High Risk by Vivian Arend is a romance that defies sub-genre. It’s like I’m trying to categorize it and the book is standing up yelling, “I’mma do what I want!” I found it while looking for romantic suspense, but it’s not that. It’s sort of erotic-contemporary-action romance with bondage and amnesia (words that could only otherwise be used to describe Lindsay Lohan’s weekend plans).
The book is the first in the Lifeline series, focusing on a group of elite search and rescue workers based out of Banff, Canada. These are the people who go into very dangerous places to find stranded climbers.
When I started reading High Risk, I thought, wasn’t there a mountain SAR movie with Stallone? Then I Googled Cliffhanger and remembered why I’d blocked that movie from my mind.
Anyway, our heroine, Becki James, was a backcountry guide and rescue worker at Yellowstone National Park, but quit after she was involved in an accident that killed her lover–an accident she can’t remember at all. Becki learned her mountaineering skills at a training center in Banff, and she returns there as an instructor for the summer season while she tries to get her shit together.
Marcus Landers has also returned to Banff after an accident, one that left him missing his arm just below the elbow. He’s since established Lifeline, a private search and rescue group made up of some of the best climbers around. Marcus knew Becki back in her school days, and they shared a dirty weekend before she left.
Both Marcus and Becki are in their own respective emotional black holes when the book opens up. Becki is freaked out because of the accident she can’t remember, and Marcus clearly has some PTSD going on about the event that led to his amputation. Luckily for them (and us) their naughty bits didn’t get the memo about the slump they’re in, and upon seeing each other, they both feel the same intense attraction they did before.
Part of the pull Marcus feels towards Becki is how nonplussed she is regarding his arm:
“He expected her to flee the room in disgust, or stand frozen uncertain what to do—the two most common responses to his amputation. It shocked the hell out of him when she moved forward instead and planted her hand on his shoulder. He was the one rendered speechless as she lightly squeezed lower and lower until she found the end of the stump, just past his elbow.” (Arend 21).
Marcus realizes he’d very much like to do the dance with no pants with Becki again. His team is also getting sloppy and lazy, due to being the best in the biz, so he kills two birds with one stone. He hires Becki to whip his team into shape before school starts up again, both as a legitimate job, and also to force them into close quarters.
As they begin training together, Marcus realizes how damaged Becki is by the trauma from her climbing accident. When she begins to climb the wall in the gym she becomes paralyzed with fear, eventually blacking out so that he must go up and rescue her.
The crux of this novel is that Becki and Marcus aren’t able to trust, either themselves or each other. Both are deeply damaged and afraid, traumatized by their respective disasters. As they work together, Becki begins to remember bits and pieces of the accident, and about 2/3 of the way in Arend drops a bombshell about it that made me say “HOLY SHIT!” really loud in the break room at work. I got some looks but it’s like erotic-mountain-climbing-bondage-amnesia romance, people.
Since I’ve mentioned bondage twice I should probably say that the sex scenes here feature it, but it’s not an integral part of the book. By that I mean there’s no “OMG I like to be tied up” revelation followed by navel gazing about it. Marcus and Becki have some hot sex and it’s something they both enjoy. It’s also when they allow themselves to trust each other completely, and be vulnerable to each other. Bondage sets the tone for their emotional journey.
Similarly, climbing is also a metaphor for the trust they need to be able to find again:
“Tying yourself to another person was a signal of ultimate trust. You handed control over to them and believed they’d make the decisions that had to be made.” (Arend 211).
Revelations about her accident, and dire circumstances forcing her into a rescue she’s not ready for, make Becki confront her fear. Even as she faces the choice between letting it dominate her life or working through it, Marcus is realizing that his anger regarding his own trauma is preventing him from forming a relationship with Becki and the others in his life. It’s a whole lot of excellent conflict baked into a tasty romance pie.
I was disappointed that the search and rescue aspect didn’t play a larger role in the book. Arend does a great job of describing the Lifeline team and the steps they take to save others. I wanted to see more of that in action. I also spent most of the book intensely curious as to what happened to Marcus to cause him to lose his arm. We know it’s bad, but specifics aren’t given until the end of the book. I won’t give away anything, but it was traumatic enough that I didn’t think I had enough time to process it in the few pages left. If it had been worked into the story earlier, it would have blended better for me.
I’m definitely going to buy the sequel to High Risk when it comes out, and I recommend it to anyone to anyone who is looking for something different. Just don’t read it in the break room.