A book’s setting is often just as important as the characters and plot, because some things can only happen in specific, sometimes magical locations. Arizona is a place like that. I used to live there, and this summer I went back for a vacation. It was wonderful, even though getting acclimated to the heat was a bit of an adjustment. It’s not a cliché, it really is a dry heat! It’s very different from the humid nightmare we endure here in Oklahoma.
Seeing uniquely Arizonan things like gigantic saguaro cacti, delicate desert flowers, speedy roadrunners, colorful hummingbirds, and kitschy stucco buildings was delightful. Also, repeatedly slathering sunblock on after sweating it all off, going to the swimming pool, taking afternoon siestas, and enjoying the cool evening breeze might not all be unique to Arizona, but they are certainly pleasant things to do in a beautiful desert inferno. If you haven’t been to Arizona, I highly recommend it, but maybe try a visit now, during the cooler months!
These books are all set in that beautiful and sizzle-y land, where the gorgeous and mysterious desert forms a backdrop to romance.
White Heat by Brenda Novak
Arizona has its fair share of eccentric and strange people, and quite a few cultish religious groups. In this fast paced and suspenseful story, two private security officers infiltrate what initially seems like just your run of the mill new age fringe religion, in search of a client’s missing daughter. The Church of the Covenant has a little tent city set up, the people in the church wear robes, and some of them known as “The Chosen” have the dubious honor of getting a mark branded on their foreheads that shows their devotion. But when Rachel and Nate dig a little deeper, they find some very disturbing things happening out there in the middle of the southern Arizona desert. Inspired by Charles Manson, cult leader Ethan has a grandiose vision of repopulating the world with children he’ll have with all the female members of his group. Rachel and Nate have kind of a complicated past, which makes their charade as a married couple in search of spiritual purity a little bit uncomfortable at first. But when Rachel’s toughness and stubbornness kick in and Nate’s protectiveness does as well, they realize there’s definitely some serious heat between them that can’t be ignored. The distinct possibility of getting killed by whacky cult members makes it all the more exciting for these two tough guys. The language and what happens in the most secretive and awful rituals of the cult may put off more sensitive readers.
A Wanted Man by Linda Lael Miller
It’s 1904, and Lark Morgan is the new school teacher in Stone Creek, Arizona, where she lives at Mrs. Porter’s boarding house. No one knows too much about her past, and some think her clothes are a bit too fancy for a poor teacher to afford, but still she’s a good teacher, and everyone likes her. Rowdy Rhodes comes to town as the new Marshall, and he’s another person with a murky past. He stays at Mrs. Porter’s too, and there are a lot of long lingering looks between them. Lark just wants to lay low and become a spinster schoolmarm, but Rowdy being so interesting and attractive really poses a problem. He’s confident that she’ll come around, but he has a lot of complicated things to deal with—like his own criminal past with his father and brothers being train robbers, his beloved dog Pardner getting old, and trying to keep the peace in Stone Creek. When the person who nearly ruined Lark’s life comes back on the scene, Rowdy steps in to protect her. This is a rollicking tale with well developed characters you want to see happy, some pretty spicy interludes between Lark and Rowdy and suspense combined with humor in a very engaging way. Fans of both romances and westerns will enjoy this one, which is the second in the Stone Creek series.
The Wood Wife by Terry Windling
This is a blend of a fantasy and romance, and the romance is partially with the glorious desert landscape around Tucson, AZ. (It really is beautiful there—that’s where I lived for about a year.) Maggie is a successful writer who is trying to find herself. She used to write poetry but abandoned it in favor of journalism. She is floundering a little bit after her divorce from a well known musician, who remains her friend but who tries to insinuate himself back into her life just a bit too much. She is shocked to discover that a writer/poet Davis Cooper who she had corresponded with, but never met, left his mountain house in Tucson to her in his will. This is the perfect opportunity for her to get out of her ex’s sphere of influence, and to learn more about the mysterious Cooper. She’s a fish out of water in this sleepy desert setting, but the people she meets on the mountain take to her immediately, especially Johnny Foxxe, a very attractive local musician with a special connection to Cooper. As she investigates Cooper’s mysterious death, she meets magical beings unlike anything she’s ever seen, and sees the true beauty of the desert—not as she initially saw it—a dry, hot, dusty place, but a lush, magical, serene, and sometimes scary place with many secrets. Maggie falls in love with both a person and a place, and it is very moving to see her transformation.
Light in Shadow by Jayne Ann Krentz
Zoe is an interior decorator who has an intuitive/psychic power-she can feel the energy of what has taken place in any room she enters. When something bad has happened in a space, it is unbearable for her, and she has to get out. It’s as if she can hear the voices and feel the pain of the suffering people. Her past is pretty complicated—her husband was mysteriously killed, and she spent time in a mental hospital against her will. She escaped and is doing all right in her new life in Phoenix, until she visits with a potential client at his house and her magical senses go off big time. She thinks he’s done something terrible, and hires a private detective Ethan to help her see if her intuition is right. Things get very dangerous, and it turns out Zoe and Ethan make an excellent detecting team. They turn their skills to Zoe’s past and try to figure out what sinister forces were behind her husband’s killing, and why she was locked up. Along the way she finds that even though Ethan is a big tough guy, and not her usual type, he has a special something that she can’t resist. He feels the same way about her. The desert setting is more of a backdrop here, but it still contributes to the mysterious and suspenseful vibe of this complex story.