Catalyst (Flashpoint #2) by Rachel Grant

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When a food storage depot in famine-struck South Sudan is torched, American aid worker Brie Stewart flees, only to land in a market where she’s the next item up for auction. Is the attack on the aid facility another assault upon the war-torn fledgling democracy, or has her family set her up as a pawn in their quest for oil rights?

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford crossed paths with Brie years ago when she was a shill for her family’s company, pushing a pipeline that threatened his tribe’s land. Determined to lead the rescue operation to save her, he won’t let her abduction—or the attraction that flares between them—get in the way of settling their unfinished business.

The Green Beret’s skills are put to the test in the flooded grasslands of South Sudan, where they must battle nature and dangerous factions who are after more than oil. Bastian and Brie put their hearts on the line as they find themselves embroiled in a conflict that extends beyond country and continent. Together they must douse the spark before it reaches the flashpoint and engulfs everything they hold dear.

Rating: B+

I’ve become a huge fan of Rachel Grant’s particular blend of complex, steamy and intricately plotted romantic suspense novels over the past year or so, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of Catalyst, the second book in her Flashpoint series. Like the previous book, Tinderbox, Catalyst is set in a real-life flashpoint, this time in South Sudan, a young nation embroiled in an ongoing civil war, and features characters based at the (fictional) US military outpost of Camp Citron in Djibouti. There are some things in this book that may be difficult to read about – in particular the buying and selling of women and children – and the way that the plight of so many people in desperate need is thrust aside in favour of big business and political expediency made my blood boil on more than one occasion. Ms. Grant tells a gripping, well-paced and impeccably researched story that pulled me in from the start and kept me transfixed until the nail-biting conclusion.

Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Ford is surprised to recognise a familiar face one night in the bar at the camp – Gabriella Prime, the daughter of Jeffrey Prime Sr., owner of one of the world’s largest energy corporations. The last time Bastian saw her, she was in full ball-buster ‘Princess Prime’ mode – designer clothes, killer heels, full make-up – in her role as Prime Energy’s PR executive, defending the company’s plan to screw over the native American tribes of East Washington by building an oil pipeline that would ignore even the most basic environmental rules. The woman in front of him now, a decade later, is different, though. The outward trappings of the corporate shill and billionaire boss’s daughter are gone; over the last decade, Gabriella Prime has cleaned up, grown a conscience and left her old life behind her. She deliberately sabotaged PE’s plans for the Northwest oil pipeline, cut all ties with her father and brothers, legally changed her last name to Stewart (her mother’s name) and for the past five years has lived and worked under the radar for USAID in South Sudan. Bastian is rather stunned to discover that Brie Stewart is an aid-worker who lives from pay-day to pay-day like everyone else – and maybe a little suspicious that such a ruthless leopard could have changed its spots, but he has to admit to a reluctant admiration for the guts it must have taken to thwart her father’s plans and then to re-invent herself. But that doesn’t tell him what he really wants to know – which is what she’s doing in Djibouti hanging out with the camp ‘spook’, the enigmatic CIA operative, Savannah James.

One month later, the aid station Brie works at is attacked and she and her three co-workers are forced to flee for their lives. Brie manages to evade capture for a couple of days, but her luck runs out and she is taken to the very slave market she had been summoned to Camp Citron to talk to Savannah James about.

Bastian and his team are authorised to get Brie out – but when they discover that the slave market also houses a large number of children, none of the team can bear to leave the kids there and make impromptu plans to get them out as well.  Unfortunately, things go awry, and Brie and Bastian are stranded when their vehicle and equipment fall victim to roads made impassable by the heavy rains. They hole up at an abandoned village while Bastian works on a way to get them out of there, knowing they likely haven’t got long before the Sudanese soldiers who originally captured Brie find them.  During the few days they spend alone together, the attraction that had sparked between Bastian and Brie back at the camp builds to inferno levels and becomes increasingly difficult for them both to resist – although resist they must.  And do.  With difficulty. While they await rescue, they try to work out why Brie’s camp was targeted – was it a random attack? Had her family somehow found her and orchestrated the attack to get her back?  Or is something even more sinister going on that neither of them can yet comprehend?

The kidnap and rescue is only the beginning of what is a superbly conceived and plotted story that pitches Bastian and Brie into the sights of a Sudanese warlord with links to the Russian mafia, and a dangerous former associate of Brie’s father who is obsessed with her almost to the point of madness.  The vile plan this person hatches is so utterly despicable that it fairly took my breath away; and although he is perhaps a little over the top, his scheme is, sadly all too plausible.

Once again, Ms. Grant achieves just about the perfect balance between the disparate elements of this romantic thriller. She obviously knows her stuff when it comes to the geo-political background of the region in which the book is set, and the way she utilises that knowledge and interweaves it throughout the story to forge a cohesive, compelling tale of corporate greed, military ambition and terrifying obsession is quite masterful.  Her central characters are just as multifaceted as her story and the romance that develops between them simply drips with sexual tension from the moment the pair of them face off at the bar in Camp Citron. Brie and Bastian have more than their share of baggage and neither of them has had any desire for much more than hook-ups and casual sex in the past, but as the attraction that burns between them gradually starts to encompass admiration and respect, it becomes clear that this relationship is unlike any they’ve had before.   I admit to finding Brie’s tendency to beat herself up over her past choices a little irritating, although she does have an inner mental strength that is admirable and I liked how she was able to find something positive to focus on once the revelation over her identity meant she was no longer able to work for USAID.

Although some characters from Tinderbox make an appearance here – most notably Pax, Cal and Savanna James – the book works perfectly well as a standalone, and fans of Ms. Grant’s Evidence series might also recognise a certain enigmatic Russian spy who pops up to lend a (very dangerous!) hand.  A great combination of action-packed, intelligently-written, edge-of-the-seat thriller and sexy romance, Catalyst is an engrossing read and earns a strong recommendation.

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