lucas Craig—a man several years his junior burning the candle at both ends by being a student and working full time, not to mention volunteering. Something about the handsome blond calls out to Gabriel and Gabriel wants nothing more than to answer that call. He all but forces himself to stand on propriety. Lucas is a student and a do-gooder; there is no way Gabriel will allow himself to sully such a pure innocent, no matter what.
Then, Lucas’ roommate, Eric, goes missing. Distraught and frantic, Lucas turns to Gabriel and he finds he is no match for Lucas’ liquid blue gaze. Gabriel easily falls back into his CIA ways, his CIA persona, and that ever present urge to kill threatens to all but consume Gabriel. There is no turning back, however. Gabriel knows that; he also knows he wouldn’t even if he could, because there is nothing he would not do for Lucas. Even if it means losing himself and the explosive, tenuous romantic connection he finds with Lucas.
There are so many elements that draw me to this story. The characters have so much potential. Gabriel is a mysterious, dominant male who has convinced himself he can never know love. Lucas is a do-gooder who breaks down all of Gabriel’s barriers. Setting the romance between Gabriel and Lucas against the backdrop of Eric’s disappearance has both men’s emotions running high, which pushes them to act on their feelings when they otherwise might not. Yet the overall assemblage felt a bit lacking to me. The prose, for one thing, wasn’t as polished as it could have been. Specifically, I thought the author’s use of repetition was tiresome. There are no less than three different situations where Staunton makes a point of highlighting how Lucas feels like he’s beneath Gabriel’s notice and they all use the same phrase, “If Gabriel noticed blah blah blah, he didn’t show it.” On the one hand, sure, it definitely reinforces the idea that Gabriel is super-aloof. On the other hand, the reader has the benefit of seeing things from both Gabriel’s and Lucas’ (third person) POV so I felt a little cheated that so often the compelling, inexplicably powerful hold we KNOW Lucas has over Gabriel is so easily hidden.
Another element that got a lot of lip service—and hence started to feel pretty tired to me—was the whole way Gabriel basically denies that Lucas can want Gabriel. This is a lot more layered and it’s not ALL bad—especially if you like angst like I do. What grated was how Lucas, at one point, makes his romantic intentions known in no uncertain terms and Gabriel STILL insists he’s taking advantage of Lucas. To me, it felt like the physically more powerful half of the couple was imposing/projecting his will onto the less powerful character. In other words, Gabriel is telling Lucas how he can feel and while I don’t think the SPIRIT is that Gabriel be a commandeering dick, that’s how the words felt to me.
As far as the characters go, I was obviously intrigued by Gabriel’s mysterious past. Unfortunately, the reason it seems to span centuries is never really made clear. Yes, centuries. The book actually starts…well, somewhere well before Lucas’ time but several centuries after Gabriel got cursed with bloodlust. The reason he has bloodlust gets explained, I just didn’t understand why that whole mystical, magical reasoning needed to happen because it otherwise doesn’t feature into the story.
Lucas fares a little better. Everything the character does reinforces his goody-goody public persona, but his private persona when alone with Gabriel reveals he’s not a pushover. This should have been a good balance, but when this 29-year-old social worker/graduate student runs into a proverbial wall trying to get local law enforcement to help him look for his roommate, his behavior feels disingenuous. He (albeit mentally only) refers to an overweight, under-performing police officer as “Officer Potbelly” (I’m fat myself so maybe I’m just more sensitive to fat-shaming?) and not much later breaks down into near hysterics as he tries to press his case with Gabriel. Neither of these feel true to a character with a social worker background or a man who also volunteers at a suicide hotline. Maybe I am being over critical. Regardless, these aspects felt a bit out of step with the overall Lucas character, but not enough to outright destroy his credibility as a more-or-less nice guy.
Then there’s the Eric character. Arguably the main driver of the plot—it’s his disappearance that has Lucas up in arms, drives Lucas to seek out Gabriel after he finds out Gabriel’s CIA history, pushes Gabriel to give into his desire for Lucas. Yet he’s on page very little and he’s not fleshed out very well except in the tell-don’t-show sort of way. At the same time, there is a snippet of a chapter that features him as narrator and there is at least one or two other chapters that let the reader catch up with Eric—who we learn has been kidnapped by a human trafficking right and is being used as a sex slave (very much not graphic and not really all that clear until Gabriel/Lucas get an ID on the guy who kidnapped Eric). For such a heavy issue, it doesn’t really feature in the book much. Even after the kidnapping is resolved and Eric is rescued, the most I can do is appreciate that Staunton writes Eric as being reserved, averse to touch…but at this point, Lucas is far too into his relationship with Gabriel and Eric’s ordeal turns into pure background noise for the conclusion of Gabriel/Lucas’ relationship. I kind of feel bad that Eric’s rescue is treated in such a blasé manner.
A few quick things I must mention: this is tagged “historical” because there is an opening that explains why Gabriel has this bloodlust and while it’s not explicitly stated, it seems to be from a sort of knights-and-ladies type of setting. This is also where the “fantasy” element comes into play. Gabriel strikes a bargain with someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a sorcerer. In exchange for Gabriel’s loyalty, Gabriel gets super strength and the bloodlust—to be put to use for the the sorcerer’s rise to power. Why all this matters to the rest of the book is never really explained…but the only sticking points where this is concerned are that, yeah, why this is even included isn’t explicitly made clear AND the fact that Lucas lulls Gabriel’s bloodlust is never really explained.
All in all, this works better as a romance rather than a suspense/thriller. If you’re interested in seeing a get together between two opposites, then you may like this. For all the flaws, I did feel like the actual relationship that developed between Gabriel and Lucas felt pretty well-established rather than just “you’re handy and you’re hot” (although that, too, is something Gabriel tries to use to prevent his “taint” from reaching Lucas). If you like angst, you’d probably enjoy this story, too.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.