Victim. Lover. Both? His dark game is seducing her– just as it was when they were young.
How can he still have that power over her? Eighteen years ago, she saw him die.
Wealthy, selfish, and greedy, the McDowell family raised Carolyn McDowell–a foster child–like a modern Cinderella. Neglected and ignored, good-hearted Carolyn adored scion Alexander despite it all, though even he tormented her.
When Alex ran away one night, Carolyn followed and witnessed his murder, though she never told anyone. Her beloved Alex died when he was seventeen. There was no doubt.
Eighteen years later, Carolyn returns to the decadent milieu of the McDowell clan to care for her dying foster mother, Sally. As greedy relatives gather to claim their inheritances, a stunning stranger arrives, claiming to be Alexander. To Carolyn’s utter shock, Sally greets her “son” without question, and no one but Carolyn believes he’s a fraud.
As she delves into the mysteries of both the past and present, Carolyn quickly realizes that the resurrected Alex is a dangerous combination of seduction and power. Is this stranger after the McDowell fortune, or is he really, somehow, the Alex of old, come back to claim her? How can he be an imposter and yet know family secrets only the real Alex would remember? Was someone helping him?
What would you do if the boy you loved returned almost twenty years later, and you fell in love with him all over again–even if you were sure it couldn’t be him?
This is my choice for the October prompt for the TBR challenge, which is to read a Paranormal or Romantic Suspense title.
I actually had this book lined up a few months ago for this very purpose. I haven’t read a massive number of Ms Stuart’s books, but I’ve enjoyed those I have read and I know she’s the very doyenne of romantic suspense authors, so it seemed like a good bet.
Unusually for me, Shadow Lover is a contemporary – or rather, it was when it was originally published in 1999, but that’s still “contemporary” by my standards!
I tend to be a bit stingy when it comes to grading books; even with a book I’ve loved I sometimes shy away from hitting the 5 star button, or giving it an A, because there’s a tiny niggle or two which meant the book fell just slightly short. I will even admit to being guilty of finishing a book thinking “now, what did I find that means it’s not a 5-star book?” sometimes; of enjoying something a lot but thinking it must have been too good to be true.
But with this one? Nope. I thought about it for a bit and decided I really couldn’t find anything that bothered me to the extent of knocking down the rating.
The MacDowell family is quintessentially (American) old money – a Park Avenue apartment, a house in Martha’s Vinyard, another in Vermont, Armani suits, perfect year-round tans, Mercedes in the garage etc… At the beginning of the story, Sally MacDowell, matriarch of the family, is dying of cancer and hasn’t long left to live. Around a year previously Carolyn Smith, the young woman Sally had fostered from the age of two, but never formally adopted, left her home and job, essentially putting her life on hold to go to stay with Sally at the family home in Vermont. Sally is being cared for by a full-time nurse, but Carolyn owes her a lot and thinks of her as a mother – and she wants to be with her for the last months of her life.
Sally’s ex-husband is dead, her only son disappeared (and is believed to have died) eighteen years ago and her closest living relatives are her younger brother, Warren and sister Patsy and Patsy’s children. All are self-centred and wealthy and stand to be much moreso when Sally passes as her large fortune will be divided between her siblings. Or rather, half of it will, because she has never altered the will she made when her son was alive in which he inherited half her money, and Warren and Patsy the other half between them. Given that Sally’s son, Alex, has never been found or declared officially dead, this means that Warren and Patsy face a lengthy period of probate (or whatever the American equivalent is!) before they will inherit anything.
This isn’t something about which Carolyn cares to think very much – she’s not concerned about the money at all; she’s there for Sally. Life plods along until one morning a stunningly gorgeous man appears at the house claiming to be Alex MacDowell. He certainly could be Alex (and I’m going to refer to him as such in this review). He’s the right age, bears a striking resemblance to the younger Alex and knows everything that Alex would have known up until he’d run away from home at the age of seventeen.
Sally, Warren and Patsy accept him almost without question, but Carolyn is torn. On the one hand, the possibility that Sally’s long-lost son has appeared to be with her in her final days will bring comfort to the dying woman. But on the other – Carolyn knows that this man can’t possibly be Alex MacDowell because she saw him die eighteen years ago on a deserted beach.
Alex and Carolyn grew up together and although in many ways, Alex had been the bane of her existence, by the time she’d reached adolescence, Carolyn had developed a massive crush on the handsome, charming, heartless and malicious hellion who would torment her one minute and show her a generous act of kindness the next.
Needless to say Alex’s reappearance reawakens all those old, confusing feelings. Alex knows Carolyn doesn’t like him and is desperately trying to have nothing to do with him; but he also knows that she’s the one person in the entire household that he absolutely HAS to convince that he is who he says he is.
To say much more about the plot would be to give too much away, but Ms Stuart kept me guessing right up until the last possible moment as to the identity of the man claiming to be Alex MacDowell – and even then, it wasn’t as simple a case as one might think. She’d convince me he was an imposter, and then the story would take a turn which would convince me otherwise. Even in those moments when the reader is inside Alex’s head, we’re never quite sure of his identity – even he thinks and speaks of himself in the third person at times, and the way the author continues to keep the reader guessing is utterly masterful. And she does it in such a great way, too – not by planting clues, which would probably have driven me up the wall, but instead, by keeping everything perfectly plausible and perfectly vague until she was ready to let me in on the secret.
Alex and Carolyn have great chemistry, as well as a lot of shared history. Her heart longs to believe he’s Alex, because she never got over him, while her head tells her it’s impossible and he’s just a con-man out to take advantage of a dying woman. Yet she can’t help gravitating towards Alex, no matter how much she tries to distance herself from him – and he knows it and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of it, continually needling her and getting under her skin about her relationship with the MacDowells and the way they’ve treated her over the years.
The plot is superbly crafted, with a twist or two I certainly didn’t see coming until they almost ran me over, but it’s the relationship between the two principals which is the big draw. Alex is almost indecently sexy – handsome, charming and clever, but with a ruthless streak and determination to get what he wants which fortunately, falls short of true arsehole-dom. Carolyn at first comes across as a bit of a drip, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that here is a woman with real strength of character, but who has cultivated the art of self-preservation to a high degree and never lets anyone get too close.
The small cast of secondary characters is drawn with fairly broad strokes, and while the identity of the villain had been narrowed down in the last few chapters, I still wasn’t 100% sure as to who it was until the last moment. But it’s Alex who is the driving force behind this book – he’s sarcastic, single-minded, sexy-as-hell – in short, he’s utterly compelling, and while he certainly hasn’t led a blameless life, he’s not a cold, heartless villain either.
This is one of those times where the skill of the plotting, characterisation and writing all add up to make one terrific read. I’m not saying the book is completely without flaws – it isn’t, because nothing is perfect. But the storytelling is fantastic, the hero is gorgeous and the sex is hot. Honestly – what more could a girl ask for?