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For more than twenty-five years, Philadelphia homicide detective Bree Taggert has tucked away the nightmarish childhood memories of her parents’ murder-suicide… Until her younger sister, Erin, is killed in a crime that echoes that tragic night: innocent witnesses and a stormy marriage that ended in gunfire. There’s just one chilling difference. Erin’s husband, Justin, has vanished.
Bree knows how explosive the line between love and hate can be, yet the evidence against her troubled brother-in-law isn’t adding up. Teaming up with Justin’s old friend, former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler Matt Flynn, Bree vows to uncover the secrets of her sister’s life and death, as she promised Erin’s children. But as her investigation unfolds, the danger hits close to home. Once again, Bree’s family is caught in a death grip. And this time, it could be fatal for her.
Bestselling author Melinda Leigh introduces readers to Detective Bree Taggert in Cross Her Heart, the first book in her new series of romantic suspense novels. It’s an excellent start, a solid, intriguing and well-paced mystery that introduces and starts fleshing out the central characters and the relationships between them at the same time as it presents a mystery that is very personal for Bree, whose tragic past is brought abruptly back to her in the worst possible way.
The book opens on a harrowing scene taking place at eight-year-old Bree’s home in Grey’s Hollow in upstate New York. She is desperate to protect her younger siblings – Erin and baby Adam – from their violent, abusive father, as he rages at and beats their mother. Bree has managed to call the police and to keep herself and her brother and sister safe, although when the police arrive, it’s too late for their mother – and their father then turns the gun he used to shoot her on himself.
While Adam and Erin were taken in and brought up by their grandmother, Bree, who was something of a handful, was brought up by a stern cousin in Philadelphia. Looking back, Bree can see that their childhood separation has had a negative effect on their adult relationship; they’re not close, and although Erin continues to live in Grey’s Hollow, Bree has rarely been able to get past her issues to visit there, so Erin and her two kids visit Philly once a year instead. When we meet Bree again, she- now a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD – and her soon-to-retire partner, Dana Romano, have just chased down a suspect when Bree picks up a panicked message from Erin saying she’s in trouble, but when she calls back, only gets voicemail. Worried because Erin is the head down, go to work, raise her kids sort who’s never in trouble, and still unable to contact her, Bree heads to Grey ‘s Hollow – and her fears for Erin only ratchet up when she arrives at her sister’s house to see two sheriff’s department vehicles parked outside. Something is very, very wrong.
Erin has been killed, and the chief deputy explains that their main suspect is her estranged husband, Justin, who is currently missing. Erin’s body was found by Justin’s friend, Matt Flynn, a former sheriff’s investigator and K-9 handler, who was at the house to collect Justin to take him to his Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Drugs were the cause of Justin and Erin’s split; he became addicted to pain meds following a car accident, and she didn’t want him around her kids while he was using. But they were still seeing each other and intended to work things out, and Justin has been trying, with Matt’s help and support, to get clean.
Matt left the sheriff’s department three years earlier after he was shot in his right hand and, due to nerve damage, is no longer able to fire a weapon. Matt is sure Justin isn’t responsible for Erin’s death and is concerned for his safety; he’s also not completely confident that the sheriff’s department, which is short on personnel following the dismissal of the former sheriff and other officers for corruption, is going to pursue the investigation properly – or that the corruption has been completely eradicated.
Chief Deputy Todd Harvey knows that Bree and Matt aren’t going to sit quietly by while his department investigates, so he makes a deal with them; he won’t try to stop them, but wants to be kept informed of what they find out and will share information with them in return.
As I’d expect from Melinda Leigh, the mystery is well-put together, with plenty of twists and turns and gradually building tension and suspense as Bree and Matt work together to find Justin and identify Erin’s killer. Alongside the mystery we get the gradual unveiling of Bree’s character, a smart, competent, resilient yet flawed individual who is suddenly faced with a shedload of new responsibilities she’d never thought to have, two grieving children she doesn’t know all that well and her own grief and guilt at not keeping her sister safe as she’d vowed to do so many years ago. I enjoyed the focus on the family as Bree slowly absorbs the fact that her life is never going to be the same; Morgan Dane, in the author’s previous series, had a strong family unit which rounded her out and grounded her as a character, and I was pleased there’s to be something similar happening here.
I liked Matt, who is being set up as Bree’s future love interest. He’s a good guy; dependable and supportive, he clearly cares a lot for Justin, and comes to care for and respect Bree and her abilities as an investigator. There’s the merest frisson of attraction between them at this stage, but fingers crossed that will develop as the series progresses. Dana is a great addition to the family unit; Bree’s closest friend and work-partner, she’s about to retire from the force and goes to Grey’s Hollow to deliver Bree’s cat Vader (!) and to help out while Bree decides what she’s going to do next.
Cross Her Heart is an entertaining story featuring attractive and engaging leads and a supporting cast I look forward to getting to know in future books. I enjoyed the balance between plot- and character- driven elements in the story, and my one real complaint is that the identity of the villain came as something of a surprise, but not in a good way. This character was present in one scene (apart from the few short chapters told anonymously from his PoV) and was mentioned only a few times, so when he was revealed to be the killer it didn’t feel organic or as though the clues had really been leading to that point.
In spite of that, however, I enjoyed the book and would certainly recommend it to fans of the author or to anyone looking to try her work for the first time.